You don’t see any scenes of Rorschach hitting people and the people hitting back. That is, there are no Rorschach fight scenes. Instead he conducts exercises in violence: he applies violence and obtains a result, such as information, punishment, an end to a threat on his life. For the reader, it doesn’t make much difference if the victim in the scene is helpless; for example, the manacled child killer and pervert whom Rorschach burns alive, or (even more so) poor forlorn Moloch, a cancer victim of 60 whom Rorschach shoves into a refrigerator. His ruthlessness is fun; even more, we like his ingenuity. He’s short, smelly, and socially maladroit, but he’s elegant: he employs a minimum of action to get maximum effect.

Watchmen is by way of being a superhero epic, the way War and Peace is an epic. By “epic” I don’t mean “long, good and important,” I mean it covers the waterfront. War and Peace covers just about every experience that goes into human life, from a girl’s first dance to a battle heaving its way along a battlefield. Watchmen sweeps along different and more narrow territory. Its subject is the superhuman vs the human, superiority vs inferiority. But it covers that subject very well. A big blue man landing on Mars and deciding to create life, an ill-favored runt jumping on a prison cot at just the right moment — Watchmen has it all, and there’s quite a distance from one pole to the other. In most ways Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach couldn’t be more different, but they belong together and that’s chiefly because they’re smarter than we are. Dr. Manhattan’s overwhelming superiority doesn’t take the form of overwhelming strength, as is the case with Superman, Thor or the Hulk. Instead he sees reality at a level the rest of us can’t comprehend; he’s tuned in to the ultimate story, that of atomic particles and their dance. Rorschach isn’t stronger than the underworld types he breaks down in their hangouts. Instead he’s faster, more precise, more resourceful and inventive.

The thing is, a reader of Watchmen is in a similar position to that of a Rorschach victim. Not that we suffer, but we’re in Alan Moore’s hands and there’s not much we can do about it. His technical skill is so great that we don’t stand a chance. His skill takes the form of intelligence and ingenuity; Kirby blasts the reader, Moore manipulates us. This isn’t at all a bad thing, but it’s a very similar thing to what Rorschach does to a suspect, what Veidt does to the world, or what From Hell’s Dr. Gull does to his victims (skillfully applying a few strokes of a scalpel to advance a scheme no one understands but himself). Alan Moore is the only genius to write superhero comics, and I think that fact shows up not only in the quality of his works but in their nature.

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