The Superhero Through Mythology and Philosophy – How Academic Writing on Alan Moore’s Watchmen Considers Identity & Ideological Power

The Superhero Through Mythology and Philosophy – How Academic Writing on Alan Moore’s Watchmen Considers Identity & Ideological Power

Richards Reynolds (1992) has described the superhero genre as a modern mythology. He discusses how the genre often reflects the socio-political ideologies of society, and offers Alan Moore’s comic series Watchmen (1986-1987) as a key text which subverts the superhero identity. In Moore’s own words, his work on Watchmen is an application of the Solve of the alchemists’ Solve et Coagula to the superhero genre; the act of taking it apart and examining it (Graydon, 2009). Moore brings superheroes into a “completely new realm” (Kavanagh, 2000) by placing them into the real world and giving them “sexual neuroses, bad breath and anxiety disorders” (Leith, 2010). This creates grounds for rich reflection on the intersection between superheroes and real-world issues of identity and ideological power. The following will be a discussion and evaluation of the relevant literature around identity and ideology in Watchmen.

Left-wing radicalism & the liberal individual

Watchmen has been characterised as a critique of real-world politics, focusing particularly on authoritarian power and the ideologies which often prop it up. Moore’s working class perspective and background of left-wing anarchism is reflected in Watchmen, giving the work a strong antinomian flavour, communicated through the characters and ideologies they represent (Williams, 2010). The work has even been described as a conflict between ideologies rather than the characters themselves (Wolf-Meyer, 2003). Prince (2011) has argued that the ideologically different roles embodied by each character creates a form of hyper-individualism, and that this contributes to the central mythology of individualism in American culture. Considering Watchmen’s context as an alternative history of post-Vietnam war American society, Prince considers the primary narrative in Watchmen to be an expression of Timothy Melley’s concept of ‘agency panic’ (2000). This consists of the fear of individual autonomy being subsumed by collective actors, such as government institutions. The character of Rorschach is described as the “poster child of the liberal individual” (2011: 822). He resists institutional power and is resilient to any threat to his individual integrity, despite the shifting identity represented by his inkblot test mask. His paranoia about the ‘mask killer’ is consistent with Melley’s theory of agency panic, as it comes with a resistance to the collective. Prince considers the potential of the publication of Rorschach’s journal as having the power to demystify the population from collective paranoia, although the possibility is remote. Ozymandias, the industrialist Adrian Veidt, has a disdain for humanity yet dedicates everything to saving it from itself. This, according to Prince, represents the primacy of the individual, yet serves the interest of the collective. He argues that, despite his success in saving humanity from nuclear war, he does not get to the root of their underlying sickness, and is ultimately still under collective control.

Marxist analysis & hegemonic capitalism

Hughes (2006) views the motivations of Watchmen’s heroes in a somewhat similar light, however, she rejects Prince’s claims that their actions are an attempt to “manifest autonomy and purposeful action” (2011: 871). Using Althusser’s Marxist definition of ‘ideology’ (2006), she argues that they are completely caught up in the mechanisms by which a dominant State upholds its repressive values. The character of Nite Owl is argued as being moved to action by his love for owls, a result of his education and therefore rooted in ideology. However, Ozymandias is removed from ideological trappings and has the power to impact societal change. Rorschach’s journal, rather than having the potential to fend off agency panic, is viewed as a potential trigger for the continuation of class struggle, and reinstitution of repressive ideology. Similarly, Wolf-Meyer (2003) views the potential publication of Rorschach’s journal as leading to destruction of the utopia created by Ozymandias. Drawing upon Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch (1961), Wolf-Meyer views Ozymandias’ actions as emblematic of ‘going under’, or sacrificing the self to save humanity. This is something he views superhero comics as normally failing to embody, instead preserving a status quo of hegemonic capitalism by appealing to an adolescent, conservative audience, which he views as problematic. He argues that a conservative reading of superheroes means failing to participate in Foucauldian discourse analysis, and that it should depend upon the reader to enact the utopian impulses of the writers. By using clones of more popular superhero figures, he argues that Moore develops a critique of this ‘fascism’ found in comic fandom.

Critique – bias, false dichotomies & crucial conservatism

Hughes’ argument that the characters in Watchmen are driven by an overarching State ideology are somewhat unclear. She first claims that Ozymandias is driven by ideology, then later says he is removed from it due to factors like intelligence and wealth. His being influenced by these assumedly ideological factors and simultaneously free from them weakens her earlier argument that the other characters are wholly motivated by ideology, such as Nite Owl being influenced by his education. Hughes also claims the subversive essence of Watchmen lies in its contrast to traditional superheroes not being under the controlling influence of State ideology. However, if Moore’s subversive aims were based on exactly the idea that they are (Williams, 2010), then this places her argument on unclear footing with other authors’ ideas about the subversive nature of Watchmen.

Wolf-Meyer’s (2003) stark opposition between capitalism and utopia is unconvincing and ultimately a false dichotomy, given the historical evidence that economic systems based on central planning rather than a free market can often lead to dystopian conditions. A similar opposition is implied in the Marxist analysis by Hughes (2006). However, the most troubling aspect of Hughes’ argument is the implication that Ozymandias’ killing of millions of civilians is the equivalent of freeing humanity from State ideology. This is clear when she expresses her concerns about the potential effects of Rorschach’s journal. The implication here is that Ozymandias’ actions result in a society free of ideology and therefore, under the Marxist definition, in the removal of false consciousness. This falls flat under the looming reality that Ozymandias’ actions were based on a falsehood, indicating that Hughes has either overlooked the ethical inconsistency of his actions, or that she believes a society based on deceit is ethical as long as it is not under capitalist ideology, saying something about her own ethical inclinations. Moreover, this specifically Marxist usage of the word ‘ideology’ shows the bias in her argument, and ironically excludes Marxism as itself an ideology which is susceptible to being used for authoritarian control. Wolf-Meyer’s bias is similarly clear when he expresses his desire for comics to appeal to older, more liberal audiences (as he states; his own demographic) and equates conservatism with adolescence and fascism. It is reiterated again when he equates Ozymandias’ killing of millions with ‘going under’, yet he unhesitantly criticises the Justice League for favouring villains who endanger lives.

Burgas (2010) argues that comics do uphold a status quo, but views this differently than Wolf-Meyer. He points out that when liberal comic writers attempt to challenge the status quo, it often results in a left-leaning dictatorship. He concludes that people should be left to decide their own way for themselves. This, he argues, is ironically the “very essence of the conservative ideal” (2010), and is why comics upholding the status quo is necessary, or even inevitable. This may lend some insight as to why, to Moore’s disappointment (Wiater & Bissette, 1993), fans of Watchmen and the comics industry as a whole preferred the darker, right-wing Rorschach, and identified less with the utopian possibilities represented by Ozymandias. Indeed, Prince (2011) recognises in Ozymandias’ actions the danger in awaiting any superhero to usher in utopia.

Another view is that both Rorschach and Ozymandias embody the negative aspects of ideological power. The nihilistic views and psychotic behaviour of Rorschach serve to demythologise the ‘hero’ figure, and the totalitarianism of Ozymandias subverts the idea that the strongest characters are always the most benevolent (Williams, 2010). This false dichotomy between both characters’ motivations is acknowledged by Irwin & White (2009) in their study of philosophy in Watchmen. They categorise Rorschach’s motivations as deontological; he has set moral rules that he must follow. Ozymandias is instead driven by utilitarianism; his actions are based on a form of cost/benefit analysis. However, they argue that advocates of both philosophical traditions would likely reject the pair as one of their own, as both merely use these ideologies to rationalise their power and corruption. Agreeing with Williams (2010) they argue that this negative portrayal forms the basis of a critique of authoritarian ideology, pointing out that both the left and right can become corrupted by ideology, and that neither should be given too much power.

Identity & the construction of masculinity

For Brownie & Graydon (2015) the superhero costume is tied up strongly to identity. They illustrate the hero’s feelings of impotency in undress by showing various panels in Watchmen of empty superhero costumes, hanging tall and proud next to their owners who look dishevelled and impotent. They further exemplify this by Nite Owl’s inability to make love to Laurie Juspecyk without wearing his costume. Conceding Friedrich Weltzien’s premise that masculinity is a masquerade, they say that the superhero’s masculinity is “bound up in his costume” (2015: 15) and due to its extreme, hyper-masculine nature, it frames the hero in contrast to the inferior masculinity of all other males.

Weltzien (2005) focuses on the power that changing costume has on the construction of masculinity for the hero, and that this can be seen reflected in the warriors of antiquity. He defines the split personality of superheroes as a maximisation of the contrast between two masculine identities, and the changing of costume as that which the mechanism of masculinity rests upon. The mask is argued to be something which constructs identity, rather than an expression of any inherent identity. Since there is no male subject beneath the superhero costume, both identities are a masquerade. Superman’s iconic shirt-ripping is argued as epitomic of the masculine performance, as no skin is shown and therefore no “real man” (2005: 235). Yen-Lian Liu (2017) also views superhero costuming a process of performative identity. He argues that Watchmen deals with masculine anxiety and identity crises, and that ultimately heroes are normal men performing a masquerade of masculinity. Their lack of performance leads to a sense of mundane, everyday life, while the performance itself leads to increased violence and conflict. Similarly to Brownie & Graydon (2015), Liu discusses Nite Owl’s regaining of masculine potency when he dons his costume and makes love to Laurie. Liu views the superhero as reflective of a real-world heroic aspirations passed down through generations of men, and argues that these are ultimately problematic as they separate men from their humanity.

Critique – gynocentrism, instinct & archetype

It is unclear whether Weltzien’s analysis applies to real-world masculinity in all forms, or only a fictitious form of masculinity found in the superhero genre. It is more clear that Liu views both superhero and real-world masculinity as something constructed, as he references Judith Butler’s social constructivist theory of gender (2011). This supposition that masculinity is socially constructed leads to an attempt to deconstruct it, by assuming that it can be deconstructed. However, the social constructivist view ignores evidence that biological (Imperato-McGinley, 1979), (Saraswat et al. 2015), hormonal (Van Goozen et al. 1995) and evolutionary (Geary, 1998) factors play a role in determining gender identity and behaviour. This attempt to deconstruct masculinity therefore ignores elements of the hero figure which may speak to an instinctual aspect of male identity. Further, the hero as an archetype cannot be so easily deconstructed if archetypal expressions are “psychical correspondents of human instincts” (MacLennan, 2006: 1) or if the heroic tendency is “a central and permanent aspect of human being” (Peterson 1993: 246).

Additionally, the analyses of masculine impotency leave out the obvious dynamic between masculinity and femininity, and the role that femininity plays in encouraging and even desiring typically masculine traits (Ellis, 2011). Drawing from the authors’ description of Nite Owl and Laurie, it is obvious that female sexual selectivity is at the forefront of this encounter, exemplified in female satisfaction being met only after the male wears the costume. Moreover, the erect and prideful empty costume standing tall next to its impotent owner, as described by Brownie & Graydon (2015) and Liu (2017), is a clear representation of the continuously supportive and foundational role that men play in keeping society going while simultaneously sacrificing a part of themselves. The authors’ considerations of masculinity appear to fail to recognise this reflection of the gynocentric nature of our society.

Weltzien (2005) makes multiple claims that the superhero has no inherent identity, yet also argues that the superhero masquerade is “not an anarchic loss of identity but an active stand against chaos” (2005: 243) which allows transformation into an apotropaic figure. The latter claim is in line with the evolutionary view espoused by Peterson (1993) that the mythological hero embodies a protective force for the tribe, as “the knight who slays the dragon of chaos, the hero who replaces disorder and confusion with clarity and certainty” (1993: 28). Weltzien acknowledges that by doing so, the hero enters into a “domain of abstract morality. […] The change of costume […] presents conflict as […] a spiritual, even theological, collision between good and evil” (2005: 243). The superhero is, according to Caldecott (2012), perpetually engaged in moral struggle and fulfils a spiritual need, in secular language, for the ability to identify with the good. Caldecott views the superheroes’ beyond-human (and hyper-masculine) abilities not as something which severs them from humanity, but which enables them to fight for humanity.


The discrepancies between the analyses of ideology in Watchmen is somewhat difficult to reconcile, becoming an exercise in reviewing ideologically driven texts which describe an ideologically driven text. It is quite clear that Moore’s intention was to deconstruct the genre, specifically in regards to authoritarian ideological power. This is rightly addressed and reflected by the above authors, yet often through the conflicting lenses of their own ideological biases, leading one to feel unsure about what the result of Moore’s application of the alchemists’ Solve has been. This perhaps reflects the difficulty of applying the Coagula to the superhero genre, as noted by Moore himself (Graydon, 2009). If that which comes up under the microscope is difficult to interpret, then there will be issues for synthesis. Another possibility is that no matter how well-intentioned left-wing radicalism may be, it can often lead to totalitarianism and inevitably the authoritarianism Moore was attempting to criticise. This leaves open the question of whether ideology can be successfully communicated through comics, or if subversion of ideological power can ever truly be achieved. If Burgas is correct in that comics only can and do uphold the status quo, then any attempt to subvert it is, in essence, futile.

Studies of identity in Watchmen and the superhero genre inevitably become deconstructions of masculinity which ignore crucial evidence that male identity is partly innate. Some texts give the impression that expressions of typical masculine identity, strength and power, no matter how benevolent, will be relentlessly belittled by feminist thinkers despite their claims of aspirations to gender equality. They characterise heroic masculinity with primarily negative analyses and ignore the positive aspects, or impose their own standards for what the positive should be. These standards are, circularly, based on their negative analyses. This is reflective of how feminist theory often views real-world maleness; while offering some valid critique of how gendered expectations may hurt men, they seldom acknowledge the contribution that masculinity and male strength has made to the building and maintaining of society, which the superhero genre is potentially a reflection of. Moreover, the tone of condescension taken in several of the texts towards a large demographic of comic readers i.e. adolescent males and conservatives, smacks of an underlying resentment and a rather large axe to grind. This leads, of course, right back to issues of ideological bias. Perhaps one thing Hughes was correct about; no matter how hard we try to get outside of our ideologies… they still watch over us.


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