Analyzing Mental Disorders in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen is often cited for its gritty plotlines, apocalyptic atmosphere, and commentary on various contemporary issues of the 1980s. For anyone unaware, Watchmen tells the tale of a group of superheroes who were forced into retirement after the United States government passed an act in 1977 that outlawed vigilantism. Roughly eight years later, 1985, one of the last remaining superheroes, The Comedian, is killed and a plot is uncovered to sideline any remaining heroes so that the mysterious villain can enact a new world order in the face of World War III. Watchmen’s story is very much a commentary on the tense atmosphere of the real-life Cold War yet introduces a fictional element by placing mostly powerless superheroes in a real-world setting. The superheroes of Watchmen are not like others found in DC Comics or Marvel; they are violent, psychopathic, and all but one has any real powers. While superheroes themselves are portrayed as one of the most controversial topics in Watchmen’s alternate reality, one of the most common themes depicted—yet is rarely discussed—is that of mental health. Nearly all of the characters encountered in Watchmen suffer from some form of mental disorder, trauma, or complex. While this is easily discernible to the average reader, there appears to be a significant lack of scholarly literature on the subject. To hopefully amend this gap in scholarly research, this essay seeks to explore the portrayal of mental health in Watchmen by examining the ways it is portrayed in the various heroes, as well as written about in the supplementary material found in the 2019 edition.
The problem with discussing mental health in Watchmen is that the text itself is a meta narrative. Watchmen is constantly drawing attention to itself and its own artificiality, which can be both fascinating and frustrating to try and examine. Mental health is a very poignant topic throughout the novel, but in a very “laid bare for all to see” fashion. It is hinted that all superheroes, regardless of their perceived state of mind, must be “crazy” to dress up and take the law into their own hands. Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, even admits that he and his fellow heroes were indeed crazy in his fictional autobiography, Under the Hood. Mason, however, has hindsight into his glory years with the Minutemen, whereas the current generation—the Crime Busters—were forced to retire, be pressed into government service, or were killed. Now, the reality of Watchmen is that someone must have some underlying factor to cause them to go out at night, dressed in a ridiculous costume, and beat up criminals. This is something that is overtly talked about throughout the novel, and it is those cases that I will be covering.
Walter Joseph Kovacs (Rorschach)
Watchmen begins with Rorschach investigating the death of the Comedian—ironic, since the Comedian was anything but comedic. Rorschach is shown to be a very complex individual, commenting on the inherent darkness in the world. We learn from other characters, particularly Laurie Juspeczyk, otherwise known as the Silk Spectre II, that Rorschach is “sick inside his mind” 2 This is apparent as we get to learn more about Rorschach, but there is also a method to his madness. Rorschach is violent, preferring to kill criminals to ensure they will not end up on the streets again. However, it is important to note that Rorschach, the hero, is different from the person behind the mask, Walter Kovacs. This stems from a traumatic event he witnessed, involving Blaire Roche, a six-year-old girl who went missing in 1975. Rorschach managed to track down Roche but was too late to save her. Roche had been brutally murdered, and Rorschach snapped, burning the man alive in the house after torching it himself. Since then, Rorschach operated on a very black and white sense of justice. From then on, Rorschach became the true “face,” and Kovacs just a mask. His reasoning? Rorschach was strong and could face adversity head on and deal out justice when necessary. Kovacs, however, was “weak” and experienced trauma that stemmed from an abusive childhood. All this is revealed to the psychologist assigned to Rorschach after he is arrested, who he inadvertently breaks by describing these events, thus revealing the “true” nature of the world these heroes inhabit.
Rorschach is very much a flawed character. Arguably, the audience is not meant to relate to him, because he represents extremist tendencies and comes off as a right-wing fanatic. However, Rorschach’s paranoia, which is both his greatest “power” as well as his biggest flaw, can arguably be attributed to Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD), Schizoid Personality Disorder (ScPD), dissociative identity disorder (DID), or a combination of the three. To better understand these conditions, we must first distinguish what they are. Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD) is defined as “a pattern of pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others, combined with self-centered, critical, and arrogant behaviors.” 3 Schizoid Personality Disorder (ScPD) is slightly different and is defined as “a pervasive pattern of detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of expression of emotions in interpersonal settings.” 4 Finally, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), is defined “as involving the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states, each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and the self.” 5
I do not claim to be a medical professional, nor do I claim to know the creative thinking process of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons when writing Watchmen. However, Rorschach exhibits traits of each of these disorders. Rorschach is shown to be a very paranoid individual, so much so that he willingly lives his life in a run-down apartment and maintains a healthy distrust of everyone; even those he once called friends and allies. However, he is also shown to express very few emotions. Unlike other characters in Watchmen, who show a variety of emotions from happiness, sadness, lust, and anger, Rorschach is shown to mostly be neutral to the world around him. The other person he seems to show any borderline affection to is Dan Drieberg (Nite Owl II), and that is likely because he was close to Drieberg before his psychotic break. Lastly, I claim he shows signs of DID. This could be inaccurate, but Rorschach appears to separate his identity as Rorschach with his identity as Walter Kovacs. He favors Rorschach, and the mask appears to give him access to full expression. This is ironic, since his face is hidden when donning this persona.
Laurel Jane Juspeczyk “Laurie Jupiter” (The Silk Spectre II)
Laurie Juspeczyk, also known as the Silk Spectre II, is probably the least complex character found in Watchmen’s character list. She is one of three women that are named and actually contribute to the story, but her story intersects with two of the other male heroes and serves as a plot point to further their own story arcs. This does not mean Laurie has no character arc of her own. No, Laurie’s character arc, however small, provides insight into trauma associated with her childhood, as well as the repression of memories concerning those events. Those events, of course, is the revelation that the Comedian, the very same man who attempted to rape her mother in the early days of the Minutemen, is actually her father. Some may interpret this as a sort of throw away plot point (which it kind of is), but it also demonstrates a classic case of trauma in graphic novel form.
This essay, unfortunately, has a limited purview. It seeks to correlate certain mental disorders with specific characters from Watchmen, Brandy Ball Blakes’s “Watchmen: The Graphic Novel as Trauma Fiction” provides an excellent in-depth analysis of how trauma is a recurring theme for many characters throughout the novel, not just Laurie. 7 However, Laurie’s case is probably one of the easiest to understand since she does not appear to have any other underlying serious mental issues to contend with. According to “Natural Memory Beyond the Storage Model: Repression, Trauma, and the Construction of a Personal Past,” repression is “the process by which internal conflicts are stored in the unconscious.” 8 It is revealed that Laurie knew the truth about her heritage from a very young age, but had repressed the knowledge in favor of happier, more light-hearted memories. Arguably, her case of trauma induced repression cannot be likened to more serious cases, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, since she does not exhibit any of the usual symptoms associated with them. Watchmen, however, does not seem to take Laurie’s case of trauma and repression seriously, because her own history and mental state is used to justify Jon’s return to Earth.
Jonathan Osterman (Dr. Manhattan)
Dr. Jonathan Osterman is probably the most recognizable character from Watchmen. After being involved in an accident that quite literally zapped him out of the mortal plane of existence, Jon managed to return as a humanoid, blue person with God-like powers. He is better known as his persona, Dr. Manhattan, and is notable for being the only super powered being in the Watchmen universe. Dr. Manhattan is responsible for the major differences in technology seen in Watchmen, especially the commonality of electric cars and airships—all forms of technology that were not common in the 1980s when Watchmen was released. Like Laurie, Jon exhibits symptoms of trauma, but more notably appears to have an extreme form of depersonalization-derealization disorder. Depersonalization is “the subjective experience of detachment or estrangement from one’s own self” whereas derealization is “the equivalent subjective experience as applied to one’s surroundings, animate or inanimate.” 10 Jon shows signs of both, likely because he is a being that is now far more than the human he once was. He often tells others about things that will happen before they occur, which understandably unnerves and frightens people. He also has little regard for social niceties, such as when he duplicates himself to be with Laurie while continuing his research, as well as his disregard for clothes. After years of disconnecting from the world around him, he is ready to leave Earth behind entirely. Jon spends the majority of the novel on Mars, only returning for the sake of Laurie, who is his final connection to Earth. In the aftermath of Veidt’s disastrous plan, Jon willingly leaves Earth now that Laurie has moved on. His case is arguably an extreme physical representation of depersonalization-derealization disorder.
Adrian Alexander Veidt (Ozymandias)
Adrian Veidt, better known as Ozymandias, is a complex character in the sense that the audience is intended to find a somewhat likable figure in the “honest” and “public” persona he puts forth. Indeed, Veidt shows remorse at the Comedian’s death, attending his funeral alongside Jon and Dan. As Rorschach investigates the plot to kill the remaining heroes, Veidt is nearly assassinated and makes plans to retreat from the public eye to reduce his visibility. In reality, Veidt is the bad guy behind the entire plot to do away with his fellow heroes. While he does not want to kill them all, he would prefer Rorschach locked away, Dan and Laurie preoccupied with one another, and for Jon to stay on Mars so that he can enact his plan to “save the world.” Now, Ozymandias’s plan to save the world involves him unleashing horrific, alien-like monsters upon the world. Why? The world is on the brink of World War III. Veidt believes he can save the planet at the expense of a few thousand lives lost. He’s not exactly wrong, since his plan does work in the end, but the morality of his choices is definitely questionable.
I don’t claim to be a psychologist, but Ozymandias appears to have some form of narcissistic personality disorder. According to The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Theoretical Approaches, Empirical Findings, and Treatments (2011), narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” 12 Ozymandias willingly revealed his identity after the Keene Act and played up this persona as an extremely smart businessman who puts on a public face that everyone loves. People also describe Ozymandias as “The World’s Smartest Man,” which he noticeably doesn’t dispute. Ozymandias also cashes in on the lives of other heroes by creating a line of action figures designed after them. He also is extremely full of himself, which can be seen from Dan discovering the password to his computer, Ramesses II, after only a few attempts. Furthermore, Ozymandias maintains that he made the right decision. It likely doesn’t help that the other Watchmen, sans Rorschach, come to agree that preventing World War III is the right course of action. This only helps to further
There are many other characters that are alluded to have mental health issues of some kind in the Watchmen universe. The very first caped crusader to appear in Watchmen’s turbulent history is Hooded Justice. Hooded Justice is the one who saves the original Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter, from being raped by the Comedian. However, Hooded Justice is hinted at having committed suicide by Hollis Mason. This is not altogether surprising because Hooded Justice’s costume features a noose tied around his neck, hinting at troubles with mental health and his future intent to commit suicide. Another first-generation hero, Mothman, is described to have ended up in a mental institution and is only let out for special occasions. The Comedian, who worked with both the Minutemen and the Crime Busters, is shown to enjoy the bloodshed and violence that accompanies being a hero. Flashbacks of the Comedian also indicate that he may have sociopathic tendencies, especially since he exhibits little care for others outside of Sally and later Laurie. There are also arguments to be made about the less pivotal recurring figures, but that should perhaps be saved for another time and place.
In the end, I believe whether these characters actually suffer from these conditions or not is arbitrary. I am aware that Alan Moore has had issues with the ways people interpret his characters in the past, however they do provide an excellent source for conversation and debate. I would like to close out this essay by stating I am neither a doctor or a mental health professional of any kind. I am just a college student fascinated in how mental disorders like the ones discussed above can emerge in popular media, like Watchmen. I hope this article provides an interesting and thought provoking read and will perhaps persuade you to read Watchmen critically to understand my own interpretations—and to perhaps make some of your own!
Axmacher, Nikolai, Anne T. A. Do Lam, Henrik Kessler, and Juergen Fell. “Natural Memory beyond the Storage Model: Repression, Trauma, and the Construction of a Personal Past.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 4, no. 22 (2010). https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2010.00211.
Blake, Brandy Ball. “Watchmen: The Graphic Novel as Trauma Fiction.” ImageTexT. University of Florida., 2014. https://imagetextjournal.com/watchmen-the-graphic-novel-as-trauma-fiction/.
Campbell, W. Keith, and Joshua D. Miller. The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118093108.
Gabbard, Glen O. “Chapter 25.” In Gabbard’s Treatments of Psychiatric Disorders, 5th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2014.
Wallpaper Flare. “HD Wallpaper: Watchmen, Comics, Ozymandias, No People, Multi Colored, Creativity.” Accessed December 6, 2022. https://www.wallpaperflare.com/watchmen-comics-ozymandias-no-people-multi-colored-creativity-wallpaper-cpdtw.
Hogan, Ron. “Watchmen: From Comics to Movies to HBO TV Show.” Den of Geek, July 3, 2019. https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/watchmen-comics-movies-hbo-tv-show-history/.
Huntjens, Rafaële J.C., Madelon L. Peters, Albert Postma, Liesbeth Woertman, Marieke Effting, and Onno van der Hart. “Transfer of Newly Acquired Stimulus Valence between Identities in Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).” Behaviour Research and Therapy 43, no. 2 (February 2005): 243–55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2004.01.007.
Meenan, Devin. “Watchmen: 10 Worst Things Rorschach Did, Ranked.” CBR, December 19, 2020. https://www.cbr.com/watchmen-worst-things-rorschach-has-done-ranked/.
Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. Burbank, California: DC Comics, 2019.
Polo, Susana. “Doctor Manhattan’s Actual Powers Boggle the Mind.” Polygon, December 8, 2019. https://www.polygon.com/comics/2019/12/8/20999176/doctor-manhattan-powers-explained-how-work-watchmen-comic-hbo-time-sees-future.
Sonja, Vera. Personality Disorders: Elements, History, Examples, and Research. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2019.
Torres, Gabriel. “¿Qué Fue de Silk Spectre II Después de Watchmen?” Smash Mexico, November 7, 2019. https://www.smashmexico.com.mx/dc/watchmen-laurie-blake-silk-spectre-ii-biografia-comic-serie/.
Triebwasser, Joseph, Eran Chemerinski, Panos Roussos, and Larry J. Siever. “Schizoid Personality Disorder.” Journal of Personality Disorders 26, no. 6 (August 28, 2012): 919–26. https://doi.org/10.1521/pedi_2012_26_054.
Disclaimer: This essay was written for The Graphic Novel (ENGL 386) at the University of Mary Washington. No copyright infringement is intended. All images uploaded from Watchmen belong to the appropriate parties (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, DC Comics, etc.). These images are being used under fair use for educational purposes. This site is not commercialized in any way.
- Devin Meenan, “Watchmen: 10 Worst Things Rorschach Did, Ranked,” CBR, December 19, 2020, https://www.cbr.com/watchmen-worst-things-rorschach-has-done-ranked/.[↩]
- Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (Burbank, California: DC Comics, 2019, 23.[↩]
- Vera Sonja, Personality Disorders: Elements, History, Examples, and Research (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2019), 160.[↩]
- Joseph Triebwasser et al., “Schizoid Personality Disorder,” Journal of Personality Disorders 26, no. 6 (August 28, 2012): 919, https://doi.org/10.1521/pedi_2012_26_054.[↩]
- Rafaële J.C. Huntjens et al., “Transfer of Newly Acquired Stimulus Valence between Identities in Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID),” Behaviour Research and Therapy 43, no. 2 (February 2005): 243, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2004.01.007.[↩]
- Gabriel Torres, “¿Qué Fue de Silk Spectre II Después de Watchmen?,” Smash Mexico, November 7, 2019, https://www.smashmexico.com.mx/dc/watchmen-laurie-blake-silk-spectre-ii-biografia-comic-serie/.[↩]
- Brandy Ball Blake, “Watchmen: The Graphic Novel as Trauma Fiction,” ImageTexT (University of Florida., 2014), https://imagetextjournal.com/watchmen-the-graphic-novel-as-trauma-fiction/.[↩]
- Nikolai Axmacher et al., “Natural Memory beyond the Storage Model: Repression, Trauma, and the Construction of a Personal Past,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 4, no. 22 (2010), https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2010.00211.[↩]
- Susana Polo, “Doctor Manhattan’s Actual Powers Boggle the Mind,” Polygon, December 8, 2019, https://www.polygon.com/comics/2019/12/8/20999176/doctor-manhattan-powers-explained-how-work-watchmen-comic-hbo-time-sees-future.[↩]
- Glen O Gabbard, “Chapter 25,” in Gabbard’s Treatments of Psychiatric Disorders, 5th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2014).[↩]
- “HD Wallpaper: Watchmen, Comics, Ozymandias, No People, Multi Colored, Creativity,” Wallpaper Flare, accessed December 6, 2022, https://www.wallpaperflare.com/watchmen-comics-ozymandias-no-people-multi-colored-creativity-wallpaper-cpdtw.[↩]
- W. Keith Campbell and Joshua D. Miller, The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011), https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118093108.[↩]
- Ron Hogan, “Watchmen: From Comics to Movies to HBO TV Show,” Den of Geek, July 3, 2019, https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/watchmen-comics-movies-hbo-tv-show-history/.[↩]