The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Interstellar Relations: notes for Watchmen (book) and Akira (film)

January 17, 2011

Of possible interest to some Duck readers, I reproduce notes that I posted on my class blog in preparation for our next section. Comments and suggestions welcome.

  1. The narrative of Watchmen enjoys, at best, a quasi-linear relationship to time. Events in the past and present intermingle. At the same time, Moore gives significant space to Dr. Manhattan’s relationship to space-time. It might be interesting, in this context, to skim the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entries on God and Time and Time.
  2. Themes common to Watchmen and Akira include (but are far from limited to): nuclear and non-nuclear apocalypse, urban decay, and the implications of transcending human-ness.
  3. We are again the realm of the nuclear and post-nuclear imaginary. If you cannot place yourself in the mindset of the Cold War nuclear standoff–let alone the 1980s–you may find it difficult to make sense of the settings and motivations. Some helpful context might include: the Doomsday Clock (and also here), the decline of New York City, and Kitty Genovese.
  4. Some read Watchmen as not “merely” a rumination on the superhero genre, but on readers’ relationship to (and complicity in) comic-book conventions. Watchmen itself contains multiple examples of text-within-text, e.g., Tales of the Black Freighter and numerous inserts on the history of superheroes.
  5. Watchmen plays with our expectations about ethics and morality, particularly with respect to consequentialist, deontological, and “virtue” ethics (see also, and). Some of the characters make what (at first glance) might seem surprising choices (given what we “know” about them) when confronted with moral dilemmas. Consider also how their actions and choices align with concerns about ethics, values, rights, and duties in foreign policy.
  6. Keep in mind that elements of Watchmen‘s narrative are conveyed by a character (Rorschach) who is sociopathic.
  7. Scott Eirk Kauffman has written some very smart things (be sure to scroll down to get to the relevant stuff) about Watchmen over the years; his posts are particularly interesting because they call attention to what he calls “visual rhetoric,” and should lead you to think about issues of composition and perspective not just in Watchmen, but also in Akira. (nb: A word of warning, SEK is even more foul-mouthed than I am, and quite left wing, so caveat emptor).
  8. Viewers of Akira often find one of its most disturbing (or silly) elements to be its violations, mutilations, and deformations of the human body. Is there a common thread here, or interesting points of comparison with not only Watchmen, but A Canticle for Leibowitz?
  9. In Watchmen‘s alternate universe, Richard Nixon is President of the United States. What other counterfactual conditions obtain in its political order? And can we get any mileage out of a comparison of the political systems represented in Watchmen and Akira?
  10. When in doubt, fall back on depictions of human nature (or its varieties).
  11. As always, we will return to these works in future classes.
website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.