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Decadent decay: the complexity of social corruption, consciousness, and critique in Watchmen and You Can't Go Home Again.

Alan Moore's Rorschach in Watchmen and Thomas Wolfe's George Webber in You Can't Go Home Again are the prominent male protagonists in their respective stories; both are characterized by a compulsion to express their dissatisfaction with current social systems and protocols. In a broader sense, both Moore and Wolfe appear to possess similar sentiments regarding truth and morality, economics and politics, and the social collective as a whole. It is not only through the avatars of Rorschach and Webber that Moore and Wolfe manifest their distaste and displeasure, but through the collective-much as the individual figures of Rorschach and Webber unite their respective collectives--that the two authors condense and so reveal the "collective wound" (Wolfe 328) that characterizes both Watchmen and You Can't Go Home Again. Webber and Rorschach, whose appearances and commentary culminate in declarative messages of deep concern and social critique, provide a complex, socioeconomic and sociopolitical perspective of their respective societies. In this way, both stories are purposeful in their attempt to examine and expose the corrupt, unwholesome nature of human society through their use of characters and their exploration of identity--both individual and social--in hopes of offering a more compelling and morally conscious collective.

Moore's riveting graphic novel Watchmen, which came to life in the late 1980s, depicts an apocalyptic world in which the lone and disturbed "hero," Rorschach, travels by night and by shadows in order to investigate what begins as the murder of another superhero character (ex-superhero to be precise): the Comedian. Rorschach's journal entries and the crumbling morale of the surrounding city (New York) offer the reader a harsh and frank social critique. The reader sees inside Rorschach's twisted but seemingly ethical mind, and therefore as Rorschach peels back the festering layers of his world, the audience shares his awe at what he discovers. The world of injustice and fallen heroes that Rorschach finds is much like the corrupted and shallow world George Webber sees in You Can't Go Home Again.

Rorschach and Webber have consistent similarities in how they express their social critiques. For instance, the philosophical idea of "strange paradox" so prevalent in Webber's thoughts (726, 734) is the very paradox of Rorschach's existence. While the reader knows he strives at all costs to protect people, he simultaneously critiques and slanders them. Furthermore, even as he protects them, they seek to put him behind bars. The physical aspects of Rorschach's mask also embody the idea of "strange paradox." Made of a heat-sensitive, shape-shifting fabric, it is perceived as what it is not. The mask appears to be a typical Rorschach image--ink blots on paper; yet, in another sense, it represents possibility and flux. According to Michael J. Prince, the "Rorschach blot" itself "is simply an abstract," which says much about its role in Watchmen (825). The blot, its meaning and definition, varies according to its perceiver. The mask embodies literally the "changeless change" described by Wolfe in You Can't Go Home Again (586). In this way, it signifies the ever-possible adaptability of individual agency, something for which Webber and Rorschach consistently advocate, in the face of a corrupt society. Such agency offers a glimmer of hope for both characters in their respective novels.

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Through their individual agency, Rorschach and Webber express their repulsion and disgust regarding the societies they inhabit and, in doing so, advocate for a morally responsible or, at least, a morally aware collective. In Rorschach's journal we see the inner thoughts of his character and psyche--the frank and disturbing perspective from which he writes. He says of the city that "The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown" (9). (1) As the passage suggests, Rorschach is both born from and reflective of his environment. Similarly, we observe Webber's thoughts in his writing, his social experiences (indeed, at times it is difficult, if not impossible, to sever the cord between Webber and his creator, Wolfe)--through the medium of the novel--where we are also told of extensive social corruption and filth. Webber muses on the large and looming problems that threaten to erode society even further:
   ... it was not only in the South that America was hurt. There was
   another deeper, darker, and more nameless wound throughout the
   land. What was it? Was it in the record of corrupt officials and
   polluted governments, administrations twisted to the core, the huge
   excess of privilege and graft, protected criminals and gangster
   rule, the democratic forms all rotten and putrescent with disease?
   (328)


Both Webber and Rorschach are clearly repulsed by the blatant immorality of their societies and the people who have created them, and they declare their repulsion through similar means--interactions and dialogue with a myriad of other characters--that reveal individual character identities as well as that of the collective, however corrupt.

Webber and Rorschach display physical sickness or signs of physical decay to convey their discontent with society. Wolfe writes, "the heart of guilt ... beats in each of us" and indeed we are all responsible for this "collective wound" (328). Both stories--certainly Watchmen more so because of its genre--use visual symbols and images to portray their concern for society's dissolution. In chapter 29 ("'The Hollow Men'") of You Can't Go Home Again, Wolfe graphically places on exhibition the suicide of a common man, ultimately relying on the symbol of blood as a call to action to raise awareness about the decline of society. In a similar and paradoxical way, Watchmen uses the Comedian's blood smear on the infamous happy face to expose hidden social ills. Webber and Rorschach take notice of these seemingly insignificant observations and recognize them for their allusive significance, actions that reveal their importance as pivotal and insightful characters.

Webber and Rorschach also accurately predict their respective collective doom, as Wolfe/Webber acknowledges, "we shall be all damned together"--words that predict worldly demise unless there is increased awareness and sense of social justice (329). According to Shawn Holliday, "Wolfe apparently saw the oncoming world crises of his generation" as deeply concerning (79), just as Rorschach (through his use of "THE END IS NIGH" sign) makes real the "apocalyptic delirium" that Bernard DeVoto accused Wolfe of displaying (4). Though incorrectly perceived as paranoid extremists by their peers (to varying degrees, the other Watchmen have some distrust of Rorschach; and Fox Edwards, among other characters, recognizes a similar trait in Webber), both Rorschach and Webber are, in the end, proven prophets. Rorschach is proven correct in his assumption of a worldwide conspiracy, just as Wolfe's undertones of negativity and so-called delirium were warranted after all, exemplified by his descriptions of the political climate in Germany in You Can't Go Home Again.

The social critique provided through the characters of Rorschach and Webber is both accurate and thorough. Prince notes that Rorschach "was right: there was a conspiracy against the Watchmen, and the end of the world was nigh" (828; italics in orig.). Similarly, Webber was right in his concern about the political climate of Germany, and of America, for that matter. The two men act much as lone wolves in their quests for truth and justice, just as they are solitary in the preciseness of their prophesies. Their accounts of society are eerily similar; Webber vilifies the pseudo intellectuals: "All of them betrayed themselves by the same weaknesses. They fled a world they were not strong enough to meet" (611). Ironically, this also describes the actions of the all-powerful and mighty Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. He he is tipped over the edge by a television interview and literally flees Earth in favor of Mars, a place desolate and void of human life, much like the rural refuge of Rickenbach Reade in Wolfe's novel. This escapism is a common social malady in both Watchmen and You Can't Go Home Again. It is seen, for example, in the character of Nite Owl or Dan Dreiberg, who is comfortable living the normal, layman-style existence that Rorschach so adamantly refutes.

Many, if not most, of Webber's critical intellectuals are superficial, incompetent, and immoral. Similarly, "all of the active Watchmen except Dreiberg and Rorschach operate at the highest levels of corporate/fascist power" (Prince 828). The followers of Piggy Logan and his nonsensical circus of "puny ... decadence" (Wolfe 282) are the very commodity and comfort worshippers of Watchmen, the buyers of Ozymandias dolls. In this way, both Rorschach and Webber have varying levels of hate or distrust of capitalism and fascism. Wolfe himself "felt he could no longer condone or ignore the atrocities of European fascism" (Holliday 73), and Rorschach consistently dismisses essentially all political systems (in his rebellious actions against the American justice system, for example) in favor of a greater, more profound, developed social consciousness.

Like Rorschach's paranoid (but later validated) concern for the former Watchmen and the public, Webber/Wolfe exhibits a "growing concern for American suffering" particularly "during the Great Depression" (Holliday 67). In Watchmen it is clear that Rorschach, like Webber, exhibits not only an intense distrust but also a deeply ingrained bitterness toward capitalism, observed in his sarcastic discussion with Adrian Veidt (before the plot is discovered) about the death of the Comedian. Rorschach says that at least the Comedian "Never cashed in on his reputation. Never set up a company selling posters and diet books and toy soldiers based on himself" (25). Veidt, of course, has done precisely this. Wolfe recognizes a similar spirit of "exploitation ... by America's capitalist economic system" (Holliday 67), a spirit of exploitation that Rorschach fervently fights against.

The theme of impending doom or a looming apocalypse is prevalent in both You Can't Go Home Again and Watchmen. In Wolfe's novel, "the gangster compacts, the sudden killings, the harshness and corruption that infested portions of American business and public life" seem relatively innocuous when juxtaposed with the nuclear and human rights doomsdays of both stories (631). While Moore's world suffers from the very real doom of a nuclear bomb, Wolfe's was subjected to human rights violations of increasing severity. The ever-present and worsening threat of nuclear apocalypse in Watchmen, characterized by the increasingly bloodied clock, is also described in You Can't Go Home Again by Wolfe's logistical yet eloquent analysis:
   [Webber] had sensed ... the poisonous constrictions of incurable
   hatreds and insoluble politics, the whole dense weave of intrigue
   and ambition ... the volcanic imminence of catastrophe with which
   the very air was laden, and which threatened to erupt at any
   moment. (674)


The cataclysmic environment and political tensions in both stories are impending and immediate, enveloping both worlds in an inescapable desperatism.

Within their respective environments, which suffer from increasing pressures, Rorschach and Webber hold the same relative position regarding social advocacy. While each character serves as a cog in a collective social machine, both men insist on the perseverance of the morally responsible individual, which ultimately contributes to a morally conscious and responsible collective. Like Webber, "Rorschach consistently battles for his individual integrity" (Prince 822), which makes possible a greater, collective integrity. As writers, both Wolfe and Webber act individually--but in doing so confirm their advocacy and their role as social unifiers--albeit paradoxically. In addition, Rorschach is a rogue vigilante yet was also part of the Watchmen. The relinquishment of his journal to the newspaper, like Webber/Wolfe's authorship, also solidifies Rorschach's intensely social--however individual--position. Both men perform individual acts, but they serve a profound collective purpose that informs truth and, ultimately, hope. Therefore, in the sense that both characters represent both the individual and the collective, they also represent the turbulent struggle between the two. As Prince notes, "Rorschach personifies the struggle between the individual and the collective" (825). Similarly, Webber can be seen struggling with individual agency and societal immorality throughout You Can't Go Home Again. Like Rorschach, he ultimately refutes the fatalism and acceptance that define other characters--such as Fox Edwards and Dr. Manhattan--who figuratively interpret the world rather one-dimensionally (even though Dr. Manhattan can see multiple dimensions literally) and can accept it for what it is.

Webber and, by extension, Wolfe as author, seem unwilling to yield to the pressures of a corrupt society. In Watchmen, Rorschach is left to stand against what he perceives as mass injustice. Both characters believe themselves to be solitary guardians against the impending abysmal and corrupted fate of their respective societies. Webber is "looking hard at the life around him ... trying to extract some essential truth out of this welter of his whole experience" (410-11), while Rorschach writes, "Others bury their heads between the swollen teats of indulgence and gratification, piglets squirming beneath a sow for shelter" (68). Here can be seen the similar nature of the two men's observations. The gluttonous businessmen and superficial intellectuals of You Can't Go Home Again are the molesters, murderers, and capitalists of Watchmen. They represent symptoms of the same social disease and are diagnosed accurately by both Rorschach and Webber.

Furthermore, both Webber and Rorschach are condemned for their insistence on revealing the truth, however unpleasant. George Webber writes the woes of the persecuted, ill-favored, and death-haunted writer, and Rorschach says at Watchmen's very beginning, "This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face" (9). Webber says that people are "afraid to face themselves" (393; italics in orig.), which echoes the fear and unwillingness Rorschach observes in his fellow society members. In "The Wounded Faun" chapter of You Can't Go Home Again, Randy Shepperton explains to Webber the effect the publication of his book has had on others, a sentiment that also echoes Rorschach's--namely, that people do not enjoy and, indeed, become infuriated at their own stark reflection in a mirror. Truth, according to Webber, is "what people [are] afraid of"(327). Both Rorschach and Webber are condemned by their respective societies and so alienated because of their unwillingness to sweep societal scum under the rug.

Rorschach, at the end of Watchmen, stands alone in his resistance to going along with the immense lie that killed millions of New Yorkers. Its creator, Veidt, (like Paul S. Appleton III, head of "the Company" in chapter 8 of You Can't Go Home Again), is rich and powerful. He has created a fake alien-beast to "land" in the city--killing millions--but by birthing this distractive scapegoat, he saves the world from nuclear demise. Rorschach and Webber, however, remain men who do not compromise, who do not conform to the cracked and corrupted social molds. Rorschach insists, "Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise" (402). Webber, sensing "the hollow pyramid" of American society, says that there is "no compromise with truth" and that "He who lets himself be whored by fashion will be whored by time" (320-21). Moreover, Webber asserts that "You could not turn the other cheek to wrong.... You could not meet lies and trickery with lies and trickery, although there were some people who argued that you should" (632). These are lines that could have been spoken by Rorschach in his refusal to accept Veidt's mass ruse. The accepting, passive "people" Webber describes could just as easily be the characters of Dan (Nite Owl), Dr. Manhattan, and Laurie (Silk Spectre) in Watchmen. In their respective universes, Rorschach and Webber stand alone in their belief that a sacrifice of truth or morality results in a relinquishment of meaning and human purpose--the ultimate human injustice.

You Can't Go Home Again and Watchmen express a kaleidoscopic view of the collective as seen by an individual character-a view that includes the character's perspective and critique. In an idea applied to Watchmen, Wolfe and Moore both present "a group of diverse, ideologically contingent American figures in the individual characters" (Prince 815). In a sense, many of the characters bleed into one another, and, as Wolfe notes, "essentially the same kind of people" are found everywhere (610). The characters in both stories are unique in their perspectives yet belong to and function within a collective society, however chaotic. Indeed, the figures are at times satirical, grotesque, and darkly ironic, with "each characterizing a distinct political or economic value" (Prince 818). And however bridled, each protagonist struggles as an individual piece in a collective framework and thus struggles with identity and purpose. Prince's observation about Watchmen that "all of the characters and American identities are presented in an ironic light to a satirical aim" (827; italics in orig.) also applies to Wolfe's novel and reflects not only the depth and gravity of the societal problems in each story, but also intensifies Webber's and Rorschach's critique.

There are numerous and significant similarities between Moore's Watchmen and Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again. Both Webber and Rorschach, at least to a certain extent, are rejected by the societies they inhabit because of their unwillingness to compromise truth and moral purpose and because they expose societal realities and the corrupt, festering infections within each. Webber is appalled by the people of Esther Jack's world because of "their attitude of acceptance, the things they thought and felt about what they did, their complaisance about themselves and about their life, their loss of faith in anything better." Wolfe writes of Webber, "He himself had not yet come to that, he did not want to come to it. This was one of the reasons, he now knew, why he did not want to be sealed to this world that Esther belonged to" (260). Rorschach too is equally repulsed and resistant, remaining in the end the only one who still wishes to expose Veidt for his crimes against humanity; the others passively accept the scheme and Veidt's conclusion that it was the only way to prevent nuclear holocaust. Rorschach is uncompromising because of his position against injustice, which, for him, is intolerable in any amount, regardless of its outcome. Webber refuses to mesh with the superficial, falsely faceted and blemished complexion that has become his surrounding society.

Both men seek to unveil truth through their writing. Indeed, freedom of speech and freedom of thought, according to Wolfe are "among the most valuable realities that men have gained" (qtd. in Donald 437). This sentiment is echoed in Rorschach's character. At Watchmen's conclusion, his journal (which reveals the truth about Veidt) lies naked and possible on the desk of a newspaper publisher. Webber does the same thing, revealing a social truth woven within his novel. Consequently, both men and both stories arrive at a similar, if not the same, conclusion, and in essentially the same way.

At the end of You Can't Go Home Again, as at the end of Watchmen, it is Ozymandias who is cast as enemy. Through this symbol the audience is confronted with the atrocity of social corruption and evil in both stories. Veidt literally embodies evil through his prior crime-fighting persona of Ozymandias, which of course reflects Shelley: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" an excerpt that perfectly mirrors his actions (qtd. in Moore 376). Wolfe chose similar wording as he concludes: "Look about you and see what he has done" (743). Both authors chose to reference Shelley in order to substantiate their reports of social maladies.

Through their conclusions, both You Can't Go Home Again and Watchmen question the idea of ends justifying the means. Readers are meant to feel uncomfortable and even sympathetic with Rorschach's death and his legacy, as we are similarly meant to be uncomfortable with Webber's story of an adolescent prank in which "it cost a life, but it killed hazing in the state" (714). The authors seemingly side with their protagonists, and each story therefore ends with a hopeful, albeit tragically hindered, future: Wolfe's "true discovery" (741) and Moore's decision to place Rorschach's journal in the hands of a desperate and unsuspecting journalist. Webber and Rorschach both act as authors in their ability to broadcast truth and criticism of their respective societies. Both find that their world is crumbling, politically, morally, and, in the case of Rorschach, literally. In addition, both of these characters choose ultimately to use writing as the medium to broadcast their unique message.

Rorschach and Webber investigate and discuss "typically American domestic tensions" as well as "international politics" (Prince 827). Both characters provide an overview, analysis, and critique of their social collectives, therefore calling into question the possibility and identity of a collective and moral consciousness. Holliday says that, in exploring "the importance of distinguishing a political 'exile' from a literary 'expatriate,'" You Can't Go Home Again examines "the political, social, and economic factors that determine [a displaced] individual's identity" as one or the other (71). One could make the argument that these same forces help to shape an individual's overall identity--and, as Prince points out, Watchmen explores "individual and collective identity" through an economic and political lens (815).

Alan Moore and Thomas Wolfe manifest Rorschach and Webber as social critics but also as social pioneers, for both characters remain individual in the display of their exhibitions. Rorschach and Webber peel the putrid scab from the "black underbelly" of society (Watchmen 193), and behold: the societal cockroaches scurry and panic underneath a society decaying from decadence.

Works Cited

DeVoto, Bernard. "Genius Is Not Enough." Saturday Review of Literature 25 Apr. 1936: 3+. Print.

Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. Boston: Little, 1987. Print.

Holliday, Shawn. Thomas Wolfe and the Politics of Modernism. New York: Lang, 2001. Print. American University Studies, Ser. 24: American Lit. 73.

Moore, Alan, writer. Watchmen. Illustrations and letters by Dave Gibbons. Color by John Higgins. 1986-87. New York: DC Comics, 2013.

Prince, Michael J. "Alan Moore's America: The Liberal Individual and American Identities in Watchmen." Journal of Popular Culture 44.4 (2011): 815-30.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Ozymandias." 1818. Poetry Foundation. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.

Wolfe, Thomas. You Can't Go Home Again. New York: Harper, 1940.

Note

(1.) Watchmen was originally published in twelve volumes (198687). Page numbers cited in this article are from the single-volume "Deluxe Edition" compilation (2013).
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Author:Cummings, Sarah W.
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Words:3654
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