Ozymandias Was Wrong

“Yeah, there's even a bit where I think Adrian Veidt says at the end that he's been ‘Troubled by dreams lately, of swimming towards — ‘and then he says,‘No, it doesn't matter, it's not important’ and I mean it's pretty obvious that he's dreaming of swimming towards a great Black Freighter. Yeah, there's a parallel there.” — Alan Moore
Thirty years after its publication, Watchmen remains one of the most publically provocative comics ever published, by which I mean readers enjoy arguing about it, or at least talking about the moral and ethical issues it seems to pose. The biggest “moral dilemma” in the book is Ozymandias’s decision to save the world from nuclear armageddon by killing three million people, or “half New York.” For many readers, this becomes a test of the Machiavellian maxim, “The ends justify the means.” Is it excusable to kill three million people if, by so doing, you save the remaining population of the Earth?

The Tale of the Black Freighter is a comic which exists in the world of Watchmen; it is written by James Shea, one of the many artists Ozymandias kidnaps to create the fake alien which he uses to prank the planet. To first-time readers, its inclusion in the book can seem a confusing distraction, because — while it is a horrifying and evocative read — it doesn’t seem to have any relationship to the plot. But as Moore’s quote at the beginning of this column illustrates, the story of an anonymous castaway who — out of a desperate desire to first save the fictional "Davidstown" from the Black Freighter and then, later, to avenge the town’s capture — is in fact a parallel to Ozymandias’s plot. The Tale of the Black Freighter appears in Watchmen whenever Adrian’s scheme moves forward: when Army officials post a nuclear hazard sign on Doctor Manhattan’s quarters, reminding him of his toxicity and prompting him to leave Earth, and when Rorschach arrives at the home of Moloch, only to discover it’s a setup and the cops have the building surrounded. The raft which the castaway builds, floating upon the corpses of his fellow sailors, is a metaphor for the many people Ozymandias has already killed to further his plan (especially his fellow adventurer, Eddie Blake), even before the denouement kills three million people. Even the shark which attacks the castaway on his raft is an allegory for the fake alien, with its giant conical body, it’s one “stained marble eye,” and its tentacles.

You don’t have to take my word for this, by the way. You can see for yourself. The shark is the same color as the Institute for Spacial Studies out of which the alien erupts. Even the yellow of the sail is echoed by the yellow newspaper fluttering by. The parallel is kept very close, throughout the Tale: Ozymandias kills three million in New York, and the castaway kills precisely three people upon arriving at Davidstown. The last of these murders is the castaway’s own wife; driven to madness by his fear of the Black Freighter, the castaway imagines that Davidstown is full of pirates who have slaughtered all the innocent inhabitants. Breaking into his own house, he murders the “pirate” sleeping in his own bed and is only woken to the truth when he hears the cries of his own children. Upon recognizing that he has become the monster he feared, he flees the town and swims to the Black Freighter, which has been patiently waiting for him all this time.

This casually-mentioned fact — that the Freighter was never, in fact, going to attack Davidstown in the first place — is exactly what I want to focus on here, because it helps us resolve the moral dilemma Ozymandias poses. Adrian, like the castaway, is convinced that the end of the world is coming. Rorschach discovers wall-mounted graphs upon which Ozymandias has traced “‘Global population… nuclear hazard escalation index … environmental decline…’ Multiple crisis graph, lines converting mid 1990s.” Veidt, the “Smartest Man on Earth,” has predicted the end of the world and has taken it upon himself to make the terrible decision to save it, no matter the cost.

But the Black Freighter was never actually going to attack Davidstown.

In this moment, Tales from the Black Freighter stops being an allegory for Ozymandias’s plan and becomes a commentary upon it. It tells us something which Adrian himself does not know: that his plan was unnecessary. The first sin of the castaway, and of Ozymandias, was his immense pride, his certainty that he had to be right. It was this certainty which drove the castaway to build his raft of dead men, to ride the corpse of a one-eyed shark all the way to civilization, and then to murder three (million) innocents. But if the Tale of the Black Freighter is to be believed, if the parallel holds, nuclear armageddon was not, actually, going to happen. Ozymandias was wrong, which makes any debate about the correctness of his actions rather cut-and-dried.

But why wouldn’t the world blow itself up? The world of Watchmen does, indeed, look to be a mess. We’re routinely shown the worst side of just about everyone. But Watchmen’s reputation as the archetypal “dark and gritty” comic often blinds us to the humanism of the book, its argument that life has meaning, that people will find empathy for each other and avoid the worst outcome at the last moment. Remember that, even as the fake alien arrives in a flash of teleportation to kill an entire supporting cast we have come to know over the course of twelve issues, one Bernard — an aging white guy — reaches out to embrace and protect another Bernard — a black kid about whom he has confessed he knows nothing. Their kinship is represented by their shared name; this one little thing they have in common prompts the elder Bernard to break out of his own experience and identify with his younger counterpart. Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice is a terrible movie that has been justly pilloried by audiences and critics, but you can see the same statement being made in Zack Snyder’s ham-fisted, inelegant way when Bruce realizes that Clark, too, has a Martha, and thus must have a mother, and thus is a man with whom Bruce has at least something in common.

We don’t know how the world of Watchmen would have avoided nuclear war, but it's important to note two things: first, the Nixon depicted in the comic is not the penis-faced cartoon of Snyder's film, and second, once the US reaches DEFCON 2, Nixon says his job is, "we wait," suggesting that he would never launch missiles unless the Russians do so first. Ozymandias himself notes that the presence of super-people on the world is not as influential a factor as we all might think. Maybe the people of Watchmen got through their Cold War the same way we did. After all, it’s not fiction to describe a world which pointed twenty thousand nuclear warheads at itself and then chose not to. That’s the world we live in, a world which avoided the worst of all possible outcomes and, rather miraculously, chose life. That’s reality. That’s our world: A stronger, loving world.

Ozymandias Was Wrong Ozymandias Was Wrong Reviewed by Jason Tondro on Monday, November 20, 2017 Rating: 5
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