“Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…” -Commissioner Gordon

“Somebody has to do it, don’t you see? Somebody has to save the world.” -Captain Metropolis

The idea of the superhero as a guardian, a force for good acting in a society that desperately needs help, is a powerful trope in comics. However, the psychological consequences of becoming a superhero are not explored in great detail by most comics writers. Instead the focus is on heroic adventuring, leaving the psychological fallout of transforming oneself into a superhero practically unconsidered. However, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen devote much attention to the psychology of their characters, providing complex pictures of who and what superheroes are, including their motivations for becoming superheroes and the consequences of living the dual life of normal and super person.

At the base of the superhero is vigilantism, which can be viewed as a type of state of exception; the hero takes the law into his/her own hands in order to achieve some purpose. For example, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman to prevent criminals from victimizing people the way his parents were victimized. However, in both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns the characters who act as vigilantes, specifically Batman, Rorschach and Ozymandias in this paper, are each led to an identity crisis as a result of the psychological transformation they undergo as vigilantes. This identity crisis, when combined with a state of exception, leads to serious, sometimes fatal, social and political consequences as the vigilantes attempt to enact their visions for society.

In order to understand how the hero reaches an identity crisis and precipitates fatal consequences, it is important to first understand how the vigilante comes to be. All vigilantes have an origin story, some perhaps more noble than others. Bruce Wayne sees his parents murdered before him as a child, which leaves a permanent psychological scar. Later, he creates the Batman as a way to channel his hatred of criminals back at criminals. He is violent, and in Frank Miller’s hand, seems to be much more violent than in previous incarnations, however, as Geoff Klock says, The Dark Knight Returns “is not so much violent as it is more graphic and more realistic about the violence that has always inhabited the superhero narratives” (30). Thus, Batman can be seen as an extremely violent, psychologically damaged sociopath who, by some miracle, only commits crimes with the intention of punishing criminals. Compared to Batman Adrian Veidt’s Ozymandias story in Watchmen is practically a fairy tale. Adrian Veidt becomes a vigilante as part of a larger plan to justify his own existence to himself. Veidt is conceited enough to believe that “my intellect set me apart” (XI, 8). Veidt decided to judge himself based on the accomplishments of Alexander the Great and Ramses II. Beset by the insecurities only someone with the most unrealistically high expectations can have, Veidt donned mask and costume to begin his “path to conquest … conquest not of men, but of the evils that beset them” (XI, 11). Unlike Veidt, Walter Kovacs starts dressing as Rorschach out of a mess of psychological problems. At an early age he saw his mother engaging in prostitution (VI, 3-4), something he came to understand later and resent her for. His mother’s profession caused the neighborhood boys to pick on Kovacs, to which he reacted violently, and which landed him in a children’s home (VI, 6-8). Later in life, while working as a garment maker, he finds a news story about a woman, a former customer that never picked up a dress she ordered, who was murdered while her neighbors looked on. Then, Rorschach says, “Ashamed for humanity, I went home. I took the remains of her unwanted dress … and made a face I could bear to look at in the mirror” (VI, 10). Kovacs, like Bruce Wayne and Adrian Veidt, reacted to an inability to tolerate the social state of his world by donning a costume to exorcise his psychological demons.

After donning a costume, each would be hero takes action to reshape their world, the extra-legal mature of their actions making the heroes vigilantes. In his book Vigilantism: Political History of Private Power in America, William Culberson writes, “Vigilantism is of politics and is not of politics: … it is not of politics because it often circumvents, ignores, or is disobedient to existing social structures and mechanisms of politics” (8). The vigilante, by taking action himself, rather than seeking redress through the political system, steps outside of the strictly legal bounds of the social order, in essence, the vigilante becomes a criminal, but, at least in the superhero story, the vigilantes are trying to enact positive change in their world. However, in doing so, they step outside the social order, yet still belong to it, which places the vigilante in a unique position. In State of Exception, Giorgio Agamben writes, “being-outside, and yet belonging: this is the topological structure of the state of exception, and only because the sovereign, who decides on the exception, is, in truth, logically defined in his being by the exception” (35). While Agamben’s state of exception is used to describe a dictatorship, the state of exception, of existing both outside and inside of a legal structure simultaneously, describes the status of the vigilante as well. Further, in a very real sense, the vigilante acts as a sovereign by enacting sentences, as when Rorschach kills a rapist and a kidnapper, policing the streets, as Nite Owl and the Comedian do while the police are on strike and Batman does in his war on criminals, and attempting to remake the social and political order, as Ozymandias does with his plan to save the world. Normally these powers are reserved to the political or judicial authority, but vigilantes take them for themselves. The costumed vigilante enters the state of exception through the use of their costume, which protects the vigilante from having his/her identity discovered. In costume they are able to stand outside the legal order in order to enforce their beliefs about the legal order. The state of exception thus creates a power differential between vigilante and populace, which separates the vigilante from the populace. Two striking examples of this separation occur in exchanges between Nite Owl and Rorschach. One occurs when Nite Owl and Rorschach are trying to find leads on Pyramid Deliveries when Nite Owl learns that Hollis Mason was murdered and loses control of himself. Rorschach pulls Nite Owl away, saying, “Not in front of civilians. We have the knowledge we wanted” (X, 16). Later, when they are entering Ozymandias’ antarctic retreat, Nite Owl remarks, “Yeah, I guess ‘nervous’ will do. Y’know, this must be how ordinary people feel. This must be how ordinary people feel around us” (XI, 14). These two somewhat innocuous remarks point to an awareness of the power differential between themselves, the vigilantes, and the population, as well as a certain behavioral code, that the sovereign vigilante does not exact revenge where those who are not ordained can see, for the vigilante is a higher power, and higher powers do their dirty business out of view of the ordinary folk. Adrian Veidt operates in a state of exception as well. Even before he conceives his plan, Veidt is already thinking of himself as a sovereign, saying, “given correct handling, none of the world’s problems are insurmountable. All it takes is a little intelligence” (II, 11). The Comedian, reading Veidt perfectly, responds, “which you got in spades, right?” (II, 11). The Comedian’s preternatural ability to read people immediately picks up on Veidt’s intentions, and his question accuses Veidt of planning to use his identity to act as sovereign and solve the world’s problems. The Comedian is exactly correct, as shown by Veidt’s later actions. Finally, Batman operates in a state of exception. He orders police officers around (Miller, 40), uses his Batmanness to convince Commissioner Gordon to break the law and release the mutant leader (97), and he is so exceptional he will even punch the new police commissioner in the face (156) in order to avoid being pulled from his state of exception back into the judicial order. The state of exception, and the power differential and separation from humanity resulting from it, which leaves the vigilante able to act upon the world as a type of sovereign figure, but not subject to the political and judicial systems of the world, begins to deform the vigilante’s psyche.

A vigilante, acting from a state of exception, especially a costumed one, experiences a power differential not only between the costumed identity and the rest of humanity, but also between the vigilante’s own identities. Vigilante action gives the costumed identity great power, something the ordinary identity is lacking. The costumed identity has purpose, goals, and the means to achieve those goals. The longer a person acts as a vigilante, the more the costumed identity develops. In The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce Wayne thinks of Batman not as a part of himself, but as someone else. He narrates, “Its the night–when the city’s smells call out to him, though I lie between silk sheets in a million dollar mansion miles away” (13). Once the Bruce Wayne and Batman identities separate in his head, the powerful costumed identity is able to subsume Bruce Wayne. As the bat inside Bruce Wayne put it, “The time has come. You know it in your soul. For I am your soul” (25). Indeed, the journey of The Dark Knight Returns kills Bruce Wayne, though Batman lives on, thus the vigilante’s costumed identity has fully replaced the original person. Similar process effects Rorschach in Watchmen. Rorschach started as Walter Kovacs, man who created face and identity of Rorschach to fight crime. Rorschach states in interview with psychologist, “Kovacs had friends. Other men in costumes. All Kovacs ever was: Man in costume. Not Rorschach. Not Rorschach at all” (VI, 15). Rorschach created by 1975 kidnap case. Finds dogs have eaten little kidnapped girl, kills dogs, states, “shock of impact ran along my arm. Jet of warmth spattered on chest like hot faucet … it was Kovacs who closed his eyes, it was Rorschach who opened them again” (VI, 21). Birth of Rorschach reconciled duality of Kovacs/Rorschach identity. Events too horrible to be justified precipitated identity crisis from which only powerful identity emerged, only identity able to cope with depth of human depravity, only Rorschach. For Adrian Veidt, the identity of Ozymandias takes over as a necessary condition for completing his plan to save the world. Adrian Veidt is but a man, vulnerable and weak, while Ozymandias is powerful, more powerful for Veidt as a historical symbol than he ever was in reality, and wiser in Veidt’s view than any man before or since. Ozymandias is able to do the things Veidt believes must be done, but may otherwise shrink away from. Tellingly, as Watchmen draws to a close, Veidt, secure in his Antarctic retreat, chooses to embrace his victory as Ozymandias, not as Adrian Veidt (X, 8). This choice indicates that Veidt needs his Ozymandias persona, for the distance it allows him between himself and mankind, in order to live with his plans, making Adrian Veidt merely a name to pay taxes with; he is Ozymandias. Thus, the state of exception inherent in vigilante action gives power to the vigilante identity, allowing it to subsume the original identity, leaving a belief in the vigilante’s mind that he/she is above ordinary humans and must take action to help those humans improve the world.

The vigilante’s belief that they are greater than ordinary humans and determination to alter the social structure to suit their purposes induces serious social consequences. In the world of Watchmen, the actions of costumed vigilantes leads first to a series of costumed villains who battle the vigilantes, however, according to Hollis Mason: “there had never been as many costumed criminals as heroes, but with the end of the 1940s the trend grew much more pronounced” (III, Under the Hood, 12), and worse, the criminals were smart, they “opted for a less extroverted and more profitable approach. The new breed of villains … were mostly ordinary men in business suits who ran drug and prostitution rackets” (III, Under the Hood, 12). Some were even completely harmless, like Captain Carnage, “the one who pretended to be a supervillain so he could get beaten up” (I, 28). At first society was more amused than upset by the costumed adventurers battling with costumed criminals. Soon the criminals adapted, forcing costumed vigilantes to act more like costumed detectives than crimefighters. The turning point for public sentiment was the arrival of Dr. Manhattan, the only character in the story with superpowers. With godlike powers, Dr. Manhattan effectively made the human race obsolete. According to Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan “somehow symbolized mankind’s problems. As tensions rose, the elevation of costumed heroes became a descent … I foresaw that by the late seventies it would reach bottom” (XI, 22). The actions of costumed heroes allied with Dr. Manhattan became symbolic to the public of the arrogation of juridical powers by self-appointed vigilante enforcers. Though most tried to do good, the public saw them as usurping the political and judicial system and resented them for it. This led to riots against the vigilantes, which ironically, had to be broken up by the vigilantes due to a police strike over the actions of vigilantes. Ultimately this unrest led to the Keene Act, banning costumed vigilantism. Similarly, before the events of The Dark Knight Returns, the Justice League, particularly Batman, generated significant public enmity, leading to their disbanding. Superman, by working for the government, like Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian in Watchmen, did not have to retire. According to Superman, the rest of the Justice League “recognized the danger–of the endless envy of those not blessed … but you Bruce–you with your wild obsession–…they’ll kill us if they can, Bruce. … Every year they hate us more. We must not remind them that giants walk the Earth. You were the one they used against us, Bruce. The one who played it rough” (Miller, 120, 129-30, 135). Of course, in a neat ironic juxtaposition of image and narrative, as Superman narrates about giants walking the Earth, he is lifting a tank over his head as he stops a war in Corto Maltese, reminding everyone around that he is a giant walking the Earth. It is clear from Superman’s narration that before Batman’s retirement ten years prior, there was a public opinion backlash against costumed vigilantes, even leading to subpoenas for the vigilantes to attend congressional hearings, and Batman, of course, told the congressional committee: “We’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals”(135), which turned public opinion firmly against the Justice League. Batman acknowledged and pointed out the necessity of the vigilante operating in a state of exception, and the government, responding to public pressure, decided that only the juridical authority should be able to operate in a state of exception, that self-appointed individuals acting in a state of exception were damaging to the social fabric and a danger to the cohesion of society.

The governments in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had no idea how dangerous vigilantes were until it was too late. In the case of Batman, at the end the The Dark Knight Returns, he has reached an epiphany and come through an identity crisis that killed Bruce Wayne. However, Geoff Klock points out that, Batman’s obsession with control and order, his disregard for civil rights, and his use of violence to force others … into submission to his will point to comic book’s … flirtation with fascism. Illegal, physically violent coercion plays a role in all superhero stories … the implied threat of large-scale fascistic control must necessarily underlie superhero stories because of a fundamental power differential”

Viewed with the underlying fascistic nature of the superhero, Batman’s new approach to Batmaning is troubling. Sure, he is Batman, he is the hero, he is trying to do what he believes is right for society, but that is precisely the problem. Batman is seeking to enact social change from an extra-legal position, from his state of exception, but he is not seeking to enact any nebulously divined will of the people, but rather his own will, which is the basic idea of dictatorship. Indeed, Frank Miller stated in an interview with Christopher Sharrett that in a sequel, “[Batman] would be much more direct in his actions, much more willing to mess with the order of things … the key transition would be his recognition that he’s no longer part of authority. That’s really the transition at the end of Dark Knight, this knowledge that he’s no longer on the side of the powers that be anymore, because the powers that be are wrong” (Sharrett, 39). While the powers that be may be wrong, an extra-legal vigilante war against the powers that be is not an appropriate method for enacting social change. Batman’s chosen method would force a new set of institutions on the people without their consent, without asking if they even want the new social order Batman plans to enact. Batman’s identity crisis turned him from a vigilante into a political terrorist at the end of The Dark Knight Returns.

In Watchmen, after Rorschach emerges from identity crisis, is completely cut off from humanity, kills at least four people, probably more. Arguably, murders are justifiable, one butchered a young girl (VI, 18-25), one a serial rapist (IV, 23), Big figure really mean and probable murderer (VIII, 7), and Otis assaulted him in prison (VIII, 7), probable Captain Carnage died at bottom of elevator shaft, but not certain (I, 28). Each murder resultant from dominance of Rorschach identity. Literally identity crisis is killing people. Despite violence, Rorschach maintains strict moral code, only kills people who deserve killing. Makes Rorschach sympathetic character, but does not make Rorschach less psychotic. Even Alan Moore stated, “I originally intended Rorschach to be a warning about the possible outcome of vigilante thinking. But an awful lot of comics readers felt his remorseless, frightening, psychotic toughness was his most appealing characteristic — not quite what I was going for” (Jensen, 4). Perhaps people sympathetic to wrong thing, vigilante mindset perhaps more deeply engrained in American cultural consciousness than Moore expected. Though Rorschach found identifiable, Ozymandias left humanity too far behind and took actions too drastic to be found sympathetic. The result of Ozymandias’ identity crisis was a conviction that he must change the world as significantly as Ramses II in order to feel accomplished (Moore and Gibbons, XI, 11). An epiphany at the first meeting of the Crimebusters in 1966 convinces Ozymandias that unless he acts, the world will die in nuclear hellfire (XI, 19). Ozymandias sets out to build a business empire that can finance the greatest, most destructive hoax ever conceived (XI, 22). To describe how he came to his conclusions, Ozymandias says, “My first step was to stand back as far as I could … my vista widening my comprehension” (XI, 21). By separating himself mentally from humanity, Ozymandias not only gains perspective on human affairs, but begins to alienate himself from the rest of humanity. In his removed perspective, Ozymandias acts not as a man, but as a god, which is fitting since Egyptian Pharaohs were considered gods. Since Ozymandias acts as a god, he is unilaterally making decisions for the entire world. Though he claims that, “I know. I know I’ve struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity…but someone had to take the weight of that awful necessary crime” (XII, 27), his statement of his own understanding is made to Dr. Manhattan, who quickly reminds Ozymandias that there is only one being capable of playing god in the room and it is not Ozymandias. Dr. Manhattan goes further, leaving Ozymandias in doubt of his hoax’s success, saying, “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends” (XII, 27). Not only must Ozymandias live with the deaths of over three million innocents, he must also live in doubt, wondering if his attempt to exercise godlike powers will be undone. Of course, the self-doubt of one person pales in comparison with the death of three million people, the cost of one exceptional man having an identity crisis and acting from a state of exception. Though, if Ozymandias had done nothing, the cold war could have become a hot war, and billions would have died, or the Soviets may still have collapsed under the weight of their own bureaucracy and no one would have needed to die. Regardless, by taking the action he did, Ozymandias can never know if there was a less costly way to save the world from annihilation.

Hypothetical considerations aside, significant social change, often negative, and great loss of life can be viewed as direct consequences of vigilante actions taken from a state of exception occurring simultaneously with the vigilante experiencing an identity crisis resultant from their vigilante actions. Viewed this way, vigilantism is just as dangerous to society as crime, and this is without considering the possible effects of escalation of violence, as is seen in much of Batman’s canon, where masked villains continually rise up to challenge the Batman. Further, Batman, Rorschach and Ozymandias are all ordinary humans, in the sense that none of them have superpowers of any kind. This distinction is important, especially in the medium of comics, since characters with superpowers are abundant and sometimes downright absurd. The psychological effects of vigilante action on people with superpowers is likely quite different. Considering the case of Superman and Dr. Manhattan, they do not seem to be overly impressed with their status as superheroes, likely because it is their true self. For Superman, Clark Kent is the artifice. Similarly, groups like the X-Men or Fantastic Four are not necessarily thrilled when they acquire their powers, whereas Bruce Wayne revels in the freedom and power of Batman, and that can make a huge difference in the psychological effect the vigilante identity has.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Print. Culberson, William. Vigilantism: Political History of Private Power in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990. Print. Jensen, Jeff. “Watchmen: An Oral History.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, 21 Oct. 2005. Web. 07 Aug. 2012. Klock, Geoff. How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. New York, Continuum International Publishing Goup Inc., 2002. Print. Miller, Frank. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. 1986. New York, DC Comics, 2002. Print Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1987. Print Nolan, Christopher, dir. The Dark Knight. Warner Brothers, 2008. Film. Sharrett, Christopher. Batman and the Twilight of the Idols: An Interview with Frank Miller. The Many Lives of the Batman. New York: Rutledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1991. Print.

Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!