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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: March 2016

Along with Spider-Man’s debut story, three other Ditko-Lee collaborations appeared in Amazing Fantasy No. 15, including the five-pager “The One and Only!” According to comics collector James Horvath, however, the story was really drawn by his grandmother, Lydia Horvath, a Golden Age artist who spent her career ghosting for bigger names.

Or at least that’s the premise of my novel The Patron Saint of Superheroes. My agent suggested the manuscript include a sample comic book page, so I went in search of an artist who could pretend to be Lydia Horvath pretending to be Steve Ditko. Sean Michael Robinson swooped to my rescue.

And at the risk of revealing myself to be an Alan Moore-level control freak, I think our email correspondence reveals a few things about the collaborative process of writing and drawing comics.

original script (2)

SEAN: Your page from the script you shared looks great– just enough stage direction. My only practical concern with it– Ditko very rarely broke more than 9 panels a page. In fact, in my cursory Ditko flip-through this morning (“Essential Spider-man V 1”, “Steve Ditko Archives” V 1 + 2) I’m seeing the majority of the page breakdowns hovering around 6-7 panels, with a few outliers in the 8-9 range.

Was this actually drawn by Ditko? If not, are there any “tells,” or should it look as much like his work as possible?

CHRIS: It sounds like we were looking at Essential Spider-Man simultaneously this morning. And you’re absolutely right, the panel layout is nothing like Ditko’s—and that’s actually the one “tell” I want the page to have. I’m attaching the PAGE THREE script, which includes the layout. (The gutters form a St. James cross, which is the artist’s secret signature, are a big part of the novel.)

first layout

SEAN: Okay, here are two rough (very rough!) layouts. You’ll notice I make a few script suggestions in the margin for the sake of space. Also, I’m not sure how to approach visually the third panel on the 1st tier– substituted a far-off climbing Jim. Feel free to send a sketch my way. Are we seeing just the hand? The top of his head or pack? The view down the cliff face?

Also substituted a close-up for the 1st p 3rd tier– let me know how it strikes you.


CHRIS: Yes to trimming the first caption. So it would now read:

Before vanishing, Singulus told Little Jim that he had gained his powers from a guru in Tibet. Nothing left to lose, Little Jim splurges on a one-way ticket!

For panel 1.2, try a downward view from the very top of the cliff with mostly just Jim’s giant hand reaching up.

1.1, 1.3, 2.1, 2.2 all look good–I especially like how the cave opening worked out. 2.3 and 2.4 look good too, but I’d like to move the talk balloons, so that 2.3’s “Singulus?” is at the bottom of the panel with the balloon arrow pointing to the left gutter (and so Jim in 2.2), and Onlyone’s bubble moves to the top of 2.4. I think that way it will be clearer to see that the flashlight is moving up from the discarded costume to Onlyone, because currently the balloons partly block the partial views of Onlyone’s legs and the costume.

For 3.1, I really like the first version, with Onlyone extending his arm with the ring–but try rotating the panel 180 degrees so Onlyone is at the top and Jim at the bottom. Their dialogue can be reversed so Onlyone speaks first and Jim responds with “Me?”

Yes about lowering the hand on 3.2, so we can see more of Onlyone’s face. Also Jim should slide the ring onto his left ring finger, as he would a wedding ring.

The close-up of Onlyone is good though, so could you place it in the final panel instead? There’s no need for Singulus to appear at all in 3.4. And Onlyone’s emphatic talk bubble can go at the the bottom of the panel, ending the page.

For the big Singulus! 3.3 panel, let his talk bubble punch through the top of the panel into the bottom of 2.3 (which could make a nice effect with the previous “Singulus?”) and let his elbows jut into 3.2 and 3.4. Also, if it’s not already, leave 3.3 unframed.

SEAN: Does this work?

Two versions of the 1.3 panel– pls let me know which one is closer.

Singulus_layoutA  Singulus_layoutF (1)

CHRIS: Go with the alt for 1.2. The bigger the hand the better. It should overwhelm all of the other visual information, so 1.3 then is an answer to the implied questions: what’s going on? where are we?

Good talk bubble flip on 2.3.  Flip 2.4 too.

3.1 looks good. Same for 3.2, though maybe make Onlyone a little smaller so 3.4 is more of a revelation.

Nice elbows on 3.3, but I think the “Singulus!” will work better at the top of the panel, especially since the 3.2 and 3.4 talk bubbles are at the bottoms.

I also attached images for combining into the Singulus costume: Superman’s original boots, Amazing Man’s waist and chest belts, Wonderman’s collar and v-neck, plus standard briefs, long sleeves, no gloves, no cape. (I’m not sure about the Ultraman helmet.)

amazing man wonderman ultra man 1940

SEAN: Here’s the promised costume rough (emphasis on rough). Feedback? I have the v-neck and the collar turning into the shoulder of the cape, if it’s not clear. Also added some horizontal stripes in the speedo area. Not sure about that helmet, and the only pics I can find of the character don’t really help in terms of how it’s put together 🙂

Anyway, all thoughts welcome.

Singulus_costume_RUFF (2)

CHRIS: This looks great, Sean. Some possible fine-tunings:

Gloves or wrist bands that match the boots.

And maybe simplify the lines in the chest by having the v of the shirt merge into the v of the criss-crossing belts?

I’m also debating whether the helmet is too much. Maybe instead add a lone ranger mask?


CHRIS: I really love your face, which is lost with the mask, so let’s not have a mask, and you tell me whether you think the helmet works or not.

The wrist bands, briefs and collar all look good.

Should the wrist bands cover the forearms the way the boots cover the calves?

Ditko_practiceInks (1)

CHRIS: Yes, I can see Ditko coming through in that.

If Singulus’ face is unmasked, young, good-looking, with a full set of hair, Jim should be a bit chubby with a receding hairline.

And keep Onlyone’s body as bony as possible, with almost skeletal arms, definitely a bald head, and a face of ancient raisin-like wrinkles–underneath which is Stan Lee’s face.

Singulus_pencils_full_B     Singulus_pencils_full_C     Singulus_pencils_full_A

SEAN: Three versions here. Thoughts? I’m hoping the rendering will take it into firmer Ditko territory…

CHRIS: Go with Singulus facing left away from the last panel, and with Onlyone’s head larger. Final fine-tunings:

Make Onlyone completely bald and super wrinkly.

Give Jim even more of a gut.

Let the words “Singulus!” burst out of the panel frames in 3.3. His right elbow protrudes into 3.2 well, and so let his left elbow protrude into 3.4 too, maybe slipping slightly behind Onlyone’s head?

To clarify the spatial relationship between 1.3 and 2.1, can you lower the bottom of the cave opening so this becomes the moment that Jim enters the cave? Also, can the same mountain that’s in the background of 1.3 be in the slightly more distant background of 2.1?

SEAN: Okay, here are two versions. I have a strong preference for B, but either one is fine with me!

Things that can be done to make it a bit more “Marvel”:

1. Re-letter this using a font close in style to that decade’s Marvel letters. I can’t get close to that look myself (being left-handed is a big impediment to that, believe it or not 🙂   ) I can look around on some sites if you want me to find a 60’s Marvel copycat font.

2. appropriate artwork stamps on top

3. color “old page” tint to the page (depending on your needs).

CHRIS: I agree that B, with the elbow cut off by the panel frame, looks better, so let’s go with that. And yes also to “old” tint and the artwork stamps. Oh, and can Onlyone be more wrinkled in that final panel close-up? And if you think refonting would look good, go with that too.

SEAN: Here is the finished color file. Thanks again for working with me on this! It was a lot of fun and quite the challenge 🙂


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“A lot of times your neighborhood, your town, your city is being invaded by people who you think are going to hurt your family, your society,” he says. “Well, then you have to act, because the government isn’t going to come help you.”

And there’s the premise of almost every superhero story ever written. Only the speaker isn’t from a comic book. He’s from Iguala, Mexico. Reporter E. Eduardo Castillo interviewed him for the Associated Press late last year (the article is here). “He would appear on camera wearing a ski mask,” explains Castillo, “and his voice would be distorted.” I can’t help but hear Stephen Amell’s distorted voice on Arrow. The set-up also reminds me of the Tom Bissell short story “My Interview with the Avenger” that appeared in the superhero issue of VQR a few years back.

Instead of a utility belt, Castillo’s interviewee “wears a bag with a strap over his chest in which he carries several walkie-talkies and cell phones, one of which he used to take calls and issue orders.” Instead of superpowers, “he usually carries a .38-caliber pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle.” He’s a killer—a trait that might put him in the same league as the Punisher or Steve Ditko’s The Question.

Here are more excerpts from Castillo’s article:

In recent years, residents of a number of towns and cities have taken up arms to protect themselves against drug cartels.  “I can’t say I’m a vigilante,” says the killer, “but I am part of a group that protects people, an autonomous group of people who protect their town, their people.”

He says no one forced him to join his organization. His parents and siblings don’t know what he does. He raises cattle for a living. He isn’t married and has no children. Although he would like to have a family, he knows his future is uncertain. “I don’t really see anything,” he said. “I don’t think you can make plans for the future, because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

“It’s not a pretty life,” he says. Life in an area torn by drug disputes is rarely pretty.

The killer has a grade-school education. He wanted to continue studying, but when he was a child there was no middle school in his town. “I would have liked to learn languages … to travel to other places or other countries. I would have liked that,” he said.

He acknowledges that what he does is illegal. He recognizes he would be punished if caught by the authorities. “For them, these (killings) are not justifiable under the laws we have, but my conscience – how can I put this – this is something that I can justify, because I am defending my family.”

He sometimes feels sorry about the work he does but has no regrets, he says, because he is providing a kind of public service, defending his community from outsiders.

If you take a standard definition of a superhero—I like Pete Coogan’s—Castillo’s interviewee seems to hit the mark. He uses his specialized skills to conduct a selfless, pro-social mission. Plus Castillo, like his reporter counterparts in so many comic book tales, provides his interviewee with a codename: The Killer. Though even with the mask, his “jeans and a camouflage T-shirt” aren’t your standard superhero costume, but he does wear a mission-defining iconic symbol on his forehead, the preferred placement before Joe Shuster drew an “S” on Superman’s chest. Castillo writes:

He wore a baseball cap with a badge bearing the face of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and “prisoner 3578” – Guzman’s inmate number before he escaped through a tunnel from Mexico’s maximum-security prison in July, cementing his image as a folk hero.

Robin Hood was an outlaw folk hero too, but here things get a lot more complicated. Castillo’s killer works for a drug cartel.

Federal authorities told the AP that several drug gangs in Guerrero, including those that operate on the Costa Grande, act as self-defense groups to generate support from local residents.

“Of all the bad lot,” the killer said, Guzman “seems to be the least bad.”

In several cases, authorities have claimed these vigilantes are allied with rival gangs, and pass themselves off as self-defense groups to gain greater legitimacy.

He says he is defending his people against the violence of other cartels. Things would be much worse if rivals took over.

A rival gang, “would do worse damage.”

Superheroes tend to be more idealistic than that, but if the killer is looking at the big picture—like Ozymandias in Watchmen—is he still one of the pragmatic good guys? Since “violence spikes when cartels are fighting each other for control of territory,” is he making his community safer the only way he can?

Unfortunately, that way makes him “a man who kidnaps, tortures and kills for a drug cartel.”

The killer says he ‘disappeared’ a man for the first time at age 20. Nine years later, he says, he has eliminated 30 people – maybe three in error.

There are many reasons people are disappeared, the killer says. It may be for belonging to a rival gang, or for giving information to one. If a person is considered a security risk for any reason, he may be disappeared. Some are kidnapped for ransom, though he says he does not do this.

In fact, he maintains his own sense of morality in a variety of ways.

Some in his circumstances use drugs, but he says he doesn’t. “When people are on drugs, they’re not really themselves,” he says. “They lose control, their judgment.”

Unlike others, he says, he has standards: He doesn’t kill women or children. He doesn’t make his victims dig their own graves.

He doesn’t consider himself a drug trafficker or a professional killer, although he is paid for disappearing people. He does not see himself as bad.

He sometimes feels sorry about the work he does but has no regrets.

The problem is that people under torture sometimes admit to things that are not true: “They do it in hope that you will stop hurting them. They think it’s a way to get out of the situation.”

That may have happened to him three times, he says, leading him to kill the wrong men.

While Castillo’s interviewee provides a grotesque study in rationalization and self-deception, I’m equally disturbed by how well his tale parallels the tropes of superheroism and what those parallels suggest about the popularity of a genre about violent men who break the law while serving what they call the greater good.

(AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

(AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)






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Round two of the Handmaid v. Watchmen dystopia smackdown:


Guest blogger, Lindsay George


Published within two years of each other, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale both emerged from a similar cultural anxiety regarding the future of society in an increasingly uncertain and ambiguous world. Although these two works are typically classified under the genre of dystopian literature, I will argue they adhere better to John Huntington’s theory of utopian and anti-utopian literary models. Huntington makes an important distinction between dystopian and anti-utopian literature. Where dystopia essentially reifies the consistencies of utopia by simply replacing positive social models with negative ones, anti-utopian forms actually oppose these consistencies by discovering problems and raising questions and doubts. We see this ambiguity in both works particularly through themes of morality and heroism. In Watchmen and The Handmaid’s Tale, morality has different valences. These works effectively destroy the conventional spectrum of morality by refusing to depict characters as entirely good or evil. Thus, a closer look at the thematic structures of both works problematizes their categorization as dystopian literature, and reveals a greater affinity to the more uncertain and inquisitive anti-utopian model.

First it is important to understand Huntington’s model of utopia/dystopia and what he proposes in response to this binary: the anti-utopia. He says that while utopia and dystopia ostensibly represent opposite models of society, they actually share a common structure: “both are exercises in imagining coherent wholes, in making an idea work, either to lure the reader effectively deconstructs the misconception that dystopia is the ideological and structural opposite of utopia. Although they represent different extremes on the same spectrum, utopia and dystopia are actually aligned in the way they function. Both strive to construct a complete and coherent model of society, relying on the “expression of the deep principles of happiness or unhappiness” (142). By theorizing the notion of anti-utopia, Huntington proposes a new model that more fully opposes the consistencies of utopian/dystopian paradigms. He argues, “If the utopian-dystopian form tends to construct single, fool-proof structures which solve social dilemmas, the anti-utopian form discovers problems, raises questions, and doubts” (142). Accepting Huntington’s revision, dystopian models actually reify the consistencies of utopian models by simply replacing positive structures with negative ones. Thus, the anti-utopia subverts the utopia/dystopia binary by complicating the coherent models they attempt to construct. Although Watchmen and The Handmaid’s Tale are typically categorized as dystopian literature, Huntington’s theory of the anti-utopia is actually more representative of the nuanced and complicated morality that characterizes both works.

Utopian and anti-utopian models both work as a form of social criticism. Every utopia is a criticism of the world as it exists in reality; every anti-utopian model serves to oppose some sort of utopian ideal. Thus, both models are inherently satirical, but to opposing ends. However, Huntington expands the satiric function of anti-utopias. He contends:

Anti-utopia, as I am here defining it, is not simply satiric; it is a mode of relentless inquisition, of restless skeptical exploration of the very articles of faith on which utopias themselves are built. Thus, while there is much anti-utopian satire, it is not an attack on reality but a criticism of human desire and expectation. (142)

Where utopia seeks to improve or modify some established reality, anti-utopia illuminates the dangers particular human desires. Watchmen and The Handmaid’s Tale work to express the consequences of particular human desires. Atwood explains that while constructing the story of The Handmaid’s Tale she did not make anything up. Everything is derived from some historical precedent. She says, “I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable.” She continues that the seemingly dystopian elements of The Handmaid’s Tale such as forced reproduction and childbearing, clothing symbolic of castes and classes, and the control of literacy “all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the ‘Christian’ tradition, itself.” The Handmaid’s Tale and Watchmen are both rooted in a very real and rational fear regarding the fate of society. While Atwood responds to the radicalization of conservative politics by creating the world of Gilead, Moore actually contextualizes Watchmen in an exaggerated and dramatized version of American society. In his book Considering Watchmen: Poetry, Property, Politics, Andrew Hoberek notes that Watchmen engages with the politics of the Cold War, arguing that that Reagan administration’s “bellicose rhetoric” and “policy of military buildup” had restored a fear of nuclear war to the US public consciousness (119). The doomsday clock serves as a structural backbone of the text by introducing each chapter with the looming reminder of society’s imminent fate. The Handmaid’s Tale and Watchmen construct anti-utopias that criticize trends in radical human desire that characterize their shared historical context.

Moore and Atwood destabilize the comforting binaries of utopian and dystopian societies by constructing their fictional worlds in complete moral ambiguity. The superhero context of Watchmen deals explicitly with issues of morality and social justice. Prevailing cultural conceptions of the superhero narrative include a Manichean divide between good and evil: a clear distinction is made between the morally superior superheroes and the degenerate villains. In Watchmen, however, Moore deconstructs this generic expectation by depicting his superhero team as morally flawed and even depraved. Take the Comedian, for instance. A satire of Captain America, the Comedian epitomizes the complete reversal of our expectations of morality. A government pawn, the Comedian embodies the ideals of imperialist United States. However, Moore represents this association as a negative and destructive force. As several of the Watchmen attend the Comedian’s funeral service, Nite Owl reminisces about his days of crime fighting with the Comedian. The imagery of the scene is chaotic and violent as the public has begun to turn against the superheroes. The Comedian and Nite Owl hover above the crowd almost menacingly as people hurl rocks at them. In several panels the Comedian depicted almost entirely in shadow; along with his mask, he seems to embody the physical tropes of a villain better than a superhero. The Comedian even has his gun drawn on a crowd of civilians and seems to welcome a battle with them. He says to Nite Owl, “My government contacts tell me some new act is being herded through. Until then, we’re society’s only protection. We keep it up as long as we have to.” Nite Owl responds in disbelief, “Protection? Who are we protecting them from?” (Moore 2.17). This scene comes just after a flashback from Dr. Manhattan where is it revealed that the Comedian shot a woman he had impregnated while serving in Vietnam. In these moments, Moore is not unclear but extremely decisive in his depiction of the Comedian as a depraved character. He underscores the irony of this characterization in the final panel of the scene where Nite Owl questions who exactly they protecting society from. Considering the violence from the previous panels, the answer seems obvious to the reader; the Comedian and, perhaps, other Watchmen pose a real threat to the safety of humanity. In this universe, the people who are charged with the protection and surveillance of society are not universally equipped to uphold this responsibility.

Atwood builds a similar sense of uncertainty in the power structures of Gilead. Specifically, Atwood complicates the binary of good and evil by establishing both men and women as oppressors within her anti-utopia. In the article “Haunted by the Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood speaks to interpretations of the novel as a “feminist dystopia.” She says this term is not strictly accurate: “In a feminist dystopia pure and simple, all of the men would have greater rights than all of the women. It would be a two-layered structure: top layer men, bottom layer women.” She contends Gilead is actually structured like a regular dictatorship, with powerful figures of both sexes at the apex, and then descending levels of power for both men and women. This complicated dynamic is especially felt through the relationships between female characters in the novel. Offred is frequently oppressed by male and female characters. Ironically it is Aunt Lydia, a woman, who seems to represent the most pervasive and unavoidable oppressive force. Not only does Aunt Lydia survey every movement of Offred and the other women beneath her, she frequently delivers woman-hating rhetoric. After showing the handmaids a 1970s porn film where a woman’s body is being mutilated, Aunt Lydia warns them, “Consider the alternatives . . . you see what things used to be like? This was what they thought of women, then. Her voice trembled with indignation” (Atwood 118). Although it is clear that the Commander stands at the top of the pyramid of power, Atwood avoids a strictly gendered power hierarchy by creating an overt hostility between women of different castes. In the essay, “Margaret Atwood’s dystopian visions,” Coral Ann Howells suggests that through the Commander’s wife and the odious Aunt figures, Atwood presents a critical analysis of the rise of the New Right and Christian Fundamentalism of the 1980s (169). She continues by saying that Atwood “dispels any singular definition of ‘Woman’ as it emphasizes Atwood’s resistance to reifying slogans, whether patriarchal or feminist” (168). Atwood avoids an overtly feminist tone by depicting her female character from different positions of power and even divergent conceptions of womanhood. Even if women such as Aunt Lydia are just instruments of a more powerful authority, it is significant that Atwood does not use gender as a means to achieve a Manichean divide. She muddies the clear divisions of utopia and dystopia by deconstructing any moral consistencies that align with gender.

Turning back to Watchmen, Moore similarly blurs any obvious divide between good and evil by nuancing his characterization of other superheroes. The character Rorschach exemplifies a moral ambiguity that aligns with Huntington’s theory of inconsistency and doubt in his anti-utopian model. At least initially, Rorschach seems to embody the opposite extreme as the Comedian, an unhealthy commitment to the Manichean dichotomy. In one of the first scenes with Rorschach, the reader witnesses him breaking innocent man’s fingers for simply being uncooperative (Moore 1.16). Rorschach ostensibly opposes the Comedian’s nihilistic view of morality as a futile pursuit. However, Moore deepens his characterization of Rorschach in his conversations with a therapist. Here Rorschach delves into his troubled childhood with an emotionally abusive mother. In one scene the therapist presents Rorschach with a Rorschach test, prompting him to describe what he sees in the image. Rorschach then launches into the gruesome story where he describes butchering the dog of child kidnapper. He concludes his narrative with the harrowing realization of the inherent evil of all humanity:

Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after starting at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us. Streets stank of fire. The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach. (Moore 5.27)

Here Rorschach mimics a kind of superhero origin story as he reveals the conception of his dangerously rigid moral code. Also embedded within this speech, however, is a moral philosophy that is strikingly similar to Huntington’s argument. Through Rorschach’s perspective, Moore constructs a moral vacuum in the world of the Watchmen, This absence leaves Rorschach to inscribe his own twisted principles onto his surrounding society as he pleases. Rorschach articulates a kind of ambivalence that is integral to Huntington’s model of the anti-utopia. By saying that “existence is random” he implies that there are no moral patterns that drive society; there is “no meaning save what we choose to impose.” Rorschach’s worldview encompasses a sense of discomforting inconsistency. People are not inherently good; they construct their morality according the exigencies of “this morally blank world.” According to Rorschach, morality is always a dubious and contrived design.

The Handmaid’s Tale and Watchmen further adhere to Huntington’s anti-utopia in their vague and uncertain endings. Huntington notes that unlike utopian and dystopian works, the anti-utopia “does not succumb to the satisfactions of solutions” (142). Committed to questioning and raising doubts, the anti-utopia refuses to provide any clear resolution. For instance, in the final scene The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is escorted from her home by governments officials who accuse her of the “violation of state secrets” (294). Despite the tension of the scene, Offred offers the strangely ambiguous final reflection: “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped. And so I step up, into darkness within; or else within the light” (295). Atwood leaves the reader with two conflicting interpretations of the ending of the novel: should we read it as positive or negative? While Offred demonstrates her fear, “I could scream now,” her final words also suggest a sense of relief, she has finally been removed from her position as a handmaid. The ending of Watchmen is equally as ambiguous. Rorschach’s diary had made it into the hands of a newspaper editor and his assistant. The final panel, however, depicts the seemingly incompetent assistance with a ketchup stain on his shirt reaching for the diary. His editor says from outside the panel, “I leave it entirely in your hands” (5.32). Thus, Moore leaves the transmission of Rorschach’s diary in the hands of a very unlikely and even questionable character. The reader cannot be certain that the diary will be published and Veidt’s plan revealed. Both novels refuse to restore balance to society by constructing a coherent and clear solution. Rather, as Dr. Manhattan says, “nothing ever ends” (5.27); Moore and Atwood trap their works within the unending cycle of history and the evolution of society.

Accepting Huntington’s revision of the dystopian/utopian binary, Watchmen and The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate a closer adherence to his model of the anti-utopia. Both works reject the moral consistencies that characterize dystopian and utopian genres and instead spread their characters across a nuanced spectrum of morality. In Watchmen, Moore inverts the superhero genre by depicting the Watchmen as the real threat to society. Yet he blurs even this distinction by depicting characters such as Rorschach as committed to an overly idealized or rigid code of morality. The hierarchy of morality is similarly deconstructed in The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood rejects the notion of a “feminist dystopia” by creating a hegemonic power that is enacted by both men and women. She does not give the reader the consistency of aligning morality with a particular gender. Furthermore, Atwood and Moore contain their works in the ongoing cycle of inconsistency and doubt by creating ambiguous endings. The anti-utopia epitomizes its commitment to the questioning of utopian models by doubting whether or not society can ever escape the models of its past.


Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. (New York: Anchor Books, 1998).

Atwood, Margaret. “Haunted by The Haidmaid’s Tale.” The Guardian (January 2012).

Hoberek, Andrew. Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, and Politics. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2014.

Howells, Coral Ann. “Margaret Atwood’s dystopian visions: The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake.” The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). 161-175.

Huntington, John. The Logic of Fantasy: H.G. Wells and Science Fiction. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. (New York: DC Comics, 1986).


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. The first issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen was published in 1986. Despite that closeness, they’re not two novels that are routinely paired. Which is why I was pleased when a pair of students in my Late 20th Century Fiction course decided to combine them as examples of dystopias. And, even more fun, my students disagree about the definition of “dystopia.”

So here’s round one of their literary match-up.


Dystopia: Good or Evil?

Guest blogger, Jennifer Heibig


Beginning with Thomas Moore’s Utopia, a tradition of idealized societies has existed both in the imaginations of great thinkers and writers as well as in the literary canons of virtually every culture. Yet frequently in these perfect utopian universes, a dark underbelly emerges, characterized by abuses of power, totalitarian regimes, and control of every minutia of a citizens’ lives, usually as an excuse for their protection in the beginning. These types of dystopian universes create environments of fear and isolation, with an evil government and good and innocent citizens. However, what happens in dystopias in which there is no clear oppressor, no direct dichotomy of good and evil? Instead, subtle powers are at work that do not allow for a clear ability to point a finger at the ‘good’ or ‘evil’ power responsible for ‘light’ oppression. In their novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Watchmen, Margaret Atwood and Alan Moore grapple with this question of good and evil and create two dystopian worlds that either reinforce the Manichean dichotomy or blur the line between good and evil.  Where The Handmaid’s Tale utilizes total dystopian control of its people to further confine and separate them, creating a Manichean dichotomy between good and evil, Watchmen uses subtle manipulation in order to unite the entire world, blurring the line between good and evil. In showing two radically different uses of dystopia, these authors call into question the assumption that absolute control in a dystopia is necessarily evil.

To formulate my argument, I will begin by exploring two definitions of dystopia. I will then examine how The Handmaid’s Tale fulfills Ketterer’s definition of dystopia. Contrastingly, I will delve into the world of Watchmen, and explore the ways that it fits into Greene’s definition of dystopia. Finally, I will examine the good versus evil dichotomies in each of these novels and their relationship to dystopian literature.

Utopia and dystopia are frequently sides of the same coin, representing idealized societies that are either perfect or move too far in the direction of creating a perfect world.  Greene establishes a simple yet effective definition of utopia as “an ideal society” (Greene 2). Unfortunately, these utopias are rarely idealistic and perfect places in practice, even if their ideals are, in theory. In one of the earliest examples of utopian literature, “Thomas More, in his Utopia (1516), conjures an isolated island to describe a better world but one that in hindsight sounds fascist” (2). By blurring the lines between these two genres, Greene demonstrates that utopia and dystopia are on a continuum and lend themselves to blurring the lines of Manichean dichotomies of good and evil.

Dystopian literature is characterized by a multitude of individual genre characteristics, but is pervaded by a sense of oppression via governmental and totalitarian powers. The opposite of a perfect society, a literary dystopia is an “imaginary society that differs from the author’s own, first, by being significantly worse in important respects, and, second, by being worse because it attempts to reify some utopian ideal” (Beauchamp 11). By Beauchamp’s definition, dystopia perverts positive ideals and the world of the author in order to create a plausible society in which there is no freedom from the government. In order to classify novels and stories as dystopian, Ketterer provides a clear framework of the types of features included in the genre: “lack of freedom, the constant surveillance, the routine, the failed escape attempt” (211). In a different vein, Greene claims that dystopian universes are characterized by a distinct “suffocation of independent thought” (2). Greene’s definition of dystopia may include some of Ketterer’s elements, but focuses its attentions on the atmosphere of control and stifling of non-institutionalized thought amongst its citizens. These two definitions, though not always mutually exclusive, serve as useful categorizations for The Handmaid’s Tale and Watchmen.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’s government of Gilead contains every element of Ketterer’s definition of dystopia. Though there are some elements of stifling of independent thought, its most salient dystopian features belong to Ketterer’s definition and classify it solidly in the dystopian genre through four specific features.

Firstly, Gilead eliminates freedom from the lives of its citizens. When the Gilead government began, “newspapers were censored, and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, the Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful” (Atwood 174). The government closed down the freedoms of its citizens one by one, slowly taking every semblance of freedom they had in a subtle way, at first. Ultimately, Gilead obliterates freedom by creating roles relating to fertility, and women’s “real name[s have] been erased in favor of the form of ‘Of’ plus the first name, possibly abbreviated, of her Commander” (Ketterer 210). As Offred herself states, “my name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up”(Atwood 84). This removal of names dehumanizes women and forces them to become their proscribed roles, as Handmaids, or “two-legged wombs” (136), Aunts, Marthas, Wives, Unwomen, or prostitutes. By removing agency and proscribing roles, Gilead destroys freedom.

Routines similarly are present in Gilead, from a daily morning walk for the Handmaids, to the Ceremony. The most salient routine of the society is the Ceremony, a brutal moment when the Commander tries to impregnate his Handmaid.  Offred does not describe this scene as rape, however, instead calling it “nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (94). Through this brutal routine and near sacred ritual, Atwood creates the only alternative a young fertile woman could choose, aside from the oblivion of Unwomanhood. This monthly routine of impregnation, in parallel with other more innocuous routines and rituals, demonstrates the ways that Gilead governs through strict control of its citizens’ freedoms, particularly by organizing their daily lives.

Gilead constantly spies and watches its citizens, as is proven by the many golden eyes found in public places and privates ones, such as the doctor’s office (60), Offred’s room, or on the Soul Scrolls (167). In front of the Soul Scrolls store, Greene’s rules of no independent thought are broken, and readers see the surveillance in place in Gilead. Ofglen, Offred’s walking partner, leans over to Offred and says, “’Do you think God listens,’ she says, ‘to these machines?’ […] In the past this would have been a trivial enough remark, a kind of scholarly speculation. Right now it’s treason,” (168) remarks Offred. Thought and spoken original thought is not longer taken for granted. It is stifled and discouraged through constant surveillance and fear of being taken by the Eyes. To think is treason in Gilead; to birth children is of the highest importance. This government fulfills Ketterer’s category of constant surveillance, and uses it to engage in thought suppression, though that is not necessarily its ultimate goal. Surveillance in Gilead is used to incite fear, not to prevent independent thought.

Finally, The Handmaid’s Tale contains varied escape attempts, including the ending of the novel.  There are minor ‘escapes’ found throughout the novel, during which the women of Gilead attempt to communicate with one another while escaping detection. For instance, in the Center where the Handmaids are trained, “in the paint of the washroom cubicle someone unknown had scratched: Aunt Lydia sucks” (222). These clandestine messages, though not directly escape attempts, create distinct groups in Gilead of good and evil. These two categories are even further proven in an actual escape attempt at the end of the novel, when the Eyes come to take Offred. Nick assures her, “It’s all right. It’s Mayday. Go with them” (293). Mayday, signifying a day of rebellion for Gilead, shows the final escape attempt. She must choose to trust the only male in the story not in a position of possession over her and go with the Eyes, not knowing whether or not she should believe Nick. This final attempt, in conjunction with smaller escape attempts found throughout the novel fulfill Ketterer’s definition of dystopia, as people want to leave the evil power regime created by Gilead.

Conversely, Watchmen’s universe contains almost no direct elements of Ketterer’s dystopia, and instead only falls into the category of Greene’s definition of dystopia as preventing independent thought. Instead of creating a directly oppressive and tyrannical government, Moore instead forms a world in which corporations and powerful individuals subtly exert control and manipulate the masses in order to gain power and influence. In Watchmen’s “realistic world, governed by power politics” (Paik 27), the most important elements of control are eerily similar to those of the American present: the media. Thus, thought is controlled by advertising and other media and independent thought is stifled, fulfilling Greene’s definition.

Adrian Veidt, the evil mastermind behind the ultimate destruction of the world of Watchmen in order to create a new world order, controls the entirety of the novel and the world inside of it through media influences. Before Moore reveals that Veidt is at the center of the conspiracy to destroy half of New York in order to unite the world, Veidt’s commercial empire permeates almost every page of the graphic novel. Before the attack on New York, Veidt’s ad campaign for his perfume, Nostalgia, is seen in the background of dozens of panels.  It is found over boutiques (Moore 3:7), diners (4: 24), on torn posters on walls (5:18). These nostalgic campaigns reflect back to a time when there were superheroes and no threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction: a utopia. By bombarding the citizens of Watchmen’s world with imagery relating to the past, Veidt controls their thoughts and emotions, forcing them to feel anxious about the threat of the Cold War. After resolving these fears he created in the public through the Nostalgia ad campaign by killing millions of people in New York and ending the Cold War because of a new perceived alien common enemy, Veidt continues to exercise influence over the public through his new “Millennium” campaign, that shows figures facing toward the now bright future(12:31). Veidt even talks about the way that he influences the public through advertisement and media in Chapter 10 on page 8, saying that because of the trends of pre-war times, he is going to invest differently “into the major erotic video companies. That’s short term. Also, we should negotiate controlling shares in selected baby food and maternity goods and manufacturers”(10:8), because of the baby boom he predicts. Veidt’s control is subtle, yet absolute, giving Watchmen the qualities of intellectual control instead of direct oppression as in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Finally, Veidt literally destroys independent thought when he threatens to destroy the world. The superheroes of the novel all agree to follow Veidt’s lead because it is the only way to unite the world, and the deed had already been done (11:27). Yet Rorschach, the one dissenter who wishes to return to America and tell the world that Veidt is behind the destruction is obliterated. Because the rest of the superheroes “must protect Veidt’s new utopia, one more body amongst the foundations makes little difference” (12:24). Rorschach is destroyed because of his refusal to follow what Veidt wants him to believe, and so Veidt continues to exercise influence over thought and independent thinking by literally destroying his enemy and Rorschach’s dissenting opinion. Clearly, Watchmen fits perfectly into Greene’s category of dystopia as being a government that stifles any kind of oppressive thought and serves instead to manipulate thought and control its citizens’ minds.

Not only do The Handmaid’s Tale and Watchmen fulfill two differing definitions of dystopia, but they also represent two different dichotomies between good and evil.  The Handmaid’s Tale, which clearly fulfills every feature of Ketterer’s dystopia definition, creates a distinct Manichean dichotomy of good versus evil. Conversely, Watchmen only fulfills Greene’s definition of dystopia, and blurs the lines between good and evil. Though The Handmaid’s Tale contains elements of thought suppression, it is not the most salient dystopian feature of the novel. Instead, Watchmen is distinctly characterized by the repression of independent thinking and in doing so creates a world in which good and evil are on a spectrum and characters and corporations cannot necessarily be placed on one end.

The Handmaid’s Tale grapples with evil in distinct dichotomies that are perceived by not only the reader but also by the citizens of Gilead. This novel’s “Historical Notes” present a perspective from hundreds of years after the Gilead Empire, denouncing the atrocities that were in place at the time. The black and white nature of good and evil is one that is clear because the dystopia was overthrown; it must have been so oppressive and miserable for its citizens because they were controlled by routine, roles, and removal of freedom, that they tried to escape and overthrow the government. The Historical Notes present The Handmaid’s Tale as a true story that was “unearthed on the site of what was once the city of Bangor” (Atwood 301) as “thirty tapes in the collection altogether” (301) having been spoken by the same narrator. Because of this conclusion that the tapes came from someone who escape the Gilead regime, The Handmaid’s Tale’s world is one in which the evil of the Gilead government was overthrown. The novel’s easily identifiable evil characters, such as the Aunts, the Commanders, and some unnamed powers who run the government, create a target that readers are invited to view as evil in nature. Because the novel was told in first person and identifies these characters as evil, readers even further view the women and men forced into their proscribed roles as being good, while those who did the forcing are represented as evil. By fulfilling the necessary components of Ketterer’s dystopia and entrenching herself in the genre, Atwood formulates a world in which the reader’s beliefs about dystopia are reinforced. There is an evil overlord and government who presides over a good citizenry. In order to restore the balance of good over evil, the government must be overthrown. These citizens of the future are able to claim that, “Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free” (302), because of the overthrow of this evil government, further imposing strict categorizations of good and evil.

Watchmen, on the other hand, presents a much grayer view of good and evil, particularly in the form of Adrian Veidt. Veidt reaches the height of his control over the world when he chooses to employ dystopian means in order to attempt to create a utopia. Sending an ‘alien’ monster he created through genetic engineering to New York, Veidt causes a cataclysmic neurological disaster, killing millions, with the intention of uniting the world against a common enemy. Moore places the destruction of Times Square on six full pages at the beginning of Chapter 12, ensuring that the reader must take in the entirety of the carnage. Placed amongst the the bodies, Moore places discarded newspapers that read “WAR?” in large typeface (Moore 12:3-6), indicating that the society was on the brink of destruction before this terrorist event, along with a discarded pamphlet for The Veidt Training Method. This pamphlet falls to the ground amongst the destruction, reading “I Will Give You Bodies Beyond Your Wildest Imaginings” (12:6). This darkly almost comical insertion of Veidt’s presence into the scene demonstrates not only his responsibility for the event, but also signifies that perhaps Veidt could truly have meant two things in what he was communicating; he wanted to help the people of the world by literally helping them to perfect their bodies, yet gives the world dead bodies in order to unite them.  Though he has murdered countless people, “we are invited to read this extended scene of death and destruction as the signifiers for the near-miraculous founding of a new and peaceful order, a golden age of international cooperation and solidarity” (Paik 35). Instead of viewing Veidt as an inherently evil character, the reader is asked to instead see that perhaps his evil actions serve a higher and ‘good’ purpose.

Moore confuses the question of good and evil further through his characters Rorschach, who represents an idea of justice and the vindication of good and evil, and The Comedian, who seems amoral but in fact sometimes stands for good. After the heroes find out that Veidt has committed this attack, they almost universally agree to cover up his involvement for the betterment of society. Yet Rorschach disagrees, and leaves to return to America because “evil must be punished” (Moore 12:22). As seen earlier in this examination, however, Doctor Manhattan chooses to kill a crying Rorschach instead of allowing him to reveal what Rorschach believes is Veidt’s evil nature. Though in this moment Rorschach represents good, he is imprisoned as a violent criminal earlier in the novel. Similarly, the Comedian is evil in his love of senseless violence, yet says that “Somebody has to save the world” (2:10), even though this perhaps inspired Veidt’s evil deeds. The Comedian is even killed because he uncovers and opposes Veidt’s plot: “He knew my plan would succeed, though its scale terrified him” (11:25). The Comedian is seen murdering his pregnant Vietnamese girlfriend (2:14), yet in some situations clearly takes a moral standpoint. These two characters muddy the waters between good and evil and cause the reader to seriously question the morality of not only the world of Watchmen, but of dystopias and powerful governments as a whole.

Finally, though Veidt commits an evil action of mass murder, he is perhaps good in his attempts to create a true utopia resulting from a common enemy, but Moore complicates this issue further with the final frames of the novel. On page 32 of Chapter 12, a lowly assistant at a newspaper is seen reaching for Rorschach’s journal that reveals every part of Veidt’s plan, as the symbol of the Comedian’s badge lies on his shirt. Though the story ends here, there is an epigraph on the last page, on which is written “Who watches the watchmen?” (12:33). Here, the reader sees that only two confusingly amoral at times and moral at times characters, Rorschach and the Comedian, are the watchers of the world. They selectively condemn evil, and in others moments perpetrate evil, yet they are both silenced because they condemn Veidt’s actions despite the moral gray area they reside in. Their ideas of certain acts as being concretely good or concretely evil demonstrate just how confused the notions of good and evil are in Watchmen. By stifling their voices, Moore indicates that Greene’s definition of a dystopia is one that creates a more realistic world, in which there is never a true dominance of good over evil in the end.

Through their varying uses of dystopia and dystopian features, Atwood and Moore bring to light a hidden feature of each type of dystopia. In fulfilling each of Ketterer’s strict features of dystopia, Atwood reveals that this definition of dystopia creates a world with strict separation between good and evil. In only fulfilling Greene’s definition of dystopia as destroying independent thought, Moore reveals that these sorts of dystopias, that are much less extreme in their manifestations, create a world in which good and evil are not clearly defined. By calling morality into question or creating a hyper-strict definition of good versus evil, Moore and Atwood grapple with questions of the nature of power in dystopia, and challenge readers to question their understandings of this genre. Power is not always inherently evil, and neither is dystopia.


Works Cited

Beauchamp, Gorman. “The Politics of The Handmaid’s Tale.” The Midwest Quarterly 51.1 (2009): 11–25. Print.

Greene, Vivien. “Utopia/Dystopia.” American Art 25.2 (2011): 2–7. JSTOR. Web.

Ketterer, David. “Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: A Contextual Dystopia (‘La Servante écarlate’ de Margaret Atwood: Une Dystopie Contextuelle).” Science Fiction Studies 16.2 (1989): 209–217. Print.

Paik, Peter. “Utopia Achieved: The Case of Watchmen.” From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 23–69. Print.


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Captain Equilibrium-016 (1)

Text: Jeff Fiske with Joan Gavaler

Movement: Joan Gavaler

Dramaturgy: Chris Gavaler

Movement/Vocal Coach: Elizabeth Wiley

Click here for a video of the October 20, 2015 dress rehearsal for “Captain Equilibrium” at William and Mary University.


(Coat rack DL. Run across. Stride in. Run off. Return with some sign of tiredness.)

I am – Captain Equilibrium.

(power lunge)

I fix imbalances in society.



Impending disasters.

Wherever life is out of balance …

I restore balance.

Neighborhood arguments.

Returning lost toys to small children.

Even the occasional cat stuck in a tree.

Wherever you find imbalance, you’ll find me.

(run in a box to solve problems.)

Which means I work all the time.

(More and more tired.)

There is always some mugging to prevent.

Some fire to put out.

Some falling person to catch.

It becomes almost impossible to stop.

I used to have a life, a whole other identity.

Captain Equilibrium used to be my secret identity, and now it’s my only identity.

(remove mask.)

I don’t even know why I bother with this thing.

You know, Superman never wears a mask.

He hangs out with the same people in both of his identities, but do they ever notice that Superman and — the other guy — are the same?

His own friends never notice that the guy in the glasses is Superman because they never expect much from him.

They don’t really look at him, even though they see him every day.

We can’t see a hero if we’re not looking.

Folks talk to Captain Equilibrium face to face,

(put on mask)

and an hour later talk to me, and never make the connection.

Nobody believes that I could be Captain Equilibrium.

They don’t see it as a 2 possibility, and now I don’t see it as a possibility either.

(remove mask.)

So I spend all my time as the Captain.

(hang up mask.)

People’s expectations — lack of expectations — is all the mask I need.

Besides, that mask gets really hot.

Sweat pours into my eyes.

It blocks my vision.

I get rashes along here…

(Run reverse path in a box to solve problems. Tangle in cape.)

I want to keep restoring balance, but it seems my abilities have been fading.

For many, losing strength and resilience is an inconvenience.

But for me, this is endangering my livelihood; endangering my LIFE!

I am Captain Equilibrium!

I was afraid of losing my superhero status, so I became a member of the Justice Union.

East Coast Branch.

I was so excited.

I thought that working with other superheroes would give us all greater opportunities to do greater good.

I thought that being part of an elite team, I could be a top superhero again.

You know what happened?

I have been given the job of managing the budgets.

You know, “Let Captain Equilibrium balance the books.”

My most challenging foes aren’t bank robbers or natural disasters or even supervillains.

My greatest foes are

(remove cape. Hang up.)

tax audits, missing receipts, computer glitches.

(playful arc of movement.)

You laugh, but you know what’s really funny?

I am an accountant!

That’s the work I do in my real identity.

And, I’m really, really good at it.

I love helping people correct their financial missteps.

Help them get their lives in order.

Balance their dreams and realities.

You have to be honest with them, take off the kid gloves.

(Push down gauntlets.)

Help them see things clearly.

No blinders.

No cover-ups.

(Pull one gauntlet back up.)

They don’t need Captain Equilibrium for that.

(Power lunge. Tired.)

It’s been so long since I’ve stretched out on the hammock.

Read a good book.

Taken a trip.

Even just a walk around the neighborhood.

Brushed the cat.

Or had a real talk with a friend, face to face.

(pull other gauntlet halfway up. Pause. Remove gauntlets.)

I’m saying goodbye to the Captain for a while.

(hang up gauntlets.)

I’m going to let my real identity be … real.


Even super.

(circular path.)

That is our equilibrium.



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