One of my favorite aspects of Watchmen (I'm mostly talking about the graphic novel here, not the movie), was the rich characterization all the heroes. In particular, I found it fascinating that at least three of the characters, the Comedian, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan, could be described as nihilists--though each has his own distinct flavor of it. I thought it might be enlightening to compare and contrast these characters.
[I will not be revealing any major spoilers in this essay. Just characterization.]
The book begins with the murder of the Comedian, one of the old costumed heroes. But as we look into the Comedian's past, we see that the comedian is hardly heroic, and hardly funny either. Instead the Comedian gives us the raping and pillaging which we might expect when we hear the word "nihilist". As a costumed "hero", he interacted with the worst of humanity, and found it overwhelming. What is the point of morality in a world where nukes might start flying any moment? What is the point of morality when so many people simply ignore it? The only way he could find to deal with the cruelty of humanity was to become a parody of it.
The Comedian saw little point in fighting it. When the second generation of costumed heros attempted to form a group called "The Crimebusters", the Comedian literally burned up their plans. To him, there was no point in fighting crime, because there are far greater evils which can never be solved by heroics. Of course, it seems that he did continue to fight crime. He also went on to help the government, fighting in the Vietnam war. But this is all just a front for the Comedian to do whatever he likes, to exercise his sadism and depravity. He's not trying to stop the joke, however bad it might be, he's just trying to play along. The worst part is that he seems to get away with it, even with the government's approval.
One of the few characters that actually admires the Comedian is Rorschach. I found this rather ironic, because Rorschach really hates criminals--and he thinks everyone is a criminal. He views the city as populated by drug dealers, child pornographers, whores, and other scum. Even when costumed heroes are outlawed, Rorschach continues to terrorize the streets, often torturing people in bars in order to get his information. He has a strong, uncompromising sense of justice, one which would grate on the liberal-minded.
And yet he seems to like the Comedian. Perhaps it's because Rorschach and Comedian both have similar insight into the evil of human nature. Rorschach knows that the Comedian "gets it", so he's blind to the Comedian's sadistic actions (not to mention Rorschach's own actions). But even though they have similar insight, they react in very different ways. Where the Comedian reacted by joining in the violence, Rorschach reacted by fighting it (...with violence). As Rorschach said, "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." It is our fault, and our fault alone, therefore it is our sole responsibility to fight it, however futile it may be.
At this point I should mention a fourth nihilist in the novel, a minor character (if you only saw the movie, you missed this one). There was a chapter about how Rorschach basically brought his psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Long, over to the dark side. After that's done, Dr. Long says in his notebook, "I looked at the Rorschach blot. [...] The horror is this: In the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else." I thought this slightly ironic considering that the Rorschach ink blot test is mostly discredited nowadays (it really is meaningless). Dr. Long's reaction may sound bleak on the surface, but there's more to it than that. After his experience, he began to have marriage troubles. Why? Because he became too concerned with helping others, and his wife was used to him being a lot happier.
Of the three (or four) nihilists in the story, Dr. Manhattan is the odd one out. Of course, he would be the odd one out of any group of humans, since Dr. Manhattan is hardly human himself. Once a physicist, he died in the terrible accident, only to reappear as an omnipotent blue being. He's basically a god. He can see his own past and future as if they were all occurring right now. And yet he occasionally changes his mind, sort of like how God does in the Old Testament. Characters find this frustrating, since it's almost as if he simply doesn't care to exercise his free will to change the future. Dr. Manhattan would say he simply doesn't have free will.
But it's also true that he just doesn't care. At first, he wants to, but why would he? To him, humans are about as interesting as termites. He can simply point at them and disassemble them. This would horrify most people, but to Dr. Manhattan, it's just a trivial rearrangement of particles. While the nihilism of the Comedian and Rorschach was motivated by the dissonance of human cruelty, Dr. Manhattan's nihilism is motivated by something more philosophical. What is so special about humans that he should assign them any more meaning than, say, the geological processes on Mars? What, don't the geological processes on Mars interest you?
Eventually, he does get his answer. I felt his answer echoes (and predates) this famous quote from Richard Dawkins: "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia." Each life is extraordinarily improbable and extraordinarily specific. There are so many vastly different people that could have been here instead, but aren't. Dr. Manhattan compares it to a statistical fluctuation which reduces entropy. (Of course, the more I think about it, the poorer this seems as a basis for ethics. As long as there's no nuclear war, I doubt Dr. Manhattan cares about the quality of human life.)
The Comedian, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan together display the complexity of nihilism. Most people, when they think of nihilism, probably first think of someone like the Comedian. After seeing to much evil in the world, he decided that there was no meaning in it all. So he joined in on the evil, literally raping and pillaging. But that's not necessarily the inevitable conclusion. Where the Comedian simply played along with a meaningless world, Rorschach forcefully imposed his own meaning onto it. Rorschach responded to nihilism with a single-minded pursuit of justice and retribution. Dr. Malcolm Long shows a similar type of nihilism as Rorschach, albeit with less of the crazy. And there is a final form of nihilism shown, not motivated by a cynical view of human nature, but by a philosophical failure to find value in life. And yet, as Dr. Manhattan finds, humans are very valuable even by standards which are completely alien to ours. If you're even a little more human than Dr. Manhattan, then the value of life is definitely there, somewhere.