In 1985, I was 20 years old.
Of all the factors that our society considered the hallmarks of adulthood, I had some but not others. No job, no car, unable to drink alcohol legally, still living with my parents. Yet I could vote, I had a steady, long-term girlfriend, whom I had met in high school. I was not a virgin. And I could think.
I knew that I was a citizen of the United States, and that the country and the leadership of my county were locked in a deadly enmity with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, and that the weapon of choice for expressing that animosity was the nuclear bomb. Both my country and the enemy had access to nukes; horrible weapons that did not just destroy the target, large targets, targets the size of large cities, but which also rendered the targets uninhabitable for decades, centuries, and caused deformations and illness in any victim unlucky enough to have survived the initial blast.
And both sides didn’t just have one or two or a dozen of these bombs. They had hundreds. More than were necessary to merely “win” a “war”. Enough to wipe each other out, and every ally, and everyone else, all over the world.
The strategy being pursued by my government, and the enemy (my government told me), for prevailing over the enemy was astonishingly insane: the strategy was to build more and more of these bombs, in order to scare the other side into not using their own bombs.
The madness that you and I now live under, the madness that caused men in caves to fly a jetliner full of innocents into large buildings, and the madness that caused our country’s leadership to respond by invading a country they despised but had not direct connection to the attack of the men in caves, is almost understandable compared to my memories of the Cold War. Almost.
But back in 1985, it was such a horrible dark cloud hanging over the heads of all Americans that our responses were, by and large, anger. Punk rock is hard to define, but for me it will always include an anti-authoritarian, cynical, and political viewpoint, along with the feeling that, if we’re all going to die we might as well have fun. And punk rock was born under the threat of mutually assured destruction.
Punk rock was part of a sub-culture that included comic books and bad movies. And in contrast to the conduit that the internet gives to making sure sub-cultures reach everyone interested today, back in 1985 sub-cultures were both more tightly-knit and harder to find and join. I had few people with which to discuss the paltry few comic books I read. I had few people with which to pick apart the lyrics to a song by the Clash or Bad Religion. I had to come to my own conclusions, by and large, about what, exactly, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were outlining in their 12-issue limited series “Watchmen”.
I didn’t get it at first. I didn’t understand that the characters of Ozymandias, Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan were created out of whole cloth, with a complete backstory (there were previous versions of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre). I didn’t see the depth that the Tales of the Black Freighter, a story of pirates and survival at sea, gave to the main story of the Mask Killer.
But I did understand the alienation of John “Dr. Manhattan” Osterman, a man who was given nearly unlimited power and found himself more and more detached from the fragile people around him. I did understand the Doomsday Clock, which gave us all a sense of how close we were to annihilation by nuclear holocaust, and its use in the comic. I did feel deeply affected by the depiction of heroes as sociopaths: the Comedian and Rorschach had their bizarre twisted ideas of right and wrong, each a viewpoint I could see in those around me. Kids I grew up with who worshipped the guns and armor used in Vietnam without understanding or caring about the human cost of the same. Cops who saw evil and crime everywhere but never looked at how far into criminality they themselves descended. I saw the point of asking who polices the policemen; how do we hold accountable those who we entrust with our safety so that we can remain free?
And, of course, the madness of trying to win a nuclear war.
Who the Hell were these people? Were they really the same species as me? Yes, I often felt anger and disillusionment, but it nearly always turned inward. If I were faced with a Darth Vader, a dark father intent on corrupting me, I would respond as Luke Skywalker did in “The Empire Strikes Back” and fall to my doom rather than fight back. Protecting myself by wiping myself out, and fuck all y’all; you’re on your own.
I had no goals, I could see no future, beyond hoping I was still around next week, next month, next year.
I read every issue of Watchmen while standing in the 7-11 near my house. Standing in front of a wire rack in a convenience store, plate glass in front of me showing the ebb and tide of cars and customers in and out of the parking lot and the flow of traffic on the street beyond, hearing the bells and beeps of the video games and pinball machines off in the corner, and needing the brief escape from the emptiness of the rest of my life.
Yesterday I sat in a theater, beside my best friend from those days, and watched Zak Snyder’s adaptation of “Watchmen”. Many were the moments I remembered the kid I used to be; the feeling of the paper beneath my fingers, the look of four-color printing showing earlier versions of the scenes digitally projected onto the screen in front of me. I had not read the books in years, many years, and yet Snyder’s faithfulness to the comic’s words and images meant many small nostalgic moments during the 163 minute film’s run.
I want to know if anyone whose experience doesn’t include the hopelessness of living under threat of the entire world coming to an end can feel the same thing I felt watching the movie and recalling that I and everyone I know and everyone else might die due to the insanity of my government’s idea of defense. I want to know if anyone who didn’t try to escape entirely into a fantasy world, learning the ins and outs of costumed heroes and Jedi Knights and paladins and rangers and rogues, can feel what I feel when seeing those fantasies being portrayed by living human beings. Is that possible?
Are these feelings I have… nostalgia? That’s what I felt when watching “Watchmen”. So lost I was, and the world was, then.
Not sure we’ve come very far since then, either.