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Published on October 1st, 2013 | by The Editor

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Re-Watching Watchmen

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GUEST WRITER: Don Sparrow

Despite being a life-long comic fan, my introduction to Comicdom’s most sacred cow, Watchmen, came quite late into my progression as a comic reader.  In 1986, at the time of its initial release, I was reading comics, but at that age John Byrne’s streamlining of the Superman mythology, and Batman’s recent departure from the Justice League with his own all-new group of heroes, The Outsiders, grabbed my interest at the drugstore spinner racks infinitely more than the inscrutable, macro-focused covers Watchmen sported.

As the years went by, Watchmen remained one of those books always talked about, but that I never really invested in.  By the time I was a little older, and delving into the essential ‘literate’ comics, like Seth’s Palookaville or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, I knew Watchmen author Alan Moore mostly from cranky industry interviews and his nigh-unreadable polemic Promethea, so while I felt some embarrassment at not having checked this particular box in the must-read pantheon, it didn’t feel terribly important that I get to it.

It took the hearty recommendation, and most importantly, the actual physical loaning of the book some years ago from an illustrator friend I admired (Toronto’s brilliant Aaron Bamford) for me to finally give it a shot.

When I finally did start it, I could not put the book down.  As a mystery story, and as a 1980s Cold War time capsule, the praise Watchmen receives is certainly well earned.  Visually, Dave Gibbons elevated the written material into a near-perfect vision of clarity and impact, delineating with flair the gritty image of a dystopic 1980s America.  While no stranger to decompressed comic book storytelling by that time, I had never before seen such psychologically complex character studies in a comic book, nor had I seen such adult material, like nudity and sometimes extreme violence, handled in an equally adult manner.  While I’d seen plenty of comics that had (rightly so) worn warnings of mature content, the application of this content had usually been offensively juvenile, and had none of the sophistication and verisimilitude I saw in Watchmen.

While nearly diametrically opposed to my own personal worldview, I could not deny the quality of the work, nor the power in the way it was presented — the darkness and uneasiness cultivated by the mood of the story unpleasantly stuck to me for days.  Each subsequent reading revealed even more complexity and depth than I’d previously noticed, and the universal acclaim the book has earned felt all the more understandable, and even deserved.  No other work in comics has grasped for so much, nor has any come as close to realizing that excellence.  Its influence is felt over the whole of comics, and elsewhere; without Watchmen there would be no conspiracy-theory-chic shows like The X-Files or Fringe, no ultra-serious, multigenerational hero soaps like Heroes.

None of this is to say that Watchmen is a perfect story.  On the contrary; along with the detail picked up on each reading and re-reading, the cracks in the armour of this book also begin to show, from small details like dialogue to major plot threads.  To say nothing of the unfortunate (and likely unintended) imprint Watchmen left on the comics industry.

Some of the ‘flaws’ in the dialogue are certainly intentional choices, but are ones that grate on repeated readings.  One particularly odd choice (one Moore has been guilty of in most of his work) is the phonetic spellings of non-words.  When a character weeps, or vomits, or exerts themselves, or makes some other non-verbal vocalization, Moore insists on spelling it out as it would sound, and it has an off-putting effect.  One supposes it’s because he doesn’t want to use stereotypical comics shorthand like * sob *  but when it’s a sob that’s occurring, it almost makes more sense than the employment of words like “Ahuhh.  Ahuh Ahuh Ahuh Ahhuhhh.”  Visually this has a jarring effect, as when it is read initially, as it’s written, without the intonation of tears, one wants to pronounce them like the rest of the words in the sentence.  Beyond that mild confusion, it also feels gimmicky, like in old Batman comics where they’d insist on having Alfred the Butler call Bruce Wayne “Mawster Bruce” in some attempted approximation of an English accent.

Elsewhere, the dialogue at times comes off a bit tone deaf, particularly to its American metropolitan setting.  Some of the turns of phrase sound distinctly British, and clumsily out of place in the mouths of American street fighters.

The motivations of the characters are also lackluster.  Moore is to be commended for his thorough examination of the question: ‘If superheroes were real, what would they be like?’  While each character is firmly rooted in detailed psychology, what I find slightly unbelievable is that in a cast of this size that almost no one ‘fights crime’ in costume for the presumably pure motivation we’d expect from a comic book, or Wilford Brimley would say, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”  While it’s believable that the desire to wear outlandish costumes and brutalize criminals can come from the sources enumerated in Watchmen (daughterly rebellion, pure enjoyment of violence, restoration of male potency) it feels odd and disproportionately cynical that the character with the purest motivation for his actions is the vicious and psychotic Rorschach.  Sure, part of the appeal of these characters is their imperfections, their flaws that make them more real than their other comic shop counterparts.  But it’s not easy to buy that if there were superheroes, they’d be so non-altruistic without variation.

Also confusing is the personage of Dr. Manhattan, once the doomed scientist Jon Osterman.  Besides accruing godlike powers, the nuclear incident, which transforms him physically, also detaches him from humanity in strange, and vaguely inconsistent ways.  Though he’s a being composed completely of pure energy, no longer requiring sleep or sustenance, the habit of his sexual appetite somehow remains, though one can (and indeed must, in the absence of this gap being filled in by the author) conclude this is by Manhattan’s own will.

Faced with the utterly unique non-linear perspective (Dr. Manhattan is, like God, apparently), now a being outside of time, and as such is as aware of the future as he is of the present.  While this explains (sort of) his growing detachment from the rest of humanity, it begs a lot of the same old time travel questions, namely why Manhattan makes no attempt to alter the events he has foreseen (even the completely amoral Comedian character is confused by this), even when his inaction ensures wildly disturbing results.  This Spock-like passivity, which we’re supposed to chalk up to his growing gap between Manhattan and humanity, is contradicted by his very human emotional outbursts, jealousies, and insecurities, which never really go away.  Perhaps this is the point — maybe Manhattan is, as a character, deliberately inconsistent (choosing humanity or godhood as each suited him), but if this is the case, it needed to be clearer one way or the other.

Lastly, the controversial question of Manhattan’s nudity is also unclear.  The book would have us believe that as Manhattan grows increasingly distant from humankind, he also doffs his ‘human’ instinct for shame, or propriety, etc, and in increments, his costume shrinks, until finally he is nude all the time.  In fact, the opposite makes more sense; nudity to me indicates a more primal, animal attitude.  If Manhattan were truly getting less human, less emotional, growing colder and more logical, the denial of his humanity would suggest the addition of clothing, if anything.

Some of the repeated motifs of the book come off as quite heavy handed as well.  While the chapter outlining the history of Rorschach, and the violent world of his incarceration are some of the most well realized passages in the book, his interaction with Dr. Malcolm Long falls far short of subtlety, right from the giveaway (and kinda pretentious — Nietzsche, really?) title of the chapter, ‘The Abyss Gazes Also.’  Despite his simplistic black and white, right and wrong dichotomy, Rorschach is the most complex and in my opinion, compelling characters in the story, and for the most part, his transformation from the “very young, very soft” Walter Kovacs is among the more believable elements within.

Where it becomes clumsy is in the reasons Kovacs first puts on the mask of Rorschach, and finally when his alter ego eclipses him completely.  The horrific real life murder of Kitty Genovese (who, by the way, was the intended owner of the dress that became Rorschach’s oil and vinegar inkblot mask) being tacked onto this two-dimensional four-color fiction on its own would have been enough for the reader to feel manipulated emotionally.  But if that weren’t enough, Moore sledgehammers his position of a Godless world with an even more heart-wrenching case, resulting in a small child’s murdered remains being fed to German Shepherd dogs.  Surely there are better and more understated rationales for atheism than examples as extreme and simple-minded as this.  As Rorschach himself puts it, this is, “dark as it gets.”  It also undercuts the whole Sisyphean struggle against the choice of evil that so defines Rorschach’s character (best exemplified by his narration that opens the book).  If Rorschach truly believed that, “existence is random,” and has, “no meaning save what we choose to impose,” it makes it a lot more difficult to believe in the passion he has for morality of, “decent men,” like Harry Truman, and the uncompromisingly Quixotic end to which it leads him.

The story’s ending also doesn’t quite add up properly.  While the reveal of Ozymandias (aka Adrian Veidt) as the villain of the story is brilliantly executed (especially with early hints like Rorschach’s suspicion that Veidt is hiding something, which Rorschach only suspects is homosexuality) and very satisfying, Veidt’s ultimate master plan is less so.  Despite the inherent coolness of the reveal that he had already gotten away with his plan before the cavalry came knocking on his tundra fortress, the plan itself is creaky in a few ways.  The first is that, set against the gritty and realistic backdrop that had been the story up to that point, Veidt’s alien forgery is very out of place, and takes us out of the story quite a bit.  Even though Dr. Manhattan is also supernatural, the way he behaves and above all, his design, is believable enough that it doesn’t serve as distraction.  However, Veidt’s destructive psychic monster’s design (suggesting H.P. Lovecraft by way of Georgia O’Keefe) just looks silly, and the reveal undercuts the horror of what has befallen New York.  In my opinion, Dave Gibbons’ contribution to the book for the most part surpasses Moore’s in many ways; however, even his skillful hand couldn’t make this plot development work, visually at least.

Also pretty ham-fisted was the discussion among our ‘heroes’ as the horror of Veidt’s plan dawns on them all.  As the news pours in from the world outside, they spend no less than three pages discussing how flawless the plan was, and, with the notable exception of Rorschach, conclude they must go along with it.  Besides the tackiness of the characters in the book ostensibly praising the book’s own plot , Ozymandias’ plan isn’t really even crime-fighting.  Characters in Watchmen make speeches at times about fighting only the symptoms of crime, and not truly putting an end to it.  But the Cold War which Veidt (thinks he) ends isn’t really ‘evil’ by definition.  So here the book gets muddled.  Had the characters in the book concerned themselves at any time with world peace, or ending hostilities, Ozymandias’ plan would seem like the Gordian solution he makes it out to be.  But mostly, it’s just out of left field.

Also:  It wouldn’t work.  This criticism is actually kind of unfair, because at the time Watchmen was written; a plot like Veidt’s was, mercifully, only fiction.  Sadly, though, we’ve seen what happens when thousands die in an attack focused on the middle of New York City.  Yes, as Veidt hoped, worldwide hostilities and partisanships cease, and people come together, united against this shocking new enemy to life and freedom.  But slowly, through various actions and factions, that goodwill and fraternity evaporates, and the same tension that came before the disaster seeps back into daily life.  We settle back into our comfortable old spot on the Doomsday Clock.

I’ll concede there’s a pretty huge psychological difference between a stadium sized alien squid and an American Airlines jet, but there remains a real world precedent, and one that puts into question the pages of praise of Ozymandias’ plan.  Especially when Ozymandias was only able to construct one of the alien invaders, and it attacked only one major city.  No matter how quickly the world powers came together to combat this new foe, when the new foe proved, over weeks and months to be an isolated incident, it seems doubtful the goodwill would remain.

My final quibble with Watchmen is even more unfair than the last, and was a completely unintended consequence of Moore and Gibbons’ creation — its legacy.  Because Watchmen was the sensation it was, it spawned a decade of imitation, none of it up to snuff.  Worse still, because Watchmen was an excellent story, which also happened to contain adult language, nudity, and pretty extreme violence, far too many authors and publishers concluded that including the aforementioned elements would make an excellent story, simply by their inclusion.  So comic fans had to endure a full ten years of puerile derivative comics, reminiscent of Watchmen only in their gloom and nihilism, and not in the artfulness or depth that set it apart.  (In the same way I sometimes wish, in my darkest moments, that Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder never put out any records because of how much I dislike people like Chad Kroeger and Scott Stapp’s aping of Vedder’s natural voice — same with Sarah McLachlan and an entire generation of female Church soloists, but I digress).

Despite the flaws listed above, Watchmen remains a work unparalleled in its complexity in the comics industry. Dave Gibbons’ artwork, both on this book and elsewhere, has earned him legend status in Comicdom.  And though he peevishly insists on distancing himself from it, Watchmen remains the high water mark of Alan Moore’s varied career.  These days Moore seems to be going out of his way to let everyone know he has nothing to do with the film adaptation.  Zack Snyder’s film, if nothing else, will renew interest in Watchmen.  Given the fact that new legislation in his own UK could potentially brand Alan Moore, quite literally, a child pornographer for his recent work, I would think Moore would want to be remembered for the innovative, relevant creator he was when he co-created Watchmen, rather than the inaccessible crank he’s become known as.

While the seedy and compromised world it depicts in meticulous detail isn’t one I want to spend much time in, the mastery of the storytelling can’t be denied.  Like so many powerful, provocative works, I’d have to conclude that it’s a solidly written, gorgeously illustrated graphic story; an excellent and darkly profound work, that I don’t especially like.

 

ABOUT OUR GUEST WRITERDon Sparrow is a professional illustrator who trained at the University of Saskatchewan, before moving onto Canada’s prestigious Sheridan College, where he completed a post-graduate course in Advanced Illustration.  Don’s work is a humourous blend of retro warmth with a modern sensibility.

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is the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-watching, all-drinking master of space time and dimension. Slayer of fine scotches, lover of many women, driver of hot cars. His Dad could beat up your Dad. All hail The Editor!



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