TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING
Who’s watching Watchmen? Everybody apparently. This book—or comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it—has been picked apart endlessly in the 20 years since it was first published, every frame microscopically studied, its plot, characters, and symbols charted out no less elaborately than Ulysses’. Its fans, like fans of everything else, are intensely protective and argumentative. Reading a book like this now, for the first time, is likely to result less in actual criticism than in intellectual alignment. What can be said has likely been said; the issue now is with whom do you agree.
So on the occasion of DC Comics’ Absolute Watchmen, a beautifully re-mastered anniversary edition with hard-to-find scripts from writer Alan Moore and sketches from artist Dave Gibbons, I’ll agree with everybody and nobody, the geeks and the eye-rollers both. You say I contradict myself? Very well then, but Watchmen contains multitudes: It’s big and important and brilliant and insufferable. It’s mythic; it’s gritty. It’s awesome and it’s dumb. In its pages are heroes, anti-heroes, and giant, blue-peckered superheroes. There are aliens, street-fighting lesbians, and pirates. There are ambiguously evil geniuses and average New Yorkers. When its violence isn’t intimate, it’s global. When the sex isn’t tender, it’s dirty. Watchmen’s story is part whodunit, part philosophical tract, its writing fierce and groundbreaking, pinched and pedantic. The art is always stiff and always utterly appropriate.
Watchmen is everything. At times it’s even boring.
Although proclaimed a seminal graphic novel, Watchmen hardly settles the argument of what a graphic novel is. It’s just the first. Or, along with Will Eisner’sThe Contract with God Trilogy, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, one of the first. Or if not the first then the best. It depends on who you ask (Time magazine weighed in recently by naming it one of the top 100 novels of the century). Perhaps “graphic novel” is simply the label of choice for those who’d rather not be caught reading comics. Or maybe it’s a nod to the modern novel’s affinity for anti-heroes. Leopold Bloom, meet Dan Dreiberg & His Spare Tire.
Dreiberg, by the way, is not everything so much as nothing. He is not a superhero with super powers, but neither is he like you and me. He’s post-superhero: Since the government outlawed masked crime fighters, his Nite Owl costume has been tucked away in the closet, his wicked-cool hover craft collecting dust in the basement. A little extra weight has sapped his confidence, leaving him to covet from afar Dr. Manhattan’s curvy girlfriend Laurie. Now there’s a superhero! Dr. Manhattan stands outside of time. The victim of a nuclear accident, he can walk on water or through walls; in a fit of pique, he can even flee to Mars and sulk. The story begins, though, with trench-coated Rorschach—monosyllabic, probably mentally ill—and his hunch that someone is gunning for the masked ones. While right and wrong forever shifts around him, Rorschach, ironically, is the one who stays constant. He is Watchmen’s terrible conscience.
The plot is complex and hyper-allusive. There’s the main narrative, multiple back-narratives, as well as an alternate history that plays out in the background art. There are representations and parodies of all kinds of media: comics, newspapers, television, advertisements, magazine articles, etc. There are endless references to recent American history, antiquity, philosophy, poetry, popular music, other comic books, Watchmen itself …
Writes Tom Shone in Slate: “Whether you take this self-reflexivity as evidence of a newfound sophistication on behalf of the comic book, or as self-hatred tricked out as superiority—that old adolescent standby—is up to you.”
Writes Tim Cavanaugh for Reason.com: “Tom Shone is a douche.”
Meanwhile, the comic’s various symbols—watches and time pieces, pyramids and triangles, the famous blood-spattered smiley face, masks, ink blots, birds and butterflies, atoms, perfume, knots, mirrors and reflections, et so many alia—seem to be almost competitively unsubtle. Pyramid Deliveries. Prometheus Cab Company. Gordian Knot Lock Co. Nostalgia Perfume. Utopia Theater.
Some plot elements seem entirely gratuitous and a step too clever. The pirate comic-book-within-the-comic-book is first on the list. That pirates have replaced superheroes as the subjects of comic books suggests that the Watchmen world is perhaps darker and less idealistic than our own. (At least it’s darker than the time when superheroes dominated the comics. What, though, of a world where comics like Watchmen dominate the comics?) But Moore overplays his hand, introducing a morbid pirate adventure that, throughout Watchmen, parallels and comments on the main narrative. At first, it’s a neat trick, but after it reappears, chapter after chapter, the reader is left to wonder, So freaking what?!? The pirate comic’s author even shows up in a subplot, but to little effect.
The art is self-consciously and at times overly conservative: The jaws are square, the pages reliably nine panels. But the result is an interesting formal tension between an old-fashioned look and groundbreaking writing. Intricate plot and elaborate layout come together like—what else?—clockwork, and it’s interesting on a technical level. There are times, though, when everything feels so determined by the machinery of the plot. It saps the story of life.
A great deal more time is spent on the characters than on the story, and this, too, suggests why “graphic novel” might work as a label … if you’re so inclined. Characters like Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk and her mom Sally Jupiter are all recognizably human and admirably three-dimensional. Everything is complicated and ironic and inconvenient in their world, as in ours.
As for Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, and the Alexander-obsessed businessman Ozymandias—in another literary incarnation, one imagines they might have taken a long, rejuvenating stroll outside the International Sanatorium Berghof, clicking their canes and worrying through the implications of determinism. Alas, in Watchmen they’re set loose on all of Earth and even Mars. They’re little more than mytho-philosophical types with tortured vocabularies. They hover somewhere above our mere sympathy or indignation.
Watchmen is unfailingly earnest and superbly ambitious. It’s big and strives to be important, but too often, it’s just self-important. Moore’s writing is thick with pretentiousness and periodically turns into a parody of itself. Example from Chapter V: “Good readers, know this: Hades is wet. Hades is lonely.” Ugh. Take it as irony if you want. Still ugh. Or from Chapter XI: “As an afterthought, the method has an earlier precursor than Burroughs in the shamanistic tradition of divining randomly scattered goat innards … The subject for a subsequent discourse, perhaps.” One hopes not. And from the same page: “It must be so disorienting. Their pursuit leads them deeper into moral and intellectual regions as uncharted and devoid of landmark as the territories currently surrounding them.”
There is a gut-wrenching moment in Watchmen—it’s at the end of the penultimate chapter—when a video monitor goes white and all is horribly quiet. This is a moment made for myth, for a story that, in the words of Karen Armstrong (in A Short History of Myth), “is about the unknown; … about that for which initially we have no words.” Myth, says Armstrong, “looks into the heart of a great silence.” What’s remarkable about Watchmen is the way it methodically, sometimes cruelly, exposes its characters’ “essential silliness” (to quote Moore in his introduction to The Dark Knight Returns) while managing to maintain the spirit and mission of myth.
It does this despite the fact that, traditionally, myths and novels, comics and novels, are contradictions in terms. Sure, myths may sometimes read like novels, Ruth Franklin argued recently in the New Republic, “but the two forms really have nothing in common. Even the most experimental fictions must rely on psychological realism to some extent; without it, their characters would be unrecognizable, and their plots without interest.” Myths, meanwhile, are about the contradictory and the unexplained. The blank. The silent.
Of course, such moments are rare in the loud, hyper-articulate cacophony of Watchmen World—the silence that results from a few million deaths can seem like a relief!
In the end, though, the visual complexity of Watchmen overwhelms many of its literary failings. It is endlessly interesting to look at. And the world that Alan Moore created is so broadly and deeply imagined that it pulls you in and, in the end, won’t let you go … even if you want to. With minor caveats, one could easily co-opt James Wood on the subject of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “The book is so large, so serious, so ambitious, so often well-written, so punctually intelligent, that it produces its own antibodies and makes criticism a small germ.”
And at this late date, criticism seems presumptuous to even try.
Watchmen (Absolute Editions) by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins (DC Comics, 464 pages)
January Magazine, January 2006