Watchmen — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I fell for the hype surrounding the movie version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, a mostly indifferent graphic novel: many if not all of its characters seemed flat, especially Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach, whose fearful misogyny might be typical of equally fearful teenage boys and some highly right-wing politicians, but in the story he came off more as a case of amateur psychoanalysis combined with arrested development masquerading as personality. (For some reason I’m reminded of the New Found Glory song “Something I Call Personality.” This bodes ill for Watchmen.) Others are better, maybe, but still have trouble with platitudes and leaving the realm of the silly—and this in a work with no sense of humor.

To be sure, Watchmen has many intriguing and unusual aspects, chief among them that most of the “superheroes” don’t seem to actually have special powers from an unusual source, as happens in Spiderman or the X-Men; rather, they decide to don costumes and kick ass and learn on the job, rather like 40-year-old office workers who decide to become Olympic-caliber swimmers. Instant skill acquisition is (arguably) less realistic than most superhero stories, as a single person is, more likely than not, going to get his ass kicked by four guys no matter how skillful he is. But realism has never been the genre’s strong point, and I like the postmodern tweaking involved. Still, I also wish that someone had read On Faerie Stories.

Another unusual tactic: the panels in Watchmen are temporally intermixed and sometimes the scenes jump around, so following the action can resemble assembling a Faulkner-esque jigsaw puzzle more than walking the traditional storyline. It’s noirish in places, especially when Rorschach is speaking; Watchmen opens with him thinking that “The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over all the vermin will die.” The next panel says, “The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘save us!’ ” Er, well, maybe, or maybe these notes read like a teenager’s angry musing after being jilted by the girl he wants.

Dr. Atomic suffers from a similar brand of flatness: he’s a blue character of seemingly infinite power whose presence wrecks whatever semblance of balance the book might otherwise have. In The Lord of the Rings, one is ceaselessly aware of limitations on power, and a persistent weakness of many fantasy novels is the tendency for a character to become God-like, at which point conflict disappears—and so does plot. Having one built-in from the beginning, and particularly one who likes to spout low-grade philosophy, seems more a weakness than strength. Likewise some of the awkward history lessons, as when the only female character, Laurie, interacts with virtually anyone. She’s explained away as a ditz, while Rorschach’s darkness gets a movie-of-the-week treatment regarding his past, which includes his mother’s prostitution. The novel’s view of women is not quite so retrograde as it appears at first glance, but nor is it particularly palatable, even by the end.

There’s a bit too much imagining aloud—page 20 of chapter 8 demonstrates it well, with conversations designed chiefly to impart information to the reader, rather than other characters. Watchmen reinforces rather than obviates the somewhat pervasive sense that graphic or graphic novels are lesser forms of art than text novels. This is unfair, of course—one need only look at one of Moore’s later works, like Lost Girls, to see the genre’s potential fulfilled—but a certain snobbishness sneaks up nonetheless. The failure of utopian dreams and the triumph of pragmatism over ideology are promising developments in the story and for the genre, but the expression of those fundamental ideas isn’t sufficiently deep to make the ideas transcend their circumstances, just as the characters never stop being characters and start being people. No matter its technical virtuosity or innovation, a work of narrative that fails that test can’t be truly great.

2 responses

  1. Interesting thoughts on Watchmen. I have to take issue with them, though.

    I should start by saying I think that your take on Rorschach is correct — in that it’s the view one is meant to come away with. That is: Rorschach is crazy, self-obsessed, immature, and generally unpleasant. A lot of readers seem to see him as the hero, which may have something to do with the narrative traditions of super-hero comics. But then, Watchmen is a deconstruction of super-hero tropes as much as it is anything else; it’s a very self-aware work. And I don’t see anything in the book which suggests that Rorschach is admirable.

    I don’t think Dr. Manhattan’s omnipotence is a problem for the book, especially in terms of plot; partly that’s because Manhattan’s not omniscient, which allows one of the other characters to come up with an elaborate plan for his death. But in large part it’s because I think Watchmen is a novel about power, and about the limits on power. So Manhattan’s power fits the theme of the book, and his inaction and relative affectlessness is something which derives from his character, his perception and circumstances, especially his view of time. Watchmen is, in part, about the interconnections that make up the world (and which are reflected in the structure of the novel); Manhattan presents those connections from a radically different perspective.

    Then again, from another perspective, Manhattan is, occasionally at least, a metaphor for nuclear weapons; for that power to destroy everything. His presence (as I believe Moore pointed out in a subsequent interview) deforms everything. America wins Viet Nam. Electric cars have replaced oil-based cars. And his absence threatens to overturn the balance of power of the entire world. What does he care? Human beings are ants.

    My point is that I don’t see Manhattan’s power as causing the plot of the book to collapse; yes, if somebody went to him in chapter one and said, ‘look, this is going on,’ then he could have stopped it. If he felt like it, which me might not have. In any event, nobody was in a position to do that; and the ‘villain’ of the book in fact came up with a detailed plan to remove him from action. Which, in the end, worked. In other words, Manhattan’s power does not eliminate conflict — the antagonist (well, technically protagonist) eliminates him.

    On another note — were there many examples of “instant skill acquisition” in the book? It seems to me that all the costumed characters whose background we get end up with reasons to be good fighters — even if the only reason was that they consciously worked out in preparation to be a super-hero. The argument of the book was that once a couple of people started dressing up in costume, others followed; super-heroing as a fad. Those who lasted tended to be good at it.

    I think you’re right to point out Watchmen’s playing with time and panel sequence. That’s an example of the formal experimentation that really stood out in the book, especially when it was first published. Comics live in the transition from image to image; Moore and Gibbons worked out a variety of complex ways to create new and interesting effects from those transitions. One might also point out that the almost-inflexible nine-panel grid which defines so many of the pages is a form that’s difficult to work with over a long narrative; it was something that was key for Watchmen — simulating the feel of a clock ticking down to doomsday — and Moore and Gibbons made it work.

    You state that Laurie is “the only female character,” which I don’t understand. To start with, there’s her mother, Sally Jupiter. But then there are also a range of minor characters, who we see in the street-corner scenes (which are, from a certain point of view, the real heart of the work). I don’t think that’s a minor point. I found that there was something vivid about even the minor characters in the book — I had the sense that these were real people, with real lives of which we happened to view only a sliver.

    Could you elaborate about the conversation you mention, on page 20 of chapter 8? In my copy, I see a back-and-forth between Dan and Laurie while Rorschach is killing a crime-lord on the other side of a washroom door. Is that the conversation you mean? I didn’t see it as imparting any necessary information to the reader — the chat, about the difficulty of removing costumes and Rorschach’s ingratitude, doesn’t really provide new information, though it does make for a kind of ghoulish or blackly ironic counterpart to the violence on the far side of the door. Do you mean the dialog about “That bumping …”? All I can say is it didn’t seem out of place to me.

    Further, could you elaborate on the issues you saw with the book’s view of women? I don’t think gender was a major theme of the work, but it is a theme that Moore has always been aware of. What problems did you have on that score? (And while I’m at it, where was Laurie explained as a ditz?)

    I’d actually disagree that Lost Girls is a superior work to Watchmen. Personally, I felt the story of Lost Girls wasn’t very strong, so it tended to become a series of episodic, and rather uninvolving, flashbacks. But then, Lost Girls was also consciously created as a genre work, while Watchmen was consciously created to deconstruct its genre; I don’t normally think that one is superior to the other, but I do think in this case there was a tension, a complexity, in Watchmen which might have benefited Lost Girls.

    In the end, I suppose my fundamental disagreement is with your assertion that the characters never start being people, as well as the statement that the expression of the book’s ideas is insufficiently deep. Of course, I also don’t think the book was primarily about pragmatism over ideology; as I said up above, I think it has more to do with the problem of power, with pragmatism being a kind of solution — something in keeping with what I find to be the ultimately humanist orientation of the book, with the theme of the interconnectedness of things.

    My disagreement may well be different tastes. I liked the dialog, for example, and particularly appreciated Moore’s language. I liked the chapter on Rorschach’s history, and I can’t really see what similarity you find to a movie-of-the-week. And, obviously, the characters were far more credible for me than for you. Now, obviously, if you didn’t care for these things, if you didn’t care for the work as a whole, well, fair enough, opinions vary. But there are reasons the book was received as warmly as it was, and I hope you don’t mind my trying to point out some of them.

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  2. “Watchmen reinforces rather than obviates the somewhat pervasive sense that graphic or graphic novels are lesser forms of art than text novels.”

    Or perhaps it simply does not conform to the expectations that we take to generic traditions outside of written text?

    With only having skimmed the previous comment that seems to take issue with your post, I too need to weigh in on what I consider to be Moore’s seminal (if you could even use that word outside of academia without drawing snide comments and knowing smiles) graphic novel–one that is, despite its post-modern narrative style, much easier to follow and has more psychological complexity than Lost Girls. One of the major issues I think you are missing, Jake, is that this was written in the early 1980’s–before post-modernism was really a hot topic and before multiple plots were threaded together with the ease of let’s say Katheryn Davis or Jeanette Winterson. And, to boot, as much as this is a story about the flaws, fetishes, failures and, ultimately downfall of what were once considered an elite band of superheros, it is also a story about political and governmental sentiment that are, to this day, pertinent and terrifying.
    Not to mention that Moore uses color, movement, action, and his panels to convey silences, spaces, gaps, uncertainties, and emotional trauma in ways that simple text could not do justice to.

    I suppose my major critique of your post is your dismissal of this graphic novel as one that is formulaic, flat, and shallow. Considering this is the book that broke the genre and, in doing so, showed us that graphic novels can address moral conflict in a not-so-obvious or even “right” way–the uncertainty that detective fiction allows for certainly appears here and that uncertainty is never resolved (a comment trait of po-mo novels)–I can’t simply agree with all of your assertions (that even seem surface deep, you never address the biographical asides, the story within the story, the ending, the generational issues, the political issues and so on and so on).

    So all of my asides aside, I can say one thing that, perhaps, agrees with you: I am terrified of April, when the movie-version comes out.

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