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.