Recently, I reread Watchmen. I do that every once in a while. I first purchased my copy back in high school. Since then, I probably read the thing… well, about once every year to two years. Not much different from most people, I’d guess.
But this time around, it sparked some thoughts.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell any of you what Watchmen is – if you haven’t read it, you’ve heard of it. It was one of the game-changers, the ones that showed us what the medium is truly capable of. Of course, one could argue that such indications were always there if one cared to take a look, but Watchmen was one of the first that you could shove a copy into someone’s hands and say ‘you want to know what comics are all about? Read this, baby.’
And then there’s the spin-offs. Recently, of course, there’s been the various Before Watchmen minis (which, although certainly unnecessary, are far from the blasphemous undertakings that some fans paint them as), but I’m not talking literal spin-offs here. I’m talking about the influence of the book.
What has it influenced? What hasn’t it influenced? Rare is the wannabe writer who reads it and doesn’t, on some level, go ‘whoa – I wanna write something like that!’
And many have tried. And some have come close.
And many, many others have failed, and that’s what I’m here to talk about today.
Let’s divorce ourselves from Watchmen specifically for a minute, and take a look at what it was part of – the early-to-mid ‘80’s… well. I’m not sure if there’s actually a term for them or not. Let’s call ‘em the ‘Dark Reflection’ comics; that’s as good a term as any.
The DR comics were essentially an inevitable reaction to the legacy of Fredric Wertham and the Comics Code. For many, many years, mainstream comics had been forced to follow a tight set of rules – basically, the good guys always won, the bad guys were always punished, crime would always be vanquished in favor of benevolent law. Also, no sex. Or drugs. Or swearing. Keep things safe for the kiddies.
It wasn’t all bad, by any means. A lot of the modern language of comics was created under such restrictions, and many creators managed to thrive under the challenge. Still, you can’t force an entire medium into such a narrow channel for so long before its waters finally carve out other paths – and that’s what Watchmen and its contemporaries were. Other paths. Other channels. Other ways of doing things. Deeper, richer, darker comics.
That’s where my ‘Dark Reflection’ term comes from. ‘Take the namby-pamby funnybooks we’ve been forced to suffer through up ‘til now’, the ethos seemed to go, ‘and invert ‘em. Flip-flop ‘em. Show all the stuff that we haven’t been able to see up ‘til now! Yeah! Woo! Dark! Finally!’
This ultimately led to the era of big guns and scowls, the ‘Grim n’ Gritty’ era of comics where it seemed like smiles and sunshine were outlawed. This changed things in some fundamental way – I won’t be so maudlin as to say that the medium’s innocence was lost, but things certainly did get one heck of a lot darker, and have stayed one heck of a lot darker. And throughout all this, Watchmen has been the primary standard-bearer for what can be done. It is, I think it’s fair to say, idolized.
But is it idolized rightly?
Don’t get me wrong; Watchmen is a darn good comic, and as a standard to live up to, you could do far worse. But it seems to me that quite a few writers are not, in fact, using it as such a standard, or think they are, but aren’t.
It’s mainly this business of darkness, you see.
Never underestimate the allure of the fresh approach. It can linger long after it’s stopped being actually true. Such was the case with Watchmen – people read it, and were amazed at how dark it was. They were thrilled by it, because they weren’t used to it. ‘Wow’, they went, ‘this is amazing! This has never been done before!’
Well, yes, actually, it had. Pre-Comics Code, there were plenty of comics that were just as dark, if not more – that was, after all, the heyday of horror and crime comics, among others. But most of the people reading Watchmen back in the ’80’s had not read any of those, and to their wondering eyes, it seemed unique. It brought the matter to their attention for the first time, and that was powerful.
Anyway, it is a dark comic. How could it not be? It’s a tale of Cold War paranoia and brutal violence, of a world teetering on the brink of annihilation, of murder and nihilism and other such fun stuff. It is a story of lives changed forever, of idealism challenged or taken far beyond the limits of reason. It’s plenty dark.
Seriously, for all the shadows that Watchmen delves into, it still has moments of intense beauty. From glittering crystal platforms on Mars to Nite Owl’s magnificent basement to Ozymandias’ echoing Antarctic palace, the comic looks amazing – but that’s mere surface detail; there are lots of comics that look nice. If that were all, we’d remember it as a magnificently crafted art-book.
There is more than that. It has scenes of tender love, aching poignancy, touching friendship – it even has a surprising sense of optimism. Despite all the horrible things that happen in its pages, it still retains a basic faith that we will muddle through somehow, and, when it really counts, find the strength to do the right thing. Yes, there may be disaster and compromise along the way; yes, hope, at times, is tenuous, but it endures despite the worst. It is dark, but that just raises the stakes and gives definition to the bright spots.
That is what keeps me periodically rereading Watchmen. It’s not for the darkness, it’s for the beauty, the complex narrative, the well-crafted world that Moore and Gibbons bring to life. It’s a world that leaves you wanting more of it, and yet perfectly satisfied with what you get. That is not something you see every day.
So where’s all that from all these writers who pay tribute to it as a great work? Why is it that so few of them manage to evoke its beauty and complexity? OK, it’s unrealistic to expect every writer to be an Alan Moore and every artist to be a Dave Gibbons; we can’t all be masters, but it still seems to me that most of these people who claim it as one of their primary influences are missing the point. Even if everyone was just mindlessly aping Watchmen’s style, we should still end up with much prettier comics than we currently have – why, instead, did only the darker aspects get copied?
Well, I do have a bit of a theory about that.
Rorschach and the Comedian, of course. They’re the two who largely frame the series – the story ultimately passes beyond them, but their presence is still felt from start to finish. They’re also the two who correspond the least to the traditional superheroic archetypes, and – and here’s the kicker – by far the darkest.
Both of them kill without the slightest qualm; one is essentially insane and the other completely amoral. Also a gun nut. Yeah, it’s not hard to see how they affected things, is it?
But really, it seems to me that the point, again, has been missed, and in this case missed hard. Because neither of these characters are supposed to be the ones who you identify with.
Yes, Rorschach is a cool character – if nothing else, he looks cool, and his distinctive mannerisms are very memorable and fun to parody. But for cryin’ out loud, he’s an example of how superheroes can go WRONG. The man has gone off the deep end; he may still have heroic inclinations, but he also murders and tortures to get results, is slightly to the right of Genghis Khan, and is a hair’s-breadth shy of being an out-and-out psychopath. He lives a cold, lonely life of obsession and fractured sanity, barely able to connect to the few people still willing to call themselves his friends. He is a cautionary tale, a tragedy in slow motion. As for the Comedian, he’s essentially a government assassin with the basic moral philosophy of the Joker, not to mention also being, y’know, a rapist. The fact that he possesses any sympathetic side at all is a testament to Moore’s ability to write well-rounded characters, but even at his best he’s a brutal thug with a vague speck of morality still shining from the depths of a largely shriveled soul.
Are they good characters? Yes, there’s not a bad character in the book. But they’re far from the only ones, and to my mind, far from even the most important ones, even if they do drive the story forward. The book, after all, is about more than just the story.
Look, I don’t claim to have some special insight on what Moore had in mind when he wrote Watchmen. I don’t know if he intended it to be a critique of superheroes, a ‘look what sort of stories we could be telling’ sort of thing, or if he just came up with a good story and wanted to tell it. (I’m inclined to believe the latter.) But let’s go with the first one for the moment. Let’s say that he had some sort of point to make.
My logic is this. The term that often comes up when talking about comics like this is ‘deconstruction’. That is what these stories do; they take apart the heretofore-unexamined workings of a genre and show us the things that go sproing and, perhaps, show us that the things that we’ve always taken for granted do work maybe don’t work at all, or, at any rate, work in a completely different way than we’ve always thought they do.
While my personal preference is for more straightforward yarns, I do have an appreciation for a well-written deconstructive tale, and if people say Watchmen is that, I believe it. But what many subsequent writers seem to forget is that deconstruction is not enough. If you have any love or appreciation for the genre you’re examining – as Moore clearly does – you have to reconstruct as well.
Let us compare (appropriately, if you’ve read the story in question) a genre to an old-fashioned pocket watch. If you want to open it up and see how it works, what do you do? Do you rip out the works with a fork and send springs and gears flying all over the place?
Well, you do if you hate the watch. That watch is never going to run properly again, even if you try to put things back the way you found them. Sure, you can legitimately say ‘aha, I have seen how it works; there is a thing that goes sproing’, but you would, if you were honest, have to add ‘or at least it did go sproing until it bounced into the corner and got stepped on’. You can always try making your own sproing to put in its place, but unless you are possessed of rare skill, that probably ain’t going to happen. Because watches like that aren’t made by any one person. Once the casing is there, the works are slowly put together over time, every gear and lever and doodad painstakingly crafted by trial and error and circumstance. Hundreds, thousands of people contributed to making that watch, and once the sproing is gone, it’s gone.
Or, at any rate, it’s gone until the next creator chooses to dig it out of the ether and take a look at it (OK, yeah, the metaphor is getting a little labored at this point). When someone who actually cares about the genre/watch/wenre/watchre/whatever decides to see how it works, they do so carefully. They remove each cog and gear and jewel working, take the thing that goes sproing and put it carefully off to the side, and sort out all the bells and whistles and whatnots that aren’t actually needed (for this incarnation of the watch, anyway). Then, after polishing off the corroded bits, they put the whole thing back together, wind it up, and watch it go.
That is why Watchmen works as well as it does – the parts, though with a few of their flaws pointed out, are all back in their places and whirring away. For all the other stuff that’s been added to the mix, it is still a superhero story, and it’s a darn good one, because it’s got everything that makes such things tick. It’s got cool gadgets, it’s got masks and costumes, it’s got love interests, it’s got rescues, it’s got super-powers and science-fiction and crime being fought and geniuses with nefarious plans.
True, the elements are in slightly different combinations than we’re used to, but they’re all still there. Deconstruction, reconstruction. It’s how the process works.
If Moore had wanted to simply go ‘superheroes are dumb; look at all the dumb stories we’ve been reading’, he would have been the guy with the fork, and everyone in the story would have looked like Rorschach and the Comedian. We’d have a whole twelve issues full of nothing but blood and murder and cynicism and ugliness. Instead, they’re the exceptions that prove the rule, the little bits of ugly that make the beautiful things more beautiful by contrast, and keep the ugly fascinatingly ugly instead of just blecch.
Of course, there are varying degrees of all this; a little fork wielding can occasionally work, but that’s another discussion. The point is, a distressingly large number of writers seem to think that digging the guts out of the watch is what Moore did and what should be emulated. ‘Grim ‘n Gritty’ seems to be centered almost entirely around this concept – that superheroes are namby-pamby wusses, and that real men (and they’re almost always men) solve their problems by cutting to the chase and blowing people away Comedian style.
I am not, mind you, saying that there is no room for such characters and characterizations to exist. Such things have always been there, and they’ve always had their place – the Punisher, for instance, is possibly the grimmest-and-grittiest character in existence, and yet he’s managed to coexist alongside more idealistic heroes without stretching the concept too far. Nor am I saying a misreading of Watchmen is the only factor in all of this; there are a number of other comics that also made their mark, most prominently (in this case) being Dark Knight Returns – also there’s the effects of editorial interference and blah blah blah.
What I am saying is that if we’re going to continue to hold this book up as the Gold Standard of graphic novels, we should do so in its entirety. The medium could use a bit more beauty and artistry these days; it could use a bit more of what made Watchmen truly great. There are some people who have learned the real lessons it has to offer, and to those I tip my hat, but there aren’t enough, and maybe if there were, comics would finally start to attract the respect that the people behind them so desperately want. Enough with the fork, is what I’m saying – invest in some tweezers and a magnifying glass and treat the watch like the heirloom it is.
So that’s my long-winded editorial for the day. Do not disrespect the thing that goes sproing. Thank you.