What Watchmen didn’t teach us

If you’ll indulge me for a minute, boys n’ girls – well, a bit more than a minute; let’s be honest here – I’d like to indulge in a little editorializing.SCAN0022

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.Superboy_and_the_Legion_of_Super-Heroes_250

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.WarJournal56-1 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!’

tumblr_nmdwx2z4di1t1cmybo1_1280Well, 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.

But it’s also plenty beautiful.dcmoment25a

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.

watchmen-kissing_00384644There 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.watchmen-kissing_00384644-1

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.

Remember what I was saying about ‘the allure of the fresh approach’? Apply that to Watchmen – who are the two characters in it that would have seemed the most unique back in 1986?The_Comedian_Mouthing_off_to_the_group

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.

632917-rorschach011Yes, 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’ outrorschach-unmasked-1 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.The_Comedian_Barbequing

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.

Well, do you think Rorschach and Comedian were it? ‘Cause I kind of doubt it.2395664-2395438-watchmen_04_27

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.92_elgin_aa 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?6710631_std

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.c8371f429b462d0869b608889136ab4a

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.

SCAN0126If 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.watchmen-rorschach_00268766

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.

You might agree with this. I don’t.1

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.Watchmen 09 28

So that’s my long-winded editorial for the day. Do not disrespect the thing that goes sproing. Thank you.

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18 Comments

    • Well, ‘most people who own a copy of Watchmen’, I suppose is what I meant. Obviously if you haven’t read it in the first place, you can’t reread it. I think MOST comics fans have by this point, though, don’t you think? I mean, it’s brought up constantly, and there’s a movie and everything; you’d think someone getting into the medium would want to know what all the fuss was.

  1. I had trouble enjoying the Watchmen after I heard it was originally going to star DC superheroes but then Moore was forced to rewrite it because DC didn’t want their heroes so nuanced. After that I kept trying to pin names to characters (Dr Manhattan is Superman because he’s all powerful but then Ozymodious has the Arctic base which is also Superman). Clearly Moore didn’t just swap names but rewrote it properly (if the story is true at all) but it still distracted me.

    Dark Knight at least let the characters be a little dark and still keep who they were.

    I guess the Sometimes it is best to not know the story behind the story. Especially when you aren’t sure if that story is even true.

    • That’s not quite how it went, actually. As I understand it, Moore’s original plan was to have Watchmen star the characters from Charlton Comics that DC had owned for years at that point, but hadn’t really done anything with. DC vetoed that, because they had other plans for the characters, so Moore went ahead with original characters inspired by the Charlton ones. If I recall correctly, Rorschach was originally going to be the Question, Nite Owl was Blue Beetle, Dr. Manhattan was Captain Atom, the Comedian was the Peacemaker, Ozymandias was Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, and Silk Specter was Nightshade (although she ultimately wound up being based much more closely on Black Canary).

  2. As with any other influential work, there have been parodies of Watchmen, two of which I have a particular fondness. One is a video of a opening theme song for Watchmen as a Saturday morning cartoon. The other is an illustration which reimagines Peanuts characters as Watchmen characters. While I’m not entirely convinced about Linus as Comedian, Charlie Brown as Dr. Manhattan is spot on. For the record, Lucy is Silk Specter, Schroeder is Ozymandias, Pig Pen is Nite Owl, and Snoopy is Rorschach.

  3. Incredibly late reply time!

    You absolutely nail the problem with most deconstructions, even though I think you’re being a tad generous regarding how Watchmen presents its characters (I think the point is that in a realistic setting, costumed vigilantes would inevitably be creeps with psychological problems).

    Watchmen wasn’t meant to trash superheroes, it was more meant to mourn the fact that that kind of childish, exuberant idealism exhibited in the likes of Superman and Batman has no place in the real world. Dr. Manhattan is essentially Moore’s Superman, and becomes completely alienated from humanity because of it – if you can’t feel pain and don’t require food and all of life is essentially a leisure activity for you (because he clearly doesn’t need a job, has a massive fortress, etc.) then your ability to empathize with regular humans is going to be horribly impaired. Rorschach and Ozymandias are, in a way, two sides to Batman – the gritty side that lurks in the shadows and punches crime into submission, which goes insane due to the constant exposure to the worst of humanity, and the rich, aloof, ivory tower side that lives apart from regular humans and uses immense wealth and intelligence to better humanity in a completely sterile, uncaring, and ultimately ambiguous way. But Moore doesn’t explore these themes with antipathy and condescension, he does so with something of a melancholy. He wishes superheroes could be real, but they can’t.

    By contrast, most other superhero deconstructions – Wanted, Marshall Law, and The Boys come to mind – have this incredibly condescending “If you like this kind of thing, you are a bad person” kind of tone. Like that really irritating thing some artsy filmmakers do, where they “make the audience an accomplice” to whatever horrific stuff they want to show. The point of them is less superhero deconstruction, and more to just criticize people who like superheroes, and invite others to criticize them too.

    • Glad you liked it!

      Well, perhaps I am being a tad generous, but I do genuinely find Watchmen a beautiful comic and most of its characters do at least contribute to that beauty in some way. I think the Nite Owl/Silk Specter romance, for instance, to be quite touching; they’re in some ways quite a mismatched couple, but in other ways, they NEED each other, because of their similar histories and the problems that they share. Similarly, poor Rorschach’s fumbling but sincere declaration of friendship to Dan never fails to move me; the character is so wretched and broken, but he’s still human. If nothing else, it’s beautifully crafted in that regard.

      While I get your point, I’m not sure that the whole ‘superheroes couldn’t work in the real world’ business really holds water when it comes to Watchmen. First, because its world is not, technically, ‘the real world’; even leaving aside the presence of Dr. Manhattan, strict realism kind of flies out of the window when you have things like Archie the Owlship and the Squid as factors in the story. Strict realism would, I think, eschew those sorts of fantastical elements, or at least have Dr. Manhattan as the one wild card; this is still a superhero universe, of sorts, it’s just a relatively muted one compared to most.
      Second (and this may be a bit of a nitpick), Moore, as best I can gather, was commenting more on a specific set of characters than on superheroic norms as a whole; he was originally going to use the Charlton comics characters in the story, and only replaced them with his own when DC wouldn’t give him the nod. As such, Dr. Manhattan may have elements of Superman to him, but he’s mainly what Moore thought of Captain Atom, and while it may be possible to see the different facets of Batman in Rorschach and Ozymandias, they were intended to illustrate Moore’s thoughts on the Question and Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt. It may be more accurate to say that aspects of Moore’s characters have been adapted, consciously or unconsciously, into other characters since Watchmen’s rise to fame, and thus it is possible to see their echoes in the originals via hindsight. (If nothing else, it is worth pointing out that the modern Batman is CONSIDERABLY darker than the one Moore would be more familiar with back in the early ’80’s, so I find it unlikely that all that much of him would have made it way into the series’ darker characters – although, admittedly, elements like Nite Owl’s basement full of Owl-gadgets and Ozy’s wealth and influence would seem to be obvious references.)

      Yeah, no arguments there. I read a quote from Garth Ennis recently that stated that, in his opinion, Watchmen should have signaled the death-knell of superheroes – but then, he HATES superheroes, and every one of his stories involving them shows it. I don’t honestly see the point in that sort of thing; if you can’t say anything more about a genre than ‘this sucks’, why bother?

  4. To add to the discussion, I think that your understanding of deconstruction is, or was, a little off. In fairness, deconstructionism in critical theory is almost as vague as the term post-modernism so your understanding as presented here is probably as versed as mine, but I think that there is a really important element in reconstruction that is not compatible with what you described in 2015. I think that the most basic definition of deconstructionism, which is from someone, perhaps Derida, is showing how a work unravels itself. At a basic level, pointing out a major plot hole is a deconstructive analysis.

    What makes Watchmen a deconstructive work is that it shows where the superhero genre unravels, that being mainly the concept that these supernatural characters exist in a world that, other than them, is fully real. I mean, the entire concept of watchmen, the term itself, is the interaction between society and the heroes which wasn’t a big part of comics before, and still isn’t. We get to see how the super man would become lonely and isolated because the world, even the hero society, isn’t going to understand his experience as a liminal being caught between mortality and divinity. We see how the heroes like Rorschach and Ozymandias are forced to become villains in order to be heroes. We see how the only people who stay heroes, Niteowl and Silk Spectre, are almost incompetent to the plot because nothing they accomplish stops the big bad or leads to a good ending. Ultimately, we see the world with a false peace and the allusion to it being unraveled by Rorschach’s journal leading to potentially a worse world than we started with. In fairness, a deconstruction of Watchmen itself would point out that the Squid monster would be discovered in a manner of years to be a terrestrially engineered being for a variety of reasons so Veidt’s plan was rather short sighted, but I digress.

    I do like your concept of reconstruction being the putting the elements back together and telling a functioning story more accurately than before, but I think that a better use of the term would be a little different. If Watchmen is a deconstruction of heroes because the genre elements are allowed to unravel, then a reconstructionist work would be one that winds those elements back. Kingdom Come would be the example that comes to mind as reconstructing the genre. There we enter a world where society wants murderous heroes, and it leads to a war where the moral conclusion is that when heroes fight heroes then everyone is a villain. Then it continues on to redefine heroes as the characters that reach toward virtues in the face of absolute adversity.

    I think that all art operates in this oscillation between deconstruction and reconstruction. The 90’s floundered in the deconstruction of the 80’s, and the turn of the millenium floundered in the reconstruction of the late 90’s. It’s not always clear cut, however, as works overlap and often fail at these attempts. A good example of this is the New 52 Superman. The roots of that version of Superman finds itself at least as far back as Smallville which shows a rookie Superman filled with angst at having to negotiate his identity and powers with society. In some ways he hates his powers because of what they cost him, but at the end of the day he still goes out and does the right thing because he is the hero that reaches for virtue. This is a deconstruction of the character that retains the working element from Kingdom Come of the hero reaching for virtue, but shows that reaching for virtue often means accepting the consequences and suffering for others. One of the problems with Rebirth is that while it is a return to form in some sense, it also undoes that deconstruction. It’s on going, I suppose, but as of now it is not reconstructing the genre in a way that works better than before, it’s going back to a time before the unraveling of the genre was pointed out.

    • Please forgive the late reply; I’ve been a touch distracted of late, and I wanted to give your comment proper thought.

      That being said, while I’ll frankly admit that my understanding of the precise usage of ‘Deconstruction’ and ‘Reconstruction’ as terms is not quite up to academic standards, I do think I’m using them properly here – at least, to some extent.

      The point I was making is that Watchmen is often described as a ‘straight’ Deconstruction – AKA, taking it apart and more or less LEAVING it apart. I don’t think this is true. I’ve seen works that do this, and they are almost universally bleak as absolute hell. You get an impression of an abusive parent tearing apart their children’s toy box, going ‘This is stupid!’ ‘This is dumb!’ ‘You’re too old for this now!’ ‘What is this crap?’, and tossing toy after toy behind him out into the trash bin while the children watch, miserable and crying. You get, in short, a story about fill-in-the-blank written by someone who generally never liked fill-in-the-blank to begin with, and can only write about it by plugging in all the stuff they DO like – to use my watch analogy, replacing the gears with different ones taken from a different watch (that is, if they replace anything at all; many don’t). One way or another, it doesn’t run too smoothly afterward.

      Watchmen doesn’t do this. It deconstructs partially, yes, but it is only in a few basic areas – i.e, Doctor Manhattan representing the godlike superhuman as he would ‘really’ be, etc. The rest is still there. The gadgets and gimmickry and color and craziness of a superhero universe are still in place; they’re just treated differently. It’s still recognizably a superhero story as written by someone who knows and understands superheroes and treats them with respect, and that, to me, means that, following its having been opened up and tinkered with, it has been reconstructed. I don’t think it would work anywhere near as well as it does if it hadn’t been.

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