Reaction: Watchmen

I’ve never been a reader of comic books: to be honest, I’ve never seen the point of them. All those bulky pictures take up the room that could be spent on actual content – the pictures being neither helpful (description and imagination are perfectly adequate without accompanying sketches) nor in their own right attractive (generally falling into a nomansland between realism and stylism that leaves them neither impressive in their skill nor engaging in their vision). What we are left with seems to be a short story (or series of them) half-heartedly illustrated for the slow-of-thought with some crude depictions; or, coming from the opposite direction, we are left with what Alan Moore called “movies that don’t move”, and that have no soundtrack. The stereotypical content, meanwhile (the superhero adventure) is so stylised and superficial as to be ludicrous to anybody not brought up within the tradition. I have repeatedly borrowed issues of several comics from friends, in an attempt to see what they see, but I’ve invariably found them to be facile in plot, two-dimensional in character, terribly written, and with adequate but quotidian artwork – all at a horrifically high price for what there is.

I try, however, to keep an open mind. I have come to enjoy – even occasionally appreciate – a number of webcomics, and a while ago, for reasons still not entirely clear to me, I began purchasing Gaiman’s Sandman comics (in collected form). I haven’t finished it yet, but so far I’m quite impressed. It was on the basis of this that last year I borrowed and read Alan Moore’s supposed masterpiece, Watchmen. I have now read it for the second time.

The first thing that becomes clear on beginning Watchmen is that, while Moore may have affection for comics, he is not blind to their flaws; much of the novel is parodic in the highest sense of the word – a sort of parody that mocks but does not belittle, and that does not seek to emasculate or make safe. From the first words of Rorschach’s ludicrous yet horrifying hypernoir narration, we know that Moore knows how laughable his character would sound in other hands ; it would be so easy to slip into either self-important declamation or anodyne derision, but Moore walks the tightrope – he treats his characters seriously, as serious (and dangerous) people, without making the mistake of accepting their self-appraisals at face value.

The second thing that becomes clear is that this is not a serial churned out for cash – this is not a soap opera. Moore knows from the very beginning exactly where the story is going to go, and how long it will take to get there, and there is none of the filler, the retconning (or very little, at any rate), the deviation and the disconcerting changes in direction that so often mark serial artwork (whether in print or on TV).

Related to this, it rapidly becomes clear that Moore is intent on being extremely clever –almost every panel has an element of foreshadowing, of thematic symbolism, or of ironic self-contradiction. At times, it feels like being smashed around the head.

Watchmen, for anybody who has lived their lives on Mars, is the story of a small band of ‘masked heroes’ (superheroes without the superpowers – people who like to dress up in costumes and beat up criminals), eight years after their forced retirement, as they react to the death of one of their own. In between events, they reflect upon their lives, and this brings us also to some consideration of the heroes of the previous generation. It is 1985, Nixon is still in power, and the world stands on the brink of nuclear war; but, more dangerous than bombs is the one hero who really does have superpowers: Doctor Manhattan, who can see through time and can reorganise matter at the atomic level. We see the events through a great many eyes, but primarily those of two ‘heroes’: Dan Dreiberg, ‘Night Owl’, scion of a wealthy family who once spent his money and time fighting crime with a variety of gadgets from utility belts to a radar-invisible airship, but who retired in accordance with the law, keeping his identity secret, and lives in a small terraced house where he is gradually going to fat; and ‘Rorschach’, once a damaged child from a care-home, now a fascistic, sadistic, homeless vigilante lunatic with terrible personal hygiene, who believes that his mask (a balaclava without holes, patterned with constantly-shifting black blobs) is his real face. Beside these two and Doc Manhattan, the most important characters are Ozymandias, ‘the Smartest Man in the World’, a brilliant businessman who has turned from crime-fighting to charity in his desperate need to make the world a better place; the Silk Spectre (pressured into the role to please her mother, who herself became a costumed hero to further her modelling career) and the Comedian, a ruthlessly amoral thug who works for the government in ‘diplomatic’ roles.

Four of these characters (Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Ozymandias and the Comedian) form a square of extreme moral values: the Dr. and the ‘Smartest Man in the World’ are both forced to see the rest of society from above, and from a distance; Rorschach and the Comedian are born in the gutters and never escape their gritty, case-by-case morality; Rorschach and Ozymandias remain powerfully morally engaged, while the Comedian and Dr. M. are hollow-hearted, maybe even inhumane; Doctor Manhattan looks on the world as a no more important than any other collection of atoms; the Comedian views everything as a senseless, horrific joke that frees him from responsibility; Rorschach is determined to deal justice death by death, regardless of the consequences; Ozymandias, the great philanthropist, wants to make everything better for everybody from above, but his other side, as a businessman who calculates and then exploits the psychology of lesser men shows how much of the simple engagement with individual fellow-men this approach has cost him. Dreiberg and the Silk Spectre sit in the middle of this square, as everymen – but as passive and egotistical people, they are themselves not immune from criticism. Of the six, only Rorschach is unremittingly committed to his moral path. All six can be condemned in one way or another – all six have something admirable, or at least unpleasantly likeable, about them. In many cases, their good and bad elements are the same: Rorschach’s insane inability to compromise is both what is admirable about him and what is contemptible, not only for its results, but also because his single-mindedness has required him to entirely sacrifice his humanity and become his costume. The other three extremists likewise walk on the edge of abandoning all humanity; but maybe someone has to?

From this, it should be clear that Moore is at least attempting to address the most interesting and most painfully whitewashed question regarding superheroes: why they do it.  Moore’s characters are weak, weird and wretched, and yet still, in a variety of perverse ways, admirable. Yet this is also the weakest aspect of the novel: they aren’t superheroes. Moore paints a bizarre and inconsistent world: ordinary people become costumed crusaders (immensely unlikely, but not entirely impossible), but then are somehow as important as real superheroes would be. The Comedian is employed by the government – but why? Another character at one point describes him as having only two notable qualities: a skilful feint and a devastating uppercut. If you were a military/secret service employer, who would you prefer: an unpredictable, possibly lunatic mercenary who parades around in a silly costume but has a good uppercut, or an elite Marine or a CIA assassin, why would you actually pick the costume-fetishist weirdo? And not just pick him to join up, but pick him to remain himself. And if you did pick him, and send him on your top missions, would he really have that much impact? Yet the Comedian is supposed to have influenced events from Vietnam to Dallas – exactly as if he were a real superhero. He isn’t even, like Ozymandias, a man who’s trained himself to the highest level – he’s just some thug from the waterfront.

Relatedly, there’s the question of numbers: there aren’t enough costumed crusaders. A handful of people is not much of a fad; it’s not enough to maintain law and order across America when the police go on strike; it’s not enough to pass specific laws about (and it’s never really explained why vigilantism is not illegal the whole time – having a superman on your side doesn’t mean you have to legalise every madman in a cape). Nor is it just a case of focusing on a handful of people representative of a wider movement – the past and present heroes are repeatedly listed (there is one line early on suggesting that there may have been a couple more, but this impression is never followed through). I simply cannot bring myself to suppose that four or five guys, of no exceptional qualities, could ever be as important, as influential or as prominent as these people are/were. It’s like the government passing laws specifically to deal with the problem of Vinnie Jones, or deciding to send Mr T. to Afghanistan to sort everything out. Even stranger are the ‘supervillains’, some of them seemingly both costumed and serious – however much I can accept various damaged or bored individuals dressing up as superheroes to fight crime, the motivations behind mafia bosses spontaneously deciding to wear gorilla masks are beyond me; there ought at least to be some attempt at explanation.

This is only the most prominent example of a general weakness in world-building; almost as painful is the way that the final climactic plot developments rely (for no necessary reason) on the existence in the world of psychic powers that haven’t been mentioned until (except once, in the brief mention in a supplementary document of a curious incident at the funeral of an alleged psychic) the penultimate chapter, and that are never explained – and not simply ‘rely’ in the sense of these powers being revealed unexpectedly, but a full-blooded reliance in which individuals not only know about these powers, but are able to base plans upon them, and feel no need to explain (or even overcome doubt regarding) these powers when explaining the plan to everyone else. It feels rather as though at the end of a play with everybody trapped in a house with a bomb about to go of, one character were simply to say ‘hey, why don’t we turn the bomb off with that on/off switch that we all know about?’. The deus ex machina is rather less damaging than it could be purely because it’s also superfluous (everything would happen in exactly the same way without psychic powers, so far as I can see – although frankly the entire climax relies far too heavily on facts only revealed at the time), and we can ignore it if we choose – but I do wonder whether this was one reason why the film version altered the ending.

There are also problems with the narrative structure of the book. Here there is more room, I think, for personal taste – some may find the chaotic and abortive, while others may welcome the deconstruction of expected forms. I have sympathy for both points of view: while I welcome the fact that the book is not a straightforward procedural whodunnit, as the opening chapters suggest, I do feel that some power is lost from the underdevelopment of the plot. All the elements work, but they seem too rudely crushed together: the whodunnit element, which is of significance, goes missing in the middle sections while backstory and sideplots take centre-stage, which means that it does not return until rather too late for the importance of its role: squeezed between the climactic sequences and the central development, the resolution of the whodunnit feels painfully curtailed and simplified, as though Moore realised he did not have the time to deal with it more fully. The ending is foreshadowed in great breadth, but little depth – we are not given much time to brood in detail, and the many hints as to what will happen will probably (and hopefully) only be seen on a second reading. The central development sections themselves are somewhat disjointed, rushing from one expositionary flashback to another, and what little character development does occur feels under-motivated, or at least under-depicted. The greatest problems in this regard concern the ending, which is appallingly anti-climactic; following what is, frankly, a titanic climax that should greatly affect not only the characters but also the wider world, we are given a dull, unemotional coda (falling fully prey to the ills of fantasy epilogues), barbed with the sort of ‘the end – or is it?’ final scene generally associated with bad horror films and tales of the supernatural. Torn between the extremely brave choice to leave the book at its logical end and the more timid but more professional and intellectual decision to actually examine the consequences properly, Moore has opted for an indefinite third way – a conclusion that neither asks nor answers anything, and only helps to dull the wound of the preceding questions (and the questions that might be asked by the twist on the final page ring hollow to me, as the logic of the consequences we are expected to anticipate from it does not seem taut enough to pose a genuine problem (apologies for the confusing attempt to avoid saying what happens)).

One reason why much of the book is too compact (other than the inevitable drain on space and time created by the pictures) is that an immense proportion of the book is given over to an innovative but not entirely successful double chorus. Intercutting with the events of the plot is a view from the street itself, focused primarily upon the stereotypical ramblings of a newspaper salesman, whose hopes, fears and prejudices act as counterpoint to the events transpiring. His monologues are themselves juxtaposed with the content of a pirate comic book being read by a boy next to him, which, while theoretically unrelated, in practice act as an ironic commentary upon the words of the salesman, which in turn are a commentary both upon the plot of Watchmen and upon the plot of the comic book within it. This double chorus is an interesting device, but it is of variable strength: unfortunately, the salesman veers too far from ‘man on the street’ into ‘patronising cliché’, and the tone of the comic book is so overwhelmingly melodramatic that it’s sometimes a chore to read. What’s more, the two choruses are so intertwined that Moore has felt in necessary to never separate them – which, early on, forces the comic book to say things entirely for the purposes of commentary (which is made easier by the way that Moore gives us selected passages, not the entire thing), and also later forces the salesman to ramble on weirdly when he has nothing to say, solely to comment on the developments within the comic book. It is unclear what the point of it all is – if it is to show us the life of ordinary people, in a way which becomes emotionally significant later in the book, it would be far better served by showing us less of the salesman and more of the various people around him, while if it is to show us the foolishness of the opinions of the common man, it would be better served by being less stylised, less cliché, and more serious. If it is to parallel the main plot, it is not worth the space – although the comic book plot does cleverly mirror the themes of the overall novel, it isn’t a mirroring clever enough, or extensive enough, to merit the sheer amount of screentime that it gets. Likewise, if it is to entertain us with the cleverness of the writer, it works at first, but soon becomes painfully bludgeoning – it would be better if it were more subtle. The causal connexions to the main plot, meanwhile, are not large enough that it could not be dispensed with entirely. The chorusing does to a degree fulfil all these purposes – but none of them enough to merit the time it gets. The novel would be better served if there were less of it – in particular, a wider focus on four or five street-level characters would have greater emotive effect than the often-forced double chorus.

Nonetheless, this chorusing does help to demonstrate the ways in which the medium is freer than that of prose: much of the effect of the double chorus comes from the way in which a counterpoint is established between words and pictures, with the words from one scene displayed against the pictures from another. This is also used extensively with flashbacks, where the present-day speech or thought adds an ironic layer to images of the past – this is prominent right from the first chapter, where two detectives chat between themselves at a crime scene, against the backdrop of flashbacks to the murder itself, culminating in a scene of a man screaming as he is thrown through a window, captioned by the words of the detectives leaving in the elevator: “Ground floor comin’ up”. The device is used for a variety of purposes: for black comedy (as here); for symbolism; and to depict non-linear psychological re-evaluation, in which repeated words and images re-align to represent the changing thoughts in a way more truthful and demonstrative than could be achieved in pure text (where there is generally a pay-off between the realistic but vague and the too-detailed-to-be-real).

The same counterpoint techniques are also used in scene changes, with the words and pictures ‘leaking’ through time across the cut, as sometimes they do in film. There is no denying, in fact, that the visual style of Watchmen is extremely cinematic – the changes in camera angle, the dramatic lightings, the myriad of sophisticated cuts from one scene to the next, are all familiar from film. In particular, the graphic form can employ short cuts that, again, act as a chorus or a musical drone – as, for instance, when a series of unrelated scenes are shown, one to a page, with each page ending with a shot of Dreiberg preparing to launch his airship.

Can these effects be replicated in text – are the genuinely unique to the graphic form? I’m not so sure. There is no reason, per se, why prose cannot also use a polyphonic texture – perhaps interleaved texts distinguished through fonts and tabbing, or simply through columns, as with some systems of annotation. Some authors, most notably Pratchett, already make extensive use of footnotes for polyphonic purposes. If used sparingly, and aside from the inelegance of the transition, on a linear page, from a single-voice to multiple-voice passages, there is no reason why this technique need be too hard to read. I therefore don’t think that this is an inherent lexical superiority of the graphic form, although it is certainly a technique that is better adapted to it.

However, Moore also makes some use of one element that cannot be replicated adequately in text: the active nature of the attention in viewing a picture. Words hit the viewer in a selected order – but the viewer themselves must scan the pictures, albeit guided by the artist. This makes the distinction between foreground and background more solid, which in turn allows a variety of techniques (foreshadowing, symbolism, easter-egging, and the creation of a fabric of repeated images that serve to establish and direct the visual ‘harmony’ of the piece) that would be far less accessible – if at all – in a prose text. Moore (with his artist, Dave Gibbons) uses them all. I am not, however, sure that they have used them as extensively or as powerfully as they might – much of the background material seems more to demonstrate skill than to achieve any actual effect on the reader – although where it is used well it is used brilliantly.

Finally, the addition of pictures has a major impact upon rhythm – the time it takes to digest each panel makes them feel far heavier and slower than they would as text alone. This can cause the book to go slowly in places, but it also frees the writer to use a more condensed form, with very short scenes and attention paid properly even to brief remarks. The result is that the writing in a good graphic novel seems closer to poetry than to prose, where a similarly compact and elliptical style in non-graphic writing would be dismissed as inaccessible, dense, and melodramatic.

Watchman has therefore convinced me (or rather, since in this it was aided by a number of webcomics, helped to convince me) that there is a genuine place for the graphic novel (if it seems pretentious to use the phrase, I do so only because it seems disingenuous to call something like Watchman a ‘comic’, just as it would to call The Lord of the Rings a ‘fairy story’, or When the Wind Blows a ‘cartoon’, or The Wire a ‘soap opera’ – these words don’t just convey a certain quality, they also convey a certain content and style and form, and although Watchman may have been published originally in the medium of a serial comic book, I have bought and read it as exactly what the term says: a graphic novel) – there can be things that it does better than a prose novel.

On the other hand , the medium still has to stake a place for itself against films. This is a point Moore himself has expressed concern on – not only does an excessive use of cinematic techniques bring the graphic form closer to ‘movies that don’t move, and without their soundtracks’, but we are also seeing a large-scale absconsion by films of the heart of the content of the graphic form: everywhere we see comics and graphic novels ‘translated’ into film (most notably superhero films, but there are many other examples, from horror to gangsters to fantasy to contemporary drama). In the immediate moment, this may encourage pride and confidence among writers and devotees of comic books: “look, they’re discovering us!”; but as cinema increasingly takes graphic content and makes it more financially (and often more artistically) successful, the graphic medium must find some niche to remain distinct, or else it will become merely a route for the early advertising of films, or a branch of merchandising – as Moore says, comic books are in danger of becoming merely a way of storyboarding films, and of pitching film ideas to studios. If they want to remain alive as an independent art form, and not a form of pre-publicity for future blockbusters, there must be some reason for filmgoers to go and read the graphic novel itself.

I haven’t seen the film of Watchman yet, but I agree with Moore that it cannot successfully be compressed into a film – unfortunately, I do think it can be filmed as a TV series. Increasingly, subscription TV, and boxed-set DVDs, allow the cinematic medium to tackle larger and more complex stories, even to the extent of mirroring the episodic nature of works like Watchmen.  Indeed, if Watchmen were an HBO series, the writers would be able to make it MORE complex and MORE fleshed out, rather than less (and the story would benefit from it). Mere complexity alone is no longer protection.

Where Watchmen does make itself, potentially, unfilmable is in its use of ‘supplementary documents’ – various in-world textual artefacts presented at the end of each chapter (excerpts from this novel or that military analysis; scrapbooks of letters, or cuttings from newspapers). Because these documents do not strictly fit into the linear unvelopment of novel, they could not easily be depicted in film. Unfortunately, they don’t really work in the novel, either. The additional texts give a little exposition here, a little character insight there, but they are fundamentally irrelevant to the plot, and the setting, the characters and the events can all be understood without them. Moreover, although they are in themselves not poorly written, the jolting change in pace and style from the graphic sections to the semi-relevant textual addenda  is offputting – I struggled to read it all.

Watchmen is often given as the greatest graphic novel yet – but I feel that it does not so much cap the medium as set a foundation for it. It shows what can be done – this should be a reason not for sitting back complacently upon it as a wreath of laurels, but for going out and actually doing it. Watchmen is skilful and impressive, but its place in literary history should be primarily as an incitement to create something better than Watchmen.

Adrenaline: 3/5. It’s surprisingly gripping, when one considers how unformed the plot actually is. Foreshadowing and colouring build up a powerful sense of atmosphere. On the other hand, things progress at time too quickly and at other times too slowly. Engaging, but not a compulsive page-turner.

Emotion: 2/5. Sorry – but none of the characters were likeable enough, or developed enough, to live all their pains and joys with them, and although tragic things happen, there is too little build-up to them or aftermath from them to really feel much about them. They are kicks to the head, but nothing more lasting or cumulative. The one real problem with the book, for me.

Thought: 4/5. It’s one of the few popular books that isn’t afraid to give the reader an impossible choice. Its characters present us with three different dilemmas: live in the muck, or live in the clouds; strive for an impossible and dangerous goal, or accept the way of the universe with serenity; step up and make choices that may always be wrong and that will always be brave, or sit back, hide away, and let others bare take the risk of being a villain. If any of the characters is a villain (and it’s debateable), the novel forces us to consider: maybe somebody has to be? It is the question of ‘moral self-indulgence’ – can it ever be necessary to, if you’ll excuse the religious imagery, send oneself to hell to make sure others get to heaven, giving up all claim to honour or morality or goodness in exchange for making things better? Or is such a conflict impossible – in which case, which wins? The deontologist, who says that we must always act in the right way, or the consequentialist, who says that we must always bring about the most good? Depending on the reader’s moral views, the novel may end heroically or tragically. Or, indeed, both at once. It doesn’t chicken out and tell us how to think… and yet this doesn’t get a 5, because all it really does is ask the question. There is little if any real consideration of the possible answers. That’s not really a criticism – the book is only so long, after all, and not primarily a ethics book – but it is an imperfection.

Beauty: 4/5. This could have been 5. The prose(or poetry?) is at times beautiful, the imagery is, if not artistically exceptional, certainly powerful and symbolic, and some chapters are constructed with supreme elegance. Unfortunately, the subject matter itself is a bit too brutally, off-puttingly ugly, and the reader is hit about the head far too hard with the self-congratulating genius of the writer.

Craft: 4/5. Again, it’s close to real brilliance – both on the level of chapters and on the level of sentences. Unfortunately, I’ve outlined some of the problems above: the balance of the book is a little off, there’s too little thought been given to some elements (another example is Dr M’s ability to see through time, which, as usual for this concept, is developed neither convincingly nor consistently), and the pacing is flawed.

Endearingness: 3/5. I do like it – if anything, I liked it more the second time. I would certainly recommend it. But… I read it again partly to review it and partly to remind myself what it was like, and partly because I felt like reading something good. I’m not too likely to decide to read it simply because I feel like it – it’s not particularly comfortable or engaging. So it’s not notably endearing, although there are too many elements in it that I like to say that this is actually a flaw.

Originality: 5/5. What is there to say? I’ve never read anything like it. And if you tell people what happens in it, they’ll look at you very oddly. No wonder they changed the ending for the film – they probably couldn’t get it past the studio without making themselves look like lunatics.

Echo: 1/2. Normally I don’t intend to say anything here – it’s either got it or it hasn’t, and I can’t really find a better way to explain what it is it has or hasn’t got, either. But this time, I feel the need to say: this could have been 2/2, if the climax weren’t so weakened by the wet and flaccid epilogue.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. Only just, but I think this one crosses the threshold!

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3 thoughts on “Reaction: Watchmen

  1. Cherie Nash says:

    Hehe I’m actually the first reply to your amazing article?!

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