Friday, March 20, 2009

Who Watches the Watchmen? Not I

Watchmen / Alan Moore, writer; Dave Gibbons, illustrator /letterer; John Higgins, colorist. New York: DC Comics, © 1986-1987.

I finally found something to rouse me out of my torpor and motivate me to start blogging again. I recently finished reading Alan Moore's graphic novel Watchmen, which, judging from the adulation heaped on it and the hype and ballyhoo surrounding the release of the movie version, is the biggest thing to hit comics since colored ink. Here's a sample of the blurbs on the back cover:

"A work of ruthless psychological realism, it's a landmark in the graphic novel medium," says Time Magazine. They rate it as one of the 100 best novels (not just graphic novels, but novels, period) since 1923. Why 1923, I don't know.

"Watchmen is peerless," says Rolling Stone.

"Remarkable . . . The would-be heroes of Watchmen have staggeringly complex psychological profiles, says the New York Times Book Review.

"A brilliant piece of fiction," says The Village Voice.

"Groundbreaking," says USA Today.

"A masterwork representing the apex of artistry," says Entertainment Weekly.

"The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced," says Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost.

Most of the reader reviews on are similarly glowing, but a significant number are not. I beg to differ with the majority view and firmly register with the minority.

My opinion? Somewhere between "Meh," and "Yuck," leaning heavily toward the latter. I found Watchmen a grim, joyless, dispiriting work with an atheistic, nihilistic, and pessimistic worldview that deliberately and consistently inverts, subverts, and perverts everything that makes reading superhero comics fun and enjoyable in the first place. The book's title is based on a quotation from the Roman poet Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen?) that was used as the epigraph for the Tower Commission's report on the Iran-Contra affair in 1987. Like the Tower Commission, questions about the abuse of power and authority and the nature of good and evil are clearly on Moore's mind here. He uses the conventions of the superhero story to try to make points about larger issues, but I disagree about as profoundly as I possibly can with his point of view and his conclusions.

Nevertheless, I wanted to read the book because about a year ago, as a relative newcomer to the world of comics, I created some superhero characters myself and started trying to create a fictional universe for them to live in. I wanted to see if the kinds of stories I had in mind for these characters would sell, so I set out to do a little unsystematic market research. I wanted to read titles that seemed representative of the market for superhero stories as a whole, and I wanted to read books that were considered essential and highly influential in the comics industry. Watchmen was a name that kept coming up on both counts.

Before reading the book, I knew Watchmen had a reputation for being much grimmer and grittier than the average mainstream superhero comic, and was something of a landmark for having largely introduced this element of darkness and grit into comics as a whole. I knew the journey into the world of Watchmen might not always be fun, but I thought it would at least be interesting and instructive. It was not. I started reading the book before Christmas but gave up about halfway through because I found it so relentlessly bleak and depressing. When I heard about the release of the movie version I decided to dig out the book again and push through to the end before making a final decision about it. I thought perhaps I had misjudged or misunderstood the work. I had not. My initial assessment still stands. I did not enjoy this book and cannot recommend it. I don't get the hype. What makes it so wonderful?

The story begins in 1985 as someone is murdering or otherwise eliminating the members of a defunct and discredited team of masked amateur crime fighters, the Minute Men. The latest victim is Eddie Blake, aka The Comedian, a thug and a rapist every bit as brutal as the criminals he fought against. Another former member of the group, the paranoid and psychotic Walter Kovacs, aka Rorschach, who plainly enjoys intimidating and torturing real or perceived enemies, is conducting his own investigation into The Comedian's death. With the reluctant help of two other former vigilantes, Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl, and Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Silk Spectre, Rorschach follows the conspiracy to its source: Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt, another former masked adventurer who has given up crime fighting, become a multimillionaire, and established a reputation as "the smartest man in the world."

Veidt has concluded that simply fighting crime isn't enough. He concocts an insane plan to remake the world in his own image by fabricating the appearance of an alien invasion, destroying half the population of New York City in the process, and forcing humanity to put aside its internal conflicts and unite in the face of the supposed alien threat. Ironically, Veidt's plan works to perfection. Not even the godlike abilities of Dr. Manhattan, the only member of the team with "superpowers" in the traditional comic book sense, can prevent the catastrophe; in fact, Dr. Manhattan refuses to intervene, for his own reasons.

The messages behind the book seem abundantly, almost unmistakably clear to me. Chapter VI, Rorschach's horrific origin story, ends with this declaration by his psychiatrist:

Why do we argue? Life's so fragile, a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud suspended in endless nothing . . . . The horror is this: in the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.

None of the subsequent events of the book do anything to challenge the psychiatrist's pronouncement. The power of God will not save the world because there is no God. If Dr. Manhattan is meant to symbolize God in any way, he will not intervene to save humanity; in fact, he destroys Rorschach for refusing to go along with Veidt's plans and decides to leave Earth forever to visit other "less complicated" galaxies. When Veidt points out that Dr. Manhattan has regained an interest in human life, the doctor replies, "Yes I have. I think perhaps I'll create some," and vanishes.

Moore also seems to imply that conventional heroism will not save humanity because in the end there is no moral difference between the so-called heroes and so-called villains. The Comedian and Rorschach are just as brutal and sadistic as their alleged enemies. The US government recruits The Comedian for all manner of despicable "black ops" missions that the government can later deny. The only "supervillain" we actually see, the former Moloch the Magician, is no longer a master criminal; when Rorschach terrorizes him in order to gain information, Moloch is just a sick old man dying of cancer who wants only to be left alone. Nite Owl, the character most like a conventional superhero, with a genuine desire to do good, is literally and figuratively impotent, both in the sense of being unable to affect the story's outcome and in the sense of being unable to consummate his desire for Silk Spectre--unless he is wearing his Nite Owl costume.

In his essay, A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls, written more than a hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton argued that popular fiction, ranging from fairy tales to the epic adventures of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and even the "penny dreadfuls," or mass-produced sensational fiction of his time, served two purposes. It fulfilled a basic human longing for stories of heroism and adventure and it taught a basic moral code. Chesterton responded to the so-called intellectual sophisticates of his time who looked down their noses at "penny dreadfuls" even as they looked down their noses at the moral codes contained therein:

And with a hypocrisy so ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled in history, we rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very time that we are discussing (with equivocal German professors) whether morality is valid at all. At the very instant that we curse the Penny Dreadful for encouraging thefts upon property, we canvass the proposition that all property is theft. At the very instant we accuse it (quite unjustly) of lubricity and indecency, we are cheerfully reading philosophies which glory in lubricity and indecency. At the very instant that we charge it with encouraging the young to destroy life, we are placidly discussing whether life is worth preserving.

Chesterton argued that in many respects he preferred the simple morality of the "penny dreadful" and the people of the lower classes who read them to the fashionable despair of the intellectual elites:

So long as the coarse and thin texture of mere current popular romance is not touched by a paltry culture it will never he vitally immoral. It is always on the side of life. The poor--the slaves who really stoop under the burden of life-- have often been mad, scatter-brained, and cruel, but never hopeless. That is a class privilege, like cigars. Their drivelling literature will always be a "blood and thunder" literature, as simple as the thunder of heaven and the blood of men.

I would suggest that the pulp novel, the old time radio show, and the Golden Age comic book of the 1930s and '40s were the successors to the "penny dreadfuls" of Chesterton's day. No one could possibly confuse the high-mindedness of Superman or the Shadow's stern warning: "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay!" with the nihilism and brutality of Rorschach and The Comedian. When I was a boy, I wanted to be Superman. Some days I still wish I could be. Who would want to be Rorschach?

I would also suggest that in Watchmen, however, we have what Chesterton might have regarded as the worst of both worlds: a work of popular fiction infected with the nihilism and cruelty of the intellectual elites. It's the product of a "paltry culture" indeed, if reviewers think that such a thing qualifies as high art. Watchmen is not "on the side of life;" it is, at its heart, on the side of death. It reeks of hopelessness and despair. It holds that the thunder of heaven is merely thunder and never the voice of heaven; and that men and women never spill their blood for any good purpose, even to save their country, their family, or each other.

Who watches the watchmen? Not I.


Carrie said...

Hi, Neil--

Excellent review! So glad you're writing again!


PaperSmyth said...

I am so glad you posted. I, too, have been wondering what all the fuss was about. You just saved me from wasting my time! I must agree that as bad as the simple good-versus-evil may get, at least it acknowledges that there is good.

Paul Cat said...

I still want to read the 'novel' umm long comic book, but dang, I just cant get around all those pictures. Maybe if someone could rewrite in a nice Aristotelian syllogism . . .

I have had my nose buried in too many books over the past 5 years.

Sad thing is that I loved comic books when I was growing up.

PraiseDivineMercy said...

Hello, I was pointed to your excellent article by John C. Wright. I was also glad to find that essay by Chesterton, as he is one of my favorite writers and apologists and the essay mirrors my own conviction about the value of popular culture.

Watchmen actually spurred me to get back to The Shadow fandom. The Shadow is more realistic than Golden Age but lacks the cynicism of Watchmen.

While I did get tired of the resounding negativity in Watchmen, I believe it does possess a certain morality in its examination of the human condition. It's true Watchmen heroes aren't heroes at all, they are only the people who mean well. Watchmen is an examination of the moral failings that keep most of us from being real heroes.
That Moloch is a kindly old man is not moral relativism. Moloch is the one who has accepted his faults and sought redemption. In the comic his room has a prominent crucifix and a statue of Mary.
There's also a line in the comics annoyingly absent from the film in which Dr. Manhattan acknowledges towards the end that human life is an unquantifiable miracle. To me, Dr. Manhattan is a walking refutation of the devil's lie, "You will be like God, knowing good and evil." For all his great power, he lacks the wisdom to do much of anything. His power to see the future brings him to the mistaken belief that he has no free will.

It is Oxymandias the moral relativist who is the villian, and the decision of the others to lie by omission is a common sin that has led to many downfalls in history. Ironically, he is the one who at first comes off as the most likable and sane. He is the one whom "all speak well of" in this world. Also, if one considers Ozymandias' solution, one must conclude that it is a temporary one. Will even more people have to be murdered when the shock of the original incident wears off?
It is poor, violent, screwed up Rorschach is who refuses to live a lie.
If we consider the story from a theological aspect, the results are interesting. On one side we have those who are willing to live a lie and murder hundreds of thousands. It is the Comedian of all people who begs forgiveness from the Blessed Virgin the night before his death, with Moloch, the repentant ex-supervillian. It is Rorschach who would rather die than let the deaths of thousands go unpunished.

Ironically, Alan Moore later expressed dismay at the influence of Watchmen on the mainstream, feeling that writers copied only the violence and grimness of his eariler works. He now works on lighter, more traditional fare like "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman."

Plastic Yank said...

He now works on lighter, more traditional fare like "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman."I wouldn't call that "lighter" or more traditional, given the manner of the Invible Man's death, among other things.

PraiseDivineMercy said...

My mistake then on that count. I was going by the film.