Watchmen And The Failure Of Criticism
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/29/14
Two decades ago, I worked in the warehouse of a magazine distributorship. I worked ten hour days, with quite a bit of overtime, and still did not make all that much. In the course of the few years I worked there, I became much physically stronger, had a few brief flings with some of the women who worked in the front office (I was single in those years), and got reacquainted with comic books. As I was in my late 20s and early 30s, in those years, it had been well over a decade since I’d last read any comic book, and about 15 years since the only comic book I made a half-hearted attempt to collect, Marvel Comics’ Godzilla series, was canceled.
The fact was that, while I was not a geek nor nerd, but a streetwise kid with a wayward bent, I preferred adult books- and not even fiction and literature, but science books, like the old Golden Guides to science, or the How And Why Wonder books. Sadly, almost all of my old stash is lost for decades. In truth, most were not lust but tossed, stupidly, by me. Yet, to this day, I still recall one little pocket sized paperback (sadly lost not tossed- likely in a move) that trumpeted the triumph of Louis Agassiz- the Swiss biologist and geologist, in predicting the motion and speed of Alpine glaciers, by estimating the year that a lost hiker, whose body was presumed consumed in glacier ice, would become recoverable. He was proved correct when the well preserved body was found in the year Agassiz predicted, and, even at just 6 or 7 years of age, this thrilled me, and made men like Agassiz, Lyell, Faraday, Darwin, and others, far greater heroes than the underwear wearing weirdos that populated most superhero comics of the day. I mean, seriously, Spider-Man or Agassiz? Please!
Besides, the classic pulp sci fi books of the prior half century were still being reprinted, and easily available for free at the library- Doc Savage, Mike Hammer, and John Carter were all far more interesting (and realistic- via comparison) than Superman, The Green Lantern, or The Fantastic Four, and they came WITHOUT pictures! The mind was free to make movies in the head, not rely on dinky little drawings. The lone exception to this was Batman, whom I loved, mostly due to the brilliant comedic performance of Adam West, in a role that showed the utter absurdity of superheroics. To this day I’ll argue that the Batman television series of the 1960s was the best exemplar of the modern superhero ever put forth into popular culture. As for comic books? Other than Godzilla, Devil Dinosaur, and the occasional crossover comic (Superman Vs. Spider-Man?) the only ones I might actually buy (I read the superhero ones at the comic book stands) were the actually occasionally funny books- those that featured Mighty Mouse, Little Lulu, Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck, as well as the classic Warner Bros. Cartoon creations. What the hell was the purpose of a comic book if not to induce laughter?
Back then, I was a warehouseman, and surrounded by magazines and comic books, and with nothing to do, during the times we were on lunch or break, or if there was some equipment failure on the production line, I would glance at the stuff afore me. The first thing I noticed was how much better the comics (now often called ‘graphic novels’) were than in the 1970s heyday of my youth, but I also saw their obvious limitations, as I pored through each month’s current issue, as well as the reissued ‘classics’ of a genre that didn’t exist a mere decade earlier. Of the new releases, the big thing in the industry was the The Sandman comic line, written by Neil Gaiman (a man who is likely the epitome of why people who ‘write’ in a medium that needs visual accompaniment fail when left with words alone), and The Death Of Superman saga, followed by The Reign Of The Supermen followup, which included, in its timeline, the destruction of Coast City- the fictive home of Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, and I recall one splendidly written issue that ends with Jordan back in Coast City, only to be revealed as his dream- a quite poignant moment wherein a God-like being realizes even his own limits.
But none of these compares, to most comics critic, to the Holy Trinity of Graphic Novels, all released in the epochal year of 1986, which comic book historian Peter Sanderson writes:
In discussions of graphic novels, three works that are regularly cited as landmarks of the medium are Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s highly acclaimed Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, generally credited as influencing the highly successful Batman motion pictures that followed. Each of these works recently reached its silver anniversary; Spiegelman even marked the occasion by releasing a new book, MetaMaus, about the making of Maus. It has repeatedly been noticed that all three works began appearing in the same year, 1986, which has been called the annus miribilis of comics.
At the warehouse, I read two of the three, Maus- the Pulitzer Prize winning rodent retelling of the Nazi Genocide, which was rather predictable and PC- so much so that only a few images of it now stick in my mind, and The Dark Knight Returns- the Frank Miller comic that- two decades after Adam West, finally and fully returned Batman to his darker roots, according to the character’s testosteronic fans, and buried the brilliant ABC network version, yet, which, while having some good moments, again- was far too derivative and stuck in the genre conventions that its champions claimed it sundered and reassembled anew.
This left the supposed best of the trio- the crown jewel of graphic novelry- Alan Moore’s Watchmen, as the one that would take me another two decades plus to finally read, even though it had been hailed as one of Time magazine’s 100 Best Novels between 1923 and 2005. Of course, such lists- especially made by Lowest Common Denominator groups, are bound to be bad and silly for, alongside Watchmen, the list also includes
Ian McEwen’s sterile Atonement; Toni Morrison’s promising but ultimately banal Beloved (not even her best book); Raymond Chandler’s stylish but empty The Big Sleep; the vastly overrated teen book, The Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger; Jonathan Franzen’s puerile soap opera, The Corrections; James Dickey’s laughable Deliverance; Thomas Pynchon’s anomic and plain bad Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying Of Lot 49; the monumentally awful Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace; Henry Miller’s abysmal Tropic Of Cancer; and a boatload of other bad to mediocre works, with perhaps only 10-15 arguably great works, and a few others with a claim.
Watchmen, for all the flaws I will detail, however, is better than the bulk of the worst of these, even though it is not high nor great art. If its boosters would only claim what it is- a good to very good comic book and piece of pop culture, rather than try to frame it as a work of great high art, and a ‘novel,’ much less graphic novel, then this essay would be unneeded. But, its champions claim those things, and furthermore claim that it deconstructs the comic book form and superhero mythos, rather than the fact that it indulges those very established forms and hierarchies, stereotypes and archetypes.
First- what is meant by deconstruction? Philosopher Jacques Derrida, in the 1960s, started what is now known as deconstructionism, a philosophy of art that, like Abstract Expressionism and Postmodernism, were big at the time, but have, for the most part, been left in history’s dust; mainly due to the fact that all three are founded, basically, upon the faulty premise that all is subjective, and there is no real objective take on anything. Of course, the logical outflow of these ideas is that their very essence is undercut by their propounding. Derrida’s more pointed definition of Deconstructionism asserts that art works, or any text, will have multiple contradictions which make a work irreducible in its complexity, thus rendering an opacity to all things which, naturally, means that all claims about a work are equally valid, especially to any individual asserting said claim. Of course, this is nonsense for, if I were to argue that a poem like Robert Frost’s masterpiece, Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, written in 1922, is really about the aftermath of The First World War and the 1918 Flu Pandemic, because it is often interpreted (quite shallowly) as being a mere meditation on death, and these two great bringers of death were still in the minds of many, at the time of its writing, deconstructionists would argue that that is a valid point, even though the text, itself, has no bearing on either of those two death bringing events.
The text, with a deconstructionist point of view inserted between each stanza:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Not even a deconstructionist could hammer home such a point with these
four lines. But, an argument could be made that the narrator is confused, and
adrift, and watching the snow fall amounts to a crisis of conscience.
Now, a reader may think I’m setting up a strawman here, since no one (to my knowledge) has ever argued that the Frost poem was about The War nor The Pandemic. But, that’s my point. And, the paragraph above is exactly the sort of wending away from reality that Deconstructionism employs.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
One might interpret the horse’s unease with the coming of death or malice, especially with the fourth line of the stanza looming so gravely.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
Germs are airborne. Is this a telling case of how influenza spreads and the fact that nature (in the form of the horse) tries to warn humanity, but we are oblivious?
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
A deconstructive argument could see this as humanity braving the two
bringers of death, even as he knows they come, and the doubled ending is the
reinforcement of said resolve.
But, it would all be bullshit, just as most Deconstructionism (with a capital D) is. However, there are less stringent definitions of deconstruction (those with lower case d’s). The most commonly used one is as an analysis used to find the flaws within a certain thing. But, even in this definition, Watchmen fails the claim, as Watchmen utterly celebrates the comic book medium and the superhero genre, which reveals that the claimants of its deconstructive qualities (lower case or capital D) simply do not understand the terminology, and are critically cribbing each other.
But, before we delve into that critical cribbing, let me digress, a bit, on the work, its conception, creation, execution, and reception. Watchmen was written by Alan Moore- a name that is on par with other comic auteurs, like Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee, but who has been portrayed in the media, and in his own later works, as a neurotic Howard Hughes like figure bordering on psychosis. The artwork in the book was done by Dave Gibbons, and much is made of the comic’s use of a nine panel grid throughout most of the work. This is seen as allowing symmetry visually to match much of the supposed symmetry of the narrative. But, long before 1986, comic books, and even comic strips, such as Little Nemo In Slumberland, by Winsor McCay, were doing far more interesting things with the artificial structures of comic panels than symmetry and parallelism.
The idea was originally for Moore to adapt a DC Comics acquisition, from a defunct rival they had bought out, and use those characters to spin a ‘new take’ on, as well a critique of, the superhero mythos, but Moore decided to make an original set of characters loosely based on the acquired ones. In doing so, Moore later admitted to the very non-deconstructive nature of the characters and tales when, in an interview, he stated:
If we had used the Charlton characters in Watchmen, after #12, even though the Captain Atom character would've still been alive, DC couldn’t really have done a comic book about that character without taking away from what became Watchmen. So, at first, I didn’t think we could do the book with simply characters that were made-up, because I thought that would lose all of the emotional resonance those characters had for the reader, which I thought was an important part of the book. Eventually, I realized that if I wrote the substitute characters well enough, so that they seemed familiar in certain ways, certain aspects of them brought back a kind of generic super-hero resonance or familiarity to the reader, then it might work.
Note that Moore fully admits to the generic nature of the characters, for this is an important element that is reflected in the work, and utterly rents the deconstructivist claim.
Nonetheless, the tale is set in the mid-1980s, against a world wherein nuts in pajamas ram around fighting crime, starting in the 1930s, thus rendering the superhero comic books silly, in a world where people did what they did in real life (the diegesis of Watchmen). Like all superheroes, they formed a league- called The Minutemen- replete with a female hero- Silk Spectre (Sally ‘Jupiter’ Juspeczyk)- a large framed woman with few feminine wiles, but none actually had any real superpowers until the second generation of superheroes came along; and even then, only one character, dubbed Dr. Manhattan, acquired such God-like powers- naturally, through some sort of scientific/nuclear accident- a shot at DC’s rival, Marvel Comics, whose Silver Age comic characters almost all suffered some sort of nuclear irradiation. This second wave of superheroes then became The Watchmen. They helped the U.S.A defeat the North Vietnamese and Communist bloc, with the Vietcong even surrendering to Dr. Manhattan, who became a one man embodiment of the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) nuclear deterrent policy.
This Dr. Manhattan trump card allows American hubris to get overweening, and, by the mid-1980s, President Richard Nixon has become a near dictator, and all costumed superheroes have been outlawed, in 1977, save for two of the Watchmen- the deific blue skinned Dr. Manhattan- as if anyone could tell him what to do; and The Comedian- a macho political shill (primarily based on Marvel Comics’ Nick Fury of SHIELD) whom Nixon and others use for their own flag waving agenda.
The Comedian is the starting point of the book (or series of 12 comic books collected into one), or, really, his murder is. The character is only seen in flashback. We then get the story of the Watchmen- The Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Ozymandias, Nite Owl, and the Silk Spectre (the lone female). Rorschach, who is now an outlaw and fully psychotic and psychopathic, is the first on the scene of the murder of Edward Blake, aka The Comedian- who was tossed through his Manhattan apartment’s window and to his death. Rorschach- a pint sized Howdy Doody look-alike loser, named Walter Kovacs, with a trite background of being raised by a whore mother and bullied as a child, gets off on dressing as a film noir character with a white mask whose blobs of black ink somehow change form. He believes that the government, or former supervillains, or both in league, are plotting to kill off the remaining superheroes. Given that just one of them is dead, the character’s paranoia is in full bloom at the start.
He then decides to track down the other former Watchmen and warn them of ‘the plot’ against them, since most of the first generation of superheroes are dead, retired, or incapacitated. Those to be warned from the later generation are Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt)- the world’s smartest man- a mogul who even has a line of kids toys regaling his career as a crimefighter; Dr. Manhattan (Jon Osterman)- the superpowered blue demigod, and his lover Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre #2), and Daniel Dreiberg (Nite Owl #2). Laurie took over the mantel of Silk Spectre when her mother retired, and Dreiberg took over the Nite Owl role when, as a fan of the first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, he wrote a letter, and was given the position when the first Nite Owl retired to open up an auto repair shop. We also get a number of flashbacks to the 1930s and ‘40s Minutemen characters and stories, asides to a youth, in the streets, reading a pirate comic book called Tales Of The Black Freighter, which clearly parallels the goings on in the Watchmen diegesis, almost to too obvious an extent. It’s as if Moore never trusted his own tale to stand on its merits, for the parallels are so close the pirate tale acts as a neon sign blinking motivation and plot; and we also get digressions at the end of each chapter or comic book wherein we see written material by and about certain Watchmen and Minutemen characters.
We then get some of the background tales of the Watchmen, such as Dr. Manhattan’s loop de loop through time, The Comedian’s murderous life as a government operative, and his alleged attempted ‘rape’ of the first Silk Spectre- which, is really just a half-hearted attempt, and one which the first Silk Spectre seems to slough off, as we later find out The Comedian is the father of her daughter- the second Silk Spectre- although the daughter never knew it. Dr. Manhattan is then accused of causing cancer in those about him, so he heads off for Mars- to leave the world alone, in a growing crisis over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and a looming nuclear war. Manhattan’s departure allows the Soviets to not fear the USA as they had, and still Rorschach investigates the supposed plot- which seems more credible when an assassin tries to kill Adrian Veidt, but shoots his female assistant, instead. Rorschach is not without enemies either, as Silk Spectre cannot stand him, and when he warns her and Manhattan, he gets rebuffed. Also, he has a series of tête-à-têtes with a magician turned supervillain turned retiree with medical issues, named Moloch. After several run-ins, in which Rorschach accuses Moloch of being behind the plot, Rorschach is framed and caught when Moloch is found dead. He is then unmasked and sent to Riker’s Island prison, wherein many of the former supervillains he sent up are waiting to exact revenge upon him.
Meanwhile, Laurie Juspeczyk, already alienated from Dr. Manhattan before he was accused of being a living carcinogen, now reconnects with Nite Owl, and they find joy together, resuming their old roles, wearing their old costumes, and falling in love. Dreiberg, who was always the closest to Kovacs- Nite Owl and Rorschach being this cosmos’ version of ‘superfriends’- comes to feel that Rorschach was right about the plot, and convinces Silk Spectre to aid him in breaking Rorschach out of prison. They arrive just in time, before Rorschach’s enemies can get to him. Meanwhile, after Juspeczyk is teleported to Mars to try and convince Manhattan to return, the Dr. returns to earth, now again concerned with humanity. By this time, Rorschach and Nite Owl have discovered that the ‘plot’ against former superheroes seems to center on Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt)- not as victim, but perpetrator. But, he has retired to his Antarctic base, and Nite Owl and Rorschach head off to confront him, unrealizing that, since Nite Owl’s ship had been submerged under the East River, before rescuing Rorschach from prison, it freezes upon getting over Antarctica, and the two have to continue on some scooter like vehicles. Before they left for down under. Rorschach drops his diary (which has been part of his narration throughout a large portion of his sections) into the mail, for a publisher, New Frontiersman, a Fascist leaning newspaper- should he die, and this lends an anti-climactic feel to what is to come, for it contains his suspicions about Veidt.
Meanwhile, Veidt has killed off members of his staff who could implicate him in his plan, which included the murders of Blake, a phony attack on himself, the accusations against Dr. Manhattan, and the framing of Rorschach for Moloch’s murder. In true indulgence of not just comic book art, but melodrama, in general, Veidt, once confronted by Dreiberg and Kovacs, explains his ludicrous plan to save humanity from nuclear Armageddon between the USA and Soviet Union, by faking an alien monster invasion in New York City, which will annihilate a few million New Yorkers, under the false hope that a ‘common enemy’ will united the species in peace. This is one of Moore’s great failings, because, not only is the idea trite, shallow, juvenile, and utterly against all human nature, and one he cribbed, infamously, from an old Outer Limits television series episode, The Architects Of Fear (which he later references as if to alleviate the crib), but he even refused to be talked out of the bad ending by his colleagues (some who quit over it) who, even ignoring the television episode, argued that the ending was trite, illogical, wholly against any real psychological reaction, and so forth. Even Rorschach and Nite Owl argue against his plan, but Veidt reveals he already launched it, as they were coming to find him. Remarkably, and impossibly (save for comic book level- not real adult fiction level- logic), Veidt’s plan seems to work, and this is when Dr. Manhattan and Juspeczyk arrive in Antarctica, having seen the New York City destruction up close.
Veidt and Manhattan clash, and Veidt seems to destroy Manhattan, until Manhattan reappears. Just as Veidt seems to get what will come to him. He shows all the other Watchmen that his plan has worked, and news reports confirm this. Despite grave misgivings, and despite the obvious, that, in a few weeks, sans any further attacks, life will return to normal, and, despite none of them knowing Rorschach’s diary may expose the truth, they all agree to keep silent, save for Rorschach. In true pulp fashion, the sickest and most clearly evil of the characters, through most of the book, is the lone one with a conscience. Veidt is a mass murderer on par with the genocidal tyrants of yore, Dreiberg and Juspeczyk become the silently complicit conspirators after the fact, and Manhattan/Osterman reveals is whole inhumanity by confronting Rorschach, then killing him without a care when the psycho refuses silence and compromise. Manhattan- who likely participated in mass murders in Indochina, now confronts willful murder on a former colleague, because of a plan that cannot work- a fact he basically admits to Veidt, a few minutes later when the smartest man in the world (and self proclaimed heir to Alexander The Great’s mantle of godhood) has doubts of his own success. Manhattan then coldly leaves earth behind. Dreiberg and Juspeczyk take on aliases, and visit her mother, while an editor at New Frontiersman has an assistant look for filler material for the next issue, and we see the assistant reach for Rorschach’s diary
If, in just this brief recap, one cannot see how childish, melodramatic, and archetypally ‘comic booky’ Watchmen is, let me try to take this on from a character perspective. Let me start with the six Watchmen themselves, and go from least to most ethically dubious.
Daniel Dreiberg (Nite Owl): Of the six, his only real crime is his after the fact silence over Veidt’s mass murder. He has the most blank personality, and seems the least passionate. Yes, he breaks Rorschach out of Riker’s Island, but he is, essentially a too old fanboy, as he seems to have become a superhero- or ‘masked adventurer’, as the earlier Minutemen were called- merely to impress his retiring hero, the first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, who retired to run an auto repair shop. While not possessed of real superpowers, he looks like an older, pudgier Clark Kent, while his use of gadgets is an obvious nod to Batman
Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre): The next least guilty on the list, because she mostly has no real powers and spends the book whining over her mother, her father, her lover, Osterman, and many other things. Like many of the Silver and Golden Age female superheroes, she’s basically a prop, a bauble, and passed amongst the men for their sexual satisfaction. However, whereas Dreiberg is basically a shell of his former self, Juspeczyk is still involved, and tries to get Dr. Manhattan to do right. Her turn to complicity, at the book’s end, is a disappointment because, in the end, like most females in this genre, she goes with the crowd, and not on principle. This is important since Dr. Manhattan would have had to murder her, as he did Rorschach, to silence her, and it’s doubtful that he would do so to a woman he once loved. Thus, she held far more power to expose Veidt’s evil than any of the other Watchmen, making her complicity all the more ethically wrong and shameful.
Walter Joseph Kovacs (Rorschach): While he is the only person to display a conscience over Veidt’s mass murder scheme, the fact is that he’s clearly insane, a psychotic, and a psychopath, as evil as most of the supervillains you will ever find in the comic book medium. He’s a serial killing vigilante in The Shadow mode. His treatment of minor criminals, and the seemingly reformed and dying Moloch, display his utter lack of humanity, and that which we do see- such as his arguments with his enemies in prison, his self-justifications, and even his dropping off of his diary to a publisher and refusal to acquiesce to Veidt’s plan, are not driven by an inner ethos as much as his own vanity, self-aggrandizement, and need to play the hero. Hence, his final stand and vaporization at Dr. Manhattan’s hands doesn’t move a discerning reader in the slightest, for we see how ethically and intellectually bankrupt he is during his psychiatric investigation in prison.
Edward Blake (The Comedian): He is a character that likely has a higher bodycount than Rorschach, but because he murders with government sanction he is heralded as a hero, and is one of only two ‘masked adventurers’ left with official Presidential sanction; along with Dr. Manhattan. He is a Nick Fury like character, and also a possible dark version of Captain America. And is only seen in flashback. His is likely the most complex character- a murderer, hitman, sexual deviant, yet also a man denied his daughter, and who is made to grovel before political hacks. That he has the deepest likely template of the six watchmen, yet gets the least ‘page time’ is an interesting decision, but his centrality to the story and watchmen is obvious from the beginning, and his murder. Of the six watchmen, only he sees the futility of their quests, and laughs at it- hence his moniker. Yet, despite that, his vainglory, lust and insatiability herald his doom, and, like Rorschach, the reader feels nothing for his demise- neither at the start, when a reader cannot feel such, nor by book’s end, when a more sympathetic character might invoke such emotion.
Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias): His page time is very limited in the first
2/3s of the book, and his plan makes absolutely no sense, from the beginning
through its revelation and then its execution; which makes its success such a
forced deus ex machina that the narrative and plot become preposterous exemplars
of everything wrong with considering even the so-called best works of comic book
art as high literature. It makes the whole of Watchmen childish; even more so
than were it not held up as a great work of art. Veidt also exemplifies the old
cliché in comic books and other childish fiction that the hero must either die
or become a villain. He displays a narcissism and scorn that allows him to
murder millions to save billions, in his own warped but predictable calculus.
Yet, even he- a mass murderer, is not the worst and most evil of the Watchmen.
Dr. Jon Osterman (Doctor Manhattan): He is clearly the real villain of the piece, because he is the inhuman/transhuman/superhuman. He is a combination of the Marvel Silver Age ‘accidental superhero’ with DC’s own Superman, and most commonly based on Charlton Comics’ Captain Atom, whose origin story mirrors Manhattan’s. He should be leading the human race to greater heights, but he serves as a shill for the US government, and de facto mass murderer in Indochina. He can see the future, and relive all of his past and future moments, yet he stands by and lets others die- he refuses to stop The Comedian’s murder of an innocent, and then he coldly kills Rorschach, but, of course, his greatest crime is that, at some level, he has to know his own future, thus know Veidt was behind his carcinogenic scare campaign, as well as his plan to murder millions, and he does NOTHING to stop Veidt. He is a deist demigod and an exemplar of the Stan Lee Spider-Man motto, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ gone wan. Just as philosophers have declared that an all powerful God who allows evil to exist is not an all good God, so does the same reality hang over Dr. Manhattan. His leaving the earth at book’s end is the lone bright spot in the series, because the reality is that, no matter how deluded and evil Veidt has become, Dr. Manhattan is bound to become far worse, for he has far more power- both in the energy sense and the ability to know what is to be.
Now, given my summary of the plot and the characters, and the obviousness of the clichés and tropes, in what possible way is Watchmen a deconstruction of the superhero mythos?
It does not mock, parody, lampoon, nor satirize the genre. It adds nothing of depth, and, in certain ways, because it has no ‘real’ background for it, it has to rely on the genre’s generic tropes, clichés, generalizations, stereotypes, archetypes, and all, just to have the viewers be able to partly get some of the wink and nod references to source characters and stories. In this manner, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, is a vastly superior work, because when he has Batman (albeit an older, less capable Batman) doing what he does, it’s a direct commentary on the selfsame character’s earlier deeds and misdeeds, whereas the trite things the Watchmen do just pallidly echo the very things ‘real’ and less self-reflexive comic book superheroes do.
To stick with the echoes idea, this brings one to the supplemental material that ends each section of the book, as well as the pirate comic within the comic, that is read by a poor black street kid, called Tales Of The Black Freighter. Much has been made of the fact that both these techniques break the fourth wall of the comics genre, but, in truth, while this may be true of the superhero subgenre, in the world of comic strips and of humorous comic books, like the Archie comic, or those of Disney, Little Lulu, and Casper The Friendly Ghost, such excursions, while not common, were not unheard of, as I read some of these circa 1950s and 1960s vintage works when a young boy trolling through a friend’s cousins old comics. And the detective, crime, science fiction, horror, and war comics of the 1940s through 1960s (especially those of now defunct companies like EC Comics- of Mad magazine fame, Gold Key, Dell Comics, Harvey Comics, and Charlton Comics) similarly employed such techniques on a recurring, if not widespread, basis. The actual pirate comic scenes we see act mainly as stand ins for the psychological goings on with Adrian Veidt who, as the former Ozymandias, is coming to terms with his own essence. In a certain sense, this digression is perhaps the best literary device used in the book, but it reminds me all too much of the bad novel Life Of Pi, wherein the heavyhanded, overwrought, and ill written symbolism of the bulk of the book is nowhere near as good as the brief coda to the main narrative, wherein we find out what really occurred, and what the other things on the lifeboat represented. Hence, in a similar fashion to how novelist Yann Martell unwittingly undercut his own supposed ‘literary’ pretensions and writing with his better simple and unadorned writing, so too does the best and most literarily accomplished portion of Watchmen- the pirate digression, utterly make the hamhandedly wrought Ozymandias plot seem even more juvenile and silly than it is. Lesson: when one cannot transcend a genre by using the genre’s tested and true techniques, never ever accidentally make the genre’s flaws all the more obvious with techniques not natal nor common in said genre!
Another problem with the whole series and book is that it was simply not too well understood by its creators. By that I mean that neither Moore nor Gibbons had a unique nor coherent idea for the work. They were all too willing to just let things come together with no rhyme. Now, as a great writer, I understand the need for a certain organic elasticity in one’s work. Poetry is made of it, and, to a lesser extent, novelry often demands it- at least great novel writing. But a total cluelessness as to whether or not something is needed is evident in this 1987 interview with Moore, wherein he states:
As for “Who watches the Watchmen?” we didn’t know were the
quote came from until I had a phone call from Harlan Ellison, who phoned up just
to tell me because he’d seen us expressing our ignorance in Amazing Heroes,
and wanted to put us out of our misery. Apparently the original quote is “Quis
custodiet custodies?” [sic: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?]
which means “who guards the guardians,” “who watches the watchmen,” and
it was said originally by the satirist Juvenal, and it was the quote that got
him slung out of Rome and placed in exile. It’s a dangerous political quote.
Who’s watching the people who’re watching after us? In the context of Watchmen,
that fits. “They’re watching out for us, who’s watching out for them?”
That’s where the title comes from. It’s also a nice bit of graffiti, so you
get little snatches of it in the background.
Note how Moore doesn’t even get what the quote really means, even after he regurges it by rote. The quote does NOT mean that the Watchmen need looking after to protect THEIR interests, but that they need to be watched to protect the interests of those THEY claim to watch. I.e.- the powerful need to be watched for their abuse of power even more than they need to watch the peons for dishonest actions. And this was not one mere gaffe, as Moore has repeated this misunderstanding over the years.
This is in synch with the repeated misunderstanding that Watchmen is a deconstructive work, rather than an overt celebration of the superhero comic genre, and many poor critics seem intent on repeating this fallacy till it’s accepted by fiat. But, despite some critics’ claims that the ethical ambiguities and- cliché time- nihilistic outlooks of the Watchmen is what defines the book as a work of deconstruction, this is clearly not so, and historically inaccurate. It’s as if the champions of this work want to simply gloss over the quarter century of superhero comics that preceded Watchmen’s appearance. Yes, it is dark, and so was Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but these works simply did not appear on the heels of the Silver Age of the Gee Whizzums Superman Clan, nor Bat-Mite, nor the Golden Age Fawcett character, Captain Marvel (known as The Big Red Cheese, with reason)- always a better character and superhero than Superman (a character he was far less like than many other superheroes more blatantly like Superman, bur which never routinely outsold Superman every month!).
No, first came the highly touted ‘Marvel Age’ of comics (the start of their Silver Age), wherein Marvel introduced angst laden characters with real world problems. Hell, Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) worried about dates and grades and girls and acne, for God’s sake! And by the late 60s, even DC had caught up, and both of the top companies, as well as many underground comics, were truly revising and deconstructing previous norms. Spider-Man famously suffered angst over whether or not he was responsible for the death of his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, Green Lantern dealt with racism, Superman with emotional inadequacy, Bruce banner with psychosis, and on and on. Batman’s return to a darker side did not just happen with Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but a decade and a half earlier, with the introduction of newer, more psychologically complex villains like Ra’s Al Ghul, the murderous side of established characters like The Joker, and the creation of the Lovecraftian Arkham Asylum. And Marvel, itself, over two full decades before Watchmen’s appearance, in the Silver Age, created the spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. at the height of the James Bondian spy-crazed era. Governmental intrigue and use of superheroes as political symbols and pawns by the government was nothing new by the time Watchmen debuted, and, as shown, Moore’s work really did nothing to alter nor advance the status quo.
Yet, few critics seem to have understood this. One of the few who did- a woman named Lydia Millet, in a Wall Street Journal article called From Comic Book To Literary Classic, wrote:
As with most media sensations that capture a pop-culture moment, it's
difficult to pinpoint exactly why the comic won instant mythic status. Within
the macho-melodrama tropes of the superhero genre, it's fair to say
"Watchmen" stands out for its rich entertainment, its darkness and its
lurid pleasures. Its vividly drawn panels, moody colors and lush imagery make
its popularity well-deserved, if disproportionate.
But the comic's much-publicized naming, for instance, by Time magazine as one of the "Best 100 Novels of All Time" in 2005 was, let's face it, just silly….Indeed, the hype around "Watchmen" is its curse. If you want to enjoy the comic for what it is, ignore the attributions of literariness and the novelistic pretensions with which some critics have imbued it. This isn't high culture and it doesn't pretend to be. It's good, juicy pulp fiction with a little nuclear apocalypse thrown in.
Of course, she propounds some mediocre and obscure work of her own as better, but, nonetheless, her points re: Watchmen are solid and grounded in reality. But, she, and the few other genuine critics of the work, never push farther, so cede much of the discussion of the work to fawning idiots, like this one:
Much smarter folks than myself have provided in-depth analysis of Watchmen over the years. I won’t even try and plunge into the depths of this major work. Suffice to say it’s quite a dense read and not the kind of book you pick up for a fun time. This is my fifth or sixth reading of Watchmen and I’ve found that each time I read through this book, I discover something new. Now with the Absolute edition, I’ve gained an even greater sense of Moore’s story. This is a masterpiece. One that has inspired just about every writer since its release. Just as Citizen Kane was the father of modern cinema, the techniques in Watchmen can be seen in dozens of comics on the rack today. Still, after 20 years, no other work comes anywhere close to Watchmen. It remains the best comic-book of all time and the new hardcover is easily the best collection ever released.
Seriously, this is a work that, midway through it, I knew that Veidt was the Big Bad, that Rorschach would end up dead, and a dozen or so other details, just as large, and some small, would occur. How this critic would need to reread this book a handful of times to get the things that are so obvious that their plot machinations (so often ripped from prior superhero tales) are screaming their own and only possible resolution is simply staggering.
Of course, it was not just minor online critics displaying their lack of acumen and knowledge of the genre and specific work. This gem came from a New York Times critic named Dave Itzkoff:
But ‘Watchmen’ has another legacy, one that Moore almost certainly never intended, whose DNA is encoded in the increasingly black inks and bleak storylines that have become the essential elements of the contemporary superhero comic book- a domain he has largely ceded to writers and artists who share his fascination with brutality but not his interest in its consequences, his eagerness to tear down old boundaries but not his drive to find new ones.
Yet, both ends of this equation are false. First, brutality in comics goes back to the Second World War, and the 1950s domination of the medium with war and crime comics and NOT superhero comics, and what exactly did Moore erect insofar as a new boundary? Seriously. Watchmen is a nice little moment in a rather seamless continuum. And the most important part of this observation is that it does NOT take an expert in the genre to know this, but someone (myself) with a reasonable non-fanatical history with the medium, as well as the ability to spend an hour or more Googling for specifics that his memory could not provide. Seriously, that’s it. Of course, the deification of a handful of comics artists as Buddhas, and the creation of a comics or superhero pantheon is in line with other arts. All of them- poetry, painting, music, film- construct their own elites and de facto untouchable works, and some are genuinely deserving while others fall away. But the utterly false narratives around Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus, especially, is troubling, since all of the claims about them require an ignorance or willful denial of reality to be maintained.
As example, let’s look at this lunatic claim (I retain the grammatical and spelling errors):
I have just finished reading the famous graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The first thing that comes to mind upon its completion is “Wow”. No doubt about it, this is a truly amazing piece of literature. That’s right, I said “literature” when referring to a graphic novel. I had heard from various places and sources that Watchmen was a landmark piece in the comic book world and that it, along with some other works such as Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns mini-series, helped establish a new-found respect for comics and graphic novels as pieces of literature with complex and intelligent story-lines and characters.
At least he admits he has been influenced by the hype.
Well I now understand what all the hype was about. Watchmen is complicated, dark, psychological, intelligent, philosophical and much more. It’s characters, it’s mood and it’s fleshed-out history and world, as well as the amazing unfolding of the intertwining plot-lines place Alan Moore as an intensely creative and smart writer. He takes the traditional detective and super-hero story structures found in past comics and infuses them with post-modern techniques of inter-textual cultural mash-ups, a cheeky self-reflexivity and a well constructed hyper-real version of our own world and history.
Now, look at this claim. The writer admits that there are familiar (actually banal) features, but these are rescued by the postmodern, intertextual and self-reflexive, even though as I’ve shown, these are hollow claims.
Of course, this hollowness stems from the critical cribbing I claimed earlier, and ‘critical cribbing’ is a term I coined to denote when critics just mindlessly repeat points (often provably false), from a perceived ‘authority figure,’ in relation to a thing under review, with little regard to what the work actually achieves. Let’s look at a typical online review, and enumerate the cribs and clichés:
Watchmen’s fantastic conceit is grounding the superhero myth in as concrete a reality as possible (crib #1- done long before Watchmen); then trying to see how the consequences of truly inexplicable power might play out in this world (crib #2- done before). Masked crusaders are part of its tableau, but the real gamechanger is Dr. Manhattan’s god-like being, with the ability to manipulate matter. What might look like everlasting peace is only seemingly the delayed onset of inevitable war, as the world grapples with potentially being rendered obsolete. This is of course only one strand happening among many, and part of the achievement of Watchmen is how it juggles everything so effortlessly (crib #3- there really is nothing effortless here; in fact, it’s very predictable), how it weaves in past and present (cliché #1)) to create rich psychological profiles of its heroes (crib #4- just look back on my brief character descriptions- rich is not an applicable term). Time is a meaningless concept (cliché #2) for the omniscience of Manhattan, and so it seems to become for the other characters as they find tendrils from their past seeping into the actions of their present (cliché #3). This narrative complexity (cliché #4 and crib #5- go reread my lot summary- plotting density does not equal narrative complexity) is aided by a simple layout- every page consisting of 9 equally sized panels, every chapter ending with a different piece of narrative from a fictional work in the Watchmen universe (cribs #6 and 7). It’s all dazzlingly ambitious (cliché #5), it all works perfectly well, and it justifies its pride of place in the literary canon. I will however say that there are simply better works from this medium that I have experienced.
It’s a tossup as to what is more amazing- the fact that the writer crams 5 clichés and 7 cribs into one average sized paragraph, or the fact that he ends the paragraph abjuring the very top claim of those he cribs from, by stating there are greater comic books.
Of course, as bad a review as that was, its ending saves it from the very sort of pointless review that can literally be found in hundreds of forms with a simple Google search, like this wholly generic one:
It may seem hard to imagine today, but back in 1985, nobody was particularly familiar with the idea of superheroes with human emotions, psychological problems, or anything other than square jaws and simple morals….Watchmen is an extraordinary piece of work. It is designed to be read at least twice – there’s no way you could get the most out of this in one reading, as so much is built up before we have a chance of noticing it. On first read, you may find yourself smacked in the face by an awesome ending. Second time through, you’ll wonder how you could have missed all those clues….Because the book deconstructs the genre, a working knowledge of it is essential. This means it isn’t particularly accessible to the beginner and, despite its deserved classic status, it would not be an easy starter for someone unused to the form.
Even worse are the endless streams of fawning video reviews, like this one.
The very fact that so few of them even deal with one or two pieces of reality concerning Watchmen, specifically, or comic books, generally, speaks volumes of how and why the failure of criticism, both for Watchmen, and in modern society, in general, is so damning and frustrating.
As I’ve shown, the sum total of the arguments for Watchmen’s being great art are easily disproved notions, and these notions being endlessly propounded by its fanboys (to use the silly but accurate- in this case- term for people with childish fixations), in the puerile manner of ‘say it often enough and people will believe it.’ But, it’s not so. I’ve shown the banality of the plot and characters, the wholesale lack of any real deconstruction (a big word thrown around simply to make a child’s medium seem adult) of comic book tropes and, instead, the vacuous celebration of these very claimed deconstructed tropes. Some critics believe calling a comic book a ‘graphic novel,’ or in Time magazine’s case, simply a ‘novel,’ will make it so. But it’s not. It’s a comic book- a fairly good one, at its best, but overburdened with the juvenilia that almost all genre art bears. It did not raise its art form, and I’ve shown that such claims are bunkum which willfully ignores a quarter century’s worth of development that preceded Watchmen’s release.
That such dishonest claims are even made shows the recapitulative nature of most of the book’s critics, in that such dishonesty is immanently childish, and I have recognized and demonstrated it as so. Of course, I read this work at 49, whereas most of its fans were teens or younger when they first read it, but this does not mean that age, alone, can save one. One need only look at some of the bizarre rantings and absurd lifestyle choices of Alan Moore, the book’s chief creative force- and over a decade my senior, to see his own Peter Pan like take on life and existence, even beyond the childish medium that made him a star. Yes, objectively speaking, Moore’s solid to good comic book is better than the horrendous assembly line or worse prose fiction churned out by the MFA writing mills of America and other civilized countries, but, so what? That, in and of itself, is not a justification for calling Watchmen, nor comic books, high art. They are separate matters.
The comic book itself, gets worse and worse with each predictable chapter’s infliction of its own inability to veer from the expectations it foreshadows. The character tropes are so ossified that we know what will happen, generally, almost from the outset, and certainly, each main Watchman’s fate is assured. The almost Mr. Spock-like Dr. Manhattan is assuredly going to leave all behind; the overweening arrogance of Adrian Veidt signals that he HAS to be the tale’s Big Bad because, even though Political Correctness was in its infancy in the mid-1980s, one of its doctrines has always been that real self-confidence is really arrogance, and such a lack of humility exists in only evil people, so one should always ‘be humble,’ a noxious cliché if there ever was one. Hence, the very framework of the book tips us off to Veidt’s true nature, if not, immediately, to his specific endgame. We know Walter Kovacs is being set up as a stereotypical antihero, even though- technically, he’s not (but pop media has no ability to thresh through such finer distinctions), so this means he will- despite his insanity and murderous streak, be the force to unravel the tale’s secrets, and thus most likely die. Silk Spectre is, well, just there- a vagina that can speak (the whole post-mass murder, ‘love me because we’re alive’ cliché is execrable writing on a Nicholas Sparks level of yearned for depth via gonad) because that’s the way this medium- at least until the mid-1980s, depicted women. Daniel Dreiberg is basically along for the ride, as the lame and impotent ‘voice of reason,’ who does little but stand around and, arguably, become the reader’s stand in. And Eddie Blake- The Comedian, is a really bad guy- see his murder of a Vienamese prostitute, but set up as the truthseeker and seer of things no one else can- a warped Buddha for a warped world. His villainy is seen as a good thing simply because he sees even larger evils and feels it’s all a joke, and that nothing can be done. He really should have been called The Nihilist, for that is what he is, and nihilism is the utmost exemplar of juvenile thought and posturing. The scene of him babbling to Moloch over what we later find out is Veidt’s plan, is designed to humanize him post-mortem. That these OBVIOUS characterizations and narrative manipulations have never really been commented upon in any real depth, and usually are often LAUDED for being 180 degrees from what they really are, is precisely why criticism of Watchmen has failed.
But, perhaps I am being too hard? Perhaps they simply do not see what is
right before them? To use the banality- they have missed the forest for the
Ok, then let us turn to a time honored literary technique the book employs far too often and way too heavyhandedly- the use of epigraphs, at each chapter’s end, and which provide each chapter with its title. This technique- quoting another work of art as a de facto motto for one’s own- dates back to the Classical Greek era, but really took off, in a modern sense, with one writer and one work: T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. That Modernist milestone made obfuscation popular, as well as the use of epigraphs and in work borrowing, collaging, and quilting of others’ works for a new work. But, even Eliot did not employ epigraphs that well, in The Waste Land and most of his other poems. He was the exemplar of, if not always style over substance, surely obfuscation over depth. When used correctly and well, an epigraph either a) summarizes the work ahead, in a more plangent manner, or b) acts as a jumping off point to move beyond the quote, or actively undermine it, thus creating antithetical dramatic or comedic tension for a later payoff. When used poorly (which is 99+% of the time), as in Watchmen, the epigraphs are either pointless or pretentious preenings, and just try to leach excellence off likely better works, regardless if appropriate or not.
As example, Chapter 2 is called Absent Friends, and follows the burial and aftermath of Blake The Comedian’s death. The full epigraph, at end, is from an Elvis Costello lyric: And I’m up while the dawn is breaking, even though my heart is aching. I should be drinking a toast to absent friends instead of these comedians. This is from a 1984 song called The Comedians, and has no deeper meaning. But its use as an epigraph gives that illusion, and that’s what Moore and company want- not depth, but illusion. Look at the two clichés in the first sentence, and- no- this is not an undermining of the trite, but, like Watchmen’s celebration of comic book clichés, a celebration of lyrical clichés. But, even worse, is the utterly surface level second sentence that gives the direct title. Seriously, what about the chapter, which shows the alleged attempted rape of the first Silk Spectre by The Comedian, is deepened by this quote? Nothing. Period.
I would have liked to return to the attempted rape scene, in a bit, to contrast it to a rape scene in my own novel, The Vincetti Brothers, to easily illustrate the difference between mediocre juvenile art and great adult art, in which the two would be teen rapists are watched by a third person- to compare the failure and success of the two rape scenes, and the actions of the two watchers, but the difficulty in working in the visuals means I won’t. it would be a waste of time, in this medium. Suffice to say that the Watchmen scene fails because it’s so predictable, and we don’t have any real sense of the characters, and why, later on, when we find out that Silk Spectre willingly bred with The Comedian, we are not moved by it, whereas my scene works, not only because of the lack of visuals and power of my words, but because of the unexpected (but wholly believable) actions of the rapist, raped, and watcher. It defines the very difference between juvenile fantasy and adult realistic fiction, and shows why words, well and greatly wrought, and the power of a percipients’ imagination, always trump the fully shown picture of a thing.
But on to another epigraph: Chapter 5’s Fearful Symmetry quote:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
This is from William Blake’s The Tyger. This is one of the few quoted upon epigraphs, by critics, but only because of the 9 panel format of the comic, and the fact that the last few panels’ imagery symmetrically matches that of the first few. Narratively, there is no symmetry from start to end, but, at best, this is the best used epigraph, simply because of the art’s symmetry; and, just to comment on the whole of the book- Gibbons’ artwork is neither great nor terrible. Had Moore written a better book it may have allowed for more pushing of boundaries, but, as it is, Watchmen is well behind works like The Dark Knight Returns, and later works, in terms of boundary stretching.
The desire to use something of ‘depth’ to add depth to a lesser work is exemplified with The Abyss Gazes Also, from Chapter 6, which deals with Rorschach’s psychological plumbing in the prison system. The quote: Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster. And if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. This is Aphorism 146 from Beyond Good And Evil, by philosopher Friedrich Nietszche (avatar of the modern world’s dark obsession), and while it can be said to sum up Kovacs’ life, the very reason it sucks is because Kovacs’ life is such a cliché to begin with. What would have been needed was an antithetical epigraph, to develop tension between the title and what we learn of Rorschach, so that the very epigraph could, at least, hint at hidden depths of the character, not merely state what is painfully manifest.
One final epigraph to illustrate the point comes from Chapter 10: Two Riders Were Approaching…. This is from Bob Dylan’s song All Along The Watchtower: Outside in the distance a wild cat did growl, two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl. Now, while the song reaches back to a Bible passage in Isaiah, that references a watchman, it clearly refers to Nite Owl’s and Rorshach’s approach to Veidt’s Antarctic fortress. The problem is that, while the Dylan song is one of the more lyrically inventive of his career, since we plainly see two riders approaching, that should NOT have been the epigraph choice. We’d get that from ANY epigraph culled from All Along The Watchtower, and hearken back to the two riders motif. Imagine had Moore chosen this line- Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth- and took the title as Plowmen Dig My Earth. We would have gotten a much more complex view of Veidt, man and businessman, although, truth be told, much of this would have been known by then, yet, it still would not have been as obvious as the actual epigraph. Or, suppose he’d used- There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke. But you and I, we’ve been through that- then used But A Joke as the title. You’d still have gotten the whole song’s references to watchmen and two riders, as well as The Comedian’s outlook, but you would have also been lured away from the growing predictability of the book’s end, by thinking that, perhaps, there was just an elaborate ruse going on, and Veidt was spoofing his life, and the extra-diegetical drama, with a grand hoax. Again, this would not have been a great epigraph, but it would be a much better one than that used, and, really, few song lyrics make for good epigraphs to begin with.
So, we see, here, yet another failing of Moore’s writing, and this one directly related to the obfuscation and pretentiousness taught to many bad writers of the late 20th Century, in mindless and faceless MFA mills, to ‘punch up’ the meanings of their bad poems and stories by trying to leach depth and meaning via epigraphs of better known, and usually better wrought, works. The epigraphs in Watchmen are, by and large, unnecessary, and the few that are not really bad, are just sort of there.
And that’s almost a total wrap up of Watchmen. It is there; it sort of just exists as a summing up, of sorts, of comic books to that point, and it’s the critics who have yearned to have their puerile art form elevated way beyond its means. Moore’ insistent and childish belief that darkness = complexity betrays much of what is behind this work: a déclassé Mickey Spillane novel with underwear wearing freaks extolling refried superheroic nostra that ends with, of all things, the best of the best becoming the worst of the worst, aping comic book ends in such a puerile manner, whereas a real work of adult deconstructive art would have ended more deeply, and personally, within the character’s realms of self doubt and angst. And one cannot even pat Moore on the back for actually trying something, and evoking the ‘at least he attempted something’ nostrum because Moore didn’t! Yes, attempting and succeeding at something are different things, but to just foist the same old same old, and hope a battery of incompetent and/or deluded critics will save your ass (which has, let’s be honest, mostly worked for three decades) is another. Even worse than bad critics defending and championing mostly mediocre works are when the few people who speak out against something, as bad, do so for the utterly wrong reasons- with axes to grind. One need only look at this discussion board to see why this essay I’ve written is, as far as I know, the only legitimate artistic and critical takedown (or, to be fair, balancing) of the critical overrating of Moore’s work.
Moore is so mediocre at his craft that he doesn’t even seem to realize that one COULD use the flaws and limits that DEFINE a genre as jumping off points, for something deeper and better, and instead decides on celebrating those flaws and limits as art, itself, unrealizing they then are JUST flaws and limits. Hence, one can only call Watchmen great art if one knows nothing of art, writing, literature, fiction, and comic books. I’m not even a fan of the comic book genre, yet I knew all of Moore’s tricks and shortcomings the moment they appeared, for I had seen these well worn flaws before. Watchmen indulges and recapitulates them, it does not transcend them. As example, at book’s end, the hokey predictability of it all sees Veidt self-consciously mention to Nite Owl and Rorschach that he isn’t a Republic Pictures serial villain, wont to explain his seeming victory, as the time used in explanation is then used successfully against him, yet he then does EXACTLY what such a villain would do- thus indulging and NOT deconstructing the moment and its referentiality; and NO, this is not then undermined nor deconstructed simply because his plan succeeds, because it succeeds ONLY because of the more noxious utter stupidity of the other assenting characters, which sets off the clichéd denouements of all of them, especially the lame death scene of Rorschach at Dr. Manhattan’s whim. The prevalence of these bad characters and their traits utterly prevents Watchmen, this picture book- not novel, from being on par with not only a Moby-Dick or Slaughterhouse-Five or A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (a novel unfathomably NOT on Time magazine’s great novels list from 1923 to 2005), but even just solid novels. It is merely a solid to good piece of limited youth driven pop art, at best, and nothing more. And, the very fact that a work needs to rely on pictures, not mere words, necessarily means the art form, as a whole, is not real literature, for eyes and visuals have been around for over 600 million years, and we are hard wired to instinctively react to them, whereas abstract and written language has been around for maybe 6000 years, give or take a millennium, and is something many humans, to this day, have trouble cognitively understanding and adjusting to, much less with the ease that a visual image can be processed and mostly understood.
Let me end with a return to where I began, with Watchmen and the failure of criticism of it, and that failure’s being mostly posited on the utter inability to even approach art and criticism objectively, instead using supposed tools like deconstruction, when failing to even understand that deconstruction is 1) a lack of objectivity that renders all subjective, and at the whims of aesthetic tastes, or 2) analysis used to find the flaws within a certain thing. One might argue that, while Watchmen does not employ the former, it has benefited from its deployment in its defense, but, prior to this essay, it has rarely, if ever, been subject to the latter. Nor has any deconstruction really been attempted of the superhero genre, with the possible exception of the aforementioned and sometimes brilliant 1960s television series, Batman, starring Adam West in the titular role. Too often dismissed as part of the High Concept shows of that decade, it nonetheless poked fun at the sheer absurdities of what a superhero would look like, and how normal people would react to such men in their midst. Granted, unlike Watchmen, Batman never explored the issues of urinating and defecating while in costume, but that is a minor boon for the otherwise overwrought and overrated ‘greatest graphic novel of all time.’
The truth is that Watchmen is a good example of the comic book medium at a certain time and place, and nothing more, despite the pretensions of its creators and fans. That this reality is not enough for both says far more of their lacks, and why comic books have been, are, and will likely always be, essentially a sub-adult art form, and minor sort of literature, if any. Claims to the contrary are just failed criticism, as demonstrated; cranks and their files notwithstanding.
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