Thursday, December 08, 2005

Watchmen: The Perfect Diamond of Comics

A while back I did a piece on the Top Ten Works that Changed My Life and Watchmen came in at number three. If you check out that article, you can hear the story about what happened when I first read the book and a bit on it, but having just completed a reread, it's time to go a bit more in depth into what makes this book one of the most astonishing pieces of fiction ever produced.

If you haven't read Watchmen, go out, get the book, then come back and read this article. It's one of the best works of fiction ever made and absoultely revolutionized comics. But twenty years later, that revolution is accepted fact and we're left with the book itself, which definitely holds up. Anyway, spoilers from here on out.

The first thing that's noticable when reading Watchmen is its structure. Moore's work always uses the medium in different, interesting ways, frequently by placing limits on himself. In this case, the limit is the nine panel grid, the fact that every page in the entire book is based around a nine panel, three by three structure. It's the same thing that Moore used in From Hell, and it's clearly a way to create unique rhythms, as well as being flexible enough to support nearly anything he'd want to do. The sheer density of the text means that every splash page, or even a three panel spread makes a big impact. When you reach issue twelve and see the five full pages devoted to showing the devestation in Manhattan, it's overwhelming because it's the first time the book has broken out of this grid structure and given us a full view of events.

Within this structure we get a very disciplined series of juxtapositions of image and text. Watchmen is a work that could only be made in the medium of comics. Sure, you could tell the story in a film, but to fully experience Watchmen, you need to experience the way that Moore effortlessly weaves together multiple plotlines, often layering three or four different lines of narrative within a single panel. While at times this can be almost overwhelming, as in the case of the pirate comic scenes, which seem to be designed almost entirely tos how off Moore's skill at integrating these different narratives. However, on the whole it works wonderfully and really makes you feel like everyone else in comics isn't even trying. There's so much symbolism and double meaning in every moment of the book it's humbling. Gibbons art also deserves a lot of credit, for the way he is able to build an entire world on the page.

One of the greatest things that Moore and Gibbons do here is to create a fully realized world. You get the sense that every person on the street is a character, with something going on in their life, and through the supplementary materials and ads saturating the streets, you get an idea of the society in which the characters live. There's no moment where the entire alternate history is laid out, but over the course of the book, you can piece together all the events that occurred to bring things from where our world was in 1940 to their world in 1985. This is one of those rare fictional worlds that feels entirely credible and entirely right. It doesn't even seem like Moore made creative choices, it's just that this is the way things happen and he only recorded the real events. Obviously a ton of effort went into the book, but you never get the sense of Moore struggling to create this world, it's like it was there for him to find.

In terms of the story, I think there's a tendency for a lot of people to view Watchmen as more a marvel of construction than as an emotional journey. Marveling at the way the book is put together, it's easy to distance yourself from the events, but I think it all works together to create a really powerful story that touches on a ton of very important issues.

Watchmen was created as a deconstruction of superhero archetypes. Much like Moore's Miracleman, which sought to explore the existence of a real Superman, this book decides to explore what would happen if superheroes were real and does so in a way that I think is very compelling. I would argue this isn't solely a deconstruction of superhero archetypes, but actually functions as the ultimate superhero story. Moore famously remarked that no more superhero comics would be needed after this and that's true not because he's razed the genre to the ground, rather it's because he so brilliantly captured everything that makes the superhero comic flawed and great that everything else just pales in comparison.

He attacks a lot of genre conventions, reconfiguring the two biggest superheroes, Superman and Batman. Superman here is reconfigured as a true alien being, someone who just doesn't care about humans because they're so insignificant. In terms of addressing the realities of a Superman-like being, I think Miracleman: Olympus is a lot more interesting, but that's largely because Dr. Manhattan transcends being a Superman archetype and becomes a really interesting character on his own.

Here, the character of Batman is split in two, each representing a different part of his psyche. Dan is the rich bachelor who enjoys creating toys and generally views the whole superhero thing as essentially a suspended adolescence. There's the notable fact that he's completely reliant on the costume for confidence, without it, he is impotent. Then, we've got Rorshach who represents the darker side of the dark knight. Rorshach is a vigilante who goes after criminals supposedly in the service of justice, but primarily because it makes him feel good. He too is only alive when he's wearing the mask. Rorshach is essentially Batman taken to his darkest extreme.

But besides just riffing on these archetypes, the characters have a lot of other layers. The most popular character to come out of the book was Rorshach, who takes the vigilante style justice of a character like The Punisher to an extreme. He's very much from the 'Death Wish' school of justice, viewing the city as a corrupted sewer of moral decay that he must clean up. Issue 6, in which Rorshach reveals his past to psychiatrist Malcolm Long is one of my favorites in the series. I love the way that Kovacs builds Rorshach into an entirely seperate entity in his mind. The mask, and the symbolism it contains truly changes his perception of himself. Clearly, Kovacs has a lot of issues with his childhood, self loathing for his mother and all she represented. Rorshach is essentially an ultra-conservative character, for whom his prostitute mother is the nadir of morality. This conception of things was likely fueled by the teasing he took as a result of his mother's profession. Looking at the flashback where he's teased, we can see an innocent little kid changed into the violent person who would one day become Rorshach.

So, disdaining his mother, young Kovacs builds up his father as a fantasy figure of everything he wants to be, an aid to the government, fighting for justice and against communism. Looking at the supplementary material in issue 6, you get a sense of just how tragic his life is, with the way that Moore stresses how he's a "bright kid," and he clearly has a lot of potential. It's just that he's scarred and never finds someone he can really emotionally connect with. His bad experiences early on have discouraged him from attempting to have any form of emotional connection with anyone. When he gets older, he sees vigilantism as the way to follow in the footsteps of this constructed father image that he created. And as part of this process, he constructs an identity break at that moment, leaving Kovacs behind and becoming Rorshach.

By doing this, he is essentially erasing his past, a major source of shame for him. So, Rorshach can exist free of the emotional shame and trauma that handicapped Kovacs. When he goes to reclaim his costume and reveals to his landlady's children that she is a prostitute, he is reminded of who he was and is clearly uncomfortable, for the only time in the book, a bit guilty. However, most of the time, Kovacs lives in this Rorshach persona.

Because he's such a tough, single minded character, the few times we do see him express himself emotionally are very powerful. The exchange in Chapter X, where Rorshach tells Dan he's a good friend is one of my favorite moments in the whole book, and the final scene sees Rorshach at his most human. Even though he frequently does bad things, I still have a lot of empathy for the character and the stand he takes at the end.

There's a lot of different ways to read the taking off of the mask before he's killed. On the one hand, you could argue that it's Kovacs giving up the Rorshach persona and returning to his human self in his final moments. I think this is just part of it, by taking off the mask, he is allowing Kovacs to be killed, but not Rorshach. Rorshach is more important as a symbol, and as we see later with the journal, it's clear that the symbol lives on, even if the man does not.

Addressing the moral question of the end of the book, the events of 9/11 reaffirmed the feeling I had on the first read. I think what Rorshach did, even though it may cause those deaths to be in vain, is the right thing. The peace that Veidt created would not last forever, much like our own period of national togetherness was not very long after 9/11, and I know that if I someone within our country engineered those attacks, I would want to know.

A lot of this is due to Moore's brilliant characterization of all the local people in the area. Even though they only appear briefly, on the periphery of the story, you really get a sense of who these people are and what their lives are like. This all culminates in issue 11, where we see the mini arcs resolve themselves. Malcolm, seemingly introduced just as a device to reveal Rorshach's backstory, remains a fully realized character and chooses his duty as a human being over what would be most comfortable for his wife. He does not see helping people as an option, it is something he must do, he is willing to sacrifice his own happiness to help others. The small acts of kindness here are what are so striking. The whole book we've seen the boy and the newsvendor sitting next to each other, barely speaking, but here they strike up a conversation and forge a connection, and when the attack comes, the older Bernard does what he can to shelter the younger, an incredibly powerful series of panels.

It's the fact that these people are so well developed that makes Veidt's actions very troubling. We've all seen disaster movies where millions of people die, and there's usually some rote attempt at characterization, but here, we've been living with these people for a long time, we understand them, and to watch them suffer for Veidt's peace is unbearable. Thinking about what they went through, and the lie they died for, I have to support Rorshach's conviction to go back to Manhattan and expose the truth.

However, that is the sort of character he is, uncompromising. Dan and Laurie aren't so committed to justice, they fall into superheroics for different reasons. In Dan's case, it seems to be an idolization of the previous heroes. He saw their fantastic exploits and decided to go into it for himself. Like Rorshach, he seems more alive, and liberated, when wearing the costume. However, because he's a more stable, rational person, he does not go against the Keene Act and continue adventuring. He's more like a retired athlete, reflecting back on the glory of his past exploits, while not doing much of anything in the present.

As is alluded to at numerous times in the text, there's clearly a fetishistic aspect to the superhero wear, and as chapter VII shows, the connection between his youth and vitality, and the costume is more than just mental. For Dan, it's almost like the costume liberates him to be the person he actually wants to be. It's only after putting on the costume and going out and saving people that he can have sex with Laurie. It's a rebirth essentially. I really enjoy that thematic exploration, it's echoed in Batman Returns' examination of the impotent civilian characters versus the hyper-sexual costumed heroes. I feel like Batman Returns captures more of the issues that Watchmen discusses than any other superhero film to date.

For Dan, it's so much about the gadgets and toys that he's put into an uncomfortable position when the fate of the world is at stake. Much like Hollis, he finds himself rendered irrelevant next to the plans and skills of Adrian or Jon. Rorshach is able to compete at their level because he's so committed to what he's doing, however Dan has always been a bit more ambivalent and self conscious, so he finds himself deferring to Adrian's will and making a moral compromise at the end of the book. It may have been the right thing to do, but it's clear that Dan is not a 'superhero,' he is merely an adventurer, who seems insignificant when the fate of the world is at stake.

Laurie is also ambivalent about her place in the superhero world, but that's primarily because she never wanted to be there to begin with. She is pushed into action by her mother, and never really takes to the life. I think the reason she re-embraces adventuring during her time with Dan is that it's a chance to be free and unpredictable. After the highly structured life with Jon at the military base, the opportunity to do what she wants and be free is refreshing. So, she doesn't care about her safety, it's more about being alive in the moment.

One of my favorite issues is IX, where Laurie tracks back through her past. I love the way Moore gradually builds up the backstories, this issue paying off a lot of existing threads and revealing to Laurie, and to us, the great secret of her existence. Looking at Laurie and Blake next to each other, there's clearly a resemblence. It's interesting that at the end of the book, Laurie hints that her new costume will be based on her father's look, rather than her mother's. So, she has basically reconciled her identity and is now claiming it for her own. By being with Dan, she is accepting the fact that she cannot escape adventuring.

I've got an essay I did for my class on time that goes into Dr. Manhattan, so there's no need to cover his part of the story here. But, he's critical to the book and has some really interesting stuff to say about the place of the superhuman within humanity.

I would consider Watchmen one of the three essential superhero works, along with Moore's Miracleman and Morrison's Flex Mentallo. Watchmen deconstructs the archetypes and plays them out on the large scale they always demanded. It one ups Miracleman by creating an entire universe of heroes, rather than just the one, and by further exploring the logical extensions of superhero mythology. Though Moore has done a number of other phenomenal books, I would still consider Watchmen his masterpiece, an unparalleled combination of narrative and form.

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