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.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

X-Men 222-229

I'm back moving forward through X-Men history and these issues see a bunch of important stuff happening, including the famous Fall of the Mutants storyline. I've been following Claremont's stories for a long time now, I started reading Essential X-Men Volume 1 back in August and I'm still going. That's a testament to the quality of Chris' writing, it's amazing that after over 130 issues, he can still keep things fresh and interesting.

222 is the wrap up of the Marauders attack storyline and it's pretty solid. There's some good stuff with Havok and Lorna Dane, as Malice takes a lot of joy in messing with Alex. Over the course of these issues we see Alex become arguably the core of the team, taking over where Scott left off. He's the first one to voice his approval for the sacrifice in 227. We also get some interesting stuff with him and Maddy Pryor, as they become closer after he stops her from kiling herself in 223.

During this chunk of issues, the X-Men are based in San Francisco, which is described as a place more tolerant of mutants than elsewhere in the country. I don't think it takes a genius to see the allegory here, more than ever before, Claremont is pushing to the fore the idea of mutant as allegory for oppressed minorities. This is commonly regarded as the essential theme of the series, but it's only since the Mutant Massacre that it's really become an issue. I think it's very interesting stuff to address, and is something that only this comic can do. I love how the X-Men are constantly on alert, struggling to stay ahead of numerous threats. That lack of a status quo is a large part of what makes this chunk of the run so strong, we really do get the sense that the X-Men are always in danger.

Concurrently with this stuff is Storm's journey with Naze. This is one of those subplots that has some interesting stuff, but is ultimately too long for its own good. It seems to take forever for Storm to reach Forge and as she travels along, all that happens is she runs into a bunch of mystical foes and we hear Naze make vaguely threatening prophesies. I do like what it does for the character of Storm. Storm has gotten the most interesting development over the course of Claremont's run and this stuff is essential, as she's forced to confront her feelings about Forge. It's a testament to the strength of LifeDeath I that it's still able to fuel storylines roughly forty issues later. But, there was a really strong connection between the characters and you do want them to resolve their differences and finally get together. So, there's tension about what will ultimately happen, but too much of this subplot just seems to be filler, so that the climax of that storyline will coincide with the Fall of the Mutants stuff.

Back with the other X-Men, a prophecy states that they will die and something bad will happen in Dallas, so they're drawn to Dallas. I really liked the scene in issue 224, where Mystique warns Rogue about what Destiny had seen, she's still looking out for Rogue even if they're fighting on opposite sides of the law. The other cool thing in these issues was the return of Colossus, who had been MIA since the end of the Mutant Massacre. I was wondering what had become of Kitty, Nightcrawler and Piotr, so it was good to finally get some followup on that. Colossus is one of Claremont's better creations and it's good to have him back.

Even though I really admire the decision to bring on a new team of X-Men and keep things fresh, none of those characters are as strongly developed as the original Claremont team. Part of this is due to the fact that they are new, the original team had over 100 issues to develop, and perhaps in 100 issues, these new people would be just as interesting. But at this point, the character subtleties just aren't there.

But that's not that big a problem because Claremont has moved to a more plot based storytelling style than the character based soap opera stuff of the Paul Smith era. I loved that stuff, but it came about as the result of a long time in development for the characters, so in this case it makes sense to rely on stronger stories driving things forward. Still, I would like to see some more romance and interpersonal intrigue among the characters.

The most interesting character stuff happens to Wolverine and Storm. Here we see Wolverine in a different sort of role, as the tough love leader of the X-Men. This is quite a development for the character, as he moved from being on the fringe of the X-Men to leader, sculpting the team to match his pragmatic attitude towards violence and risk. He's always willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the team.

And it's Wolverine's leadership that brings them to Dallas where there's a three issue standoff outside the Eagle building. I really enjoyed this storyline, though there are some issues with it. I liked the way that we see Freedom Force and the X-Men team up, their logic overwhelming any natural adversarial tendencies between the groups. There's a great moment where Rogue thinks 'mom' and Mystique thinks 'daughter.' It's one of those moments that's a bit cheesy but still works on an emotional level.

The stuff surrounding the Eagle building is a bit nonsensical. In fact, I wasn't sure exactly what was going on for most of the storyline. It's clear that some being, the Adversary, is trying to make his way into the world and destroy it. However, the fact that this results in dinosaurs and weather distortion seems like unneccesary spectacle thrown on top of the story. And bringing in Roma, a god, is one of those fantastic things that doesn't mesh so well with the relatively realistic X-Men universe. In a work of fiction, you can get away with one major twist of reality, the conceit of your work, in this case the idea of mutants. So, someone like Roma doesn't fit into this twist and as a result feels like a deux ex machina.

However, the emotions of the showdown in 225 and 226 work well. Particularly in 226, you really get the sense of this showdown as an apocalyptic event, something massive on a scale the characters have never faced before. This is supported by the presence of Neal Conan, the NPR reporter. His presence was needed for the fake deaths, however it works well within the story to allow for some espousing on the need for tolerance for mutantkind. This theme is backed up by a really odd sequence where a bunch of Indians ride in to help the X-Men, only to be gunned down by some redneck hunters. This predates the red state/blue state divide by nearly 20 years, but it's right along the same lines, the actions here showing the legacy of intolerance on which the nation is built and must struggle to overcome. 226 is definitely the high point of the storyline, as tension builds to a huge level and the sense of doom is inescapable.

Over with Storm, 226 sees a really odd sequence in which her and Forge are transported to another world where time passes independently of ours. So, Storm goes off on a year long journey around the world, going to Africa where she ponders if on this world she might be the goddess she's constantly asking for help in ours. I really like that idea of someone becoming the thing that they pray to through a quirk in time, very Invisibles. So, she wanders back to Forge, who has built a device that can give Storm her powers back out of the materials in his bionic arm and leg. That sounds a bit ridiculous, but it makes sense in the story. We finally get Storm and Forge together here, having apparently overcome the issues that separated them in the first place. There's some crazy stuff going on here, and a lot of really interesting concepts. Claremont is tossing off ideas here that could form the basis of entire series.

So, Storm gets her powers back. Even though this is a bit of a step back, I preferred Storm without her powers, it makes sense in her character arc. Once she learns how to function without her powers, she can finally have them returned to her, now able to integrate Ororo the woman with Storm the goddess. It's a great moment as Storm opens a gate in the sky and returns them to the world they left, leaving the Eden they could have flourished in for the problems and trauma of our world.

While the buildup to everything was strong, I was a bit disappointed by the payoff in 227. In this issue, the adversary finally shows himself and Forge has to cast a spell to bind him. Everything here happens a bit too fast, dulling the emotional impact of events, plus the nature of the threat is still a bit unclear. It all seems so arbitrary. In 226, the events were played like the X-Men could really die, however here, the choice of the X-Men to sacrifice themselves happens so fast, you don't get any sense that they're actually in danger. In one page they're dead and a couple down the line we're with Roma and they're back. So, while the plot point is served, we get no emotional impact from the death of the X-Men. I believe that the crossover titles did play this out, and we get a little bit with Kitty Pryde, but I think it would have been cool to do an entire issue showing the impact of Neal's broadcast and addressing the fact that the X-Men are dead, then bring them back after that.

However, that's not what happened. There is a certain coolness in the fact that they're all so willing to go to their deaths. Wolverine is the first in line and the rest follow suit. I love Madelyne Pryor in this storyline. She's a regular human, but has nothing left in the human world and as a result, she's fighting alongside the X-Men, totally commited to what they're fighting for. The most emotionally relevant moment of the issue is her message to Scott before she dies. That's a fantastic moment. I'm not usually one to become particularly attached to one character, but Maddy Pryor has been a favorite of mine since her first appearance.

Another nice emotional beat is Forge walking out of the building, shamed. It would seem that the public is now in support of the X-Men. This is another reason I'd want to see an issue about the reaction to their death, they head off to Australia and that means that we don't get to see what their sacrifice does for the perception of mutants in the US. It would seem to be cutting out of this storyline at its most exciting time.

228 is an awful issue, the story is weak and while reading it, I was really anxious to see what had happened to the X-Men, so I was impatient. This reminds me of the Buffy episode 'Anne,' which seems deliberately designed to annoy the viewer by spending a lot of time away from the main characters, even as you want nothing more than to see what's up with our crew. So, in terms of building suspense, it works, but annoying your audience along the way isn't the best way to create suspense. I can't imagine this issue went over too well back when there was a month long wait between issues.

However, with 229 we're back and start to see the X-Men's new status quo. The X-Men have been dumped in Australia after being reborn and they are now invisible to scanners, so they can move about unharmed, what with the public thinking they're dead. Here, they fight a bunch of man/machine hybrids called the Reavers. This is a pretty strong issue, the fight is satisfying and more importantly, the end of the issue introduces yet another really bizarre concept, in the form of the siege perilous. After defeating the Reavers, the X-Men are debating what to do with them. They can no longer bring criminals to the authorities, doing so would expose them to the public. So, Roma brings them the siege, a device that will send people through some kind of dimensional warp and give them a just fate on the other side. It's a very cool concept and has a lot of story potential.

I really liked the debate between the X-Men over whether or not to kill the Reavers. Wolverine and Psylocke are all for it, but Storm proves the voice of reason here. She seems to be the X-Men's moral compass, if she is willing to kill someone, then they can get killed, but otherwise, it will not happen. So, the Reavers go through the siege and the X-Men are left with a new tool for dispensing justice.

This is a really tumultuous period in the book and the death at Dallas brings to a close stuff that had been developing since the Mutant Massacre, if not earlier. It's not as strong or cohesive stuff as that first crossover, but it's still really engaging storytelling, full of crazy ideas and a constant messing with the status quo. I love the fact that the X-Men haven't been at the mansion since the Mutant Massacre, the constant moving around has made things more interesting. I constantly want to know what happens next and that's a great testament to Claremont's storytelling.