Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The shadow of Manhattan

Over the weekend I did my civic duty and re-read Watchmen. It took me two sittings: one for the first eight issues, and one for the back four. I did skim the Veidt text-pieces (the merchandising and the Nova Express interview), because by that point I didn’t think they added that much. Besides, even though he is fictional, Doug Roth is a massive tool.

Monday would have been the last day to do Twelve Days Of Watchmen, and I had planned to do one issue per day. This would have committed me to reading the whole thing, because I tend to get bogged down in the early issues. However, that didn’t happen this time since, you know, eight issues in the first sitting. I even found new meaning in the “Ride of the Valkyries” story at the end of issue #1, and I have never really gotten a lot out of that little moment.

Obviously, though, I'm not doing an in-depth, multi-part post. Since so many others have written so much about Watchmen in the past twenty-three years, I figure my humble notes wouldn’t add a whole lot.

Therefore, instead here are just some memories about What Watchmen Means To Me, along with observations on what I got out of it this time.

* * *

Watchmen came out in the spring of 1986, toward the end of my junior year of high school. As I remember, issue #1 actually came out the same day as the first issue of John Byrne’s The Man Of Steel. Not quite the same as Lincoln and Darwin sharing a birthday, but a big day in DC fandom nonetheless.

At the time, I thought Watchmen was unique because it dared to imagine -- and not to sugar-coat -- what superheroics would “really be like.” Alan Moore told Amazing Heroes that costumed superheroes would look about as dignified as Adam West; thus, schlumpy Dan Dreiberg. It was a significant contrast with DC’s other bravura projects, including Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, Howard Chaykin’s Shadow, and (yes) Byrne’s Man of Steel. Each of those brought its own “realistic” sensibility to its subject, but each retained a certain amount of unreality. Watchmen wasn’t like that. Watchmen pulled no punches.

I’m not sure I can overstate the power of Watchmen’s surface message. It seemed to annihilate completely any fantasy that doing anything in a cape and tights (well, almost anything; but that would involve taking off the tights at some point) would make any sense at all. You couldn’t have enough super-powered characters to field even a Fantastic Four, let alone a Justice League; because the only plausible number was one. (And oh, the problems he’d cause!) If you were going to skulk around the urban jungle after dark, you’d end up about as far from a billionaire playboy as you could get. Moreover, the billionaire himself would have much better things to do than said skulking. Watchmen was the superhero story which put the nail in the superheroes’ coffin. (That sounds like I’m ripping off an Alan Moore quote, but I can’t remember the quote exactly.)

There is, I think, a significant part of superhero fandom which wants to believe that these fantastic, impossible things can actually work. “Realism” goes a long way towards maintaining this notion. In the old days, it was expressed in things like Peter Parker’s various troubles, Dick Grayson going to college, or Bucky Barnes’ death. However, Watchmen pretty much said that you don’t want superheroes, because just one will destroy the world.

Naturally, the vast majority of superhero comics soldiered on, making slight changes in deference to Watchmen’s heightened standard of realism. Batman’s utility belt had pouches instead of the little vials. Superman’s cape was no longer indestructible. The Flash had an appetite like a Sumo wrestler with a tapeworm. What else could they do? Trying to go too realistic produced stories like Legends, where Ronald Reagan was being manipulated by Darkseid's flunky; or the “New Universe,” which eventually destroyed Pittsburgh in its attempts to be taken seriously. Moore wasn’t done yet, either. In Miracleman #15, he destroyed London as part of the super-fight to end all super-fights. This is how it would be, Moore seemed to be saying. These are your options: namely, the dystopian Watchmen or the almost-as-frightening road to the utopia of Miracleman.

And yet, the thing about Watchmen is that it’s not nearly as cynical as it looks. All the drama, violence, and sex only matter to the extent that we can’t get past them. The thermodynamic miracle isn’t just the uniqueness of each human life, it’s the spark of individuality, of creativity, which powers each work of art. If all we see is one way to go, we limit ourselves to that path. We forget that we each have, as a certain starship captain once said, a “capacity to leap beyond logic” which helps slice through our own Gordian knots. Watchmen trades pretty heavily in structure and form, but it ends up saying you don’t have to do it this way.

* * *

That gets back, after a fashion, to literally the first thing I noticed about Watchmen, ‘way back at the end of May, 1986: its start date, October 12, 1985. I had just spent most of 1985 living with Crisis On Infinite Earths, which very specifically took place during the months of July and August. It was therefore impossible for Watchmen to be part of main line DC, whether pre- or post-Crisis, because Watchmen started well after the infinite Earths had been consolidated.

Again, this was no small thing. Coming from an environment where anything could be explained away with its own parallel Earth, Watchmen stated right up front that it would have no part of that. Accordingly, no matter how DC tried to dress up its Earth-Charltons, Watchmen would never be incorporated into, and therefore subordinated to, the regular DC superhero line. Nor would there be ironic comparisons to familiar superheroes, because Watchmen even killed off the infant superhero comics.

Setting the miniseries over six months in the past also lent it an air of inevitability, even in panel one of page one. (“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”) By the way, this is why I didn’t want to do an issue-by-issue examination, because virtually every panel contains multiple layers of meaning, and it would have been either redundant or overwrought, or both.

Still, analysis itself is an important part of the story. I hadn’t noticed before this reading how much Bernie-the-newsvendor parodies Ozymandias and his Wall Of TV. There’s Bernie, ever-present on the streetcorner, imagining himself an information broker as Veidt imagines himself a visionary. Bernie tries desperately to draw his customers into his world, but they just want their periodical of choice – especially Young Bernie with his Black Freighter comic, who just wants to be left alone so he can read.

Indeed, that’s a nice metaphor for one aspect of the Watchmen experience. One of the book’s many ironies is the notion that its “realistic,” cynical approach to superheroes makes it an excellent gateway comic; when really Watchmen works best the more you know about comic books, superheroes, and criticisms of both. For many would-be readers, Watchmen may have “too many words” the way that Mozart’s emperor patron heard “too many notes.”

Nevertheless, with all those words and details and Easter eggs (I’m sure Nova Express refers to the William Burroughs novel, but I wonder if it’s also a reference to Adventure Comics #247) fleshing out Watchmen’s world, it’s easy to forget that we, like Dr. Manhattan, exist outside of it. Watchmen can often appear so taken with its own structure that it only exists as a rigid exercise in storytelling (obey the grid!). Thus, the thermodynamic miracle reminds us that without the unique spark we each provide, it is all merely academic. “Who makes the world?” We do, each according to our own perceptions and what we bring to the interpretation of a work.

Again, I’m not convinced that Watchmen is especially reader-friendly, even on the most basic of levels. Starting with page 2, it employs flashbacks and non-linear narrative that might put off readers who, let’s be honest, expect comic books to be simple and straightforward. It is not an especially quick read, although its pace picks up as it goes along. (Less-complicated text pieces help as well.) You almost have to make an investment in Watchmen merely to get through it.

And not to belabor the point, but Watchmen isn’t simply concerned with plot. It’s not just “what happened,” it’s how. Of course, this is the essence of Watchmen-movie criticism: any adaptation necessarily destroys a good bit of the comic’s appeal, because it changes fundamentally how the work is perceived. Even the addition of music and sound effects is an intrusion into the book’s relatively sparse aural landscape. (Actually, I was disappointed not to hear Archie’s “screamers” when I watched a prison-break clip online.) Watchmen plays not only with chronology, but with the passage of time itself, and that’s something which the movie must necessarily homogenize.

Man, no wonder we Watchmen fans have become so protective of the book. It is vast, it contains multitudes. In a way it’s like 2001: superficially simple, even provoking “what’s so great about this?” responses; but with rewards for those who dig deeper. Either way, just reading it is an initiation into a special club in a corner of comics fandom. That club’s been getting bigger all the time, and it may be about to explode.

* * *

One of the other big ironies about Watchmen is the idea that Veidt’s triumph is only temporary. After all, Nixon (who, presumably, has not mellowed with age) is still President, and Rorschach’s journal still has the potential to expose Veidt’s plan. While the United States’ negotiating position has been weakened considerably by Dr. Manhattan’s departure, apparently it’s a bigger deal that the Soviets (under Gorbachev, the revelation of which always surprises me) are sufficiently moved by the New York tragedy to pull back their troops. The point is, Veidt did a lot, but the world doesn’t seem out of the woods just yet. Naturally, Dr. Manhattan warns Veidt that “nothing ever ends.” Of course, as he says that, Watchmen is about to end, leaving behind a world that might not be “fixed,” but at least is stronger.

Even that reinforces Watchmen’s message. From the beginning, the book repeatedly makes, and then takes apart, the case that one figure can be solely responsible for the fate of the world. This is not to say that the book argues for two figures, namely Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias. Instead, any time one person is set up as a singular transformative force, the world rebels. For most of the book’s recent history, Dr. Manhattan has bolstered U.S. aggression and provoked Soviet adventurism. However, his removal doesn’t produce a more benign equilibrium … and neither, apparently, will the “Alexandrian” solution imposed by Ozymandias.

Ozymandias’ plan and Watchmen’s scope both look all-encompassing, but again, I think that misreads both. The point of Watchmen seems not to be that it’s the last word on superheroes, or the genre’s only logical examination, but that the genre is still capable of many interpretations. Again, Watchmen has no central figure. The world doesn’t stop even in the absence of Dr. Manhattan, the would-be watchmaker himself. I mentioned Nixon above, but thanks to Dan and Laurie the superheroes are still around as well; and they may even become a “family business.”

* * *

See, that all sounds fairly obvious, doesn’t it? In hindsight I’m amazed that so many people interpreted Watchmen so darkly all these years. It’s not the love letter to superheroes that a Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, or Kurt Busiek would have written, but it’s not dancing on the genre’s grave either.

Ah well. Now I just have to get used to the idea that Dan and Laurie can fight in gratuitous slow motion….

1 comment:

Jeff said...

With all the recent analysis of Watchmen as Alan Moore showing how superheroes don't work, I'm surprised more people don't mention Tom Strong (and other work, but Tom Strong in particular) as Moore showing how well they can work.

I'm also a little bit afraid that in the popular press, Watchmen is starting to be portrayed as an indictment of how silly or untenable superhero stories are, rather than an intelligent deconstruction of the genre.