Monday, April 28, 2008

Four pieces on Watchmen: #4

Part 1 here

Part 2 here

Part 3 here

And finally, here’s something new on the subject.

It’s been noticed that the first season of Heroes lifts a main feature of its plot from Watchmen, specifically the conspiracy that sees the destruction of New York as a means of promoting a better world. By killing millions in New York, they will be able to save billions throughout the world. The difference is, where Watchmen is ambiguous about whether Veidt is doing the right thing, Heroes is clear that Linderman and his associates are wrong, and must be opposed. They are nutters, and their plan won’t work; in fact, it will make things worse. The show establishes through another steal from comics history, the ‘Days of Future Past’ story from Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men. Hiro and Ando travel forward in time, and learn the consequences following from the successful implementation of Linderman’s plan.

And that’s helped me to see one of the problems I have with Watchmen. It’s that, by not having a similar moment, Watchmen is a morally compromised work. It leaves the reader with what I referred to in 1988 as The Big Moral Dilemma – six million New Yorkers or the world? But if you are thinking that’s your choice, then you’re already lost. The true moral choice is to reject the terms of the dilemma, to say that mass murder cannot be justified on such mathematical grounds, because what if you’re not right? Even Veidt is not infallible or omniscient. The moral choice is, like the Petrellis, Hiro and the rest, to find another way.

Four pieces on Watchmen: #3

Part 1 here

Part 2 here

Part 4 here

Thirdly, we have a letter I wrote last year to Foundation, and which appeared in issue 101, pp. 5-9. My thanks to current editor Graham Sleight for permission to reproduce it here. Looking back at this letter, I now think it’s rather grumpy, but never mind.

I read with interest Elizabeth Rosen’s article on Watchmen in Foundation 98 (“‘What’s that you smell of?’ – Twenty years of Watchmen nostalgia”, pp. 85-98). Whilst I have always been less convinced than most that Watchmen is an unalloyed triumph, it is not on these grounds that I wish to comment on Rosen’s piece. And I find her reading of Watchmen as both a critique and an example of nostalgia for the superhero comic, and her view that the development of superhero comics since Watchmen brings a new resonance to that nostalgia, interesting, and I don’t disagree with either point. However, a number of observations occur to me.

If Watchmen is all about nostalgia, then one of the most important aspects of the comic is its origins in a commission to rework the Charlton heroes, characters from the late 1960s, fondly-remembered by many comics fans. Yet Rose delays mention of this until p. 93, three-quarters of the way through the article. This seems odd, given that the original Charlton characters dictated the characteristics, to one degree or another, of the leading players in Watchmen, especially Rorschach.

This seems symptomatic of a lack of context provided in Rosen’s paper. Watchmen did not spring out of nothing. Alan Moore had already been deconstructing the notion of the superhero for some years, most notably in Marvelman (later retitled Miracleman) from 1982, and then in some of his earlier work for DC, especially ‘Roots’, the story in Saga of the Swamp Thing #24 (1984) that guest-starred the Justice League of America. Of these Rosen only mentions Miracleman, and then only very briefly. More time is given to a comic contemporary with Watchmen, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight, as the other foundation stone of revisionist superhero comics (though for all its revisionist gloss, Dark Knight is fundamentally true to the character as established by Bob Kane and Bill Finger). Again, context would help. Though Moore would not have read Dark Knight before starting on Watchmen, Miller was working with themes he had first drawn out in his work on Daredevil (1979-1983). Moore was an avowed fan of this, and wrote a text piece for Marvel UK’s The Daredevils #1 (1983) on Miller.

In general, the atmosphere in superhero comics in the early 1980s was conducive to the development of more ‘relevant’ and ‘realistic’ stories. This was especially true at DC, who had a taken a creative lead by building upon the sort of sophisticated storylines that Chris Claremont had developed in his popular run on X-Men over at Marvel (beginning in 1975). Stories like Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s two-part ‘Runaways’ (The New Teen Titans # 26-27, 1982-1983) and their later stories dealing with drug abuse may seem naïve now, but at the time they were groundbreaking and hard-hitting. Of DC’s output in these years, Rosen only mentions (in a footnote) Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985-1986), without giving a date, and in such a way that an unwary reader might not realize that it preceded Watchmen and Dark Knight.

One could further suggest that the notion of the ‘realistic’ superhero comic actually goes back to Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories from 1970-1972. Or it could be traced back further to birth of the ‘Marvel Age’ in the 1960s, driven by Stan Lee and his collaborators, in particular Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four (1961 onwards), which Rosen mentions in a footnote, and Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man (1962 onwards). These would be comics that Moore and Dave Gibbons would have read as youngsters, but though Rosen comments in a general way about their nostalgia for old superhero comics, she doesn’t mention them, leading me to wonder if she has read much of 1960s superhero comics herself. Many of these are now, through Marvel’s Essentials and DC’s Showcase lines, more easily available than they’ve ever been since first publication, allowing the reader to see the influence of, for instance, John Broome and Gil Kane’s Green Lantern (1959 onwards) upon Gibbons’ art and Moore’s sf stylings.

This lack of context means that when Rosen talks of the ‘Golden Age’ and ‘Silver Age’, a reader ignorant of comics might come away unsure of what the terms actually mean. I’m sure Rosen knows. But I think that the terms need explaining for the non-expert, with clear discussion of the collapse of the market for superheroes at the end of the 1940s, that ended the Golden Age, and the revival of that market in the late 1950s that began the Silver. (And surely the start of the Silver Age is more clearly datable than the ‘roughly’ 1959 she suggests – the first appearance of the second Flash in Showcase #4 in 1956 is usually, and I feel rightly, held as the first Silver Age superhero.)

A similar lack of context appears when discussing what came after Watchmen. Moore’s complaints about post-Watchmen imitators are noted, but no examples put forth. There is no shortage. Just staying at the quality end of the genre, there are John Smith and Jim Baikie’s New Statesmen (1988-1990), the various comics in the Stormwatch and Authority series (1993 onwards), and Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates (2002 onwards). As an example of what Moore calls ‘any poor wretched innocent Golden Age character … re-imagined’, one could point to Grant Morrison and Duncan Fedrego’s Kid Eternity [which I didn’t date in the original letter – it’s 1991]. John Byrne’s 1986 revamp of Superman is too early to be post-Watchmen (though the influence of Watchmen and Dark Knight is clearly felt in the 1992-1993 ‘Death and Return of Superman’ sequence), but is worth mentioning here as it was preceded by a two-part Moore story, ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’ (Superman #423, Action Comics #583), that features the nostalgia for superheroes that characterized Moore’s work when he returned to the genre in 1993. Even when Rosen does mention later comics, such as Marvels, Astro City and Kingdom Come, in the context of a return to nostalgia, no dates are given, so the reader cannot see how they relate to Watchmen (they are 1994, 1995-2000, and 1996).

There are also two points at which I think Rosen misreads the characters. It is true that Rorschach’s world view and rigid morality is often undercut by Moore, and that Moore does not intend the reader to accept it uncritically. But it’s not that simple. Rorschach is the only one of the main characters who emerges from the story with his moral integrity intact and uncompromised, even if this gets him killed. (It may be worth noting that the two deaths Rosen focuses upon, those of the original Nite Owl and Rorschach, are among the events that appear to me most jarringly imposed upon the narrative, rather than arising out of it naturally.)

In the first issue of Watchmen we see one 1940s hero, the first Silk Spectre, being sexually assaulted by another, the Comedian. As the story develops, it transpires that the two subsequently developed a relationship, and that the Comedian is the father of the Silk Spectre's daughter. For Rosen, this is problematic, and she says in a note that ‘[f]or a writer who has, in the main, been sensitive and outspoken in his work in his support of women, gay rights and other minority issues, [Moore’s] depiction of Sally [the Silk Spectre] falling in love with her rapist seems an incredible misstep.’ This appears dogmatic to me, as if a feminist writer cannot depict attempted rape (and, whilst not wishing to excuse the Comedian, his assault is interrupted before it becomes actual rape) and its consequences in any but the most black-and-white condemnatory terms. Moore is many things, but dogmatic is not one of them. He has always been interested in understanding what motivates people, even where their actions may not appear admirable. We all know that women stay with and continue to feel affection towards partners who sexually abuse them, however much we might wish it wasn’t so – is Moore wrong to depict that? Moreover, it seems strange to draw such attention to the way Moore presents attempted rape, whilst passing over the way in which the villain apparently gets away with murdering three million people, with no more consequence than vague hints that his plan might come unstuck. (I think in the final panel Moore is making a nod towards the 1950 Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, but the difference is that the audience there knows that Dennis Price’s confession to murdering his family will undoubtedly be found, whilst there is every chance that Rorschach’s journal won’t be.)

One aspect of nostalgia that Rosen overlooks is the political nostalgia of Watchmen. In this world, Richard Nixon is still President in 1985. Gerald Ford is still Vice-President. Henry Kissinger is still Secretary of State. G. Gordon Liddy is still a presidential aide. The implication is that the entire 1973 Nixon administration is still in place. Moore would say that the presence of the near-omnipotent Dr Manhattan as a weapon in America’s arsenal has distorted US politics, but what he actually presents is a world in which politics has simply stopped. Alan Moore was twenty when Nixon resigned in 1974, and his motivation here seems to be a desire to play with the characters from when he first became politically aware.

Rosen’s piece seems insufficiently grounded in the history of superhero comics as a genre. I wonder if this might be because she has largely experienced superheroes through collections. One might deduce this from the title she uses for Miller’s Batman work – The Dark Knight Returns was originally the title of the first issue alone, though it has since been canonised as the title of the whole work. She certainly has only read Watchmen in the later collection. This is shown by her comment that Moore ends the work with Juvenal’s quis custodiet ipsos custodies. Though the source of the comic’s name, this quotation is nowhere to be found in the twelve original issues, which end with a line from John Cale’s ‘Santies’. The Juvenal was added when the work was collected. A better knowledge of the superhero genre might have meant that she would notice that the names mentioned in the Tales of the Black Freighter text piece are not just people who worked for EC comics, but more importantly were major figures in the development of DC Comics and their superhero lines – Moore’s point being that the existence of real superheroes killed off the market for superhero comics.

As I said, Rosen makes interesting points – but they would be so much better if they were grounded in a broader knowledge than the few creators she addresses.

Four pieces on Watchmen: #2

Part 1 here

Part 3 here

Part 4 here

The second piece is much more recent, a brief write up from 2006 on another blog after reading the comics again, together with responses to comments people left me. I’ve modified this to make it into a more coherent whole, but inevitably it looks like a bit of a cut-and-paste job. I don’t think it’s worth spending too much time smoothing out the joins.

I’m afraid my reaction to Watchmen is much the same as it was nineteen years ago. It is on the surface erudite and skillful – but at the core is a pulp sf plot which is really pretty stupid, and wouldn’t be tolerated in a novel or a film. So why should it be acceptable in what is supposed to be the best comics have to offer?

Of course Watchmen is better than most of the dreck that comes out of comics publishers, but I don’t think that means we should be blind to its faults. And I’m not for a moment suggesting that books and films don’t have stupid plots – but that the body of criticism would identify those plots as stupid in a way that hasn’t happened for Watchmen. I suspect that part of the reason it’s been let off the hook is that some of the critics have such low expectations of the medium that they will praise anything that’s half-decent.

I agree that much of Watchmen is very nicely put together. A lot of my frustration with reading it comes from the fact that the bits that don’t make sense spoil my enjoyment of the bits that do. And if Moore hadn’t made such a fuss about Watchmen being ‘superheroes in a real world’, I wouldn’t have minded so much.

I may be giving the impression that I think Watchmen is the suckiest thing ever. I certainly don’t. But it does have its flaws, and it is not the best comic ever, or even the best superhero comic ever, or even the best Alan Moore superhero comic ever, and it wasn’t any of these things when published.

I do still think that the core plot is dumb. A mad genius drops a giant squid on New York, killing millions, and persuades people that it’s an alien invasion, and everyone decides to be nice to each other. It seemed naive in 1987, and post-9/11 you couldn’t get away with it – we now know that the reaction to such an atrocity would be anger, and a need to collectively do something, a need that would be exploited by politicians for their own ends.

Signalling that the plot comes from an old Outer Limits episode does indeed say to the readers that it’s a ridiculous plot device. But it also says. “Remember everything I said about this being superheroes in the real world? Well, I lied.”

Now, you can say “it’s just a superhero comic”, but I don’t think that’s a legitimate defence. For one thing, Moore ostentatiously proclaimed the whole thing as “what if superheroes were real”, so it has to be judged on the more realistic standards to which it allegedly aspires. And secondly, I don’t think it works as a genre piece, because of the resolution, where the villain gets away with it.

Veidt gets away with his scheme, with nothing more than some odd nightmares. The heroes find out about it, but can then do nothing about it. it all leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s interesting that the recent article in Foundation [see next piece for details] commented on the problematic depiction of rape, but has nothing on the problematic depiction of mass murder. And yes, I know Moore’s asking his audience the question about how far do you take the good of the many vs. the good of the few, but for such a question to have meaning, it has to be couched in sensible terms. Which I don’t think it is in Watchmen.

I am told that Moore’s response to criticism of the plot was “You don’t think it would work. Veidt thinks it would, and Veidt is smarter than you.” That’s a clever response, but it’s not really an answer. And I’d be more convinced in Veidt as the most intelligent man in the world if he didn’t name his top secret holding companies after Egyptian things, when everyone knows he’s obsessed with Egypt.

My problem with Veidt’s plan is not answered by hints that it may not work in the long term. It really shouldn’t work at all, and certainly not in the short time scale that it is shown working in.

I don’t think “the villain might not get away with it if [Rorschach’s] journal gets picked for publication and they read it all and the editors believe what it says and they make the connection with the attack on New York and anyone believes what New Frontiersman publishes” is a satisfactory end for a genre piece. You couldn’t get away with it in a James Bond novel, for instance. You could pull it off in a John le Carré novel, but then le Carré breaks free of the genre restrictions in a way that Watchmen never quite manages.

I agree that Watchmen is about what would happen if people really did dress up in capes to fight crime, and if there was someone on the planet with superpowers. But in those terms, I feel the squid is a cheat. It crosses the line into “oh well, we can have anything we want happen”, and then Watchmen becomes just another superhero comic. A good one, it must be said, but one which fails in what it is setting out to do.

It’s partly because comics can be so much more than superheroes that I have issues with the praise lavished upon Watchmen. But I think there are better superhero comics – Dark Knight for one, because Dark Knight knows its limitations. The problem with Watchmen is that it sets itself up as “what if superheroes were real”. If you’re going to do that, then you have to be rigorous in the plotting – but Watchmen fails that test rather too often.

There is an essential contradiction between writing a superhero story and a realistic story. It’s a contradiction Watchmen never successfully solves.

And in the end, I feel that Moore can either have his open, morally ambiguous ending (which he wants because he’s still in his deconstructionist phase which he has, fortunately, subsequently grown out of), or he can have his ridiculous plot device. What makes Watchmen a failure in my view is Moore’s attempt to have his cake and eat it. Saying that of course it’s a ridiculous plot device and Moore knows this is really making my point for me.

The whole Nixon thing is another aspect I have a problem with. I can readily believe that the existence of Dr Manhattan and the way the US government uses him might change the course of American politics. But by having not just Nixon, but also Ford, and Kissinger, and Liddy, Moore is implying not that politics have changed, but that they stopped in 1971. And that I find implausible.

As Alan Jeffrey said, if you read Watchmen as a book, then the absurdity at the end isn’t too bad. One of the things that seemed a lot better on the reread was the pirate story. If, on the other hand, you have been reading chapters a month at a time, in the light of a flurry of interviews at the start talking about how realistic it was all going to be, the sudden appearance of a giant exploding telepathic mutant squid in issue #11 is a huge disappointment.

I think Watchmen is a bit like Babylon 5. Both are well-written and clever, and both definitely raised the bar in their respective fields. But I think both have structural problems at the end, and can’t be accepted as flawless works.

Four pieces on Watchmen: #1

[I promise, I will get back to classics-related stuff eventually ...]

Part 2 here

Part 3 here

Part 4 here

This is the first of four pieces of writing about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic Watchmen, reproduced to provide background for some things I will say in an upcoming review of Roz Kaveney’s Superheroes! I’m afraid you’ll find that some of the pieces go over the same ground. And there’s a lot of it all told, so I don’t really expect anyone to read it all.

The first article had a somewhat protracted genesis. It was originally written in 1987 as a Letter of Comment to Fantasy Advertiser, the premier UK comics fanzine, at that time coming out of a long hiatus. It wasn’t printed, for reasons of space (though editor Martin Skidmore said it would have been had he received it earlier). I then rewrote it for the first issue of my fanzine Halo of Flies, which came out in 1988, along the way blatantly stealing a number of points from an article written by Alan Jeffrey for another fanzine (the title of which I don’t recall, and neither does Alan). It was so long in gestation that I ended up adding a short postscript once it finally saw the light of day. It’s quite an angry article, trying to articulate the sense of betrayal I felt when Watchmen concluded. I’d probably be more reasoned about it now, and I don't necessarily stand by everything in the piece below,but I’ve decided to leave the text largely untouched (though with some annotations). I didn’t put proper references at the time for which issues of Escape and The Comics Journal I refer to, and am not sure that I possess the issues concerned anymore (I know I gave away many of my back issues of TCJ).

Geniuses and Fools

“Stupendous genius! damned fool.” Lord Byron of William Wordsworth.

In 1987 the mainstream [2008: i.e. superhero] comics world was dominated by a comic called Watchmen. You may have heard about it (indeed, this article assumes that you’ve read it if you haven’t, and don’t want the plot spoilt, stop here). It’s now nearly a year since the last issue came out, but that was followed by the trade paperback, and no doubt the damn thing will sweep the Eagles this year. So at this point I’d like to voice my opinion on “1987’s most talked about graphic novel”. Watchmen 11 & 12 constitute one of the most ill-conceived and appalling endings for a story that I have read in a long time.

Let me expand on this. In these issues, everything that you thought you knew about Watchmen is proved to be wrong, and every effect that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons have built up during the previous ten issues comes crashing down. At the centre of this collapse is the character of Adrian Veidt.

Veidt isn’t like anyone else in Watchmen. He doesn’t have to obey the same rules as the other characters. Where everyone else’s background is told through flashback, Veidt gives his origin (which reads like something out of Stan Lee’s worst nightmares) in a long expository monologue, cunningly delivered to dead people so that he won’t be interrupted. He quotes that great sage of the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler. He takes on Nite Owl and Rorschach, who have previously dealt with muggers, SWAT teams and prison guards en masse, and soundly thrashes them (actually, he doesn’t; he just hits them a couple of times and they are so overawed by his presence that they give up). And not for him the messy brutal fighting style seen elsewhere; no, his movements are graceful and balletic, and allow him to conduct conversations at the same time. (“Another thing you’ll know if you’ve been in a fight is: you don’t wisecrack whilst you’re doing it” – Dave Gibbons. Well, nothing Ozymandias says is actually funny …) For all I know Veidt also leaps tall buildings and sings four-part harmony. And he catches bullets.

Now this might not seem so incredible at first glance. After all, this is a superhero comic. Elektra catches bullets in Elektra: Assassin. Well, yes, but for all the gritty realism Frank Miller uses, she exists in a world where men stick to ceilings, and exposure to gamma radiation hardly ever actually kills you. In the supposedly realistic world of Watchmen, where there are no Eastern mystics dispensing paranormal powers (or if there are, nobody’s bothered telling the reader) something like this begs quite a few questions. Like, how does he see the bullet, when it’s moving so fast? How did he practise this? (“Okay guys, is the ambulance handy? Right, start shooting!”) How come, when the impact of the bullet is sufficient to knock him off his feet, his hand gets nothing worse than a scratch? What would he have done if the Silk Spectre had emptied the whole gun into him? (Good job she didn’t find a machine gun, eh?)

It’s not as if it’s necessary for him to catch the bullet. He’s wearing body armour anyway, and the bullet catching scene is nothing more than a clever trick Moore thought up one day. He believes it can actually be done, if one trains oneself hard enough. I don’t.

The point is that where the other main characters are inversions or refutations of superhero cliches, Veidt is a glorification of them, hardly developing much beyond the Charlton character Pete Cannon–Thunderbolt, on whom he is based. Moore seems to be aware that the character might be seen as this, and gives him such seemingly clever dialogue as “I’m not a Republic serial villain”, implying that there’s more to Veidt than the cardboard image presented (to be fair, he isn’t a Republic villain; he’s a DC ’50s villain, which means he behaves in exactly the same manner, but has a more colourful dress sense). It has been put to me that Veidt’s characterisation is just a big joke at the expense of supervillainry; if this is so, then it is a joke that completely backfires, ruining the effect of the previous issues – rather like if Stanley Kubrick had gone ahead with the pie-fight ending for Dr Strangelove.

The real meat of the ending is of course, The Big Moral Dilemma; is murdering six million people justifiable if it saves the world? Well, I’ve yet to see anybody come up with circumstances that might justify such action, though Mein Kampf might have something to say on the matter. As far as Watchmen is concerned (in case anyone still has sleepless nights about it), Veidt’s plan cannot be justified, because it is the conception of a madman, and only succeeds through some aberrant behaviour on the part of world politicians. As he relates his scheme, the reader is forced to agree with Nite Owl; it makes no logical sense whatsoever, and nobody in their right mind could really believe that this con-trick would work. Adolf Hitler may have said that any lie will be believed if it is big enough, but he also said it would be a really great idea to round up all the Jews and make toast out of them, and I don’t see that being held up a valid philosophy by many people.

Think about Veidt’s plan for a moment; an aged President, in a world that aggressive American foreign policy has made more full of nuclear paranoia than our own, is in his bunker awaiting Armageddon. Suddenly there is some sort of massive explosion in New York. This could be the first strike; more Soviet missiles could be in the air at that very moment. Does he launch the retaliatory strike? No, he delays, potentially allowing the Russians to wipe out the USA, just on the off-chance that it might be a giant squid that got lost. Then, within an hour of the news, the Russians decide that they’re going to do the decent thing and not take advantage of America’s distress. They’ll even end the war in Afghanistan, to show how nice they are. And does anybody in the White House get suspicious about the speed with which the Russians react, almost as if they knew what was going to happen? No, they’re all too busy discovering peace and harmony and sticking flowers in their rifles. Moore tries to pave the way for Nixon’s behaviour in issue 10 with his refusal to go to Defcon 1, but it doesn’t wash. Much though we might desire it, the real world simply doesn’t work like this. The pressures on Nixon to launch would be too great. I might be more convinced if there was any evidence for a general willingness to believe in aliens, but none is presented (unless we’re meant to take for granted a higher level of belief in such things due to the existence of Dr Manhattan – which doesn’t follow logically at all). Nor is the ‘alien’ any real threat to the world; after all, the fact that this is the first recorded lost alien to explode on Earth might reasonably lead one to the conclusion that this isn’t going to start happening every second Tuesday. On television we hear, “Could further attacks be imminent?” Answer: “We think not”. Then what’s all the fuss about?

In the end Veidt is like his role model Alexander the Great; he has changed the world briefly, but his creation is impermanent, and will disappear rapidly (this irony has probably escaped Moore, who clearly knows more of the myth of Alexander than the historical personage). [2008: That’s almost certainly unfair. Moore does his research, and I doubt he was as ignorant of Alexander as smug classics Ph.D. me assumed in 1988.] Veidt has done little more than push international tensions aside for a while; to erode them would require a lot more manipulation of people’s viewpoints, over a long period. Veidt’s Millennium promotion might have been seen as this, but it looks more like a reaction to events rather than an initiative. When Veidt says “Next, I’ll help (Earth) towards Utopia”, in effect he’s saying, “Hey, I’ve just had this really great idea what I can do next!” He clearly hadn’t put any thought to what he was going to do after he pulled his party trick. Only now does the idea occur to him, and only, it seems. because he’s got nothing better to do. And let us not forget that the crisis point from which Veidt has magnanimously saved the world, was in fact caused in the first place by Veidt’s manipulation of Dr Manhattan (indeed, someone wishing to start World War III in the world of Watchmen could do worse than adopting Veidt’s plan). And what happens when some NASA scientist examines the creature, and discovers its brain is cloned from a human? Well, the Americans will immediately start accusing the Russians of being responsible, and consider retaliation (after all, they can hardly let the murder of six million citizens go unpunished). Once that happens, then the world had better hope that Rorschach’s journal is published; exposure of Veidt will be the only way out of Armageddon.

Are we then to praise Veidt for sorting out his own mess, particularly when it costs six million lives, and is poised to go wrong at any moment? Moore certainly thinks so (“Veidt is the hero of Watchmen. You can’t take that away from him.” – Alan Moore). This is actually far more fascistic writing than the more easily-accused Dark Knight, yet Veidt is supposedly some sort of liberal. I don’t doubt that he sees himself that way, and probably so does Moore. He seems to have been seduced by the attractiveness of the benevolent dictator (and as writer of V For Vendetta, he ought to know better), and has failed to think through the implications of what he’s writing.

And therein lies the problem. Moore’s greatest weakness as a writer, usually generalised as weak plotting, is a regrettable habit of making use of what he sees as good ideas, without considering them properly. This tends to restrict the conclusions of his stories, so that they seem not as the original object of the story, but something reached as an inescapable consequence of the ideas flowing earlier in the narrative; in other words, he is led by his ideas, rather than the other way round. Moore’s endings have often been weak, as ‘American Gothic’ in Swamp Thing demonstrated. (Gosh, so good and evil are different sides of the same coin, are they? I never knew that.) Remember that his reputation in this country was built on Marvelman and V For Vendetta, neither of which have yet reached their conclusions. [2008: At the time of writing, of course. Both eventually finished, V reasonably successfully, Marvelman, or Miracleman as it became, slightly less so.]

Watchmen is merely a classic example of this. Read with a sceptical eye, it becomes apparent that there are many occasions where logic and sense are sacrificed to effect. For instance, a question which always nagged was “Why is Nixon still President?” The usual answer was that the Republicans rode on a surge of nationalism, though in pre-Reagan America patriotism was not the exclusive preserve of the Republicans in the way that it is for the Conservative party over here.

In any case, this doesn’t answer the question. Why is Nixon still President? Is he such a megalomaniac as to hang on to power for twenty years? Are the rest of his party such sycophants as to go along? Has Nixon got the stamina to do the toughest job in the world for so long? Evidently so, and not only Nixon, but also Ford and Kissinger have lasted the pace, and God knows who else. The only reason is that Moore wants to play with the political icons of his youth; it would be like writing a story set in 2000, yet still having Reagan and Thatcher in charge (only less likely). As a second instance, a street gang learns of Rorschach’s being sprung by Nite Owl. “Hey, that’s that old guy who lives over a garage! Must be the same guy!” they all shout, and then jog a couple of blocks, without getting at all tired, to Hollis Mason’s place, no doubt passing dozens of derelicts, women walking alone, and other easy victims for muggers, and beat him to death, just because they were really angry. Mob psychology for the under-fives. Great. Well, Mason had to get killed somehow, didn’t he? Actually, he doesn’t, as his death contributes very little to the story, other than giving Nite Owl a chance for a tantrum. [2008: I possibly overdo this paragraph.]

And so finally we are presented with an ending which makes no sense at all, having been contrived solely to put the Big Moral Dilemma to us. Sadly, once you spot the contrivance, the dilemma becomes meaningless.

This is not to say that Watchmen is totally devoid of good points. The portrayal of a world is, in the main, highly convincing. The artwork is beautiful and finely rendered. John Higgins’ colouring, after a few initial hitches, developed a style of its own (which unfortunately means that everything he has done since looks like Watchmen). And there is some fine writing. Where it reflects Moore’s strengths as a writer, in characterization and dialogue, the script is very good indeed, as good as anything in mainstream comics in the past decade, and is (apart from the first episode) mercifully devoid of Moore’s usual dramatic devices. Yet it magnifies both Moore’s strengths and weaknesses, and in the end the weaknesses drag it down. Dave Gibbons, in response to some people’s complaints about the end, said, as an analogy, that he had heard a lot of really good jokes which had terrible punch lines; that didn’t stop them being good jokes. But he seems to have missed the point the terrible ending is the point of certain jokes. In a story, if the conclusion doesn’t make sense within the terms that have been established earlier, then the whole story collapses. All the fine dialogue and detailed artwork in the run-up is merely gloss. It’s what the story is about that matters. Watchmen is such a story.

Take, for instance, the detective story angle. Moore said once that, beyond all the costumes and the world view, Watchmen functions as a detective story, but in the event it isn’t a particularly good one, because Moore has confused genre conventions, which tend to be restrictive, and lead to cliché-ridden material, with genre requirements, which are necessary for the story to work properly. In Watchmen, once the characters have sifted through the deceits and got to the truth, they are told, “Ha, ha, there’s nothing you can do about it …” Most of the characters walk out on the situation. It never seems to occur to them that, since Veidt has killed everybody else with any idea what was going on, he might just try to kill them as well. Nor does it occur to them that, even if they can’t expose Veidt’s plot, they can kill him [2008: This was one of the points I stole from Alan]. Now this would be fair enough, except that giving up is presented as the right thing to do. Rorschach, the archetypal detective figure, refuses to go along. He thinks himself the only moral man in the world, and in the end turns out to be that, rather like Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s novels. Unlike Marlowe, however, he walks off and, giving up in the end, allows himself to be killed by Dr Manhattan. Imagine a version of The Maltese Falcon in which the fat man gets away with the bird, which turns out to be real, and Sam Spade is killed by Miss Wonderly in the same way she killed his partner. That would be a very depressing novel, for the requirement of the detective novel is that some form of justice must be seen to be done. There is no justice in Watchmen. The basic message is “You can’t win”.

Ultimately Watchmen fails [2008: I would now have the humility to add “in my opinion”] because it breaks every promise made to us. All the cliches we thought banished were merely being saved to the end. Led to believe that we were getting a real-world comic with superheroes, what we in fact got was a superhero comic with a real-world gloss. Moore still thinks that Watchmen upset the traditions of superhero comics, but it does so only on the surface. The only basic convention really done away with is that of the good guys winning. It also insults the reader’s intelligence, presenting a simplistic solution to a complicated problem (I don’t know what’s going to bale the world out, but I’m damn sure it’s not going to be an exploding squid). Of course, much of the outrage the last issues generate is because it did try to achieve so much. If it was just another hack job nobody would give a shit. But much of Watchmen is very good, yet ultimately it is a great disappointment. This makes it in some senses a noble failure, as if you set out to ascend great heights you always risk a long fall, and establishing the right to fail is important in any medium, but it is none the less a failure.

Which leads us to the most astonishing thing about all this; it took ages for anybody to notice that Watchmen had any flaws at all! For six months after the release of issue 12, I saw hardly an unkind word spoken of Watchmen; the nearest to a negative comment was in Speakeasy, and that dealt merely with some of the trappings, and not with the central theme. In Escape, whose writers really out to know better, it was praised to the skies as “the first great humane act in superhero comics” (whatever the hell that means), whilst over the page Marshall Law, which subverts the superhero genre far more than Watchmen, is slagged off. Not until The Comics Journal published a review that cut right through to the chief flaws of the story did a truly negative view appear [2008: This was probably in TCJ #114]. Admittedly Watchmen had the advantage of appearing during a remarkably quiet period for British comics fandom, brought on by Fantasy Advertiser‘s suspension of publication (now that FA is back, quite a few letter writers have expressed their displeasure at the book), but that doesn’t wholly explain the uncritical praise thrown around, especially that from non-specialist critics, who should surely be less tolerant of the clichés of the superhero.

Is Alan Moore held in such esteem that he can do no wrong? Well, he certainly is at DC Comics, as are many other top-rank creators, such as John Byrne and Howard Chaykin. [2008: Byrne was revamping Superman, in a manner I felt at the time to be over-written and often missing the point of what the character was about, but probably wasn’t really as bad as all that. Chaykin had just done his Shadow and Blackhawk revivals, in which the leads looked and behaved not that much differently from previous characters Chaykin had written and drawn, such a Reuben Flagg.]. This allows them to produce rubbish without anyone actually daring to tell them so. This is a dangerous situation, as constructive editing, rather than simple interference for its own sake, can be an important part of the creative process, whilst allowing creators full rein to indulge their excesses can be a very bad idea. Dave Sim might not agree, but in any case Len Wein and Barbara Randall certainly did nothing to merit their editors’ payments. [2008: That’s below the belt, and I don’t stand by it.]

As for the reaction among comic fans, I think what has happened is this; Watchmen was, as it has been accused of being, the ultimate fanboy comic, the great hope for the superhero fan who wants to be treated as a grown-up, and to whom Dark Knight was just a sick joke. It was to be conclusive proof that you could write adult and mature stories about guys in long underwear. What in fact it does is prove how difficult it is to match mature writing with the basic absurdity of superheroes, and should act not as a sign to new areas to explore, but a dreadful warning to anyone following this path that it’s a blind alley (as well a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting superstar creators get out of control). Nevertheless, the fact that Watchmen is not a new beginning for superhero comics has not prevented people from praising it as if it is, fearing perhaps the end of the genre’s stranglehold on the medium; people trying to grow up and stay kids at the same time. If this is the case, then Watchmen’s failure, if it is accepted, is probably a good thing, if it does loosen the superheroic grip on comics.

Comics are beginning to break out of the ghetto they have been in, but the only way to win true mass appeal is to put the costumes aside, and produce genuinely adult stories (some thing Alan Moore knows very well). I’m afraid that the new readers Dark Knight and Watchmen have attracted to comics are not going to stay around if they enter a comics store to be confronted by Total Eclipse (a fanboy comic if ever there was one), when they should be being shown Maus or The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. I’m not advocating the death of the superhero comic, merely that it should be put in its proper place. If the fans don’t like it, then that’s their funeral. If they are allowed by the companies to hold the medium back with superheroes (and the American companies have a depressing habit of sticking with an established but shrinking market, rather than taking a risk on a potentially much larger market), then it’s the comic medium’s.

[2008: What a self-righteous prig I was back in 1988! My only excuse is that many of us at the time believed that the future for comics lay in breaking away from superheroes, and were rather embarrassed by the genre. I’m a lot less embarrassed about it now. I also have no recollection of what Total Eclipse was, but looking it up, I see it is the sort of ‘event’ cross-over comic Roz Kaveney, Michael Abbott and I discussed on a panel at Eastercon.]

The quotes in this article were taken from an interview in FA 100.

[1988 postscript: After reading the Alan Moore interview in FA 105, it occurs to me that some of the points made in the above article are less than fair on Moore (in particular, the accusations of crypto-fascism). Nevertheless, I stand by most of the points, especially the sheer ludicrousness of the dénouement.]

[2008 postscript: Looking at this again twenty years on, one thing I didn’t get at the time was how much Watchmen is a joke at the expense of the superhero comic. It takes various elements, tropes and clichés, and then mocks them. The trouble is, this isn’t what we were led to expect in 1987 by what Moore and Gibbons said while talking the story up – hence the disappointment that fuels the above piece. Oh, and I don’t much like The Killing Joke either.]

Arthur C Clarke Shortlist

For once, I've read the whole shortlist for The Arthur C. Clarke Award before the Award is announced (on Wednesday). The nearest I've got before to this was in 2004, where I'd managed to read all but two (which, as it turned out, included the winner). It would have been nice if I'd managed to do this before appearing on the Not the Clarkes panel at Eastercon, but at least I'd read a substantial proportion of all the novels by then, even if I hadn't finished three.

As usual, the shortlist has created controversy, with impositions of narratives upon the jury process on flimsy evidence, and noted omissions. I remain surprised at the absence of Ian McDonald's terrific Brasyl. I haven't read the other notable absentee, Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, so can't really comment; but my partner has read it, and didn't like it much. But as I said on the panel, one of the things to note is that 2007 was a great year for science fiction, and picking just six novels must have been a hard task for the jury.

Matthew de Abaitua, The Red Men. I read the first hundred pages of this at a rush, and as a result, did the novel a bit of a disservice. I couldn't see what it was trying to say, or what the point of the exercise was. It is a little better than that. But, unfortunately, not much. That Snowbooks are too cheap to employ copy editors should not be held against the novel, but in the end its tale of AI copies of people and robots is the sort of thing Charlie Stross does in his sleep. There's nothing The Red Men does that other books on the shortlist don't do better. It most deserves the charge Abigail Nussbaum hurls (unfairly, I think) at the shortlist as a whole, of being not very interesting. I can't see why this is on the shortlist and Brasyl isn't. And I have no idea what the cover quote, "Makes Michel Houellebecq seem like Enid Blyton", actually means.

Steven Baxter, The H-Bomb Girl. There has been a lot of talk about this as a Young Adult novel. I have to say, thinking about it, I'm not sure whether it will connect that well with Young Adults, because they might not understand the world it depicts. I wasn't alive at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I did live at a time when two heavily-armed superpowers were staring at each other across Europe, and with a feeling that, sooner or later, things would deteriorate to such a point that nuclear war would happen. This was how people saw the world at the time of the TV film Threads (which has heavily influenced Baxter's picture of a post-nuclear Britain), and how the world was until Mikhail Gorbachev's meeting with Ronald Reagan at Reykjavik in late 1986. I'm not sure anyone under 30 can connect with that. But let's leave that aside. This is the best writing from Baxter that I've read since Voyage (admittedly, I've not read everything he's written in that period, but I have seen a representative sample). Everything that annoys me about the use of history in the Time's Tapestry series he gets right here. I'm not even irritated by John Lennon, resistance hero. It helps enormously that Baxter, if not actually writing about his own teenage years, is writing about a time he lived through, and where he grew up. I enjoyed this enormously.

Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army. This has been often compared to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and one can see why. There is the same notion of an anti-feminist dystopia, in which women have no rights over their own reproductive processes. But it's very English as well. It has the same sense of place as to be found in Alan Garner (I could easily picture where the novel is set). There's also more than a hint of John Wyndham's "cosy catastrophes". I also admire the way Hall constructs her narrative presentation in order to skip over the boring bits (and I have realized from a comment somewhere else in the blogosphere that the framing device employed is, like the historical section at the end of 1984, a means of signalling that this oppression will not last). It's very well-written (and refreshingly short), but in the end it's just not quite as good as two other novels on the shortlist.

Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts. I quite liked this. As with The Red Men, it reads like a mainstream author toying with sf tropes (and that'll get me in trouble again, no doubt). But it's interesting, if perhaps inconsequential. There 's a definite sense of menace, even if a lot of it comes from slyly-acknowledged lifts from Jaws. And just when the length is getting a bit much, there's a fifty page flipbook.

Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel. This begins as the novel one might expect from MacLeod, a direct response to the War on Terror and contemporary politics. As such it is well-written and passionate, picking up themes that have been in his writing ever since the first Fall Revolution novel. Then, halfway through, he pulls the rug out from under the reader, with a section that shows this is not quite the novel that was expected. Then, at the end, he does it again, with a spectacular sf twist. When you think back, your realize that all the pieces to accomplish this trick have been in plain sight all the time; we were just misdirected. This is what makes a good novel into a glorious novel.

Richard Morgan, Black Man.
My heart sank when I picked this up and realized it was 600-plus pages long. There is a certain point at which sheer length can become oppressive in itself, and, as Mark Plummer wrote in a recent Banana Wings of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, any judgment of the quality of the novel is lost under a sheer desire for it to be over. In truth, Black Man is okay. But it's a technothriller in the Tom Clancy mould (and I bet I get in trouble again for saying that as well); a good example of the genre, beyond doubt, but I don't get much real sense of pushing back the boundaries, except in one section where a Hollywood action version of this plot would have copped out, and Morgan, to his credit, doesn't. But does this outweigh what Graham Sleight identified as being Morgan having his cake and eating it; the hero and his ilk are genetically-modified throwbacks to traits that were eliminated to allow us to live in civilized communities, and everyone in the novel says we should be glad those traits have gone - yet he is the hero, gets all the girls, and is generally presented as admirable.

Two of these novels I found highly enjoyable experiences, rather than just reasonably good, the Baxter and the MacLeod. Of those, I would like to see The Execution Channel win. And that, I must emphasize, would be my opinion even if Brasyl was on the shortlist. But the ending of MacLeod's novel divides its readers - some love it (such as me), some hate it. So I can see, if role-playing a jury (as we did at Eastercon), that a compromise candidate might emerge, in which case I would expect it to be the Baxter, which few people can object to (though Abigail Nussbaum does). I wouldn't be unhappy with that. I'd be less happy if The Carhullan Army won, but could live with it. If The Red Men wins I will be at the head of the queue to call the jury wrongheads.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Doctor Who, 'The Fires of Pompeii'

It's been forty-three years since a broadcast story of Doctor Who was set in the period of the Roman empire. The length of time between 'The Romans' and 'The Fires of Pompeii' has got a lot to do with the show's abandonment in the mid-sixties of the original plan to feature stories set in Earth's history. Part of the problem was, as Kim Newman has observed, the issue that Donna confronts the Doctor with in this episode. The Doctor saves people - that's what he does. But place him among well-known historical events, and his freedom to save people on a global scale, as opposed to on a personal one, is very much circumscribed. He can defeat the Daleks every time he encounters them, but he cannot, to take three examples from the show's first four years, prevent the Great Fire of Rome, stop the Greeks sacking Troy, or prevent Cumberland's butchers hunting down fugitive Highlanders. As a result, between 1966 and 1989, on the occasions when the Doctor did venture into the past (and they were relatively rare: Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee's Doctors only did so twice each, Tom Baker's five times), the stories were what has become known as 'pseudo-historicals', sf stories set in the past (usually some alien invasion). Often these stories took place against a historical background, rather than interacting directly with major historical events - if major events were used, they were often presented as being necessary evils to protect the planet as a whole (e.g. the Great Fire of London being presented in 'The Visitation' as a result of the Doctor defeating the Terileptils).

Under Russell T Davies' revamp of the programme, there has been a deliberate avoidance of stories set on far-off alien worlds. Inevitably, this leads to an increase of stories set in Earth's history. So it's no surprise that they finally got around to the Romans again.

All the stories set in the past since the revamp have been pseudo-historicals, and 'The Fires of Pompeii' is no different. There is an alien invasion, and in order to save the planet, the Doctor has not just to allow Pompeii to be destroyed, but to cause it to happen. In the end, this is actually a cheat as far as answering Donna's question goes. But the show's never really found a better answer to 'why can't the Doctor change history?' over the past forty-five years.

On the subject of cheating, the episode chooses to take a particularly apocalyptic view of Pompeii's destruction. This is probably the way most people think it happened, but the evidence actually suggests that the eruption of Vesuvius took the best part of a day, and, whilst accurate figures are impossible to calculate, a portion of the population will have escaped. It wasn't quite the complete extermination of a whole city that this episode implies. And as for the Romans not having a word for a volcano - well, strictly speaking that's true, but only because what they had was a three-word phrase. They were certainly aware of volcanoes - Etna was active at the time, and there are suggestions in some writers that Vesuvius was suspected to have had a volcanic past.

But this episode isn't a history lesson. Rather, it's a very knowing manipulation of lots of things that people know about the Romans, stuffed full of jokes. It won me over right at the beginning with a comment on how long it's been since the show went into Roman times, and then a direct reference to that particular story. It followed that up with a joke about Mary Beard's dormouse test, and then the best Spartacus joke since Life of Brian. And that's before we point out (as Davies freely confesses in Doctor Who Confidential) that all the character names for Peter Capaldi's family are lifted from the Cambridge Latin Course.

Another point at which I suspect the script is being deliberately knowing is in the opening scene. The Doctor thinks he has arrived in Rome, and only after seeing Vesuvius does he realize he's in Pompeii (why doesn't he consider the possibility that he might be in Herculaneum?). But of course, the sets he has been walking around are Rome, in a way. These are the sets that were originally built for the HBO/BBC series Rome. Credit must go to the production designers and director, who have dressed and shot these sets so that it's isn't immediately obvious that they are the same sets (this becomes plain when you watch Doctor Who Confidential, where the more obvious buildings are not hidden). Production values are high, and it certainly doesn't look like they only actually had 48 hours to film in Cinecitta.

It's interesting to compare this story with the audio adventure 'The Fires of Vulcan', produced in 2000, which was also set in Pompeii at the time of the eruption. It's not unknown for the new series to borrow from audios (Rise of the Cybermen' takes elements from 'Spare Parts', for instance), and the title of the later story is almost certainly an acknowledgment of the earlier one. But beyond that and the setting, the two stories share little. 'The Fires of Vulcan' is an actual historical, and uses historical characters (if sometimes anachronistically). It owes a great deal in terms of structure and scenes to Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii. In 'The Fires of Vulcan', the Doctor again can do nothing for Pompeii - but he does not try himself to escape, instead believing that he himself is fated to die in the eruption.

Overall, 'The Fires of Pompeii' is an extremely interesting piece of classical reception, and a pretty good episode of Doctor Who to boot. Though I could have done without the stunt casting of Phil Cornwell. And the last shot is utter nonsense.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The things I do for scholarship ...

Working in Reception Studies is often fun. You get to load up a boxed set of Battlestar Galactica and call it 'research'. But sometimes you have to go and see Meet The Spartans.

Sorry, you want more than that? Okay, this film has two, and two only, redeeming features, and they're both under Carmen Electra's top. And that, my friends, is a joke both funnier and more subtle than anything you will find in Meet The Spartans.

I suppose one might concede a word of praise for the production designers, who imitated the look of 300 very effectively (assuming they didn't just reuse the sets, as I suspect they might have). A pity none of that care was taken by the scriptwriters.

Final thought: poor, poor Kevin Sorbo.