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.
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
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
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.
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?
And therein lies the problem.
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
Take, for instance, the detective story angle.
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.
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
[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
I enjoyed reading your article.
To be fair to Rorshach, the fat man in the Maltese Falcon wasn't a god who's powers were beyond conceivable by mortal men. I thought Rorshach and Manhattan were the most fascinating characters in this thing and I don't think the ending betrayed them, so I was very happy with that much. Rorshach ended uncompromised. He was beyond self prservation.
I liked the experience of reading the watchmen very much. Regardless of whether it was a story clothed in super heroes, or super heroes clothed in a story, it was good to me. I hope the movie does it some justice.
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