Monday, April 28, 2008

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.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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.