Monday, April 28, 2008

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.


Mike Taylor said...

"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 don't have a lot of background in comics. Watchmen is the best thing I have read. I would love to know what the better things are that you allude to here. What should I be reading next? Thank you!

Tony Keen said...

Best Alan Moore superhero comic is probably Miracleman, or Promethea, or his Superman story Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?. Best superhero comics? Try the later Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four, or the Walt Simonson Thor, or Miller and Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One. Best comics ever? Try Will Eisner's A Contract With God, or the early volumes of Dave Sim's Cerebus, or Goscinny and Uderzo's Asterix, or Jaime Hernandez's Locas, or his brother Gilbert's Palomar stories. And yes, there's a massive bias towards the 1980s there, but that's my period.

If you want more suggestions, try 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, or check out the 5-star reviews on Slings & Arrows.