02 March 2012

Rewatching the Watchmen

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 1986-87)

Previously read November 2008
Acquired January 2012
Reread February 2012

Writer: Alan Moore
Artist/Letterer: Dave Gibbons
Colorist: John Higgins

Can I just say that I strongly dislike the cover of the most recent edition of Watchmen? Something just turns me off about that CG-looking blood splatter on the smiley-face eye. I don't know what it is, but I much prefer the cover of the 1987 trade paperback edition.

That aside, there were a number of things that stuck out at me on this rereading of Watchmen, and I'll attempt to highlight those rather than do some kind of comprehensive review of the book. (Besides which, I've reviewed the book as a whole before.)

Foremost among these aspects was the utopian underpinning of the superhero concept. This is an aspect of the superhero that's arguably waned over the decades, but it dates back to the original Superman stories by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. That Superman was on the side of justice, not necessarily the law, and willing to do whatever he had to if it served the cause of right. Of course he never killed anyone, but he dropped a munitions lobbyist into a warzone, destroyed a bunch of dangerously made cars, imprisoned a mine owner in his unsafe mine, and destroyed an entire housing district to force the government to rebuild it better. The reader gets to see the negative aspects of their own society purged, and the implication of the stories is that what is built in their place will be better, leading to a better society. Relatively quickly Superman moved on to battling supervillains and cosmic menaces, but the utopian fantasy clearly underlies most superheroes.

What, then, is Ozymandias's destruction of New York City but Superman destroying the housing district on a massive scale? Through destruction, he can cause the world to be rebuilt. The superhero fantasy is that with a sufficient level of power, you can change the world for the better-- but of course, the deployment of power requires the release of violence, and the violence is unlikely to be as contained as Siegel and Shuster's Superman was always able to do. Ozymandias knows this, but rather than shrink from the violence, he embraces it and uses it to make the world better. Many commentators on Watchmen ask if it is Ozymandias or Rorschach who is in the right, and for some reason, most of these commentators seem to think that Rorschach is right.

It's not that I think that Ozymandias is right, but that to think this is an either/or proposition underestimates how complicated Moore and Gibbons are. Even Peter Paik, whose book From Utopia to Apocalypse is a substantial influence on my own thoughts on the utopian aspects of superheroes, falls into what I call the "Rorschach trap"; when you find yourself agreeing with a psychopath, you might have done something wrong. Rorschach is simply Ozymandias on a smaller scale. He commits countless acts of violence in pursuit of his vision of justice, against people who are innocent of the crimes he is investigating.

Indeed, one of the supplemental text sections reveals that Rorschach admires President Truman for being willing to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki-- which probably killed more people than Ozymandias's faked alien attack on New York City. Rorschach commits the violence that it is in his power to commit to change the world to the form he sees as optimal, as do all those who exercise power. And thereby Moore and Gibbons make their book about something other than superheroes.

But it is about superheroes, too, and does all sorts of things to them that have since become intrinsic to the genre. A friend of mine insists that Watchmen is the single most important superhero story ever written, and I think he's wrong about that. Genres are filled with stories that cause them to mutate, but those changes become absorbed, and the stories' significance underestimated. Where would be without Amazing Fantasy #15, for example? What makes Watchmen so significant, though, is that it is both genre-redefining and very good. (This is harder than you'd think.)

Watchmen is simply an excellent comic book, by which I mean an excellent use of the comic book medium. Watchmen never tries to be like a movie or anything like that (though it certainly uses some cinematic techniques), but it tries to do things that only comic books can do.

The use of repeated panels is one that sticks out at me the most. In a sequence early in the book, we see the Comedian murdered. Images from this sequence pop up throughout it, interspersed into other parts of the narrative. I don't think film could pull this off quite the same way. It would have to be a snippet of action or motion, and it would have to be brief. A comic book, though, can show us a single wordless panel, isolating a moment in time that our eye can linger over without it using up much space in the story.

Comics are perhaps unique for the fact that the size/duration of something is unrelated to how much time you spend with it. Both words and moving images go by at a constant rate, so if you want your reader/viewer to spend time with something, you have to devote time to it. Comics don't have to do that; a single image of a single moment can arrest the reader. Moore and Gibbons also use this effectively in the chapter where Doctor Manhattan and the Silk Spectre talk on Mars; the perspective keeps shifting to a perfume bottle slowly turning in the Martian atmosphere. Only it's probably moving quite quickly.

It also actually does not actually get thrown until the end of the chapter, showing another technique that Moore and Gibbons use to great effect: images from different times in sequence. The chapter explaining Doctor Manhattan's history uses this best of all. Doctor Manhattan views all times simultaneously, and so does the viewer of a comic book, since your eyes can scan back and forth across the comic panels at will. It's a very clever way to make the reader become Doctor Manhattan in a sense, and again, a trick that could never have the same effect on film. (It's definitely the best chapter in the book.)

There's also the jumping between multiple plots in rapid succession, such as when we see what's going on in New York, what the superheroes are up to in Antarctica, and what is happening in the comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter. Moore and Gibbons even place the dialogue or narration boxes from one of this threads within the image of another. Again, it can only really work in comics, where the eye can linger and figure out how everything goes together. It would be cacophonous to cut a film together this way.

With Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons not only scrutinized and redefined the superhero genre, they exploited the comic book medium to its utmost, and the two of the these two actions make Watchmen the legend that it is. Given all of this, it's no wonder than the Watchmen film turned out to be largely pointless. Zack Snyder's slavish adherence to the visuals of the comic underestimates the extent to which the structure of the book was intrinsically comic-y in ways that the film could never hope to transfer. (That said, the film's best sequence is also the part where we learn Doctor Manhattan's backstory, because it exploits an exclusive part of the film medium: sound. The soundtrack seals the deal.) And, of course, the book had already redefined the genre and the tropes it spawned had been incorporated into countless superhero films already. What could the film hope to do in this regard?

As far as adaptations go, by sheer coincidence, I was reading Watchmen when the news about Before Watchmen broke. Personally, I'm interested enough; DC has put together a top-flight of creators, and I think that they could create a series of top-flight superhero stories. They won't utterly change superhero comics the way that Watchmen did, but I don't expect them to.

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