[Note: As usual, here be Watchmen spoilers.]

The WordPress Happiness Engineers are on top of that delayed gratification thing. They took a while to investigate my mis-assigned comments issue, but they did get back to me at last. (To their credit! That forum gets a LOT of help requests!) They couldn’t reproduce it, but they offered to work from a list of wrong comments and reassign them for me. Now all I have to do is produce that list. Not today, though!

Today’s task is another investigation of the references embedded in The Annotated Watchmen. In a note about panel 5 on page 4 of issue 1, we find this:

Moore, in the New Comics interview, says that in the Watchmen universe, there was some conflict in Asia that resulted in famine in India and a lot of Indian refugees coming to the US. Hence, Indian food has caught on in the US, including the popular Gunga Diners.

The “New Comics interview” referenced rather casually here is from Gary Groth and Robert Fiore’s book The New Comics, an anthology of interviews from Groth’s magazine The Comics Journal. Even when the book was published in 1988, calling some of the comics discussed “new” was quite a stretch — large swaths are devoted to underground comics of the late ’60s and early ’70s, as well as to architects of the form like Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman. Still, many of the subjects were at least newish at the time, like a pre-Hate Peter Bagge and a pre-Simpsons Matt Groening, as well as Bill Watterson and Harvey Pekar towards the beginnings of their arcs. Not to mention Watchmen itself, which was just a couple years old when the book came out.

In fact, the interview (conducted by a pre-Sandman Neil Gaiman at a comics convention, with lots of questions from the audience) took place right after the release of issue #5, so rather than discussing the book’s whole story, it focuses mostly on how the book came to be, as well as its overall intent and various details with in it. Nevertheless, it’s full of great tidbits, like the worldbuilding insight above. Gibbons describes the serendipity he’s encountered in making the comic, and talks about how he imagined the technological state of a world “deformed by super-heroes”, but most important to me is the revelation that Moore didn’t necessarily have all the resonant themes of the book worked out in advance:

There’s the plot there, but it’s what happened since then that’s the real surprise because there’s all this other stuff that’s crept into it, all this deep stuff, the intellectual stuff. [laughs] That wasn’t planned.

That’s significant, because it suggests that Moore didn’t have all the details worked out in advance, but rather filled many things in as he went along, which goes quite a ways towards explaining the logical discrepancies in various aspects of the story, such as Dr. Manhattan’s vacillation between timeless awareness and his occasional surprise and changes of mind.

Still, as valuable as it is, the interview is rather short. The book as a whole, on the other hand, does a wonderful job of painting a portrait, depicting a crucial era in comics, when possibilities were expanding, and concepts were being pursued that fed Moore and Gibbons’ vision in Watchmen. For instance:

Realism

Over and over again in this book, creators (and the editors) exalt realism as a powerful and underused technique in comics. Harvey Kurtzman’s war stories in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat are hailed for being “tough-minded, deglamorized, and painstakingly researched.” A loving description of Harvey Pekar’s work says that it portrays “the minute details of life that even serious fiction ignores.” The interview with Los Bros. Hernandez celebrates the way that Jaime’s realistic subplot in “Mechanics” grew to take over the comic itself, pushing the science fiction element to the fringes.

Watchmen, too, is concerned with realism, picking up where Marvel left off in trying to answer the question, “What would happen if there really were super heroes in our world?” The reason that the Fantastic Four bicker and argue, and struggle with self-loathing, and don’t have secret identities, and didn’t even have costumes at first, is because Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created them as a reaction to the bland, beaming, formulaic DC heroes who dominated the market at that time. Lee injected more humanness into his characters, and the audience loved it. Or, as Moore once put it:

The DC comics were always a lot more true blue. Very enjoyable, but they were big, brave uncles and aunties who probably insisted on a high standard of you know mental and physical hygiene. Whereas the Stan Lee stuff, the Marvel comics, he went from one dimensional characters whose only characteristic was they dressed up in costumes and did good. Whereas Stan Lee had this huge breakthrough of two-dimensional characters.

Moore goes one better in Watchmen, delivering a slate of characters who, despite their costumes, are neither heroes nor villains, but rather complex and broken people, each trying to enact (or retreat from) the concept of heroism in their own ways. Just like real people.

Nuclear Anxiety

I was a teenager in the 80s, when these comics were coming out, and the overriding existential angst of the time was about nuclear war. Knowing that your country had the technological capability to destroy the world many times over was bad enough, but when there was another country that could do it too, and those two countries happened to hate each other… well, it could make you pretty nervous if you thought about it too much. Artists were thinking about it, and the topic pops up throughout these interviews. Justin Green describes the grim potential of atomic holocaust on his way to expressing a faith that human consciousness will squelch the possibility. Gary Panter talks about “releasing a nightmare on paper” in his comic about the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

Moore and Gibbons were working out nuclear anxiety in Watchmen, but in the beautiful mode of the superhero genre, they did it mostly on a metaphorical level. Instead of just America vs. Russia in a game of Bombs And Bunkers, they personify the bomb itself in the form of Dr. Manhattan, a being almost (but not quite) completely indifferent to the human race, but who profoundly changes the human condition simply by existing. Of all the costumed heroes in the story, he is the only one who is truly superhuman, and his elevation beyond the human scale makes him ultimately alien and terrifying. He embodies our new planet-shattering capabilities, and when Laurie Juspeczyk tugs on the thread of his humanity in Chapter 9, she embodies that consciousness that Green hoped would be our salvation.

Then there’s Ozymandias’s plan, which he explains as his own Alexandrian solution to the Gordian knot of mutually assured destruction. It’s shortsighted lunacy, of course, but in the context of the story, we have to take it seriously for a moment. As Dreiberg says, who’s qualified to judge whether the smartest man in the world has gone crazy? Peter Bagge writes about being the editor of the underground comic anthology Weirdo with Robert Crumb, saying that he was never comfortable running sincere “issue” pieces like antinuke comics, because he always found them obvious: “I don’t want to just keep all these antinuke people happy by telling them things they already know.” I don’t think Watchmen is seriously arguing that the destruction of a major city and the slaughter of millions of people is a viable plan in the face of looming nuclear destruction, but it makes us think about it for at least a few minutes, and that’s far from obvious.

Subverting Superheroes

If Gary Groth had a superpower, it would be the Power Of Disdain. In his introduction and the interstitial material of the book, Groth is overflowing with contempt for all aspects of the mainstream comics industry, including newspaper comics, but he saves his deepest derision for superheroes and their creators. You can practically see both Groth and Fiore holding their noses anytime they must refer to Marvel or DC, or to costumed crusaders. Interestingly, Groth seems unaware that he places himself and his magazine firmly within an utterly stock heroic narrative, as the plucky underdog outsider taking on a corrupt establishment. Check out this sentence from this introduction:

The comics profession, represented at the time predominantly by Marvel and DC Comics, and therefore composed overwhelmingly of hacks, was outraged and appalled by the Journal‘s nervy challenge to the artistic and ethical status quo of an industry with which they had grown comfortable.

Ow, my eyes, how they hurt from all the rolling. It goes on like that, paragraph after paragraph of self-congratulation, mixed in with the suggestion that perhaps he deserves the credit for the 1980s blossoming of alternative comics. (No doubt if he’d been publishing in the 60s, he’d have taken credit for underground comics too.) As I read it, I kept feeling the nagging hint of familiarity, and then realized where I’d heard it all before: trolls. Groth’s position is essentially that of the internet troll, poking his head up in a community in order to heap abuse upon its members, all the while attempting to claim a moral and intellectual high ground by dismissing the vast majority of their work as “puerile junk, shoddily produced.”

This isn’t to say that he’s completely wrong. Like all areas of human endeavor, superhero comics contain plenty of crap. There’s nothing wrong with a reasoned critique of any artistic production. I’m actually a huge fan of criticism, as I suppose I ought to be, given the number of reviews I’ve written. I think a critic can be an invaluable teacher for audiences and creators, and that criticism can be quite salutary both for artists and art forms. However, I’m much more skeptical about the value of smugness and condescension, with which criticism is sometimes confused. When these traits infect criticism, or substitute for it, nobody wins.

There’s a section of The New Comics devoted to writers and artists of superhero comics (sneeringly titled “Men In Tights.”) Besides Moore and Gibbons, it features Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Howard Chaykin. These men are mainly celebrated for how they’ve subverted the superhero premise or undercut its artistic tropes. With mild astonishment, Groth reports that Moore’s approach is instead to “examine a genre and try to bring the best out of it, while staying, for the most part, within its conventions.” Still, Watchmen wouldn’t be included in this book if it didn’t shake up the superhero genre, and Groth grudgingly allows that it “is likely to be as close as costumed character comics will ever get to literature, and it comes closer than anyone might have expected.”

I doubt that Moore wrote Watchmen in order to impress Gary Groth. However, the book is definitely interested in interrogating the basic superhero concept. From the genre’s beginnings, one of its unquestioned foundations was that if somebody set out to “fight crime” or “save the world”, they were doing the right thing. Even when they encountered failures or setbacks, their moral authority was never in question. An even more deeply held assumption of the genre is that superheroes really do make a difference, that the world really can be saved by a handful of extraordinary beings.

In Watchmen, that notion goes up in flames as the Comedian’s lighter incinerates Captain Metropolis’ fussy display of “social evils” (like “black unrest” and “anti-war demos”.) His point in doing so is about the futility of action in the face of an inevitable atomic holocaust, but what he says a few panels earlier cuts even deeper:

Comedian: Got any ideas, Ozzy? I mean, you are the smartest guy in the world, right? Ozymandias: It doesn't require genius to see that America has problems that need tackling... Comedian: Damn straight. An' it takes a moron to thin that they're small enough for clowns like you guys to handle. What's going down in this world, you got no idea. Believe me.

Since the Marvel Age began, heroes had been struggling with “ordinary problems”, like paying rent or having to do stuff when you have the flu. Spider-Man had even wondered whether his desire to dress up and punch bad guys was a form of psychosis. But I don’t know of a pre-Watchmen comic in which a superhero consciously encounters the most fundamental flaw in the entire superhero premise, the fact that the world’s problems are deep and complex, and that no amount of punching is ever going to solve them. In Watchmen, the Comedian’s eloquence changes Ozymandias, setting into motion the plot of the book. In the comics world, Watchmen‘s eloquence changed the superhero genre, setting into motion a wave of books that questioned whether superheroes were even the good guys at all, or whether there was even such a thing as good guys and bad guys. We’re still watching the fallout today.

Next Entry: You’re A Better Man Than I Am, Walter K
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