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Saturday, February 11, 2006 

Watching The Watchmen, Yet Again

“Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach.”

You out there in web-land read those words, and chances are, you either a) think I’ve gone nuts and begun channeling my inner goth, or b) you head straight for your bookshelf and grab your copy of Watchmen to reread it yet again.

I’m looking for b), though a) is always a possibility. The maggots, they are a’singing.

Anyway, last night I was trolling around for something to read, and I decided to pull Watchmen off the shelf. I’ve reread this landmark 1985 comic series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons probably six or seven times, and each time it’s a revelation—I was up till about 3 this morning going through it.

And now, I’m going to expect you to do the same thing. If you’ve read Watchmen already—and anybody who’s bought a comic in the last twenty years should have—you have your own ideas on the greatness of this work. (I’ve never read or heard of anyone who hasn’t liked it, which qualifies as a walk-on-water miracle.) And if you’re one of my readers who visits here for the sportswriting or the obligation (okay, he’s my friend, I’ll put up with all this comic silliness…) –well, friend, I’m going to have you heading to Amazon right after you read this post.

Brief Watchmen synopsis: It’s 1985, and Richard Nixon is still president. There were superheroes in this world, but they were outlawed in 1977. (With the notable exception of those heroes in service of the U.S. government—one of whom helped Nixon win the Vietnam War, which explains his continued presidency.) Now, however, it seems the former heroes are being killed off—as the book opens, The Comedian, a rough-riding John Wayne-slash-John McClane type, is being hurled to his death right out his penthouse window. But who would kill him—who could kill him—and why?

From there, the book shows the “true” story of superheroes—the way that the people behind the masks could be every bit as fascistic, murderous, brutal, and deviant as any cross-section of humanity—only moreso, since they hold the reins of power. (The book’s epigram is from Juvenal’s Satires: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes”—literally, “Who watches the watchmen?”)

If the book ended there—showing the superheroes’ feet of clay—that would be revolutionary enough. Watchmen hit in 1985, a time in which we were far less cynical about not only our comic book heroes, but our leaders and the world around us in general. We were still able to write off Nixon as a lone crook, not a symptom; we hadn’t yet come to terms with the way Vietnam had affected us as a nation; and we were living in Reagan’s “shining city on the hill.” It was “morning in America,” and nobody wanted to think too much about what would happen when we cycled back around to nightfall.

Here at right is the first page, minimized--click on it for the full-size version. It's the interior monologue of the hero Rorschach--a guy who wears a Rorschach-blot mask and is so driven he makes Batman look like a stoned surfer dude. His musings come as the viewer sees the remains of The Comedian's fall. And in the very first page, it sets the themes that will run throughout the entire series. (In professor mode here: note that you've got at least four separate narrative and symbological motifs going here--the voiceover, the blood on the smiley pin, the two different kinds of foreshadowing in panel 3, and the counterpoint between the journal and the detective's lines. And this is just the first friggin' page.)

Watchmen uses superheroes as a jumping-off point (no pun intended, given the first page) to address these very issues, to show the other side of Spider-Man’s driving ethos: if great power does indeed bring great responsibility, the powerful get to determine exactly how that responsibility is executed. And while the superpower politics of the book are a bit dated—you couldn’t pull off a climax like Watchmen has in the current U.S.-versus-terrorists climate—the idea of the powerful abusing their power—even if they believe they’re doing right—is one that never goes out of style. (You don’t need me to connect the dots any more than that, do you?)

From a creative perspective, Watchmen is an unqualified triumph. Quite simply, this book justifies why comics exist. You’ve got multiple spiraling narratives, history interwoven with fantasy, prose writing at the end of each book illuminating the story told beforehand, images serving as both underline and ironic counterpoint, symbols moving through both visual and narrative language to create what Moore called an “under-language”—not quite visual, not quite verbal, but using elements of both to achieve a new form of communication.

For instance, consider the famous splotch-on-the-smiley-face image that’s the centerpiece of the book. In the very first panel of the book, we see a smiley-face button with a droplet of blood on it—and you don’t need to work too hard to figure the implications of that symbol.

Both the smiley face and the splotch repeat throughout the book, at the most unexpected moments—on a radar screen, as a smear on a headlight, as a ketchup stain on a t-shirt, and as a geologic arrangement on Mars (left)—which I was amazed to find is actually based on a real location (right, courtesy NASA).

(Incidentally, right after college, I worked at a TGI Friday’s-type restaurant—you know, the kind that wants you to have all the wacky “flash” (kooky buttons and such) on your uniform. They gave me some sample “flash” to use, one of which was a smiley-face button. I promptly dripped a thin droplet of ketchup onto it. Anybody who smiled and nodded at the joke got a free dessert, anybody who said, ‘Say, you spilled something there’ got—well, I’ll leave it to your imagination.)

This is where movies—and, though I hate to admit it, novels—fall short. Both lack a key component to communicate the multifaceted essence of Watchmen. And that’s why I always meet the news of a Watchmen movie with serious reservations. Hollywood has filed off every edge from Moore’s previous books—From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—and the fate of V for Vendetta, hitting theaters this spring, is yet to be determined. The idea that Watchmen would likely be chewed into some goofy “twilight of the superheroes” story just disappoints me on so many levels.

Each time I read the book, I get something new out of it. The first time, it was a cool end-times-for-superheroes tale. The next time, I could admire the intricate plotting. The next time, I appreciated the fractured hyperreality of a world where too much information ends up dumbing us down, not enlightening us. The next time, it was the political subtext. And this time, with thoughts of form and design on my mind, I read it with an eye to the way Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons physically construct the book. Every image in the book recurs throughout, and payoffs from one don’t happen until issues later. In the most famous example, the very last panel of the entire book is a complete payoff for everything that went before. I can’t explain it any more without giving spoilers, except to note that in that one panel, visual and verbal and “underlanguage” motifs all combine to illuminate and justify the entire work.

I’m not a fan of criticizing for the sake of criticizing, but I do need to point out a couple flaws in Watchmen. First off, you can’t really read it for the character development. There really ain’t too much here. The characters are who they are throughout; there’s no real intrinsic change in them. Which, in this case, is not a criticism at all—like Warren Ellis, Moore is a writer of ideas, not of people. Moore’s characters serve as mouthpieces for ideals, and there’s nothing wrong with that. At the end of the book, you’re left not imagining who you’d be in this world, but who you’d believe.

The medium itself presents a barrier—by using superheroes as its mode of entry, it sets up an inherent barrier to a large segment of potential readership. You don’t need to know who, say, Gwen Stacy was to read this, but you do need to have a sense of what comics were like in the “Golden Age” (post-WWII, when good and evil were—in the popular imagination, at least—absolute, quantifiable concepts) to get the full measure of what’s going on initially. Once you get past that hurdle—probably by issue 3—you’re fine…and ready to be scared out of your mind.

Watchmen absolutely demands repeated readings—and rewards them. If you’ve never read Watchmen—particularly if you’ve never read much in the way of comics—go find a copy of the book and read it. It’s at most libraries, or can be had on ebay for less than ten bucks. Trust me—you will never look at comics the same way again.

Postscript: A couple years back, somethingawful.com did a photoshop contest where contestants "rewrote" Watchmen--sometimes with wet-your-pants-funny results. Here's a couple choice ones (click to enlarge):

See the rest by clicking here. Turning the medium's finest product into a series of fart jokes...The Comedian would've loved it.


Jay Busbee runs Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR Blog From The Marbles, Atlanta Magazine's Atlanta sports blog Right Down Peachtree, and the Southern sports/humor blog Sports Gone South. He also writes for damn near anybody who'll throw him a buck and a byline, and he's at work on the books The Quiet Dynasty: The History Of The Atlanta Braves' Championship Run (2009, Sports Publishing LLC) and God Is A Bulldog: Georgia, Florida, And The Greatest Play In College Football History (2010, Sports Publishing LLC). Click below for more info on his novels, articles, and comics.
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