Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, 1987.
Part of the weird time-space compression that is traditionally called “growing up” or “getting old” or “senility” is that if you’re not careful, you will continue to regard things that were considered fresh and new many years ago as “fresh,” or “new.” What a surprise, then, to get around to reading Watchmen – one of those new “graphic novels” that people seem to have been talking about a lot lately – and discover that it has a copyright date of 1987, which according to my calculations is 26 years ago. Sheesh.
During those twenty-six years, people have done a lot of rehashing, reconsidering, and reconstructing of the super-hero motif. There has been, for example, the new Batman movie franchise, and then also the new new Batman movie franchise, and there have probably been a couple of generations now of comic artists who have reinterpreted the notion of superheroics to each other via the internet. So it is a little bit hard now (and deeply inadvisable, I might add) to transport oneself back into the 1980s and try to figure out just how clever the Moore and Gibbons take on the genre is, or was.
Certainly, you have to give Watchmen points for highly literate storytelling, strong graphic art, and an aggressive exploration of the conventions and possibilities of its genre. Among any number of neat tricks, here’s one that stands out: a minor character spends much of the book reading a comic book. That comic-book-within-a-comic-book’s text and artwork leak out into the main story, creating weird parallels and contrasts. The overlap is managed so that we encounter the main story and its counterpart more or less simultaneously. It’s pretty cool, and it would only really work in a comic format.
Watchmen takes place in a well-developed alternate reality that seems to branch off from history as we know it around 1940. Instead of costumed magical beings with magical powers, the Watchmen of the title are simply costumed human beings – mostly. That means that this assay into the superhero genre also a great big questioning of the whole notion of superheroes, an open speculation on how American society would really act to the presence of people in tights and capes running around fighting crime. Mostly. Except, it turns out that there is one magical being in the mix, complete with a conventional science-experiment-gone-awry creation myth. This inconsistency bugged me a little, but to be fair it doesn’t hurt the basic comic narrative any, and I suppose it keeps the work as a whole from being too much of a one-dimensional exercise in asking “What if superheroes didn’t really have superpowers?” It also, in a roundabout way, sets up a brisk questioning – by comic book standards – of the concept of a nuclear deterrent.
Visually and emotionally, Watchmen takes a lot of its cues from film noir, and the whole of the thing is saturated with a mood of grim, detached pessimism. Thoroughly saturated! Thoroughly, thoroughly saturated! You have to celebrate the creative achievement of invoking and sustaining a certain mood, even while wishing that the thing wasn’t such a complete downer.
And this is, I suppose, half of why I didn’t particularly care for this innovative and sophisticated work of literature. For, although Watchmen certainly makes a strong case that the comic medium needn’t be limited to telling stories that are basically amusing in nature, I am not sure that the evolution of the medium as a light entertainment is entirely accidental. Hell, I really don’t want to say that comics are best suited for laughs and kid stuff, because I realize that we are past all that now and that many people passionately believe otherwise. But nevertheless, really, in my heart of hearts, I think I feel that comics are best suited for laughs and kid stuff.
The other half of why I didn’t particularly care for this innovative and sophisticated work of literature is that it’s all about superheroes. Now, I realize that you can get very excited about studying popular culture and you can ruminate about archetypes and have all sorts of intellectual fun with the enduring importance of superheroes in our collective imagination. But I would like to suggest another point of view, not because I particularly feel like being negative, but because I think it has become a minority report and therefore a point of view that should be voiced from time to time in order to prevent the tyranny of an assumed consensus.
Here goes: I would suggest that our stock of well-loved superheroes are really just instances of cheap pabulum that were originally churned out as a platform for advertising to children, kept alive by nostalgia and frequent infusions of capital in the form of easily constructed big-budget movies. So, even though Watchmen takes an apparently very innovative look at the concept of superheroism, in the end it’s still a superhero comic. As a superhero comic, it’s probably pretty awesome. But because it is a superhero comic, its real substance is limited by the essential triviality at its roots.