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February 22, 2009


Reading The Watchmen: 10+ Entrance Points Into The Esteemed Graphic Novel

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By Tom Spurgeon

I have almost no interest in the Watchmen movie coming out a couple of weekends from now. I'm not flush with anticipation for it, nor am I red-faced in my adamant refusal to have anything to do with it. It feels like another movie to me. I hope it's good, because it's better for there to be good movies than bad movies and I like the source material. But if it's bad, I hope that it's at least bad in an interesting fashion because I prefer that to boring-bad. I have no personal stake in its success or failure, and barring your taking a stand on objections to the movie made public by writer Alan Moore, you probably shouldn't, either.

Strangely, Watchmen is the book that taught me as a teenager not to get wrapped up in the success or failure of someone else's work. By far the most of any work in any form I've ever recommended to other people, Watchmen is the book that's come back to me with a "this was really, really stupid" or some curse-filled approximation thereof. As a 17-year-old with insecurities big enough to keep at least two local psychologists in steak and sports cars, this reaction initially took me back. However, I was also smart enough to know Watchmen had value according to how I decided things had value, and it only took a few seconds to realize that whether or not someone else appreciated something I did wasn't a vote on its overall worth, let alone mine.

So the movie? I don't know. What I do know is that Watchmen is a fine, fine comics work and that a lot of people have been or are going to be reading it or re-reading it, and that's a great thing. I think everyone should discover what a great book means for themselves, and I won't bore you with one of my old reviews of the work in terms of giving you my own adaptation. What I'd like to do instead is briefly mention some of the ways I've entered into the work and the way some people have told me they've engaged Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic book novel, in the hopes that this might spur you to some discovery of your own. I welcome anyone who has a similar pathway into Watchmen to write in so I can include that strategy below these.

1. As A Murder Mystery
This may sound silly to those of you who've read the work before, because at a point far before its end Watchmen very much stops being a murder mystery. It ends those elements of the overall plot in a way that doesn't leave you with a lot of pleasant memories for the way those elements came together, either -- it's cast aside, rather than subsumed into the larger plot. However, I still think this may be the most effective way to describe the work to people coming into it, though, because it allows a blank slate and an open mind upon which Moore and Gibbons can imprint their larger world and cast of characters. Also, as usual, Moore is clever enough that just about any idea or framework introduced is going to have resonance, even one that's largely abandoned like this one. By the end of Watchmen, we've switched one mystery for another. In the realm of the policemen that might be asked to look into such things, "What is being done to the masked people?" stands a great chance of becoming, through Ozymandias' machinations and Rorshach's devotion to the truth, "What have the masked people done to us?"

2. As An Adventure Story
Now this is more like it. Moore and Gibbons are talented comic book people that came into Watchmen as young industry veterans rather than comics outsiders working their way into the medium. The fear that the Watchmen movie may simply encompass a surface reading of the book's many fine qualities has some weight because those surface qualities are solid to the point that one can imagine someone reacting to the book in that way and only that way. There are several thrilling set pieces for those that want them, such as Rorschach's prison cell face-off, the assault on Ozymandias' fortress, watching Rorschach shake various toughs down for information. There are at least three fine origin sequences for those that value them, solid and portentous and revelatory of the characters that are created through them. There are cool devices displayed and great-looking costumes and even a funny line or two. The ending my have its hard to believe elements, but as drama it comes together in a satisfying way that allows the characters to be true to themselves while either growing or withering away in the face of that growth. I think a reading of this story as high adventure may miss many of its finer points, but I can't say it's wrong.

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3. As A Symphony Of Meticulous Applications Of Craft
Alan Moore made his reputation through this work in large part because the story is so intricately told. It's a masterful performance to the point that Dave Gibbons made his own reputation by basically being up to the task of matching it -- that's not in any way disrespectful of Gibbons or his contributions, but rather an indication of Moore's powerful personal stamp on the project. There are many well-known noticeable craft elements to the work, and I personally have a good time noting one or two to which I'll pay attention on a specific reading. A famous one is to follow sugar cubes; another is to note the mirroring that surrounds Rorschach generally and his spotlight issue specifically. A favorite of mine is to note how Moore uses the facial close-up as a way to communicate certain emotional high points. You could read and re-read Watchmen the way my film-fanatic friends dig into Sam Fuller and Alfred Hitchcock movies. The fact that the elaborate construction of the book is part of the overall effect -- it's called Watchmen for that reason, too -- makes it even that much more fun to follow what's being done and to what or whom and when.

4. As A Love Story
It might be a bit top easy to focus on the romance the story contains between Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk as a main avenue through to drive yourself through the book entire, but like with many things Alan Moore there are layers there that make it a lot more fun than simply noting a plotline. They're both second-generation heroes and the children (literally or figuratively) or previous-generation heroes that were unlucky in their relationships and/or professional partnerships. There's a bit of kink and dysfunction to each person's overall psychological and sexual make-up (meaning they're a lot like most of us) and both of them find happiness that doesn't flee from those elements of their characters. Theirs is the most traditionally satisfying and sunniest plotline, at least in terms of how things work themselves out, which suggest it holds some significant weight to balance itself against that which did not turn out satisfactorily. As I grow older, it looms larger as a primary takeaway.

5. As Commentary On The 1980s
It's hard not to see the book as an extended commentary on Cold War paranoia and American attitudes towards their role in world affairs, from the obvious second identity of Dr. Manhattan as a living nuclear bomb to the extension of Richard Nixon's presidential reign due to events in the now-altered world to the notion that a more fundamentally powerful America would have made the world either just as likely to face nuclear annihilation to perhaps even more likely to face something like that. Even the monster-oriented ending is ripped from the notion that the Reagan-era US and the Gorbachev-led USSR would have found common ground if forced to face an alien invasion. The heavy mood of the comic I think reflects an annihilation-cognizant mindset that's hard to remember now, the thought that any second you could look up and see a flash and it'd be over not just for you but for everybody, a hopeless outcome that even made those rebelling against it sicker rather than more whole. There's also an underlying message that supports that primary take that I think rarely gets mentioned, in how little the powerful Dr. Manhattan changes world events but how much someone less powerful but more willing to put those skills into the service of power, The Comedian, changes the course of history.

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6. As A Liminal Experience
I have a friend whose favorite parts of Peter Jackson's boys-adventure take on Lord of the Rings were the parts that all my other friends hated the most: the scene in Fellowship of the Ring where Bilbo Baggins bugs out and his face contorts as he leaps for Frodo's ring, and the scene later on in the same film where Galadriel is temporarily transformed into a One Ring-bearing Witch-Queen. That kind of thing: there were a few more scenes like that one. For him a big appeal of Tolkien's writing and therefore any adaptation of it are those moments where the world goes a little bit bonkers and our perception of it careens into the surreal, the scary and the just plain odd-looking. One thing the film trailers have reminded us is how gob-smackingly weird and lurid and intense Dave Gibbons' visual interpretation of Moore's script was in the original graphic novel. All those oranges and browns and yellows set against mostly somber grays and blues. And then the squid shows up. The design work is also pretty stellar here: that lovely shifting mask but also the ugly pants, the top knots... I think it's entirely possible to dive into Watchmen just for the strangeness of the visual experience. It's a world of unsettling texture.

7. As World Building
Speaking of texture and JRR Tolkien, it's entirely possible to read Watchmen not as narrative at all but as a general exercise in world-building -- one of comics' best and certainly one of the most efficient examples of this kind of thing in all of fiction. Moore and Gibbons manage to communicate, say, the effects of Dr. Manhattan's improvements to world technology and the shifts in immigration into the US due to different geopolitical results in ways that fold the changes into the narrative. Other notes worm their way into back material -- an innovative, stand-alone use of supplementary material like that. This more with less approach has been copied to death in superhero comics since Watchmen hit, but I don't think anyone's ever done it as well.

8. As Commentary On Personal Histories
One of my favorite things to keep in mind as I've grown older is to see how the novel deals with personal histories. Moore is careful to suggest a center that never quite held -- the Watchmen as a team don't exist, the "Crimebusters" idea ended with a burnt map and feelings of slight embarrassment. They're life events without superhero-comic weight. Even the glimpses we see of more standard comic-book "adventures" look kind of sad and silly, and voice of reason The Comedian spells out their underlying silliness in his best speech in the book. At the same time, they're still elements of the personal histories of those involved, and I think Moore deftly handles what it's like to have a past that kind of hounds and frustrates you when you're trying to figure out how to act in the here and now. In fact, you can see each and every character as acting in a way that makes better some sort of past event that still holds power over them -- except maybe Rorschach, who with the event that comes closest really only plays on elements of his one-time partnership with Nite Owl II.

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9. As Commentary On Super-Heroes
There are any number of obvious elements whereby the idea of superheroes are discussed. The characters frequently look ridiculous or out of place in their costumes. There are story elements that are straight-up corrective satire, like the story of a character dying after having a costume malfunction, or the hero the goes in and out of the mental institution. The violence in Watchmen is much more real and abrupt and awful than in most superhero comics (the movie should underline this at least). Even the overall level of craft feels like a rebuttal to the crudeness brought to those stories in the bulk of material that settles into that genre. You can also go into specific commentary, where Dr. Manhattan basically acts as Superman, while elements of Batman are spread across Rorschach (fanaticism/morality), Ozymandias (self-improvement/planning) and Nite Owl II (gadgets/neighborhood protection). That in and of itself suggests that there's something purer about Superman and something perhaps more complicated about Batman, well before you get into how those elements play out across the plot. Another way to go at this way of reading the work is to see Ozymandias as a near-superhuman (he becomes one in the story by catching a bullet) and how that puts him into a course of conflict with the only other super-powered person, Dr. Manhattan. There's a lot here to dream on and think over, and I'm not sure how many comics creators since have really tried.

10. As A Tribute To The Genre's Ability To Hold Several Meanings At Once
Superhero comics are the ultimate empty suit, their specifics so much less meaningful and so much more arbitrary than other genres' tropes. That Watchmen holds up to multiple interpretations in the first place, entirely distinct ways of reading the book that might not show up on the same continent in the world ideas, I think says something about the nature of it chosen story type. It's a grand pageant; you tell us what it all means.

So that's me.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco On Reading Watchmen As Comics Canon:
I didn't start reading comic books until the early '90s, and by the time I did, Alan Moore was already somewhat revered as, in many folks' opinions, the greatest comic book writer, and Watchmen already enjoyed a rep for being one of the classic, you-have-to-read-this comics series. I don't remember exactly which order I read them in, but I remember when I first sat down with Watchmen--as with Dark Knight Returns and Maus -- it was with the knowledge that I was about to read one of those comics that was always being cited as one that changed the field forever and lead to all those "Bam! Pow! Comics aren't just for kids anymore!" type of articles. In that respect, it was a little like reading Catcher in the Rye or Lolita or Heart of Darkness or Adventures of Huck Finn or Shakespeare for the first time. It certainly colored my experience a bit, as I found myself actively looking for the things I had heard over and over were there, the things that made this a comic that you could find in a trade paperback in a library or bookstore, back when that was still pretty unusual (I think the copy I read may have even said "Warner Books" rather than "DC Comics" on it...same with "Dark Knight"). Anyway, I wonder how many people read this because it was suggested to them that they had to, or that it was the greatest comic ever, or the greatest superhero comic ever or because they read an article about it in a mainstream magazine like Time or Newsweek.

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Michael Grabowski On Watchmen As A Serial Comics Reading Experience:
Never having bought any of the trade editions of Watchmen, I still re-read the original comics. So an additional entry into the story for me is as a serial comic reading experience. Appreciating each comic as its own unit, from cover image that amplifies a key detail of the first page, through that particular story unit, through the additional text, and even the slowly progressing letters of the inside covers and the advancing clock on the back. (The complete absence of ads shouldn't be forgotten either.) Each issue feels like a full comic reading experience at a time when most mainstream 80s comics offered diminishing rewards compared to what 35 cents bought you in the late 70s. To my teenage self, Alan Moore was using Watchmen to communicate to Chris Claremont, "Here, let me show you how to write an extended story arc with myriad characters, numerous subplots, and glacial pacing while still providing a unified chapter with a satisfying rather than frustrating amount of development and content in each issue." Because by that point in mainstream comics, for whatever reason, you knew you weren't getting a satisfying amount of story in any given book that month unless it was a double-sized (and double-priced) issue. It's even worse these days, even for alt-comics, so re-reading these comics has been a special pleasure. It helps to remember that there was a time when the only way to re-read a favorite comics story was... to re-read the actual comic books. Moore & Gibbons designed their comic series to repay such re-reading in a way particular to that sort of experience. Had it been designed to be re-read as a book -- something that seemed unlikely at the time and would certainly have been improbable but for The Dark Knight Returns and Maus -- I bet the serial results would have been a little different.

Cole Moore Odell On Reading Watchmen As A Feminist Text:
As with Swamp Thing, From Hell, Promethea, Lost Girls and elements of many other Moore works, gender politics are close to the center of Watchmen. The book presents superheroes as a proxy for late 20th-century America's cartoonish attitudes toward gender. The men engage in routine, horrific violence against women (Sally's rape, the Comedian's murder of his own pregnant girlfriend, the pirate's eventual murder of his wife and family, the way real-life victim Kitty Genovese's death hangs over the story) as distractions from their overt interest -- pointing giant phallic missles at each other. The women are either crushed underfoot or convinced to embrace their own objectification as a source of "power." Finally, Ozymandias attempts to shock the boys out of their mutually assured destruction with The Giant Vagina That Killed New York. Not only does this vagina dentata made real give all the men, from Nixon on down, something they can really fear together, but it serves as a sly commentary on the one thing with power enough to utterly defeat superheroes for young male readers -- the discovery of girls.

Charles Yoakum On Watchmen As A Reputation Builder
Reputation building can be a theme here as well. Moore and Gibbons put on a high wire act, and while Alan came in under the radar with The Anatomy Lesson, here he and Dave decided to the "big project," announced that they were going to do it, and then had the pressure to pull it all off. That's not easy. In Gibbon's book, you can see him submerging himself in the process to just get the damn thing done. What they were doing was going to be game changing and they knew it. The only other thing that was close was the freedom that DC gave Miller to do Ronin. Remember, with the same freedom, Barr and Bolland's Camelot 3000 turned into forgettable, off schedule garbage. For those of us back then, any change to the business-as-usual DC and Marvel was completely unexpected, and DC's making the accommodations to their superior creators was novel and highly unique. I didn't mind waiting for that last issue of Watchmen because I knew that there would be no compromises artistically to the dreaded deadline doom. Thank god for that.

Aaron White On Watchmen As A Personality Test
This may be the dopiest entry-point into Watchmen you'll ever receive, but my college friends and I used it as a cheap personality test. We firmly believed that one's answer to the question "Who's your favorite Watchman?" would speak volumes about your outlook on life. We were deeply disappointed in our friend Colleen, who insisted her favorite was Daniel the younger Night Owl on the grounds that her boyfriend was named Daniel.

Jason Michelitch On Watchmen As Humanist Literature
What initially dazzled me in Watchmen was the craft and the genre commentary, but what has kept me coming back to it is the fullness of Moore's characters and the attitude of the book towards humanity as a whole. I don't think that Watchmen is Moore's best work, but I can't think of any other book of his where there was as much of an ensemble at work, where one central character or smaller group of characters didn't dominate the stage. In Watchmen, there are at least seven main characters whose desires and inner persons are delved into with relish, not to mention the legions of minor characters that Moore bothers to imbue with full-fledged person status. One of the reasons why the monstrous climax of Ozymandias' plot shocks us so is that over the course of the book we've come to view to "little people" of the book as persons as real and as vivid as the ones dressed in costumes. Even the missing artists, who are discussed almost solely as a plot point for most of the book, are given two panels or so in which they are unrelentingly human. Moore is a master of using one or two lines of dialogue and carefully considered staging (interpreted perfectly by Gibbons, I should add) to suggest a whole character. On the more direct notion of humanism, the scene on Mars was really important to me as a 15 year-old trying to muddle through all sorts of Big Important Thoughts about the world and humans. There's obviously so much more to think through philosophically than Watchmen provides, but I never saw it as an end point, even when I first read it. Jon's revelation about the statistical importance of any given human being was a revelatory thought to me at that time, and I took it as a starting point for further thought and appreciation of our fucked-up species. It's still one of my favorite scenes in any work of fiction in any medium.

Chris Mautner On Watchmen As An Indictment Of Baby Boomer Hubris
I've always seen Watchmen in a large part as being a treatise on the danger of assuming you know what's best for people and a condemnation of the baby boom generation to an extent. It's not for nothing that Ozymandius draws allusions to JFK and the "best and brightest" generation. The thing I remember that struck me upon first read is how absolutely convinced Veidt (and everyone else) was that we were headed for WWIII, when, of course, in the real world, such a thing thankfully never occurred. I think Watchmen dovetails neatly with a lot of the ideas Moore expresses in V for Vendetta, about giving the power to the people themselves and the danger of assuming -- as a lot of people in power do -- that you know what's best for everybody.

*****

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*****
*****
 
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