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Robert Stanley Martin On Watchmen As A Slam-Dunk Consensus Best Comic Of All Time
posted March 20, 2012

I'm afraid I'm going to have to take exception to your characterization of Watchmen's stature in your posting today. What you write is entirely based on its ranking in the TCJ Top 100 list from over a dozen years ago. I'm surprised you would argue that that makes your case for a number of reasons. First of all, if memory serves, you wrote something to the effect at the time that the TCJ list was reflective only of the magazine's perspective and shouldn't be considered definitive for the field -- a view I certainly agree with. If you've changed your mind since then, I'd be very interested in reading your reasons. Beyond that, I can point to any number of things that support a consensus view of Watchmen as at or near the top of the list of the best comics produced over the last quarter century. One would be its inclusion in Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels between 1923 and 2005. That was a very conservative list overall, featured in an establishment publication that does not go out on limbs as a matter of course. Watchmen was the only comic included. There was also Entertainment Weekly's list of the 100 best reads between 1983 and 2008, which surveyed the complete range of English-language book publishing of the period. Watchmen came in 13th, and the only comic ahead of it was Maus. (The other comics included were Persepolis, Sandman, Jimmy Corrigan, and Fun Home, which seems a pretty fair list.) And of course, there's the Best Comics Poll that I oversaw at The Hooded Utilitarian last year. That was run in the manner of the Sight and Sound once-a-decade best films poll, with a consensus list put together from over 200 top-ten lists by a very diverse range of critics and artists. Watchmen was the fourth-highest vote-getter. The only contemporary comic that did better was Calvin and Hobbes. (The next highest superhero comic was the Kirby-Lee Fantastic Four at #10.) I should also note that a good number of the poll contributors were academics--the people who do the most to determine canons over the long haul--and Watchmen tied with Maus as their most popular choice. Brothers and Witzke may be engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but they're hardly far off the mark.

Tom Spurgeon Updates: I disagree. I think not engaging one of the more prominent lists -- and I think the best one to come out of that period -- makes the position less of a slam dunk. It's fine to value Time and Entertainment Weekly if you want -- I don't -- but I think TCJ has value, too. Not definitive value -- and it's super-dim for you to say I'm suggesting that -- but value as one important list among many. Value enough to suggest a counter-narrative.

For instance, I'm not sure why Hooded Utilitarian's list gets more serious play from you than TCJ's. It's okay if you want to do that; I thought that list was largely an embarrassment -- Calvin And Hobbes isn't a top ten strip for anyone I take seriously -- but mostly, like a lot of what HU does, I thought it a non-factor done in an ultimately non-serious way designed to draw a "look at me" response from people. I'm sure they'll be delighted that I wrote that, actually, because seeing their name bandied about and fuming over various crimes done against them and how people with other opinions don't get them and/or real-world issue A, B, C seems to be the point of much of what they do. In fact, I can almost hear them scuttering into range right now. It's very, very boring.

Again, because this is likely to be the way in which this response is going to be misinterpreted, it's fine if you think x, y, z list makes Watchmen a clear "best book ever." I just don't. I think the TCJ list is important enough that all by itself it weakens that position, and that it indicates a significant, wider counter-narrative where Watchmen isn't seen as the greatest comic book ever made, at least not so absolutely clearly that commentary can riff off of that fact without me rolling my eyes. That it was done when Watchmen's reputation wasn't yet weakened through an explosion of formidable works, comics' general embrace of a certain kind of creative cannibalism, the appearance of the crappy film version and the "you crazy" end game of DC's abominable treatment of Moore suggests an even stronger counter-narrative. At least to me. That doesn't mean I want Brothers and Witzke taken out back while copies of The Complete Peanuts are thrown at their heads until they're knocked unconscious, but I think it's an objection worth making in the low-stakes world of people blathering on about funnybooks.

I mean, I'm sorry to break it to you, but there are whole swathes of comics-makers and comics-readers and writers about comics out there for whom Watchmen doesn't even register, just as there is a group for whom it's a fine work, and just as there are those for whom it's the finest or one of them. I think it's a great work, but I don't think in a medium without, for example, an obvious set of hang-ups when it comes to the superhero genre it would have anywhere near the same force assumed for it as "the best comic ever." In fact, with writers like David and Sean, and their criticism of the work, it's starting to look like Watchmen may even benefit from a specific generational boost related to what people were reading and when.

Update: Scuttering is right. It took that self-absorbed goofball Noah Berlatsky less than an hour to find the Hooded Utilitarian mention on this corner of my site and tweet about it in a defensive, desperate, "look at me" fashion. And because it's Noah Berlatsky, there's a good chance he's going to spit off in every direction possible to misrepresent what is actually being said, and not just in desperately dorky way of suggesting the above is more about his site than it is about a very specific way of talking about Watchmen.

Let me make one thing clear, though -- I love Calvin and Hobbes. I saw Calvin and Hobbes before it was published, and helped secure it one of its early buyers. I own all the work in reprinted form and I clipped it for a while when it was coming out. I think it's a great strip -- part of the pantheon. It's #67 on my easily google-able list of great comics of the 20th Century. As should be pretty clear from the above back and forth with Robert to people that don't read things from a position of total self-absorption and an apparent value of willing to casually slander people to nerdily hit back, I just strongly feel that it's not a top ten strip, and I have a hard time taking totally seriously a viewpoint that it is, let alone that it's the best one, let alone that it's one of the medium's top 10 works. I don't think it's a serious claim, and I think it indicts the HU effort that it placed so high on the effort being discussed (briefly) above. I suspect it has a lot to do with what the respondents were reading when they were kids and/or young people. Like Watchmen. My opinion.