Tuesday, sitting in the natural beauty of Deokjin Park, I finished reading the first of the graphic novels I plan on reading this month: The Watchmen. (Next, I think, is Paul a un travail d’ete by Michel Rabagliati, so worry not, Jean-Louis… I just wanted to start with something relatively easy, ie. something in English.) In any case, I’d heard a lot about The Watchmen, and vaguely recalled the department did my undergrad English degree using it as one of the works of literature that was studied in the freshman lit class (though not in my freshman lit class, unfortunately). So I came to The Watchmen with pretty high expectations.
Now, usually I’m pretty terrible at suspending my “otherwise” knowledge and remembering the context of a text or other creative work. If I think it’s cheesy, it doesn’t matter much to me whether such a thing might not have been cheesy when it was made; and when a creative work is lauded as highly as some people laud this one, I have a tendency to judge it negatively. If so many people like, it, it’s probably simplistic, cheesy crap, that’s usually my attitude.
So imagine my surprise when, beginning to delve into The Watchmen, I found the characters engaging, the storyline interesting enough to draw me in, the situations relatively believable, in that “suspend your disbelief for a moment only and we’ll getcha” kind of way. Why is this? I think it’s absolutely the writing of Alan Moore, the man in the spooky photo the right. You look at that picture and imagine the kind of dark, haunting, tortured souls he would imagine when he thinks of superheroes. Take Superman, and give him a cruddy upbringing, a life scarred by a mom who got sucked into a life of prostitution or a family secret revolving around a rape that resulted in a child. Imagine megalomania and loneliness and the neurosis of a man who cannot get sexually excited unless he dons a silly superhero outfit from the old days of his adventures. Imagine a man who wants to save the world from itself and does so through an act so horrific that you can only despise him even if he is the planet’s saviour.
The Watchmen is not what one of my co-workers called it when he saw me reading it in the office. It’s not a “comic book” in the sense that so many are. Not in the sense (long promoted by the Comics Code and cultural stereotypes) that comic books are a kind of kids’ entertainment; this is a work of literature, it’s worthy of the most intelligent adult reader who wants to read what an intelligent writer does with a concept like “the superhero”.
In critiquing our concept of the Superhero, of course, we also find this graphic novel critiquing our vision of ourselves. Who do we think we are to be deserving of fantastical crusaders who save us from evil? What if the evil is in each of us, our neuroses and political and social apathies, our selfishness and laziness and our unavoidable weaknesses? Superman is a kind of fairy tale, I get the feeling, and in contrast the super heroes in The Watchmen are the Brothers Grimm version of superheroes. They’re superheroes with a little honesty, weakness, and human evil in them, and to me as a result they matter far more. Even the least “human” of them is fascinating because of his humanity. Jon, otherwise known as Dr. Manhattan, has amazing power over the physical properties of the universe. He can be any size he likes, can teleport, can survive without food, water, and oxygen, essentially cannot die, and relates to humanity (a species to which he no longer belongs by any stretch of the imagination) as a human relates to ants (as one of the characters observes). And yet, the one thing tying him to Earth at several moments in the novel are his tortured, unsustainable relationships with women, first his wife and then the young woman he fell in love with after his wife, complaining of emotional abandonment, left him.
The great tragic character of the story is Rorschach, the closest thing to a hero in the book, and yet he must be destroyed, at least from the morality that the other superhero characters finally agree to tacitly accept. The acceptance of an act of great evil to ward off an even greater evil; this is something alien to the superhero ethic, and the only man who adheres to it must be destroyed in the end; and he is, as a simple mortal man, quite easily destroyed, too.
I will have to read the novel again to understand exactly why the narrative of the pirate comic book was usedI appreciated the way the pirate comic narrative interwove with others very deftly a lot of the time, but I’m sure I’m missing some elements of fit thereand I want to also focus some more attention on the relationships of characters peripheral to the Minute Men masked adventurers. The psychiatrist and his wife; the lesbian couple who fight at the end of the novel; the newspaper stand guy, and the tabloid office staff all fascinate me and I have a feeling more is going on among them that I could delve into more deeply on a second reading… but given the number of books waiting, a second reading will have to wait, and I would prefer that it does wait until the comic seems once again fresh and new to me.
But the reputation that The Watchmen enjoys is, I am happy to report, very well-deserved, and if you haven’t read it, you definitely ought to as soon as you can.