||[Mar. 7th, 2008|09:52 am]
Up until now I've been trying to do these to the 250-word limit Rave magazine asked for and frequently failing. From now on, the magazine version of this list and the one you're reading here are going to diverge. I'm letting someone else take over the magazine version for a while, while I bust open the word count to ramble at length in this version. Whether it'll be worth it I'm not sure -- maybe the word limit forced me to get to the point? But we'll see. Anyway, I knew I'd need more than 250 words to do this one.
100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)
#89 WATCHMEN – Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons
“But the world is so full of people, so crowded with miracles that they become commonplace and we forget...”
Watchmen is such a dense, layered work that it’s tempting to reduce it to one of its main elements and say, “This is what Watchmen is.” Whether seen as a work of superhero deconstruction, a parable about doomsday paranoia or a bold experiment with the structure of comic books, each of these views shows only a part of a greater whole.
“Did the costumes make it good?”
As a superhero comic, arguably the best of its kind, Watchmen is Moore and Gibbons’ attempt at imagining what effect a bunch of Americans putting on masks to save the world might actually have. Originally, they’d planned to tell the story with a group of existing second-string heroes – first the Archie Comics heroes, then Charlton’s characters – but when DC discovered just how far they were planning to take the realism of their portrayal, the publisher balked and asked for original characters. This accidental godsend forced them to boil down these characters, who were admittedly not that original to begin with, to their archetypes. They created a cast who were instantly familiar, but taken to natural extremes – the grim vigilante a right-wing conspiracy nut; the Übermensch so superior he becomes disconnected – and asked the kind of questions of them ordinary people would. Is this the kind of thing mentally stable people do? What would America be like, politically, if they had a superman on their side? How would the police feel about people in masks doing their job? Do the kinky outfits suggest something about their sex lives? Would kids read superhero comics if they could see what the real thing was like? Who watches the watchmen? Answering these questions in believable ways, they left little room for others to ask anything else of the genre. After reading Watchmen it’s difficult not to measure other superhero comics against it and find them lacking.
“We oughta nuke ‘em till they glow!”
Although the 1985 of Watchmen’s setting diverges from history, mainly due to the influence of an American Übermensch, it’s still defined by Cold War end-of-the-world paranoia. The dread of the future and the corresponding belief that nothing matters since the nukes might fly tomorrow underlies all of Watchmen’s action. In some ways it seems eerily prescient. Replace the Communists with terrorists and their fears become the fears of our times and their reactions and over-reactions could be ours. It’s not an act of fortune telling on Moore’s part however, but an understanding of human nature and how we react to perceived threats. History repeats because of how slowly we change and our fears of nuclear Armageddon, the Y2K bug, biological weapons or bird flu all drive us to equal foolishness. In the face of impending apocalypse, we’re all idiots together.
“’Cause they don’t make sense, man! That’s why I gotta read ’em over.”
The formalist elements of Watchmen demand a second reading to fully appreciate, but like any good modernists, Moore and Gibbons layered their creation to make it worth returning to. The book reflects itself repeatedly, scenes connecting in a way that forces constant re-evaluation as different lights are shone on them. The words and pictures often become unfixed, the writing going in one direction while Gibbons’ clear and detailed artwork describes parallel events, milking the connections between them for every drop of irony they’re worth. Panels either side of a transition mirror each other in some way. All of the 12 issues begin and end on similar images, as does the story as a whole. Issue five is laid out symmetrically. Motifs recur, gaining significance through every repetition, so that by the end it’s impossible to ever look at a symbol as simple as the smiley face in the same way again. Structurally, Watchmen’s almost perfect; a crystalline hall of mirrors it’s easy to get lost in. It exploits the medium in ways no one else had before and precious few have since.
“It’s us. Only us.”
All that experimental trickery, apocalyptic mood and fulfilment of the genre’s promise aside, it’s another element of Watchmen that earns it the status of a masterpiece. The most memorable chapters are the most human. A psychiatrist tries to understand a madman, but risks losing his own sanity. An ordinary woman tries to convince a distant and uncaring God that people matter. A man reflects on his life. Two people fall in love. Beyond the heroics, underneath the masks, Watchmen is about ordinary people trying to come to terms with an extraordinary world. Just like us.