February 27, 2009 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Books | February 27, 2009 |


Dustin: A couple of months ago, after a lot of goading from some of the site’s comic-book contingent, I forced myself to read Alan Moore’sWatchmen. I had planned on reviewing it, but to be honest, it wasn’t a hornet’s nest I was particularly keen on poking with a stick. It’s not a battle I expect to win. I’ve read two comic books in my life, now. V for Vendetta, which I dug, and Watchmen, which disappointed me. It could’ve been the expectations — everything I’d heard was that it was the holy grail of graphic novels, and even the cover advertises that it was one of Time magazine’s best novels of the century — or it could’ve been that the comic book itself is simply lackluster.

I didn’t get it. I tore into the first half of Watchmen, thrilled at the prospect of finding something new, something great, something that would completely change my perception of comic books and graphic novels, but the longer I read it, the more disappointed I grew. It’s darker, it’s better illustrated, and it’s a little more layered than what I’d expect of a traditional comic book, but there was nothing transcendent about it. And for all the hype surrounding it, the ending felt very anti-climactic.

So, my questions to you, Twig, are as follows: Is Watchmen important for its historical significance, for ushering in the more complex graphic novels? Or, if you picked it up for the first time today, having read (as I assume you have) a lot of other graphic novels, would it compare favorably? In other words, is Watchmen as good as it gets? And also, I kept waiting for the big, grand political statement, and Watchmen left me very unsatisfied. What is it that the novel is trying to say?

Twig: I’ve been told, by friends who are more into the DC Comics ‘Golden Age’ than I am, that the more of a comic history buff you are, the more you get out of Watchmen. So I’m not sure if someone who’d never read a graphic novel before would get as much out of Watchmen, or on as many levels. The more superhero knowledge you have, the more you’re into comic books, the more you will probably appreciate it. I’m not as into the old comics as I am into most of the post-Watchmen/Dark Knight Returns stuff, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I still enjoyed the book.

Ironically, despite knowing a good deal about Watchmen and its various plot points, I didn’t bother sitting down and reading it through until very recently. I regret that I’m not old enough for that firsthand knowledge of the state of comics before and after Watchmen to provide an opinion there. I’ve only ever existed in a world where comic-book heroes are ironically self-aware, not only of themselves but of comic book tropes as a whole, the suits, the capes. If — and it seems to be the popular view — Alan Moore did create the first comic book great enough to turn all ones that followed into graphic novels, to “grow up” the world of superheroes, than he certainly deserves a lot of praise for it.

“Real life is messy, inconsistant, and it’s seldom when anything ever really gets resolved. It’s taken me a long time to realize that.”

This was a quote from one of the heroes in the book, and it was — for me — the real ‘moral’ of Watchmen, and the kind of moral that generally doesn’t show up, especially in cape-and-tights books. Morally ambiguous stories are not an easy or even potentially satisfying story to write — I’m sure a lot of people hate the Comedian outright, or Ozymandias, or Dr. Manhattan, but Moore still refused to make any of them — even the potentially meaningless side-characters who could have just been a kind of throwaway greek chorus — anything less than real human beings. I think that’s the effectiveness of Alan Moore’s writing, and it’s only really evident when comparing someone like Rorschach with the copycats that popped up in his wake, the 1990s (and, sadly, today’s) trend of making heroes darker and more ‘extreme’ and nihilistic until they are just self-parody. Half the impact of a book like Watchmen can be seen in the failed attempts to recreate it.

For me, unlike V for Vendetta, Watchmen had little to do with politics at all, and was much more about character. One of the larger scenes involving the government seemed like something right out of Dr. Strangelove, an absurd parody save for that chilling hint of truth. I never felt like the government was meant to be anything other than a roadblock of stupidity and insanity — and I’ve heard this had to do with Moore’s experiences during Margaret Thatcher’s time in office, but again, that’s a time and a place I never lived in. The government in Watchmen, unlike V for Vendetta, does not have absolute power — the characters do. Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan and — to an extent — Rorschach are given the chance to do things and influence the world in ways many of us dream about — successfully fighting crime on the streets, being a wealthy, scientific genius, having the power to change things on a molecular level. This absolute power corrupts absolutely — or does it?

I’m not generally a person who sings the praises of ‘classics.’ A lot of times, I don’t think they’re necessarily the best representation of the idea they’re trying to put across, just the first, deserving of that respect but no more. At the moment, I’m in the middle of Vaughn’s Ex Machina and getting just as much out of it as Watchmen. Still, I found the book to be quite emotionally compelling and very dense, deftly weaving together decades and narratives and viewpoints without ever coming off as impenetrable. I’ve discussed just the tiniest sliver of the ideas thrown around in the book — there’s so much in the story, and most of it very easily accessible.

The importance of Watchmen is in translating a superhero narrative — usually so black and white — into that ‘messy, inconsistent and rarely resolved’ business most of us would call real life. It portrays a world that can be bleak and vicious, but is still anchored in hope and love, the ‘one inch’ of V for Vendetta that endures past everything. Watchmen has great villains who retire to live small, unnoticed lives, government-sponsored heroes who are gleefully amoral, and trusted and beloved heroes who commit horrifying atrocities that may be justified in the final tally. I think Dr. Manhattan’s final words to Ozymandias are a challenge to the reader. What was won? Who was saved? It’s all left up to us to decide.

Dustin: Twig, that was amazingly well put. With complete sincerity, I find it very satisfying that you were able to read so much into Watchmen. This is my complete ignorance of comic books and graphic novels speaking, but I wasn’t able to get much out of it beyond facile word balloons and brilliant illustrations. That’s not a knock against the medium, it’s a knock against me for being unable to read into Watchmen so much of what you (and others) got from it. With my knowledge of superheroes and their tropes relatively limited to the present, the darker characterizing didn’t ring many bells for me. I appreciate how much the novel has expanded the genre, but beyond that, I didn’t get much out of the narrative.

With the exception of Rorschach, the characters didn’t feel particularly human to me, but that may have a lot to do with my accessibility problems. I recognized the moral ambiguity, especially in The Comedian, but —the first Nite Owl, notwithstanding (the chapter from his autobiography was my favorite part of the book) — I didn’t find anything particularly human about any of them. They didn’t seem to have much of a soul, and their motivations were unclear. And Dreiberg’s love story felt horribly tacked on and clumsy.

More than that, from a narrative standpoint, Watchmen didn’t seem to go anywhere. It seemed to me that Alan Moore created these characters, and even if I admit (as I do) that they were important from a historical standpoint, they didn’t seem to do very much over the course of a very lengthy book. I’ll grant that it was a remarkable origins story, but everything after was flat. What was the significance of the pirate story? It felt like footnotes from another book. Why the alternate history if he wasn’t going to tease that out more? Why, when it seemed that much of the point was to have superheroes with no superpowers, did he feel the need to create Dr. Manhattan, who has more abilities and invincibility than even Superman? Indeed, when the focus wasn’t on Rorschach, I found Watchmen not only a little underwhelming, but boring. I read the first 100 pages in one sitting, but it took me two weeks to finish the rest of it.

That said, I am excited about Zack Snyder’s movie. I honestly want to see these characters come to life in a medium I do understand in the hopes that I, too, can find what you found so rewarding in the novel up on the big screen. (And don’t worry, folks — I won’t be reviewing it). But I am worried. I’m worried that — in an effort to satisfy the Watchmen base — Snyder will hew too closely to the novel and alienate those of us who love good comic-book movies, like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, but don’t necessarily get into the comic-books themselves. And given the movie’s purported run-time (two hours and 45 minutes), I fear that Snyder — like many directors who have adapted novels too faithfully before him — will get so bogged down in replicating the details and minutia of the novel that he’ll fail to bring the story or the characters to life. That it will simply feel too mechanical.

Still, I’m optimistic. I’m honestly hoping to find, in the film, the transcendent magic that eluded me in the novel.

And so, Twig, with a lot of appreciation to you for bringing the true geek perspective, I turn the final word back to you. What are your hopes for the movie? Would you be disappointed if Snyder strayed from the novel too much? And what do you think of the cast? Do you think they’re a little young to be playing washed-up superheroes?

Twig: Dustin, I’m sure there’s a lot of devoted Alan Moore fans out there who can do an even better job than I can of making the case for this book. I think - like a lot of classics - that it can still be appreciated for its innovations and the books that it has inspired, even if the thrill is just not there while reading it.
I have to wonder if this book didn’t play better back in the age it was written. Not that nuclear annihilation still isn’t possible, but I think there was a certain Cold War ambiance that’s disappeared from the world, that sense of the clock inevitably ticking down that’s been replaced now with other threats. Or maybe it really is a comic-book frame-of-mind, that obsession of ‘otherness’ and inhumanity in the book, how characters like Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan choose to examine and deal with a world they don’t feel they belong to, or can connect with. Then again, Daniel Day-Lewis’ character said a lot of the same things in There Will Be Blood, and no one blinked twice. So maybe it’s the blue skin.

I’ve heard some good early press on the movie, and I’m cautiously optimistic. I can understand why Alan Moore feels the nuance gets stripped away in the transition from comic book to movie - a lot of it does, it has to (and after League of Extraordinary Gentlemen I’m surprised he didn’t start firebombing). But I think that doesn’t mean the essentials can’t remain - just look at the ‘Valerie’ sequence from V for Vendetta. That’s still got all the power of the original work. I’ve never been much for nitpicking - I want movies to work, I really like being entertained. Bring me the emotional resonance of the original, give me the sense that some attention was paid to why the original work was so important, and I don’t care if the actors don’t look exactly like they do in the book, or if certain events are altered or ignored. I appreciate it, when a certain line is left in, or a specific detail remembered, but it’s by no means a dealbreaker.

If the movie runs long I don’t think it’s because of catering to the fans as it is that trying to capture what makes Watchmen interesting is what makes the book interesting — a seriously intricate plot evolving over an extended time frame. It wasn’t considered unfilmable for so long for no reason - some stories just don’t squeeze down into two hours (hellooo Pride and Prejudice). It has to be tough for any screenwriter to decide what to abandon for the sake of time, and if the pared-down story that remains is still the essential Watchmen.

It’s a dark story without a truly iconic protagonist. It has neither the inherent charm of ‘Tony Stark: My Jet has a Pole’ or a twisted, brutally fascinating character like the Joker, both of which were big, big carrying points for those movies. I could place a bet where the majority of any added comic beats will come from (Nite Owl II) but other than that I’m pretty much just curious to see how it’s all going to work — and really interested to see what they do with the ending, if they have decided to change it. Even if the movie fails to come together, I don’t think anyone can say the director and the crew didn’t do their absolute best. Which is really all this fan is asking for, and enough to get me out there on opening night.

Twig Collins is an illustrious Eloquent and frequent guest contributor who stays crunchy, even in milk. Dustin Rowles, whose ass Twig just wiped from the floor, is the publisher of Pajiba.

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The Geek vs. The Ignoramus. Topic: Alan Moore's Watchmen

A Civil Conversation / Twig Collins and Dustin Rowles

Books | February 27, 2009 | Comments ()



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