“Watchmen is a 13 year old boy’s vision of what maturity in art means.” – Freddie deBoer
Alan Jacobs played devil’s advocate toward Watchmen and stirred up a good conversation over the course of two posts. His prompt was the basic assertion that what has come to be known as the greatest graphic novel of all time… “well, it’s not very good.” His reasoning stems from a dissatisfaction with Alan Moore’s propensity to be a bit too one-note in his tone and characterization — and that his one note is of dour cynicism.
The ensuring debate brought to mind two things. The first was to resurrect the memory of the Playtime Watchmen extravaganza we did back when the film came out. I was not a huge fan of the film, but I did not regard it as a total failure. In many ways, both its strengths and weaknesses were heightened (or exacerbated, if you will) from the source material. Not having read the bulk of Moore’s work, I can’t say with authority how much Watchmen conforms to Moore’s overall style or departs from it. I do know that I’ve read V for Vendetta and several volumes of Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, both of which are from the same era, and both of which I personally like better than Watchmen, even though Watchmen is clearly more ambitious and elegant in almost every formal respect. An exchange I had with the estimable Dan Swensen during the roundtable seems particularly relevant to the issues Jacobs raises:
Matt: I don’t think the film (or book) needed to provide false comfort, but again — it seems very reductive and pessimistic of the film to say, “Compromise. That’s the best we can do. Screw it.” I can understand why Anthony Lane thought the whole thing was a bit juvenile. It doesn’t allow for any real goodness in human nature or the universe, obsessed with how things fall apart, get corrupted, or fail spectacularly to enact positive change. It’s so engaged with darkness and messed up lives and a screwed up world that, for all its recognition of human flaws and foibles, isn’t recognizably human at all. That was an impression I had when I first read the book, too, but I can see how the book was more a reaction against the times than a forward-looking, holistic vision. V for Vendetta has the same set of problems that were exacerbated by the film, although I think Vendetta was even a little more compassionate than Watchmen.
Dan Swensen: I think putting it in those terms might be a bit unfair to the story. I think the text clearly condemns Veidt in the form of the Black Freighter story — Veidt tells himself (and others) this yarn about wanting to save the world and shape the future, but I think the Black Freighter is the story as it actually is — that he has become a monster of the worst kind. The group goes along with his plan not because they believe in it, but because exposing it would cause further damage — in other words, they must accept this evil in order to prevent an even greater evil. That, to me, is the core of the compromise, and in a way, the “new kind of heroism” that Veidt smugly talks about in the end; a heroism that goes beyond punching out criminals or saving babies from house fires. I think that saying it “doesn’t allow for goodness in human nature” is putting blinders on.
Which is not to say that the outcome isn’t dark and potentially depressing, because it surely is. But I think it’s unfair to say that it’s devoid of all hope.
Nearly four years have elapsed since that roundtable, and I still basically see things differently from Dan. The way I understand Moore’s perspective as expressed in Watchmen, even the best of all possible choices is still a horrendous moral compromise. In the world of Watchmen, heroes simply cannot be good. At best, they can only be the least despicable kind of bad. This is one of the main points of the work: to deconstruct the received notions of heroism. It is done quite effectively. So effectively that I honestly don’t understand where Dan (or anyone else) can see anything remotely resembling “hope” in the narrative. Wherever it exists, it is stamped out. Or, even if hope continues to exist, what can it do but beat its impotent fists against the edifices of time (which destroys all things, or brings them round again full circle, including the atrocities) and human frailty? I fully grasp that, from the perspective of the surviving protagonists at the end of Watchmen, they are doing what is necessary to prevent further suffering. The cost of that, though, is a false and doomed peace, which is inevitably accompanied by the corruption and venality of human civilization that necessitated such a terrible “new heroism” to begin with.
Something I’ve been struggling with more recently — the last two or three years, I would guess — is a nearly unchecked expansion of my cynical tendencies. I don’t like being cynical. It is the antithesis of everything I desire to be. Yet it worms its way into nearly every aspect of my worldview, wriggling at the edges of my vision like obsidian flagella, growing and writhing until it seizes upon and begins to strangle objects and ideas until they pallor with lost hope. It sucks. You’d think that with such a jaundiced way of looking at things, stories like Watchmen would appeal to me even more. However, the opposite is the case. The more weary I grow of the nature of things, the more I seek out art and entertainment that offer hope unapologetically.
Now, I don’t mean false hope. Treacle rots the gums and the soul. I’m talking about things that make me feel nourished and refreshed. Even a dystopian action flick like Dredd (quite good, by the way), with all its brutality and pessimism, knows enough to end on a note of hope, acknowledging the costs and losses of a battle fought and won, resolutely setting its jaw to face the battles yet to come. The worlds of Dredd and Watchmen (at least, the cinematic versions) are certainly cut from the same cloth, and they both hail from the same spiritual place in terms of their respective source materials. To be honest, I’d be hard pressed to articulate any more precisely why I felt much safer in the quasi-fascistic hands of Dredd than the hopeless nihilism of Watchmen while still maintaining any moral credibility of my own. Yet I find that the “hard truths” of Watchmen don’t strike me as completely true. Most of the great art hints at the possibility of redemption, be it generations removed or perhaps even beyond the veil of death. In Watchmen, though, redemption is a sadistic illusion bought with blood and psychopathology: “heroism,” in other words.
None of my reservations about Watchmen have much to do with its art; they have to do with where I stand in relation to its moral perspective. V for Vendetta (the comic) ends on a similarly pessimistic note, yet it is a note that problematizes everything that’s come before it in an interesting and morally poignant way. The character, V, spent the entire narrative committing acts of terror and murder in the name of total liberty — largely as a personal reaction against the total tyranny of the fascist government. Moore’s script set up a dichotomy between tyranny and freedom, and encouraged sympathy for V’s cause, even though his methods were little less totalitarian than the government’s against which he fought. The film adaptation embraced V and V’s methods, which made it one of the most repugnant superhero films in recent memory. Moore, though, understood what a dangerous line his antihero had drawn and gamboled across. That’s why he ends his narrative with an acknowledgment that even righteous fury, if misdirected, will breed only more of the same. A pessimistic ending, but morally astute. V’s revolution fails, but then, V was never a hero; he was a revolutionary. And the people who carry on his tainted legacy — the fascists of the future — are the ones making the choice to live by the codes they have received. In Watchmen, the heroes are not revolutionaries; they have the power to offer a choice to people. They refuse to do so or are destroyed. Watchmen condemns this choice, but offers no alternative. At the end of V, a former police inspector walks into the darkness, carrying the knowledge of that choice with him into the future, where perhaps it may flower in more fertile soil. In Watchmen, the choice dies with Rorschach, and the countdown to doomsday begins again.
Maybe it is putting blinders on to suggest that Watchmen doesn’t allow for goodness in human nature, but it certainly indicts its capacity to prevail.
The other thing that the Jacobs posts brought to mind was the notion that Watchmen probably deserves its canonical status. The proof isn’t simply in the pudding; it’s in the people who debate the merits of the recipe. The comic finished its run in 1987; about twenty-six years ago. An entire generation has grown up since then that was not around to read the comic in its original form, yet both young and old readers continue to discuss what it means, how it means it, and whether or not it is still relevant. You’ll notice that it is frequently canonical works whose relevance is continually questioned. Non-canonical works are usually simply forgotten. Nobody discusses them at all, even if it’s just to ask if they should be discussed. As always, I was struck by how intelligent and how passionate the commenters talked about Watchmen and comics in general. This time, though, it particularly resonated that we are far enough removed from its Cold War context (some of us generationally as well as by time’s passage) that this work really must stand on its own. It is apparent to me that the comic continues to resonate, even with all the caveats that include phrases like “for its time.” It was also refreshing to see so much attention refocused on Dave Gibbons, whose art carries the entire thing, and who tends to be denigrated by comic fans for having the temerity to happily profit from his co-creation, and not to be a cranky lunatic who worships a snake-god pseudo-ironically.
In the last couple years, I’ve seen many college syllabi on the Internet that include Watchmen as part of “great books” courses or which are specifically about comics or pop culture. It is also abundantly obvious that the conceit of problematizing superheroes is a fact of our culture. Most superhero stories still lean more toward the mythological or heroic mode when all is said and done, but in terms of influence, it would seem churlish not to study Watchmen as the tip of the watershed moment when comics finally legitimized themselves in the public sphere as a vehicle for stories of artistic ambition and thematic seriousness. Not that great comics or graphic novels didn’t precede Watchmen, but it was with it that superhero comics arrived. Jacobs may not think that Watchmen isn’t very good; he may well be right that it isn’t that good. What is significant is that an English literature scholar should be familiar enough with Watchmen, its context, and its legacy to feel compelled to comment, “apropos of nothing in particular,” on its merits more than twenty-six years after its initial publication. To me, this signifies that readers of English will continue to read the Watchmen — let alone query who watches them — for years to come. ☕