Since the movie came out, I've found myself having to explain why Watchmen is important and interesting. Despite being the most revered comic book of...moreSince the movie came out, I've found myself having to explain why Watchmen is important and interesting. Despite being the most revered comic book of all time, it never really entered the mainstream until the film. Now, people are rushing to read it in droves, but approaching Watchmen without an understanding of its history and influences means missing most of what makes it truly special.
The entire work is an exploration of the history and purpose of the superhero genre: how readers connect to it, and what it means philosophically. Moore stretches from fond satire to outright subversion to minute allusion, encasing the once-simple genre in layers of meaning. Even as he refines and compresses the genre, he also constantly pushes its boundaries. Watchmen is unapologetic, unflinching, and most miraculous of all, freed from the shame which binds so many comics.
Moore never stoops to making an entirely sympathetic character. There is no real hero, and none of the characters represents Moore's own opinions. Superhero comics are almost always built around wholly sympathetic, admirable characters. They represent what people wish they were, and they do the things normal people wish they could do.
It is immediately gratifying escapism, which many people attach themselves to, especially the meek who lead tedious, unfulfilled lives. Many people also do the same thing with celebrities, idolizing them and patterning their own lives on the choices those famous people make. But in this modern age of reality TV and gossip media, we know that celebrities are not ideal people.
Indeed, their wealth and prominence often drives them mad. While everyone else views the world from the bottom up, they view it from the top down, and this skewed perspective wreaks havoc with their morality and sense of self. Moore's superheroes represent something even beyond this celebrity. Not only are they on the top of the heap, but they are physically different from other human beings. Their superiority is not just in their heads and pocketbooks, but in their genetics.
They are not meant to be sympathetic, they are meant to be human. They are as flawed and conflicted as any of us, and while we may sometimes agree with them, as often, we find them distant and unstable.
Many people have fingered Rorschach as the 'hero' of this tale, but that is as flawed as pinning Satan as the hero of 'Paradise Lost'. Following the classic fantasy of power, Rorschach inflicts his morality on the world around him. But, since he is not an ideal, but a flawed human, we recognize that his one-man fascist revolution is unjustified.
We all feel that we see the world clearly, and everyone around us is somehow confused and mistaken. Often, we cannot understand how others can possibly think they way they do. Sometimes, we try to communicate, but there is often an impassable barrier between two minds: no matter how much we talk or how pure our intentions, one will never be able to convince the other.
We all feel the temptation to act out--if only those disagreeable people were gone, the world would be a better place. While this justification may be enough for most comic writers, Moore realizes that the other guy thinks everything would be better if we were gone. Rorschach lashes out because his ideas are too 'out there' and he is too socially insecure to convince anyone that he is right. He is unwilling to question himself, and so becomes a force of his own violent affirmation.
Most who sympathize with him are like him: short-sighted and desperate, unable to communicate with or understand their fellow man. Many are unwilling even to try. Rorschach becomes a satire of the super hero code, which says that as long as you call someone evil, you are justified in beating him to death. This same code is also commonly adopted as foreign policy by leaders in war, which Moore constantly reminds us of with references to real world politics.
The rest of the characters take on other aspects of violent morality, with varying levels of self-righteousness. Like the British government of the 1980's, which inspired Moore, or the American government of the beginning of this century, we can see that equating physical power with moral power is both flawed and dangerous. Subjugating others 'for their own good' is only a justification for leaders who feel entitled to take what they can by force.
The only character with the power to really change the world doesn't do so. His point of view is so drastically different from the common man that he sees that resolving such petty squabbles by force won't actually solve anything. It won't put people on the same page, and will only create more conflict and inequality. Dr. Manhattan sees man only as a tiny, nearly insignificant part of the vast complexity of the cosmos. Though he retains some of his humanity, his perspective is so remote that he sees little justification for interference, any more than you or I would crush the ants of one colony to promote the other.
The ending presents another example of one man trying to enforce his moral solutions upon the entire world. Not only does this subvert the role of the super hero throughout comic book history, but reflects upon the political themes touched on throughout the book. Man is already under the subjugation of men--they may not be superhuman, but still hold the lives of countless billions in their hands. It is no coincidence that Moore shows us president Nixon, a compulsive liar and paranoid delusional who ran the most powerful country in the world as he saw fit.
Moore's strength as a writer--even more than creating flawed, human characters--is telling many different stories, which are really the same story told in different ways, all layered over each other. Each story then comments on the others, presenting many views. His plots are deceptively complex, but since they all share themes, they flow one into the next with an effortlessness that marks Moore as a truly sophisticated writer.
Many readers probably read right across the top of this story, flowing smoothly from one moment to the next, and never even recognizing the bustling philosophical exploration that moves the whole thing along. The story-within-a-story 'The Black Freighter' winds itself through the whole of Watchmen, and for Moore, serves several purposes. Firstly, it is another subversion of comic book tropes: Moore is tapping into the history of the genre, when books about pirates, cowboys, spacemen, monsters, and teen love filled the racks next to the superhuman heroes before that variety was obliterated by the Comics Code (yet another authoritarian act of destruction by people who thought they were morally superior).
But in the world of Watchmen, there are real superheroes, and they are difficult, flawed, politically motivated, and petty. So, superhero comics are unpopular in the Watchmen world, because there, superheroes are fraught with political and moral complexity. These are not the requisite parts of an escapist romp. We don't have comic books about our politicians, after all. We may have political satire, but that's hardly escapist fun.
So, instead they read about pirates. Beyond referencing the history of comics, 'The Black Freighter' works intertextually with Watchmen. The themes and events of one follow the other, and the transitions between them create a continuous exploration of ideas. Moore never breaks off his story, because even superficially unrelated scenes flow from one to the other, in a continuous, multilayered, self-referential narrative.
I continually stand in awe of Moore's ability to connect such disparate threads. Many comic authors since have tried to do the same, but from Morrison to Ellis to Ennis, they have shown that striking that right balance is one of the hardest things an author can do. Most of Moore's followers end up with an unpalatable mish-mash instead of a carefully prepared and seasoned dish.
Unlike most comic authors, Moore scripted the entire layout for the artist: every panel, background object, and action. Using this absolute control, Moore stretched the comic book medium for all it was worth, filling every panel with references, allusions, and details which pointed to the fullness and complexity of his world. Moore even creates meaning with structure, so that the size, shape, and configuration of panels tell much of the story for him.
One of the volumes is even mirrored, so that the first page is almost identical to the last, the second page to the second last, and so on. That most readers don't even notice this is even more remarkable. That means that Moore used an extremely stylized technique so well that it didn't interfere with the story at all.
But therein lies the difficulty: if a reader isn't looking for it, they will probably have no idea what makes this books so original and so remarkable. This especially true if they don't know the tropes Moore is subverting, or the allusive history he calls upon to contextualize his ideas.
While many readers enjoy the book purely on its artistic merit, the strength of the writing, and the well-paced plot, others disregard the work when they are unable to recognize what makes it revolutionary. One might as well try to read Paradise Lost with no knowledge of the Bible, or watch Looney Toons without a familiarity with 1940's pop culture.
It is not a perfect work, but there is no such thing. Moore's lead heroine is unremarkable, which Moore himself has lamented. He did not feel entirely comfortable writing women at that point in his career, and the character was forced on him by the higher ups. Luckily, she's not bad enough to ruin the work, and only stands out because she lacks the depth of his other characters.
His politics sometimes run to the anarchic, but often this is just a satire of violence and hubris. Moore gives no easy answers in his grand reimagining. His interlocking stories present many thoughts, and many points of view. In the end, it is up to the reader to decide for himself who was right or wrong--as if anyone truly could be.
Moore never insults the intelligence of his readers, and so creates a work with more depth than anyone is likely to plumb even after numerous readings. Likewise, he does not want you to 'hold on for the ride', but expects that you will engage and question and try to come to terms with his work, yourself. No one is necessarily the hero or villain, and many people find themselves cowed and unsure of such an ambiguous world, just as we do with the real world.
Watchmen is not instructional, nor is it simply a romp. This book, like all great books, is a journey that you and the author share. The work is meant to connect us to the real world, and not to let us escape from it. This is Moore's greatest subversion of the superhero genre, and does even more than Milton to "justify the ways of God to man", for many men delude themselves to godhood, yet even these gods cannot escape their fundamental humanity.
An important example of the re-creation and reimagining of comics by British authors during the mid eighties, Black Orchid combines Gaiman's mythology...moreAn important example of the re-creation and reimagining of comics by British authors during the mid eighties, Black Orchid combines Gaiman's mythology with McKean's powerful artistic visions in the series which made their careers.
Like Moore's 'Swamp Thing' or Morrison's 'Animal Man', Gaiman was given the opportunity to place his stamp on a pre-existing hero; and like the others, by betraying cliche and embracing a suitably mystic sense of realism, succeeds admirably. (as an aside, Watchmen was supposed to be such a recreation of old heroes, but was dubbed too different from the original; of course, that decision is questionable as Watchmen is the most well-respected comic there has ever been)
From the very beginning of the three chapter series, Gaiman powerfully informs the reader of his intent to leave behind tradition and embark on a psychological exploration of the limits of the genre. This brave errancy is ably illustrated by the higher art aesthetic of McKean's, whose own sense of both magic and realistic depiction provides Gaiman's words an excellent partner.
In this highly experimental attempt, Gaiman does not fall to the usual high-falutin storylines, which is instead replaced with the vague and spiritual. Likewise, his often choiceless, lead-along stories become less recognizable in the emotional and intellectual extremes of Black Orchid.
The story does often move at a vague and paceless rate, and denies the simple morality or causal chain which we are so used to even out of comics. He also moves along a dangerous path: that of the romanticization of ecology and tribal life; however, he does not quite fall to it.
His story is emotional and personal in a way that super hero comics rarely attain, and part of this is because of the absolute denial of standard methods which McKean makes available to him by an alternate artistic representation. If it doesn't look like comics, is it still comics? Gaiman would say yes--so would McCloud--and so do I; but we are all a bit odd for it.
Gaiman also does proud the old comic fan with a score of intertwined heroes and villains of the past, though a reader without the foreknowledge may have to take his word a bit too often. The superior plan is to begin with Alan Moore's aforementioned Swamp Thing before tackling Black Orchid.
Though Sandman will undeniably reign as Gaiman's signature series, it is sometimes preferable to boldly make your 'X' and move along, rather than dither over the serif. In Black Orchid, Gaiman makes his mark.
Bendis' storytelling remains strong, and with the addition of a new colorist, Oeming's art gains a subtlety along with its more simplistic representat...moreBendis' storytelling remains strong, and with the addition of a new colorist, Oeming's art gains a subtlety along with its more simplistic representational style. The vaguely disconnected frame story of various Spoken Word performers comes too close to the truth. I have never attended such a performance and been impressed with either the wit or use of language, and usually end up annoyed by the self-centered, angry, ill-informed practitioners. Without a drink in your hand and a friend to suffer through it with you (and to make snide comments to), the whole experience simply feels like being talked down to; and while I may accept that from someone with the mind of Stewart Lee, Louis C.K., or Chris Rock, Bendis is of no such caliber.
His rail upon the cowardice of anonymous internet critics is particularly sad, and one cannot but think of Jay and Silent Bob beating up twelve-year-olds, door to door. It is not the worst of these interludes, either. It seems that anyone invested in this as either participant or fan must be too invested in the concepts of being 'hip and edgy' to actually achieve either.
There is beyond this the fact that Bendis begins to pull out all of the superhero cliches, one after another. It seems every character we meet is destined become a super sooner or later. Of course, it is necessary to confront these when making a more conscientious hero story, but Bendis seems to alternately nudge at the fourth wall and then fall into the same indulgence that he so recently satirized.
There is somewhat less emotional content as the series progresses, and much of it ends up coming out in narration, which is always the sign of a desperate or unpracticed hand. The earlier issues indicate it is not the latter, but why the former would come about, I cannot say. Perhaps Powers is beginning to lose some of its verve.
The word 'advertise' is also spelled incorrectly in this volume. Twice. Where are the editors? Can someone be paying me for this?
The fact that I only became an aficionado of comic books in college while receiving a degree in literary analysis gives me a slightly different take o...moreThe fact that I only became an aficionado of comic books in college while receiving a degree in literary analysis gives me a slightly different take on the medium. For example: my understanding of Superman and Batman come mostly from reading the odder, subversive versions of them (Frank Miller's 'Dark Knight Returns', Loeb's 'Hush', Moore's 'Killing Joke') as well as allusive explorations of what the characters could have been (Astro City, Watchmen, Powers, Invincible, Enigma).
Though I do have cultural knowledge of their stories through various film and television permutations, tackling them as comic book characters is a more involved endeavor. That being said, I think I've enjoyed learning about them more through repeated references in other books than by trying to tackle them in the classic ongoing storylines, where the endless clones, faked deaths, deus ex machina endings, de-powerings, and gorilla weddings might begin to detract form character- building.
Red Son was an interesting concept, exploring the myths of the characters with a simple experiment: change one variable and see what stays the same. Unfortunately, Millar's writing once again comes up short. He's such an awkward, adolescent goof that he can't quite get things to make sense. It's not as bad as his terrible later work, but it's not as interesting as the concept. The ending is almost interesting, playing with the idea of time travel, but it doesn't actually mean anything for the world or characters, so it ends up being a bit of flash that might feel smart, of you don't think about it.
Part of what makes mainline comics dull and wacky is the fact that stories always get reset, things are always the same, over and over, and its rare that an author gets to actually explore a character in a meaningful way. Even if they do make an interesting change, the next author will just revert it, usually with some kind of stupid doombot/deal with the devil twist that makes no sense. But here's an example of the fact that getting wacky and really changing continuity isn't any more interesting, because unless there's strong writing behind it, the concept will still fall flat.
Millar wrote his crude, violent anti-hero romp twenty years too late. While grittiness is still prized in 'grown up' comics, Millar has apparently mis...moreMillar wrote his crude, violent anti-hero romp twenty years too late. While grittiness is still prized in 'grown up' comics, Millar has apparently mistaken 'mature content' for 'maturity'. Of course, he's not the first to fall into this trap. We've all seen television, movies, and books that place a premium on sex and blood, but presented with all the sophistication of a sniggering teen.
Millar does not have the wit to present these issues seriously, nor are his plotting or characterization strong enough to save this book. Millar decided to base his assassin anti-hero on rapper Eminem, which is a cute enough idea, but it also gives us a good sense of Millar's sophistication. While many enjoy Eminem for his catchy, highly-produced songs and natural affinity for scansion and rhythm, only frat boys and OG wannabes find him an able role model.
Millar seems to take the rapper's message of misanthropic misogyny at face value, instead of laughing at Eminem's battle-rap fronting. This is even more inexplicable because Eminem himself often makes light of the 'hard' persona inherited from gangster rappers. It's not hard to imagine Millar putting on a mix of Marshall's most lewd, angry odes to wife killing each time he sat down to plot out this series.
Unfortunately, Millar is not the master of language that Eminem is, and so his attempts at humor, gangsta badassery, chauvinism, and romance tend to fall quite flat. His 'jokes' are especially cringe-worthy.
Perhaps if Millar had come out with his ode to unsympathetic violence in the mid eighties, when Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Scarface were still fresh, he might not have come off as so out of touch. Perhaps if he had somehow updated his vision to include some sympathy and humanity, he could have been forgiven. Unfortunately, he was too busy placing lit cigars and whiskey shots before his shrine to Snake Pliskin to think about what he was writing.
However, all of this pales in comparison to Millar's twist ending. It's clear that Millar wishes he was Alan Moore, who inspired Millar to become a writer in the first place. Unfortunately, Millar realizes he is no Alan Moore, so now he's leapt onto Frank Miller's coattails instead. After 'Sin City', '300', and 'The Spirit', what comic creator is bigger than Frank Miller? Well, still Alan Moore.
Perhaps Mark Millar was tired of people mistaking him for Frank and asking "oh, so you're that guy famous for the violent, sexist comics" and so figured after writing Wanted, he could respond "why yes, I am a famous misogynist comic author named Millar" and then count on the resulting confusion to help his comic sales and autograph lines at Comic Con.
In any case, he threw most of that accidental good press out of the window when he decided that maybe he should try to be Grant Morrison, too. Millar completes his Magnum Opus by breaking the fourth wall for the sole purpose of insulting his fans for having shitty jobs, no luck with women, and for needing to buy comic books to pretend that their lives have meaning. While a bold move, I'm not sure that confronting his escapist readers with the sad reality of comic book fandom is the best way to make them, say, buy more comics.
So, Millar comes frat boy full circle. Trying to be 'hard'? Check. Rampant Misogyny? Check. Idolizing Eminem? Check. Trying to bolster your self esteem by telling dorks that they will never have the sort of money and women you have? Check.
Maybe Millar wants to start a rap career, but feels he won't be taken seriously if his main fanbase can't decide whether to spend their money on his CD's or on hand-painted, individually numbered acrylic statuettes of Vampirella making out with Dawn (the one with the reversed logo sent only to the Belgian market).
In any case, he ought to have lost some fans here, both amongst the discerning and the escapists.
Most of the time, comics do not benefit from deep and patient consideration. The vast majority owe their popularity to a world of powerless men trappe...moreMost of the time, comics do not benefit from deep and patient consideration. The vast majority owe their popularity to a world of powerless men trapped in a work-a-day world that provides them little pride and less edification. Readers of history often fantasize about living in another age, readers of travelogues imagine impossibly pricey vacations, and fans of Romance want an 'unbound pillar of desire', which I think is a piece by Rodin.
Likewise, many comic readers have been happy for little more than sexy, fast-paced excitement. This demand has been met by a bevy of innumerable authors over the years, but usually with the same old band of familiar heroes. This preponderance has lead to a wealth of stories and histories for each character, often contradictory ones. However, none of that mattered until some of the more leisure-gifted fans tried to make sense of it.
The ever-blossoming result of these hundred thousand monkeys can be at turns humbling, nonsensical, horrifying, and depressing. If you are the sort who teases tigers at the zoo, then perhaps you'll enjoy the effect of whispering the word 'continuity' amongst a band of the faithful. You'll have to be careful, of course, as breathing the word at ComicCon is liable to end in broken marriages, sundered friendships, oceans of tears, and rivers of blood.
It was not always so dire. Alan Moore carelessly sauntered over from England and after writing two or three things, made it okay to take comic books seriously. His dangerous artistry spawned a generation of new writers, who all, to one degree or another, have come to consider comics to be Art.
These writers have been trying to 'fix' continuity since about when I was born. They write year-long series called "Secret Countdown to Final Infinite Earth Civil War Crisis: Zombie Zero Hour", just so you know that they mean business and once they're done, you can finally get along with the escapist power fantasies in peace.
Warren Ellis is one of those literary writer guys inspired by Moore to use things like 'tropes' and 'metaphors' in his 'tales of existential exploration'. It's all quite serious. In this particular philosophical exegesis, Ellis takes on a common theme of artsy writers, namely: what would the lives of superheroes really be like, if they were real people.
He chooses a group of heroes to represent, each chosen for being forgotten and mishandled by the 'continuity gestapo'. He then imagines what it would be like to live in a world where giant dragons in purple underwear threaten the peace of the world on a daily basis. His exploration (exploitation?) of the contradictions inherent to heroism in a world where battles often level cities is particularly poignant.
Like Watchmen, Nextwave holds a wink and a nod up to the genre, stomping thoughtlessly on the already blurry line between the ideals of right and wrong, the point of inescapable gray where the serious cannot escape the ludicrous, and the ludicrous cannot escape Warren Ellis. But unlike Watchmen, this is a satire which attempts to maintain the absurdity of its genre. In the end, however, Ellis must bow respectfully to the men who came before him, and he duly admits that he could not be as ridiculous on purpose as they were by happy accident.