Classics Revisited: Watchmen
“Classic Revisited” is a monthly column for (re)exploring and (re)introducing the author and audience to those time-honored gems of comics publications that are considered classic, to consider why they are classic, and to even introduce works not previously considered ‘classic’ into the canon.
Reading a ‘classic’ for the first time is, for me, a daunting task, fraught with a hope that by the time I’ve finished the reading the book or comic/GN (or watching the movie/play/opera/musical) I have hopefully seen everything in the narrative and artistry that gives it the classic status that first compelled me to pick it up, and also rank with the possibility for offering a new interpretation despite my so recent introduction in the face of decades (or centuries) of analysis. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is an obvious classic in the comic world, having ushered in an era of comic production sometimes called the Copper Age (though some will argue that Marvel’s Secret Wars launched this Age, the period was inarguably characterized by dark, gritty stories and changing publishing techniques and names). In addition, Watchmen, alongside Maus and a few others, is seen as the graphic novel par excellence, and is often the only graphic novel on lists of best or top books.
Needless to say, reading Watchmen was a daunting enterprise. This article discusses my experience and interpretation, and though it won’t add much to the ongoing conversation about Watchmen‘s legacy, it’s my first foray into critically analyzing this narrative art classic.
Alan Moore’s Story: Heroes, Communism, and Aliens, Oh My!
When writing about Alan Moore’s writing, where to begin? I think anything that needs to be critiqued about his writing style, if anyone has serious critiques for a master of his craft, has already been said. Watchmen, like many of the comics before the 2000s, is jam-packed with dialogue, monologue, and narration, and it takes much longer to read the 28 pages of a single Watchmen chapter than it does to skim through the comparatively wordless, big-panel mainstream books today. There is definitely much more of a focus on books’ look today, than there is on good dialogue (how do you think certain companies, the names of which I will not say here, stay afloat in the cut throat comics market?), though there are still gems of writing on the shelves, and I wouldn’t say that a focus on art is inherently bad, just a shift that has occurred over the past two decades.
Watchmen, to be sure, is one of the most complex books I’ve read. It took over a week to digest, and I read on average 2-3 chapters (of 12) a night, following it up with a re-watch of the Zack Snyder film. I really like Alan Moore’s writing style, especially the dynamic way in which he captures so many different psychological entities, from the stunted speech of the nearly-crazy, right-wing Rorschach to the matter-of-fact Jon (Dr. Manhattan) to the smart but somewhat neurotic Dan (Nite Owl). Dr. Manhattan wins my vote for favorite character, not because of his wacko origin story which hearkens to the best of Stan Lee’s “science” inspired origins, but because he offers a perspective from which Moore can challenge the reader’s mindset, and, for some readers, quite literally blows their minds with his reframing of humanity.
Watchmen is at its core a superhero book, but it’s also a book about meaning. Not just meaning in the trivial sense of “A superhero is a heroic person with powers,” since even this basic meaning is at contended by the narrative’s various players. But the leitmotif of “meaning” wends its way instead into more epistemological territories: asking questions about history, political and moral values (and their correctness); broadly sampling human psychology and wartime paranoia; critiquing economy and big-business capitalism; questioning heroism, superheroism, and Samaritanism; and commenting upon the sacrificial exchange necessary for peace. This scope of themes and ideas, and more so their importance in contemporary (then and now) society is what makes Watchmen a classic. Sure, much less talented people have attempt to throw the same philosophical verbiage in one book, short story, comic, movie, television show, or modern art piece, but did they do it well? Probably not, or else you’d have heard about it by now, at least in the same way that you know Watchmen is always going to be on comic bookstores’ and Barnes & Noble’s bookshelves.
“But the Cold War is over, and that’s what Watchmen really grabs on to. Do I still have to read it?” Well, you don’t have to read anything. But you’d be an ignorant twit if you didn’t. The Civil War is over, as is World War II and the Holocaust, and yet you still learn about the Emancipation Proclamation or go to speeches by Holocaust survivors. Watchmen is just a different way of experiencing American history. I can’t speak for those who grew up during the Cold War, for those who read Watchmen as it came to the market, since I was born in 1991 just a year after the ‘fall’ of the Soviet Union. Watchmen for Americans of my young years is a means to understanding an era which is difficult to grasp, especially when those years are better remembered in VH1’s I Love the 19##s or by jokes about hippies, gifs of Martin Luther King Jr. with feel-good out-of-context quotes, or sleepover viewings of The Breakfast Club. Watchmen reminds us that fear of the Bomb was real, at least for some and for a certain period of time, and that the world was split in two, an egotistical and ideological battle between Red and White (America, right?). It’s a dark, some would argue Gothic, view of world history during a time that has been sugar-coated with psychedelic tie-dye prints, retro-themed school dances, and dress-like-the-80s parties. It’s a classic because it reminds of us things that are hard to remember, and, at least for me, because I study American history and popular culture, it’s a contemporary way of getting the darker side of the times, and a much more effective teaching tool than a dry textbook.
Additionally, there are layers and layers of plot, and I best love the inclusion of a comic within a comic, where the text of the diegetic comic is correlated to events outside of it, and the outside dialogue matches the diegetic action of the comic-in-the-comic. That’s some complex semiotic play that I’d love to deconstruct, and is a testament to the beautiful panel correlation orchestrated by Gibbons.
Dave Gibbons’ Art: Oooh, the Colors!
I must admit, reading Watchmen was my first time with an Alan Moore work, and my first time looking at Dave Gibbons’ art, and I was truly amazed. The first thing I realized right off the bat, is a pretty general critique that I somewhat mentioned above. Along with the recent change to having more focus on the big shiny pictures, there is ironically also a shift away from the panel-clouded page, with very few comics containing more than 6 panels per page, and usually more like 3-5. Gibbons’ pages are, like Alan’s word bubbles, packed with panels, and his panels packed with art. Visually references abound, with easter eggs hidden throughout the book that foreshadow events, make diegetic references to characters or past events, or are subtextually thematic (see below).
As noted above, Watchmen is includes complex juxtaposition between dialogue and panel, and between panels in which the action takes place separately in time and space but their side-by-sideness creates subtle meaning that needs more than a cursory glance to be (1) noticed and (2) deconstructed. And while Gibbons’ panel work is phenomenal and glued my eyes to the pages, adding an extra 20 minutes to the reading of any one chapter, the pièce de résistance is Gibbons’ fantastic color work. My favorite colorist (yes, I actually have one) is Star Wars regular Michael Atiyeh, who makes the galaxy far, far away come to life and has mastered the ability to color across artistic styles, from the cartoony Star Wars: The Clone Wars digests to the more serious material of the regular comics. But now I believe Gibbons might challenge Atiyeh in my eyes for my internal “best colorist” award, not because the colors are realistic, but because the choices are so oddly right. He ranges the color spectrum: light blues, every shade of purple, bright yellows, multiple browns, few blacks, and shocking reds. Watchmen opened my eyes to the way color can really play across a page, setting moods and creating an unrealistic atmosphere than places the reality of characters not in their physical forms, but in their actions and their psychology.
I’m sure I could say much more, but art is a difficult thing to talk about, and so variable across personal preference and experience. So I’ll leave that art critiquing to the people who know what they’re talking about (or the people who think they know).
Anti-Semitism and Homosexuality as Underlying Themes
There are uncomfortable themes of anti-Semitism, the purpose of which is obscured by a first read-through, albeit an attentive-to-detail one. “Knot-heads” killing Hollis Mason, constant references and a final panel of everyone dead at the Pale Horse and Krystalnacht concert, derrogatory comments about a character with a Jewish surname, and a caricature in one of the inserts from the New Frontiersman with a Yiddish-accented businessman. It seems as though perhaps these references are, like many other aspects of the dark, thoughtful, on-the-edge narrative, a critique of anti-Semitic sentiments, though if that’s true it is a rather strange thing, since I don’t believe that anti-Semitism was as prominent in the 1980s as other issues tackled herein, e.g. nuclear warfare. However, perhaps it is best to give the benefit of the doubt; after all, the “knot-head” do all die in the psychological wave that destroys half of New York.
In the same vein, homosexuality is referenced casually a number of times, a rather interesting occurrence for a mainstream comic in the 1980s. There is a casual relationship with Joey and a “knot-top” on the streets of New York, which eventually erupts into violence as the more masculine of the two (Joey) becomes angry about their breakup. Perhaps this is an allusion of the times, since these characters fall into two polar opposites of stereotypes about lesbians: the butch, large, muscular woman who is basically a man with boobs, and the heavy-metal dyke. References are also made to Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis being gay, noted by James Gifford in a paper in which he argues that the two are easter egged into a panel in the first issue; and accusations of homosexuality are leveled against Rorschach. Like the relationship of the comic with anti-Semitism, I believe attempts at stereotyping a purposeful, since they run the same course as the anti-right wing commentary peppered throughout the book, an attempt to mock the warmongers and haters of equality (*cough Orson Scott Card *cough*).
While anti-Semitism and homophobia are not major themes of the series, and in fact have been barely studied or noticed, these themes are one of the many hidden layers of this complex onion (or parfait) of a graphic novel.
Watchmen is perhaps an obvious classic by now, one of the comics medium’s most beloved, alongside popular graphic novels like Maus or Persepolis. So perhaps this was a throwaway, but where better to start the “Classics Revisited” than with my own first experience with a widely lauded classic? If you haven’t read Watchmen, what are you doing not reading it?!