09 November 2009

Alan Moore Month - 30 Ticks and 30 Tocks for Watchmen

:60 - Watchmen is about the differences between fighting crime and doing good.

:59 - As the valid storytelling technique of decompression has become a jaded method to stretch a story to the limits of tedium, it's even more refreshing today to see the innovative use of the cover to begin each chapter of this story, a clever way to fit in more story and to reinforce the steady, clocklike rhythm of it.

:58 - Has there ever been a more effective symbol of the duality and shifting morality of the costumed vigilante/superhero than Rorschach's mask?

:57 - It seems rather unfair to blame Moore and Gibbons for Watchmen's influence on so many lesser works that sought to make costumed heroes more "realistic" by giving them sexual kinks and addictions and gratuitous violence. Aside from a couple minor characters like Captain Metropolis and Mothman, painted with intentionally broad strokes to show their weakness and inability to move forward into the future, Moore has great compassion for his characters. One of the best examples is Sally "Silk Spectre" Jupiter, who in her few appearances has a great deal of dimension--an earthy woman of common vanity and lust who is drawn to abusive men she's somehow able to forgive. You know someone like that; I know someone like that.

:56 - Gibbons is a master of detail and composition, but always in service of the story, and it's his clear storytelling, with easy-to-follow grids throughout, that are as much a part of the book's enduring success as Moore's dense, ambitious script.

:55 - Watchmen makes great, though sparing, use of repeated panels, or "callback" panels from previous pages or chapters. However, for whatever reason, even if the "shot" is essentially the same, it appears that more often than not, Gibbons redraws it rather than using a photocopy pasted into place. Professionalism or a point about the malleability of memory; you make the call.

:54 - Has any other mainstream comics series used the word "whore" so much? Somewhat ironic, given Moore's feelings of exploitation by DC Comics.

:53 - While it seems Veidt wins in the end, even his ego must have been badly wounded by Manhattan laughing at him, telling him nothing ever ends. In other words, Manhattan lets him know that as smart as Veidt is, his mind is still just a human mind, unable to grasps concepts that Manhattan can. It fits in with Veidt's portrayal throughout: despite all his gifts, he spends his thoughts and energies on vain pursuits, profit, and manipulation. He doesn't really give or create; boil it all down and he's just a schemer.

:52 - Rorschach has one of the most unforgettable faces in comics history.

:51 - The sequence in Chapter One recapping The Comedian's murder is nothing short of brilliant. In fact, the first issue is really a primer on how to dramatically but quickly establish main characters, their world, their shared history and conflicts, and what the current problem or goal is. In just a few pages, we see that Nite Owl is not the man he was, but in contrast, Rorschach's unswerving determination to his cause may have warped his mind.

:50 - It's all Gibbons' skill that makes the stiff, silly costume of Nite Owl look so cool.

:49 - The later enmity from Moore towards DC overshadows just how much of a team player Moore was, one example being his affectionate nod toward former EC artist-turned-DC-artist-and-executive Joe Orlando, in the piece that fantasizes that pirates, not superheroes, were the dominant comics genre after costumed heroes were outlawed.

:48 - Having Doctor Manhattan create a giant clockworks out of Martian sand, as a way of remembering his watchmaker father, isn't the best idea Moore's ever had, but Gibbons and colorist John Higgins save it with eerily beautiful artwork.

:47 - Moore does a good job here with evocative names. Sally Jupiter is the kind of silly, tossed-off name a '40s comics writer would give a superheroine, while daughter Laurie Juspecyk evokes something more substantial, a tough girl unashamed of her Polish-American heritage; Poles often underdogs and butts of jokes. Jonathan Osterman-the last name has a whiff of atomic science to it, like Robert Oppenheimer, or a Cold War Robert Ludlum character. Dan Dreiberg is a regular guy who suffers a lot, perhaps with Jewish guilt, or maybe it's more phonetic-Drei for dry, berg as in iceberg, unmoving or moving slowly, a cold, sluggish life until Laurie reenters it. Edward Blake sounds like blank, as in an enigma, or the blank where his conscience and compassion should be. Hollis Mason calls to mind the old order, ironic given that this Mason tells all the secrets in his book. Perhaps this was the start of Moore's interest in Freemasonry, culminating in From Hell. Maybe the confusion over the right way to pronounce Adrian Veidt's last name was intentional, since he's one of the hardest characters to figure out. Also, either pronunciation said out loud evokes the clipped tones of a commandant barking out orders, and of course, Veidt is very much the Aryan ideal, physically. Rorschach's real name, Kovacs, suggests the late television comedian Ernie Kovacs, who also felt more comfortable performing behind a disguise.

:46 - In case you didn't know this was a dystopia, Moore helpfully provides an elderly Dick Nixon as President for life. It was probably a cute joke at the time, but dated now.

:45 - Watchmen is about escaping the petal-soft death grip of nostalgia to live in the moment.

:44 - There is a very Howard Hughes-like quality to Adrian Veidt, not just in the fact that he isolates himself from people, but because he remains productive and full of ideas despite his increasing dissociation from humanity. It's an easy piece to gloss over, but reading it again, I'm amused that Veidt would take the time to revise the introduction to his Charles Atlasesque "Veidt Method" physical training program, molding weak boys into men, when he's about to kill millions of them. But when you read it, you realize his whole worldview is right there: he feels that, being of sound mind (he thinks) and body, he has an obligation to try to change the world for the better if he can. Of course, when your hero is Alexander of Macedonia, you're going to accept that conquering is a viable means of changing the world for the better.

:43 - Despite Moore's abiding interest in the connections between tragedy and comedy (V for Vendetta and Batman: The Killing Joke to name but two), The Comedian never really has that jaw-dropping scene that lets the reader in on the joke of life, or at least makes clear how he views life and morality as a joke. Several characters claim to understand The Comedian, but there's not quite enough there to convince.

:42 - One of the hardest things to write is a character smarter than you are. Even more difficult is one who exists beyond human conception. Obviously, that's impossible, but Moore must create a compelling illusion in Doctor Manhattan, and the elastic, omnidirectional way Manhattan experiences time is a very effective example. The times Moore shows this manage to be unsettling and humorous at the same time.

:41 - The "mystery" of who is killing the costumed heroes is developed fairly poorly, keeping attention away from this character until very near the end, yet frequently reminding the reader of the character's importance in the world. Mystery is created by this, yes, but not the kind intended. The pyramid clues could have passed more subtly if Veidt had more time in the book earlier, to do more "normal" things to throw readers off the scent.

:40 - There are plenty of graphic novels/comics that "reward multiple readings," but this may be the only one where it's absolutely necessary to read it several times in order to fully get it. Even now, it took me noticing a curious, Rorschach blot type of symmetrical stain on a plate to get not just the symmetry of the page itself (pg. 11 of Chapter V), but a little *research revealed the entire issue is a mirror image, with page 28 a mirror of page 1, and so on.

:39 - Moore's now-famous technique of using the potboiling prose of a pirate comic's narration to comment on the modern-day events happening in the artwork is justly celebrated, up to when he uses it so much the reader notices the technique more than the story. It's a great trick, but essentially Moore becomes a show-off about it, and it gets almost laughable. This, more than anything in the book, reveals that the wildly talented Moore was still pretty young and had some things to learn.

:38 - One of the biggest improvements in the finished work over Moore's pitch is that Dan "Nite Owl" Dreiberg does not emerge as a great hero again, or at least he doesn't save the day. Rather, in the face of horror, he chooses love. And keeps on choosing it.

:37 - Twenty-plus years later, few comics are able to address homosexual relationships as anything but an event, rather than, as Moore does, with the complexity of any heterosexual relationship.

:36 - Moore's commitment to making the world of the story as real as possible extends even to writing a pastiche of a scientific paper that's intentionally dry and boring.

:35 - The glass lens motif in Chapter VII is clever. Dan and Laurie, and we the readers, are never quite seeing things as they are. Through our high def TVs or cameras or contact lens or even our own eyes, there is always some distortion. Dan and Laurie find, in the fisheye cockpit of the Owlship, a version of reality altered or heightened enough for them to find each other.

:34 - The Hollis Mason Under the Hood superhero autobiography excerpts are somewhat problematic as excerpts, as most of the "good parts" of Mason's career are crammed into them: no need to buy the hypothetical book itself. They do, however, serve as an excellent device to fill in the history of the costumed heroes and the seeds of their conflicts in the modern reality of the story.

:33 - Rorschach always referring to his mask as his face is perfect.

:32 - One of the best, most resonant subplots is Rorschach's court-appointed therapist losing all hope in the face of his patient's bleak worldview, then regaining his compassion by the end, though with the same level of self-sacrifice as Rorschach.

:31 - The moments where Rorschach's humanity comes through are highlights of the book, especially when he commits perhaps his first ever act of forgiveness towards the landlady who slandered him, out of empathy for her son who reminds him of himself at that age.

:30 - Watchmen is about the struggle of being true to oneself while serving the needs of the many.

:29 - Any work of art involves compromise, but it's nice that mid-'80s DC Comics didn't shoot down Doctor Manhattan going nude. His gradual reducing and then shedding of costume is a nice visual cue to his falling out of step with the Minute Men, and then the rest of humanity.

:28 - Moore is always good at finding appropriate quotes to echo the themes of his stories, and you can't really go wrong with Dylan or Shelley.

:27 - I could have used a little more on the Max Shea character. A little wasted potential there.

:26 - The use of a perfume called Nostalgia, while a little more on-the-nose (no pun intended) than one would generally like in a symbol, is still pretty smart. Nostalgia itself is a longing for the past, remembering only the best, sweetest parts, while perfume is just as illusory and false-made from animal musks, oils and even whale secretions, all to mask how humans really smell.

:25 - There were times when I read the book where I thought Moore might be overdoing it, with all the Rorschach symbols and all the puddles. And maybe he did. But now, appropriately enough, I've come back full circle to the joy I felt when I first read it. Yes, it's way overdone, and yet that's part of the fun. How many creative teams put so much information into their work and yet it all means something? It might be window-dressing, but the shop is packed with goods. Even as bleak as the story and many of the characters get, there is still a feeling of innocence and joy in the way Moore and Gibbons approach it.

:24 - Not only is it fun to revel in the motifs of each issue and the glee with which Moore and Gibbons pack in all the cues, it's even better to see the long-range payoffs. Note the sugar cube Rorschach eats when he goes to warn Laurie and Manhattan in Chapter I and then see how long it takes for that to pay off.

:23 - It's a neat kind of reversal, and true of life, that The Comedian's horrible act ends up creating Laurie, Dan's lover, while Dan's act of friendship in rescuing Rorschach leads to the death of Dan's mentor and spiritual father Hollis Mason. The concepts of right and wrong and beginning and end are turned on their collective ear.

:22 - While the book is often admired for the realism it brings to superheroes, some of the more remarkable bits of realism are with the supporting characters, such as the casually racist, but ultimately kind and tolerant newsstand proprietor. Again, we all know someone like this.

:21 - Moore makes the right choice in presenting Ozymandias' Antarctic retreat as huge but not full of wonders. Even before the greenhouse is filled with snow, it lacks warmth. Ozymandias is cunning-even a genius, but lacking imagination.

:20 - Lifelong exposure to simplistic, formulaic melodrama makes it difficult to accept and enjoy the ambiguous ending of Watchmen, where Manhattan and Ozymandias exist beyond good and evil, and Manhattan advises that nothing ever ends. It's difficult, but at least now I realize how much more interesting this ending is than the type of ending most readers expect.

:19 - Though the other treatments of homosexuality offset it, having Hooded Justice get aroused by violent contact with other costumed men is, while believable enough, still an unfortunate creative choice, insomuch as the character isn't developed beyond type.

:18 - Though Moore obviously doesn't intend Rorschach to be seen as a hero to be worshiped, it's amusing how often the character threatens to take over the book. He's clearly the most enjoyable character for Moore to write.

:17 - Ozymandias' mutated lynx, Bubastis, is a good symbol of his missing humanity. He has to create something to love him, silent and docile, and disposable.

:16 - Unlike most superhero comics, violence doesn't solve any of these characters' problems.

:15 - Watchmen is about choosing brief, awkward, ugly, conflicted, romantic and doomed humanity over perfection.

:14 - Another great technique is centering so much of the story around the same block in New York. Other writers might show various parts of the world reacting to the coming war in order to increase the drama, but Moore seems to realize that to show the impact on just a few people, over time--people who buy their papers at the newsstand, get dinner at the Gunga Diner--it reinforces the idea that we're all in this together.

:13 - Laurie Juspecyk is a wonderful character, eager to please but on her own terms. Though a little more attention could have been spent on her, it's obvious she really blossoms once she's away from Doctor Manhattan.

:12 - The rhythmic nature of the grid artwork is enhanced greatly by the use of alternating bright and muted colors, such as reds and oranges followed by grays and violets, followed by reds and oranges, and on and on.

:11 - One of Moore's intentions was to present a world for his tale that considered the types of changes the presence of the atomnipotent Doctor Manhattan would cause, and yet, aside from the odd cigarettes Laurie smokes, and the acceleration of eugenics, not much is different. One would think Manhattan could easily wipe out cancer, devising a machine that could, like him, change cancer cells to normal cells, and yet cancer plays a big part in the story.

:10 - Like all good Brits, Moore isn't above low comedy, and the scene with Rorschach and dwarf criminal Big Figure is a scream.

:09 - Rorschach choosing to die for his ideals and taking his mask off to do so, is but one example of why Moore is a cut or four above the rest.

:08 - As with the book, Rorschach threatens to dominate this review.

:07 - I'm not sure of the meaning of the pirate story besides its lurid, thrilling nature, but it's interesting to think of the lead character as a modern comics professional, the churning, shark-filled seas being the commercial market, and his creaky raft kept afloat by bloated corpses, the creative efforts of so many dead pioneers before him whose characters make his existence possible.

:06 - One of the pastiches at the end of a chapter is of an action figure line mock-up. Even though it comes across quite well that creating a line of figures based on Nite Owl and Rorschach is ethically wrong in this world, and that Veidt is right to veto the idea, though for reasons probably stemming more from vanity than morality, well. I still would like those figures. Hehn.

:05 - Whether Watchmen is the greatest graphic novel or not is as subjective as whether Citizen Kane is the finest film, but the two have quite a bit in common beyond the importance of objects remembered from childhood (Jon's father's watch and Kane's sled, Rosebud). Namely, both pieces of art exploit the possibilities of their respective artforms as fully as any had up to that time. Kane features newsreel parodies, a musical number, and even shadowplay, while Watchmen has scientific journals, memos, newspaper clippings, novel excerpts, and of course, a comic within a comic, all to add more dimension to the characters and their world.

:04 - The twist ending suggests that Rorschach will inspire more people in death, or perhaps his words are more like a deadly virus. Certainly his nihilism almost overcame his psychiatrist.

:03 - Moore's Nova Express magazine and New Frontiersman tabloid represent two extremes in news publishing, both negative. Nova is sycophantic and Frontiersman is for hatemongers, and the middle ground would seem to be occupied by the Gazette, which isn't seen in detail. Nowadays, of course, one can find the sycophancy and hatemongering together in one source, perhaps a television news network.

:02 - Some might argue that Manhattan's conversion from thinking of people as no more important than ants, to recognizing how special humanity is, is too abrupt. But it kind of makes sense for the character, to quickly assess the merits of an idea and to adopt it. Considering how intractable most people are in their beliefs, this ability of Manhattan's is almost a superpower in itself.

:01 - Despite the many fantastic, brutal or surprising events in the book, Moore's focus is always on the human drama. Even the appearance of a huge, grotesque, man-made "alien invader" is secondary to showing the various characters joining together in brotherhood, love, or even pragmatism for the common good.

The piece you've just read was written for Comic Book Galaxy in 2005, when the Absolute Watchmen was published. I was pretty pleased with it at the time, so when the idea of Alan Moore Month was proposed by ADD, as much as I wanted to write a bunch of new reviews, I also wanted to get this one up again for new people to see it, and I don't say that about much of my writing. Call it a George Lucas type of obsession, or, hopefully, some sort of growth, because I felt the need to rewrite about 8% of it, some of which was because there were a couple of points specific to the Absolute Edition that didn't seem important now, and some things I actually disagreed with from my original review (such as the opinion that Moore was overdoing it in parts). I wouldn't be surprised if I want to change it again down the road. Obviously, a work like Watchmen can generate 600 thoughts.

*I found this when I started searching for the meaning of the repeating triangle motif, read about half of the Chapter V entry and then stopped. Good reading for another day, but for this piece it felt like cheating.

Christopher Allen

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Blogger Adam Farrar said...

I enjoyed your article and found some interesting things here, but the one I wanted to comment on is :07.

“Tales of the Black Freighter” is a mirror of Adrian. To start with Adrian and the narrator look similar, but the two men are both trying to accomplish something simple and pure (create world peace/get home to his family) but in order accomplish their goals, both men have to do monstrous things and at the end they are confronted with how they have changed and sacrificed. To put a point on it, when confronted by Dan and Rorschach he begins to tell them about a dream he has of swimming towards a black ship (the ending of the pirate comic) but then changes the subject.

Also, look at what you wrote for “:40 - There are plenty of graphic novels/comics that "reward multiple readings," but this may be the only one where it's absolutely necessary to read it several times in order to fully get it.” This is practically what young Bernard says when old Bernard asks him why he comes to his newsstand every day to read the same comic book. Young Bernard has read it several times, but is still trying to figure out what it means. And so is Adrian.

And one point to :11, they do have Electric Cars. Which are charged at the hydrant like stands on the street, which is what Bernard leans against while reading “The Black Freighter”.

This is what’s great about talking about Watchmen. I started out with a simple comment on :07 and then that brought up something on :40 which even ties into :11.

November 11, 2009 6:23 PM  
Blogger ChristopherAllen said...

Adam, thanks for the comments and the insight. Sounds like you nailed the Black Freighter/Adrian connection. Hopefully in a future reading I'd have gotten there as well!

November 14, 2009 2:22 AM  

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