When I finally picked Watchmen off my girlfriend's bookshelf, I took care not to read it in public. It isn't that I'm one of those guys who can't be seen reading a comic book, but the big-deal IMAX adaptation is playing in theaters as we speak, and I didn't want to come off like I was half-assedly reading the book just because the movie came out. Problem is, I actually was reading the book — albeit, I would argue, full-assedly — because the movie came out; despite having for years harbored a vague intention to open the thing already, I wasn't moved to crack it until I just couldn't take hearing and reading any more discussion about subject matter which which I had no familiarity. Faced repeatedly with talk of mysterious entities like "Rorschach", "Doctor Manhattan" and "giant space squid", and, inevitably, felt a burning urge to find out more. In the name of curiosity, I got over myself and read the book, exposed to all the world, at Coffee Cat.
Part of my hesitancy to get on with it must have sprung from the sheer amount of baggage Watchmen carries, or at least the sheer amount of baggage that all I'd heard about Watchmen made me bring to it. According to friends, acquaintances, commentators, bloggers and wags, the book is pretty much the Best Thing Ever, or at least a Great Thing Indeed. The voluminous, subtle detail! The groundbreaking comic storytelling techniques! The resonances internal and external! The capturing of the zeitgeist! The "total, devastating deconstruction of virtually every archetype in the genre's history!" (Thus spake Mark Tillich.)
If nothing else, I take from Watchmen that it is difficult indeed to experience any work with such vertiginously built-up expectations, especially given that my experience with superhero comics is limited to a handful of Spider-Man annuals and the premiere issue of Force Works, which I never removed from its bag for fear of damage. (This was back when comic books were briefly considered a viable investment vehicle.) My journey from panel to panel was significantly slowed by my constant asking of myself, "Did you catch all the greatnesses in that text bubble? What about in that image? Is there some greatness in the background that you're missing?" The unceasing Easter-egg hunt for awesomeness exerted a strong drag.
Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed the book. Hell, it probably merits "very enjoyed", but I know full well that I don't — perhaps can't — have an uncorrupted perspective on such an oft-quoted, oft-imitated, turgid-academic-paper-inspiring work. As with other pieces of art whose fans grow devoted, though, I can relate the experience that they often wish aloud they could have again: that of taking it in for the very first time. (I take my duties as a Watchmen virgin seriously.)
Going in, I only knew two facts about Watchmen, besides that of its belovedness. The first was that it's written my Alan Moore, the eccentric, heavily-bearded fellow behind such critically-acclaimed comic books as The Killing Joke (own it, read it, can't fully appreciate it due to lack of Batman background), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (liked the concept and saw the film, which is... just as good as you've heard), From Hell (saw the film, which surprisingly dim memories indicate I enjoyed) and Lost Girls (which I got Madelaine for her birthday and may read myself Real Soon Now). Moore's name doesn't draw me to nor repel me from a work.
The second was that it's known for — here comes that word again — its "deconstruction" of superhero comic conventions. In this case, it seems that by "deconstruction" people mean "treatment as real". For years, I heard Watchmen pitched to me as the tale that dares to ask what superheroes would be like if they existed in the real world. The concept struck me as cool until Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins revealed that even the best, most detailed rooting of Batman in the real world results not in a Batman story, but the story of a Batman impersonator. And given his famous lack of superpowers, Batman should be the easy one to make realistic!
The good news is that Moore and artist Dave Gibbons seem to execute the real-life-superheroes idea just about as well as it can be executed. Watchmen's main "costumed vigilantes", a slouchy amateur ornithologist, the bitter daughter of the previous generation's star heroine and a socially maladroit grown orphan with a rigidly Manichean worldview, are drawn from messy, imperfect life indeed. They're filled, in varying measure, fear, anger, doubt, disappointment and resentment. (I seem to recall "actual" superheroes being broody too, though in a less realistic fashion.) They labor under normal troubles like loneliness, awkwardness and piles of messy dishes. What pleasantly surprised me was that the characters not only exist in a real place, they exist in a real time; the story actually takes place in October 1985, though the October 1985 of a tweaked alternate America. (Richard Nixon, to take one of the most visible departures, is still president.) Watchmen's (relatively) young generation of heroes are given birthdates in the 1930s and 40s; their predecessors in the 1910s and 20s. Their lives are tied to the eras in which they've played out. The characters are, in short, made to exist.
Which is why it seems like heresy, not to say a grand mal missing of the point, to claim that the superhero angle actually feels like a bit of wrench thrown into the works. I'm with the characters until they assume the thousand-yard stare and reminisce about the days when they used to run around in costume chasing down thugs. The idea, see, is that in this alternate America, the superhero thing actually bled from early Superman comics to real life; ordinary people, fed up with the failings of the justice system or whatever, chose to lead lives imitating paneled art. Despite early complications — a cape fatally caught in a revolving door being a memorable mishap — several such costumed crusaders join forces to form the "Minutemen", a league that tensions external and internal ultimately dissolve. It's the heirs of the Minutemen that Watchmen is concerned with, the straggly remnants of superherokind left after the 1977 outlawing of flamboyant vigilantism.
And make no mistake, it is pretty cool to see some of the possible ramifications of the superhero lifestyle played out in a setting more closely resembling reality. The aforementioned ornithologist, who fights crime under the name of the Nite Owl, endures more than most, once losing a criminal's tail thanks to time wasted while strugging with his suit during a bathroom break and another time getting his arm broken by a malfunctioning powered exoskeleton. (He's the Batman analog, though his gear isn't quite as reliable.) There's also a familiar theme from The Killing Joke, that of the codependency of superheroes and supervillians. Watchmen's world appears to have always suffered from a paucity of supervillains, or at least of competent ones, leaving the heroes to beat up on petty miscreants when they're not feeling enervated by this new "white-collar" crime.
But here's the problem I couldn't shake: there aren't superheroes in real life. There never were. There wasn't, to the best of my knowledge, even an aborted dress-up-and-fight-crime craze, much less one spanning two generations. And yeah, duh, positing a scenario where there are superheroes in real life is the whole raison d'etre of a speculative work like this, but the mental itch insisting that things didn't add up never went away. I ended up having to switch perceptive gears every time the characters talked about or did superhero stuff, requiring a more favorable mechanical ratio to suspend the vastly increased weight of my disbelief. This, on top of the self-conscious greatness-spotting, put me on a rocky reading road indeed.
The plot is essentially this: when someone defenestrates the Comedian, the youngest of the former Minutemen who became a sort of nihilistic patriot in middle age, Rorschach wants to know who and why. Several deaths later, he comes to suspect a conspiracy intent on specifically killing costumed vigilantes or, as he calls them, "masks". The trouble Rorschach proceeds to both make and get into jostles the Nite Owl and the second Silk Spectre, ever-reluctant heroine and daughter of the first one, out of retirement. Amid NYC's mounting chaos, Rorschach and the Nite Owl discover an elaborate, wide-reaching scheme on the part of Adrian Veidt, formerly the superhero Ozymandias and currently a simple millionaire captain-of-industry genius. He plans, from his high-tech Antarctic hideout, to simulate a giant space squid invasion in order to end intra-humanity hostility by directing it toward a perceived non-human enemy. (It speaks volumes about the common perception of comic books that it comes as a pleasant surprise to find that Veidt, the closest thing Watchmen has to a villain, does not openly regard himself a villain.)
Above all the proceedings, sometimes in more ways than one, stands Dr. Manhattan, a "big blue space guy". (Thus spake Brandi Jensen.) For all those concerned about how a formerly mild-mannered physicist could possibly turn into a bald, naked, blue giant (when he decides to be giant) who never ages, who may be made of pure energy, who can synthesize any element, who possesses full knowledge of the past and future, who can split into two or teleport himself wherever he wants, rest assured: it was an experiment gone wrong. Naturally, the U.S. military takes the poor alienated guy on a superweapon, using him to win Vietnam and hold the threat of even more mutually assured destruction over the Soviets. More to the point, he acts as a genuine, superpower-possessing — maybe all-superpower-possessing — superhero in a setting where the other main characters are just regular schlubs, albeit schlubs in better-than-average shape and goofy suits. I'm still wrestling with whether Dr. Manhattan's presence wrecks the superheroes-in-reality device by making reality too unreal, or whether it enriches it by forcing the workaday "superheroes" to reconsder their roles in a world containing an invincible dude who goes around raising floating castles on Mars with his mind.
But even I, a Watchmen tyro, realize that to spend a lot of time on the plot is to ignore the book's greatest successes. Moore set out to create a comic book that takes full advantage its medium, and boy does it. Even in the sequential art renaissance that's supposedly going on as you read this, I haven't read anything that more actively exploits the strengths (and maybe even weaknesses) of its medium. The insertion of pages ostensibly from things that aren't comic books, for instance — a retired superhero's autobiography, another's paper in an ornithology journal, a back-page interview with another in one of those gotcha-question 70s magazines — or the threading through of an E.C. homage pirate story that parallels... well, it parallels a lot of things. (Watchmen is big on parallelism.) There are specific examples to cite of comic book techniques pulled off well, but it's more of a gestalt thing; the story unfolds in a way that only comics (and the fact that the comic reader can spend as much time as they want with a panel) allow. This clarifies Terry Gilliam's labeling of the material as "unfilmable", but clouds the modern decision by Zack Synder et al to film it anyway. So much would presumably get lost in translation that I'm not sure what the appeal is. And yes, Hollywood's all about the quick buck, but how bankable a property is a 22-year-old DC graphic novel like Watchmen, really? As I understand it, box office returns have thus far disappointed.
Nor, as a Watchmen tyro, can I ignore the book's greatest excesses. From what I know of Alan Moore, he loses against the urge to politics-up his work as often as he wins, and he can't chalk up this occasion as a victory. I happen to listen to quite a lot of albums produced in England in the late 1970s and 1980s, and thus have grown accustomed to what I've come to call the "incoherent anti-Thatcher rant". In that era and country, you see, it was apparently in bigtime artists' fashion to hate on the prime minister, and to that end a number of musicians wound up including a track or five on their records of the period that, thinly veiled if veiled at all, attack her. While I'm generally on the side of criticizing those in power and while many of those numbers are musically quite enjoyable, the batting around of the same old icon of evil in these pop stars' internal cosmologies gets old quickly, especially since songs can't really deliver convincing arguments. Speaking in prose rather than verse, the singers did little better; evidently they thought maddeningly incomplete assertions like "Oi, Maggie Thatcher says there's no such thing as society, right!" would do the job. The most cosmopolitan of these pop politicos would also include Ronald Reagan on their roster of forces currently dismantling the world, sometimes paranoiacally lumping Thatcher and the Gipper into a their own sneering, mustache-twirling alliance of destruction. My problem isn't that they attack Reagan and Thatcher — I don't have any special attachment to those politicians — my problem is they don't seem to care enough to make their attacks hold water. If you argue that Reagan and Thatcher are so self-evidently bad that if I don't automatically agree with you I'm part of the problem, then sorry, I'll have to take Reagan and Thatcher.
While the reasoning-free impressionism of those songs make Watchmen's own jabs at the leaders of the day look like an article from Nature, the politics with which Moore imbues the work aren't much more thoughtful. The narrative's being rooted with unusually dense detail in its era dates it in a good way; its treatment of matters political dates it in a bad way. I suspect that Moore — and especially the Moore of a, say, V for Vendetta — has a touch of the standard artist's process for assuming political stances: take positions based not on the ideas but on your like or dislike for the people who profess them, and make sure the like or dislike is as aesthetically-based as possible. (How else to explain the prevalence of Che shirts?) Anthony Lane's criticism of the Watchmen movie, I think, holds true for this aspect of the book: "it should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex, and whose deepest fear — deeper even than that of meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation — is that the Warren Commission may have been right all along." It does nothing to change my provisional position that works of fiction shouldn't make political arguments — or arguments of any kind, really — since they're inevitably undercut, no matter how well-argued, by the unaccountability of their delivery system.
But with maturity, I've learned to be bothered less by political puerility in art. If I let it get to me, after all, what art could I enjoy? Certainly vast tracts of comicdom would go right off the table. Neo-realist film wouldn't stand much of a chance, either. And what non-Stoppard playwright could I ever appreciate? (Not that I have much theater appreciation left over for the non-Stoppards.) Watchmen is, in practically all its other aspects, not a flimsy piece of art, and even that statement understates the case. The book may get clunky when it butts up against reality, but internally, there's a fine nuance and a damn fine structure. I'll soon read it again, I'm sure.