I use those examples deliberately. Because this is the second time I’ve read the novel, only this was the first time I’ve finished it. The first time I couldn’t look past what I saw as dated limitations. As the first of its kind, or supposedly, I’m sure there are other proto-works that deserve to be celebrated out there yet to be discovered, a complex, literary comic book story, I have to note that it had influence, resonance, and significance .I don’t want to be the person who watches Greed and complains about what they may see as its limitations or its age.
Which perhaps lends to a question about criticism itself about proto or initial works: is a piece judged on its merit, its direct influences, or what it prefigures? I myself feel that 99% of the time it’s fair to consider something on 1) what is it? 2) What is it trying to do? 3) How well does it achieve 1 and 2. It is both unfair to other works, putting a premium on novelty OR by placing the blame of the progeny of a work’s influence. Both are dangerous, because novelty always changes, there was always someone who did something first, and oft times the person who does something later down the line does it better than the person who did it first (considering that a conservative estimate would be that Shakespeare was about 80% borrowed work, or Brecht, who used previous works in an subversive yet similar structural vein, ie. just steal it).
So, putting novelty aside let me get to the meat of Watchmen. It uses the idea of comic book superheroes, in a narrative that recognizes the existence of comic books and superheroes, to examine the absurdity of a flawed human being taking upon themselves the moral and physical welfare of their community. Specifically, aimed at the politicians at the time and the idea of inevitable nuclear war; men taking upon themselves the ideas of right and wrong as lives stand in the balance. The novel also introduces, or rather brings to the foreground the use of characters in comic books as philosophical types.
The story starts out quite interesting enough as a murder mystery. And quickly the structure of multiple narrators and pov’s is introduced. The problem I had was that it seemed that the novel is trying to overcompensate for what it is trying to correct in comic books, and the brooding of each characters in the first half of the arc gets annoying and a little messy as Moore is trying to have each character represent a worldview but also be psychologically complex. While it may have been revolutionary at the time, it comes across too talky and obvious. In a graphic novel Moore tells rather than shows far too often. However, while the visual style is a bit rough around the edges, the then revolutionary use of filmic editing techniques and visual motifs is remarkable. And the film borrows heavily on The Day The Earth Stood Still and Rashomon for its structure. The work also utilizes a frame story of another comic book quite effectively.
The problem is that it can’t delimit itself, there are just too many ideas that don’t get worked out, and there are too many narrators, saying too much, that could be disseminated from the visual cues. And at times the narration/dialogue (“is that man Jesus” for example) is far too obvious. Sure, this may be a codification issue, but it gets in the way of the story, a story which really isn’t that revolutionary and seems rather tired. I mean the whole end of the world conspiracy thing?
Those looking for an action comic book will be disappointed. The climax is an exercise in situational ethics rather than any real crime fighting. There’s the typical amount of blood for a Moore work, as well as the troubling portrayal of women, especially of a lesbian character, but the major problem I have is the same problem I had with V for Vendetta. Both seem to lean toward rather dangerous Nietzschian ideological solutions.
This is an important part of comic book history, and a substantial work, though a far from perfect achievement. And I have no idea how this would work as a film. It seems like any film version would meet disaster quite easily, for example having the entire master plan explained in a long monologue comprising most of the last volume is far from film friendly.
However, plot is secondary here, and I said I wasn’t going to judge it on influence. This is to break down tropes and gives us intellectual approaches to the superhero story. And on that level it works extremely well, giving the reader loads of material and ideas to chew on, though it’s not always enjoyable to read, and perhaps thats the way it should be.
My short list of the best Graphic Novels I’ve read (there might be a tie at 5, I'd probably put Watchmen there)
1. Maus, Art Speigelman
a. A great work both as extended metaphor, but also in the self-reflexive use of art as therapy, and the importance of story in personal and cultural identity. Devastating.
2. Kingdom Come, Mark Waid
a. Sort of the inverse of Watchmen, where the Old Superheroes saturate the world and run their cities like fascist police states (a bitter and broken Batman, of course the most successful), while their children begin to develop dangerous god complexes. I found it more intellectually satisfying and troubling than Watchmen, and Alex Ross’ art work is the best in all of comics.
3. Batman: The Long Halloween, Jeph Loeb
a. Batman done like a ‘70’s film noir. A serial killer stalks Gotham, as Jim Gordon tries to hold together a conflicted Batman, his new DA, and protect his family.
4. A Contract With God, Will Eisner
a. Malamud like stories from a tenement complex told in a mystical-realistic style. A bit dated but heartrending.
5. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller
a. Like his Robocop series a commentary on 80’s excess and Reagan era-militarism.Savage, violent, and funny, Miller reintroduces a Batman who breaks the rules.