Wednesday, May 8, 2013

More Moore part 16: Watchmen chapters 1-3

Watchmen chapters 1-3 (1986)

About a week ago, when I updated my Goodreads page with this book, I received a dismissive response from  a friend: "It's overrated," he said, "people don't really talk like that." The comment made me think about how we consider art and whether it really is as overrated as he thought, which is something I now can't agree with: for better or for worse, when Watchmen #1 appeared on newsstands in September 1986 it changed the face of comics forever, as radically as The Waste Land did for poetry and Final Fantasy VII did for video games, two other works that I don't think you can accuse of being overrated for the same reasons. Watchmen left an indelible mark on the genre and is now a bar that must be topped; I can think of no comic made after it that isn't indebted to it in some way. Any time there's a new novel or arc that comes out that is destined to be BIG NEWS, it will make a reference to Watchmen in some way, even Moore himself is guilty of this from time to time. I don't think the degree of what Watchmen has accomplished CAN be properly rated, so no, I don't think it's overrated. Overhyped though? That's possibly a more legitimate complaint. Let's see.

The very first thing to notice about chapter 1, before anything that lies within, is how rigidly workmanlike it is: a 9-panel grid, page after page, strictly sticking to its own internal conventions and meter. The grid creates a sense of internal momentum, of movement inexorably drawn to the end, which fits in well with the book's sense of nuclear fatigue and of the (much later) use of predestined fate. The second thing to notice is color: Tatjana Wood's color work in Swamp Thing was muted and earthy, it added to the darkness in the story from Houma to Pandemonium. Here, John Higgins' work is garish and clashing, very much by design. In the first chapter, the panels alternate sickly greens and blues with glaring, piercing yellows and reds, back and forth, from present to flashback like an 80s fever-dream, all shards of neon. With the rigid timing of the panels and the alternating of the color, the work becomes poetic, but only in a martial sense: each panel stomps along like boots on concrete, in perfect time from beginning to end.

The final thing to take in is the work's density: just holding the novel in your hands it feels heavier than usual, as if the clutter in the art is weighing the whole tome down. Every panel has something interesting to look at; photos in the background,  graffiti, newspaper headlines. When the Watchmen movie came out in 2009, a lot was made of it blowing the novel's nuclear scare message out of proportion, but it's still here, just hidden away in the backgrounds of panels, on barely-glimpsed newspapers on The Comedian's apartment floor, or written up in the backup story of Hollis Mason's autobiography. Where the movie offered panic, though, the book gives a crushing sense of fatigue, exacerbated by the hideous carnival colors: the world of 1986 according to Watchmen has been beaten into the ground. Rorschach is usually touted as the novel's 'protagonist' (as much as a story like this can even have one) and I think what sets him apart from everyone else is the minds of readers is that he still maintains a degree of life and movement, whereas everyone else, from Nite Owl to Silk Spectre to Dr. Manhattan to even the background caricatures like Nixon and Kissinger, look ready to lay down and give up.

It's old news by now, but a recap for those who would like it: Moore's original plan for Watchmen was to have lightning strike thrice in acquiring an old property and retooling it for modern audiences, as he did with Marvelman and Swamp Thing. Initially, Watchmen was to be populated by the heroes from silver-age publisher Charlton Comics, bought out by DC in 1985, but management balked at the idea of the characters in their new purchase ending up dead or crazy and convinced Moore to rewrite the characters as archetypes, which I think works much better in the long run. The characters in Watchmen work because they're blank slates, heroic archetypes that don't need huge backstories. Moore took the idea of a Batman character, split him into two parts, and thus we have Nite Owl (the campy techie who has an 'Owl Cave') and Rorschach (the lunatic who hides in the shadows and relies on criminals fear of him to get results), and both of them work because we understand the archetype they're coming from. We don't question that The Comedian is a gun-toting vigilante like The Punisher because we've seen The Punisher and Punisher-types time and time again before this. Watchmen is simply the graphic novel's answer to The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Interestingly, Moore drops his usual propensity for poetic, lugubrious captions and focuses on Watchmen as a story told through dialogue, with Rorschach's journal entries being among a handful of captions used, and then only sparingly. Of course Moore hasn't lost his knack for it, and the journal entries, with their clipped, awkward speech, are some of the best he's done.

At least initially, the novel splits itself from chapter to chapter, another example of it using meter to create that kind of martial poetry. Odd chapters further the story at hand, while even chapters are more concerned with flashbacks and telling the origin stories of the main players. I have heard that this design is a monetary choice first and an artistic choice second: Moore just didn't have enough story to fill up twelve issues, so we added the even chapters to kill time. Either way it's successful, and to this reader at least the even chapters are where the novel really shines, not that the odd chapters are slouches at all. Of course being an Alan Moore story it can't help but subvert itself immediately: chapter 2 flashes back to five events in the life of Edward Blake, The Comedian, a character who died before the story even started. Unlike every other character in the story, we only get a view of Blake through the eyes and thoughts of the rest of the cast, and what we see isn't pretty: to me, Blake is the only character completely incapable of redemption, a violent, misogynist sociopath who is seen murdering a pregnant woman, firing on rioters with glee, and instigating yet another Alan Moore rape scene (and probably the most problematic of them, as we'll see later). The Comedian is Watchmen's 1986 personified: brutal, destructive, and sadistic. He does get a gorgeous speech, blubbering and drunk, confessing his crimes to former nemesis Moloch in a flashback just before he was killed. The whole thing is shown from Moloch's point of view, trapped in his bed while Blake opens up to him, the room alternatingly bathed in harsh oranges and cool blues. And then, like a refrain, we return to the flashback of Blake, his whole world blood-red, being thrown to his death. We saw the scene once in chapter one, and we'll see it again before long, the thread that ties Watchmen together.

A special mention should be made of Ozymandias' memory of The Comedian, because I think that THAT is the exact moment the plot starts, not Blake's death. The Comedian ridicules the other 'costumed crimefighters' for their ineffectiveness, points out that now that the world has nukes, it has bigger problems that men running around in spandex can't solve. Like Delita Heiral in Final Fantasy Tactics being taunted and abused by Argath for his inability to change the world, you can see Ozymandias' plot have its inception at this one moment, the moment that he decides to take the reins on human destiny and do what he can to save the world. Ozy comes across as a villain in the novel (unsurprisingly) but if he is, he's the most realistic kind of villain: the one who is convinced that everything he does is for the greater good. More than anything I think he comes across as a dark mirror of Rorschach: they're both moral absolutionists who refuse to back down in the face of Armageddon. The difference is that Ozymandias is the head of a multinational conglomerate, and Rorschach is a maniac running around in a trench coat breaking thugs fingers. I still condemn Ozy's plan as needlessly vicious (especially since the end seems to hint that it won't work, but we'll get to that later) but one can understand where he's coming from, and to him he is saving the world, which is the epitome of heroism. Slowly but surely, comic villains change from interdimensional dark wizards and Superman-hating industrialists to something more realistic, more accepting. And that makes them more sinister than ever.

Chapter 3 introduces a second set of captions, the story-within-a-story Tales of the Black Freighter. Since Watchmen takes place in a world where superheroes are real, nobody reads superhero comics, and pirate adventure comics seem to be all the rage. Black Freighter tells a condensed version of the plot of Watchmen, with the main character taking the role of Ozymandias and attempting something grand without realizing how twisted it is. Honestly, I rarely read the captions unless I feel I have to, they're cluttered and distracting and don't really add much to the story. In the director's cut of the Watchmen movie, the Black Freighter segments were interspersed between scenes of the actual story instead of being captions within the panels, and that worked much better, letting you see the story without distracting you from the actual plot of the novel. It would have been better as a backup at the end of a few issues, but as-is, it's a failed experiment.

Chapter 3 ends with Dr. Manhattan, the only being with actual superpowers and the USA's tool to keep Russia in check during the Cold War, on a self-imposed exile to Mars. Russia immediately invades Afghanistan, and we see still-president Nixon in a war room meeting discussing how much of the Eastern seaboard they would lose if they launched nukes right now. Things aren't looking good, and they're only going to get worse.


Best quote: "Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel./Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain./Doctor says "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up."/Man busts into tears. Says, "But doctor.../"I am Pagliacci."/Good joke. Everybody laugh./Roll on snare drum./Curtains."


Up Next: "God exists and he's American."

1 comment:

  1. I actually did not not know that Watchmen was originally intended for pre-existing characters. That's kind of rad.
    Looking forward to the next three chapters!