Monday, April 4, 2011


The composer who makes Watchmen into an opera will be the American Wagner. This graphic novel is as masterful as the movie is incompetent. By now it's a cliche to say that Watchmen is a brilliant sendup of the superhero archetype, or that it describes the dark underbelly of the heroic qualities which Americans venerate, but that doesn't even begin to describe what it accomplishes. Watchmen is one of the few works of art that successfully entertains the disturbing idea that, perhaps, human compassion can and should be subverted. Perhaps it is justifiable to kill millions in an effort to save billions. There is a dark nihlism which pervades this book, not unlike what one finds Milton and Wagner -- a dispairing disgust at mankind's ability to inflict suffering and destruction on itself. One cannot deny that the message of this book is, in the most profoundly serious way, authoritarian and anti-humanism. Yet so overwhelming is the power with which it argues its point of view that we're compelled to entertain the possibility that such despair is the only legitimate way of looking at the world. We are compelled to be compelled by Watchmen just as we are in a work like Paradise Lost or The Ring Cycle. It may not give pleasure the way in which Mozart or Calvin and Hobbes do, but it secretes a powerful spell that easily leads to infatuation. Like Milton and Wagner, Moore had to stand the conventions and trivialities of his genre on their heads. In each case, the result is something so imposing that it can haunt you for days afterward.

This is a story which neither a traditional novel nor traditional artwork could render half as effectively. Like all great works, it's form blends seamlessly with its content. A mere look at a panel is all it takes for us to understand the three-dimensional complexity behind each protagonist's archetype with an immediacy no novel can give, and we watch them progress through a narrative which requires enormous virtuosity both in the art of story telling and in the art of making characters' speech sound distinctive.

I was more ignorant than dismissive of graphic novels. Even after I read Maus when I was 16, it never occurred to me to think of comic books as an artform. From nearly the earliest age I'd loved Calvin and Hobbes, Dilbert, Doonesbury and especially Garfield. But the question of whether comics could be more than mere entertainment had never occurred to me to ask until I was in college. Like all kids, I had the ability to be completely spellbound by what I saw without thinking about its source so long as it was good. It is an ability which we as adults can only strive to emulate.

The Watchmen movie was, without a doubt, one of the most risible comic book movies I have ever seen -- doing everything it could to turn the delicate complexity of this book into the most two-dimensional comic book stereotype one can imagine. Things that came to life from the page were as wooden as a petrified tree on the screen. It contained what I view as the new standard for awkward sex scenes, and attempted to compensate for its inadequacy with an ugly orgy of unnecessary violence. I felt like I had just walked out of a movie that was far more like pornography for violent people than a genuine realization of great source material.

Perhaps Watchmen is as unfilmable as many people say. But I think that Watchmen, and many other graphic novels, could find an ideal second home in the opera house. When friends from high school and college asked me why I never read comic books, I'd answer them 'what need do I have for comics when I have opera?' Like opera, the comic strip is not a naturally subtle art. In neither is it ever enough to show or imply. Plot points must be blatantly stated from frame to frame or aria to aria. That does not mean that either genre requires any less invention in its story telling, but it does mean that the manner in which it's told can not be suggested.

Paradoxically, this leads to the ability both genres to subtly imply certain things which films and traditional novels never could. Dr. Manhattan's omnipotence does not compel awe on a movie screen, because there is nothing a movie screen cannot show us. But the limitations of a comic strip are such that anything we can imagine Dr. Manhattan doing in our imagination is far more powerful than any feat we watch him do as a movie spectacle. Imagining Dr. Manhattan's inner life would be, I believe, a task which music -- the language of suggestion itself -- can be even more capable of rendering with vividness. Similarly, the sympathetic side of Rorschach's character is dulled by so vividly showing him commit acts of gory violence. Rorschach is the driving engine of the story, we are asked to view most of it through his eyes, and it is very hard to feel any ability to care if its de-facto narrator seems like a mere cartoon psychopath. In both of these cases, we must imagine what they're thinking even as they seem to speak their minds with total candor. A comic book allows us to use our imaginations to give their actions personal qualities which a faithful movie adaptation, which inevitably does so much of the imaginative work for us, never could. The only artform which could render it with similar vividness is opera. A great score could suggest every quality about these characters which a movie never could. Opera, like the comic strip, is a naturally 'hot' medium which values the ability to emote well over subtlety. There will always be a place for subtlety in both genres, but both must firstly tell their stories in vivid, bold emotions and leave their inhibitions at the door. The marriage of opera and comics may seem ridiculous, but the two are natural fits with one another, and experiments to find out if they can be welded together are long overdue.

(Go ahead. Tell me John Adams couldn't knock Watchmen out of the park.)

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