14. Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins
Reading Watchmen has to be one of the oddest aesthetic experiences I’ve ever had. I believe it was only a night or two before my 27th birthday that I saw (was dragged to) the DC premiere of the Watchmen movie. It was, to put it nicely, a piece of crap - unpleasantly violent for no reason, stuffed with heavy-handed symbolism, given to a creepy admiration for authoritarian ideas, and containing the single most awkward sex scene I can remember in any movie I’ve ever watched. Yet I found myself transfixed by the graphic novel on which it’s based.
There’s nothing strange in liking a book of whose movie you hated. What’s weird is that the book was as close to identical to the movie as a book can be - frame for frame by image, word for word by dialogue. Yet things that seemed incredibly stupid on the screen were transfixing on the page.
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 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 in Dante or 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 The Inferno 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 Dante and Wagner, Alan 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 - even if you don’t agree with it or find it creepy and sickening.
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. In that way, it reminds me of an artform I know all too well...
All the way back in entry #34 (Game of Thrones) I already admitted never felt the need for comic books or fantasy literature when I was growing up. Both of them deal generally in larger-than-life situations and drama far more extreme than anything we could experience in daily life. How could I feel the need for either comics or fantasy lit to provide that kind of grandiosity when opera already served me so well? It’s only now, in the dotage of my youth, that I’m beginning to understand what I’d been missing. My resentments that the larger world seemed indifferent to the music that obsessed me made me blind to worlds other than my own. Not that it mattered, the worlds of comics, non-classical music, and blockbusters would have done perfectly fine without me. And let’s be clear, the resentments still remain, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate what else exists, nor does it mean that you can’t. If most people reading this can’t love classical music anymore, or any other of the old artistic cultures that seem to be quickly disappearing in our time, the loss is yours. I consider myself enormously lucky that I was able to learn how to deeply love this music in what might be the final years before it disappears from the world’s common vocabulary. I now have the rest of my life to appreciate all the other pop stuff that everybody else already knows. But how long do you have left before your local symphony orchestra disappears? Or your local repertory theater? Or your local art-house cinema? Or even your local library? I’d venture a guess that I’ve spent more time at each than at least 99,999 out of 100,000 people my age at these places. I say that neither to brag nor to regret, merely because I’m thankful. I had supportive, intellectually engaged, parents who never pushed any of this on me, they just saw that I was interested and gave me outlets for it. God knows, I didn’t have ‘normal interests’ as a kid, but as I was growing up I had a bevy of amazing experiences in these regards which no one else my age whom I knew ever did (certainly not as a kid) - and perhaps amazing experiences which few people my age ever will. And that makes me very sad - you’ll never know what you missed.
This is clearly turning into a rant against my fellow nerds and their own cultural prejudices. That was not at all my intention, but I suppose it was inevitable that when I start praising something so seminal to the ‘Nerd Canon’ as Watchmen that I have to show whatever friends might start chanting ‘One Of Us!’ that I’m still not capitulating to the cliches of nerd taste.
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.
Which is why I feel comfortable saying that if there is any book of which I’ve ever been sure would make an incredible Wagnerian opera, Watchmen is it. Wagner took the heroic myths of his time and used them as a linchpin for his operas to demonstrate how impossible the dreams of his civilization were to implement in reality. Anyone who loves Watchmen (or V for Vendetta for that matter) should find themselves in a familiar room if they’d ever listen to Wagner. Both opera and comic books share an ability to express emotions on the most primal level. Films get much of their power from implying things that remain unsaid, but in either opera or a graphic novel, most anything that remains unspoken is immaterial to our appreciation of the story.
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 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 of which I know that could render this story 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.
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