After seeing The Dark Knight recently and being exposed to The Watchmen trailer, I finally decided to sit down and see what this graphic novel was all about. Surely, I thought, there must be a reason why this graphic novel is universally lauded in this subculture. So I read The Watchmen.
I don’t regret reading it at all. But I do regret forgetting that most people have no taste, and those who aren’t, the ones who are always promulgating the comic-books-as-serious-art-form idea, are aspiring-to-be tasteless. That’s my fault for forgetting that these people are just remora catching on to the big sharks in the water.
On some levels I think The Watchmen is kind of interesting. It’s got an ending which is such a huge Deus Ex Machina that it puts Deus Ex Machina to shame. At least in a Greek play, if you are going to have a Deus Ex Machina, the existence of said god is understood to be true within the context of the world of the play. Which is to say, if Orestes is being chased by the Furies, and he cries out to Athena to save him — And then she comes and saves him — The world of the play has already established for us that Athena exists, and if she comes flying in on stage it’s not breaking any of our expectations. Now if, say, we were watching a play about say, Willy Loman, and in the final act Athena pops in without being mentioned at any point prior in the play — That’s exactly what the climax of The Watchmen is.*
Then we’ve got the whole Black Freighter incident, which in some ways reminds me of the Greek Chorus. I suppose the main difference being, the Greek Chorus actually served a purpose beyond reiterating and framing the action onstage — They served both an aesthetic and narrative purpose in driving the story. The Black Freighter, on the other hand, pretty much drags the whole plot down for me. Yes, yes, parallelism, get on with it. This whole side-narrative actively reduced my enjoyment of the main narrative, with nothing more to show for it than my own irritation at the pretense of parallelism equalling depth.
And, well, there are about a hundred other reasons that this comic was an unenjoyable read for me, from its lax worldbuilding to its unlikeable characters. But more importantly, I think is addressing the idea why Watchmen receives all the praise anyway — “It was the first.”
While Art History and the like loves to make a big deal out of firsts — The modern realm of literary and art theorization is built up on a foundation of incestual and incessant self-referencing, and it’s easy to point to firsts (or, more commonly, to designate a first). But I’m not particularly fond of this sort of notion of “progress,” at least not beyond the idea of sophistication of craftsmanship.
So while The Watchmen may have been first, I think it’s pretty inevitable that lessons in characterization learned from books, plays, television, and movies would have come to comics with or without The Watchmen. The cross-pollination is inevitable given the universality of media. And concurrent works like The Dark Knight Returns pretty much prove the point. The innovation here in being first (or rather, being designated first for expediency in a certain critical narrative) was coming, whether or not Watchmen came about. There’s probably even room to argue that, due to The Watchmen being raised up by certain cultural activists, the process was actually retarded.
The Watchmen’s major appeal to me was in the ways it utilized the comic medium in ways that many other comics I’ve seen do not do. And, although I can respect the technical merit of multiple encroaching simultaneous narratives like we have with the Black Freighter, the virtuosity of this technique doesn’t add to the story, or otherwise make for a more entertaining experience.
The closest analog that comes to mind is the virtuoso guitar work common in metal bands — As incredible as it may be to be able to play with that level of intensity, the end result is often less viscerally satisfying than more simplistic but well-executed musicianship. Even on the intellectual level where I can appreciate what Alan Moore is trying to do, the experience is often marred by Moore’s own craziness (The most apparent case-in-point, how he takes psychic power as a given in the story of The Watchmen).
I have a bit of trepidation about the upcoming movie — On the one hand, I fully expect audiences to hate it. It’s a bleak story, it’s a complex story, and it’s nothing like you’d expect from a “comic book movie.” That gives me a bit of hope, because even though we may hate this comic book for different reasons, at least it might become culturally acceptable to point out that it’s bad.
On the other hand, I also expect that if people are primed enough about how “good” Watchmen is, they’ll believe it even if they don’t actually like it. In which case it will be even more frustrating, because instead of hearing from one random person how cool it is when Dr. Manhattan demolecularizes some Viet Cong, I’ll have to hear about it from every random ten year old with an internet connection.
*I am not referring to genetic engineering here, since the universe of The Watchmen establishes genetic engineering. I’m referring to other aspects of the plan which are in-credible.