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March 4, 2009

OP-ED: Watchmen Being Taught at High School


When I was a kid, I had no interest in comics at all. Before we’d go on family vacations, mom would take us to a newsstand and suggest that we choose some comic books to read in the car, and though I did pick some out, they really didn’t capture my attention.

It wasn’t until college, when I audited a course called “Masters of Horror,” that I began a flirtation with the form. The professor, Pete Dumanis, showed us the story “Foul Play” from the old EC line (issue #19 of Haunt of Fear). One baseball player murdered another one, and his teammates took revenge for the crime. The final image, of the teammates using his body parts to play a macabre game of baseball, really hooked me. When I told mom about this story, she bought me the five volume reprints of the Tales from the Crypt, still one of my prized possessions. 

However, while I loved reading (and rereading) those books, I still wasn’t a comic book fan. That happened at Purdue University, while I was working on my Ph.D. in English. A buddy of mine, the G-Man—yes, that’s what we called him—insisted that I read a comic book called Watchmen. I told G-Man that I didn’t like comics, but he asked me to trust him. Now, I didn’t really trust G, but since I was tired of studying for my departmental exam in rhetoric, I figured it would be a good diversion. This was around 1988 or 1989.
I opened up the book, and I never really put it down. Watchmen led me to The Dark Knight Returns and Gotham by Gaslight. From thence…well, my wife tells me that I need to do something with all these boxes of comic books. All things considered, though, she tolerates my jones with pretty good humor.
Like many addicts, I blame my Wednesday runs to the comic-book store on other folks—namely, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The universe they created is, to use highly technical terminology, really cool. I was attracted to their idea that, if superheroes actually existed, they would be mentally unbalanced, like Rorschach, or fundamentally inhuman and remote, like Dr. Manhattan, a geeky fanboy like Dan Dreiberg, or a raging sociopath like the Comedian.
The atmosphere of Cold War paranoia had, and still has, resonance for me. I was in college for all of Ronald Reagan’s administration, and his stridently anti-Soviet line frightened me. His joke about outlawing Russia and sending the missiles flying, his Strategic Defense Initiative, all the things I feared in the real world were reflected in Watchmen. I have read the book every year, and sometimes twice a year, ever since the first time I “trusted” the G-Man. It tops my list of “desert island” books. You know the desert island game: If you were trapped on a desert island, what five records or books or girlfriends would you take, etc. Watchmen is number one of the five books I have to have on that island.
My love of this text finally compelled me to teach it to my senior British literature students for the first time this year. However, I’ve been building to this point slowly. For several years, I had been bringing comics into the classroom with my ninth graders. When I taught freshmen, I did a film unit, showing them how to analyze movies in terms of camera angle, editing, montage, soundtrack, and so on.

Although I showed a variety of films over the years, I began using Unbreakable and, later, Batman Begins. Since both of these movies concern the birth of the hero, I introduced the unit with comic-book origin stories: Superman, Batman, Spiderman, the Alan Scott and Hal Jordan Green Lanterns, the Jay Garrick Flash, and several others. We’d read them and then discuss what repetitions we see from character to character—for many of them, a death spurred them to become heroes.

Even Clark Kent became a hero only after his foster parents died. Thus, we saw that heroism is often rooted in personal tragedy. We also examined the oppositions between characters, particularly how they gained powers, if they had them at all, and their motivations for doing what they do. For example, we consider how Superman, being raised with the sense that he must use his powers for good, became a positive hero; how Batman, with his revenge motive, became a dark character; and how Spiderman’s sense of guilt for Uncle Ben’s death obliged him to do penance as a crime fighter.
So, for several years, that was the limit of my comic-book teaching, and I approached it as literary analysis. The culminating assignment of that unit was to create a superhero or supervillain and write that character’s origin story. Many students enjoyed the comic-book unit, others hated it, but for the most part, it fostered critical thinking and some imaginative writing.
My second step toward my Watchmen unit came last year. Five of us English teachers were charged with rewriting the whole Basic English curriculum, and I took responsibility for ninth grade. One marking period was designated for nonfiction, and I slipped in a subunit that included three graphic nonfiction texts: Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, and Andrew Helfer’s Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography. Ironically, this year I was switched from English 9 to English 11, so I cannot teach the unit I created, and those who do teach it have little experience with comics.
All that brings me to this year. Spurred on by the impending movie release, I conjured the guts to ask my department head for permission to teach Watchmen. After a quick pitch, referring to the emerging use of graphic novels in the classroom, a reference to high-interest reading, and a quick iteration of the vital themes in the text, she agreed with little effort on my part. Not wanting to push my luck, I asked for the money for one class set of 30 Watchmen books to be used for my three British Literature classes. That was a mistake. I should have asked for 90 copies. The greatest weakness with the unit thus far is that we need to spend large amounts of class time simply reading the book. I’ll rectify that error next year.
When I announced to my classes that we would read and discuss Watchmen this year, the enthusiasm of the response surprised me. It’s fair to say that some worked themselves into a frenzy. “Can we start Watchmen now?” students often asked me.
“Soon,” I’d respond. “We still have to finish The Canterbury Tales.”
“Ah, man, I can’t wait.” I never get that response when I say we’re reading Hamlet.
The faculty reaction has been very positive, as well. We are fortunate that at Williamsport Area High School, our colleagues will support anyone who tries to do something innovative for the benefit of the students. A couple teachers praised me for going out of my way to learn and teach something that the students will like, and I pursed my lips and folded my hand—all very pious and self-sacrificing—and replied that I’ll do anything for the kids. It was a load of garbage, of course. Teaching Watchmen is more for me than for them, truth to tell.
A few teachers were so interested, they asked to borrow the book. One of them has made Moore’s novel an optional replacement for Orwell’s 1984, as long as the students buy the book themselves, and she is ordering a class set of her own next year. She liked the book so much she began a Watchmen reading group with some of her students. Not bad for a woman who never cracked a comic before this year. All of the teachers who read the book were surprised by its depth.
But now to the meat of the matter. Because of the nudity, sex, and violence in the book, I offered my standard disclaimer that anyone who does not want to encounter the graphic material will be permitted to read an alternate text. None availed themselves of that opportunity, so we charged ahead with the unit.

Watchmen, being set in 1985, and its tone rooted in 1980s nuclear and anti-Soviet paranoia that gave rise to movies like War Games, Red Dawn, and The Day After, required some historical background. Therefore, our first activity leading to Watchmen was a short research project. We went to the library, and the students had a choice of topic, related to historical events or cultural trends related to aspects of the novel. They could investigate the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Manhattan Project, the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan’s Soviet policy, Bernard Goetz (as a flaky Rorschach analogue), and many other topics. They were to write a short paper on that topic, and I composed one for them on the Doomsday Clock.
As of this writing, we are only midway through the novel, since they have to do all the reading in class, which slows our discussions considerably. When I get additional books next year, that problem will be solved. At the moment, we are talking about differing concepts of justice amongst the characters. For Rorschach, a number of students have identified an Old Testament eye-for-an-eye aspect to his sense of justice, and they respond to his unwillingness to compromise his principles. He is by far my students’ favorite character. They also have recognized that Dr. Manhattan does not have a sense of justice at all. When I asked a student a couple of days ago why she thought that about Manhattan, she said, “Well, justice is for humans, and he isn’t human. He just doesn’t care.” In other words, my students are getting it.
We discuss other issues as well, such as the different motivations for characters to put on the costume. The students see the psychological damage of Rorschach, the simple love of violence for the Comedian, the parental pressure on Laurie, and the strange mix of adolescent idealism and sexual thrill of Dan Drieberg. They haven’t yet got a read on Adrian Veidt, and I want to keep them in the dark about him as long as possible.
They are also responding well to the artwork, noticing the visual echoes throughout the book: how the blood-streaked smiley face becomes a smear of dust on Nite Owl’s goggles, a drip of ketchup on a smiley face T-shirt, the Doomsday Clock itself, and many others. Students have pointed out how the “camera work” at the beginning of chapter one is echoed at the end of the same chapter—an extreme closeup of the smiley face button and then zooming out to the top of the skyline.

They’ve discovered visual connections on their first read that I never saw in my 20 years’ experience with the book. Although there are people who are obviously not excited about doing a comic book, it affects a much smaller percentage than any other text I have taught. Many of them have bought their own copies, they like the story so much. No one has ever done that with Beowulf, at least not my students.
I am excited for them to read the ending of the novel—some already have—because that is when we will really hit what to me is the most important theme: Does the end ever justify the means? If possible, this text, though rooted in the 1980s, is more important now than it was then. It is impossible now to look at the opening pages of chapter 12 and not think of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Adrian Veidt’s act of mass murder is an abomination, but it is an act that can potentially save the world (a possibility undercut by Moore and Gibbon’s very last panel). But if the murder of three million New Yorkers could save the world from almost certain destruction, would it be worth it? Could an act of terrorism ever be justifiable? And consider the moral compromise of all the other heroes, save for Rorschach, who will keep Veidt’s terrible secret.

By the end, Watchmen is a profoundly disturbing novel. I hope, as we get to the end, to open up the debate about the morality of this event. After all, isn’t a discussion of means and ends, as well as moral compromise, as universal and as important as Hamlet’s philosophical ramblings about death and revenge?
But we haven’t gotten there yet. I’m partway through my first teaching of this novel. I’ll let you know how things went when we’re done. Wish me luck.—John C. Weaver, English Teacher, Williamsport Area High School, Williamsport, PA