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May 20, 2009

OP-ED: Follow Up with Watchmen Teacher John C. Weaver

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When I was growing up, my dad was very fond of the Robert Service poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee," and in particular, he liked quoting the lines, " A promise made is a debt unpaid." About two months ago, I wrote an article on Graphic Novel Reporter entitled "Who Teaches the Watchmen." At the end of that article, I promised that I would let you know how the unit went. I hereby wish to discharge that debt.

Teaching Watchmen was a rewarding experience. Never before did I have so many students in English class attack a book with such zest. While there were a few students who objected to reading a comic book, they were generally the same students who objected to reading Beowulf, and Hamlet, and the Canterbury Tales. Overwhelmingly, the people in class enjoyed Watchmen and brought great insight to their reading.
 
My reason for writing this follow-up article is to let you know what worked in my unit and what I need to change in it. I won't give an exhaustive discussion: That would be a much longer article. Rather than laying out all the discussions of theme, character, setting, and so on, I'll just mention the highlights, the things that stick out clearly in my mind.
 
What Worked
What amazed me the most was my student's grasp of visual grammar. They noticed connections in the art that I never paid attention to. For instance, a lot of discussion focused around the Doomsday Clock/bloody smiley face (the blood drips at the same angle of the minute hand on the clock). One of the many things they noticed occurred in chapter 12, when Adrian Veidt raises his arms in victory, exclaiming, "I did it!" He stands in a yellow circle of light, much like the yellow clock. His arms form the hands of the clock, and the time his arms create is five minutes before midnight. My students recognized that though Veidt believes he saved the world, Moore and Gibbons are suggesting that he only set the clock back five minutes. That's something I never would have noticed. They taught me more about the function of the art, I believe, than I taught them.
 
Another idea that emerged in our exploration of the comic was the importance of tangential characters. I often gave students lists of chapters and page numbers following particular characters, like the newsvendor, Dr. Malcolm Long, and so on. In small groups, they were to trace these characters through the novel and examine their narrative and thematic function. My classes came to recognize that the newsvendor really represents the man on the street. After all, most characters in Watchmen are costumed adventurers, not exemplars of normality. The newsvendor allows us to see how everyday people are reacting to the paranoid prewar environment. My students, furthermore, cut through his self-defensive cynicism and recognized how the impending war made him a better, more caring, man, exemplified by his attempt to protect the boy at his newsstand when death finally came for them.
 
As far as Malcolm Long goes, they traced how Rorschach schooled the psychiatrist in his nihilistic world view, but that their reaction to life's essential meaninglessness led them in two different directions: Rorschach followed an Old Testament "eye for an eye" morality, but Dr. Long evolved from being a self-serving opportunist to a kinder man who wished to ease other people's pain, as evidenced by sacrificing his marriage to stop two fighting women from hurting each other. By examining these important minor characters, my students' understanding of the entire novel expanded, and they realized that Watchmen is far more than a silly superhero comic—not that there's anything wrong with that.
 
One thing I'm particularly proud of in my approach to Watchmen was the two step process I used for discussing the end. For my money, the most important question in Watchmen is a moral one: "Do the ends ever justify the means?" In other words, is Adrian Veidt's murder of three million New Yorkers morally acceptable if it saves the world? We also discussed a corollary question, "Should the superheroes keep quiet about the murders?" As we debated these issues, the vast majority of my students believed that Veidt did a justifiable thing and that the superheroes should maintain their silence.
 
There were a brave few who voiced their belief that killing innocents is never right, even if it leads to the world's destruction. In the course of our conversation, I noticed that many of those who approved of Veidt's mass murders also supported Rorschach's desire to tell the world what really happened. I tried to explore with them the potential inconsistency of these two attitudes, but my students were not prepared for that conversation. However, some did notice that the last panel of the comic, in which Seymore is possibly reaching for Rorschach's journal, might negate all that Veidt accomplished, rendering the sacrifice of innocent people useless.
 
My job as an educator is not to teach my students "correct morality," which is their parents' job, but I do take it upon myself to complicate their present notions; so at this point, I moved on to the second step for assessing Veidt's actions. I held all discussion of the "Tales of the Black Freighter" until the end of the unit, even though many of them asked from chapter three through the end of the book why it was there. It seemed irrelevant to them.
 
Finally, I put them back in groups, gave them all the page numbers in which the pirate comic appears, and asked them the intentional over-general question, "What is the relevance of the pirate comic?" They immediately recognized that through most of the novel, the "Tales" commented on the newsvendor's concerns. But by the end, when the mariner, in trying to save his family, murders two innocent people, beats his wife, and terrorizes his children, my students began to make the connection to Adrian Veidt. Through a combination of small and large group discussion, they saw the mariner's losing his soul to the Black Freighter as metaphoric of Adrian's moral decline. For the best possible reasons, both men do the worst possible thing.
 
As part of my final test on Watchmen, my students had to write a short essay on the moral question. They had to explain whether Adrian did the morally right thing and use three details from the text to support their claim. While most of them maintained their original opinion, a sizable minority changed their view on Adrian's actions, arguing that he was wrong to do what he did. Even those whose judgment of Adrian's plot remained positive realized that the issue is more complex than they had originally thought.
 
A final idea that worked was my writing assignment. For fun, I had my students write short stories in which they created their own superheroes or supervillains. They had to determine what powers, if any, the characters had, and how they received them. Most importantly, their stories had to explore their motivations for fighting or committing crime. They came up with wonderfully imaginative stories, and a large portion of them told me they actually enjoyed writing this paper (unlike many others I had assigned, I suppose).
 
What I Need to Change
The main weakness with this unit was the fact that I only had one class set of Watchmen. That one fact alone forced me to compromise on virtually every aspect of the unit. We had to spend a large portion of class time simply reading the book, slowing the pace of class discussion. Furthermore, since they couldn't study the book at home, I had to scale back the essay test. Normally, I give extremely challenging essay questions focusing on theme, metaphor, and other literary issues. While I suppose I could have done that with Watchmen, I judged I needed more softball questions, modeled on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment open-ended reading responses. Those questions often ask for a student's opinion of a reading selection, supported by textual detail, so I created mine in a similar way (the morality of Veidt's actions, mentioned above, was one of them). My students had thoughtful responses, though the assessment wasn't as intellectually rigorous as I would have liked—or as it will be next year.
 
The lack of texts also affected the final writing assignment. Much as I liked the results of the superhero story I asked them to write, at the end of a major work, I like to assign an interpretive writing, but the limited number of copies rendered it too impractical. That problem has already been fixed, because the week after I finished Watchmen, we got another three class sets of the novel. Welcome to the Wonderful World of Irony.
 
Another adjustment I will make to the unit is the research project we did did before we opened Watchmen. At the library, they selected from a list of research topics related to the political, historical, and cultural background informing the novel. Students could investigate the Manhattan Project (by far the most popular), the vigilantism of Bernard Goetz and the Guardian Angels, Ronald Reagan's Soviet policy, the Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan, and so on. Since I am fundamentally a writing teacher, I asked them to submit their work as a short research paper, so each of my students understood one aspect of Watchmen and got practice incorporating multiple research sources into a tightly focused, well-developed paper.
 
As far as my expectations went, the assignment worked reasonably well. Unfortunately, in terms of allowing everyone to understand the full historical context of Watchmen, the project was wrongheaded, since each student knew only one aspect of the novel. Next year, I will assign the research topics to small groups and then ask them to present them to the class. That way, we all go into Watchmen knowing the same things, which will facilitate our discussion of the context in which Moore and Gibbons wrote.
 
Last, I will adjust the way I approach the question of whether Adrian Veidt did the right thing in killing three million New Yorkers to save the world. We discussed it in small groups first, and then in large-group format, and while the students had distinctly different attitudes, I did not see the in depth discussion I had hoped for. If I approach it as a formal debate, and give them more time to marshal their arguments, I think the discussion will be more lively. I'm also considering introducing them to different moral theories, including traditional (Judeo-Christian) morality and the utilitarian form (doing the most good for the most people), but I have not yet decided on that one.
 
Final Thoughts
Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, writes about the beauty of the river at sunset that he experienced as a young boy when he wanted to become a riverboat pilot. The red skies, the ripples in the water, a log rolling by had a poetic, mystic quality to the young Twain. But when he learned how to navigate the river as an adult pilot, all the things he saw as beautiful lost their magic: the red sky, the ripples, and the log became means for him to know what was coming next in the river so he could drive the boat safely. The Mississippi lost its poetry to Mark Twain.
 
Sadly, I have a similar reaction to Watchmen. Since the late '80s, I read Moore and Gibbons' graphic novel every year, and it was my own private moment, a thing I did only for myself. My wife, my brothers and sisters, my children, none of them understood why I read this book over and over again, and that's the way I liked it. Periodically, I'd meet with another person who loved the novel as much as I did, and we'd geek out together in a frenzy, another soul who "got it." When I decided to teach Watchmen, I was very excited to do it, but, after nearly 25 years in the business, I also dreaded it, because it knew that once I took that step, I would, like Twain, lose the poetry of the river.
 
Reading Watchmen is no longer a private little moment; it's no longer a Weaver thing. Each time I open Watchmen now, I'm looking at teachable moments, combing the text for more connections, pondering how to improve pedagogy, kicking myself for opportunities I missed last time or lessons that I've blown. It is now a job, not the private joy I had come to value. Don't get me wrong: I still love the book, and having taught it, my respect for it has increased a hundredfold. It is a far richer text than I had ever suspected.
 
And perhaps it is time, at 45, to surrender my little Watchmen time. After all, I had a good run. For all I lost in being one of the happy few Watchmen geeks, I have gained an enormous number of converts. Teaching this book has allowed me to share my love of Moore and Gibbons' talents, and the students responded in a way I have never seen before. All over the school, we still see the garish yellow covers in students' hands. About a quarter of my students bought the books themselves, and far more who weren't also did (match that one, Shakespeare).
 
All things considered, I am happy to give up my private Watchmen moment. If I can turn kids on to this book, a little personal sacrifice is worth it. I look forward to next year.