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September 24, 2014

Don't Ban Our Comics #3: L. Whitney Richardson reflects on WATCHMEN

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WATCHMEN --- oh, how the ghost of you clings! In the interest of full disclosure, WATCHMEN was the first graphic novel I ever read, and after I had finished, the first thing I wanted to do was pick up every other graphic novel ever written. I was both disappointed that most do not measure up to WATCHMEN and hooked into developing a passion for a different medium, and WATCHMEN will always be the standard against which I compare just about every other graphic novel. WATCHMEN is a classic. It is simultaneously an inspiration for countless works since and completely inimitable.

According to the Comic Books Legal Defense Fund, there have been at least two documented challenges to Watchmen in schools, neither of which was known to be successful. As I chose to write about this title for Banned Books Week without knowing the history surrounding it, I had expected WATCHMEN to be more prominently challenged, given the outcry surrounding books as seemingly uncontroversial as the HARRY POTTER series. It is a deeply unsettling and challenging work, but its challenges, upon a re-read, seem quite understated. It is not overtly disturbing like fellow Alan Moore-penned banned graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE. It is a moral inquiry whose questions deeply undermine the established norm in comics. It is heavily inspired by other works and yet highly unique, standing alone even today.

"Once WATCHMEN has done its work on you, it becomes more and more difficult to make concrete proclamations about the storyline.... It’s less a narrative than an interrogation, an inquisition. It’s just the beginning of a question that perhaps never ends --- an eloquent and beautifully asked question that has endured for nearly three decades now, and will no doubt continue."

WATCHMEN is widely touted as a deconstruction of the superhero. But it is not, perhaps contrary to press surrounding it, an overtly “dark” graphic novel. It looks back on the glory days of superheroes with overt nostalgia, even as it challenges the merit and meaning of that nostalgia. The Watchmen are more or less heroes, reluctant or no. In many ways, it subverts the “dark anti-hero” concept while simultaneously bringing forth several characters who might, at first glance, fit that description. It is deeply moral and psychological in nature, and asks questions that it refuses to answer.

It’s no surprise that WATCHMEN’s film rights were promptly snatched up. Although the movie wasn’t made until nearly 20 years later --- and was widely panned --- it’s not difficult to understand why someone would want to make a movie out of WATCHMEN. The first word that comes to mind when thinking of WATCHMEN’s art is “cinematic.” Sequences play out seamlessly and gorgeously on nine-panel pages, with meticulous framing and beautifully saturated coloration. Rich visual motifs give the whole story a narrative cohesion typical of great films. Yet, despite all this, I never thought it could make much of a movie. While WATCHMEN’s story is rich, its plot is (deliberately) thin. It is a superhero comic with almost no action. It is framed by a murder at the beginning and an extravagantly, flamboyantly violent ending, but nearly everything in between is an ornate psychological study. While this is great stuff that justifiably has earned WATCHMEN a reputation as being one of the greatest graphic novels of all time, it is not exactly the stuff of blockbusters.

And this, perhaps, is why WATCHMEN succeeds so uniquely as a graphic novel, indeed could perhaps only have succeeded in that form. It’s too introspective and psychological to translate well to film, but its smart, fast, gorgeous appeal is an homage to as much as a deconstruction of superheroes past, and it works only insofar as it is rooted in the graphic medium. It takes perfect advantage of its form to produce a deeply entertaining and groundbreaking story grounded in vivid psychological characterizations.

Rorschach is the closest thing that WATCHMEN has to a main character, if perhaps not a protagonist. In the alternate world of WATCHMEN, superheroes were legally sanctioned by the US Government, and fought in both World War II and Vietnam, before being outlawed in 1977. Rorschach continues as a masked vigilante, much to the disappointment and horror of his fellow former superheroes, who try to distance themselves from him. A weird, mentally unstable loner, Rorschach is the uneasy hero of the story, and despite his shortcomings, he is the only remaining superhero who hasn’t dropped the title, and is unrelenting in his pursuit of justice.

Rorschach’s defining feature is a mask of white fabric with a splotchy black pattern, engineered by his fellow Watchman, Doctor Manhattan. The black blotches move around, constantly forming different patterns, much like the eponymous Rorschach test. The mask perfectly fits the character, a stubborn vigilante whose views of the world are quite literally “black and white.” He is a staunch right-winger, whose journal laments the affronts of the “lechers and communists” and is fond of making bigoted, hyperbolic proclamations about society’s moral degeneracy, like “[the city] screams like an abattoir full of retarded children” and “the dusk reeks of fornication and bad consciences.” He carries around a sign that says “the end is nigh.” At turns menacing and pathetic, Rorschach is the ultimate moralist.

Rorschach’s moralism is offset most starkly by Adrian Veidt. Veidt, the supposed “smartest man in the world,” is the tall blond mogul of Veidt Enterprises, a powerful business empire. He has exploited his superhero status to rise to the top of society as Ozymandias, a name taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s classic poem about the inevitable fall of great things. His presence quite literally towers over the story, as he resides in the top floor of a skyscraper in a room filled with action figures of himself. In the background of panels over each character’s stories run ads for a perfume called “Nostalgia by Veidt,” with the ever-present tagline: “Oh, how the ghost of you clings.” Perhaps the most poignant motif throughout the series other than the iconic blood-streaked smiley face, Veidt elaborates on the Nostalgia ads in a letter, one of the many supporting documents that pepper the narrative:

“It seems to me that the success of this campaign is directly linked to the state of global uncertainty that has endured for the past forty years or more. In an era of stress and anxiety, when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future of in modified visions of a half-imagined past.”

Veidt may as well have been talking about the world of comics. He subsequently decides that the time for nostalgia is over, and that he plans to release a new line of cosmetics called “Millenium” geared towards optimism and the future. Ultimately, that optimism defines Veidt’s endgame, morphing him  at last into a curious almost-hero.

He is set up first as the golden boy --- if a bit too self-important --- then evolves into the primary villain. By the end, the reader is not sure quite how to define him at all. The graphic portrayal of his planned apocalyptic event is flamboyant and unexpected, with punchy, bright tentacles and strange eyeballs crushing the city. This is not the dark apocalypse, not the doom as we had imagined it. In the end, we are left to ask whether Veidt was the hero after all. The fellow Watchmen reluctantly buy into tacitness on Veidt’s behalf --- except, of course, for Rohrschach, who is killed by Doctor Manhattan in order to ensure his silence.

In the end, are our sympathies with the seething, smelly, babbling, moralizing Rorschach, who died because he refused to compromise in his beliefs? Or with Veidt, the tycoon who compromises everything to do what he sees as right, and (maybe) saves the world? Was Rorschach the moral center of the Watchmen, trying to fix the world’s problems one at a time, or was he a mentally unstable, ineffective wannabe vigilante? And Veidt, was he villain or hero? What of Laurie Juspeczyk, Doctor Manhattan and Daniel Dreiberg? Did they make the right choices? Did they help or hinder the hero’s cause?

 We are left unsure, and therein lies the beauty of WATCHMEN --- and the incredible payoff of the psychological building that Moore engages in. It’s perhaps Doctor Manhattan who gets the real last word. When Adrian Veidt asks for affirmation that it all worked out in the end, Doctor Manhattan tells him, “I understand, without condoning or condemning…. Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”

Without condoning or condemning. Once WATCHMEN has done its work on you, it becomes more and more difficult to make concrete proclamations about the storyline. Unlike Doctor Manhattan, you can’t leave this galaxy for another one. It’s less a narrative than an interrogation, an inquisition. It’s just the beginning of a question that perhaps never ends --- an eloquent and beautifully asked question that has endured for nearly three decades now, and will no doubt continue. Nothing ever ends.