Monday, March 23, 2009

Watchmen 1: Book Report


As readers of GT know, despite the recent paucity of posts, I write on the general subject of commercial images–typically, the lower the better. Lower, that is, in terms of critical recognition and overall seriousness of reception. I am especially fond of the fifty-year stretch of periodical illustration between 1915 and 1965; modern spot-color packaging; illustration for children's primers in the 1920s, 30s and 40s; and informational images in general.

GT readers may also know that my recent studio work has embraced some of the visual conventions of comic panels and sequences. And yet I will readily admit a handful of facts as they relate to my own personal history with comics:

Un: Despite the fact that I enjoyed the odd Submariner and Fantastic Four comic as a kid, I never actually embraced the popular insurgent myth of comics, any more than I bonded with the modernist insurgent myth of art. Insurgents, they bore me. (Not skeptics. Skeptics breathe real air and squint. Insurgents smell their own armpits and smile.)


Deux: In practice, very often I am frustrated by the cognitive experience of consuming comics, as the experience tends to fuse looking and reading, with an almost inevitable bias toward the latter. Although I am quite fond of reading, I am more drawn to the act of looking. So I see an integration of word and image which happens (typically) to be ruled by word as a loss. John the Evangelist says, "In the beginning was the Word." I beg to differ. In the beginning was–and at the end, will be–the Eye. Just ask Samuel Beckett. (An obscure reference The Unnamable, the sort of novel one would only read in a college class. I'll come back to it.) For the record, I really love certain contemporary cartoonists, especially Seth, who manages to be quite writerly and very visual. (Example below especially so)


Trois: Latter-day comics very often suffer from a tendentious sense of themselves. Simple notions dressed up as complex thoughts. Alas, this is related to the impulse–simplifying abstraction–that marks the act of cartooning. Except in reverse. The most exasperating popular art takes a simple thing and makes it seem complicated. Think superfrilly sentimentalist junk. The best cartooning–and the best writing–takes a complicated subject and distills it into something simple. (Not fake simple, as in simplistic. I mean Sesame Street simple. Or Fred Rogers simple. And both of those references are meant in high praise.) The superhero tradition by itself pretty much qualifies as over-elaborated simplicity.

Which brings me to the subject in question. The Watchmen.

I finished the graphic novel about a week ago as a prelude to seeing the film with my one of my sons, who was hot to see the thing. I had considered the book unfinished required reading. So I plowed through it over the course of a couple of days.

First the good. I appreciated the density of the informational weave that the graphic novel provides, though a certain chunk of that weave is actually delivered in prose, provided in Moby Dickish alternating background chapters. Plenty of postmodern formal stuff--different varieties of texts (biography, journal entries, reference works, newspaper editorials, etc.) providing variable points of view on the total story. Which is itself a postmodern razzmatazz, telling the tale of a bunch of former dressed-up heroes, retired to obscurity or drink or covert government work. All of them in an alternate version of the year 1986, which features a very hot cold war indeed, as well as polytermed president-cum-emperor Richard Nixon. (It's easy to see Watchmen as a precursor text to Brad Bird's script for The Incredibles.) There's a history of comics angle to the comic-within-a-comic, The Black Freighter, which is meant as a sort of paean to pre-code comics.


But just as horror literature tends to be the most morally uptight genre going, the ghoulish freighter tale and the larger story it spices involve ponderous miscalculation, violent death, and punishment both deserved and undeserved. Plenty of winking at the traditions it exploits and spoofs, but the spoof stops short and finally re-embraces its material: the modern gothic tale, complete with a faked but extremely costly "Armageddon." Snappy dialogue, splattering blood, jaded heroes, millions dead.

And a big blue guy on Mars.

And women who could only have been written by men.

And a wise but terrible secret.

And I'm thinking that maybe I'll skip the movie, because it's likely a circuitous, ponderous bloodbath.

But perhaps I am unkind to the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons masterwork. I will entertain counterargument. And maybe I'll go see the movie anyway, just to bitch about it... In which case my son will tell me to shut up and find something else to worry about.

Images: Promotional digital desktop, Watchmen motion picture, 2009; Jack Kirby, Ben Grimm, panel from an issue of The Fantastic Four, 1964; Seth, page 115 from It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken, 1996; Joe Shuster, cover, Action Comics #33, February 1939.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi,

I am really amused by the distinction you make between insurgents and skeptics.

I can't really pinpoint the criticism you are making about the Watchmen though... Are you saying that it has too much in common with horror literature, and that the "Armageddon", undeveloped female characters, and snappy dialogue make for a very shallow tale? Or does your dissatisfaction have more to do with the first part of the post, and you think that the story is lacking some of the sophisticated balancing between words and images (Reading vs. Looking)?

I rather enjoy the novel a lot, and haven't heard this criticism before, so I am interested to better understand your conclusions.