I am going to read Watchmen and you are going to read about it. Lucky us.
by Travis Hedge Coke
I first read Watchmen at far too young an age, shortly after it was released, and missing issues. I did not enjoy it. I have bought and gotten rid of copies like punctuation to my life. It has been over a decade since I last read it, and not a year goes by, not a year has gone by since I was twelve or thirteen, that someone has not strongly suggested I read it (again).
Watchmen is not a comic I like. I appreciate its influence on the field, it’s place historically, as a watershed for several things, and the ongoing ethical and legal concerns that surround it. I like the dirigibles. The colorist, John Higgins, is underrated, on this comic in particular.
I am not providing in-depth annotations. I am unlikely to sing the gloried praises. Why am I reading a comic I do not like, that is possibly the most critically analyzed, critically-considered anglophone graphic novel? Skeletonizing is defined as, “Carving away part of the bridges and plates to reveal the gears and levers that make an analog timepiece work.” Are we skeletonizing Watchmen?
I want to know, myself, what is my relationship. I want to know myself.
As a modern comics fan and critic, I am informed and directed by Watchmen and the shadows and lights this comic throws. The ghosts and imitators, the predecessors and mommies and daddies who are not Watchmen’s blood relations but, nonetheless, mommies and daddies.
I am curious to find out if my memories of it are accurate. I am curious if I can learn something, if I can see my own internal workings as I read, knowing I am reading not only for myself, but for you, the projected reader, and for my friends, family, and colleagues who will be the most likely to get directly back to me, in regards to what I say here. If I say something really off, really off for me, I know who is most likely to respond, and it is not the guy I have never heard of who feels Rorschach is a clear-headed future form of mankind who knows the score and who is this owl-themed chump to even look at him sideways? But, to you, thank you for stopping in, hope you also enjoy.
This cover is so damn good. Richard Bruning takes Dave Gibbons and Higgins’ work and makes it look like nothing else did. The trade dress, the sense of texture, the hatching and shadow, the use of color create movement and an immediate sense of queasiness and intrigue. The darkness of the blue running into the red we immediately suss as blood, water on pavement separating the blood, but it draws us.
The use of perspective is still fresh as anything, the comic craning up, zooming down, flipping backward and forward in time panel to panel, the title, a truncated lyric, “At Midnight All the Agents…” closing with an ellipsis, all enclosed in the claws of quotation marks. The yellow and and purple I dislike in the original coloring of The Killing Joke, is here fantastic!
But, especially now, Watchmen is overly dialogued. It is talky in a way that is beyond merely talky characters. Rorschach, in our memory, probably just says, “hurm” and a few other famous utterances, but he talks when he gets really yakking. He and Dan, arguably our two primary windows into this world, back and forth in big chunks of talk, of dialogue. They say things they both know. They say things for us. They say things just to fill some space.
Watchmen strongly redefines our use of the page, in anglophone comics, inasmuch as a page is paced as a stanza, an idea that Moore consciously applies, but early on, like in this issue, there are flubs. Ozymandias taking two thirds of a page to silently stare at the rain out a window is a menacing panel, but it feels like the end of an issue. You could stop right there. He has seen out his guest, said, “Have a nice day,” and now alone, he stares out. The end. Except not the end.
And, when we receive the details of the Comedian’s raping Silk Spectre, now, with decades between us and publication, especially if we know what is coming, the “he broke three of her ribs,” makes the later scene of her kissing his photograph all the more grating. This is edgy nerd shit. Complicated young man trying to be mature shit. It’s shit.
The backmatter is the greatest advance beyond the cover, in terms of Watchmen as a watershed comic. The backmatter does not look like comics. It is comics. Every page is illustrated, every page is narrative and content rooted in text and visual. But, it looks like reports, it looks like real things. Reads like real things. Excerpts of memoirs that would not read well, in an actual memoir, but as a window into the world of this comic, it does a grand job.
The X motif of every page, and the echoing breaks in form that occur, for example, to highlight daughter and mother, remain formally satisfactory. Watchmen has pretty arrangements.
The narrative content, however, and in particular the use of specific demographics, the use of women, the use of people of color, are stilted, in some ways, even by mid-1980s standards. Look at the use of Asian women between this and Crisis on Infinite Earths, which is not generally recognized as considerably more forward-thinking or mature in storytelling, and this issue shines so dimly it is in the negative for light.
In addition to the leaden visual puns and faux-revelatory comparisons, it can be overwhelming.
Dr Manhattan thinking, always thinking, as events occur around him, is presented as intellectually-honest, or earnest. His perspective, in this issue, is frequently grounded as a readerly perspective. In the sense of “there are two audiences; those who need to watch and those who can shut the comic” (to paraphrase Michael Haneke), sure, Manhattan is not an inapt proxy. He is a dishonest one, and the dishonesty is not ours.
“The Silk Spectre used her reputation as a crimefighter primarily to make the front pages and receive exposure for her lucrative modeling career, but I think all of us loved her a little bit and we certainly didn’t begrudge her a living,” writes Hollis Mason, in the backmatter excerpt from his autobiography. But, we know she was attacked and dismissed, we know some of “we” are rapists, misogynists, and those who are not, are still primarily stunted, judgmental men. They absolutely begrudge her living. And, what is here called love, is essentially a condescending male loneliness and sense of proprietary ownership.
“ALLOUT SHELTER” is a good piece of work, on the cover, and hey, on the first page, black people exist! One black kid, anyhow, reading a comic with black in the title. I give Alan Moore, the writer of Watchmen, grief for making fun of Frank Miller having too many black men exist in 1980s New York City, but honestly, #watchmenissowhite could be a hashtag. Like women, the black men of this comic are props and intellectually-arrested tools to pump up the value of white men. At least this kid is actually a child.
His perspective as audience PoV is more honest than Manhattan (or, Rorschach, which is never, as far as I can tell, invited in the comic, it’s just something some readers reach for, for reasons I will not psychoanalyze in print). The child in this scene does not seem to separate his perspective from the comic he is reading to the world around him, panels detailing people near him or the page or panel he is reading, words spoken to him and text from the comic are given equal weight and placement.
Such a shame Silk Spectre is again, immediately after, treated as a bewildered child. Let’s face it, Manhattan sitting naked holding her bra has the same narrative weight as she has in any scene she has physically been in so far. Dan, our nice guy, our deserving hero, potbellied and dopy, telling her, “drink this while it’s hot.” Jesus, Dan, it’s a cup of coffee. She will figure it out. The kindness of him pausing to make it for her, the effort to be nice, is negated by the same proprietary ownership we dealt with, with his predecessor and her mother, in the previous issue.
Some of this hypocrisy is intentional, but it is not only the characters who slight women, who slight people of color. Squadron Supreme, around the same time, also dealt with rape, sexism, quiet racism, and the discomfort of superhuman beings trying to fit with normative society, and what saddens me most, is that Watchmen handles these things worse, not just as good, just worse. And, without that handling, the comic would fall apart. The narrative fabric, the causality and rhythms of the comic fall into slide into weft because these slights are treated as thread.
What Watchmen generally has over Squadron Supreme or Crisis on Infinite Earths, which are generally considered good, but not top shelf superhero comics, is so far limited to characterization-through-dialogue, a willingness to go to very rough, dark places, and formal niceties, the rhythms, puns, echoes.
I have never been intrigued by the mystery, the murder mystery and conspiracy at the core of Watchmen. Most fans will tell you the mystery does not matter, it is only a pro forma plot to hang the cool stuff on, the characterization and politics and formal puns, echoes, structural arrangements.
I am dreading what is coming with Rorschach’s psychiatrist, the only black man with a voice in the comic, whose voice is dedicated to a fearful awe of the world’s most generic schlubby bigot. I do not look forward to reaching those scenes.
Dan and Laurie, two damaged basic white people coming together? The super smart naturalist white man turned blue by science realizing the world is not as beneath him as he might like? Not excited to get there.
“Here there be tygers,” as a random quote made by a police for little reason?
Rorschach’s mental illness being conflated with conviction? Is Rorschach pursuing the end, tenacious, and is it tenacious, in a way that I, floundering, failing to dog this hunt, am not? Or, is Rorschach ill? Rorschach is ill.
None of this is making me want to go on. The yellow and purple, the browns and blacks, their novelty is fading. The cast is one I care nothing for. The central motivating plots are probably not all that important to anyone. Even within the comic’s world, the only people who care with any earnestness are a couple through and through bigot misanthropes in expensive costumes
I don’t know if there are only two audiences, in the proposition of, “those who need to watch and those who can shut the comic,” I am only of one camp.