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Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen

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The Moore Method: “I will give you bodies…”

Eve Tushnet sums up the (pernicious) binary that Alan Moore’s Watchmen grafted onto the superhero genre in the 1980’s:

With Great Power… comes the temptation to take responsibility for others. Moore reverses the classic superhero shtik–power is thrust upon you and so you have to save everyone. Instead, he says, power is seized by those whose darker motives push them to save others because they can’t do jack for themselves.

She’s right about what Moore’s up to here–and the consequences of his “strong act of misprision” are explored in detail in Geoff Klock’s How To Read Superhero Comics and Why

Again–my take on superheroes is completely different! For me, the superhero concept deals with existential questions–not power relations. When that spider bit Peter Parker, he was granted the power to transcend the normal situation of the human subject in a technological society–not entrusted with a mission to “make the world a better place”. The early Marvel heroes are alike in the fact that none of them (no matter how they got their powers) is in any way vulnerable to the worldly pressures that we have to deal with every day. They don’t really get sick (I know, I know, Parker does get a cold every once in a while, but still!)–even though it’s obvious they never sleep. They cannot be mugged. They cannot be arrested. As the Hulk demonstrates, even the army has nothing to say about what these characters can or can’t do… In acquiring super-powered bodies, superheroes become “holy ghosts”, rather than weak fleshlings, at the mercy of the omnipotent state. Every origin (or “conversion”) story renders the protagonist entirely responsible for him/herself. They are deprived of the option to “blame the system”…their narratives dramatize our moral lives in impossibly pure form. It’s not allegory. It’s abstract art.

In Watchmen, Moore does give us a glimpse of this intepretation (Dr. Manhattan is exactly the kind of character I’m talking about), but he leads us away from it by consigning the “romantic” (as in anti-realist) figure of Manhattan to the margins of a very “realistic”, Freudian world-snaphot, circa 1985. Of course “real” super-heroes would suffer from the types of psychological disorders that Moore’s cast exhibits–but the point is that superheroes were never intended to serve the needs of psychologically realistic fiction! Spider-Man is not a real guy–he’s a figure in a text! As readers of this blog know, I interpret the Silver Age Marvels as inheritors of the American Romance tradition, and when I say that, what I mean is–these characters don’t put on their costumes in order to express their role vis-a-vis the socio-political/sexual power structure, they wear them (like Hester Prynne) as emblems of their independece from this relationship! That’s why I say that my interpretive road through superhero history leads to Gruenwald’s Cap and (especially) Morrison’s Animal Man, rather than through Moore to Busiek and Ellis and more Moore.

You gotta hand it to the shaggy bastard though, he obviously struck a nerve (in a way that Animal Man just hasn’t, to my everlasting chagrin!). And he–not Adrian Veidt–gave superheroes bodies that they were never intended to have! (while banishing the “incorporeal” Doctor Manhattan from the genre’s landscape)

But that’s enough of the meta-criticism. I’ll have some very specific things to say about the text over the next few days–honestly, I’d forgotten how good this thing really is, regardless of how poorly it fits into the model of the genre that I’m trying to construct.

My first observation concerns “The Black Freighter” and its’ relationship to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

As readers may recall, the interpolated pirate panels are very conspicuously coloured in strange reds, greens, and yellows. As I read them, I simply could not help thinking of Coleridge passages like:

The charméd water burnt alway
A still and awful red.


Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes :
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire :
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam ; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

and again–

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion ;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

But of course the Mariner is a creature of romance–i.e. his struggle is an existential one. He murders the albatross for no reason and then seeks to atone for this act. By contrast, the Pirate crosses the moral rubicon when he is driven by necessity (hunger) to kill a gull (basically a second-rate albatross)–and he never recovers, once he ingests that gull’s blood, though it nauseates him. The Pirate is a slave to his bodily/psycho-pathological needs in exactly the same way that most of Moore’s superheroes are–and in precisely the way that the Mariner (and the Silver Age superhero, as I interpret her/him) is not. To me, this indicates that Moore recognized the full extent of the tradition his work was bucking–and of course that awareness is what empowers his willful misreading.

Watchmen: For real this Time

In the first part, I put my biases on the table. Perhaps “slammed” would be a better description of what I did–but that’s an unavoidable fact of life when you’re building a case against a thesis as airtight as Geoff Klock’s; and I know I’ve ignored Jack Kirby again–certainly, the Kirby Marvels (especially the FF) lend themselves very easily to Moore’s method… But you’re right Sean, there’s no reason why current creators shouldn’t make use of whatever aspects of the tradition happen to suit them–I’m just sayin’: if we’re gonna talk “ultimate yardsticks”, I’d rather see Animal Man #1-26 in the role…

And Eve–I’m not sure I would call my interpretation of the superhero “unconstrained”… I would say that to be liberated from power relationships is to be forced to confront the turbulence native to the mind. I’m interested in questions like: is it possible to relate to others (and The Other) without playing a culturally prescribed role? Can you look the world in the eye?

I’m not sure about the first, but superhero comics–and the American Romance tradition they belong to–give our imaginations access to the problem. I’d say “yes” to the second, with the proviso that you’re going to have to accept that you’ll never get a perfect fix on it–and by “accepting”, I don’t mean “stop trying“, I mean “stop hoping”… As you say–I guess we’re just interested in different things.

So, why do people love Watchmen? It can’t be for the plot–superhero tries to take over the Earth for its’ own good? “Can’t make an omelette without…” The Vision had preceded Veidt into this Utopian breach two years earlier, and the Squadron Supreme were pursuing a similar objective on another version of the planet at the very same time. Granted, by using a big fake exploding Vedic alien as his cat’s paw, Veidt proves that he is more devious than these others–but, really, strutting around in that purple robe, serving up poisoned bubbly to his expendable henchmen, exulting over his triumph as the snow buries his hydroponic Eden, Ozymandias certainly doesn’t seem like any less of a megalomaniac than your standard “everybody wants to rule the world” character… So the line between villain and hero is pretty much nonexistant, once you start thinking that you know best? No kidding. And so what?

But it’s a great series.


As far as I’m concerned–it’s got everything to do with the atmosphere. Unity of effect (even if it’s an effect I don’t look kindly upon). That kind of stuff. (Which means that Gibbons deserves at least as much of the credit as Moore does.) The visuals, the dialogue, the voiceover media & diary commentary–it’s unrelentingly grim. Even the pleasures these characters manage to snatch from the void are solemn. This isn’t just a work that was shaped by cold war paranoia and fears of “The End”–it’s a work that craves a punchline, wants to knock ’em dead. In the world of Watchmen, nihilism is the watchword. Or is it? At the very least, I think we can say that any ideas of order that the book presents us with are quite explicitly man-made–they have no correlation to anything outside of the minds of the characters who espouse them. We are told again and again that the Comedian is a nihilist, but how different is he from anyone else we meet? Except that he happens to be a hedonist, of sorts–and a mean one… What the hell is so funny about the Comedian anyway? “Smartest man on the cinder”? Come on! But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the joke’s on Blake. The Comedian isn’t a nihilist. He doesn’t “believe in nothing”. He suspects that there’s nothing to believe in, and these suspicions make him bitter. Again and again, Blake tips his hand–in attempting to play the role of “the perfect comedian”, he only makes a perfect ass of himself. He blows up every single time he appears–and this is very good characterization, as far as I’m concerned: like every person I’ve ever met who poses as a nihilist–the Comedian can’t take a joke…

And neither can Moore, which is apparent from his handling of the Dr. Manhattan/Laurie Juspeczyk relationship. Now, Manhattan is a nihilist through most of this story, in that he places no more value on one thing than another. We are told that his affection for Laurie constitutes his only tether to this plane–although he actually exists in all times, in all places, and “the work” that he talks about doing in the present never seems to amount to anything, so it’s debatable how “tethered” he actually is… One thing is certain–every once in a while, he remembers how miraculous it can be for someone else to buy you a beer. “Someone” can buy themselves a beer, but it’s nothing without that “else”. And you’d better believe in that–or else. But Manhattan does forget, and he wanders off, like Coverdale, in The Blithedale Romance, to savour the “moral sillabub” of his past associations. Of course, Laurie recalls him to his senses (such as they are), and he remains cognizant of the miracle of other people just long enough to play his questionable role in the maintenance of Veidt’s temporary “reign of peace”. But he forgets all over again when he finds Laurie has moved on with her life. She is no less miraculous in another person’s arms. That’s the joke. But Manhattan takes himself so seriously he might as well be the Comedian for chrissakes, and he disappears from the narrative, intent upon creating “miracles” of his own (a ridiculous plan, and a sad descent into autism–by definition, you can’t create miracles… they’ve got to take you by surprise)…

Rorschach Quest

With the character of Dr. Manhattan, Alan Moore pushed superheroic transcendence beyond even space and time (I wonder if David Lynch was thinking of Watchmen when he created the scene in Lost Highway in which Robert Blake hands Bill Pullman the cell phone and a voice at the other end of the line–also Blake’s–says “I’m at your house”… probably not–but you never know!) Many reviewers have preceded me in noting the complex strategy of doubling and differentiation in this work, so I won’t do any more of that–but I do want to establish that if Manhattan is the superhero concept blown up to impossible dimensions, Rorschach is his opposite number: the moral imagination boiled down to its’ fetid essence.

In the past few months, I’ve hammered away at the idea that superheroes are liberated from “power relationships”–but I never wished to imply that they lose their ability to relate as a consequence! Quite the reverse, in fact. According to Foucault–all relationships are power relationships. For me, the very term is an oxymoron. A moral relationship presupposes equality. Power not only abhors a vacuum, it creates one… Take Peter Parker, for instance. When we first meet him he’s an ostracized nerd–a nonentity. In more realistic fiction, this type of character only has two options open to him: either he continues to endure social oppression, or he becomes a “somebody” by “standing up for himself”, thus altering the power dynamic in his community. In the actual event–he does neither, thanks to the spider bite. Throughout Ditko’s run, at least, Parker remains the same bookish nerd he’s always been. And yet, his newfound indifference to the power structure that so determined his life before his “conversion experience” enables him to develop actual relationships with other characters… His “adventures in morality”, as Spider-Man, ground him.

But what if that adventure consumed his entire life? Wouldn’t that “grounding” then become something akin to a burial? Parker’s activities as Spider-Man enable him to lead a more genuine life–but those activities themselves are most emphatically not “life”. Web-swinging is more like meditation, or an exorcism–it’s not Peter’s “true self” unleashed. And if he got trapped in that condition, he wouldn’t be a “free spirit”, he’d be more like a wrathful ghost. He’d be like Rorschach, in fact.

When Walter Kovacs gives up his dual identity, he upsets a delicate balance. No longer grounded, he goes underground–and his capacity to relate to the world rots away. Rorschach’s strange destiny is to become the undead embodiment of his own moral law. He is absolutely immune to all power relationships. Even when he is locked up in the ultimate Foucaultian structure–a modern penitentiary–he is not defined by it. He deftly manipulates the prying psychiatrist and he stands off an army of thugs–reacting mechanically to each situation, as if hovering above it all. And, of course, he is. We’re told again and again that Rorschach smells like a corpse, and we know he is destined to be disintegrated by Dr. Manhattan. It all makes perfect sense–at a certain point, Kovacs the man became indistinguishable from his moral judgements of the world. As Rorschach, he is synonomous with the observations and meditations in the journal he keeps, and it is quite fitting that, in the final panel of the series, this book resurfaces–the cremated remains of Rorschach–to render the final judgement upon the world and the characters that Moore has presented us with…

Watchmen IV (I think he fights the Russian guy in that one!)

Sean Collins responds to my musings on the function of Peter Parker’s nightlife–and I think he’s right when he argues that the post-Ditko comics and (especially) the film reject my formulation in favor of a more simplistic equation: “webswinging=liberated id”… I enjoyed the film (but certainly did not love it) on its’ own terms, but I must say I think they really crossed the line with that upside-down half-masked kiss thing–there’s no way that those kinds of perks should come with the “great power”… At the same time, I think it was a mistake to have Peter reject MJ (and the whole question of a romantic relationship) in order to protect the purity of his “mission”–it’s not supposed to be an either/or proposition! That’s Superman stuff (and really, the whole film structures its’ relationships a la Big S).

The more I think about my take on the Silver Age–and the Lee-Kirby debates I took part in a while back–the more I become convinced that Ditko-Kirby is the more essential binary. Puritanism walks a fine line between the rage for Order and a passion for “assurance”. Kirby’s work most defintitely inclines toward the first, while Ditko’s is just as strongly soteriological in orientation. Stan Lee functions mainly as the genial mediator between the two visions, and as moderator of the debate they generated amongst the readers…

Yesterday, I was on about the fact that Peter Parker’s adventures as Spider-Man are primarily excercises in spiritual discipline–but I probably should have used Dr. Strange as my prime example. That’s where Ditko dealt most explicitly with this theme! Just think about it–Strange’s “heroics” almost always take place in psychedelic “elseworlds” that illustrate the proposition that “the mind is its’ own place”. Yes, it’s a conceit of the story that the fate of the world is at stake during Strange’s confrontations with his eldritch nemeses–however, as Steve Englehart’s “trapped in the Orb of Agamotto” storyline later made explicit, what’s really at stake is Stephen Strange’s right to return to the world of everyday human relationships, fortified by his adventures in the land of the holy spirit. For Ditko, “life” is what you build upon the shifting foundation of “Grace” (the link to which is tenuous and must be reestablished every issue–which is never a simple matter and you risk losing yourself in the attempt). For Kirby, “life” manifests itself through decisive acts which presuppose Election…

What does this have to do with Watchmen? Well, one of the reasons I’m down on the series (as an influence upon the tradition–obviously, I think it has a great deal of intrinsic value) is the fact that Moore basically expels the Ditko elements (Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach) from the field, leaving the Kirby elements in the ascendant. I haven’t said much in this space about Nite-Owl and the Silk Spectre, but it’s clear that they’re very important to the design of the series. They’re likeable characters and they serve as stand-ins for the reader (Moore’s idea of the superhero reader–who enjoys the genre primarily as a power/escape fantasy). Neither Dan nor Laurie is able to function very well in the “real world”, and both seem to view adventuring as a “radical choice” (i.e. if you embrace it, it becomes your life–and, really, why wouldn’t you, if your real lives are as vapid as theirs seem to be)… They can’t even have sex unless they go through a good deal of costume-clad foreplay, and, you know, that’s just not too healthy!

The lonely, Ditkoesque quest for “assurance” (which I associate with the creative life of an artist–and here’s where Paul Auster comes in!) ultimately has no place in Moore’s world, which, by the end of Watchmen, is wholly given over to Kirbyesque values of salvation through acts of courage and displays of power!

Watchmen: The Wind-up

In the last part, I think I came down too hard on poor Nite Owl & Silk Spectre, and it’s time to redress that balance. Sure, they’re part of Moore’s superherodom-as-swingers-club critique–but you’d have to be an awful prude to hold that against them… Certainly, it’s not great that Dan’s states of sexual arousal are more tied in to what he’s been wearing than who’s in his arms, but I don’t think that takes anything away from him as a person. Is this Moore’s critique of the eighties “me-generation” philosophy? Or his endorsement of it?

I’ve read a lot of rave reviews of Rorschach as a “realistic” psychological portrait of a “battle-hardened hero”–but I don’t accept that view at all! I’ve already gone on record with my opinion that Rorschach is the Spider-Man/Dr. Strange figure abstracted from his relationships to Aunt May/Betty Brant/Liz/Ancient One/Clea/Wong–I know I’ve read someplace that the character is based in large part on Mr. A & The Question, or even on Ditko himself! But I prefer to think of Rorschach as Peter Parker, frozen in one of those lonely tableaux that conclude many of the Ditko ASM‘s… and which, to my chagrin, no one seems to have deemed scan-worthy! If you happen to have a Masterwork or Essential handy, check out issue #11 for an example of what I mean–now imagine if no new “surprises” awaited that character, just an endless stroll through that same moody panel… that’s Rorschach!

But back to Daniel Dreiberg (the true focal point of Moore’s revolution in psychological realism)–so the guy substitutes altruism for viagra? So what? Are we still so messed up about sex that we can’t imagine a person being virtuous and aroused at the same time! Thankfully, Moore–unlike some of his nineties successors–has a more balanced understanding of human sexuality than that. (My opposition to the “psycho-realist” school of superheroics has nothing to do with its’ tendency to dwell on sex per se–I just happen to be more interested in the kinds of existential questions that the “anti-realist” tradition is better equipped to deal with.)

Many critics want to read Nite Owl as some kind of masochist (Geoff Klock does this), because he puts his life on the line for thrills–but I think it’s the other way around! Dan’s “early retirement” is the real act of renunciation/self-torture. He punishes himself for enjoying the superheroing so much by burying himself in the ornithological journals. Moore throws us a curve by giving us that stuff about the exo-skeleton that broke Dan’s arm, and the subsequent exchange about how all costumes are bound to “mess you up”.

The Nite Owl/Silk Spectre aspect of this book is an “empowerment fantasy” (and I’m really not a fan of those), but the point is that it’s a good empowerment fantasy–Moore is saying: “look, these people are doing wonderful things for their community and they’re gonna fuck each other as soon as they’re done. They aren’t even gonna wait for the owl-plane to land.” There’s a darker side to this coin (i.e. some of the other masked marvels we meet actually seem to get off on beating other people senseless), but Dan and Laurie just get off on “making a difference”, and this is made crystal clear in the wonderful bk 7 fire-rescue, which actually does give us something like that “lost innocence of the silver age” (are you reading this ADD?) that you hear tell of–but with a little sex… Gibbons’ low-angle shot of “archie” taking off perfectly conveys the sense of liberation these characters must be feeling, and that shot from above on the top of page 23 is totally unexpected (I don’t think I’ve ever come closer to feeling as if I were flying while flipping through a comic book) What clinches this scene for me is how Dan serves coffee to the besooted refugees. That’s gotta be one of the kindest moments in the history of superhero comics–and I like to see kind people getting what they want, even if they roll over my vision of the superhero comic as inheritor of the American romance tradition in the process!!!

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About David Fiore