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.
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.