"Returning to men in tights after a 15-year world-literature binge, I was almost overwhelmed by Alan Moore's 'Watchmen'," writes Garth Risk Hallberg. He's startled by the comic's complexity, but stumbles over the term "graphic novel" ...
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If fiction can be likened to a high–a “vivid, continuous dream,” as John Gardner put it–comic books were my gateway drug. I discovered the Marvel and DC Universes at age 13, and spent hundreds of hours (and dollars) exploring them. This was the early 1990s, a heady era for superhero enthusiasts. There was Todd McFarlane's "Spider-Man", Rob Liefield's "New Mutants", Peter David's under-appreciated "X-Factor" and the pitch-black Batman book "Legends of the Dark Knight". Surveying these offerings at my local comic shop, I felt lucky to be alive in my time. The clerks told me I had an Englishman named Alan Moore to thank.
A limited series called "Watchmen", written by Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, had appeared five years earlier, and had subsequently been collected in a one-volume “graphic novel”. "Watchmen" had invented the space within which the comics I loved existed: Freudian, sardonic, decidedly postmodern. And yet, perhaps because the bound version, like other titles in the nascent graphic-novel genre, cost ten times more than a single issue of "X-Men", I put off reading it.
Then I turned 14 and Ken Kesey got ahold of me. "Cuckoo’s Nest" led to Kerouac, who led to Hesse, who led to the harder stuff. Except for a few generational touchstones (eg, Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan" and Lynda Barry's "100 Demons"), I was lost to comics for 15 years.
Then last month, after nine writers, three directors, and a year of post-production legal wrangling, the big-budget film adaptation of "Watchmen" hit theatres. The film has earned $175m at the box office worldwide (as of this writing), but audience reaction has been mixed. Many Alan Moore acolytes felt that Zack Snyder’s faithful adaptation fell short of its source. And even those who likely missed the original back in the Reagan era drew comparisons that were unflattering to the movie. “A narrative with the texture and complexity of 'Watchmen' demands to be on the page, demands to be read again and again,” Kenneth Turan commented on National Public Radio.
The movie’s sole undisputed accomplishment, then, was to cement the book’s reputation as one of the great novels of our time. It could already be found on Time magazine's list of the “100 Best Novels” of the last 80 years, nestled somewhere between Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano" and Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea". Now, with the upper-middlebrow commentariat climbing on board, I decided it was time to see what the fuss was all about.
Returning to men in tights after a 15-year world-literature binge, I was almost overwhelmed by the structural sophistication of "Watchmen". Alan Moore’s plots are labyrinthine conspiracies; his closest equivalent in the world of prose fiction may be Thomas Pynchon. The "Watchmen" follows something like 15 major characters, most of whom have two identities. Half of the characters comprise an "original generation" of superheroes who donned cape and tights in the 1930s; the other half are their spiritual heirs, dealing with a backlash against superheroes half a century later.
Even in the hands of masters, this sort of panorama can take on what James Wood, a prominent literary critic, has called an "agitated density”. (Quick: try to remember the plot of "Bleak House".) Moore, however, has at his disposal a set of tools prose novelists don't: Dave Gibbons' images, which knit together disparate storylines from the past and present across the "Watchmen"'s 12 chapters.
Moreover, Moore improvises new narrative equipment. Into the traditional, panelled comic-book pages, he inserts reproductions of newspapers, letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews, and even a comic-within-the-comic. Such postmodern bricolage is useful for exposition (always a challenge when one of your main characters is a naked blue physicist who controls energy and matter and apprehends all time as a singularity). It is also useful for adumbrating the book's major questions: What is justice? Who has the right to administer it? Does democracy honour mediocrity? Does meritocracy shade toward fascism? Is there such a thing as human nature, and if so, what is it? To his credit, Moore answers these questions not like a superhero, but like a novelist: equivocally.
Moore also wants to explore a psychological question: why do people (people in comic books, at least) take on silly pseudonyms and dress up in tights? Here, though, the "Watchmen" falters, in ways that would seem to undermine its reputation. The book has been hailed as an example of "psychological realism", but unlike his thematic explorations, Moore’s questions of character lend themselves to easy answers. It’s true that each of his masked vigilantes has a distinctive motivation. However, Moore’s backstories of neglect and abuse render these motivations eminently fathomable, even trite. (In the end, only Dr Manhattan, the moody blue physicist, seems truly complex.)
The flatness of these Watchmen may have less to do with Moore's shortcomings as a writer than with the medium within which he has chosen to work. The great virtue of prose fiction–the thing at which it surpasses other art forms–is its capacity for irony. In the hands of a George Eliot or a George Saunders, irony places the interiors of characters at odds with appearances, thwarting our rush to judgment. Comics, on the other hand, are ineluctably visual. Moore and Gibbons go to great length to find graphic equivalents for subjective states. Because they cannot place the visible and the invisible on equal footing, however, they cannot avoid reaching verdicts about their characters. Seeing really is believing, and so irony, in "Watchmen", turns into satire.
This tendency becomes pronounced as the book reaches its climax. Moore reverts to comic-book conventions: elaborate MacGuffins and coincidences; hokey banter; long, expository speeches:
"The Comedian mentioned an island and some plot against Jon. My computers suggest Jon could have been set up, possibly by the company all his supposed 'victims' worked for..."
Playing with these conventions self-consciously is not the same thing as rendering them plausible. But of course, this is a story about people with names like Rorschach and Silk Spectre II, so is it really fair to ask for plausibility?
On the contrary, my quibbles with "Watchmen" may point less to weaknesses in the book than to a weakness in the term "graphic novel." It had led me to expect that "Watchmen"’s "artistry," its “realism,” its "staggeringly complex" and "ruthless" psychology, would be the artistry and psychology and realism of a novel. But what these blurbs really mean is that "Watchmen" is “staggeringly complex” by comic-book standards. In the context of "Superman" and "The Silver Surfer", "Watchmen" is indeed a remarkable psychological achievement. In the context of "Under the Volcano", not so much.
The term "graphic novel", coined in the late 1970s, now denotes a profitable industry. It is probably not going anywhere anytime soon, and were “graphic” merely a generic designation, like “romance,” or “Western,” I’m not so sure I’d care. As it has come to be used, however, “graphic novel” places Alan Moore in direct competition with Toni Morrison, and this does neither of them any favours. On one hand, it posits the prose novelist’s art as something transferable, rather than irreducible. On the other, it posits the innovations of comic artists as mere imitations. Art Spiegelman, author of the stunning "Maus" books, recently told an audience:
I’m called the father of the modern graphic novel. If that’s true, I want a blood test ... "Graphic novel" sounds more respectable, but I prefer "comics" because it credits the medium. ["Comics"] is a dumb word, but that’s what they are.
This is no slight on comics; Spiegelman also professed an “undying love for comic art--for the ways in which it allows an artist to communicate directly, no matter how bizarre the message.” But Spiegelman is right; it is time to reevaluate the notion of the “graphic novel”. At the very least, why not call "Watchmen" a "paper movie" instead? It might be no more accurate, but it would at least clarify the gap between Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s dense, bizarre, delirious achievement and the rather more predictable adaptation now showing at a theatre near you.
Picture credit: DC Comics
(Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of "A Field Guide to the North American Family", a novella...with pictures. He contributes to the literary weblog, The Millions. His last piece was about reading Roberto Bolaño's "2666".)