Monday, December 29, 2008

Watchmen (A Review)

** This review contains spoilers. **
Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says "But Doctor... I am Pagliacci."
In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen, there is a character called the Comedian who is just like the Joker from The Dark Knight in his gleeful contempt for humanity. And he was one of the good guys.

Somewhere in the multiverse, in a realm where superheroes exist, the Keene Act of 1977 outlawed "masked vigilantes," with the exception of those who worked for the United States government. Edward Blake, a.k.a. The Comedian, continued under federal contract, committing atrocities in the Vietnam War, until one day in 1985 he was thrown out his New York City apartment window. One of his few remaining admirers, a jaded rogue known only as Rorschach (described by Moore as a study in a real-world Batman – the end result is, unfortunately, "a nutcase") becomes convinced that someone is targeting costumed adventurers and sets out to warn his ex-comrades. Things get even shadier after the Comedian's funeral (attended by such notables as the Dan Drieberg, once the Nite Owl II; Doctor Manhattan; Laurie Juspeczyk the second Silk Spectre; and Adrian Veidt, previously called Ozymandias) when godlike superhuman Doctor Manhattan is publicly accused of giving a several of his former associates cancer and subsequently exiles himself to Mars. Once hailed as America's ultimate weapon ("The superman exists and he's American!"), his departure emboldens the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan and plunge the nuclear powers into political instability.

As World War III lurks on the horizon, an ominous conspiracy becomes increasingly apparent, as Veidt is attacked in his office building, Rorschach is framed for murder, and rumors arise of a mysterious island where scientists and avant-garde artists labor together on . . . something. Watchmen is best described as a multilayered superhero mystery written as postmodernist metafiction – that is, "writing about writing," or making the artificiality of the art apparent to the reader. As one retired hero (Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl) recalls in his memoir:
For me, it all started in 1938, the year when they invented the super-hero. I was too old for comic books when the first issue of ACTION COMICS came out, or at least too old to read them in public . . .

There was a lot of stuff in that first issue. There were detective yarns and stories about magicians whose names I can't remember, but from the moment I set eyes on it I had eyes only for the Superman story. Here was something that presented the basic morality of the pulps without all their darkness and ambiguity. The atmosphere of the horrific and faintly sinister that hung around the Shadow was nowhere to be seen in the bright primary colors of Superman's world, and there was no hint of the repressed sex-urge which had sometimes been apparent in the pulps, to my discomfort and embarrassment. . .

It set off a lot of things I'd forgotten about, deep inside me, and kicked off all those old fantasies that I'd had when I was thirteen or fourteen back into gear.

Pastiche is also evident in the snippets of magazine interviews, newspaper articles, and book excerpts that precede each chapter and frame the costumed adventurers of this alternate 1980s in their greater social context. Mason's nostalgic recollections of Superman's cheery can-do moral absolutism later become a moment of sadness, almost, as the contrast to the chaos of the present is increasingly apparent. A dark supernatural pirate story called The Black Freighter that recurs throughout Watchmen as a comic in a comic reflects the current mood far more accurately. Its crazed protagonist kills his wife in her bed in a deluded attempt to save her from murderous buccaneers, not unlike the Watchmen villain, who "saves" the world by slaughtering half of New York City.

Not surprisingly, Watchmen is, above all, an attempt to deconstruct the superhero myth. But I'm not sure if I'd call it a brutally realistic view of contemporary society and human nature or some kind of critique on the morally questionable tenets of postmodernism. Specifically, the survival of ultimate truth in an information-drenched world where hyperreality seemingly replaces the materially real by attaching empty stimulus response to artificial, consumer-driven signs and symbols (Baudrillard's third-order simulacra). It is, after all, the villain who says the following:

"Multi-screen viewing is seemingly anticipated by Burroughs' cut-up technique. He suggested re-arranging words and images to evade rational analysis, allowing subliminal hints of the future to leak through. . . An impending world of exotica, glimpsed only peripherally.

"Perceptually, this simultaneous input engages me like the kinetic equivalent of an abstract or impressionist painting. . . Phosphor-dot swirls juxtapose; meanings coalesce from semiotic chaos before reverting to incoherence.

"Transient and elusive, this must be grasped quickly:

"Computer animations imbue even breakfast cereals with an hallucinogenic futurity; music channels process information-blips, avoiding linear presentation, implying limitless personal choice. These reference points established, an emergent worldview becomes gradually discernible amidst the media's white noise.

"This jigsaw-fragment model of tomorrow aligns itself piece by piece, specific areas necessarily obscured by indeterminacy. However, broad assumptions regarding the postulated future may be drawn. We can imagine its ambiance. We can hypothesize its psychology.

"In conjunction with massive forecasted technological acceleration approaching the millennium, this oblique and shifting cathode mosaic uncovers the blueprint for an era of new sensations and possibilities. An era of the conceivable made concrete . . . of the casually miraculous."

Interesting to note the parallels there to Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, also published in 1985.

I saw a special on American comics on the History Channel awhile ago, which discussed a shift in the image of the superhero that occurred sometime around the early '80s, in which moral ambiguity began to swirl around a new brood of painfully human or just pissed-off anti-heroes, much like those of Watchmen. I think someone argued that this ended up ruining the genre (Spawn, for example, has been accused of being excessively psychopathic). A legitimate complaint from a traditionalist standpoint, and one I would be inclined to agree with after being let down by the Watchmen ending. Guy kills half of New York City in a megalomaniacal attempt to bring about world peace and they let him get away with it? But then I thought about it more and realized that a valiant battle of good-versus-evil ending in a shining, redemptive victory for the despised, fallen heroes, desirable as that might have been, would be too simplistic for the grayscale universe that Moore and Gibbons sought to portray. And again, I also feel that there's a critique going on here, or maybe I'm projecting. Why can't the good guys win and evil be punished? Is that really so na├»ve? Is Dean Koontz right when he condemns the giggling nihilists who write so merrily about disorder and meaninglessness? Who are said to "smile into the abyss" and "laugh in the void"? Granted, there's little humor in The Watchmen and it really does speak a lot of truths about the human condition and the plight of morality in contemporary society. And I'm not actually sure the bad guy does get away with it. It would seem that the media, which had hitherto contributed to the hysteria that resulted in Manhattan's exile, may do something positive after all – Rorschach's journal describing the whole ordeal has ended up in the hands of his favorite right-wing newspaper.

But overall, it is humanity that drives Watchmen: humanity at its best and at its worst. I read The Decameron and found myself amused at how little our nature has changed since the fourteenth century (our capacity for crude humor seems thoroughly undiminished). But today (and in the 1980s) there is a new paradox: that of technology, which has given us superhuman powers to both move the earth and to destroy it. "All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance," as T.S. Eliot once said. Exemplifying this is Doctor Manhattan, accidental post-human entity created, as many superheroes such as Spiderman have been, by chance exposure to something out of a laboratory. Now add that the emerging postmodernist worldview - which is inherently nebulous, unstable, and even nihilistic – and what is the result? That, I believe, is what Watchmen really explores.

In short: Watchmen a visually striking, superbly-written graphic novel, but definitely not breezy reading. Moore and Gibbons may have built their story on a genre that has historically centered on good triumphing over evil, but their updated vision has none of Superman's rose-tinted valiance. Because the real world is rarely so pretty.

Here's the trailer for the upcoming movie, BTW. Man, they better not screw it up. Sure looks good, though.


Ara 13 said...

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