Monday, March 09, 2009

The Watchmen

We weren't allowed to read comic books growing up. Our parents who were otherwise indulgent when it came to our reading material, assuming if we were curious enough to pick a book up we could handle whatever we encountered between the pages, drew a fierce and absolute line at comic books. I'm talking about Archie and Richie Richie comic books here which, living in rural North Carolina, were about as edgy a comic book as one could easily come across. Comic books are garbage which rot the mind was the standard reason given for the ban and for heaven's sake, if you want to read something, read a book.

In this respect my parents would appear to be a winning success story for Estes Kefauver and the Comic Book Hearings of 1954. Whatever else the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency may have accomplished it seems to have convinced my grandparents, raising the children that would become my parents, that comic books were garbage that rot the mind. (The thing about standard lines is they don't vary very much.) Add in some gentle snobbery about the importance of being highly educated, something you don't become reading comic books thankyouverymuch, and you get my parents, two people who otherwise didn't agree on a whole lot, but certainly agreed that comic books are garbage that rot the mind.

This should be the beginning of a tale about how, due to this ban, I used to sneak out and collect cans to raise money to secretly buy comics which I hid underneath the woodpile, but honestly, I didn't really feel the lack of comics growing up. Because of the aforementioned rural locale of my upbringing, the only comics I ever saw were frankly not that exciting to me. When my stepmother came into the picture she brought with her Kool Aid, chewing gum and permission to read Archie comics, but I outgrew them soon enough and honestly had limited understanding that the world of comics was bigger than Archie, Richie Rich and the Incredible Hulk.

I was well into my adulthood before I became aware that there was a rich and varied world of comic books out there which, oddly enough, I was not too old to appreciate. This world was so rich and varied that in fact, they would actually collect several issues into a book like form, the hard cover protecting the reader from the garbage-y mind rotting qualities of the content within. I can't remember when I first picked up The Watchmen, probably in college on the advice of some guy I hoped to impress, but I'll be honest, I couldn't get into it. The characters were dark and unpleasant and what do you mean, Richard Nixon is still president? I put it down without getting very far.

Many years later, however, I'd transformed into full on comic book/graphic novel fan thanks in a large part to Joss Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When I discovered that an entire world of Buffy-ventures was taking place in comic book form, I'd found my gateway drug. While reading through the Whedon-verse, I happened upon Whiteout and Queen and Country by Greg Rucka, two other series featuring tough as nails women beating their way through the world. Whedon was my gateway, but Greg Rucka got me well and truly hooked. Hollywood kept me busy too, releasing films based on graphic novels like 300 and V for Vendetta which, being a dutiful librarian required me to go back and read their source materials.

Around this time I also discovered that people I knew, people who were friends of mine, also read these documents we call comics. Recognizing a burgeoning kindred spirit one these friends recommended a series called Powers by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Oeming. She even loaned me her collection of the graphic novels, parceling them out in threes like precious gold. And they were.

Powers blew my mind. Powers takes the superhero fantasy and turns it on its head. There are superheros in this world, and there are also the regular joe cops whose job it is to clean up whither these superheros go. Powers follows two of these cops, Christian Walker and Deena Pilgram, who are assigned to the Powers unit, a superhero SVU unit as it were, whose job it is to investigate crimes done by or to those with super powers. Superheros are people with exceptional powers but also very human flaws. They're treated like superstars, for good or ill, swarmed by paparazzi and pilloried on Nancy Grace-style TV shows. The series blends superhero fantasy with hard boiled crime noir and the result is, for me anyway, irresistibly tasty.

Once I started reading graphic novels on a regular basis I discovered that it is impossible to escape The Watchmen. Author after author that I read cited The Watchmen as a the work that inspired them to become a comic book writer/artist. Eventually I realized that to go forward in my growing appreciation for the genre, I was going to have to go back and read The Watchmen. Maybe it was other graphic novels I'd since absorbed or life itself, but I was better prepared for the complex and challenging tale of a world where superheroes are just people who put on costumes to fight crime, or the Vietnamese, or wherever the government sends them, until society decides they're not comfortable with vigilantes in spandex and outlaws them.

Reading The Watchmen I quickly realized I was reading the codex, the source of Nile, the foundation document for all of the 90s graphic novels I loved so well. Heroes may do heroic things, but then what awaits them at home except for some aging Chinese leftovers and the evening news? The ability to kick a person through a wall, while occasionally practical, doesn't easily translate into the ability to form meaningful relationships with other people. And, seriously, what kind of weird anti-social personality disorder inspires dressing up in a leotard to chase purse snatchers down the street?

Reading The Watchmen shifted my understanding of the graphic novels I loved, making me see that this came first and laid the ground so they could follow. It expanded my notion of what a graphic novel could communicate and it impressed me as a narrative work of art. But here's my confession, a confession which may consign me to the lobby of graphic novel fandom forever, I didn't love it. I appreciated it, but it didn't touch my heart the way the works of Rucka and Bendis had.

I struggled with the undertones of Freudian psychology, the same way I struggle with some of Hitchcock's heavily Freudian films. It's like looking at a document from the days when witch burning was believed to be a great idea. It's hard to relate other than to say Thank God for progress.

All of the characters are hard to love, which is the point really, but, trying hard not to be a knee jerk feminist here, I struggled a lot with the female characters in The Watchmen. I'm not offended by women running around in spandex, seriously, and if a woman wants to use her abnormally large tits to fight crime, fight on sister is what I say! But there is something old-fashioned, and I don't mean that in a good way, about how women fit into The Watchmen story. Women are human and flawed and do good and lousy things in equal measure, but the ways that women in The Watchmen are flawed feel more like a man's notion of female motivation, a man who doesn't like them very much, than anything that resonated with me.

One of the driving plot points is that the world stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation, two minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock, as Russia and the US tire of each other's bullshit and just want to push the button already. The challenge with reading the story now is a challenge that decidedly did not exist when the novel first landed. As a planet, we've moved on from those happy-go-lucky days and created new ways to terrorize each other. The threat that a nuke will go off somewhere, and it will be awful, is just as high as is ever was, but the threat that 100,000 nukes will go off at the same time seems less of a pressing concern than whether or not your neighbor has one in their basement.

When I heard that they were making a film version of The Watchmen I was intrigued, impressed and wary in equal measure. It takes nards to take this story on. It's complicated and multi-layered. It relies on flashbacks to unspool the story. The central heroes include a man who willingly if not gleefully murdered on behalf of the US government; a business tycoon who has transformed his glory days as a hero into a multi-billion dollar industry; a bitter sociopath who hates humanity in general almost as much as he hates the bad guys he tries to stop; a tired washed up recluse who enshrines his glory days in his basement and a woman who has been forced into superheroing as a means to relive her mother's glory days. The story is decidedly adult-in-theme and the only way to tell it well would be to force a studio out of its comfort zone of PG/PG13 superhero flicks. I hoped that the crazy people who were taking this on would get it right and I think I also wondered if perhaps, on film, I could connect to the story in a way I wasn't able to connect to the graphic novel.

For those who worried that the movie would water down or deviate wildly from the original text, rest assured that the film religiously adheres to the source material. Some of the story points are gone or shorthanded so as not to create a six hour movie, but the story that's left clocks in at almost three hours. It's well done, well written, well acted. The special effects are flawless and the details are perfect. Regrettably, after the opening (a striking montage of diorama-like images walking you through the history of the Watchmen so far) the movie also begins to feel every minute of its length, at times approaching the devastating pace of "plodding". One begins to imagine you can hear the whisper of pages being turned reverently in the background.

As in the novel, the most sympathetic character is also the least human. Billy Crudup plays Dr. Manhattan, a being who was once a man until a terrible accident transformed him into something else. He knows everything there is to know, he can see the future and the past, he can create and destroy matter with a wave of his hand and the longer he stays on Earth the less he understands, or cares, about the human race. He appreciates that there are human conventions which he dutifully follows but these are actions, not instincts. He wears clothes during public appearances because humans are more comfortable when he does. He loves a woman because she loves him back, and because he suspects loving her gives him a connection to the human race that he's quickly losing. When the woman tires of being loved as a surrogate for mankind rather than for herself she leaves, taking with her Manhattan's only reason for staying on Earth as a meta-human shield.

Although there's a conundrum in the least human character being the most emotionally compelling, Dr. Manhattan's struggle gets right to the heart of The Watchmen's themes. Should human beings get the heroes they need, or the ones they deserve? What drives people to create idols only to turn around and demolish them? Why should anyone work so hard to save a race so bent on destroying itself? Happy, happy times all around.

Like the novel upon which it is based, I admired The Watchmen. I was impressed by The Watchmen. I was challenged by The Watchmen. But I didn't love The Watchmen. Perhaps, like the novel, that is ultimately the point.

1 comment:

Irons said...

Man have times changed, I got your mom to read The Watchmen.