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More About Watchmen

I’m grateful for the pushback I got on my Watchmen post, both here and on Twitter. Let me make a few random comments in reply:

1) Those who say that I neglect the artistic contributions of Dave Gibbons are absolutely right. I did mention, near the beginning of my post, the “striking visual style” of the comic, but I should have said more about that. Gibbons really did create wonderful possibilities for comic-book illustration that later artists have exploited to great effect.

2) In response to my complaint about the one-dimensionality of the main characters, I got interestingly varied responses from defenders of the comic. In a comment to the post, AmCon’s own Eve Tushnet said that the characters are richer and deeper than I make them out to be; but on Twitter, Peter Suderman argued that “the lack of humanity is sort of the point: these people aren’t people. They are or have chosen to be something else.” Are these defenses as contradictory as they appear to be? I begin to wonder whether this comic isn’t … wait for it … a kind of Rorshach blot.

3) I still think that in a story of any length, variations in mood and in degree of tension are necessary for at least two reasons: first, to give the reader some breathing space to take his or her bearings; and second, to take artistic note of the ways those variations make up the texture of our lives. Not that it’s ever fair to compare anyone to Shakespeare, but note how the farcical scenes of the Porter in Macbeth and the Gravedigger in Hamlet make the tragic development of those stories more rather than less powerful. Tolkien was also a master of this alternate tightening and loosening of narrative tension.

Alan Moore, it seems to me, has never really learned this lesson. Even in the work of his that I most like, for instance Top Ten, there’s usually only one mood: in that case, the manic craziness of a hypermulticultural world populated exclusively by superheroes of every possible variety. But one of the reasons I like it is that there’s at least an occasional variation — for instance, in the few scenes when we see Robyn Slinger trying to care for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. Two people alone in their quiet but shabby home: that makes a strong contrast to the ongoing craziness of the rest of Neopolis.

Moore’s chief artistic failing, I think, is that he fails to see the importance of this technique and employs it so rarely. As I noted in my previous post, his usual idea of contrast is to have a second story that directly copies the mood and theme of his main one: Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen, the fake prison world V creates for Evey in V for Vendetta, etc.

But having said all that, I also need to say that this kind of failing isn’t nearly as evident or as meaningful when you’re reading in installments. If you read one episode of Watchmen and then have to wait a month or two for the next one, you get through the brutality more quickly and have plenty of time to process it before stepping back into that world. It’s only when you read it as a single book that the uniformity of mood becomes a major obstacle to appreciation.

This actually makes it difficult to make a proper evaluation of a comic. Even my favored candidate for Masterpiece of Comic Art, Planetary, is hard to take in one big dose. It helps to spread it out over time. But each time I’ve read Watchmen I’ve read it in a single sitting. So maybe if I had read it when it first came out, issue by issue, I would feel very differently about it. But alas, I can’t rewind the tape to find out.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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