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Speaking Truth to (Comic-Book) Power

Can I just say, apropos of nothing in particular, that Alan Moore’s wildly-acclaimed comic Watchmen [1] is … well, it’s really not very good?

Now, I need to say that Watchmen has an interesting core narrative idea, a striking visual style, and an ambitious way of moving back and forth in time and among characters. It is not without virtues. But its flaws far outweigh them. By way of explaining why I think so, I’m tempted just to link to this poem by Auden [2]. But I’ll add my own stumbling words to Auden’s wise and beautiful ones.

Watchmen is deaf to the ironies, subtleties, and sanity-giving adjustments of actual human life. Everyone is the story lives under conditions of unremitting anxiety, terror, or paranoia. There’s no respite even for a moment. It’s telling that the counter-narrative, the comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter, is if anything more brutal and foul than the main story, as though Moore has no idea of the value of contrast. He can only do intensification of a single mood, and that mood is one of brutality. His characters delight in brutality, or unwittingly or half-consciously connive at it; and then there are the innocent victims, who never rise to the level of “character.”

Even the ones we might call “characters” are inflexible and incapable of significant change. They can usually be summed up in a sentence. Rorschach: “Humanity disgusts me.” Dr. Manhattan: “Humanity confuses and puzzles me; I am more comfortable with the certainties of science.” Adrian Veidt: “How tiresome to live in a world of creatures so far inferior to my excellent self.” Laurie Juspeczyk: “I just want to be loved.” Daniel Dreiberg: “Do I dare to eat a peach, or maybe beat up a thug?”

Worse still, Moore seems to think that such simplistic traits need to be explained. For instance, Rorschach’s misanthropy gets accounted for by the most hackneyed dime-store psychoanalysis imaginable. It’s typical of Moore’s ham-fistedness that he fails to realize that Rorschach would be far more interesting and frightening if there were no obvious explanation for his loathing: consider, by contrast, the “motiveless Malignity” [3] of Heath Ledger’s Joker. (Hey Alfred, it’s your cue. [4])

I could go on. Maybe it’s not worthwhile even to make this argument, but Watchmen is so influential that its flaws have been passed down to later generations of comics. So make me feel better about all this, Watchmen fans. Tell me why I’m wrong.

35 Comments (Open | Close)

35 Comments To "Speaking Truth to (Comic-Book) Power"

#1 Comment By Thomas Parker On February 13, 2013 @ 8:14 am

There’s some truth here, but I don’t think it’s due to tone deafness. I think in Watchmen, Moore, for his own purposes, has chosen to strike that one note. (Also, the possibility of “normal” decent human life exists as a possibility, glimpsed in a few places – through the cracks, as it were. Isn’t that the message of Doctor Manhattan’s recongition of the miracle of human life, and of the sleeping embrace of Owlman and Silk Spectre as Manhattan departs earth?) It’s a dark story, certainly, but I don’t think that in itself is a damning criticisim. Unlike Frank Miller, who truly thinks the whole world is exrement and want to do nothing but rub our faces in it, Moore has other modes – see the wonderfuly bouyant Doc Savage/Edgar Rice Burroughs blend of Tom Strong or Moore’s world where everyone is a superhero, Top Ten.

#2 Comment By Rob On February 13, 2013 @ 8:31 am

I’m with you. “Watchmen” was influential to be sure but, frankly, does not hold up well. There’s a little too much paranoia in Moore’s vision and his vision of Nixon as a tyrant is laughable.

#3 Comment By Russell Arben Fox On February 13, 2013 @ 8:47 am

I certainly can’t dispute your charge that Alan Moore’s Watchmen only really has one thematic mode: that of relentless and brutal paranoia and misanthropy. And it’s not just this comic; this characterizes V for Vendetta and From Hell as well, though arguably in different ways and to a lesser or greater degree. I don’t really feel there’s much defense that can be made here. The comic is very much a product of where Moore was in the 1980s and 90s: the embittered anarchist left, watching angrily as (from his perspective) Thatcher and Reagan covered the apocalyptic abuses of the post-WWII world capitalist system with sparkling gold sequins and called it good. So he was filled with contempt, and through the structure of super-heroes and Victorian detectives and political fables he poured it all out.

Why is it a great comic book? Not because of its story, which as you note is often, particularly in its treatment of its main characters, over-determined and without subtlety, though for comic book geeks it really is rather intriguing to see the logic of vigilante violence (which, of course, is an unexamined given in the overwhelming majority of all modern comic books) worked out through characters in whom we can easily see parallels to more popular favorites. (Honestly, why couldn’t Batman be a Rorschach? Superman a Dr. Manhattan?) But no, it’s a great comic because there has never been, from what I’ve seen (and I’ve read a lot of comics), a finer execution of any story, whatever its quality, in comic book form. The associations between panels, and the well-worked out visual symbolism and narrative cues within each of them…there’s a propulsion to the whole thing, almost cinematic in its quality. I love reading it, just to be lost in its four color world.

#4 Comment By William Leach On February 13, 2013 @ 9:10 am

I feel like Watchmen is bursting with human emotion, but it lies underneath a cold, oppressive, mechanical plot. Its a brutally honest representation of man living in technocracy. Its about man making himself a slave to his own inventions, struggling to keep alive and burst free despite himself, and to try and find happiness along the way, even though he has almost forgotten its worth.

#5 Comment By Matthew Loftus On February 13, 2013 @ 9:24 am

Okay, so, yeah. In one sense, you are absolutely right. Watchmen is full of anti-heroes and bad protagonists in the fullest sense: all people endowed with superpowers or whatnot that refuse to learn from their mistakes, subscribe to various faulty worldviews, and wallow in brutality. But mostly that’s the point. That sort of narrative style hadn’t really reached the comics 25 years ago (from what I understand of comics history), so the book sort of has a bit of a Beatles effect: lots of people did it afterwards and did it better, but they did it first and they certainly weren’t sloppy. It is also very much a Cold War-era creation and I think the constant theme of questioning authority has to be read in that context. Alan Moore is a pretty dedicated ideologue (V for Vendetta is even preachier) and, as usual, he’s really gunning for his anarcho-socialist ideas.

I’m not at all saying that you’re wrong, just that Moore was trying to do exactly what you accuse him of. It was perhaps malice towards narrative conventions and not artistic sloppiness that led him to write as he did. In this sense, Watchmen is really akin to a movie like Fight Club or a novel like I Am The Cheese in that it challenges our cultural mores without offering much hope or solutions.

#6 Comment By Andre Kenji On February 13, 2013 @ 10:03 am

I do agree with you that Watchmen is overrated. And only because of the characters, but I also think that it´s lacking as a satire of superhero comics.

#7 Comment By Jerome Wilson On February 13, 2013 @ 10:05 am

For a different take, check out the graphic novel, The Book of Revelation, for Zondervan.

#8 Comment By mark On February 13, 2013 @ 11:02 am

I’m going to tell you why you are *right*. I think a big part of Watchmen’s success has absolutely *nothing* to do with Moore’s writing. At roughly the same time, Marvel released a similar series, “Squadron Supreme”. I’ve read that in terms of concept, theme, and plot both titles are almost identical. Why do we remember “Watchmen” and not “Squadron Supreme”? Look at the logos for a moment. “Squadron Supreme” is done in a fairly typical comic book style oriented along a horizontal axis. Watchmen, on the other hand, has a logo that runs along an extremely eye-catching vertical axis. The TPB cover for “Squadron Supreme” has a fairly standard group action shot. Now take a look at the cover for “Watchmen”. It is a close-up on a smiley face logo – yellow, black, and a splash of red.

And now for the crucial question which explains the longevity of “Watchmen” and the relative obscurity of it’s doppleganger, “Squadron Supreme”. Which TPB would you rather leave out on your coffee table?

#9 Comment By Joe Carter On February 13, 2013 @ 11:22 am

Thank you, Alan, for saying what needed to be said. I read Watchmen in 1987 during my freshman year in college and thought it was lame. After it was praised to the heavens, I read it again ten year later. It was still lame.

Then when it made Time magazine’s Top 100 Novels list I thought maybe I was missing something so I read it again. Nope. Still lame.

Watchmen is a lot like AMC’s Mad Men. Both are critical darling but not very good.

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 13, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

It’s not Dostoyevsky, it’s dime novel stuff for inflationary small-minded times with all the nuancy of a drone strike. That said, amid a sea of violent dreck, it’s superior to Frank Miller’s worshipful authoritarianism.

#11 Comment By Just Dropping By On February 13, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

It’s not clear from the original post: Did Alan just read Watchmen very recently? I agree it’s not tremendously impressive by current standards for graphic novels/maxi-series, but it’s important to look at it in the context of what the comics industry as a whole was producing in the early 1980s. (For an analogy from a different medium, the artworks displayed the 1913 Armory Show aren’t seen in retrospect as being the greatest examples of modern art, but the show was nonetheless hugely influential and is still regarded as a landmark event a century later because of what represented in terms of being a break with the mainstream of American art styles at the time.)

#12 Comment By Alan Jacobs On February 13, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

I did indeed fail to note that I first read Watchmen about fifteen years ago and have read it a couple of times since.

#13 Comment By Eve Tushnet On February 13, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

Am I the only one who will tell him he’s wrong? You’re wrong, Alan!

For example, three of your one-line summaries don’t really reflect how I see the characters. At the very least you’re only citing one half of their conflict. Rorschach’s motivating force is an unslakable demand for justice, which overcomes his disgust for humanity (Rorschach is a weirdly irreconcilable and contradictory character in more than one way); Dr Manhattan is caught between a deep tenderness for the “little things” of human life and a more distanced and alien perspective; Dan’s problems are as much about figuring out the right thing to do as about getting up his courage to do it. And Sally I think clearly defies easy summary. Similarly, I think Rorschach’s origin story is not meant to “explain” his behavior. (Doesn’t he say as much to the psychiatrist?) His name, mask etc all suggest a rejection of the tendency to turn one’s story into one’s explanation or excuse–the tendency to view the self as an equation to be solved, a problem to be corrected.

I also super love the storytelling structure and the art, but even on the ground you’re choosing to fight on, I think this reading misses a lot.

#14 Comment By JohnE_o On February 13, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

I remember reading the series many years ago and being absolutely disgusted with the denouement which had been done to death long before by the science fiction writers of the 1950’s

#15 Comment By MBunge On February 13, 2013 @ 3:20 pm

“I agree it’s not tremendously impressive by current standards for graphic novels/maxi-series”

There’s very little out there that’s both as complex and substantive as WATCHMEN and also works on the level of pure entertainment. The narrative density of the book is one aspect of it that’s been almost entirely ignored by other creators.


#16 Comment By Josh Brown On February 13, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

It’s quite funny that Moore and Miller are so frequently lopped together because they tend to be polar opposites as far as as social outlook is concerned. I distinctly remember one bashing the Occupy movement while the other sympathized with them. Even watching the animated short films of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, I thought “gee, this seems remarkably similar to a world Moore would create.”

To the point, I never really saw what the big to-do was about Watchmen. The story reeks of taking ideas well past the logical ends and the characters are products of that story. Then again, I very rarely feel a connection with DC characters, and their attempts to make “believable” characters generally result in lots of sex with multiple partners or the character being further estranged from his/her initial appeal (like Batman using guns). The only major exception I’ve found is in Sinestro because he is DC’s Magneto as far as personality is concerned.

For me, connecting with a character is critically important, and that is why I prefer Marvel as a whole. I may not like that Cyclops almost casually disregards the death of Jean Grey to shack up with Emma Frost, but there is something about the fact that Marvel’s characters tend to be more suited to shoulder tragedy without being a burden on their heroism that appeals to me.

#17 Comment By MMCCANN On February 13, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

I think one reason you might find it lacking is that your analysis only takes Moore’s half of the book into account.

To me, Dave Gibbons is the real force behind Watchmen, and if you look at the book as being “By Dave Gibbons, with writing by Alan Moore” it holds up much better than “By Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons.”

#18 Comment By isaacplautus On February 13, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

What I return to is what you said in defense of the Harry Potter series: It’s always on the side of life. That’s why, for instance, I prefer the Nolan Batman series to Watchmen. In the Dark Knight series we are confronted with healthy doses of violence and despair, but also the sense that there is something out there worth fighting for. Psychopaths like Joker and Bane don’t get to drown out friendship, love, and basic human decency. In the world of Watchmen, it’s hard to see whether there is anything at all good in creation; anything at all worth fighting for. The mechanisms of the world trap us in a hopeless cycle of violence, rape, murder, exploitation, lies, greed etc. That kind of worldview is so often praised as brave and courageous, but I wonder if there’s something simplistic in it?

#19 Comment By David J. White On February 13, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

To me, Dave Gibbons is the real force behind Watchmen, and if you look at the book as being “By Dave Gibbons, with writing by Alan Moore” it holds up much better than “By Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons.”

I think that’s an excellent point. The artwork always struck me as the most arresting thing about Watchmen. It really is a graphic novel: the visuals are an important part of the book. It’s just not a story with illustrations.

I have to say, though, that I always thought that the cleverest and most amusing idea in book was the notion that, in a world with “real” superheroes, the comic books would be about pirates.

#20 Comment By cw On February 13, 2013 @ 9:35 pm

Can I just add a, Duh. The superhero comic is a golem shaped on the muddy shore of the collective unconscious of the four-year-old boy (I currently have one, so I know). You can’t expect adult literature from the testosterone-fueled fantasies of a four-year-old boy. It is a powerful vision though, the big strong man fighting bad guys.

On a tangent, little boys are the best of both worlds. You get the super-destructo boy energy, but then they are so sweet, sweeter than little girls.

I would like to see a superhero comic with that sweetness in it. If you are going to make adult literature out of superhero comics, you have to ride the psychology instead of letting the psychology ride you.

#21 Comment By Steve On February 13, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

Check out Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come (illustrated by the very talented Alex Ross) – it’s basically a retelling of the Book of Revelation using the D.C. Comics universe as a backdrop. Excellent, thoughtful writing and just gorgeous to look at.

#22 Comment By JohnE_o On February 14, 2013 @ 8:33 am

I would look forward to your comments on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series.

#23 Comment By Kyle Cupp On February 14, 2013 @ 11:19 am

I liked it and took it as a depiction of the absurdity of trying to save the world through strength and violence, i.e., the typical superhero mythos. To be sure, it’s a limited work, a deconstruction without a reconstruction, but not every work of art needs to do both.

#24 Comment By Alex Wilgus On February 14, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

I’ve written a bit on why I think Watchmen is important. I think it broke ground in two ways: 1. Bringing semiotic richness into the comic book genre to advance a story’s theme and 2. turning superheroes into sleazebags. The comic genre has indeed followed up ad nauseum on number 2, and has not, unfortunately, delved into number 1, which I think is the more interesting of the two.

If you’d care to read more:


#25 Comment By Kevin Alexander Tamerler On February 15, 2013 @ 6:09 am

One thing I absolutely love about Watchmen as a work is the minor character arcs. The black kid and the man who runs the newspaper stand represent basic human decency throughout, so that when Ozymandias sets off the bomb in NYC we aren’t just dealing with blank faces, but with characters we have come to know and be involved with. Their embrace in the face of death is touching, and a powerful voice against the idea of collateral damage.

#26 Comment By theBitterFig On February 15, 2013 @ 9:33 am

I’ll add another voice of praise for Dave Gibbons here. There is something unique in how Watchmen was drawn, right down to the panel arangements. The brutal regularity of the nine-panel grid brings a high degree of the power of the comic, particularly in the few moments where that regularity is broken. The assassination attempt on Veidt, for example.

#27 Comment By Chubasqueiro On February 15, 2013 @ 7:10 pm

Most readers, fans or no fans of Moore, don´t get what Watchmen is about. It´s about a drop of love in the most desperate hour, it´s about finding something of worth in the mess that cynically we call “civilization”.

That alone makes Watchmen a relevant read even today.

I wonder what exactly is “a very good” read to you.

#28 Comment By Martin Sheehan On February 15, 2013 @ 9:38 pm

I agree with much of what the author of this article says about Watchmen – however, there’s one angle here that’s missing, though I would think it would be obvious to most AmCon readers. Watchmen remains a brilliant critique of Imperial America and the view that America represents the highest and the best of the Human Race. It’s obvious that the flawed superheroes in Watchmen reflect the view of America that many Americans have of themselves – America the Good, saviour of the world! Moore, despite his many faults, reveals the darkness behind this belief in American Goodness and the ugliness of Empire.

#29 Comment By Gifford Blyton Roberts On February 15, 2013 @ 11:40 pm

Like Spider-Man, Watchman shows the unhappy ramifications of vigilantism. Unlike Spidey though, Watchman delves into: how it affects their personal lives, the lives of innocents, and the direction of society as a whole.

Watchman was a story that helped bring comic book stories into an art form to be taken seriously and not just goofy childish stories.

I am not a huge fan of the story, but it is REALLY GOOD!

My main problems with it is: 1. Dr. Manhattan annoys me because he’s too powerful and I thought he should’ve died at the hands of the main villain in the climax, 2. Rorshach -I love him and want more!! (I haven’t read DC’s Before Watchman take on him yet), 3. MOST ANNOYING PART WAS THE PIRATE COMIC BOOK SCENES WHICH BROKE UP THE FLOW OF THE ACTUAL STORY

#30 Comment By Austin Rebreh On February 16, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

The characters are unrelenting in their views because they are try to maintain a sense of morals in an amoral world.

#31 Comment By Douglas On February 16, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

Watchmen is the most overrated comic series in the history of the medium. It was a (sometimes) interesting concept, but nothing more. Moore was capable of really good writing (his “What to get the man who has everything” Superman story is paramount here), but he is, in general, overhyped beyond what his work deserves. Chris Claremont was consistently a better writer, but he never got the legendary rep that Moore did because Moore was “edgy”.

#32 Comment By Freddie deBoer On February 16, 2013 @ 10:24 pm

Exactly. Watchmen is a 13 year old boy’s vision of what maturity in art means.

#33 Comment By Ed On February 17, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

Sure. I found the movie unwatchable and forgettable. One could make the counterargument that adults can only process so much new comic book superhero stuff. If you grew up on DC comics, you might appreciate seeing your childhood heroes on the screen but find the Marvel universe unfathomable.

I know because I found The Avengers and the other new marvel movies boring and pointless snoozefests (excepting Robert Downey’s Ironman films, which are more Downey than Marvel). I couldn’t take the whole thing seriously — or even light-heartedly. Adult Marvel fans may feel the same way about later graphic novels and any superhero films made from them.

On the other hand, incorporating real history into superhero stories isn’t really something new or groundbreaking. You can find that in DC and Marvel comics for years. In Watchmen, though, it all seemed forced. The filmmakers had so much history to process, reformulate, or distort and they were going to push it on the audience without much regard for narrative or entertainment values. If a film is more heavy-handed about using recent history than Forrest Gump was, it’s probably on the wrong track.

Also, the super-anti-hero thing — the unwilling or mercenary or alcoholic and derelict superhero — has already been done to death in the comics. You can make the seediness more graphic and overpowering, but it may not actually add anything to a movie. If there was something new and astounding in the film, I’m sorry but I completely missed it.

#34 Comment By Peter Y. Paik On February 17, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

I know I am speaking in the minority here but I will make the case on behalf of Watchmen that it manages to portray with remarkable power a globe hovering on the edge of catastrophe. In the world of the comic, it’s not a question of if something terrible was going to happen, but when. It was accordingly memorable experience to read it back in 1987, when we were still under the shadow of nuclear annihilation.

Of course, the actual end of the conflict between the democratic West against the Soviet bloc turned out to be quite different from the nightmare scenarios intimated by Alan Moore in Watchmen. But does the distance of Watchmen from the actual resolution of the Cold War diminish in any way its political meaningfulness or value as a speculative narrative? I think the power of Moore’s work resides in his unflinching depictions of intractable ethical and political dilemmas in times of emergency, when normal rules and limitations no longer hold.

The power of Moore’s narratives consists in the painfully ambivalent response these acts of carnage elicit from the reader. We recoil in horror at the violence and cruelty of these actions and are inclined to condemn them in the strongest possible terms. Yet, we cannot deny that these massacres leave in their wake irrefutably beneficial results. The reader is left in a position akin to that of the characters who are forced to stand by and watch as these terrible events ensue, and then are forced to come to grips not only with the death of innocents but with the salvation these deaths secure. Rorschach and Nite Owl are stunned when Ozymandias informs him of the staged alien attack on New York City. In these instances, the characters voice their protests at the cruelty of the action, but are not free to do anything about it. They are free to speak their minds but not free to undo the action. We might say that in these moments their condition of helplessness stems from the fact that they are present at the creation of a new world, in which the basic values of human beings are being reshaped and transformed.

As I argue in my book, From Utopia to Apocalypse, Watchmen needs to be read through Plato and Machiavelli:


#35 Comment By King Beauregard On February 18, 2013 @ 10:48 am

mark commented on “Squadron Supreme” up above; I’m glad he did, because I’m a much bigger fan of SS than of “Watchmen”, and I like to think at least one other person will understand what I’m saying about the two.

“Watchmen” has its place in history because it tried to tell an innovative story via innovative means: a group of borderline amoral heroes who are, strangely enough, mostly powerless in the face of the Cold War, but one of them puts a plan into motion to end the Cold War. (And what an implausible plan it is, expecting that you can terrify the world into being more sensible.) “Watchmen” has had many imitators since, where it’s usually Superman or Batman in a setting where they are broken versions of the heroes we have come to appreciate.

“Squadron Supreme”, on the other hand, goes in a very different direction. Marvel Comics had long ago created the SS as an extradimensional pastiche of the Justice League, so they could have the Avengers fight an ersatz Justice League whenever they wanted to “prove” that Thor could beat up Superman. But the SS miniseries isn’t about the Avengers, it’s about the SS on their home world, trying to fix everything that has gone wrong since the world was ravaged by an alien incursion. And when I say “everything”, I mean everything: not just ending hunger and getting peoples’ cable turned back on, but putting an end to gun violence, finding a way to rehabilitate criminals, even conquering death. Their Utopia Project, as they call it, is ambitious and overreaching, and yet it is conducted with every intention of not curbing personal liberties. In other words, our heroes remain as moral as ever (or nearly so, for the most part); and in doing so, they still create a world which, if they don’t turn it into a tyranny, someone else will. So they ultimately abandon their Utopia Project, because they are heroes, and heroes do the right thing.

“Squadron Supreme”, I think, conclusively explores what would happen in a world where superheroes stayed heroes while going beyond their traditional limits of punching villains. If nobody has followed in the footsteps of “Squadron Supreme”, it’s because nobody needs to, and also because it’s much easier to write a “Watchmen” variant than a “Squadron Supreme” variant. Even “Kingdom Come” — held up as another strong entry in this genre — has very little “Squadron Supreme” to it, in a future where even Superman has lost hope.