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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 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. 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” of Heath Ledger’s Joker. (Hey Alfred, it’s your cue.)

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.

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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