Monday, 19 September 2016

Why Study Watchmen?

Despite a snide aside in Grant Morrison's Supergods and Alan Moore's ongoing deprecation of its importance, Watchmen has become one of the most respected comic books of the twentieth century, even featuring on lists of the century's greatest novels. While its blending of mature themes - the link between sexual potency and violence, the gap between comic book convention and 'real life' morality - is neither unique nor original, its impact was marked out immediately, with a plethora of newspaper articles celebrating its deconstruction of the superhero mythos.

Published in 1986, it is a contemporary of both Maus, Spiegelman's autobiographical reflections on his father's experience of the holocaust (with added animal faces) and Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. These three works have become a 'holy trinity' of comics, with the year delineating the moment 'comics grew up'. Their collected editions - both Dark Knight and Watchmen were initially released as serials, and episodes of Maus appeared in the compilation Raw, itself a self-conscious attempt to showcase comics for adults - heralded the introduction of the term 'graphic novel', a problematic term. Regardless of Moore's complaints, and Baetans argument that the use of the term dates back to the 1960s, it adoption by publishing houses encourages a more respectable distribution and recognition of comic books.

Watchmen's plot follows a stereotype tale of superheroes, trying to save the world against insurmountable odds. The twist comes from the sophisticated characterisation that Moore and Gibbons lent to the heroes, and the moral ambiguity surrounding their behaviour. Dr Manhattan, the only super-powered hero, has the qualities of 'the flying brick', which lead him to become increasingly detached from human behaviours: Rorschach  combines the signifiers of the vigilante detective with a brutal, right-wing ethos of vengeance, and even Ozymandias, the clean-living, socially conscious mastermind hides an egotism that allows him to commit atrocities for the greater good.

The 'originality' of this conception is undermined by the parallel theme, in which Moore and Gibbons draw on the history of comic books to describe their evolution from the optimistic and imperialistic cold war heroics to the darker antiheroes of the 1970s and early 1980s. For example, Dr Manhattan's origin story is clouded by patriotic celebrations of his status as the USA's 'weapon of mass destruction', while The Comedian imitates the brutality of characters like The Punisher (who operates under a morality shaped by his experiences in Vietnam). This point is made tellingly by the opening credits of the film, which uses Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' over a montage of photographs to place the heroes in their historical context.

The film remains a controversial adaptation - variously condemned for its reliance on the comic as a story-board and its variation from the source plot - this sequence captures the subtle weaving of history, comic book tropes and 'realism' that infuses Watchmen with a particular, disorientating dynamism.

Both Moore and Gibbons are  concerned with Watchmen's relationship with comic tradition: the subversion of the hero relies heavily on an awareness of the tropes that inform them. Equally, the use of intertextuality, evoking other comics, films and books, layers Watchmen and offers more complicated interpretations. Far more than the violence and sex, it is this openness to the reader that has made Watchmen a symbol of the mature comic, and susceptible to academic analysis.

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