CBR12 BINGO: Yellow
I’ve been in the mood to revisit Watchmen since I saw the extraordinary HBO series earlier this year (best television in recent memory, btw). Then references to the comic book series popped up in Eleanor & Park, and it gave me an extra push to reread the graphic novel that I first encountered when I was in college. Plus. . . .can’t get more yellow than that cover, can you?
I wanted to see whether this classic holds up after 34 years, and it mostly does. Having only read a handful of comic books in my day, I don’t have a wide spectrum of other examples to which I can compare it, but I can appreciate Park’s comment to Eleanor that it “deconstructs the genre.” (Take, for example, this “Under the Hood” excerpt between chapters II and III: “There was Mothman and The Silhouette and The Comedian and there was me. . . all of us choosing to dress up in gaudy opera costumes and express the notion of good and evil in simple and childish terms, while over in Europe they were turning human beings into soap and lampshades.”) The combination of artwork by Dave Gibbons and writing by Alan Moore delivers a satisfying and layered experience. I was an English lit major in college, and until friends handed me Watchmen, I didn’t know that comic books could address complex and morally ambiguous themes.
The only real weakness in Watchmen is the speed with which it wraps up at the end. (There’s gonna be some SPOILERS here because, ya know, 34 year old publication). Perhaps it’s my 21st century cynicism talking, but I don’t believe that nations on the verge of nuclear war would immediately drop everything they are doing to stand together against a common enemy (for the record, I did buy it the first time around). Sure, it would be in everyone’s best interest to stand together, but have you seen the degree to which delusion and spite prevent human beings from acting in their best interest? I’m pretty sure if New York were destroyed by a giant alien squid, Putin would try to align with the aliens (same goes for the U.S., if the squid destroyed Moscow; my cynicism knows no nationalism). I have to wonder whether the ending would be different if Alan Moore were to write this series today.
That aside, I wanted to share some of my miscellaneous impressions from reading Watchmen again for the first time since I was probably about 19 or 20 years old.
- Things that I missed the first time are so obvious on the second reading. Was I supposed to know that the “End is Nigh” guy was Rorschach before they pulled off his face mask? Hints are always apparent with 20/20 hindsight, but I love the way Gibbons works the clues into the artwork. In a small detail of one panel, you can see the “End is Nigh” guy passing by the garbage can outside the Gunga Diner, which turns out to be Rorshach’s drop spot.
- In another “duh, that was so obvious the second time” moment: Pyramid Industries? Of course that has to be connected to Ozymandias. In a more subtle nod to the ending, at Edward Blake/the Comedian’s funeral, Veidt has an umbrella and is shielded from the rain, unlike Dan Dreiberg and Dr. Manhattan, who are exposed to the elements.
- I liked that the HBO series made Laurie more edgy and cynical, because I always thought she was pretty bland in the graphic novel. I may have been slightly unfair; Laurie does have a good backstory. She is the most weakly drawn of the main characters, though, which I attribute to female characters just not getting the complexity they deserve at the time this was written.
- When I watched the HBO series, I was confused about why Rorschach was made to be the hero to gun-toting, racist nationalists. Did I miss or forget something? Holy crap, yes. I did remember that Rorschach was an absolutist and in that sense was somewhat of a seductive character. “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise” can be an appealing ideology for a college student. I either forgot or glossed over the nationalism part. Still, I wouldn’t peg Rorschach as a 21st century American right wing nut job. As my husband put it, he was more of a Reagan era right wing nut job. Speaking of which. . .
- Cringe alert: the raging homophobia of the 1980s is alive and well here. Some of it is character-driven (e.g., Rorschach contemplating whether Veidt is a homosexual), but random gay slurs from minor characters are off-putting. For that matter, the general tone toward sexual assault is pretty glib.
- “The superman exists, and he’s American.” Was there ever a more ironically jingoistic thought put to paper? I love it. We could probably spread that in meme form on the internet today and it would go viral in a completely non-ironic fashion.
- “The Black Freighter”: On my first read, I wasn’t super keen on the story-within-a-story about the ghost pirate ship (unlike the heroine in Eleanor & Park, though, I didn’t skip over it). This time, I loved it. “East across the night seas. East, borne on the naked backs of murdered men.” That’s a nice bit of foreshadowing for Veidt achieving victory on the “backs of murdered men.”
- Dr. Malcolm Long seems like a decent guy, but is he just the worst psychiatrist ever? A brutal prisoner tells him he sees butterflies and flowers in ink blots, and Dr. Malcolm just accepts this? Not only that, he spills details about his patient to his dinner guests, but I suppose this was pre-HIPAA.
- That the 1980s was a more innocent era is apparent in the utter shock and disgust everyone feels when they hear Kovacs’ story about the kidnappers who murdered a little girl and fed her to dogs. I’m not saying that’s not shocking; I’m just saying I could probably do a Google search right now and come up with 10 equally horrific things that happened last week.
As I said, I’m not a comic book aficionado, so my opinion of how this series holds up against other works in the genre doesn’t mean very much. I do know that it’s a well-crafted, wonderfully illustrated work that non-comic lovers like myself can enjoy. If you love good storytelling, Watchmen is worth your time. And if you haven’t seen the HBO series, go remedy that immediately.