Watchmen Does Not Work That Way

So, here’s a fun thing.

There’s a blog called The Imaginative Conservative; from what I can tell, it’s a blog devoted to writing essays from a politically conservative perspective with an eye towards remaining optimistic.  The tagline that jumps out as me is “A Conservatism of Hope.”  We could get into whether any kind of conservative mindset (political or otherwise) is founded in optimism, but I’ll let that go for the moment.  The important thing today is that one of the senior contributors wrote an essay about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, and it’s rather glorious.

Cover of the first issue of Watchmen. Note that there’s no “The” and this was an issue in a year-long miniseries. It didn’t begin as a “graphic novel.” (Image credit: Comic Vine)

First, some caveats: it’s glaringly obvious to me that the author of this essay, Bradley J. Birzer, is a novice to comics criticism.  He name checks more than a few noted writers and series (all by and about white men, natch) but doesn’t give even a cursory indicator that he’s actually read these other series, he insists on calling the series The Watchmen* (I admit I’m a stickler about this myself; regular readers of my The Sandman read-through know that I’m particular about including that article; it is part of the series name after all) even though Moore and Gibbons’s work doesn’t have an article in it, and he devotes time to questioning whether a graphic novel is a distinct art form from a comic book (the question isn’t of category so much as length; in most cases graphic novels are simply collections of individual comic book issues).  I’m pointing these things out first because I want to skip over the low hanging fruit.  Everyone has to start somewhere, and it’s mean to pick on honest amateur mistakes.  Birzer’s specialty appears to be American history, and he’s probably a perfectly cromulent thinker and commentator on that topic.

I won’t, however, pull any punches with regard to his apparently genuine adoration of Zack Snyder as a filmmaker.

First, let’s take a look at what Birzer has to say about the graphic novel:

A cross between a comic book and a coffee-table book, the graphic novel has grown from novelty to mainstream in just a mere thirty years of existence. Now, it’s impossible to enter a used or new bookstore that doesn’t have a section (often quite extensive) dedicated to the graphic novel. A number of academic examinations of the graphic novel as a specific medium exist as well, but I have yet to find one that is not full of ridiculous deconstructionist language, full of “queer” or “gendered” points. I almost wrote “ideas” instead of “points” in this previous sentence, but “ideas” is simply too solid and too kind of a word to allow it to be associated with the nonsense that passes as literary theory these days—which, of course, is nothing but a scam.

Again, I maintain that most books that are categorized as “graphic novels” are simply collections of individually published comics in a series.  These books are better referred to by the terms “trade paperbacks,” “TPBs,” or simply “trades.”  There is a definite art to assembling trades (this is how I read the overwhelming majority of my comics), and some editors present far more polished collections that others (I’m thinking of the contrast between The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1, which includes letter pages from each of its collected issues, a reprint of Squirrel Girl’s first appearance, and a gallery of variant covers, and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s first Captain Marvel Vol. 1, which just has a four page character history of Carol Danvers with some highlighted artwork; these are both products put out by Marvel, but you can see clearly that the editorial teams for each book took a different approach in presentation).  When trades are put together exceptionally well, it’s even fair to view them as a unified work that you might compare to a novel(Watchmen and The Sandman are excellent examples of this).

Anyway.

I find Birzer’s glossing over of “academic examinations of the graphic novel” especially hilarious, since he apparently dismisses the field out of hand since he can’t find one example of a paper that doesn’t use a critical lens that clashes with his conservatism.  His final assertion that feminist and queer criticism isn’t legitimate is almost comical in its disdain.  I get the feeling that Birzer is utterly unaware of comics’ long history as a subversive medium.

Birzer sums up his opinion of the graphic novel with two final points:

First, it really is neither book nor movie; instead, it might be regarded as a well-expressed, well-developed, and finely-honed type of script and story-boarding that directors use when making movies.

Second, a graphic novel probably has more in common with stained glass than any book produced since the Gutenberg Bible.

I think Birzer is reaching a little bit in his attempt to categorize comics.  The form is absolutely a book; we define that medium by the presentation of a series of pages that present information which flows logically from one page in the sequence to the next.  Changing the visual language of the information to rely on sequential images instead of sequential words doesn’t make it less of a book.  We don’t suggest that picture books are some sort of hybrid between book and movie either; we just say that it’s a book that doesn’t have words.  The fact that a sequence of panels on a page bears a passing resemblance to storyboards used for planning out cinematography in a movie doesn’t mean that comics actually are storyboards.

As for Birzer’s second point of comparison between comics and stained glass, I actually don’t have a complaint.  That strikes me as a fair comparison, if only because it doesn’t smack of trying to set comics as some sort of separate, special medium outside of books.

When we finally get to Birzer’s analysis of Watchmen, it’s kind of a relief.  Discussing points of plot and character is a less daunting task than structure and form; you don’t need a lot of technical knowledge to competently examine the narrative of a comic.  Birzer’s summary of the world in which Watchmen takes place is perfectly adequate, although I think he’s stretching a little bit to compare Dr. Manhattan to Superman and the Silk Spectre to Wonder Woman (most of the Watchmen characters have direct analogs in the Charlton Comics stable which inspired it; Dr. Manhattan’s is Captain Atom, and the Silk Spectres have more in common with DC’s Black Canary).  I’d call this stretch a trivial one for the purposes of understanding the story, but I think it’s very important to highlight that Dr. Manhattan is meant to be nothing like Superman, and the only through line between the Silk Spectres and Wonder Woman is that they’re all women (I wonder if Birzer is aware of Wonder Woman’s origins as an early attempt at creating a radical feminist icon in comics; she’s a far cry from the glory-chasing Sally Jupiter who becomes a vigilante in order to try to jumpstart her career as an actress).  The comparison Birzer makes here sets up some false expectations for how these characters are supposed to function in the story.

Of course, things fall apart when he gets to Rorschach (things always fall apart when Rorschach is involved).  I’m going to take a stab in the dark and guess that, like with the other characters’ analogs, Birzer isn’t familiar with Rorschach’s inspirations, the Question and Mr. A.  Rorschach’s look is heavily borrowed from the Question, a detective who wears a trench coat and a flesh colored mask that totally obscures his face.  Some of his philosophy can be traced back to the Question as well, but much of it is found in Steve Ditko’s Objectivist crime fighter Mr. A.  Mr. A was a superhero whose personal code was built around Randian Objectivism; Rorschach has shades of that with his staunch individualist streak and his distrust of government authority, but it’s all complicated by deeply internalized misogyny, extreme existentialism bordering on nihilism, and possibly repressed homosexuality.  In short, Rorschach has a thoroughly complicated psychological profile that motivates him to act in immature, un-nuanced ways that alienate him from allies and adversaries alike.  Alan Moore intended to portray Rorschach as the most dysfunctional character in a cast of dysfunctional characters, but his black-and-white philosophy often gets celebrated by readers instead of noted for the critique of traditional superhero morality that it is.

All of this goes over Birzer’s head.

As I mentioned above, the character of Rorschach (aka, Walter Kovacs) is by far the most fascinating. He is relentless in his pursuit of real justice, and he alone—however brutally—maintains the ideals of righteous vengeance that the other heroes have given up, pursing [sic] normal life, marketing stardom, godhood, and even simple sloth. He must do whatever he can, even at the risk of exposing himself to law enforcement, to keep the various desires and pursuits of the heroes in check and honed for doing good. Not only is Rorschach brutal physically, he’s also brutal in his politically incorrect views of the world.

Yeah, I think he missed the point.

(An aside: I’m not judging Birzer for this reading of Rorschach; the first time I read Watchmen I had a reaction very similar to his.  Of course, I also kept revisiting the text as my politics shifted, so.)

Birzer takes his reading of Rorschach as the lone sane voice in the wilderness and uses it to extrapolate a moral about the whole work as something about “good vs. apathy.”  Again, Watchmen is a complex text, and if it has any central purpose I’m wagering that it’s more concerned with critiquing the superhero genre writ large than presenting a morality tale.  Yeah, Rorschach is one of the few characters who refuses to be complicit in the conspiracy that ends the series, but that’s weighed against the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation; it’s imperative that readers understand Watchmen tells a story where there are no good choices for its characters.  Rorschach’s moral stand, if he were to succeed, would have massively destructive consequences.  There’s no virtue to be maintained on any side.

Now, let’s pause for a moment, because Birzer wraps up his pitch for Watchmen with an incredibly sincere endorsement for Zack Snyder’s film adaptation.

Here’s Birzer:

After years of discussions and false starts, Zack Snyder, one of our greatest living film directors and a man of unsurpassed cinematic genius, bravely made a movie version of the graphic novel. If you’ve been fortunate enough to watch Snyder’s 300, Man of Steel, or Batman v. Superman, you know this is a creator who never does anything halfway. He also loves spectacle, and he’s unafraid to show the necessary and very high price for true heroism. When The Watchmen first came out, critics lambasted it, but even in the adulterated form that the studio forced upon the theatrical release (the studio being fearful audiences could not handle three-hours’ worth of the movie), genius sneaks through rather visibly at times.

I could snark about Zack Snyder, but I’ve probably done that enough this year, so here’s a sincere critique of Birzer’s sincere endorsement.

Snyder is a filmmaker who does, indeed, love spectacle.  He also loves violence, and wanton destruction, and uncritical depiction of hypermasculinity.  Snyder is a conservative filmmaker.  It’s clear he enjoys comics, and he has a passion for adapting the works that were probably formative for him when he was a young man, but his vision of these ’80s comics haven’t evolved as he’s grown older.  He is an uncritical nostalgist.  You can make a case that Snyder has some talent as a cinematographer; he produces beautiful images, and he’s fastidious about making key frames of his films resemble the comic panels to which they pay homage.  He just doesn’t appear to have any deeper understanding of the texts he’s adapting beyond “wouldn’t it be cool if?”

Birzer ends with an exhortation to his readers that they should enjoy Watchmen in either its book or film forms, which underlines his assumption that comics are just film storyboards.  For my part, I’m going to reiterate that if you want to look at a deeply complex text, you should stick with Moore and Gibbons’s original.  If you just want brain bubblegum for about three hours, you can watch Snyder’s adaptation.

________

*Update: Birzer’s original essay has been corrected to reflect the actual title of the comic following a comment from a reader over there.

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8 thoughts on “Watchmen Does Not Work That Way

  1. Hey, thanks for taking my essay so seriously. You’re right, comic criticism doesn’t come naturally to me, but I do want to note that I was writing for a very non-comic book reading audience, trying to persuade some (if not all–but I’m not that egotistical!!!) that it’s an artful medium. Anyway, thank you. I learned a lot from your fine piece, and I promise to try to learn from it again when I attempt in the not so distant future to write about comics again. Yours, appreciatively, Brad

    • Thank you for coming by to read! I know we’re likely to disagree on more than a few points, but I am genuinely glad to see comics being discussed as a cultural artifact. I really do hope I didn’t come across as mean, though I absolutely apologize if I did.

    • Thanks for dropping by and commenting! My opinion of Michael Bay is that he’s a director only interested in appealing to the lowest common denominator with any given movie. He makes blockbusters just for the purpose of making money; the one positive thing I can say about Snyder is that he seems to genuinely care about his subjects. He just isn’t good at making movies that don’t celebrate hypermasculinity and glorify violence as spectacle.

      • Meticulous! Also, I wanted to add that Moore wrote Dan Dreisberg to be an impotent Clark Kent. If anyone resembles Superman, it’s Nite Owl. But even then, not really. I don’t think these characters were meant to resemble any superhero, perhaps more the mirror image of them. They’re all grey. They’re all imperfect. Their weakness is their strength. That was the point.

      • Dreiberg is an interesting one. I’m in the middle of a post about Rorschach’s issue of the series, but I’m going to spend some time on Dan in a few weeks since his issue immediately follows that one.

      • Also, regarding Michael Bay.. I think that if he just wanted to make money he could have become a banker or something. I think he truly does have a passion for photography, but a poor understanding of story structure and that there even should be a character arc. He’s said himself many times that he makes movies for middle school boys. Whether or not that’s offensive to 12 year old boys is another question.

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