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watchmenA brief examination of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon, Watchmen (DC/Warner Brothers, 1986); The Art of the Film: Watchmen (Titan Books, 2009); and Zack Snyder, Watchmen (Ultimate Cut; Warner Brothers, 2009)

Who watches the watchmen, who guards the guardians?

In the early to mid-1980s, two very talented if utterly eccentric Englishmen—Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons—produced a masterpiece of fiction, Watchmen.

The form the piece took is almost as fascinating as the story itself. Though Moore claims the medium he helped pioneer is really nothing more than a glorified comic book given a new and clever name by marketers, the “graphic novel” might be properly regarded as the first new medium in books since the mass-market paperback appeared on shelves in 1935 in England and in 1939 in America. 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.

Though several books produced in the 1970s might be regarded as “graphic novels” in hindsight, they were merely a collection of various stories under one cover. The four that caught the attention of the public and the critics, all published in the mid-1980s, were Watchmen, V for Vendetta (also by Moore), The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, and Maus by Art Spiegelman. Others that have sold well over the past several decades or have been critically acclaimed: Rising Stars and Midnight Nation by J. Michael Straczynski; Ronin by Frank Miller; DMZ by Brian Wood; Grendel by Matt Wagner; The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan; and Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer.

Whatever its origins, and whether or not it is a glorified comic book, the graphic novel has certainly become a distinctive medium over the last three decades. Two things can be stated rather definitely about the form: 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. One would not be radically off to claim it as a type of mythological and pre-Reformation art form, though it is utterly modern. For all intents and purposes, a graphic novel is stained glass in motion, a manuscript not just illuminated but also animated.

Though I personally have given a lot of thought to the art form, I certainly do not want to present myself as an expert. I have, however, had the privilege of teaching the graphic novel as art form to a number of students—at Hillsdale as well as at CU-Boulder—and the medium never ceases to fascinate them, especially when some of the symbolism becomes obvious. And, frankly, the medium fascinates me as well. I like to think of the graphic novel as a means by which word and image can become one again, a sort of sacramental pop culture.

***

Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough. They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, each seeks his own gain. —Isaiah 56: 10-12

 

Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? —Juvenal, Satire 6

The story of Watchmen takes place in an alternative or parallel 1985, a world deeply cynical, a world that found no solace after Nixon. Actually, somehow in 1985, Richard Nixon is still the president of the United States. The Cold War has become so intense that the clock of Atomic Scientists is only moments before midnight, an all-out nuclear war looms over the entire world. Where there had been a golden age of superheroes (akin to the all-American Superman), many of their followers had become less than virtuous. And, it turns out, not all that seemed to glitter in the first era of superheroes had been gold as well. Moore and Gibbons deal frankly with societal decay, with paranoia, with justice, with injustice, with child abuse, and with the role of conformity in society. Philosopher Aeon Skoble has written the single finest essay on the Watchmen) as graphic novel. In his own understanding, Dr. Skoble sees the story as much about real world events as it is about “the psychology as well as the ethical and political ramifications of vigilantism.” In other words, what is a man (or woman) to do, when the government corrupts rather than protects. When does it become not just a right to defend oneself against injustice but an actual moral and ethical duty to do so?

To avoid the reactions one would expect from their legion of fans by making Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman less than heroic in their graphic novel, Moore and Gibbons wisely chose to remake a set of superheroes and their self-contained universe originally created by Charlton Comics (1944-1983), owned, but as of 1985, rarely used by DC. In Watchmen, the “superheroes” are Nite Owl (the closest to Batman); Dr. Manhattan (the closest to Superman); The Comedian (imagine a Soldier of Fortune-Joker); Ozymandias (think a hyper-intelligent Steve Jobs on steroids); Silk Spectre (a highly-sexualized 1940s version of Wonder Woman); and, by far the most interesting, Rorschach, a paranoid genius and unrelenting vigilante who refuses to turn himself over to the U.S. Government.

Moore and Gibbons have created something so far removed from the stereotype of comics for kids that many of the scenes—so realistically told and drawn—shock even those of us who have become a little too jaded in this modern world. One of the most stunning (and horrific) moments in the book is when the “heroes” begin to let loose against the North Vietnamese. The brutality encouraged and allowed by the U.S. government against civilians is matched only in modern cultural manifestations by such movies as Apocalypse Now and Platoon.

Quotes from everything in western culture from the Old Testament to William Blake to Bob Dylan litter the book, each more relevant than the last. And, the two creators of Watchmen give not only an extensive background to their alternative 1985 but to the insights of the characters themselves. Indeed, the development of the characters in Watchmen is as good if not far better than any modern novel by the John Updikes or the John Irvings of the world.

The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘save us’… and I’ll look down and whisper ‘no.’ —Rorschach’s Journal, October 12, 1985.

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 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.

In many ways, the story of Watchmen is so powerful as it is not a story of good vs. evil, but a story of good vs. apathy, a story of being vs. annihilation. It deals not with the superficial but with the things that matter most in this world. It is a story of failures, successes, tragedies, and the human condition. It never shies from controversy, and it never takes the easy route.

As the world moves closer and closer to its end, the heroes must re-find and re-claim their daring virtue. It’s not easy, and, to make matters worse, someone is trying to murder them, one by one.

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 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.

In its theatrical form, the movie runs 162 minutes. In its “ultimate form,” the movie runs 218 minutes. Those extra fifty-six minutes make all the difference in the world, and things that might seem confusing to the average movie-goer seem full and deep in the ultimate version.

For Imaginative Conservatives, the movie has a special treat. It begins with a discussion between the late John McLaughlin and Pat Buchanan!

However you want to take in Watchmen, graphic novel or ultimate cut of the movie, it’s well worth your time. In a world of horrors abroad and vanilla conformism and acceptable corruption at home, Watchmen gleefully tears off the scab, revealing modernity in all of its ugliness and dripping puss. But, it also demonstrates that greatness—true greatness, which the Roman republicans would have admired—still exists, but also that the cost to reclaim it is certainly high.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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8 replies to this post
  1. Dr.Birzer, I was with you until you said “…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.” Unless you took a sharp turn toward satire, he is neither a great director nor a cinematic genius. At least in the case of “Batman V. Superman,” he badly misunderstood both his lead characters.

    • Brian, thank so much for the great comments, and it’s great to hear from you. I will have disagree with you regarding BvS, but my disagreement will have to wait as I’m hoping to lay out a defense of the movie as soon as I can. I think it’s a brilliant and imaginative defense of conservatism and tradition. But, more later.

      • Both you and Ben Shapiro seem to love BvS, Dr. Birzer. Although it definitely has its flaws, it also had some spectacular moments of greatness. I agree with you that it is a staunchly pro-western film.

    • I, too, love BVS because I feel like the characters were finally revealed. Our Disney-loving populace can’t hand the real Batman or the conflicted Superman. The populace themselves are the ones who have never understood these characters.

  2. I had no idea that McLaughlin had died! I grew up watching those debates. I have never seen this movie or read the graphic novel, though I’ve meant to do so for years. The Dark Knight is certainly one of my favorites, so if it’s anything like that, I’m sure I’ll appreciate it greatly.

  3. Not to be pedantic, but it’s not “The Watchmen,” just “Watchmen.” I say this not out of nerd-rage (although many, many would) but because I think, like a painting, the title is important. This is not a story about a group called “The Watchmen,” but the concept of “Watchmen” as a whole. The idea of a self-selected group of people enforcing their version of justice, and the feeling that they, being unique, or possessing special insight, can steer the fate of humanity. It’s not limited to this one particular iteration, but the concept of vigilantism as a whole. Hence, “Watchmen,” not “The Watchmen.”

    We see examples of this constantly in every-day life. Living in Arizona, we had to deal with The Minutemen Project, which ultimately fizzled to some old guys sitting in plastic chairs, keeping an eye on the border between naps, after some rather… unsavory accusations were leveled against the founders. And, of course, we have Sheriff Joe, who might be the ultimate Watchman. He openly ignores federal law, and even court injunctions, because he sees himself as one of America’s saviors (e.g., he’s STILL investigating Obama’s birth certificate, which, at this stage of the election process, seems somehow more than pointless. You want him out of office? Fine, just wait like, three months, and stop wasting taxpayer money.)

    Other places, there was the brief “Occupy [X]” movement, which seemed mostly concerned with proving white people “totally can rock dreadlocks,” captivating the public’s imagination, and disrupting everyday life, whilst ultimately accomplishing nothing of any real meaning.

    These groups see themselves as Watchmen. Perhaps THE Watchmen. But that can’t all be, and I think that’s why the book was titled the way it was.

    All in all, however, this was a delightful analysis of the series. I’ve yet to watch the “ultimate cut” because ugh, three and a half hours. But your article may just have been the push I need to watch it.

    (as an aside, 300 was terrible, and somehow managed to paint one of the worlds most barbaric civilizations in a positive light, but that’s a discussion for another day ;] )

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