My rating: 4 of 5 stars
[The following essay is divided into two parts: my critical analysis of Watchmen in general, and then a review of this particular edition, a black-and-white oversized hardcover reprint with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger. If you want my assessment of this edition right away, please scroll down to the image dividing this post in two.]
Should Watchmen be the only superhero graphic novel on your syllabus? My own answer is a qualified “yes.” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s 1986-7 serial-turned-graphic-novel brings a European perspective as well as the techniques and the politics of the postmodern novel to this quintessentially American pop culture phenomenon.
But it is possible to overrate Watchmen on the question of its revision to the superhero archetype, as most actual superhero devotees will point out: at every moment in the history of the genre, from Superman’s disruption of domestic violence and US imperialism in his very first appearance in 1938 to Green Lantern/Green Arrow’s 1960s road trip to the polysemous queerness of Marvel’s mutants in their grand-soap-opera phase of the 1970s and ’80s, writers and artists have always brought a political awareness and a critical edge to their ambiguous narratives of characters who try to align morality with power in an often hostile, corrupt society.
Moore and Gibbons, though, carry their revision of the superhero to the point of metafiction. In Watchmen’s world, men and women become costumed vigilantes because they are influenced by comic books, just as Don Quixote becomes a knight-errant because he is influenced by chivalric romances. In both cases, the results are the same: the heroic idealism our heroes picked up from their reading matter gets besmirched by the mud and blood of the actual: their sublimated motives, their desires for sex and power, cannot be fully repressed. Moore, like Cervantes, shows heroic idealism to be determined and constricted by material circumstance. (Is it a coincidence that the two works often hailed as the first great novel and the first great graphic novel make this same de-idealizing critical gesture?)
Watchmen’s ultimate joke in this vein occurs when an actual super-powered being appears in its world, the atomic demigod Dr. Manhattan, and immediately enters the service of the US government at the height of the Cold War as a kind of superior nuclear weapon. With more secular critical tools at his disposal than Cervantes had —Marx’s attack on ideology, Nietzsche’s insistence on power, Freud’s exposé of desire, and the broad second-wave feminist awareness of misogyny—Moore is able to reveal the material underpinning of the genre by political and sexual realities. This move to the meta is what sets Watchmen apart from most prior critical superhero comics (an avowed precursor, Kurtzman and Wood’s “Superduperman” of 1953, excepted).
Moreover, it is not possible to overrate Watchmen as a work of formalist genius. Aesthetically, Watchmen is inflected not only by the social critique of prior European rebels—Marx, Nietzsche, Freud—but also and more so by that of America’s own artistic counterculture too, the nightside to Stan Lee’s Silver Age New Frontier optimism, as found in Moore’s admired forerunners Burroughs and Pynchon. Like these writers, Moore insists upon the dense layering of narrative information, the elaborate use of symbolism and motifs, and the deliberate deployment of carefully contrived structures. Watchmen‘s nine-panel grid page layout is a kind of poetic meter, allowing the reader to keep time in this time-obsessed novel. Within the grid, Moore and Gibbons set up a limited series of repeating images—the smiley face, the bloodstain, the pyramid, the clock, the Hiroshima lovers, mirrors and reflections, and more—which turn the book into the very clockwork that is one of its images for itself. All the pieces move in concert.
Yet Watchmen is also a critique of linear, measurable time: comics, unlike cinema, does not progress in time but rather in space. In fact, it turns time into space. Watchmen is as much a metafictional reflection on its medium as on its message: Dr. Manhattan’s perception of time as a simultaneous object in space is instantiated on the comics page when Moore and Gibbons tell Dr. Manhattan’s story as a discontinuous and non-linear array of panels that are chronologically displaced but artistically in order. When Ozymandias compares his multi-screen TV viewing to Burroughs’s cut-up technique—both of them like comics in that they spatialize and juxtapose multiple information channels—Moore can be heard defending comics as an avant-garde artform, superior to film or literature as a way of halting time and inspecting the clockwork of the universe.
Across multiple dimensions, then—political, sexual, and aesthetic—Watchmen presents itself as the return of America’s repressed. If there is always an element of self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement in such a gesture (hence the worrisome appeal of Marx and Nietzsche not only to rebel poets but to totalitarian dictators), Moore’s postmodern sense of the limits to knowledge save him from this trap.
For what we find when we inspect the universal clockwork is far more chaos and mess than the deists promised. Consider the bravura chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry,” a chiasmus where each page echoes its counterpart across the divide formed by the middle of the issue (the “staple” to avid comics readers). Yet, as a critic on the Internet long ago pointed out in a reference I can no longer find, this is not the middle of Watchmen itself; being 12 chapters long, with each chapter of equivalent length, Watchmen has no narrative middle or center—its middle is a gap or absence. There may be fearful symmetry, but no perfect symmetry. Likewise, chief among the novel’s motifs is the smiley face with a bloodstain occluding one eye: what could be a better image for the human disorder that prevents ideal happiness and obstructs symmetrical vision?
Are all of these themes within the control of our watchmaker-authors? I suspect not. Famously, the figure of Rorschach slipped from Moore’s grasp: meant to be a caricature of a right-wing lunatic, Rorschach grows into the book’s most complex character as we explore the traumas that made him who he is and watch him deepen and change; think of the astonishing silent panel in chapter 10 where he plainly recognizes his own plight in that of his landlady and her children and ceases to threaten them. Moore and Gibbons themselves palpably come to admire Rorschach’s integrity and to mute his worser tendencies to create their most compelling character.
Rorschach’s ethical stature is helped by the fact that the book’s villain, Ozymandias, is its ostensible spokesman for the political left. His technocratic utilitarian utopianism is presented without passion or charisma, as a fervorless murderous calculus redolent of fascism, just as his plan to stop the deaths of millions by killing hundreds of thousands participates in the very logic of the nuclear planners he opposes. For a book plainly intended as a left-wing critique, Watchmen gathers itself into an essentially Burkean argument—or would Moore just want to see it as anarchist, Pynchonian?—against any and all centralized control schemes and systems, even in the best of causes.
More troublingly, Watchmen’s emblem of what man cannot control is woman. At the narrative level, this expresses itself controversially in Sally Jupiter’s relationship with The Comedian, which begins in rape and progresses to love. As verisimilitude, this might be persuasive: that Sally could respond in such a way to The Comedian is possible given her class, generation, and character; her daughter, possessed of a post-feminist consciousness, would certainly not have made such a choice. At the symbolic level, Moore gives us multiple images of the vagina dentata (initially pictured on an activist poster advertising “Gay Women Against Rape”), culminating in the genital visage of the “alien” that attacks New York at the novel’s climax. Moore’s figuration of ungovernable reality quite simply takes the form of the feminine, even the monstrous feminine. (It should be said that Moore pursues the same argument consciously, and thus more critically and humanely, in From Hell.)
Watchmen would not be as fascinating as it is were it merely cynical about human possibility. Rorschach’s unforgettable nihilism—
The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.
—is answered in the book, as in the balance of Rorschach’s life, by a commendation of kindness. The symbolic bloodstain is not merely the effluvium of the murdered but corresponds to another of the novel’s motifs, the Hiroshima lovers, the shadowed shape of lovers embracing left by the atomic flash. These images converge at the conclusion of chapter 11 when two minor characters both named Bernie—an old man who runs a corner newsstand and a young man who frequents said stand to read comic books—run into each other’s arms as New York is destroyed. The ultimate force that spoils symmetry, that runs to excess, that can never be calculated, is love.
Now to the matter of Leslie S. Klinger’s annotations and the overall quality of this edition. I confess I find it promising but disappointing.
First, there aren’t enough annotations: sometimes pages pass without Klinger’s comment. This is an expensive book, and most people (like me!) will be buying it as a second copy of a work they already own, so in this case a lapse in quantity—of the one extra item justifying this book’s existence and expense—is a lapse in quality.
Second, Klinger’s annotations seem arbitrary: for instance, at times he will explain the provenance and context of each chapter’s epigraph extensively, as with Blake (chapter 5) or Jung (chapter 9), while he has little to say about others (e.g., the Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello quotations from chapters 1 and 2). Why does the idiom “see you in the funny pages” get a long annotation, while “here’s looking at you, kid” goes without a gloss? Klinger shrewdly notes that AIDS seems not to exist in Watchmen’s world, without explaining that Ozymandias probably prevented its spread, as is subtly implied in the prose supplement to chapter 11. He mentions Woodward and Bernstein early on, without observing that The Comedian is intimated to have murdered them in chapter 9.
Third, there are a handful of errors, some just typos (“thtink” “Alan Ginsburg”) and one fairly egregious mistake of interpretation (he confuses a reference in chapter 8 to the Nuremberg rallies for an allusion to the Nuremberg trials, which reverses the import of one line of dialogue). I generally incline toward forgiveness on these matters—we all make mistakes. But then again, we aren’t all charging 50 dollars for them in the form of what ought to be a scholarly text.
Fourth, Klinger often provides contextual information without showing any consideration for how Moore or Gibbons might have come by their facts and ideas; annotations to canonical literature—to Milton, say, or Joyce or Pynchon—will not just gloss the author’s allusions but will often comment on where the authors acquired their learning, precisely because these means of transmission make an interpretive difference. Now Moore refused to collaborate on this book, and he is not a long-dead author whose papers and personal library can be accessed by a researcher, which makes the aforementioned task of interpretation more difficult. Still, it could be useful and informative to speculate. For example, can’t we be reasonably certain that Moore learned about Kitty Genovese from Harlan Ellison’s “Whimper of Whipped Dogs”? Isn’t that a case of literary allusion, itself in need of a gloss, as much as of historical reference?
On the other hand, I thought of including the fact that Klinger at times editorializes (as when he defends expenditures on space exploration from the “Whitey on the Moon”-style argument made in Watchmen itself) as a flaw, and I even considered making a nasty remark about Charles Kinbote, but on reflection I think Klinger’s incorporation of his own views and sensibility actually makes the book richer and more various—in short, more fun to read. If anything, I might have preferred more of it, just as I would prefer more of the annotations generally.
Likewise, Klinger’s quotations from Moore’s notoriously verbose scripts (still in Gibbons’s possession) are very entertaining, as is his charting of the book’s repeating motifs (smiley faces and the Hiroshima couple especially); he also catches a few important allusions, particularly a near-climactic one to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that I had never noticed, and that expand the novel’s range of reference.
Finally, I was at first put off by the subtraction of John Higgins’s coloring from this book’s reproduction of the artwork. Higgins’s palette does so much to set the book’s tone, and, more broadly, color should no more be regarded as detachable from comics than music should be from film. Even so, everyone will come away from this book with a new appreciation for Dave Gibbon’s work, his incredible deep-focus, his delicate brushwork, his enchanting braid of three dissimilar elements—US Silver Age superhero art, European ligne claire, and a ruthless gritty de-idealizing sensibility that, though it has antecedents (Wood’s “Superduperman,” Ditko’s Spider-Man), is largely his own.
All in all, Watchmen: The Annotated Edition is the kernel of a great book, but I wonder if it would be too much to hope that future editions of this particular text might add more material, expanding on Klinger’s qualities and correcting its flaws.