Jun 16, 2010

What Watchmen Means to Me

Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is, to me, the greatest piece of work ever produced in any medium.

While I could come up with a bunch of objective and technical reasons as to why it is the best piece of work ever produced in any medium, I realize that such a label is subjective, so I'm going to give off the most subjective line of reasoning.

The year was 1997, and I was collecting comics, wondering if there was going to be any more to it than brightly colored people beating up brightly colored people (not that there was anything wrong with that). I got Grant Morrison's JLA and Mark Waid's Flash - undoubtedly the two best superhero comics at the time - which topped the read pile each time. But finances were short (never let it be said that going to a rich school on a scholarship was all fun and games), and I was also 15, and wondering if it was time to grow up and leave this "comics" business behind. What did they really say, anyway? What good are they to someone who's about to head off to college in a few years?

Then a friend of mine lent me Watchmen and changed my world. I had heard about the book before, of course, and I'd even read some works by Alan Moore (Spawn #8 and Spawn/WildCATS), but I'd never read it. The art by Dave Gibbons was too... clean. For someone growing up in the mid-90s, "clean" meant "cartoony." I never realized that I'd actually be looking at some of the most realistic art to ever grace the printed page. Take note, folks, when people smile, this is what they look like:

So anyway, yeah, I read Watchmen, and I didn't get it. There was so little action, too much talking -- what's with all these flashbacks?  Geez.

I returned it to my friend, and it's only because George Perez (my favorite artist of my youth) decided he was going to be awesome and go back to Avengers that I kept collecting comics at all. Then one day, I decided to look up (not Google, because Google wasn't around then) Watchmen just to see what I missed. I ran across Watching the Detectives, and I realized that right then and there, I absolutely had to read Watchmen again. So I ran to Comic Odyssey, bought a copy, and read it again. Carefully. Thoroughly. See, the problem with a lot of comics is that you can read them so quickly. Watchmen was not a typical superhero comic.

Watchmen has, along with Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, been blamed (and rightly so) for starting the "grim and gritty" era. The thing is, as with most things influential, most imitators took the most superficial aspects (grim and gritty) and forget the more substantial, more brilliant stuff. In the case of Watchmen, it's the sheer experimentation. All the background detail, the layouts, even the coloring by John Higgins (this was at a point in time when the colorist wasn't doing much) - in Watchmen, everything meant something. You could connect the Gunga Diner to the news vendor's stand to Madison Square Garden, but you're never shown it. You have to fill in the map in your head. You could see the scene where Rorschach breaks into Moloch's house, and see the neon light flicker on and off, approximating the sound of a heartbeat:

Words and pictures came together to form layers of meaning that I never saw before:

There's all sorts of background details, a technique that Moore says he got from Harvey Kurtzman and MAD Magazine. This panel, from issue #3, is what Moore describes as the turning point of the series, because it's when he realized that in comics, you could put in as much background detail as you want in each panel, have them comment on each other, and have the readers take the time to take it all in.

And in terms of layouts, there's that wonderful 5th issue, entitled "Fearful Symmetry," where each page is a reflection of the corresponding one from the back. Note how, in these two "reflected" pages (note that the right side of one page reflects the left side of the other), we see it from Rorschach's point of view, he's holding something in his hands in corresponding panels, and the fourth panel on the first page features Rorschach's streetwalking landlady, while the corresponding panel on the other page shows the Nostalgia perfume ad - an inspired juxtaposition of the real and idealized versions of sex..

Watchmen was so cerebral and so technically excellent that it blew my mind away. As a chess-playing, diagram-loving, technical-thinking, future math and economics major, this was exactly what I wanted to see - something comics could offer that nothing else can. And maybe it was always in my face, but only Watchmen pointed it out to me so clearly. All of a sudden, I started viewing comics as a veritable mine of untapped treasure. Time named it, a few years ago, as one of the best novels of the 20th century. Alan Moore has gone on record saying that at this point, because it's been so long, it shouldn't even be in the running anymore, which sounded like a direct challenge to comics creators today. And I can honestly say that whenever I type out a comics script, whenever I try laying out a page, whenever I draw, Watchmen is there somewhere in the back of my mind, influencing everything.

Because I fell in love with Watchmen, I was faithfully there when Alan Moore, along with Rick Veitch, Gene Ha, JH Williams III, Chris Sprouse, Melinda Gebbie, Kevin Nowlan, and Jim Baikie, launched America's Best Comics in 1999. With Alan Moore writing the Doc Savage-inspired Tom Strong, the mythology-laden Promethea, the diverse anthology Tomorrow Stories, and the good and fun Top Ten, my mind was blown away again. None of these books read even similarly to each other - Top Ten was straightforward serial cop-drama storytelling, Tom Strong was self-contained and light, and Promethea was dense - and one man was writing all that. And none of them felt like Watchmen either. Ever since then, I've used "diversity" to judge whether or not I should continue pursuing a writer's work, and it's served me well. And the ABC line cemented it for me - comics were not just about the characters, it was also about the art, the craft, the sheer untapped and underrated potential of the medium and the people working in it.

It's that sense of experimentation that makes Watchmen so special to me, and why I'm utterly disgusted by hackneyed attempts to replicate it. Yes, this is also why I was utterly disgusted by the movie.

I still, however, love Harry Peter's Saturday Morning Watchmen:

Alan Moore, to me, is the greatest writer to ever live. Watchmen, to me, is the greatest piece of fiction ever produced in any medium. Because of Alan Moore, I discovered Rick Veitch. I discovered J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray. I discovered Gene Ha. I discovered Chris Sprouse. I discovered Dave Gibbons. I discovered John Totleben and Steve Bissette. All these artists, when you put them up against poster artists such as Jim Lee or Ed Benes or Todd McFarlane or whomever else at the time was popular, I noticed, were better. Better at telling stories. Better at depicting emotion. Better, it seems, at everything comics were about. Or should be about, anyway. Dave Gibbons was so good that he didn't need much exaggeration or any sound effects or narration captions.

Reading Watchmen started a chain reaction that cemented my love for the comics medium. This blog exists because of Watchmen. Any comic I've tried making myself exists because of Watchmen. That job I had in the summer of 2005 where I curated a school exhibit on comics and helped make a comic for the incoming class of 2009, I got because of Watchmen. I even got into college because of Watchmen.

So to me, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is the greatest work of fiction ever produced anywhere in any medium. The reason, simply, is that it meant the most to me.

Thirteen years later, it still does.


Anonymous said...

you didn't 'get' watchmen the first time you read it? i find that hard to believe.

anyway, it's good that you gave it a second chance.


Duy Tano said...

More like I didn't get the big deal. The story/plot was fine.

The second time I read it, I absolutely got it.

Anonymous said...

Alright, cool.

Just a bit of nostalgia here - I just remember that my anticipation for the next issue of Dark Knight, Watchmen and Swamp Thing back then was incredible. But after some thinking, I believe I was already delirious with excitement even before they came out because their ads seemed to herald a quantum leap in what was the current offering. They didn't disappoint.

Also, when 'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow' first came out - I think there were only less than five copies on the shelves of Filbar's Cubao back then. But even though the cover and the writer already announced a winner, I still had to scan it because of my limited budget (read: allowance), and sure enough, the first few pages knocked me out.

Pulp memories. Poor trees. :P


rassmguy said...

This takes me back. I was completely blown away by The Watchmen, and have re-read it several times over the years, most recently right before going to see the film.

rassmguy said...

By the way, Duy, this is Rich Handley.

Duy Tano said...

Rich, I absolutely had to read it again after the movie. I felt that the movie just got it superficially, and in no way achieved exactly what it was, what it was all about. The book was so much more than its plot and its characters, and I felt that the movie did it an injustice.

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