Monday, 9 November 2009

Great Comics - Part 1: Watchmen

Comics are like opera. No, really. What makes great opera, really great opera, is that it is a synthesis of two art forms. You have the drama, or humour, or passion of the text underscored with the music, the two together doing something greater than either one alone. Of course, it doesn't always work that well, but the potential is there. It's the same with comics. They sometimes get a bad rep, some people view them as for those too lazy to read a proper book, but that view is just as mistaken as saying opera is for those who'd get bored sitting through a play.

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For me, chapter four of Watchmen proves this point. Dr Manhattan, his body glowing bright blue, strolls naked across the surface of Mars. Alan Moore's words and Dave Gibbons' art come together to tell the story of his life. However, the now virtually omnipotent Manhattan no longer experiences time as we do and the narrative flits back and forth throughout his life, tying key events together and highlighting how he can see a relationship is doomed even as he tells someone he loves them. In one moment we see him hone his watchmaking skills; in another we see him piece his body back together following the accident that 'creates' him. Doubtless you could try such a narrative through words alone, but without the pictures it would risk being a confusing mess. As it is, it ranks amongst the most enthralling and fascinating issues of any comic book and helps put Watchmen firmly among the greats.

I don't like greatest ever lists, I think I've made that pretty clear over the years, largely as I think once you get to a certain level of brilliance ranking things in any kind of order is just plain daft. I usually say that if they just said, here's a inexhaustive list of great things, in no particular order, I wouldn't have nearly such a problem. So this is the first in a series looking at a bunch of great things, and while there is an order, at least initially, it is dictated by other factors.

The other day someone on twitter mentioned V for Vendetta, indisputably one of the great comic books. Now, normally I write and tweet about classical music and opera. Occasionally I stray into other art forms. I also read and buy far too many comics, and since it turns out that at least a couple of my followers are so inclined, I thought I would turn my pen, or rather my keyboard, to them. The reason I mention greatest ever lists is because it seems obligatory for almost any article about Alan Moore's Watchmen to either call it the greatest ever comic book or to say it regularly tops such lists. In point of fact, though, it isn't my favourite and it isn't the comic I most keenly wanted to write about; that honour falls to Joe Straczynski's Rising Stars. However, since I don't think that could have been written had Moore not penned Watchmen first, it seems logical to talk about that first and create a mini series in the process.

So, chapter four aside, what makes Watchmen great? Well, take, for example, Spider-man, or the other Marvel superheroes. They all live very much in the real world. True, it's a world in which people get bitten by radioactive spiders and start swinging from the skyscrapers of Manhattan fighting an array of villains of varying degrees of plausibility. It is, none the less, the real world; it is New York and looks remarkably similar to our New York, and whenever the president crops up he has a tendency to look an awful lot like the real occupant of the oval office. My point is this: if there were all these superheroes, surely the world would be radically different, but it doesn't seem to be. Mr Fantastic is able to devise ships that travel between dimensions, yet everyone seems to drive around in petrol driven cars.

For me, Moore's key idea at the centre of Watchmen is to say wait, hang on a minute, if you really had these people running about, doing what they do, the world would, by the 1980s, be a vastly different place. History would not be at all the same. Such it is, that we find a 1985 where Nixon is entering his fourth term and America hasn't been humbled in Vietnam. After all, if you had a person who was effectively godlike, it doesn't really make sense that you would have been.

Underpinning this is a tapestry so rich as to give any comic book geek multiple orgasms. Now, as I mentioned above, I love comic books, and I know a reasonable about about them and their evolution, but I'm not expert. However, I luxuriate in the richness of the way Moore develops his characters in generations through the golden age to the atomic age. It is littered with characters who are analogues of famous superheroes (the second Night Owl owes a lot to Batman, for example), but often taken to extremes: Dr Manhattan, the Superman analogue, is practically a god. These parallels and layers are fleshed out more fully in the wonderful appendices at the back of each issue save the last, be they an article on nuclear deterrence in this new world order or an extra from an ageing superheroes memoir.

As with the greatest science fiction though, Moore is not content with simply asking how the world would be different, but also asks whether we would want it that way. Manhattan may be able to wish away intercontinental ballistic missiles, but far from guaranteeing peace this has only led to the Russians amassing an ever greater arsenal in the hopes of creating one so big that if even only a tiny fraction get through it will be sufficient. This gives rise to the doomsday clock, edging towards midnight, that drives the narrative in a world where the threat of nuclear holocaust is as present, if not more so, as at any time in the cold war.

It's difficult discuss the comic further without giving away what happens in the end, which, in case you haven't read it, I don't want to do, but suffice to say it isn't easy. How diabolical really is the villain? Is there actually a moral case to be made for his master plan? How far is it right for the hero to compromise? I don't think it gives anything to say that no matter how many times I read it, the end remains troubling and I still don't know exactly what I think about the questions it raises.

True, that leaves this a review that omits to mention most of the characters, or so many of the little touches that make this a masterpiece. But then you could write whole books on Rorschach alone. However, that's not quite what I had in mind writing it. Rather, it was to get to the core of what, for me, marks it for greatness, and hopefully I've done that.

The sentence has been written countless times: if you only ever read one comic book, it should be Watchment. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but read it you most certainly should, even if the genre is something you would normally turn up your nose at. Then reread it a while later. And again, for this is art of the level that shows you something more each time. This is a work of true genius and true greatness.

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