1.06.2017

Watchmen at 30, pt. 12: A Stronger, Loving World



WATCHMEN at THIRTY,
pt. 12


The last chapter of Watchmen opens with the garish four-color aftermath of Ozymandias' master plan to save humanity from its own aggressive shortsightedness

Here's the plan again in case you forgot.
And here's the garish four-color devastation.

Watchmen is widely regarded as a literary achievement of the highest order, but there is at least one notable dissenter: Grant Morrison. He's the highest profile Watchmen-skeptic I can think of. He devotes a chapter of Supergods to a detailed and incisive critique of the work - as he certainly should, since the book is subtitled Our World in the Age of the Superhero.

What's Grant's problem? His argument is worth checking out in full in Supergods - the whole book in general not just the Watchmen critique- but here are a few excerpts:

"Dazzled by its technical excellence, Watchmen's readership was willing to overlook a cast of surprisingly conventional Hollywood stereotypes: the inhibited guy who had to get his mojo back; the boffin losing touch with his humanity, the overbearing showbiz mom who drove her daughter to excel while hiding from her the secret of her dubious parentage, the prison psychiatrist so drawn into the inner life of his patient that his own life cracked under the weight. The characters were drawn from a repertoire of central casting ciphers to play out their preordained roles in the inside-out clockwork of its bollocks-naked machinery." 

It's an odd objection to me. Bollocks-naked clockwork, okay, but surely the "central casting ciphers" part of it is intentional? I mean, this is a work deconstructing the broad strokes of the superhero genre; it only makes sense to utilize familiar tropes for such a purpose. Fair enough of an observation, but who cares? Genre deconstruction of this scope works better if the audience doesn't have to learn new characters. 

And besides, to appreciate Watchmen's characters - most especially Rorschach and Sally Juspeczyk - only as Hollywood cliches is as limited as appreciating them only as ciphers for the original Charlton characters  on which they were based.

More specific to this last issue of the story, Morrison takes aim at Veidt's plan in general: 


"Ultimately in order for Watchmen's plot to ring true we were required to entertain the belief that the world's smartest man would do the world's stupidest thing after thinking about it his whole life. It's there where its rigorous logic runs out, where its irony is drawn so tight that the bowstring gives. Its road ends. As the apotheosis of the relevant, realistic superhero stories, it had come face-to-face with the bursting walls of its own fictitious bubble, its fundamental lack of likelihood. No real world could be as beautifully designed as Watchmen's 4-D jigsaw puzzle."

I do this one some discredit by excerpting only part of a larger and more eloquent discussion about the nature of 2-dimensional reality. But as for this portion of it, is the objection that Watchmen is designed too beautifully? That it is, after the curtain comes down, merely a work of imaginary construction? Or that by artfully employing a degree of artificial realism (!) whatever real-world resonance it achieves is undone? I mean, isn't the whole point of it to point out the Freudian geopolitical catacombs underpinning the impossible designs of the superhero genre?

As for "the world's smartest man doing the world's stupidest thing," I'm equally confused here. I suppose it's worth considering that Veidt's plan stands a good likelihood to fail. But is that what Morrison is suggesting, that Ozymandias should have known better? Why would it matter? I mean - we accept that Doctor Doom is a genius but also that he does crazy things that he's sure will work and never do and seem obviously wrong in hindsight. 

And isn't this all not implied in this final exchange between Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias?
 

Is the objection that Moore did not actually come up with a credible way to achieve world peace? That'd be funny. I'm sure it's just that Morrison doesn't buy that Ozymandias would carry forward such a plan, much less to fruition, but I hope that he's just head-shakingly stuck on how the whole transdimensional-false-flag thing would never work




Tim Callahan over at the Tor Moore ReRead agrees with me here:   

"The fact that any deep investigation into the creature’s origins would make Veidt’s world-saving short-lived, well, that’s an implicit part of this conclusion (and) a more than appropriate symbol for the sci-fi roots of this series and the shallowness of the smartest man in the Watchmen world. Sure, by the end of issue #12, everyone seems to have bought into Veidt’s fabrication, and maybe his vast fortune has helped to cover up any seams in the phony monster, but there’s hardly the sense that the world is healed forever. It’s a temporary fix, a band-aid over a gaping wound. And only a delusional narcissist would think that anything is resolved."

Finally, Morrison takes aim at the very end of the story, where Seymour, the long-suffering assistant/ intern at the New Frontiersman, is told to dig something out of the crank file to fill some pages in the new issue. As he reaches for whatever's on top, we see a familiar-looking journal.


"The book's last words are 'I leave it entirely in your hands' and if the reader asks "What?" the answer awaits on the first page of the journal. They have set up their readers to pull the fatal switch, drafted them as executioners to undermine the world's greatest superhero's ultimate utopian triumph. We were Seymour, reading the journal, joining the story (and) made complicit in Moore's final mean joke, with a story that was completed beyond the page in the reader's mind."

I respect Morrison as both a writer and as a bold and original observer of human nature and pop culture. But I truly can't relate to his POV on Watchmen, especially here. How is the ending a mean joke" What's the punchline and at whose expense? And how would the reader be complicit in any of it, even if it were?

Me, I love the wraparound effect of the ending. It started with a murder and a mystery, and it ends with a murder and a mystery. And one that only RWNJ readers of the NF - like Rorschach at the story's beginning - will ever get wind of. Kind of funny, really, that these are the bookends of a series that takes place in a USA still governed by Nixon.

Not to worry, though.

"I’d consider it a masterpiece if it had been able (to find) what I would refer to as a hopeful note." - Darwyn Cooke  (Sorry for the lack of link - seems to have disappeared from the EW site.) 

And yet what struck me most on this reread of Watchmen was how it's really a story about characters who learn or remember how to love (Sally, Laurie, Dan, Doc Manhattan) and those who are tragically unable to (The Comedian, Rorschach, Veidt, Kissinger.) And they move forward with that knowledge/ memory. Very hopeful indeed.

It's re-enforced visually - like everything else in Watchmen - throughout.
I love this smile from Doc Manhattan shortly before quitting Earth forever.

If there's an explicit message that sums up Watchmen in my own estimation, it's what Laurie says to Dan shortly before they leave Antarctica.


Perhaps "It's really all about loving each other because we're not dead" isn't the most satisfying answer, dramatically or even logically, (sorry, Dr. Frink) but it is, after all, a sane and hard-won realization. With so many false narratives and murky motivations, what is real? Only that. There's tragedy mixed in with that realization as well - all the innocent lives, some of them in varying stages of reconciliation or conflict as we saw in issue 11 - but again, beyond the manipulation of the watchmen on the walls, that's life.

This shadow cast by Dan and Laurie morphs into the shape on Rorschach's mask. A good segue to:
One last time.

Upon learning that Veidt's scheme worked, at least temporarily, and that his fellow masks are going to go along with the cover-up, Rorschach shrugs and bows to the greater wisdom. Sometimes compromise is necessary, especially in the face of Armageddon.

Oh wait.
The complete opposite of that, I mean.
So long, Rorschach.

Perhaps the most poignant of the love-arcs wrapped up is when Dan and Laurie (in their new identities as Mr. and Mrs. Hollis) visit Sally.

Interesting Outer Limits episode to pick for the TV background here.

We're introduced to the Comedian as a murdering rapist-facist-mercenary, and he remains a fairly irredeemable character throughout, despite being the voice of truth in some scenes. Yet the final discovery is not that Laurie was born out of sexual assault but of a consensual encounter after that fact. That Sally still maintains tender feelings for "the monster" is, of course, symbolically linked to everything else going on in the series. 


Emotionally complicated stuff. (You don't even have to add "for a funny book," though rest assured every last review did at the time, usually a little too defensively.) This is definitely - I would even presume to say precisely - the right emotional note to end on. (Not counting the Seymour New Frontiersman stuff - very important and awesome, but a coda and not the proper ending this visit to Sally Jupiter is.) To the very last, the reader - far from being complicit in some kind of mean joke - is forced to examine the easy conclusions and black-and-white morality of comics as they had been practiced for decades. 

I'm not sure when it became fashionable to believe Watchmen starts stronger than it ends. It seems to be enough of a common opinion out there that when I suggest the opposite (anonymously, at comics-nerds sites) I can count on being told I "just don't get it." Usually with more enthusiasm. Seriously, when did this become a thing? Goddamn nonsense. Watchmen ends as it began - blowing apart your goddamn mind and heart, and if that's not getting it, I'll take it. 

 

I'll be back with one last post looking at Tales from the Black Freighter and some of the other supplemental material I skipped over. Before I go, though, I just wanted to give a shout-out to Tom Stechschulte who narrated the Motion Picture Comic. At times - such as when Dan and Laurie hookup - having one voice read all the parts got a tad distracting, but only slightly more than when listening to an audiobook. Stechschulte did a commendable job, as did the MPC-creators all around. I've seen a handful of these things, but this is the only one I've watched more than once.

Whether that's a comment on the material or the quality of the MPC I can't accurately say, but it's an agreeable combination.  

"What is that, Dan? What's that you smell of?"
"Nostalgia."

~