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."

~

4 comments:

  1. (1) I'm with you on Grant Morrison's criticism; as I read his words I thought, "Well, but ... yeah ... isn't that the POINT?" And of course it is. But if you're a guy like Grant Morrison, you likely don't look at things the same way as everyone else does; that's how you get to be you. So I don't begrudge him the opinion.

    (2) "I mean, isn't the whole point of it to point out the Freudian geopolitical catacombs underpinning the impossible designs of the superhero genre?" Without a doubt in my mind. It's also, obviously, a comic book about comic books (specifically, about the art form and the ways in which it can be expressive.) Add those two ideas together, and bam, you've got "Watchmen." Maybe for Morrison, it's a case of not being to see the forest for the trees.

    (3) "What's the punchline and at whose expense? And how would the reader be complicit in any of it, even if it were?" In a way, Morrison seems to have taken the sort of viewpoint the Comedian would take. I guess you could say the reader becomes complicit in one of two ways: if they side with Adrian (a theoretical possibility) then they side with mass-murder and social engineering. If they cheer on the discovery of Rorschach's journal then they side with psychopathology and with keeping the world mired in strife. Neither are especially appealing options, and I doubt Moore intended them to be. This all works for me just fine.

    (4) Does Darwyn Cooke truly find no hopeful notes? I think there are tons of them throughout. The hope is frequently drowned in misery or despair or failure, but the HOPE remains. Part of the story's effect is that while some of the "superheroes" are kind of lame and pathetic, most of them do end up being quite courageous. I think "Watchmen" serves to remind us of why we LOVE superhero stories; I don't think it's a knock against them in any way. Moore might have intended it that way, but if so, then I think he convinced himself he was wrong at some point during its writing.

    (5) "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.)" Absolutely! And well-put, too. I also love that smile from Doctor Manhattan. Of course, he'd have known all along that that was where things were headed, wouldn't he?

    (6) The fact that Sally is shedding tears over the Comedian never fails to move me. However stereotypical the characters might be, that element is not.

    (7) "I'm not sure when it became fashionable to believe Watchmen starts stronger than it ends." One dude somewhere thought it, and then said it, despite having no idea what he was talking about. then, a bunch of other doofuses read it and seized on it for some arcane reason of their own, despite the fact that they neither understood the original argument nor understood why they agreed with it. They were just happy to have something to agree with. It's the new way of being wrong about stuff online.

    (8) "Watchmen" is a masterpiece. That is all.

    A fine series of posts, too. Sorry to see 'em come to an end!

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  2. In particular, I noted Morrison's use of the word "realism".

    The more I go over the various imaginary landscapes and the populous that inhabits them, the more I think its a mistake to look for any kind of "realism" in a work of fiction meant as entertainment.

    I would apply this even to genres that "appear" real such as Noir or Westerns. The reason why is because fiction's dirty little secret is that it all relies on "heightened artifice" in order to accomplish its goal.

    I think when Morrison tries to apply the ideas of Realism (a school of criticism developed sometime in the 19th century in response to Romanticism by the way) is not only confusing terms, but also perceptions. What I'm about to suggest may sound a bit weird, but I think the potential danger of this kind of thought is that by trying to apply the categories of reality to artistic make-believe not only means the audience is refusing to let a story fulfill its function to entertain, but I do wonder if it isn't possible to get reality and fiction somehow confused in the mind, thus resulting (unintentionally or not) in not being able to tell the difference between a simulacrum and reality.

    Yeah, it's just an idea that I've entertained, yet it seems to me that a lot of Morrison's criticisms of "Watchman" are open to these kinds of responses.

    In fact, I think its interesting to contrast the overall gist of Morrison's "SuperGods", which seems to be an almost cult-like devotion to the idea of childhood idols which either distorts this devotion out of proportion or else doesn't allow for the kind of nuance Moore was going for.

    Granted, it he were to apply these same words to a lot of what DC is doing now, then I don't think I'd even be arguing the point. I think Morrison might be putting too much blame on Moore for a trend he never meant, and that was pretty much out of his hands.

    At least that's the train of thought GM's critique set off in my head. I don't know if I just parroted all that the post said, though. I think logic can be found in fiction, but its just of a more metaphorical, symbolic, psychological, as opposed to realism.

    All in all, not a bad retrospective look back I think.

    ChrisC

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    Replies
    1. Glad to you enjoyed the series. I think Supergods is fantastic, myself, truly an amazing book and a well-articulated and consistent philosophical approach. That said, I can't fathom his Watchmen POV at all.

      Moore and Morrison's long-standing feud is fascinating. I wish they could hang together like King and Straub instead of repel each other like, I don't know, can't think of a proper example.

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    2. Story is a multi-faceted tool, and sometimes realism can be a part of that. But essentially I agree with you, Chris; it's mostly a mistake to expect realism, even from something like a "based on a true story" sort of fiction. And frankly, it's a truism that can be applied to a great deal of nonfiction, too; more of that is mythmaking than most people would probably be comfortable admitting.

      If you want to get all existential about it -- and I know you do! -- then there are at least two ways to think about all of this. First, you can rail against it, and demand not merely an increase in truthfulness from historical texts, but also an increase in realism from writers of fiction.

      Second, you can shrug and say that the world is what we make of it, and accept the notion that all bets are off.

      I'd say I lean closer to the second option, which obviously makes me an Adrian Veidt sympathizer. And in some ways, yeah, that's accurate. But I start to get a little sweaty and nervous any time I consider lying on a social-engineering-sized scale.

      So for me, in the end, I think that that is where the role of fiction and myth comes in. I'd prefer that we be as truthful as possible about our history, but I also recognize that we have a powerful need to tell ourselves lies like we get from movies and tv and whatnot. (Not to mention outright fantasies like "Watchmen," which are by no means MORE of a lie than, say, "JFK," but which come at the lie from a different angle.) As long as we don't kid ourselves -- and in turn try to convince others -- then I think we end up on the right side of things.

      If we do that, then something like "Watchmen" ends up fundamentally being a work of emotional truth, and it therefore has a great deal to say as "realism." You just have to know how to approach it.

      McMolo, I believe the example you are looking for is Tupac and Biggie. Or maybe not, actually...

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