Every time a new superhero blockbuster comes out, it's as if a comic-book shop has exploded, showering chunks of itself across the country: bat-logo on a billboard here, Superman on the subway there, Spider-Man in the supermarket checkout line. The campaign for the latest superhero movie, Watchmen, is a bit of a buzzkill, however, because alongside the gorgeously angst-laden posters of people sulking in the rain, we have to listen to endless defensive lectures on the "importance" and "influence" of this comic book. It was the only comic book included in Time magazine's list of 100 best English-language novels! People have written respectfully about it in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. It's a masterpiece!
It's also a failure.
Maybe that's too harsh, but if a work of art can be judged by its influence, then Watchmen failed completely. The first issue of the 12-issue miniseries debuted in 1986. What originally excited everyone were its innovations in design: a vertical, instead of horizontal, logo (to take advantage of the new racking system in comic-book shops), covers that never featured the characters (a big no-no at the time), letters pages and messages from the editor replaced by pages of fabricated text from imaginary books and articles mentioned in the comic. Fans and industry professionals knew it was something special, and it sold well, despite being priced at $1.50 instead of the regular 75 cents, but it wasn't until Watchmen was collected as a trade paperback in 1987 and labeled a "graphic novel" that it crossed over into the mainstream. Along with 1986's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen spawned an avalanche of "Bang! Pow! Zap! Comics Aren't for Kids Anymore!" press coverage. But artistically, Watchmen came and went, and the promised revolution in comic-book storytelling never happened. The comic was written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons,and became to comic books what The Sopranosis to TV: an intellectual fig leaf concealing the vast wasteland of Two and a Half Menreruns.
But Watchmen's failure wasn't that it failed to influence other comics but that the book's most meaningless and shallow aspects were mistakenly hailed as its virtues and then widely imitated. Much praised for its "realistic" take on superheroes, Watchmen made the point that superheroes, realistic or otherwise, were beside the point. Its costumed do-gooders are retired, impotent, or insane, and they generally do more harm than good. Their adversaries are virtually nonexistent, and when we do see them, they look more like Vegas magicians than world-class threats. (SPOILER ALERT!) When the villain's master plan is finally revealed, the heroes are helpless to prevent it from coming to fruition, and millions die.
With this surprising development, the comic reframed itself: Watchmen isn't about crimefighters coming out of retirement and taking up their rightful mantles, but about how they never should have existed in the first place. The nuclear war they're trying to prevent is almost entirely their fault in the first place, and the arms race that preceded it was accelerated by their mere existence. In Moore and Gibbon's alternate world, the only solution to the Cold War is a holocaust. In our superhero-free universe, the Cold War ended peacefully at the hands of regular-strength humans, no superheroes required.
In a recent interview, Alan Moore said, "The thing that I most regretted about Watchmen: That something that I saw as a very exciting celebratory thing seemed to become a kind of hair shirt that the super-hero had to wear forever after. … [T]hey've all got to be miserable and doomed. That was never what me and Dave intended." While the blame can't entirely be laid at the feet of Watchmen,its novelty helped bring about the avalanche of grim-'n'-gritty comic books that followed in its wake. DC comics, the home of Watchmen, would go on to have Batgirl crippled and sexually humiliated by the Joker in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke (a comic that the author himself regrets having written), and DC later staged an event called "A Death in the Family" where the fate of Batman's ward, Robin, was placed in the hands of readers who could call a 900 number to vote on the Boy Wonder's fate. Predictably, they voted for him to be beaten half to death with a crowbar and then blown up.
The year Watchmen came out, DC had already discovered the sales boost that came with knocking off superheroes, having killed dozens of them in their best-selling Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries. The publisher would, over the years, kill Supergirl, Superman, the Flash, Green Lantern, a handful of Robins, and, most recently, Batman. Watchmen helped kick off a decadent death spiral that would see adolescent violence peddled as adult content full of rape, murder, and corpse-burning.
While the Watchmen movie uses the comic book as an excuse to get another superhero property on-screen, what makes the comic a classic are the normal people. Watchmen is a so-so superhero murder mystery until in Issue No. 3 it takes on a resonant third dimension when characters who would normally be relegated to walk-on roles in the background take center stage: a news vendor, a kid reading comic books for free at his newsstand, Rorschach's therapist and his wife, a gay cabdriver and her activist girlfriend.
A fourth dimension is opened up when a comic book about pirates being read by the freeloading kid at the newsstand becomes part of the narrative, amplifying and commenting on the action. Visual details linger from scene to scene, linking disparate locations and characters; conversations started by one character are finished by another; and every detail, every image, every sentence seems to contain the entire DNA of the story. There is no center because it's all center. The lurid violence of the superhero plotline is overshadowed by truly heroic acts of forgiveness, selflessness, and the facing of hard truths by characters who would normally barely merit a glance in an issue of Batman. Needless to say, most of these characters and techniques are missing from the finished film, which views Watchmen from only the superhero fan point of view, which is the least rewarding approach.
It is Watchmen's formal invention, its de-centering of the narrative, the way that Moore and Gibbons use the trappings of a superhero story to smuggle in a series of sketches about ordinary people, that is its great achievement. After Watchmen, Alan Moore attempted the most ambitious comic book of his career, Big Numbers. A miniseries in roughly the same format as Watchmen, it would completely avoid superheroes (whom Moore describes as "a bit morally simplistic") and instead focus on the residents of a small British town thrown into disarray when an American shopping center opens in its midst.
Production problems resulted in the cancellation of Big Numbers after only three issues, but it's a clear indication that even at the time he was finishing Watchmen, Moore was less and less concerned with superheroes and more and more concerned with average folks. The achievement of Watchmen is that it showed comics could do something exciting and complex that wasn't tied up in the concerns of the superpowered set. But it's a testament to the power superheroes have over our imaginations that the costumes ultimately overshadowed everything else and will be front-and-center this Friday.
Slate V: The critics on Watchmen and other new movies