Thursday, June 6, 2013

Watchmen: A strong and loving reputation

Watchman isn't just a 12-issue men-in-tights comic from the 1980s by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It's a monolith of mainstream comics, and a massive metaphor for crative rights, creative freedom and sheer creativity. It's the gold standard, accepted amongst normal society – the only comic on Time's list of the greatest novels ever. It's a stirring saga of heroism and betrayal, and the ultimate example of extreme craft and careful thoughtfulness. Its influence on modern comic books is still everywhere and current comics with critical acclaim are still compared to it.

Then again, Watchman really is just a 12-issue men-in-tights comic from the 1980s by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It's easy for the comic to be overshadowed – and even crushed – by its own immense reputation.

I certainly knew of its reputation long before I actually read the comic. I never saw a new issue of Watchmen on the shelves of bookshops in my town, and by the time I even knew it existed, it was all over. I was also 11-years-old when it started coming out, and I thought X-Men and Rogue Trooper were the greatest comics in the world, so was a bit young for all this mature reader craziness anyway.

But then I would see the odd advertisement for it, or read about it in a magazine or something, or see it mentioned in a Johnny DC column, (this last one was actually my primary source of information about Watchmen for quite some time).

I didn't even know if it was a superhero comic. All I knew was that it was being talked up as the next great evolution in mainstream comics, that it dealt with utterly relevant issues in a mature manner, and that it had something to do with sugar cubes.

It was about three or four more years before I learned what Watchmen was all about, and even then, I still hadn't read a panel of the comic. What I had read was the Who's Who entry, which explained the plot and history of the Watchmen, condensing the entire 12-part series down to a page of text. I was more confused than enlightened by it all, but I knew I would have to read this Watchmen comic one day, to see what all the fuss was about.

Seven years after the first issues of Watchmen came out, I actually got to read the comic, picking it up from a record store in Dunedin, the first time I ever went to visit my mates at university.

That was one of the best weekends of my life - for lots of different reasons - and a small part of that is the memory of sitting on a tiny sofa in my friend Kaz's dorm room, cracking open this Watchmen thing for the first time, and diving right in.

And it was everything I'd hoped for. I was 18 by this time, and primed for a comic like Watchmen, a comic that was sharp in both art and story, and was all grown up, and dead serious, and important. It took me a few years to get there, but my first impression was that Watchmen really was as good as everybody said it was.

And of course, being 18-years-old, I got a bit evangelical on it and pushed it on everybody I knew, even if they didn't give a damn about comics. A few of them caved in, and it became the one book I was always lending out to people, all the time.

It was always the same copy, and I still have that book that I bought in Dunedin all those years ago, although it's pretty banged up now. After lending it out tonnes of times to people over the years, and reading it myself dozens of times, it's cracked, and a bit faded, and there is a good chunk of the cover missing, (that bit of cover was eaten by a dog which almost choked on it years and years ago, and the dog is still alive, as far as I know, even though it must be incredibly old by now. I don't know what this means...)

That book has been camping with me, and I've read it on planes, trains and buses. I read the whole book a dozen times the first couple of years I had it, and then at least once a year for a long time. I still read it every couple of years or so, even if almost all of it has become over familiar.

Even though all this was 20 years ago now, I was late coming to Watchmen, and the backlash had already started by then. That amount of unambiguous praise will always generate some kind of blowback, and there were gleefully vicious reviews of the series appearing in magazines soon after the story ended, as critics tried to stand out in the crowd by shouting nastier and nastier things.

Anybody who feel for the charms of Watchmen at a young age invariably gets a bit embarrassed at their youthful enthusiasm and feels the need to slag it off a bit. I can't be the only 20-something-year-old who ended up writing something provocative on a comics message board, and thought they would be different from the herd by tearing down an icon.

Of course, all those devastatingly clever points about the plot holes and sterility of Watchmen that I made had all been made years ago. I wasn't saying anything new, and there have now been so many critiques of the work over the past three decades that they're a herd of their own.

I still see people saying 'Watchmen isn't that good, actually', and then standing back to enjoy the gasps of horror, and I used to roll my eyes at it, but now I think that's just adorable and quite cute. They're going through an anti-Watchmen phase. God, I wish I was that young again.

So you can't blame people for taking an anti-Watchmen stance, (or for not getting into it in the first place, for perfectly understandable reasons), but there is nothing to fear in the timeless symmetry of the comic itself.

Reading it now, it still looks effortlessly brilliant (even with all the work that went into it), and it's still complex and challenging in just the right ways, with a perfect tone of grim incredulity. And everyone forgets how funny it gets, with bulging stomachs and gags about sexual dysfunction and violent retribution.

And it's also a very humanistic work, as the main characters actually act like real people in unreal situations, while secondary characters have just as much humanity as they comment from the sidelines and ultimately pay the final price for a brave new world.

They're proper people, not just faceless masses - messy, complicated, cruel, compassionate, silly people, who give the climax its tragedy.

No jokes at the end of the world.

Things like the two Bernard's at the news-stand were something that the movie version of Watchmen didn't have – the dense plot meant all the real meat of the story was cut out for a series of events for the cinematic version, without the human touch.

And no matter how much it annoys Moore, that movie is part of its legacy now, and most people will now come to that story through the slick lens of Zack Snyder. The latest assault on its legacy – the incredibly misguided Before Watchmen – felt like a real concern in the months leading up to it, but then all the comics turned out to be, at the very best, okay. And blandness is always easier to ignore than an outright disaster.

Watchmen is still, first and foremost, a 12-issue men-in-tights comic from the 1980s by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and while its reputation has become a bit tarnished over the years, that's all right, because there are always new readers ready to clean it off and find the gold beneath the filth.

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