Alan Moore, Watchmen

watchmen-thumb-350x538I’d been meaning to reread Watchmen for years now, but I didn’t feel like I liked the book enough to spend money on it, and it was always checked out at the library. Then, lo and behold, it was on the shelf a few weeks ago. A part of me wants to write a lengthier piece, and may at some point. Here, 500 words or so.

My first take on Watchmen, borrowed from a friend about a decade ago after I’d first gotten into comics, was that its reputation greatly outweighed its value. I had heard “greatest comic ever” from any number of people, and once I’d finished it, it was clear to me that those people were simply repeating to me what any number of people had told them. It was as if there needed to be a greatest comic ever and Watchmen was in the right place at the right time and so took the title. My second read has confirmed that first impression.

I’ve written about Moore’s Swamp Thing elsewhere and all of the basic critiques of his writing there were really expressions of what I’d felt upon that first read of Watchmen. What became clearer on this second read, however, was just how full of holes he is as a writer, or rather how wide the gaps are in his understanding of the world as it expresses itself in writing. Moore gets plenty of stuff right, to be sure. As a critique of superhero comics from within, the work is brilliant. Moore is a guy who–it seems to me from the outside–has an understanding of his medium that few likely can equal in sophistication, however one may disagree. No need to over-rehearse the details, but Moore very clearly exposes the fascist implications of the genre. Watchmen is genuinely meta, and from a time–late 1980s–when meta remained semi-hip.

Likewise, the comic is one of the finest documents of British/European Center-Left Cold War nuclear angst of which I know. Outside of its place inside comics, this is probably its chief importance as literature generally. As the Cold War has ended outside only a few right-wing think tanks, the possibility of nuclear annihilation has faded from public consciousness, however real the possibility remains. So too, at the time of publication, the general discourse in the United States was all Reagan triumphalism. Falklands aside, there was more room in public for a robust anti-nuclear movement in England, possibly because England lay in the middle of the two nuclear “superpowers.” Interestingly, reading Watchmen in this light gave it a vitality where it might, in 2013, seem a relic. Moore clearly had passionate feelings on the subject, and his eggheadery needs all the passion it can get, as a tonic.

The flaw in the work is that Moore references things he doesn’t really understand. One example: Nite Owl’s ornithological article, “Blood From The Shoulder of Pallas,” at the end of issue #7. No actual 1980s academic journal would publish an article a) in the flowery prose of British gentleman historians of the late 19th century that b) questioned the whole premise of the academic discipline the journal represents. That’s not how journals work. It might have been a letter to a colleague. This is admittedly a detail, but from a guy who seems to want to be placed among literary titans, it is completely unacceptable. The work is littered with similar semi-understandings. I’ll get to those in depth later, maybe.

577 words, not 500. I gotta reel it in.

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Frank Miller, Batman: Year One

I had and exchange with the tremendous Matthew Southworth on Twitter.

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Valuing, as I do, the opinion of creators in a medium–Southworth not only the artist on the brilliant Stumptown comic, but a musician as well–I figured it might be time for me to get over my distaste for Frank Miller. Not even so much for Miller’s work, which I’ve largely avoided, but for Frank Miller.

As this isn’t a comics blog, a word or two about Miller. He is one of two names that’s near-always mentioned as part of the Great Growing-Up of comics as a medium in the mid-1980’s. Alan Moore is the other name, almost always mentioned first despite alphabetical order. Where Moore’s work is cited for literary ambition, Miller’s work, particularly his run with Batman, above all The Dark Night Returns, is tagged with terms like, “gritty realism,” and “adult-oriented.” Batman, in Miller’s world, is intensely violent and sociopathic, but sociopathic against criminals. He is a criminal against criminals. Society, in Miller, consists of helpless, faceless masses, a small number of venal movers and shakers, and a vastly smaller still number of decent people who actively try to improve society.

Not as problematic as Miller's Occupy rant.

Not as problematic as Miller’s Occupy rant.

So, Miller clearly has never been a little-“d” democrat, and he showed it with a now-famous rant against Occupy, in 2011, published, no link provided here but easily enough found, on his own blog:

The “Occupy” movement, whether displaying itself on Wall Street or in the streets of Oakland (which has, with unspeakable cowardice, embraced it) is anything but an exercise of our blessed First Amendment. “Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.

And that was just the first full paragraph. Moore responded:

I’m sure if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman make-up on their faces, he’d be more in favour of it.

So, when Southworth pointed to Miller’s Batman: Year One as his all-time favorite comic, it’s not so much that I was sceptical of its quality, but I approached it with some concern. I’d tried previously to make it through The Dark Night Returns, but very simply could not stomach Batman’s sociopathy.

Batman: Year One, despite the title, isn’t about Batman, however, but about James Gordon, future Commissioner Gordon. [ADDENDUM: to be clear, it’s Batman who takes the primary focus in the book. What I’d argue, though, is that the real drama takes place with Gordon’s development.] Part of the problem with a world view like Miller’s is that it substitutes contradiction for nuance. Batman is a criminal who fights crime. Contradiction. Miller, despite this, achieves some nuance with Gordon. He has an extramarital affair, but is torn up about it. Not that remorse is an excuse, but it does show some real complexity. I suppose if anything, reading Year One gives me the clear impression that, at his best, Miller can write.

The problem of course is that Miller, like Moore, demands to be read not only for entertainment, but for ideas. And so, while I agree with China Mieville that we need to allow ourselves to enjoy art even when the politics of the work repulse us, part of the enjoyment of a work of art for me is precisely the process of critiquing it on among other things political grounds.

This is not an original observation–Moore himself made it among others–but the thorough reprehensibility of Miller’s social politics is entirely on display throughout Year One. Above all, his famous misogyny. Selina Kyle, Catwoman, is a prostitute. Most of the women we see here are as it happens involved in sex work. The exception to this is the colleague–subordinate, actually–with whom Gordon has an affair, and Gordon’s wife. The partner in Gordon’s affair, in Miller’s imagination, is, despite her professional credentials, really just ready to jump in the sack with her boss. Gordon’s wife is the only woman in the thing who is not, fundamentally, a sexual object, and Gordon is, clearly, turned of by her. In Miller’s world, if a woman isn’t simply and completely sexual, she’s repulsive.

Even in something like this, which from what I gather is leagues away from something as gratuitously brutal as Sin City, Miller’s work drips misanthropy. This is not simply a moral or political failing, but an aesthetic one. People in general, in Miller, are pretty rotten creatures. It begs the question, then, why there is any virtue in fighting crime. Why protect people who are themselves crap–because Miller, fan of Ayn Rand, certainly sees people that way. Heroes tower above sheep. Rand, whatever else you’ll say–and I know this only from others’ reports–had John Galt up pick up his marbles and leave. That made sense, given the point she was making about society. There is no reason to help people if people in general are truly crap.

Revenge motivates Miller’s Batman, not any sense of wanting to improve society. We see how the Wayne parents’ murder scarred their son, Bruce, but there’s no indication–necessary for aesthetic reasons–that Bruce transferred the pain he felt because of the trauma to any kind of appreciation for living people. For Bruce to become Batman, he needs to have said at some point to himself,

Wow. It sucked the my parents were killed in front of me. But look at this living person in front of me. He’s beautiful. She’s beautiful. They’re worth fighting for.

With that thought process, Batman could be Batman and still keep his “darkness.” Without that kind of thought process, you can’t explain why someone would put in the effort into becoming Batman. As it stands, Batman is really just a d**k. But my impression is that Miller understands being a d**k better than he understands anything else.

Michael Moorcock, The Stealer of Souls

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The book, and the man himself behind it.

Though I hadn’t read the Elric stories in this anthology the first time around–I read the old DAW versions, in order of the internal chronology–I continue this new pattern of rereading stuff. I like it. A good book read at a different point reveals something different.

I don’t know why, fix or six years ago, I decided to read Elric, but it was at the time the first work in the genre that, once started, I actually finished. For whatever reason, likely a piercing nostalgia for my childhood adventures in Dungeons & Dragons, I took Elric up. I’d tried to read Robert Jordan many years earlier when someone I worked with at a bookstore told me how genuinely well-written it was. I was not impressed. Maybe I’d read it differently, but the language seemed artificially archaic and I detected no moral subtlety. I made it through 50 pages at most.

Likely, one of the things that drew me not only into but through the entire Elric series, excepting Moorcock’s more recent novels, was what immediately impressed me again this time around. Moorcock, it bears repeating, came up in a literary world of monthly magazines and fanzines. He had to engage his reader from the start unlike something drafted with the intent to occupy a minimum of three volumes. I have read, as a glance at this “blog” indicates, plenty more since in the genre, but with the possible and for me likely exception of Fritz Leiber, for straight-up page-turnability, Moorcock has no peer.

Likely, as well, I initially chose Moorcock and Elric particularly because of his reputation as a critic of Tolkein. Rereading the work, it’s impressive how, working with the concision pulp literature demands of its authors, Moorcock provides an exceptionally clear and systemic philosophical framework for the narrative. Tolkein’s son–good for him–has milked his father’s background sketches for decades now, and while some point to the volumes Tolkein wrote with no expectation of publication to sketch the backstory to The Lord of the Rings as a virtue, it strikes me as more akin to the shut-in who works, in his dingy apartment, all week preparing volumes for the one evening he will act as Dungeon Master at the Wednesday evening D & D game at the local game shop, volumes the bulk of which will never get pulled out of his backpack but which will be lovingly filed in one of the stacks on his bedroom floor. Moorcock, very much the contrary, drew up a clear sketch, thought about it to see if it worked, and then, knowing it did, got down to the business of writing something he actually wanted to see published.

One thing to note about this particular anthology is that it apparently follows the date of publication rather than the internal chronology I’d first encountered. Stormbringer, in which Elric dies, was, I now know, written quite early, with intervening stories later. The upshot is that while I expected I’d read the first portion of Elric’s story, I got the first bit and then the last. The other volumes in this series I gather fill in the rest. This is fine, but to fact is that I would rather have kept the internal chronology. Bear this in mind if you investigate the work.

As an aside, while Alan Moore‘s introductory essay displays all of the pomposity that mars his own work, I read it and felt that I’d wished he’d become a literary critic rather than a comic book writer. He fully understands both Moorcock’s literary and his social significance, and communicates both objectively and entirely clearly. Moorcock’s essay which follows Moore shows a man less impressed with his own erudition and at the same time clearly more genuinely erudite. Moorcock comes off as someone aware of his talents but much more interested in the work itself than what the work indicates about his own value as a person, an enthusiast in the best sense of the term.

Alan Moore, Saga of the Swamp Thing

I have an ambivalent relationship to Alan Moore.  On the one hand, I admire his skill immensely.  Anyone who has genuinely mastered a craft and has, further, added to it, deserves respect.  Also, I sympathize with anyone whose ambition is create a work that will earn a chosen medium the respect it deserves but is often denied.  I work in popular (often “folk,” a term I really don’t care for) music, and Moore in comics.  I fancy myself an artist, and so does Moore.  All this is great.

Scriptor asinus est.

At the same time, having taken some Latin classes when I was a schoolboy, I recognize, to take the example, Moore’s frequent use of schoolboy Latin for the smarmy pretension that it actually is.  I know that dropping Latin phrases makes a person seem well-educated, but believe me, people, if I can read it without a dictionary or Google, all it means is that Moore attended Latin class when he was a kid, and he may or may not have passed it.

I also–and at some point I want to write a piece on this–take strong issue with the elevation of Watchmen above, more or less, every comic ever written.  It was at the right place at the right time, but as a coherent critique of the fascist tendency implicit in both the superhero as a literary device and United States history writ large, it misses the mark.  No understanding of race at all in it: Moore’s America is a drama among white people.  The real America is not so narrow and never was.

So, Moore’s Swamp Thing: everything that bothered me about Moore in Watchmen, which made Promethea unreadable for me (I tried) and which seemed toned down in the British setting of V for Vendetta, all this everything is there in Swamp Thing.  Somehow, however, it’s all made tolerable by the near-total inanity of the titular character.  The Swamp Thing itself, a walking, talking plant, is such an idiotic idea that the best of Moore’s brilliance–and to be sure, he’s brilliant–can shine.

I don’t know the back story of why Moore took on the series, and I’m not inclined to research it.  I prefer to imagine, possibly correctly, that, balls swollen from Watchmen, he asked for the single worst character in the DC universe, the one every writer dreaded getting, so he could do something fantastic and prove how small minded the other writers on the staff were.  No idea if that happened, but it would be nice.

The introduction makes a big deal about the first storyline in the book, which details how any why the Swamp Thing came into being, completely ignoring Len Wein‘s original idea, which, knowing nothing about it, apparently didn’t really make a lot of sense.  I will say that Moore’s take works beautifully: it’s internally consistent, and has a veneer of scientific plausibility that makes one forget in the moment how completely unrealistic the idea of a walking, talking plant actually is.  This reader forgot, while reading it, how totally stupid the actual premise of the comic was.  That’s an achievement.

Ultimately, I like my comics less artsy than highbrow “graphic novels,” but more substantial than run-of-the-mill superhero stuff.  A guy like Jack Kirby, however, I can admire because it’s so clear how talented he was, and how thoroughly he was in control of his medium.  In general I find Moore’s position–capital “A” “Artist”–annoying at best and juvenile at worst, even if the juvenile in question would doubtless be a child prodigy.  With Swamp Thing, the character itself tones everything down a bit, and we’re left with Moore’s considerable talent and intelligence.  Go ye forth and read.