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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David Anthony Durham, The Sacred Band

I read something recently that made the point that fantasy writers are in a bind of sorts.  For marketing purposes, one must write a trilogy, because that’s what the audience expects, after Tolkien.  However, third books in trilogies apparently sell very poorly.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  I know I was the first person to check out David Anthony Durham‘s The Sacred Band, the third book in the Acacia trilogy.  People are missing out, I suppose.

The short story is that Durham pulled it off.  I am not sure, given his chops, that this is that great an achievement.  He is more writer than most people who make their living from it.

More interesting is that Durham resolved a number of the tensions in the series in good ways.  In particular–and I don’t know his politics, I don’t know his political vocabulary, so I don’t know how he would phrase this–he reverses the fascist tendency in the genre to great effect.

I use the word very deliberately.  Tolkein, despite having fought the Hun himself, and despite the whole Lord of the Rings series working in its way as among other things a proxy narrative for the war against Hitler, used deeply fascist logic in his approach to his subject.  Moorcock aimed his punch well, only to pull it:

He claimed that his work was primarily linguistic in its original conception, that there were no symbols or allegories to be found in it, but his beliefs permeate the book as thoroughly as they do the books of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, who, consciously or unconsciously, promoted their orthodox Toryism in everything they wrote. While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they certainly don’t exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don’t ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.

In 2012, this is like some colleague of Pat Buchanan‘s saying that he’s not saying Pat’s precisely racist, but that he would do better to keep his mouth shut.  If it quacks, it’s a duck.  Yes, Tolkein’s books were fascist, but not the fascism of the actual Brownshirt.  His was the fascism of we see so well portrayed in “Heimat.”  Resistance to change become willingness to back genocide.  Be clear: Tolkein’s solution to conflict is genocide.  When Sauron goes, so goes his entire crew.

Zizek is on-topic:

Picking and choosing is the problem.  I’ve had all kinds of discussions with people who want to like the idea of Buddhism.  (Leave aside the practice of it.)  People balk at the idea that attachment produces suffering.  “But I love my dear husband!  That’s good!”  Sure, it’s good.  You suffer over it, though.  Why?  Because of your discriminating mind.  Tolkein loves the Hobbits but he hates the Orcs.  The Hobbits are good and the Orcs are bad.  So, who commits the genocide?  The good guys.  Durham rebuts:

[Rialus:] “Yes, but they want war and conquest, murder just as much. They are vile. Just vile!”

[Aliver:] “They are not ‘just vile.’ There is more to them than that.  If you cannot see that, then you have only one of two choices: destroy them or be destroyed by them.” (524)

Can’t fault Aliver’s logic, and much of the US electorate would do well do consider its implications.

No character or group of people, in Durham, is without some perfectly comprehensible explanation for their behavior or pursuit that makes it impossible to dismiss him, her, or them as evil.  The adversary army, the Auldek, invades because evidence convinces them that they will once more become fertile in a new land.  Their actions are unfortunate, but very comprehensible.

This is how I see the genre, plainly: we have Tolkein, Moorcock’s critique, and then, broadly speaking, a hashing out between the two, with Tolkein holding sway above all commercially.  I have made it clear that I adore Moorcock, but his critique, aside from stylistic, is political and ontological, where Durham’s is ethical and historical.  Politically, Moorcock critiques Tolkein’s Toryism from an anarchist perspective, and denies the existence of good and evil, positing instead order and chaos.  Good for Moorcock!

While I might imagine that Durham and I both vote pragmatically left, there is nothing in the Acacia trilogy that is specifically political.  Rather, there is an ethical imperative: a person must act in a way that recognizes the fundamental humanity of all other humans.  Leave off that we are dealing with all kinds of different species in a fantasy novel.  The point is that everyone in the book has a backstory and everyone in the book wants to be happy.  If we recognize this impulse in another, it is impossible to slaughter him or her.  What did the orcs want, in Tolkein?  If Tolkein had dropped his Toryist, genocidal approach to the orcs, he might have noted that they didn’t create themselves, nor did they create their impulses.  Not that massacring villages is OK, but it’s an action.  The orcs as beings were another matter.  They were like a bunch of drunks: they needed to stop their nonsense, but they came by it honestly.

Durham’s historical critique aims not simply at Tolkein’s model of benign and therefore fictional monarchy but rather at large states generally, and United States as a historical process specifically.  The genre disguises it, as well as the specificities of the plot, but when we are talking about major societies run by slave power, in the case of Ushen Brae, slave souls’ power, the US needs to enter the discussion.  The point is that, quite the contrary to the typical fantasy-genre nonsense of a good monarchical state, Durham takes pains to illustrate how the states in the novels maintain themselves through the extraction of labor power from subject populations.  The royal family, adhering to the contours of the genre, provides focus for the plot, but their state has a rotten moral core and Durham makes no bones about it.  If one were to apply his basic question–how do states maintain themselves?–to the US, the US would look pretty bad.  The central role of the slave trade in Acacia’s fortunes obliquely, as Acacia is a supplier rather than consumer of slaves, inevitably raises the question of how the United States became a world power in the nineteenth century.  At least, it ought to.  This is what distinguishes Durham from Moorcock.  Where Moorcock took a contrary position to Tolkein on abstract ideological grounds, Durham does so on concrete historical grounds.  Actually-existing large states, he notes, have always been ugly.

Well-played, Durham.