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.

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.