Thursday, September 4, 2008

Reflections on Watchmen

When I finished reading Watchmen this past weekend, I was so beside myself with a dizzying mix of intense emotions that I couldn't gather my thoughts together into anything nearing coherency. Hence the delay of this post.

It's been a long time since I've read anything so sharp, challenging, moving, or beautiful. I have to admit that when I first heard of Watchmen, I found it surprising that Time Magazine would put a graphic novel on its list of 100 Best Novels (all English language novels 1923-2006). I mean, this is the list that has To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, Invisible Man, and all those other books you read in high school English class (as well as The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). A glorified comic book on a list with these greats? But now that I've read it, I see that it deserves its spot on the list.

I am a far cry from an avid comic book reader--I could count the number of comic books I've read on one hand (leaving the binary count-to-31 trick aside)--so while I cannot evaluate Watchmen's impact on the world of comics or compare its content and presentation to other prominent graphic novels, I can comment on my reaction to Watchmen as (like the average person) a genre outsider. Dave Gibbons' art was a perfect visual complement to Alan Moore's dialogue. Dialogue continuing over flashback panels, cuts back and forth between scenes, intertwining a fitting comic book throughout the novel, the use of motifs--I was struck by the artfulness of the presentation. Various characters provided striking insight in unexpected places. A section at the end of each installment provided newspaper or magazine clippings, personal invoices, chapters of an autobiography, and collections of other tidbits, which was a clever way of giving the reader a better understanding of the characters and the world in which they lived. And I loved the little details, such as the short quotes slipped in at the end of each chapter as relevant commentary on the events in the chapter. It all seemed to me to be everything that a graphic novel should be, a perfect display of the format--I cannot begin to imagine it as an unillustrated novel.

The story was incredibly powerful. It takes place in a world just like ours up to the point that a handful of people suddenly decided to put on costumes and fight crime (or promote it) as masked vigilantes. The other major event that threw this world in a different direction from our own was a scientific experiment accident that yielded an enormously powerful individual who can single-handedly end a war as well as develop new technologies at a super-human rate. In the present day (1985) of this world, masked heroes are illegal, forcing most into retirement. The murder of one of the masked heroes leads others to believe that there may be a mask killer hunting them down, but there is something much bigger being set into motion. Watchmen is a fascinating study of psychology and morality. What kinds of people become masked heroes? What do such people do when they retire? How do they think? What means can be justified in the pursuit of a noble cause? What is a person worth?

I wouldn't have thought I would describe the experience of reading a comic book with these words, but between the engaging, challenging story and its artful presentation, I found Watchmen to be breathtakingly beautiful.

The following are a couple of my reflections on specific issues in the story.
HERE BE SPOILERS until next set of asterisks

Reflection 1: People as Miracles
Dr. Manhattan's ultimate reason for returning to Earth was his realization that every single human being is a miracle; considering the chances of our parents and their parents and each of their parents, etc. meeting and procreating, coupled with the probability of each particular sperm meeting each egg to produce each person in every step of the process, the chances of each of us being born seems infinitely small. I have considered this idea before, though not in the context presented in Watchmen. I am familiar with the concept as a part of a philosophy of religion argument, an argument that had led me to dismiss the notion that each person is a miracle. The argument goes something like this: What are the chances of the fundamental constants and properties of the universe being such that we can have a solar system like ours and a planet like ours with just the right characteristics to foster life? The chances are so infinitely small, how could it be an accident? It cannot. Therefore, there must be some greater power that created the universe in this specific way. The response (let's see if I can do a reasonable summary; trust me that the argument is at least somewhat convincing if explained well): This question is irrelevant since we would not be around to ask it if the universe hadn't worked out the way it did. Consider the infinitesimal chance of my birth. Should I assume that a higher power specifically orchestrated every single occurrence, every single sperm movement throughout history such that I would be born? Such an assumption would be extremely conceited. Had events played out differently someone else would merely be here to wonder at the tiny chance that she was born. Since it doesn't make sense to assume that a higher power guided events leading to my birth, it does not make sense simply to assume that such a power guided the creation of the universe. And so I had grudgingly concluded that, though it may seem that way at first, each person's existence is not a miracle. But Dr. Manhattan's conclusion made me think about the issue again--I did not like finding my reasoning challenged by one such as he--and I realized that the philosophical argument is not actually contrary to Dr. Manhattan's conclusion. The argument merely says that my birth is a miracle of chance, rather than one of active guidance. I suppose we can each be considered miracles, after all.

Reflection 2: If the end is right...
Ah, the big philosophical elephant in the room, or, shall we say, the giant octopus in the city: Can any means be justified by a great enough end? When all is said and done, it is difficult to find a fault in Adrian Veidt's goodness (which is not to say whether or not his actions were right, simply that it is hard to dismiss him as evil). He knows that he has done a horrible thing to countless people. Millions in New York killed in a moment of pain and terror by the monster he created, plus all the people who helped him create the monster murdered by him as well. But he remembers them, honors them, tries to picture their faces, feel the pain that he made them feel. And it was all to bring about world peace. How many more did he save by (apparently) unifying the world in peace when it was on the brink of nuclear war? In the end, only Rorschach could find fault in Adrian's actions. At least, while the others may have found fault in Veidt's actions, given what had already occurred only Rorschach was still willing to bring Adrian to justice for the wrongs he had committed. Viewing the morality of the issue in black and white, like the mask through which he views the world, Rorschach saw no room for compromise. Morality is not black and white, but that is not to say that Rorschach was wrong. I think readers are meant to take his side; he is the most popular character from the novel even though he is, well, a bit crazy. But is Veidt actually the crazy one? To hatch a plot like his and see it through... Is it insanity or clarity that allows him to drop the bomb on the chance that it will save more lives than it destroys? The position that Dan and Laurie find themselves holding is extremely complex. Had they been able to, they would have stopped Adrian's plan. But given that they failed to stop it, they are not willing to expose his crime and see him punished. This middle ground, this compromise, is maddening. Were they right? Was Veidt right? Was Rorschach right? These three possibilities are mutually exclusive. Ultimately, the issue is left open ended. "In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends."


It will be interesting to see how the movie turns out (assuming that it turns out at all). The casting choices were intriguing. Some of the age castings were odd; Matthew Goode, 30, was cast as Adrian Veidt, who is supposed to be 46. Of course, the story hops through time so much, I suppose they had to cast the actors and let makeup age them appropriately, knowing that they'd be the right age for at least one scene. I think the casting of relative unknowns was a good choice, and I look forward to seeing how the actors do. Still, I wonder if the movie can possibly do justice to the graphic novel. Alan Moore, in his typical disdain for Hollywood, has washed his hands of the movie, saying that there are elements of Watchmen that can only work in graphic novels, and no movie adaptation could--or should--attempt to do it justice. I already know the comic-book-series-within-a-comic-book-series will not be in the movie, though it will apparently be an extra on the DVD. How many other clever bits had to be cut? What can a movie version of Watchmen bring to the story that the graphic novel could not? Will it be enough to compensate for what is lost? The Lord of the Rings movie adaptations did what few adaptations are able to accomplish: while cutting out significant portions of the story, they were able to add enough to the experience to validate the transformation of the book to the film medium (e.g., I felt more sympathy for Gollum in the movie than I'd ever thought to feel while reading the book). Can the Watchmen movie do the same? Already a graphic novel, it is perhaps more difficult achieve this goal. A tall order, indeed.

The Watchmen graphic novel revolutionized the genre. Watchmen movie director Zack Snyder has said that the movie will similarly turn the comic book movie genre on its head; for people who think that comic book movies are unintelligent fluff, this movie will prove them wrong and validate the comic book movie as a respectable genre. The thing is, this summer's The Dark Knight was a phenomenal success with both critics and the general public. If Dark Knight already accomplished what Snyder hopes Watchmen will accomplish, this may not be the climate in which he wants to introduce his movie. I am a little concerned about this fact. Of course, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was published immediately before Watchmen (February - June 1986 vs. Watchmen's September 1986 - October 1987) and was heaped with praise, and there was still room for Watchmen to be recognized for its greatness. Movies are a different business, but still, there's hope. Hope, assuming the movie is good. I will be one of the fans in line to see how it turns out.

1 comment:

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