Why I'm Keeping Watchmen on My Island

I don’t have the complete Scene rules and regs book in front of me, but I’m pretty sure the TAS bylaws require that I respond to this, by Noah:

The Watchmen, by Alan Moore. I should probably put this in the same category as Kundera, and just say this is a phase some boys have to go through, and leave it at that. And I’ll admit, it holds your attention. When the movie came out recently, instead of going to see it, I re-read the graphic novel. And I was certainly able to read through it – it was a breeze. I wasn’t bored. But trash isn’t generally boring. And that’s the problem: this is trash dressed up as something more. And the sensibility behind the book is not actually one that you want anybody taking seriously.

A few points:

1. Noah should consider himself clever and lucky that he chose to reread the book rather than watch the movie. The more I think about Snyder’s adaptation, the less I like it. The sensibility behind it is puerile in the extreme. Say what you will about Moore and his book, at least he had a story to tell and something to say. Snyder, on the other hand, just had something to repeat. Watching his movie bears no small resemblance to being harangued about Objectivism by an obnoxious sophomore who’s recently spent far too much spare time memorizing passages in Atlas Shrugged.

2. It appears as if the problem, for Noah, is that he views Watchmen as aspiring to be meaningful and important in ways that it’s not. I’ll grant that it’s a bit overwrought, but I think this misses the point, as does his criticism that its sensibility is not one you’d want anyone taking seriously. I actually agree, with one possible caveat.* But as Noah admits, it’s highly readable, even gripping; it rather expertly holds your attention all the way through. And that, I think, is actually in stark contrast to most comic books, which tease you with the notion that they’ll serve up memorable, gripping-but-trashy thrills, but tend to deliver incoherent, unreadable, juvenile bullshit. What Watchmen does — the reason I think it’s so enjoyable and successful — is fulfill the promise of comic books to be really excellent trash. It’s pulp, yeah, but it’s really good pulp — a complete, genuinely intriguing, mostly coherent story with a few obvious, just-ambiguous-enough themes and a handful of well-crafted genre types as characters. There’s action and romance and betrayal and historical sweep and the fate of the world and, really, what else do you need? Or expect? We’re talking about a comic book.

Of course, most superhero comics have a tough time delivering dialog that isn’t cringe-worthy, much less anything like a surprising twist or a memorable character. You’d think the medium would be spilling over with terribly enjoyable trash, stuff that didn’t exactly insult your intelligence but also allows for plenty of souped-up, spandexy fantasy. Not so. As with video games, comic books are pretty awesome in theory, but the bulk of them are worthless. And that’s what’s so great about Watchmen. It’s not that it’s some transcendent work of culture-transforming genius, it’s that it’s a perfectly executed piece of cynical middlebrow pop. Not anything more — but that’s all it needs to be.

*Who would you want taking the Watchmen sensibility seriously? Well, not most people, I think, but most comic-book writers who are not Grant Morrison could probably stand to insert more ponderous claptrap and overly grand socio-political gobbledeygook into their work. At least aim for sweep and complexity and ideas and resolution, even if it leads to self-importance, rather than soap-opera teases and endless built-up non-events and situational stasis.