Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 21st installment.
Though the Paul Levitz-era DC Comics delayed the (unfortunately) inevitable, more Watchmen comics — by decidedly un-Alan Moore, un-Dave Gibbons writers and artists — are on the way. Shortly after the announcement about Before Watchmen was made, I wrote a piece about the new Watchmenverse comics here at Tor.com.
After rereading the entirety of Watchmen, I have a slightly different perspective than I did when I wrote that post.
I still think some of the prequels might turn out to be readable, given some of the writers and artists involved, but the existence of Watchmen sequels don’t make even the slightest bit of sense, except as a cash grab. Watchmen as originally presented, is a sealed system. It has its flaws, but it is whole and doesn’t need a single corner of its world further illuminated.
In his outright rejection of DC’s plans for more Watchmen, Alan Moore has erroneously claimed that Moby-Dick never had any sequels. Moby-Dick has, in fact, had sequels, and adaptations, and reinterpretations over the past century and a half. But Moore wasn’t just pulling the Moby-Dick analogy out of thin air for recent interviews. Even when he was conceiving of the project that would eventually become Watchmen, and this is evident in his original proposal, he had Moby-Dick on his mind. Not just because he wanted to write a comic that would eventually be taught in schools and sit on bookshelves with the best literature of all time – though Watchmen has certainly gained that stature already – but because Moby-Dick is a work of layered maximalism, with fragments of other types of literature (stage directions, non-fiction essays, nested stories about other whaling vessels, chowder recipes) woven into a heady mix. Watchmen is that, but for comics.
And here’s the troubling part: as much as I love Moby-Dick (and I’ve read it more than Watchmen, believe it or not, mostly because I used to teach it every year in my American Literature course), I can’t read it without Patrick Stewart and Gregory Peck racing through my mind whenever I get to any of the Ahab scenes. And since the Watchmen movie, as I found out with this reread of the graphic novel, I can’t read Watchmen without Patrick Wilson and Malin Ackerman and “99 Luftballons” wooshing through my skull.
I tried my best to put them aside, and I mostly succeeded in treating the text of Watchmen as its own beast, but I was always conscious of having to suppress memories of the film as I was reading. And I can’t help but think that Before Watchmen will similarly taint Watchmen, not because they will affect the completed Moore and Gibbons work in any way, but because they will worm their way into the heads of any future readers of the original series.
I’m more opposed to the Watchmen prequels than I was a month or two ago. Not because of the moral issues involved, or because the new comics won’t be interesting in their own way, but because rereading Watchmen has reminded me that the original series deserves to be read without distraction, without unnecessary hangers-on.
So let’s look at the final three issues that way, while we still can. And if you’ve managed to avoid the movie filled with all those terrible wigs, even better!
Watchmen #10 (DC Comics, July 1987)
As I mentioned last week, the final half of Watchmen becomes more traditionally plot-centric, as Act II comes to a close and leads to the comic booky climax of the series.
That’s what we get in this issue, plot point after plot point, but never presented in anything even tending toward a perfunctory manner. No, these plot points resonate with humanity, as the characters turn toward each other and look for companionship as the end of the world looms. All except Ozymandias, who retreats from humanity even as he professes to save it. That’s how you can tell he’s the villain of the story, because he isolates himself. That, and his giant plot to destroy half of New York City.
But we don’t know all that as of issue #10 – many of those climactic revelations are yet to come – and what we get here is a sense of impending doom as President Nixon bunkers down, “Tales of the Black Freighter” (still an ineffective component of the series, unfortunately) becomes more gruesomely bleak, and Rorschach and Nite Owl follow the breadcrumbs to the north, where Adrian Veidt has retreated to his arctic fortress.
This is an issue that underlines the patterning in the story, with Veidt letting dozens of television broadcasts wash over him in an attempt to predict the global trends – and profit from them, even as he knows the weapon of mass destruction he’s about to unleash – and Dan Dreiberg stating, “I need some pattern that makes sense of the data we have.” The pattern clicks into place for our flawed heroes when they trace everything back to Veidt and hack his computer by guessing his ridiculously simple password.
That’s one of the laughable moments in the narrative right there, a cheap-movie contrivance where a simple password reveals the villain’s mysteries. But in the context of this series, is it really such a cheap contrivance? Doesn’t Veidt want Nite Owl and Rorschach to find him so he can reveal his plan to them? To someone? Veidt seems full enough of hubris to have manufactured even his own pursuit, just so he could let his old allies know the extent of what he’s done to save the world.
The back-matter of this issue includes some internal Veidt Corporation memos, and when the details of the new line of action figures appear (Rorschach comes with a removable trenchcoat and hat!) I find myself crashing back to the reality of the post-Watchmen movie merchandise. Watchmen figures still line the shelves of dusty old comic shops near you! But I digress, because I have to.
Watchmen #11 (DC Comics, August 1987)
Act III, the confrontation with the villain. The final battle. The resolution.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons provide that here, and subvert it all in this issue, with a lengthy epilogue in issue #12.
Watchmen, as a series, is basically all second act moments, with history embedded within it. The story launches after Edward Blake has already died. We begin with the investigation already under way. And by the time the investigation reaches its conclusion, it’s too late for anyone to do anything about it. There’s a climax here, but the mere human Nite Owl and Rorschach can’t stop the massive catastrophe that Veidt plans to unleash. They don’t even learn the details of the plan until it’s too late. And then it’s over. And Dr. Manhattan still hasn’t returned from Mars.
This is Adrian Veidt’s spotlight issue. The smartest man in the world. A self-proclaimed, self-made modern Alexander the Great. And Moore and Gibbons hammer that point home here, with half a dozen explicit references to the ancient Macedonian. It’s Alexander’s solution to the problem of the Gordian Knot that takes over here, and informs the decisions Veidt has made. His plan to save the world by manufacturing an alien threat.
It’s a machination with a classic sci-fi pedigree, from Theodore Sturgeon’s “Unite and Conquer” from 1948 to 1963’s “Architects of Fear” as seen on Outer Limits.
That’s his radical solution to the Gordian Knot of the world on the brink of a nuclear war. As he tells Nite Owl and Rorschach (and the reader), “Teleported to New York, my creature’s death would trigger mechanisms within its massive brain, cloned from a human sensitive…the resultant psychic shockwave killing half the city.”
He thinks his plan will “frighten [the world] towards salvation.” Wars will stop as countries ally themselves against the alien attack.
Some may dismiss this part of Watchmen as blatant absurdity, but I see it as the most intelligent character in a comic book universe taking a very comic booky approach to solving the world’s problems. Of course he retreats to a science fiction cliché in the end. For all of Watchmen’s nods towards realism, it’s not realistic at all, is it? It takes its characters seriously and develops a complex narrative schema around them, but Watchmen is a superhero comic to the end, with costumed vigilantes and matter-manipulating superhumans and devious villains who declare their maniacal intentions in the climax.
It just so happens that within that framework, Moore and Gibbons tell the story a bit differently. The heroes don’t rush in to save the day. They are quickly dispatched by Veidt when they confront him. And Veidt’s self-aware monologue, where he reveals his plan, ends with these lines: “I’m not a Republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”
And as we cut to the glowing light on the streets of New York and the flash of destruction, the two Bernies – at the newsstand – rush into each other’s arms before being vaporized. It’s about the human connection, Moore and Gibbons remind us. Even as everything goes white.
Watchmen #12 (DC Comics, October 1987)
I can say for certainty that the final issue of Watchmen reads completely differently now than it did when it appeared in 1987. Even after the white light at the end of the previous issue, it still seemed strange to jump immediately to the aftermath in the opening pages of issue #12. Moore and Gibbons provide us with six splash pages of devastation. Bloody corpses everywhere. Monstrous tentacles piercing the pavement and concrete walls.
The giant psychic squid.
I’d like to note, for the official Great Alan Moore Reread record, that at no time does anyone in the comic actually refer to Veidt’s monster as a “giant psychic squid.” It’s meant to be an alien beast developed by the world’s most imaginative creative minds (for what they think is a movie project). And its appearance was foreshadowed several times in the series, with a direct pencil sketch of the monster popping up on a couple of pages in previous issues.
Unfortunately, after all of the amazing things embedded in Watchmen, the opening splash pages in the final issue seemed, at the time, disappointing. They were not exactly laughable, but they didn’t pack the same kind of catastrophic horror that we’d see a year later when John Totleben would show us a destroyed London in Miracleman #15.
With 25 years of space in between, the final issue of Watchmen feels more appropriate now. The beast is an artifice, a hollow, gaudy creation masterminded by the gaudy and emotionally hollow Adrian Veidt. Though its existence raises some unanswered questions — notably: how does the manufactured monster hold up to scrutiny, once the dissection begins? – it is a more than appropriate symbol for the sci-fi roots of this series and the shallowness of the smartest man in the Watchmen world. The fact that any deep investigation into the creature’s origins would make Veidt’s world-saving short-lived, well, that’s an implicit part of this conclusion. Sure, by the end of issue #12, everyone seems to have bought into Veidt’s fabrication, and maybe his vast fortune has helped to cover up any seams in the phony monster, but there’s hardly the sense that the world is healed forever. It’s a temporary fix, a band-aid over a gaping wound. And only a delusional narcissist would think that anything is resolved.
Yet it’s not as simple as that, either, because Dr. Manhattan is willing to play along with Viedt’s plan, once it seems to have worked. When he finally returns to Earth with Laurie – in this issue – immediately after the psychic non-squid assault, he learns that Veidt was responsible for his delay and for his inability to see this future. Veidt’s tachyon interference has prevented Dr. Manhattan playing the deus to his ex machina.
And Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre, once they are reunited – and later, under assumed, but very thinly-veiled, new identities – don’t put up much of a fight either. They go along with Viedt’s plan instead of attempting to reveal the truth.
Only Rorschach, uncompromising, makes an effort to reveal Veidt’s plan to the world, even if it will push the planet back to the brink of annihilation. Dr. Manhattan stops him. Forever.
Some superheroes these turned out to be.
Then again, they were flawed from the beginning, weren’t they?
Though I’ve done my best – and failed – to take these Watchmen issues on their own terms, I can’t help but think about what Before Watchmen participant Darwyn Cooke said about the status of the original series: “I’d consider it a masterpiece if it had been able to have found what I would refer to as a hopeful note.”
As flawed as characters, and their world, may be, I can’t imagine an interpretation of Watchmen that doesn’t recognize its inherent hopefulness. It presents a world prepared for global nuclear war, and the war is averted. Characters have done horrible things, and many have died, but in the end, Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk are together, living happily ever after just like Clark Kent and Lois Lane in the end of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
The final page of the final issue shows Rorschach’s journal – and all of its truths – moments away from being picked up, but it’s also moments away from being ignored. Anything could happen after these final pages, but the fact is that the story’s over after that last page, and as it stands, Viedt’s preposterous plan has worked. Millions have died so billions might live.
Harsh as it may be, there’s a hopefulness there. It’s not the cynical text Cooke makes it out to be.
It’s an angry text. A satirical one. A self-reflexive commentary on the superhero genre and mainstream comics and their sci-fi beginnings. But it ends with hopefulness for the future of its world.
To read it any other way, particularly as some kind of justification for profiting from working on sequels, that’s the cynical act.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons have given us something better than that.
NEXT: Not Watchmen — Vigilantes, Green Arrows, and Space Men from Omega