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#1 SDG

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Posted 05 March 2009 - 09:27 AM

I did a little research and it seems that discussion about graphic novels usually goes under "Literature and Writing" rather than "Visual Arts" -- though in fact comic-book art, like cinema, is essentially a fusion of visual art and verbal art (though it lacks the cinema's participation in performing art), and thus ought to go under "Arts in General."

There's been some discussion about Watchmen in the movie thread, but the graphic novel certainly deserves discussion of its own, and now is as good a time as any. In fact, the movie demands discussion of the graphic novel, simply because it's one of the most faithful adaptations of any source material of any kind, ever -- in fact, a case could be made that it is the single most faithful adaptation of any source material, since only comic-book art could exert such a profound influence on both the visual and the verbal aspects of a film.

So much is this the case that, as I work on my Watchmen review, I find that I have chosen to begin with six paragraphs all about the graphic novel, which I am posting here in the hope of getting discussion going.

QUOTE
Along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, also released in the late 1980s, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's graphic novel Watchmen redefined what comic-book art was capable of being and accomplishing. I was an art student studying cartooning when Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns first appeared; heady times for comic-book enthusiasts.

In my review of Miller's ill-advised recent cinematic take on Will Eisner's The Spirit, I wrote that The Spirit had been the Citizen Kane of comic-book art, and The Dark Knight Returns had been the Godfather. Watchmen does not suggest a similar cinematic analogy, but reading it one might be at turns reminded of Dr. Strangelove, Bonnie and Clyde, Dirty Harry, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Taxi Driver.

It is a work of remarkable density and sophistication, a deconstruction of the superhero genre rather than, like The Dark Knight, a reinvention and a deepening of it. Subversive, cynical and nihilistic, Watchmen paints a universe in which Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight would feel right at home -- in fact, he might just find that there was nothing for him to do here.

In this world, the amoral Comedian, who regards life as a meaningless joke, is one of the so-called heroes. The psychotic Rorschach schizophrenically sees the world in morally black and white terms while simultaneously regarding morality as a projection of human meaning onto meaningless patterns. Dr. Manhattan, the only figure in the story with obvious super-powers, is so detached from humanity by his godlike status and quantum perspective that he has a hard time seeing a meaningful difference between life and death. Then there's an Olympian figure who sets out to save the world by an act more monstrous than the Joker's wildest machinations.

On one level, Moore sought to craft a narrative exploring what masked vigilanteism might look like in the real world, with flawed and marginal characters rather than the altruistic do-gooders of traditional comic-book mythology. On another level, although he made some effort to imbue his characters with varying outlooks, Moore's anarchic, atheistic worldview clearly informs the narrative as a whole.

The story could be called a critique of super-hero hubris, of those who in setting out to help mankind set themselves above the rest of humanity. The title is an allusion to the Roman poet Juvenal's pointed query, "Who watches the watchmen?" (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) The climax threatens to rip the rug from under traditional heroism altogether -- until a final twist rips the rug from under the climax, and the story seems to end as it began, with a meaningless, deadly joke.


#2 Christian

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Posted 05 March 2009 - 10:22 AM

Thanks for this. As someone who’s struggling to grasp the basic thrust of the story, I used the word “nihilistic” in the first draft of my review, but removed it after looking up the definition:

1. Philos.
a) the denial of the existence of any basis for knowledge or truth
b ) the general rejection of customary beliefs in morality, religion, etc.: also ethical nihilism
2. the belief that there is no meaning or purpose in existence
3. Politics
a) the doctrine that existing social, political, and economic institutions must be completely destroyed in order to make way for new institutions

From the movie, I don’t really get a sense of nihilism in terms of definitions 1 and 2. Maybe 3 applies? But the “new institutions” would be a reversion to previous institutions that were banned, wouldn’t it?

Any help is much appreciated.

Edited by Christian, 05 March 2009 - 10:22 AM.


#3 SDG

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Posted 05 March 2009 - 11:12 AM

I thought hard about the term "nihilism" before using it, because I use it a lot, and I don't want to overuse it. Maybe I'm just living in nihilistic times and haven't noticed yet.

In any case, I think it definitely applies to the story of Watchmen, absolutely as regards the graphic novel and to an extent as regards the film.

In fact, I think all three of the definitions you cite probably apply to one degree or another. You could make an argument that the movie subverts nihilism in the third political sense, since there is a sort of nihilistic character in that sense (i.e., Ozymandias/Veidt), whose efforts are (on the last page of the book!) ultimately subverted. But I think that merely reinforces the existential nihilism of the first two definitions. You could argue that the denouement ultimately leans toward Rorschach's worldview that what happens in this world isn't God, just us, and that the only meaningful patterns are the ones we create ourselves.

Veidt tells Nite Owl that there is no room for his "obvious," "schoolboy" heroics in the world to come. But then it turns out that this new world is not to be either. The final image, the doomsday clock at midnight, suggests that Veidt's plan has simply failed and that the world is back at the brink of destruction -- but this time without the possibility of Dr. Manhattan averting the end. That would be nihilistic in a fourth sense, a story that builds inexorably toward annihilation. Even if, somehow, the world pulls back from this possibility, Veidt's plan has still apparently failed, and whatever happens could easily be felt to be random and meaningless by almost any of the points of view at play in the story.

I know there are Watchmen fans here -- any other thoughts?

#4 opus

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Posted 05 March 2009 - 11:21 AM

I've never really used the term "nihilistic" when describing the book to friends, etc. I suppose that's because it seems like such a strong term to me and I have trouble applying it to things that I ultimately find laudatory and worth praising, which is certainly the case with Watchmen.

Yes, it's certainly cynical and subversive, but I find it more a cautionary tale about the brokenness of man (though I'm not sure Moore would ever use the term) and that even humanity's best and noblest attempts to save itself are doomed to failure, and in fact, are often contaminated from the very outset (e.g., Veidt's willingness to do the unthinkable to achieve his goals, which additionally, are arguably driven as much by his ego as they are by his altruism).

#5 opus

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Posted 05 March 2009 - 11:33 AM

I found this quote by Dave Gibbons (Watchmen's artist) interesting in light of the "nihilistic" talk:

QUOTE
Basically, what [Alan Moore and I] were trying to do as lifelong fans of superhero comics, we were trying to get to know them a bit better. We thought there were questions that hadn’t been asked before, that related to society in general. Why would someone put on a mask to fight crime? What is a vigilante? The whole title of the book: Who watches the Watchmen? Okay, you’ve got people to watch over us, but who watches them? So there’s this question of responsibility. There’s also the moral ambiguity about deciding to do something for the good of society that might turn out not to be for the good of society. What right does anyone have to decide what’s good for people? So there were these issues we explored there.

There were also comments on recent American politics. That time in the Western world was a frightening time in many ways. There really was a threat of imminent destruction. It was a very real fear for Alan and I –- could it really all go very badly? The period was fascinating globally, too, because you had wonderful things like the moon landings and the cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, but you also had Vietnam and the assassination of figures of hope like JFK or Martin Luther King Jr. So all those ingredients, when mixed in with the Watchmen characters, are what gives it its flavor.

The full interview is here.

#6 SDG

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Posted 05 March 2009 - 12:04 PM

Opus,

Thanks for your input. FWIW, I've read comments like this from Gibbons before, and I don't see that they correspond to what Watchmen actually does. If Moore said such things, I'd have to take it somewhat more seriously, but at this point I'm not convinced Gibbons really speaks for Moore on this point. I think Gibbons resists the idea that Watchmen is a deconstruction of the super hero genre, but Moore is quite clear on this point.

A cautionary tale has to point us toward something as well as away from something. Does Watchmen do that? Not that I can see. A tale of the brokenness of man ought to have some insight into the value of what has been broken; I'm not sure Watchmen does.

Watchmen is a super hero story without heroism. Not with ambiguous heroism, flawed heroism, heroism mixed with anti-heroism, a la DKR. Nite Owl, the most traditionally heroic (by disposition) character in the piece, is literally as well as figuratively impotent. He is also the most benighted. Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach and Ozymandias are each in their own ways more "enlightened" than Nite Owl, and they all have some sort of nihilistic worldview. Veidt debunks heroism -- and then his vision is debunked.

Not shades of grey, but stark black and white -- in meaningless patterns, onto which we only project meaning. There is no meaning, no fate, no God; just us, and the horrors we visit on ourselves. Ultimately, we are all in the dark -- and there's plenty of pitch-black darkness (child rape and dismemberment, etc.), but little if anything that could be called light. Well, maybe if a woman has consensual sex with a man who once tried to rape her, someone might contrive to see some sort of light in that.

The story is about a countdown to doomsday. One character has a horrifically nihilistic plan to avert it, and in the end he succeeds in enacting his plan -- yet the outcome is ultimately thwarted by an unforeseen consequence of the actions of another nihilistic character. The most unimaginable of sacrifices is enacted, to no avail. The fate of the world turns on a meaningless chain of events. If that's not nihilistic, what is?

#7 opus

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Posted 05 March 2009 - 12:25 PM

Well, you got me there. smile.gif

I guess my reluctance to use that term stems from the fact that I find a lot of value in the title, as both a story (in that it's well-told and amazingly involving) and as an exploration/deconstruction of the artform. As I said, I just have trouble applying the term "nihilistic" because it's such a loaded term for me. I guess this is a whole other discussion, though: can a work that is nihilistic still be praiseworthy and laudable? (And so opens a can of worms???)

#8 Darryl A. Armstrong

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Posted 06 March 2009 - 01:55 PM

On a lighter note, PVP Online provides an amusing retelling of the Watchmen story... smile.gif

Edited by Darryl A. Armstrong, 06 March 2009 - 01:59 PM.


#9 Foolish Knight

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Posted 15 August 2009 - 05:52 PM

QUOTE (SDG @ Mar 5 2009, 10:04 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
The story is about a countdown to doomsday. One character has a horrifically nihilistic plan to avert it, and in the end he succeeds in enacting his plan -- yet the outcome is ultimately thwarted by an unforeseen consequence of the actions of another nihilistic character. The most unimaginable of sacrifices is enacted, to no avail. The fate of the world turns on a meaningless chain of events. If that's not nihilistic, what is?


Is it fair to call the climax-subverting item (trying not give too much away, here) "unforeseen?" Isn't what ended up happening with it what that character hoped for? (If I were to plop my journal in the box of a newspaper company, I think that's what I'd be hoping for.)

Anyway, the only reason I question it, is because this is what ultimately saved the book for me. I remember telling people that it ended on a 'surprisingly hopeful' note.


I'm just going to go ahead and "spoilerize" this whole post. Since I'm not sure what's sacred and what's not. smile.gif

#10 SDG

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Posted 15 August 2009 - 06:43 PM

For large-scale spoilers, the Hide tag might be better than the Spoiler tag -- and it's iPhone friendly too. (Even though I can select text on my iPhone, it doesn't reveal blacked-out spoiler text. My only expedient is to hit "Reply" and read the text in the Compose field. But I can expand Hide text easily.)

Of course, other handheld devices might not even hide Hide text or Spoiler text, so what do I know? Let the handhelder beware.



In moral philosophy terms, you could say that Veidt is a Proportionalist (i.e., "The ends justify the means"), while Rorschach is a Deontologist (i.e., "Let Right be done though the heavens fall").

Both of these are ultimately amoral philosophies; true morality can neither excuse any means whatsoever (including the deliberately intended deaths of millions of innocents), regardless what the end might be, nor be indifferent to consequences (whether the heavens fall does matter).

The punchline, though, is not the moral philosophies of the actors, but the consequences of their actions. Tick tock, tick tock.

#11 Foolish Knight

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Posted 16 August 2009 - 03:38 PM

QUOTE (SDG @ Aug 15 2009, 04:43 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
For large-scale spoilers, the Hide tag might be better than the Spoiler tag -- and it's iPhone friendly too. (Even though I can select text on my iPhone, it doesn't reveal blacked-out spoiler text. My only expedient is to hit "Reply" and read the text in the Compose field. But I can expand Hide text easily.)

Great. I appreciate the input. I had forgotten about that cool feature (being something of a newbie, here).


But I'm gonna bet you've studied the ending closer than I have (I wish I had a copy with me right now!), so I'm more than willing to go along with your interpretation.

I guess now that I think about it (the bits of the ending I do remember), even the imagery was cyclical (smiley face to smiley face).

(BTW, I was really tempted to use corresponding emoticons in the that last parenthetical. smile.gif )

Edited by Foolish Knight, 16 August 2009 - 03:39 PM.


#12 Tyler

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Posted 01 February 2012 - 09:01 AM

DC announces Watchmen prequels. Alan Moore isn't involved, of course.

#13 Ryan H.

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Posted 01 February 2012 - 09:10 PM

No Alan Moore, no Dave Gibbons, no WATCHMEN. It's that simple.

That said, Darwyn Cooke is doing a few of these WATCHMEN stories, and since I admire him as a comic book writer and artist, I'll probably flip through his WATCHMEN comics at the comic store just to see what he does with the property.

#14 NBooth

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Posted 06 February 2012 - 09:30 AM

Posted Image
[Bun Toons]

#15 Thom Wade

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Posted 07 February 2012 - 09:29 AM

I loved how that just swerved into crazy upon the Alan Moore reacts moment...

#16 Ryan H.

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Posted 07 February 2012 - 09:32 AM

I loved how that just swerved into crazy upon the Alan Moore reacts moment...

Yep.

Oh, Alan Moore. He's so crazy.

#17 Jason Panella

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Posted 07 February 2012 - 09:34 AM

Yep.

Oh, Alan Moore. He's so crazy.


Speaking of....


Alan Moore stands up for stealing other people's characters that are not Alan Moore's.

#18 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 08 February 2012 - 12:18 AM

Jason Panella wrote:
: Alan Moore stands up for stealing other people's characters that are not Alan Moore's.

This is all rather ironic, given that Watchmen was originally going to feature the superheroes from the Charlton Comics universe (Captain Atom became Dr Manhattan, the Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, the Question became Rorschach, etc.).

#19 Ryan H.

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Posted 08 February 2012 - 04:06 PM

Jason Panella wrote:
: Alan Moore stands up for stealing other people's characters that are not Alan Moore's.

This is all rather ironic, given that Watchmen was originally going to feature the superheroes from the Charlton Comics universe (Captain Atom became Dr Manhattan, the Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, the Question became Rorschach, etc.).

No kidding.

#20 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 19 February 2013 - 03:45 PM

Alan Jacobs isn't impressed:

Watchmen is deaf to the ironies, subtleties, and sanity-giving adjustments of actual human life. Everyone is the story lives under conditions of unremitting anxiety, terror, or paranoia. There’s no respite even for a moment. It’s telling that the counter-narrative, the comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter, is if anything more brutal and foul than the main story, as though Moore has no idea of the value of contrast. He can only do intensification of a single mood, and that mood is one of brutality. His characters delight in brutality, or unwittingly or half-consciously connive at it; and then there are the innocent victims, who never rise to the level of “character.” . . .