Thursday, March 05, 2009

"So, What's the Big Deal about WATCHMEN?"

Several months ago, a friend asked me about WATCHMEN. She'd read the graphic novel and liked it, but she wasn't utterly blown away like she thought she'd be, and she wanted to know what I thought about the book. I sat down to "write a quick email" in reply, and I came up for breath a little shy of 1000 words later.

I've been wanting to polish this up into a "proper" essay, replete with links and images a-plenty; but alas, I am not possessed of Doctor Manhattan's unique way with time. So I've decided to just "go wild" and post a plain vanilla, barely-polished version of that original email. Will it veer off topic? Yes. Are its ideas under-developed? Of course. Are all of its ideas original? No, but I only steal from the best. Does it just peter-out at the end? Aye. Will its unfinished state embarrass me? Heck no. Do I want to say more about all of this? You bet. And I hope to, right here, eventually. Until then, I give you, off the top of my balding, decidedly un-Moore-like head...

"So, What's the Big Deal
about WATCHMEN?"

Actually, I can understand this point of view. The hype -- the hagiographical zeal -- that surrounds Watchmen can't help but set up nigh-impossibly high expectations for new readers today. But...

Part of the situation is that when Watchmen appeared, 22-ish years ago, nothing quite like it had been done before. Since then, people have ripped it off -- er, paid it homage -- a zillion times. Plus, the type of psychological nuances that Watchmen contains are lots more common today, or at least the attempt is. So characterization-wise, it can't help but seem somewhat less amazing now than it was back in the day. Plus, lots of comics today try to envision "what effect superheroes would have on the 'real' world." Again, when Watchmen came out this sort of thing practically didn't exist.

But there are two other parts which, to me, make Watchmen still stand out.

I'm a form / process geek, and formally Watchmen kicks freakin' ass. Page design, cover design, series design, panel arrangement, transitions, narrative / thematic cross-cutting -- all this stuff is still done with more precision, care, and effect than any Watchmen -wannabes ever accomplished. Because Alan Moore is a genius when it comes to stuff like this - most of that formal stuff is in his script, although Gibbons contributes enormously. Check out the "Fearful Symmetry" chapter. Look at the first page and the last page, then the second page and the penultimate page, etc.... The layouts mirror each other, and the narrative and themes do a bit, as well, page vs. page, panel vs. panel.

It's stuff like this that you can do in comics but you can't do in any other medium in the same way.

The other biggie is that plot is so not the totality of Watchmen. In fact, I find it practically secondary to the larger experience. (I think Moore did too - viz. the admittedly derivative SF ending.) For me, it's the fact that Watchmen creates an entire world, a mythology, a history, all in 12 chapters. It gives you a narrative density that "regular" superhero comics might begin to approach after a decade or three.

It helps, of course, that most of the characters are analogues of previous heroes. On one level they're extremely thinly veiled analogues to heroes from Charlton comics; but on a deeper level, they resonate with lots of (super)hero archetypes (just as the Charlton heroes do). The Comedian is sort of Captain America and the Punisher at the same time; Nightowl is Batman-ish; Silk Spectre is like Phantom Lady or numerous other "good girl" super heroines of the 40s; Rorschach is a "dark avenger," but with the moral compass of Ayn Rand; etc.

But most important, for me, is all the extra material at the end of each chapter. There's where you learn about history and world cultural development and politics and so much else about this world: information that opens up the story so that it's not just a superhero / whodunit / mad scientist story. If you just read the comics narrative without the back-up material, you'll get a very good superhero story, excellently presented, sure. But without the extra material, I'm convinced that today we wouldn't be talking about Watchmen as much more than a "Yeah, that was a pretty interesting" book.

It's these latter qualities that make me believe that pretty much any Watchmen adaptation will fall far short of what the original is all about. I've always said that pretty much the only way I could conceive of an adaptation working would be to make it a TV miniseries, or maybe a series of DVDs. Each episode would have a regular narrative section, but then rounding out the hour (or appearing as bonus dvd features) would be things like documentaries, news programs, talk shows, etc.: TV-type things that expand the world just like the print-type things that expand the world in the book. You can try to do some of this type of stuff in one movie with flashbacks, montages, etc., but there's no way that you could get an analogous depth and the breadth of that world in even a 3-hour movie.

Of course, I can't think of a single film adaptation of a novel that manages to convey completely the richness of its source material. Or a comics adaptation of a film, or a book. Or a book of a comic. You get the idea. Anyone who expects an adaptation to "live up to" the original -- to include everything, in exactly the same way, with exactly the same weight and emphasis -- is playing a sucker's game. No adaptation into another medium can ever be 100% faithful to its source; it's physically, aesthetically, impossible. Nor is it wise. Film has its strengths and weaknesses, as does prose, as does poetry, as does theater, as does comics.

I don't expect that Watchmen the film will reduplicate the experience of reading the Watchmen the comic. From all the hype, I know that it at least will mimic the "look" of the comic as much as it possibly can. (Except for the heroes' costumes. Most of them should look dumpier -- but movie audiences wouldn't stand for that. Or maybe that should read "movie executives.") I would like to see a film that treats its source intelligently (not just reverently) and utilizes all the tools of cinema in ways as innovative as Moore & Gibbons did the tools of comics. I doubt that could happen, though, no matter the passion of the people behind and in front of the camera. If it were too avant-garde, I doubt any major studio would have allowed it through to completion, not with so much $$$$ riding on it.

But we'll see – Friday night, I expect...

Image Credit: Milhouse knows the score. Screen-grab from The Simpsons.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Lynda Barry = Cruddy-est Funk Queen of the Universe, Ever

Whenever I have a pressing "To-Do List," I always seem to gravitate towards #2 on that list, not #1 - no matter how much I want to do #1.

#2 on my list right now - the thing the last few posts here have covered - is the revamping of But I do have another, more pressing issue. (OK, maybe I've got more than one "more pressing" issue at present, but I do what I can.)

But #1 - ahhhh, #1. For the Comic Art & Comics area of next week's annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association, I proposed an essay entitled "'Whenever Possible, Be the Unexpected': Approaches to Lynda Barry's Cruddy". If you haven't read Cruddy: An Illustrated Novel, but you love poetically written, well-characterized, unflichingly dark but absolutely hilarious fiction - and you have a strong stomach - Cruddy is your book, hands down.

Check out Cruddy's entry - you can read the first chapter or two there. Then read chapters four and five at the Simon & Schuster website. That'll give you a small taste of what's to come. (You don't even meet the cream of the character crop, the delightfully well-spoken "Suzy Homemaker," until about 2/3 of the way in.)

What's that? You don't know about the sublime cartooning genius of Lynda Barry? The creator of the #1 Poet, Fred Milton: Beat Poodle? Well, what are you waiting for?

OK, this post served its purpose; now I'm ready to get back to work on that essay!

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Ditko = Ditko

I first discovered cartoonist Steve Ditko's work in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man - or, more accurately, in Pocket Books' three-volume Spider-Man Classics series, published in the late 1970s. Technically, the first Ditko art I saw must have been in Origins of Marvel Comics- but the Pocket Spider-Mans gave me hundreds of pages of Ditko artwork, and I devoured them all, over and over again. Ross Andru was the current Spider-Man artist at the time, and I liked that work a lot; but the old books drawn (and often plotted) by Ditko were quirky, instantly recognizable, intensely felt: They were magic, and I couldn't get enough of them (or reprints of his early work on Doctor Strange). Fans of Ditko's Marvel-era work will be interested in the recent Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko volume, at right.

It wasn't until years later that I discovered Ditko's own, more personal work, on characters like Static, The Mocker, and - of course - Mr. A (you might still find copies of The Ditko Collection, with lots of Mr A., if you're lucky.) Ditko had become a student of Ayn Rand, and Mr. A. was the living embodiment of Rand's philosophy of "Objectivism": A is A. In Mr. A's world (and in Ditko's) there can be no moral grey areas; there is good, and there is evil, and there is nothing else. I think the icongraphy in the following image (from the Heritage Comics website) makes the stark argument quite clearly, itself:

While I find Ditko's personal work fascinating, I can't say that I could ever agree with it philosophically; I guess I'm too much of a grey-area kind of person. But that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy Mr. A; it's clearly passionate, heart-felt work. How many commercial artists of any stripe are that willing to put their innermost beliefs down on the page, this starkly, with no apologies or hedging?

Thanks to a post by Dr. Chris R. Tame on the Ditko-Kirby email list, I was happy to learn about the following article:
"The Illustrated Rand", by Chris Matthew Sciabarra. The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 6.1 (2004): 1-20. (Download a PDF version of the entire article here.)
The article, part one of two, catalogues Rand's cultural influence by listing some of the scores of academic journals, magazines, televsion shows, and more media which have quoted or mentioned Rand's work. Unfortunately, the bulk of the article is little more than a list. There's precious litle analysis here, although there may be more extended discussions in part two, which I haven't yet read. We don't even learn if most of these mentions are positive or negative, informed or throw-away.

The largest section of the article by far, however, is devoted to Steve Ditko and Frank (Sin City) Miller (pages 8-12). While the section includes several meaty Mr. A quotes, we still don't find much in the way of analysis. I'd love to learn more about how Objectivism plays out in Ditko's work: How accurately does his work embody the philosophy? Does Ditko's thought expand on, embellish, or even contradict Rand's? Again, perhaps I'm asking too much of an admitted "overview" article; but if anyone out there knows of more critical looks at Ditko's pesonal work, I'd love to hear about them.

And since I haven't mentioned it yet, the premiere website for Ditko is Blake Bell's Ditko Looked Up. Watch for Blake's Steve Ditko: Mysterious Traveller, a biography forthcoming from Fantagraphics. I'm sure that Blake's book will get into the questions I've asked above - and more - with relish.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Comic Book Artist's Will Eisner Tribute: Some Things are Worth Waiting For

Thanks both to a phone call from pal The joey Zone and the fine folks at the Will Eisner Discussion List, I learned yesterday that the long-awaited Will Einser tribute issue of Comic Book Artist magazine was now available in finer comics shops.

Eisner, who passed away January 3, 2005, was one of the most important and influential cartoonists this country has produced, with a career spanning the growth of the modern comic book. From his 1940s creation of the newspaper comic-book insert, featuring The Spirit, to his later kick-starting the "graphic novel" movement in the 1970s, and beyond, Esiner's impact on comics can't be overstated. Rather than go into detail here, I'll point you to his website's short but comprehensive biography. More information about Eisner may be found at my; watch for even more there soon.

Kate and I caught a glimpse of the issue at one of Houston's Bedrock City Comics shops, and believe me, this looks like a true "must-have" for anyone interested in Eisner's work or even in comics in general. It's chock-full of interviews with - and essays & artwork by - dozens and dozens of cartoonists, writers, editors, publishers, friends, students, disciples, and more.

Full disclosure: Thanks to editor Jon B. Cooke's prodding, I've got a page-long essay in this tome myself; I also helped out a bit in the editing department, for which I was amazed to learn that Jon rewarded me with the title "Special Contributing Editor." Yowza!

I'll post a more in-depth review once I've received my own copy; but I wanted to alert folks here about it now, since it's sure to disappear from the shelves quickly. At nearly 200 pages (including several gorgeous color sections) for only about $15, it's a steal - or a sound investment, depending on your temperament. Pick up a copy at your local comics shop, or order on-line via Top Shelf Comix. And several books written, edited, or worked on by Messr. Cooke are available via

Above: Dave Gibbons' beautiful, respectful cover to CBA v2 no6.

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Monday, April 25, 2005

New York Times' Comics Forum: Keeping the "Mess" in "Message Board"

As Tom Spurgeon at Comics Reporter rightly notes, the New York Times Book Review's April 24 piece on comics does read like something out of the past - why the Review devoted so much space to this type of superhero-influenced review is a bit puzzling, especially given its recent coverage of Spiegelman and Satrapi and David B., among others. (Note: Registration required to view any Times links. Don't want to register? No problem!)

What's also puzzling - no, more like extremely disappointing - is the Times' new Readers Forum on Comics. I spent an hour or so making my way through the posts there, and oh my Lord - if you think (as I do) that the "wheat/chaff" and "thoughtful poster/moron" ratios are usually pretty low on comics-related message boards, try slogging through this one. I had naively assumed that the Times On-Line would attract a more contemplative, erudite, and open-minded audience. Stupid, stupid Gene...

The Forum opened April 16, to coincide with the Times' preview of Will Eisner's The Plot; unfortunately, it also coincided with a revamp of the Forums as a whole. So a large part of the first week's postings are written by Forum regulars who are angry that the previous Forums on Shakespeare and Nabokov, for example, were "replaced" by the Comics Forum. From what I can tell, it's not a "replacement" so much as a "restructuring" and an unfortunate bit of timing; but these folks in general can't seem to tell their post hoc from their propter hoc.

What we do get, however, are the predictable laments about the end of civilization. And also some fairly ignorant comments about Eisner's The Plot, from considering it a joke to questioning the need for any such book in the first place to - I'm being serious here - calling Eisner a Spiegelman clone. And of course, the ever-popular "expert opinion":
Look at that guy at the top of the page, pretending this is about "literary" comics like Maus, as if there were more than about five of them.
To be fair, there are some knowledgeable defenders of the forum. For the most part, though, even those who do know something about comics rarely get past recommending Sandman or "more sophisticated" superhero books. I like Sandman and Watchmen, but I wouldn't consider either of them to be good "gateway drugs" for the curious but clueless would-be comics reader.

I realize that a message board can only be as good as the people who post in it, and I suppose I have no real right to complain about the Times forum, since I haven't contributed anything myself. But seeing the small-mindedness and petty carping there only reinforces my opionion of message boards as places generally to avoid. I've occasionally found useful info at places like the Comics Journal boards, but then we're back to the whole "wheat/chaff" thing...

If anyone knows of any good comics-related discussion boards - forums where people actually pay attention to other's ideas, and where, come to think of it, people actually have ideas - I'd love to hear about them.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Ad that Made an Icon out of MAC!

Pow![Horn-Tootin' Dep't] In 1996 I attended the Popular Culture Association's national conference, where I presented a paper on Charles Atlas ads and some of their many parodies. (A sample panel from one of the ads is displayed at left.) I later turned that essay into an article for the Winter 2000 issue of Hogan's Alley (for you bibliography buffs, that's issue 7, pages 80-87, according to my horribly out-of-date c.v.). The HA website recently posted my article, along with a few small illustrations.

I had heard they were planning to do so a couple of years ago, but I think they just got around to it recently - not surprising, given how much work goes into each issue. The website has also archived features like their interview with Bizarro's Dan Piraro and an essay on Johnstone and Cushing, the advertising company behind classics like Postum's pesky nemesis, Mr. Coffee Nerves.

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