Last Impressions: Watchmen (1986)

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You know that feeling you get when you’re really into a book, so you deliberately slow down your reading to make it last longer? And then, when you get to the ending, you’re so caught up in it that you didn’t notice the CD had ended and the kids went to bed and the sun went down? And the ending is poignant, simultaneously epic and intimate, and once it’s done, you just sit there in the profound silence you hadn’t realized had formed around you, just drinking it in, feeling lonely, but not wanting company, not even speaking because your own voice would drag you back to reality and profane the moment?

No? Well, not everyone is a reader these days. How about this:

It’s the end of summer, and you’re a kid, and you’re running around outside with all your little idiot friends running and shrieking and playing and roughhousing, riding bikes, the girls are braiding each others hair or dancing or whatever, the kind of juvenile melee that amps upward in the last week or two of summer, peaking right at the end. Then, you go inside for dinner, content that there’ll still be plenty of sunlight left in the day when you get done, but for whatever reason, things drag on longer than you expected. When you come back outdoors, the sun is very low in the sky, the shadows are long off the abandoned toys and bikes, and all the other kids are gone. Then comes that moment in an empty street in an empty evening on the end of a dead summer when you realize how achingly alone you are, and yet it feels kind of beautiful and right. You walk over to a kids toy truck balanced precariously on a fire hydrant, and you just kind of drink it in, not wanting to touch it for fear of losing the numinousness of the moment.

It’s kind of like that.

Or when you graduate college, pack up your stuff, and do that last walk-through to make sure you didn’t forget anything, but really you don’t actually care about the towel rack on the back of the dorm room door, you’re just looking things over for the sake of looking them over, walking down empty halls and through empty libraries, thankful for the emptiness and conscious of the fact that this is the end, that whatever comes next is something different, that no matter who you are, nor what you become, you’re never going to travel down this particular road ever again.

I had that tonight.

I read “The Watchmen” for the very last time.

Now, at the risk of sounding morose or self-important or simply overly artsy, I have to point out what a huge impact Watchmen had on my life when first I experienced it. 1985/86 was the year everything changed, the year that Comics grew up, and while it’s totally a cliché to say that now, you really can’t fully appreciate what a watershed it was unless you were there at the time. The one/two punch of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, playing out against the background of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, it was just overwhelming. It was one of those moments when everything changes, for better or for worse. Usually for both at the same time.

I always liked comics, but I never cared for superhero ones. I still don’t, if I’m honest. They’re just stupid. As a kid I read all the Gold Key crap, a bit older I got into those crappy Star Trek and Star Wars comics, and 2000AD whenever I could find imports. (Sam Slade, Robohunter was my favorite, but Judge Dredd was also cool) and a weird kinky thing called “Just imagine Jeanie,” Timothy Truman’s “Scout,” and of course American Flagg. But Superheroes? No.

Watchmen - and to a lesser degree, Dark Knight Returns - showed what the format could do if it was really allowed to play free and take itself seriously. It was one of those moments when the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. Whereas Dark Knight was basically an extended Elseworlds story with a loose character arc tying ‘em together (And a great final issue), Watchmen really was what it claimed to be: a novel. It’s trendy to use the term “Graphic Novel” for comics in general now, but most don’t deserve it. Watchmen did. And still does.

I borrowed the individual copies from my friend Paul, read them voraciously, waited anxiously for the next issue to come out. I bought the trade paperback as soon as they came out. It showed me that while I hadn’t been wrong before - superhero comics really are kinda’ stupid - in the right hands they could be something magnificent. I started following comics after that, pretty much entirely due to the evangelical ministrations of Paul and our own Republibot 2.0. I found a lot of great stuff - the first Marshal Law series, the first two years of Animal Man, the late eighties JLA, the Invasion, pretty much anything Green Lantern. I was a DC guy, never much cared for Marvel, though I made Marvel exceptions, like the occasional She-Hulk (If Byrne was writing). I just kind of wandered away from it, though. By the Early Nineties, my interest was mostly gone, and the only superhero I could stomach were “The Tick” and “Too Much Coffee Man.”

Why? Well, the bottom line is that most of that stuff isn’t really very good, and while Watchmen and Dark Night and the initial Animal Man had something to say, and a way in which to say it, most of the rest was the typical old crap, tarted up in new clothes.

Watchmen continued to fascinate me, however. I wanted to be a writer/director in those days. I fantasy-cast the movie in my head (A pre-implants Tawnie Kitaen would have been Silk Spectre) When I heard Terry Gilliam was working on a movie of it, I was overjoyed. When he abandoned the project years later, saying it was unfilmable, I was devastated. When there was foolish rumorsof turning the thing over to Tim Burton I was appalled.

But as with anything, you drift away in time. I re-read it less and less, years apart. I’m never sure if it was that it had less to say to me, or if I had more to hear from other sources, or if I just grew out of it, or if the various story flaws finally nagged at me. The last time I read it was about five years ago. I boycotted the movie, and I’m not sure why, but a friend loaned it to me and I decided to read the thing again prior to watching it.

Somewhere along the line, I became aware that this was the last time. Why? I’m not sure, but it’s Sunday evening at the end of summer, it’s me walking the campus one last time, it’s me closing the cover and being wonderfully alone, knowing I’m never going to get any more out of it than I already have, knowing I’m not going to be putting the thing back up on the shelf, knowing that I’ve changed somehow.

I toyed with the idea of writing a review, but why? Anyone interested has already read it, it’s a classic, but hardly an unsung one, and there’s just something stupid about treating a story a quarter century old as if it were new.

So I give you my parting thoughts, for what little they’re worth.

It is brilliantly plotted, and I love the device of dropping us in a well-fleshed-out alternate world, and trusting the audience to figure it out for ourselves. When first I read it in 1986, I found the interweaving of real events and imaginary ones - the Kitty Genovese murder, for instance - to be cheap and stupid, but it’s since grown on me, and I’ve used the idea quite a bit myself since in my own divergent histories. The flashbacks are deftly done, and to me similar to the flashbacks in Highlander, which came out in 1985. Perhaps that sort of thing was simply the zeitgeist of the day. I dunno.

The characters were well-constructed psychologically, and they mostly ring true, which was remarkable in comics of the time. The art was good for the period, but not as good as its reputation, but the way in which the pages were constructed was very clever, inventive, and kind of a love-letter to the comics format. The only book I can think of that ever tried something along those lines was American Flagg. The politics of the thing was typical English fascistphobia. I’ve never really understood why they’re so afraid of fascism, when their country is one of a very small number who’ve never been prey to it, but it’s somewhat reactionary and right-bashing. And yet it’s sympathetic. Beneath Rorschach’s clearly psychotic, right-leaning reactionary character, there’s a ripped up, disturbed kid with a horrible life, and a strong nostalgia for a past everyone else had, but he was never allowed to be a part of. Beneath all their messed up lives was a desire to help people out - excepting Jon, of course - and a broken idealism that’s palpable as the young bucks grow old, and as people turn on their gods.

Shall I tell you the part that most jumped out at me? The part that put a lump in my throat that I wasn’t expecting? When Owlman snaps and lashes out at Rorschach: “Who the hell do you think you are? You live off people while insulting them, nobody complains because they think you’re a goddamned lunatic…you know how hard it is being your friend?” This never affected me before, it’s just standard character-development/posturing stuff, but this time out, when Rorschach very tentatively says “Daniel, you are…a good friend. I know that. I am sorry that it is sometimes difficult,” and reaches out his hand to shake it because it’s all that he’s capable of. It’s kind of devastating, you know? He says “I know you are…” because he can’t feel it. He’s aware of it, but he’s so damaged that nothing registers. Even so, out of a sense of duty and real sorry that he *Can’t* feel it, he goes through the motions, in the only way he can.

It really moved me. I’m getting a little misty thinking of it now.

Lines that jumped out at me this time through:

“This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children, not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.”

“Come, dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly.”

“Some of us have always lived on the edge, Daniel. It is possible to survive there if you observe the rules: Just hang on by fingernails and never look down.”

“Hitler said people swallow lies easily provided they’re big enough.”

“I wanna’ go to bed with you and I wanna’ be straight and I wanna’ be dead.”

This last fascinates me. “Joey” the lesbian has a girlfriend who she’s living with who breaks up with her, and moves out. The girlfriend tries to justify it, but Joey breaks down crying - poor thing, I genuinely do feel sorry for her, she seems to have a miserable life - and bawls out the line above. Then she starts beating up her ex. What to make of this? Is her self-loathing to be taken as an admission that homosexuals are sick? The nonsensical ravings of a broken person? A moment of self loathing? A desire to know a normal life? What? Some have criticized this, unfairly I think. Firstly, dealing with gay folk in the eighties was ballsy as hell. Secondly, I think it’s wrong to apply idealistic modern PC standards to the products of another time.

The girlfriend identifies herself as ‘girlfriend,’ and they were living together, but it’s implied they never slept together, oddly enough.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know what to make of any of this, but it’s so jagged, so painful that it feels real. Trying to make people’s traumas conform to some random political philosophy seems false somehow, too pat, to glossy, too inhuman. On the other hand, a conflicted and ultimately tragic minor character - she dies, along with all the other random people we meet in the street scenes - at war with her own heart, well, that’s drama, isn’t it? I’m drawn to conflicted people because they somehow seem more alive than the rest of us, don’t they?

Shall I tell you what I didn’t like?

Well, for starters, I never cared for the pirate comic-within-a-comic. It’s an interesting idea, but it adds nothing, pads out the series, and slows it to a near-halt whenever they show it. The ‘supplementary material’ at the end of each issue - news stories, excerpts from autobiographies, etc - is an interesting concept and a good way to flesh out the universe a bit more, but it’s pretty dull, and I seldom re-read it, mainly because it just went through me like shot through a gun, with me retaining almost nothing of it.

Likewise, the street scenes mostly go on entirely too long, and the news vendor guy is incredibly annoying and thinly drawn. The black kid who’s reading a comic (Without paying for it) is depicted in a way that was already pretty dated and backwards in 1986, and it annoyed me more every time I read it.

The existential discussion on Mars (Which I love) ends in a cheat. John reaches a conclusion to go back to earth because the story calls for him to go back to earth, not because it follows logically from any of his arguments. The whole “Ozymandeus” issue (Chapter 11) feels superficial and thin, compared to the backstory issues we’ve seen elsewhere in the series (Jon and Rorschach). And it’s dull. Basically this is a plotting error - it’s way too late in the game to be delving into another major character, and they do it in the most dispassionate way, like the authors aren’t really into it themselves.

Everything involving the psychiatrist just didn’t work for me. The Impotence theme was overdone. As R2 once commented on my singing, “hitting a high note once has a lot of impact, doing it twelve times in a single song is kind of belaboring the point.” I’m not sure why Owlman and Silk Specter deciding to be heroes again at the end of the book is supposed to be some kind of triumph, though the notion of them going undercover to do it - as in Dark Knight Returns - seems to likewise have been in the zeitgeist.

The book has a really weird mixed message about rape. Tying The Comedian (And Nixon) to the Kennedy Assassination is just stupid. And the idea that Nixon would just dump his wife in a shelter on the eve of World War III is completely out of character. I love that Nixon is the president, however, he’s always such a hoot as a fictional character. Though it's almost undeniably unintentional, the book makes a pretty strong anti-abortion stance.

One thing that has always nagged me, and really jumped out at me in this re-reading is that Nixon is in, what, his sixth term? People have told me for a quarter century now that presidents can do that if they’re not consecutive terms. “If they sit out one, they can do two more.” I always point out that is patently untrue, and usually cite the amendment. I don’t so much mind them being wrong, but I do wonder how that same bit of misconception became so commonplace. I mean, lots of people are wrong about lots of things pretty much all the time, but it’s somewhat less common for lots of people who are wrong to have their misinformation agree with each other, and rarer still for them to all agree about something so specific.

Added to which, the book makes it clear that all Nixon’s terms were consecutive.

Added to which the book specifically says they amended the constitution so Nixon could run again in ‘76.

So: really all kinds of dopey there.

And that’s that, I guess. I close the cover on the book, and I close a chapter in my life, I don’t know quite why, but it’s time. Actually, you know what? I do know! I just figured it out! It’s that the book is no longer a living thing to me, with its deservedly venerated status, with its standing amongst posers who’ve never read it, with the movie and the name recognition and the media attention, whatever I used to get out of it is saturated and drowned. What’s left isn’t a living story for me anymore, but mere nostalgia. Nostalgia has little meaning for me.

I will not be traveling down this road again.

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