Contextualization and The Watchmen

This weekend, I read Moore’s The Watchmen, and I imagine I might have a few posts on it. I find myself saying a few posts, considering the effect the comic had on the genre and on turning comics into something besides ‘those funny books.’ In addition, to being on all those ‘must reads’ and ‘bests of all time’ lists.

I say it because I’m not quite that enamoured with The Watchmen and think that parts of the text are very problematic. My thoughts need to come forth because when I go hand back the book to my friend Steve, he’s going to demand to know my thoughts and, while he’ll never accept my arguments, they at least need to be sound in my head.

A lot of essays and arguments against some of the more common criticism of The Watchmen is rooted in contextualization or what would happen if I could magically transport myself back to 1986-87 and read it there. (Or perhaps my mother decided to read it to a 3-year-old me instead of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie…. Oh, think of my dystopian nightmares.)

I’m perfectly alright looking at context. I think it fits nicely in the millennial and Cold War panics of the final years of the Regan administration. It goes great with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and my Dead Kennedy CDs. I’m certainly not going to fault Moore that Cold War’s over and we have a new terrorist-based panic.

All that said, if this is supposed to be “the greatest comic ever” or even in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I’m not sure The Watchmen would make it in. Not because it’s not a good read or fitting for its time, but because I’m not sure if it has the staying power to be the ONLY comic someone ever reads and the ONLY one to make these lists.

If we’re going to go for a Moore comic, I think V for Vendetta is a better comic, with longer staying power, and a stronger narrative/story,

(I do wonder if Persepolis won’t be added as a second comic, given the buzz and the film. (I have not read the text myself, so I can not make a good judgment call on this.))

Contextualization doesn’t save Moore from my wondering if The Watchmen will always be considered classic. If it’s enough of a universal story that readers will enjoy 100+ years from now.

You know, if a giant monster doesn’t eat us all first.

(Which wouldn’t you guess that The Watchmen as universal is what my next post might be about. Unless I write about Midnighter, because I think I love him.)

0 Replies to “Contextualization and The Watchmen”

  1. Personally, I think Watchmen would be a HORRIBLE ‘only comic you ever read.’ Because to me it’s a comic that only matters if you’re steeped in the genre. That’s not to diminish Moore’s big ideas, but it’s not just a story that uses superhero comics to say something about the world; it’s a story that says something about superhero comics.

    Now, I love Watchmen, but it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) separable from the genre that produced it.

    But the ‘if you could only read one’ conversation is always a bit artificial, isn’t it? If you care enough to read one thing in a genre, why stop?

  2. Ok, here’s why I think Watchmen is superior to V for Vendetta. It’s arguable which has a better narrative, because that’s entirely subjective (which story do you enjoy more?). I would even buy that V for Vendetta has a richer, more fully-woven tapestry of a narrative, a completely-realized world that Watchment doesn’t quite have – you can see a world outside of the frames of V, whereas you really can’t in Watchmen.

    HOWEVER, as far as showing exactly what comics as a medium can do that other mediums can’t do, I think Watchmen is a better example. Moore uses repetition and densely-layered flashbacks to build to an emotional climax in several chapters. Film can do something similar, but in a much more obvious and less effective way. For example, the chapter where Dr. Manhattan takes Laurie to Mars. There is nothing nearly as breathtaking in V for Vendetta (even that incredibly moving note that Evey finds in prison) as the moment when Laurie realizes that the Comedian is her father, and she throws the bottle of Nostalgia in defiance, and it hits the intricate and beautiful structure that Dr. Manhattan created and destroys it completely. And that life-changing moment isn’t just character development – it also serves as an epiphany for Dr. Manhattan, who thought he was past epiphanies, and changes the course of the story.

    The same moment could be done in a novel, and truthfully probably was inspired by similar techniques in Faulkner. But I think it’s a microcosm of why the meta in Watchmen makes it a deeper, smarter, and more moving read on each subsequent rereading. I love V for Vendetta, but it’s an intellectual love. Whereas Watchmen can still move and surprise me as much as it did (if not more) than the first time I read it.

  3. You were scared about saying you disliked the hype surrounding the book, weren’t you? 🙂
    Anyway, I think it’s a sound point at the very least – contextualization is not at all the only way to read that book, sure, it makes it all the more fun, but a New Critical reading would make things a lot better. As would any of the metaphysical elements that Moore portrayed through alienated characters like Rorshach and Doc Manhattan. If anything, the only problem I had was with Silk Spectre but even that’s not much. I myself loved the book as a (really) modernist text. Yes, in ’86 it would seem a few decades too late, but saying that would be contextualizing, now wouldn’t it?

    Persepolis is the other comic I’m dying to read, but I haven’t had the chance to.

    As for ‘V For Vendetta’, yes, it’s brilliant, but somehow the Orwellian allusions felt overused, maybe it was my hysteria, but that’s how I feel for it. In the end, WATCHMEN will be on the list of must-reads simply because of the impact it had on the medium, and that, I’m sure, makes Mr. Moore cringe somewhere in the ether.

    1. See, I thought that it came through that I didn’t like — or didn’t buy — the hype surrounding Watchmen. Though it has been a while since I wrote this post and reread it.

      Yes, the book works well as a Modernist text or with a New Critical reading, and it does work well looking at the impact on the medium (and you are correct on how much Moore hates that).

      I haven’t read Persepolis. I want to, mostly because I love J.H. Williams III’s art, but I got a little burnt out on Moore’s writing so I’m waiting a little bit.

      I can definitely see how one would find the Orwellian allusions overused, but I still think it’s my favorite because of the emotions that come through, especially in Valerie’s letter.

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