My Photo

Categories

Roll Call

Become a Fan

« Notes for Future Satirists | Main | Brand an "L" upon My Forehead »

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c2df453ef00e54febfc3a8833

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Alan Moore's Watchmen: The Rhetoric of Heroism in a MAD World:

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Rich Puchalsky

I read Watchmen in part as an attempt to refigure superhero comics as science fiction. The "Who watches the watchmen" graffiti has, by the end of the series, been replaced by "Watch the skies" -- a quote from a 1950s SF movie. That makes the 9/11 comparison reasonable but problematic.

The plot in Watchmen is strangely naive -- I would assume that the world nations would be back their usual behavior within a year or so. But it's naive because it represents nostalgia for the future. Nostalgia for the future is a common SF concept; looking back, you read about or perhaps remember people dreaming about flying cars, even though flying cars now seem impractical in so many ways that their shine is off even if it were technically possible to make them. The Watchmen plot is nostalgia for the standard SF hero/antihero, the person with the ability to rationally calculate a way to avoid disaster, who takes action however distasteful that's necessary to avoid it, etc. Golden Age SF was full of these characters. I once again recommend Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream for anyone wanting to understand this kind of thing.

Moore does a destruct job on superheroes through identifying them with SF -- remember the scene in which Dr. Manhattan callously explains to an older hero that he can synthesize enough lithium to replace the old cars that the hero repairs as his retirement job with new ones -- and then presenting an outmoded SF future. 9/11 was in service of an imagined past. Both are forms of imagined nostalgia (nostalgia also figures prominently in the book as a perfume brand). So there's an additional connection there.

But it doesn't quite work. Worries about MAD can be as nostalgic as flying cars. But the capability for MAD is still there as much as it ever was. If we're worried more about box cutters now, it's only because our society has drifted (or been pushed, really) further down the alleys of disfunctional fantasy than before. Moore's work doesn't really get out of this trap. By the end, the Nostalgia perfume has been replaced by Millenium, but that was just as much a phantasm, a future which never happened and will become nostalgia in turn, as anything else.

SEK

Damn it, Rich, I had me a theory. I'll counter this tomorrow.

(And I've purchased, but haven't had the chance to read, the Spinrad. One of these days.)

tomemos

"I would assume that the world nations would be back their usual behavior within a year or so."

Don't be sure Moore didn't know this. "Nothing ends, Veidt. Nothing ever ends."

Also, what's the perfume that Adrian Veidt sells? Nostalgia.

KWK

I wonder if your freshmen will be able to follow you, particularly through the "Dark Knight" parts of your trek. In some popular media incarnations, Batman is no more anti-hero than Superman--the Dark Knight "canon", as it were, may not be the first images your students conjure up of the Caped Crusader. Couple that comic-book naivete with a bit of real world naivete ("But we're the good guys, why wouldn't a hero like Batman fight for America against bin Laden?"), and your students are sure to be at a loss.

For my part, I often found the X-Men to be more accessible as archetypes of the Other than most of their DC cousins, and the X-Comics themselves to faithfully portray much more than a simple black-and-white "let's punch out the bad guys" universe. Forge; Storm; Bishop; Magneto: not quite the household names that Batman is, but for my money they captured (and at times confronted) the zeitgeist just as effectively. And your posts on Rogue and feminism are, quite literally, the first things I have pointed to when trying to convince my less-dorky friends that fantasy, sci fi, etc. can contribute in measurable ways to societal discourse, and are not just irresponsible escapes therefrom.

Lest you think I'm verging on something as silly as "I say Marvel, you say DC; let's call the whole thing off," I have to say that I agree with the main points of your above post. I just think you may need to do some work to convince the class. If this is your intro material, I'd at least caution you against assuming they're all on board as you head into The Watchmen. Further examples may be in order, or at least flesh out a bit the ones you already address.

Then again, perhaps am I not giving your freshmen enough credit? If they're not up on, say, the rich tapestry of Miller's work, even a cursory viewing of The Incredibles would at least have given them an inkling of the possibilities that exist for deconstructing the standard superhero narrative. Maybe that's all they'd need, to start.

Jennifer Lynn Jordan

Interesting stuff! I've been helping develop a graphic novel course with our department director. Have you ever read Brian Vaughan's Ex Machina? There is some VERY interesting world-building/world-changing in direct response to 9/11 going on there..

Rich Puchalsky

"Damn it, Rich, I had me a theory."

Whatever it is, it's good enough for freshman comp. Unlike KWK, I think that you could probably read to them from the Dick and Jane books and not be too unchallenging. I was writing what I think about it, not what would be good for your students.

With this intro, though, you might want to mention Mark Millar's Superman: Red Son. (With suitable emphasis that Mark Millar isn't Frank Miller for your students again.) Batman there is back in his natural role as an anarchistic terrorist in black, Superman in his as supporter of the system in which he's been brought up. But the whole thing is again an exercise in nostalgia-smashing, troubled again at the end by its own inability to follow through. In that series, Lux Luthor defeats Superman as super communist by writing him a note asking him if he's going to put the whole world in a bottle. But Lex then goes on to revitalize the American economy by tracking it completely -- there's a boast that he knows where every hundred dollar bill is. In other words, he puts the world in a bottle.

Adam Roberts presents superhero comics as part of SF within his Palgrave history of SF book. But if so, they're from a deeply troubled part of SF, a part that can only thrash from one nostalgic future to another slightly newer one. Superhero comics basically went through where SF was with New Wave a couple of decades later (Moore's and later Gaiman's Miracleman, say), but I think that its natural home is really fantasy, e.g. Sandman, which doesn't have to fight against nostalgia all the time.

But I think the possible identification of superherodom with *escapist* fantasy is a bit off. As in Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the point in having a superhero punch out Hitler is not really a fantasy of having someone punch out Hitler, it's an expression of anxiety and fear of helplessness. The reason that Batman punching out Bin Laden doesn't work is because no one, except the right-wing bedwetters, is really worried about Bin Laden as an existential threat in the way that people were justifiably worried about the Nazi regime.

PSlaven

I should go home and re-read some comics to confirm this, but I am thinking about finding a couple of antecedents to Watchmen's themes in Moore's Swamp Thing, particularly towards the end of his run on the comic. Though later writers would take Moore's direction for the character and run with it, the seeds for Swamp Thing as a world-shaping (anti?)hero were definitely Moore's. Seeing as how both Swamp Thing and Watchmen are credited with reframing the genres of horror and superhero comics, respectively, I'm wondering if it would be interesting or useful to see how Moore differs his approach to the question of whether or not humanity deserves saving at all, particularly through the rational/saintly/othered voices of Swamp Thing and Mr Manhattan.

(Pardon the mishmash of an idea; no argument yet, just a braindump)

SEK

Rich:

The Watchmen plot is nostalgia for the standard SF hero/antihero, the person with the ability to rationally calculate a way to avoid disaster, who takes action however distasteful that's necessary to avoid it, etc.

I read it far more ambivalently, inasmuch as Ozymandias is figured not as a hero but as a former hero turned (unbeknownst to himself) into a super-villain. He's the pragmatist who wants to impose his ideals on the world, i.e. the conservative's vision of the fascistic Hillary Clinton. She only thinks she's doing the Lord's work, when in fact she's one step away from Big Brother. Because I watched The Sarah Connor Chronicles the other night, I'll throw the Terminator series in for good measure: how culpable are the random set of computer engineers whose work unwittingly leads to the creation of Skynet and the subsequent global genocide? After all, they were only trying to build machines capable of playing inventive chess. Ozymandias is different: he deliberately kills millions of people in order to unite the world against a common foe in a cynical (but successful) attempt to exploit xenophobia.

But consider the parallel narrative in Watchmen, the pirate story being read by the black youth in front of the newspaper stand. Like Ozymandias and the other heroes, he failed to stop the dread pirates. Now he and he alone can save his town, and the lengths to which he goes to do so -- unburying his compatriots and using their bloated corpses as a raft, &c. -- neatly align with Ozymandias's need to kill the other masks. But the end of the pirate story points in a different direction than the end of the novel: the sailor had been the object the pirate's desired all along -- his town had never been in danger. I'm not sure how to map that vis-a-vis the novel's end without just admitting that Dr. Manhatten would have taken care of everything anyway, but that doesn't seem to work.

Moore does a destruct job on superheroes through identifying them with SF -- remember the scene in which Dr. Manhattan callously explains to an older hero that he can synthesize enough lithium to replace the old cars that the hero repairs as his retirement job with new ones -- and then presenting an outmoded SF future. 9/11 was in service of an imagined past.

Eloquently put, but I'm not sure I agree about the outmoded future. I mean, now it looks outmoded, but would it have when it was originally published in 1985? Maybe, but maybe not quite as outmoded as it looks now. The Terminator franchise speaks to this as well: is there anything sillier than the thing responsible for the destruction of mankind being called "Skynet"? I hear that and wonder whether it's compatible with 4DOS.

That said, the reason I brought up MAD was because even if it's still in play, it's cultural moment has passed. My siblings, for example, wouldn't know what to do with Wargames. That pervasive fear has been supplanted by more the more quotidian of conservatives nightmares: the Mexicanization of America; dirty bombs; terrorist cells in Wyoming; &c.

With this intro, though, you might want to mention Mark Millar's Superman: Red Son. (With suitable emphasis that Mark Millar isn't Frank Miller for your students again.) Batman there is back in his natural role as an anarchistic terrorist in black, Superman in his as supporter of the system in which he's been brought up.

I re-read that book last week when I was thinking about how to sell this to the students. You're right about Millar being inadequate to the task he set himself -- it reads not like a re-envisioning but a good What If ...? It almost seems like he's not aware of the consequences of his premises -- Luthor does put the world in a bottle, just as Brainiac had, and the ending is particularly bad. I can imagine them sitting around the table when they plotted the thing, someone yelling "Eureka!" and the rest nodding their heads thinking it damn clever. Except it isn't. Not in the least.

Adam Roberts presents superhero comics as part of SF within his Palgrave history of SF book. But if so, they're from a deeply troubled part of SF, a part that can only thrash from one nostalgic future to another slightly newer one.

I need to re-read that section. Give me a day or two and I'll work up a response.

[T]he point in having a superhero punch out Hitler is not really a fantasy of having someone punch out Hitler, it's an expression of anxiety and fear of helplessness.

I'm a little confused here -- how are expressing anxiety and fearing helplessness not part of the appeal of escapist fantasy?

Kyler,

In some popular media incarnations, Batman is no more anti-hero than Superman--the Dark Knight "canon", as it were, may not be the first images your students conjure up of the Caped Crusader.

I can cheat now since I already taught the class and say that 1) you made a fine point but 2) they didn't know from the WHAM! POW! BAM! Batman. They knew Batman Begins and that was pretty much it.

Couple that comic-book naivete with a bit of real world naivete ("But we're the good guys, why wouldn't a hero like Batman fight for America against bin Laden?"), and your students are sure to be at a loss.

A moment to cherish (with dread): when we discussed the war in Afghanistan in Watchmen, they were surprised that we'd decided to go to war there before 2001. I told them that what they saw in Watchmen actually happened (if not on that time table), then mentioned that we didn't actually go in ourselves. They looked confused. "And you know who we trained and financed and armed to do that?" I asked. Blank stares. Guy in the back pipes up "Osama bin Laden" and they all shoot him "BULLSHIT!" looks, then turn to me for confirmation. I confirm, and the class is sitting there, mouths agape, for a good ten seconds.

But your point stands: I had to hammer home the uselessness of sending a crime fighter against a criminal organization not headed by a super-villain, but in the end they finally got it. (I hope.)

For my part, I often found the X-Men to be more accessible as archetypes of the Other than most of their DC cousins, and the X-Comics themselves to faithfully portray much more than a simple black-and-white "let's punch out the bad guys" universe.

I actually agree with this: I didn't grow up reading DC, and for the most part I still don't. There's something childish and hammy about much of it -- and no, I'm not just talking about All-Star Batman and Robin. I find it difficult to read most of the contemporary Batman books, and mostly stick to ones written by Miller. It's different with, say, Daredevil, who I'll read regardless of who writes a particular issue. That said, when I tried to read the X-books again recently -- about two years ago -- I found them byzantine and dull. (Cable this, Cable that, all the pathos of Days of Future Past, only none of it earned.)

(FTR, The Vertigo line obviously falls outside this distinction.)

Jennifer,

I seriously considered bringing up Ex Machina when discussing Superman Returns, since Vaughn directly confronts what Singer skillfully avoids, but decided to stick to figures they'd be more familiar with. (For that matter, I wanted to bring up Warren Ellis' work on The Authority and Planetary, but that would've flown miles over their head. One day I'd like to teach a graphic novels course and end with Planetary's demythologizing of the DC universe, but there's so much cultural background required to get to that point that I'm not sure I could do it. (Or Ellis justice, for that matter.)

Pat,

I'm wondering if it would be interesting or useful to see how Moore differs his approach to the question of whether or not humanity deserves saving at all, particularly through the rational/saintly/othered voices of Swamp Thing and Mr Manhattan.

This is damn interesting, as I think there's no small amount of nihilism in Moore's work. But I haven't read his run on Swamp Thing yet. I own it, though, so I'll start working through them and get back to you. (The amount of unread material in my possession boggles my mind. I also have Top 10, which is supposed to be very good, but I haven't read that yet either.)

Rich Puchalsky

"I read it far more ambivalently, inasmuch as Ozymandias is figured not as a hero but as a former hero turned (unbeknownst to himself) into a super-villain."

I'm not claiming that Alan Moore presents Ozymandias as an unambiguous hero. Where the nostalgia that I wrote about came in is that his plot works. By the time you've gotten to the point of saying "the heroes of Golden Age SF were basically authoritarians imposing their individual will on people" within a story, you've already presented the Golden Age SF hero as a character that actually exists.

But of course he doesn't exist, for good or bad. Moore takes the superhero story and applies some basic SF-style thought to it: if the novum of superheroes really existed, what would the social results actually be? A lot of Watchmen is social extrapolation of this sort: vigilante heroes lead to police strikes, a guy who can actually though imperfectly shoot down nuclear missiles leads to strategic instability (because MAD doesn't work), individual wealthy geniuses capable of predicting world events make heroic or nefarious plots that determine world events in more than a trivial fashion that leaves society essentially unchanged.

But transforming superhero comics into Golden Age SF only leaves you with Golden Age SF. The ethical dilemma presented by Ozymandius is not a real one, because this kind of person can't really exist. Moore brought superheroes into the future, sort of, but he brought them into an imagined future that was already part of the past.

With regard to escapist fantasy, our definitions may be slightly different, but I don't see it as directly being about the object of anxiety. If you're worried about Nazis and you want to read something about flying into a fantasyland, that's escapist. If you're worried about Nazis and you want to see a picture of someone punching out Hitler, that's not really escapist in the same way. Chabon writes about this a lot in Kavalier & Clay, with the Escapist character, but really his Jewish comic book writers and artists writing scenes in which superheroes punch out Hitler are not escaping or avoiding, they are confronting their limits.

Rich Puchalsky

"That said, the reason I brought up MAD was because even if it's still in play, it's cultural moment has passed. My siblings, for example, wouldn't know what to do with Wargames. That pervasive fear has been supplanted by more the more quotidian of conservatives nightmares: the Mexicanization of America; dirty bombs; terrorist cells in Wyoming; &c."

I agree with the cultural description of what has passed and what hasn't. But of course this description is one of a turn to fantasy. The U.S. still has 9,000 nuclear weapons, Russia 15,000. Last I heard, in case they get launched accidentally, they're still set to go back to their old coordinates. Just because people now ridiculously worry about terrorist cells in Wyoming doesn't mean that the reality of the situation has changed.

Bruce Sterling is really one of the best writers for this kind of thing, I think. (I know that CR for one doesn't like him. And he occasionally writes very bad pieces. But he's often very good.) In Islands in the Net, right-wing terrorists take over an old Russian nuclear sub, armed with nuclear missiles, and even though everyone has forgotten about that bygone era, the situation hasn't really changed. Sterling likens it to the person who sees his doctor for some unusual symptom and says, oh yes, when I was a kid I had this bad habit of swallowing needles. But I seemed to be OK, so I forgot about it. You mean one of them has actually turned up? Sterling has written a lot more about e.g. global warming than anyone else, as activist rather than as SF writer.

Darleen

"And you know who we trained and financed and armed to do that?" I asked. Blank stares. Guy in the back pipes up "Osama bin Laden" and they all shoot him "BULLSHIT!" looks, then turn to me for confirmation. I confirm, and the class is sitting there, mouths agape, for a good ten seconds.

Oh for heaven's sake, S...you owe your students a huge apology for perpetuating a myth.

ajay

The Terminator franchise speaks to this as well: is there anything sillier than the thing responsible for the destruction of mankind being called "Skynet"?

Just a minor point: there actually is a massive, multi-billion dollar military IT project called Skynet. It's the UK defence satellite communications network.

SEK

Darleen,

I don’t know about your CIA, but mine funneled money to arm and train mujahadeen through bin Laden’s Maktab al-Khadamat organization. I should be apologizing why now?

Ajay,

Well then ... it still sounds like something connecting multiple Leading Edges together via 1200 baud modems.

Rich,

My reply's turned into a post. More shortly.

Simon

It almost seems like he's not aware of the consequences of his premises -- Luthor does put the world in a bottle, just as Brainiac had, and the ending is particularly bad. I can imagine them sitting around the table when they plotted the thing, someone yelling "Eureka!" and the rest nodding their heads thinking it damn clever. Except it isn't. Not in the least.

Scott,

Luthor's takeover of the economy _is_ the consequence of the premise. For all of his high-minded rhetoric, he bottles the world just like Superman, and it's Superman's (and Luthor's) blind-spot that he can't see that they are, as always, twin images of authoritarianism. That's why the story ends with the timeshift you dismiss.

The comments to this entry are closed.