G. Warlock Vance is, among other things, a novelist and college English instructor. Having taught at Kent State University, University of NC at Greensboro and several community colleges he often utilizes comics and graphic novels in the classroom (with favorites being 'Watchmen', ''The Dark Knight Returns' and 'Hellboy'). Warlock's most recent book THE MISSING NARRATIVE OF NEPTUNE is available online or by contacting the author personally.
We asked him to lend his scholarly analysis to our 'Watchmen' coverage, which he kindly obliged.
Twelve minutes to midnight, the Doomsday Clock ticking irrevocably toward the moment of our collective annihilation. The existential question to ponder is not how, nor when; the apocalypse is NOW. And staring into that Nietzschean abyss the killing joke is not that such darkness gazes also into us, but that when Armageddon comes human beings will, in their last few seconds on the planet, find the optimism to run—to duck and cover—to wait out THE END and hope for better times.
The paragraph above offers readers alternative interpretations: a description of the brilliant twelve-issue comic series The Watchmen (1986) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons or a brief analysis of the times in which we live. Perhaps such a choice is unnecessary since history so often repeats itself. Moore and Gibbons’ The Watchmen accurately captured the sociopolitical zeitgeist of its late-1980s era while simultaneously creating a nearly timeless example of the human condition as witnessed through the lens of a cadre of masked heroes who try to figure out their place in a society where their roles so quickly devolve. The inherent issues of that alternative world mirror the self-same global difficulties faced by all of us inhabiting the planet today.
Trying to write anything about The Watchmen that has not already been said is problematic at best, but after digging through my comic collection and rereading the original twelve-part series I could only marvel at how precisely spot-on were Moore and Gibbons’ predictions—how much they got it right. Rorschach’s stoic existentialism, the Comedian’s marked cynicism, the Nite Owl’s defeatist apathy, Dr. Manhattan’s utter inhuman disconnect, and the Silk Spectre’s selfish wish that the problems would simply go away serve not only as perfect reflections of the “Nixonomics” (p2/vol8) of The Watchmen’s world, but for the disastrous Reaganomics of the 1980s and even for these early years of the twenty-first century.
But I am not a political pundit. I teach college English. Apart from drawing these obvious comparisons, I examine comics like The Watchmen from both a literary and historical standpoint in order to reveal similar connections as I’ve previously described and to demonstrate innovation as well. Though I agree with critics like M. Thomas Inge who describe how comics “serve as … reflectors of popular attitudes, tastes, and mores” (Comics as Culture, xi) I believe comics also provide a means for us to look inside ourselves as well in order to understand our motivations and to comprehend the darkness that few of us wish to admit lurks within our hearts (as The Shadow would say). For daring to examine that darkness at close hand we have Moore’s insightful dissection of the superhero motif (examined at length in Iain Thompson’s essay “Deconstructing the Hero”) and Gibbons’ no-holds-barred depiction of these fictive elements.
By the time Alan Moore created The Watchmen he had already proved his remarkable talents with his native UK publishers and in the USA with the reinvention of Miracleman and re-envisioning of the Swamp Thing. Likewise, Dave Gibbons had earned respect for his work on Judge Dredd, Green Lantern, Superman and many other books where his unique style provided him the necessary chops to tackle The Watchmen. And like Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), The Watchmen created an alternative comic realm, yet one that was intended to be finite. Once the mystery of who killed the Comedian and the ensuing action are resolved the series concludes. Publication of these works in particular (all produced in 1986) marked a pivotal moment in comic book history since the demand for the issues became so great the comic companies took a chance on reprinting them in collected volumes thus heralding the advent of the graphic novel.1
From a literary standpoint The Watchmen functions on many levels as a most brilliant example of postmodernism with the depiction of an alternative history as well as its inclusion of so many intertextual references and artistic and literary asides. In Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean Douglas Wolk notes how these intertextual references “led to the rise of superhero metacomics, whose point is commentary on the conventions of superhero stories or on familiar characters who are represented in a sort of thinly disguised roman à clef way.” Wolk also points out that such “metacomics” are “aimed at … readers familiar enough with enormous number of old comics that they’ll understand what’s really being discussed” (105). Thus the savvy reader of The Watchmen understands the parallels being drawn between Nite Owl and The Batman, The Comedian and Captain America, Dr. Manhattan and Superman (et al), yet there is also that additional historic subtext of the EC comic with the simultaneous metacomic inclusion of Tales of the Black Freighter, not to mention the dialogical interplay of the action of the world of the Black Freighter and its reverberation into The Watchmen’s reality. This grim text-within-text enhances The Watchmen’s terrible sense of irony by bringing the overt horror of those old EC comics like Tales From the Crypt and Haunt of Fear into the lives of the characters and readers alike.
And while the use of alternative history was nothing new2 (not even to the realm of comic books) it seems that The Watchmen legitimized the concept and reintroduced it to mainstream literature as well. Four years after the publication of The Watchmen William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published The Difference Engine (1990) and the trend continues even into contemporary, postmodern literature with the more recent publication of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004).
In The Watchmen, the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, tells us that “the world has moved on” (p32/vol3) and while this may be true, he seems to forget what the newsvendor advises, that “everything’s connected” (p2/vol3). From the Comedian’s drop of blood on a smiley face button in the first issue to that identical blob of ketchup on the newsboy’s smiley face shirt in the last, the readers of The Watchmen understand the cyclic nature of not only the world as brought to us by Moore and Gibbons, they see the overarching recurrence of the social and political events with which this article began. Throughout The Watchmen’s many issues we see the graffiti inquiring “Who Watches The Watchmen?” but the answer to this query is a simple one—multitudes of readers. From the thousands upon thousands of comic book aficionados who tracked down the original comics or have purchased the graphic novel (my students included in this latter group) to the millions of movie goers throughout the world who will soon partake of the film version of The Watchmen, the cycle continues.
Of course I would ask that you never forget those other parallels I mentioned—those which point ominously toward the world’s current dilemmas. Let us pray that it doesn’t take the machinations of madmen like Ozymandias and the death of millions for all of us to come to terms with our responsibilities as citizens of the world to understand the wisdom in Dr. Manhattan’s statement: “For you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg” (p28/vol9).
Remember that Doomsday Clock I mentioned? It’s still ticking and, according to recent estimates by scientists and political analysts, it currently rests at five minutes ‘til midnight, not twelve. Never forget that the abyss yawns precipitously close.
1 Though I think one must acknowledge the birth of the graphic novel as occurring in 1978 with the publication of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God.
2 In literature one finds such historical rewriting from the time of Cervantes on up through the present. For more closely related examples to Moore and Gibbons’ vision see The Sound of His Horn by Sarban and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.