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Watchmen: The Wind-up

Yesterday I think I came down too hard on poor Nite Owl & Silk Spectre, and it’s time to redress that balance. Sure, they’re part of Moore’s superherodom-as-swingers-club critique–but you’d have to be an awful prude to hold that against them… Certainly, it’s not great that Dan’s states of sexual arousal are more tied in to what he’s been wearing than who’s in his arms, but I don’t think that takes anything away from him as a person. Is this Moore’s critique of the eighties “me-generation” philosophy? Or his endorsement of it?

I’ve read a lot of rave reviews of Rorschach as a “realistic” psychological portrait of a “battle-hardened hero”–but I don’t accept that view at all! I’ve already gone on record with my opinion that Rorschach is the Spider-Man/Dr. Strange figure abstracted from his relationships to Aunt May/Betty Brant/Liz/Ancient One/Clea/Wong–I know I’ve read someplace that the character is based in large part on Mr. A & The Question, or even on Ditko himself! But I prefer to think of Rorschach as Peter Parker, frozen in one of those lonely tableaux that conclude many of the Ditko ASM‘s… and which, to my chagrin, no one seems to have deemed scan-worthy! If you happen to have a Masterwork or Essential handy, check out issue #11 for an example of what I mean–now imagine if no new “surprises” awaited that character, just an endless stroll through that same moody panel… that’s Rorschach!

But back to Daniel Dreiberg (the true focal point of Moore’s revolution in psychological realism)–so the guy substitutes altruism for viagra? So what? Are we still so messed up about sex that we can’t imagine a person being virtuous and aroused at the same time! Thankfully, Moore–unlike some of his nineties successors–has a more balanced understanding of human sexuality than that. (My opposition to the “psycho-realist” school of superheroics has nothing to do with its’ tendency to dwell on sex per se–I just happen to be more interested in the kinds of existential questions that the “anti-realist” tradition is better equipped to deal with.)

Many critics want to read Nite Owl as some kind of masochist (Geoff Klock does this), because he puts his life on the line for thrills–but I think it’s the other way around! Dan’s “early retirement” is the real act of renunciation/self-torture. He punishes himself for enjoying the superheroing so much by burying himself in the ornithological journals. Moore throws us a curve by giving us that stuff about the exo-skeleton that broke Dan’s arm, and the subsequent exchange about how all costumes are bound to “mess you up”.

The Nite Owl/Silk Spectre aspect of this book is an “empowerment fantasy” (and I’m really not a fan of those), but the point is that it’s a good empowerment fantasy–Moore is saying: “look, these people are doing wonderful things for their community and they’re gonna fuck each other as soon as they’re done. They aren’t even gonna wait for the owl-plane to land.” There’s a darker side to this coin (i.e. some of the other masked marvels we meet actually seem to get off on beating other people senseless), but Dan and Laurie just get off on “making a difference”, and this is made crystal clear in the wonderful bk 7 fire-rescue, which actually does give us something like that “lost innocence of the silver age” (are you reading this ADD?) that you hear tell of–but with a little sex… Gibbons’ low-angle shot of “archie” taking off perfectly conveys the sense of liberation these characters must be feeling, and that shot from above on the top of page 23 is totally unexpected (I don’t think I’ve ever come closer to feeling as if I were flying while flipping through a comic book) What clinches this scene for me is how Dan serves coffee to the besooted refugees. That’s gotta be one of the kindest moments in the history of superhero comics–and I like to see kind people getting what they want, even if they roll over my vision of the superhero comic as inheritor of the American romance tradition in the process!!!

I’d better stop now (even though I don’t want to!)–I’ve got a lot of Canadian poetry to read, and I’m planning to brush up on my Animal Man (I want to devote next week to Morrison’s masterpiece, if only to prove to myself that it’s at least as interesting as Watchmen–so please check back then huh? even if it’s only to scoff!)

Good night friends!
Dave

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16 comments

  1. I’ve been reading this series with interest, David, but I have to confess I often don’t see where you’re going. Frex, I don’t see the point of ‘Is this Moore’s critique of the eighties “me-generation” philosophy? Or his endorsement of it?’ at all. Is that (and similar) just an idle musing?

    On another note, I don’t see any problem with Rorschach being ‘a “realistic” psychological portrait of a “battle-hardened hero’ and ‘the Spider-Man/Dr. Strange figure abstracted from his relationships’ at the same time. ‘Realistically’, Spiderman sans his relationships would *be* a pretty fucked-up, battle-hardened hero.

  2. Nicholas

    on the “me generation” thing–what I’m saying is that, for Dreiberg (& most of the other characters in Watchmen) , heroism is an act of “self-help/empowerment”, which comes straight out of the “self-improvement literature” of the era (and which, sadly, is still with us–big time!)… and I guess I do think that Moore is endorsing this position–which leads to kind of a dead end, if you want to keep ranting about “true-blue heroism” a la Busiek/Waid/Ross…

    But on Rorschach–the point is that Spider-Man himself is already an abstract figure, in my reading–which makes Rorschach an abstraction from an abstraction. Now, that’s really interesting to me, but no way is it “realistic”!

    Dave

  3. Nicholas

    on the “me generation” thing–what I’m saying is that, for Dreiberg (& most of the other characters in Watchmen) , heroism is an act of “self-help/empowerment”, which comes straight out of the “self-improvement literature” of the era (and which, sadly, is still with us–big time!)… and I guess I do think that Moore is endorsing this position–which leads to kind of a dead end, if you want to keep ranting about “true-blue heroism” a la Busiek/Waid/Ross… Moore made it impossible to do anything like psychologically realistic superhero stories without becoming bogged down in the “mind=good, body=bad” dualism, and that bores me…

    But on Rorschach–the point is that Spider-Man himself is already an abstract figure, in my reading–which makes Rorschach an abstraction from an abstraction. Now, that’s really interesting to me, but no way is it “realistic”!

    Dave

  4. Nicholas

    on the “me generation” thing–what I’m saying is that, for Dreiberg (& most of the other characters in Watchmen) , heroism is an act of “self-help/empowerment”, which comes straight out of the “self-improvement literature” of the era (and which, sadly, is still with us–big time!)… and I guess I do think that Moore is endorsing this position–which leads to kind of a dead end, if you want to keep ranting about “true-blue heroism” a la Busiek/Waid/Ross… Moore made it impossible to do anything like psychologically realistic superhero stories without becoming bogged down in the mind/body dualism, and that bores me…

    But on Rorschach–the point is that Spider-Man himself is already an abstract figure, in my reading–which makes Rorschach an abstraction from an abstraction. Now, that’s really interesting to me, but no way is it “realistic”!

    Dave

  5. Nicholas,

    on the “me generation” thing–what I’m saying is that, for Dreiberg (& most of the other characters in Watchmen) , heroism is an act of “self-help/empowerment”, which comes straight out of the “self-improvement literature” of the era (and which, sadly, is still with us–big time!)… and I guess I do think that Moore is endorsing this position–which leads to kind of a dead end, if you want to keep ranting about “true-blue heroism” a la Busiek/Waid/Ross… Moore made it impossible to do anything like psychologically realistic superhero stories without becoming bogged down in the mind/body dualism, and that bores me…

    But on Rorschach–the point is that Spider-Man himself is already an abstract figure, in my reading–which makes Rorschach an abstraction from an abstraction. Now, that’s really interesting to me, but no way is it “realistic”!

    Dave

  6. Nicholas,

    on the “me generation” thing–what I’m saying is that, for Dreiberg (& most of the other characters in Watchmen) , heroism is an act of “self-help/empowerment”, which comes straight out of the “self-improvement literature” of the era (and which, sadly, is still with us–big time!)… and I guess I do think that Moore is endorsing this position–which leads to kind of a dead end, if you want to keep ranting about “true-blue heroism” a la Busiek/Waid/Ross… Moore made it clear that’s impossible to do anything like psychologically realistic superhero stories without becoming bogged down in the mind/body dualism, and that bores me…

    But on Rorschach–the point is that Spider-Man himself is already an abstract figure, in my reading–which makes Rorschach an abstraction from an abstraction. Now, that’s really interesting to me, but no way is it “realistic”!

    Dave

  7. I don’t think it’s reasonable to conflate empowerment with the self-help culture, since the latter is so much more than just the idea that one should take control of one’s own life (and so on)–by itself a rather obvious and innocuous notion! I suppose it’s arguable that Dreiberg displays other traits of it, but I take particular issue with the claim that this applies to ‘most of the other characters in Watchmen’, too. Name me some. For the Comedian it’s just the usual power fantasies at work, Veidt has the ubermensch thing going, Manhattan is transhuman. . . where’s the ‘me generation’ thing come in? I don’t see it.

    What do you mean when you say ‘Spider-Man himself is already an abstract figure, in my reading–which makes Rorschach an abstraction from an abstraction’? What is the definition of an abstraction, and what makes something more or less abstract?

  8. Sorry, your comments box ate my paragraph break. The bit beginning ‘What do you mean when you say. . . .’ should be a paragraph by itself.

  9. I just want to say how much I’ve enjoyed your thoughts on Watchmen. As you might guess, it’s one of my favorite books for all sorts of reasons, but I think I’m too close to it to say anything terribly intelligent. It interests me in terms of its place in Moore’s oeuvre, with V for Vendetta on one side and From Hell and what would have been Big Numbers on the other, but then I’m Moore-obsessed. I love what you say about Dan and Laurie though. I think their role as positive figures in the book is unacknowledged. I did want to ask if you don’t find at least some aspects of the book compatible with your kind of liberalism. You’ve got a much more sophisticated understanding of political theory than I do, but my read on Watchmen is that no character represents a moral center, or to be all Barthes about it, there is no meta-discourse; it just represents the various ideological discourses of society while the formal structure of the text contains them like the liberal state contains its diverse populace. Or is the formal structure–in many ways, the main character of the book–itself a meta-discourse? Hell, I’m rambling, but I mainly wanted to say: wonderful work!

    John

  10. Nicholas,

    I wish I had more time to get to this stuff (and I will soon!), but by “most of the others characters”, I meant primarily the ones that make up what I think of as the “super-heroic wallpaper” of the series (Hooded Justice, Hollis Mason, Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre I, etc…)–all of them seem to be in it for the glory/thrill of adventure/altruism/punishment…

    But you’re right–the Comedian, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan don’t fit with this reading! That’s why Watchmen is such a great work to analyze–as John (& Eve Tushnet) argue, there’s no real central figure here, and no one way to look at what Moore is doing (although it’s pretty hard to argue that he didn’t know what he was doing when he read Rorschach & Manhattan out of the continuity in issue #12–of course, you could easily make the case that both figures are dispatched with in ways that insure that they will haunt/destabilize the “psycho-realist” mode that Watchmen announces! I’d buy that!)

    Dave

  11. Nicholas,

    I wish I had more time to get to this stuff (and I will soon!), but by “most of the others characters”, I meant primarily the ones that make up what I think of as the “super-heroic wallpaper” of the series (Hooded Justice, Hollis Mason, Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre I, etc…)–all of them seem to be in it for the glory/thrill of adventure/altruism/punishment…

    But you’re right–the Comedian, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan don’t fit with this reading! That’s why Watchmen is such a great work to analyze–as John (& Eve Tushnet) argue, there’s no real central figure here, and no one way to look at what Moore is doing (although it’s pretty hard to argue that he didn’t know what he was doing when he read Rorschach & Manhattan out of the continuity in issue #12–of course, you could easily make the case that both figures are dispatched in ways that insure that they will haunt/destabilize the “psycho-realist” mode that Watchmen announces! I’d buy that!)

    Dave

  12. Nicholas,

    I wish I had more time to get to this stuff (and I will soon!), but by “most of the others characters”, I meant primarily the ones that make up what I think of as the “super-heroic wallpaper” of the series (Hooded Justice, Hollis Mason, Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre I, etc…)–all of them seem to be in it for the glory/thrill of adventure/altruism/punishment…

    But you’re right–the Comedian, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan don’t fit with this reading! That’s why Watchmen is such a great work to analyze–as John (& Eve Tushnet) argue, there’s no real central figure here, and no one way to look at what Moore is doing–it’s a clear case of heteroglossia in action! (although it’s pretty hard to dispute the effect of reading Rorschach & Manhattan out of the continuity in issue #12–of course, I suppose you could make the case that both figures are dispatched in ways that ensure that they will haunt/destabilize the “psycho-realist” mode that Watchmen announces!)

    Dave

  13. Okay,

    just a little more on “abstractions” (while Christine gets her tea ready for the movie!).

    During this burst of Watchmen entries, I’ve been opposing that term to “realistic characters”, and I certainly haven’t been shy to let my biases show!

    I’m a passionate advocate of the Hawthornean-romance tradition, and the sin qua non of this tradition is that characters in texts are nothing more than that–they are merely formal elements of the work as a whole (John seems to feel similarly–or, at least, he takes a similar position when he argues that the structure itself is the central figure in Watchmen), and there’s no pressing need to consider their brain chemistry or sexual pathology, if that will distract you from the things that you are really interested in–they’re ideas (or abstractions), not people!!!

    It just seems to me that, if you’re going to do superheroes, you really shouldn’t mess around too much with psychological realism (unless you are Alan Moore, and you understand how to integrate these figures into a larger whole), because there aren’t any real superheroes, and we don’t particularly need any psychological case studies of impossible beings! Superheroes work better as concepts than as “people”–it may seem paradoxical, but as soon as you pull them out of the context of the Romance aesthetic, they become either monsters or saints (as Alex Ross’s work demonstrates!)

    keep it coming if you think I’m off my nut, Nicholas!

    Dave

  14. Okay,

    just a little more on “abstractions” (while Christine gets her tea ready for the movie!).

    During this burst of Watchmen entries, I’ve been opposing that term to “realistic characters”, and I certainly haven’t been shy to let my biases show!

    I’m a passionate advocate of the Hawthornean-romance tradition, and the sin qua non of this tradition is that characters in texts are nothing more than that–they are merely formal elements of the work as a whole (John seems to feel similarly–or, at least, he takes a similar position when he argues that the structure itself is the central figure in Watchmen), and there’s no pressing need to consider their brain chemistry or sexual pathology, if that will distract you from the things that you are really interested in–they’re ideas (or abstractions), not people!!!

    It just seems to me that, if you’re going to do superheroes, you really shouldn’t mess around too much with psychological realism (unless you are Alan Moore, and you understand how to integrate these figures into a larger whole), because there aren’t any real superheroes, and we don’t particularly need any psychological case studies of impossible beings! Superheroes work better as concepts than as “people”–it may seem paradoxical, but as soon as you pull them out of the context of the Romance aesthetic, they become either monsters or saints (as Alex Ross’s work demonstrates!)

    keep it coming if you think I’m off my nut, Nicholas!

    Dave

  15. Surely your argument would apply just as much to any fictional character? They all don’t exist, not just superheroes. And why does ‘need’ come into the picture anyway? We don’t ‘need’ comics, full-stop.

    And I disagree that ‘as soon as you pull them out of the context of the Romance aesthetic, they become either monsters or saints’–look at Dan and Laurie!

  16. Nicholas,

    You’re right of course–but the idea that narratives introduce us to characters who live and breathe and exist beyond the page (or ought to) is a “realist” conceit that we’ve not yet eliminated from the critical landscape (certainly not from the criticism of comic book literature!)

    As for Dan & Laurie–you’re right, they are neither monsters nor saints/gods,etc; but the point is that Moore takes a great deal of trouble to embed them in a more complex textual frame!

    This has not been the case with most of his successors–who have turned the genre into a ghetto dominated by either “profiles in courage” or (the flip side of the “realist” coin) “pathologies of heroism”…

    There’s a place for these types of character analyses, of course–but I make no bones about my opinion that they’re less interesting than the more existentially inclined works that they’ve been abstracted from! (what we’ve got now is either “The Adventures of Dan & Laurie”–without all of the framing devices that helped to make their story interesting–or, more often, the Adventures/misdeeds of “Hooded Justice”–again, isolated from any larger imaginative structure…)

    Dave

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