Sunday, April 10, 2016

Watchmen: A little humanity goes a long way

Even after all these years, even after all the things that have been written and said about it, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen remains a monumental achievement in modern comics.

It’s undoubtedly the most successful – both commercially and critically – comic book with literary aspirations ever created. Its own success screwed over the creators, with Moore and Gibbons only getting the full rights back if the collected edition dropped out of print, something DC has certain to avoid.

There have been countless analytical examinations of the comic, its creation, and the whole culture around it, and they're still going on now, and they’re still rewarding. It’s also an easy target for angry young writers about comics, looking to make a name for themselves by ripping into the beloved book, a sight that has become so familiar it is almost comforting. It has reached that level of strange parody.

Watchmen is 30 years old now, and still as alive and exciting as ever. Those awful Before Watchmen comics and the dull movie version may have diluted the brand, but the story, the art, the whole damn comic is still a shining beacon of achievement.

After all, we’re still talking about it now. And we usually talking about the technical brilliance, the precise symmetry and subtle storytelling, the sheer cleverness, the beautiful craft-work of the thing. There is, after all, so much there to unpack and examine and put back together.

That kind of thing is great for scholars and masturbators, but the thing that makes Watchmen so alive after so long isn’t the fearful symmetry or the grand, operatic themes. It’s the people.

With Moore, it’s always about the people. When the writer first entered the US scene, he caused a bunch of spluttering about the fact that he wasn’t really bothered with the plot side of things, and was far more interested in mood and character. Dense, complex and pointless plots were a hallmark of the bronze age of comics, but with more of an interest in alternative comics, Moore didn’t really place much importance on the events that got things moving.

Instead, he ramped up the atmosphere, went hard on the subtext and took the startling decision to treat his characters like actual human beings. This resonated with readers, and Moore has provided the depth they were after, all the way through his career.

For all of its environmental posturing, Swamp Thing is really the story of a unusual couple finding peace and love in the marshes, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen saga is really The Adventures Of Mina (And Allan), and the Ballad of Halo Jones is all about one woman’s need to get out. Just out.

He has made a strong and beautiful career out of giving two-dimensional characters extra depth. It could be difficult to name his best plot from his long career, but a dozen names instantly spring to mind when you're asked to name his best characters.

In Watchmen, he gave weird Charlton analogues real personalities, and set them on a helter skelter race to the edge of the apocalypse. It’s the people that populate the Watchmen world that make it so rich - even Doctor Manhattan is fundamentally defined by his lack of humanity. But they're just like us - they’re missing pieces, and unsure and paranoid and alone, and still all coming together to do the right thing, when they have to. Even the Comedian gets that joke..

And it’s extended right down through the cast, right to the smallest role. Moore has made no secret of the fact that the street corner scenes were his favourite in the finished product. Outside the histrionic drama of the superheroes, there was real emotion to be found in the complexities of everyday life, where each character has their own story, their own strengths and weaknesses, all living together, comforted by small things like a shared name.

By the time they’re all gathered in the streets for the apocalyptic climax, they’re not just background characters – they’re the sad sack psychiatrist that can’t help sticking his nose into other people’s problems, no matter how much it screws up his own life; they’re the suspended cop who is still trying to do the right thing; they’re the awkward couple who just can’t make it work. They’re real people.

It’s all tragic, of course, and these people are all left dead and bleeding in the street from a massive psychic shock, and it hurts, because they were so real and recognisable. Gibbons may have trained for architecture, but he is a vital part of this – there is no mistaking the individuality of each character and their place in the world under his detailed line. Even in agony and death, each face is its own, and every body has its own language.

Even at the terrible end, there are signs of hope and humanity, with a crusty old man trying vainly to save a young man, and some small apologies before the monster comes.

And the crowd does win in a way, with the tiny epilogue. When the gods are finished playing their games, the future of the world is left in the hands of the biggest shmuck in the story, and he could change the world with some small decision.

It’s giving all the characters, no matter how fleeting, their own lives, so when they are snatched away in a psychic nightmare, it’s supposed to hurt. Each life, no matter how dull or mundane, has a complexity that is infinitely denser than any comic book can provide. Everyone has depths, from the kid on the corner to the man in the tower. And when they die, all that complexity gets reduced to a tragic smudge on the wall.

It’s what really matters and that beautiful craft comes into it again – look at the scene where the big, bad plot is revealed, and you’ll see the dense panels of info-dump are literally undercut by a panorama of the people Ozymandius is so willing to slaughter to make his point.

After washing his hands of mainstream comics, Moore would follow this line of thought through to Big Numbers, which examined a group of ordinary English folk and found unbearably deep complexity. It reached its logical end here too – Big Numbers became Moore’s great unfinished work, breaking the spirits of several artists who tried to get to grips with the infinite capacity of ordinary lives interacting with each other.

No wonder he went off to do Violator comics after that mess. Who can blame him?

But even as Big Numbers floundered, Watchmen thundered on and kept selling and gaining new generations of readers, and then they actually made a big, glossy motion picture out of it.

Unsurprising, with so much of that fairly dull plotwork to trudge through, the street corner scenes were the first to go in the movie adaptation. The filmmakers felt these parts were the least important, and hacked them all out to get inside a reasonable running time.

Logically, it was the right move, but it left the story fundamentally unbalanced. The movie became frenzied and manic, no matter how much slow motion was used, and lost the humanity. There were still signs of it -Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschah performance is painfully good - but they are lost in the noise.

You still can’t deny that technical achievement of the thing, but there is more to life than being clever.You've got to have a bit of humanity.

Watchmen is drenched in it, and that's what makes it so captivating, after all this time. It's the year 2016 and Watchmen is just as relevant and recognisable as ever.

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