My father is worried about Devil-dog. He has been out of intensive care, and a coma, for two days. Devil-dog! he shouts and points from the chair by his hospital bed. I’m not sure if he is pointing at me, but it appears so. Before his illness, I barely knew him; I hardly ever thought about him. It is only in this vulnerable state that his existence has become a thing, a fact, for me. Devil-dog, he shouts, and I think that he may be pointing at one of the tattoos on my arm. Or at least I hope so. Before his illness, my father was almost invisible to me; but now that he is on my mind, now that I see him at last, I realise how difficult his life has likely been. A man so meek and undemanding, so out of place and out of time, that the world – our world – must have been bewildering to him. Not once have I seen him do anything wrong; but then I never saw him do anything at all until now. It seems as though he had to lose his mind in order to impose himself, to speak up. Devil-dog! he shouts again, his frail arm extended and scanning the room; and suddenly I’m convinced that he’s passing judgement; on me, on all of us.
“Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else.”
When I began to take a serious interest in graphic novels I knew that one day I would have to read Watchmen. Although I was not, to be honest, excited about the prospect. Despite its lofty reputation – a reputation that makes the book difficult to ignore or bypass – the little I knew about it didn’t appeal to me. I picked it up, therefore, with a feeling of, not dread, but mild irritation, as though I was performing a duty. Yet it took no more than the first frame to dispel my misgivings. Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach, begins Rorschach’s diary; and I knew immediately that the writing – the narration, in this case – was superior to any I had come across previously within this genre; it is superior, in fact, to most conventional novels, and frequently verges on the poetic. Often when reading something of this sort there is a begrudging acceptance that the prose parts will be average, at best; and that this is a necessary trade-off for the interesting visuals. That a book could be as impressive in both areas was incredibly exciting. Indeed, it made graphic novels look like the future of literature, rather than a fun diversion.
Everything that I thought a novel of this sort could achieve Watchmen does it; it does more, in fact. Throughout, there are extracts from a character’s autobiography, newspaper articles, letters, an academic journal; there are quotes from Nietzsche and the Bible; and so on. These are not new tricks, of course; one will find similar in Berlin Alexanderplatz, and such like, but certainly I wasn’t expecting to come away from Watchmen referencing the touchstones of Modernism. Moreover, the prose pieces, or essays, are of the highest calibre. The story of Joe Mermon, for example, really touched me. He was, we’re told, a collector of erotic novelties, who one day put on a pair of false plastic tits to get a cheap laugh. However, he finds out that his wife has been cheating on him; and when he tells his colleagues they go into hysterics because he had forgotten to remove the breasts. The writer, and former masked avenger, Hollis Mason, concludes: ‘and although I have never worn a set of false bosoms in my life, I’ve stood there dressed in something just as strange, with tears in my eyes while people died laughing.’
Usually, I will complete a graphic novel in a day, no matter how many pages it contains, but Watchmen took me over a week to read. This is because it is so dense, so sophisticated and detailed. One gets the impression that Moore [and Gibbons, the illustrator] threw everything at it, gave it everything, and remarkably almost* all of it works. One of my favourite aspects of the book is how multiple stories are told simultaneously, in a cinematic fashion. In Black Hole by Charles Burns, if someone is having a flashback the frame is wavy, which is a simple, almost childlike, technique. Here, however, you are made to work; it is only by following the story, being fully engaged in the story, that one is able to distinguish present day from memory. Moreover, and most impressively of all, there are times when two stories are told within the same frame[s]. For example, there is a scene in which a couple are having sex, which is a significant plot development, while on the TV there is a news broadcast, followed by an acrobatic performance, both of which provide information about other plot points. Not only that, but the TV could be said to commentate ironically upon the sex: ‘one smooth, seamless flow of motion’ is how the acrobatic performance is described, while the couple’s endeavours are fumbling, awkward.
Moore also clearly put a lot of work into developing his characters. We learn their back stories, their fears, their hopes, their motivations, etc; they are, without exception, rounded, believable and, in most cases, relatable. This, one imagines, was intended as a kind of comment upon the genre itself, as a deliberate bucking of a trend. Prior to Watchmen, almost all masked avengers, or superheroes, were flat; necessarily so, you might argue. They were not ordinary people, they were special. One was meant to look up to them as superior beings, both physically and morally. Flawless, they dealt in absolutes: absolute goodness, absolute justice, and so on. They were essentially Gods. Well, Moore’s ‘heroes’ are not at all God-like, except the brilliant Dr. Manhattan. Take Rorschach, who is mentally and emotionally unstable. The Comedian, on the other hand, is not only morally dubious in a Batman-like manner, but, in killing an innocent woman and attempting to rape a colleague, actually behaves in such a way as to make him the book’s biggest villain.
The Comedian is particularly interesting because he is a man of the times or, more accurately, a man who moved with the times, who saw and understood where humanity was heading. One of the book’s major themes is social change, away from old ways of behaving and being towards new, and less innocent, ways. At the beginning of the book all of the avengers, except Rorschach, have retired. It was a forced retirement, but the impression is given that they were no longer needed, that they were, in fact, no longer capable. Crime had changed, the world had changed; and not, one is led to believe, for the better. Indeed, Watchmen, like Bolano’s 2666, is a kind of literary death rattle; it’s humanity’s last rites in book form. In short, we are fucked; and there is little that we can do about it. We are circling the bowl of the toilet. It might take one last flush, but the end, for us, is at hand. Moore sees it, Bolano saw it, and my father sees it too. Devil-dog! he shouts repeatedly from the chair by his hospital bed, his eyes intensely focussed and his frail arm outstretched.
*there was a point in the book, about a third of the way into it, when I began to wonder how Moore was going to draw all the strands of his narrative together in a satisfying manner. And the truth is that he doesn’t. In the final stretch, the plot becomes corny and silly.