The first page of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The New Yorker is famous for its fact checking, so the errors that pop up in the magazine tend not to be niggling ones of names and dates but rather large conceptual mistakes. Consider Anthony Lane’s opening sentences to his review review the new movie Watchmen: “The world of the graphic novel is a curious one. For every masterwork, such as ‘Persepolis’ or ‘Maus,’ there seem to be shelves of cod mythology and rainy dystopias, patrolled by rock-jawed heroes and their melon-breasted sidekicks.”
There are so many tangled misconceptions packed into these two sentences it takes some effort to unthread them all. First of all, “graphic novels” do not constitute a world, but rather a marketing category. Graphic novels are comics bound in codex form, so they can be more easily sold in bookstores.
Comics are a medium, not a genre. That is to say, comics are like print or film, not like science fiction or detective stories. So it’s not surprising that there is a huge diversity of styles and subjects done in comics form. Some cartoonists, like Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi, use words and pictures to create memoirs. Others, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in Watchmen, are more likely to do genre fiction. This diversity shouldn’t be surprising since a medium is a tool of communication and doesn’t, pace McLuhan, dictate the message.
Let’s imagine a clueless Anthony Lane who knew nothing about books or movies writing about these mediums. He would compose sentences like this: “The world of the print books is a curious one. For every masterwork, such as ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ or ‘Speak, Memory,’ there seem to be shelves of Harlequin Romances and cheesy Star Trek knock-offs, shoddy paperbacks whose covers display rock-jawed heroes and their melon-breasted lovers.”
Or our imaginary dumbbell Lane could also write: “The world of the motion picture is a curious one. For every masterwork, such as ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ or ‘The Times of Harvey Milk,’ there seem to be thousands of superhero adaptations and banal blockbusters, patrolled by rock-jawed heroes accompanied by melon-breasted, plastic surgery enhanced actresses.”
Aside from the idiotic opening, the rest of Lane’s review contains a convincing critique of the movie with some sharp comments about the original graphic novel. He’s down on the movie, which opens later this week, and I have every fear that his dour assessment is accurate, since I didn’t much enjoy the original comic. But the failures of Watchmen, both as a comic book and movie adaptation, tell us very little about “the curious world of the graphic novel.”