Who Watches the Watchmen Watchers?


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.”

13 thoughts on “Who Watches the Watchmen Watchers?

  1. I think you are being a bit unfair. While you are right that the comics medium has no particular barrier to being as diverse as any other medium, it is not unreasonable for persons relatively new to comics (which is still a small, insular world compared to movies or novels or music) to be a little taken aback at the weird dichotomies (art comics/4-color superhero, for example) that characterize the comics medium. If one was talking about movies, the fact that film can encompass both American Pie and Tokyo Story is uncontroversial because almost any educated person knows that film has a rich and varied history. This is basic knowledge. Similar knowledge about comics is far less common, and while it is slightly disappointing that Lane doesn’t possess what you or I think is essential knowledge about comics, it is not surprising and to my mind quite forgivable.

    Also, I am surprised that you would fall for the shallow, freshman-English distinction between medium and genre. Genre is a broad, flexible word. Sure in most narrative forms, it refers to a specific subject matter (mysteries are different from romances, sit-coms are different from game shows). But it can also refer to a specific approach or structure in art-making–poetry is a different genre from prose, for example. Given this, I have no problem at all calling comics both a genre and a medium.

  2. Robert, I don’t think it’s a question of what’s “forgivable”; it’s just very sloppy, almost contemptuously so, when this kind of thing comes from someone like Lane who’s been a professional critic for his entire career. “Almost any educated person knows that film has a rich and varied history” is a true statement, but it doesn’t follow that the educated person should be totally baffled by the idea that some unfamiliar medium might be diverse too (with “weird dichotomies” like stories about different things, some serious and some not). I’d think the opposite should be true: an understanding of one art form improves your ability to engage with forms you don’t understand, if you’re actually aware that you don’t understand them.

    It’s one thing to say “Hmm, I always thought hip-hop music was just about gangsters, but there seem to be all these different kinds of it these days” — a little naive, but honest about it. What Lane is doing is more like this: “Hip-hop is so weird, it can’t make up its mind whether to be about gangsters or sex or jokes. I listened to a bit of it the other day. Its fans get really defensive when you put it down; what’s that all about? Anyway, here’s what’s wrong with the Wu-Tang.” And not as some random remark, but in the context of a review in which he deliberately chose to focus on the art form in question. So I don’t think it’s about general ignorance; more likely he just doesn’t care, or (judging by the oddly pugnacious bits about comics readers) is even actively trying to rile people who do care.

    Also, if you’re going to throw around phrases like “shallow, freshman-English distinction,” maybe you should follow up with a better example. Poetry and prose are not different media by any stretch of the imagination; they consist of written words. It would make sense to call comics a genre if you’re placing it within the continuum of art forms that combine text and illustrations — e.g. children’s comics vs. children’s books that have pictures with facing text pages. But I don’t think that has anything to do with Lane’s careless usage that Jeet is complaining about.

  3. Yeah, the last sentence and the fact that he writes a review which totally and deliberately gives away the plot of the film are both much more egregious errors than his misuse of terminology.

  4. I’m with Robert Boyd on this. I get more annoyed by the narrow use of the word ‘genre’ by those who would praise comics than by those who would dismiss them. I have lately taken to referring to American comic books as a genre just to be contrary. Do it long enough and you’ll realize it wasn’t worth arguing about in the first place.
    (hi, Robert, by the way. Long time no speak. I trust you’re well)

  5. (Hello Eddie, I am very well thanks. I read and enjoy your blog, by the way.)

    In the end, I wish that Anthony Lane knew more about comics, but I can’t get too exercised by the fact that he doesn’t. Comics is a form of expression, a tradition, the collective work of generations of artists, the collective readings of generations of fans, a bunch of semi-overlapping commercial enterprises, and the scholarship of historians and critics. Unfortunately, all these tendencies somehow conspire to present a picture to the world not unlike the one Lane sees. He isn’t looking below the surface, and shame on him for that, I suppose. But it’s hard to blame him because the surface that comics presents to the world is pretty repellent for anyone with taste and intelligence. This is true despite the efforts of critics and writers like Jeet, whose writing on comics I admire greatly.

    (And one last thing–I think the ghost of Homer would be shocked to learn that poetry consists of written words. Poetry is a genre that does not depend on a particular medium of expression.)

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