A Watchmen Dissent



I have a confession to make. Although I’ve often written on comics, indeed have co-edited several books on comics, my bona fides as a fan can be question. You see, I’ve never really enjoyed Watchmen, the celebrated Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel.


 Although I’m happy to acknowledge that Moore and Gibbons put a lot of work and intelligence into their much-praised graphic novel, the book has always seemed like a drag to me. The problem with Watchmen can be summed up simply by describing it: it’s an attempt to write a serious superhero comic and show what superheroes would be like in the real world. The root conceptual error is that superheroes are not a serious concept. The most enjoyable superhero stories – Will Eisner’s the Spirit, Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel – are almost always humorous. They use the fantastic element of the superhero to tell lively, fairy-tale-ish, outlandish and sometimes satirical stories. Watchmen, by contrast, is all too earnest, all too glum, all too heavy-handed: it’s a comic sunk by its own dreadnought weight of seriousness.


The best review of Watchmen was written by Carter Scholz, the distinguished novelist and short stories writer, and an ideal critic for the book. Like his friend Jonathan Lethem, Scholz has tried to break down the border between genre fiction and literature, writing science fiction stories with a Kafka-like intensity. Watchmen is also an attempt at raising up genre fiction, but a faltering and flawed work.


Scholz’s review ran in the Comics Journal #119 (January 1988), and I should warn readers, who might not have read Watchmen but still want to, that it reveals a fairly important plot surprise. Here is an excerpt:


After some prodding, I’ve finally read Watchmen. It entertained me, but I’m not likely ever to re-read it.


I won’t re-read it because it’s too incestuous to repay that degree of attention. Moore has taken established comic book characters (variations on Charlton Comics characters of the 1960s), and has done his manful best to make them real people, in a realistic milieu. This, of course, is what Stan Lee was renowned for (without much justification, if you ask me), and Moore is Lee-cubed, but without Lee’s American hyperbole, optimism, and bounce. It makes for an altogether more refined performance, one which is more palatable to an adult mind, but it is essentially the same act, and I think it’s a sterile one. In same ways Moore’s approach is the weaker, and the more radical – weaker, because the super-hero genre was never made to take the strain he puts on it, and the more radical because he has taken an untenable concept absolutely as far as it can go. … 


It doesn’t work because it’s all too self-referring. Moore does real lapidary work here – there are many levels of carefully-designed subtleties throughout Watchmen – but most of them turn to point directly at the deficienes of super-hero comics of the past, which maintaining as well as possible all the beloved old nonsense. We have the “world’s smartest man” (what in the name of Gardner Fox does that mean?) who has a Fortress of Solitude at the South Pole, we have aging heroes wryly aware of the sexual element to their costumes, we have a bang-up treatment of the psychotic hero gone on Ayn Rand – we have in short a brilliant doctoral dissertation on the super-hero comic. Only it isn’t a dissertation; it’s, perversely, a super-hero comic. And so we have the familiar Manichean plot, the crux of which is the fate of the world. And what a cruddy plot it turns out to be.


Tellingly, we do not have any super-villains. Moore’s sole villain is humanity. The central premise of Watchmen is more deeply misanthropic than that of X-Men. This is the hook Moore sinks deeply in all us partly-reconstructed Manicheans, and it almost works. He says: man is vile and depraved and will do himself in – so far, so good – unless the heroes step in and save him from himself. And that “unless” blows it all back to Stan Lee.


Oh, sure, the heroes fight among themselves, and there are enough subplots to keep a letterhack busy for years, but the story finally devolves on Veidt’s plan to save mankind from nuclear Armageddon by, here comes the crud, faking an alien invasion – a plot device that John W. Campbell  would have laughed out of the Astounding slush pile 40 years ago. Is this the best that the “smartest man in the world” can come up with? …

20 thoughts on “A Watchmen Dissent

  1. While I agree Watchmen (the comic) is overrated, this–

    He says: man is vile and depraved and will do himself in – so far, so good – unless the heroes step in and save him from himself. And that “unless” blows it all back to Stan Lee.

    –isn’t the point of Watchmen. It’s more like: despite the fact that humans are vile and depraved and quite likely to do ourselves in, we are still worth saving–but NOT LIKE THIS.

  2. Kip Manley,
    Well, your alternative reading is fair enough but it points to the ambivalence (or possible confusion) to the ending of Watchmen. It’s not clear by the end what moral judgements we’re to make of Veidt’s act.

  3. Watchmen is a Lutheran reformation text knocking on the door of the Catholic establishment by a devout believer. Or something like that. And why I think scholars of comics don’t really enjoy it because they aren’t superhero fans. The text is an indictment of the form, the laws, by a believer in the form. I don’t know if anyone who wasn’t a “true believer” to start with really “gets” the full impact of the text. It’s like a Muslim saying he doesn’t enjoy the New Testament.

  4. I don’t know about John W. Campbell laughing the concept out of the slush pile. Andre Maurois wrote a story with a similar gag in 1928. It was reprinted in Anthony Boucher’s Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. Here’s a summary I found online.

    “Next we have “The War Against the Moon” by André Maurois, published in 1928 from ‘The Next Chapter: The War Against the Moon’, it weighs in at 15 pages.

    Told as a fragment of a ‘Universal History’, published by the University of C-mb-e, 1992, chapter CXVII, it is essentially an alternate future history past.

    By the 1960s, the ravages of the World War of 1947 had been repaired, and people were again returning to greater prosperity, which of course made some jealous. Luckily, the media were largely controlled by a handful of individuals, who decide over brandy and cigars to manufacture an enemy that can unite the world. How ’bout one that doesn’t exist? How about the Moon? Brilliant! More sherry and cigars all around!

    Luckily, a professor has invented a particle/energy beam that can be used to target the Moon and show the people that progress is being made in the war. Zzzap! There goes a crater! Brilliant!

    Then Darmstadt disappears. In a way that can’t be explained. Oops. “

  5. Frank- I think you nailed it! Really like your analysis. Jeet, you gave yourself away in your offhand comment that the best superhero comics are humourous. These aren’t authentic superheros, they are superhero parodies. Its like comparing Naked Gun to Maltese Falcon- “Well, I liked Naked Gun, but Maltese Falcon just doesn’t compare as detective film noire…”
    Now, I do think Watchmen transcends the genre, I’ve introduced it to plenty of people who would never read comics and loved it. But for people who disdain serious men in tights fighting crime, there’s very little chance you’re going to like a GREAT story about serious men in tights fighting crime. You have to be able to buy in to that particular fairy tale without looking for irony or societal commentary. You gotta BELIEVE Jeet!

  6. Frank’s defense is very good; in fact, I’m going to pluck it out of comments and make it a seperate post.

  7. Hey, Jeet, as long as it’s confession time, here’s one from me: I’ve never read “Watchmen” in its entirety.

    When the comic book version came out in the late 1980s, I was stationed in Japan, so I never even saw it.

    It wasn’t until the past 10 years or so that I picked up the graphic novel compilation, and while I did start it, I’ve yet to complete reading it. If I had to ballpark how much of it I actually read, I’d have to say maybe 15-20 percent. I can’t remember why I never finished it, and I can’t even remember if I even liked what I did read.

    In any case, when I do go to see the film this weekend, I won’t have any idea of what to expect, nor will I know how it will end. In some ways, I suppose, that’s a good thing. My impressions of the film afterwards will truly be impartial.

  8. It’s not clear by the end what moral judgements we’re to make of Veidt’s act.

    That’s because it isn’t The Dark Knight Returns. The whole point of Watchmen is that the absolute morality of superhero comics is suspect and that there are no simple solutions to complex problems.

    That Scholz apparantly was under the illusion Alan Moore meant the reader to believe Veidt’s big plan was a good idea, says a lot for his attentiveness as a reviewer.

    I mean, why do you think Tales of the Black Freighter was in the book in the first place? Or why the Outer Limits episode is playing on the television when Sally and Dan visit Sally’s mother? Or what the last bloody panel of the book signifies?

  9. You’re entitled to your opinion; in defence of ‘Watchmen’ however you seem to have missed a point or two. It isn’t simply ‘heroes behaving like real people’, it’s a superhero story from start to finish – beginning with a mysterious death and ending with a big scary monster. ‘Watchmen’ is concerned with a lot of things but one of them is comic books themselves, so you can’t criticize it for ultimately reading like a superhero story because that’s what its supposed to be. However, it is most unlike any superhero story that came before and most that have come afterwards. It’s hard to imagine after 20+ years of gritty Batman: Dark Knight, Milleresque Daredevil, true-to-life Kick Ass etc but this will have been even more striking in 1986. I applaud Moore and Gibbons for ‘Watchmen’ and, differences of opinion on the matter aside, wish you all the best.

  10. I only accidentally stumbled onto this forum (which apparently is obsolete since the last posting was in March), but with the forum’s indulgence, as a person who has made his living as a writer for more than two decades, I’d like to leave a comment about Mr. Heer’s observations/prounouncements (mostly because I had a little time today) and I thought some huge gaps needed filling.

    “The most enjoyable superhero stories…”

    “The best review of Watchmen was written by Carter Scholz…”

    Wow. Speak in hyberole much? How nice of you to ordain these things for the rest of the (by comparison to your judgment apparently) ignorant public.

    Your premise is filled with error. In what universe were “the most enjoyable superhero stories” the Spirit, Plastic Man, or Captain Marvel? Each have delivered moments of enjoyment…to SOMEbody, I suppose, but to try to ordain any list as the most enjoyable superhero stories (without at least offering a criteria) is at best monstrously subjective and always doomed to failure…as you demonstrated.

    You thought Watchmen was a drag? Wonder how you’d feel about the comic book version of Les Miserables. From my observation, comic book fans can be divided into two factions (Actually, there are many ways to categorize fans of the medium, but, for the purposes of finding the right category to place Mr. Heer’s comments into an understandable perspective, we’ll concentrate on these two:): People who look for the comic in comic book and people who look for the book in comic book. Easier examples are people who thought the best version of a screen Batman was the Adam West insulting TV series and people who prefer Batman the way Bob Kane envisioned him — no-nonsense; throwing a thief off a multi-story roof and moving on to the next crime. Another example of these two factions are the people who believe that Star Trek IV was the best Star Trek movie because it contained humor and, well, anyone with more than two brain cells. The people who belong to the first faction have no business reviewing anything, let alone comic books or works based on them, but even clueless people are all too often allowed access to keyboards.

    To those of you who missed reading (or chose not to read) the original work in favor of “waiting till the movie comes out,” I offer my deepest sympathy. You have missed out. There is so much in the original work that any movie could not capture. And ignoring the original work is truly your loss. The merits of what Moore and Gibbons did was to attempt to provide dimensions of real writing and storytelling with multiple layers of symbolism to an artform (largely disparaged by the literary world and pseudo-sophistocates everywhere) to a degree never before attempted. That’s all. How nice of you to acknowledge their putting “a lot of work and intelligence into their much-praised graphic novel…” How condescending as well?

    Mr. Heer, before you offer another comment on any other movie or literary work, I invite you to watch another film. It is a Cary Grant film called “People Will Talk (1951).” For some reason, I am reminded of a dialogue delivered by character actor Finlay Currie when he says,

    “… you’re a little man. It’s not that you’re short. You’re…little, in the mind and in the heart. … Tonight, you tried to make a man little whose boots you couldn’t touch if you stood on tiptoe on top of the highest mountain in the world. And as it turned out … you’re even than littler you were before.”

    1. haha. very well said. i just found this forum myself after reading watchmen. which i was motivated to do AFTER i watched the movie. so the movie, for me at least, had a very important role, i would probably never have been interested enough in a comic book to read it otherwise

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