The Hidden S in Phone Booth

The Hidden S takes a look under the hood of Watchmen's literary reputation ... This is the Watchmen moment, and it is exciting to think of this provocative and challenging story coming to the cineplex. Along these lines, the source material is enjoying a reputation as not only a great graphic novel, but a great Novel (with a capital "N"). Moore's Watchmen, published in 1986 into 1987 had a strong degree of popularity at the time and a dedicated fan base but was mostly overshadowed by Frank Miller’s back to back Batman sagas which date from roughly the same time period, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. Miller’s work on Batman was very influential and made him one of the few genuine superstar comic creators in the business. Miller’s work was quite influential as he has pretty much characterized and defined the most recognizable character in mainstream comics, Batman, for almost 25 years. Moore’s work was thornier to be sure and more of an “inside comics” kind of move by the notoriously cranky maestro. Moore’s favorite subject is usually the idea of comics and nearly all of his work depends on the reader being familiar with comics history and cliches. This kind of prior knowledge is not necessary for a reader to enjoy Miller’s mainstream work in Batman (a character non-comics fans know well from the television, cartoon and film incarnations). As was stated previous, Watchmen concerns comics; its history, its fetish elements and its future. It might be imagined that a non-comic fan might have a difficult time with this book because so much of the enjoyment of the book evolves from a reader’s knowledge of comics and the kinds of dynamics that make this art form dynamic and relevant. For instance, all of the Watchmen characters resemble more familiar characters in comics (i.e. Nite Owl's subterranean lair evokes the Bat-Cave; Ozymandias's' Arctic retreat is a direct reference to Superman's Fortress of Solitude, etc.); and the odd twists in the story and behavior of the "Batman" and "Superman" of Watchmen make for an interesting experience for the seasoned comic reader. These touches have seen Watchmen elevated to a status that is probably past Miller’s 80s Batman work. Indeed it has been elevated past all graphic novels to a singular place not only in the pantheon of milestone comic works, but to a place where it ranks among the great literary works of the 20th century. Recently, Time Magazine famously picked it among its 100 greatest novels of the 20th century (published from 1923 on). The interesting thing about the rise of Watchmen’s reputation is that it has many anti-comic elements within the characters and the storytelling. The most likable character, Nite Owl II is an out of shape, directionless guy with sexual dysfunction issues. The most glamorous character, Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt, functions and behaves in a way that is typical of a supervillan like Dr. Doom or Lex Luthor. Rorschach and the Comedian are the badasses of the group if you will, but they are portrayed as disturbed, degenerate and a bit pathetic. Despite the evolving reputation of the book I found myself a tad underwhelmed while re-reading the book recently. The art, which I had remembered being first-rate seemed suddenly pedestrian. Dave Gibbons has been a very accessible guy with regard to this book in the last couple of years (including giving his blessing to Zack Snyder's production), but his work here does not have the memorable kinkiness of Moore's collaborations with Kevin O'Neill (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) or David Lloyd ("V" for Vendetta). I was however impressed by Moore's fabrication of the text of "Under the Hood," Hollis Mason's (Nite Owl I) autobiography which was more fascinating than I remember. Also, the layout of the panels and the transition between them was really expert. There is no debate to be had that Moore's/Gibbons' work is a great piece of comic art. Does it belong on Time's list of great novels of the 20th century? No, it does not. First off, it is not a novel in the sense that say The Sun Also Rises is a novel (to name a well-known book on the list). A graphic novel is a different mode of storytelling than a novel, or a play, or a symphony or an opera. Time's list might have been more interesting if it had been "The 100 greatest literary works of the 20th century," as then the inclusion of Watchmen might have been a more provocative choice. It could be argued that Time's editors showed a certain amount of ignorance about the concept of a graphic novel by including Watchmen here (it should also be remembered that Time owns DC). So, is Watchmen one of the great literary works of the 20th century? Again, no. In fact, it might be argued that Watchmen is not even the best graphic novel of its time. Again, Miller's work on the first Dark Knight series and Year One were released at almost the same moment. Miller's reputation has taken a couple of hits lately with the poor reception of his "All Star Batman and Robin" series where he seemed to be both parodying and repeating his work on his earlier Batman epics. Also, his film version of The Spirit had an underwhelming reception at the box office. This kind of misstep tends to have a trickle down effect and his ups and downs in the present have probably had a negative effect on his overall body of work. So, what is the literary legacy of Watchmen? Moore set in motion some of the high concept ideas/philosophies that are still spinning in the comic universe. Mainly, the idea that superheroes are at best neurotic, at worst mentally ill; the sexual nature of dressing up in costumes and role playing; the primitive idea that masks bestow as certain kind of supernatural power on the wearer; the thought that super heroism comes at a steep price psychologically and otherwise. Look no farther than the recent film version of The Dark Knight to see all of these ideas fit into place within the context of the film's narrative and themes. So then, Watchmen is not a great work of literature. Does that mean that Moore is not a great writer? Nope, Moore is a great writer full of ambition, willing to challenge reader preconceptions with unlikeable protagonists and difficult, dark, obscure scenarios. Does this mean that Moore is enjoyable to read? No, his work is often excruciating and tests the boundaries of good taste and goodwill from his audience (I am thinking The Killing Joke). Moore often reminds me of Stanley Kubrick who was also a great, but brutal artist with little apparent affection for mankind. And what of the movie? Will its success or failure affect the reputation of Moore/Gibbons' work? Of course it will. The movie, on the surface highly anticipated, is probably a more difficult sell than it appears. The cast is an interesting one to be sure, but the big names that were rumored to be Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl II like Jude Law, Keanu Reeves and John Cusak have been replaced with the likes of Matthew Goode, Billy Cruddup and Patrick Wilson; decent, respectable actors but unlikely to generate much in the way of box office excitement on their own. This coming weekend will likely be a big one for the film. But, some of the reviews are coming in and more than a few are lukewarm. Despite this, the film is pretty much review proof. But, if the film only touches the fanboy contingent (formidable though it may be) it may lower the reputation of the graphic novel in a guilt by association manner. Somewhere Alan Moore is cursing... The Hidden S-