I should get this out of the way right up front: I don’t like comic books. (How’s that for a start to a comic book review? Ouch. But hear me out.) That isn’t to say that I think comics suck, but it isn’t a medium that speaks to me. Too few words, too many pictures, usually with an aesthetic that I dislike. I have read and enjoyed Sandman, and I love the graphic novels of Craig Thompson, and that pretty much covers my comic involvement. Still, I can enjoy a good story, even if I don’t like the pictures, even if the form is unlikely to make sparks.
But I was tricked. I had been told that Watchmen was a post-apocalyptic story. I mean, yeah, I have been meaning to read something by Alan Moore for quite a while anyway— he is an anarchist, which I assumed might mean his work contained some compelling ideas. (What is usually a hogwash assumption. Just look at fucking Henry Miller. Gah. Anyway.) Furthermore, Moore is apparently a total weird-o, which also sounded promising. But I came for the apocalypse, and—surprise!—Watchmen is not actually a post-apocalyptic (PA) book. *Insert another rant about how it pisses me off, the way people toss books willy nilly into this genre.* You could call it pre-apocalyptic: Nuclear apocalypse is a theme in the story, and some shit does hit the fan, but nothing that I would catalog in the genre happens until page 383 (Deluxe Edition). So if you’re in it for the end of the world, put this book down right now and go read Parable of the Sower instead. You’ll find more satisfaction there. I know I did.
The initial disappointment colored the rest of my reading, but fuck it, let’s talk shop. Watchmen is a story about a bunch of Batman-style masked heroes. Only one—Dr. Manhattan—has any actual powers, and the rest get by on ridiculous costumes, publicity, and cash. Blah blah blah, they are all old now, they miss the good old days, and then someone starts killing them off. Initiate mystery, violence, and flashbacks to fill in the back story. It took me a while to get into it, but the suspense was driving, and in its favor, Watchmen is one damn well written story. The execution of it? Just wow.
I was particularly taken in by the story of a comic within the comic, The Black Freighter. The way its creation and pages are woven into the center-stage story is expert, tight, abso-fucking-lutely perfectly done: an artful tapestry. As well as providing a scene that I would award with a “most gruesome and dark images ever written” trophy. Unforgettable. Then there was my favorite issue, Chapter IV: Watchmaker, which is about time as a simultaneous moment, which is trippy and beautiful and fascinating and very, very well written. Without them, I might have had a hard time forcing myself to finish reading.
Moore also gets some extra points for including gay people in the story without making their presence a Special Thing That He Did. You know, just gay people in the world, just like there are gay people in the world outside of the comic, living their lives—something that a disturbing number of authors simply leave out of their work. But what about the fact that a female masked hero is kicked out of the masked-hero club for being a lesbian, while a rapist is allowed to remain? What is a reader supposed to do with that information? Moore eventually has a character mention that the expulsion was unfair because there were some male heroes who were obviously gay and were not kicked out of the club (never any mention of the rapist being allowed to stay though). So what is the ultimate score here? It feels right that Moore address the realities of discrimination that many gay people face, and that he doesn’t just forget this entire segment of the population bodes well for the state of his intellect. But I would love to hear some other people weigh in with their readings of the comic on this particular issue—I have this itching feeling that I missed something important in my attempt to take everything in at once on just one reading. Does his inclusion of non-hetero characters work for you? Why or why not?
A feminist reading of Watchmen
Then there are the women in the world of Watchmen. Oh dear. It’s a man’s world (obviously: Watchmen), with an almost all-male cast. It passes the Bechdel test, but its portrayal of women still left me with a foul taste in my mouth. Feminist fail. I’ll explain why.
Exhibit A: The female superheroes are over-sexualized in both appearance and characterization (more on that in exhibit B). OK, so some of the dudes’ costumes are also pretty revealing, so maybe we could over look the fact that the women’s costumes are basically lingerie because maybe some men and some women just like wearing underpants in public. Equal opportunity public almost-nudity, right? Why not? But of course, the dudes aren’t wearing three-inch heels. Now there’s some classic male fantasy bullshit. If a woman was having a superhero fantasy, or even a man who didn’t see women as sexual objects, the ladies would be wearing shoes that didn’t make doing martial arts at least 10,000 times harder. Come fucking on. You can’t even walk right in high heels let alone kick villians’ asses into pulp. One of the male characters gets an entire monologue about how wearing a cape was really impractical for fighting and so he re-designed his costume, and the ladies are in fucking heels?! If you are going to pay that much dialogue time to the practicality of costumes, then you cannot put all the lady heroes in heels you assholes.
Is this a genre issue? Yes. Is this an Alan Moore issue or a Dave Gibbons issue or a DC Comics issue? I’d reckon that they all had their part to play. You could easily call “genre tradition” on this in order to clear the authors of any sexist charges, but carrying on a sexist tradition for tradition’s sake is an incredibly lame excuse. Imagine modern Germans saying “but killing Jews is tradition in our country!” Tradition is never a legitimate argument for anything. Never. I would have thought that Alan Moore might be a little more progressive. Apparently not.
Exhibit B: While Laurie and her mother are both masked heroes themselves aka have total badass potential, their main role in the story is as girlfriends, sidekicks, and sex objects. Laurie is being paid by the government to lay Dr. Manhattan (yeah, this is explicitly stated, and the fact that the two are a couple doesn’t change how fucking fucked up that is). Oh and, by the way, Dr. Manhattan left his last girlfriend when she got too old and wrinkly. Later, after Laurie and Manhattan have a spat, Laurie moves in with another former hero and starts sleeping with him and then he drags her along on some adventures. Way to have agency in your life, Laurie. Did I mention that she only became a hero because her mother forced her to? She is a total puppet. And she cries a lot, like the stereotypical, hysterical female that dudes have been writing for-fucking-ever. (Now that I think about it, both of the lady heroes cry regularly, and none of the man heroes do. Maybe not even once. Uh-huh.) Sure, not every female character has to be strong and have her shit together. But in order to make a female character who happens to be weak something more than a continuation of a long-standing stereotype, you need to make her a whole person, maybe even to address the stereotype directly. Neither of these things happen in Watchmen. Blub.
Then there is Laurie’s mother, Sally Jupiter. Dear god, this woman. There is actually a scene in which she proudly shows her daughter a fan-made porno comic featuring her masked self. Are you fucking kidding me? Reading that section, I was reminded of the fact that women getting trolled or threatened on the internet today are often sent photoshopped pornographic images of themselves. I can’t imagine a three dimensional, real live woman reacting positively and then showing her daughter what amounts to the same thing. What was Moore thinking? Or maybe he wasn’t.
Sally Jupiter brings me to exhibit C, the portrayal of sexual assault. Early on, we learn that the Comedian, another masked “hero” attempted to rape Sally Jupiter back in the glory days. At first I thought, hey, he’s being depicted as a total asshole, good, at least this comic is taking a firm stance on rape. Laurie (Sally’s daughter, in case you’ve already forgotten) is unforgiving and totally pissed when she finds out. Everyone hates the Comedian, who later becomes a government tool, and he gets murdered on page one. But an older Sally is all, oh Laurie, blah blah blah, so much time has past it is totally ok now. What?!
Later, in a newspaper interview that Laurie finds in her mother’s scrapbook, Moore writes Sally as telling a fucking reporter (and considering the way that the majority of women feel shamed into silence about rape, I find her chattiness on the subject incredibly unbelievable) that well, she really actually felt that the attempted rape was her fault, because she had some confusing feelings about it all. Um…?! And THEN, to add insult to fucking injury, the book ends, seriously, once and for all, almost-the-last-page ends, with a scene that basically erases any rapist=bad message you might have thought the book had. I won’t tell you how exactly because I don’t want this review to include any serious spoilers, but jesus fucking shit. What the hell? What the fucking hell?
I wish I hadn’t bought this book. Though it would make a good text for a class on female representations in the world of comics, should I ever decide to get my PhD after all and become a certified specialist in this shit. Borrow it if you feel compelled to have an informed opinion on a “classic,” but otherwise, well, I wouldn’t bother.
Where I got it: T3, Frankfurt am Main, Germany