Better Than List Pt. 3: Doom Patrol > Watchmen

With the convenient bundling of the trailer for the coming screen adaptation with Christopher Nolan's latest, mega-successful (financially speaking, at any rate) Batman venture, interest in Alan Moore's reputation-making 1980s superhero soap-opera Watchmen has reached what has to be unprecedented levels.

I occasionally lend my services to a major book retail outfit and in the weeks following the release of The Dark Knight, the store and its suppliers simply could not keep up with customer demand for the book. Many of the folks clamoring for copies were children and/or non-comics readers, which begs the question: what happened when these people finally got their hands on a copy and actually tried reading the thing? I don't think it would be an exaggeration at all to venture that fully half of the first-time readers who picked up a copy of the book on the strength of the film's trailer gave up before reaching the fourth issue. My point here is that the "The Most Celebrated Graphic Novel of All Time" is actually one of the singular snow jobs in comics history and simply cannot hold a candle to Grant Morrison's run on Doom Patrol.

Watchmen and Doom Patrol are admittedly two radically different books. Be that as it may, in the sense that both present superheroes as outcasts, more or less unwanted by the societies in which they live, they share some common ground. In the case of Watchmen, Moore's stated premise was to show what it would be like if superheroes existed in our own world--or at least in a world very much like our own. This is a pretty flimsy premise to base an entire 12 issue series on and his conclusions about how such superheroes would comport themselves are typically grim and pessimistic.

Moore's assumption is that for someone to actually go through the trouble of putting on a costume and executing vigilante justice, they would of need be pretty ridiculous and pathetic. Not only is this not necessarily true--or even really plausible at all--but it also makes for characters that are fairly one dimensional and devoid of any emotional appeal. The irony of course being that when quizzed about what makes Watchmen such a great comic, its fans invariably express the fact that it is not about superheroes at all, but about people. Yeah, maybe pathetic, overweight, impotent people who write scholarly articles about ornithology.

The heroes of Doom Patrol are also misfits in the sense that they are uncomfortable with the super powers with which they are blessed (cursed?) and as a result have difficulty fitting into the world at large. What separates them from the misfits at the center of Watchmen is their identifiable emotional attraction--to each other and to their readers. When Robotman encounters Crazy Jane in the first issue of Morrison's run, an emotional bond is developed between the two characters that is real and is sustained throughout the entire run of the book. He doesn't just want to fuck her, as is the case with Nite Owl II Daniel Dreiberg and Silk Spectre II Laurie Juspeczyk--in fact he couldn't fuck her, he's a robot, and this is somehow really refreshing.

The elephant in the room, as it were, when dealing with Watchmen and its fans is its ostensible intellectual component. When someone mentions this aspect of Moore's book, however, all they are really saying that it is difficult to read--in other words, it is boring. Don't get me wrong, I have read Proust and Ulysses--twice, as a matter of fact--so I do not have a problem with difficult literature per se. The problem with Watchmen is that it is difficult for the sake of being difficult--its abstruseness is arbitrary and a serious obstacle to the appreciation of the book.

Much is made of its "meta" qualities, but the only thing that really strikes me as being "meta" is the pirate comic which interposes the action and apparently comments on it. This comic, however, is just about as boring as the narrative proper and I find myself skimming over the text in these sections. This is a really bad sign in a comic. Besides, comics are supposed to be entertaining--it is sort of like, the contract between the artists and their readers. People approach the novels of Proust or Mann understanding that they will have to do some work in order to unlock the full meaning contained therein. A comic which demands this of its readers seems somehow dishonest.

This is not to say, of course, that a comic cannot be intellectual. Grant Morrison is well known for inserting considerable erudition into his work and Doom Patrol is no exception to this. The difference of course is that the erudition is real, not feigned and that throughout it all, the comic never loses the sense of whimsy that makes it an entertaining, and ultimately successful comic. Doom Patrol is a sort of touchstone of intertextuality in comics. Morrison uses the book as a forum to analyze and comment upon much of what is going on in the comics world--including Watchmen.

Watchmen gets its title from a quote from the Roman satirist Juvenal, which translates roughly as "Who watches the watchmen." The book is littered with panels in which this phrase is shown painted on exterior walls. Morrison took this sort of iconic image from Moore's book and translated into one of his most brilliant original characters, Danny the Sentient Street. Danny is exactly that, a sentient street who can relocate himself anywhere in the world. Moreover, the stores and business located along Danny are all overtly masculine (hardware, firearms), yet are decorated in a frilly, feminine style--commenting on issues of gender and sexual identity in a most original, whimsical manner.

The intelligence of Doom Patrol doesn't end with its overt intertextuality. From The New Brotherhood of Dada and the Painting That Ate Paris, to the 'Potlatch' episode from volume 3, Morrison mines the history of art, philosophy, religion and mythology in order to enrich his stories in a manner that is as edifying as it is hilarious.

At the end of the day, comics are a visual medium and their stories are told as much by their images as by their text. Much is made of Dave Gibbons's art in Watchmen--in particular its cinematic qualities and embedded symbolism. The problem is that what is called cinematic is really just a way of describing the book's utter lack of visual narrative movement. The result of this is that Watchmen is almost entirely dependent on Moore's text in order to convey the movement of the narrative. This is problematic in general, but especially in a comic that is so often bogged down by wordiness.

Another issue with Gibbons's art is its tendency to insert information that at first might seem significant, yet in reality turns out to be meaningless. The obvious example of this is the inkblot pattern on Rorschach's mask, which alters from panel to panel, signifying little besides something "cool" for readers to comment upon. None of this is to say that the art in Watchmen looks bad--it doesn't--however, the art adds very little substance and reflects the book's overall clumsy pretension. Richard Case handles the pencils for the majority of the issues of Morrison's run on Doom Patrol and his work very ably adds to the comic's overall mood of enlightened levity. There are occasional moments of genius in the art, like the alien castle that is clearly modeled on Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Morrison's vision for the book is ambitious, to say the least, and Case and the other artists have successfully translated his ideas into artwork that carries and even amplifies the comic's whimsical seriousness.

Ultimately, I think, these two books reflect the differences in temperament and attitude of their respective creators. Like much of Moore's other work, Watchmen is a politically confused, philosophically deterministic and ultimately morally muddy mess. How else does one describe a book in which the people who put on costumes to help their fellows run the gamut from jingoistic fascists to psychopaths to ineffectual effete pseudo-aristocrats; or in which the only character who can properly be described as a superhero can foresee the conclusion of events into the future; or in which another of the ostensible heroes engineers an "alien" invasion, destroying a city in order to prevent the destruction of the world?

Grant Morrison is clearly as off-the-wall a creator as Alan Moore could ever hope to be, but his worldview as presented in his books is gratefully free of the pessimistic moralizing and self-conscious "grittiness" that more or less defines Moore's oeuvre. Instead, Morrison chooses to exercise his curiosity about the world, about art and about the significance of the comics medium in a way that never ceases to entertain his readers--or at least he did so with Doom Patrol.


Meghan said...

I JUST read Watchmen, and this really sums up my problems with it and my confusion about why it's such a big deal. Setting aside its intentional obtuseness, it's just not engaging on any level. The plot is mostly uninteresting and way too slow, and (even worse!) there's no emotional draw.

david e. ford, jr said...

meghan- thank you for the comment. i imagine that your reactions to watchmen are shared by many, though clearly due to the 'canonical' status of the book, perhaps few would be willing to admit as much. clearly watchmen is not ALL bad, the problem is that whatever is in its that is good would probably take up no more than a three issue mini-series, were it not thoroughly muddied with moore's 'intentional obtuseness.' there are certainly portions of morrison's six-volume run on doom patrol that are less straightforward than others, but they never lack the essential whimsy (notice i use this word a lot in describing comics i like) that keeps it moving and, more importantly, keeps it fun.