3/02/2009

Doom Patrol is STILL Better Than Watchmen


When this post first appeared in the nascent days of Are You a Serious Comic Book Reader? I reflected upon how the bundling of the early trailer for the Watchmen movie with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight generated huge new interest in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's supposedly ground-breaking book. Unsurprisingly, the intervening months have seen this interest magnified exponentially, with a deluxe new hardcover edition, the reissue of the comic's first installment at a bargain-basement price, and of course the rash of obligatory movie tie-in books (Watchmen and Philosophy anyone?). Of course, none of these alters the point: however many ways DC devises to dress up that pig, it's still basically unreadable and will never be able to 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.

10 comments:

Vee (Scratch) said...

I'll probably check out Doom Patrol some time soon.

I never ever heard any of my artist friends give Dave Gibbons props. For the most part I never ever heard the art of the Watchmen mentioned at all, well until the recent hype-machine decided to put out anything and everything Watchmen related to for the extra synergized dollar.

Ok, I definitely agree with you on some of the writing. Moore's decision to add Daniel Dreiberg's scientific papers did give me a sleepy spell for a minute. Less could have been done to build that character.

The Watchmen and Philosophy is a marketing trick that worked well for the Matrix. There are several Matrix-philosophy books. What I didn't know was that there are 'philosophy' books for Lords of the Ring and Zelda! There's basically a small market for psychology of popular culture series. It is kind of crazy.

Good write up.

david e. ford, jr said...

Vee-

The weird thing about the art is that, at least in my opinion, everything that is wrong with it is the writer and not the artist's fault. Gibbons is certainly a serviceable artist and many of the illustrations are aesthetically pleasing. But when I first read Watchmen, one of the things that I kept reading from those who support its canonical status is that the art itself was revolutionary because of the way it employed "cinematic" techniques. To me, this is simply short-hand for the fact that panel after panel shows the same view--often getting gradually closer or farther in perspective. The problem, which is something I point out in my post, is that there is no narrative force in the illustrations. This is obviously a decision made by the writer and simply followed by the artist.

Insofar as all the "extra" material went--like Dreiberg's papers or that memoir or whatever that other narrative is--I wasn't able to read any of it. I realize that the creators felt like this was another sort of 'revolutionary' aspect of their book, but the story itself is so damned boring, that I can't imagine tripling the reading time by absorbing all that extra.

The biggest joke about the matrix in terms of how it relates to philosophy is that it basically illustrates a 400 year old philosophical exercise, which is interesting and everything, but it is certainly not the sort of cutting edge thought that some would have you believe. The irony of all these "and philosophy" books is that there is a really great deconstructive superhero comic, Rick Veitch's The Maximortal that actually really successfully lays out many of the ideas of more contemporary philosophy (watch the blog later this week for more on Veitch's book), but I don't think one would be wise to hold one's breath for a The Maximortal and Philosophy book.

-d

Moonshine said...

I think the thing about The Watchmen is that it is sort of this book that finds it's way into the hands of 12 year olds with an above average reading ability, who then are awe struck (or maybe just muddled?) by the perceived complexity of the content. Some sense of accomplishment at having read something difficult (And It's a Comic Too! Hoo boy!) then results in a default position of championing it as this incredible piece. This is my theory, at least, because I think the one and only time I read The Watchmen was when I was 12 and I have pretty fond memories of being impressed by it.

Anonymous said...

This is the equivalent of a music fan not listening to a band like Weezer because they are too well known.
Please explain the Maximortal's philosophy. I hope it has something to do with a Carlos Castaneda shit flingger and a tranny Miracleman giving birth to himself.

david e. ford, jr said...

'shine-

i definitely think you are on to something, but not only in the sense that people read it for the first time when they are young. i have often had conversations with older comics readers who read watchmen as adults when it was new and they describe how when it came it out, it was so far removed from anything else being published by, and this is important, major, mainstream comics publishers, and this fact alone added cachet to its reception. i qualify the types of publishers because there were people writing and drawing philosophically and narratively complex comics before watchmen, they were just normally under the auspices of 'underground' comics.

Anon-

i am a little confused as to what you are saying, but are you saying that not thinking watchmen is as good as everyone says is the same thing as not even listening to a band because they are too big? that sorta doesn't make sense, particularly in the context of this blog. for the record, i HAVE read watchmen (it only took me three tries) and i also really like weezer. the point is that its reputation doesn't survive a critical reading. one of the things that we go on about a lot on this blog is how attitudes such as you have described are stupid. many of my very favorite comics are MAJOR mainstream books--popularity has nothing to do with it. the fact that watchmen is so very popular means that it should be subject to particular scrutiny, which obviously i do not think it survives. but i certainly wouldn't dismiss any book out-of-hand simply because a lot of people like it.

re: maximortal and philosophy, i realize you are sort of being disingenuous, but watch these pages in the coming days.

-d

samuel rules said...

It's weird when people who don't read the blog want to comment on the blog. Am I not the only member of the Secret Invasion fan club and has Brandon not been reviewing every issue of UA, which is written by goth teeny bopper favorite Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance? just sayin dude.

Monique R. said...

"This is the equivalent of a music fan not listening to a band like Weezer because they are too well known."

ROFFLE. Pinkerton is their best album, no?

brandon said...

Anon-
Yeah, what Sammy said. You're proving our point with the unwarranted attacks. This blog's real populist. Most of my time writing's spent on mainstream rap. We're hardly snobs around here buddy.

Richard said...

Hi guys. I've always had trouble with Watchmen, too. I didn't hate it, didn't find it difficult, but didn't see what the fuss was. It's sort of boring.

However, this guy's anal retentive posts on the book made it more interesting for me, almost convincing me.... almost.

david e. ford, jr said...

Richard,

Whoa, Jesus, that is ALMOST cool . . . almost. You are essentially right about Watchmen, though . . . it is only difficult in the sense that is boring and it is difficult to motivate oneself through something that is that long and that boring.

The link that shared, though, reminded me of a conversation I had with Sammy and Brandon way back when Secret Invasion was first starting and I was just beginning to read comics regularly. Basically the phenomenon the two of them were discussing was how comics nerds were suddenly taking the revelations of the first issues of secret invasion and using them to rethink every damned marvel comic they had read since the late sixties. i remarked that there is this problematic tendency within certain segments of the comics reading community to treat continuity like talmud--as this never ending, obsessive commentary on SACRED TEXTS. the problem comes in when we treat our myths as sacred texts, rather than as the myths they are.

watchmen, boring though it may be, is filled to the bloody brim with nuance and information, providing an endless mine of material for people who've yet to discover actually rewarding texts to obsess over.