We have a bad tendency toward hagiography in this business, especially with successful work or talent. There are people whose status or memories are so protected that raising any questions about even an aspect of their lives or personalities is held tantamount to unjustifiably scurrilous character assassination, even if those questions are patently valid, but that's not uncommon in any subculture. There are works so hailed as masterpieces that questioning that assessment is generally taken to undermine the credibility of the questioner, not the work.
WATCHMEN is one of those works.
There's no question that it came along at a propitious moment for the business. After a long drought and restructuring of the comics industry around the rise of direct market and independent comics (that the "rise" of the latter was transitory is now irrelevant) comics had begun an upswing and at least the illusion of a burst of new creativity. DC in particular had been able to pull out of a decade-long slump on the strength of NEW TEEN TITANS, which started a new upsurge of DC readers at a point where the company had all but despaired of them, CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, which established the company as a home of Big Events, and Alan Moore's SWAMP THING, which, though it never really sold all that well, except in comparison to book's sales before Moore's arrival, got people talking about DC as a font of creativity. Dick Giordano and Paul Levitz were smart enough to ride with all this, and started actively seducing talent away from both Marvel and the independents by positioning DC as a place where you could do the comics you wanted to do (by the mid-80s, Marvel was largely known as a place where you could do what Jim Shooter wanted you to do) and even make some money off them.
By that point, Alan was their poster boy for great writing, so a special Alan Moore project was about the best promotion DC could give itself. The legend – this one is even true – was that he'd been offered the chance to revamp the recently purchased Charlton heroes from Dick Giordano's editorial stint over there but his revamp was so radical Dick suggested he use original characters in their place. And WATCHMEN was born, in such a spectacular buzz of hype and hero-worship – artist Dave Gibbons was just coming off a much-touted GREEN LANTERN run that, if not quite as noticed as SWAMP THING, gave a lot of people a lot of reason to expect a great-looking book, and they got one – that very few people stopped long enough to ask how good it was.
So, looking back after 20 years: is WATCHMEN a great story?
In a general sense? Not really. It's a good story. Science fiction fans of the time, especially those steeped in British disaster fiction, must've found many elements very familiar. Alan's "genius," on that level, was to apply those motifs to a superhero story. Then there's Alan's penchant for pilfering as cultural allusion (one of those things we're all supposed to be too polite to bring up), which bubbles up in WATCHMEN and ultimately finds full flower in LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and LOST GIRLS; the comic-within-WATCHMEN, "Tales Of The Black Freighter," is borrowed straight from Bertold Brecht & Kurt Weill's "Pirate Jenny's Song" in THE THREEPENNY OPERA, while The Comedian evokes Graham Greene novels in a number of ways, and then there's the notorious "Outer Limits" ending, often cited as the weakest element of the project.
But all that misses the point, because WATCHMEN isn't really a story, as we generally understand them. If the "Outer Limits" ending seems artificially imposed – a goofy pulp denouement to a series seemingly dedicated to steering clear of pulp or undermining it – it appears to be a rare instance of Alan and Dave succumbing to audience expectation. Because there are tons of indications in the book that while the series was destined to end, no real ending to the story was ever intended. There are very few endings in WATCHMEN, apart from death. The Comedian's death, we learn, is intended to be an ending; instead, it triggers Rorschach's investigation and the rest of the series. The appearance of real costumed heroes ends superhero comics, but pirate comics sprout up in their place. As impending nuclear midnight threatens to annihilate the human race, Dr. Manhattan suggests an impending "other" that can replace humanity. The original Nite Owl and Silk Specter fade out, the new versions fade in. One worldview or moral stance hits the limits of its philosophy, a new one takes its place. This is why Rorschach meets his final fate; as the rigid moral center of his universe – a universe he relentlessly superimposes in all its eschatological obsession on the world of WATCHMEN - he's a static condition, a rejection of the continuity, in its original sense, that underlies everything else in the book. His existence demands an ending, and he gets one.
There are aspects of the book that were highly touted in the day that seem a bit silly now. Alan and Dave put an incredible amount of effort into their structure, perhaps the most ambitious use of symmetry in fiction since Milton's PARADISE LOST; page and panel layouts, and occasionally specific visuals and dialogue, in the first half of the book are exactly reflected in the second. It's an ambitious gimmick, and it does give WATCHMEN a unique flavor, but in retrospect doesn't carry enough weight, thematic or otherwise, to justify the effort, unless its inflexible rigidity is meant to mirror Rorschach's. But that's supposition at best, and there's nothing in context to suggest it's the case. It seems to just be something one or both creators took a fancy to.
Is WATCHMEN a perfect comic? No. Is it a great comic? An argument can be made for that, and many have. Is it an important comic? Undoubtedly, and here's why:
Whatever its flaws, WATCHMEN was the first real graphic novel in American comics, insofar as it emphasized "novel" as much as "graphic." It's still one of the few rare examples. And not just for length, though at close to 300 pages it's one of the lengthier books in our repertoire, but there's more to novels than length. By and large, what commonly pass for "graphic novel" in our world are really "graphic short stories," or long comic books, with the traditional concerns of comic books and special focus on plot. (It doesn't help that most graphic novels are edited by comics editors, who are mostly "trained" – by the habits of the job, not by any formal education or orientation process – to think and critique almost exclusively in terms of plot, and plot is almost always the primary concern of comic books.) While there are other instances, such as Chartier & Giraud's LT. BLUEBERRY, much of which seamlessly combines to form a true novel, and Bryan Talbot's earlier and very influential THE ADVENTURES OF LUTHER ARKWRIGHT, WATCHMEN is the first project originating in America (albeit by Englishmen living in England) conceived not as a "graphic novel," but as a novel would be conceived. Few have even done it since. While the plot is fairly strong, the book pivots on theme, and virtually every other element is an expression of theme. Development is complex, multifaceted, multilayered, multiangular; there is no single "voice" through which the story is filtered. Though broken down into 12 oversized comic books in its original publication – a single volume original publication "graphic novel" of that length was unheard of in the '80s and still unusual today – it's clearly identified as a novel by its creators early on, and whatever other criticisms I may have of the structure, the structure alone suggests something much more intricate than an "extended comic book story." (Compare, if you will, to the other major DC release of the era, Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Not that anyone's enjoyment of it should be diminished – it still stands well on its own merits – a reading in collected form makes it fairly obvious that it was not conceived or structured as a novel. Though more sophisticated than most comics of its day, in pacing and execution it has much more in common with Frank's earlier DAREDEVIL than it does with WATCHMEN, whereas WATCHMEN is a noticeable break in many ways from SWAMP THING or MIRACLEMAN.
In other words, WATCHMEN put the "novel" in "graphic novel." It may not be the best novel ever written, but it is a novel, and it ain't bad.
If that wasn't enough of a signpost for comics, Alan and Dave also kicked things open wide thematically, and theme, a major reason the book still resonates with audiences today, is the other factor that separates it from most comics and graphic novels, to point into a fertile wilderness that comics otherwise have resolutely shied away from.
What was the theme of WATCHMEN?
Just yesterday a friend started talking to me about the maxi-series, mentioning that when he read it originally, the final issue was a big disappointment to him, not just for the "Outer Limits" denouement but because nobody in the book is heroic. But there are no heroes in WATCHMEN. Characters call themselves or others heroes, but there's no consensus of right and wrong, no shared behavioral code. They aren't anti-heroes; they aren't heroes, period. Virtually all the characters except Rorschach view their "costumed hero" days as a sort of child's game. This doesn't mean no heroic acts are performed, but that heroism is not the characters' natural state. Dr. Manhattan, the only character to gain true superpowers, finds himself separated and consistently distancing from humanity as a result of those powers and enhanced perceptions that even render the concept of heroism a delusion of circumstance. Nite Owl and Silk Specter reject their "hero" days as juvenile, and are drawn back partly out of guilt, partly out of boredom and partly in new acceptance of their own fetishism. Ozymandius and the Comedian both come to regard what might commonly be viewed as "villainous" acts as pragmatically acceptable in service of whatever they individually consider a "higher" good. Only Rorschach clings to his heroic "ethic," mainly because he has nothing else. (It's interesting to note that each character has his mirror counterpart – Nite Owl & Silk Specter, The Comedian & Ozymandius, Dr. Manhattan & Rorschach – and are ultimately united with The Other through sex or death.)
This is moral ambiguity on a scale rarely conceived of in any work, let alone superhero comics. Even in most works touting "moral ambiguity," the author's voice imposes moral order and point on the work. Alan and Dave steer clear of such judgments, leaving that decision to each reader. That's quite a spectacular act of faith, really, since WATCHMEN is anything but void of moral content. (It's also the only reason I'm at all trepidatious about the film, which looks spectacular: the line in one of the ads stating "The World Wants Its Heroes Back." This runs so contrary to the spirit of the book that I'm praying it's someone in marketing who didn't Get It, not someone on the creative end.)
These are the great gifts WATCHMEN gave comics. Not surprisingly, of the great many facets of WATCHMEN ripped off and duplicated by others incessantly and excessively in the 20 years since the series' original publication, these number among what's been ripped off the least.
I've gotten a number of emails from writers peeved about Marvel's recent policy change regarding unsolicited submissions. On the premise that it will make it more difficult for them to land a Marvel gig.
Here's the good news: it won't.
If someone suddenly hired me to run a comics company, likely the first thing I'd do is dump the slush pile, if one existed, and installing just such a policy as Marvel did. Though Marvel so far hasn't abandoned unsolicited submissions so much as suspended them, at least officially, such a suspension is practical policy at most publishers, of comics or anything else, and I suspect has been the case at Marvel, and other comics publishers, for a lot longer than they've cared to admit.
From the outside this seems terribly unfair. What about all those great talents discovered in the slush pile and went on to fame and fortune? Well, what about them? Name five. I dare you.
The fact is slush piles are a massive waste of time for everyone involved, and few things are more aptly named. I grew up in Wisconsin, I know from slush. I've seen my share of literal slush piles taller than I was as a kid; I've also been in the offices of editors whose slush piles were literally taller than either of us. Mike Richardson might have a slush pile taller than he is. (For those who've never met or seen him, Mike's a skyscraper.) I've known more than a few editors who either view slush piles as their Sisyphean labor that they will never complete or ignore them completely. They have two huge downsides: they never get smaller because they're what editors look through in their spare time but editors never have spare time and unsolicited submissions keep coming in so the piles never get smaller; and there just aren't enough talents discovered via unsolicited submissions to making setting time aside worthwhile. They continue to exist mainly because they've always existed, and because – when I play slot machines I generally play very little at a time because money goes a lot longer that way so if you're just playing for fun (as I do) you never get desperate, while all around me people commonly shovel in the maximum bets possible trying to hit that jackpot. I've never seen anyone hit a jackpot. It happens, but too statistically infrequently to get ambitious about it. But the reason companies and editors keep slush piles is pretty much the same reason people keep playing 30 lines at the maximum bet on a slot machine: there's an off chance you might hit the jackpot.
It's a very off chance.
Most people don't know how good, or bad, their work is. Everyone thinks they're a genius. I can hear a lot of bristling at that – yes, how dare I cast aspersions, etc.? – but it's okay. Really. You're all alone there in your head, you can admit you think you're a genius. Hell, when I was younger I thought I was a genius, and the thought still wanders through occasionally. You might as well think that. People – certainly editors – may tend to dismiss people they think have too high an opinion of themselves, it's true, but they scorn people who appear to have a low opinion of themselves. A high self-opinion, if you temper it with a little false modesty (old Spider-Man joke: or any other kind), can work in your favor. The problem with thinking you're a genius is that sooner or later you have to back it up, and at that point your opinion is completely irrelevant. The dividing line between genius and stupidity is success.
Unsolicited submissions are a path to obscurity, not success. In the early days of magazines they served a function, since editors, especially at smaller fiction magazines, didn't necessarily easy access to a broad talent pool, and while some consistency of style and content established a magazine's identity too much consistency bored readers. But that was before other structures fell into place, before genres solidified and agents came into the picture. For a long time in comics shops produced much of the work, and you got in by apprenticing in a shop or with a more established artist, if you were an artist, and if you wanted to be a writer you got in because you knew somebody. These days, it's not like Marvel or anyone else needs a slush pile.
If you view things traditionally – I don't necessarily recommend it, but I'm pretty sure it's how Marvel views things – Marvel is the zenith, the king of the hill, the consummation most devoutly to be wish'd. It's where everyone wants to end up. To some extent this is true, at least on strictly practical terms: if there's anything that resembles financial security in the comics business (there really isn't, for various reasons, but that's another discussion) it's Marvel. As a result, Marvel has no shortage of warm bodies lined up for a slot. Barring other factors, they can pretty much cherry pick from other companies all they want, and in the case of writers they have an even wider pool to choose from now, including novelists and Hollywood, since it's no longer jejeune to admit you read comics growing up.
The ways to break in at Marvel today:
Publish a comic, or other fiction, elsewhere. If enough people start talking about it, some Marvel editor will get wind of it.
Publish an Internet comic. Same result.
Become acquainted personally with an editor, or with some other well-thought of talent who will introduce or enlist you.
It helps considerably if what you're producing is roughly in the ballpark of Marvel's stock in trade. You don't necessarily have to publish superhero work but something that demonstrates a grasp of their form of story structure is a pretty good idea. Slavish imitation of Marvel product? Probably not so much, but the key thing you're going for – if working for Marvel is indeed your goal, and, again, casting your net a little wider is probably a better idea – if to make an editor say, "Why aren't they working for us?" Bringing us to the same point as before: whatever you think your selling point is, you have to back it up. Even if you can back it up, Marvel, like every other company, only has a certain amount of slots to fill, meaning even if you do everything right, your shot at writing a Marvel comic will depend on a) attrition; b) unavailability of people whose work they think they like better; or c) your ability to convince them your idea is so good it'll sell a new project. That sort of thing requires them to have a lot of faith – and risk – in you, and that also comes either from experience or from your track record elsewhere. There are, of course, rare exceptions, but that brings us back to the slot machine analogy, and being the exception is something someone fresh down the chute should stake their fortunes on. The situation is further complicated by Marvel editorial being tightly controlled and planned, as DC's also is now, meaning that however great that Black Cat idea of yours is, if it doesn't jibe with what's going on in Dark Reign, selling it will be problematic.
None of this means you can't break in at Marvel. But all these conditions existed when they had a slush pile. All these conditions still exist now that they don't have a slush pile. With it or without it, your odds haven't changed. Hopefully that will be of some comfort to those aspiring comics writers out there.
1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 36-42):
From Fantagraphics Books:
HO! THE MORALLY QUESTIONABLE CARTOONS OF IVAN BRUNETTI ($19.99; hardcover)
Sometime I get Brunetti, sometimes I don't, and this is one of the latter. Not that there's anything bad about HO!, unless you're obsessed with good taste, but the book shares a huge problem with most collections of one panel cartoons: one panel cartoons are really made for individual, not block, consumption. So while copraphagia, child molestation, vulgarity, racism, homophobia, genital mutilation, sexual torture, cannibalism, etc. can have their humorous sides, and Brunetti generally manages to find them, page after page of it quickly hits overkill, rendering him the designer version of Johnny Ryan. It's good enough that I can't thumb it down, but I can't exactly recommend it either.
From Radical Comics:
CITY OF DUST 4 by Steve Niles, Brandon Chng & Zid & Garrie Gastonny ($2.99)
I may be at a disadvantage coming in four issues into a five issue series, but I think I get the gist: in a near-future authoritarian city, an aged scientist creates a reign of terror and tries to stoke popular imagination using android version of – familiar legendary monsters like the werewolf and the golem? Art's decent, but maybe jumping to the part where everyone tries to justify the premise with page after page of convoluted logic wasn't the best idea. But, really, if you were trying to get everyone interested in imagination again, would you do it with cheesy old knock-off monsters? That Niles has to jump through hoops to justify the idea demonstrates how strained it is. (I like Steve's writing in general, honest; I just wish he – and apparently millions of others now writing comics - wasn't so fixated on old monsters. They're boring.)
From Marvel Comics:
CAPTAIN BRITAIN & MI 13 10 by Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk & Jay Leisten ($2.99; comic)
I tend to enjoy Cornell's prose and screen work, but CAPTAIN BRITAIN has yet to quite convince me. It's not that he's out of his depth; it's that he's not deep enough. The first arc, the "Secret Invasion" tie-in, wasn't bad, at least positioning the British locale for a specific reason, but the book already risks caving in on itself, as he starts up a Dracula – shoot me now – storyline, with the King Of Vampires setting his sights on the Heart Of Magic or some such thing. It's already got the stink of familiarity about it. On the other hand, he gets characterization down – I rather like his version of The Black Knight – but so far everyone's so damn pleasant to each other, like the whole of England is some big gentlemen's club. What this book needs is soccer hooligans. Kirk and Leisten do well enough on the art, but they should really kick out the jams a little too. It's not bad, it has its moments, it's just that it seems to be trying to be a standard Marvel comic at a time when that's not really a survival trait. Given the pedigree, it should be more.
From DC Comics:
How long since the 7 Samurai first act shtick of roaming until you've lined up the team you want became a fixture of superhero comics? This issue isn't so much story as preamble – on pre-recorded instructions from the recently deceased/time-stranded Batman, butler Alfred scours the globe in search of warm bodies to form a new (but mostly old) team of Outsiders, apparently to battle a new band of mystery villains (please tell me they're not vampires) – but this sort of thing can either be a guilty pleasure or an eye-roller. Fortunately this is the former, due to Tomasi's unapologetic embrace of the cliché, a nicely understated handle on the characters and really sharp art by Kubert & associates. But it does leave the haunting feeling that the story could have been so much more...
From Twomorrows Publishing:
THE EXTRAORDINARY WORKS OF ALAN MOORE Indispensible Edition, by George Khoury & Friends ($29.95; trade paperback)
The cover touts this as "the definitive biography of the writer of WATCHMEN & V FOR VENDETTA," but it isn't. It may, however, be the definitive interview with Alan, covering his perceptions of his career from the early days through his "guest appearance" on THE SIMPSONS, with tons of great stories and myth-puncturing, and quite a little wit. If nothing else, it nicely whittles away at his public image as a glowering, Faustian eminence gris, and the ancillary features, including rare comics, new tribute strips by various talents he has worked with, a checklist, and wraparound features by his daughters, are quite nice too. A good read. I'd still like to see a good critical biography of Moore and his work, but this will do until that comes along, and likely be good source material for it. If you're obsessed with Alan, this is the book to get this year. Plus the latest LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, of course.
From Arcana Comics:
KADE by Sean O'Reilly, Jay Busbee & Christian Duce ($3.95; comic book)
An okay samurai comic, if a bit confusing. A warrior who has abandoned fighting, apparently after the death of his woman-warrior love, runs afoul of a feudal lord with murderous samurai and the urge to unite all Japan under his banner. A fairly typical but decently done example of the genre, marred mainly by confusing art during a night fight scene, when the hero is run through with a sword but by the next page has eliminated his adversaries and appears uninjured when grateful villagers descend on him. It's at least as good as anything Crossgen ever put out in the genre, but that's really damning with faint praise. Samurai fans will probably enjoy it, but it doesn't do much to distinguish itself otherwise.
WILLOW CREEK 1 by Denny Williams, Christian Beranek & Josh Medors ($2.99; comic book)
Is it my imagination or does someone like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT a lot? WILLOW CREEK has an awful lot in common with it: a blizzard-bound town – this time in Oregon, where Bigfoot is its single tourist attraction – whose citizens find themselves helplessly hunted by supernatural creatures they have no defense against. Premise familiarity is the downside, but the upside is it's about the only downside. Writing is tight and restrained, characters are calmly introduced and fleshed out as needed, concept development is really well paced, and the art, aided by effective grayscale and red coloring, is quite good, striking even in sequences that are mostly talk. It's worth a look, especially for horror comics buffs.
Notes from under the floorboards:
I see by the package in my mailbox that Marvel has issued AVENGERS 181-187 in a trade paperback collection, KNIGHTS OF WUNDAGORE, the notorious "real origin of Quicksilver & The Scarlet Witch" story I was part of, co-plotting and generating a number of ideas and a few characters that have unfortunately haunted the Marvel universe ever since. I was a bit aghast to see them resurface in MIGHTY AVENGERS recently – I presume that triggered this – but what can you do? It's not that I dislike anything we did, just that I don't see much need to reuse it. But this volume reprints my cover concept, so I can't get too bothered. Anyway, it's out there...
Just in case you haven't read any other columns this week, Ed Brubaker's online drama series ANGEL OF DEATH started up on Monday. My Internet connection has been acting up something fierce since Sunday so I haven't had a chance to watch it yet...
Amusingly useless exercise dept: I notice from the main page that CBR is currently running a Who's Your Favorite Watchman? poll. Rorschach's polling over two to one against all the others put together. Gee, y'think?!!
You might have missed it – it missed us, barely – but an asteroid about the size of a ten story building came pretty close to hitting Earth a couple days ago, coming within range of our farthest satellite. In astronomical terms, that's like a rock skipping along the surface of a lake. Thing is, this one they never saw coming. Makes you wonder what else out there we're not seeing. In other science news, they've discovered a fossilized fish brain 300 million years old - and it turns out eons ago brain shapes and braincase shapes didn't necessarily line up... And they've discovered a new moon orbiting Saturn, if a chunk of ground smaller than Monaco can be called a moon...
The California Secretary Of State recently issued a report declaring what anyone paying attention already knew: Diebold's voting machines are crap...
What the hell is the Author's Guild? I never heard of it. At any rate, on behalf of "authors" they cut a $125 million deal with Google giving Google the exclusive right to all "out-of-print" fiction. It took apparently eighty million dollars worth of negotiation on the "Guild"'s part, since only $45 mil will go to "authors," and then only if they jump through hoops to claim it, with a ceiling of $300 per author. Does Google seriously think someone empowered an Author's Guild to negotiate this deal with them? Is the Author's Guild based in Nigeria? This is clearly a huge scam; the question is who's scamming who?
Congratulations to Rob Foster, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "Legion Of Super-Heroes." Rob wishes to point your attention to Questionable Content, "yet another great webcomic that doesn't have enough viewers". Go change that.
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. This one's so easy I don't even feel compelled to cleverly plant a secret clue somewhere in the column, because who'd find it anyway? Good luck.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book