Friday, March 6, 2009

Reader Interaction and the Finale of Watchmen

With the movie version of Watchmen that comics fans are alternately looking forward to and dreading (often at the same time, it seems) coming out today, the blogosphere is full of people offering their two cents about the original Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons work. So why should I be any bloody different?

I think Watchmen is brilliant, but in some ways time has not been kind to it. Many of the ways that Moore undermines superhero genre conventions have been picked up by the mainstream; the sex, lies, and moral ambiguity that were subversive when Moore introduced them can now be found in a Justice League comic. Even some of the then-novel narrative tricks seem a little cute and forced now (“Wow, she says ‘I’m feeling kinda empty,’ and the panel’s a shot of Dr. Manhattan standing in an empty studio!”)

But there is one narrative element (or "nifty trick") in Watchmen I personally have never seen done so well in comics or any other storytelling medium, and that’s the way Moore teases the reader with having to choose a side in the ethical dilemma he poses in the book. It’s a brilliant bit of an author forging reader-fiction interaction, but it’s a great deal subtler than Grant Morrison having Animal Man yell “I can see you!” at the reader, and I never see anybody talk about it.

Okay, I’m going to really really SPOIL the ending here with words and visual aids, so if you’ve not read the book, don’t read on blah blah balh. Here’s Monday’s Sideburns if you missed it, and I am reasonably sure there are no Watchmen spoilers here.


Still with us? Then let’s begin.

The super short version of Ozymandias’ master plan up to page 20 of issue #12: Veidt faked an alien attack on New York that murdered three million people, thus scaring the United States and the Soviet Union into a truce and ending the threat of nuclear conflict.

Silk Spectre gives the somewhat predictable and superheroic “You can’t get away with that” remark, to which Ozymadias replies:

Narratively, he’s talking to Silk Spectre, but look at it again. She’s not in the panel, and Ozymandias is facing the “camera” -- he’s talking to you, man. Moore is asking the reader to make a decision: by keeping quiet, you condone Ozymandias’ “final solution” (and it should be mentioned, since Veidt is going to spearhead the rebuilding process, he stands to make untold billions as well set himself up as, essentially, the shadow ruler of this new world), but if you turn him in, you invite nuclear war and the annihilation of all human life.

It’s an uncomfortable, unpleasant choice, even to have to impose on a fictional world, and it’s sprung on you very suddenly. Therefore, it’s something of a relief when that choice is made for you:

Rorschach, of course, refuses, but it’s still three against one. This is the first tease: Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are the characters the reader identifies with as the most normal or sympathetic, or possibly even most genuinely "heroic," so we are invited to believe the right choice has been made. Whew!

After this, Moore teases the reader a few more times. Rorschach threatens to reveal Veidt’s master plan to the world, but Dr. Manhattan zaps him. Manhattan’s parting shot to Veidt is a cryptic “Nothing ever ends,” but you can dismiss that as more of his clinically detached observations -- yeah, okay, atoms and particles keep moving and the Earth keeps turning and the universe is slouching toward entropy. Whatever.

So the story marches on and you get some closure with Nite Owl and both Silk Spectres, and then you see the new New York:

Looks pretty nice, doesn’t it? A lot nicer than a nuclear wasteland would, and look -- we’ve got a US/USSR accord and that really positive-looking Millennium ad. Of course if you look closely, you see the graffiti that says “One in eight go mad” with the “eight” crossed out and replaced with a “3”. In another panel is a newspaper headline: “N.Y. survivors reveal nightmares under hypnosis” and a comic called Tales from the Morgue -- a suddenly death-obsessed culture? Still, the alternative is everybody dies (isn’t it?) and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre said this was okay.

Then, that final page.

We saw earlier (#10) that Rorschach had mailed his journal implicating Adrian Veidt to the right-wing newspaper The New Frontiersman:

And this is paid off in the finale of the book:

Alan Moore, you son of a gun.

He’d lulled you into a false sense of security with the clean-looking NYC, the optimism, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s endorsement, and now he pulls it all away from you. Did you really think it would be that easy? Did you think some superheroes were going to answer this nice and tidy for you? No, Moore is going to force you to choose. He puts you in Seymour’s position (I almost think this is some kind of mean-spirited comment on the appearance of a stereotypical comics fan; oh, Alan Moore, just like Elvis Costello you want to bite the hand that feeds you, don't you?), and where Moore earlier posed the question through Veidt, now he does so through Hector Godfrey: “I’m asking you to take responsibility for once in your miserable life ... I leave it entirely in your hands.”

So you have to choose. You have to write your own little fan-fiction ending in your head.

You can have Seymour pick Rorschach’s journal and run the allegations inside it. Maybe no one believes it, maybe Veidt is brought to justice but the accord endures -- or maybe America and Russia go right for the launch buttons.

Alternatively, Seymour grabs one of the others, The New Frontiersman runs a letter about how the moon landing was faked, and they burn the journal as promised earlier. Peace endures.

There is, of course, the third alternative. Which is you don’t choose, you don’t finish the story in your head. You just let that hand hang in the air, the new version of the minute hand on the nuclear doomsday clock, stalemated inches away from disaster.

Waiting for the end of the world.


plok said...

Thanks for that -- would you believe it, in all my Watchmen re-readings I simply missed the death-obsessed culture turn and "one in 3 go mad"?

Dear God, but looking at that Millenium ad after this observation makes the hairs stand up on the back of your fucking NECK! Suddenly the leftward direction they're looking at is absolutely bone-chilling.

Seriously -- thanks! I guess it just proves what we all say, all the time: every time you re-read it, something new pops out.

Justin said...

Glad to bring it to light, so to speak! I'm not sure if I spotted them on a subsequent read or if one of those annotation sites online pointed them out to me; there is *so much* information on that page.

And thanks for throwing up a link this way. I'm fairly new to blogging (and don't write nearly as often as I'd like to) and always a bit gun shy to leave a comment on someone else's blog to the effect of "Ooh ooh I've written something relevant to this conversation!" I never know if that's a breach of etiquette, particularly as this blog is intended to be self-promotional.

plok said...

Oh, it's not at all a breach of etiquette, you see it all over the place. But I'm with you, it makes me feel a bit self-putting-forward...I just figure if I sound un-idiot-like to someone they'll click my name, and I still won't have to be anything but diffident.

Screw it, though; if you've got something to say, you might as well slap it up there. This is all just about reading what other people have written, after all.

plok said...

I think another thing that merits mention here is the way we move from Veidt's checkmate down through Jon's detached viewpoint (mirroring our own viewpoint, necessarily detached due to being mere readers of a fictional story), through Laurie's horror into Dan's pain...until finally our own most visceral, story-involved response is uncovered in Rorschach. We're not "let off the hook" so much as our various reactions to Veidt's proposal are given voice by the characters, in the composition peeled back one by one -- tension mounting -- until we hit the big dramatic BOOM of Rorschach's rejection of the compromise. He's also looking at us, with his blank existential face, as he looks back at Veidt and calls the compromise pathetic. Lots of stuff going on, here -- supposedly Rorschach has become about as detached as Dr. Manhattan in his way, the universe contains no meaning of its own, etc...yet he won't make the devil's bargain. And we could easily think this is just because his ideology's so programmatic, but of course he's also standing in for our reactions here, and we're not programmatic..and then there's the point at which he removes his mask, to show the anguished face underneath, ugly but honest. He's not The Question at this moment, not an icon of Objectivism...! He's peeled off the mask, while the others leave theirs on, and Jon doesn't even have one because he and his Dr. Manhattan identity are one and the same. He can't give voice to the part of us that rejects complicity in big terrifying abstractly "necessary" decisions like this one. That's what Rorschach does, though -- the guy supposedly most swallowed by the representational mask he wears; he takes it off and throws the stinking thing away.

I really don't think anyone's managed a good character study of Rorschach yet, at least not that I've seen. Calling him the hero of the story is absurd, but just dismissing him as a whack-job's unfair as well. I'd try it myself, but unfortunately I haven't stopped uncovering new things about Watchmen every time I read it (or somebody else reads it!), so I'd probably miss a lot, and regret it later...anyway his last moments transfer a lot of the free-floating protagonism in Watchmen to him, just in time to set us up for the scene at the New Frontiersman -- we're Seymour, about to pick up (perhaps!) Rorschach's role. The two dramas have the same impact.

Very interesting goddamn book! And it's all in the comicky form -- we're drawn in to Rorschach's denial, then he uncovers himself as us, then that identification is transferred for the final big "oh shit" moment. Reader interaction, you betcha. Such finely-tuned stuff.

Hmm, wonder if Blogger will think this comment's "too long"?

plok said...

Aha, it let it through!


Justin said...

Yeah, that's the true brilliance of Rorschach, I think! We all know that fans who think that R's the ultimate noble lone-wolf badass are a bit wonky, but the reaction to that is most often to say that he's a total psychopath robot boy. Which seems to be missing the point; rejecting "Rorschach is a true hero" with "Rorschach sucks" is just playing into his black-and-white dichotomy! I think a good and true character analysis would have to start with accepting that the most "moral" character in the book is also severely mentally and emotionally disturbed (and vice versa, perhaps more importantly), and look into the implications that follow from that.

Now you've got me paranoid about Blogger's limits, so I'll continue on in a new response...

Justin said...

Okay, so a little context with my interpretation of the ending here...

I first read Watchmen ... I want to say as a late middle-schooler, early high-schooler. And by the end of it, I was so emotionally exhausted by it that I wanted Adrian to be right, or at least go unpunished. I looked at that ending with the shiny streets and the shiny accord, so hopeful after twelve issues of bleakness and armageddon, and I wanted it to *endure*, no matter what terrible things had been done to get there. I was so *mad* that Rorschach's journal was there to potentially blow the whole thing, and I hoped so dearly that Seymour would just run some crank piece and chuck the thing in the incinerator.

I hope this doesn't make me a disturbed youth ... at age 13 or so, I don't think it's too unusual to be self-absorbed enough that I didn't care who lived or died so long as a peaceful status quo endured.

This is why I don't think the "reader interaction" in Watchmen is Brechtian or anything because, far from being detached like Jon, I was only too emotionally invested in it.

I'm able to get some distance now that I'm older, and I of course see Adrian's bullshit quite a bit more clearly. But there's still a tiny part of me that thinks, "If I could've stopped him from carrying out this plan, I would have, but now that he's already done it, I'd hate to expose it."

Justin said...

And part the third:

Ultimately, what I like about the device Uncle Alan uses here is that it saves him from having to be didactic, and that's something I appreciate endlessly. I am endlessly thankful that there's no "moral", because I can keep *thinking* about what's been presented here. I personally am still never 100% certain about what Rorschach is thinking in that "Do it!" moment; I go back and forth with different ideas and interpretations, and I'm glad that I can't end my engagement by saying, "Well, Rorschach definitely represents the failure of X to Y and the Z of etc."

I appreciate that the smelly nutjob is the most high-minded, that the megalomaniac brings about world peace, that Nova Express sounds like something I might read but it turns out to be a puppet of a hideous conspiracy. There's no easy answers, and ultimately I think that's the biggest condemnation of Ozymandias' actions: his "final solution" is a cheap, easy answer *pretending to be* a mature and difficult answer.

But, of course, if I read it again over the weekend I might have a completely different argument to make by the end of it. Such is Watchmen!

Done, finally.

Justin said...

No, I lied. One more thing to say about Ozymandias. His whole "easy answer masquerating as a sophisticated answer" seems to sort of anticipate Watchmen's imitators, funnily enough.

Because, like, he says he rejects the simplicity of superheroes, and he *says* he's seeking more complex solutions, but this "complex solution" is nothing but a comic book plot with more bloodshed, right? In the same way that post-Watchmen superhero comics claimed to be more sophisticated and mature and "realistic," but all it really amounted to was the same superheroes with blood and swearing and rape awkwardly tacked on.

Bugs me to see this is happening again in my beloved funnybooks (or should that be "still happening"?) like we didn't learn anything the first time 'round. Did you know Marvel's doing holofoil covers for the new Ultimate comics?! But I am drifting, and so now I think I'm definitely definitely done.

plok said...

Professor Fury had a dandy bit about Adrian-As-Ultimate-Fanboy that I thought was absolutely on the money, and very much what you're saying here: he makes a great show of making Dan look foolish and immature and cheap, but all Dan did was save a bunch of people from a burning building -- Adrian killed three million people in the name of his own intellect's superiority, and exulted in having done so. Dan's the hero; Adrian's the child. That's all there is to it: Adrian's mastery of the superhero-nonsense, all that grace and competence and insight, indicates a vacuity rather than a greater substance. Rorschach's got him beat, too; Laurie's got him beat in her sleep. Adrian's misunderstanding of what Jon is, is furthermore a pretty chilling failure for "the world's smartest man" (of course as he says, he's only that because he decided to be)...he's missing the point the whole way along. And it's actually nice that it takes a while to see it! To see that the omnisquid dilemma isn't the location of Watchmen's complexity, but instead only wants to be...but can't be, because Adrian's a Republic Serial villain, a megalomaniacal supervillain after all.

And on the ongoing misprision of what Watchmen's about...I think we're stuck with it! Of course, by "stuck" I mean "free to stop reading most Marvel and DC comics because they've gotten disgustingly boring..."

But now I'm drifting too.

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