Monday, July 12, 2010

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes--Who Watches the Watchmen?

“We have labored long to build a heaven, only to find it populated with horrors.” -–Professor Milton Glass from “Dr. Manhattan: Super-Powers and the Superpowers”

“I am going to look at the stars. They are so far away and their light takes so long to reach us.” --Dr. Manhattan (while staring off the precipice of Mars)

In hopes of stretching our ever-expanding range of themes and book types, our group decided to discuss a story form new to our club: the graphic novel. So with Ben's suggestion, we decided to upon Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons'Watchmen. The energy of our discussion was muted slightly by the knowledge of that this was Ben's last discussion with us (since he & his wife have both taken teaching jobs at Appalacian State in Boone, NC). But back to happy thoughts....

I couldn’t help but be impressed by the Russian-ness of the story. In a novel set during the apex of the Cold War, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy by the zig zag narration. Nichole compared it to Lost, the way the story broke off and then entered into a character’s back story. I loved that Watchmen had so many layers. I’ve never seen the movie, but I wonder if Moore & Gibbons’ vision wouldn’t have been better filmed as a 2 or 3 part series instead of 1 film.

The book seems to be an exploration of the superhero psychey every bit as much as an action story. Moore uses several voices to tell his story, not just dialogue, but the end chapter additions that included excerpts from Hollis Mason’s autobiography to letters from Ms. Jupiter’s fan mail.

Yet beyond the actual words, when dealing with comics, you must acknowledge the artwork’s contribution to the overall telling of the story. That’s where Ben came in. As an artist, he pointed out Gibbons’ use of foreground and background to provide emphasis of specific ideas. For example, the scene where Dan sees Laurie in her superhero costume, he’s shocked, and she’s in the background of the panel. The authors make her sexiness low key, thus producing a subtle joke. Whereas the film emphasizes her sexiness in her outfit, the novel subverts that obvious & easy attention-getting. I wouldn’t have been able to compare the different uses of sex & imagery. Ben noticed.

We also noticed the greatness of the book. The committee that puts together the Hugo Award created a special category just to give this book its award. Special things receive special attention. This is important in that the book deals with superheroes, people who are by definition, above the rest of us. But what makes a person or a story super? What makes it uncommon? Being different isn’t enough. Dr. Manhattan is the only one who’s actually super, and even he isn’t as powerful as his abilities suggest. What characteristics denote a specific denotation? The answers are slippery but fun to wrestle with. And with complex questions comes complex answers, hence the layered yet satisfying narrative.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Something else I forgot to say was that I liked the question asking what kind of person becomes a super hero? And what are his or hers motivations? Being a super hero must change you and not necessarily for the better. The question of who is behind the mask is nothing new in superhero stories, but this book, according to our graphic novel/comic book experts, deals with it as well as any in the genre.