(Pre-preface: I didn’t intend on x-posting this, but I was asked why I didn’t so I am.  If I seem to have a complex about x-posting that’s because I do.  There’s something self-important about posting the same bit in three different places and I don’t want to seem self-important.  I recognize there’s some overlap in audience, but I honestly believe it’s not nearly so great as other people think.  Another way to ask this would be: how many of you read Acephalous or The Valve?  Would it annoy you to see the same post in three places?  Now for the actual preface.)

(Before I begin: Lane casually spoils the film, so do not click on that link if you want a virginal viewing experience.)

Anthony Lane would forestall serious criticism of his Watchmen review by characterizing defenders of the genre as “masonically loyal, prickling with a defensiveness and an ardor that not even Wagnerians can match.” Anyone who reads a comic not written by Art Spiegelman is a—but why go there? Lane’s acknowledgment that Moore wants nothing to do with Zack Snyder’s film seems a concession, but in the end he returns to throw a few roundhouses at Moore:

Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights.

To belabor the obvious: Watchmen is a book of the 1980s. Complaining about its concern with issues like containment, nuclear escalation, and mutually assured destruction would be akin to kvetching about the dowdiness of suburban American life in Far From Heaven—and Lane did not. So why fault Watchmen for being insufficiently universal in its appeal? Why insist that a film based on a graphic novel be of the moment the former is produced instead of the one represented in the latter?

Because Lane is an ignorant bigot.*

Not that I want to defend Snyder’s film. As will become apparent, I think the film will fail because it is fundamentally unfilmable. But for someone who complains about the lack of subtlety in film and novel alike, Lane punts some rather obvious points. Foremost among them, he attributes the flaws of particular characters to the author, as when he chastises Moore:

You want to hear Moore’s attempt at urban jeremiad? “This awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children.” That line from the book may be meant as a punky retread of James Ellroy, but it sounds to me like a writer trying much, much too hard; either way, it makes it directly into the movie, as one of Rorschach’s voice-overs.

Why assume that Rorschach’s a proxy for Moore here?  Why not assume Rorschach’s narration is intentionally blinkered and overblown?  Consider these panels:


Rorschach’s statements are—to borrow Lane’s characterization of the entire film—grimy with misogyny, but more revealingly, they are also self-evidently delusional.  Rorschach numbers himself among the psychologically healthy.  Even within the fiction of the novel, Rorschach’s narration belongs to “the crank file”:


Yet Lane would have his readers believe that the self-important and overwrought prose of Rorschach’s journal stands as an indictment of Moore.  Mistaking the flaws of a character for those of his author is argument Lane would rightly criticize were someone else to forward it.  He would also take issue with a critic who denigrated as derivative a film which openly played with generic conventions.  For example, were someone to slag Todd Haynes for directing the aforementioned Far From Heaven in the style of Douglas Sirk, I would expect Lane to dismiss this someone on the grounds that their unfamiliarity with the genre and period have led them to confuse the enlivening of a cliché for another unthinking repetition.  To wit:

There is Dan (Patrick Wilson), better known as Nite Owl, who keeps his
old superhero outfit, rubbery and sharp-eared, locked away in his
basement, presumably for fear of being sued for plagiarism by Bruce

You want to talk about missing the point?  Because I could keep it up all day.  Only not about Lane this time: now I want to focus on Snyder.   I’m less concerned with his film than its conceit: that through slavish imitation Moore and Gibbon’s novel can transition from page to screen. The central concern in Watchmen is with the experience of reading comic books.  The scene of reading is of obvious import: the youth reading Tales of the Black Freighter reminds the reader that the thing in their hands was shaped by an escapist tradition.  As the world marches to war this kid reads about a marooned mariner who “saves” his home by becoming the thing he sought to save it from.  Moore interleaves this narrative such that it comments on events outside of it.

That is to say: Tales of the Black Freighter reflects for readers of Watchmen the process by which cultural artifacts acquire meaning in the larger world.  The message here is quite direct: escapist literature tells us something about the world readers want to escape.  To wit:


While the vendor boats about never retreating from reality, the black youth “retreats” into a narrative which speaks more directly to the situation in the world than any newspaper.  (Spoilers to follow.)  While the newspapers track world-historical negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, Tales of the Black Freighter narrates the story of a man whose good intentions lead to unspeakable horror.  The mariner’s plight directly parallels that of Ozymandias: therefore readers of Tales from the Black Freighter better understand why the novel ends as it does than “well-informed” citizenry whose reading was limited to Platitudes of State and their daily repetition.

Moore champions the unserious—a category that often encompasses the whole of literature—and does so in a way particular to the medium of comics.  The average reader cannot follow the narrative complexity of a William Gaddis novel because it depends too heavily on a Jamesian ear for vocal peculiarities.  But the value of a Gaddis novel is not solely located in the virtuoso performances of its author: the complexity created by the overlapping narratives produces a more Talmudic world.  No statement exists in isolation.  Every comment is a commentary on every other comment past and future.

Hence Dr. Manhattan.

(But as this post has gotten prohibitively long, I will save the rest of it for later.)

*Not really.