Sunday, July 27, 2014

Retro Review: Watchmen

If a single work were to be selected to illustrate the merits of illustrated superhero fiction as a medium that has yielded great art, Alan Moore's Watchmen is arguably the best choice. Published by DC, the story features original characters adapted from the Charlton Comics roster purchased by DC in 1983, although the themes and style completely overwhelm the particulars or history of the characters.

Moore was, by his own account, impressed by the direction of The Dark Knight Returns in providing a finale for a world of superheroes. Other stories Moore wrote for DC in this era ended other heroes and worlds: The death of Abin Sur portrayed as a brilliantly conceived murder, Krypton portrayed as a society in decay rather than a futuristic paradise, Mr. Mxyzptlk as a homicidal sorceror, Superman's career ending with the hero voicing Moore's criticism of the character as a concept. His planned, but never unpublished, Twilight of the Superheroes would have shown an end to DC's heroes as a battle between ruling houses, Game of Thrones style, some decades hence. In all of these stories, Moore did not merely end the lives or careers of the heroes, but he first demolishes the qualities that made then children's favorites. Superman called himself "over-rated and too wrapped up in himself" on the final page of Moore's Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow? Watchmen adopts this approach with a set of superheroes in some other world, breaking down their heroic qualities before leading to a finale in which each of them is dead or permanently taken off the stage. This treatment was, if not fully original, still quite unlike what readers were accustomed to in 1986, and many scenes come to the reader as a revelation – surprising, shocking, and often suggesting a higher truth, more realistic than the nice and neat comics of old.

Watchmen, like many Moore works, and unlike almost all superhero comics that came before it, adopts the stylistic devices of good literature to the extent that many highly-regarded novels do. He refers to political, cultural, and scientific realities of the real world. He finds fine moments for one part of his story to refer to another. While intersplicing two narratives, he often creates correspondences that work in two ways at once, often one of them grim. For example, as someone pushing an elevator button says "Ground floor comin' up," we see Edward Blake begin a deadly fall to the ground. A page later, as Blake's fall continues in slow motion, an unrelated line of dialogue contains the phrase "drop out of sight." The juxtaposition of darkly ironic double meanings with mundane exposition is illustrative of Moore's entire approach: Everything light has a darker side.

The central and most wonderful example of this is an extended metaphor that is so deep and compelling that any novelist could envy it: The notion of a broken watch, which functions on several levels at once:

• There is a literal broken watch, which the father of Jon Osterman was about to repair when he decided that his occupation had been made obsolete by nuclear science.

• There is a world that is philosophically deterministic, Newton's clockwork universe, which was destroyed by Einstein's work.

• There is the conventional perception of sequential time, which is broken by Dr. Manhattan's unusual perception of time out of sequence.

• There is a standard linear narration in comic books which is broken by Moore's highly nonlinear narration.

• A second watch, in Jon Osterman's hand when he is accidentally caught in an atomic test chamber, is broken and left to record the same instant forever after.

• There is the world of the Watchmen superheroes, brought to a definitive end by the events Moore depicts.

• There is the world of conventional superhero comics, exemplary people living in cyclical patterns, facing new villains each month without real consequence, broken by Moore's work which shows them rise, prove to be corrupted, and fall over five decades.

On each of these levels, there is a symbol of time, a "watch," which is broken, literally or figuratively. In word and in image, Moore repeatedly relates these different "broken watches" to one another. It's just the type of sophistication that students are asked to notice and record in graded essays, and in part, Watchmen serves to elevate the medium from light entertainment to an art form.

Central to all of these broken watches are the Watchmen themselves. Some of their behavior, particularly in having complicated sex lives, is simply more adult than comics previously portrayed. But we also see the superheroes fail, morally and otherwise. One hero goofs up and is shot. Others grow old and fat. Another is a delusional sadist who avidly kills in the line of duty. Worse still, another rapes and kills for his own selfish purposes. The only one with true superpowers is rendered almost completely inhuman and devoid of compassion. The remaining hero adopts, from the perspective of traditional superhero comics, the vanity and Machiavellian means of a villain, and may have succeeded in killing millions as a means to an end only to fail in his purpose anyway.

Like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen uses the real threat of nuclear war as a compelling backdrop for a superhero story. Like DKR, the awesome superhero on the American side tips the balance of power in NATO's favor, but not enough to neutralize the Soviet threat. Both stories show Republican presidents remaining in power decades beyond what current term limits allow. And both stories describe a Cold War threat which subsided in the real world a few years after the stories were published, making the plot a bit less compelling for later readers than for those who read them in the Eighties.

It's art, and it's powerful. It's compelling, eminently re-readable, and was eventually adapted into a successful and critically-acclaimed film. Compare it to any other work in comics, and in at least one way if not many (Dave Gibbons' art, extremely good if not revolutionary, among them) Watchmen is a superior work.

And yet: As in all of those Eighties stories in which Moore destroys a superhero, their values, or their world, we see no indication that Moore actually likes superheroes. He may, in fact, hate them. And while that's a respectable opinion as a matter of taste (Perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber hates superheroes? Perhaps William Shakespeare would have?) it makes Watchmen into a bitter paradox, a work that is perhaps the best of its genre, whose primary message is that its genre is inherently flawed and not worth reading. Moore himself quit the genre, before he was able to publish his intriguing plans to kill off the DC Universe, in certainly fine and artistic fashion, as he did the world of the Watchmen. I have read Watchmen many times, and I will read it many more, but the experience is somewhat spoiled by the bitterness Moore brings to the topic. One wonders why he would bother creating a work in a genre he so dislikes, and that's obviously a conclusion he soon thereafter reached.

To similar effect, one wonders whom he is trying to persuade, and of what. We see that superheroes would probably not interact well with the society of the real world, but whoever thought that they would? We see that superheroes bestowed with real adult complexity make poor characters for childrens' stories, but whoever thought otherwise? Seen as a polemic, Watchmen is an argument against several viewpoints that nobody ever held. Despite its great merits, Watchmen has all the warmth of an angry old shut-in yelling at kids to stop playing on his lawn; in fact, for them to stop playing even away from his lawn, for that matter.


Watchmen changed comics, and is certainly a true work of art. In my view, its greatest legacy is to have paved the way to other works of considerable complexity (more so than the comics of the Seventies, if not matching that of Moore) by writers who are actually fond of superheroes and let that love show in their work.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Batman Zero Year


A year in story time and a year in publication time, Scott Snyder's Batman: Zero Year retells for the nth time, perhaps at greater length and in greater detail than ever before, the story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman. It is inevitable that it be compared to earlier stories; its greater scope leaves it with no true analogues, which is good because the similarly named Batman: Year One covering this topic in a third the length is virtually impossible to transcend in quality.

Snyder's story covers Batman's first year in three acts of four issues each. The first pits our (initially nameless) hero against the Red Hood gang, bringing about the origin of the Joker. In the second, Doctor Death is front and center as the agent of Edward Nygma. In the third, Nygma, as the Riddler, holds Gotham captive in a scenario clearly patterned on Bane's domination of the Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises.

Through an extraordinary number of flashbacks, the story visits earlier episodes of pivotal importance to Bruce Wayne and to his opponents. Some of these are shown as quick, cryptic impressions that can only be understood later. As a result, the story is much stronger when read in one sitting than over a period of thirteen months (issue #28 was not part of the story), with threads introduced in a panel or two left dangling for nine or more weeks before the reader sees where they lead.

Any story of this kind must revisit and modify existing mythology. Compared to previous canon, BZY reasserts the early importance of Doctor Death (the villain of Batman's third and fourth published stories, back in 1939) and the Joker (who debuted in Batman #1 and was tied to Batman's origin in the 1989 film). Meanwhile, it makes the changes of placing a larger-than-ever emphasis on the Riddler and the previously minor character of Uncle Philip (first introduced in 1986).

BZY also changes the tone of post-COIE continuity by placing the debut of the Red Hood Gang (and by extension, that of costumed villains in general) before the debut of Batman himself. This has the curious implication that the Joker, in his Red Hood identity, debuted before Batman and probably before Superman. This is a considerable alteration of the portrayal in Year One / Long Halloween and the Nolan films that Batman began his war on crime in order to fight real-world kinds of criminals (such as the Falcone crime family) and thereafter attracted a host of costumed villains inspired by his own theatrical qualities.

This changes, in particular, the vision from Year One that Bruce Wayne found himself not particularly effective fighting crime while dressed in street clothes, and so, while suffering in his study from injuries during one poor outing, came up with the idea of being Batman. The new, BZY account is that while in his regular identity as Bruce Wayne himself, he suffered a terrible beating at the hands of the Red Hood gang, and then, after receiving medical aid from Alfred, a virtual reality view of the Batcave helped inspire a similar realization. Thus, many of the original elements are maintains, with the details considerably changed.

One offbeat choice in the story is to make the Riddler the villain with the most impact in Batman’s first year. While the Riddler has occasionally risen near the top of the list of Batman’s most prominent villains, he has never been accorded true primacy besides being the villain in the two debut episodes of the 1966 TV show. This Riddler is homicidal and darkly egomaniacal like Jim Carrey’s rendition in Batman Forever. He is delighted with his own intellect, and constructs a world where he rules by torment. For nearly three issues the story covers the efforts of Batman, Lucius Fox, and Jim Gordon to search the maze that the Riddler has turned Gotham into for the vulnerable point in his electronic control structure. This search becomes torturous almost to excess, as one lead after another is a dead end that the Riddler anticipated someone to find until finally, he is face to face with Batman and even then has a few more surprises in store. The action is exciting, scene-by-scene, even as the Riddler’s defenses start to become as tiresome for the reader as they are for the story’s heroes.

The hallmarks of Snyder's writing include an impressive breadth of detail rooted in real world facts verging on trivia, a bit like the famous "Flash Facts" from Silver Age Flash issues. Snyder is an intelligent and knowledgeable man and this informs his Batman stories wonderfully. He writes scenes that make Bruce show his detective skills; many writers avoid this even though "the world's greatest detective" is the character's alternate moniker.

The use of flashbacks make this the tale of more than just one year, which the 12-issue length amply merits. We visit events from young Bruce discovering the cave to key incidents with his parents before their deaths, his early and bitter encounter with Jim Gordon, and a brief glimpse of his period of training. Some of these scenes are patterned on The Dark Knight Returns, others on The Dark Knight Rises, and still others are entirely new. The flashbacks often provide the background that explain the significance of some event taking place in the present, although one or two are handled so quickly that they lack impact, making the story more broad then deep. One, in particular, describes an incident of uncharacteristic tumult in which a young adult Bruce nearly uses electroshock to erase his mind and reboot himself as a new person, with no memory of the death of his parents. For him to consider this after years of training would imply a deep ambivalence carried around for years, perhaps a man straining and ready to crack. Snyder gives this enormous decision far too little attention and should have cut it from the story or delved into it more deeply.

What we do see into the character of Bruce Wayne comes, as often as not, during his conversations with Alfred. Alfred initially seeks to discourage Bruce’s war on crime, and then he tries to redirect it into more conventional efforts as the owner of Wayne Enterprises. In some tactical situations, he tries to get Bruce to shy away from risks. In none of these efforts is he successful. At last, when Alfred revives Bruce from a final victory that knocked him unconscious and Bruce asked how he did it, Alfred responds, “Because you’re Batman.” Unwilling to advocate the life his master has changed, Alfred nonetheless recognizes the greatness within him.

However, even at this point, Alfred makes one final effort to redirect Bruce from the life of Batman by arranging for Julie Madison (beautiful, as in past renditions; a sci fi fan in this one) to meet with him. Bruce is tempted by this prospect. In fact, the scene in which Bruce briefly considers a serene, happy life with Julie is patterned on The Last Temptation of Christ. But instead of choosing marriage and an ordinary life, Bruce chooses to be Batman, just as Christ chooses to die on the cross. It’s a powerful reference that might draw shouts of blasphemy, but it’s a defining coda for the story and the character.

Batman’s origin has been told many times, sometimes in small pieces covering his parents’ death, his training, or his adoption of the bat identity, but never before has the origin been packed into one super-length story of this scope. The prominence of Uncle Philip and Julie Madison suggest that the origin of the Golden Age Batman in Secret Origins #6 was on Snyder’s reading list. Many stories before and since are given a nod here and there. Only in small details does it contradict the more recent origin stories, as opposed to a radical redefinition like John Byrne’s Man of Steel. As my earlier comments have noted, this is probably a better work to hold in your hands and read in one sitting than with its many, lightly-sketched flashback threads dangling from month to month. And in that regard it can be enjoyed not as a retcon or erasure of Batman Year One but as another volume worth having and revisiting.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Retro Review: The Dark Knight Returns


Widely considered to be one of the best and most important works of its kind, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns transformed the superhero genre, its media, and one of its most prominent characters. DKR greatly elevated the popularity of Batman and superhero stories in general among a wide population who were not traditionally readers of comic books, but found appeal in a graphic novel that looked attractive on a bookshelf and delivered trenchant social commentary in the guise of fiction. DKR was so influential that readers who have come along since its publication may find it pedestrian and unoriginal in comparison to later works that were, in fact, inspired by DKR. Critics’ best-of lists for graphic novels do not make the same mistake: DKR tops many such lists and rarely falls lower than #3.

The element of DKR that is perhaps most noticeable in contrast to the comics before it is the tone. Batman stories from the Forties up through the Eighties had already portrayed their share of homicidal psychopaths in action. DKR upped the stakes: We see previously taboo elements such as profanity and sex (sometimes consensual, never marital). We see guns aimed at children, bullets ripping through soldiers, multiple instances of mass murder, and a limited nuclear war. This is a hard-edged story and while some of those things might have appeared in previous stories, at their climax, in DKR this sort of savagery is practically wall-to-wall.

Perhaps more startling is the way DKR paints the moral landscape in shades of gray. The heroes aren’t all good and the villains aren’t always wrong. Enemies aren’t always the costumed lunatics with flashy names and weapons. They are the media, the politicians, and some of the bystanders. The effects of Batman’s war on crime are generally positive, but they also, unmistakably, beget more acts of violence in the form of malignant vigilantism and, most notably, the Joker’s return.

What makes the work so memorable, and its power among new audiences so great is the compelling social commentary. The world of DKR, like that of all superhero comics, has superhumans and implausible mystery men, but it also contained a compelling and haunting prophecy of a possible future for readers in the Eighties to fear. The rise in violent crime that actually occurred from the Sixties onward was projected forward into an imagined dark America verging on chaos. This was a trend that fortunately did not continue in the real America of the Nineties, but the fear that it might was credible and terrifying to see on the page. What was horrifying about the Mutant gang was not the threat they posed to Batman but the threat that forces like them might one day exist in our world.

Perhaps darker than the knives and guns of DKR’s villains was the superficial sleaze of its media. News-as-entertainment, a reality in our world, was portrayed in caricature, replacing reason and contemplation with punch lines and showbiz. Gotham’s response to Batman’s return, as all other issues in the DKR world, was determined by polls and ratings, and not even an imminent nuclear war could hold onto the short attention span of its society for more than a couple of minutes. This also in 1986 seemed to be prophetic, and actually was. Many of the more superficial traits of DKR’s television news, identifiable on today’s CNN and Fox News, combined exposition with social commentary. It pays to read carefully: When Carrie Kelly breaks up a three-card monte game with a firecracker that surprises a few but harms none, the news covers it as the game being napalmed. Distortion and emphasis on opinion over fact shape DKR’s populus into a cud-chewing mass of nearly-indifferent cattle, whose slight preference for one lie over another determines national policy and forces their superheroes to leave or go underground.

One more prophecy, which fortunately did not come true, was the imminence of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and United States. This grew out of a ground war in a fictional Latin American country, Corto Maltese, patterned after actual wars then taking place in Central America, particularly Nicaragua and El Salvador. In this respect, DKR adopts a side plot resembling the main plot of many books and movies of the time, expressing a generally held fear that a Reagan-era uptick in animosity between NATO and the Warsaw Pact might lead to nuclear annihilation. As in Watchmen, the balance of power in the fictional world hinged upon a single, nearly omnipotent, superhero on the Western side. In neither story did this superhero prove to be as decisive as hoped. In the real world, the years of maximum tension passed with the ending of the Cold War. So, in another way, DKR lost one of its compelling characteristics as time went by, but at the time of its publication, DKR and Watchmen begged the reader to consider how threatening the Cold War truly was in our world without Superman, Batman, or Dr. Manhattan.

The preceding commentary describes the world of DKR, but that is merely the backdrop for the groundbreaking portrayal of Batman, who is the central figure not only of the story, but in many ways of his entire world. The history of Batman had previously involved a wide spectrum of “darkness,” with an initially-dark Batman in 1939’s comics giving way to lighter and lighter renditions until about 1964, when things became darker and grittier, just as the Adam West television series acquainted the broad public with a campy Batman who delivered far more amusement than thrills.

But Miller’s Batman is not simply darker than previous versions of the character. He is (excepting his ten-year retirement which is seen at the start, and explained only partially) absolutely singular in his devotion to his war on crime in ways we had not seen in earlier versions. In all previous renditions of the character, he had devoted his life his life to the mission, but Miller gave us a Batman who seemed to have no other priorities whatsoever. He could joke, he could jest, but there was no indication that he sought any human comforts that might distract him from his cause. He seemed endlessly buried in the details of being Batman, and Miller explained even the most superficial trappings of the character as part of a purpose (such as the yellow symbol on his chest serving as a target to attract gunfire to his armor). Though not infallible, he was never completely off guard, even deducing from a simple power outage that a Soviet nuclear explosion had produced an EMP, and he immediately had a countermeasure in mind (traveling by horse instead of car). Miller’s Batman was – simply put – relentless, in a way seen rarely in all of literature. And so, Miller replaced in the consciousness of the wider public the Adam West Batman who was amusingly mannered with a character that is by definition the perfection of human striving, the paragon of focus and dedication. Before Miller, “Batman” meant a crime fighter who had a sidekick, a butler, and bat-themed everything else. After Miller, “Batman” means a person of singular, unwavering determination, who also happens to be an unimaginably skilled bat-themed crime fighter. And the second definition has proven to be far more compelling in the wider consciousness than the first.

The writing in DKR is so powerful that one may forget that Miller began as an artist. Eschewing the realism of a Neal Adams, Miller excels in creating a mood with his work, creating with a single face a character you’d like to know better. He’s also clever, shaping panels like TV screens, and blending a close-up of an American flag to a close-up and then zoom-out of Superman’s symbol so smoothly you don’t notice at first, but then think about it a lot once you do notice. He also worked subtext into the background, such as the bird of prey snatching a rodent as Superman threatens to arrest Batman. And if you look closely, you’ll notice that the first page, narrating Bruce Wayne’s near fatal crash in a car race, symbolically encapsulates the entire story’s plot, down to the last page. The colors are perhaps even more remarkable, Lynn Varley’s paint looking nothing like the halftone dots that colored comics on newsprint over the preceding half century. The look and the feel of the graphic novel perfectly matched the more serious tone, and were instrumental in putting DKR in the hands of people who would never have bought four staple-bound comic books, no matter how cheap the price.

Above all those aforementioned virtues, the greatest power of DKR was its premise: The story of an older Batman when he comes out of retirement to address the faults of a world gone mad. This borrows a central element from the Iliad while upending the traditional serial format of comic books by skipping ahead to the “end” of the characters’ lives. The plot has no climax as such: Batman, the relentless hero, engages every source of chaos in his world and bests it. The four way division of the story pits him against Two Face, the Mutant gang, the Joker, and Superman, but he also begins to win over the new Gotham Police Commissioner, Ellen Yindel, escapes from the corrosive media spotlight, and in organizing youth into his own army, neutralizes the problem of age.

The Dark Knight Returns was, at the time it was published, the most substantial work that DC Comics had produced in decades, arguably ever. It was, of course, promptly and many times since imitated and homaged. It inspired the Burton films and Nolan films and arguably, in tone, many non-Batman superhero movies that followed. Remarkably, DKR, though set in an uncertain future, changed the portrayal of Batman in current continuity: It began a trend to make Batman “more realistic” (that is, with vaguely realistic-seeming explanations of his still-impossible feats). It broke decades of tradition by making Superman and Batman something between rivals and uneasy allies. And it suggested that in some sense, Batman’s mind is more than human, that his skill of anticipation, preparation, and utilization of his human abilities is superhuman and even absolute. All of these characteristics have been adopted and developed in later works, not because they follow DKR in story time, but because Miller’s depiction of Batman is simply more compelling (and better selling) than the Seventies Batman, a detective/gymnast/fighter who ekes out tough victories on a human level.

The Dark Knight Returns is a masterpiece. It changed the genre in ways that perhaps no work since has been able to, and nearly 30 years later, we may need to wait decades more for a work of greater impact to come along.