Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Perhaps this is a question for Gary Sullivan, someone who knows in some depth the world of the graphic novel &, behind it, the several generations now of comic book artists since The Yellow Kid who have contributed to popular culture. While I was a reasonably serious consumer of comics as a kid – Leslie Scalapino & I were both dedicated fans of the Classic Comics series, which did more for education than, say, the No Child Left Behind act – I can’t say that I’ve paid that much attention later in life. Yet with Pulitzer-Prize winning Art Spiegelman having been all but formally anointed the official graphic novelist of the New Yorker & more than a few summer movies each year deriving from the genre – the last one I saw was V for Vendetta, moderately entertaining as yet another vehicle for the curious acting career of Hugo Weaving, but American Splendor a couple of years back was in fact delightful – I bit when one of my sons made the pitch to me that I seriously needed to read Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons, which won a Hugo and, as it notes on the bright yellow cover, was once listed as “one of Time Magazine’s 100 best novels.” To which I can only reply: consider the source.

There is no question that Watchman is important historically, simply because it established the graphic novel as genre, and that it clearly wanted to be taken seriously from day one. Moore’s critical elevation, unlike, say, the French obsession with Jerry Lewis awhile back, is not the consequence of too much red wine in the diet. The first person to take Alan Moore that seriously was Alan Moore.

Moore, like Harvey Pekar of American Splendor, writes the comic, leaving the artwork to others in this supremely visual medium. Which leaves me asking, What is writing in this context? Where does it end? Not to mention, What are its values? How can we tell if it is “any good”? Etc. Etc. Etc. At least Pekar and his partner Joyce Brabner were given credit for writing the original comics on which American Splendor was based. The credits for V for Vendetta mention only the Wachowski brothers for the screenplay, tho the original comic was done by, who else, Alan Moore.¹ League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, another Moore venture to reach the screen, does credit him, as did the Johnny Depp venture, From Hell. Watchmen is scheduled to be done as film in 2008, Zack Snyder (the 2005 remake of Dawn of the Dead is his big credit to date, tho he is completing yet another film based on a graphic novel, 300, which will appear next summer).

At one level, Moore writes the general directions of the plot, plus the dialog. For 11 of the 12 comics in which Watchmen first appeared, there was also a short section, mostly four pages, of relatively “pure text,” presented for example as excerpts from memoirs, newspaper accounts or a gushing interview, but the rest looks pretty much as what you would expect from a comic – pictures with word balloons. But we also get running interior monologs, especially from Rorschach, the somewhat faceless character in front in the group portrait above. There is also, especially in the early chapters, a comic within the comic, foreshadowing the outcome of the larger series with especially grim humor. Finally, Moore has a reputation from doing more than giving general instructions to an artist. In a sidebar to its 2003 profile, “How Alan Moore Transformed American Comics,” Slate (ignoring the obvious detail that Moore is not American, but British) printed Moore’s “instructions” for a single frame (on a page containing six such frames) of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:

Now we close in a little more. All we can see of Quatermain now is a sliver of his profile over to the left of the panel, looking away from us with widening eyes and an expression of dawning mute shock towards the background, across the other side of the counter. To the right of the middleground, we can see the Si Fan guy looking angry and agitated as he waves the half-melted brush under Shen Yan's nose. We can't see much of Shen Yan, since he is nearly off the right of the panel here, but what we can see of him looks abashed and apologetic. More to the left centre of the middleground, the door behind the counter has now swung open even wider. Looking through it we see a terrible, bizarre, and at first confusing scene. Sitting on an ornate stool with his back to us, wearing a long and magnificent looking robe and a mandarin's pillbox hat, his pig tail hanging down the back, we see a rear view of our devil doctor. In his right hand he holds up a paintbrush. The tip of it, thick with paint, is smouldering. Standing on the floor to our right of the seated doctor we see a kind of raised pot or brazier. Smouldering in it is some sort of thick and caustic liquid. The doctor pauses with his brush in hand as if he were an artist considering his next stroke. In the background beyond the seated doctor, hanging with his wrists bound together and attached to a beam above his head, we see a terrified and agonized looking Chinese man who is stripped to the waist and facing us over the top of the doctor's head, which is turned away from us. There is a gag in the man's mouth, so that he cannot scream. His black hair is plastered to his forehead with sweat, and sweat stands out in beads on his brow. This is Ho Ling, a minor opium trader of Limehouse mentioned in Thomas Burke's "London Nights" if you're even remotely interested. He is quite a big man, maybe running slightly to flab. Painted in a vertical row down the middle of his naked chest are a number of Chinese characters (again, I'll have to wait until I've consulted Steve Moore before I can tell you what they actually are). All of these characters are smoking and smouldering. They are painted onto the man's chest in some sort of terrible acidic, caustic goo that the devil doctor is using instead of paint. Over to the right, the Si Fan guy and Shen Yan continue their Chinese conversation.

If the tale itself in Watchmen reads like a storyboard for a film, the instructions to the artist from this other project come closer to a 19th century novel. But as the casual, off-hand tone (“if you’re interested”) of these instructions suggests, Moore’s focus here isn’t on literary style, nor even in laying out all of the details, tho one senses, both from glimpses into his process as well as the values expressed through his characters, that Moore personally is quite the control freak.

No, Moore is interested in ideas, big ideas, large enough to be clunky in the way, say, that a philosopher writing a novel might be clunky. The ultimate question of Watchman is just how much is permitted “for the greater good.” It’s an interesting question, given the tens of thousands our nation has caused to die of late in Iraq in the name of “democratization.” If you could end world conflict through a single terrifying act – taking out half the population in Manhattan in the process – would the deaths of millions be a “fair price to pay?”

Particularly spooky, given that Watchmen was first published in 1986-87, is not just that it envisions all this occurring with an act of terror in Manhattan (and with a pretty direct connection to Afghanistan, no less), but that – just like George, Rummy, Cheney & Wolfie – the volume ends with no vision at all as to what happens next? As in, what happens when it turns out that old habits come back and the unifying moment of pacification devolves back into the same ol’ same ol’?

The arguments one wants to make here – for example, that there is no voice anywhere in the novel for a democratic (small d) perspective – are of the order one sometimes one wants to make after seeing, say, a Philip K. Dick novella turned into a movie – think of Total Recall, whose political ideas director Paul Verhoeven once suggested were there just to make the film intellectually crunchier. Stylistically, Moore makes a modest effort at differentiating the voices of his characters – Rorschach speaks in fragments, Ozymandias is formal and condescending, the second Nite Owl stammers a lot, Laurie, the second Silk Spectre, shows some of the same rough edges her carny-dialect mother, Sally Jupiter (the first Silk Spectre) demonstrates. But much of the rest of the style, regardless of how thoroughly specified to graphic artist David Gibbons Moore may have been, largely reflects Gibbons own drawing & the coloring of John Higgins.

So Watchman & quite a few other graphic novels want to be taken seriously, but end up as fodder for B-movies while nobody suggests making films out of the far more serious novels of David Markson, Paul Auster, Carole Maso or Gilbert Sorrentino, or even a best-seller like Don DeLillo’s Underworld. To what degree are graphic novels storyboards for film projects, and to what degree not? And where, precisely, is the writing?


¹ This may have been Moore’s own doing. The film’s website credits the script as being “Based on the Graphic Novel Illustrated by David Lloyd.”