Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Who Watches the Wazzzzzzxxxxzzzzz

I sort of implied I'd be writing something about that Watchmen trailer, didn't I? I'm not really that upset about it. It doesn't offend me on a profound level in the same manner as that Spirit trailer. I just don't care. I'll probably see the movie, it might be fun, most likely not really for anyone who read the book. But I do care about the book.

If 1/20th of the however-the-fuck-many copies of the book have been printed actually get purchased and get read, the movie will have been a rousing success for that purpose. It's obviously not as if Watchmen has ever been short of plaudits or attention - most of it well-earned - but seeing a legitimately great book being exposed to a even larger audience than would normally seek it out, well, that's pretty good. To his credit, and even as much as I dislike the man's work, Zack Snyder has said pretty much the same thing. Despite the fact that simply making the movie is dodgy from an ethical and aesthetic point of view, the director has at least an iota of class. A small iota, but an iota nonetheless.

Still, it must be said: the book was great for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons has to be the way in which it methodically deconstructed all the beloved genre trappings of its parent, the superhero comic. "Deconstruction" has become a cliche of almost unimaginable proportions, but it's still true - more than mere deconstruction, the book took a fucking scalpel to the entire notion of the super-hero. There were good books to follow which treaded the same ground - Marshal Law turned the mysanthropy up to the proverbial 11, Marvels made the poison-pill bittersweet by inverting and poisoning the process of nostalgia itself - but this is the book that made all that possible. Again, as with the Spirit, I ask, how much of the book will be lost by even the most faithful adaption, simply by dint of the fact that the movie can't come with any kind of contextual referents for the uninitiated?

Reading the book, it's fairly obvious to any moderately intelligent reader* that Rorschach is - far from an absolutely bad-ass combination of the best qualities of Batman, Daredevil and Wolverine - a mess, scary not so much because he's dangerous (although he is) but because he's fucking crazy. He's a violent psychopath with sociopathic tendencies, a racist, a reactionary, obsessed with Reagan-era** eschatology and fueled by delusions of unimpeachable moral righteousness. In short, he's the logical extension of every vigilante power fantasy ever brought to life on paper. But I suspect any filmmaker, even an extremely skilled filmmaker, would have to work pretty hard to keep Rorschach from coming off well in a film adaptation, for much the same reason that all but the most inhuman, unwatchably brutal war films can be accused of ultimately glorifying war simply by portraying it.*** If the film can pull it off, great, but I remain skeptical. The proper reaction to Rorschach is revulsion, straight-up - maybe not in the first chapter but certainly by the time the reader reaches the sequence of the psychiatric examination. If they keep the flashback sequence with the rottweilers, I'll be extremely surprised, because if they did it in the same manner as the book they'd have people walking out of theaters all across the country at about the 90 minute mark. Hell, I don't even think I would care to see that onscreen. Killing a midget in a prison toilet, on the other hand - there's one for the Rambo reel. THIS . . . IS . . . SPARTA!!!

But the worst thing to come of the movie has to be the overhype surrounding the book itself. Just as you can damn something by faint praise, it is also possible to damn something through effusion. Watchmen is a damn good book, probably even a great book. But, as I'm exactly the ten-thousandth person to point out, it's not the greatest comic book of all time. As Tom Spurgeon recently pointed out, it's probably not even the greatest comic book of 1986 - certainly not measurably greater than the then-current first series of Love & Rockets, peak-era Calvin & Hobbes, or freakin' Maus (and that's just in the English speaking world). It's not even Alan Moore's best book. Critical consensus is chimerical and all that, but I'd wager a plurality comics-literate people would put From Hell above Watchmen. There are also many people who would argue the merits of V For Vendetta, and good arguments could conceivably be made for Swamp Thing or Promethea.****

Pitching the book to the general public as "The Best" can only end badly, especially given as it's the final, poisonous flowering of the same old mindset that inevitably equates comics with superheroes. I would argue that this isn't even a good attitude for the people who publish superhero comics to promote at this late date, as it creates marketplace distortions which can only rebound badly on those who promulgate the misconceptions. If the people who ran MLB decided to start pretending that Baseball was the only "real" sport, and that football, basketball, hockey, golf, track & field, horse racing and mixed martial arts were all weird outliers whose business models could only be grappled on the most theoretical basis, I think most sports fans would probably regard this as a questionable move which would probably hurt baseball's standing with fans, broadcasters and merchandisers. Why would any young manga fan be attracted to a product promoted - in an unthinking, unconscious, subliminal fashion - in such an insular, obviously fake fantasy-land manner? Let alone any living person with a pulse who may have read Ghost World in college . . .

So, essentially, it's great that people are buying the book. It's a good book, one that anyone who loves comics should read, and because of its subject matter, one that also might conceivably be of substantial interest to non-aficionados. But it's dense, ethically murky and stylistically rococo, in such a way that despite the fact that it has descriptive comic-book pictures, it might just be this generation's Ulysses: a great book that everyone acknowledges as great and which many people may even own, but one which the general public finds a bit too dense to easily read, let alone enjoy.

A movie adaptation is a dumb idea, but the book itself is good enough to survive the inevitable misconceptions and mischaractizations that will follow, although it could certainly do without such effusive phrase. Lesser-known books like From Hell or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen will probably take a while to crawl out of the shadow of their crappy adaptations. But at this point, I think there's a chance that Watchmen might be well-enough regarded by those who pay attention to such things that an inferior adaptation might just rebound on the filmmakers themselves, with little or no impact on the book itself. You don't see crappy adaptations of Emma punching holes in Jane Austen's sales, after all.

* Of course, a large percentage of comics fan do miss this very point. Go fuckin' figure.

** Of course, Nixon is president in the book, but you know what I mean. Reagan was the nuclear cowboy.

*** Insert your favorite boilerplate film-crit rant about this subject.

**** If just occurred to me that the "best" Alan Moore book might well be one that hasn't been published - a compilation of his short work, stuff like "Pictopia", "The Bowing Machine", "The Hasty Smear of My Smile", "Hungry Is The Heart", maybe the Bill Sienkiewicz CIA thing. There are enough shorter, lesser-known masterpieces scattered throughout his corpus that a compilation of the best would be an event in and of itself.

No comments :