In 1985, Alan Moore was the hottest thing in comics, fresh from huge success in his native England with Marvelman (which reinvented the UK’s answer to Shazam!, and the super hero concept in general, by taking it very seriously and applying a mature storytelling intelligence and emotional, densely poetic narration to the inherently absurd subject matter) and V For Vendetta (which reinvented the dark avenger pulp story, made famous by The Shadow and Batman and their ilk , as the adventures of a brilliant, mildly insane anarchist revolutionary in a Guy Fawkes mask who declares a one man war on a near future fascist police state that was in fact a restrained extrapolation of the economic and cultural cruelty of the Thatcher/Reagan 80s).
He was offered the Swamp Thing title by DC comics on the brink of its cancellation and transformed it into a deeply weird saga of American horror the likes of which comics and genre fiction in general had never seen. He was the first exclusive writing superstar of comics (with the debatable exception of Stan Lee, a great idea man and carny hype man whose actual writing amounted mainly to doodling pseudo-Shakespearean gibberish on the impeccable artwork of the geniuses who worked for him).
With Moore’s work the explosive pulp majesty of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, DC was making a case for the comic book (or the newly coined “graphic novel”) as a hip modern artform: potentially as deep as a prose novel, as sleek as a magazine, as cool as a pop single.
Moore had his pick of DC projects and trademarks to revive, though his preference was for the neglected ideas that would allow the greatest latitude for deep reinterpretation. When DC acquired a small stable of interrelated characters from its corporate pillaging of Charlton Comics (including characters created by Steve Ditko, who co-created Spider-Man and Dr.Strange for Marvel), they offered the whole batch to Moore for morbidly intellectual reinvention. His pitch was a densely layered, very adult super hero murder mystery that would make most of the characters utterly unusable thereafter.
DC’s VP Dick Giordano invited Moore and his artistic cohort Dave Gibbons to adhere to the archetypes but change the names, reinvent the characters freely. “Who killed the Peacemaker?” became “Who Killed the Comedian?” which became “Watchmen,” an utterly unprecedented, many-leveled faberge egg of a story, with a structure that did things only the comics form can do, building a world deeper than anything that had yet been done in the field.
No one had ever seen anything like Watchmen before. It changed the landscape, made later “adult” exploration of comic tropes possible and profitable. Serious literary attention was getting paid to the industry for the first time. DC was rescued from bankruptcy. Typically, in a business that allegedly caters to children but was built by gangsters, pornographers, and their brutally exploited talent, DC used Watchmen’s unexpected success to cheat the creators out of merchandising money and any claim on full ownership.
They had also promised that they wouldn’t sully the brand by making sequels, prequels, or adaptations without Moore’s participation.
Once Moore was out the door, disgusted by DC’s callous corporate practices, that promise was promptly forgotten. A terrible, unintentionally hilarious film of it was made, which was slavishly devoted to recreating the visuals whilst still attempting to compress twelve of the most dense, darkly complex comic narratives in the history of the form into a two hour popcorn movie. Comic book prequels ensued, as did various pathetic attempts to team up these disturbed and disturbing characters with Superman, Batman, Flash-Man, Fish-Man, etc. … the safer trademarks they were partly meant to deconstruct and critique.
The problem with adapting, exploring, or ripping off this material is that Moore, even 30 years ago, was a world class writer, the Shakespeare of comics and of every form he has touched since (doubters are directed to his 30 other historic, game-changing properties or to his novel Jerusalem, which I would confidently call the most interesting and important literary work of the 21st century so far). By comparison, none of the hack creators who have been picking through his trash really know what they’re doing, and it shows.
When news hit the street that Damon Lindelof was creating a Watchmen TV series, it sounded like more of the same. I must admit I haven’t yet seen The Leftovers, but the infamously sloppy plotting of the hugely overrated Lost, (which always seemed to be getting made up as they went along) seemed antithetical to the precision and sensitivity to synchronicity that a work honestly calling itself Watchmen would require.
My hopes were not high. I might have skipped it entirely, but I read an interview with Lindelof wherein he admitted that the show should not exist. He expressed his reverence for Alan Moore, an agreement with Moore’s bitterness towards DC and his hatred for these dilutions of his molested masterpiece. Lindelof says he was ashamed to make it, but that no one else in Hollywood loves Watchmen and Moore more than he does. It was going to get made anyway, because DC always needs a new pair of shoes. He thought of himself as the show’s best chance to be good.
Shockingly, the show IS quite good. It makes some brilliant choices, like connecting the vibe of the Watchmen world to the present moment by replacing the cold war paranoia and military industrial sleaze that saturated the original with a dissection of America’s racist history and the costumed vigilante lineage, which can be traced to the KKK.
To suggest that Lindelof’s show is as sophisticated, beautiful, or subversive as the graphic novel is ridiculous. But it’s taking deep dives into the psychology of the super hero concept like the original did, and does a similar job in its relationship to the more popular but less introspective superhero narratives in its medium: it exposes their inherent, pathological absurdity and their creepy implications.
The HBO Watchmen is already better than a cursed, pointless sequel to a paradigm-smashing masterpiece has any right to be. The show runner is appropriately proud and ashamed of his achievement in equal measure. It seems to rise to the real artistic challenge of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which hacks and fans alike have been misinterpreting for 40 years. Moore and Gibbons weren’t trying to “update the super hero” so we could enjoy gritty reboots of our bath toys and shamelessly obsess about the sex lives of cartoon characters well into our 50s.
They were interrogating the sickness in us that craves salvation from an uncertain future through acquiescence to an unquestionable authority. they were inviting us to look at one vivid, obsessively imagined world through the lenses of conflicting philosophies, indicating the truth and blindness inherent in every perspective. They were challenging pulp mythologists and storytellers in general to make something not as “dark” as this but as GOOD as this.
It’s happened almost never. But this heartfelt travesty of a show is trying in the right way.
And I almost love it.