Bob's Comics Reviews October 2000 Arrows


Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons: Watchmen
Watchmen came out in 1986-7; for years I knew that this was one of those comics that I Should Read; but every time I leafed through it, I was put off by the lurid colors. Surely anything that garish couldn't be any good.

I'm still put off by the lurid colors. I'm sorry, John Higgins, but there is no excuse. Flat, limited, nasty-ass, wildly contrasting colors don't belong in a TPB. If you're not aware of any other way to do things, go read some French comics. Or Ghost in the Machine, for God's sake.

The art is better-- standard '80s Big Comics-- though it never astounds, never steps out of the box. But the writing... man. Alan Moore is, for my money, a better comics writer than Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is richly inventive, allusive, many-textured; but Moore is tight as a drum, sets problems to the scale of his characters, and knows how to pack a wallop.

Dr. Manhattan; Hollis & Laurie If you're not familiar with it, it's the story of a world of superheroes-- faded superheroes. Most of them have retired, except for the strongest and weakest of them. The almost omnipotent Dr. Manhattan works for the government, doing inscrutable research; the shady, half-cracked Rorschach, armed with little more than a latex mask and an iron will, is a right-wing crank and street vigilante.

The book begins with the murder of the ironically named Comedian. Rorschach investigates, and soon begins to suspect that there is a conspiracy to put the remaining costumed crusaders out of business permanently. It could be another of his paranoid theories; but then Dr. Manhattan is exiled, and an old supervillian is shot, and...

I still think Walter Simonson provided the highest moments of the superhero genre; but Watchmen is, I think, the definitive deconstruction. At a first glance it might seem like Moore is only doing what Stan Lee did in the '60s and others have done since, in waves: making superhero comics more adult, more realistic. These heroes quarrel, get crazy, get political, get laid, just like real people.

But what Moore is doing is to put the entire genre in question. Frank Miller's Dark Knight suggested, frighteningly, the fascism that lies in wait under the bright costumes; but it gave in to it more than it critiqued it. Moore drags it out into the open and shines a light on it.

The usual criticism of the genre is that it's an adolescent power trip. To Moore the power you're tripping on is Mussolini's-- or the KKK's: the superhero as vigilante, stepping in where the law is powerless. It's no accident that the genre started in the '30s, as an acceleration of the mob-obsessed detective stories of the '20s. In Moore's view the dehumanization of villains and the racism and jingoism of the early pulp comics isn't a regrettable side-effect of an innocent era; it's very nearly the core of the idea. Once you dismiss the criminal as non-human trash, it's a short trip to apply the same treatment to foreigners or juvenile delinquents or restive blacks or nosy journalists-- or as Rorscach does, to anyone whatsoever: Rorschach will bust you just as happily for popping Laetrile or having an unregistered handgun as for running a crime ring.

The world of Watchmen is actually an alternative universe, whose point of departure is simply that its superheroes are real, not fictional. They help win the war in Vietnam, put down peace demonstrations, help keep Nixon in power, speed up technology. (Amusingly, because the government is making use of real superheroes, it puts the kibosh on the '50s anti-comics movement.) And, it seems, they lead the world-- through the hubris the government picks up from relying on them-- to the brink of nuclear catastrophe.

Real superheroes, in Moore's view, would be band-aids. They would inevitably end up as pillars of the status quo, because the only solution they can really offer is a punch in the nose. (And if you think it'd be a good thing if we'd won in Vietnam... did we really need that neocolonialist policeman mentality of ours affirmed rather than challenged? And when people in the '60s started questioning authority, would the best response have been to give authority bigger and more effective weapons?)

The structure of the book is incredible. The book is full of visual rhymes, ironic contrasts (e.g. the pictured panel, from a sequence where the back and forth of a press conference forms the ironic commentary for a street fight), foreshadowings. A deepening international crisis is conveyed almost entirely via cursorily glimpsed newspaper headlines. Dr. Manhattan, who sees all time as simultaneous, has his backstory told the same way, in a fractured rush of panels connected thematically rather than chronologically. The themes of the book are underlined by extended quotations from an invented EC-style horror comic.

Ultimately the character that stays with you the longest is Rorschach. He's the only hero in the book who continues his Batman-like crusade against crime throughout his life. He never compromises, never gives up, never stops looking for clues-- and is also a kind of monster, a brutal nut, unable to distinguish between crime and peccadillo, unable to relate to any other human being except as a temporary collaborator. And yet you come to admire his intelligence and his orneriness. When he's thrown in jail, you root for him. The deconstruction stops here: we come back to the seduction of the idea that, amid all the bad guys, we might find one champion to hit back, harder than they can think of.

Bill Holbrook: Kevin and Kell
I got into this because a friend of mine likes it, and I can see why. It's amusing, and unlike most animal comics, it realizes that our friends the animals spend a lot of their time eating each other.

Kevin Dewclaw is a rabbit-- a bulky six-foot rabbit-- and Kell is a wolf. They're married, and are raising Kell's teenage son Rudy and Kevin's adopted daughter Lindesfarne, a hedgehog. They also have a child of their own-- Coney the carnivorous rabbit. Kevin is a sysadmin (half the strip's jokes are computer-related; the other half are animal-related) and Kell works for a corporation of predators-- Herdthinners, Inc.

It is addictive-- I spent three nights in a row reading the entire series online. Holbrook knows how to do comics, that's for sure. I still fondly remember his On the Fastrack, the best pre-Dilbert comic about business-- especially Bud Spore, the teenage sysadmin. (It's still going on, I find... and he has a third strip, Safe Havens. Hmm, this isn't always a good sign.)

I ended the run with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I have to admire Holbrook for dealing with some issues that most strips don't bother with: divorce, the death of a loved one, stepparent/stepchild adjustments. The computer humor is also fairly high quality (light, but well-informed). On the other, it's just... so... suburban. All the family crises are defused within a week or two. No one has any aspirations besides a computer-related job and a quiet heterosexual romance. There seem to be no cities, no foreign nations, no art, no teenage sex.

The sad thing, however, is how the strip goes downhill in a major way in its most recent year or two. We learn that a secret conspiracy of birds runs the world, and that they have a particular stake in the relationship of Kevin and Kell. Everything comes together for the couple. Minor characters (like Ray Flambeau the lightning bug) even sacrifice themselves for their happiness. The dead start to reappear and hang about in the syrupy way of Grandpa Keane. When it seems like the Dewclaws will have to move out of their house (oh, shudder!), the neighbors gang together to fix things up.

My reading: Holbrook has fallen in love with his characters, and can no longer bear to make them suffer. The inevitable result: the comic goes all twee. Holbrook no longer works to make us like the characters; he just basks in the assumption that everybody already does.

And shouldn't an online comic be a bit more adventurous in format?

There's still the carnivorousness, which is fun, though for my money Sherman's Lagoon does that better. It's just played for laughs, though, and that takes no less suspension of disbelief than Pogo or Omaha. Can Kevin really be so nonchalant about the fact that Kell's job is to eat his conspecifics? (No problem if they were all as incompetent as Kell's brother Ralph, who's been trying for years to eat Kevin.)

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