When I “arrived” at comics (when I made the shift from buying from newsstands to joining the direct market), Watchmen had already been collected as a trade. Without realizing it, I’d never experience that initiatory moment of fan culture—standing in line for the next issue of Watchmen, only to be let down by publication or shipping delays. To be polite, and as a kind of cover story, I always tell people that that was a formative moment in my nascent adulthood; the moment when I realized that arguably the most significant comicbook of my lifetime had already transitioned from “comicbook” into “graphic novel”. That this transition had been effected during my lifetime. And that I’d missed it, and would now need to encounter Watchmen as a fully-formed cultural object, now formed as a trade paperback.
But of course, that’s not the real story about why I believe Watchmen signaled my childhood’s end. The real reason is that second-to-final chapter, “Look on my Works, Ye Mighty…” And the fracturing that Moore effected in order to offer narrative cohesion. Moore offers not one but two denouements in “Mighty…” There’s the Hollywood Ending (a derisive term, but rereading it over the years, am I wrong in sensing a derision even on Moore’s own part?), and the interpersonal, emotional ending that plays out in a wholly separated incident.
The endings themselves are well-executed. The Hollywood Ending sees a cloned monster teleported into New York, killing millions and faking an alien invasion. The actual horror of this ending is protracted into the twelfth and final chapter, “A Stronger, Loving World”. The interpersonal, emotional ending, where Ozymandias confesses to the murder of the Comedian. It’s this second denouement that ties in magnificently with Comedian Edward Blake’s very human confession way back in issue #2, “Absent Friends”.
Those two denouements always haunted me. Not their content, but the fact that Moore had decided to divorce them from each other, the human and the Special FX. In the mid-‘90s, reading Watchmen for the first time, I still remember having a clear cultural access to the scifi movies of the ‘80s. Starman, Cocoon, Flight of the Navigator, D.A.R.Y.L., The Last Starfighter, and of course Spielberg’s beautifully artistic E. T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
What those movies had flawlessly demonstrated, was that true drama lay in constructing a moment that married together both human drama and Special FX. This has always been the truest, and most valuable insight of cinema. That visual spectacle is always emotionally grounded. I don’t offer the judgments “truest” and “most valuable” lightly. Go back in time and examine that tradition for yourself. The only reason we in our age even know of the films of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin or Sergei Eisenstein, is because they ornamented human drama with Special FX.
So when Brian Azzarello writes an Edward Blake that was a beloved fourth brother in the Kennedy family, an Edward Blake who actually assassinates Marilyn because she threatens the safety and sanctity of that family, and Edward Blake who’s betrayed by FBI Director Hoover (who seems complicit in Kennedy’s assassination as the conceit of Before Watchmen goes)… when Brian writes that Eddie Blake, I’m deeply involved. Because I understand the betrayal of institutional memory.
Brian’s opened an old, long-forgotten wound, really. One which at the time seemed to signal the false dawn of a childhood’s end. And the wound being opened here is this—Why would Moore choose to divorce those two denouements? Why segregate the human, from the spectacular? If it genuinely was a work of deconstruction (rather than merely being destructive of the tradition), what new way of looking was offered?
[Sidebar: The intellectual tradition of deconstruction, which was inaugurated by the writings of linguistic-philosopher Jacques Derrida, has always offered an alternative critical mode to “replace” the tradition it invalidated. Genuine acts of deconstruction don’t simply savage old tyrannies, they offer new freedoms.]
Dear Reader, I apologize for what may well read as a scathing tirade. It’s motivated by the deepest love, the most complex form of passion, and the realization that just like Eddie Blake (and you’ll have to read Before Watchmen: Comedian #1 for the context for this one), I’ve been played by a social order I’ve always supported. For Blake that social order was the kind of US Hoover attempted to create. For me, it was the uncritical, unwavering yearning to experience the fan culture-based acceptance of Watchmen.
To be clear, what I’m saying is this.
Before Watchmen is an act of corporate courage. And it offers a challenge to us all—making the choice of authorship or stewardship. This is where we are now—choosing either condone the tyranny of empowering an Author to dictate taste, value, culture. Or…
Or, choosing to believe that the experiment of comics can work. That comics themselves can once again carry a generational burden. And that we may all, one again, be participant in the idea of comics. And ultimately, it would mean choosing to value diversity of creative opinions, and to nurture the belief that individual authors, no matter their personal genius, can only add to the evolving tapestry of a work that can last for generations.
If Before Watchmen can be apprehended as a generationally definitive work, just as the original Watchmen was a generation ago, it will be by this—that the creators involved on Before Watchmen have already found the means to recalibrate the project and find that inner social media that fuels Twitter and Tumblr and FaceBook, and fuels us all.