I. Look on the Watchmen, Ye Mighty
Back in February 2012, DC Comics officially announced that they would begin publishing seven miniseries based on characters and situations from what many people consider to be the greatest superhero graphic novel of all time, Watchmen. The series, which will begin shipping in June, are known collectively as "Before Watchmen," which right there gives you a hint about the main problem with these books, and the mainstream comic book industry in general.
The writer of Watchmen, Alan Moore, is the most important and influential author of graphic fiction since Stan Lee. Watchmen is the most influential graphic novel of all time. Since its publication, it has been the benchmark by which all other works are measured. Most mainstream comics creators have been re-writing it for 25 years. It's a masterpiece, at least in the Renaissance sense of that term. The three primary creators, Mr. Moore, illustrator Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins, all employed every tool at their disposal in its composition. It was a unique experiment in storytelling and printing techniques, an elegantly constructed and dense meditation on the idea of supeheroism, and a deconstruction of the serial comic book form itself.
It is also ruinously flawed, self indulgent, and ultimately nonsensical. To begin with, there is that ending. As Grant Morrison noted in his book Supergods,
Ultimately, in order for Watchmen's plot to ring true, we were required to entertain the belief that the world's smartest man would do the world's stupidest thing after thinking about it all his life.And Ozymandias's plan is profoundly, monumentally stupid -- to attempt to create a state of peace on earth by simulating a failed invasion by a giant alien Cthulu vagina, murdering millions of New Yorkers in the process.
But it's not just that the plan is stupid, and not just that it wouldn't work -- and even at the time the issues were published, there was no reason to believe that it would. It's also that the plan is vicious authoritarianism designed specifically to protect the existing power structure by sacrificing a few million civilians to save the politicians and bureaucrats who caused all of the problems in the first place. It apparently didn't occur to Ozymandias to, for example, simply assassinate the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States. By extension, this idea didn't cross Mr. Moore's mind, either -- if it had, the story would have been a lot shorter. By killing Rorshach, the dispassionate and logical Dr. Manhattan gives his approval of the plan. The audience is meant to come to the same conclusion: That a few million innocents had to be slaughtered to "save the world."
To use the language of the current "Occupy" movement, this is the type of hypothetical question that one One-percenter might ask another One-percenter: "How many of the ninety-nine percent would you be willing to kill to maintain the current power structure?" Kill too many, and there might not be enough left over to continue using for your nefarious purpose. Kill too few, and you haven't made your point. There's a balance, you see.
By abandoning the story where he does, Mr. Moore absolves himself of the responsibility to examine the ramifications of Ozymandias's stupid, immoral plan. In 1987, when that final issue appeared, the ending felt ludicrous. One needed only to look at the war on drugs -- a war declared by Richard Nixon, the president in Watchmen -- to see that life for those who survived would be made all the more miserable. Now, 25 years on, the ending rings all the more false. We have real-world evidence that Ozymandias's plan would have done nothing more than cement power for those who already had it. If you don't believe me, then wave to the drones while you read the PATRIOT Act, and the NDAA, or try getting on an airplane without being "patted down."
You can read the whole essay here, if you like.