The Comic Book Virgin Reads Watchmen

Word Balloon: Dave Gibbons

Ladies and gentlemen, I am no longer a comic book virgin. Watchmen and I…yeah, it happened. I alternated between wanting to just sweep it under the “yeah, no big deal” rug and hanging up the “Oh mah goodness; let me share in graphic detail just how it went down” flag. Considering I was asked ahead of time to document the “going down” for the amusement of strangers, I guess I’ll do the latter and can only hope to describe it in a way that perhaps will be a voyeuristic pleasure for you. No analysis coming from a pro, but some of my own truths from my own steamy nights with Watchmen.

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I’d read bits and pieces of Transmetropolitan on my wise friend’s instruction, I’d been given a copy of Preludes and Nocturnes to support my Neil Gaiman novel love by an ex, I’d even bought a copy of DMZ upon another friend’s suggestion. But those were cursory first kisses, sweet in their approach, somewhat awkward and ill-conceived upon execution. I would read it, appreciate it, but then put the comic book down and mostly forget about it. I guess I was nursing my geek libido for the day the passion of a thousand suns would seize me and I would tear open a new comic book and devour it (or surrender myself to it?) with lustful abandon.

So, I approached Watchmen, what was to be my first real comic book read, with the closest I could muster to primitive hunger; this was kind of awkward as, after all, I wasn’t exactly waiting for the moment to seize me, I was doing it with people waiting. This, of course, made me nervous and what had at first had been an exciting idea was now the source of mounting performance anxiety—why oh good god WHY did I agree to write about something I didn’t understand AT ALL for an audience of dedicated, highly vocal experts? Ugh, the rite of passage became a burden, my innocence a scarlet letter: I just needed to swipe the v-card and get it over with.

Luckily, on a random Border’s trip, I saw Watchmen’s primary colors staring back at me from—what WHAT?—the popular reads section. As I brought my little purchase up to the desk, acting ridiculously nonchalant, the clerk eyed me with smile—he knew what I’d be up to that night. I blushed in spite of myself.

I carried the bag home feeling a nice blend of stupid smattered with a pinch of guilt and the clotting essence of Poser—I do not, after all, read comic books (so why am I trying to?) and furthermore my virginity would be lost to a comic book I bought in a Borders sitting next to Oprah’s book club selection. Watchmen felt tacky for this reason, somehow mainstreamed and inauthentic, like I was giving it up to someone who had been around the block a few times (and picked up who knows WHAT reviews?). I suddenly wished I had instead looked up a local comic book store and found a shyer copy.

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Getting into bed to read it, I felt—I kid you not—butterflies in my stomach. I was actually nervous. About reading. A comic book.

It was too late now, though; Watchmen was waiting suggestively on my nightstand, daring me to open its cover, which manages to silently scream and silence you with its colors and boldface. I drank my cooling chamomile tea like it was a shot of cheap vodka and awkwardly pried open the cover.

Of course it left me hanging for a few pages of black and white and then blood and AHH I was in it. Rorschach’s sober, smalltown-militia, doomsday words and the bloodied smileyface (ahh, so THAT’s the cover) made me feel dirty and helpless, hearing all of the best in humanity being cynically tossed aside, yet not necessarily wanting to put up a fight. Like the quickly zooming images, I was sucked into it before I wanted to be and couldn’t come up for air for a few chapters.

At first I read and reread the pages to gather where my eyes should go, not knowing whether to look at the pictures, the words, or both. Then, I relaxed a little and just took it one step at a time, more easily digesting the silent pages of action with no words and their distant, smoothly swooping perspective. The characters, very foreign and almost absurdly gritty at first, became refreshingly human, people I might actually know and the average brand of crazy. Though they did spout forms of angst, self-loathing, disillusionment, and regret heretofore only witnessed in 7th grade lunchrooms and/or the souls of balding men who drive Porsches.

With these growing impressions and burning eyes, I put the book down. I felt cold, but couldn’t figure out why. The clock on the nightstand was ticking too fast. I needed to sleep.

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This pattern of anticipation and dread and urge and exhaustion repeated itself for a few more nights. The last few chapters flew by in an early morning haze where I just couldn’t stop and then dropped back into a deep sleep for a few more hours without much warning. This comic book thing was exhausting. I knew, by the time I was reading those last chapters (more likely, by the time I was reading the 3rd), that I had lost my comic book virginity to an experienced lover—one with moves and tricks and openness the likes of which I might not feel again. So I think I slept that morning not so much out of sheer physical release (though there was that), but also because I didn’t yet want to face the day; I wanted to keep the gray haze of this lover with me, even if he was cryptically silent when I tried pillowtalk.

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Like any first time, it now seems like a vivid blur. I’ll try and hit upon what struck me most.

“The End is Nigh” –Rorshach’s sign

As I read on, I began feeling like I was really reading a piece of solid apocalyptic/dystopic fiction (and I love me some good groping with the End of Days). Watchmen had a World War Z ironclad commitment to its universe with the Mad Hatter alienation and emotional groping of A Clockwork Orange (though yes, it preceded one, though not the other). When I saw the William Blake reference (Chapter V: Fearful Symmetry) I was already nestled into the solid notion that this comic book wasn’t chockfull of allusions just to be highbrow or obscure: not so much every word, but at least every piece of art and composition had meaning. The many long existential crisis monologues 2’x4’d into my head every few chapters were easily eclipsed by one frame of a rain-drop/crying statue or Veidt’s sabotaged Vivarium (psssss…read “Kubla Khan, or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge…I’m sure only one of the billion brilliant references this book has to be making).

This is not to say the writing wasn’t relatively smooth and sophisticated—and here I mean writing as quite literally the words written on the page, not “writing” as in the thought process behind creating the comic book plot, scenes, art, etc. The thought that must have gone into pretty much every inkdrop was obvious—but the inner-monologue-ish way characters were constantly stating and underlining their points was sometimes a bit heavy-handed and reminiscent of the way the latter Matrixes waxed philosophic and emoted so obviously you wanted to learn kung fu just to kung fu the screen down. Something about the fact that you could analyze the characters/plot/allusions/

EVERYTHING in Watchmen FOR HOURS was fun for a bit of a nerd like me…but was also kinda wearing, come to think of it.

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“How’s the enna the world comin’ along?”

“It’ll happen today. I’ve seen signs….today for certain. You’ll keep my paper for me tomorrow?” --Rorschach to newsguy (page 3, Chapter III: The Judge of All the Earth)

The next night, I snuggled with more anticipation than dread. Now I was noticing (even better—realizing it had been there all along) the way Watchmen also made fun of itself (and perhaps staples of the comic book genre to which I am more than a bit oblivious). Beyond the fact that characters are human and say melodramatic things and embarrass themselves on occasion, there are fake tabloid reports on the Silk Spectre’s marriage, small journal treatises on owls, and even a pulpy, disgustingly gothic pirate comic—which, by the way, I ate right up, though I knew how it ended for some reason (gothic stories have a way of making their predictability the reason you read them). Watchmen managed to stay endearing while also mocking itself. Kind of like how Ugly Betty plays with telenovelas, this book seems to play with comic books—but again, I couldn’t quite tell. Regardless, this kept me entertained enough to balance much of the gloom and doom, and keep reading on. Especially the part where the guy literally rides a shark carcass.

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The silence.

Something about the strange way some moments in the book actually palpably feel hushed and muted, so vividly transitioning one to the next, makes reading Watchmen become more like watching a film—only better? I can’t really get over how the comic book format allows for silences. When reading a good book, you mostly play the scenes in your head, build your pace, and move along. A great writer might make you hear silence but it is half-manufactured and mostly your pause. In a film, even silence is a piece of the constant movement. But in a comic book, you can grab a snapshot and just…watch…a silence actually happen. When there are no words for pages and Rorschach is just sneaking around The Comedian’s house (page 6, Chapter I: At Midnight, All the Agents), you can actually hear him trying to not make a sound in parts. Now this is not just making movies in your head as you read, this is taking stage direction and cues for sounds not actually being made—something altogether foreign and exhilarating for me.

And then I thought about how this comic book could be made into an actual movie. While I was delighted by the film preview before, I am left wondering just how well it could be translated into a medium that doesn’t allow for the silences, the reader-set pace, the moments of rest and sleep and reflection that this incredibly dense comic book required of me. The very stillness of some frames is what allows the story to score in its haunting of the line between doomsday and salvation—how can that stillness translate to a film?

Well, at the very least, I hope Watchmen film includes a lot of sighing. Even though the characters didn’t sigh very often in this book, it seems like they want to sigh a lot. Or go into a room and scream and kill something fuzzy. Or both.

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“So why’s she dressed like that? It’s us who just got woke up at four in the a.m.!”

-random rescued tenant on Laurie (Silk Spectre II)’s costume (page 25, Chapter VII: A Brother to Dragons).

The woman are statuesque and sturdy and flawed and petty and hassled like the men: their aesthetic appeals to me more than I thought it would—I was expecting a bit more vamp and a bit less depth, I think. The subject of rape startled me at first, being introduced so early in the comic book as a subject covered in relative shallowness and cliché (“rape! Why, that’s an outrage!”—No, really?). However, the way this cursory glance was followed by a long, slow look at the first and second Silk Spectres’ sexual freedom, choices, and violations gives more weight to this heavy topic. It was awesome to watch Sally and Laurie using, hating, playing, and being played for their sexy image as an object of male desire and fantasy—the way Laurie seduces Dr. Manhattan and Dan with both confidence and fear; the way Sally used her costumed self as a promotional tool; the way Laurie reconciles with her resented legacy of violence and adrenaline junkiehood and desire for attention…yes, it is deeper than I thought female characters in a male-driven comic book world could be taken. Furthermore, props must go to the fact that relationship issues actually take a big stage in Dr. Manhattan’s development—that seems refreshingly out of genre to me (or out of my stereotype of the genre, which is what I’m going on).

Some female dialogue did read like a man writing what he thinks a woman would be thinking, then making her say it out loud—but this was true of many of the characters, and I’m starting to think it’s just a convention of the style (kind of like Shakespeare’s soliloquys?). For example: “Jon? I—I’m scared. I feel like there’s big invisible things all around me. Will you hold me please?” (page 16, Chapter IV: Watchmaker). Yes, Janey. Big invisible things.

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“The jailbreak, this war thing…everything’s just so shitty. Guess I want somebody to wave a wand to make it all better, y’know?” –Dan (Nite Owl II)

“But there’s nobody who can do that, is there?” –Laurie (Silk Spectre II)

(page 22, Chapter VIII: Old Ghosts)

I am repeatedly seized by how no one character is a hero and that costumes, adrenaline-junkie-genes, super-smarts, and even money don’t make you perfect. That what humans like Dan and I often want, and also fear: a magic wand to fix everything, something that will leave all healthy, happy, untroubled especially when the world seems more for ill than for good. Even more disturbing in light of this seemingly naïve, yet understandable, desire is the knowledge that Dr. Manhattan can—sorta—wave that wand. Yet he, for all his authentic, indisputable, limitless power, ends up sitting so far out of touch with human connection that massive human pain means altogether nothing to him, not when he is gazing from such great perspective. I guess the fear that whoever is “watching” this earth, whoever/whatever/the nothing you believe it to be, also has that perspective, also sees that this world is too complicated and that “nothing ever ends” (Page 27, Chapter XII: A Stronger Loving World) and won’t take pity on the poorest and most unfortunate among us, is something we’re born with as humans (sometimes?). It’s the same thing that haunts me when I read the words “I leave it entirely in your hands” (Page 32, Chapter XII: A Stronger Loving World). Because if it is in my hands, how horrible can the consequences of my actions be? Like Veidt, who doesn’t want to know that he/she did the right thing? Considering Veidt makes a whammy of a consequential choice but life still goes on, people still hook up, families still reconcile, and peons still get to choose whether giant truths are revealed shows that even without a Watchman like Dr. Manhattan, or perhaps because of his very lack, life still goes on. Perhaps Dr. Manhattan’s meddling, like Veidt’s, is a far cry from the answer? Perhaps the point of recognizing human choice so profoundly at such an uncertain ending panel shows that yes, there is still hope, and yes, hope is still twins with doubt. If we only embraced that we all have some of both and still have the courage to take responsibility for choosing what we want (as Laurie and Dan ultimately do, and Rorschach does too, in his way)…or perhaps we never have any power to choose at all and it all happens as it will (thank you, Dr. Manhattan, for your giant head trip)?

Okay, have to stop gazing into the abyss, for the abyss gazes also. –Nietzsche (page 28, Chapter VI: The Abyss Gazes Also)

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So my few nights with Watchmen gave me some deep thoughts, plain ol’ fashioned good entertainment, and even some striking images that will stay ingrained in my skull probably for years to come (particularly the red watch at the end, the overwhelmed Watchmaker, a brave new world?). While I could go on about which character was my favorite (okay, I’m not gonna go for the obvious Rorschach, though he does rock, I kinda like Dan because he seemed the most real of all of them) or which scene took my breath away (more than any other, I will not forget the dead workers in Veidt’s Vivarium…ahh they were so DEAD), I hope this left you with a sense of what it was like to read Watchmen for the first time, where my brain went while and after reading it, and how much I sincerely enjoyed it.

More than I expected with this rite of passage, of losing my comic book virginity, I was taken to the warm buzz of a liminal zone, a place out of rung with normal routine where growth is allowed and upon returning from which, a person is never seen or sees the same way again. I experienced through a simple read something bizarre and quickening, new and ancient. And I experienced this through a comic book? (I swear, still a shock to me) And perhaps even more so, I think I started to get some of it? (Also, still shock). I am already nostalgic that I cannot experience the story with fresh eyes again, that my innocence was lost. I seem cruel to myself, for making such a choice so randomly, on a request and whim. But I guess I can’t change the past…and who knows if I had any choice at all? (AGAIN thankyouverymuch, Dr. Manhattan).

The good news is, I hear it only gets better with practice.

Recruited for us straight outta Harvard by our mutual friends Lucas and Janelle Siegel, Isabelle Burtan recently covered “newbie” reaction to the Watchmen trailer for Newsarama. She’ll return from time to time to look at comics from a fresh perspective.

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I've Read Watchmen...What Now?  

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