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Watching the Watchmen

Still from the Watchmen. (HBO).

On October 25, 2019, I supported Martin Scorsese’s put-down of Marvel Comics super-hero films in a CounterPunch article. The article appeared just five days after HBO began streaming “Watchmen.” I knew little about Alan Moore, the author of the graphic novel that inspired the series, but decided to begin watching the watchmen. Written in 1985, it shared Scorsese’s dim view of super-heroes. In a 2017 interview, Moore’s vitriol surpassed Scorsese’s:

I think the impact of super-heroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying. While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their twelve or thirteen year-old audience, today’s franchised übermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs…In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American super-hero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.

There are six degrees of separation between Moore and me. Twelve years ago, I worked with Harvey Pekar on a comic book about my comic life as a Trotskyist. Harvey always insisted on calling what he did “comic books” rather than the somewhat pretentious “graphic novel.” Like Moore, he wanted to break with super-hero mythology but on a different basis. Moore’s “Watchmen” made these figures loathsome while Pekar sought to ignore them altogether. Instead, he rooted his comic books in what he called the “quotidian” life of ordinary workers.

In “American Splendor,” the superb docudrama about his life in Cleveland, he tells his illustrator Robert Crumb: “I’m thinkin’, the guys who do animal comics and super-hero stuff are really limited ‘cause they gotta try to appeal to kids. And underground comics like yours have been really subversive or opened things up politically. But there is still plenty more ta be done with ‘em, too, y’know?” Crumb then asks, “You turned yourself into a comic hero?” To which, Harvey responds, “Sorta, yeah. But no idealized shit. No phony bullshit. The real thing, y’know? Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”

I was also anxious to check out “Watchmen” because Pekar’s widow Joyce Brabner edited a book in 1988 titled “Brought to Light: Thirty Years of Drug Smuggling, Arms Deals, and Covert Action” that included an Alan Moore story. In a profile on Brabner in Cleveland magazine, Moore spoke highly of her: “Joyce has never been afraid to clearly state her ethical or political position in an industry where possessing either of these things has all too often been seen as a career drawback.” With these credentials, you might expect her to shepherd my comic book memoir through Random House’s bureaucracy. But in the same article, Brabner defended her decision to torpedo the book:

Brabner says Proyect’s ramblings prove her point. She says it’s up to her to keep Pekar’s legacy from being sullied by “people attaching themselves to Pekar to inflate their own sense of importance.”

In a profanity-laced phone-call to me, Brabner made clear that her real beef was my politics that she linked to Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party, not any “ramblings.” How she could have come to this conclusion after reading a Trotskyist memoir is beyond me.

My wife and were bedazzled by all nine episodes of HBO’s “Watchmen.” Like “Joker,” it is a visually stunning work with scenes calculated to make your jaw drop but just as devoid of meaning. Neither of us found it psychologically engaging. Even worse, it wasn’t politically significant even though its creator Damon Lindelof intended it to be an anti-racist statement. In contrast to Moore’s graphic novel that had no sympathetic characters, Lindelof’s hero was a Black cop named Angela, whose grandfather was a survivor of the 1921 pogrom in Tulsa’s Black community. Her beat was in modern-day Tulsa, where she was leading an investigation of a white supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry.

It troubled me that Tulsa’s cops used masks to cloak their identity from Seventh Kavalry militia members. After a “White Night” assault on forty homes that left many cops killed or wounded, including Angela, they began wearing masks to protect themselves. “Watchmen” contained many flights of fancy, such as a giant genetically-engineered squid killing half of New York City. However, none was more fanciful than a civil war between cops and white supremacists. In 2016, a female cop in Tulsa named Betty Shelby shot and killed Terence Crutcher, a Black, unarmed, 40-year-old motorist. After she was charged with manslaughter, a jury found her not guilty. In “Watchmen,” there is no racism in the police force, only in its enemies.

In addition to this newly added character, Lindelof brought back two of the main characters in Moore’s graphic novel: Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Veidt. In the original, Dr. Manhattan is the only genuine super-hero. He was an atomic physicist who accidentally got zapped in an Intrinsic Field Subtractor test chamber (whatever that is) and came out with glowing blue skin and the ability to do just about anything. He can see into the future, teleport himself to distant planets, and disintegrate people from a distance. In Moore’s version, he went over to Vietnam and defeated the Communists. As a result, Nixon served six terms as President, basking in Dr. Manhattan’s glory.

Lindelof’s Dr. Manhattan abandons his superpowers after falling in love with Angela. They then go shopping in a local morgue for a suitable human form he can adopt as an avatar. They pick out a handsome, well-built African-American corpse as if they were buying a car. The avatar only returns to his blue, super-hero identity in the final episodes. He helps Angela fend off a new Armageddon led by Lady Trieu, Adrian Veidt’s Vietnamese daughter. She is the richest and smartest person on the planet next to her father.

In both Watchmen versions, Veidt prevents WWIII from taking place through a chilling stratagem. With tensions rising between the USA and the USSR in the mid-80s, Veidt decides that the only way to save the planet from a nuclear holocaust was to initiate a “false flag.” Endowing a giant squid he created in his laboratory with murderous psychic wave capabilities, he sends it to New York City, where it kills half the population. Assuming that the creature came from outer space, the USA and the USSR deescalate their nuclear war threats and make a long-lasting peace against space invaders just like FDR, Roosevelt and Stalin becoming allies. You know how that turned out.

My reaction to the killer squid was the same as watching a SYFY sharknado movie. Both creatures were ludicrous, but only SYFY planned it that way. Equally ludicrous was Adrian Veidt’s appearances on what looked like an English manor and turned out to be the ultimate country club prison. We learn that we are not in the English countryside but in a bio-dome on Europa that Dr. Manhattan constructed. It is reminiscent of the elegant and comfortable prison, where Patrick McGoohan was an inmate in the 1967 British TV show, “The Prisoner.” Veidt’s repeated escape attempts were either a homage to the show or a bit of plagiarism. What defies comprehension, however, is the technical basis for such a bio-dome. One imagines that with his unlimited powers, Dr. Manhattan created it like God created the Earth. Poof! I don’t mind science-fiction, but at least a modicum of realism is necessary. With a blue sky and white clouds over Veidt’s manor house prison, how can this be Europa? Oh, never mind…

Lady Trieu, who inherited her father’s superior genes, created a trillion dollar bioengineering and other high-tech enterprises. Not satisfied with wealth, she seeks to control the destiny of the planet. By transferring Dr. Manhattan’s superpowers to herself through a process she designed in one of her labs, she too will become God-like.

In a deus ex machina conclusion, Angela simultaneously foils Lady Trieu’s plot and wipes out the Seventh Kavalry in its bid to repeat the 1921 pogrom once again in Tulsa. The weapon that defeats them turns out to be fist-sized frozen squids based on Veidt’s bioengineering breakthroughs. Falling like rain, the lethal squids leave every white supremacist dying on Tulsa’s streets. I wonder if Alan Moore began writing a new version of “Watchmen” whether he would take such a benighted view of the noble cephalopod. With their remarkable intelligence, they’d inspire other writers to create a half-man, half-squid leading the struggle against the racists. I suppose that Moore knows what he is doing in light of Time Magazine naming “Watchmen” as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. I would have chosen Charles Bukowski’s “Post Office” over it.

In a smart analysis of HBO’s “Watchmen” titled “Dr. Manhattan is a Cop: ‘Watchmen’ and Frantz Fanon,” Aaron Bady made the case in that it embodied colonialist attitudes toward the Vietnamese:

Why? Where does what Leslie Lee calls this show’s “startling lack of imagination about how to address race in a world of super-heroes” come from?

One answer is that there were no Vietnamese writers. If it was important that two-thirds of the show’s writers were Black, the lack of Vietnamese writers only underscores the point. The show makes Dr. Manhattan into a rather uncomplicated Good Guy — saving the day at the end, a martyr, and a Basically Good Dude who takes care of the kids — but a Vietnamese writer might have suggested that “mistakes were made, the past is the past” isn’t much of a reckoning with his body count. Such a person might have insisted on connecting the planes bombing Tulsa in the first scene of the show to the American bombing of southeast Asia, and on the parallel between Angela and Lady Trieu that such a connection implies. Why would the granddaughter of Tulsa ally herself with Dr. Manhattan — and all he represents — rather than with Lady Trieu, and all that she does?

After reading this, I tweeted Bady: “Appreciated your article but it was the frozen squid, English countryside on Europa, etc. that bothered me much more than a lack of anti-imperialism. Moore and Lindelof are even more overrated than Adam Driver.”

Turning to Alan Moore, you have to give him credit for disavowing the HBO production and anything else with the Watchmen brand name he no longer owns. When he was starting out, he signed an onerous contract that ceded rights to DC Comics, a powerful corporation that took advantage of him in the same way record companies took advantage of rock bands in the 1980s.

Describing himself as an anarchist, Moore developed a hatred of both corporations and the corporate state in this period that veered toward libertarianism. Instead of seeing political change taking place through mass action, he began to see freedom in strictly personal terms. It was up to the individual and not the collective to fight for social change. That is why you find zero presence of political movements in his graphic novel and why there is no evidence of Black liberation movements in the HBO production. Sadly, Damon Lindelof shared his idol’s aversion to mass action.

In “Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics,” Andrew Hoberek argues that Moore’s politics shared one element from Margaret Thatcher’s neoconservative philosophy. He might have hated her authoritarian rule but saw no alternative to her precept that there is no such thing as society, only families, men, and women. His anarchism sought to throw off the oppressive chains of the Tory state that was beefing up the police and military. About the neoliberal economic policies impoverishing working people, it said little. Reading “Watchmen”, you get no sense of workers on strike or protests against nuclear weapons.

Hoberek examines Moore’s involvement with the Northampton Arts Council, where he got his start as a comic book author. This was a government-funded project. It was similar to projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts or, before it, FDR’s WPA artists. Moore was deeply grateful to the artist collective but went overboard by characterizing any other organization with more formal structures as having a “whiff of fascism”. The counter-culture was still strong when he was seventeen and working with the council. Like others who abandoned politics and went to live on communes in Vermont, Moore thought that small is beautiful. Since there is nothing smaller than the individual, his trajectory was predictable.

When he and fellow artists applied for a grant, he was incensed to discover that after providing a detailed account of past expenditures, the funders only offered five pounds. This snub led him to believe that if you want to do anything, it is best to do it by yourself. In a 2011 interview, Moore offered up a mixture of anarchism and libertarianism:

Taking responsibility for something, I have found, tends to give you power over it. Taking responsibility for yourself, certainly gives you power over yourself, and that is the only power I’m politically comfortable with. Power over others is tyranny, in whatever context it occurs, whether it is in a nation or in a family. Whereas power of one’s self is a necessity for being a complete human being.

This is a harmless attitude to take as a bohemian artist. However, if it means being indifferent to people gathering together to keep a public hospital open, that’s harmful.

Hoborek, who admires Moore as an artist, was troubled by such sentiments. He writes:

My point here is to note that Moore participates in and is shaped by a left-wing intellectual tradition that has significant affinities with the Thatcherite motto “There is no such thing as society.” Both the Thatcher and Reagan governments promoted themselves as enemies of bureaucracy, and even the fact that they identified government with bureaucracy did not so much distinguish them from but establish their continuity with the thought of the sixties counter-culture. Moore’s belief in self-responsibility and his assertion that it is “probably best to do [things] yourself” rather than apply for Arts Council grants are sentiments that Conservative ideologues might well have endorsed. Indeed, if one wanted to, it would be easy enough to produce a Thatcherite reading of Watchmen.

Indeed, Ted Cruz has named a Watchmen character called Rorschach as one of his favorite super-heroes. While Moore developed this character as a hateful vigilante as he did with all of his others, there is some question of why Cruz would see him in a positive light. Perhaps the willingness of the vigilantes to take the law in their own hands was just a variation of Moore’s support for doing things yourself, whether or not he understood this.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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