Is Watchmen the Best Comic?

I love the title up there. It reminds me of some of the greatest arguments that fanboys and third-graders have ever had, those beautiful “My ______ can beat up your _____” kinds of affairs. I prefer “my dad could beat up Batman,” but that might not really be true, even though my dad has the best goddamn superhero origin of all time.

Anyway, David Brothers and Sean Witzke went back and forth about Watchmen in a post over at 4thletter.

Brothers takes the opinion that Watchmen is not the best comic of all time, and that we should stop calling it that. He writes:

What I’m trying to say is that Watchmen is definitely a watershed moment, due mainly to the level of craft and approach that it brought to cape-based material, but it isn’t an unprecedented one, and I think that’s an important factor that we often leave out when we discuss Watchmen and its influence. If Watchmen never happened, I’d bet cash money that the ’90s, the ideal of the ’90s that most of us hold, would’ve still happened more or less as they did. The hallmarks of the ’90s, whether you’re talking pouches or grittiness or realism or whatever, were set in motion long before Watchmen happened.

The moral ambiguity, the physical and emotional trauma, the poison that hammered comics in the ’90s, all of that has its roots in the very beginning of the Marvel universe, when Stan and Jack and Steve and them were revolutionizing comics and making them cool again. They set comics down a road that inevitably leads to clones and crossovers and whatever else. There’s a logical progression from “Spider-Man screwed up, but now he tries harder” to “Spider-Man fails the love of his life and gets her killed” to “Spider-Man is a clone/crazy” to “Spider-Man is hardcore now.” It’s upping the ante on the flawed hero, bit by bit. The fallen hero and anti-hero are just another take on that same basic idea, which is itself another take on an even older idea.

Witzke responds:

Watchmen said that you could take this material (superheroes, alternate reality stories) and tell a finite, complete story with it. There could be intertextuality and generational narratives and have legitimate minor characters, and actual consequences and politics. Stories, stories that matter, they have ends. And Watchmen is the first story that was taken to the real world (whether or not it was the first really doesn’t matter, the revolution starts when people notice fires in the street not when the plans are drafted) and said “oh yeah this stuff can actually work as a novel, it’s not just endless soap opera/pulp/sitcom that you can walk in and out of at any time because its an endless middle”. Making more Watchmen comics, as Abhay said, actually say that people were always right its just a garbage dump of endless dudes punching dudes, there’s no finite quality to anything. (I actually think the way trilogies are now par for the course in mainstream hollywood, and 6 season tv shows are doing the same thing to how people watch film and television). You’re right about Gerber and Stan And Jack – and shit, Miller and Moore both said that American Flagg was the reason they manned up and did Watchmen/Ronin, because it introduced real sophistication in a way that Marvel comics never ever ever did. Of course they’d both done Marvelman and Daredevil at that point, and it becomes all a gray morass of what happened first.

Both of these block quotes are right, of course. I have argued many times that Moore and Gibbons’ comic should be dethroned as King Comic Book, if only for the reason that comic books need to avoid strict canonization for about a hundred more years. We need to open the world up, not close it off, and proclaiming a Best Comic Book doesn’t really make that position attainable for the self-publishing indie creator.

Brothers’ assertion that the 1990s would have happened anyway is specious, at best, simply because we can’t really talk about it. I think that Rorschach, and the way that people, even now, identify with his politics led directly to the kinds extreme comics that we had in the last gasp of the 20th century. At the same time, I have compassion for the argument; I think that Moore would say that The Comedian and Rorschach were predictive at best, merely forerunners of a political ideology that built through the 1990s and culminated in the response to the 9/11 attacks that opened the new millennium. Yeah, I think Watchmen works like that.

I especially like the argument going on in the subtext of the two quotes that I placed above. It is about the nature of comics, and the idea that it was revolutionary for comics to be finite, to close themselves off. Both of them are right–the fact that Watchmen has gone without sequels, prequels, or spinoffs for more than twenty years is, frankly, a fucking miracle. Superhero comics have a primordial need to proliferate, like myths or folktales.

Brothers is correct to say that the heart of crossover-heavy, grand continuity, Marvel Universe-style comics lies in the content that originally sprang out of the Bullpen in the 60s. We have to remember that this was a marketing decision, though, and that the creation of a comic universe is really just a more efficient way of making people buy comics. It is letting loose a horrible assemblage, a Lovecraftian beast that sucks in everything, milking it for use value, and holding it inside itself forever. Stan Lee and this monster have made  terrible children, and the comics industry right now is the direct result.

So it is a literal miracle that Watchmen has fought the superhero machine for so long. It has remained isolated, and hopefully we can sweep these prequels under the rug soon enough that no one ever remembers that they happened. Witzke, near the end of his bit, says the Big Takeaway from Watchmen, and I agree with it. He says:

We’ve got to keep tearing it down so it can be replaced, because its still too big an icon, which actually paradoxically says a ton about how good the comic is. Comics as a whole needs to be able to say “fuck Watchmen” in a way beyond Grant Morrison’s shitty sniping in JLA: Earth 2, and I don’t know if we’re really at that point yet as a medium. I think the way that people are talking about/reacting to Moore isn’t the same thing, and Watchmen 2 really isn’t the same thing either, it’s wallowing in it rather than surpassing it.

I am doing a horrible job here, so just read the entire thing over at 4thletter. It is smart, and my morning was better for having read it.

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