The Beginning of the Beginning…
Hi, welcome to my new article on Sequart.com. As it’s my first article allow me a minute to suck up a little. Sequart.com is great isn’t it? What I like best is the way the articles are all so informative. All the writers seem to really know their stuff. They have whole universes in their heads, a working knowledge of enough heroes and villains, past and present, to give one to each man, woman, and child in China and twice as many creators. Have you seen Julian Darius’ Continuity Pages? Go on, take a look. The encyclopedic knowledge on display suggests a man who started reading comics before he could crawl.
As for me, I’m not quite so well informed. I’m twenty-one but I only picked up my first graphic novel less than a year ago. I don’t know my Aquaman from my Hawkman, or the names of any of the various Flashes. I couldn’t tell a Jack Kirby from an Alex Ross, and I’ve never picked up an X-Men comic in my life. A year ago, I only knew Batman from a campy TV show and Superman from his televised “New Adventures” with Dean Cain.
So, you might be wondering, why a website dedicated to comics with a whole bunch of experts has given an article to someone with an understanding of comics up there with George Bush’s knowledge of world environmental issues? Let me explain: this is an article for people just like me. It’s for people who are curious about comics and graphic novels. It’s for people who have just started reading them or don’t know where to start. People who are right now scratching their heads and asking, “What’s an Alex Ross?” People who’ve seen Batman and Spider-Man at the movies but find all the back-story in the comics a bit daunting.
If you don’t have a clue what the Infinite Crisis is then this is the article for you, because I don’t know either (bear with me). I’m going to write about my experiences with comics so far. Which so-called ‘classics’ live up to the hype and which ones disappoint. Which comics make sense to outsiders and which ones are so hard to follow they might as well be written in a foreign language. I’ll be imparting the little knowledge I have picked up, and at the same time showing that you don’t have to know it all to really get a lot out of comic books. Hopefully, I’ll be able to give useful guidance to new comics readers because I know what’s like, standing in a comic book shop, scanning the shelves and thinking, “Right, what now?”
So, what better place to start than my own starting point? It all began nearly a year ago, at the start of my third year of university. I had chosen a module called Popular Fictions, and after a couple of dull weeks discussing the ideology of Mills and Boon romantic fiction, a more interesting title appeared on my reading list: Alan Moore’s Watchmen. This, we were told, was a graphic novel.
I guess at the time you could say I had a fairly neutral view of sequential art. I knew that comics were more than just kids stuff. I’d heard of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning Maus and Kevin Smith’s movie Mallrats had made comic books look kinda cool. At the same time, I had no particular urge to read any of them. I’ve always loved reading, but I had plenty of ‘ordinary’ books to be getting along with. Nothing had pushed me to make the leap into comics. However, I was pleased to visit my local comics shop and pick up my copy of Watchmen. The chance to read a story with some action and colorful pictures held a lot of appeal after too many breeze-block sized text books. Even better, it was about superheroes. superheroes are fun and frivolous right? Silly, disposable and escapist entertainment.
It didn’t take long for Watchmen to explode my expectations of what a superhero comic could be. I thought superhero comics existed in a bright, shiny, simplistic world where the difference between good and evil was as clear as black and white. I thought the violence was silly and stylized, that blood was rarely shed, that heroes always won the day and villains weren’t killed, only locked away so they could escape in time for the next adventure. DC, home of Batman and Superman, began to publish Watchmen, in monthly installments, in 1986. Back then, I was just two years old. It wasn’t until I picked the book up last year I realized how outdated my views were.
Watchmen portrays a world a lot darker than I expected. It’s a realist take on superheroes that asks, “How would superheroes work in a world very similar to our own?” Even if they don’t read comics, everyone knows what a superhero is, how they dress, what they do and why. At least they think they do. Alan Moore picks at this knowledge, questions the superhero stereotype ingrained in the public consciousness. From the very start of Watchmen,we see police investigating a grim and violent death. A man is thrown to his death from a high window after being severely beaten up. We see the blood on his swollen face. “When he hit the sidewalk his head,” we are told, “was driven up into his stomach.” What’s more, this was no ordinary member of the public, this was a superhero!
As if that’s not enough, there’s the guy investigating his death to contend with. A masked detective called Rorschach; I would come to recognize him as creepier than any supervillain ever presented on television, be it Lex Luther, the Joker or Dr. Octopus. Here’s the twist: Rorschach is one of the good guys. At least, I think he is. That’s the beauty of Watchmen. We are presented with complex, difficult heroes. Characters whose motivation goes way beyond just, ‘doing the right thing’.
We get a medal-collecting patriot who attempt rape, a vigilante who writes to hard-line right wing magazines, an impotent superhero who needs his costume to find a feeling of virility and so on. Moore makes us question what we think we know about Batman, Spider-Man and the rest. This all sounds very clever, twisting the archetypes into new and unexpected shapes, but it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t combined with a great story. So Moore gives us one. I want you to read this thing, so I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but Watchmen is a densely plotted tale of a superhero killer and a potential apocalypse that demands your full attention and keeps you feverishly turning the pages right to the end. I’ve seen it described as the War and Peace of comic books. Don’t worry, it’s better than that.
I admit I got lucky. There are many, many bad comics out there. If I’d started with one of them I might have turned up my nose in disgust and dismissed comics completely. Instead, I found a book that captured my imagination and picked up a habit that decimated my bank balance. Guess what? I’d like the same thing to happen to you. It might be twenty years old, but Watchmen is still an explosive, revelatory and dramatic read for newcomers. It’s an accessible, stand-alone work which requires no prior knowledge and will only grow in your estimation as you begin to learn about the world and history of comics. I would strongly recommend it to any readers just getting into comics.
I admitted up front that I’m no expert, but any comments and questions, particularly from new or newish readers, are more than welcome. I’ll do my best to address your queries. Hope you’ve enjoyed the article. Next week, we’ll be looking at a dark knight and a sinful city.