Watchmen up Close:

An Interview with Andrew Hoberek

Photo by Jillian Vondy

Andrew Hoberek is the author of Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics (Rutgers University Press), a 2015 Eisner-Award nominee for Best Educational/ Academic Work.  He is also an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri.

As you point out in the introduction to your book, scholars and critics often tend to avoid writing about superhero comics and graphic novels, but when they do, they tend to talk about Watchmen.  What is Watchmen, and why is it so widely-regarded and studied compared to other superhero stories?

Watchmen is a twelve-issue comic book miniseries created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and published by DC Comics in 1986 and 1987.  It tells the story of a group of ex-superheroes who now either work for the government or are in retirement—costumed vigilantism having been made illegal nine years before—but find themselves drawn together following the murder of one of their number.  They eventually uncover a byzantine plot to end the Cold War and bring about world peace through morally questionable means.  Moore and Gibbons created a new set of heroes for their story, although these heroes are based on a group of superheroes that DC had acquired on fire sale terms from the going-out-of-business comic book publisher Charlton.  That’s a big part of the story I tell: Moore had hoped to use these heroes but was, in hindsight obviously, turned down because of his plans to kill and/or otherwise render them unusable for future projects.  I have a whole chapter about the way that this emblematizes the conflict between Moore’s literary aspirations to tell a complete, realistic story and DC’s commitment to the characters it owns as properties capable of generating endless profit streams.  The fact that Moore and Gibbons did tell a story with closure, of course, made Watchmen a prime category for future sales as a bound, single edition with individual comic books converted to chapters: what we now refer to as a “graphic novel.”  Watchmen has remained a subject of critical and fan veneration, despite its commitment to the “low” superhero genre, for two main reasons.  First, it had the good fortune to appear during a key year for the rise to comics of respectability—1987 also saw the publication of the first volume of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and of Frank Miller’s ambitious Batman story The Dark Knight Returns.  In addition, it also brought a host of sophisticated literary and artistic techniques to the superhero genre, blowing the minds of fans and helping to convince them that the genre could do serious things as well as entertain.  Some of those fans later went on to become authors themselves, and were influenced by its blend of high technique and low content to experiment with popular genres themselves—most explicitly Junot Díaz, who engages with Watchmen throughout The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

It seems to me that the idea of “genre fiction” has been complicated in recent years.  When I started studying creative writing, the student writers in workshops—and our teachers, too—felt like “genre” was the worst insult you could lob at a piece of writing.  But, as you point out, Junot Diaz wears his genre influences on his sleeve.  So too do Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem (who wrote what I thought was a fascinating update of Marvel’s obscure 1970s character Omega the Unknown) and many other writers who are perhaps not as famous, but are publishing in prominent literary magazines, at any rate.  Do you think Watchmen played a crucial role in this development, or was this a natural reaction against the commitment to “dirty realism” of the generation that preceded these writers?  Or some combination of the two?

I would say it’s a combination of dissatisfaction with the limitations imposed by workshop fiction in its dirty realist or minimalist mode, and the influence of genre fiction (including superhero comics) more generally.  Chabon’s semi-autobiographical Wonder Boys more or less narrates this story, with its writing professor protagonist unable to finish the follow up to his award-winning first novel (crucially, unable to make the 2000+-page manuscript short enough) and finding himself drawn to the Lovecraft he read prior to his education.  Colson Whitehead, similarly, never fails to take a potshot at minimalism in his occasional pieces and interviews—in his most recent Q & A with the New York Times, for instance, he responds to a question about what book he was supposed to like, but didn’t, “The Bible left me a little cold, I have to admit. Maybe I came to it at the wrong time? I was reading a lot of dirty realism, and all the genre stuff in the Good Book was a real turnoff.”

All of these guys mention Watchmen somewhere, and it’s not a coincidence that they were all born in the 1960s and thus in high school or college when Moore and Gibbons’s series appeared and gave comic book fandom—always a vernacular critical culture—a jolt of real literary and philosophical seriousness.  In a way, these authors form the tightest literary coterie since the modernists, although their influences lie in science fiction and comic books rather than in French Symbolist poetry.  And for that reason, their literary project differs significantly from that of the modernists, who were always committed to a sort of pseudo-scientific ethos of continual literary innovation.  If we understand minimalism as a kind of endgame of that ethos—the final refinement of psychological realism and Hemingwayesque addition-by-subtraction—then Díaz et al are self-consciously going back and mining the territory of everything that was lest aside by a century of modernism, asking what formal potentials it might hold.

Of course given the demographics of comic book readership and other forms of genre fandom from the seventies through the present, it’s no surprise that this cohort also shares the modernists problematic gender disparity.  That said, women writers are now coming on the scene who share their commitment to the potential of genre models: Aimee Bender and Rainbow Rowell are two I discuss in the book.

Watchmen has clearly had an influence on the current literary scene, but you begin your book asking whether or not Watchmen ought to be considered literature itself.  Why is this a difficult question to answer, do you think?

When I was first thinking about how to write a book about Watchmen, one of the things that fascinated me was the graphic novel’s inclusion on Time’s 2005 list of the 100 best novels published since the magazine’s 1923 debut.  On one hand, this made perfect sense: the list is very open to genre fiction, and includes such books as Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, and Judy Blume’s Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret alongside canonical works like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.  On the other hand, though, Watchmen’s inclusion was quite weird, since it was the only graphic novel on the list: not even Maus, an easy candidate for most critically and academically respected graphic novel ever, made the cut.  Thus while I was originally excited by the idea of Watchmen’s inclusion on a list of great novels, and the way this acknowledged the developing genre turn in serious fiction, the more I thought about the list the more I was driven to think about the ways that Watchmen isn’t literature as we conventionally define it: it’s not print fiction but the product of a different medium that incorporates both print and images; it’s not the work of a single author but of multiple collaborators working in a corporate framework; and so forth.

I thus realized early on that if I was going to talk about Watchmen convincingly I needed to approach it with a kind of critical double vision.  On one hand, we really need to think about the medium in its concrete specificity, the way we do with film—although since film has many more decades of being taken seriously by critics and academics, we have a lot more work to do just coming up with the sorts of critical languages that can help us address comics. On the other hand, Watchmen has had an effect on the current literary scene, and it’s interesting to think about the qualities—its then-atypical-for-the-medium realism, for instance—that made this crossover possible.

Maybe the best way to put all this is that Watchmen can tell us the most about literature—and about potential new directions for fiction—if we concentrate on the ways in which it doesn’t conform to our taken-for-granted definitions.

I’m intrigued by your observation that Watchmen differs from the other novels on Time’s list in that it is the product of “multiple collaborators working in a corporate framework,” which is the way most superhero or “mainstream” comics are done, but not the way “art comics” by the likes of Art Spiegelman or Alison Bechdel are done– and it’s certainly not how most prose novels are written.  Is this distinction significant, do you think, it terms of understanding Watchmen’s importance?

Consider one unexpected conundrum I ran into when I first started writing the book.  I’m a scholar of American literature, and Watchmen was indeed published by the American company DC.  But Moore and Gibbons are both British, among the first wave of British writers and artists that US comic book companies began employing in the eighties when fax machines made this feasible.  So is the series American or British?  In fact it’s a little of both, and I found that I couldn’t discuss its parallel version of the United States in 1986 without thinking about the Thatcher era in the United Kingdom.  This has everything to do with the series’ production in an industrial medium.  Yet as the comics journalist Douglas Wolk suggests one of the reasons critics tend to prefer art comics to mainstream superhero productions is that art comics are more readily understood as the authentic vision of a single creator who (as in the case of Spiegelman, Bechdel, Chris Ware and others) provides both words and images.  Comics criticism now is in a stage comparable to French auteur theory of the 1950s, which saw films as the realized visions of great directors like Hitchcock and Kurosawa.  Auteur theory can tell us a lot about film, particularly about certain kinds of film, but our understanding expands immeasurably when we think about all the people and corporations who in fact go into making even the most director-driven movies.  The same is true about comics books, and it was thinking about Watchmen‘s industrial, transatlantic production that first made me realize the way in which it itself reflects on this process.  It’s not coincidence, I’ll simply say here, that the villain of the series runs a company that produces superhero action figures.

It’s interesting to me that you would use the word villain to describe Ozymandias, who is presented– at least at first– as sort of a stereotypical effete liberal who just happens to make a lot of money.  By the end of the book, he winds up killing thousands of people, but in doing so he may have prevented nuclear annihilation, so from his own point-of-view, he has done something heroic.  On the other hand, Rorschach– a character who acts as a mirrored Ozymandias in the sense that he promotes an opposing ideology while still sharing his love of purple suits– sacrifices himself rather than accept a morally-compromised pragmatism.  But he’s also, of course, a fascist psychopath.  At the risk of over-simplifying, I tend to think of Ozymandias as Stalin to Rorschach’s Hitler, in that they employ the same violent methods in service to different ideological goals, but I wonder what your thoughts are on these characters and this plot, and what they have to say about politics in the late 20th century?

I absolutely think Ozymandia can be aligned with Stalin, but Rorschach represents a very different enemy of Stalin’s: not Hitler but Ayn Rand.  Moore based Rorschach on Steve Ditko’s Charlton character the Question, who served as a mouthpiece for Ditko’s developing fascination with Rand in the late sixties.  Moore has expressed his admiration for Ditko despite the latter’s rightwing politics, and has said that Rorschach’s unwillingness to compromise is in part a tribute to Ditko’s artistic integrity.  I thus read Ditko’s relationship to Ozymandias—whom we first see surrounded by the action figures responsible for a big part of his company’s profits—as an allegory for Moore’s own relationship to DC as the owner of Swamp Thing and Watchmen, and for the relationship of work-for-hire creators more generally to the big comics companies.  But it’s also important on a political level as well, since it tells us something about what I see as Moore’s complex relationship to the political scene of the eighties.  On one hand, Moore’s left-of-center brand of anarchist politics, which emerged out of the sixties counterculture, made him a fierce opponent of England’s neoconservative turn under Thatcher.  On the other hand, though, he frequently expresses a DIY ethos that is related to both anarchism and punk but can sound strikingly libertarian, and in its assertion that government is the enemy is not entirely distinct from the neoliberalism of Thatcher and Reagan’s free-market economics.  After all, what’s a Stalinoid liberal but a perfect exemplar of the Big Government that Reagan and Thatcher railed against and began the long, disastrous process of dismantling?

It’s kind of interesting that the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask became emblematic of the Occupy Wall Street movement, though in some ways that character’s anarchic crusade seems to align with the Tea Party’s attempts to dismantle the federal government.  We could probably each write five thousand word essays about the politics on display in Alan Moore’s oeuvre (and we probably shouldn’t do that in this interview), but I wonder if you could succinctly tell us what Watchmen—or comics in general—have to tell us about the world we’re living in, in 2015?

Short version of the story: it’s no coincidence that the superhero genre came into being during the late 1930s, at precisely the moment of the New Deal’s greatest triumph; nor that the cynical take on the genre arose in the mid-1980s, as the welfare state was being dismantled.  Superheroes are, in my opinion, a kind of allegory of democracy as a kind of collective superpower whose abilities transcend those of individuals—how else to explain a genre founded by two Jewish immigrant kids’ appropriation of the Nazi Ubermensch? Moore and Gibbons’ realistic take on this genre gave way—to their own expressed regret—to the same kind of pure cynicism that fuels a lot of contemporary politics, which is skeptical of the idea of doing good and can only understand power as violence.  What gets lost is a very precious commodity: the idea of hope.  Watchmen is not entirely without hope, and it’s something to which I think Moore returned in some of his later superhero work.   As Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign suggested (whatever we think of his subsequent presidential terms), hope is something people are hungry for.  And it’s something that at least some recent superhero series—interestingly, often female-centered ones like Joss Whedon’s Buffy and G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, to name two in different media—try to resurrect.

In an interview for Mark Salisbury’s 2002 book Artists on Comics Art, Gibbons noted that the focus on Watchmen as “a grim and gritty kind of thing” led people to miss “the joy and romance” of what was, for him, “a wonderful celebration of superheroes as much as anything else.”  At the risk of sounding sappy, humanity could do a lot worse at the moment than to remember the collective superpower it sometimes seems to have forgotten.

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William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Utne Reader, The Normal School, The Mary Sue, College English, and The Missouri Review. His book—a collection of personal essays titled Fractals—is forthcoming from Lavender Ink.

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