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September 2, 2015

30 Years Later, Who’s Reading WATCHMEN?

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Comics in the college classroom are no longer the controversy they once were. What was once seen as children’s fare has exploded across the campus, media and popular culture; simply put, comics are everywhere. But like any other media, there are good and bad comics and graphic novels. In the college classroom, questions often arise: “What is a classic?” “What is the canon?” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ WATCHMEN is definitely a cross-medium classic, but is it relevant to traditional-age incoming college freshmen? Students seem to think so.

WATCHMEN is a seminal work,” notes one student. “It is near-universally praised for its sheer level of craft that the writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons put into it, as well as the way it tackles mature topics and skewers the superhero genre. Even if you have never read a comic book in your life, you have probably heard about WATCHMEN. Even today, nearly thirty years after the first issue was published, there is still relevance to be found in WATCHMEN.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Spending a year teaching WATCHMEN involved students across English classes of varying levels and abilities, from College English 101 to an upper division course on Comics as American Literature. Some of the students in the traditional English classes were skeptical at first. “Huh? A comic? Do you think we’re stupid?” But they soon discovered that reading a comic is no easy task --- in fact, it is sometimes harder than reading a traditional text. Why? If a reader does not interpret both the text AND the pictures, they will miss a lot of what is going on in the panels --- especially in WATCHMEN. In order to immerse themselves in WATCHMENeach student was assigned a chapter to present to the class, allowing them to delve deeper into the work. That exploration often led to ideas students wanted to explore in an in-depth critical paper.

Using a cultural lens, one student observed that “the turmoil of America in the 1980s is depicted with various characters in different social classes that share the same problems of power in our current world. All the characters in WATCHMEN are extreme and psychologically deficient, reflecting an unstable world.” This international exchange student explored topics of moral right and wrong: Ozymandias “killed many people to conquer and unite countries”; “Adrian justified that sacrifice is needed for [a] better world (utopia) which generated the idea for the carnage of New York.” She concluded with the justification for Adrian’s attempt to prevent the war. “If the reds [Russia] win the war, under the ideology of communism, he has to return all of his property to the government.” This observation led this reader to “doubt his genuineness in uniting the world for good. He seems like he [is] interested in controlling and ruling the world for profit rather than peacemaking.” This is some excellent analysis for a student who is not only trying to internalize English, but also wading through American popular culture and American history.

Students who grew up with superheroes enjoyed the subversive nature of Moore’s masked vigilantes. “When we think of superheroes, a handful of faces come to mind: Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Batman,” writes one student. “These characters uphold certain qualities that we expect in a superhero. They are just, they are good. We love them because they can do no wrong. Even in the face of complete evil, they stand solid in their morals and are unyielding in their desire to protect the innocent. But in the face of Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN, the glowing cutout of a superhero is blown to smithereens. The typical portrayal of an incorruptible superhero is challenged. Through the events in the lives of his dysfunctional vigilantes and the traits and themes that they embody, Moore explores what it really takes to be a defender of justice, and how that may contradict the ‘norm.’” There were quite a few explorations into what kind of individual would want to dress up and be a masked vigilante, and students often used psychoanalytic theory and themes to explore those subjects.

When students new to critical theory begin performing critical analysis, themes can help make the rhetorical jump into theory a bit easier. One student wrote that the “Nite Owl, Ozymandias, the Comedian and finally Rorschach” were all driven by the call of duty. Dan Drieberg, the Nite Owl, was motivated because he “understood that there was injustice in the world and that it was his duty to fight it” using his inheritance.

Another wrote about the theme of hope: “[H]ope for revival is portrayed in new life and reconstruction. Throughout this book, we can observe the development of this theme in what the characters do, what events take place, and the images…[h]ow it contributes to the idea of hope for revival, why this theme is important for the novel, and how the theme is relevant to our lives.” This opening led to a very thoughtful paper about how the masked vigilantes have to create entirely new identities after Ozymandias’ Manhattan holocaust. Adrian (Ozymandias) “creates a new brand for himself: ‘Millennium.’” Dan and Laurie (Nite Owl and Silk Spectre) “take on entirely new identities as Sam and Sandra Hollis,” an act that pays tribute to the old Nite Owl, Hollis Mason.

In addition to themes, students looked at some formal schools of critical theory, with one of the most popular topics being feminism. As one student put it, “The world of graphic novels and comic books are dominated by men; graphic novels are often written and illustrated by men, for men/boys as the main target audience. Consequently, graphic novels are created from a male perspective…. To explore this, I chose Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ WATCHMEN as it is particularly colored with male and female stereotypes making it ripe for this topic…. Men are portrayed as smart, strong leaders, and are self-directed. Whereas women are represented as sex symbols who take on sidekick supportive roles.” You can feel the rhetorical analysis at work in this student’s introduction, examining the motivations of comic creators and how that translates into a product to satisfy the desires of a given audience.

Other students explored the depiction of women from “inept homemaker and nagging wife,” such as Dr. Long’s wife, to Laurie, the Silk Spectre, whose “actions portray women as incapable. Such as when she accidentally sets the Owlship on fire trying to light her pipe and is unable to put the fire out herself.” Many examined the violence towards women. “Women are beaten, shot on multiple occasion, and raped through[out] the novel…. A pregnant woman is shot by Eddie Blake, the comedian…for stating that he would walk away from his responsibility to their child.”

But misogyny in WATCHMEN is not always as overt as violence or stereotypical female roles. Negative stereotypes of women were also discussed based on their vigilante costumes. One young woman wrote “Laurie Juspeczyk, known as The New Silk Spectre…wears a yellow latex suit with long sleeves, a super mini skirt, purple heels, and a black choker necklace with a skull in the middle. I learned in my psychology class that the color yellow can be interpreted in many ways. Some believe it is the color of optimism or cheerfulness. Others say that it is the color of impatience, or criticism. I can totally see Laurie being one of those girls [who] gets impatient when someone is doing something wrong or too slow and just does it herself.” This is a nice example of what teachers call writing across the curriculum using critical thinking by engaging with material learned in another class. This is what college professors are supposed to do --- steer students away from memorizing material and toward applying material to the world around them.

Another young woman described Silk Spectre’s outfit as a “super-tiny, extra-revealing, black spandex leotard beneath an ultra-mini, teeny-tiny, sheer dress. This teensy-weensy leotard is just big enough to cover the bare minimum of her lady parts…. To complete her outfit, Laurie sports a pair of super high heels. It is a very eye-catching, provocative costume that relates to her personality as a masked avenger.” Now that is quite a statement, and further reading revealed the student’s analysis. Laurie’s “outfit is very sexy and while she is in it she seduced not one but two men, Dr. Manhattan and Dan.”

But it wasn’t just the women in these classes that commented on the disparity of costumes. Costumes need to be practical, don’t they? One young man said, “The men are entirely covered up, even with layers of clothing. The men’s costumes include capes, armor, hoodies, which completely conceal every part of their body.” The women, on the other hand, wear “extremely short dresses…. Laurie herself mentions how she had to wear a tight latex outfit, which she hated.” There was a practical bent to this line of reasoning; “Walking around in tight latex outfits and clothing, which reveals a lot of skin, makes females seem more vulnerable.” Seriously, how can you fight crime in spandex and six-inch heels?

Psychoanalyzing masked vigilantes took many forms. “By analyzing how… each character developed in different environments, we can form a better understanding of how they are represented.” Rorschach was the topic of quite a few psychoanalytical critiques. “Rorschach was conditioned by his society to turn towards heroism but his intention wasn’t to save it,” wrote one student. “A corrupt society led him to vigilantism; Rorschach doesn’t protect it but fights against it, which was conditioned by his childhood trauma, resulting in his rejection of social norms, and the reconstruction of his identity.”

Another look at childhood environment came from a student who asked, “The golden question is; why are Laurie and Walter, two characters from the comic WATCHMEN, so distraught with who they really are? Laurie and Walter had a childhood filled with the heartache of feeling unwanted; the type of heartache that can make for a lost adult.” The loss of a father “affected the way [Laurie] respected herself and how much she yearned to find a man that could fill the void of the missing father…. For Walter, this affected the way he acted as a man. Walter never had anyone to teach him how to be a man.” There is something to learn from students who grew up without a parent and how that loss is a lens for how they see the world and the literature they read.

One writer looked at the comic-within-the-comic, examining “Tales of the Black Freighter” and how it “challenges the reader’s intuition and narrates the actions of the Watchmen’s decisions.” This student was particularly interested in the way “Tales of the Black Freighter” “illuminates the stories of Rorschach, Ozymandias, Doctor Manhattan, and the perspective of the larger picture in WATCHMEN, through parallelism and conflicting views” --- a rather large thesis, but an enjoyable ride for this instructor. “The sea captain’s desperation to show that this situation can be applied to the modern world is shown when he breaks the fourth wall, a theater term for…interaction with the audience. ‘Reader, take comfort from this; in hell, at least the gulls are contented.’ The sea captain issues these warnings to the readers, but they usually brush them off since it seems like the masked vigilantes know what they are doing and we can trust them. Little do readers know that the masked vigilantes actually have a hidden agenda.” This student, again, is applying concepts across the curriculum, and presents some nice analysis pointing out the unreliability of the narrator and the different layers found in WATCHMEN.

Another student even conducted a comparative lit study between WATCHMEN and “Gunga Din” by Rudyard Kipling (yes, this is a first year college English student). “The references to the poem “Gunga Din” are usually hinted at by either the diner itself or a piece of trash from the diner in the background of a scene, while Ganesha is alluded to by the big zeppelin elephant that advertises the restaurant,” the student writes. “It is through the juxtaposition of these visual elements with others that we see that the literary Gunga Din is meant to parallel the hero Rorschach, and the deity Ganesha is intended to be a present force throughout the WATCHMEN story.” This was a delightful paper, and unexpected. The student concluded by arguing that Gunga Din “died doing what he believed was his duty, contrary to what common sense might have led most of us to do in his situation…. Rorschach’s uncompromising drive to have justice be served ultimately led to his death.” When a student comes to me with a thesis like this, we discuss what kind of evidence he or she might use and then I set them loose, telling them they have to prove their case --- and this student clearly did.

Students enjoyed exploring WATCHMEN through large group discussions, debates, group presentations and art projects. One class in particular made Peep (yes, those springtime marshmallow confections) dioramas with their own scenes from “Watchpeep.”

Most teachers know that coming at a work from as many angles as possible opens doors to new insights leading to some thoughtful experiments --- in this case, in critical theory. Theory can be taught with anything from novels, poems and drama to comics and graphic novels. For some reason, when asking students to analyze comics they tend to see it as an easier assignment than, say, analyzing HAMLET or FRANKENSTEINThis seems to be the trick --- if students think an assignment is going to be easy, they relax long enough to think about what they are being asked to do. Try this in your own classroom. Take a lens and practice with it: Look for all the examples of identity or masks or patriotism or time in WATCHMEN. How about symbols? What does the smiley face represent? What about the clock?

When students start to see beyond the text, it can lead to a scavenger hunt kind of fun. They start making connections to current politics, cultural phenomena, family dynamics and social movements that help keep the work relevant. They also often make new and different observations, and that’s what I love most. It’s the moment when I say, “Wow, I never thought of that before!”

Actually, it’s the smile that brightens my student’s face when they know they taught me something.