Monday, March 9, 2015

Reading "Watchmen"

Scott here.  Someone on Facebook recently asked for people's recollections of reading Watchmen in single issues as it originally shipped.  While I didn't read it that way, I couldn't resist sharing my own Watchmen story, which is also a Christmas story and a coming-of-age story.

The original, more affecting cover.

If you don't own Watchmen already,
please buy it right now.

The Deluxe Edition includes bonus
"making-of" material but has an
even less inspired cover than the
current non-deluxe edition.
I grew up rural and didn't have access to a comics store in 1986-'87. The nearest shop was a 45-minute drive away, and, though indulgent, my parents were not as convinced of the importance and transformative power of comics as I. To keep abreast of the increasing output of direct-sales-only titles, I'd learned to shop the ads and trade magazines (Comics SceneAmazing Heroes, The Comics JournalDavid Anthony Kraft's Comics Interview) as well as the mail-order c (Mile High and Bud Plant) and buy in chunks issues I was missing through the mail. I followed the discussion of Watchmen through those secondary sources without actually reading the issues (as I did DC's reprints of V for Vendetta the following year). I was hungry for more Alan Moore stories and eagerly anticipated snapping up the 12 issues of Watchmen as a Christmas gift for myself in 1987, by which time the mini-series would be over. I was surprised to see the trade paperback solicited (often advertised alongside The Dark Knight Returns and Ronin) almost immediately when the mini-series finished.

My mom, who paid more attention to things than I sometimes realized, must have noted that I wondered aloud about the trade several times and that I seemed particularly thrilled it would be coming out in a bookstore edition. (Just typing the words "Warner Books edition" in the same sentence as Watchmen evokes the image of that spinning bottle of Nostalgia in my mind.) She ordered me a copy from an ad in Comics Scene. It arrived at our house the day before Christmas Eve, a complete surprise, addressed to me. I remember being intrigued by how nondescript the cover was. (It was the one with the shattered glass and the dirigible in the distance, the Comedian's blood-stained button suspended in the air just before it begins to fall. I don't know about everyone else, but in my circle, that's sometimes called "the prequel cover.")

The book sat in my room as I ran errands and went about my day, but I started it first thing when I woke up on Christmas Eve, carrying it with me as my mom and dad dragged me along to visit cheer on aunts and uncles and deliver presents to neighbors. I was 14 at the time, and I couldn't put it down. Maybe I could have during the first "chapter," but once I'd gotten into the excerpt from Under the Hood before "chapter II," I was hooked. (They were chapters to me then, so I probably should use that word here.)

It took me the bulk of the day to work my way through five chapters of Watchmen. As we prepared to head to my grandmother's house for Christmas Eve dinner, I kept returning to that magnificent (enormous) trade, picking my way through Rorschach's confessional in #5 several panels at a time.

Nothing but the meaning we make.
Going to my maternal grandmother's for dinner on Christmas Eve was something we'd always done, and though I had no idea at the time, '87 would be the last year my dad's extended family gathered there in health and happiness. My grandmother was terribly ill the next Christmas and gone by the following summer. Reeling in shock from hitting the almost-halfway point in Watchmen — I still had the pyschiatrist's notes from the back matter to read when I got home — I stood on my grandmother's front porch, alone in the cold night air and under an eerily appropriate starless sky, looking across the street at the empty house where the Duncan family had once lived. When I indulge the dramatic instincts of my memory, I sometimes say I was a kid torn between Nietzsche and Christ — between the nihilism of Rorschach's brand of objectivism and the religious merriment of the holiday. On the one hand, Rorschach's case for meaninglessness was compelling, and the sky was dark. On the other hand, that dark sky was too laden with significance for me to take it as meaningless. I gazed into the abyss, and — well, you know. Secondhand Nietzsche, like every other teen-age comics reader than year.

The thing about my dark night of the soul is this: There were voices laughing, arguing, and even occasionally singing behind me, in my grandmother's house. Making meaning. An assortment of thermodynamic miracles, though I hadn't gotten to that point yet. (It would be years before I realized I was living out foreshadowing on that porch.) More than a quarter century later, I can put myself in that moment and conjure the last Christmas Eve at my grandmother's house with a precious crispness I owe Watchmen.

I continued to obsess over the trade for the next two days, finishing on Boxing Day. I wept at the two-page spread in the final chapter. Crying over all those nonexistent strangers was a tremendous catharsis. I remember thinking back to the previous Christmas, when I'd cried over something I'd read that night, and wondering if I'd spend puberty (and possibly adulthood) as some hormonal, misty-eyed sadman.

I put the book down when I finished and didn't touch it for days, as if it were radioactive. I thought about it with every spare minute. Like every 14-year-old boy who's ever read Watchmen, I recognized the adults in my life in five of the main characters and what I aspired to be myself in Rorschach. I couldn't have said so at the time, but I felt an age-appropriate self-loathing at that recognition.

1986-'87 was an era of the conceivable made
concrete and of the casually miraculous.
To my knowledge, no one at school had read this book. I tried broaching the subject with some adults here and there but was rebuffed as wasting their time or eyed suspiciously enough that I dropped it before the habit of reading blood-soaked comics featuring full-frontal nudity and shaking my faith in cultural institutions landed me on some responsible adult's watch list and possibly cost me access to all the books I was discovering around this time. (That same instinct led me to keep my trap shut about the Marquis de Sade, whose books showed up with frightening regularity at the Goodwill store I frequented.) This was proper subversive stuff. As Warren Ellis might have described it after we all had e-mail accounts, a real Come in Alone experience with comics.

Just after the Christmas holiday, we were visited by the biggest snowstorm my Southern town had ever seen, and the green of a discarded Christmas wreath poking out from beneath the snow that morning reminded me of Veidt's Antarctic Karnak. I picked up Watchmen again and started over, at the beginning. I noticed for the first time how the creeping ice in that chapter mirrored the dripping blood of the endpapers (back covers).

Oddly enough, it's snowing this morning — a relatively rare occurrence down South.

Every time it snows and I'm home, I think of Watchmen and the last Christmas of my childhood.

That's my Watchmen story, as I shared it on Facebook.  What's yours?


MattComix said...

I am not fond of Watchmen or the nihilistic outlook. Even less so the damage wrought by using Watchmen and TDKR as a style guides for the entire genre in the wake of their success.

But I do very much respect and relate to your experience of having comics being touchstones for different points in life and how revisiting them can vividly conjure up those times in great detail.

Trey said...

I would disagree that Watchmen is nihlistic. Surely Dr. Manhattan's revelations about every person being a quantum miracle are the opposite of nihilistic.

That aside, understanding remebrances, Scott. Though I had read at least one issue before (#4) bought at the comic book store in Dothan AL, I didn't read all of Watchmen until I got the hardcover from the Science Fiction and Fantasy bookclub around '89-'90, I think.

Jim Shelley said...

@MattComix - I think Watchmen is a bit like the elephant in the 7 Blindmen describe an Elephant proverb: We take from it what we see individually. Some people obviously saw the grim and gritty aspect of Rorschach and created thin, xerox copies all during the 90's. Others (mostly vertigo writers) saw comics dealing with more adult themes and realized they could go that way. (I think Moore's Swamp Thing pushed a lot of people in that direction as well.)

@Trey - you just read the 1 issue? That must've been a bit of a trip. Surprised you didn't pursue other issues after reading that one. (Or maybe it was a bit hard to get into having not read the beginning.)

As to my own recollection of the reading the comic, it was during college. I remember not being able to discuss it very well with other comic readers in college because it was so different than the normal DC comics. (A bit like Multiversity discussions today) I was able discuss with my friend Art Boerke who worked at the college radio station. (He was a fan of things like American Flagg and Nexus, so his tastes for headier stories was already there.) We both agreed it was revolutionary and riveting at the time.

ice41 said...

While I haven't read Watchmen, I think it is very exciting as the rest of the comics that I've read. You got yourself a new reader :)


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