And do you know what she said? Her most famous quotation? (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part 13: Before Watchmen: The Comedian)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore and Grant Morrison’s differences of opinions are numerous, but one of the most fundamental differences comes in their relationship to the atomic bomb. Both were profoundly concerned with nuclear warfare, but for Morrison it was a childhood fear he found respite from in superheroes, whereas for Moore it was an adult concern he worked through using superheroes as a metaphor.
In many ways, this is the heart of the disagreement between Pax Americana and Watchmen. Morrison sees superheroes as creatures of immense possibility whose value is as aspirational figures. For him it is the interminability of superhero narratives that is most interesting – the fact that characters get reinvented over and over again, with new ideas and new takes, and that the stories never have to come to an end. Whereas to Moore, at least in Watchmen, what is interesting are the limitations of superheroes – of what they are incapable of doing and representing. The superheroes of Watchmen are known archetypes that the audience has seen a hundred times before, only taken to logical endpoints. The point isn’t the possibility of the characters, it’s the impotence of them. Put another way, Morrison cares what superheroes let us be, while Moore cares what they let us see.
This division, or at least the underlying division over what the purpose of art is, is one that will persist, in some form or another, throughout the War. But ironically, when it comes to the actual disagreement over the possibility of superheroes as an optimistic genre, it is Morrison’s view that ultimately won the day. Part of Moore’s ultimate revulsion at Watchmen was precisely the way in which, as he put it, it became “a kind of hair shirt that the super-hero had to wear forever after that… they’ve all got to be miserable and doomed. And if they’ve got to be psychopathic as well, then so much the better.” Indeed, Moore was adamant that “imaginative fiction,” and specifically superhero fiction, “is something which is perfectly fine for adults,” a point he attempted to demonstrate in much of his superhero work following his departure from DC.
Arguably, then, this forms one of the few major chinks in Moore’s usually resilient armor of eternity – a point on which Moore can decisively and unambiguously be said to have changed. And yet it is easy to overstate this. Moore’s revulsion towards Watchmen is genuine, and yet it is not really a revulsion at the work itself. Rather, it is a revulsion at the world that Moore used Watchmen to look at – one that he found monstrous and twisted, and wrongly assumed that the rest of the world would see it that way as well. This is not just a matter of the fans who seized onto Rorschach in ways Moore found disturbing, but rather the entire way in which the nightmarish world he constructed, in which superheroes were the embodiment of humanity’s most self-destructive impulses tragically deluding themselves into believing that they were the world’s Watchmen and not its doom, was treated as something desirable.
It is, in other words, not Watchmen, nor even its treatment of superheroes that Moore turned away from, but rather an understanding of the world and his place in it. Up until Watchmen, Moore was able to believe in a basic confluence between the world he wanted and the world he lived in. He was, at that point, riding several years of steady ascent and success. Yes, there had been frustrations and fallings out with various collaborators and publishers along the way, but for the most part Moore would have had an entirely justifiable sense that his vision was something valued and embraced by the world. But in the wake of it, Moore realized something crucial and horrifying: he was, in practice, completely misunderstood. What the world desired was not his vision, but a misapprehension of that vision; one that cast him as the genius who would transform tired superhero narratives into their truer, darker form.
It was not, of course, Moore’s revulsion as such that caused his rift with DC. That was its own set of events. And yet his revulsion is inextricable from it; the same process played out in a slightly different arena. In one, it is an entirely aesthetic schism – Moore walking away from the style of comics he helped make popular. In the other, it’s just business – Moore feeling cheated one more time than his sense of honor among thieves could bear. But in both cases the basic issue is the same: Moore realized that he was badly wrong about the sort of world he was living in, and took typically bold and decisive action to deal with the problem. And in both cases, the fallout was enormous.
“She wasn’t anyone special. She wasn’t that brave, or that clever, or that strong. She was just somebody who felt cramped by the confines of her life. She was just somebody who had to get out. And she did it! She went out past Vega, out past Moulquet and Lambard! She saw places that aren’t even there any more! And do you know what she said? Her most famous quotation? ‘Anybody could have done it.’” – Alan Moore, The Ballad of Halo Jones
[It is not as though Brian Azzarello is a less skilled creator than Darwyn Cooke or Amanda Conner. He is one of several heavily noir-influenced writers to enter comics in the wake of Frank Miller, and is a skilled practitioner of the style (indeed, DC eventually tapped him to co-write The Dark Knight III: The Master Race). His best-known work, the Vertigo series 100 Bullets, is one of the classics of that imprint, a sprawling noir epic of vendettas and betrayals. And so his announcement as the writer of both Before Watchmen: The Comedian and Before Watchmen: Rorschach seemed, if not promising (given the general and deserved skepticism the project was met with), at least like as good a choice as was available. The Comedian and Rorschach were, after all, the two characters most thoroughly steeped in Watchmen’s darkness. Azzarello was an acclaimed noir writer. It seemed a match made, if not in heaven, at least in the office of someone who followed the Diamond sales charts closely.
|Figure 891: The largely superfluous third issue of Before Watchmen: The Comedian.|
The problem is that Azzarello, although capable of impressive and thoughtful work, is also perfectly willing to just half-ass a job for the paycheck if he’s not particularly interested in it. And on the evidence, he was not especially interested in Before Watchmen. He flatly admitted in interviews that “it hasn’t been an easy project to work on, editorially,” and while he displayed some enthusiasm for Before Watchmen: Rorschach, which was the first title he was offered, his comments on Before Watchmen: The Comedian are relatively scant. Of course, reading the comic it’s not hard to see why he might be unenthused about it. All three of the Before Watchmen books to stretch out to six issues suffer for it, with at least one issue that’s completely unnecessary. In the case of Before Watchmen: The Comedian it’s the third issue (although the fourth and fifth could probably be consolidated into one without undue trauma), which leaves the series’ main plot (involving the Comedian’s activities in Vietnam) aside entirely in order to have the Comedian nip back to Los Angeles so he can get involved in the Watts riots.
|Figure 892: The Comedian acts like a monkey after throwing dog feces at William Parker. (Written by Brian Azzarello, art by J.G. Jones, from Before Watchmen: The Comedian #3, 2012)|
The relative pointlessness of this third issue, however, pales in comparison with its basic level of sheer and unbridled awfulness. It is not so much the fact that the Comedian paints his face with his signature yellow smiley face in a grotesque and offensive parody of blackface before going to confront the rioters; this is indeed horrible, but it’s horrible in a way that’s mostly consistent with the character (although nothing in Watchmen ever has him being quite so petty). Rather, it’s the overall decision on Azzarello’s part to portray the worst of the riots as happening because of the Comedian’s intervention. Tellingly, the script specifically mentions the death toll – thirty-four – which is the same as the real-world riots. In other words, the event plays out exactly as it did in the real world – indeed, Los Angeles police chief William Parker’s infamous description of the rioters as “acting like monkeys in a zoo” appears in the comic as well (although the Comedian’s subsequent decision to hurl dog feces in his face while shouting “OOH OOH OHH AHAHA HAHAHAHA” is original to Azzarello’s version). This marks a fairly significant shift from Moore’s approach to the intersections of superheroes and real-world history, which, with one obvious exception, generally resulted in history being changed by superheroes (as with the resolution of the Vietnam War, which the US won in Watchmen due to the intervention of Doctor Manhattan) or superheroes having no visible effect on history (as with World War II, where, although the Comedian fought in the south Pacific, he seems to have had no particular impact on the war). Azzarello, on the other hand, takes real-world events that actually happened and rewrites them to be caused by superheroes. That these events were one of the most fraught moments of the 1960s struggle for black civil rights is even more tasteless, stripping away the material history that Watchmen was built on and replacing it with a crude simulacrum.
|Figure 893: The Comedian moments after assassinating JFK in the Watchmen film.|
The one exception to this within Watchmen is the implication in issue #9 that the Comedian might have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But, of course, this is largely a joke on Moore’s part; for one thing, it really is just a throwaway implication – it’s suggested quite strongly that the Comedian killed Woodward and Bernstein before they could break the Watergate scandal, and when this is brought up the Comedian denies it, but jokes, “just don’t ask me where I was when I heard about J.F.K.” For another, even if one does opt to read the Comedian as making any sort of sincere admission, it’s the JFK assassination, and the suggestion that the Comedian did it has to be read in light of the staggering number of conspiracy theories already surrounding that assassination.
|Figure 894: The Comedian and Moloch share a tender moment following the JFK assassination. (Written by Brian Azzarello, art by J.G. Jones, from Before Watchmen: The Comedian #1, 2012)|
In this regard, Azzarello’s decision to make it unambiguously clear that the Comedian did not, in fact, kill JFK is hard to object to. Certainly it’s a much better decision than Zack Snyder’s opting to make it explicit that he did kill Kennedy. More questionable is his decision to have the Comedian and Moloch be so stunned by the news that they abandon their impending shootout to drink together in mourning. This extends out of a larger decision in the first issue to vividly portray the Comedian’s friendship with Kennedy, whom he to have been “a great man,” stressing to Jackie Kennedy the degree to which he respects the President. Indeed, one of the opening images of the comic is a recreation of the iconic “Kennedy brothers playing football” photo with the Comedian added to the game, making the Kennedy/Comedian link the foundational image the story is built on. This sets up the larger structure of the miniseries, which ends with the Kennedy assassination the Comedian is responsible for, namely RFK (he’s tipped off to the CIA’s plot involving Sirhan Sirhan by G. Gordon Liddy, and kills him at close range with the same kind of gun to keep Kennedy from revealing his involvement in a massacre in Vietnam).
It would be overstating the case to say that Azzarello simply allies the Comedian with Kennedy-style New Frontier liberalism: the ending makes that a hard sell, after all. Rather, it’s that Azzarello uses the two Kennedy assassinations as the poles in a fairly traditional account of the decline of 1960s leftist idealism, from JFK’s death as a tragedy that stuns the Comedian to RFK’s death as the Comedian’s own doing, with the engine of that transition being the Vietnam War. Azzarello does not do anything so crass as suggest that the Kennedys are some sort of unalloyed good, of course. He portrays them in line with the historical reality of their considerable corruption. But their corruption is ultimately paralleled with the Comedian’s; he even refers to Robert Kennedy as a “way more effective” crime fighter than he is at one point. They’re all of a type; the sort of morally compromised hard men who flooded superhero comics in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, and that Watchmen is so often misunderstood as being about. [continued]