But this is, in the end, Moore’s nature; the magic trick he’s always been better at than anyone else in the War. He is Eternal. Whatever changes he may bring down upon the world, Moore himself does not change. This may seem a strange claim – he exists in linear time, after all, and there is self-evidently such a thing as a narrative of his career such that one can track an artistic and intellectual evolution between, for instance, V for Vendetta and Providence. But this objection misses the point of the observation. Of course an Eternal entity appears to change when situated in a changing world. But it’s just an illusion; a trick of psychic light. Moore’s entire career has, in practice, been a singular and unwavering action, a masterfully executed con whereby, instead of working a real job, he makes things up. He has never aspired to more. That he, in the process of doing so, became one of the great magi of his age and a primary figure in a history-defining War is something he largely stumbled upon by accident, and it is something he has alternately accepted with grace and good humor and violently and angrily reacted against, depending on the circumstances.
The nature of Moore’s Eternity has precedent, both within his work and without. Indeed, Watchmen itself has such a precedent in the form of Doctor Manhattan, a character who, it is revealed in later chapters, experiences every moment of his life simultaneously. In this regard, Doctor Manhattan approaches his own life through the lens of history, getting to see actions in terms of all their causes and consequences. Such a perspective is obviously denied to Moore, whose vision of his own Eternity eventually coalesced around the less personally ambitious metaphysical view of eternalism, which holds that all moments, past and future, are simultaneously and equally real, with, in Moore’s particular flavor of eternalism, a single human life simply playing on loop. The result is a cosmos that is much like that which Doctor Manhattan experiences, but, crucially, not one that is directly experienced from such an omniscient view.
|Figure 845: Doctor Manhattan is often|
withdrawn and unconcerned with human
emotion. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from
Watchmen #1, 1986)
And yet Doctor Manhattan’s defining character flaw is one that Moore can fairly be accused of as well. It is not quite that Moore, like Manhattan, is deficient in empathy and ability to understand people. Quite the contrary, one of Moore’s great strengths as a writer has always been his ability to depict rich psychological nuance for his characters. Rather, it is that Moore and Manhattan both have a strangely fatalist lack of belief in their own agency. For Doctor Manhattan, this is a metaphysical condition; because he knows what actions he will eventually take, he maintains a dissociation from his own motivation. For Moore, however, the problem is subtler. A mind as accustomed to meticulously breaking down the workings of things as his is not immune to its own gaze. Moore is not omniscient, it is true, but he has a keen awareness of his own mind. But the result of this is that he is deeply, at times almost catastrophically unable to be anything other than completely true to his own nature.
|Figure 846: Moore and Davis’s Captain Britain run eventually|
was reprinted. (From “Graveyard Shift” in Marvel Super Heroes
#388, 1982, color by Helen Nally, 1995)
Moore’s ruthless fidelity to his own nature is not quite the same as saying that Moore has a coherent and completely self-consistent set of principles and ethics. As many have observed, Moore’s actions in the course of his many feuds are at times erratic, and finding instances in which he espouses a hardline ethical principle in one feud while, if not violating it elsewhere, at least proving to be somewhat less than hardline about it is not a particularly strenuous task. To pick just one instance, as Alan Davis is quick to point out the disparity between Moore’s holding up delivery of his first Miracleman scripts out of concern that Alan Davis might be unhappy with the reprints and Moore’s prior unilateral decision to block reprints of their Captain Britain run, which denied Davis both income and publicity. Certainly the positions can be reconciled, given that one concerns a decision to reprint material and one concerns a decision against reprinting, but Davis’s real point – that Moore’s level of concern for the happiness of his collaborators is variable – is nevertheless an entirely accurate one. Moore is an intelligent and principled man, but he is in the end just as full of contradictions and flaws as any other man. Rather, it is that Moore is aware of his flaws and contradictions, and that his faithfulness to his own nature extends to them. Often, Moore demonstrates this with a sort of wry self-deprecation – the sort of attitude visible when he quips that, following his admission to grammar school and the fact that it meant he was no longer top of his class, “I decided, pretty typically for me, that if I couldn’t win then I wasn’t going to play. I was always one of those sulky children, who couldn’t stand to lose at Monopoly, Cluedo, anything.”
Put another way, Alan Moore is incapable of even the slightest bit of restraint. This is at the heart of his appeal. Throughout his career, his best work is marked by his ability to follow aesthetic premises to their endpoints, delivering unyielding visions of things that lesser writers and lesser men would flinch long before seeing. People capable of stopping themselves don’t write Watchmen. The very pleasure of the book is its lack of aesthetic compromise – the way it tests superheroes by having them stare into the face of armageddon and finds them wholly and completely wanting. The book is not merely densely designed – it is densely designed for this precise purpose. It is a perfectly crafted piece of entirely deserved retribution against decades of superhero narratives, a punishment for all the genre’s many failures.
|Figure 847: Far from appearing in every|
panel, Doctor Manhattan’s blue cock does
not appear until Watchmen #4, and appears
in only five panels across the entire series.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons
and John Higgins, from Watchmen #4, 1986)
It is this sense of overwhelming intention that led Grant Morrison to sneer that “the God of Watchmen was far from shy. He liked to muscle his way into every panel, every line. He strutted into view with his blue cock on proud display, and everywhere you looked, the Watchmaker was on hand to present his glittering structure for our approval and awe, just as Manhattan erected his own flawless crystal logic machine to lay out the law to a distraught Laurie in this maddeningly intricate engine of a story. The God of Watchmen could not hide and begged for our attention at every page turn. He was a jealous Maker who refused to allow any of his creations to be smarter than he was, so the pacifist genius became a genocidal idiot, the confident trained psychiatrist was reduced to a gibbering wreck by the darkness in the soul of his patient; the detectives stumbled through the plot to their doom; and even the more or less divine superman was shown to be emotionally retarded and ineffectual. It was as if God had little more than contempt for his creations and gave them no opportunity to transcend the limits he’d set for them.” As criticisms go, this is mainly a sound one – an entirely accurate assessment of the weight of intention and symbolism that permeates every aspect of Watchmen. And yet Morrison’s curious failure to name this jealous, preening God in the quoted paragraph is strangely apropos. It’s certainly not subtle who he’s talking about – the preceding one ends by declaring that ”Moore’s self-awareness was all over every page like fingerprints,” and the subsequent one opens, “Moore’s love of obvious structure never left his work.” And yet he cannot quite bring himself to name the mad God plaguing Watchmen.
But this is no surprise. There’s a crucial disparity between the ever-present God of Watchmen and its creator. Moore, for his part, is adamant that the book was never designed to create any sort of inescapable trap for readers. As he put it in a later interview, “it was only a bloody comic. It wasn’t a jail sentence.” Moore never wrote Watchmen as some attempt to get the world to stare eternally at his genius. That is not to say that he didn’t have clear ambitions for greatness. But his ambitions were curiously naive, fundamentally disconnected from any question of what creating a work such as Watchmen might mean. At the beginning of 1988, just three months after the first trade paperback printing of Watchmen, Moore admitted that “it’s been four years since I started it, a year since I actually finished writing it, and only now am I starting to get any sort of perspective upon what it was we actually did.” Up to that point, all Moore and Gibbons were mindful of trying to do was create “a novel and unusual super-hero comic that allowed us the opportunity to try out a few new storytelling ideas along the way.”
Which is to say that Moore was not trying to create a conceptual atom bomb to permanently scar a swath of psychic landscape. He was not trying to create a labyrinthine and crystalline structure of symbolism and technique through which almost all thought about superheroes would spend decades stumbling. Nor was he trying not to do these things. They were questions that simply did not occur to him. After all, why would they? The only reason Moore would have to ask the question “what are the possible consequences of following this aesthetic vision to its endpoint” would, after all, be if he was considering restraining himself in some fashion. He wasn’t. He wouldn’t. Indeed, Moore was as surprised as anybody to discover the effect of Watchmen, reporting the irony that “it has satisfied my appetite for super-heroes. Like the bottle of perfume in the story, my nostalgia for the genre cracked and shattered somewhere along the way and al the sweet old musk inside just leaked out and evaporated. For better or worse, the ordinary non-telepathic, unmutated and sightless humanoids hanging out on their anonymous street corner of Watchmen have come to seem more precious and interesting than the movers of rivers and shakers of planets. I wish the superhero well in whatever capable hands guide his flight in the future, but for my part I’m eager to get back to earth.” The quote is staggering: the man who crafted the most devastating dismantling of superheroes as a genre being taken by surprise when the work has its most obvious and inevitable result for him.
|Figure 848: The first panel of Watchmen as executed|
by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins from Moore’s
voluminous description. (1986)
And so arises the central paradox of Watchmen: that a book whose sense of intent and authorship is so intensely present in every moment should also be one with so many visibly unintended consequences. There is a fundamental and irreducible disjunct between the ever-present authorial voice of Watchmen and the idiosyncratically groomed British man who sat down at his typewriter and wrote “ALL RIGHT. I’M PSYCHED UP, I’VE GOT BLOOD UP TO MY ELBOWS, VEINS IN MY TEETH AND MY HELMET AND KNEEPADS SECURELY FASTENED. LET’S GET OUT THERE AND MAKE TROUBLE! THIS FIRST PAGE IS A SERIES OF VERTICAL JUMPS THAT TAKES US UP IN A STRAIGHT PROGRESSION FROM A MINUTE AND MICROSCOPIC VIEW OF THE GUTTERS OF NEW YORK UP TO A PANORAMIC SHOT LOOKING DOWN UPON THE ROOFTOPS OF THIS FAMILIAR AND YET CURIOUSLY ALTERED CITYSCAPE. IN THIS FIRST PANEL WE ARE LOOKING STRAIGHT DOWN AT A DRAIN OPENING IN A PERFECTLY ORDINARY GUTTER. TO THE RIGHT OF THE PICTURE THE ACTUAL OUTER WALL OF THE CURB DROPS DOWN AWAY FROM US LIKE A MINIATURE CLIFF. OVER MORE TOWARDS THE LEFT, DOWN AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PICTURE, WE CAN SEE THE OLD AND WORN METAL OF THE DRAIN COVER WITH SOLID DARKNESS VISIBLE BETWEEN ITS SLATS. UP AT THE TOP OF THE PICTURE WE CAN JUST SEE THE DIRTY GUTTER RUNNING DOWN TOWARDS THE MOUTH OF THE DRAIN AT THE BOTTOM. THERE ARE ONLY TWO ELEMENTS THAT SEPARATE THIS IMAGE FROM A STANDARD EVERYDAY CLOSE-UP OF A DRAIN, AND THE FIRST OF THESE IS THE UNUSUAL AMOUNT OF BLOOD WHICH IS GUSHING DOWN THE AFOREMENTIONED APERTURE IN THE FIRST PICTURE. LIQUID FINGERS OF BLOOD, THICK AND BRILLIANT SCARLET, DRIBBLE DOWN THE WALL OF THE CURB OVER TO THE RIGHT.. GARISH STREAKS OF BRILLIANT RED AGAINST THE MUTED CONCRETE-GRAY OF THE STONE THAT THEY TRICKLE DOWN ACROSS. THE GUTTER IS SIMILARLY FULL OF BLOOD, GURGLING HAPPILY TOWARDS THE DRAIN WHERE IT SPILLS OUT OVER THE METAL DRAIN COVERING AND DRIPS DOWN AS TINY GLINTING BEADS INTO THE DARKNESS BENEATH. [continued]