Watchmen, Citizen Kane, and Legend-Building

If you are one of those like myself who has the unfortunate affliction of following comics news, you may have read the long interview with Alan Moore that was published online last week in which he discusses the origins of his discontent with DC Comics and how that has led to falling out with Dave Gibbons and so on. He was praised by many and derided by some afterward and I am here to do neither, really, apart from to say that I respect Alan Moore and his position and I enjoyed the interview. Since it was published, various blogs have interpreted or expanded upon Moore’s words to speculate as to whether or not Watchmen is the “best” comic book ever published. I think that kind of discussion is ultimately pointless, the kind of fanboy bickering that people substitute for actual analysis.

That said, I am hard pressed to think of another comic that has penetrated the public consciousness, and stayed there, the way that Watchmen has. It is the Great Gatsby (or better yet, the Catcher in the Rye) of comics. The only other candidate I can think of that even comes close is Maus. Now, what do Watchmen and Maus have in common apart from their superior execution and marketing and other attributes? Why are they the canon in every right-thinking person’s bookshelf and not, say, Asterios Polyp, or Blankets? Their scope. Watchmen is a mixture of nuclear apocalypse, a scathing critique of America, and deconstructing the American superhero; any of which would be a huge topic on its own, much less combined successfully in one book; and Maus is a recollection of the holocaust.

So is it any wonder that works like this loom larger in the public mind than the more personal stories of Harvey Pekar or Los Bros Hernandez, both of whom Moore has praised effusively in the past? Is it really surprising that there hasn’t been “another Watchmen” (or “another Maus”) when most of the best American comics since then have been of a much smaller, more personal scope? Personally, I think that Love and Rockets is the quintessential American comic, one of the high watermarks of the art form for any nation; but it does not have universal appeal. Not because it is about latinas, or because it has no superheroes; because it is not an entry-level comic the way that Watchmen or Maus are. If Watchmen is The Great Gatsby, Love and Rockets is a Pynchon novel. It’s what you read when you have some experience with reading comics under your belt.

I’m probably reading too much into a comment that Alan Moore made in what was probably meant to be an offhand manner. It’s not like Watchmen was regarded as a classic the moment the last issue hit the stands. Back then it was still the property of the fanboys, and a lot of them hated that ending. A lot of them thought it was a big letdown after the buildup of the first eleven issues. A lot of people hated Citizen Kane when it was released too. The myth and the legend of the high watermark takes time to grow and solidify. Maybe one day there will be a film that supplants Kane as the automatic answer to the question of the best American film ever made, and maybe one day there will be a comic that supplants Watchmen in its field. When a work is known for its innovation and influence on all that follows as much as it is for its story, it’s hard to catch it up, much less pass.

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