Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One

This is the first volume of a projected 2600-page opus by young cartoonist Adam Hines, set in an alternate world where animals can talk. Other than that, the world is much like ours in that we humans still raise and slaughter animals for food, and keep them as pets; as a result it is by turns heartbreaking and horrifying. The first volume introduces many characters and themes, but it primarily revolves around Pompeii, a Barbary macaque that is the leader of an animal terrorist group; and Jack Hammond, a human FBI agent who pursues Pompeii after the bombing of a California college library. Pompeii and his hench-ape spend a chunk of time hiding in the home of a wealthy family, leading to a particularly haunting passage where Pompeii reads the diary of the mother who lived there.

The ambition, complexity, and artistry of this book cannot be understated. It frequently reminded me of another great series about man’s relationship with nature; The Puma Blues by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli. The art reminded me of the tragically aborted Alan Moore/Bill Sinkiewicz series Big Numbers, by Hines’ use of collage, graphite, ink and mixed media. He employs mathematical principles to design panel and page layouts, reflecting the natural world that he depicts. Long silent passages of the camera drifting over darkened wheat fields or forests give way to human streets and buildings rendered in line art. Like Chris Ware, Hines employs a variety of visual devices and metaphors to compartmentalize the narrative, without losing the tension that runs throughout.

In short, Adam Hines and his book are the real deal. I read most of Duncan the Wonder Dog last night, and found difficult to put down and difficult to sleep afterward. It’s not for the faint of heart; great books or art never are.

You can read Duncan the Wonder Dog online here.


The Abyss Gazes Also

Katherine Wirick recently wrote at The Hooded Utilitarian about how we could interpret Rorschach, every fanboy’s favourite psychopath, as a victim of rape. She points to the incident where two older boys threaten to take down young Walter’s pants, supposedly so as to molest him, resulting in Walter taking out some of his considerable rage on the boys. Walter was emotionally and probably physically abused, by his mother and perhaps her clients; but not raped.

I see no reason to add rape to Rorschach’s motivation or backstory when there is no real evidence for it, and a more obvious answer is literally staring us in the face. It is in the mask and the name that Walter Kovacs chose to fight what he calls crime. The Rorschach ink blot test is a psychological device designed to reveal aspects of the patient’s personality indirectly, through their own impressions. In Watchmen, it reinforces the fact that Rorschach is our window into that world, through his journal and otherwise. He is our avatar, our abyss to gaze into. For those of us used to reading American superhero comics, he is the closest (albeit warped) thing we have to the uncompromising good guy who wants justice.

What drives Rorschach is indeed the violence and sexual issues recounted by Wirick; but I have a feeling that all of those details are in Walter’s history not to paint him as a revenge-seeking victim, but rather as a Freudian superhero. I think that one of Alan Moore’s goals was to posit Rorschach in this way against Ozymandias, who is arguably the Jungian superhero: creative and self-actualized, “making himself feel” the wrongs he perpetrates in the name of the greater good. Jungian ideas (especially synchronicity) also permeate the character of Dr. Manhattan, and Jung is quoted at the end of Manhattan’s dialogue with Laurie about her origins.

If you look at Watchmen through the lens of psychology rather than trying to bend the characters to mainstream superhero archetypes, an assortment of motivations and disorders is readily apparent: megalomania, sociopathology, parental issues, repressed memories, sexual dysfunctions and more. It is not only Rorschach who is his face; most of these people are “functional” only in costume, whatever form the costume takes. The Rorschach “birth scene” where he kills the child rapist, which Wirick views as indicative of Kovacs’ own history, is more likely the kind of catharsis-through-psychosis described by R.D. Laing, whose book Knots is also depicted in Watchmen (at one point being torn in half by a minor character, as a visual echo of Ozymandias slicing through the Gordian knot).

Watchmen itself is a Rorschach test, filled with imagery and ideas that we can choose to interpret as we wish. Does Rorschach’s journal get found and reveal Veidt’s lies? Does Dr. Manhattan create a different world to try again? Is the recurring imagery of the smiley face button evidence of some creator’s plan, or merely the kind of amazing coincidence that Dr. Manhattan admires? The way we answer reveals aspects of our personality as much as any inkblot could.

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.

Ten Thoughts on Before Watchmen

So, DC Comics announced today what we have known for a little while: a set of prequel miniseries to Watchmen. The internet has reacted in a range between guarded optimism and anger. My feelings as a fan (and I suppose, scholar) of the book are mixed. So here are the thoughts I have been jotting down today.

  1. Watchmen is a sacred cow in a meat grinder of an industry. But even a sacred cow can be revisited with respect. Bobby London did it with E.C. Segar’s Popeye. Darwyn Cooke has done it in practically every project he is known for, from the Richard Stark’s Parker adaptations to The New Frontier to Will Eisner’s The Spirit (which Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons also once adapted, by the way). Moore reimagined Len Wein’s Swamp Thing, Lee and Kirby for 1963, a host of public domain pulp heroes for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and comics archetypes for his Wildstorm comics. Moore has profited handsomely from the history of comics, thank you very much.
  2. Re: people calling it a slap in the face to Alan Moore, Watchmen did not come like a lightning bolt from the sky; it was a pearl from the depths of Alan Moore’s brain, formed in a soup of that brilliant man’s knowledge of politics, pop culture, comics history, and so on. He plants some of the influences in the script itself, like the Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear”; others are better known to hardcore comics fans, like Steve Ditko’s Mr. A or the novel “Superfolks” by Robert Mayer. It’s not a matter of being derivative; everything we create in the 21st century is derivative (and sometimes an outright copy) of something else. What makes a Watchmen prequel unappealing to me is that no matter how good the attached talent is, it seems like it can only be really good fan fiction at best. Which is fine, I just don’t want to pay that much money and spend that much time reading fan fiction.
  3. Watchmen is a book whose antihero says “no compromise”, created in an industry that is completely compromised. That’s why we like it, for the same reason we like all superhero comics; the fantasy of having the power and wisdom to say no, and damn the consequences. Unfortunately, on one level due to the necessities of trademark renewal, the Watchmen characters are just properties to DC. Len Wein might have liked a shot at revitalizing Swamp Thing, but he didn’t get it. Maybe Kirby would have liked another crack at Sandman. The Watchmen characters are properties just like the Charlton characters they are based on, and just as many of those properties got their own titles after Crisis on Infinite Earths, I wouldn’t be surprised if Before Watchmen is a stepping stone for individual ongoing titles for Rorschach, Nite Owl, Ozymandias etc. after the next earth-shattering, universe-bending, trademark-ownership-buttressing “event”. So it goes.
  4. I have always tried to be the kind of comics fan who keeps things in perspective, who doesn’t develop an unhealthy attachment to a particular character or company or creator. I love comics and I want them to prosper and become as diverse and normalized as an entertainment option in our culture as they are in Japan, France, and other areas of the world. I am not convinced that prequels to Watchmen are going to contribute to that goal so much as contribute to DC’s bottom line and pay some talented creators who could be doing something else. If DC is going to do this kind of looking back, I wish they would do another series of Wednesday Comics.
  5. One of the reasons people are butthurt on Moore’s behalf is the issue of creator ownership, which was a hot topic in the 80s when Watchmen was created. Moore got a deal for himself and Gibbons that must have sounded good at the time: that the ownership of the characters would revert to them once the book was out of print. They wound up being victims of their own success, if you call getting royalties from one of the best selling comics of all time being a victim. Still, Moore felt ripped off, and made sure that he had a better deal when he created his Wildstorm books (which, ironically, got sold to DC). Even creator ownership doesn’t last forever; as hard as Disney and other companies are trying to claw back the time required, works do eventually fall into the public domain. One of my favourite comics of the 80s was Michael T. Gilbert’s Mr. Monster, in which he reimagined a minor Canadian superhero to very comic effect. The problem with owning a bunch of properties is that you have to maintain them. Dust them off, show them to buyers, see if you can get a return on your investment.
  6. When I wrote my MA thesis on comics, I used Watchmen as a case study, breaking it down into a narrative blueprint based on Noam Chomsky’s system for analyzing language which creates formulas out of sentences. But a comic is not just a formula, or a tribute to what is past; its value lies in what it means to the reader. One of my all-time favourite books is the underappreciated 80s DC title Thriller, whose plot bears some resemblance to Watchmen. Thriller missed with most comics fans in the 80s, despite its many virtues, and so it is largely forgotten. Watchmen not only hit with comics fans, it went well beyond to reach the consciousness of the general public and lead the charge for the acceptance of graphic novels in libraries and bookstores and book clubs. Any follow-up (and there already have been follow-ups) is bound to pale in comparison, especially now, when the book is still beloved by many and the recent string of decent comic book movies has brought a whole new generation of readers. Watchmen is the gateway drug of comics for many.
  7. I don’t envy the task of those who want to create a sequel, or prequel, or whatever. George Lucas couldn’t do it with Star Wars. Frank Miller couldn’t do it with The Dark Knight Returns. To do it with Watchmen will be like making a prequel to Citizen Kane: when the original already shows the best distillation of those characters imaginable, why show anything else? And so that is the challenge. Until Neil Gaiman came along, the best distillation we had of The Sandman was Simon and Kirby. Many have tried to match Kirby’s energy with The New Gods but even he could not while he was alive. This is a business where the two companies that publish the most material are obsessed with reintroducing the same characters over and over again; many of which were of marginal interest in the first place (Deadman with his own book in The New 52? Mister Terriffic? Come on.) Their low success rate in this regard is cause for pessimism.
  8. Superhero publishers used to generate new heroes and villains at an astounding rate, with a handful resonating well enough to last for decades and the others consigned to history, resurrected only perhaps by Grant Morrison. It’s why I don’t read that many superhero comics, this feeling that I have seen it all before. Every so often there is a wonderful exception, like Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways; but for the most part superheroes and villains are interchangeable. A Green Arrow story could just as easily be an Iron Man story. The costumes are different containers for the same dull material. But not Watchmen; those characters are essential to that story, and because of their provenance (forced reimaginations of less powerful Charlton characters), they serve as avatars for comics history itself.
  9. Another potential barrier that the new creative teams will face is the art style. Dave Gibbons’ style and Higgins’ colours combined to create a linework that looks more at home in a French comics anthology alongside Moebius than a US publisher. Comics are drawn and coloured differently now, with a lot more digital tooling (Gibbons himself is a proponent of Manga Studio). The creative lineup, especially Cooke, Wein, and Hughes seem pretty well suited to their assignments. I wish them luck.
  10. What is ultimately disappointing to me is that for all the lip service DC pays to respecting the creator, and however much the new creative teams want to do right by Moore and Gibbons despite fan skepticism, this project takes away from the reader what was given to them in the very last line of the book: “I leave it entirely in your hands.”

[Update! Alan Moore was interviewed here about Before Watchmen and addressed some of the points raised above. Well worth reading.]