The BOOKPRESS November 1999

Serious Comics

Jo Shannon Cochran

By Alan Moore.
Illustrated by Dave Gibbons.
New York:
DC Comics, $14.95.

Sandman, volumes I-X
Neil Gaiman.
New York:
Vertigo Comics, $19.95 per book.

The concept of literary comic books—"graphic novels"—has been around for a while now, and dotted among the rayguns and Barbarellas are a number of projects with serious artistic ambitions. One of the first of these was Alan Moore’s Watchmen. A few years later came Neil Gaiman’s ten-volume Sandman, a gothic epic in comic book format.

Graphic novels are not taken seriously by the literary mainstream, for some very justifiable reasons: as Scott McCloud puts it in Understanding Comics (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993), they’re "usually crude, poorly-drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable kiddie fare—but—they don’t have to be!" His point is that comic books are not in themselves a genre; they’re an artistic medium, just like novels or plays. Those art forms received, in their infancies, exactly the same dismissive critical attitude that comics get today. Novels and plays were trashy entertainment for the uneducated classes. And then great artists—Shakespeare, the Brontës—developed in those media, and the literati were converted by the hoi polloi.

Graphic novels have yet to bring forth their Shakespeare. But the medium itself is potentially a powerful one—as McCloud argues, "it offers range and versatility with all the potential imagery of film and painting plus the intimacy of the written word." And there are already graphic novels that deserve the name, stories told through word and image that are as sophisticated as many well-received mainstream novels.

Watchmen is one of these. It’s an idiosyncratic vision, drawing shards from a number of different genres—superhero stories, serial adventure comics, hard-boiled detective fiction, Faulkner-esque psychological minutiae—to assemble an unsettling mosaic, a fragmented image of America’s soul. If a culture defines itself through its myths, then Moore looks to the superhero trope to explain America. It’s an ambitious project, and Watchmen isn’t always an unqualified success. But the risks it takes are interesting ones, and they pay off more often then not.

The central strength of Watchmen is its fusion of comic book tradition—gadgets, code names, costumes—with psychological realism. What would happen, Moore asks, if a real person tried to live by the heroic code of comic books? The answer is the Watchmen: a collection of ordinary people who, due to various fetishes and obsessions, insist on dressing up to fight crime. Some are loose cannons seeking an outlet for violence; some do it as a publicity stunt; some are driven by a need to punish the world that harmed them; some are innocents who truly believe in Robin Hood and the Lone Ranger. The rest of the world sees them not as heroes but as freaks. As the plot unfolds, the lives of two generations of Watchmen are revealed: the original group, inspired by the dogged naivete of America in the fifties, broken apart by internal dissension and external scandal; and the modern-day characters, shaped by the fear and wonder of the atomic age.

By turning an analyst’s eye to the fetishes that have traditionally surrounded American comics, Watchmen ultimately becomes a commentary on the American psyche. The two generations of characters mirror the shifting hopes and fears of society. If they are lonely and pathetic, if they are deluded, even if they are sociopathic, it is only because they tried to actually live by the ideals that most Americans simply like to read about.

Dave Gibbons’ artwork also reflects this juxtaposition of comic-book abstraction with real-world detail. The drawings are executed in a traditional style: clean lines, primary colors, speech bubbles. But the older heroes’ potbellies are drawn faithfully, and within the speech bubbles a reader is confronted with problems of philosophical weight: "We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we are compelled," comments Rorshach, one of the modern Watchmen. He continues in his customary staccato: "Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion, bear children, hell-bound as ourselves; go into oblivion. There is nothing else."

Rorshach is the most attractive hero—the one with the most controlled demeanor and firmest faith in the morality of his actions. He is also the most deranged of the Watchmen (excepting The Comedian, who is murdered in the first few pages). On the other hand, the most outrageous hero—the only one with superpowers—is Dr. Manhattan, the blue-skinned product of a nuclear experiment gone awry. But Dr. Manhattan is also the character who creates the least rift between our world and the Watchmen’s world. He is simply a personification of nuclear power, tightly controlled by the U.S. Government, complete with carcinogenic complications. He wins the war in Vietnam, but the striking thing about that is how little it changes anything; the American conscience is still scarred by the atrocities committed there, and there is no impact on the daily lives of American citizens.

Watchmen begins in a climate of disillusioned embitterment. A generation of superheroes has failed to produce universal peace or justice. The passage of anti-vigilante laws has forced the heroes into retirement or made them into criminals. "Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?" laments one. As the story progresses, it makes an attempt to recapture the power of superhero fantasy, even though the initial realistic tone becomes a bit muddled. The book opens with a murder and ends with its solution, but by the time the killer is exposed, the death seems almost incidental: what is truly at stake is, of course, the salvation of the world. It is typical of Watchmen that the book wholly accepts this outlandish plot but focuses mainly on the details: how does one "save" anything? By changing it, presumably for the better? Or by protecting it from harm, ensuring it remains as it is? Each of the Watchmen is eager to administer grace to a fallen world, but they cannot agree how it should be done.

Unlike Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is not about superheroes in any direct way. Gaiman is far less interested in justifying his genre; where Moore explores the meaning of modern American mythology, Gaiman invokes much older mythic systems, delving into Greek epics and Sumerian theogonies for his referents. Fundamentally Sandman is about dreams and responsibilities, and the ways in which we are defined by our capacity to imagine that which is beyond ourselves.

Gaiman structures this by making Dream and Death and Delirium embodied figures, rulers of the realms they signify. Dream, the Sandman himself, is the center of the books: a black-haired, brooding king of the powers of unreality. He and his six siblings are the Endless, the forces of existence that predate gods. Human characters wander through their realms, changing and changed by what they find there.

There are many individually complete narratives, but Sandman is also cohesive as a whole: the larger structure is that of an expanding and collapsing universe. The first books range in subject from Shakespeare to slavery to the dreams of cats. In the final volumes everything starts to recombine; repeating motifs become linked in a larger pattern; minor subplots and cameo characters turn out to advance the plot in major ways; what seemed throwaway lines are, in retrospect, imbued with thematic significance.

Gaiman’s vision is often dark, encompassing a number of violent and graphic scenes, but he is ultimately humane. To live is to be at risk, he insists, but life must be lived nonetheless, and it should be lived bravely. For instance, one of the strongest stories in the Sandman epic involves a day, once every hundred years, when Death lives a human life. At the end, when her mortal avatar dies and is confronted by her endless self, Death asks herself, "Was it worth it?" And she answers, "I…I don’t know. I think so. I hope so. I met such neat people."

As Gaiman himself acknowledges, the first Sandman book, Preludes and Nocturnes, is by far the weakest. "Rereading these stories today I must confess I find many of them awkward and ungainly," he writes in the epilogue. Much more successful is the second book, The Doll’s House. It introduces Rose Walker, a teenaged girl with an unshakable sense of self who searches for the younger brother separated from her by her parents’ divorce. Her dry sense of humor and ability to accept the basic senselessness of life guide her through a series of bizarre encounters that become entangled with the dreams and nightmares of childhood. The Doll’s House is about families, inherited and chosen, and about their power to defeat or to sustain the individual spirit. It may be the best place to begin the series. (An eleventh-hour addition to the Sandman series, The Dream Hunters, is also scheduled for publication this month.)

Upon viewing Rodolphe Töpffer’s picture stories—or comics, if you like—in the mid 1800s, Goethe wrote that, "If for the future, he would choose a less frivolous subject and restrict himself a little, he would produce things beyond all conception" (quoted in Enter: The Comics—Rodolphe Töpffer’s Essay on Physiognomy and the True Story of Monsieur Crepin, edited and translated by E. Wiese [University of Nebraska Press, 1995]). Well, Watchmen and Sandman have chosen subjects that are not frivolous. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman may well be the Brontës of their medium. The pleasure of searching for the funnybook Shakespeare is left to the open-minded reader.

Jo Shannon Cochran is a writer and editor living in Ithaca.

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