M.A. Foster's Eyeless in Gaza: Watchmen

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodies?

Who Guards the Guardians?

Dave Sim once told me that Comics was a Medium, but Science-Fiction was a Genre.  This is a fine and a real distinction; I am still learning from it.  Just so, Cinema is also a Medium.  And when you transfer a Drama from one into another medium, there is always a slippage, a shifting of emphasis and content.  This isn't an issue of craft, or sincerity, or honesty, or talent, slipshod work or even money, although it may be often thought so.  No, it's an issue of the unavoidable influence of the conventions of the Medium upon narration itself, the way things are related in a narration.  And to have a tale shift, seamlessly, from one medium to another, approaches the area of miraculous - it's difficult at the very best.

Watchmen isn't perfect in this regard, (it was too bloody loud in the soundtrack) but it surprised me how close it did come to carrying the essentials from one medium, Comics, into the other, Cinema.  In some ways it makes the message more pointed; and, well..., more garish, than it may have been in the original.  I thought garish was ok - we've become cruder and unsubtle since the 80s.  We now may need garish. Lowered attention span brings the brows down and makes the knuckles drag, too.  Potato nose, lantern jaw; Happy Valentine, mother in law.

The concept of the Superhero - as a concept - has bothered me since I was a mere lad, before the Korean War, learning to read by reading DC's Superman and Batman, and their competitors from Fawcett, all the various Marvels - Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Junior, and Mary Marvel. Shazam, indeed!  Let us not forget Mighty Mouse, who also wore a cape (Capes are apparently required attire for superheroes and heroines), and he left a faint red streak behind him, (I've done that when frightened, even if it wasn't red!) and sung his declamations to righting wrongs in the manner of Wagnerian Opera: "Here I come - to save the day." Yeah, right.  Second door to the left, Lester.

The central Superhero premise, that there are wicked villains abroad in the land who are just too smart, too violent, and too underhanded for the plodding and possibly corrupt minions of the Law, is still valid, as our own witless mumbling-dipstick times proves in spades.  El Borbah, where are you when we need you?  We need a superhero, and Elliott Spitzer's been disqualified.  Yet the idea of a super-powered fixer of these common flaws always remained morally ambiguous offstage somewhere, somehow unlimited and undefined, and lends itself to disturbing potentials: exactly what is it that governs and restrains the holder of power from being nothing more than a cheap and mouthy vigilante, utterly immune from the real world practical difficulties of legislating and enforcing the law, and finding an equitable justice?  Where's the responsibility; and its direct descendent, authority?  The fashionistas and the politically-correct are already a pain enough without creeps in capes dropping in my yard to nanny me about recyclables in the correct trash can.  Bug off, Irritable Girl!  Take a hike, Innocent Bystander!  This is private property!  No solicitation, no distribution o literature!  Take your cape with you.

These are insoluble problems without any final answer.  Truth is far trickier than it looks, subtle and slippery; perfect justice is a fata morgana luring the unwary into swamps and pits, lynchings and stonings by mobs.  And the last, the American Way is stirred and swept by commercially and politically exploited irrationalisms blowing this way and that to what unknown purposes and intents slouching home to be born.  The people who write such tales, in comics and in narrated adventure stories in print media present their heroic figures for our entertainment, but they never answer, where's the limit??  Down here on the ground where the streets are paved by spots of flattened chewing gum, we have to live with the limits and step smartly!

So Alan Moore reminds us, in Watchmen, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?  Who will guard the guards", a maxim from Roman times 2000 years ago - and just maybe not even original, then.  They knew.  Their shifting pantheons of multiplex, borrowed, and sometimes merely stylish gods were also held to have super powers, and were, more or less, a sorry lot, playing their own games with foolish humans as pawns, and even more so in the Hellenic version.  If you read Homer's Illiad, you can get a fine appreciation for this feeling of moral ambiguity from the human actors (The Sheep Look Up) - Ares, Aphrodite, Athena, Poseidon, and Zeus himself, all heavyweights, and all of them had an offstage hand in the Trojan War, and from today's viewpoint and Homer's, accomplished little beyond misery, destruction, and death.  All in all, a sorry lot, indeed.  The Trojan War was a waste.  That's its point, made by Homer.  A petty spite.  The first line of the Illiad is "Sing, o Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles."

This was the original premise of Watchmen, to examine this question, this Superhero character ambiguity and limits.  That they seem to have one, although invisible in comics practice, is the deepest contradiction of reality in comics, and not their various super powers; because down here, power drives real people plain nuts, even in teaspoon lots.  The space between 'I can't do that' and 'I will do it solely because I can do it without risk' narrows to invisibility with every tiny increment of power gained.  I've been there, and was overjoyed to have gotten away with no more damage than I had from that.  As much a nobody as I've been, often deliberately, I've still felt the lure and lust of it.  You have to work on it constantly.  Religion doesn't seem to have a monopoly on keeping it away, either - you see church elders of one sort or another hauled off by the Bailiff every week for hands in the till and/ or hands on other's body parts, usually kids.  This has always been with us.  This is what Power does.  It corrupts.  It breeds rationalizations and excuses, lies and betrayals of others.  

The screen version IS disturbing on several levels because of this issue, which was present in the original; in the cone-adaptation, warts-and-all, at multiple levels; indeed, expressed up to the point of "Oh, man, way too much information, there."  The history of the Watchmen, back in time and including their predecessors and parents, is not an inspiring one - they are not admirable figures at all at the personal level.  To an alarming degree, barflies and scumbags, thugs, lowlifes and willing criminals and abusers.  Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian starring in Vietnam were not inspiring.  Ozymandias could be any Fortune-500 CEO picked at random.  Their biz-speak excuses are so similar they must be clones.

This works out, in Watchmen, to Ozymandias taking out major world cities with nuke-like energy explosions himself, supposedly in the cause of world peace; 'Humans are just too flawed to deal with that themselves'. I still vividly remember, 40 years down the road, a field commander in Vietnam telling the press that they had been required to destroy a certain city in order to save it.  And they did just that.  This was the real point at which the balance tipped.  The hipped didn't change us; but that did.  I had some restricted access in those old days, and I remember reading serious staff studies calculating exactly what kind of casualty level would start seriously cutting into the Vietnamese reproduction rate.  Think about that for one minute; we who read it sure did.  They say McNamara cried at the Vietnam Memorial.  He didn't cry enough.  How about a thousand years on life support.  There is a point at which even the best intentions (which are said to pave the road to Hell) become the basis for war crimes trials.  

A lot of people nowadays don't realize what Rorschach means.  He's the Point of View, your guy on the ground, inside the story.  He's talking to you, reader.  And as a Rorschach Test is a random inkblot folded over, and presented to you and you say what you see in it.  But the central issue is that there is never an actual representation of any kind in a Rorschach image.  There is no secret.  They're random.  No content.  There is no there, there.  That is what makes it work, as psychology.  In the original, Rorschach's face pattern shifted in every panel, and they followed that in the Cinema version.  You have to understand that it means there was nothing behind the mask.  These kinds of details are what goes to make really great work.

Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  And where does Bruce Wayne launder his money?  Sweatshops in Cambodia?  Does he know?  Do you?     

 

M.A. Foster is the author of several science fiction novels including Gameplayers of Zan and The Morphodite. He spent over sixteen years as a Captain and Russian linguist in the U.S. Air Force and has seen and done more than most of us will do in two or three lifetimes. M.A. has been a patron of Acme Comics for almost twenty five years and is always a welcome and familiar face that brings cheer and credibility to these dark and uncertain times. Mr. Foster was also the originator of the name "Lord Retail" for which Jermaine is eternally grateful.