It’s funny how history perpetuates itself, especially social, artistic and cultural history, and how it seems for every public and overt history there is also a secret one. The cleaned manicured lawns of John Hughes’ Shermer, Illinois were not where I spent the 80s or how I remember them. On the surface, the 80s to those who didn’t live through them may seem like a long, suburban sprawl of pastel pink and blue, Reagan’s America in one big optimistic lockstep. It’s only by digging a bit deeper into some of the more subversive art of that decade that we see the secret history. The difference between watching Repo Man or watching The Breakfast Club, listening to The Minutemen or listening to Poison, reading Homeboy or reading Less Than Zero..
That telling of a secret history was the first thing that attracted me to Watchmen; it seemed to come from a similar perspective on the 80s to mine. Not only was it informed by the secret history of the 80s themselves but the secret history of the medium of comics. V for Vendetta had kind of come close to nailing the fascism of Thatcher’s England through logical extension of a sort but, much as he did in a more general way in his “American Gothic” run on Swamp Thing; Alan Moore nailed America in the 80s. I was a young punk at the time, so I instantly identified with the outcast Rorschach, but as I have grown up and my understanding of the book has grown I can see the symbolism in each character for a facet of the secret history of the 20th century:
The optimism of post-war America as symbolized by Nite Owl, and how hero worship of that generation by the next had devolved from the New Frontier optimism to self-absorbed middle age in Nite Owl II. The Comedian as first the sheen of public propriety over personal corruption and later as the embodiment of American military policy. Silk Spectre as the victimized avatar of “cheesecake”, B-list celebrity and casting couches, and later as the ultimate stage mother still worshipping at the altar of fame. Rorschach; the discarded waste at the tail end of our social machine armed only with his own absolutism. And Doc Manhattan, our misplaced faith in technology, personified in a God of science, a deus ex machina, “god from a machine”, literally.
1986 was a special year for comics, and for me personally as well. I had taken a year off between high school and college to mainly drink in the two punk bars that existed in South Florida at the time (the Yates Hotel and Flynn’s) and work on my world-encompassing sneer. There, I had a job days at a restaurant and spent my nights skateboarding until I had finally amassed enough money and boredom to go to college. I went to a state college in Ohio where I found out I had a relative on the staff who could get me a break on tuition, and worked grill overnights at the diner in the college town.
I distinctly remember the first time I had heard of Watchmen. I was reading comics again after a brief break when I realized the art form was really taking off. I had read Miracleman, and Jon Sable Freelance, and Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and Scott McLeod’s Zot!, and I was beginning to see where I thought the medium of comic books was going; to being a fully recognized art form unto itself and not just another “gutter culture”. I had seen an ad in the back of Amazing Heroes, a comics ‘zine that was the only real source of news about comics I had at the time. This was pre-Internet, and geek culture was something one either had to really seek out to find or create oneself. The small black and white ad was Dave Gibbons’ now iconic panel of Rorschach in the alley, the words WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN? spray-painted on the wall beside him. That was all it took to get me interested.
Flash forward 6 months to the aforementioned college town where I am at the local newsstand/smoke shop to get some non-filtered Lucky Strikes and on the shelf I see Watchmen #2 , the austere statue’s face pelted with rain at the Comedian’s funeral on the cover, and the black band along the left side that read simply: WATCHMEN Alan Moore Dave Gibbons. I grabbed it and asked if they had issue 1 as well, but alas no, it had sold out. I went back to my tiny crappy college apartment, made a box of macaroni and cheese with canned peas and read Watchmen #2. Even though I was the very epitome of the broke college student I went to the comic shop in town the next day and paid over cover price for issue #1. I read each issue over and over and then read them one after the other as they came out.
No comic has ever affected me that way before or since. As I reread, sometimes postponing my coursework to do so, I noticed the symmetry, the design choices, the cadence of each character and the fully realized world that they inhabited. Most of all, I could tell by reading Watchmen not only all the craft that had gone into creating it, but also the vast knowledge of the creators. These guys knew comics, and in particular, American comics. And their archetypes.
The podcast I co-host, The Legion of Dudes, as part of our issue by issue analysis of Watchmen, were lucky enough to be able to have Dave Gibbons himself answer some of our questions about the book, and he was very forthcoming. One of the things that stuck with me then, and was reiterated by Mr. Gibbons, was that he and Alan Moore created the world first, by extrapolating upon how the introduction of one truly super-powered being would change things, and that the world once created set the tone for the characters and their motivations, rather than writing the story first and then filling in the background. I think it was this kind of “universe-building” that gives Watchmen such a unique yet real-seeming tone.
I am hoping this endeavor of Chris’s keeps going strong, and I hope to be able to contribute to it sporadically along the way.
Jim Dietz is Head Chef and Owner of the Gypsy Cafe in Pittsburgh where he lives with his wife Melanie, their daughter Violetta and their two cats Mookie Jones and Danny Nuggets. He is the cohost of the Legion of Dudes Podcast, which began with an issue by issue dissection of Watchmen. He is also a big pop culture geek and holder of an English degree he rarely uses anymore; a dangerous combination that has resulted in several blogs and other strange things.Most of them can be found at www.hhwlod.com.