Sunday, June 25, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 036: Watchmen”

You’ve probably heard of Watchmen. You’ve probably heard that it changed comics forever. Maybe you’ve even seen the film version… But to actually READ the book, that’s something else entirely…

Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons – Watchmen (1986/2005)

Alan Moore is, possibly, the most famous comic book author of all time. He’s also well known as a practitioner of magic, as having a famously bushy beard, and for his extreme anti-Hollywood stance, going so far as to demand that his name be completely removed from the film versions of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen…(and I kind of get that last one.) But why? Why go so far out of the way to distance himself from association with (and even any of the ROYALTIES from) these big-time productions? According to Moore, it’s because he wrote those stories as COMICS, utilizing the strengths and techniques of that medium, which he sees as being extremely different from film.

So, for this review, I reread the Watchmen graphic novel and rewatched the movie, and I have to say that I agree with Moore. The book is complex, with multiple overlapping storylines, which exploit the mix of textual elements and Dave Gibbons’ art, which is very detailed and expressive (the colors could take an entire scholarly article to discuss.) Having just rewatched the movie after finishing the book, it’s immediately obvious that the film had to exclude and simplify and change a MASSIVE amount of content in order to jam 12 comic book issues into 162 minutes’ worth of film. Which isn’t to say that the movie is bad. Some of the casting was excellent, and the special effects are quite impressive (especially the science fiction themed scenes with Dr. Manhattan), and the soundtrack was perfectly chosen adding a nostalgic element to the “historical” sections of the story. The movie was actually good---it’s just that the movie, even at almost three hours in length, can’t even come close to depth of Alan Moore’s story.

For those who don’t know the book or the film, Watchmen is an alternate reality tale that takes place in a dark and dreary mid-1980s (although there are frequent flashbacks to various decades and historical events in the 20th century), and the main premise of the story seeks to answer one seemingly simple question: What would have happened to the world if superheroes were real? The story is framed as a murder mystery with a “costumed adventurer” being murdered early in the first “chapter,” and one of the victim’s former team-mates suspecting that someone has decided to start killing “masks.” The book is grim and noir in style, with lots of rain-soaked scenes in dark alleys and seedy bars, and it should be noted that the atmosphere created by both art and text work perfectly together.

Beyond the atmosphere, what truly elevates this book above and beyond any other comic (before or since) is how Moore uses the superhero archetype to explore some extremely deep concepts, from media manipulation to obsession to the use of violence in the name of the “greater good.” The characters are complex, (no clear “good” or “evil,”) and most of them are deeply emotionally flawed. A character like Rorschach is sociopathic in his violent methods, but driven by an extreme dedication to justice and exposing the truth. Dozens of characters, even those who are peripheral to the main storyline, are explored throughout the book, like newsstand vendors and delivery drivers and security guards, so when horrible things happen to these usually cardboard characters, the tragic occurrences actually have meaning. Imagine that! A comic with emotional depth!

I should also mention that the story is extremely violent, nor is it very P.C. by today’s standards (reflecting the mid-80s culture in which it was written), and the story may actually be a bit TOO dark for many readers. Moore pulls no punches. Gibbons illustrates some scenes that are so gruesome they can turn a reader’s stomach. There is certainly a sense of existential angst so oppressive in this book that it should probably be classified as a horror story, as opposed to a superhero comic. HOWEVER, it is also absolutely brilliant. I’ve read this book three times now, and I caught nuances and details that I missed the first two times. (I’m certain that I’ll catch even more the NEXT time I read it.) The tension that this book creates is remarkable, and the tale, which mixes horror, political satire, time travel, murder mystery, nuclear armageddon, and superhero stories, all spread over five or six different sub-plots, comes together in a shocking and darkly satisfying climax (though I have to admit that the ending is not the happiest I’ve ever read.) Alan Moore, in an interview in 2009, said that if someone was only going to read ONE story by him, that Watchmen would be the one he would recommend. I concur. It’s dense and dark and disturbing, but so well done that I can’t think of any other book so complex yet so complete. It’s definitely one for the ages…

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)

Monday, June 5, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 035: The Great God Pan”

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the high priest of horror, was born in 1890. In that same year, Welsh author Arthur Machen unleashed The Great God Pan upon the world, and this novella has since become a classic of the supernatural horror genre and was a major influence on Lovecraft himself---but how does it hold up in our modern, gore-saturated world? Let’s find out…

Arthur Machen – The Great God Pan (1890)

This story takes place over the course of a number of decades, and is told from the perspective a handful of different characters, each one relating another dark piece in a series of unfortunate occurrences that culminate in a series of suicides and (possibly) murders. In the first chapter of the book, a scientist performs a surgery on a young woman (she volunteers for the procedure, but there is a certain creepiness to the relationship between doctor and patient that will make most modern readers cringe) with the understanding that the surgery will enable the young woman to see aspects of reality that normal humans can’t perceive. The operation is a success, but the patient is almost instantly overwhelmed by her visions and experiences a complete mental collapse from the sheer terror. The rest of the novella is an exploration of the effects and ramifications of this strange experiment.

It’s important for readers to remember that the book is well over a hundred years old, so no one should be expecting slasher gore or extreme sexual content. However, Machen still does a great job of SUGGESTING that horrible things are going on, without explicitly describing them. There is also a decent body-count for a book that’s this old, with suitably unpleasant crime scene descriptions of at least a few of the corpses. But what Machen probably does BEST is evoke a sense of the uncanny. The mood in many of these chapters is the equal of Lovecraft or some of Poe’s tales, and that’s a good thing, BUT the pacing of the story is a bit slower than what modern readers are used to. The story is a stroll rather than a sprint.

The version of The Great God Pan that I read was available as a free download for my e-reader, and it’s definitely worth the tiny amount storage space and the few hours that it will take to finish reading. The story is enjoyable enough that I’ve read it a few times now, and I believe that it’s a classic for good reason, as Machen establishes mood well, and this story runs the emotional gamut, from the nicely suspenseful to the downright creepy. (For horror, what else do you need?) Again, I have to admit that the pacing is probably a bit slow for modern readers, but at least the book is short and can be read rather quickly (unlike The Woman in White, which seemed like it took YEARS to finish.) Those readers hoping for Clive Barker style thrills probably won’t be satisfied, but if you like Lovecraft or Victorian gothics, or if you’re interested in learning where modern horror CAME FROM, then this book is essential reading---and frankly, I find it a lot more fun than modern torture-porn, like Saw or Hostel, which I don’t find entertaining at all.

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)