Next week I’m going to pretend to be an academic and go talk to some college students about comics. One of the classes I’m sitting in on is going to focus on Alan Moore, so I reread V for Vendetta and Watchmen for the first time in a while. I hadn’t realized that they were written so close together: V in 1981, I think, and Watchmen in 1986. They have a lot in common: both are cold war parables and turn on a liberal superman causing chaos in everyone’s best interest.

Still, my reaction to the two of them is very different. I’m really, really ambivalent about V. There are certainly a lot of good things in it. Valerie’s letter, in particular, still makes me weepy — tragic struggle against overwhelming odds, love in the face of the apocalypse, a quiet testament to human dignity, all wrapped in direct and beautiful prose — it’s pretty hard to resist. Evie receives the letter in prison; a missive from the cell next door, and it’s a really powerful moment. But then we learn that Evie wasn’t really in prison: it’s all a test, or lesson, by the mysterious masked super-anarchist, teaching beautiful lessons while reading Shakespeare and listening to Martha and the Vandellas. It’s all just a bit too convenient, isn’t it? The cultured lefty icon; intelligent, unstoppable, meting out justice to the big bad fascists who deserve it. Throughout the book, V pulls all the strings; he seems to be responsible for everything that happens, single-handedly pulling down the fascist government and returning England to anarchy. The opposition is too easy, basically. I mean, if one drugged up homicidal hippie with a stupid mask can topple fascism while quoting the Velvet Underground, well, fascism can’t really be much of a threat can it? Maybe, in fact, fascism for Moore has little to do with the historical movement, and is in fact simply a liberal wet-dream, fabricated to justify self-satisfaction and dreams of predictable violence (Parliament blown up! Big Ben blown up!) Evie’s renunciation of violence seems pretty darn hollow when readers are encouraged to take pleasure in scene after scene of facile vengeance.

Rereading this really crystallized for me what I think is the biggest problem with Moore’s writing — his weakness (to paraphrase Borges) for appearing to be a genius. Moore’s an extremely smart writer and plotter, and he fancies himself a metaphysician and political seer. As a writer, he tends to have all the answers, and while that can look pretty amazing when enmeshed in the story, when you take a step back, the discordant cacophony of all the begged questions starts to get a little irritating. Evie occasionally yells at V and tells him he’s a pompous asshole who cares more about puzzles and quotations than about human beings. Of course, Evie always backs down and accepts that V only tortured her because he loves her…but it’s hard not to feel that Moore is loading the dice. It’s Moore, after all, who sits behind that mask; it’s him who’s rigged the game. He can’t afford for us to start judging V as a human being, because then the whole house of cards would come down. We’d be forced to ask whether violence in the name of freedom is really a whole lot different than violence in the name of order. V claims to do what he does to free Evie and England, but do you really free people by kicking the shit out of them and scaring them half to death? It seems to me that most freedom movements worth the name were about building connections between people, not about individually deciding the shape of the world you’d like and then imposing it on folks. Freedom is hard work, and involves lots of compromises, in other words. It’s more fun to think about just imposing it by fiat, of course — but if you’re imposing it by fiat, it’s not really freedom, is it?

As I said, on the surface Watchmen seems to start with many of the same preconceptions and come to many of the same conclusions. But it’s much more ambivalent about the future it imagines, and as a result it’s a whole lot more convincing. For maybe the only time in his oeuvre, Moore’s villain here isn’t the fascists or the right. Instead it’s the liberal one-worlder Adrien Veidt.

Turning the tables on his own political sympathies like this seems to have freed Moore up in a way he rarely managed before or since. In V, for example, all of Moore’s fascists are pretty much stock villains — they’re vicious thugs, mostly sexually perverted in extremely unpleasant ways. (Finch is sympathetic, of course — but he doesn’t really believe in the ideology.) In Watchmen, on the other hand, the fascist nut-jobs are some of the most sympathetic characters. Rorschach is probably the character who gets the most screen time, and he’s…well, lovable. He’s got tons of touching moments, from the grandiose (when he tries to rescue the kidnapped girl) to the small (when he tells Dan he’s been a good friend.) The Comedian’s hard to hate, too; he’s an amoral, violent jerk, but also vulnerable and insightful and, yeah, it’s just not hard to see why Sally fell for him.

Veidt’s sympathetic too, of course, but the point is that there are genuinely different perspectives in Watchmen, and as a result the sense of inevitability and moral certainty that can pervade and deaden Moore’s writing (from V all the way to Lost Girls) opens up. I mean, the idea of time and narrative as immutable is certainly in the book, but it’s tied specifically to Jon, and while he’s obviously cosmically powered diagetically, in the overall composition of the story he’s got much less motive force than V did. Jon can insist that people’s choices don’t really matter and everything is already determined, but the narrative ends on a question mark; Veidt, for all his smarts and planning, isn’t sure if things will work out, and neither are we.

I also appreciate how much effort Moore takes throughout the story to not let Veidt off the hook. V kills lots of anonymous folks, none of whom we ever care about. But Veidt doesn’t just kill half of New York; he murders actual player characters — people who we’ve come to know over the course of the series. The newstand vendor, Joey, the therapist, the detectives; their deaths have weight. They matter. The violence in V is costless; the violence in Watchmen isn’t.

There’s tons of other stuff to like in the series too: I especially noticed the deft handling of the Dan and Laurie relationship, this time — the dialogue is sexy and sweet and quick, a very nicely done romantic comedy within the larger story. And, of course, the way all the little details mesh (the travels of the sugar cubes or the comedian’s button) are lovely. But I think what really makes this perhaps Moore’s best is that it’s the one time where he was both willing to raise big questions and issues and willing not to answer them. For once, and despite the formal mastery, Moore doesn’t really present himself as a magician. It suits him.
If you’d like to read more about Moore, my thoughts here were somewhat inspired by an essay by Bert Stabler which he wrote for the Gay Utopia symposium.

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