i s   i t   a   b o o k ?
"Remember those old films we used to watch every Friday night on tv? However fast you run, however slow the mummy walks, it always catches you in the end."
- New Model Army
Spoiler Warning: Ahem! This essay reveals key plot elements from Alan Moore's comics Watchmen, Supreme : the story of the year, and Judgment day. Please consider yourself warned!
Alan Moore understands superhero stories very, very well. In his hands, a capes-and-tights adventure is something more than a well-spun tale. It becomes a comment on the entire genre. Sometimes with humor, sometimes with horror, he turns the form in on itself and shows us its heroic heights, its darkest corners, its absurd angles. And by doing so, Moore has changed the rules, expanded the boundaries of the genre and shifted the focus of the industry. In this essay, I will discuss three of Moore's superhero stories, both in terms of their overall influence and in terms of their narrative structures.
The interplay between the simultaneous and the sequential aspects of comic art makes the form particularly well suited to nonlinear structures and devices. Time is inherent to comics in a way that it's not inherent to, say, painting or sculpture. Comic books are more like movies in that one image follows another, though, unlike film, all the images are present simultaneously. The reader thus has a great deal of control over how they are viewed. In this sense, the comic is more like prose literature -- the reader can always go back and re-read or skip ahead. By combining images and text, comics are able to employ techniques borrowed from each of these other media -- circular and branching narratives (from prose fiction) and voice-over, flashbacks, and decontextualized images (from film). But the form also has its own unique possibilities.
Moore offered The onion this example:
"In one of the Greyshirt stories in Tomorrow stories, we did something very peculiar with the panel layouts. We had an apartment building, the same building, upon each page. Then to add another element, we made it so that the top panels are all taking place in 1999, the second panel down on each page is taking place in 1979, the panel beneath that takes place in 1959, and on the bottom panel of each page, you're seeing the bottom of the building as it was in 1939, when it was a fairly new building. We're able to tell, by some quite complicated story gymnastics, quite an interesting little story that is told over nearly 60 years of this building's life, with characters getting older depending on which panel and which time period they're in. There's something that you couldn't do in any medium other than comics."
This understanding of the medium's potential has been crucial to Moore's success: He finds what is unique, and pushes it as far as it can go. At the same time, he's never been afraid to show us the flaws in the genre, including those in his own work.
A groundbreaking masterpiece, the graphic novel Watchmen tells the story of a group of aging superheroes, brought out of retirement by the murder of one of their number. As they are reunited in the book's present (an alternate version of 1985, where America won the Vietnam War and Nixon is still president), they are confronted with their pasts and have to seriously reexamine their role in society (kind of like The big chill for masked adventurers).
Much of the story is told in a series of flashbacks and in dialogue about earlier events. We hear of the characters' origins, team-ups, rivalries, and bitter disputes; and we glimpse a world in which superpowers are used for riot control, nuclear deterrence, and political assassinations. "Just don't ask me where I was when I heard about J.F.K." the Comedian jokes.
In all of this, time is a constant theme -- from reminiscences of the glory days, to the details of an alternative history, to the bleak outlook for the future with looming threats of nuclear war.
In this context, nonlinearity shapes not only the narrative, but the characters as well. Doctor Manhattan, for example, experiences all time simultaneously, but acts only in the present. In chapter four, we get a small window into his experience (see the illustration below)
Doctor Manhattan sees past-present-future as a single, equally existent, continuum. Comics -- unlike any other medium -- let us literally see this. There are nine frames on the page. Five show 1959, albeit in a photograph. One only shows 1959. One shows the past (27 hours previous) with an image lifted from an earlier chapter. And one shows the future (12 seconds hence); this image first appears in the second frame, and then again in the ninth. The present catches up to the future as we read, but both appear on the page simultaneously -- just a few inches apart.
In real life, our point of view anchors us in the present -- perhaps even defines "present." To us, only "now" exists. To Dr. Manhattan, that would be like saying that there is nowhere other than "here." He explains: "There is no future. There is no past. . . Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet."
Picture a book. Now imagine a character in that book who could, somehow, flip ahead through the pages and see what was going to happen. Dr. Manhattan can do essentially that. But there's a paradox: If he knows what's going to happen -- if the future is already set, already written -- then can he do anything about it? Here we find a theological quandary applied to a superhero. In most respects, Dr. Manhattan is omnipotent -- but only when viewed from our usual moment-to-moment perspective. From his perspective, seeing the whole causal chain in a single unbroken glimpse, he feels like a helpless puppet of fate -- "a puppet who can see the strings." The "past" is a series of events leading inevitably to the "present"; the "future" is the necessary consequence of everything that's come before. The present is a moment like any other -- a point of view, a chronological vista, not an opportunity for action or change.
Such narrative games brought a previously unknown level of literary sophistication to the pulp superhero story. Watchmen also changed the sociology of the superhero comic. It showed us our archetypal heroes as they would likely appear in the real world -- that is, at best, as naive do-gooders like the two Nite Owls, but more commonly, as egotistical glory hounds like the original Silk Specter, inhuman and distant forces of nature like Doctor Manhattan, psychopaths like Rorschach, and stormtroopers like the Comedian.
By injecting this sense of social realism into a quintessentially escapist field, Moore reoriented the moral sense of the stories. He thus used a superhero story to critique the values of superhero stories, giving us a small sense of what those values mean in the real world. The cheerful patriotism of a Superman or Captain America thus becomes the grim cynicism of the Comedian -- and also, of G. Gordon Liddy. The near-omnipotence of Xorn or Captain Atom becomes the detached and unfeeling alienation of Dr. Manhattan. The hard, ends-justifies-means rationality of The Punisher or The Question finds a terrifying face in Rorschach's abandonment of ethical restraint. And the confidence and genius of Reed Richards or Tony Stark takes a megalomaniacal turn with Ozymandias.
With Watchmen, Moore offered a challenge to everyone working in the comic book industry. He discarded many of the cherished assumptions of the superhero genre and frustrated its conservative tendencies. He revealed the human (all-too-human) side of the heroes. And he has lived to regret it.
To understand Moore's reservations, we should consider how comics have changed since, and to some degree because of, Watchmen. That is, we should examine Moore's own place in the history of the field. Moore gives us a big help in this direction by recounting the history of superhero comics in Supreme : the story of the year and bringing it up to the present in Judgment day.
The story of the year is a meditation on the changes comics have undergone, and it starts off, sensibly enough, with a continuity revision. This naturally draws attention to the story's own indeterminacy, an indeterminacy rooted in its lack of history. Supreme says: "What with my memory gaps and all those alternate Supremes, my whole identity seems confused and insubstantial. . . . So much of my history is a complete and perfect blank, I don't know if I'm one thing or another."
This novel is, in a very real sense, the story of "an archetypal big-guy superhero in a cape" (Moore's term) returning to his past to learn who he is. But we are told at the outset that the past he's revisiting is as new as he is. As Supreme stands outside the continuity, conversing with an early version of himself, we hear:
New Supreme: "B-But this doesn't make sense! I've been Supreme, ever since the nineteen-forties!"
Old Supreme: "Ha Ha Ha! Sez you! Am I right in thinking you don't actually remember much about your 'career'?"
"Only because I've developed peculiar gaps in my memory. . ."
"Banana oil! Your past hasn't been written in yet! You probably just popped into being a few weeks back!"
Here, Moore intentionally interferes with the verisimilitude of the story; the tale he's telling actually relies on our remembering that it is fiction.
Later, when Supreme visits Littlehaven, his childhood home, he says: "It's as if when I see something, I get a flood of memory filling the gaps in my recollection. My past slowly gets colored in."
The fictional character thus experiences the narrative in much the way the reader does. In a very real sense, his past doesn't exist until it appears on the page. Most fiction obscures this fact in order to make the character and story seem more "real." Moore reverses course to make it seem more like fiction. He wants us to understand how the medium works, so that we can see how it has changed.
As The story of the year progresses, and Supreme reclaims his past, we see his previous adventures rendered in the style of the era they are supposedly from. We also, thereby, get a very brief history of the superhero comic, beginning in the 1940s. So we're reminded of forties-style innocence (or, perhaps, escapism) -- followed by the social anxieties of the fifties, where EC-style horror stories and juvenile humor were suddenly in the vanguard.
The Morgue Minder challenges the Allied Supermen of America:
". . . this is what Americans will be afraid of in the fifties! Red attack. Nuclear Doom! Radiation! You inspired people through a war, but can you give them hope against terrors like this?"
Doc Rocket: "He's right! What use are wax guns and shadow puppets against the threat of world destruction?" [...]
Storybook Smith: "We fight Super-Foes, not Social Nightmares!"
Just to add to the fun, time travel is a recurrent theme in many of the "old" Supreme stories, with Moore intentionally highlighting the resulting paradoxes: "Well, it isn't like [we] haven't dealt with time-travel before. Remember when that time door opened up between the 1940s and 1960s?"
"I remember it twice!"
"That was when we Allies met ourselves as Allied Supermen. . ."
"A villain from the forties, Doctor Clock, reached across twenty years to team up with a sixties enemy of Glory called the Time Tinker. Their plan was to crash the two decades together, profiting from the resultant chaos. Luckily, we were ready for them. . . In fact, we'd been ready for them since 1943, when it all happened to us the first time! Traveling back in time via Supreme's Time Tower, we teamed up with the Allied Supermen, defeated the villains and put time back to normal. The first time was fine, but then it got so we met ourselves every year, or we met future Allies, or we met evil duplicate parallel world Allies. . . In the end, even we could only tell who we were by minor costume differences."
As Supreme retraces his path, he also learns of the origin, and recurrence, of some of his oldest foes. Among them are Supremium Man. "I've encountered two different enemies, both called Supremium Man! One was a strange alien made from pure supremium, who fell from the skies one day in 1958. . . The other was an evil teenager from a parallel world who collected supremium meteorites. At first he was called Master Meteor. When he returned as a adult, he too was called Supremium Man." As it turns out, these two villains are the same. In fact, the two are actually Supreme's archenemy, Darius Dax, sent falling backwards through time after he exposes himself to supremium in Chapter 12 of The story of the year. Moreover, we see Dax converted first into Supremium Man, and then into a pure supremium meteorite, crashing in Littlehaven, 1925 -- and giving Supreme his powers. This introduces a circular narrative that intersects in key places with the linear timeline. (Moore provides us a diagram in the second Supreme volume.)
In a sense, Supreme is the innocent antithesis of Watchmen. But even here, Moore's self-doubt still makes an appearance. We're told that comic writer Billy Friday (a pompous prick who works at Dazzle Comics with Supreme's alter ego, Ethan Crane) is intent on "snuff[ing] Omniman and all the crap supporting characters from the sixties in one issue!" Love interest Diana Dane asks Ethan: "How can you work with that guy? Are all British writers like that, or just the ones I've met?" Remember that Moore (a British writer) made his mark in comics by (among other things) paralyzing Batgirl and torturing Commissioner Gordon (in The killing joke), recasting old superhero archetypes only to have them destroy each other (in Watchmen), and beginning his run on the Swamp thing with the protagonist on an autopsy table. Moore cannot, at this stage, critique the genre without also critiquing his own work. He cannot judge the current state of comics without also implicating himself.
His self-indictment takes a graphic form in Judgment day.
In the first three chapters of his Judgment day collection, Alan Moore tells several stories simultaneously. A murder mystery/courtroom drama quickly leads into the story of a sacred Book. The Book's story serves to unify the history of an entire comic book "universe" -- tying gods, barbarians, cowboys, psychic investigators, and a whole host of superheroes into a single overarching narrative. This takes a standard conceit of comics (e.g., that John Constantine and the Green Lantern are part of the same "DC Universe") and turns it into a plot device. In doing so, it also supplies the backstory for characters who are presumed to have their own extensive personal histories -- histories documented in the imaginary archives of hypothetical comic book stories. Operating at another level, though, Judgment day offers a quick critical history of comic books, showing us the various artistic and writing styles, the themes, and the moral and aesthetic sensibilities typical of subsequent generations of graphic storytelling.
In its narrowest sense, the plot of Judgment day concerns a murder trial: Knightsabre, a member of the superhero team "Youngblood," is accused of killing his comrade Riptide. But the story takes a metaphysical turn with the introduction of the magic Book. Originally a gift from the god Hermes, the Book contains every story of the past, present, and future -- including the story of Riptide's murder. In other words, the story we read as we parse through the graphic novel is embedded in itself.
In the first chapter, we get a mostly-linear narrative with periodic vignettes from stories with titles like "Kid Thunder", "Bram the Berserk", "Zantar, white god of the Congo", and "The White Knight". At first, the significance of these vignettes is obscure. They range over thousands of years and several genres, but a consistent theme emerges -- a sacred object that the hero must retrieve or protect. As the novel progresses, we come to realize that these are flashbacks and that the fragmented bits and pieces are aspects of one big story -- the story of the Book.
In the second and third chapters, similar vignettes are framed as testimony in the trial. In general, these scenes move through four stages: 1) We see the witness on the stand, simply saying what happened; 2) We see the action she describes, with her testimony appearing in a box as a kind of "voice-over"; 3) We see the action, without the narration; and, 4) We return to the frame, with the narrator speaking in court and the images of her story gone. As in The story of the year, the flashbacks are rendered in the style of their periods (that is, the style of comics dealing with Medieval Europe or the old West, not the style of the real-world art of those periods). Chapters two and three are more clearly structured than the first: The vignettes proceed in more-or-less chronological order, outlining this history of the Book from its creation to the present.
As the trial progresses, we simultaneously witness its proceedings and, through the testimony presented there, learn of the Book's passage though the eons. We hear of those who have guarded the Book, those who have stolen it, those who have lost it, and found it, and those who have unscrupulously re-written it for their own purposes. Such re-writing, we learn, is not only implicated in the murder of Riptide, but is also responsible for the entire state of the world in which the heroes live. There is, from the characters' perspective, literally no difference between the story and the world. Changing one, changes the other. This makes the Book an object of great power, and it means that the stories it holds have real consequences.
The defense lawyer, Toby Tyler, enters the Book into evidence saying: "You know, a lot of legal cases can be very frustrating. There's always somebody who refuses to come clean. There's always some part of the story that never gets filled in. Well, that isn't going to happen here. Mr. Langston [aka Sentinel] can refuse to testify, but we're still going to hear the story. That's because what I have in this box isn't just another piece of evidence. It isn't just another part of the story. It is the story!"
Toby reads from the book, a story called "Sentinel," which tells of that character's origin and also contains a kind of analogy to the recent history of comics: "Around the middle nineteen eighties. . . he decides to write a nastier, shadowier and more violent world for himself. . . and for everybody else. Our entire reality changed and darkened. Gone was the naive wonder of the 'forties, the exuberance of the fifties and the nobility of the sixties. Working a dreadful reverse alchemy, Marcus Langston let our world slide from a Golden Age to a Silver Age, and finally to a Dark Age."
Toby recounts the events of Riptide's murder, and describes the subsequent cover-up -- or rather, the revision. He explains how Sentinel wrote in Knightsabre as the fall guy. And reading from the Book, Toby repeats the opening words of Judgment day's first chapter, highlighting Sentinel's composition of the events as they occurred:
"He wasn't worried about concealing the crime. He'd just write somebody else in as the culprit. About twenty minutes after killing Miss Creel, Langston started to compose the following entry. . . 'It's the 30th of August in Washington, the first shivering witch-breath of fall in the air. Mickey Tombs just turned thirty. If you asked him, Mickey would say he'd been out celebrating. . .' Then this, as Knightsabre stumbles into Youngblood H.Q. a full hour after the time Langston reported him arriving. . . 'Only Sentinel's still awake, working his shift on the night desk and scribbling away at the log or some other damned thing. . .' Some damned thing indeed; while Knightsabre crossed the lobby to the elevators, Sentinel was writing 'Mickey passes the desk on his way to the elevators.' He wrote Knightsabre's drunken decision to visit Leanna Creel's apartment. He wrote Knightsabre's passing out on Creel's bed. . . Isn't that right, Mr. Langston? It's here in your own handwriting. In this case, the crime, evidence, and confession are all the same thing."
In the course of Judgment day, this is a lawyer's Perry Mason-like evisceration of a witness. It is also, in our world, a critique of the current state of comics. And coming from Moore, it is -- perhaps most of all -- a personal lament. As he told an interviewer:
"[A]fter Watchmen and Miracleman I had become pretty thoroughly sick of superheroes. I had become particularly sick of the postmodern superheroes that followed in their wake. It seemed to me that postmodern comics were like viewing a distorted mirror at a fun fair, where you go in and see these grotesque-looking things, and you think, 'My God, that's me!' That was the feeling I got reading some of these comics: I could see stylistic elements that had been taken from my own work, and used mainly as an excuse for more prurient sex and more graphic violence. I had essentially a nasty time getting through them. And you do get the impression of saying to yourself, 'Oh, my God, I wanted to make comics a better place to visit.' But now everywhere I turn there're these psychotic vigilantes dealing out death mercilessly! You know? With none of the irony that I hoped I brought to my characters. And I felt a bit depressed in that it seemed I had unknowingly ushered in a new dark age of comic books. . ."
Regret is always an untimely mediation. It is the past's revenge on the present -- and our present judgment's irresistible attack on the decisions of the past. When we look back on our lives, our judgments of our earlier selves import to the past our present values and knowledge, including knowledge concerning the consequences of our earlier actions and values shaped by the very decisions and experiences we are evaluating. Given the shift in perspective, it seems almost inevitable that we would wish we had done some things differently.
But Alan Moore's regret is surely too harsh, and it seems to forget the real contribution he has made through his work. Watchmen placed superheroes in a more complex moral universe -- one in which the line between good guys and bad guys was blurry and sometimes unstable, one in which not every problem could be solved with fist fights and magic rings, and one in which we have good reason to distrust people who think they know what's best for us and exempt themselves from the usual rules. It's not really the Critique of pure reason, but Watchmen did show a level of sophistication which was previously almost unknown in the field. And more to the point, it added a dimension of moral seriousness that had been sadly lacking.
It's just that not every writer since then has been ready to face the responsibility.
-- written by Kristian Williams, 2005
The comix section of our Bibliography includes complete citations for the comics discussed in this essay, as well for other comics and graphic novels by that employ nonlinearity (though it is by no means a complete list - at the moment it only includes comics by Alan Moore). It also lists books, articles, and websites that touch on nonlinearity in comix or discuss the works mentioned here.
And if you're interested in reading more of Kristian's work, here are some things he thinks you might like:
Non inlay tier: nylon inertia. Tannin rye oil, Tiny neon lair
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