Monday, February 16, 2009

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Can you feel the electricity in the air?  That's not because Father Anonymous is has an obsession with the movie Frankenstein and is running his Tesla coils day and night down in the rectory basement.  Well, not only that.

No, the electricity comes from the March 6 release of The Watchmen, a movie which neeks and gerds have both longed for and dreaded, lo this quarter-century.

For those who don't know, The Watchmen was a comic-book miniseries, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, which ran during the mid-1980s, and which to all intents and purposes completed the task of superhero comics.  It tells the story of the "mystery men," from the beginning to what now seems like the only feasible end.
It is not that, post-Watchmen, there are no more stories to tell about the lycra-loving musclemen, so much as that the stories left to tell seem either minor or derivative.  Or naive.  The best of them -- Kurt Busiek's Astro City, for example -- seem like prequels.  The worst -- DC's endless Crises -- seem like tepid efforts to revisit the (dubious) past glories of a genre that has no future.

Meanwhile, The Watchmen, even though it is set in an alternate-reality 1985, in which Nixon is president and the Soviets are a force to be reckoned with, still astonishes.  Fr. A. reread it last night, and found new details, new ironies, that he had somehow missed the first dozen times.  Even if the Cold War backdrop seems dated, the story is kept fresh by its main engine, the tension between human wickedness and our never-failing longing to become good, or at least do good things.

What does The Watchmen offer to Egg readers?  There is no religion in it, per se.  (To the extent that Alan Moore has a religion, it appears to center on the worship of stories for their own sake, and perhaps to use hallucinogens as its sacrament.  His Promethea series would be the Summa of this faith.)  Nor, despite scenes with Nixon, are there really any political ideas.  

But there is some sex, and it is -- by the standards of superhero comics, at least -- thoughtfully portrayed.  The characters are complex enough that, when they go to bed with each other, the complexity comes with them.  One doubts whether the movie can possibly capture this.  Movies seem to specialize ever more completely in physical contact between soulless automatons.  (And not for nothing, but when a mass-market comic book portrays sex with more emotional depth than a live-action film, our culture is in its death throes.)

But sex is not what draws us to the story, nor what we hope for in the movie.  Instead, there is that tension we described above, between human nature as it is and as it desires to be.  That's a good story, and a story that will ring true to readers both secular and religious.

(By the way, i09 has a review of pre-comic-book "superman" stories, from the age of the pulps, which is worth a gander. These are the yarns from which the superhero genre evolved, and quickly -- think of Siegel & Schuster cribbing from Philip Wylie. The site editors make a few shrewd connections to The Watchmen,).

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