Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
So because I was a young man in the late 1980s who liked comics and thought he was smart, I went to see Watchmen this past weekend. For those who don’t know, Watchmen is based on a groundbreaking 12 issue comic book series that takes as its central thesis that if superheroes existed in the real world, they wouldn’t be able to effect any significant positive change because, being human, they would have emotional, psychological, sexual and political problems just like everyone else.
The movie isn’t the disaster that some film adaptations are, but its best moments come directly from the comic. The film has a ponderousness, a heaviness of tone, that the comic did not have. There is no pleasure in watching the movie, or rather, the only pleasure comes when it recalls favorite parts of the comic. But despite material that ranged from melancholy to nihilistic, reading the comic was always a pleasure. Much of this comes from the cleverness of writer Alan Moore’s words, but mostly this pleasure comes from watching how words interact, support, subvert or contradict the images with which they share a panel. Watchmen was, to use a word that would become a cliche a decade after its publication, "interactive" in a way unlike any other comic or media of its time. Loaded with repeating images and words, the reader had to make connections between scenes or bits of dialogue, like solving a puzzle. The driving plot was a murder mystery, and the reader’s gathering of clues and noticing things echoed what the characters were doing. Based on lurid pulps and pushing comic book stereotypes to the point of no return, it was fun: that’s why I loaned my issues and gave copies of the book to so many people. The movie, whatever its merits, is not a fun experience.
I’ve become more interested lately in how the human brain works, how it processes different kinds of information. What parts of the brain does music stimulate? Why do you feel different after two hours of reading as opposed to two hours of watching television? Does representational work make us think differently than abstract? I was once discussing this in a bar with a neurologist (really!) and he said that the popular “right brain/left brain” model was an oversimplification and inaccurate. So while I’d like to avoid being dualistic, there does seem to be a fundamental divide between how we “read” words versus images. This would make comics an important form to study, but most comics aren’t as conscious as Watchmen of the dance between words and pictures. As mentioned before, they vary between harmony, opposition, ironic comment, and surprising coincidence. You draw meaning from the words and pictures: sometimes in synthesis, but not always. It was, if not new, then at least a subtly different, way of thinking.