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Sept. 19, 2004

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The Watchmen vs Craftsmen: Conan is a Chair

"God's given me a gift.  I shovel well...I shovel very well."
                            The Shoveler: Mystery Men

Back in the '80s, a comic book scripter named Alan Moore and a comic book artist named Dave Gibbons got together to concoct a massive, multi-issue Graphic Novel called The Watchmen.  The result was a mammoth achievement, taking the comic world by storm, through its mind-blowing complexity in word and picture, and its fresh take on the entire superhero genre itself. (No doubt you already know all this, but allow me a little backstory for THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE...)

The Watchmen was set in an imaginary alternative Now, and involved the creation of a whole crop of original supertypes, which were nonetheless obviously based on pre-existing archetypes.  For example, instead of Batman we have "Night Owl", who has no special powers but a whole lot of gadgets; instead of Superman we have "Dr. Manhattan". whose powers are virtually without limit.  To this day, two decades on, most comic book fans will tell you without hesitation that The Watchmen was THE pinnacle of superhero comic book creation.  Only Frank Miller's Batman serial, The Dark Knight Returns, comes close to sharing The Watchmen's lofty perch, and even then most fans would rank it a close second -- (although I'm not one of them...I consider Miller's Dark Knight Returns the ne plus ultra of comicdom...a topic which I hope to one day revisit.).  The Watchmen truly made comic book history.

There were various reasons for this.  Partly it was the sheer complexity of the thing the blew everyone away.  It proved, according to the fans, that comics didn't have to be kid's stuff.  They could tell disturbing, intelligent, ADULT stories, instead of just showing a bunch of guys in tights pummelling each other.  (Although there was plenty of pummelling in The Watchmen, make no mistake.)  But Moore and Gibbons had an agenda too.  They both felt that superhero comics were childish and unrealistic.  They wanted to expose the weaknesses in the superhero genre by creating their own superheros and asking what sort of a person would really want to dress up in a mask and cape and roam the night beating up thugs.  Instead of the standard unblemished superheroes fighting crime for the sake of fighting crime, Moore and Gibbons presented complex characters, driven by neuroses with definite feet of clay.  It wasn't a pretty picture but, according to the fans, it was realistic.

Make no mistake, Moore and Gibbons had very lofty plans for their The Watchmen.  As Moore repeatedly explained in later years, he thought at the time that his The Watchmen would so thoroughly undermine the superhero genre that the genre itself would have no choice but to call it quits.  I kid you not.  After The Watchmen, he fully expected comics companies Marvel and DC would have to retool their comics lines, eliminating all their superheroes -- after The Watchmen had exposed the ludicrousness behind the genre, how could it continue?  And Moore, for all his hubris, wasn't alone in hearing in The Watchmen the deathknell of the superheroes.  In fact, recently visiting a website ranking the top Graphic Novels in comic history, I found The Watchmen not surprisingly made the list and the judge commented: "God alone knows how mainstream super-heroes carried on after [The Watchmen]."

Instead of spelling the end of the superheroes, The Watchmen influenced the genre the last way Moore and Gibbons would have wished.  Superheroes continued, but now their stories followed a darker, more violent path.  Whereas The Watchmen was meant to show seriously flawed antiheroes, exposing the lie behind the squeaky clean myth, later writers took the message that superheroes were cooler the more messed up they were.  Now antiheroes became the rage, the more violent the better.  Recently, comics have begun to reemerge from this violent dark age, but, for a time, things looked pretty bleak.

But my point in detailing the history of The Watchmen is this.  I find it truly amazing that anyone could have thought that The Watchmen (or any single comic) would spell the end of superheroes.  Superheroes have existed ever since Superman first lifted a car in Action Comics #1 way back in 1938.  In the decades since, superheroes have multiplied like tribbles, weaving themselves inextricably into the fabric of our pop culture.  A phenomenon like that doesn't just close up shop because of one criticism, no matter how cogent. 

More important -- and apropos to the topic of this essay -- there is a hidden assumption behind the notion that The Watchmen might have spelled the end of superheroes.  This is the assumption that an Art form like superhero comics can only exist so long as it is continuing to evolve, continuing to push the envelope, to innovate.  The Watchmen, it was believed, in exposing the "lie" behind the squeaky clean superhero myth, essentionally said all there was left to say.  And, with nothing more to be said, the superhero genre had nowhere left to go.  It was over and done with.  As Stan the Man would have said: "Nuff said."

But is this necessarily right?  Is that the sole measure of the superhero genre?  Either it must push the envelope or die?  Must it always be forging into new unexplored territory?  Certainly, if we see comics as Art, we are inclined to this viewpoint.  But must comics be seen as Art?  Is there some other way of looking at things? 

I think it is just as valid to think of superhero comics as a Craft, rather than as Art.  And considered in that light, success is not measured by innovation but by "craftmanship".

Consider, as an example, a chairmaker.  I think we can agree that chairmaking is more a Craft than an Art. With such a Craft, the craftsman's goal is not to find a new way to make chairs.  It is to make chairs which are hopefully as good as the best which were made by the craftsmen before him.  No one criticized Stradivarius because his violins didn't explore new forms.  He made violins and he made them exceptionally well.  His goal was to make them the best violins they could be -- not to invent a different instrument nor to take violins in a new direction.

This notion of seeing Art as Craft can just as easily be applied to the genre most dear to all our hearts -- Pulp fiction.  Pulp fiction was (and is) frequently criticized for lack of innovation.  It's practitioners were damned as "hacks", mindlessly churning out stagnant imitations of those who had come before them, showing no imagination of their own.  And I would certainly not dispute this.  The pulpsters did indeed steal heavily from each other.  But this is only a fault if we insist on seeing Pulp as an Art form.  Viewed as a Craft, akin to chairmaking or violin making, it has nothing to apologize for.

Nor am I suggesting that either superhero comics or Pulp Fiction should somehow be exempt from criticism.  Is there such a thing as a poorly made chair?  Of course there is.  As I said, the measure of success, where a Craft is concerned, is how well does the product compare with the best which have gone before?  Lord knows, there were plenty of bad stories produced during the Pulp Fiction era.  There were plenty of bad superhero comics put out before and after The Watchmen.  But there were also other examples in both Crafts which, because they were not striving to push the envelope and explore new territory, are too casually dismissed.  In truth, their purpose was to show the same craftmanship as the best which had gone before, and thus that should be the true measure of their success.

Perhaps, more importantly, seeing an Art form as a Craft leads to another happy difference.  Because Art forms are often expected to be forever "improving" upon the past, they carry with them an inherent disdain for that past.  Sure, there are the occasional exceptions, like Shakespeare or Da Vinci, who are almost universally admired, but generally the tendency is to say: "Oh, they did all right for their time.  But we've learned so much more since then, donchathink?" 

Craftsmen, on the other hand, see the world differently.  They revere the past.  They learn from it and recognize that they should consider themselves damned lucky if they can even approach the level of craftsmanship achieved by past masters. 

In no way am I saying that the superhero genre should stagnate.  Nor am I saying that there haven't been innovators in the genre of Pulp fiction.  I am just as thrilled as the next reader when I run across something done in a way I've never seen before.  But I also recognize that sometimes equalling the past can be just as difficult as "improving on it".  An army of lacklustre Conan imitations and pastiches churned out over the last few decades surely proves that point clearly enough.  I think it is fair to say no modern imitator has ever equalled the story telling abilities of Conan's creator Robert E. Howard.  But, if they did, would we criticize them for failing to take the archetype of the barbarian hero in "new directions"?  Or would we applaud them for showing excellent craftsmanship?

Good craftsmanship is just as difficult as innovation.   Or to refer to the quote from the movie Mystery Men with which I began this essay -- Why can't it be enough to shovel very well?

If Conan is a chair, right now I'd settle for a well-crafted footstool.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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