After not really enjoying “Foe”, reading “Watchmen” was what I needed. A classic comic book tale to sweep me away and let me wander through this eerily similar yet vastly different world created by Alan Moore. I’d already read most of “Watchmen” in the far past, and had already seen the movie, so I had a very clear idea of the events to come, yet I didn’t expect to get so caught up in the little things in this reading through. I spent way too long looking at the backgrounds of panels, just observing the world which was so meticulously created. I relished at finding hidden and cut off newspaper headlines which gave a bit more life to the dark painting of Nixon New York the characters inhabit. Hell, I even read all of the segments in between the chapters, something I wouldn’t have even fathomed as a kid.

Part of the reason I like “Watchmen” so much is the characters in the story. It sounds incredibly generic and overheard, but I enjoyed “Watchmen” mostly due to characters like Rorschach, The Comedian, and especially Bernie and Bernard (the kid and the man of the newstand). Funnily enough, all the characters I really felt connected to ended up dying in some way. I mention the characters because I feel like this is where a lot of “Watchmen”‘s beauty lies. I really can’t recall any comic book or even book/novel which had this many dynamic and interesting characters. The reader is constantly getting to know different characters better in these constantly connected interactions. Interactions which not only give context to the character, but are also linked to the main story, and give the whole world context.

Maybe this is something people might dislike about the book. I could see it being a bit of a jumbled mess if you don’t have the patience and time to sift through the endless narration of “The Black Freighter”, wondering why a crazy survivor/pirate story is constantly coming back. But it’s like any sort of world you can get lost in, similar to Star Wars, Star Trek, or any other similar franchise which has an incredibly detailed world and characters to get lost within.

Perhaps part of the reason I enjoy reading “Watchmen” so much is because it naturally divides opinion. There are those who believe Veidt is the true protagonist and saviour, yet upon closer inspection nobody is able to be a proper hero within the story. Veidt lies to the world, kills half of New York (including The Comedian, and many of the minor characters in the city of New York the reader grows to love), all in a crazy plan to restore peace. He even goes so far as to try to destroy Dr. Manhattan! Is this what a hero looks like to you? But the alternatives are just as morose, with the wild Rorschach as the other main choice. A vicious man who lives with no regrets, constantly searching for truth and righteousness. That is my hero.

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Reading “Foe” took me directly back to when I was a child, and my parents forced me (didn’t let me read other books until I finished this one) to read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. While I look back on the past today surely acknowledging the masterful writing of Mark Twain (especially because my father has a large portrait of him in the living room), even today I can’t bear to even think about “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. It’s not that “Foe” is a book I immediately disliked for any particular reason, it’s just that it came exactly at the wrong time for me.

The reason that I didn’t like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as a kid was because I often had a fat stack of Calvin and Hobbes comics waiting for me at the finish line. It’s remarkable how much the modern day case of “Foe” resembles this. After having just read one of my favorite (if not my definite favorite) book of the course by Primo Levi, and with “Watchmen” coming up right after, “Foe” seemed like an awfully misplaced book in this part of the year (especially for someone with very little self initiative and directive towards schoolwork). I would constantly be taking sneakpeaks at what was ahead, or thinking of reading a chapter of Primo Levi through again rather than simply reading Foe. On top of it all, I was in Los Angeles vacationing and working, so the story told by J.M. Coetzee was even more detached from my thoughts. It was a suffering existence of not properly getting immersed in the book, and truly not enjoying any part of it.

I just couldn’t handle the story, I didn’t like the way Coetzee meshed these worlds together, trying to be very artistic and fancy (changing names of characters etc.) when maybe just making up a totally new story would’ve been easier on everyone. Maybe a lot of my frustration with the book culminated when I read the final chapter. By then I had already been toyed with enough by Coetzee, and I simply wanted a resolution to this story I could not immerse myself within. Instead, the last few pages are nothing but a stacking up of things which bothered me about the whole book! Constantly trying to be overly artistic and perhaps impart some deeper meaning to the reader with a final chapter filled with (somehow) connected symbols and motifs which did not satisfy me or change my opinion of the book for the better.

While I’m sure “Foe” must be respected for the writing and maybe even for the story, but just like Mark Twain’s famous novel, it came at the wrong time and was never able to leave an imparting impression upon me.

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J M Coetzee, FoeAs part of the Arts One Digital initiative (which I’ve mentioned before, we’re recording various lectures delivered as part of UBC’s “Arts One” program. You can see for instance my lecture on J M Coetzee’s Foe here, in various formats. The project is going from strength to strength, and I’m confident we’ll be able to ramp it up still further next year. We continue trying new things, and this afternoon my colleague Kevin McNeilly and I hope to record a podcast discussion on Foe and Eliot’s The Waste Land.

In the meantime, you may want to check out something I wrote a couple of years ago, on Foe as an “unwriting” of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

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That was a very welcome and interesting change of pace. I’m not sure what I was expecting, as I don’t often read graphic novels, but I was surprized by how dark it was. I wasn’t expecting it to be any kind of classic superhero story, but there were definitely a fair number of twists that I didn’t see coming. There were still some clichés of course: the misunderstood hero, the battle against time to save the world, etc. But the creative plot twists and overall story was done well enough that those weren’t particularly frustrating or unforgivable. The heroes possessed a level of complexity that challenged our very conception of what it means to be a hero or “good guy.” They were, in some cases, just as cruel as the villains. Furthermore, this unconventional superhero tale did not shy away from death. Both hero and the civilians died, breaking away from the expected invincibility of the protagonists.

This story was both in our world and completely separate from it. I had a little trouble at first as I tried to figure out if it was supposed to be more similar or different. What were the limits of the Watchman world?  Dr. Manhattan seems to be able to defy pretty much every law of physics, but normalities are also there. Similar but different. Monstrous? Hmm.

I was intrigued by the significance of masks. I found myself thinking of Anonymous, the “hacktivist” group. There was actually an attempt, not long ago, to ban masks in protests in Canada. A significant reason for that was due to the Vancouver riots, but it was also intended to be applied to all forms of protest I believe… My memory is a little vague on the details. But as a result of the Anonymous movement, more and more people have taken up wearing masks as part of their activism, especially the Guy Fawkes masks. The idea of anonymity is significant not only to this book but to our world as well. As well, it also begs the question: is the person behind the mask the same person with or without it? How can being secured in our anonymity alter our behaviour? To being us back to the beginning of this class, I’m reminded of Plato, and the invisibility ring, and the question of justice and good and bad. Masks serve a similar purpose to invisibility.

Great text to end the year with, I really enjoyed it.

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In other words…………

Best. Book. Ever. (Okay, maybe not EVER, but you get my drift)

Seriously, not joking, no kidding around, this book was fantastic. The best way to end off the ArtsOne reading list. I couldn’t believe how much emotional complexity there was in the characters. I couldn’t put this book down.

I loved the intertwining of the comic within a comic. It was a bit like a sick twisted Robinson Crusoe, but when you read the dialogue of the city alongside the fictional work, the parallels between the two were phenomenal. I found that although I was so confused with it at points, the image that stuck with me most was the raft made of corpses. The castaway’s descriptions of using dead men as a raft were almost  symbolic of the government using society as their base. In truth, we’re all kind of like those dead corpses, and the political powers are the castaway. Do we actually have a say in government, or are our voices drowned and silent like those of the raft? I believe that, unfortunately, it is the more grim one…

I found Dr. Manhattan to be perhaps the most interesting character. Yes, he was a superhuman creature who, for some reason, never wears clothing, but it wasn’t that which made him fascinate me. It was his seeming incapability to sympathize with humanity, and his omniscent, almost godlike appearance. It brought about a question of religion, especially when the Comedian shoots the pregnant Vietnamese woman. Blake tells Manhattan that he could have stopped him, yet he didn’t. Just like Manhattan really has no concern whatsoever for mankind, it makes us question whether the gods of religion really care about society. So much tragedy occurs in the world, yet no omniscent being tries to stop it. Just as Dr. Manhattan doesn’t care, can we trust a god to as well?

Rorshach broke my heart a little bit. Really, I felt pretty bad for the guy. He’s such an outcast, haunted by memories past. I just wanted to give him a hug, creepy as he was. It was interesting how he referred to his mask as his face. He wanted to exist completely outside the realm of humanity’s corruption, and he also wanted no identity. I think in referring to the mask as his face, it almost represents his inability to acknowledge repressed demons or urges. His mask is almost like a facade of civility, of everything he wants society to be, good and pure. His actual flesh is the seedy underbelly, the horrific actions and thoughts that occur on a day to day basis. He wants to hide everything that’s corrupt within himself, only acknowledging the part he’s proud of.

Literally, this book is just fantastic. I had so many emotions with this book, from wanting to cry to excitement. I just loved it.

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The back cover of this states that this book changed an industry and challenged a medium, and I can believe it. This is a graphic novel written by someone who knows how to write graphic novels and drawn by someone who knows how to draw graphic novels. There is a near perfect amount and tone of dialogue in every panel, a stark attention to artistic detail that underlines and flawlessly supplements this dialogue, and, when it is needed, both parts that are only text and parts that are only pictures. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this despite my disinterest with some of the content (I wasn’t brainwashed by hero propaganda in my childhood, so the brutal realism felt more mundane than shocking), and above all, I love how the themes, characters, and situations are woven together into the grand narrative. It’s great—but it’s not perfect. If I had to state the two things about this novel that I didn’t like, it would be (1) the bolding and (2) the somewhat broken flow. Yes, I know that bolding key words is common practice in comics and such, but I find the practice annoying and unnecessary when the writing is good, which is the case here. As to the flow, the downside of this novel’s format of going through every major character’s backstory is that the sense of pacing simply flops. The middle part is where I started getting kind of bored (Manhattan = Boring), and until the jail break, I felt like the story was going nowhere. However, as I’ve said before, this novel manages to weave all of those backstories and themes together, leaving us with a satisfied, albeit anticlimactic ending. Actually, its anticlimactic nature was why it was satisfying.

Characters. This is, of course, a character-driven narrative, and had the characters sucked, this novel would have sucked—good thing they don’t. Every major actor (and some minor ones) in this play are put through this pattern of being fleshed out well, playing their part, and then leaving the stage before they overstay their welcome (except boring ol’ Manhattan). My favourite character is without a doubt Rorschach, but the true lynchpin of this narrative is without a doubt the Comedian. He is the dead central character of this novel who connects to all of the other major actors whether by history or theme and whose mark is featured on the cover and many, many times in the backgrounds of various panels. He is the one who introduces this story (notice that his part is played before his character is fleshed out), and he is the one who does, in fact, end it. Everything that he says, does, and thinks possesses a double meaning, and the *SPOILER* main “antagonist” Adrian would fall utterly flat as a character had the Comedian not been his reflection in the mirror. And in fact, the Comedian is the only link we have to the one “mystery” of this novel—Hooded Justice. This individual caught my attention early in the novel as his name was repeated just enough to make one feel suspicious (he was my candidate for main antagonist), and in addition to being the “beginning” of the costumed heroes and their philosophy, he also reflects the “end” of Adrian’s plan, Justice in the guise of a Monster. However, we have to ask ourselves whether or not Adrian really lives up to that title. Hooded Justice, possibly the one true hero of this novel, exits the stage long before the play even begins. Does that mark the unveiling and release of justice or its quiet and quickly-forgotten demise?  

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Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, WatchmenAlan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen offers something of a counter-factual history of the Cold War. In particular, it imagines the central role of two generations of masked do-gooders: a 1940s cohort of “Minutemen,” most of whom are somewhat ephemeral and more than slightly ridiculous (of “Mothman,” “Dollar Bill,” and “Silhouette” we hear very little) and a 1960s/1970s gang of “Crimebusters” who take themselves a little more seriously and have a much more sinister edge.

The Minutemen are nostalgically portrayed mostly through a faded sepia photo and are clearly out of their depth when it comes to derring-do that goes beyond picking up petty thieves and minor gangsters: at their inaugural meeting, in 1939, one of them nervously admits that “Just thinking about war, it scares me.” The Crimebusters are made of sterner stuff, and feature at least one member who is genuinely superhuman. This is Doctor Manhattan, a former nuclear scientist who thanks to an accident at work now has almost unlimited powers to decompose and recompose matter, to mutate and multiply himself, to survive in the harshest environments, as well as to see past, present, and (with some restrictions) future in one instant. It is thanks to Manhattan that (in this version of twentieth-century history) the USA has won the Vietnam War and is able to hold off the Soviet threat of nuclear annihilation. Vital for US national security, he is now the only costumed crusader who legitimately pursues his vocation. By the late 1970s, as the US urban infrastructure crumbled and even superheroes were viewed as more trouble than they were worth, all the others were forced to hang up their capes. All but Rorschach, that is, a particularly violent and uncompromising individual whose mask is an ever-shifting pattern of blots and who in one way or another is the story’s central character.

But if this is a novel that stresses decay, disintegration, and the loss of innocence–and it is–none-the-less its portrait of the past is not entirely rose-tinted. For the rot set in early, as did the general sense of ambivalence that surrounds all these supposedly “super” figures. Even in 1939, the sepia-tinged harmony is soon shown to be a sham: as soon as the photo session is over, a bloody fight erupts as the “Comedian” attempts to rape his fellow Minuteman (Minutewoman?) “Silk Spectre,” only to be beaten up in turn by a third of their number, the aptly-named “Hooded Justice.” There never was a Golden Age of heroism, and this inaugural violence and violation comes to taint the second generation of superheroes too: indeed, the Comedian is the only Minuteman to continue on to membership in the Crimebusters a generation later. His amoral cynicism and frank revelry in violence is presented as a constant temptation for vigilante avengers who choose to act outside the law without ever necessarily finding an alternative moral or ethical principle. At best, ultimately the book seems at first glance to endorse a very crude utilitarianism: that conspiracy and deception on a massive scale, not to mention the destruction of (here) the entire US Eastern Seaboard (and the deaths of many millions), is justified by a project to end the Cold War and bring perpetual peace. But this, after all, is precisely the logic of the Cold War itself.

Only Rorschach and (it is implied) the Comedian balk at this simplistic balance of the greater good. Rorschach’s words as he storms out of the utopian hero (or anti-hero)’s Antarctic lair are: “No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never Compromise.” But he and the Comedian are killed for their pains: indeed the two deaths bookend the narrative, as it’s the Comedian’s murder that kickstarts the plot, and Rorschach’s death takes place in the final act. Can we to sympathize with their doomed resistance to the calculations of power, however well-intentioned? I think and hope so, not least because the entire story is framed as Rorschach’s (he may have been eliminated, but he has got the word out against all odds), though in some ways this means that the end only takes us back to the beginning. More strikingly, it also means that the resulting ambivalence is extreme, almost unbearable: other characters, not least the second-generation “Nite Owl” and “Silk Spectre,” are much more immediately sympathetic, more “human.” In the end, however, we are asked to sympathize with an ultra-violent cynicism whose most obvious virtue is only that it is not so deadly as a rationalism that ends up indistinguishable from nihilism.

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Watchmen: Mediums and close-minded people.

What a grand finale. Watchmen is honestly one of the greatest pieces of literature I’ve ever read, and it just gets better and better upon each reading. Each chapter is so diverse and has so many existential ideas and thought provoking themes. What would the apparent presence of a deity do to our society? How much of our actions and beliefs are controlled and instilled by the media and community? Is free-will an illusion? And it’s never dull! The comic appeals to our generation, and is fast-paced and is a consistent page turner. And it really irritates me that anyone could possibly ignore a piece this well crafted, simply based off the stigma of its medium. It’s honestly beautiful. Graphic novels can be art, and so can a variety of other forms!

This is a classic cycle. A new generation comes along and changes aspects of something the past generation loves and the old timers hate it. This idea is addressed in Watchmen, from the generation of Minutemen to the new generation of super heroes like Dr. Manhattan. By the 50s sex appeal was on the rise, and music got a lot louder with musicians like Elvis Presley hitting the scene. So the past generation begrudges and casts their hatred of this new form of music, rather than embrace it. When motion pictures came out many people questioned their artistic value. Today, it’s clear with give the medium of a motion picture incredible value. And along came comics and the same inevitable pattern came along with it. People simply look at it and weigh the entire art form the same and deem it worthless. “It’s only pulp action crap and one-dimensional superhero spiel. And then graphic works like Maus, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns come out, and the new generation comes to grow and cherish it in the new medium.

Roger Ebert once stated that Video Games are not, and never will be art. Well I can tell you one thing, that fat old film critic has no right to challenge a medium he hasn’t given the time of day or ever embraced. To anyone reading this, I promise that within 30 years people will be calling video games art, believe me I’ve played some that have instilled more resonance than “cherished” works like Foe could ever manage. And our generation loves it, so when we’re old enough to be fat old critics like Ebert, we can have our say. You don’t see Rolling Stone proclaiming Wagner as the greatest musician of all time, they’re going to choose the stuff they grew up with! And while it horrifies me that Dub Step could be this Generations Rock and Roll, it is entirely possible. I just pray there isn’t a magazine 40 years down the road naming the top 100 greatest dub-step artists.

To anyone disliking what I’m saying please go ahead and listen to song song “The Times They Are A-Changin” By Bob Dylan, he’ll probably preach it better than I am at the moment. And that’s relevant because it’s also featured in the Watchmen Movie soundtrack… but that isn’t really the best movie. It’s a fantastic adaptation, but speaking of mediums, Alan Moore’s work was never supposed to be funneled to the big screen. If your changing an artform’s medium some sacrifices will have to be made, or it won’t survive. Some alterations are necessary to make it a legitimate film. Puzzles are great, and Lego blocks are also great, but you can’t finish a puzzle with lego blocks and vice versa…..

Alright, now I’m rambling a bit. But I’d just like to say, Jon I know you don’t appreciate video games so I’d like to leave you with a nice quote.

“admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.”

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Heroism Grows Up

I think I could argue that there are more important statements about Life (with a capital L) in this novel, then in something by Rousseau or Hobbes. There is something about an actual story of people trying to achieve humanity. I think it can show you more than just a narrator telling you what is the best way to achieve humanity. And Humanity (with a capital H) is a pretty important idea in Watchmen. The idea of ‘regular superheros’ is important. All these characters are us, some of us in each of them. We cannot disconnect ourselves from their lives so easily as you could superman or batman. There is so much in this story, so many important moments and quotes and ideas, that it is almost impossible to fit it all in a blog, but structuring it around the characters will be a good start.

Rorschach. If I had to pick one really important theme for this whole book it would be ‘what is good’. Yeah, about as broad as you get, i know. More detailed: I think there is a huge tension between two philosophies: Utilitarianism and that other philosophy where there is one strict moral code to adhere to. (can’t remember its name) Rorschach most often represents the latter philosophy. In one sense, his world is simple. People who do bad are bad people. If someone commits murder they should be killed. An eye for an eye. Obviously this doesn’t really make sense if a person extracts revenge through murder. It puts one on an equal plane with the criminal. I think this is the interesting thing about Rorschach’s philosophy. He despises the system he lives in so much and tries to distance himself from it, but he is the one who lives within it the most. He is disgusted by humanity, but he himself is what most people would see as disgusting or crazy. His mask is his connection to power and identity. It’s like a more perverse Batman. Still idealistic, still masked, but so reliant on that identity that there is nothing else left.

It makes sense that Nite Owl, (Dan Dreiberg) and Rorschach were partners. Although they seem like opposites they both share a similar set of values. Dan is an idealist, in a sense almost like a child. Although this is something all The Watchmen share, Dan reminds us of the childhood dream of becoming a superhero, wearing cool costumes, and just ‘doing good’ in general. Dan, and all the Watchmen, are the ones who never really grew out of that mindset.

Dr. Manhattan has ultimate power, but a disconnect from the human. He says “a live body and a dead body have the same number of particles, there is no difference.” Because he is removed from a human perspective, does this make him right? And what about the element of humanity that he still has?

So far, I’ve only barely scratched the surface of this book. Even what I wrote was very basic. But one more thing: the actual conflict. Veidt chooses to kill thousands in order to save the world from certain war. Only by uniting against a common enemy are we saved. So who is the real superhero? Is Veidt the only one that ever really “grew up”?

I love the work of Alan Moore and am really excited for the lecture and seminars.

Watchmen, on Heroes and Monsters

After the horrible experience of reading Foe, I got to read Watchman.  I had watched the movie prior to reading this book, but it didn’t give me the best picture.  Lots of people have said they really liked Watchman, I enjoyed it, much more than Foe and admired it in a sense.

Alan Moore basically takes the stereotypical ideal of heroes and neutralizes it, grounds it into mincemeat, does what the machine did to Dr. Manhattan.  The ‘heroes’ in Watchmen are different from the ‘heroes’ that we have studied within the texts and in pop culture.  They do not just have one Kryptonite, not just succumb to anger easily, or get beat by a dragon or old age, and certainly not fate.  The ‘heroes’ in watchmen, are all flawed, incredibly flawed, and some more than most.  They have powers, or certain advantages, but apart from that, they are very flawed, more like real people than characters (i’ll talk about this later).  Rorschach may come to one’s mind when I mention this, but I am talking about Nite Owl, who can see in the dark, but at the same time, he can’t really see in the ‘dark’ of the world’s underbelly, who to an extent, abandoned his fellow heroes, and lacks determination.  Dr. Manhattan, the overpowered, super powerful man, who is so powerful, he actually isn’t really human is also another example.  The Comedian?  He’s incredibly flawed, but at the same time it is his total A-hole attitude that lets him see into the darkness of society.

I found it interesting that artsoneb (in whoever’s blog) said that the characters in Watchmen are not ‘characters’, but are people, with incredibly detailed backstories.  I sort of agree… and sort of not.  The characters in the graphic novel are incredibly detailed and are very realistic, but they are still characters.  They are meant to fulfil a specific role within the story of the graphic novel and prove a certain point.  This means that some parts of them are fictionalized, despite how realistic they may appear to be.  Certainly, Watchmen provides a certain degree of stark/dark realism, but there is still a certain boundary between the art and reality, which makes the characters, characters.

So are the heroes in Watchmen actually monsters?  Hard to say.  I’m actually not sure.  It is very subjective and it actually should be for all of the supposed ‘heroes’ we’ve read.  Odysseus may be a hero to his family, but certainly not to the cyclops or the suitors.  Beowulf is a hero to the Geats and Danes, but not to Grendel’s mother.  It seems, that who is a hero and monster really depends on a person’s point of view.  Rorschach for his determination and black and white beliefs, which leads to his brutality, is a sort of monster, but at the same time, I see him as possibly the most naive hero of them all.  Despite that there is no moral compass within the abyss, he continues to deliver retribution according to his own form of ‘justice’ (please correct me if I’m interpreting this wrong) and never compromising despite of that.


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