If Understanding Comics is the book that showed me I could study comics, Watchmen is the book that made me want to.
Like a lot of Moore's best comics, Watchmen is both an adolescent work and an adult one, more beholden to convention than it lets on and determined to provide generic thrills along with more cerebral pleasures. I was lucky enough to hit adolescence just as Watchmen was coming out, when it could satisfy my dual desires to read a superhero comic and grow into something more challenging. It wasn't alone in filling that niche--Frank Miller was there, too, and Moore's other work, and later Grant Morrison's first American comics. But more than any other single comic book, Watchmen held out the promise that comics could grow up with me. Which, thanks to a couple of accidents of history, they did.
I read Watchmen so many times those first couple of years that I didn't read it cover-to-cover again for close to twenty. After a couple of decades of pulling out the greatest hits (the prison break first, then the Rorschach issue and the Citizen Kane wake for the Comedian and the symmetrical issue, then finally Jon's issue, "Watchmaker") and ruminating on them in isolation I decided it was time to dive back in and read it as it was supposed to be read. Not so much because the movie stirred up old memories but because my 1987 trade paperback, loaned to many friends and consulted countless times, was falling to pieces and the recoloring by John Higgins seemed like a great excuse to buy a new copy.
Watchmen was not well served by 1980s printing techniques and those lurid hues always contradicted its claims to subtlety and maturity. Even Tales of the Black Freighter, which was supposed to be lurid, was fatally compromised by a crude palette that gave the mariner's decomposing shipmates the color scheme of a box of Froot Loops. Comics have finally caught up with Moore and Gibbons, in at least this one technical matter, and we can finally see Watchmen as it was meant to be seen. I'm not a huge fan of ironic Benday dots as a shortcut to instant nostalgia, but Higgins' use of the primitive patterns helps to pop the Black Freighter images and captions out of Gibbons' busy panels and distinguishes the comic-within-a-comic from the world around it.
The change is even more profound in scenes like Dr. Manhattan's march through Vietnam--a scene of special power for me because it was the first glimpse of Watchmen I ever had, in one of those "Pow! Zap!" articles that ran in Newsweek circa 1986. A superhero, because a man of that physique and size and unnatural shade of blue could be nothing else, was striding across a burning landscape, creating mushroom clouds with the same casual gesture that might attend the selection of a photograph or the creation of man. Two terse captions promised that this child's fantasy would be directed toward grown-up subjects with their brazenly false history of the war that we weren't supposed to talk about, that we always kept talking about. This was the image that made me want to read Watchmen before I would have been able to handle it, the image that said it was a teenager's book and an adult's. To see it in the new edition, shorn of its pastel pinks and piss yellows, now wrapped in purples that turn a sunlit moment of triumph into a twilight of the gods: I felt like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.
That was last April. I had no intentions of rereading the book again for the graphic novel class but by the time I hit "Watchmaker" my judicious skimming had turned into complete immersion. I didn't even hold out until my own primal scene; Jon staring at that photograph was enough, or maybe his departure the chapter before. You had me at "At play amidst the Strangeness and the Charm." Truth to tell, you had me at the dog carcass in the alley, tire tread on burst stomach.
Teaching works you love always runs the risk that your own enthusiasm will impair your judgment of what your students need to know, or worse, that you'll get angry at your students because they don't share your enthusiasm. Neither has been a problem for this class. Whether they're coming to the story for the first time or they've also been reading it since they were teenagers, they've been as eager to discuss Watchmen as I am. If I personally have little interest in some of the things they wanted to talk about--we can only debate whether Veidt was "right" or "wrong" because the circumstances of his ethical dilemma are so utterly contrived to begin with, a late-night dorm-lounge bull session brought to life--I was still happy to let them go there as a way of giving them some responsibility over the discussion and as a way of opening up the areas I did want to cover. And they were equally willing to tackle those areas: the formal techniques, the genre criticisms, the clashing ideologies that animate each of the major characters.
That's more or less the order of how we tackled Watchmen, starting with how to read it and what contexts to read it in before building up to the themes and ideas that make it worth reading in a classroom. The capstone of the lectures was a look at the comic's conflicting ideas about meaning and purpose in the universe--Blake's nihilism, Jon's makerless mechanism, Rorschach's morally blank world ordered by our own arbitrary scrawls, and the thermodynamic miracles that only become visible from a more distant perspective or, paradoxically, a more intimate one. That forced us to bring the comic's form and design back into the discussion, tying the lectures together so neatly you'd almost think they were designed that way. When in fact they had about as much advance planning as the smiley face on Mars.
Not too bad considering I worked them up on the fly while I was busy rereading a comic I have been reading for twenty-two years instead of drawing up lesson plans. This is what expertise is, I suppose: the knowledge that you don't have to draw up in lesson plans because you have been absorbing it and processing it your entire life. The knowledge that you pick up while you're doing something else. It's a little embarrassing to discover that I'm better qualified to teach Watchmen than I am to teach the books I wrote about in my dissertation, but I guess that just means I'm in the right place, the right classroom, at long last.