TCJ 300: Post-Human Review

Posted by on December 31st, 2009 at 4:07 AM


Age of Geeks

The Owl Ship’s controls in Watchmen: The Film Companion, photographed by Clay Enos; ©2009 DC Comics.

In the late 1970s, when this magazine came to be, Alan Moore was kicking around from one clerk job to another, collecting his paychecks from places like the Northampton gas board. He wanted to be an artist and seer, but he couldn’t find the nerve to collar his destiny. One night he had a dream: His 10-year-old self looked at him and wanted to know what had happened to their life. A decade later, Moore was finishing Watchmen, and now he sits in his living room in Northampton, keeping an irritated distance from the $150 million dumb idea Hollywood has raised over his bright idea from a quarter-century back.

A lot happened because Alan Moore found his destiny, with the Watchmen movie being one of the biggest and dullest consequences. I don’t think anyone in 1977 could have predicted it: “No, they’re going to do superheroes like they’re adults, and people will keep buying the same comics for decades, so down the road one of the adult-hero comics will be a classic and there’ll be a big movie based on it, and the movie is going to try to copy the adult-hero comic panel by panel, do it like a souvenir pamphlet advertising the comic, and it’s going to be really creepy seeing people getting moved around and forced to wear those costumes just so they can illustrate the pamphlet, and anyway the guy making the movie just knows that he loves comics; he doesn’t understand anything about this particular comic — I’m talking about a future where it turns out people keep being Trekkies or whatever their whole lives. So the movie will be like a big mausoleum for the comic and it’s going to bomb, and then the studio will sell copies in little disks about the size of a 45. And people will play the movie at home and finally it’ll get an audience, because at home people can make the film stop or speed up or go slow or play it back. And you wind up with a bunch of people making a cult over the thing, watching it over and over but not at the normal speed. They want to see the details go by fast, popping up, and they want to look at the costumes without having to listen to the dialogue or get weirded out by the actors getting treated like wax dummies.”

We have lived into a geekish future — I think that’s the key lesson of the scenario above — and the Watchmen movie is a historic failure of geekism. The giveaway isn’t just the eternal life enjoyed by a pop-culture product, or the fuss over the product’s details, or the thought of people hunched alone in their rooms watching the Comedian’s funeral in fast-forward for the seventh time. It’s all that plus this: The movie would not have been nearly as bad if anybody had been thinking, and at the same time, it’s clear that people were thinking. The project got done, a lot of contractors and staff put some excellent attention into props and costumes. (Check out the Owl Ship’s control panel — that is admirable stuff.) Mental activity, rather sophisticated and disciplined mental activity, was involved from start to finish. But… no one was thinking. Get those two elements together, the structured mental activity and the absolute blind pointlessness, and you have a key geek indicator. It’s not infallible, since the same combination was found in planning the Sevastopol campaign or the Iraq war, but it’s still crucial.

From Watchmen: The Film Companion, photographed by Clay Enos; ©2009 DC Comics.

Geekism is the modern mind being especially modern and especially useless. The mental skills that can make or break a life as lived today — structuring and understanding systems, absorbing and analyzing information, registering detail — have their purpose turned inside out and become a replacement for reality. Nowadays, with so much knowledge and data-processing ability so widely disseminated, it’s also the case that purpose has been miniaturized. People doing quite sophisticated things may be joined into an organization that makes them feel like a leg on a caterpillar. The results of their actions become a matter of faith, located off in the web of abstract interconnections that keeps the modern world running. Important and unimportant become hard to judge; they turn into parodies of each other. A computer expert or a health care expert can say she is a geek because the use for her knowledge isn’t right there in the room. A real geek can say he is a geek because he knows Jedi history or Klingon grammar. The two usages are joined at the back by the idea of pointlessness and disciplined mental activity. But I have to believe that health care data is not really pointless. So, to me, the idea of a health care geek is sort of an homage to the Star Wars geek or Star Trek geek. A geek in his or her geekiest aspect would be someone who knows a great deal about a science-fiction or fantasy entertainment franchise, someone who worships it, buys it and, most of all, studies it, reading or watching the same episodes or books or comics over and over with the sort of attention that might normally go to national emergency-room statistics.

Alan Moore and geekism came up together. In 1977, around when Moore put his hand on destiny’s shoulder, a series of gigantic changes took place — gigantic in the right context. Star Wars came out, Terry Brook published Sword of Shannara, Stephen R. Donaldson published Lord Foul’s Bane, Douglas Adams got going with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And so on. All of them second- or third-generation pop-culture recyclings, all of them vast hits. It was like the ground rose beneath the feet of the otherworlds-genre-product ghetto; all of a sudden people were getting rich. And around this time we start hearing the term “geek,” for computer people but especially (or that was my impression) for people fixated on otherworlds adventure franchises; in practice, of course, the two groups weren’t expected to be much different.

Alan Moore is a product of that time, maybe its best. If you want some recycled pop fantasy, I think you’re better off with “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” than you are with Star Wars. In fact I’d say his big titles of the 1980s, Watchmen most of all, are the only examples I’ve come across of really fine, substantial works devoted to recycling other-reality entertainment staples. But something went wrong. His Watchmen became Watchmen the movie, which is bad enough. What’s worse is that Moore wrote Lost Girls and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and — well, just about every comic he’s turned out since 1989 or so. If I had to think of reasons to say why Alan Moore was great, I’d have a hard time finding anything from his comics work of the past 20 years. There’s issue 12 of Promethea, but then there’s the rest of Promethea. There’s From Hell, but no, not really. He hasn’t stopped being a genius; only a genius could fail in the way he does, with such energy and ambition, such amazing fireworks. But when I put one of his comics down, I have to remind myself to pick it back up. I think his post-’89 comics are stunted. No matter how big he tries to be, he winds up being small.

The explanation that jumps to my eye is geekism. Here’s a parallel. On the one hand, you have the boast by Zack Snyder, the director of Watchmen, that he made damn sure Hollis Mason’s “We Fix ‘Em” sign would be in there. His mission was to get all those little details that only the fans notice. (That’s one of the great things about Snyder, says Alex McDowell, the movie’s production designer — he cares about “finding the Easter eggs.”) But in the book the “We Fix ‘Em” sign matters because of the words right underneath: “Obsolete Models a Specialty.” Hollis specialized in standard car engines, but then Doctor Manhattan invented electric cars and poor Hollis was out in the cold. The thing is that the movie Watchmen doesn’t have electric cars; it was easier to tell the story without them. The choice makes sense, but now the sign doesn’t.

On the other hand, you have this line from Lost Girls: “Outside, with the gaslight, the sky over New York looked green, sorta.” That’s Moore’s version of Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz, visiting New York City. A lot of people complained about how Moore borrowed Wendy, Alice and Dorothy for his big comic about sex. What bothered me was that there was nothing he really wanted to do with them. Most people know the characters from childhood, so he figured that using the characters would bring him to the right spot in the reader’s consciousness for a talk about primal matters (identity and sex, aggression versus creation). I remember he explained the choice during an interview, and he didn’t seem bothered that The Wizard of Oz and the rest had never been favorites of his. But if writing about the characters didn’t do much for him, what could he find to write about them? He settled for sticking on a series of parallels and minor references, appliqué work atop his big ideas and the material about nipples and elbows. The result is as stupid as anything Snyder gets up to in his Watchmen movie. And much the same mistakes were being made: careful and systematic reproduction for no clear purpose. After all, if Moore isn’t thrilled by Wendy and Peter Pan and the rest, maybe other people aren’t; possibly the characters won’t get him where he wants to go in the universal consciousness. But he never thinks about it.


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4 Responses to “TCJ 300: Post-Human Review”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “Why did Sally Jupiter love someone who had raped her? Moore’s answer to an interviewer came down to this: “People sometimes do some funny things.” And, sure, they do, but there’s a lot to be said after that.”

    I think Moore’s right, actually, and you’re wrong here, Tom. Sometimes (or even often) it shows more respect for the human condition to grant people their incomprehensibility. You want a humanist and/or a psychological explanation. But how are those not just games as well? And more condescending games at that, I’d argue. Moore does actually offer a couple of explanations, or hints in the text (in the conversation Sally overhears as a child, mostly), but he also allows a certain distance. I found Sally’s relationship with the Comedian both respectful and moving precisely because it doesn’t involve “analyzing, delving, and planting.”

    I disagree with a bunch of other stuff too — but despite that, or because of it, what a fantastic essay. The caterpillar leg metaphor; Gull as the incredible Hulk, the comparison of Lost Girls and Watchmen the movie — you’re just on fire. I know it took a ton of work, but it’s really worth it.

  2. Daniel C. Parmenter says:


    I agree with some of what you said, but I’m willing to grant him a few genuine classics, post ’89: his two Spirit pastiches in the Kitchen Sink Spirit Adventures series were wonderful for the same reason that “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” were, they functioned as loving tributes to characters and creators that obviously meant a lot to Moore.

    I can also say a lot of good things about the Tom Strong series. Of course it could be argued that at its core, it’s just another Superman riff and that any Moore Superman riff is probably basically going to be good. Is it up there with his best stuff? Tough call.

    BTW, did you read his novel “Voice of the Fire”? Thoughts? I actually kind of liked it, other than the first chapter.

  3. Tom Crippen says:

    “I’m willing to grant him a few genuine classics, post ‘89:”

    Fair enough. The guy’s a genius and he writes a ton, so he’s bound to put some first-rate stuff out there. But, in my view, we’re talking about pages on the one hand versus volumes on the other.

    Didn’t see the Kitchen Sink stories but I very much liked his rhyming tribute to Will Eisner in (I think) the last Tomorrow Stories. The Tom Tomorrow stories that I saw didn’t do much for me, so there’s no accounting for taste.

    I haven’t read Voice of the Fire, but a friend recommends it. Someday I’ll get a copy. For purposes of the article I just made sure to include “comics” when I wrote off his post-’89 work.

    I wouldn’t mind catching his performance art stuff; I bet that’s a sight. Then again, I wouldn’t mind watching him drink tea and watch television. What can I say, he’s a personality.