WTF Comics Club Reads Watchmen: “Neckbeard Shenanigans” and Mansplaining

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The WTF Comics Club is a monthly reading group for Women, Trans, and Femme-identified fans in Minneapolis. In its second year, the club is taking a look at some of the major comic book “must reads” and asking: Must we really read this?

Published in 1986/87 by DC, Watchmen is listed in Time magazine’s 100 Best Novels, and you’d be hard pressed to find a list of the best, most important, or must read comics that doesn’t include Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s magnum opus. That means it must be pretty good, right?

The mid-to-late 1980s was a period of sea-change for comic books, both in content and in reception. Watchmen was one title in a list of groundbreakers that systematically deconstructed, reimagined, and redefined what the comics medium was and what it could do. The critical and commercial success of these titles contributed to the rise of indie comics in the 80s and early 90s, including the founding of rockstar publishers Dark Horse and Image and the launch of DC’s wildly successful Vertigo imprint. Watchmen itself has had a profound impact on the superhero genre, prompting an on-going examination of the real-world implications of masked vigilantes and superhumans and inspiring a wide range of “dark” and “gritty” antiheroes for decades to come.

Watchmen tells the story of … Well, okay, Watchmen tells about a dozen different stories about everything from former superheroes to an opinionated newspaper salesman to an incomprehensible pirate comic. Mostly, it’s about the people behind the masks, their motivations, mental instabilities, and many many flaws. Set in an alternate version of 1985—present day, at the time it was written – the story is steeped in the paranoia of a Cold War that never ended and deals with events leading up to an apparently inevitable nuclear confrontation between the US, Russia, and pretty much everyone else.

As a whole, Watchmen is layered and complex. Every one of its many, many characters is a study in the psychology of heroism, fear, and terrible life choices. The multitude of plot threads are expertly woven together into a cohesive narrative, an impressive task given the density of each sub-plot and the fact that no part of the story is told in a coherent sequence. Moore’s script for the book is famously detailed, with the first three pages dedicated solely to the opening panel, which shows a bloodied smiley-face pin in the gutter.

There’s no denying that Watchmen is a seminal work with a profound impact on the comics that have followed it, or that it is a well-constructed, thought provoking piece of literature. The question at hand isn’t about craftsmanship, but relevance. After thirty years of dramatic shifts in the social landscape, watershed advances in printing and digital art, and massive changes in comics reception, is Watchmen still a must-read for comics fans?

Our group’s conclusion: Not really.

From a feminist perspective, Watchmen leaves much to be desired. And by much, I mean everything. There are only a handful of women in the massive cast, and they are unilaterally cast as disconnected mothers, stereotyped lesbians, moral-less prostitutes, or some combination thereof. Even Laurie Jusperczyk, the sole female character of real significance and the one woman on the principal “team” of heroes, acknowledges her role as a “whore”—literally, as the US government has charged her with keeping her super-powered boyfriend, Doctor Manhattan, happy and focused, and metaphorically, in that being a public figure necessitates a kind of prostitution.

Leaving aside the narrative’s relentless sexualization of women, which covers a spectrum between realistically horrific and really horrifying, there is the fact that none of the female characters ever actually do anything. Moore makes an impotent attempt at portraying a “strong woman” in Laurie, giving her dialogue that seems to come from a 1980s checklist of “Things Feminists Say” and allowing her to do things like fight bad guys and express opinions. The empowerment falls spectacularly flat, given that Laurie’s one act of agency is to break up with her boyfriend, which we later learn was part of a scheme implemented by Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, The World’s Smartest Mansplainer.

As women reading the book in 2015—some of us for the first time, some for the second, third, fourth, etc. time—we’re not impressed. Those who originally read it early in our comics exploration seemed to harbor a greater attachment, but we generally agreed that it hadn’t aged well. Two members who had read the book during its original publication run added that it seemed to become less relevant and less appealing as we moved further away from the 1980s. By contrast, club members reading for the first time were almost unanimous in their distaste.

Watchmen has its merits, and its place in comics history, though perhaps overstated, is certainly well-deserved. Unfortunately, Moore was writing for a place and time that are now as much nostalgia as the comics he was reacting against, and the demographic for whom this book still holds the most appeal is no longer the dominant readership among comics fans. This groundbreaking graphic novel just doesn’t hold up to the sensibilities of readers for whom cynicism is not a selling point and whose superheroes exist as a part of Watchmen’s legacy, not in its shadow.

Is it a must-read? Sure, if you’re interested in the academics of comics or like reading about neckbeard shenanigans* and how much people suck. If you want to read a good book, there are better choices.

Final Score

Title: Watchmen
Creators: Writer: Alan Moore; Art: Dave Gibbons
Publisher: DC/Vertigo, 1986
Popular Rating: ✩✩✩✩✩
WTF Rating: 🐒🐒
Must read? Meh.

*Eternal thanks to WTF member Lauren for giving us the beautiful phrase “Dan and his neckbeard shenanigans.” Truly the highlight of a great discussion.

The books for WTF Reads were determined by cross-referencing recommendation lists from four online publications: Forbidden Planet, Empire, BuzzFeed, and Complex . Titles were then selected based on a number of criteria, including popularity, importance, accessibility, and thematic continuity. Popular Ratings are on a five-star scale, averaged from ratings across Comixology, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. WTF Ratings are on a five-monkey scale, averaged from ratings by club and community members. Only books that receive five monkeys will be preserved after the gender apocalypse.

Jordan West is an obsessive writer, dedicated cosplayer, and fake geek girl living in Minneapolis. Specialties include ultra angsty fan fiction, feminist commentary, and co-captaining the WTF Comics Club. Follow Jo on Facebook for ongoing hijinks.

(featured image via Warner Bros.)

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