- Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics by Andrew Hoberek
by Andrew Hoberek. Rutgers University Press.
2014. $80 hardcover; $26.95 paper; $26.95 e-book. 224pages.
One consequence of the relatively late emergence of comics studies as an academic field is that we have a very long to-do list. There are innumerable works, creators, and topics that have yet to be the subject of any sustained scholarly attention, simply because comics and graphic novels (even in a narrow definition) were being produced for the better part of a century before there were professional “comics scholars” to study them. Take, for example, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, originally published as a twelve-issue limited series by DC Comics beginning in 1986, and first collected into its more familiar single-volume edition in 1987.1 It is inarguably one of the comics world’s most celebrated products. Its masterful exploration of the formal possibilities of visual storytelling in comics and its historical role in ushering in the self-aware, deconstructionist approach to the superhero genre have guaranteed its place in any survey of the medium’s history. However, Watchmen has not been taken up by academic critics to the same extent as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis for a variety of reasons related to the development of the field—in both the everyday sense of an area of scholarly inquiry [End Page 151] and in Bourdieu’s sense of a distinct arena of social relations.2 As memoirs about their authors’ struggles with identity, those works more straightforwardly “fit” with preexisting notions of a great work of literature and, thus, had an easier entry into academic discourse than any book about superheroes, even one as richly and carefully constructed as Watchmen.3
Even a thoroughly lauded and canonized work like Watchmen rests on more or less untrampled snow, and setting foot on it takes considerable nerve.4 Andrew Hoberek is to be commended for taking on such a daunting task—especially in one of the relatively slim volumes composing Rutgers University Press’s new Comics Culture series—in his recent book, Considering “Watchmen”: Poetics, Politics, Property.5 Its three chapters provide astute readings of Watchmen through distinct lenses, focusing on the comic’s development of psychological realism by the unlikely means of modernist formal experimentation (chapter 1), its implicit critique of property relations within cultural industries like mainstream comic-book publishing (chapter 2), and the archindividualism of Moore’s political worldview, which is posited as an alternative to, but in fact slyly reproduces, the values underpinning neoliberalism (chapter 3)—the “poetics,” “property,” and “politics,” respectively, of the book’s subtitle.
The second of these chapters is particularly novel and makes an important contribution to the literature on Watchmen and on Moore’s oeuvre more generally. Hoberek reads the contrast between Adrian Veidt’s (aka Ozymandias) corporate empire and the uncompromising loner Rorschach (himself read through the career of Steve Ditko, noted devotee of Ayn Rand and creator of the Question, the Charlton Comics character on which Rorschach is based) as “an allegory of the conflict between the work-for-hire creative talent of the comics industry and the corporations which by and large controlled and profited from their creations,” but one that is more ambivalent than might be expected.6 Moore has become infamously cantankerous in his relationships with publishers, having been burned by DC Comics over Watchmen’s ownership, among other grievances. However, Hoberek convincingly argues “that questions of creative control constituted an important element of his thought from early in his career,” with their treatment in Watchmen “predat[ing] the later hardening of Moore’s attitudes.”7 The question of creative control largely revolves around the problem of closure. On the one hand, the economic logic of comic-book publishing [End Page 152] emphasizes characters that can be perpetually exploited in ongoing, open-ended serial narratives (see also DC’s Before Watchmen line of comics, produced without Moore’s participation8), whereas Moore invests in the story as a complete aesthetic unity.9 On the other hand, Watchmen’s...