Comics

Quis Ipsos Custodiet Semper Ubi Sub Ubi Dubi

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In Slate, Tom Shone takes a swipe at Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen as the seminal "graphic novel" approaches its 20th anniversary:

Alan Moore's Watchmen, originally published in 1986, was the comic-book series that supposedly revolutionized the industry, defrocked the superhero, and invented the graphic novel at a stroke. Yet reading Watchmen today is a distinctly underwhelming experience. Its fans would say that is appropriate: The world's first anti-heroic comic book is supposed to be, well, anti-heroic. The mode is pyrrhic, deflationary, its tone deadpan, spent. Either way, like a math savant at a party, the book seems to shrink from the hullabaloo surrounding its approaching 20th anniversary.

I haven't felt the need to open my one-volume edition of Watchmen in quite some time, so it may be true that it doesn't live up to the fond memories, but Tom Shone is a douche who has made a career of policing signs of highfalutinitude in American culture. (That the silly Yanks shouldn't try to get above themselves is the implicit argument in his poorly selling book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer.) He seems to want to blame Watchmen for changing comics from a pop medium into a pompous genre that's sold in bookstores and reviewed in The New York Times—an argument I'd normally sympathize with, though I wouldn't blame a one-off comic series for the change. But his argument against Moore (like Shone an English writer with a primarily American readership, but one who takes pleasure in introducing highbrow machinery into lowbrow media) amounts to an objection to the literary parodies that ended each Watchmen issue. This is a criticism? I remember those parodies being what the English would call "spot-on" renderings of the hipster-sycophancy of Rolling Stone interviews, the weird overedification of specialty (or "speciality") magazines, the quibbling that goes on in popular histories, and so on. In any event, it's a good bet 90 percent of the book's readers skipped these all-text bits without noticing anything missing.

But Shone buttresses his argument that Watchmen was "more a triumph of writing than draftsmanship" by disparaging Dave Gibbons' drawings—a feature of Watchmen discussion since the book first appeared. I never grokked the hatred people seemed to feel for Gibbons' plain drawing style, which got across a vast amount of information about locations and historical periods while making the important points (that Dr. Manhattan was DC's version of the Silver Surfer, etc.). My favorite Moore bit is "The Bowing Machine," with the more daring drawings of Mark Beyer, but would anybody want Watchmen to have punk illustrations?

If there's an obvious criticism of Watchmen, it's that it has what may be the stupidest plot resolution in the history of comics. It was a distinct letdown when all the smoke and mirrors turned out to be preparation for a hokey plot twist which I won't give away, in case anybody hasn't read the book after all these years. So, in the language Shone believes Americans should be using, I'll just say: Watchmen roolz, Tom Shone droolz.

NEXT: ATTN, London Reasonoids: Drinks in Camden on Dec. 10

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  1. yeah the golden guy stops the war by fakeing an alien invasion. 🙂

    then the psyco guy gets killed…

  2. Ha, I bought and read Watchmen this past weekend, so you failed to spoil it, Joshua! (And I’m not making that up, I really did.)

  3. Also, I think the most accurate complaint about Watchmen is that the EC Comic pirate substory at the newstand carries on way longer than is necessary to get the point. I stopped about halfway through and skimmed ahead to read all the panels dealing with that story separately to get it out of the way before returning to the main plot.

  4. Well, the pirate story and the main story comment on each other, so you miss a bit if you do it that way.

    I reread Watchmen earlier this year and I wasn’t surprised to find that it holds up very well. The more substantial question is: Will I still like V for Vendetta? Haven’t looked at that one in 15 years.

  5. Dr manhatten was dc’s silver surfer??? I always thought of him as a Mr fantastic (elastic man?).

    and silver surfer had a reason for being withdrawn from humanity…he was a friggin alien.

    Dr Manhatten was just an asshole. 🙂

  6. The lame ending probably doesn’t seem so bad to someone who reads it today. But if, like me, you spent an entire year reading and re-reading each issue, looking for clues, marking off the days until the next issue came out (hard to believe I couldn’t get laid, eh?), then the ending was infuriating.

    And for all my analysis, I must have really missed the boat on DocMan. I thought he was supposed to represent Superman, the one super hero whose powers were so strong that he made all the other heroes redundant.

  7. He seems to want to blame Watchmen for changing comics from a pop medium into a pompous genre that’s sold in bookstores and reviewed in The New York Times…

    It’s not the frist time someone who scribbles in the NYT snobbishly sneered at pop culture. A few months ago, one Sven Birkerts wrote that science fiction could never be considered literature.

  8. God forbid the comics industry, which was well on its way to collapse 20 years ago, try to shore up its numbers by producing trade paperbacks and jettisoning the convoluted continuity of the past 50 years.

    I’ve said before, I’ve always disliked the ending of Watchman, but the weave of the story is wonderful.
    Jesse, I just reread Vendetta a month ago, and was surprised how queasy some of it made me. Also, there’s a certain stripped-dpwn storytelling that is rare for Moore.
    Moore’s best stuff was his run on Rob Liefeld’s Supreme, the middle book of Promethea, and D.R and Quinch.

    Dr, Manhattan was based on Capt. Atom (Night Owl on Blue Beetle, etc.). He has no resemblence to Norrin Radd. He’s not trying to regain his humanity, he doesn’t strive for freedom, and he has no real compassion for humanity.

  9. I picked up a copy of this after reading about it here several months ago.

    I really liked it. Really the only “complaint” that I can come up with is that Watchmen is very much plugged into the zeitgeist of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Everything from the art style to some of the thematic elements (electric cars, nuclear annihilation, riots, cancer scares, etc.) just reinforces this. But I really got a kick out of it.

    And Tom Shone’s attempt to end his column with snooty anti-snootery (“We-e-e-ll, if you simply must know, I much prefer the childish storytelling of “The Incredibles” to Watchmen) rings hollow, because I have yet to see a PiXAR film that didn’t deal in heavy philosophical themes, even if in an abbreviated format. That Shone seems to fail to recognize this means that in my book his name will now reside under a column titled “Sanctimonious Twats to be Ignored.”

  10. I’m female. I therefore have absolutely no clue what this thread is about (something to do with COMIC BOOKS??)

    …but I loved the headline!

  11. Oh, and yes, I will admit that I did indeed bitch about Watchmen being left-leaning.

    Still doesn’t keep it from being interesting as all get out.

  12. Tim,

    Who will watch always where under where/when in doubt? I know the “where under where” is a modern joke, but I think I’m missing something here. Or, to put it more succinctly:

    “What’s this, then? ‘Romanes Eunt Domus’? ‘People called Romanes they go the house’?”

  13. Oh, and yes, I will admit that I did indeed bitch about Watchmen being left-leaning.

    Interesting. I never really thought of The Watchmen as being left leaning. I understand from interviews that Moore never intended it to be taken this way, but I think most readers of the comic, myself included, view Rorschach as the hero of the story. His decision to die rather than be party to Ozymandias’insane plan created the comic genre’s first genuine libertarian martyr.

  14. I just read Watchmen for the first time about a month ago and i thought it was excellent.

    I was born in 1984, so i didn’t grow up with fear of world anihilation that is so central to the story. Perhaps that makes it all a bit foreign to me, and im willing to admit i may have missed the boat on some of it. Regardless of all that, it still is an excellent piece of storytelling. Sure the end is somewhat lame, and im not a big fan of the art style (though i’ll admit it is fitting somehow) but overall it is a very good read.

    As to this fellow’s criticisms, my guess is that it is just another uncreative jerk trying to make a name for himself by tearing down other people’s work. That and the fact that picking on comic books is a tried and true past-time make the watchmen and appealing target.

  15. Something something “always where under where” is all I could translate from the headline…so much for my 4 years of HS Latin.

    Can somebody translate? So that the unwashed masses can laugh at the joke, too?

    Wait I just googled “Quis Ipsos Custodiet” and “dubi”…so now I have “Who watches themselves always where under where in doubt”. Is that right? I have sneaking suspicion that Cavanaugh doesn’t really know Latin.

  16. “What’s this, then? ‘Romanes Eunt Domus’? ‘People called Romanes they go the house’?”

    Sadly, that’s about where my formerly good Latin skills have since plummeted to.

  17. if the watchmen watch us who watches the watchmen

    i speak no latin it is a complete guess

  18. smacky, just be sure not to screw up your Latin grammar when painting graffiti in the Forum.

  19. Pro Libertate,

    I’ll be careful. I promise.

    While I was Googling the bogus Latin, I found another great bogus Latin phrase:

    Cum catapultae proscriptae erunt tum soli proscript catapultas habebunt.

  20. Joshua, I think that’s Quis ipsos custodiet custodes. And whither the ubi sub ubi? That’s “where under where”, which is a joke all kids forced to take Latin apparently learn. And dubi is doubt.

    Is there a Latinist in the house? Anyone, anyone?

  21. It’s Latin gobbledy-gook. The semper ubi sub ubi isn’t even proper grammar, just an English joke. But I liked the ubi dubi part (which I think was the point of it)

    Man, now it’s not funny anymore.

  22. smacky, that would make a great t-shirt slogan for our Second Amendment members. Who we’d like to welcome at this time.

  23. Cum catapultae proscriptae erunt tum soli proscript catapultas habebunt.

    Nice. But I wonder about the cum. Is it cum, or something along the lines of cuando? It’s been (ahem) several years since I last studied Latin, as well.

  24. semper ubi sub ubi = “always where under where” = always wear underwear

  25. Yes, but what is “o rly?” in the orlyginal latin?

  26. Quis Ipsos Custodiet – “Who Watches the Watchmen”, a phrase akin to: who keeps an eye on those in authority (like who keeps a watch on CIA agents rendering people to be tortured in Egypt?)

    semper ubi sub ubi – as mentioned, a Latin jokester’s favorite, “Always Wear Underwhere”

    Dubi – well, doubt I guess. My Latin is rusty.

    Soooo, here’s a guess….”I doubt those who watch [or maybe read] the Watchmen always wear underwear.” Is this a jab at God-fearing comic book geeks (like me)?

    Damn you Tim Cavanaugh…[shakes fist into air]

  27. And dubi is doubt.

    That’s it. I’m fucking suing!

  28. linguist, cum (meaning “when”) is called for in the subjunctive, right? As for cuando, that sounds Spanish to me. I must’ve been living in Tampa too long.

  29. And before anyone says it, cum also can mean “with.” Like cum laude while wearing underwear.

    I’m so confused. What hath Tim wrought?

  30. I think linguist meant quando perhaps?

    I’m no speaker of Spanish, but I’d guess that cuando is the equivalent form in Spanish.

  31. (insert cunning linguist joke here)

  32. “smacky, that would make a great t-shirt slogan for our Second Amendment members. Who we’d like to welcome at this time.”

    Meh. I’ve always been fond of ????? ????!

  33. mediageek, that could be engraved on the catapult 🙂 I had to look that one up (all: it means, “Come and get them”). The phrase has an interesting history. Apparently, it was the Spartan king Leonidas’ reply at Thermopylae to Xerxes’ offer to spare the Spartans’ lives if they disarmed.

  34. mediageek,

    I have a degree in ancient Greek….having to Google the phrase you posted further reinforces my belief that trying to master ancient Greek as an English speaker is an utter waste of time.

    I also found this quote while googling it:

    “A fear of weapons is a sign of retarded
    sexual and emotional maturity.” -Sigmund Freud

    Discuss.

  35. linguist, cum (meaning “when”) is called for in the subjunctive, right?

    Yeah, that sounds right. One problem with being a linguist is sometimes you forget which language is which. Latin didn’t use si for subjunctive, it used cum. (Cuando? Where in my brain did THAT cum frum?)

  36. smacky, I’ve been reading Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy off and on, and I could use your skills. The bastard keeps throwing in Greek phrases in Greek letters without any effort to translate them. I know enough to figure out when he’s saying ate or hubris and a few others, but it’s a painful lesson in my ignorance, otherwise.

    As for Freud, does that mean a love of weapons is a sign of healthy sexual and emotional maturity? Did those words really mean what he thought they meant?

  37. smacky, I’ve been reading Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy off and on, and I could use your skills. The bastard keeps throwing in Greek phrases in Greek letters without any effort to translate them.

    Pro Libertate,

    Feel free to email me if you have questions, although I can’t guarantee I could answer them. My email address is real minus the “nospam.” part.

    I know enough to figure out when he’s saying ate or hubris and a few others, but it’s a painful lesson in my ignorance, otherwise.

    Ha. Yes, classicists are experts at making other people feel ignorant. Don’t take it personally. They even like to make other classicists feel ignorant.

  38. Re: Leftism of Watchmen

    Rorschach was based on The Question, a masked vigilante detective created by Steve Ditko. Moore has said in interviews that he meant Rorschach as a commentary on Ditko’s Objectivist views, which he’d expressed oftimes in Question stories (and which dismayed Moore because they were so “right-wing”). So Moore presented Rorschach as a the only sort of right-winger he seems to believe in – an uncultured, judgemental, brutal, lower-class thug.

    And yet, in the end, Rorschach is the most detailed character and the closest thing to a good guy in the story.

  39. Released the same year as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns-which turned the Batman mythos on its head and emptied it into the gutter…

    I will agree that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had an unfavorable impact on comics, but this had nothing to do with the quality of either work. The problem was that a lot of second-rate (and more importantly, third-rate) writers tried to imitate these works by aping superficial tones of grimness and cynicism instead of trying to accomplish complexity and depth.

    DKR, for instance, has far more variation in mood and tone than pretty much any imitator.

  40. Akira: It’s not the frist time someone who scribbles in the NYT snobbishly sneered at pop culture. A few months ago, one Sven Birkerts wrote that science fiction could never be considered literature. I haven’t decided on Shone yet, but you’ve convince me on Birkerts: Call the FEDerales and tell ’em he’s in league with Al Queda…… Wow! Extraordinary Rendition does have legitimate uses!
    …………………
    On second thought, lets not, otherwise I’d have to start supporting the neo-con’s naked aggression.

  41. “D.R. And Quinch” was much funnier when it was “O.C. And Stiggs” in the National Lampoon.

  42. O sibili, si ergo! Fortibus es en ero. O nobili, demis trux! Si vatis enem: causam dux.

  43. “A fear of weapons is a sign of retarded
    sexual and emotional maturity.” -Sigmund Freud

    Discuss.

    And here I thought that being afraid of being shot stabbed or blown up was rational. Of course, I’ve never been accused of being emotionally mature.

    And yet, in the end, Rorschach is the most detailed character and the closest thing to a good guy in the story.

    What about Nite-Owl? He was out of shape and dorky, yet still managed to steal the most powerful man on earth’s girl while defying the Keene Act. Sounds like a role model to me.

  44. Cum catapultae proscriptae erunt tum soli proscript catapultas habebunt.

    Although my knowledge of Latin is very limited, I shall try to translate this.

    cum = a word used in some kind of terrible, unclever pun by every pornsite in the world.

    catapultae = catapults.

    proscriptae = forbidden.

    erunt = undersized and electronic.

    tum = antacid tablet.

    soli = solely.

    proscript = forbid.

    catapultas = catapults.

    habebunt = have to bunt.

    Hmmmm … no, I’m not getting it.

  45. Rorschach being the “good guy?” Are you daft? He would’ve been willing to bring the world to nuclear war purely on the basis of his absolutist principles. He is a sympathetic chararacter, but he’s also insane.

  46. “Rorschach was based on The Question, a masked vigilante detective created by Steve Ditko. Moore has said in interviews that he meant Rorschach as a commentary on Ditko’s Objectivist views, which he’d expressed oftimes in Question stories (and which dismayed Moore because they were so “right-wing”). So Moore presented Rorschach as a the only sort of right-winger he seems to believe in – an uncultured, judgemental, brutal, lower-class thug.

    And yet, in the end, Rorschach is the most detailed character and the closest thing to a good guy in the story.”

    Archie Bunker syndrome.

  47. I have a degree in ancient Greek….having to Google the phrase you posted further reinforces my belief that trying to master ancient Greek as an English speaker is an utter waste of time.

    Sorry. Don’t a speak a lick of ancient (or modern) Greek. :-/

    I also found this quote while googling it:

    A fear of weapons is a sign of retarded
    sexual and emotional maturity.” -Sigmund Freud

    Discuss.

    I haven’t seriously looked, but haven’t actually been able to turn up a citation to an actual publication by Freud.

    Even if true, it doesn’t change the fact that Freud was a seriously disturbed fellow.

    Still, it’s a helpful meme for deconstructing the “guns are a phallus substitute” derision often heaped upon gun owners by pseudo-intellectual statists.

    And here I thought that being afraid of being shot stabbed or blown up was rational. Of course, I’ve never been accused of being emotionally mature.

    David, the statement is in reference to a fear of weapons, not of bodily injury or death. There is no reason to fear an inanimate object, be it a kitchen knife, shotgun, or broadsword. Approach with caution and seek education? Certainly. But fear? No.

  48. Loved Watchmen, all three times I read it. To argue that it intellectualized the comic industry is ridiculous; there’s still plenty of crap out there for those who want it.

  49. What about Nite-Owl? He was out of shape and dorky, yet still managed to steal the most powerful man on earth’s girl while defying the Keene Act. Sounds like a role model to me.

    But he doesn’t accomplish much of anything. He’s a largely passive figure who goes along with what’s happening.

  50. Rorschach being the “good guy?” Are you daft? He would’ve been willing to bring the world to nuclear war purely on the basis of his absolutist principles. He is a sympathetic chararacter, but he’s also insane.

    He wasn’t willing to go, “Oh, OK then,” to mass-murder on a monumental scale, which is what the other characters essentially do. The comic also, of course, leaves the value of the act in question.

  51. Dr. Manhattan was Captain Atom. The whole cast of characters was one step removed from the Charlton line; this is a matter of public record by now.

  52. so wait could dr manhattan actually see the future or was he just faking seeing the future as an excuse to avoid his disastor of a life…i mean i don’t think he ever really predicts anything in the comic..he just says he knew that was going to happen after it happens (ok he does predict he will make his wife cry…but that doesn’t mean anything…anyone who has ever had a girlfriend or a wife knows full well how to make thier significant other cry)

  53. Was a big fan of Watchmen when it came out. My complete ignorance in latin didn’t seem to hurt my enjoyment of the book.

    You’re right, the pedestrian ending had no place in the great story told before.

    But, I think you misread the entire piece. It wasn’t the hatchet job you suggest.

  54. so wait could dr manhattan actually see the future or was he just faking seeing the future as an excuse to avoid his disastor of a life

    Dr. Manhattan’s situation is exactly like that of the protagonist of “Slaughterhouse Five” — he perceives his entire lifespan, often out of sequence, but has absolutely no free will in what he does (actually, nobody does — he has some line like “we’re all puppets, I’m just a puppet who can see the strings”). So yes, he can see the future (and the past, and the present), but since everything is predetermined, his own actions included, in effect that doesn’t mean much. The main effect is to alienate him from humanity.

    I have to disagree about the quality of the ending, by the way. The “fake alien invasion” thing was cheesy, but the point is that it didn’t work — the truth was going to come out, and the war was going to resume. I saw it as a commentary on cheesy deus ex machina comic book endings.

  55. The Latin is a joke. As most people have probably guessed already, it’s just “who watches the Watchmen?” and “Always where under where,” so I guess it would be “Who watches the Watchmen always where under where?” You’d have to get Cavanaugh in here to explain what the hell he meant when he threw in “doubt” at the end, though.

    What about Nite-Owl? He was out of shape and dorky, yet still managed to steal the most powerful man on earth’s girl while defying the Keene Act. Sounds like a role model to me.

    He only got the girl because Dr. Manhattan could already see what wass coming, and so consequently didn’t do anything to stop it. And he wouldn’t have done anything if not for Rorschach and the chick practically shaming him into it.

    I thought what made Watchmen so good was the way it was so clear-eyed in showing just what happens to aged superheroes. These sort of person who is unbalanced enough to dress up in spandex and beat the hell out of suspected criminals can’t possibly be a paragon of sanity. These people don’t get happy endings unless one happens to fall into their lap, and even then they’d almost certainly screw it up.

    Showing that even “heroes” are fucked up is always a valuable public service.

  56. The “fake alien invasion” thing was cheesy, but the point is that it didn’t work — the truth was going to come out, and the war was going to resume

    You think so? I thought the opposite. Tyranny was going to continue because the alien attack led the Soviets and Americans to realize how much they had in common, and work together to control the world. I mean, propaganda posters extolling the virtues of the new Soviet allies aren’t the sort of thing suspscious government officials are going to allow unless they expect the truce to stick.

  57. Cum catapultae proscriptae erunt tum soli proscripti catapultas habebunt (proscripti, not proscript)

    It means, “with catapults forbidden” (or “when catapults are forbidden”, doesn’t alter the sense) “then only outlaws will have catapults.”

    But I suggest that a more elegant translation would use the ablative absolute:

    “catapultibus proscriptus, solibus proscriptibus catapultae” which is better Latin but means the same thing. (Literally “with catapults having been forbidden, only outlaws [will be] with catapults”).

  58. Sorry.
    “With catapults forbidden, catapults will only be with outlaws” should be the translation. It’s not an exact equivalent, but I rather like the grammatical parallelism of putting catapulta in the ablative plural in the subordinate clause, and mirroring it with proscriptus in the ablative plural in the main clause – just as in the English slogan, of course.

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