Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 4, 2020

Watching the Watchmen

Filed under: Counterpunch,television — louisproyect @ 2:19 pm


On October 25, 2019, I supported Martin Scorsese’s put-down of Marvel Comics super-hero films in a CounterPunch article. The article appeared just five days after HBO began streaming “Watchmen.” I knew little about Alan Moore, the author of the graphic novel that inspired the series, but decided to begin watching the watchmen. Written in 1985, it shared Scorsese’s dim view of super-heroes. In a 2017 interview, Moore’s vitriol surpassed Scorsese’s:

I think the impact of super-heroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying. While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their twelve or thirteen year-old audience, today’s franchised übermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs…In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American super-hero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.

There are six degrees of separation between Moore and me. Twelve years ago, I worked with Harvey Pekar on a comic book about my comic life as a Trotskyist. Harvey always insisted on calling what he did “comic books” rather than the somewhat pretentious “graphic novel.” Like Moore, he wanted to break with super-hero mythology but on a different basis. Moore’s “Watchmen” made these figures loathsome while Pekar sought to ignore them altogether. Instead, he rooted his comic books in what he called the “quotidian” life of ordinary workers.

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  1. I appreciate your examination of Moore’s individualist anarchism, and its impact upon his work and comic books generally. There is certainly an aversion to mass social movements in them, but this is consistent with US and capitalist film culture historically, with rare exceptions. This is the important thing about comic books and comic book movies, they aren’t nearly as unique and subversive as the people who read them think they are. Moore’s insight about “Birth of a Nation” exposes it, but he could have referenced any number of other films to make his point. For example, it is even possible to see “The Maltese Falcon” in this light, which just shows how ubiquitous the individualist, anti-collective ethos is in US entertainment culture.

    For this reason, I consider Scorsese’s response to comic book films overblown, his objections miniaturize the problem by isolating the problem is one genre. Of course, there are peaks and valleys, but the trend has been away from the kind of movies he celebrates since the first “Star Wars” film in 1977, made a director of his generation, Lucas, that he tellingly exempts from his critique. The Star Wars movies are, in my opinion, worse than the comic book ones, and it is quite revealing that the recent Disney “Rise of Skywalker” film abandons the egalitarian features of “The Last Jedi”, falling back upon privileged, elite heroes.

    “Moore’s belief in self-responsibility and his assertion that it is “probably best to do [things] yourself” rather than apply for Arts Council grants are sentiments that Conservative ideologues might well have endorsed.”

    As an aside, this is certainly true, but it is worth noting that Moore is probably far from alone in this. Fassbinder increasingly disliked the German film financing system after several conflicts, and famously said that he thought it would be easier to make films in Hollywood than in Germany. Of course, he was naive, and died without being able to test it out.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 4, 2020 @ 6:03 pm

  2. At this point I’m probably sicker of anything involving the word “Watchmen” than Alan Moore is. I used to be a big fan of his, and I still love some of his other works — FROM HELL, MIRACLEMAN, his run on DC’s “Swamp Thing.” But he’s a bit of a “cultural pilferer” and there are parts of WATCHMEN that are, frankly, ripped off from other sources — THE OUTER LIMITS and MAD MAX. See here: https://watchmen.fandom.com/wiki/Watchmen

    Comment by Jason Schulman — January 5, 2020 @ 4:39 am

  3. And not that it matters so much but my own “take” on superheroes is closer to Kurt Busiek — writer for the wonderful, uplifting ASTRO CITY — than Moore’s current position:

    “I thought about superheroes for twenty-plus years, mostly. I’m not really sure what you mean by my philosophy regarding my perspective on superheroes; I don’t know what such a thing would be. But I see superheroes, as a concept, as a rich metaphorical genre in which ideas, conflicts and more can be personified by iconic beings, and the human experiences they resonate with can be played out on a broad, almost fairy-tale like canvas in a way that can’t quite be done with any other genre.”

    The problem isn’t the genre, the problem is bad writers and the companies they work for — Warner Bros. (DC), Disney (Marvel — still can’t believe Disney now owns Marvel), etc.

    Comment by jschulman — January 5, 2020 @ 4:43 am

  4. “Brabner says Proyect’s ramblings prove her point. She says it’s up to her to keep Pekar’s legacy from being sullied by “people attaching themselves to Pekar to inflate their own sense of importance.”

    Ha ha ha! See? It’s not just me.

    Comment by Maximum Powerful — January 5, 2020 @ 1:36 pm

  5. That’s one meandering article, with your rancor against Pekar’s widow popping up almost irrepressibly. She does not seem very pleasant in that email that she wrote to you and that I read after, curious to make my own mind about that feud. Let’s admit it, she seems to have a point in dismissing it as a vanity project of yours even though it was Pekar’s idea. Have a good day anyway.

    Comment by serge — January 5, 2020 @ 3:58 pm

  6. Alan Moore announced that he would be voting for the second time in his life during the UK General election, recommending a vote for the Labour Party.

    “Although my vote is principally against the Tories rather than for Labour, I’d observe that Labour’s current manifesto is the most encouraging set of proposals that I’ve ever seen from any major British party.”

    full quote at

    btw. I thought the “Watchmen” series was compulsive viewing – much better than the film – despite its gratuitous violence and dangerous portrayal of vigilantism. The fact that it used the 1921 Tulsa race riot as its starting point was one reason, but also the way the inexplicable events it described gradually came into focus and made some sort of “sense”.

    I found it almost as enjoyable as the first two episodes of the new BBC-Netflix version of “Dracula”
    (can’t say the same about episode 3)

    I don’t believe in Vampires, Psychic Squids, or Dr Manhattan.

    Comment by prianikoff — January 5, 2020 @ 4:57 pm

  7. “Let’s admit it, she seems to have a point in dismissing it as a vanity project of yours”

    In fact, it took weeks of phone calls back and forth with Harvey to persuade me to go ahead with this project. If you weren’t such a two-bit troll, it would be obvious to you that 90 percent of the material that appears on this blog is not autobiographical.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 5, 2020 @ 5:42 pm

  8. Some minutes after reading your article, I came across your “correspondence” about Syria with Noah Chomsky on said blog which made abundantly clear that strive for the limelight by way of a celebrity (since it didn’t deserve a post blog, or even the pompous term of “correspondence” but there’s a chance it was ironic). I might be unfair, I apologize if that’s the case, but I’m just telling you how it can look from afar. And what’s the need or the relevance in that article about Watchmen for bickering again about that. I’m all for a good digression sometimes but here…

    Comment by serge — January 5, 2020 @ 10:45 pm

  9. Easy way to identify purely academic dilettantes who poses zero threat to the status quo: they write under their real name and promote their likeness.

    Comment by Chas — January 6, 2020 @ 8:52 am

  10. Chas, you seem to be incapable of expressing any ideas about Alan Moore’s work. Is this because you forgot to take your Aricept today?

    Comment by louisproyect — January 6, 2020 @ 1:34 pm

  11. I don’t know what that is. Why you were at your liberal university smoking dope and reading poetry I was working.

    Comment by Chas — January 7, 2020 @ 5:29 am

  12. You were working? Oh, wow! Can I get your autograph?

    Comment by louisproyect — January 7, 2020 @ 12:43 pm

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