I promised a discussion on “The Batman Archetype” dealing with aspects of the character that make for one of the best fictional characters in modern fiction; that’s coming, but look for it linked as a separate page on the sidebar of this blog soon.

I wanted to go ahead and give a review of “Watchmen,” the comic that ranked as number 1 on my recent top ten list.

“Watchmen” is the greatest comic of all time, written by the greatest comic writer to ever script an issue and illustrated in perfect detail by Dave Gibbons. “Watchmen” is the graphic novel (technically Watchmen is a tpb, and if you want to read why it’s better to classify it as a graphic novel you will soon be able to click here for an explanation) that comic fans have been recommending to their non-comic-reading friends for years, and it’s also the only graphic novel to make it onto Time’s list of 100 greatest novels of all time. This is all for good reason, primarily because Watchmen is flawless, intricate, sprawling and all of its parts work together perfectly.

A problem that critics have pointed out concerning American comics is that the industry here has turned what should be a genre of the medium into practically being the entire medium. If you ask someone on the streets what comic books are about in the US, most are going to say superheroes. In another country the answer will vary; as most comic readers know, there are several great comics that have nothing to do with superheroes, but the average comic shop will stock a larger percentage of superhero comics. Comic readers also know that of those superhero comics, many are great, many are not, and the great ones find ways to make more of their genre than an outsider would expect. But more on point here, if you look back over my list of 10 great examples of comic literature you’ll see more than half have nothing to do with superheroes, but ranked firmly at the top is this, Watchmen, which is very much about superheroes.

But Watchmen is not the traditional superhero story. Since its publication many writers have tried their own variation on the central premise in some form or another, but none have been nearly as ambitious or successful as this one. Alan Moore writes a novel here about super heroes in the real world; what would they be like? What would drive them, shape them, make them who they are? What kind of people would choose to dress up in costumes and attempt to be a hero? How would the world react to them and what would occur as a result? Moore wanted to critique the state of the world specifically the political ideas and policies of his own Britain’s Thatcher and America’s Reagan, but played it more accessible to the eighties american reader by trading in Reagan for Nixon. He figured Reagan would still have some supporters but that “everyone would pretty much agree Nixon was a bastard” and therefore Moore could critique Reagan’s policies by pretending Nixon had been president continuously for years.

Watchmen may be a superhero book, but it’s more a deconstruction of the superhero mythos. All of it’s protagonists are the superhero archetypes pushed to their respective extremes–Superman becomes Dr. Manhattan, Batman becomes Rorsach (although many of Bat’s lighter characteristics are reflected in Nite Owl), The Comedian is a more realistic and scary version of The Punisher, etc. Moore uses these archetypes to exlpore what would happen if these heroes were real, and what would happen if suddenly they became forced into the limelight, forced to register openly as costumed heroes as the government tries to utilize their abilities and squash vigilantiasm. He then uses this as a backdrop to deal with war, nuclear prolifration, the “cost” of peace, and a list of concepts and policies that could go on for pages. Most of all, Watchmen explores humanity–what defines us, what drives us, how we cooperate in society and ultimately what destroys us.

Watchmen is the book for details; Gibbons panels are layered, important details often occur in the background while something else is going on in the foreground. Clues to the book’s ultimate mystery (Who killed the comedian and why?) are placed throughout, and like any great mystery a second reading will make you wonder why you never guessed the truth all along even though it’s so great at what it does you’d rarely have a chance on figuring it out the first time around. There are even styilistic patterns placed into this book–one famous two page spread consists of panels that mirror each other until they meet in the middle (there’s no way to describe this until you read it, so just trust me on this one).

Also it’s notable that after each single issue (which works out to being a chapter in the collected edition) of Watchmen, there are pages of text that build up the back story of the books protagonists. These text pages are identified as news reproductions, extracts from a character’s biography, psychological profiles, etc. There’s also a comic-within-a-comic that a minor character is reading throughout the book that readers catch glimpses of in some panels.

Ultimately, Watchmen will show the casual reader what the comics medium is capable of and it’s just an excellent story with great art and it works on multiple levels. The current movie trailer is dazzling and I can’t wait to see the film adaptation of this work (if we get to see it, as in recent weeks the rights of the distribution companies are under litigation). You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t read this before seeing a film adaptation of it, because no matter how good a movie can be, it’s nothing compared to this source material.

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Okay, at the end of my last entry I talked about my two upcoming blogs, and this topic wasn’t one of them. I hope you’ll follow me on a bit of a political tangent that recent events promoted.

One of the greatest accomplishments of the Republican party in recent years was tying themselves to “family values” issues. By focusing on 2 or 3 specific so-called “moral issues” they managed to get middle class (and poorer) voters to support them. The GOP has kept the same economic plan in effect in various forms since Reagan: “Trickle Down Economics.” Roughly, this is the theory that if the upper class is doing well enough, receiving sufficient tax breaks and limited restrictions on their capitalism opportunities, then they will prosper and as a result the middle class, working class (and the working poor) will benefit as well–the wealth of the top percentile will “trickle down.” This theory holds that the better off this country’s rich are, the more job opportunities the middle class will have as a result of the upper class investments and the working poor will be better off because everyone else will shop, spend and tip more. Of course this doesn’t work; anyone working in this present economy not in that top percent can attest to that.

Traditionally the working class voter has been a Democrat– the policies, tax systems and focus of the democratic party has always been much more geared towards the poor and the working class; Democrats, as a whole, have always been more conscientious of the middle class than Republicans. The success the Republican party has seen in recent years in grabbing up the votes of evangelical Christians and others seeking to vote “the moral vote” is odd in that by taking their side on a few select “moral” issues the Republicans have managed to get working class voters to vote for a party whose policies are very detrimental to their economic well-being.

Oddly enough, while focusing on just a few very specific issues such as abortion and gay marriage, conservatives have completely lost touch with the fact that almost every other major political issue is also a moral issue, many with much wider repercussions than these two pet issues. I ask that even if you are already fuming at my intro here, you will at least proceed to read a few of what I feel are much bigger moral issues that need our focus, issues that many conservatives vote against when they think they are voting “the moral vote” with the GOP.

1)Health Care: If you read my blog very regularly at all you’ll know that I’ve mentioned universal health care a few times before. Thats simply because I feel that this is the biggest single moral issue facing our country today. Every religion, every code of morals and every ethical person has to agree that taking care of the poor, sick and hungry is at the heart of an ethical belief system. With every other industrialized country now having some form of universal health care, how is it that we in America do not? On a daily basis people are left to suffer because they cannot afford insurance and therefore cannot get the treatment they need for a chance to live. Every day people suffer because their insurance won’t provide them with the medicine they need, often claiming that it is “experimental,” which really just means “expensive and not covered by your HMO.” People are left to die when doctor’s have the ability to care for them. We in America have the resources, the wealth, the talent and the opportunity to make sure that no one is denied medical treatment when they require it, that no family loses their home because they can’t pay their medical bill, even that no family has to cancel their vacation because the cost of their health insurance took a rise this year. It’s a moral issue, and it can be done effectively by our country.

2)The environment: There no longer is a debate about the existance of global warming and the damage that is being done to our environment; in fact, there never was much of a debate to begin with despite what conservative pundits have claimed. Every scientific study and every credible scientist in the world has stressed the dangers our ecological practices are causing, time and time again. It’s irresponsible and ignorant to think that doing damage to the world around us that will affect not only our own lives but the lives of generations to come is not a moral issue. The current administration has consistently repealed safeguards and environmental protection laws that may very well do irreparable harm; all to reduce “limitations” on big business so that more profits can be made for our “trickle down economy.” McCain promises more of the same. What’s worse is that one of the most important technological focuses faces the possibility of grinding to a halt under Mccain: alternative fuels and/or electronic cars. Offshore drilling is such a ruse that it’s hard to believe that so many have fallen for its promise. The numbers don’t lie–you personally and we collectively as a nation can save 3 times what offshore drilling would provide by simply keeping our trunks light, our tires fully aired and driving at an average speed of 5 mph less than we have in the past. Pundits laughed at Obama for pointing this out, but politically independant mathematicians have done the numbers and proven its truth. McCain proposes to lift the bans on offshore drilling causing further environmental harm to provide a little more oil. Does anyone think this will affect the cost at the pump? It costs money to implement and continue with such a plan. Exxon posted record breaking profits this year even with the cost per gallon up–price at the pump will come down when they decide they have to make it come down to maximize their profit. The main threat offshore drilling poses is that it takes the focus away from alternative fuels and effectively mass producing electric cars that are affordable. I’ve mentioned the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” on this blog before and recommend it again–electric plug in models that could go 300 miles a day between charges were on the road and available in California a few years ago, and even more progress has been made with much possible. We can get such vehicles mass produced and break our dependance on a substance that destroys the environment and causes wars.

3)Gun Rights- Inner city DC civilians gained the “right” to carry handguns this year. Conservatives oppose practically every restriction on private ownership of firearms. Statistics here have always been startingly, with the percentage of Americans dying each year from homicide by firearm being astronomically more than any other industrialized country. Heck, even homes that own guns for “home protection” are twice as likely to die by being shot than homes without guns. I understand that hunters and sportsmen don’t want their guns taken away from them, but can’t we come to a compromise? Does anyone hunt with a handgun? Does anyone need to own a fully automatic assault weapon?

4)Peace- The big issue. How can someone who “values the sanctity of life,” as much as pro-life (aka anti-abortion) conservative voter claim to be so militantly pro-war? I’m not naive enough to claim that war is always avoidable and never neccesary. I will make the claim that an honorable and ethical nation will do its best to avoid war as much as reasonably possible; it will strengthen diplomatic relations and do its part as a responsible member of the UN, working with all nations to ensure peace and diplomacy. An ethical nation should always avoid committing war time atrocities that it condemns in other nations, there should never be hyporcritical “you can’t but we can” moments. If an honorable nation is faced with no alternatives to war it will go forward solemnly and gracefully, attempting to accomplish the objectives and restore peace as soon as possible. Jingoistic attitudes by citizens in times of war overlooks the lives lost on both sides, by soldiers and civilians.

5)Taxes– briefly. A lot of people will tell you how bad the taxes will be if Obama is elected. Taxes in and of themselves are not bad. They can fund social programs, health care and provide opportunities to those who would otherwise do without. It takes money to create jobs and bring industry back home instead of outsourcing it overseas. Democrats are good at raising the minimum wage and creating more money for the middle class–yes, the upper class will pay more taxes, but they can also afford it and will still be quite well off.

These are moral issues, and I know that conservatives still feel gay marriage and abortion to be very important as well. To briefly touch on them, I will ask is it fair to let a political party goad you into your vote by making you focus on two specific issues that they can’t resolve even if you get them elected? I would suggest a compromise but I feel that opponents on these issues fail to find room for compromise. We liberals feel that the solution is simple, to make abortion, like Obama and Clinton have both said, “safe, legal, and rare.” We believe the solution is in education, alternatives, support, protection, guidance and prevention. We can reduce the need for abortion; outlawing it doesn’t erase it, it simply moves it to the back alleys instead of the clinics. If you don’t believe in abortion–don’t have one. Don’t judge others for decisions they make, simply worry about your own. If the conservatives would let it be finalized at this point, I think almost every liberal would be fine with outlawing abortions after the third trimester. As for gay marriage? Is it really that much of an issue? How do the values of others impede your own personal family values? All Americans deserve the same exact rights, whether you support their lifestyles or not–the same people who protested the civil rights movement have grandfathered a generation of folks who protest homosexual equality; you don’t have to accept them, you do have to allow them to live in peace with all of the rights you have. It’s coming, one day or another, it’s irrefutable.

Finally, in closing I just want to say that the reason I took such a windy detour on my blog is that I now know that all of us have to do our part to express as much of the truth as we can. This is the most important election of my lifetime. The damage to the economy, the environment, the U.S. reputation and standing in the world, human rights and constitutional rights (remember the Patriot Act which is still very much in effect) has been severe under the current administration. McCain promises four more years of the same. Can any educated, ethical and tolerant person look in the mirror and tell themselves they want to vote for four more years of that? We all have to do what’s best for the nation and best for the world.

So at the end of my last entry I mentioned that this article would be about comic books, a medium I feel is often overlooked by a lot of people in that it combines elements of literature, episodic televison, film, as well as high and pop art. It can be very derivative at times (but what genre can’t be?), and a lot of it only works for and appeals to certain demographics. But, I know that amidst the thousands upon thousands of comic books in print, both in graphic novel format and in single issue format, filed with back issues from years past as well as waiting along with the dozens of other new titles shipping each week, there are a lot of great books that can appeal to a lot of different types of people. A truly great comic works in ways that no other medium quite can. So, if you’re a reader but have never read many (or any) comics, I’ve compiled a list of what I feel are ten of the greatest comic books of all time. I realize that many great single issues of comics are too much for the casual reader to just jump into; so many books have ran for so many years with such a vast back catalogue of information that it’s hard to intstantly pick some of them up and truly understand what’s going on, never mind the fact that even if you did grasp the basic plot threads that some of those books won’t appeal to you unless you love the primary american vehicle of comics, the superhero story. My focus here is on completed stories; most comics that run in single issue form are later compiled into book versions, known as trade paperbacks, a term many interchangeably with graphic novel (to be technical, in case you’re wondering, a trade paperback (tpb) always consists of previously published material now collected in book form–a graphic novel is a single book never presented before in any different form). Many of the following titles are published by Vertigo, a DC imprint geared towards adult readers; Vertigo titles usually have a set issue span before they’re published. Whereas a title like Superman has been running for decades and has no definable end in the near future, most Vertigo titles are planned to end with a certain issue when the story finally reaches its natural end. Other books on this list are completely collected story arcs taken from ongoing series. Anyway, originally I was going to talk about each book and review it, explaining why it’s as great as I feel it is. I’m afraid that would make this article entirely too sprawling, so I’ll leave most reviews and descriptions to either be placed in upcoming blogs as they relate to them, or tacked on at the end of unrelated blogs in the future. So, here goes:

1)Watchmen by Alan Moore (art by Dave Gibbons)

the greatest comic of all time

the greatest comic of all time

2)Preacher by Garth Ennis (art by Steve Dillon)

3)Swamp Thing (vol 1-4) by Alan Moore (art by various)

4)Bone by Jeff Smith (art also by Jeff Smith

5)Batman: Year One by Frank Miller (art by Dave Mazuchelli)

6)Captain America: Omnibus volume One by Ed Brubaker (art by Steve Epting and various)

7)Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaugh (art by Pia Guerrera and various)

8)Maus by Art Spiegelman (art also by Spegelman)

9)Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

10) Criminal by Ed Brubaker (art by Sean Williams)

These are ten books or series of books I feel that best showcase what comics are capable of doing. There are many others, and some of those others may be greater in their own right, but this is my opinion of the best starting place for a reader unfamiliar with the comic landscape.
All right. Coming up in my next post I’ll be discussing what I refer to as “The Batman Archetype,” and I’ll give my review of “Batman:Year One” and “Watchmen.” After that, the next article will be concentrating on the unfortunate curse of many from my generation, the gangster chic complex and talking about a recent comment by David Lapham (an excellent comic writer) in which he pondered the film Scarface‘s popularity; that article will also feature a review of “Criminal” and a push for readers to check out the ongoing series “Young Liars.” So, if I have any readers who like any of what I’ve had to say lately, stop back by soon.

…specifically, in this instance, sports.

I’m not the world’s largest sports fan…I love baseball, it’s history, it’s great players and it’s culture, and in baseball season I like to see at least one full game a week; I can take or leave most basketball games, I dislike football but somehow always end up watching the Superbowl, and I enjoy many Olympic events (Specifically Women’s Beach volleyball, but hey), but I would never consider myself a sports fanatic. But recently a few things have made me consider the role sports and athletics play in our society. Bear with me while I mention a few of these incidents and then I’ll try and pull all of this together.

Instance one–at my place of work, a client (or customer depending on how you look at it) began spewing a tirade complaining that people in America are too concerned with “big men throwing balls through little hoops,” and that these people had no knowledge of politics and world events. The next instance that prompted this particular article is the coverage of the ongoing Olympics (as an aside, when Bob Costas was interviewing ‘President’ Bush and began one of his questions with “Even with the problems America faces…” Bush began his reply with something along the lines of “Well I don’t think America has any problems…”– wow). The third event occurred fictionally. I’m currently reading Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, and in it the narrators’ teenage son says that if you think big, things seem terrible, scary and only getting worse–terrorism, global warming, current political situations…they seem to only get worse and they seem to be unmanageable. But, he says, if you think small–this girl I just met, this movie I’m going to see, an upcoming trip–then things seem great. So the motto is think small.

Now, I feel all of these thing kind of correlate. First off, I don’t think we should only “think small.” It does help sometimes though, because the big issues are always there, and we are tiny next to them. But even when approaching these big problems we quite often must “think small” because we can only solve one bit at at a time-going after the whole thing at once is often too much. But the relevant aspect of this concept here is that to stay sane and to enjoy the time we have on this earth we do indeed have to focus on the little things sometimes. We have to think about our circle of friends and loved ones, our hobbies and interests, we have to soak in our diversions to deal with the cruelties of the world. But does this mean that everyone who enjoys sports or other diversions has no knowledge of politics, world events and serious issues? Not hardly. I recently made my way through the excellent documentary Ken Burns made about the history of the game “Baseball.” The “National Pastime” has showcased the good and the bad of our society and mirrored our progress throughout our national and its own history. It has served as a diversion and a celebration of it’s people and life throughout its entire existence–through the roaring twenties, through the depths of the great depression, through World War II and Vietnam and on to Reaganomics and the high-salaried nineties. Do those that love the game have complete ignorance of the world around them? All of them? No, not at all. Do some of them? Quite possibly, but just like non fans of the game as well.

Political interest and knowledge does quite often seem to be in recession in the US and around the world. Quite often, educated, knowledgeable citizens with an understanding of politics, history and the true needs and concerns facing our population seem to be able only to shake their heads in bafflement as the popular votes and opinions weigh in. But I also feel that many of the brightest and most knowledgeable know that it can’t always be only a constant focus on the issues or they’ll go crazy.

I’m not about to claim myself as being one of those “best and brightest” but I do think I have a general understanding of politics and cultural issues. I do read about what’ s going on in the world, talk about the issues and think about what should be done, but I also divert myself quite often. I love baseball, like I said. I also love films, music, books, beer, friends and comics (a great and underrated genre unlike any other–mixing aspects of film, episodic television, literature, high art and pop art, and which I’ll be addressing ten excellent examples of the genre in my next article). I feel that diversion like this serves a great purpose. These things often are much deeper than they appear on the surface and can reflect the issues that may be bigger than they are in their own way–and if we didn’t have them to lead our attention elsewhere, from our own problems, worries and also away from the societal problem and worries occassionally, we may all very well go crazy together. As for the “big men throwing balls through little hoops” guy, he seemed nice enough, and I’m sure he’s disgusted at the current situation in the world–but I’m also sure he has some sort of diversion as well even if it isn’t sports.