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Realism, Genre, and the Literary Superhero: A Review of Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics

By Mitch Murray

Hoberek, Andrew. Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2014.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, in all likelihood the most famous American superhero comic of the past three decades, has been considered extensively already. But, while Time magazine’s inclusion of Watchmen on its list of the 100 best English language novels and Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation have made Watchmen into a household name, Andrew Hoberek maintains that Watchmen has been passed over by many comics scholars because of the superhero genre’s uneasy relations with so-called art comics. He also contends that scholars have justified Watchmen’s serious consideration via a series of methods from literary criticism (though Hoberek perhaps relies too much on Sara J. Van Ness’s “Watchmen” as Literature: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel to make this point). In response to current Watchmen and literary criticism, the gambit of Hoberek’s title—and the real methodological principle of the whole book—is a rigorous and ongoing process of considering Watchmen, not just in relation to its own aesthetic and socio-political situation, but also in relation to our own.

Hoberek has Watchmen in mind as something of a keyword—following the tradition of Raymond Williams, for whom difficult words illuminate ongoing or emergent change and processes—for the contemporary moment and the state of contemporary American fiction. His book’s three sections on the poetics, property, and politics of Watchmen culminate in a coda on contemporary American fiction, where I would say Hoberek’s truer interests ultimately lie. Hoberek departs from what he sees as mainstream and formalist academic approaches to Watchmen in favor of one guiding question: “Is it literature?” According to him, comics are not print literature, nor are they fine art, so applying literary criticism or art history methodologies to the comics medium is not necessarily useful. So, rather than throwing a series of methodologies at Watchmen to see what sticks, Hoberek’s approach transcends inquiries that would squabble over its status as literature, art, or mass culture. As he insists, asking whether Watchmen is literature demands we articulate what is at stake in calling something literature in the first place and “forces us to attend to all the elements of Watchmen’s form, circumstances of production, and institutional status” (29). While it seems settled that Watchmen is a masterpiece of the comics medium, Hoberek’s discussion of property and politics alongside Watchmen’s poetics addresses and provokes far more interesting questions: what does Watchmen allow us to understand about our present moment, and what precisely can we do with Watchmen now?

Watchmen stands out among comics because, as Hoberek points out in the book’s first section on poetics, it was one of the first works in comics modernism, a period Hoberek traces back to the 1980s and works like Moore’s Swamp Thing and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Hoberek understands literary modernism as “a turn to formal innovation spurred by dissatisfaction with the conventions of an ossified realism.” (39). But, unlike literary modernism, the breakthrough in comics did not arise out of dissatisfaction with the constraints of realism. Moore and Gibbons, he claims, were dissatisfied with an ossified genre. Since the superhero genre was already inherently unrealistic, they broke with convention by creating a realist superhero comic. Their antecedent, in Hoberek’s account, is none other than Virginia Woolf, whose “modernist experimentation in fact serves ends of a more precise psychological realism” (39), an influence we can see even before Watchmen when Moore revised Swamp Thing in 1984’s “The Anatomy Lesson.” Moreover, Hoberek argues, in representing the multidimensionality of individual experience that is characteristic of modernist literature and art, comic book modernism was “able to go beyond either literature or visual art alone” (44) because the medium allows for the simultaneity of text and multiple images. Fredric Jameson suggests that the paradox of modernism is that realism, insofar as it is about “the hitherto unreported, unrepresented, and unseen,” (476) is modernism’s first form. This means, “a modernist realism would begin to emerge when the traditional methods of narrative representation (novelistic realism) are used and then undermined” (479). In the case of Watchmen, the traditional superhero narrative is undermined by just such a modernist realism in the comics medium. This break from convention will become more important by the time we reach Hoberek’s coda on contemporary American novels and its discussion of realism and the superhero genre.

But Hoberek first takes us through two more sections (on property and politics) before more fully revealing what is at stake today in Watchmen’s make-it-new modernist sentiment. Part of Hoberek’s case for Watchmen as a keyword for literary and cultural studies is that its particular kind of modernism could not have arisen at any other time. Hoberek argues that comics modernism, which is to say realism, was a response to certain material developments in the comics industry itself, developments that foreshadow the neoliberal present and its struggles over intellectual property. For Moore and Gibbons, the realist superhero comic was not only a break from the conventions of superhero narratives and the comic book medium but also an attempt to resist, however minimally, a particular regime of intellectual and creative ownership. One of the strengths of Hoberek’s book is its fascinating biographical research, which illustrates Moore’s aspirations to artistic autonomy (tellingly, Moore remarked that writing a prequel to Watchmen would be like writing a prequel to Moby-Dick). In an inherently collaborative medium and in an industry built on piecework and precarious artistic labor, comics modernism gave Moore and Gibbons a typically foreclosed space in which to create a relatively autonomous work. This situation, Hoberek argues, is allegorized by the conflict in Watchmen between Rorschach and Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias). Rorschach was based on Steve Ditko’s character The Question, who he created after leaving Marvel because of disputes with Stan Lee and Marvel owner Martin Goodman over profits and creative control of Spider-Man. Moore’s admiration of Ditko casts Rorschach as “a figure for the uncompromising artist” (86) while Veidt, whose corporation copyrights the Minutemen heroes and sells action figures and memorabilia, represents a comic book industry that has begun to spread into diverse markets.

The richness of Hoberek’s book also comes from its attention to Moore’s oeuvre and how his concern with intellectual property also informs later works. In Century: 2009, Moore’s unnamed villains, who are based clearly on franchise characters such as James Bond and Harry Potter, continue to allegorize “the struggle between the creative artist seeking to craft a finished work of art and the corporation which owns a profitable, because endlessly reproducible, set of intellectual properties” (96). In other words, Veidt’s business model marks for Hoberek an ascendant neoliberalism. Since 1986-87, however, the struggle between profitability and artistic integrity merely describes business as usual. The control over the creative commons by corporations like Disney and Time Warner has only intensified (consider Alan Moore’s disgust at the film adaptations of his own works From HellThe League of Extraordinary GentlemenConstantineV for Vendetta, and of course Watchmen itself). It is surprising, however, to find no discussion in Hoberek’s book about the recent spate of creator-owned comics (the success of many Image Comics publications comes to mind). Granted, many of these comics are not superhero narratives, and so a more thorough examination of the particularities of the genre is necessary. But perhaps the comic book medium can still offer some resistance to the enclosure of the creative commons by media corporations.

Moore and Gibbons’s proto-neoliberal villain, and the encroachment by corporations elaborated in Hoberek’s chapter on property, neatly segues into his discussion of politics. He argues that, much like V for VendettaWatchmen is a response to the ideology of the Thatcher/Reagan years. Veidt can only bring an end to the Cold War via an elaborately staged alien attack, by “re-creat[ing] it at a further remove, much as American neoconservatives would mobilize the war on terror as the impetus behind a US-guided version of neoliberal expansion” (154). In Watchmen the heroes never band together to save the day; they’re a kind of anti-Justice League. In this way, the villain, Veidt, turns out to be the hero, sort of. Hoberek draws the connection between Moore’s own distrust of institutions as such and Thatcher’s own anti-institutionalism. But in this light, he warns, realism is too easily read as a “political realism that is dangerously close to cynicism,” one in which “collaboration is only possible or desirable in its most minimal or contingent forms” (158). Watchmen can “critique the neoconservative aspects of the Reagan/Thatcher eighties but not the neoliberal ones that were themselves premised on a distrust of institutions” (157). However, Watchmen is not somehow insufficient or bad because it fails to overcome the problems of state-backed superheroes and neoliberal ascendancy. Rather, as Hoberek describes it, Watchmen can be said to map the ideological limits of its own period, namely the point at which institutions as such and their possible collaborative projects become unacceptable to both the political left and the right. The book’s organization around poetics, property, and politics begins to make a whole lot of sense since Watchmen appears to be a fitting keyword for an emergent neoliberal regime. For Hoberek, in other words, comics’ modernist realism reveals some of the tendencies that informed and continue to shape our own present.

With this realist aesthetic in mind, how does Watchmen help us to consider the contemporary moment under a more fully elaborated neoliberal capitalism? In the coda, “After Watchmen,” Hoberek turns his attention to contemporary literature by Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Díaz, Aimee Bender, and Rainbow Rowell, authors who each deploy elements of the superhero narrative in response to “realist fiction that had, by the end of the twentieth century, exhausted the innovative energy that it had acquired from modernist revolution at the century’s beginning” (180). For Hoberek, Watchmen was a modernist break from the superhero comics of its time, and the appearance of superheroes in literature today signals a similar break in print fiction, but with something of an inversion: where Watchmen helped kick off the realist superhero comic, these contemporary American authors write superhero fiction “to escape the now stifling formal limitations… of literary realism in its late twentieth-century minimalist mode” (164). In other words, we are witnessing the literary realist becoming generic and the generic becoming literary realist.

Yet, it is unclear what precisely these “stifling formal limitations” (164) of literary realism are, and it is at this point that we need to acknowledge some of Considering’s own limitations. For one, it is tempting to find in it a false binary between minimalist literary realism and superhero fiction, the former programmatic and oppressive and the latter necessarily radical. Further, it would be troublingly easy to attribute breaks from literary convention to a handful of male authors and thus valorize a gender disparity in the production of what Hoberek considers contemporary literature. And while Hoberek acknowledges that most authors of superhero novels are men—an unevenness obvious in comics as well—his discussion remains disproportionately weighted in favor of Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Hoberek’s argument hinges on two assumptions: that the dominant conception of contemporary literature as such equals literary minimalist realism (and since Hoberek does not provide many examples beyond early Chabon short stories and Díaz’s Drown, it is hard to get a handle on this literature’s pervasiveness) and, second, that this literature is necessarily oppressive, offering only “falsely happy endings and… despair in the face of present circumstances” (182). Of course, there is plenty of this fiction, but, as Mark McGurl argues in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009), we also have an unprecedented plenitude of excellent literature thanks in no small part to the explosion of American MFA programs in creative writing. Apart from a brief mention of The Program Era and occasional nods to Raymond Carver—a central figure of the American MFA—Hoberek barely reckons with McGurl’s study of MFA fiction. I mention The Program Era, not to fault Hoberek, but because both Hoberek’s and McGurl’s studies lack a consideration of genre fiction more generally. Or, more accurately, Hoberek keeps his focus on superhero fiction, and McGurl makes an omission of necessity because MFAs train students not to write genres, but to write literature akin to what Hoberek calls minimalist or realist.

But to exclude a discussion of genres from any consideration of literature today would be to blot out, not only rich and imaginative traditions and experiments in fiction, but also to elide realism’s own literary history and its more complex relationships with popular genres. In particular, science fiction comes to mind in recent novels by more identifiably realist authors like William Gibson (since 9/11 anyway), Ben Lerner, and Ruth Ozeki. Yet, I think Hoberek is aware of his book’s blindspot since Considering reads like a prelude to just such a study in genre, an opening up of lines of inquiry into genre fiction today. After all, though the graphic novel form makes Watchmen into something more recognizably self-contained, literary, and realist, it is not an “aesthetically serious” work like other graphic narratives along the lines of Bechdel’s Fun Home, Spiegelman’s Maus, or Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life. It is, fundamentally, a superhero story, a work of genre fiction. Considering begins with comics’ superhero–modernism opposition (in Hoberek’s specific usage, that is, a genre–realism opposition). Of print fiction, Jameson suggests that postmodernity might have “rendered the opposition of realism and modernism obsolete,” and because of this we might need to “invent some new categories, which is to say, to articulate some new kinds of oppositions” (479), a task, we now see, that Hoberek has begun here.

The opposition in comics from the 1980s between superheroes and realism (or genre and realism) sheds new light on an opposition between realism and genre in print literature today. In a recent review of his own—one that anticipates his interest in superheroes and in Díaz in particular—Hoberek calls Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel, Zone One (2011), the “greatest American novel of the twenty-first century” (“Living” 406). Not only does Zone One use “forms of defensive individualization that structure the high literary canon” of modernism but also, via the zombie subgenre of horror, Whitehead can use the “trauma narrative that became the mark of realist literary seriousness in the late twentieth century” (411). In Whitehead’s hands, Hoberek argues, the “parody of trauma as a mode of individualization” depicts “the breakdown of our categories of the individual and even the human not as a tragedy but as a form of release” (412). In other words, the literary zombie novel does not merely allegorize us v. them scenarios but rather asserts that we have yet to become human. Perhaps, too, we have yet to become superhuman.

As I suggested in the beginning, Hoberek’s Considering lets us use Watchmen as a sort of keyword for the contemporary moment. This means that there is something more to be done with Watchmen––besides praising it, that is. Hoberek insists that we consider it in an account, not only of the comic book medium, but also of contemporary American print literature and the relations between realism and genre fiction. Using Watchmen as a keyword for the contemporary helps us interrogate the category of literature itself and how it changes and is changing alongside property and politics. We can single out Watchmen, not because of its unimpeachable status among graphic novels, but because it is useful in a discussion of contemporary realism and genre. Following Jameson again, who in turn follows Lukács, “the narrative of individuals” of the realist novel can be “made to approach historical dynamics as such” and “reveal its relationship with a history in movement and a future on the point of emergence” (479). Realism, then, is fundamentally concerned with “the revelation of tendencies rather than with the portrayal of a state of affairs” (479). By zeroing in on Watchmen’s realism, Hoberek can retroactively identify a partially articulated tendency to neoliberalism.

Moore’s Watchmen reveals a neoliberal emergence that in our own present has surely intensified, but the contemporary superhero genre does not merely reverberate with the gritty echoes of Thatcher and Reagan. By shifting the focus from comics to the contemporary American novel, Hoberek also shifts the focus from Watchmen, and the immanent neoliberalism of its situation, onto possible new modernist realisms, along with their revelations of tendencies and potentialities, in our contemporary moment. His understanding of genre in contemporary American fiction can therefore be read as an attunement to the emergence of alternate futures. In other words, if a future that breaks from our present is to be represented it will be in genre fiction.

Hoberek’s book, for its wealth of fascinating details and compelling arguments alone, is a useful starting point for anyone interested in the work of Alan Moore and comic book studies. More interesting, I think, and one of its finest contributions to the study of comics and literature, is the refreshing methodology it offers, which sets the stage for a rigorous historicization of realism and its relations both to its own tradition and to genre fiction. The scandal of Considering Watchmen is that it’s not really about Watchmen. But this is exactly why Hoberek is successful. He insists that a consideration of Watchmen, superheroes, and genre more generally is an ongoing project, and he gives us a big step in our response to contemporary American print literature. In turn, this gives us some tools for understanding how literature is responding to the contemporary.

Works Cited

Hoberek, Andrew. Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2014. Print.

–––. “Living with PASD.” Contemporary Literature 52.3 (Summer 2012): 406-413. Project Muse. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.

Jameson, Fredric. “Antinomies of the Realism–Modernism Debate.” Modern Language Quarterly 73.3 (September 2012): 475-85. Print.

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