More on Watchmen (Page a Day day 4)

The following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and nostalgia.

What I have here is probably closer to the introduction I need. I always seem to flounder a bit at first before I realize that I need to be a lot more straightforward at the beginning of a given essay so that I can mention all of the stuff I will talk about and then immediately begin the process of making connections between things.

Here is the new writing:

This essay discusses the intersection of music and nostalgia in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, a graphic novel published in serial form from September 1986 through October 1987. Watchmen reimagines the United States of the mid-1980s and late Cold War. The US is a nation that has repealed the 22nd amendment to its constitution to allow Richard Nixon to run for (and win) a third term (and a fourth). This alternate history was made possible by Dr. Manhattan, the one “costumed hero” amongst the novel’s menagerie of superheroes with actual superpowers—superpowers that led to an American victory in Vietnam under Nixon.

As a result of this victory, the counterculture of the 1960s celebrated for its resistance to Vietnam and the military industrial complex, seemingly fails to impact popular culture in Watchmen’s ersatz America. While there are several references to historical musicians such as Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, and Devo within the novels world, the most explicit references to the music of the counterculture of the 60s, here the lyrics of Bob Dylan, come in the epigraphs to two of the novel’s chapters and in advertising copy for a fictional cologne, Nostalgia by Veidt. I will turn to Dylan in a moment, but for now suffice it to say that the novel at once reifies Dylan as a prophet of the historical counterculture and deconstructs simplistic understandings of his music that reify him as such. Without him, the novel suggests, popular rock music becomes merely the province of hoodlums and takes on a fascist bent, as made clear by the two bands that perform at Madison Square Garden in the novel’s climactic moments: Pale Horse and Kristallnacht.

Watchmen is a mosaic of competing nostalgias. Each of the novel’s costumed heroes nostalgizes the past—none of these nostalgias fits with one another. Moreover, the novel reveals and critiques the nostalgia American culture felt for its past during the 1980s, as the Cold War was drawing to a close but the threat of mutually assured destruction figured prominently in public discourse and imagination. What might have happened, the novel asks, if we had had a superhero who could do anything? Would such a figure, the product of a simplified if not childish understanding of the past and desire for wholeness, prevent the end of the world? These questions imply an uncertain future, one closed to the world epistemologically and, if the missiles launch, ontologically. In such a world, which is to say the world of the late twentieth century, nostalgia provides refuge from this future by liquidating the past of its complexity. This past grants the nostalgic an origin, one that explains his or her present, one that makes sense of a world fraught with complexity.

However, as the novel takes pains to make clear, nostalgia does not intervene in the past so much as color one’s perception of it. Nostalgia restructures the past into a simpler form, one devoid of the complexity of the present. This constructed simplicity belies the complexity of the past. For example, Watchmen’s costumed heroes’ origin stories involve multiple threads. Rorschach does not become Rorschach because of a single event, nor does his morality derive from a simple source (even if that morality is itself brutally simple). Such origins stand in contrast to more popular comic book heroes such as Batman (who’s fate seems to be sealed after the young Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents’ murder) or Superman (who arrives from Krypton already fully American1).

1See Red Son for an interesting contrast to this origin story

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