Watchmen in particular seems the best way to approach him. It's the story of a superhero landscape converging on a decisive moment concerning the balance of good and evil. The character of Ozymandias has determined the only way to break the cycle of victory and defeat is to unite everyone around an imagined enemy. (Never mind that fifteen years later the whole world did in fact unite in such a way, and then very quickly disintegrated in spectacular and alarming fashion, after 9/11.) Very pointedly, and also quite ironically for the continuing impact of the story, the Cold War looms heavily in Watchmen even though it is only a few years from being concluded. (It was originally published in single-issue form from 1986 to 1987.) It's not even specifically the struggle between two superpowers that fascinates Moore but the existence of the doomsday clock, one of the famous symbols of the story, counting down the world's chances of nuclear annihilation.
I came to Watchmen years later. The disasters I was most familiar with growing up were Challenger, Chernobyl, Exxon-Valdez, that sort of thing. I was nine years old when the Berlin Wall came down, twenty years removed from the chance to be alive when it was constructed. I grew up in a different kind of world. Moore's President of the United States isn't Ronald Reagan but Richard Nixon, who at the rate he would have been going eclipsed the record FDR actually set five decades earlier. No one ever really questions the logic of any of these decisions in Watchmen. I think it's because the target audience was far more aware of the world Moore grew up in than I could ever have been when I knew the story only as one of the most famous and critically praised comic books ever created.
As such, for me Watchmen itself exists in a vacuum. Except it doesn't.
I've just stumbled upon this 1970s talk show clip:
In it, literary giants Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer engage in something you would probably never even imagine as a possibility in today's world, two writers engaging in a verbal war of words. The last time a writer was on a talk show, Oprah was castigating James Frey. We couldn't have a Truman Capote today. Maybe the sight of Vidal and Mailer measuring the size of each other's...finger bowls (host Dick Cavett certainly has some fun with Mailer's comments) was enough to convince everyday Americans that writers were maybe just a little too full of themselves.
The clip was enough to get me to wonder a little about Mailer, who died in 2007. His was a name I knew, vaguely, but had never read, and I think there's a good reason for that. Probably in the 1970s everyone in college would have read him, but he never came up in the early 2000s. His moment had passed. So what was his moment, exactly? He was one of the people who tried to figure out what the 1950s were all about. Yes, that's how far back he goes. He was a writer who tried to make sense of the culture shift occurring during the start of the Cold War. At the start of the doomsday clock, if you will.
This had the effect of opening the last sixty years of American history wider than anything else I've experienced in half that time. Mailer argued that the constant threat of nuclear annihilation should have produced a definitive break in human psychology. And it did. Except that instead of everyone fearing that the world was going to end at any moment, the younger generations started living simply for the moment. I guess, initiating a full decade before the Summer of Love the concept of a counterculture. (Marlon Brando in The Wild One and, more famously, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause thank you for acknowledging this.) If there's no guarantee of tomorrow, why live by the old rules at all?
And you know what, that's something I completely understand. I've been observing for years how the culture around me seems to have been directly influenced by the 1960s, socially and politically. It never even occurred to me that it wasn't that decade at all, but a decade earlier that had produced this radical shift. And so, maybe someone like Alan Moore makes more sense than he might otherwise seem, to someone who didn't experience any of the immediate effects of the Cold War, who only read about it in history books, watched it end on TV.
His Watchmen becomes the final statement of the doomsday clock. His attempt to put the whole thing behind him, everyone, whoever cares. This apathy for superheroes that infuses Moore's work is another symptom of his conclusions. Superheroes were originally relevant in WWII. This was a time when people needed superheroes. They almost went away completely in the 1950s. I guess it only figures. When they staged their comeback in the 1960s, they were permanently warped, or so it seemed. They became much more ironic. (Which explains all the movies that have been made recently from Marvel characters.) Moore's apathy, his latent cynicism, is a direct response to this trend that had been developing for decades. Do superheroes stay or do they go? Do they even still have a point, when the real world has no one capable of magically eliminating the greatest threat mankind has ever faced?
It's not Moore but Mailer who first addressed this. Mailer didn't do it with superheroes. But Moore's concluding thoughts from that era, they become so much easier to understand. Today they're on the verge of losing all sense. Watchmen will be remembered as a statement on superheroes. But its deeper connection, its historical resonance, may be lost, if fans continue to listen to Moore himself, who long ago began a different kind of battle, one that, well, looks a lot like Mailer matching wits with Gore Vidal.
So maybe there's more to Watchmen than I once believed. Not the clever symmetry in the art. Not the dawn of the age of the adult reader. There's a point to the fear Ozymandias represents, the fear of something so great it must be combated with something even more grotesque. This is a story of morality, not superheroes. And has everything to do with nuclear annihilation, but not a doomsday clock. It's a war of cultures.
So maybe I need to read Norman Mailer. Maybe Alan Moore doesn't really matter without the context of Mailer. Then, and perhaps only then, will I truly be able to reconcile the monstrous ego of Moore, to find out what he's really trying to protect. The kind of innocence his Rorschach dedicated a savage career to avenging, perhaps.
And perhaps, just perhaps, I'm struggling with these thoughts now because of another game of brinkmanship, once again taking place between America and Russia. But we've learned from the past. Right?