Tuesday, October 22, 2019

“Watchmen” and The Smiley Face: The Superhero Goes Bad

         (Last Sunday HBO premiered its new series based on “Watchmen”, the 1980’s 12-issue DC comic book series which has been called “a masterwork” and “the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.”  That inspired me to publish this excerpt from my (unpublished as yet) book—"The Saga of Smiley”-- about the history of the Smiley Face symbol, created in 1963 by Worcester, MA artist, Harvey Ball.)  

          With the appearance of Watchmen, a12-issue series of comic books published by DC Comics from September 1986 to October 1987, Smiley had metamorphosed 180 degrees from happy innocence (early 1960’s) to stoned euphoria (1970’s and Acid) to complete evil.  Here is how Jon Savage of The Guardian described the bloodstained Smiley that became the symbol of the series, appearing on the first and last page of the comics and, later, on the cover of the graphic novel: “Watchmen used the Smiley as a visual metaphor for a narrative that examines guilt, failure, megalomania and compromise with a corrupt power structure,” Savage wrote.  “All is not well beneath the idealized superhero surface, as the novel spirals into an existential crisis of betrayal, mass extinction, the transience of human existence.”


        This is a heavy, deep critique and Watchmen, created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins, is a whole lot weightier—and, some would argue, more culturally significant—than your average comic book.  It revolutionized the comic book medium and the popular perception of super heroes.  When the series was gathered into a trade paperback in 1987, bookstores and public libraries began setting aside special sections for graphic novels. 

         Time Magazine praised it as “a superlative feat of imagination, combining sci-fi, political satire, knowing evocations of comics past and bold reworkings of current graphic format into a dystopian mystery story.” Watchmen was the only graphic novel to appear on Time magazine’s 2005 “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels” list.  Entertainment Weekly called it, “A masterwork representing the apex of artistry”, and Damon Lindelof, a creator of the TV series Lost, [and the new HBO Watchmen series!]  described it as, “The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.” 

          Watchmen is set in an alternate reality which resembles the contemporary world of the 1980’s, but many things have gone wrong; for instance, the U.S. won the War in Viet Nam, thanks to the assistance of some of the six costumed superheroes who make up the eponymous Watchmen.  As a result, Richard Nixon has been re-elected for a total of five terms. And Russia, jealous of the superior powers the Watchmen give the U.S., is threatening to launch a nuclear war against America.

         Over the years since they were first organized to maintain law and order, the superheroes have become cynical and tired and increasingly unpopular among the police and the public, so that in 1977 a law was passed to outlaw costumed superheroes except those who are working for the government.  As the story unfolds, most of the heroes have turned in their costumes and retired, but two of them are still employed by the government:  Dr. Manhattan, who is blue-skinned and all-powerful and capable of teleporting himself and anyone else anywhere, including to Mars, and the Comedian, (kneeling above) who always wears a Smiley button and who is described by Richard Reynolds in Super Heroes as: “ruthless, cynical and nihilistic, and yet capable of deeper insights than the others into the role of the costumed hero.”  Also still active, but as a rogue superhero outside the law, is Rorschach. No one knows what Rorschach looks like, because he always wears a white mask with constantly changing ink-blots moving over it.

          Just before the beginning of the comic series, the Comedian has been murdered.  (In the film version you get to see it happen, when a masked figure all in black slashes him, then tosses him through the glass window-wall of his apartment many, many stories above the street.  His yellow Smiley button gets close-ups as it becomes tinged with the Comedian's blood and then clinks down on the pavement near his shattered body.)  Soon Rorschach, the rogue superhero, arrives to pick up the button and begin investigating the murder of the Comedian, all the while keeping a journal of what he discovers and going around to warn his old superhero companions that their lives might be in danger.

          Writer Alan Moore picked the Smiley Face as the symbol for the Watchmen for a number of reasons. He cited satirical author William S. Burroughs as one of his main influences, saying he liked his use of “repeated symbols that would become laden with meaning.” The blood-stained Smiley face did just that.                    

The artist Dave Gibbons, in drawing the Watchmen panels, often added symbols himself that Moore would not notice immediately.  Gibbons created the Smiley face badge worn by the Comedian in order to lighten the overall design, and added the splash of blood.  He later said that he and Moore came to regard the blood-stained Smiley as “a symbol for the whole series” and he pointed out its resemblance to the Doomsday Clock ticking up to midnight—another prominent symbol in the story. 

          At the end of Watchmen we learn that one of the retired superheroes has killed the Comedian and stage-managed the exile of Dr. Manhattan to Mars as part of a plan to save humanity from an impending atomic war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  He intends to fake an alien invasion in New York City, killing half the city’s people, in hopes of uniting Russia and the U.S. against this perceived common enemy.  And although the others try to stop him, in his hideaway in Antarctica, it’s too late; the death and destruction have already been unleashed on New York.  The Doomsday clock has struck 12.

          Literary analysts have called Watchmen “Moore’s obituary for the concept of heroes in general and superheroes in particular.”  Moore himself said in 1986 that he was writing Watchmen to be “not anti-Americanism [but] anti-Reaganism”.  He added he was “consciously trying to do something that would make people feel uneasy.”

          Plans to make a film of Watchmen went through many different hands and scripts and studios and potential directors. In 1986 producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver acquired the film rights for 20th Century Fox.  Alan Moore was asked to write a script, but he declined. After spending more than 20 years in development hell, passing through a multitude of scriptwriters, directors, studios and producers, Watchmen was finally released on March 6, 2009 in both conventional and IMAX theaters.  Watchmen grossed $55 million on the opening weekend.  It grossed over $185 million at the worldwide box office (and had a budget of $130 million).

     Smiley had been the cover, the symbol and the star in “the book that changed an industry and challenged a medium,” as it says on the back of the Watchmen graphic novel.   Inevitably Smiley’s worldwide fame and his ability to symbolize everything from innocence to drugged euphoria to rabid consumerism to dystopia brought him a flock of roles in film and television.  Even though he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Watchmen, everyone in the entertainment business wanted a piece of him.  So Smiley went Hollywood big time.

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