Watchmen & V for Vendetta: Exploring challenging ideas through complex characters

On the recommendation of a friend, I began my comic book education with Watchmen, and immediately followed it with V for Vendetta.

Starting with the first words and images, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons subvert the very genre in which they work. The style of Gibbons’ art is consistent with what I remember from “regular” comic books (something I found mildly distracting at first), but both the subject matter and the composition — within and between panels — reward careful scrutiny, revealing patterns, echoes, and reverberations throughout the book. I expect a second and third reading to reward me with even more.

Watchmen in particular reveals a structural complexity I would never have expected from a comic book, interleaving a disturbing pirate tale throughout the modern-day story — a counterpoint to the rhythm of the primary plot. The narration within the pirate story provides ironic commentary, while its own plot and imagery build into a symbolic backdrop against which the present-day “real-life” story unfolds. Rorschach’s journal provides the bulk of the narration, and over the course of the book one begins to question whether he’s really a reliable narrator.

I say “modern-day story,” but Watchmen is set during the Cold War, while V for Vendetta is set in a post-apocalyptic England at the turn of the millennium, 15 or more years in the future from the time of the graphic novel’s writing. Both stories are overtly political, and a product of their times. As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I remember the apocalyptic dread that permeated adult conversations, and how that dread trickled down (like some sort of horrific Reaganomics) to my friends and me.

We speculated about what would happen if the Soviets attacked. Living in Japan surrounded by American military bases, with recent memories of the Hiroshima Peace Museum to fuel our imaginations, there was no doubt in our young minds that we would be vaporized long before ICBMs ever reached the distant United States. I’m sure I’m missing allusions and references to traditional American comic books, but it’s hard for me to imagine a teenager today understanding the geopolitical context that gave birth to both of these graphic novels.

WatchmenUnlike the one-dimensional heroes of my cousins’ comics, Moore’s characters demonstrate a complexity more typical of Steinbeck or Hemingway. I don’t use that comparison lightly. There is a darkness in the souls of the Comedian and Rorschach born of cynicism and sadism — these men are psychopaths forged in the fires of a broken society, nothing like the classic heroes Spider-Man or Superman.

As strange as this may sound to those who don’t read comic books and graphic novels, Moore’s characters feel like real people. Nite Owl is an aging, overweight “billionaire playboy” (echoes of Batman) who struggles with the boredom of forced retirement. Silk Spectre’s origin story is horrifying on multiple levels — no radioactive spiders here!

The omnipotent Doctor Manhattan — the only character with traditional superpowers — looms in stark contrast to the other characters, a foil that serves to highlight both the flaws and values of their humanity.

Similarly, the power of “V” lies in his distance from the norms of human behavior. The fascist antagonists aren’t wrong that V is a terrorist — he blows up Parliament and various other London landmarks, and murders numerous political elites over the course of the book. He abandons and then tortures his protege. But in doing so, he forces Evey to shed everything in her spirit but her powerful core, empowering her to carry on the revolution after V’s inevitable death. V frees Evey as an individual and sets in motion the liberation of England. Is V evil? By any definition of “civilized” conduct, yes. Nevertheless, V forces the reader to confront what he or she would be willing to do to stand up for the freedom that we all take for granted today.

What I appreciate so deeply about both Watchmen and V for Vendetta is what I’ve grown to love in the science fiction of Robert Heinlein. Alan Moore presents characters and ideas that I don’t necessarily like, that I can’t necessarily relate to, that I frequently disagree with vehemently, but that force me to think and to reflect. Through Watchmen, I’m forced to take the idea of vigilante justice seriously, and to question the moral sacrifices I would be willing to make for the greater good. Through V for Vendetta, I’m forced to consider my own pacifist political views within the context of the tension between fascism and anarchism.

Unfortunately, this tension is all too real and continues to have a lingering effect on my city of Seattle, as well as the United States and the rest of the world in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. What makes both Watchmen and V for Vendetta timeless literary classics is the way Moore explores timeless questions of right and wrong within a believably human context.

You don’t have to agree with the decisions that Nite Owl and Silk Spectre make at the end of Watchmen (or how Rorschach describes the unfolding story), nor with what V and Evey do in V for Vendetta, but you do have to think. And that’s what really matters.

Lessons from the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

With a list of favorite museums that spans the British Museum, MFA in Boston, and Cairo Museum, it hardly seems fair for me to hold museums here in Seattle to the same standards. After all, Seattle isn’t a national capitol like Dublin, nor a major metropolis like New York City. Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to set aside certain expectations I’ve developed over the decades for “what a museum should be.”

Burke Museum totem poles 01So far, the only museum in Seattle that hasn’t disappointed on some level is the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, on the University of Washington campus. The Burke isn’t perfect, but there’s a lot to learn among its exhibits.

We arrived shortly after the museum opened at 10:00 and parked for free ($9.50 Mon-Sat) behind the museum. Even the Burke’s first impression is more “museum-like” than MOHAI or SAM, with large fossils lining the walkway and replicas of Northwest Coast totem poles (19th-century originals long-since decayed or rightfully returned to their tribal owners) standing amid the nearby trees. My wife was enchanted by the well-tended landscaping, and it was all I could do to drag her indoors.

In the museum foyer, a long glass case contains the museum’s most treasured artifacts and specimens. They were all lovely, but the only one that left a lasting impression was the skull of an orangutan donated by the Woodland Park Zoo, which sort of just made me sad thinking about the orang who must have died in the zoo and ended up here (don’t get me wrong; I do think zoos have an important role to play in conservation and education). We pressed on.

I was most interested in the museum’s collections of Washington State archaeological artifacts, and assumed that they would be displayed in the “cultural exhibits” that the man behind the front desk (with an impressive mustache) pointed us to downstairs.

The “Pacific Voices” exhibit appears to suggest that there is some sort of unifying culture that spans the Pacific Rim, from the Northwest Coast Indians to the distant Maori, Lao, Koreans, and other peoples who share access to this ocean. Some ethnologists have begun making tentative connections between Native American tribes here in the Pacific Northwest and the Ainu of Hokkaido, but an overarching Pacific culture seems as anthropologically unsound as a single Asian culture.

Taken individually, most of the exhibits in “Pacific Voices” were fascinating — a combination of intriguing artifacts from all over the Pacific and excellent contemporary art with a few models thrown in for interpretive purposes, but several of the sections lacked any meaningful artifacts (the Korean mannequins having a wedding and the abandoned Chinese New Year meal), and it was hard to buy the unifying theme beyond a common body of water. Perhaps I missed a placard clarifying the nuance the curators intended.

As it turns out, what I was really looking for in the museum was all upstairs, in the “Life and Times of Washington State” exhibit. Starting in the Cambrian and Ordovician with trilobites and crinoids, the exhibit walks visitors through the natural and early human history of Washington State, ending with the paleontology and archaeology of the state when it was first populated by the Clovis people.

Along the way, there’s a digression for dinosaurs — required to attract the critical museum demographic of 9-year-olds — even though Washington was mostly underwater at the time. In addition to the usual casts one might expect at a small museum, the Burke has an excellent mesosaurus plate from Brazil (Mesosaurus tenuidens) and complete, articulated mosasaur (Platecarpus tympaniticus).

Platecarpus tympaniticus 01

Perhaps most exciting is an as-yet-unpublished holotype fossil of a new genus of early baleen whale. Other notable fossils include gorgeous crabs from the Lincoln Creek Formation in Grays Harbor County and “stone rose” from Republic.

But it’s ultimately the material culture of my fellow humans that I look for in natural history museums — along with the flora and fauna in their environments — and I wasn’t disappointed. Rounding a corner, a complete mastodon skeleton looms over a low ramp. On the left, Ice Age fossils from mammoth tusks to bison horns. An unexpected find at the Burke: The skeleton of a giant ground sloth excavated while building Sea-Tac Airport in 1961. On the right, a display case contains the East Wenatchee Clovis Cache.

Between sentences as I type this, I’m feeling the weight of my newly rediscovered paleolithic blades in my left hand. On the opposite arm of the chair, I’ve lined up my neolithic blades.

The contrast between the people who made the crude paleolithic blades and the near-modern (on evolutionary time scales) first people of the Americas couldn’t be more clear. (Update: See why my assessment of paleolithic tools as “crude” may be wrong: “Industrial design of the paleolithic“.)

And there’s a clear connection between the smooth, clean lines of my neolithic blades from ‘Ain Ghazhal and these stunning Clovis blades from Wenatchee, Washington. Both the blades and their very presence in America represent the inevitable progress we make as a species.

This brings us full circle to the “Pacific Voices” exhibit I criticized earlier.

Even if human culture of the last thousand years can’t be summarized so simplistically with an idea like “Pacific Rim culture,” there is deep truth to the idea that we really are all one people, with shared history and a shared future. The neolithic blades in my right hand and the Clovis blades at the Burke are proof of our shared history. The diversity on display in the “Pacific Voices” exhibit reflects how far we’ve come as a species since then, but it also reflects the deep divisions between us — especially as illustrated by the religious practices Burke curators have chosen to focus on.

As we look to our future, perhaps there are more lessons about our similarities to be learned from the people of Clovis and ‘Ain Ghazal than from “Pacific Voices.”

Chauvet in 3D – Cave of Forgotten Dreams

My sense of awe and wonder is most often sparked by a newfound understanding of my place in the universe, a feeling Michael Shermer calls “deep and sacred science.” I’ve felt it listening to “The Messiah” in Westminster Abbey next to Handel’s tomb, unearthing the hearth of a 3,200-year-old house, or climbing hundreds of steps through mist-soaked cedars to a neglected Shinto shrine.

For me, the sense is strongest when I feel a connection to my fellow humans, both those with whom I share the planet today and all those who came before. It’s one reason I’m so fascinated by archaeology — the deeper the past, the deeper my awe and wonder.

Lions painting, Chauvet Cave (museum replica)

The Chauvet cave in southeast France was discovered in 1994, and contains the world’s oldest examples of cave art. Artists painted and engraved horses, aurochs, rhinos, mammoths, lions, leopards, and many other Ice Age animals on the cave walls 32,000-30,000 years ago (in the Aurignacian) and again 27,000-26,000 years ago (Gravettian). Just as in Lascaux, the artists used the natural contours of the cave to accentuate their artwork — the jaw muscles of a horse, the humped shoulder of a bison.

You can’t see these shapes in photographs, and unlike Lascaux there is (as yet) no full-scale modern reproduction to satisfy those of us who won’t ever step through that locked door and enter this ancient cathedral.

This is where Werner Herzog‘s new documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” proves invaluable.

Herzog’s film captures the pristine cave art like no photograph or even 2D movie can. Herzog also includes touching moments of modern humanity, like the experimental archaeologist who plays “The Star Spangled Banner” on a reproduction Ice Age flute, his colleague who dreamed of lions after spending five days in the cave, and the master perfumer who crawls through the brush sniffing for the scent of undiscovered caves.

My only criticism is reserved for the last two minutes of the film, during which Herzog narrates a well-meaning “postscript” that attempts to connect modernity with antiquity via an analogy featuring albino alligators warmed by nuclear power plant effluvium. (No, I didn’t get it either.) After the final cave sequence, it would have been a postscript best left unread.

But when the filmmaker lets light, dark, the cave, and the artists themselves work their ancient magic, the experience is positively numinous.

The Humans Who Went Extinct by Clive Finlayson

This past year, my reading has alternated between classic science fiction and non-fiction archaeology or anthropology — two very different literary forms that encapsulate opposite ends of our shared and potential experience. Along the way, I’ve discovered three books that truly span the breadth of human history, from past, present, to future. No three books alone could represent millions of years completely, of course, but these books do provide a concise overview, and though written by three different authors, they complement each other to form an overarching story of human existence.

I’ll be posting separate discussions of each book, with a wrap-up of the three after I’m done with them individually. Let’s begin with The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived by evolutionary ecologist Clive Finlayson.

In The Humans Who Went Extinct, Finlayson supplements his direct experience excavating the last stronghold of the Neanderthals at Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar with multi-disciplinary research for the causes of human extinction. But humans aren’t extinct, right? Wrong.

Some of our close human cousins didn’t quite make it. Homo erectus flourished in Asia for hundreds of thousands of years while Homo neanderthalensis did the same in Europe, long before our own ancestors ever stepped foot outside Africa. Both species made tools similar to our direct ancestors, and DNA evidence indicates that Neanderthals were most likely capable of speech. The received wisdom of contemporary paleoanthropology and archaeology takes the stance that anatomically and behaviorally modern humans (Finlayson conveniently shortens this to the straightforward “Ancestors”) displaced our cousins when we left Africa and spread throughout the Eurasian continent.

Finlayson examines both the material culture of the Neanderthals and the ecological conditions across the past 125,000 years to argue that their environment degraded repeatedly — from dense forests that supported the ambush hunting style of the Neanderthals (as evidenced by their weapons) to steppe-savanna landscapes where herds or individual prey animals were few and far between and which required a fundamentally different set of technologies and behaviors to succeed.

Neanderthals were not able to adapt to the challenges and opportunities presented by the new, more open landscape. (And with one rare but crucial exception in Central Asia, neither were Ancestors.) The range of humans expanded and contracted with the ebb and flow of forests for thousands of years, placing populations under pressure to the point of local extinctions. Finlayson argues that Neanderthals (and Homo erectus) were pushed to the brink of extinction by the contraction of their traditional environments until the small pockets of survivors were no longer viable populations, cut off from each other and susceptible to one bad winter or outbreak of disease. The last Homo erectus lived on Java until as recently as 50,000 years ago, while Homo neanderthalensis held out at Gibraltar until 24,000 years ago.

Meanwhile, Finlayson suggests that Ancestors on the fringes of our traditional comfort zones were being forced to adapt or die. Most died. He traces the origin of the Gravettian culture to an adaptation by a founder population in Central Asia before about 30,000 years ago. The specific adaptations that enabled these people to survive were the centralized villages that served as home base — and most importantly information exchanges and surplus stockpiles — for the hunters, along with new technologies such as lighter, more portable stone tools that could be adapted to new projectile weapons necessary on the open plains. These people spread west to Europe and northeast across the Bering land bridge to the Americas.

Throughout The Humans Who Went Extinct, Finlayson illustrates how the tension between innovation by fringe populations and conservatism among otherwise stable core populations leads to only two possible results when their environments change. In most cases, environmental challenges have been too great and the vast majority of human diversity has not survived. But when the right opportunities happen to be present, the innovators who take advantage of challenges presented by their environment survive while conservatives who fail to do so die.

The impact of ecology on human success or failure is a theme that will appear again in the next two books we examine.