The skim reader

From the archives: Alan Moore’s Watchmen

This article is from 2009 and originally appeared in War magazine – Issue One – The Beliefs Issue under the title Why I Won’t Be Watching Watchmen.

Comic book fans can be ambivalent about film adaptations of their favourites. Well, I can be, anyway. Persepolis, The Crow, Ghost World, and Adam West playing a camp Batman might be up there with the greats, but Spiderman, X-Men and the Fantastic Four were bastardised.

All too often, producers and filmmakers use comics as ready-made concepts with the panels providing ready-made storyboards. And they also have a ready-made audience of comic lovers wanting to check out their films, and others only too willing to buy in to the cool and kudos that the writers and artists worked so hard to command.

Those familiar with Northamptonite anarchist Alan Moore’s work have reason to be even more ambivalent than usual about the Watchmen movie out this year. Long-standing copyright disputes and legal battles and being fucked-over by the man have meant that Moore wants nothing to do with the film, just like he wanted nothing to do with V for Vendetta (which falls under bastardised, btw), or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

If you check out the film’s high-tech, show-offy website, you won’t find Moore’s name anywhere, even though it was he who wrote the 1986-7 genre-defying mini-series illustrated by Dave Gibbons and coloured by John Higgins.

So, even though the film will almost certainly be an overrated, overproduced, sterile non-event, it is the perfect excuse to read, or re-read the comic.

Maggie Gray is a 25-year-old brainiac studying for a Phd about Alan Moore at UCL’s History of Art department (her thesis is provisionally called Comics as Cultural Resistance – the Works of Alan Moore 1971-1989). Watchmen, she says, “is a very complex work…quite a demanding comic to read and pretty long in its graphic novel form”. I’m surprised at this, because it’s the first Moore comic I ever read, aged 15, and it remains one of my favourite. Even though it is more challenging than stuffing your face with popcorn at the multiplex, Maggie agrees “it’s a fine place to start”.

Watchmen is set in New York in an alternate 1980s, where superheroes exist for real and have done since the late 1930s – when they first appeared in comic books. It explores how the Cold War might have turned out if superhumans did exist – who hasn’t wondered that every now and then? – and plays with mainstream comic book imagery. The characters, for example, are loosely based on the cast of Charlton heroes that DC acquired the rights to. “The work,” says Maggie “is often cited as the ultimate revisionist deconstruction of the superhero. They [the characters] are presented as morally, sexually, psychologically and politically dysfunctional, and Moore considers the impact their real presence would effect on society, as an unaccountable and extra-judiciary force.” In other words, real-life superheroes just aren’t that super.

The book opens with the murder of The Comedian, one of the heroes, and continues with Rorshach, another, investigating his death. Meanwhile, Cold War tensions are rising, adding to an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, not unlike the one engineered by more recent governments.

Like Batman, most of Watchmen’s superheroes don’t have superpowers as such – apart from Dr Manhattan, based on Captain Atom and thought to be named after the Manhattan Project. “His presence [in the plot] has significantly altered geopolitics and technology, resulting in the US winning the Vietnam War and Nixon standing for a fifth term, having amended the Constitution,” says Maggie.

The comic (Moore detests the commonly used “graphic novel”, believing it to be a “marketing term” that destroyed the progress of comics in the 1980s) is hard not to read in one go, and works on lots of levels, more so, I think, than lots of other equally readable, equally respected works.

When Watchmen came out in monthly instalments, it differed from the usual comic book format. The cover art, for example, did not feature characters in the same way as Marvel and DC’s usual offerings, and was instead the first panel of each episode. The back cover, traditionally used for Charles Atlas-esque adverts, instead featured a clock moving towards 12 with each issue, adding to the tension but also the fatalism in the story’s vibes.

I asked Maggie to recommend lesser-known Moore works, in the unlikely event that anyone wants to discover cool stuff before Hollywood trashes it: “My favourites are Marvelman, V for Vendetta, Halo Jones, and The Mirror of Love [originally produced for the Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia anthology, which protested Clause 28].”

Indeed, Moore is an artist who isn’t afraid of being political, and who, Maggie tells me, has engaged with “distinct movements including punk, anti-fascism, feminism, environmentalism and anti-nuclear politics”. Take that Zack Snyder.

 

Not That Kind of Girl

At 33, it’s not clear whether I belong to the generation Lena Dunham is so frequently – and perhaps lazily – described as being “the voice of”.*

Nonetheless, when I watched Dunham’s Tiny Furniture movie, and later the series Girls, she resonated with me.

I recognised her depiction of life post-university, of that period of definitely not being a child anymore but not being quite an adult. I recognised her struggles with relationships and in particular the beautifully accurate, funny depiction of female friendships. Girls was certainly more real than anything I’d seen on TV before.

Among my peers of not-quite millennials, Girls had its haters, its critics and its indifferents – but my husband and I were hooked.

All this to say I had been eagerly awaiting Not That Kind Of Girl, imagining it as the unpublished ebook written by Hannah from Girls. Finally, I’d get a peek into Hannah / Lena’s inner life!

I had read some of Dunham’s New Yorker essays and knew that she could write, and that she had good stories to tell, but beyond that, I had no expectations. I didn’t, and still haven’t, read any reviews of the book; I consciously stayed clear of the hype that I’m sure surrounds it.

So I read it. I wasn’t disappointed. I wilI even resort to the cliché of ‘unputdownable’, since I finished it in a day (you will see from previous posts that’s quite an achievement for me since having kids).

So, what’s it all about?

Feminism, mainly.

Sex, as you might expect.

Love, and falling in love with jerks.

Body image; diets.

Work.

Therapy; health.

Childhood; children.

Adolescence.

Sexuality.

Family.

Friends.

Had I read this at 13, or even 23, Not That Kind of Girl would have blown my mind, I’m sure of it.

Judy Blume is quoted on the back (“Always funny, sometimes wrenching, these essays are a testament to the creative wonder that is Lena Dunham.”) and actually, there is something of the Judy Blumesque about Dunham and in her portrayal of childhood and early adolescence as being actually quite sucky at times.

But at 33, this is not a life-changing book. It’s a page turner, it’s fun, and it’s funny. It’s a bit sad but not too much. It’s not heavy reading. And I loved it, in the same way I love hearing about anyone’s life and thoughts and experiences, because I am curious about others.

I do, however, have renewed admiration for Dunham’s work and talent. And if no-one minds, I will count myself as being part of that generation she is the voice of – or at least a voice of – after all.

* The line is taken from Hannah in the Girls pilot.

With thanks to Tent for adding Not That Kind of Girl to The List this month.

Identifying with the mother

A few weeks ago I bought The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller in a charity shop in Liverpool (along with a grey wool sweater with a golf scene on it).

I just finished it – it was a quick, easy read, good but not remarkable – and it dawned on me that the way I read fiction has changed since becoming a mother. I don’t mean that I have less time to read, or that tiredeness and an overactive mind mean I can’t always concentrate – though those things are also true. No, it’s my perspective that has changed: I can identify with the mother.

I read a lot of novels, and, I think probably like many people, I can usually identify, at least in some way, with one or more of the characters (unless it’s a truly awful novel, with a flat, unbelievable cast).

Just a few years ago, I suspect, I might have seen a little of myself in Grace, the war photographer daughter in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. I might have even identified a little with some of the younger incarnations of Pippa (though actually, some of these are a little one-dimensional, so perhaps not). But now, I empathise with Pippa the mother; I understand a little of her relationship with her (even adult) children, of her struggle not to make the same mistakes as her own mother – and the inevitability of making others instead.

I also related a little to Dot, mother to the former religious fanatic Chris. What if my child turns into a religious maniac? Ok, so this isn’t something I spend a lot of time worrying about but passages in books that I previously would not have thought twice about have suddenly become a bit more real, a bit more meaningful.

Warming to the Kindle

Long after my friends were using portable CD players, MP3 players and MiniDiscs (not necessarily in that order), I was still carrying round my old Sony walkman, a bat-mitzvah present that lasted me 15 years (in fact, it was still working when I finally parted with it).

I did eventually go on to own a MiniDisc player, for the record (no pun intended); two iPods; and a Sony MP3 player. And all of them broke. Some lasted longer than others – the Sony MP3 was the most durable of my portable music machines; I had it for three years. Now, I have a very sweet blue iPod shuffle that my brother and sister gave me for Hannukah – and I’m looking after it very carefully.

I’m not a luddite. I own an iPad, which I was lucky enough to get a subsidy for through work.

What I don’t own is a Kindle.

I love books as much as I love music (thus this blog), yet until very recently, I haven’t been drawn to the Kindle. I have a few e-books on the iPad, the kind of trashy, engrossing bestseller-type-book that had I bought a hard copy of, I would have put straight in the charity shop pile after reading rather than on my shelf. So I’m not anti-e-book as such, just not pro.

I am not sure I will wait as long for a Kindle as I did to part with my Walkman. At first, I didn’t really see what the fuss was about. I like books. Why would I want to pay for an expensive gadget, which might break, and then have to keep buying and buying more books to put on it?

But now, having spoken to two book-loving friends, J and S, about the Kindle, I am sold. I want one. I want to give away all the classics I have read once and may never read again but keep on my shelf ‘just in case’ and download them for free. I want to choose what I am going to read while I’m out, rather than have to pick one or two books that will fit neatly in my handbag. I want to take an entire bookshelf on holiday without having to pay for excess luggage. I want I want I want.

33 revolutions per minute

When I heard about Dorian Lynskey’s “history of protest songs”, 33 revolutions per minute, I must have somehow associated it with Nick Hornby’s 31 songs (well, they’re only two apart aren’t they?). So I imagined a slim, hardback tome, a kind of vanity project where the music critic showed off his cool credentials by picking 33, spot-on songs to pontificate about.

I was surprised, then, when I saw an actual copy and found it to be a hefty, 850 page paperback – a reference book rather than a book that makes a lot of references.

I went to see Dorian Lynskey speak about 33 revolutions per minute at Jewish Book Week (thank you to JBW for the ticket) and found that, although he is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about music, although he is funny and authoritative on Twitter, in person he was a quiet figure, perhaps lacking in confidence in public speaking.

But he certainly knows his stuff, which is obviously far more important than being an entertainer, and the music and clips he played to accompany his talk – among them Nina Simone’s Mississipi Goddam; Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars and Public Enemy’s Fight the Power – carried the event. I estimated the average age of the audience at 65, but young and old were enjoying the talk, and the elderly lady next to me was swaying in time to Public Enemy.

True to the name of this blog, I have only skim read the book so far, since the copy I bought was a gift for a friend. Here’s hoping 33 revolutions per minute is available to borrow from whichever Lambeth libraries survive the cuts, so I can read it too.

The last of the imperious rich

I’ve just finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom but it was so ubiquitous last year, so written-about and so discussed, that I’m not sure I want to even get into what I thought. I liked it a lot, I’ll say that much. I read it fast and greedily and my enjoyment was mired only by the feeling, during certain dialogues, that Franzen was trying to write a ‘state of the nation’ novel. Some of the characters were slightly unbelievable in the way they captured the zeitgeist entirely, like perfect – too perfect – representations of our time. But Franzen did succeed in capturing the times, so I can’t really be legitimately annoyed.

Over Christmas I finished a non-fiction book I started last August, weeks after my baby was born. The time it took me to read an average-length hardback is no reflection on the content, only on the amount of reading time I was able to snatch in those first few months of being a mother.

The last of the imperious rich – Lehman Brothers, 1844 – 2008, is written by my friend and colleague Peter Chapman, and traces the history of the bank from its modest beginnings (or rather, even before then) to its catastrophic end.

The year of Lehman’s collapse, 2008, is also the year I started working at the FT. And though the onset of a global financial crisis might have been bad news for everyone else, for me it was exciting (at the risk of sounding trite) being in the newsroom when word arrived of banks failing, of credit crunches and of bail-outs. It was the year my interest in finance, and its central role in world affairs, was really awakened.

Although I know something now about what has been happening since 2008, I knew very little about financial history, which made me curious about this book.

I loved the early chapters, on Henry Lehman’s arrival to the US, his travails in the South and on how Lehman Brothers began, as a commodity broker dealing in cotton. Knowing about the bank’s collapse made reading about the many moments of hope, ambition and entrepreneurship a little bit sad, like knowing the hero of a novel you’ve just started will be dead by the last page.

Peter, perhaps thanks to his years of experience editing other people’s work as well as writing his own, manages to be evocative without straying into the lyrical. His own voice does not get in the way of the story he tells, and unlike much of the non-fiction I have read and reviewed, it is written engagingly and clearly.

A fitting eulogy to Lehman’s long period of being carefully run and successful, which doesn’t dwell unnecessarily on the bad decisions that led to its downfall.

Literary lunching with Howard Jacobson

In a few short months, I’ve gone from reading two or three books a week and writing reviews regularly, to reading hardly at all and writing even less. I have been busy having and looking after a baby but she turned three months yesterday, and I think now is the time to start opening books other than Each Peach Pear Plum and Boo! (Extract: “Who’s behind the flowerpot?” “Boo! It’s me, sheep”),  excellent as they may be.

On Monday, I attended my first ever “Literary Lunch”, a fundraising event for Nightingale House at Claridges, with Howard Jacobson, this year’s Booker Prize winner, as guest speaker. My dad works at Nightingale and kindly invited me instead of mum this year – an arrangement that suited us all since I got my first break from the baby, and mum got her first opportunity to look after her granddaughter.

I’ve known I was going for weeks and so rushed to read The Finkler Question during night feeds and my baby’s afternoon naps,  so that I would finish it before the lunch.

I didn’t love the book but I liked it. The characters seemed caricatural at times, the dialogues forced. And it reminded me of a genre I very much associate with Manhattan, not London, which threw me a little and left me not wholly convinced by the whole thing.

Still, it’s a book, and the first I have finished in, for me, a long time. I was really looking forward to Jacobson’s talk.

Dressing up and going to Claridges to rub shoulders with Ladies who Lunch (and read, too), was very exciting, as were the plush surroundings of the Ballroom, where the event was held. I sat at a table with a man who owns an advertising business, a lady whose daughter works in Parliament, and the charming, interesting wife of a Lord. I felt slightly out of my element, since my social life of late has revolved around NCT coffee mornings; my conversation around babies’ sleeping and feeding patterns. Plus my only title is Miss. Nonetheless, the conversation was easy and pleasant. And the food was delicious – a real treat.

After the veloute of minted pea and the roasted sea bass  came Jacobson’s talk. Between the lunch being organised and it taking place, the writer won the Booker, as mentioned earlier, so there was an air of excited anticipation in the packed hall as he took to the stage.

The audience was largely Jewish, as is Jacobson’s novel, so this was an obvious theme to his talk. “Darling, you’ll never win this prize”,  the author’s mother warned when he was shortlisted. “The book is too Jewish”.

Jacobson’s mother said she wouldn’t be watching the news when the winner was announced, “because you’re not going to win”. But when he phoned to tell her, his sister’s chants of “we are the champions” in the background alerted him to the fact that she had, in fact, been watching the news.

“But your speech was interrupted by a newsflash,” she complained.  “The Chilean miners were being rescued.”

“I mean, they’d been down there for three months – couldn’t they have waited a few more minutes?”

We hear, too, about Jacobson’s father – a magician in a dinner jacket. “All Jewish men who come from Manchester love being in a dinner jacket,” we are told. “They were born in a dinner jacket.”

We learn of the real-life inspiration behind the character Libor – an old man, a widower, who had been a successful showbiz personality with women at his feet but had eyes only for his beautiful wife. Hearing Jacobson talk about him, along with the other characters in The Finkler Question, somehow made them all more endearing.

The gentile who wants to be a Jew (who represents Jacobson, apparently – go figure), the “ASHamed” Jew, who wants to be a gentile (Jacobson did not dwell on the anti-Zionist Finkler, perhaps in view of his audience), and Libor, that grieving, romantic old man. I hadn’t warmed to the men when reading about them, but I was warming to them now.

Jacobson pitched his talk just right for the occasion; it felt as much like a speech at a wedding or bar-mitzvah as it did an address to an audience of book-lovers – something no-one seemed to mind.

So, after coffee and petit fours, I queued to get my book signed, and returned home to my baby and Each Peach Pear Plum, for now.