Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sewer Diving: Fear is a Slinking Cat I Find Beneath the Lileks of My Mind

Those of you familiar with the work of humorist-writer-scold James Lileks will also be familiar with the sensation of thinking that he’s a schmuck even when you agree with him. Such is the case with his recent review of Watchmen.

Lileks is a very good humorist, and a skillful and perceptive archivist of cultural detritus. He is also, unfortunately for those who enjoy his work in those fields, a pedantic and short-sighted right-wing scold, an inveterate foe of the unconventional, and one of the worst cultural critics in the world. He’s wonderful at finding something funny to say about things, and terrible at finding something intelligent to say about them, with a keen grasp of what they are and no grasp whatsoever of what they mean. He also only knows seven things, and the two most important are these: The Sixties Ruined Everything, and Anyone Who Doesn’t Like Conventional American Politics And Culture Is Basically Just A Dad-Hating Punk Who Smokes Dope And Complains About How, Like, Mall Security Guards Are Totally Fascists, Man.

These points are hammered home in spades with Lileks’ Watchmen review; we both disliked the movie, but for distinctly different reasons. Let’s take a look.
The characters. Small point, but I wish the movie had characters I enjoyed. Silk Spectre was awful; Nite Owl was pudgy-dull, with all the gravitas of a hospital administration bureaucrat, and yes I know that’s the point; Dr. Manhattan was interesting, inasmuch as whispering superbeing with cerulean salami hangin’ free is interesting, but you have to admit it’s difficult to identify with a character who has Mars as his personal chill-pad.
It appears not to have occurred to Lileks that Alan Moore made Dr. Manhattan difficult to identify with for a reason, and if it had, he would have complained about it. He goes on to say that the most unpleasant characters are the most interesting ones, a banal observation to anyone who has paid any attention to the development of the novel for the last 150 years or so, but a shock to Lileks, who writes books but does not read them. It will no doubt come as a surprise to him in a decade when he’s nosing through his daughter’s freshman-year coursework and he discovers that Madame Bovary is not especially likable.
I dislike any movie that makes me wonder whether that’s a good Eleanor Clift impersonation.
Lileks, apparently, lives in a world where he is constantly inundated with movies that demand of him a judgment on the quality of their Eleanor Clift impersonations.
The source material. Look. I love graphic novels
Name three.
and this one gets props for upending the Superhero Mythos when it did, but great writing it isn’t, and brilliant insight it lacks.
Sure! It’s only the most highly praised book in the history of the comics medium; but great writing it isn’t. One wonders, if Watchmen lacks it, what graphic novel he thinks contains actual brilliant insight. The Avenging World? Ironwood?
I much preferred “Marvels,” which came along later, and had better art
Well, of course you did.
the illustration in “Watchmen” never bowled me over, and the coloring was often horrible.
There’s a lot of smart comics fans who would agree that Dave Gibbons’ art wasn’t the best fit for Watchmen, but the coloring? Seriously? His enjoyment of what’s widely regarded as the best superhero comic of all time was ruined by the coloring?

From here in 09 I could smell its 80s roots - dated, sorry, tired politics that lack anything other than sullen adolescent angst and dorm-room bong-session insight.
And here we get to the heart of it: Watchmen was an anti-authoritarian book with a rebellious (and arguably leftist) viewpoint, and from Lileks’ neo-Zhdanovite soap bucket, nothing with those qualities can possibly be any good. Never mind its intricate structure, its clever narrative, its savage moral lessons, its masterful dialogue, its thematic daring, its heartrending emotional moments: it is clearly of, by, and for a bunch of snotty dope-smoking pseudo-intellectual teenagers.
Reminded me of the Dark Knight comics: Reagan was President, which somehow explained why the cities were such horrid dystopias. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? Some how?
Just in case you’re missing the subtlety here, Lileks is accusing Frank Miller — one of the most conservative creators in the comics industry, and a guy who unabashedly glorifies the totalitarian vigilante aspect of Batman — of being a leftist tool.
Same here: the reign of Nixon (Jeezum crow, Nixon) ties in with urban decay, filth, moral calumny, and all those incidents of debauched decline Rorschack [sic] decried as he walked the mean streets.
Ha ha, those crazy hippies! Still attacking Nixon, just as if he still had some kind of cultural or political influence on America! This sentence is so ridiculous it’s hard to know where to start: did Lileks somehow miss the part of Nixon’s presidency where the country was plagued with urban decay and moral calumny? Did he think that Rorschach — the book’s most obviously right-wing character — was decrying conservative rule? Did he even pay attention to how things were during Nixon’s term of service, and the reason he was driven from office?
I may be particularly sensitive to this stuff because I get rashes when the ideas and tropes of the Sixties are trotted out as prima facie truths - as though a reference to Vietnam and a snippet of Simon and Garfunkel is like some scriptural quote I’m expected to swallow without question.

Actually, he gets rashes when the ideas of the Sixties are mentioned at all.
One exchange stuck out - by which I mean, it made me roll my eyes so hard I almost tipped the couch over. “What happened to the American Dream?” Owl-guy says to the Comedian, after they’ve dispatched a late-night demonstration demanding more police, instead of masked vigilantes. “It came true!” grins the Comedian, meaning, all the violence and oppression and fear and war.
The Comedian, of course, is presented as an amoral nihilist, but that won’t stop Lileks from vaporing about this throwaway line:
It’s all very deep when you’re in high school and the ‘rents are being total Nazis. At this point, though, no one’s used the term “American Dream” without scare quotes since the second episode of “Laugh-In,” so any piercing insight may ping off the skins of viewers who don’t stamp around the mall glowering at the Phonies.
And there we go again: anyone who questions the rightness of Lileks' grandpa’s conception of the greatness of our country is a huffing, puffing, teenage jerkoff who hates Dad and Santa Claus and sulks around the house spelling America with three Ks. Any criticism whatsoever of the country, its economic system, or even its leadership (when that leadership happens to be Republican) reduces you to this Holden-Caulfield-Meets-Abbie-Hoffman stereotype.
It’s an artifact of the 80s counterculture, an echo of the dyspeptic souls who masked their hatred of humans with high-flown concern for humanity, a bizarre example of reality denial: the war they insisted was an inevitable outcome of the US posture in the 80s never happened, so they remake the era with Nixon at the helm and kill millions to force us to come to our senses so we won’t do the thing . . . that we didn’t do.
Because Reagan did not actually carry out the nuclear war ‘80s liberals nervously feared he would, the criticism of his overaggressive, pointlessly expensive, and often ineffective Cold War gunboat diplomacy is therefore a “bizarre example of reality denial”, and those citizens of this and other countries who feared that America or Russia might annihilate their families in order to make a political point were consumed with a “hatred of humans”. Also, it’s funny that he says liberals have to invent a false reality in which a third-term Nixon brings America to the brink of war in order to fight communism, since in our (real) world, the actual Nixon considered nuking Vietnam, and supervised the illegal bombing of Laos and Cambodia which killed tens of thousands of people. Who needs fake Nixon when we’ve got the real thing, eh, Jim?

Its thematic tone-deafness and utter obliviousness to what made the Watchmen comic so good in the first place (hint: nobody, but nobody, thinks it was its politics) make this a perfect example of why Lileks should stick to what he’s good at. Funny he is, but a good critic he isn’t, and any insight he lacks.


  1. Lileks should stick to making fun of pictures of bad food in 50s cookbooks.

  2. This reminds me ALOT of recent commentary dissecting my webcomic over at Cracked.com's forums. It's like they completely missed all of the thematic points and picked out the most inconsequential things to wrongly analyze.

    Also: Whatever.

  3. Well, you did it, Leonard, you forced me to post my Watchmen review.

    Also, I had a dream of the Alterverse last night, so I doubly blame you for everything.