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The Cartoon Versions WATCHMEN VS. DANIEL JOHNSTON A FC: THE eFAS’T c F TIMES BACK OF T E BOOK I BY BRAD TYER “Oh Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel … Please … Do grow up. My new world demands less obvious heroism, making your schoolboy heroics redundant.” Big-brained villain Ozymandias to out-of-retirement Night Owl, aka Dan Dreiberg, in Watchmen. Were you a comics geek growing up? If you answered yes with a cringe, expecting some sort of highbrow beatdown, get over it. We get it. Comic book geeks are the heroes now. It’s true that when critics describe a character as a “cartoon” or “comic book” version, they’re not generally offering praise. They’re calling out two-dimensional, plastic, second-rate fakes. “Comic book” doesn’t live far from “caricature.” No depth there, is the slur. Just exaggerated gestures. But that clich is long-crumbled. Comic book narrativesrecast as graphic novels and describing an ascendant arc of public reputation over the past 40 yearshave been elevated beyond mere respectability. If ever there was a meaningful distinction between comics and, say, art: Zap! Pow! GONE! Comics started to stop being kid stuff in the midcentury hands of artist-writer Jack Kirby and writer Stan Lee \(Captain America, Incredible Hulk, Fantastic in the 1960s under the leering watch of R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. Comics began colonizing the novel in the mid1980s with Art Spiegelman’s trailblazing Maus, deand re-mythologizing Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s revisionist \(for those Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Along the way, comic book superheroism stopped trying to appeal to the psychology of children and started exploring the psychology of its characters and authors. It probably had to happen. The audience was growing up. And the masks more or less demanded lifting. Down at the mall, we’ve been watching the ongoing metroplexual revisitation of the two-dimensional cartoon clich for what’s starting to seem like forever. The Incredible Hulks. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Iron Man. Spider-Man and Batman franchises. XMen. I’m probably forgetting a bunch. A lot have been forgettable. What superhero movies now have in common is a fetish for unmasking fictional do-gooders as flawed \(or bethuman beings. Superheroes are antiheroes now, and the superfriends don’t stay much in touch. Fair enough. It’s been a long time since superhero movies were for kids. The Dark Knight collected eight Oscar nominations last year, banking record-setting box-office receipts for Heath Ledger’s unhinged Joker. And now comes Watchmen, the fanboy motherlode, which opened around the state recently. The plot revolves around the assassination of a retired superhero and the reactions of his mostly out-topasture peers: the Comedian, Night Owl II, Rorschach, Silk Spectre II, Doctor Manhattan, and Ozymandias. About the only traces of kid in the movie are the dog-gnawed bones of a sexually tortured little girl and flashbacks to the traumatic childhood of the man who grows up to avenge her death by repeatedly burying a meat cleaver in her abuser’s skull. Take the whole family. 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 20, 2009