Jeffrey Lewis has always aced his Rorschach tests.
Sure, all eyes are now trained on Watchmen, the movie adaptation of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' massive 1986-87 comic-book series that features disturbed caped crusaders like the vigilante Rorschach. (The movie opens Friday; read the review.) But Lewis, himself a comics writer, has been studying the graphic novel for years, trying to link its leitmotifs: quantum physics, pirate comics, Richard Nixon and dead dogs. On Wednesday, March 4, Lewis gives a Watchmen lecture at the Artistery, working from the senior thesis he wrote in 1997 at Purchase College, State University of New York.
While he may not be as famous as college buddy Regina Spektor, Lewis is a leading musician in Williamsburg's "antifolk" movement—it's like folk but with fewer tunes. He received acclaim for the 2007 album 12 Crass Songs, which reworked anthems from the anarcho-punk band Crass as acoustic talking blues. (He'll perform a set after his lecture, as will his Portland-based brother, Jack Lewis.) WW corresponded with Lewis by email last week as he toured in England:
Two immediate questions: Did you get an A on your thesis? And how do I get into Purchase College?
Yeah, I got an A, though it's not as though my professor was a comic-book expert. She was just a literary professor who might have appreciated the work I did without quite knowing what the heck I was talking about. Purchase in the late '90s was a great place because there was nothing at all to do, just a small bunch of weirdos stuck in a brick oasis in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York.
What was the gist of your paper? Do you think your central thesis holds up?
I think it might even hold up better now than it did originally. I'm relieved to find out that 10 years after I first worked on this, and 20 years since Watchmen was published, I think I'm still the only person who's figured it out! Maybe I'm just crazy. I don't have a central thesis, but rather a few answers to questions that Watchmen doesn't overtly answer, but that can be figured out or at least interestingly guessed at, by paying careful attention to certain things. A few examples: Why does the Comedian visit Moloch? What does the smiley face with the blood over the eye mean? What happens at the end, and what does it mean?
Speaking of the ending: When you see the movie, will you miss the giant psychic squid?
Are you telling me there's no giant psychic squid in the movie? What a gyp!
While we're on the squid subject, one of Moore's boldest ideas is that it's the well-intentioned liberal who commits the greatest atrocity. Is that a fair analysis?
I think it's supposed to be a reference to President Truman dropping the bomb on Japan for supposedly the greater good—Truman gets mentioned on the first page of Watchmen. As far as Watchmen being a critique of liberalism, you'd probably have to widen that to be a critique of anybody who tries to do something for you that's "for your own good," as a general issue with authority or security.
Are you on the side of Dave Gibbons, who has aided the Watchmen film, or Alan Moore, who calls it a waste of time?
I can see that it would certainly be a waste of Moore's time: He's got too many other more interesting, creative things to think about. There's no such thing as a really good movie based on a comic book, because contrary to what filmmakers seem to think, comic books are not improved by sound and motion. There are great superhero movies, but they're never ones that come from comic books! Robocop, Evil Dead 2, Unbreakable: much better "comic book" movies than any movie that's based on an actual pre-existing comic.
What's your favorite single panel in Watchmen?
Hmm, there's lots of panels to choose from! Off the top of my head, perhaps the seventh panel of the first page, in which the phrase "That's quite a drop" is spoken.
Your liner-art comics for the Mountain Goats album Heretic Pride really bring out the pulp-novel influences in the music. How much great art depends on something trashy, like a giant psychic squid?
When I was little I had an old issue of Justice League of America in which that giant starfish Starro menaces the earth with his big tentacles—it really freaked me out! I don't know why squid forms seem to crop up in science fiction so much. There's just something super-creepy about them! Did you ever hear the great Fall song "Squid Lord"? Actually, the giant squid monster menacing the Brooklyn Bridge I drew as part of that project for the Mountain Goats is almost exactly like that scene in Cloverfield, which I saw not long after I'd done the drawing. I guess these things are commonly held fears that probably go back to the dawn of man.
How radical a leap was it for Moore to portray superheroes as one step away from serial killers, or at least sociopaths?
Mad magazine had been doing superhero parodies for decades when Moore started doing his superhero remixes. I think the idea of superheroes as bunglers or lunatics was always popular as a comedic topic but hadn't been approached in comic books as nasty topic, even though it's sort of the same idea. (Spiderman in the '60s was sort of a parody of superheroes if you think about it—the fact that he's actually this nerdy student who can't pay the rent and as a "hero" he messes with people like Bugs Bunny or something.) I think it was more radical as an idea to rethink the whole way of telling a story, regardless of what the story was. Maybe it's even kind of a shame that all that work was "wasted" on a superhero comic; I think there's a lot of people who are forever going to miss out on Moore's level of artistry there, just because it's a story with costumes and violence and capes and spurting blood, etc. He tried to follow it up with a similarly brilliant comic book called Big Numbers that was completely non-superhero-oriented, but no artists seemed to be able to handle the workload—it fell apart after just a couple issues and never got completed. It's like the Beach Boys' Smile of the comic-book world, the great lost/aborted magnum opus.
You have a well-received career as a musician, and have crafted a few comic books yourself. Does this combination mean you possess the secret to making comic-book movies?
No, but I did have a hypothetical project with Pete Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders to make an album of songs based on comic books. Maybe we'll get it off the ground someday!
How often does your Watchmen expertise come up in conversation? Do you catch yourself saying, "Well, as Dr. Manhattan once remarked…"?
Jeffrey Lewis lectures on
at the Artistery, 4315 SE Division St., 803-5942. 7:30 pm Wednesday, March 4. $7. Free admission with purchase of a copy of
at Floating World Comics, 20 NW 5th Ave., No. 101, 241-0227.
MORE: The music video for Jeffrey Lewis' "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror" on YouTube.