Friday, May 14, 2010

From Utopia to Apocalypse

Dark Visions of the Future

By David Luhrssen
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Alan Moore is not the exclusive subject of Peter Y. Paik’s new book, but the brilliant mind behind The Watchmen and V for Vendetta, graphic novels (a term Moore hates) that became films (that he disclaimed) occupies many pages. In From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (University of Minnesota Press), Paik, a UWM comparative literature professor, examines work by several artists in search for the limit of politics and what some are pleased to call progress. In addition to Moore, Paik devotes a chapter each to South Korean filmmaker Jang Joon-Hwan and Japanese manga author Hayao Miyazaki.

One theme to emerge from Paik’s close reading and analysis is the shifting, uncertain line between good and evil in social and political life. There are moral quandaries afoot in Moore and other artists with dark, compelling visions of the future. The Watchmen poses the question: should a great city be destroyed in order to save the world? Unlike most cartoon writers of earlier times and now, Moore’s stories are truly novelistic for their many levels of meaning and unresolved tension between characters and ideals. The vigilante Rorschach, who murders criminals, follows an absolutist course according to his own moral compass. He opposes the plan by the venture philanthropist Ozymandias to divert the superpowers from nuclear war by leveling New York City. The innocent would die. Steeped in the classics as well as pop culture, Moore casts an implication by naming the self-anointed world savior for Ozymandias, Shelley’s haughty, ancient king of kings who was doomed to be forgotten.

Drawing on a rich vein of philosophical speculation from Plato to Derrida, and a profound understanding of the cultural matrix in which Moore and his peers flourish, Paik asks disturbing questions about the uses of power, showing how underlying assumptions of democratic states are often the muted cousins to the boldly put agendas of the totalitarians. After all, in that foundational literary work from the Enlightenment, Thomas More’s Utopia, the idyllic republic was founded on scarcely acknowledged violence. Like Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Ozymandias’ utopia depends on “the readiness of the people to forsake their consciences in exchange for their physical and emotional wellbeing.”

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