Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.
If there was any benefit to The Simpsons rolling on and on and on and on, well past the point of its remarkable — and, to be fair, remarkably long-lasting — brilliance, it’s that the program eventually cycled through so many scenarios that it occasionally became, almost by necessity, delightfully esoteric in its references. Only a comedy show solidly in its nineteenth season can operate with the foolhardy confidence of building a whole set of gags around the appearance of a few icons of alternative comics. But there they were, lined up and each sporting the familiar Groeningian overbite: Daniel Clowes, Alan Moore, and Art Spiegelman.
For Clowes and Spiegelman, the crafted jokes were mostly general, riffing on the divide between indie comix and mainstream superhero falderal. The same was also true of Moore, but the Simpsons creative team (Matt Selman is the credited writer on the episode) also spun a little comic energy in the direction of Moore’s longstanding feud with the corporate callousness of DC Comics, the comic book publisher where the master writer made his fame in the U.S. The main joke was put in the hands of Milhouse, who blithely asks Moore to sign a copy of the cash-in knockoff Watchmen Babies, a fictional (and yet highly plausible) perversion of the mid-nineteen-eighties limited series that is arguably the writer’s masterpiece and inarguably one of the most influential superhero-based works of the era.
The joke is based on a betrayal. DC Comics promised Moore the copyright on the work would be returned to him and the series co-creator, artist Dave Gibbons, as soon as Watchmen went out of print. At the time, well before the proliferation of trade paperback collections repurposing comic book series into “graphic novels,” there was no reason to expect Watchmen would remain officially in print for much more than a couple years. Instead, Watchmen became a permanent fixture in the DC catalog, and Moore never got the ownership he was promised, engendering an entirely understandable seething animosity that persists to this day.
When this Simpsons episode aired, the middling movie adaption was still two years away, and there was certainly no weekly HBO show to further cement Watchmen into the public consciousness. Milhouse’s eager fandom of Watchmen Babies and Moore’s volcanic reaction to the corporate exploitation and dilution of his intellectual labor was based on a comic book well probably unknown to the vast majority of the viewing audience. That even a few minutes of broadcast network time was given over to it is a marvel. There’s a lot to lament in regards to the unwillingness of The Simpsons to exit the pop culture stage, but bits like this one almost compensate for the most dire moments.