[As always, many spoilers for Watchmen lurk below.]
Yes, Chapter 2 is full of flashbacks stitched together by present-day scenes. But that’s far from the only reminiscing it contains. As usual, Moore and Gibbons’ themes run several layers deep, and this is most apparent in the scene between Laurie and Sally at the beginning of the chapter.
Aside from the fact that the long and painful history between the characters is self-evident in their every utterance, there are also a number of memory cues scattered throughout the scene. Obviously, there’s the framed picture of the Minutemen, which leads Sally into her flashback. There are also framed pictures on the walls, tantalizing in their sketchiness. There’s the Tijuana bible, Sally’s way of “being reminded that people used to slobber over me.” And of course, there’s the ever-present bottle of Nostalgia (by Veidt) on the vanity.
Finally, as we come out of the flashback, we get a closer look at one of those pictures:
Which brings us to our subject today. Here’s what the web annotations have to say about this panel:
The portrait on the wall is inscribed “To Sally Jupiter, Best Wishes Varga”. In the real world an artist named Alfredo Vargas drew portraits of naked and half-naked women which appeared regularly in Playboy magazine. He sometimes signed his work “Vargas” and sometimes “Varga”. The portrait of Sally is very much in his style.
As often occurs with these web annotations, this is a case of “almost but not quite.” Some corrections:
- There was in fact a pin-up artist named Vargas in the real world, but he was Alberto Vargas, not Alfredo Vargas.
- His work did indeed appear in Playboy, but much more relevant to the reference here is the fact that his work appeared in Esquire from 1940 to 1946, in gatefold images that became a salient aspect of American soldiers’ lives during those World War II years. His Playboy art occurred much later (1957 through 1974) and was more explicit during those years, i.e. more naked than half-naked. Incidentally, while Leslie Klinger does a considerably better job with his Vargas gloss, he also gets these dates wrong, suggesting that Vargas didn’t separate from Esquire until 1957, when in fact the artist suffered a long fallow and desperate period between leaving Esquire and starting for Playboy.
- There’s a specific reason why his signature varied between “Varga” and “Vargas”, and it maps directly onto his history with those magazines. According to Vargas’s autobiography, Esquire editor David Smart decided to call the artist’s creations “Varga Girls”, on the notion that it was “more euphonious” than “Vargas Girls”. (pg. 28) But Vargas’s parting from Esquire was a bitter one, and by 1950, after four years of court battles, he had completly lost the rights to the “Varga” name. (pg. 43) Consequently, his work from there on out was signed “Vargas”.
These facts bear directly on the Watchmen panel. Because the portrait is signed “Varga” rather than “Vargas”, we can reasonably conclude that the fictional Varga in this world did his portrait of Sally Jupiter during the war years. That conclusion also resonates with the many other manifestations of 1940s nostalgia, including the flashback itself.
So what was “Varga” all about, and why does it matter that he painted a portrait of Sally Jupiter that now hangs on her wall in the “City of the Dead”?
Alberto Vargas was born in Peru in 1896. At 20 years old, after a European schooling and a brief apprenticeship with a photographer, he found himself in New York, and there became entranced with American women. He was supposed to return home to Peru, but he chose to stay instead, and from that moment onward made his living as an artist, never straying far from paintings of idealized female forms.
During the 1920s he painted portraits for the Ziegfeld Follies, which in turn led him to gigs illustrating for newspapers, magazines, advertisements, fashion designs, and personal commissions. Through the 1930s he continued this sort of work and also found himself employed by Hollywood studios, creating many movie posters, as well as portraits of the era’s major film stars. It was in 1940, though, that he would begin the most iconic work of his lifetime.
For seven years, George Petty had been the pin-up artist of choice in the pages of Esquire, but Smart found him tiresome and demanding to work with. Petty was altogether too shrewd a businessman, so Smart sought someone who was as good with the paintbrush but not nearly so good at interpreting contracts. He found his ideal match in Alberto Vargas, who had been suffering from quite a few lean years during the Depression, and who was ecstatic to receive not only work but appreciation for the kind of work he wanted to do.
The first Varga Girl appeared in the October 1940 issue of Esquire, a little over a year before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The feature proved immediately and immensely popular, prompting Smart to begin a program of relentless exploitation. Esquire contracted with Vargas to produce a prodigious amount of work each year, and ran a calendar of twelve Vargas paintings only two months after his debut in the magazine.
From 1942 to 1945, Smart distributed over three million copies of Esquire to domestic military installations free of charge, selling another six million copies (without advertising) to troops overseas. The Varga Girl calendar would become an annual release throughout the war years, selling in the millions. Vargas became the premier pin-up artist of the World War Two era, a cultural phenomenon intimately connected with the times, whose work appeared in barracks worldwide, as well as on the noses of American airplanes.
It was widely suggested, perhaps even widely believed, that these images raised the morale of American soldiers overseas — reminded them of what they were fighting for back home. Vargas and Esquire reinforced this notion by presenting Varga Girls as brides, or bedecked in patriotic imagery, or posed with various military props — medals, uniforms, letters from home, army instruction books, and so forth. The images were often accompanied by some bit of verse or prose about heartfelt topics like peace, love, or Christmas.
And yet, as World War Two veteran Kurt Vonnegut points out in his brilliant foreword to a catalog of Vargas’s Esquire work, the notion of these images as morale-raisers doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. They bore little resemblance to the average American wife, mother, or sweetheart, and their net effect, if not their intention, was just “to make horny youths far from home hornier — to what end we can only speculate.”
Vonnegut suggests instead that what the Varga Girls represent is more akin to images from the Sears Roebuck catalog:
If I am right, the pinups of World War Two had the generalized appeal of merchandise, implied fixed prices and order forms. The fantasy: You really could buy one if you had the bucks, and you just might have the bucks someday. The paper woman in the girdle and bra, if you were a man, seemed as much in your power as the socket-wrench set or the level-winding fishing reel.
In other words, Vargas’s art and Esquire‘s use of it contributed to the cultural commodification of women during World War Two, and here we can return to Sally Jupiter at last.
“I’m sitting ON it!”
Sally states clearly, in the supplemental material to Chapter 9, that her career as Silk Spectre “was never a sex thing. It was a money thing.” Hollis Mason concurs, in Under The Hood, saying that Sally “was probably the first of us ever to realize that there could be commercial benefits in being a masked adventurer. The Silk Spectre used her reputation as a crimefighter primarily to make the front pages and receive exposure for her lucrative modeling career…”
Sally, with the eager assistance of her agent and later husband Laurence Shexnayder, created her image in order to sell it, during the same era in which the Varga Girls rose to prominence. It’s no wonder Vargas painted her — in a way, they were both in the same line of work. They sold fantasy images of women, turning the desires of “horny youths” into cash.
Though the Esquire Varga Girls were anonymous, Vargas painted lots of portraits of living stars, especially during his studio days in the 1930s. Even in the 40s, during the height of his Esquire work, he did portraits of Jane Russell and Ava Gardner. The notion that he’d have painted Silk Spectre during that time is totally plausible. Like those movie bombshells, Sally Jupiter was an object of desire, and she and Shexnayder did their level best to rake in earnings from the people who slobbered over her.
Sally makes no bones about any of this, recounting every “bright blue gag” about herself back to Nite Owl, and joking about the moneymaker her body has been for her, as in the intermittent voice balloons that drift over to Laurie in a flashback that takes place at Sally’s house:
And so she did, though like Alberto Vargas, she and Laurence don’t always seem to have had the greatest dealmaking acumen. Though she certainly lives in a nice enough house (at least, after divorcing Shexnayder), the film deal they make devolves from a documentary, into a children’s adventure serial, into a “B” action movie, and finally into something “too awful even to be dignified with the term ‘pornography.'”
The journey taken by the Silk Spectre biopic defines a continuum, with “classy” exploitation at one end and purely crass exploitation at the other. In Sally’s apartment, those two extremes get represented by the Varga portrait on one end, and the Tijuana bible on the other. And while Sally might prefer to be on the classy end, she makes it clear that she doesn’t mind the other end so much either, because it’s not a dignity thing, it’s a money thing. (“Listen, those things are valuable, like antiques. Eighty bucks an’ up.”)
Sally learns, in her career as a “big tough super-lady”, that her value resides in her body and her sexuality. Her function, as a woman, was more or less to be a Varga Girl: erotic and innocent at once, distant and accessible at once, glamorous and vulnerable at once, and all available for sale everywhere. Merchandise.
The Essence That Was So Divine
When she turns on Laurie at the end of the scene, Sally reveals that this view extends beyond herself. “At least I don’t sleep with an H-Bomb,” she says, and when Laurie objects that Jon is not an H-Bomb, she continues: “Honey, the only difference is that they didn’t have to get the H-Bomb laid every once in a while.” In Sally’s eyes, that’s Laurie’s job, her function as a woman: get the H-Bomb laid. She’s as much a morale-raiser as any Esquire gatefold. (And though she protests that Sally is “being totally unfair”, Laurie herself is stuck in a story where her main function is to change the state of male characters.)
Sally Jupiter’s morale-raising days are in the past, though. Her world is “the city of the dead” because the thing that gave her meaning and value has departed with age. Bitterness has replaced allure, and now her refuge is in her memories, a past that gets just keeps on getting brighter all the time.
In other words, nostalgia. Or rather, perhaps, Nostalgia, because there’s someplace else in the Watchmen world where Varga-esque images appear, and that’s in Adrian Veidt’s ad campaign for his “Nostalgia line of ladies’ and men’s cosmetics.” He describes the woman in the ad, but may as well be describing a Varga Girl: “overtly erotic, yet layered with enough romantic ambiance to avoid offense.” She’s wearing more clothing than the typical Varga Girl, but the gauzy, transparent dress that hangs down from her torso, revealing and obscuring her thigh at once is pure Vargas, as is her pose and knowing stare out of the frame, returning the viewer’s gaze with amusement.
Ozymandias, while watching his bank of randomly changing screens, muses about the “erotic undercurrent not uncommon in times of war,” and notes in his ad strategy that “when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past.” Vargas’s painted ladies might belong to either, smooth fantasy women adorned in furs and flowers, who all find themselves in a half-imagined climate so warm that they’re constantly shedding clothes. It’s hard to say whether they seemed nostalgic at the time of their highest popularity, but at the very least they represented a yearning for simplicity and pleasure that must have felt distant indeed for soldiers deployed throughout the globe. Vargas’s work certainly drips with nostalgia now, especially for those, like Vonnegut, who lived through the 1940s.
The primary caption for Nostalgia advertisements reaches back even further, to the 1930s. “Oh, how the ghost of you clings” is a quote from the song “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)”, a hit song from 1936 that was covered by multiple people that year, including Leslie Hutchinson, Benny Goodman, and Billie Holiday. Here’s one of my favorite versions, from Bryan Ferry in 1973:
Once again, multiple layers of nostalgia are present here. The song itself is about the pain of lost love, when every element of your life can feel like a reminder of what’s gone out of it. “The ghost of you” here is made of all the simple little things that evoke the departed lover, including the lingering scent of perfume. Beyond that, the use of this caption in a 1985 ad campaign quite consciously hearkens back to a bygone era, that mythical “simpler time” that itself is the object of little-n nostalgia. That clinging ghost is the old songs, the old styles, the old times that feel so distant, especially when the present time is full of “global uncertainty.”
More than that, though, within the story, pertaining to the specific characters, when a bottle of Nostalgia appears, so do the clinging ghosts of the past. Obviously it takes a starring role in Chapter 9, appearing in close-up on the cover and shattering the Martian castle in the issue’s climactic moment. There, the ghost is the circumstances of Laurie’s birth, come back to haunt her after years of suppression.
In the opening scene of Chapter 2, that same ghost is at work, though we don’t know it yet. In addition, we get ghosts of other kinds. Sally gazes at her picture of the Minutemen, remembering how the dark and bright parts of the past brought her to where and who she is today. That picture, the Tijuana bible, and the Varga portrait on the wall surround her with ghosts of her former self — departed desire, eroticism, vitality. Most of all, she and Laurie are haunted by their shared past, the tension between them a product of thousands of interactions, behavior itself driven by experiences reaching back generations, like any complicated relationship between parent and child. Those ghosts do cling, and sometimes nostalgia is the optimal outcome, far better anyway than bitterness and toxicity.
Last, and deepest, is the kind of nostalgia that Watchmen itself set out to explode, the decades-long attachment of comics fans to the same superheroes and superhero tropes iterated over and over and over again. Those fanboy fantasies were as surprisingly fragile as Doctor Manhattan’s Martian castle, and this book was the bottle hurled at them. It marked a turning point, taking us to a new vantage from which we could see those Golden, Silver, and Bronze age comics as innocent and problematic in their own way as the Varga Girls seem now.