The Watchmen Bestiary 28 – Mutiny, I Promise You

Ahoy there! Spoilers dead ahead, both for Watchmen and for the many versions of Mutiny On The Bounty. You’ve been warned.

I’ve got mutiny on my mind today because of this panel:

A panel from Watchmen Chapter 3, page 7, in which Laurie gets into a cab in front of the Treasure Island comic shop, which displays a Mutiny On The Bounty poster in its window.

Actually, let’s zoom in on the bottom right corner of that panel:

A detail from the panel, which shows the Mutiny On The Bounty poster clearly

The web annotations zoomed in on this spot as well, pointing out:

Also, note the comic “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the comic shop’s window, and the prevalence of pirate themes in the covers of the other comics. One comic has an “X” in its title, perhaps a sly reference to the “X-Men” comics of the real world. (The title “X-Ships” appears on a comic early in Issue 1.)

As much as I love to chase down every little reference, I won’t be writing a post on the X-Men and Watchmen — the connection is just too slight. The annotators are probably correct that “X-Ships” references X-Men, given that X-Men comics were at their peak of popularity when Watchmen was being written. Since pirate comics dominate the Watchmen world, X-Ships are their likely X-Men analog, but that strikes me as just a little joke, not the kind of intertextual allusion that this series digs into.

Mutiny On The Bounty is another matter. I would argue that this reference illuminates several levels of Watchmen. But before exploring that, let’s talk for a while about the story itself.

Making a Mutiny

One might ask first why Mutiny On The Bounty would be a pirate comic at all. Sure, it’s a nautical tale, but it’s hardly Treasure Island. Where are the pirates?

Well, it turns out that most versions of the story refer to the mutineers as pirates. They may not be one-legged parrot-keepers plundering merchant ships for doubloons, but they do in fact take the ship they had crewed, and anyone who seizes one of His Majesty’s ships becomes a pirate in the eyes of the British Navy.

The historical facts of the mutiny are as follows. The cutter Bounty was commissioned to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti and bring them to the West Indies, in hopes that the tree could be cultivated as a food source for plantation slaves on those islands. Lieutenant William Bligh commanded the ship, which had been specially fitted out to hold six hundred plants. This remodeling shrank the living space of everyone on board, making an already uncomfortable sea voyage even more difficult.

Bligh’s original plan was to travel west from England to Tahiti, rounding Cape Horn on the way to Oceania. However, bureaucratically-imposed delays meant that the Bounty didn’t start sailing until the weather had turned impassable south of the Cape. Bligh, a disciple and former navigator to the revered Captain Cook, was an immensely confident sailor, but this circumstance thwarted him. He tried for nearly a month to get through, but eventually gave up and headed east, stopping to re-provision the ship at Cape Town, then sailing onward, south of Australia (called New Holland at the time) and New Zealand to Tahiti, where he landed in late October of 1788.

By all accounts, Tahiti was a sailor’s paradise. It had gorgeous weather, stunning landscapes, abundant food and water, and friendly indigenous people, with a far less sexually inhibited culture than that of 18th century England. The Bounty‘s botanical mission obliged its crew to stay on the island for several months, so that they could secure agreements with various native chiefs to take plants from their groves. In the process, many members of the crew also formed relationships with native women. The initial delay in launching the ship also meant that it must wait out the western monsoon season, which wouldn’t end until April. Thus began a five-month tropical sojourn for the ship and its crew.

A painting of the Bounty in front of a Tahitian landscape

On April 5, 1789, laden with over 900 breadfruit plants (Bligh had somehow made room on the ship to store even more than planned), the Bounty set sail from Tahiti. Their orders were to pass through the Endeavour Straits (now known as the Torres Strait) between Australia and New Guinea, in hopes that Bligh’s navigation and surveying skills could help define a safe passage for future missions. But the Bounty would never travel through those Straits.

At dawn on April 28, master’s mate Fletcher Christian and several accomplices awakened Bligh. They dragged him, clad only in a nightshirt, up on deck. The mutineers ordered Bligh into the Bounty‘s launch, where he was joined by seventeen loyalists. Several others remained on board the Bounty, either detained by the mutineers for their skills, or simply unable to fit into the already dangerously overburdened launch.

Bligh and his crew traveled over 3,600 miles in an open boat, from the site of the mutiny to the island of Timor. They endured extraordinary hardships of starvation and exposure, and they did in fact pass through the Endeavour Straits. Bligh’s entire crew survived this journey, with the exception of quartermaster John Norton, who was killed by hostile indigenes on an island where the crew had attempted to re-provision. After reaching the Dutch settlement on Timor, Bligh and company found their way back to England, where his journey was rightly hailed as an astonishing act of seamanship.

Meanwhile, the mutineers and remaining loyalists splintered. Some stayed on Tahiti, taking wives and having children. These men were collected several years later by the British vessel Pandora, which itself then sank in the Endeavour Straits. The survivors of that shipwreck took the remaining prisoners back to England, where they were court-martialed. Some were acquitted, some were found guilty but pardoned by the crown, and some were hung. The rest of the mutineers had fled to the remote Pitcairn’s Island. The British never caught these men, but they fell out among themselves and the Tahitians they had brought along, such that there was only one Bounty crew member remaining when an American vessel stumbled upon the island twenty years later. The descendants of these mutineers and Tahitians live on the island to this day.

What doomed the Bounty? What brought Fletcher Christian and his fellow crewmen to such an emotional extreme that they were willing to become pirates and set eighteen men adrift to what must have seemed like certain death? What does this mutiny mean? The answers to these questions have been much disputed, and their portrayals over the years are a saga unto themselves.

Story vs. Story

Bligh returned to England in March of 1790. He was court-martialed — mandatory for any captain who lost his vessel — and exonerated of all charges. Within a few months, he published his Narrative of the Mutiny, which in fact devoted a scant six pages to the mutiny itself, and another eighty to his open-boat journey. He declined to speculate on Christian’s motivation, saying only that he heard the crew cheering “Huzza for Otaheite” (“Hooray for Tahiti”) as the launch pulled away. (The Bounty Mutiny, pg. 10) Based on this narrative, England hailed him as a hero. He met the king, was promoted twice, and subsequently set sail on another breadfruit expedition, departing in August 1791 aboard a ship called the Providence.

Meanwhile, the Pandora had launched to capture as many mutineers as it could find, and its survivors returned to England in March of 1792. The prisoners’ court-martial that summer resulted in three hangings, four acquittals, and two royal pardons.

After the dust settled, the first competing narrative began to take shape. Fletcher Christian’s brother Edward, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, took it upon himself to interview all returned survivors of the mutiny, both those who had journeyed with Bligh and those who had been captured by the Pandora. He released a pamphlet with a partial transcription of the court-martial, and an extensive appendix (The Bounty Mutiny, pg. 67), which used those interviews to condemn Bligh as a tyrant and show Fletcher Christian as a noble soul who rebelled only as a last resort under intolerable circumstances.

The front page from Edward Christian's version of the story. It reads "Minutes of the Proceedings of the Court-Martial held at Portsmouth, August 12, 1792, on Ten Persons charged with Mutiny on Board his Majesty's Ship the Bounty, with an Appendix containing a full account of the real causes and circumstances of that unhappy transaction, the most material of which have hitherto been withheld from the Public."

That argument saw print in 1794, in the midst of a historical moment ripe for such a story. The French Revolution had overthrown the monarchy there just a few years prior, and the American colonies had rebelled less than fifteen years before that. Individuals longing for freedom and deposing tyrannical authorities were the cultural order of the day, and Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge found an avatar in Fletcher Christian. In addition, the Jacobins of the French Revolution exalted the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose notions of mankind’s goodness in a “State Of Nature” were easy to overlay upon the Tahitian indigenes, thus providing another justification for men who wanted to leave a corrupt civilization and live amongst “noble savages.”

Bligh returned in 1794 and exchanged retorts with Edward Christian, but the sailor was ineffective against the lawyer, and the damage to Bligh’s reputation would never be fully undone. The discovery of survivors on Pitcairn’s Island in 1808 excited public interest again, and launched a new wave of Bountyphilia. Sir John Barrow published an account in 1831 which upheld the image of Bligh as an overbearing martinet. Barrow was a family friend of Peter Heywood, one of those captured by the Pandora and later pardoned by the crown. In 1870, Heywood’s stepdaughter Lady Diana Belcher published another version of the story, again justifying Heywood and Christian against a Bligh portrayed as ever more villainous.

There were theatrical plays made of the story, but it didn’t receive the full novelistic treatment until the twentieth century, when Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall published Mutiny On The Bounty in 1932. For dramatic purposes, they created the fictional viewpoint character Roger Byam, who stood in for Heywood on the Bounty‘s crew. Nordhoff and Hall grounded their story in many historical facts, but also invented details to corroborate Bligh’s cruelty and Christian’s nobility. There was in fact a full Nordhoff and Hall Bounty trilogy — book two followed Bligh’s voyage and book three the life of the mutineers on Pitcairn’s Island — but it was Mutiny On The Bounty that caught the public’s imagination most. Hollywood took notice.

Mutiny On The Big Screen

MGM released its film Mutiny On The Bounty in 1935, directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian, Charles Laughton as William Bligh, and Franchot Tone as Roger Byam. MGM’s movie directly adapted Nordhoff and Hall’s novel, and it was a smash success, capturing the 1935 Academy Award for Best Picture. Gable, Laughton, and Tone were all nominated for Best Actor, splitting the vote and leading to the creation the next year of the “supporting role” Oscars.

The Lloyd Mutiny film amplified every exaggeration of Nordhoff and Hall’s, and layered in quite a few new ones. For instance, in the novel Byam witnesses another captain order a man flogged, and the punishment kills its target. The captain then orders that the flogging continue until the full complement of lashes have been delivered to the bloody corpse. (This scene has no basis that I can find in the surviving historical evidence surrounding the Bounty.) In the movie, it is Bligh who gives that order, and stands watching with satisfaction until the grisly punishment is complete. In historical fact, Bligh had a fastidious aversion to flogging, and tried to avoid it as much as possible.

Similarly, where Bligh’s actual log records his disgust with his surgeon Thomas Huggan, who he saw as a “Drunken Sot” (The Bounty, pg 84), Nordhoff and Hall give the surgeon a wooden leg (nodding to Stevenson, I suppose) and an ever-present bottle of brandy. Lloyd’s film has everyone on board calling the surgeon “Old Bacchus”, introduces him by hauling him aboard in a net, and turns Dudley Digges loose on him with a ridiculously broad performance.

Then there are the scenes entirely invented for the film. Laughton’s Bligh keelhauls a man, which happened in neither the book nor the historical record — the practice had been outlawed in the British Navy for decades. Gable’s Christian turns to mutiny after some crew members are unjustly imprisoned, but in the book, he simply bristles at being unfairly accused of theft. Finally, Lloyd’s film shows Bligh himself in command of the Pandora, unlike the book which correctly depicts its captain as Edward Edwards. Aside from these story changes, the simple act of casting Gable as Christian and Laughton as Bligh tells the audience very clearly where its sympathies should lie. Laughton in particular turns in a marvelous performance as a corrupt, blustering villain.

A still from the preview of the 1935 film, showing Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh

All these changes are made for the sake of drama, and they work very well, but their dramatic logic is simple indeed. Every uncertainty and nuance of the historical record, already greatly flattened by Nordhoff and Hall, gets sanded down into a stark story of good versus evil, of corruption overthrown by force. Just as Hollis Mason observed about Superman’s relation to the pulps that preceded it, Lloyd’s film (released three years before the debut of Superman) similarly removes the last of its predecessors’ darkness and ambiguity in favor of a basic, boiled-down morality.

Interestingly, after 1935 the pendulum began to swing back in the other direction. In 1962, Carol Reed and Lewis Milestone directed a version of the story starring Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Bligh. When Gable clashed with Laughton, you knew who to root for, but in the 1962 version, no character is particularly sympathetic. Bligh is awful, of course, a sociopath who uses others to accomplish his mission without for a moment considering their experience or humanity. But Brando’s preening and simpering Christian is also far from admirable. He’s foppish and contemptuous from the start, only goaded into mutiny by the character of John Mills (played by Richard Harris) as the devil on his shoulder. Even the Tahitians come across as weirdly unpleasant. By making everyone a villain (or anti-hero), the 1962 version mostly indicts the system — showing the impossible position into which the men are put. They are utterly at the mercy of Bligh, who cares nothing for their lives, but they will also die if they go against him.

There was one more filmed version of the story: 1984’s The Bounty, starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. This is by far the most historically accurate Hollywood depiction. Bligh and Christian, rather than being exaggerated villain & hero, or exaggerated villain & anti-hero, come across as three-dimensional humans, both deeply ambitious and deeply flawed in their own ways. This version still injects a bit of fiction, giving Bligh a strangely burning desire to circumnavigate the globe, and very subtly suggesting that he had a homosexual attraction to Christian, but in general it redeploys historical detail to reshape the simple good and evil story that Mutiny On The Bounty had become, into a nuanced tragedy of complicated people at a complicated historical moment.

Here at last we can return to Watchmen. Tracing the path of Bounty portrayals up through 1935 makes it clear that they constitute a kind of Watchmen project in reverse. Where Moore and Gibbons started with the simplistic Golden Age and laid in layer after layer of realism, humanity, and grit, every new version of the Bounty story stripped those layers away, culminating with the Lloyd film’s simplistic depiction of hero Christian versus villain Bligh. This depiction has never left the public imagination — “Captain Bligh” is still a synonym for a tyrannical and oppressive leader.

Leslie Klinger’s annotations assert that the Watchmen panel in question shows a “vintage poster in the window for the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty“. This is a little different from the web annotations’ suggestion that we’re seeing a Mutiny on the Bounty comic, but either way it makes sense that the poster would reference the 1935 version of the story, since that was the most successful and culturally impactful version ever made. Not coincidentally, that version is the most simplified, melodramatic adaptation of the story known to mainstream audiences. Its appearance in the comic shop window is the pirate equivalent of Action Comics #1.

Watchmen itself, on the other hand, is more like the Hopkins/Gibson Bounty movie — a movie that happened to emerge in 1984, when Watchmen was being written. By placing Mutiny On The Bounty in a window of the Watchmen world, Moore and Gibbons give us a window into how narratives and genres can evolve over time, and they reflect their own project in doing so.

Mutineers

Watchmen itself was a kind of mutiny. It rebelled against the established order in mainstream comics, striking at the injustice and hypocrisy beneath the cultural authority of superhero narratives, narratives that had claimed the mantle of justice and righteousness for themselves. Like many mutinies, its results have been mixed — superheroes’ cultural authority is stronger than ever, as Marvel’s box office receipts will tell you, but at the same time they were forever changed by Moore’s story. That story is full of mutineers, too.

There’s a quote in Nordhoff and Hall’s novel that’s particularly apropos to Watchmen. It comes in a reflective moment, as Byam describes Fletcher Christian:

His sense of the wrongs he had suffered at Bligh’s hands was so deep and overpowering as to dominate, I believe, every other feeling. In the course of a long life I have met no others of his kind. I knew him, I suppose, as well as anyone could be said to know him, and yet I never felt that I truly understood the workings of his mind and heart. Men of such passionate nature, when goaded by injustice into action, lose all sense of anything save their own misery. They neither know nor care, until it is too late, what ruin they make of the lives of others.

A panel from Watchmen, Chapter 4, page 23. It shows a body with a note pinned to it, reading "Never!". The captions say, "The only other active vigilante is called Rorschach, real name unknown. He expresses his feelings toward compulsory retirement in a note left outside police headquarters along with a dead multiple rapist.

That notion, that a supposed hero fighting for justice could ruin the lives of innocents, comes entwined in Watchmen‘s DNA, while the quote also captures the spirit of several characters. Certainly it applies to Rorschach, and no less to Ozymandias. Though not born from a passion for justice, detachment from human costs and consequences characterizes several others as well: The Comedian, Silk Spectre I, and of course Dr. Manhattan. Then there’s the narrator from Tales Of The Black Freighter, who certainly can be said to have lost all sense of anything save his own misery. The Black Freighter itself, as discussed earlier in this series, evokes Pirate Jenny, a true rebel against oppressive authority, who plots gleefully to slaughter them all.

The panel we’re examining juxtaposes two mutinies on the same page. Janey Slater rebels against Jon and the dominant story of her past by vilifying Dr. Manhattan to Nova Express. Laurie, as she walks by the Treasure Island window, is in the midst of defying the will of a government that just wants her to “get the H-bomb laid every once in a while.” In the government’s eyes, her mutiny may have doomed the ship, as “the linchpin of America’s strategic superiority has apparently gone to Mars!”

That same government enacted the Keene Act outlawing costumed vigilantes, and that’s an authority against which there are plenty of mutineers. Rorschach, of course, rebels from the start, killing a multiple rapist and using the body to deliver his note of refusal to police headquarters. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre join the mutiny many years later, as they suit up and go out on patrol in Chapter 7. Meanwhile, Ozymandias has been rebelling in secret all along, pretending to acquiesce to authority even as he engineered his fake doomsday plan, without a care for the ruin he’d make of the lives of others.

Story Vs. Story, Revisited

Ozymandias’ plan comes down to storytelling. That’s why he recruits writers and artists — he knows that his “practical joke” must be a convincing enough story that every nation in the world will believe it. But he’s not just telling a story to the world. Like Captain Bligh, his story to the world is also a story to himself, one that casts him in the role of hero and savior, the only one brave and capable enough to save the lives in his charge, despite all opposing forces. Like Bligh, he has no doubt that his narrative will prevail. Like Bligh, he will have an unexpected competitor.

Rorschach, through his diary as submitted to the New Frontiersman, will become the Edward Christian to Ozymandias’ Bligh, presenting an alternative version of events that radically recontextualizes the story known and accepted by the public. Like Christian, Rorschach has his own agenda and values that influence his version of events. I don’t mean to suggest that Christian has the truth on his side as Rorschach does, nor that Bligh intended a deception as Ozymandias does — only that the final level of drama in Watchmen comes from competing narratives, and invoking Mutiny On The Bounty can’t help but shine a light on how stories within Watchmen fight each other for dominance.

Rorschach and Ozymandias are the grand competing narrators of the work, but there are other narrative clashes within the book. For instance, every secret identity operates as a clash of narratives, in which a character keeps trying to smother the truth with a different explanation. In the case of a character like Hooded Justice, the competition becomes even more complex, especially as it’s reflected at the reader’s level. We never learn who Hooded Justice really was from the text itself, but we do get speculations from Hollis Mason. These speculations seem reasonable enough, but they are all we get from the text until Chapter 11, when Ozymandias tells his story of investigating Hooded Justice’s disappearance.

Veidt wonders: “Had Blake found Hooded Justice, killed him, reporting failure? I can prove nothing.” Now we as readers must evaluate several strands. There’s what we know about Rolf Müller, which comes strictly from the pages of Under The Hood — circus strongman, East German heritage, disappeared during the McCarthy anti-superhero hearings, found later shot through the head. Then there’s what we know about Hooded Justice — an early hero who came into serious conflict with The Comedian at least once. Then there’s what we know about Blake himself — someone who wouldn’t hesitate to execute an enemy and throw him in the ocean. These strands seem to present a coherent picture, but in all cases they are presented through the lens of another character telling a story for a particular purpose, some of whom may be more trustworthy than others. As with the history of the Bounty, we are left to discern the truth for ourselves.

Also like the Bounty, Watchmen itself has endured numerous forces trying to shape its story from the outside. Zack Snyder’s film version was loyal in its fashion, but also changed the story and the tone in ways both necessary and unnecessary. DC gave us Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock, which tried to extend the Watchmen world beyond the boundaries of the graphic novel, laying claim to canonical preequel and sequel stature by dint of being the original’s publisher, a claim which Alan Moore would vociferously dispute. Now, within just a few weeks of this post, HBO will debut yet another Watchmen story, this one a speculative sequel in TV series form.

All of these Watchmen versions wish to capitalize upon the status of the original, and to make us view it in a different light. They may not be mutinies, but at some level they are seizures, attempting to take a well-known ship in a new direction. Is that new direction fruitful? Is it necessary? Does it honor the mission? As befits the conclusion of Watchmen, that decision is left entirely in our hands.

A promotional image for HBO's Watchmen series. The words "Nothing Ever Ends" appear in the familiar Watchmen colors and font, with "2019 HBO" in smaller letters.

Previous Entry: The Righteous With The Wicked

The Watchmen Bestiary 27 – The Righteous With The Wicked

In the beginning, there were Watchmen spoilers. There will also be Watchmen spoilers throughout.

We’re on to Watchmen Chapter 3 in the Bestiary, and with a new chapter comes a new chapter title and a new epigraph. While the first two epigraphs came from the world of rock and roll, Chapter 3 casts much further backward, all the way back to the first book of the Bible — Genesis, chapter 18, verse 25: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Note that this is the King James Version [KJV] translation.)

We’ll get to what this means for Watchmen in a moment, but first let’s take a little time to ascertain the Biblical context of the quote. Genesis splits roughly into two parts, known as the Primeval History (chapters 1-11) and the Patriarchal History (chapters 12-50). The Primeval History narrates the creation myth, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, and the Tower of Babel. Lots of greatest hits. The Patriarchal History, on the other hand, starts with Abram (later called Abraham), then traces his lineage down through a series of patriarchs, in particular Abraham’s son Isaac, Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s son Joseph. The book tells a handful of stories from each man’s life, culminating in the “Joseph Novel”, which occupies (more or less) chapters 37-50.

Chapter 18, then, is early in the Patriarchal History, in the midst of the stories of Abraham. In this chapter, we find Abraham sitting in his tent, enduring the day’s heat, when he notices three men standing in front of him. Somehow sensing that there is more to these men than meets the eye, Abraham abases himself to them, begging them to partake of his hospitality. When they assent, he has his wife and his servants whip up the finest possible meal for them.

Very quickly, the text makes it clear that Yahweh (translated in various versions as “the LORD”) is among these men, a physical manifestation of the Israelites’ God, who had previously appeared to Abram in visions. After some conversation establishing that Abraham’s barren wife would in fact bear a child (and explaining the origin of the child’s name), the men walk out to look from afar at the city of Sodom. Yahweh wonders, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (All textual quotes from the English Standard Version, except where noted.)

Yahweh decides against deception, and lets Abraham know that he intends to evaluate the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, having heard that “the outcry against [them] is great and their sin is very grave. I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me.” Now, this is a bit of an odd statement for a deity generally depicted as all-knowing. Yahweh is unusually personified in this section, and seems to share (for the moment) the general human trait of limited knowledge, and the need to investigate to learn more. Various Biblical scholars have come up with rationales to explain this seeming paradox, suggesting that perhaps God was teaching us not to pass judgment before investigating the evidence, or that “if one’s actions are unworthy of God, one is said to be unworthy of his knowledge also.” (Ancient Christian Commentary On Scripture: Old Testament II, pg 68-70)

Whatever the case, Yahweh has a more human presentation than usual, which perhaps emboldens Abraham to approach him on a human level, attempting to haggle over amounts, as was common in his culture. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” he asks. “Suppose there are fifty righteous men within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” Warming to his theme, Abraham amps up the rhetoric: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Or, as the KJV would have it, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

Panels from the R. Crumb comic illustrating this story, starting with Abraham standing before the Lord, and ending with Abraham beginning to haggle
Panels from R. Crumb’s illustrated version of this story. Translation by Robert Alter et. al.

Abraham argues Yahweh all the way down to ten righteous, and Yahweh agrees, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it,” which brings Chapter 18 to a close. Then comes Chapter 19, in which “two angels” arrive in Sodom (seemingly without Yahweh in tow after all), and get harassed by a pack of xenophobes. We don’t get the sense that any kind of thorough examination of the city occurs — there’s no story of seeking righteous people. The text does specify that “the men of the city… all the people to the last man” are part of the mob — apparently women didn’t count in the righteousness census. (And I guess it’s a pretty small city?) In any case, the angels warn in short order that “we are about to destroy this place,” and indeed that morning Sodom is destroyed, with only Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family escorted from the destruction. The Judge of all the earth renders his judgment and punishment, Abraham’s bargaining notwithstanding.

A Panel Of Judges

In Chapter 3 of Watchmen, there are several candidates for “Judge of all the earth.” The first of these is God himself. In the very first panel, Bernie the news vendor asserts, “We oughta nuke Russia and let God sort it out!” Then, a few panels later, the Tales Of The Black Freighter narrator touches a similar theme: “In despair I sank beneath those foul, pink billows, offering up my wretched soul to almighty God, and his judgment.” Later on, that same character concludes that this judgment is in the negative: “I cursed God and wept, wondering if he wept also. But then, what use his tears, if his help was denied me?” The doomsayer (who has not yet been revealed to be Kovacs/Rorschach) doesn’t mention God explicitly, but seems to look to the sort of mysterious signs (“a two-headed cat born in Queens”) that doomsday cults use to predict divine punishment of humanity.

In the context of the Genesis quote, these notions of God’s judgment look rightly ominous. This is the same God who rained down fire on an entire city after his emissaries concluded that there weren’t even ten righteous people (sorry, MEN) within it. No wonder that invocations of his judgment don’t allow much latitude for the possibility of mercy. Yet at least in vendor Bernie’s quote, it isn’t really God who wants to rain down fire — it’s Bernie himself, just using God as a convenient prop to wave away the horror, and suggesting that if humans nuke each other, some higher power will “sort it out.” That brings us to the second category of judge in this chapter: humans themselves.

Late in the chapter, we see Richard Nixon close to following vendor Bernie’s advice. He stares at the Dr. Strangelove map board, contemplating the judgment he could render on Russia, and incidentally Europe and half the U.S. as well. Benny Anger’s audience is in on the bloodthirst too, asking Dr. Manhattan, “If the Reds act up in Afghanistan… will you be prepared to enter hostilities?” to widespread applause. Perhaps we expect a distant God to destroy us in judgment for our sins, but at least as this chapter depicts us, we are scarcely safer when left to our own devices.

Then there is Dr. Manhattan, who is between the poles of divinity and humanity — a human with godlike power, whose changed perceptions remove him further from humanity all the time. Certainly the Russian government seems to have viewed him as, if not a judge, at least a sort of referee, preventing hostile parties from “acting up.” As soon as the news hits that he’s left for Mars, Russia immediately invades Afghanistan (or perhaps counter-invades, given the references to “U.S. adventurism” there in Chapter 1.) Likewise, the U.S. government sees him as “the linchpin of America’s strategic superiority,” a judge who’s already in their pocket, at least until he disappears. Benny Anger’s audience seems to view him as more or less a weapon to be used by the U.S. at will.

So is he a judge? The chapter’s epigraph appears beneath his picture, which certainly suggests that he may be that “Judge of all the earth.” Yet throughout the chapter, he shows poor judgment over and over. Certainly he badly misjudges Laurie’s reactions, both when trying to “stimulate” her, and when talking with her afterwards. Janey Slater seems to have his number when she says, “You know how every damn thing in this world fits together except people!” He apparently becomes convinced during the Nova Express Q&A that he radiates death, and that night judges himself “incapable of cohabiting safely either emotionally or physically.” If he is Earth’s judge, it’s only inadvertently — his presence or absence is as near as he comes to action for or against the planet, and as Laurie well knows, even when he’s present, he can be pretty absent.

The fourth, hidden judge turns out to be Ozymandias, who will in fact rain destruction down upon a city just as the God of Genesis does, but with no intercessor Abraham to plead for the innocent. In fact, Adrian Veidt makes certain that nobody knows about his plan if they have “the slightest chance” of their affecting its outcome. Where Yahweh debates whether to share information with Abraham, and ultimately decides to do so, Adrian feels no such compunction.

Yet Veidt aspires to transcendence, to godhood. He speaks of assuming “the aspect of kingly Rameses, leaving Alexander the adventurer and his trappings to gather dust.” “My new world demands less obvious heroism,” he sneers, anointing himself a world-creator. He engineers much of the story that the other characters find themselves walking through, an authorial presence from behind the scenes, including the pivotal plot advancement of this chapter — Dr. Manhattan leaving Earth.

He describes himself as motivated by the Comedian during the 1966 Crimebusters meeting, and in turn characterizes Blake’s reaction to his plan as “professional jealousy.” But might Veidt be experiencing some professional jealousy of his own? He lives in the presence of Dr. Manhattan, a being of casual godlike power, but one with a total disinterest in remaking the world. How that must eat at Adrian Veidt. To carry out his judgment on humanity, he must remove Dr. Manhattan from the earth altogether.

As soon as this happens, the chapter fittingly turns to ruminations on the absence of God. It starts with the Black Freighter narrator: “That night, I slept badly beneath cold, distant stars, pondering upon the cold, distant God in whose hands the fate of Davidstown rested. Was he really there? Had he been there once, but now departed?” Then we see the return of the doomsayer, who counters vendor Bernie’s assertion that “the world didn’t end yesterday” with, “Are you sure?” Then, with news of Russia’s Afghanistan invasion, we turn to Nixon and his cabinet discussing nuclear scenarios, and the role played by wind, “a force of nature. It’s totally impartial… totally indifferent.”

By the time the chapter ends, our terror comes not from the notion of God’s punishment, but rather the random, meaningless universe we face without the notion of his presence. His most frightening judgment of all is his decision to leave us on our own, in a world that we can never be sure hasn’t just ended. The cliffhanger ending of the pirate comic sets up the narrator’s tragic actions in the next issue. Perhaps Jon’s unwillingness to stop what Adrian sees as the freighter bearing down on humanity — its penchant for self-destruction — prompts Adrian’s own Davidstown actions?

How Do You Plead?

Chapter 18 isn’t the first time in Genesis that God acts as “Judge of all the earth.” His first mass judgment comes in chapter 6, verse 5:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.

Once again, one man has the power to sway Yahweh, and that one man will be spared from the judgment that affects everyone else. These judgments, of wickedness and sin, rely on a starkly binary scale for judgment of humans — everyone is either fully righteous or fully wicked. In the Noah story, only Noah is found righteous — his family is spared for its association with him. In Sodom, only Lot is spared, once again with his family as more or less an accessory. This despite the fact that Lot isn’t exactly virtuous — he offers his virginal daughters to the xenophobe mob, hoping to distract them from his visitors. Perhaps Lot is only spared because he is Abraham’s nephew, thus once again allowing a great patriarch’s relations to be saved for the sake of their connections with him.

The righteous/wicked binary of these chapters is typical of the Old Testament (and some parts of the New Testament, notably Revelation.) The same dualism grounds many a traditional superhero narrative, and Watchmen works to break down this simplistic approach. Rorschach embodies Old Testament moral absolutism in Watchmen, and in yet another Biblical inversion, he finds himself the black and white Abraham to Dr. Manhattan’s morally grey Yahweh at the end of Chapter 12. Unlike Abraham, his only plea is for his own death. He is not saved.

Panels 1-4 from Chapter 12, page 24 of Watchmen. Rorschach realizes that Dr. Manhattan is going to kill him, and screams at him to do it. Manhattan vaporizes Rorschach.

In Genesis, Abraham’s role as bargainer goes well beyond chapter 18. He bargains with Ephron for Sarah’s burial place in chapter 23, and bargains with Lot in chapter 13. We find him in political negotiations at the ends of chapters 14 and 20. He even presumes to plead with Yahweh (in a vision) for a blood heir, in chapter 15.

Yet in all these other scenes, he bargains for himself or his family. In chapter 18, he speaks for a greater humanity. This dynamic gets its Watchmen mirror in Chapter 11, between Laurie and Jon. Yet as usual, it’s a distorted mirror. Laurie pleads with Jon to intercede on humanity’s behalf, to save humankind from itself. Abraham, on the other hand, pleads with Yahweh not to intercede, and to let the righteous, even if they are greatly outnumbered, help influence humans toward a more just path.

They do have in common a sense of false victory. Both Laurie and Abraham manage to sway their gods, but neither of them can stem the tide of slaughter.

Watchmen: Second Genesis

So far we’ve seen how Watchmen offers various judges, including the indifferent Dr. Manhattan and the sociopathic Ozymandias. We’ve seen the moral binarism of Genesis reflected in Rorschach, and we’ve seen the bargaining motif of Genesis both reflected and inverted by Rorschach and Silk Spectre II, as they confront Dr. Manhattan in different scenes.

But Watchmen displays other themes from Genesis, including that book’s strong motif of trickery. Guile and deceit are all over the place in Genesis, and not just in the villainous characters. Sure, there’s the serpent beguiling Eve in the garden, but more often it is the patriarchs themselves who do the tricking. No less than three times (chapters 12 and 20 with Abraham, and chapter 26 with Isaac), a Biblical patriarch convinces a local ruler that the patriarch’s wife is actually his sister. Each time, God afflicts that ruler, even though each time the ruler is the victim of the deception.

In the story of Jacob, Laban, Rachel, and Leah (chapters 29-31), everyone is constantly tricking and swindling each other. Laban tells Jacob to serve him for seven years in order to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel, only to send his other daughter Leah instead, making Jacob serve seven more years for Rachel. Jacob makes a deal with Laban to own all his speckled livestock, then Laban removes all the speckled livestock, then Jacob ensures that more speckled livestock will be born and takes them anyway. Jacob sneaks away from Laban’s estate in secret, Rachel steals her father’s “household gods”, then Laban catches up with them and accuses them of theft, but Rachel fools him by hiding the gods in a camel’s saddle, then sitting on it and saying, “I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.”

On and on it goes. Jacob’s sons trick Shechem, slaughtering an entire town in revenge for their sister’s rape. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright. Joseph’s brothers trick him and sell him into slavery, then he tricks them back after coming into power. Usually it is the agents of God practicing the deception (and giving God credit for the results), but even God himself gets in on the action, tricking Abraham into binding his son Isaac for slaughter before calling him off at the last minute, saying, “now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Incidentally, Isaac is Rachel’s only son. Abraham has another son, Ishmael.)

There is only one trickster in Watchmen, and his name is Ozymandias. But oh, what a bag of tricks he carries! From the very first moment of the book, he deceives both readers and characters. The murder that spurs Rorschach’s “mask-killer” theory? A trick. The cancer epidemic that drives Dr. Manhattan from Earth? A trick. The assassination attempt on Veidt himself? A trick. The frame job on Rorschach, the (second) disintegration of Jon Osterman, Adrian’s somber face at Blake’s funeral: tricks, tricks, tricks, all in service of his greatest trick of all.

Panel 4 from Chapter 11, page 24 of Watchmen. Ozymandias kicks open the Comedian's door, with voiceover panels reading "Unable to unite the world by conquest... Alexander's method... I would trick it; frighten it towards salvation with history's greatest practical joke. That's what upset the Comedian, when awareness of my scheme crashed in upon him: professional jealousy."

“Unable to unite the world by conquest,” he boasts, “I would trick it; frighten it towards salvation with history’s greatest practical joke.” He seems to truly believe that his brand of trickery is different from that of Genesis, that he is a different sort of patriarch, a different sort of god. Where Biblical characters practice deception to serve themselves — preserve their lives, build their wealth, gain power over others — Veidt’s sees his trick as preserving humanity at large. Where Yahweh tricks Abraham to ensure he fears what is most fearsome, Veidt tricks Earth into fearing the imaginary, so as to direct their fear away from each other.

On the one hand, Adrian’s self-serving belief seems patently ridiculous. His trick kills millions of the humans he claims to be saving. No Biblical patriarch does any such thing. Every wife/sister con gets retracted and the afflicted ruler recovers. Laban steals years of Jacob’s labor, Rachel steals “household gods”, Jacob steals Esau’s blessing from Isaac, but nobody gets killed by these ruses. The slaughter of Shechem’s town is as close as we get, and this happens on a much smaller scale, and for revenge — no pretense of saviorship. Even God makes sure that Abraham spares Isaac.

On the other hand, Watchmen‘s ending is ambiguous enough that we can’t be certain that Adrian is wrong. Perhaps his monstrous machination does save more people than it destroys? That question brings us to the final parallel with Genesis, the notion of good outcomes arising from evil deeds.

In the “Joseph novel”, Joseph’s jealous and hateful brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery, telling their father Jacob that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. While in Egypt, Joseph becomes a powerful prophet, whose prophecies save Egypt from a famine that afflicts everyone else. His brothers come to Egypt begging for food, and after several rounds of the usual trickery, Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers, and reunites with his father, who dies peacefully, knowing his youngest son has survived after all. In the end, those brothers worry (quite logically!) that Joseph will bear a grudge, and try — once again — a trick, telling Joseph that Jacob commanded him to forgive them. Joseph responds to them thus:

Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.

This is the climactic moment of the “Joseph novel”, and the book of Genesis as a whole ends a few verses later. For Joseph, two principles are at work. First, none but God is fit to be “Judge of all the earth.” Second, the harm done by humans can be resolved by God into good, or perhaps more problematically, God prompts humans to harm each other in order to accomplish a greater good down the line. Biblical scholar Bill Arnold sums up the message pretty succinctly: “Joseph represents the conviction that good can come from evil.” (Genesis [New Cambridge Bible Commentary], pg. 389)

This conviction is a central question at the end of Watchmen. Ozymandias believes it, though I doubt he would agree with the concept of an omniscient god prompting his actions. In his mind, he is the omniscient one, or at least the one blessed with a broader perspective than his fellow beings — “the smartest guy in the world.” He feels entitled to be “Judge of all the earth” due to his belief in this greater perspective, and he sees himself as a benevolent shepherd, willing to sacrifice some of his sheep for the good of the whole flock. Rorschach, on the other hand, rejects the notion that good can come from evil. For him, “there is good, and there is evil, and evil must be punished.”

Where does Watchmen itself land? I think it’s closer to Dr. Manhattan, observing it all from Mars. I think it’s closer to this 2003 quote from Alan Moore:

The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.

In other words, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” is the wrong question. There is no “Judge of all the earth” — only us. The real question is, “Shall I do right?” And if so, how?

Next Entry: Mutiny, I Promise You
Previous Entry: Tears Of A Clown

The Watchmen Bestiary 26 – Tears Of A Clown

Si può? Si può? Signore! Signori! Be warned that the following post contains spoilers for Watchmen and for the opera Pagliacci.

Way back in my first entry, I called Rorschach “the funniest character in Watchmen.” Granted, that’s a pretty low bar to clear, but I stand by the assessment. Sometimes he’s funny on purpose (“Big Figure. Small world.”) and sometimes the humor just arises naturally out of his incongruity with the world around him, as when he drops Captain Carnage down an elevator shaft. Rorschach being Rorschach, there’s pretty much always a grim edge to his humor, and today’s topic is no exception.

Today we look at page 27 of Chapter 2, in which Rorschach tells (well, writes) a joke:

Page 27 from Chapter 2 of Watchmen. The images in the panels switch back and forth between scenes from Blake's murder and scenes from the various flashbacks in the chapter. The relevant part of Rorshach's narration is as follows: Heard joke once. Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you right up. Man bursts into tears. Says, but doctor... I am Pagliacci.

The web annotations have this to say about those panels:

The name of the opera Pagliacci literally means “clowns”, so Rorschach is mistaken if he thinks it is the name of a particular clown. The opera does, however, deal with a clown who must make others laugh although he is sad.

The annotators are quite right on the first point, but a bit reductive on the second, so let’s take the second point first, after taking in a little background.

Ridi, Pagliaccio

Pagliacci (which does indeed mean “clowns”) is an opera written circa 1891 by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. At that time, Leoncavallo was a fine piano player, a vocal teacher, and an aspiring composer who had been frustrated in his attempts to get his operas produced. In particular, he was focused on a work called I Medici, meant to be the first in a Ring Cycle-esque series, but focusing on the Italian Renaissance rather than Teutonic mythology. He was engaged with the Italian publishing house Casa Ricordi, but it had become increasingly clear that Ricordi had very little interest in producing Leoncavallo’s work.

In 1890, composer Pietro Mascagni premiered Cavalleria Rusticana, a one-act opera about love and murder among the Italian peasantry. The work met with “sensational success” (Leoncavallo: Life And Works by Konrad Dryden, pg. 34), and Leoncavallo, desperate for income, set about writing a work in the same vein. The result was Pagliacci, the story of a traveling commedia dell’arte troupe whose players find their own lives echoing the show they stage.

The main characters from the troupe are:

  • Canio, a clown and head of the troupe
  • Nedda, his wife
  • Tonio, a hunchback clown

Tonio is in love with Nedda, who spurns his advances. Swearing revenge, Tonio finds Nedda’s secret: she is in love with the villager Silvio. Tonio leads Canio to find Nedda in an adulterous clinch with Silvio. Canio chases the villager in vain; Silvio escapes. Canio then demands that Nedda give him her lover’s name. She refuses, and their fight begins to escalate, but the time has come for the troupe’s show, and so they must stop and prepare their parts.

Here Canio sings the famous aria “Vesti la giubba” (“Put on the costume”), in which he agonizes over having to perform when his heart is broken by Nedda’s betrayal. The climax of this aria is one of the most famous in opera — appropriated everywhere from Seinfeld to Rice Krispies commercials. “Ridi, Pagliacco, sul tuo amore infranto” translates to “Laugh, clown, at your shattered love.” Thus ends Act 1.

Act 2 ushers us into the show-within-a-show. Nedda plays Columbina, who spurns the advances of Tonio’s character Taddeo. Columbina’s heart belongs to Arlecchino (Harlequin), and she wishes to conceal this fact from her husband Pagliaccio, played by Canio. As Canio approaches the stage, he hears Columbina address Harlequin using the very same words that Nedda had earlier used with Silvio: “Till tonight, and I shall be yours forever!” He drops his character and demands once more that Nedda reveal her lover’s name. Trying to salvage the show, she addresses him as “Pagliaccio”, prompting his furious arietta “No, Pagliaccio non son” (“No, I am not Pagliaccio”). His rage builds until he finally stabs and kills Nedda. Silvio tries to leap to her defense, and Canio kills him too. The play ends with the line, “La commedia è finita!” (“The comedy is ended!”)

The cover of Leoncavallo's sheet music for Pagliacci, featuring a glowering clown.

I would argue that describing Canio as “a clown who must make others laugh although he is sad” is a bit wide of the mark. In fact, Canio never tries at all in the show to make anyone laugh — he breaks character immediately and escalates quickly to double murder. However, the sentiment of “Vesti la guibba” has become the main cultural takeaway from Pagliacci, and in that aria he does indeed cajole himself, “Laugh, clown, be merry… and they will all applaud! / You must transform your despair into laughter; / And make a jest of your sobbing, of your pain…” Of course, he fails to follow this self-advice, but its image remains indelible.

When Leoncavallo first wrote the libretto for this show, he titled it “Il pagliaccio,” which translates to “The clown.” However, he had made a friend of prominent baritone Victor Maurel, who saw a role for himself in Tonio, and who convinced Leoncavallo to pluralize the title to Pagliacci, so that Canio would not be the sole focus. With Maurel’s help, Leoncavallo presented the libretto to Casa Ricordi’s rival (and publisher of Cavalleria Rusticana) Edoardo Sonzogno, who immediately accepted the work. It was produced in May of 1892 to instant success, and has gone on to become a prominent part of the operatic canon, the only Leoncavallo work still widely performed.

Verismo

The title change wasn’t the only gift that Leoncavallo gave to Maurel. He also wrote a prologue especially for Tonio to sing. In this prologue, Tonio (or is it the singer, or Leoncavallo himself?) claims that the author of the show has endeavored “to paint for you a slice of life”, and that “truth is his inspiration.” Breaking the fourth wall and claiming to speak directly for the author, the prologue seeks to establish a connection between what you see on the stage and what you experience in your life: “Now, then, you will see men love as in real life they love, and you will see true hatred and its bitter fruit.” Moreover, he reminds the audience that the players themselves are fellow humans: “Mark well, therefore, our souls… for we are men of flesh and bone, like you, breathing the same air of this orphan world.”

This prologue became the manifesto of the verismo movement in opera, for which both Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana became standard-bearers. Verismo was a reaction against the bel canto style, which had focused on songs at the expense of story — similar perhaps to superhero comics in the 1990s that focused on art at the expense of good writing. Verismo also steered operatic tradition away from loftier subjects — Wagner’s gods and heroes, or Verdi’s dukes, counts, and kings — and towards the dramas of ordinary people, such as peasants and clowns. As Pagliacci‘s prologue claimed, verismo wished to bring opera’s characters and players closer to its audience.

Now, at first blush this might seem like a ridiculous contradiction. The idea was to take opera, one of the most artificial and stylized storytelling forms ever, and somehow make it more realistic? The thing where every character is singing at the top of their lungs, accompanied by a full orchestra, instead of talking to each other? We were going to make that seem more like day to day life?

But really, is this any more absurd a proposition than injecting more realism into superhero comics? This would be the genre of storytelling where somebody somehow acquires supernatural abilities, and the way they handle this situation is to stitch together a crazy, colorful, skintight outfit and go out to “fight crime”, which generally means getting into fistfights with other people who have somehow acquired other supernatural abilities, and who decided to handle this by stitching more skintight garb and going out to, uh, do crime. Oh, and also pretty soon there are a whole bunch of the crimefighting people, and sometimes they fight each other, or join up into gangs and fight other gangs of the crime people, and bunches of them can fly without wings or punch down buildings or shoot laser beams from their eyes or maybe all that stuff at once, and a huge spectrum of other stuff too. And the world is always in jeopardy, always being saved. We were going to make that seem more like day to day life?

And yet, the power of verismo is that in such ludicrous and mannered forms, a little realism can go a long way! Sure, in Pagliacci everybody is still singing all the time, and the orchestra is still playing, but at least they’re not stiffly shuttling between recitatives and arias. They’re regular people rather than princesses or valkyries. In the context of the reigning operatic style, verismo was strong medicine, keeping opera a powerful and relevant cultural form into the early 20th century.

Similarly, Watchmen brings us a world where yeah, people dress up and fight crime, but only one of those people has any supernatural powers. The rest are just schmucks in Halloween suits. Moreover, those schmucks are fully realized, three-dimensional, flawed human beings rather than empty ciphers and walking metaphors. Not only that, the author has thought through the consequences of these powers and punch-outs, presenting a world where “superheroes” have been outlawed, and the one godlike figure heightens the tensions that could lead to nuclear annihilation, even as he’s the only one standing in the way of the powder keg exploding.

I would contend that one of the reasons Pagliacci resonates with Watchmen is that they share a similarity of purpose: to reinvigorate a constrained and formal genre by bringing it closer to earth, and therefore closer to its audience. They also share a structural approach — both of them feature a nested story that reflects and amplifies the main story. In Pagliacci it’s the commedia, and in Watchmen it’s the Tales Of The Black Freighter.

Panels 1 and 2 from Chapter 12, page 27 of Watchmen. Ozymandias says, Jon... I know people think me callous, but I've made myself feel every death. By day I imagine endless faces. By night... well, I dream about swimming towards a hideous... no. Never mind. It isn't significant... What's significant is that I know. I know I've struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity... But someone had to take the weight of that awful, necessary crime. I'd hoped you'd understand, unlike Rorschach...

The plot parallels between Pagliacci‘s clowns and their characters are immediate and obvious from the beginning of Act 2, but Watchmen waits until Chapter 12 to fully reveal its hand. The pirate comic ends in Chapter 11 (shortly before its reader), with the viewpoint character finally realizing, “noble intentions had led me to atrocity.” He swims towards the Black Freighter itself, so that its crew could “claim the only soul they’d ever truly wanted.” This subplot takes its final bow on page 27 of Chapter 12, in which Ozymandias mentions that he has “struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity,” and that he dreams about “swimming toward a hideous…” before cutting himself off and saying, “it isn’t significant.”

But of course, we know it is significant — it signifies the parallel between the actions of Adrian Veidt and the actions of the Tales narrator. Both believe their crimes to have been “necessary”, and both think they are guided by “love, only love.” It is for us to see their folly, and as in Pagliacci, their tragic endings. Except that where Tonio or Canio might claim “La commedia è finita,” Dr. Manhattan would be quick to remind them that nothing ever ends.

Franco and Plácido

In 1982, just a few years before Watchmen, Franco Zeffirelli released a film of Pagliacci, based on his stage production at La Scala the year before, and starring Plácido Domingo as Canio. I watched that film as part of my research for this article, and a couple of things jumped out at me as comparisons to Watchmen.

The first is the clowns themselves. Before Tonio’s prologue begins, as the orchestra plays the overture, four clowns come out to entertain the audience. They are dressed in outlandish costumes. Their faces are obscured. They leap and bound athletically around the stage, enacting exaggerated dramas with each other and the audience. They are, in short, a bit reminiscent of superheroes. Both disguise their identities to assume personas in which they’re allowed to do things that would not be acceptable for civilians.

The other parallel is more overt and visual. In Nedda’s scene with Tonio, she at first laughs at his expression of desire, but when he becomes more aggressive, she must physically repel him. The libretto calls for her to do this with a whip, but Zeffirelli chooses to stage it differently. His Nedda is thrown by Tonio into her tent, from which she produces a knife and rakes it across Tonio’s face.

Two shots from Zeffirelli's Pagliacci, of Tonio clutching at his face and looking baleful. The captions read: By Our Lady Of The Assumption... I'll make you pay for that

Tonio’s immediate reaction to this closely mirrors what we see of Eddie Blake when women attack his face in Watchmen.

Two panels from chapter 2 of Watchmen -- one after Sally Jupiter scratches his face, the other after his Vietnamese mistress cuts his face with a broken bottle. In each, he's holding a hand to his face.

Now, when Tonio is thus attacked, he responds by becoming an Iago-esque manipulator. (Leoncavallo was perhaps inspired by Verdi’s Otello, a huge success five years earlier, in which Victor Maurel had played Iago.) Blake prefers to meet violence with greatly escalated violence, attempting rape of Sally Jupiter and murdering his unnamed Vietnamese mistress. (He doesn’t strike back at Laurie when she throws her drink in his face, but then again it’s just a drink, and she is his daughter.)

Instead, if anyone is the Iago of Watchmen, it’s Ozymandias. Perhaps The Comedian’s lacerating words were the metaphorical equivalent of a knife to Adrian Veidt’s face. Perhaps Adrian’s stoic expression at the Crimebusters gathering, as Nelly’s display burns, is his equivalent of Tonio holding his cheek and swearing revenge.

I’ve been unable to find any clear evidence that Zeffirelli’s version of Pagliacci played on the BBC or anywhere else where Gibbons and/or Moore might have reasonably been able to see it. The timing is certainly right, and the film did play internationally (it was shown on U.S. television), but it’s difficult to establish whether The Comedian’s slashed face could possibly have been inspired by that of Tonio in this production. In the absence of such evidence, it must remain just a striking coincidence, and one more resonance between the works.

Reír Llorando

And yet, despite these resonances, the annotations are here to remind us that Rorschach’s invocation of Pagliacci seems to be rooted in error. There is no clown named Pagliacci, given that it’s the Italian plural of Pagliaccio. Moreover, Rorschach’s joke has been around for ages, appended to various famous clowns. (And a hat tip to Adamant on Science Fiction & Fantasy StackExchange, who tracked down many of these sources.)

Several sources associate it with Joseph Grimaldi, a pantomime artist of the early 19th century who created much of the modern clown iconography. Grimaldi’s memoirs were in fact edited by Charles Dickens (under the name “Boz”), and they do detail a life marked by trauma, including an incident of childhood abuse in which his tears very literally washed away part of his clown makeup. (Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, pg. 9) However, the doctor story does not appear in these memoirs — historian Andrew McConnell Stott cites it simply as an anecdote that “dates from the 1820s.”

Other versions of the joke mention the Swiss clown Grock, or just a generic clown. The oldest reference I’ve been able to find in writing (Stott’s assertion aside) dates back to the 1880s, and is in Spanish: Reír Llorando (“To Laugh While Crying”) by Mexican poet Juan de Dios Peza.

This version of the story is about an English clown called Garrik, who does not seem to be based on any particular historical figure. (I don’t think there’s any convincing reason to associate him with 18th-century Shakespearean actor David Garrick.) The clown has a long conversation about depression with a doctor, who suggests one treatment after another — travel, reading, love, etc. — before finally landing on “only by watching Garrik you can be cured.” To which, of course, the patient replies, “I am Garrik! Change my prescription.”

But while these Bestiary articles tend to focus mostly on what influenced Watchmen, this part of today’s story turns out to be about the influence of Watchmen itself. Because today the dominant form of the joke is as Rorschach tells it: “But doctor, I am Pagliacci.”

Google anything like “clown doctor joke” or “but doctor i am” and you’ll get hit after hit citing Pagliacci as the clown’s name, often referencing Watchmen directly. When Robin Williams died, Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu hashtagged it #ButDoctorIAmPagliacci, then wrote a whole thing on HuffPost about it. There’s even a podcast called The Hilarious World Of Depression, in which the host interviews the many comedians who suffer or have suffered from clinical depression. That podcast’s theme song was written by Rhett Miller of Old 97’s, and it basically sets the old joke to music. The song’s title? “Pagliacci”.

So how does the name of an opera get substituted for the name of a clown in this old workhorse of a joke? Part of it may have to do with Smokey Robinson, who made a similar substitution in his 1967 song “The Tears Of A Clown”: “Just like Pagliacci did / I’m gonna keep my sadness hid.” But in the case of Watchmen, the larger part of it has to do with Dave Gibbons. In Leslie Klinger’s Watchmen Annotated book, Gibbons reveals that he just made a mistake while talking about the scene with Moore:

I remember that I told Alan [Moore] the story of the sad clown and used the name Pagliacci because i couldn’t call Grimaldi to mind at that moment. I didn’t correct it in the lettering for some reason but did try to get [director] Zack Snyder to correct it in the movie [Watchmen]. He stuck with the words of the comic!

So two artists working together (without the benefit of an all-knowing Internet to help them chase down references) tell a joke but make a minor error in it, one which happens to tie their work to an appropriate opera. Then that work gets turned into a movie by a director who fetishizes the text enough to keep the error in, and between the movie and the book, the mistaken version turns into the dominant form of the joke.

Now that’s the kind of irony that makes for a great punchline.

Three panels from Chapter 2, page 28 of Watchmen. The first two depict The Comedian falling, and the last is all red. The captions read: Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.

Next Entry: The Righteous With The Wicked
Previous Entry: Whose Mind Is Pure Machinery

The Watchmen Bestiary 25 – Whose Mind Is Pure Machinery

First things first: this project has a new name. I was never entirely satisfied with The Annotated Annotated Watchmen as a project title. Not only is it an awkward mouthful, it’s factually inaccurate. I’m writing essays, not annotations. But The Essayed Watchmen never really did it for me either.

For many an entry have I fretted about this, but I just could not find an alternate title that spoke to me loudly and clearly enough. For this 25th post, though, I resolved to redouble my efforts, and in a reread of Chapter 1 noticed this panel:

Chapter 1, page 23, panel 7 of Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan is manipulating machinery and says, "I think I'm close to locating a gluino, which would completely validate supersymmetrical theory if we could include it in the bestiary."

The bestiary! In Watchmen, the bestiary seems to be two things. First, it’s a collection of items that underpin the universe, which Dr. Manhattan examines in order to better understand the workings of that universe. So far, so perfect — that’s exactly what these essays are working to do, one exotic and breathtaking specimen at a time. The other Bestiary in Watchmen is “where the real heavy-duty thinkin’ gets done” by the Gila Flats crew in Jon Osterman’s early days as a physicist. It’s the on-base bar where the various residents find themselves “at play amidst the strangeness and charm.”

That meaning works perfectly for me too, because these essays are my way of extending the tremendous strangeness and charm that Watchmen exerts over me and millions of other readers. And doing so is just plain fun for me, which is why I keep doing it. It sure isn’t for the money or fame.

Therefore, I proudly present The Watchmen Bestiary, a rechristening of my ongoing Watchmen project. As a part of this change, I’ve gone back in and renamed all the old entries, and in some cases done some light editing and updating of them. If anyone happens across anything screwed up as a result of this, please let me know.

And now, on with today’s entry. Please note that, as always, there are Watchmen spoilers in this post. I also discuss the plot of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.

Most of these essays focus on a single work, or at least the works of a single artist or author. Today’s entry, though, focuses on a name. It’s a name that spans many works, many authors. A name that echoes through millennia. Moloch.

Chapter 2, page 21, panel 2 of Watchmen. Rorschach has Moloch pinned to the ground, and says, "No. Edgar William Jacobi, also known as Edgar William Vaughn, also known as William Edgar Bright, also known as Moloch."

Here’s what Chapter 2 of the web annotations has to say about him:

Moloch, an ancient god who became a demon in Christian cosmology, is also the name given to the giant machine with a giant dial operated by the oppressed workers in Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis”.

The annotations are quite right to cite the Bible and Metropolis, as both were pretty clearly influences on Moore. He references the Bible throughout Watchmen — the Pale Horse reference to Revelation is just the first of many.

The Metropolis connection is a bit more tenuous, but apart from being able to count on Moore’s general erudition, there’s also the fact that both Metropolis and Lang’s recurring character Dr. Mabuse feature prominently in the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen story Nemo: The Roses Of Berlin. Granted, that book came out much later than Watchmen, but let’s also remember that in 1984, music producer Giorgio Moroder restored and re-released Lang’s film in theaters, with a pop music soundtrack. Between the fact that the pop Metropolis was roughly contemporary during the writing of Watchmen, and Moore’s later demonstrated connection to the material, I’m comfortable asserting that Metropolis would have been in Moore’s constellation of references when he chose to name a character Moloch.

Also in that constellation are the writers of the Beat movement. We’ve already seen how strong an influence William Burroughs had on Watchmen, but it turns out he wasn’t the only Beat with a connection. As it happens, Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl”, repeats the word “Moloch” 39 times in the 383 words of its second section, employing imagery that was clearly influenced by Lang. There are plenty of other writers who incorporate Moloch — Milton and Flaubert are a couple of the biggies — but it’s the Bible, Metropolis, and “Howl” that seem most connected with Moore’s repertoire, so let’s focus on them.

Moloch The Abomination

In the Bible, Moloch or Molech (both spellings appear in the King James Version) seems to derive from the Hebrew word melech, meaning “king”, combined with the vowels from the word for “shame” to give it a pejorative flavor. The implication is of a “Lord” (or god) whose worshipers should be ashamed.

Most of the mentions of Moloch occur in Leviticus, a book concerned with setting out rules for the Israelites. A typical mention, as translated in the KJV: “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy god: I am the LORD.” (Lev 18:21) This diction may obscure just what’s being forbidden, but the English Standard Version is as usual more straightforward: “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” In 1 Kings he is called an “abomination”, and we see Solomon seduced into worshiping him. (1 Kings 11:7)

So it would appear that Moloch is a rival god to Yahweh, and that Moloch’s distinguishing feature is his demand that followers sacrifice their children to him, likely by ritual burning if the oft-repeated phrase “pass through the fire” has any literal meaning at all. In fact, a couple of 19th-century German scholars offered the radical argument that the cult of Yahweh in fact grew out of the cult of Moloch, differentiating itself by its rejection of human sacrifice. Other critics saw anti-Semitism in this premise, an attempt to slander Jews by suggesting that the “orthodox” version of Judaism was entwined in blood rituals. For our purposes, what matters is that the Biblical Moloch is synonymous with human sacrifice, in particular the sacrifice of children, and that this practice sets him apart from Yahweh.

18th-century depiction of Moloch as a statue with chambers for burning.

What does this idea of human sacrifice have to do with Watchmen‘s Moloch? Very little, I would argue. Edgar Jacobi, aka Moloch, who Hollis Mason describes as “an ingenious and flamboyant criminal mastermind” in his heyday, seems to be Watchmen‘s canonical example of the “schmuck in a Halloween suit” that the Comedian derides in one of this chapter’s flashbacks. He’s non-threatening enough that Veidt’s marketing department eventually wants to make an action figure out of him.

There is almost no hint of human sacrifice, nor indeed any kind of murder, in what we know about him. He initially styles himself as a stage magician, and tends to sport a tuxedo in the flashbacks to his active days. In Chapter 4 we see him with a spooky skull necklace, but that’s about as close as he gets to courting death. He appropriates the name (and perhaps the pointy ears?) of a demon-god, but does nothing very demonic or godlike, moving into organized crime in the 1940s before finally spending the Seventies in jail.

So why the name Moloch? What does the concept of Moloch have to do with anything in Watchmen? Well, the actual Edgar Jacobi may be a red herring, the literal example of false danger that The Comedian cites in the Crimebusters meeting, but there is indeed a figure who embodies all that Moloch represents: Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt fancies himself somewhere between a king and a god. In the Bible, the difference between good god Yahweh and wicked god Moloch is whether that god is willing to sacrifice its own. Yahweh doesn’t demand the killing of anyone’s children. (Well, except for that one time, and it turns out He was faking it.) Ozymandias, though, creates an entire plan predicated on human sacrifice, and not just any humans, but the very New Yorkers whom he protected in his days as a costumed hero.

Even before the book’s climactic slaughter, Adrian is methodically killing people all over the place. He blows up the boat containing all the writers, artists, and scientists he bribed and tricked into his scheme. He eliminates every underworld figure who could be traced back to Pyramid Deliveries. He irradiates Dr. Manhattan’s associates to give them cancer, thus making Watchmen‘s Moloch the subject rather than the object of sacrifice. All in the service of his vision.

When comparing Watchmen to the book of Revelation, we saw how much Moore and Gibbons’ story was an inversion of the Biblical apocalypse, from its disruption of the good/evil binary to its reversal of the typical combat myth. In Ozymandias, we see yet another Biblical reversal — rather than Yahweh’s rejection of child sacrifice, Ozymandias turns into the kind of god who embraces it. The closest thing to a child character in the book — Bernard the younger — dies in the arms of his elder namesake when Veidt’s squid creature arrives.

The Moloch Machine

Adrian also has a few things in common with Joh Fredersen, the master of the title Metropolis in Fritz Lang’s film. Both men are masters of a business empire, who have attendants hanging on their every word to carry out their orders. Where Veidt built the Antarctic refuge of Karnak and its fantastical vivarium, Fredersen created the “Stadium Of The Sons”, in which the male offspring of Metropolis’s 1% frolic among freely available plants, fountains, and women. Where Veidt registered the patent for spark hydrants thanks to possibilities opened up by Dr. Manhattan, Fredersen creates a dazzling city thanks to the inventions of archetypal mad scientist Carl Rotwang. And where Nite Owl and Rorschach uncover the horrific human cost that Veidt is willing to incur in order to realize his dream, in Metropolis it’s Joh’s son Freder who makes the sickening discovery.

One day, as Freder is having his usual grand time in the Stadium Of The Sons, his merriment is interrupted by a working-class woman named Maria, who has taken a group of children up to the stadium to see how the upper crust lives. He becomes obsessed with Maria, and tries to follow her down to the underside of Metropolis, where workers endure endless toil to keep all the city’s machines operating. As viewers, we’ve already witnessed scenes of exhausted workers trooping through the undercity, their lives ruled by an omnipresent clock — another symbol in common between Metropolis and Watchmen.

When Freder enters the undercity, one of the first sights he encounters is an enormous machine, with rows of workers pulling levers in steady rhythm to keep its mysterious energies flowing. As Freder watches in alarm, one enervated worker struggles to do his part, but falls short, and the mechanism’s temperature rises. Finally, the thermometer reaches a critical level, and an explosion rocks the machine, sending workers flying through the air. At this moment, Freder has a vision of the machine as a huge, terrifying demon that consumes workers alive. Shaved and chained, they trudge up the stairs to be thrown into the fires within its gaping mouth. Overcome by the vision, Freder shouts out one word: “MOLOCH!”

Side-by-side screen captures from Metropolis, first of the machine as it is, second the way Freder sees it in his vision.

There’s not much ambiguity about the symbolic weight of this Moloch machine, nor in fact most of Metropolis, which takes its cue from the novel of the same name written by Lang’s then-wife Thea Von Harbou. The film announces in its first title card, “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!”, and then goes on to make it clear that the brain is capital (i.e. Joh) and the hands are the proletariat (i.e. those devoured by the Moloch machine.) In Joh Fredersen’s Metropolis, the price of that beautiful stadium, and the debauched club Yoshiwara, and all the other amazing conveyances and edifices and inventions, is human sacrifice. Working class people struggle and die to keep the machines fed, and when those machines go explosively wrong, the ruling class sees it as an impersonal correction, just one of those things.

When it seems like the “hands” might revolt, under the leadership of Maria, Fredersen and Rotwang disguise an android with her appearance, so as to disrupt the rebellion by discrediting its figurehead. Disaster ensues, culminating in a rooftop swordfight between Rotwang and Freder, who finally triumphs, killing the mad scientist. The film’s rather naive ending solves the problem of the city’s cruel machinery when Freder (as the mediating heart) joins the hands of capitalist Fredersen and lead worker Grot.

Ozymandias, too, builds an enormous machine to fuel his fondest dreams, but in his case the machine isn’t made of dials and levers and gears. It’s made of plans, and it consumes people for its purposes with no mediating heart in sight. Like the machines of Metropolis, it also reaches deep under the surface. According to this chapter, Veidt formed his intention in 1966 to solve the problem of inevitable nuclear war. According to Doug Roth in Chapter 4, Wally Weaver died of cancer in 1971. That means that Veidt’s plan was in motion within at least 5 years of that Crimebusters meeting, and that its turning gears had claimed their first life by then. In the ensuing 14 years, it finally realizes its destiny as “a lethal pyramid”, killing everyone involved, excepting some but not all of our main characters. After the hordes of corpses in chapter 12, Rorschach is the final slave to be marched into the gaping maw of Adrian’s Moloch machine.

It isn’t just planning, though. Veidt also relies upon a remarkable technology stack to create his “practical joke,” one even more farfetched than the androids and mega-machines of Metropolis. He kills his servants by elaborately staging their “deaths from exposure, after drunkenly opening [his] vivarium.” Like much of Metropolis, it makes for a hell of a visual, but falters under a bit of scrutiny — why would a tropical vivarium in Antarctica ever need to open in such a way, anyway? When Dan expresses skepticism that Adrian is even capable of killing half of New York, Veidt calmly explains that he cloned the brain of a psychic named Robert Deschaines into a “resonator”, with “terrible information” coded into it. Then, when its host creature dies, this mega-psychic brain somehow broadcasts “the signal triggered by the onset of death”, and that signal somehow kills 3 million people from “the shock”.

I think of Watchmen as a realistically grounded superhero narrative, maybe the most realistic one ever at the time of its publication. If you can accept the notion of Dr. Manhattan and how his existence would change the world, the rest plays out logically with no further recourse to the supernatural, right? Well, wrong. Because as wide-ranging as Dr. Manhattan’s powers and effects may be, they don’t reasonably explain the presence of psychic abilities in human beings. Veidt gestures to advancements in eugenics as Laurie fawns over Bubastis in Chapter 4, but telepathy is another story. Because Watchmen drapes itself in superhero tropes, it’s easy to overlook, but for Veidt’s plan to work, we must accept not only the implications of Dr. Manhattan, but the entirely separate implications of people who can project their thoughts.

Besides sharing in its implausibility, Ozymandias also echoes Metropolis by wielding super-scientific advancements as a murder weapon against anyone opposing his utopia. Despite his Egyptian iconography, Adrian Veidt is a technologist who achieves his victories through a combination of commerce and machines, using flesh draped on a bomb like the false Maria in Metropolis.

Moloch Whose Fingers Are Ten Armies

Cover of Howl by Allen Ginsberg. It reads "Howl and other poems. Allen Ginsberg. Introduction by William Carlos Williams." The top banner reads "The Pocket Poets Series" and the footer reads "Number Four." In Lang’s Metropolis, the Moloch machine consumes hordes of anonymous workers. In “Howl”, Allen Ginsberg ups the ante. His Moloch destroys “the best minds of my generation.” His Moloch is a “sphinx of aluminum and cement” that “bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination.” In other words, Ginsberg’s Moloch of industrialization doesn’t just destroy the working class hands, but also the open hearts that might have tried to serve as mediators.

He invokes “Moloch” like a chant in section II of the poem, and some of the imagery recalls Metropolis pretty clearly:

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!

The second quoted stanza clearly identifies various parts of the city as Moloch, and a Metropolis-like city it is, with skyscrapers, factories, smokestacks, and antennae. The anthropomorphization of buildings and tombs into body parts of the monster strongly echoes the way that the panels, apertures, and pipes of the Metropolis machine become eyes, mouth, and claws in Freder’s vision of Moloch. And of course the “cannibal dynamo” of its breast is pretty much a straight description of what happens in the Metropolis Moloch scene.

There may be another allusion to Lang here as well. One of the director’s trademarks was having a shot of a hand in each of his films, one way or another. Rotwang has an artificial hand that gets some attention, but there’s another sort of hand shot in the movie as well. There’s a sequence where Maria tells an allegorical story about building a “Tower of Babel”, another example of planning brains heartlessly directing working “hands”, and one famous shot from that sequence is of five columns of workers converging into a foreground of shave-pated men sullenly trudging forward.

The "workers hand" shot from Metropolis as described in the essay text.

As Tom Gunning points out in The Films Of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, the shot strongly suggests a hand. “The shape itself acts as a trope, based on the synecdoche introduced in Harbou’s text, the workers as ‘hands.’ We see the converging columns as the outspread fingers and the circular insert as a palm. The composition of roiling bodies also functions as a symbolic close-up of a hand, one of Lang’s most powerful visual tropes.” Separate regiments of workers coalesce into one central force. Or, if you’re Allen Ginsberg, “Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!”

So if the Biblical Moloch demands human sacrifices, like Adrian, and the Metropolis Moloch uses humans as fuel, like Adrian’s plan, what does Ginsberg’s work add to our understanding? Simply this: that those sacrifices aren’t just anonymous workers or unnamed children, but characters we come to know and care about through the course of the story. In section I of “Howl,” Ginsberg introduces us to a litany of behaviors and characters who embody them. Most of these are of the heroic-romantic nature, albeit from a bohemian point of view, fugitives from mass culture who bravely maintained intellectual independence and created unfettered works. They are all destroyed, and it is Moloch who destroys them.

In Watchmen, we come to know some of the “ordinary” people who get killed on November 2, 1985. There’s Bernard the newsstand vendor and Bernard the young reader, who we hear from throughout the book. There’s Malcolm Long and his wife Gloria, stars of Chapter 6. There’s Joey and her girlfriend, who we see in the throes of painful relationship dissolution. There’s Detective Steve Fine and his partner Joe, who open Chapter 1 and continue to investigate crimes on the fringes throughout the story. Ozymandias is the Moloch to whom all these victims are sacrificed, to appease his thirst for surreptitious control of the world’s nations.

That day is the final step in Adrian’s homicidal plan, and a trail of death leads up to it. There’s the island full of artists, writers, and scientists — Max Shea, Hira Manish, James Trafford March, Linette Paley, Norman Leith, Dr. Whittaker Furnesse. The best minds of their generation, destroyed in Veidt’s madness. Not to mention the literal “best mind”, Robert Deschaines, who apparently was more than a “so-called psychic and clairvoyant.” And Wally Weaver, and Janey Slater, and poor Edgar Jacobi himself, all marched into the maw of Ozymandias’ Moloch machinations, feeding their energies into its terrible purpose.

The sad, cancerous old man pinned to the ground by Rorschach did none of these things. In fact, he was just another victim of them. Jacobi pleads, “I’m not Moloch anymore,” and he’s right. The new Moloch is Ozymandias himself, whose mind is pure machinery.

Next Entry: Tears Of A Clown
Previous Entry: How The Ghost Of You Clings

The Watchmen Bestiary 24 – How The Ghost Of You Clings

[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:

Panel 6, page 8, chapter 2 of Watchmen. Two-shot of Laurie and Sally, with Laurie exclaiming "Jon is not an H-Bomb!", and Sally replying, "Honey, the only difference is that they don't have to get the H-Bomb laid every once in a while." Behind them on the wall, hung such that the image is between their faces, is a portrait of a younger Sally in her Silk Spectre outfit, with the inscription "To Sally Jupiter, Best wishes Varga"

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.

Painted Ladies

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.

A typical Varga Girl image, a woman in a sailor's uniform reclining in a seductive pose.

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:

Panels 4 and 5, page 11, chapter 9 of Watchmen. In panel 4 Laurie is drying off from a workout, hearing voices come through the door, including Sally's: "...ell, as for me... what I achieved... sitting in it... and as... what I achieved it with..." Panel 5 shows us Sally continuing, as Laurie walks into the room with her, Nelson, and Hollis: "I'm sitting on it! HA HA HA!"

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.

A cropped image from page 31, chapter 10 of Watchmen. From the supplemental material to the chapter, this is a sample Nostaliga ad, a woman pulling her stocking down while wearing a gauzy nightgown. The caption above her reads "Oh, how the ghost of you clings..."

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.

Next Entry: Whose Mind Is Pure Machinery
Previous Entry: King Mob and Queen Mab

The Watchmen Bestiary 23 – King Mob and Queen Mab

[As always, be thee warned that these posts contain spoilers for Watchmen.]

In December, DC Comics came out with a new book. No, I don’t mean the latest issue of Doomsday Clock, the comic in which it turns out there’s more story after Watchmen ended, and the story is that the characters go hang out with Batman and Superman. Nope. Like its predecessor series Before Watchmen, I consider Doomsday Clock to be basically fan fiction. I don’t mean that as pejoratively as maybe it sounds — there’s nothing wrong with fan fiction, and sometimes it can be a lot of fun. It might even be written well — certainly I admire some of the writers involved. But I just do not have time or space for it in this project, or in my life.

No, the book I’m referencing is called Watchmen Annotated. It’s by Leslie S. Klinger, and it could be called a prettier, hardbound, authorized, and more cohesive version of the amateur crowdsourced web annotations I’ve been using throughout this project. Many of the comments are substantively the same. But Klinger has a copy editor, access to sources (such as Moore’s scripts and Gibbons himself), and he’s a thorough researcher. That combination can work wonders sometimes.

Case in point, this panel:

Watchmen Chapter 2, page 5, panel 2. In the foreground are partial views of the heroes' trophies, and in the background they are emerging from a door, having finished with their photo shoot.

The web annotations gloss this as follows:

The sign on the left reads, “Moloch’s Solar Mirror Weapon”; the case on the right is “King Mob’s Ape Mask”. These are presumably trophies captured by the heroes from criminals. We will meet Moloch soon. We never see King Mob, but presumably his name is a play on the name “Queen Mab” (the fairy queen referred to by Shakespeare) and the notion of organized crime mob. [sic]

I thought this Queen Mab idea was a pretty clever connection, and one that had never occurred to me. But Klinger has something entirely different to say, and he waits to say it until the next page, when we actually see the ape mask labeled:

Watchmen chapter 2, page 6, panel 9. In the foreground is a glass case with a gorilla head inside, its mouth open and fangs bared. A sign under neath reads"King Mob's Ape Mask". In the background, we see the Comedian's gloved hand holding down a bare arm. A speech bubble comes from off-panel, reading "Sally? What's keeping you?", and a speech bubble comes from the other side of the panel, where the attack is happening, reading "GHUUCHH"

Klinger’s explanation is long, but here’s an excerpt:

The ape mask of King Mob, seen here in the Minutemen’s trophy room, is not explained in the story. The name King Mob, however, refers to a radical group of artists and provocateurs active in England in the 1960s and 1970s and known to Moore and Gibbons. An offshoot of the Situationist International movement, King Mob apparently took its name from a slogan painted on the wall of Newgate Prison during the Gordon Riots of 1790 — the rioters claimed the damage was done by His Majesty, King Mob.

One In Eight Go Mad

As Klinger points out, the definitive account of King Mob is a book called King Mob: A Hidden Critical History, written by David Wise in collaboration with Stuart Wise and Nick Brandt. You could get a Kindle edition of it, or a really expensive out-of-print paperback edition, but in keeping with the group’s militant art-should-be-free ethos, the entirety of the text is posted at a website called Revolt Against Plenty.

Reading through this text makes it patently clear that King Mob’s activities were an influence on Watchmen. For one thing, in one of the collective’s early exploits they really did use an ape suit. Children of working class families in the Notting Hill area of 1968 London had no place to play, and were getting knocked down by cars in the street. The green spaces of the neighborhood were fenced off and annexed by housing developments for the wealthy.

To disrupt the situation, King Mob decided to dress one of its members in a gorilla suit, and a couple of others in a two-man horse costume. The gorilla man took a hit of speed, changed into his costume in a pub lavatory, and shot out of there roaring into the street, to be joined by the horse and the rest of the collective, who exhorted the Saturday afternoon throngs to help them tear down the fences. They didn’t actually get them torn down — in fact they got arrested and went to court two days later still in costume. But a wave of sympathetic protests did follow the absurdist action, and a public park was established shortly thereafter in Powis Square, though by that time King Mob had lost interest, having little taste for what Wise calls “mealy-mouthed council machinations” and “institutionalised space.”

In any case, King Mob was no stranger to gorilla/guerilla actions, which makes the ape mask an even more outright reference to the collective than the use of its name alone implies. But there’s an even clearer connection between England’s King Mob and the world of Watchmen, as Klinger correctly identifies: some of the graffiti in Watchmen is almost a direct crib of something King Mob wrote in huge block letters, on a wall paralleling the track between two London tube stops. The King Mob graffiti reads:

SAME THING DAY AFTER DAY — TUBE — WORK — DINER [sic] — WORK — TUBE — ARMCHAIR — TV — SLEEP — TUBE — WORK — HOW MUCH MORE CAN YOU TAKE? ONE IN TEN GO MAD — ONE IN FIVE CRACKS UP

Image of King Mob graffiti as described above

Compare this to the graffiti seen multiple places in Watchmen, which boils down the message and intensifies it to “ONE IN EIGHT GO MAD”:

Cropped panel from Watchmen chapter 1, page 24, panel 1. Rorschach walking in front of a fence painted with graffiti. I've added a box to highlight the "One in eight go mad" graffiti.

Klinger speculates that the increased ratio of madness has to do with a greater psychological pressure in the Watchmen universe than in ours, but the fact of King Mob’s mask showing up in a Minutemen flashback makes me wonder if there’s a simpler explanation to be found. There were in fact eight Minutemen: Captain Metropolis, The Comedian, Dollar Bill, Hooded Justice, Mothman, Nite Owl, The Silhouette, and Silk Spectre. And one of them did indeed go mad: as Sally mentions, “poor Byron Lewis” (aka Mothman) is “in the bughouse in Maine.”

This character flits around the edges of the Watchmen story. We see his wings bugging The Comedian in 1940, and we get Hollis Mason in Under The Hood mentioning that “the man behind the mask and wings of Mothman… has been committed to a mental institution after a long bout of alcoholism and a complete mental breakdown.” We hear that Dan Dreiberg spends some time “visiting a sick acquaintance at a hospital in Maine on behalf of a mutual friend.”

Mothman’s most significant appearance is in a Chapter 9 flashback, in which Laurie remembers a Minutemen reunion attended by Lewis. He’s clearly a wreck — frightened, incoherent, and minded by two caretakers who ensure that he drinks “just a club soda.” In the context of the chapter, the point of the appearance seems to be to provoke Laurie’s reaction: “Jesus, is that what I’m training for? What I got to look forward to?” It underscores her reluctance to follow in her mother’s footsteps, furthers Moore’s project of deglamorizing the superhero life, and validates the “one in eight” graffiti. And of course it contributes to the conversation between Laurie and Jon on Mars, debating whether there’s a point to human struggle.

But aside from all that, it is also the strongest example of madness in Watchmen, and madness was a significant topic for King Mob. Wise claims that “the dialectic of madness” was the common theme in the group’s first and most widely distributed magazine, King Mob Echo: “going mad with freedom; of breakdown as breakthrough; of disintegration as prelude to a new unity, or as justification for previous ‘mad’ interventions via the rantings of King Mob and with further actions coming your way soon.” They certainly used the threat of madness in their tube graffiti, as the consequence of a life spent in proletariat complacency.

Looking at Byron Lewis, though, Watchmen would seem to be making the opposite case. Lewis didn’t go mad because he spent his days in repetitive drudgery. On the contrary, he made himself wings and a moth costume, then hit the streets to fight crime, which is about as far from “ARMCHAIR — TV — SLEEP” as you could get. It’s never made quite clear what causes his breakdown, though there’s a strong hint in Under The Hood that being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee started his downward spiral. We also see him as a fearful person in every scene where he speaks, which would suggest that he self-medicated with alcohol for anxiety that was present even before his HUAC ordeal. It seems clear that costumes and vigilantism didn’t help him, despite the English King Mob’s prescription of costumes and vigilantism to disrupt what Wise calls “this grotesque society.”

Our world’s King Mob was militantly opposed to the status quo, the “impossible society.” As I’ve touched on several times in this project, superheroes are militant defenders of the status quo. So it stands to reason that Watchmen‘s King Mob would oppose the Minutemen. By the look of their trophy room, it seems the status quo won the day, just as it did (for the most part) over the real King Mob. Much of Wise’s text has a heartbroken quality, mourning the painful failure of a utopian dream.

If the use of King Mob’s name in Watchmen is social commentary, then it’s commentary aimed at Brits. American audiences would see “mob” and think of organized crime, as the web annotations demonstrate. Their closest association between “King” and ape would be King Kong. There’s a point to be made here. Watchmen may be set in New York, and published by an American comics company, but its writer, artist, and colorist are all English, with a distinctly British set of cultural reference points. American readers like me, who lack that cultural context, are inevitably going to miss some things, and get others wrong.

This King Mob reference is a big case in point, but there are smaller ones too. I ran across a sentence in Wise’s text which seemed to jump out as a Watchmen reference: “How could so many women with a sure sense of what mattered end up as public school head mistress [sic] like Phillippa D’Eath?” D’Eath?? I thought “Red D’Eath” (the lead singer of Watchmen-world band Pale Horse) was a particularly silly rock pseudonym, albeit a literary one in a way I’m sure to investigate in a future post. The notion that there was a Phillippa D’Eath, who may have been associated with King Mob, was enough to make me sit up straight.

Watchmen chapter 7, page 15, panel 4. A talk show host is in the foreground, saying "...and with the eleven o'clock news coming up next, that's all we have time for. So from me, Benny Anger, and Pale Horse's Red D'eath, it's thank you and good night." A surly knot-topped rock star smokes and glares in the background.

Well, some focused Googling showed me that not only is there indeed a Phillippa D’Eath living in London, there is in fact quite a contingent of D’Eaths. None named Red, but still — as an American the surname sounds purely invented to me, while in Britain it’s not unknown. As the web annotations point out, “De’Ath” is even more common, though still relatively uncommon overall. How many other UK touchstones have I missed or misunderstood? I suppose all I can do is rely on the annotations. Now that there are two sets, perhaps my chances have improved.

Nothing But Vain Fantasy

Speaking of that first set, while it seems clear that King Mob’s ape mask referenced the radical anti-art group, what about that Queen Mab connection? Who knows what may or may not have been in Moore’s head, but the odds seem against a Queen Mab reference now that we know about England’s real King Mob. Still, due to the fact that I started researching this post in November and didn’t lay eyes on Klinger’s book until after Christmas, I ended up spending a couple of months learning about Queen Mab. And while it may just be another Rorschach blot, I found some interesting connections to explore.

First of all, the web annotations say that Queen Mab is “referred to by Shakespeare”, but what they don’t mention is that Shakespeare in fact invented her. Researchers have identified a few faint leads as possible sources for her legend, but the first recorded mention we have of Queen Mab is in Romeo and Juliet. References proliferate after that, including an extended treatment by Percy Shelley, another poet who looms large in the landscape of Watchmen references due to his poem “Ozymandias.” In Shelley’s Queen Mab poem, he rails extensively against a number of things, most prominently religion, marriage, meat-eating, and the monarchy & peerage. In fact, the poem’s pro-labor, anti-aristocracy sentiments are quite in line with the ethos of the 20th century King Mob.

In Shelley’s poem, Queen Mab is a fairy who serves as a sort of tour guide to the universe, displaying a catalog of human misery, along with pointers about how it could be ended. In Shakespeare, though, the fairy is more mischievous. She’s the subject of an extended monologue by Romeo’s friend Mercutio, who first describes in detail her tiny size and accoutrements — she’s “no bigger than an agate stone / on the forefinger of an alderman”, her driver the size of a gnat, her chariot an empty hazelnut, et cetera. He then recites a long list of her activities, which seem to be centered on bringing apt dreams into the heads of all humans she encounters — lawyers dream of fees, soldiers dream of cutting throats, courtiers dream of curtsies, and of course lovers dream of love.

Mercutio’s usual mode is devilish teasing and mockery, and the Queen Mab speech starts out clearly in this vein. But as the speech continues, his tone gets darker, his imagery more grotesque, and his choice of words harsher and harsher, until Romeo interrupts him with a concerned, “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk’st of nothing.”

“True,” says Mercutio, “I talk of dreams, / Which are the children of an idle brain, / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.” Here we have the crux of what upsets Mercutio. In the scene leading up to his Queen Mab speech, he is frustrated with Romeo, who is pining away bemoaning his love for Rosaline (this is before he meets Juliet), embodying every cliché of Renaissance courtly love. Mercutio correctly ascribes these sentiments to “vain fantasy” — Rosaline has no interest in Romeo, and the latter’s love-wounded posturing is mostly performance, albeit an infuriating one for his friends. (Some critics have also speculated that Mercutio himself has a frustrated homoerotic desire for Romeo.)

This repudiation of idle fantasy finds an echo in Watchmen, which sets out to deconstruct the innocent fantasies of the superhero genre, holding them up to the harsh light of reality and finding how tiny and frail some of their underpinnings really are. And just as in Romeo and Juliet, when dreams are dispelled, darkness rushes in. Romeo ends the Queen Mab scene with portentous words, presaging the play’s tragic ending: “my mind misgives / Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars… some vile forfeit of untimely death.”

Watchmen, chapter 2, page 6, panel 7. A shot of Moloch's solar mirror weapon, reflecting a distorted image of The Comedian kicking a prone Silk Spectre in the stomach.

Meanwhile, in Watchmen the tragedy plays out before us. As King Mob’s ape mask looks on, it sees a story that looks like Romeo and Juliet reflected in a distorted mirror.

The Angry Mab

Romeo and Juliet see each other at a party and, following a Renaissance theatrical convention, fall deeply, authentically, and instantly in love. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt recognizes Romeo as a member of the rival Montague family and wants to attack him, but is restrained by Lord Capulet’s insistence upon decorum. When the lovers first speak to each other, their words emerge as an interwoven sonnet of dialogue, immediately bonding them together. They hold hands, then kiss, treating the acts as sacred.

Contrast that against the scene between the Comedian and Silk Spectre in Chapter 2 of Watchmen. The party has broken up, and Eddie waits to confront Sally when they are both alone. He attempts to impose a narrative of instant attraction and desire upon her, insinuating that she announced she was changing in order to invite his attention, saying, “I know what you need,” and attempting to turn her refusal around: “Sure. No. Spelled Y, E…” Rather than weaving in with his dialogue, Sally interrupts and contradicts it: “Spelled enn oh!

Rather than holding his hand, she scratches his face, and rather than kiss her, The Comedian punches her, kicks her, and holds her face to the ground. The closest analog to Tybalt is Hooded Justice, who is allegedly Sally’s companion but “never seemed very interested in her.” — more of a kissing cousin. Nobody restrains him from attacking the faux-Romeo Comedian, though he’s taken aback by the Comedian’s insight, and falls short of following through on his threats. After a moment between Hooded Justice and Silk Spectre, the flashback ends. Queen Mab has turned into King Mob, who brings nightmares to lovers rather than dreams.

In his guide to Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare scholar Jay L. Halio posits that a “dichotomy between youth and age is at the center of this play.” (pg. 39) The actions of the very young lovers are in defiance of the age-old feud between their families, and the consequences of that feud bring ruin upon their love affair. Such a dichotomy is also behind the Sally Jupiter scenes in chapter 2. Laurie and Sally clash with each other from different sides of their generation gap, and Sally contrasts her aged self, and her life in the “city of the dead”, to her memories of the forties. She talks about how “Eddie was the youngest. Always jokin’ about how old we all were. He said he’d bury us.” We even get a panel of the old, white-haired Sally standing in front of a portrait painted of her at her most young, vibrant, and sexy. (More on that in the next post…)

The flashback itself is to the youth of superheroics in the Watchmen world, a time when the costumed crusader fad was in full flower and the Minutemen were at their peak. The King Mob mask emphasizes this youth — it appears nowhere but in the 1940 flashback, and hearkens to trophy comics from our world’s Silver Age, classically the one in the Batcave.

A panel from a Silver Age Batman issue, showing Batman and Robin in the Batcave's trophy room, which includes things like a giant penny, a robotic dinosaur, and a huge Joker head. Caption: Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder enter the strangest room of their secret Batcave -- their great hall of trophies! Robin: Batman, this new trophy is our one thousandth! Batman: A thousand trophies -- and every one represents a souvenir from an important case

King Mob would seem to be the epitome of the “schmuck in a Halloween suit” type of villain that the Comedian references in a later flashback, from a more innocent time, before the superheroes found themselves fighting the public itself. Chapter 2’s own chronological progression of flashbacks is another contrast between youth and age, this time of the society itself. The Minutemen are Watchmen‘s Silver Age, inevitably supplanted by a grimmer, uglier version of themselves.

There’s one more parallel between Watchmen and Romeo and Juliet: their endings. In both the play and the comic, peace between rivals arises from the ashes of tragedy. In fact, there’s a radically abridged plot summary that could fit both works: “Some people have to die in order to quell a feud between two powerful clans.”

Halio asks, “Do these young lovers transcend their fate, achieving in death what might have been impossible had they lived…?” (pg. xi) Whether you see transcendence or just a tragedy that happens to have a nice side effect probably depends on how you see the world, but it seems clear in the text that Romeo and Juliet’s deaths (as well as the various other deaths in the story) permanently end the feud between Capulets and Montagues. Each patriarch pledges to raise a statue in gold of the other’s child, and they end the play hand in hand as the Prince pronounces “a glooming peace.”

The peace in Watchmen seems far more dubious, despite Ozymandias’s exultation. That’s because there’s a fundamental difference between these sacrificial achievements. The warring families are united by love, while the warring nations are united by fear. Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism argues that tragedy contains “a mimesis of sacrifice.” (pg. 214) But where Romeo and Juliet chose their sacrifice, the New York victims did not, and this is likely to make the difference between a true restoration of the civil social peace and a false one. Again, Halio:

Except for its fatalities, [Romeo and Juliet] follows the standard form of New Comedy. The two lovers are kept apart by a powerful external authority (some form of parental opposition is typical) and much of the action concerns their efforts to get around the obstacles put in their path. Their ultimate union — in a marriage feast — results in a transformation of the society that opposed them. (pg. 28, note 3)

Romeo and Juliet have a marriage, but feast only upon poison and steel. Yet the society that opposed them truly is transformed. We see a transformed society at the end of Watchmen too — those last few pages show an extensive Russian influence in American society, “One World One Accord” posters, and Millennium replacing Nostalgia. We even get a sort of marriage, between Dan and Laurie.

But all is not well. The “EIGHT” in “ONE IN EIGHT GO MAD” has been crossed out and replaced with a “3”. Both the “marriage” and the transformation contain an inherent layer of deception that we sense cannot last. Dan and Laurie are living under assumed names, and she nervously glances out the window, not feeling safe hanging around any one place too long. And of course in the final panel, Seymour’s hand hovers over the evidence that could undo Veidt’s entire fraud.

In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers practice an equally farfetched fraud, but theirs fails. That scheme intends to avoid death, but tragically causes death instead, successfully ending the feud. Ozymandias’s scheme intends to cause death, and the extent to which it ends the “feud” between the US and USSR is deeply questionable. Tragedy is there in both works, but Watchmen has only a parody of the comedy. Again, it’s Romeo and Juliet in a funhouse mirror, with both King Mob and Queen Mab looking on. Where King Mob might seek respite in absurdity or innocence, the angry Mab flies onward, sowing dreams that fester into madness, and laughing, laughing, laughing as she goes.

Next entry: How The Ghost of You Clings
Previous entry: Costumed Cut-Ups

The Watchmen Bestiary 22 – Costumed Cut-Ups

As is the case with every post in this series, massive plot spoilers for Watchmen will be contained herein. Our topic today is the 1960s texts of William S. Burroughs, but I don’t think a spoiler warning will be necessary for those. In order for there to be plot spoilers, there must first be a plot, and these texts find Burroughs in open rebellion against the very idea of a plot, not to mention language and coherency itself.

Why Burroughs? Well, it’s because of this panel:

Chapter 2, Page 1, Panel 2 of Watchmen. Medium shot of Laurie holding flowers, with Sally's arms extending into the panel in the right foreground. Magazines are visible on Sally's bed, including Nova Express and an ad for Nostalgia.

Still not clear? Take it away, annotations for chapter 2:

Page 1, Panel 2: Note the “Nostalgia” perfume ad and the issue of Nova Express. (The title comes from a novel by William Burroughs of the same name.)

And indeed it does. Nova Express has a somewhat convoluted publishing history, but based on its original publication date it is considered the third in Burroughs’ “cut-up” trilogy, the other two being The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. Of course, calling these a trilogy is a bit of a misnomer. For that matter, so is calling them novels. Not only are they not one long story, none of the books is a story in itself, and in fact the entire enterprise rejects the notion of narrative continuity upon which the concept of “story” relies. What brings them together is their radical method of prose experimentation, which is why they’re called the “cut-up” trilogy rather than some reference to the characters or setting.1 But what is a cut-up? The best answer to that requires a little background.

Remixed Beats

Literary historians categorize William S. Burroughs as part of the Beat Generation. That means he hung out with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and the rest — a group interested in breaking through the censorious cultural monotone of the 1950s with radical art and taboo subjects. Burroughs was certainly no stranger to taboo — his first two novels were largely autobiographical accounts of two core aspects of his persona: Junky and Queer. Queer: he was not only a gay man but an outright misogynist (“Women are trouble,” he was known to say), whose fixation on men and male erotic images persisted throughout his career. Junky: Burroughs lived for much of his life as a heroin addict, or more accurately an addict to opium in a wide variety of forms. In his words:

When I say addict I mean an addict to junk (generic term for opium and/or derivatives including all synthetics from Demerol to Palfium). I have used junk in many forms: morphine, heroin, Dilaudid, Eukodal, Pantopon, Diocodid, Diosane, opium, Demerol, Dolophine, Palfium. I have smoked junk, eaten it, sniffed it, injected it in vein-skin-muscle, inserted it in rectal suppositories. The needle is not important. Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction. (Naked Lunch, pg. 200)

That’s from “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”, which appeared in the 1962 edition of his best-known work, Naked Lunch. That book, claims Burroughs, consists of “detailed notes on sickness and delirium” that he experienced during his addiction. Not that you could necessarily divine this by reading it. Naked Lunch is a kaleidoscopic panoply of disturbing images and vignettes, little snippets of narratives that Burroughs called “routines”. Nevertheless, each of these routines has an internal coherency more or less, though it may be quite elliptical in its reliance on external referents to which the reader has no access. For his next set of works, Burroughs would venture much further into the murky zones beyond narrative.

For part of his time with the Beats, Burroughs lived at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in Paris, in one room of a hotel also occupied by Ginsberg, Corso, Sinclair Belles, and various others. This building came to be known as the Beat Hotel for the company it held, and the most important member of that company for Burroughs was a painter by the name of Brion Gysin. Burroughs found a kindred spirit in Gysin, and the two of them would stay up talking into the night about things like how painting techniques might be incorporated into literature.

One day, so the story goes, Gysin was cutting some materials with a utility knife. To protect the table he was working on, he’d laid down newspapers as a foundation. Once his work was through, he noticed how the slicing of the newspapers seemed to liberate the text they contained. Recalling his conversations with Burroughs (who was away in rehab at the time, though of course it wasn’t called rehab back then), he imagined how he might make a collage of words. He rearranged the newspapers and published the resulting new text as “First Cut-Ups” in a book called Minutes To Go. That book saw Burroughs, Corso, Gysin, and Belles experimenting with what they were now calling “the cut-up technique”.

The revelation came at a perfect time for Burroughs. He was looking to break new ground after Naked Lunch, and cut-ups fascinated him. He’d cut up his own pages, shuffle them at random, and splice them into each other, but also would intermix newspaper stories, song lyrics, and various pieces of literature written by others, be they books, plays, or poems. Thus was born the “cut-up” trilogy, which blended straight narrative with cut-up passages in which you might catch a glimpse of future or past stories, or of Shakespeare, Eliot, Cole Porter, or really almost anything. He also pioneered a variant called the fold-in — fold one page of a manuscript in half and superimpose it on another, then read the text straight across as if it were a single page. Here’s just a small taste, from the “A Bad Move” routine of Nova Express:

Could give no other information than wind walking in a rubbish heap to the sky — Solid shadow turned off the white film of noon heat — Exploded deep in the alley tortured metal Oz — Look anywhere, Dead hand — Phosphorescent bones — Cold Spring afterbirth of that hospital — Twinges of amputation — Bread knife in the heart paid taxi boys — If I knew I’d be glad to look anyplace — No good myself (Nova Express, pg. 80-81)

It goes on and on like that, sometimes for many pages in a row. The mere effort of making the barest sense of it has the poetic imagination putting in for overtime pay almost immediately.

Burroughs would claim, “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.” Ozymandias thought the same thing might be true of his own habitual behavior, sitting in front of a bank of TV screens, all tuned to different channels, changing at random every hundred seconds:

Chapter 11, page 1, panel 2 of Watchmen. A white foreground with a multicolored smudge, revealing a butterfly and some foliage. Ozymandias in voiceover: "Multi-screen viewing is seemingly anticipated by Burroughs' cut-up technique. He suggested re-arranging words and images to evade rational analysis, allowing subliminal hints of the future to leak through. An impending world of exotica, glimpsed only peripherally."

Let’s dig into this a bit. First, as William Kuskin has observed, Adrian Veidt’s grid of televisions is “clearly a parallel to our own view of the multi-paneled page.” (pg. 58) However, there’s a key difference between them. In the Love & Rockets post, I outlined the way that while panel-to-panel relations imply time passing, the page also exists all at once. Thus in comics, there’s a tension between the simultaneous nature of the page and the sequential nature of the panels, but Veidt’s bank of televisions has no such tension — they are all simply simultaneous. It’s only on the comics page that the future really leaks out, and the past as well — with the exception of splash pages, all three times are present at once on each page.

There’s more going on in that panel, though. As usual, Moore’s relentless cleverness in juxtaposition is at work, the result being that several flavors of time travel are available in this one image. Many of these give most of their power to the re-reader, who has already seen the future and come back to this piece of the past. For one thing, the image below the words about the future leaking through, the “impending world of exotica”, is a smudge in an otherwise white and snowy foreground. Through the smudge, we see the impending world of a few pages later, the interior of Adrian’s exotic domed Antarctic vivarium. Moreover, Veidt’s disembodied voice superimposed on the image portends a different reveal — in the near future, in fact on the very next page, we’ll see his sound track reunited with his image track as he sits and gazes at the televisions. And one of those televisions will finally move forward in time, by being the focus of three successive panels.

It’s not just the future that’s present in the smudge panel, though. The shape of that smudge is a familiar one. It’s the same shape as the bloody smear on The Comedian’s smiley badge. The general stain-on-face pattern of that badge echoes throughout the book — for example, the reflection of Archie’s “face” in Dreiberg’s goggles on the cover of Chapter 7 is dusty, except at a position over the left eye where Laurie has run a finger, recalling the bloodstained badge by creating a pattern of clarity like the one through which we see the vivarium.

The very specific shape of the blood-spatter repeats too, though not as much — take a look at the last image of the Bernies on the final page of Chapter 11. While the stain-on-face pattern repeats many places, the specific blood-spatter shape remains associated only with Ozymandias’ actions until the final page of the book, in which that same spatter appears on Seymour’s shirt. The shape’s appearance at that time seems like a strong hint that Ozymandias’ actions will once again become a focus, with the New Frontiersman publishing Rorschach’s journal.

The Laws of Juxtaposition and Association

Association is the engine of this time machine, and juxtaposition its fuel. Moore and Gibbons string images and words together, folding them into each other, and the associations they form send the mind careening around the story, as well as into external locations specific to each reader.

This is the same action precipitated by the cut-up and fold-in methods, though their paths are much more challenging to follow. In fact, “The Mayan Caper” routine of The Soft Machine ascribes actual time travel power to these methods. In this section, one of the longest pure-narrative parts of the book, the first-person narrator describes how he travels backwards in time. He starts by folding today’s newspaper in with yesterday’s, eight hours a day for three months, then doing the same thing with other works, then running films backwards, learning to talk and think backwards. Finally he transfers his consciousness to the body of a young Mayan boy, who is described as “what mediums call a ‘sensitive'” — the very term that Adrian Veidt uses to describe Robert Deschaines. Through the mystical actions of a “broker” the narrator then travels back in time in the Mayan boy’s body.

Cut-ups and fold-ins, as well as their audio and video equivalents, appear as fictional devices of power elsewhere in the trilogy. “The Death Dwarf In The Street” routine of Nova Express goes into great detail about how a photomontage or series of photomontages can help humans think in “association blocks” rather than language, blocks which can be “manipulated according to the laws of association and juxtaposition”:

The basic law of association and conditioning is known to college students even in America: Any object, feeling, odor, word, image in juxtaposition with any other object, feeling, odor, word or image will be associated with it — Our technicians learn to read newspapers and magazines for juxtaposition statements rather than alleged content — We express these statements in Juxtaposition Formulae — The Formulae of course control populations of the world (Nova Express, pg. 88-89)

Photo of William S. Burroughs

Mechanisms of control are one of two overriding Burroughs obsessions, the other being gay male erotica. Again, it comes down to the portrait painted by those first two novels — where the erotica comes from his Queer side, the mania about control comes from the Junky side. And it makes sense — the experience of addiction is the experience of being controlled. Someone who struggles with that would legitimately be sensitized to how humans can be controlled, either by other humans or by external agencies.

Burroughs takes it farther than most, though, claiming that language itself is an alien virus that controls humans, operating as an invisible addiction. Cut-ups and fold-ins were claimed as the antidote to this virus, the element of chance breaking through the Juxtaposition Formulae to create new associations outside the control of whoever shaped the original string of words. Burroughs attacks the notion of authorship by deliberately disrupting textual intention, and by mixing different texts together entirely without attribution. If the cut-up trilogy can be said to be about anything, it is about resisting linguistic control by disrupting sequences of words and images.

This concept of disrupted sequence works itself not only through each book, but through the history of the books themselves. In his introduction to the current editions of each book, Burroughs historian Oliver Harris painstakingly sets out their publication history, and provides pages and pages of notes at the back of each one explaining his choices of what to keep and what to leave out. While it’s true that The Soft Machine was published first, Burroughs also went back and revised it, then republished it, twice. He did the same thing once for The Ticket That Exploded. Unlike most trilogies, this one has no canonical order, and there are cases to be made for a variety of different sequences.

As I said at the outset, it’s not as though these books tell one long story, so in a way it hardly matters what order they’re in. That’s part of Burroughs’ point — we create associations based on how words are ordered, and by removing certainty of sequence, he cedes control back to us. Being a writer who is anti-language is a rather precarious position, akin to Charlton’s Peacemaker, who “loves peace… so much so, that he is willing to fight for it!!” Nevertheless, Burroughs is very clear on the point that evil aliens are controlling us with their word lines.

Consequently, what unity the books have isn’t achieved via linear progression, but rather by repetition and echoes. We may see phrases in cut-ups that return from previous chapters, or even previous books. Likewise, we may encounter an image in a narrative section that we glimpsed in a previous cut-up, only now we have the context to understand it better. And just as how in Watchmen we keep seeing new variations on the stained face and other images, the trilogy books have images and phrases that become incantatory in their repetition, sometimes varying and sometimes not. These repetitions often serve a didactic purpose, instructing us over and over again from a variety of angles that words and images are “junk” whose hold over us must be broken.

Word Falling — Photo Falling

Moore and Gibbons might very well dispute the idea that they are aliens who mean to control us with words and images, but I can say with certainty that they are very, very skilled at the Juxtaposition Formulae. They ought to be — it’s a key skill in creating an excellent comic. As Scott McCloud informs us in Understanding Comics, juxtaposition is fundamental to the definition of the medium. The fact that comic words and images are placed next to each other is what makes comics different from animation, which is sequential art in which each new image rapidly replaces the last.

Page 8, panel 2 of Understanding Comics. McCloud's avatar holding up a sign reading "Juxtaposed sequential visual art"As we’ve learned, juxtaposition leads to association, and Watchmen exploits those associations to create a number of effects, like the time travel I discussed above, the musical interweaving of different layers of story, the thoughtful alteration of previously established characters, and so forth. It’s all done by association.

In fact, association is such a meta-theme in Watchmen that one of its characters is named for a test which purports to reveal a subject’s personality and emotions based upon the associations made by that subject. And then, because Moore and Gibbons never miss a trick, Rorschach himself is given a Rorschach test. And indeed, his associations do reveal his personality and emotions… eventually.

But before he chooses to share his true associations with Malcolm Long, he reports false ones. “A pretty butterfly.” “Some nice flowers.” Now those of us who have read through Watchmen at least once may be able to make some associations of our own — these two images, as it happens, are exactly what we see through the bloodstain-shaped smudge on the cover of Chapter 11. I don’t think that the story is somehow trying to position Rorschach as precognitive, but I also doubt very much that the association is accidental, because did I mention they never miss a trick?

Rorschach, echoing Burroughs, tells us that meaning is not inherent in what we see, what we read, and what we experience. It is consciousness itself that assembles meaning. Burroughs calls this the laws of juxtaposition and association, whereas Rorschach simply states that existence “has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long.” Like an ink blot.

But if this is true, if our own constructed meanings are our only reality, what happens when that meaning is constructed by a being so godlike as to be able to create a new reality for everyone? Doctor Manhattan claims to see the “whole design” of time simultaneously, and yet can have experiences like surprise, which would seem to depend on linear sequence. This is a paradox I’ve never been able to unravel, and I wonder what role the Burroughs references might play in it. Do Moore’s repeated references to Burroughs ask us to examine the notion of narrative continuity itself, and what it means when there’s a god in the story who’s aware of the story?

I’ve read Watchmen many times now, and thought about it quite extensively, and yet it can still surprise me. Even in the process of writing this post, I was startled to realize that the false images Rorschach reports to Malcolm Long, which seemed like throwaways, return quite forcefully 5 chapters later. But there’s an important distinction here. Those moments of surprise are realizations, new associative connections. They happen within me, not as events in the story. The plot of Watchmen can no longer surprise me — it lost that power after my first read-through.

And yet Doctor Manhattan can be surprised by events, as if they suddenly impinge on his consciousness where they hadn’t existed before. In fact, he can announce that he’s going to be surprised in a few minutes, and what information is going to surprise him, and then a few minutes later be surprised by the information he’d already announced. Yes, he can also have realizations, such as when he changes his mind about going to Earth in Chapter 9, but the fact that he can be surprised by the plot after seeing the whole book remains mystifying to me.

Could it be that he is creating reality to conform to his expectations? If he exists outside time, and controls existence at a molecular level, what powers would his subconscious have? His insecurities, his fears? Could he be the one imposing meaning on the world after staring at it for too long?

Moore links Doctor Manhattan to one of Burroughs’ most persistent refrains: “Word Falling — Photo Falling”. That phrase appears throughout the trilogy, frequently paired with “Break Through in Grey Room”, as an emblem of resistance against the word/image virus. As Kuskin observes (pg. 64), these phrases correspond closely to moments in Watchmen featuring Doctor Manhattan. In the first pages of Chapter 4, he holds a photograph, looking at it and experiencing multiple times simultaneously. Then he lets it fall, experiencing the moment of holding it, the moment of it resting in the sand, and the moment of it falling, all at once and in varying orders. Photo falling.

Multiple panels from page 1 and 2 of Watchmen chapter 4. First panel: A photograph lying in red sand. Caption: "In twelve seconds time I drop the photograph to the sand at my feet, walking away. It's already lying there, twelve seconds into the future. Ten seconds now." Panel 2: The photo dropping from Doctor Manhattan's hand. Caption: "Two hours into my future, I observe meteorites from a glass balcony, thinking about my father. Twelve seconds into my past, I open my fingers. The photograph is falling." Panel 3: Doctor Manhattan's hand holding the photo. Caption: "The photograph lies at my feet, falls from my fingers, is in my hand. I am watching the stars, admiring their complex trajectories, through space, through time."

Then in Chapter 9, he looks on as Laurie showers the Martian Valles Marineris with letters and newspaper clippings from her mother’s scrapbook. More fly out as she waves the book at him after they’ve landed, as her memories are beginning to cascade in on her and her own realization hits. Word falling.2

Watchmen, chapter 9, page 21, panels 7 and 8, combined with page 23 panel 9. Panel 1: Laurie and Jon standing on the balcony of Jon's Martian structure. Laurie is tossing clippings into the air. Laurie: "But, I mean, why bother telling you all this? It just confirms things, right? All these wretched, grubby little human encounters: better off without 'em! None of it ever meant a damn thing anyway. Panel 2: Long shot of the clippings falling from the flying structure. Laurie: "I mean, these, my mother's clippings; her whole life, right there! What's it mean? In your terms, next to a... a neutrino, next to something you can't even see, for Christ's sake? It means nothing!" Jon: "Laurie..." Panel 3: Laurie waving the scrapbook, clippings falling out. Superimposed captions: "What do you think I am?" "...friend's daughter?" "...his, y'know, his..." "only once." "...y'know, his old friend's dau..." Laurie: "I-I mean look, here, my life, my mom's life, there's nothing there worth avoiding, it's all just meaningless..." Laurie, word balloon with lots of white space around the word: "No."

Not only do both pieces of Burroughs’ incantation map clearly to pieces of Watchmen, both of the places they map to are clearly cutting up the narrative. In Chapter 4, panels appear out of chronological sequence, and narration very explicitly jumps around in time. In Chapter 9, as Laurie realizes who her father is, each panel’s image is superimposed with words from different parts of her previously narrated memories: “Only once.” — “What do you think I am?” — “…old friend’s daughter?” — “What do you think…” — “…his, y’know, his…”

In the latter case, the cut-up undeniably leads to a breakthrough. Jon tells Laurie that she should “relax enough to see the whole continuum, life’s pattern or lack of one.” Like Rorschach looking at the blot, she disassembles the pieces of her memories, putting them back together in a way that creates new associations, shining light where she’d been afraid to look. “Can’t a guy talk to his, y’know, his…” — “…daughter?”

Does she break out of control? Hard to say. You could make the case that her mother controlled her by withholding information, but that would seem to be the opposite of the kind of control that concerns Burroughs. Chapter 4, on the other hand, may represent a clearer break from control. In response to the revelation that cancer struck many of his associates, Doctor Manhattan has more of a breakdown than a breakthrough, banishing his tormentors to another location before disappearing himself to Arizona then Mars. In doing so, he breaks out of the situation that was creating his suffering. On the other hand, he does exactly what Veidt planned for him to do — despite his cut-up existence, he still seems subject to a higher form of control. Even in his descriptions of his actions, he casts himself as absent of free will — “a puppet who can see the strings.”

Nova Express

And who is Adrian Veidt’s catspaw in banishing Doctor Manhattan? Why it’s Doug Roth, a writer for the magazine Nova Express. Just why is there a magazine called Nova Express in the Watchmen world, and how can we interpret its role in the story in light of what we know about Burroughs?

It might be helpful at this point to explore some of the things that the phrase “nova express” can mean. In the context of the books, the clearest connection is to a recurring motif about the “nova mob” and the “nova police” who oppose it. In “The Nova Police” routine of The Ticket That Exploded, Burroughs introduces “Inspector J. Lee of the nova police”3, who explains how nova criminals operate:

“The basic nova technique is very simple: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts — This is done by dumping on the same planet life forms with incompatible conditions of existence — There is of course nothing ‘wrong’ about any given life form since ‘wrong’ only has reference to conflicts with other life forms — The point is these life forms should not be on the same planet — Their conditions of life are basically incompatible in present time form and it is precisely the work of the nova mob to see that they remain in present time form, to create and aggravate the conflicts that lead to the explosion of a planet, that is to nova” (The Ticket That Exploded, pg. 62)

In this case, “nova” means explosion, and if we take “express” with its meaning of “specially direct or fast”, then “nova express” is the aim of the nova mob — hastening the planet’s demise. “Express” can also mean articulation via language, which Burroughs views as one of the conditions leading to destruction. But the etymology of the explosion meaning of “nova” reaches back to the Latin “novus”, meaning new — the same root that’s behind words like “novelty” and “novice”. And among the many other meanings of “express” is the concept of manifestation, or putting into form. So another way of seeing “nova express” is the manifestation of something new, which Watchmen certainly was in the comics world.

Finally, there’s one more meaning of “express” which would be particularly available to a British writer: “a messenger or a message specially sent.”4 We see this reflected in the name of Britain’s Daily Express newspaper, a paper which as of Moore’s day (and since) seems fervently dedicated to the same aims as the nova mob itself.

Two panels from Watchmen: Chapter 3, page 18, panel 1, and Chapter 8, page 23, panel 1. Panel 1: a stack of Nova Express magazines being passed from one set of hands to another. The cover reads "Manhattan cancer link new evidence. Inside: Janey Slater speaks", with a picture of Dr. Manhattan. Voice balloon from off-panel: "Ha! I knew it! Willya lookit that!" Second voice balloon from off-panel: "Sorry they're late. They wanted to wait 'til the T.V. show was on the air before they played the grand slam." Caption in pirate-comic style: "The freighter's murderous onslaught had surprised us." Panel two: Medium shot of Laurie, with Jon's hands in the foreground holding an issue of Nova Express. The cover reads "Super-heroes in the news." Laurie: "Jon? Oh Jesus, I... I, I mean they said you'd gone. They said you were on Mars..."

With these definitions in hand, let’s have a look at the role of Nova Express the magazine. In its interrogation of Doctor Manhattan, resulting in his exile, it certainly aggravates existing conflicts. With Doctor Manhattan out of the picture, the Soviets are emboldened to step up their aggressive maneuvers, knowing that the United States’ countermeasure has been removed. Ironically, unlike the nova mob, Nova Express accelerates conflicts by removing an incompatible life form from the planet, convincing Doctor Manhattan that he is “incapable of cohabiting safely either emotionally or physically” with other humans.

In its role as a magazine, it obviously takes part in linguistic expression, exercising control through the word virus as Burroughs saw it. This covers the messenger/newspaper meanings as well. So what about the notion of manifesting something new? Does Nova Express do that in the Watchmen world? Well, its place in that world is to stand in progressive opposition to the right-wing New Frontiersman. In the sense that progressive positions tend to welcome novelty while conservative positions tend to reject it, I suppose we could say that it brings on the new, but on the other hand it doesn’t seem to do so with much wisdom.

Despite his clearly leftist sympathies, Moore does not make Nova Express into any kind of journalistic paragon in the Watchmen world. Instead, the magazine seems to be more or less an extension of Adrian Veidt’s will, doing his bidding to manipulate his fellow costumed adventurers and running the occasional hagiographic interview with him. It is Veidt, ultimately, who plays the nova mob role in Watchmen, hastening the planet’s destruction so that he can heroically step in and (attempt to) save it.

Listen to My Last Words Anywhere

Nova Express (the novel) opens with an elegiac yet clarion excoriation, in a routine called “Last Words”:

Listen to my last words anywhere. Listen to my last words any world. Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth. And you powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours. To sell the ground from unborn feet forever — (Nova Express, pg. 1)

If you’ve read past page 1 of Watchmen, you’re likely to associate the bitter tone of this declaration with what we read of Rorschach’s journal as the story opens. Similarly, the irony of beginning a book with a section called “Last Words” carries right over into Watchmen, in which Rorschach’s journal serves as the alpha and the omega of the series. Later in the routine, Burroughs calls for truth and revelation:

Listen: I call you all. Show your cards all players. Pay it all pay it all pay it all back. Play it all play it all play it all back. For all to see. In Times Square. In Piccadilly. (Nova Express, pg. 2)

Just so, Rorschach’s last words, the diary dropped in a mail slot, are intended to show the cards of all players, most particularly Adrian Veidt, who has been dealing secretly throughout the book. And the vehicle for these words of truth? Watchmen‘s antithesis to Nova Express, The New Frontiersman.

I hesitate to extract from this some definitive argument about which side Moore favors. Like an ink blot, Watchmen can tend to evoke the already extant politics, value system, and alignments of its readers, and Moore plays the story evenhandedly enough that there are legitimate claims on both sides.

However, I will argue that in their painstaking creation of the jewel-like structure of Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons refute the aleatory element of Burroughs’ cut-up technique. Because “juxtaposed sequential visual art” is not a sufficient definition of comics. Otherwise you could take a bunch of images, throw them in the air, paste them down in the sequence they fell, and call it a comic. While it would indeed be sequential, and while it indeed might create associations in its reader, it would be too random and arbitrary to be of value. As McCloud finds when refining his definition of comics, “deliberate sequence” is key to the medium.

Panels 1 and 5 from page 9 of Understanding Comics. Panel one: McCloud's avatar holding up a sign reading "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence." Panel 2: A dictionary definition of comics: "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer."

It turns out that Moore and Gibbons are deeply interested in juxtaposition, but not at all interested in randomness.5 It is Ozymandias who thinks that random inputs provide him with greater insight, and it is also Ozymandias whose methods mirror those of the nova mob. If anyone in the story is associated with the kind of control that Burroughs spends the books resisting, it is Ozymandias. And it is Ozymandias who is most closely affiliated with the entity called Nova Express in Watchmen.

There is absolutely nothing random about any of Moore and Gibbons’ juxtapositions. Each one (and there are hundreds) is quite deliberate, “intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” The effectiveness of these juxtapositions repudiates Burroughs-style cut-ups as a structure for fiction, and their strong authorial presence stands in opposition to Burroughs’ desire to undermine the notion of authorship. However, in both the book’s structure and the experiences of the characters, Watchmen affirms the value of disrupted sequence as a means of achieving breakthroughs or breaking control. As we’ve seen, Doctor Manhattan’s entire existence is a cut-up, and the book clearly associates it with moments of realization and interrupted control. Rorschach himself, in his last words, attempts to cut Ozymandias’s control lines with weapons of truth strung together in text.

There’s also the fact that Burroughs cut-up or folded-in a number of other sources into his text besides his own — Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Eliot, Wordsworth, Porter, Newsweek, etc. Burroughs didn’t choose these sources at random, and sometimes they are thematically aligned with whatever seems to be going on nearby. But Moore is much more intentional about his inclusions, as this entire project continues to explore. Sometimes, though, both with the annotations and with this bestiary, we have to ask whether we’re creating associations from the juxtapositions that may never have been there for Moore to begin with. I suspect that to be true, for example, with Diva. Even Graham Greene’s The Comedians, which Moore himself acknowledges as a source, seems to have very little bearing on the material.

Burroughs would answer, and I suspect Moore might agree, that it doesn’t matter — associations that exist within us are valid, and perhaps even as valid or more valid than whatever might fall under the umbrella of authorial control. But by the same token, I find as a reader that Moore’s intentional juxtapositions are far, far more valuable to me than Burroughs’ accidental ones. For me, Burroughs’ cut-up texts are mostly incoherent, with a few flashes of serendipitous meaning. Compare that to Watchmen, which is highly coherent and still contains those flashes of serendipity. Moore himself attests to these, in the New Comics interview:

The thing was that with Watchmen if you read that original synopsis it’s the bare skeleton. There’s the plot there, but it’s what’s happened since then that’s the real surprise because there’s all this other stuff that’s crept into it, all this deep stuff, the intellectual stuff. [laughs] That wasn’t planned. The thing seems to have taken on an identity of its own since we kicked it off, which is always nice. (The New Comics, pg. 98)

Watchmen demonstrates that randomness isn’t necessary to serendipitous associations, and that in fact an excess of randomness may be inimical to them. It may be that when you cut into the present, the future leaks out, but what’s even more powerful is arranging the present so that it becomes the future.

Next entry: King Mob and Queen Mab
Previous entry: The Last To Know Who’s Fooling Who

Endnotes

1Granted, they are sometimes called the Nova Trilogy, but that’s kind of a misnomer too — the Nova Mob/Nova Police concepts barely appear in The Soft Machine, and can hardly be said to dominate any of the books. [Back to post]

2And what about “Break Through in Grey Room”? Well, it doesn’t involve Doctor Manhattan, but arguably the book’s biggest breakthrough is when Nite Owl realizes that Adrian Veidt has been the prime mover behind all the book’s events. He cracks the case in Adrian’s penthouse office, which is lit only by the ambient glow of the city. John Higgins colors the room grey, as well as both Rorschach and Nite Owl. Break through in grey room.
Chapter 10, page 21, panel 4 of Watchmen. Two-shot of Nite Owl and Rorschach, colored grey, in a room also colored grey. Nite Owl: "I know it's crazy, and I don't want to believe it, but perhaps we should find Adrian fast. 'Karnak'... Rameses built a gigantic hall there; a monument. Karnak must be Veidt's Antarctic retreat. Better grab those papers from his desk..."
[Back to post]

3“Lee” was Burroughs’ mother’s maiden name, and a frequent pen name/alter ego of his. [Back to post]

4Some definitions of “express” taken from the Random House College Dictionary 1988 edition, which has been with me, not coincidentally, since my high school graduation. [Back to post]

5It should be said that Burroughs himself didn’t uncritically accept the results of every cut-up. He claims to have edited carefully to keep the gold and remove the dross, and his changing mind about which was which is part of what led to the multiple editions of various books in the cut-up trilogy. However, having slogged through the many cut-up passages in those three books, I would contend that his standards for what to retain were far, far too low. [Back to post]