The Watchmen Bestiary 19 – Comin’ For To Carry Me Home

Before you read any further, please heed this warning: Watchmen spoilers ahead!

As I mentioned in my notes on method, I had originally decided to leave out any works I’d seen/read/heard/whatever before, but as the project has expanded, I’ve decided to throw those back in. At the time, I believed that meant that to finish with Chapter One, I’d need to write a post on Dylan and another on Taxi Driver.

However, in rereading the v2.0 Watchmen annotations for that chapter, I realized I’d missed something. Though it’s flying well under the radar, there is in fact a cultural reference in this panel, or at least the beginnings of one:

Panel from Watchmen, chapter 1, page 11. Close-up on Rorschach shaking sugar cubes from a can onto the counter. Each cube is individually wrapped, with an S stamped on it. Dreiberg is visible behind Rorschach. Rorschach: That's right. Human bean juice. Ha ha. Badge belonged to the Comedian. Blood too. He's dead.
The annotations tell us that this panel is in fact:

The first appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes. (I don’t know if these are a Veidt product; the “Chariot” reference is his style, but the name refers to a Gospel song, which isn’t.)

Now, it isn’t at all evident from the panel itself that the sugar cubes have any particular brand name. All we see is a can labeled “Sugar”, and cubes individually wrapped with an “S” stamped on them. The cubes reappear, again anonymously, in Chapter 3, when Dreiberg seeks to sweeten Laurie’s coffee. (“Hell, I thought I had more sugar than that.”) It isn’t until Chapter 6 that we learn the brand name, from their description in Rorschach’s arrest paperwork, which includes among his possessions “5 individually wrapped cubes ‘Sweet Chariot’ chewing sugar.”

Nevertheless, the annotations are quite right that this is their first appearance, so let’s deal with them here. I don’t think there’s evidence in the text either way for whether those sugar cubes are a Veidt product, and I don’t think it much matters. The reference, however, to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, matters a lot, on a few different levels.

First, even before touching the referent, I would argue that the cubes and their name operate as a symbol for the relationship between Dreiberg and Rorschach. Dan carries Rorschach in several ways, the first of which is evident on this very page of Chapter 1. Rorschach is destitute, and seems to live mostly off scraps provided by others, through their generosity, fear, or ignorance. Today he takes his meal from Dreiberg’s beans and sugar, a metaphorical ride which is literally sweet.

Dan also provides resources to Rorschach. They were initially partners, back in the pre-Keene days, but even now Rorschach benefits from the products of Dreiberg’s genius, such as the grappling hook gun he uses when we first see him in Chapter 1, and again when trying to evade capture in Chapter 5. Even closer to a literal sweet chariot is Dan’s owlship Archie, which swings low to rescue Rorschach from prison, and later carries him all the way to what will be his final resting place.

There’s a sweetness to that relationship, seen most clearly in the awkward handshake between them in Chapter 10. A sugar cube makes a fine symbol for their friendship, rigid but soluble. For Detective Fine, the sugar cubes crystallize the connection between Dreiberg and Rorschach — he knows that Rorschach had those sugar cubes on him at his arrest, and comments when he visits Dreiberg, “Hey, ‘Sweet Chariot’ sugar cubes! Only come in catering packs, right?”

Just as the words “sweet chariot” reflect on Rorschach’s relationship with Nite Owl, so does the song itself reflect on his story. It’s a song, first and foremost, about death.

When I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Comin’ for to carry me home
A band of angels comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home

According to scholar Christa K. Dixon, “in the spirituals ‘Jordan’ refers mostly to the dividing line between wilderness-like earthly life and promised heavenly life.”1 A great many spirituals call upon some notion of transformation — that’s why so many of them center on the Book of Revelation — and in many of them, death is that transformation, a deliverance from the misery of slave life, and the promise of a heavenly reward. In “Swing Low,” that band of angels comes to retrieve the departed, to take him across the Jordan from this world into the next. The repeated refrain, “comin’ for to carry me home”, emphasizes the fact that the slave’s true home is not on Earth, but in heaven.

Rorschach also feels out of place in this world — for him it’s rudderless, morally blank. The only sane responses to it, as he sees it, are his own, and the Comedian’s. Something else binds those two characters together as well — though there’s an awful lot of death in Watchmen, only two of the main characters die: Rorschach and The Comedian. And since The Comedian’s death occurs before the story begins, only Rorschach can be said to die in the course of the plot. So naturally it’s with Rorschach that the Sweet Chariot cubes are associated — they foreshadow his death, and as he rides to meet it in Antarctica, he drops his final wrapper, which looms up huge in the camera’s eye.

Panel from Watchmen, chapter 11, page 3. A bleak Antarctic landscape, with two riders in the very far distance. A fierce wind blows an empty sugar cube wrapper, stamped with an S, into the foreground.

However, while “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is most clearly about death, it has another layer of meaning. Historical evidence suggests that, among other songs, it was sometimes sung as a part of a slave code, signaling that an opportunity for escape was coming. In this context, “home” isn’t heaven but the free states of the North, and the angels aren’t supernatural guardians, but rather Underground Railroad “conductors” like Harriet Tubman. In fact, when Tubman died, the local newspaper reported that “she led those at her bedside in singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with her final breath.”2

Escape and rescue are recurring themes in superhero fiction, and Watchmen interrogates them, just as it does most other superhero tropes. With the Sweet Chariot sugar cubes, though, that interrogation begins only gradually. Rorschach first shakes them out of their container as he pursues what appears to be a traditional heroic trajectory: saving those in danger, in this case by warning them that the danger is coming. They appear again when Dan is taking care of Laurie, or trying to. This is a slightly more problematic idea of rescue, as he’s clearly attracted to her, and therefore has a bit of an ulterior motive. Also, she arguably she doesn’t need saving, having made her own sort of escape from a life she had begun to see as servitude. Nevertheless, Dan’s approach at this point mostly conforms to a typical heroic code of conduct, with him as the rescuer and Laurie as the damsel in distress, albeit in a considerably less dramatic idiom than superheroes normally occupy.

However, we learn that the sugar cubes are in fact called “Sweet Chariot” through an inversion of superheroic rescue — they’re listed in Rorshach’s arrest report, as part of the inventory of taken of his pockets when he was captured. Now he is the prisoner rather than the rescuer, and has to wait for Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II to be his conductors from bondage. In fact, the sugar cubes appear again in chapter 7, as Dan is sweetening Laurie’s coffee (this time successfully), just before they listen to news reports about Rorschach and Dan frets about how Rorshach will fare in jail.3 Then, when Fine visits in the next chapter, the sugar cubes provide evidence of Dan’s connection with Rorschach, and spurs the rescue effort: “Springing Rorschach any later than tomorrow isn’t safe.”

The final appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes in chapter 11, that wrapper blowing in the Antarctic wind, brings together the ideas of death and rescue. Rorschach is (somewhat unknowingly) heading towards his own death, but the mission that brings him there with Nite Owl is a heroic one: stopping Veidt’s destructive actions. Watchmen won’t let us have this rescue. Not only has the destruction happened well before the pair can intervene, but Veidt believes that the death is the rescue. In his “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” mentality, Veidt horribly brings together the two meanings of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, sending death raining down and believing that he’s ushering in “an age of illumination” by doing so.

There’s one final aspect of this allusion to consider, and it’s a big one. By invoking a song directly connected with American slavery, Moore’s use of “Sweet Chariot” invites us to consider race, specifically the past and present of African-Americans. What can we say about African-Americans in Watchmen?

A number of incidental characters are black — the postal carrier who picks up Rorschach’s journal, the watch seller up the street from the newsstand, some victims of the tenement fire rescue by Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, some patrons at Happy Harry’s, the prisoner Rorschach burns with cooking fat, the maid at Sally Jupiter’s retirement community. There are also three named African-American characters in the book: Bernie the younger (who reads the pirate comics), Malcolm Long (Rorschach’s psychiatrist), and Gloria Long, Malcolm’s wife.

This collection of characters neither adheres to stereotypes nor studiously avoids them. Bernie hangs out on the corner all day while his mom works, and speaks in street slang — “suit y’self, jive-ass”, or “shee-it.” Malcolm and Gloria, on the other hand, are consummate white-collar professionals, with educated diction and middle-class dinner parties in their bourgeois apartment. Likewise, the unnamed characters run a gamut, from criminals up to ordinary workers. There’s nothing in particular binding them together outside of race. Gloria underscores this point with her indignant response to Bernie the elder’s suggestion that maybe the watch seller knows Malcolm: “What? You think we’re all in some Negro club; that we all know each other?”

Panel from Watchmen, chapter 2, page 11. The Comedian's gloved hand holds a lighter, burning Nelson's display of the United States, with labels affixed reading Promiscuity, Drugs, Anti-War Demos, and Black Unrest.

By making sure his African-American characters are neither demonized nor sanctified, Moore makes a point about race, albeit not a particularly deep one. A little more subversive is his suggestion that superheroes might serve a racist agenda. When Captain Metropolis tries to organize the Crimebusters, his display includes his labels for the types of “crime” to be fought: promiscuity, drugs, anti-war demonstrations, and… “black unrest.” Given that this meeting took place in 1966, and given the placement of the tag over Southern states, this “unrest” was almost certainly the Civil Rights Movement. Gardner is obviously a conservative, but it’s a little startling to think that he would want to employ operatives like Dr. Manhattan or The Comedian against peace protests and civil rights marches.

The New Frontiersman lives much further out on the right wing, and is even more shocking, in its favorable comparison between superheroes and the KKK:

Nova Express makes many sneering references to costumed heroes as direct descendents of the Ku Klux Klan, but might I point out that despite what some might view as their later excesses, the Klan originally came into being because decent people had perfectly reasonable fears for the safety of their persons and belongings when forced into proximity with people from a culture far less morally advanced.

It’s already stunning to read an argument defending the KKK, but the comparison between that group and superheroes is chilling indeed. And yet, we’re forced to admit that the comparison isn’t entirely off-base. Klan members dress themselves in distinctive costumes and ride into the night to defend their status quo. I’ve written before about how superheroes also defend the status quo, fighting against the forces of change.

In a typical superhero comic, those forces of change are obviously negative, but Watchmen challenges the genre fan’s assumption that this would always be so. Sometimes even the most progressive change is disruptive, and sometimes it deeply frightens people attached to the old order. When those people put on masks and terrorize the change agents, we find their actions despicable. Yet what is so different about superheroes themselves, besides the nature of the status quo they defend? And if they were defending a repugnant philosophy, by use of violence, wouldn’t we want a law preventing that?

There’s one more overt reference to race in Watchmen. It comes towards the end of Chapter 6, after Long’s last session with Rorschach, the one in which Rorschach tells the story of Gerald Grice and his dogs. In the journal entry that follows, Long’s diction has acquired the clipped patterns of Rorschach:

Walked home along 40th street. A black man tried to sell me a Rolex watch. When I kept walking he started shouting “Nigger! Hey nigger!” Ignored him. Bought paper.

This narration happens at the top left panel of a page. The previous panel was Long, palm to face, overwhelmed by the darkness of Rorschach’s experiences. Rorschach has told him that existence has “no meaning, save what we choose to impose,” and that it is only humans who create the brutality and evil of this world. Immediately afterward, the world seems determined to prove Rorschach right. On the next page, Long stares at an ink blot, and realizes: “In the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness.” And the final panel before the quote is just that: pure blackness.

Let me suggest that this ending has a metaphysical level, yes, but on another level it is also about, well, blackness. In the end, skin color, nose shape, hair curliness, and the rest have no meaning, save what we choose to impose. To understand the meanings we have chosen around race is to understand the horror of our history. The captivity and slavery that made people long for death, the bloody war we fought to vanquish it, the hooded men searing the night with beatings, burnings, and lynchings… it’s us. Only us.

Next Entry: Absent Friends
Previous Entry: A Real Rain

Endnotes

1 Negro Spirituals: From Bible To Folk Song, pg. 29. [Back to post]

2 Robert Darden, Nothing but Love in God’s Water, pg. 28. [Back to post]

3 There’s something a bit odd about this scene. On page 11, panel 2, we see the full bag of sugar cubes, and can read part of the “Sweet Chariot” label. On the next page, Dan asks Laurie, “Did I put enough sugar in the coffee? I went out to the store specially…” The issue had already made the point he was at the store — he cites that as the reason Laurie was able to activate the flamethrower: “I was down here checking out the systems earlier. I left everything switched on when I went out to the store.” So we know he was at the store, and that his main purpose was to get sugar.

But if “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes only come in catering packs, how did Dan pop over to the store to buy some? In the scene with Detective Fine in the next chapter, the fact that those cubes aren’t available at the store is why Fine cites them — if they only come in catering packs, Rorschach couldn’t have bought them, and therefore was much more likely to have been supplied by Dreiberg. This strikes me as an idea Moore had when writing chapter 8, and liked enough that he decided to overlook the contradictory evidence in chapter 7. [Back to post]

The Watchmen Bestiary 18 – A Real Rain

Hey, you. Yes, I’m talkin’ to you, because I want you to know that there are spoilers in here, both for Watchmen and for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. We’re talkin’ about Taxi Driver today because of one cjb@ice.physics.salford.ac.uk, who turns out to be named Christian Burnham. Burnham contributed to the v2.0 Watchmen Annotations, those annotations being a crowdsourced effort built atop Doug Atkinson’s original work. Burnham was the one who asserted way back in my first installment that “Edward Blake is obviously a reference to Blake Edwards,” and that “Rorschach’s methods of terrorism are all taken from Pink Panther movies.”

This time around, he claims that “Rorschach’s opener on page 1 issue 1 is a dead ringer for the dialogue of Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver.” Burnham has a tendency to overstate the case, and this time is no exception. While it’s true that both Rorschach and Bickle (Robert De Niro) keep a diary, and that their diary entries are provided in “voiceover” to give us insight into their minds, I wouldn’t call one a “dead ringer” for the other. There are definitely similarities, but also some important differences. Let’s compare styles.

Rorschach: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper ‘No.'”

Bickle: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain’ll come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”

Both these excerpts begin with shocking language and images. Both indicate a loathing and revulsion for the urban environment. But Rorschach’s opening sentence imitates his speech patterns — clipped sentence fragments, with articles and pronouns extracted, an almost Tonto-ish way of talking. Moore in fact uses this pattern as a tool later on to indicate the psychological split between when Walter Kovacs simply wore a mask and when he became Rorschach, as well as the psychological shift in Malcolm Long.

Interestingly, the rest of the excerpt (and most of Rorschach’s diary) is much more discursive than his usual speech. He spins grandiose, almost biblical images, like this one in which he stands as the vengeful god to punish human sins. Elsewhere, he documents the city as he sees it, or takes notes on the murder case. He even tells a joke.

First 3 panels of Watchmen, with Rorschach's dialogue as quoted above. All three panels are overhead shots, with the camera gradually pulling upward to reveal more.

Travis, on the other hand, is much more prosaic and down-to-earth. He talks about what happens in his job, how much he makes, and recounts details like “I had black coffee and apple pie with a slice of melted yellow cheese.” His diction is slangy and vernacular (not to mention casually racist and homophobic), where Rorschach tends toward theatrical, elevated words. Travis would never say something like, “This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.” When his diary entries become introspective, they tend to be vulnerable and searching, as opposed to Rorschach’s judgmental pronouncements. Travis reviles the city, sure, but he also explicitly laments his loneliness, something Rorschach only barely approaches when he asks (without a trace of irony), “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”

However, just because Rorschach’s journal isn’t a “dead ringer” for Travis’s diary doesn’t mean that the comparison between Watchmen and Taxi Driver is pointless. On the contrary, I think it’s a very useful juxtaposition, one which illuminates them both.

THE NEW NOIR

Taxi Driver gets called a neo-noir film, a term which more or less means “a whole lot like film noir but made after 1958.” (See Hirsch and Schwartz, for example.) The notion of film noir itself has never enjoyed a stable, consensus definition, and in fact there is still contention over, for instance, whether it’s a style or a genre. But like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s relationship to pornography, critics know it when they see it.

Here are some film noir commonplaces:

  • A mood of pessimism, cynicism, and/or fatalism
  • Night scenes, especially night scenes in a city
  • Rain. Lots and lots of rain.
  • Also lots of smoke and smoking
  • Femmes fatales. As Roger Ebert puts it, “Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.”
  • An ordinary person drawn into crime, often based on some relationship with a femme fatale
  • A grim investigator unraveling a crime, an investigation which often reveals deep corruption
  • Odd or askew camera angles
  • Shadowy or high-contrast visual composition
  • Flashbacks, particularly telling the bulk of the movie in flashback, introduced by a frame story
  • First-person voiceover narration

A movie doesn’t have to have all of these to be considered noir, but the more of them that occur in one movie, the more noir it becomes. Once I started thinking about Taxi Driver as a noir movie, it became blindingly obvious to me that Watchmen is a noir comic book, or at the very least that Rorschach is a noir character, right down to his 1940s trenchcoat and fedora. While his narration differs from that of Travis, the presence of their narration serves the same set of functions. It sets the grim tenor of the story but makes it clear that the mood is filtered through one character’s mind, and that this character is himself unreliable and twisted in certain aspects.

The juxtaposition of narration and images allows us sometimes to see the story’s world as the character sees it, and other times to understand through ironic contrast where the character’s perceptions are limited, or where he may be lying to himself or others. And as both Taxi Driver and Watchmen postdate the classic film noir period, they are fully aware of noir conventions and use voiceover as a kind of combination homage and allegiance.

They have plenty in common with the noir sensibility besides the voiceover, too. Both have an overall sinister tone, and both end with a psychopathic character unexpectedly cast in a heroic light. Both stalk the rainy night city, Travis in his cab and Rorschach on foot. Smoke, too, figures into each story in different ways. None of the characters in Taxi Driver smoke, but mist and steam emanates from the streets themselves — the first several shots in the film include a taxi emerging from a cloud of smoke (along with the title itself), and that same smoke following Travis as he walks into the cab service to apply for a job.

Lots of characters smoke in Watchmen. In just the first two chapters, we see Detective Fine, Hollis Mason, various criminals, restaurant patrons, Laurie Juspeczyk, and Eddie Blake smoking various types of cigarettes or cigars. In addition to his stogie, Blake also shoots riot gas to smoke up the streets, and makes Captain Metropolis’ map go up in smoke as well. However, the smokiest thing about the book is easily Rorschach’s dialogue balloons. The character is never seen with a cigarette, but every time he talks or thinks, the edges of his words crinkle and curl, an ever-present noir vapor.

Shot from Taxi Driver with title emerging from smoke, next to panel from Watchmen showing Rorschach's smoky dialogue balloon

Femmes fatales, on the other hand, are noticeably missing from both works. I’ve already discussed the role of women overall in Watchmen: they mainly exist to demonstrate or alter male emotional states. That is somewhat true for the classic femme fatale as well, but in Watchmen the women are more victims than masterminds. No woman is calling the shots on anything in that story, but rather stumbling or being thrown from one mishap to another. Even Janey Slater, clearly embittered and smoking up a storm, turns out to have been Adrian’s pawn in her takedown of Dr. Manhattan.

Women in Taxi Driver are filtered through Travis’s consciousness, which will only allow for two categories: virgin and whore. He can hardly bear either one. He idolizes what he sees as the purity and elevation of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), and even manages to take her out on a date, only to make the site of their date a porno theater, as if he must taint that purity and expose the taintedness of his own inner self. Then he fixates upon a different mix of virgin and whore: the twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). Where he wanted to sully Betsy’s innocence, he wants to restore Iris’s, trying to convince her to go back home, and sending her $500 to help her leave her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel). In neither case does he engage with the woman in question as a person, but rather interacts almost exclusively with his projections of them.

No, it isn’t a femme fatale who draws Travis into mass murder. Rather, it is his utter inability to connect with other human beings. Whether this disconnection is an aftereffect of service in Vietnam, or whether it is inherent to Travis himself, the film doesn’t make clear. However, his “loneliness has followed me all my life” voiceover suggests that while Vietnam may have stoked his inclination to violence, Travis’s fundamental alienation is his own.

De Niro does a masterful job of building upon screenwriter Paul Schrader’s script to demonstrate Travis’s utter lack of facility with simple personal interactions. He’s baffled by simple expressions like “moonlighting” or “how’s it hangin’?”. He’s culturally isolated — at various points he says he doesn’t know much about movies, much about music. He watches his television periodically, with a look of longing and confusion on his face; eventually he pushes that TV off its stand, destroying it. In a knowing twist on noir convention, Travis tries to kill the father figures of his various women, not at their urging, but as a sort of revenge for the relationships they have, which he is forever denied.

Watchmen takes the other noir plot — not the common man corrupted but the cynical detective whose astute investigations soon land him in trouble beyond his capacity to deal with. Moore begins the story as a standard murder mystery, and in fact for a moment we believe we might be following the police investigation of Eddie Blake’s death. Soon enough we are following Rorschach, but even then, the pattern of introducing a series of characters and providing background on the deceased is a familiar one to mystery readers. Watchmen turns out to have a lot more on its mind than just solving a crime, but at least from Rorschach’s point of view, his trajectory is not all that different from that of the classic Phillip Marlowe or J.J. Gittes type, the private eye whose own investigation devastates and undoes him.

As for visual style, both Watchmen and Taxi Driver employ enough shadows and unsettling angles to easily qualify as neo-noir. Taxi Driver gives us shots of Travis’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, framed by blackness. It shows us fetishized close-ups of the taxi itself, driving through the rain, with garish Times Square movie marquees and porn store signs in the background. There’s a motif of high-angle shots straight down on a tableau – the personnel officer’s desk, the porn theater counter, the gun suitcase, Betsy’s desk. These culminate in a magnificent high-angle shot of the mass murder scene, moving slowly past the heads of stunned policemen, down the hallway and out into the street.

High angle shot from Taxi Driver of the murder scene

That same high angle appears in Watchmen‘s very first set of panels, the ones with the narration that started us down this road. The camera looks down at the bloodstained street, gradually pulling up, up, up to the site of Blake’s defenestration. Weird camera angles and shadowy composition abound especially (and not surprisingly) in the portions of Watchmen focused on Rorschach.

In Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry”, we get a recurring shot of the Rumrunner’s neon sign, reflected in a puddle, disturbed by Rorschach’s footstep. It’s a perfect noir shot, encompassing rain, darkness, the sinister city, and a sense of foreboding and destruction. Rorschach’s mask itself is the ultimate in high-contrast, its shadows always moving across his face. This effect is played up in “The Abyss Gazes Also”, whose penultimate panel is in fact nothing but blackness.

Finally, there are the flashbacks. Taxi Driver has none — it refuses to explain Travis by exploring his past, and it almost exclusively sticks to his point of view, denying us the capacity of understanding his world beyond his perception of it. Watchmen, on the other hand, is flashback-crazy. Whole chapters take us into the backstory of various characters, and previous chapters get called back by later chapters. Even single panels sometimes quickly throw us back to the past before returning to the scene at hand. Both, in their way, subvert the traditional noir mode of a frame story taking us into the past, either by sticking zenlike in the present or jumping around through time all the time.

Still, while neither Watchmen nor Taxi Driver ticks every box on the film noir checklist, there is more than enough evidence to call them both noir stories. But there’s something more: they’re also both superhero stories.

THE URBAN VIGILANTE

There are many ways to interpret the plot of Taxi Driver. Here’s one. An ordinary man, Travis Bickle, takes a blue-collar job after returning from war. This job brings him in contact with the worst parts of New York City. He sees firsthand the violence, the constant menace, the routine attacks upon innocent people, including attacks upon Travis himself. He witnesses the sleaze and degradation occurring in the city at night, and it becomes clear to him that the establishment police and politicians are fundamentally unable to stem its tide. He even connects with a heartbreaking victim of the city’s evil: a twelve-year-old girl named Iris, forced into prostitution by a pimp named Sport. That pimp pays Travis $20 to look the other way.

This $20 bill becomes a totem to Travis. He carries it with him, plagued by his guilt about not saving Iris from her dangerous situation. Finally, he makes up his mind to make a difference. “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time,” he writes in his diary. “True force.” He embarks on an intense regimen of physical training, honing his body until every muscle is tight, and he is nearly impervious to pain. He purchases an arsenal of weaponry, and rigs up ways to attach those weapons to his body, deploying them quickly when needed. He puts together a uniform which allows him to conceal the equipment he carries. “Here is a man who would not take it anymore,” he writes.

Shot from Taxi Driver of the device Travis rigs up to hide a gun in his sleeve and slide it out when he wants to use it.

He uses the $20 bill to pay for Iris’ time, in a failed attempt to get her to leave Sport of her own volition. But he finally realizes: he is the one who must rescue her, and save the innocence of the city itself. He creates a new persona and guise, one which will strike fear into the hearts of those he hunts. At first, he tries to bring down the corrupt system by targeting a political demagogue, but he soon realizes that he must go into the underworld directly. Armed with his equipment and his frightening appearance, he defeats Sport and two of Sport’s henchmen. He returns Iris to her parents, and is hailed by them and by the media in general as a hero. Some time later, he has returned to his job in his ordinary identity, but we know that he is ready to confront evil again, whenever he encounters it.

Sounds an awful lot like a superhero origin story, doesn’t it? In a certain light, Travis doesn’t look so different from Bruce Wayne, or Tony Stark, or Frank Castle: men without superhuman powers, but who nonetheless deploy muscles, weapons, and a frightening appearance to fight the crime in their societies. For that matter, he’s even closer to a character like Rorschach, who shares all those qualities with Travis, and a few more as well.

Rorschach’s own origin story touches a lot of those same points. Walter Kovacs comes from a traumatic past and enters a blue-collar job. In the course of that job, he encounters a woman who later becomes the victim of a horrifying crime. Kovacs sees not only the ineffectiveness of standard social structures, but also the impassive detachment of people in general to the evil that surrounds them. He trains his body for strength and endurance, and acquires a set of equipment, a uniform, and a countenance to frighten the criminals he’s chosen to fight. He records his thoughts in a journal, in which he repeats his philosophy to himself. His culminating trip over the edge happens in response to the victimization of a child — his personality finds its fullest cohesion by murdering the victimizer.

Taxi Driver wasn’t meant to serve as a commentary on superhero stories, but it certainly was aware of its cinematic precursors, urban vigilante films like Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, and Death Wish. In those films, a man suffers tragedy and/or witnesses evil, and decides it’s time to work outside the law. He arms himself and slaughters the criminal(s) responsible.

The difference is that in the preceding films, the vigilante is lionized and held as the moral center, in contrast to corrupt or incompetent law enforcement. Schrader applies a corrective to this narrative with Taxi Driver, showing us that the man who kills criminals is himself violently disturbed. In fact, in Taxi Driver Travis simply wants to kill the father figure to one of his women, and tries first to kill the presidential candidate. It’s only because he fails, and ends up killing the pimp, that he is hailed as a hero. Watchmen, too, deeply problematizes the notion of vigilante heroism, in response to a similar romanticization of it in superhero comics. It shows Rorschach, like Travis, to be a deeply lonely man, one who has become insane and dangerous based on his experiences and his disconnection.

Travis Bickle does not understand other human beings. He sees them as objects — threats, idols, barriers. His movies are porn movies, whose entire job is to turn people into objects. Porn lets you project yourself, explicitly, into a sexual interaction. It’s the closest Travis comes to a connection. Rorschach, too, does not relate to other people, and tends to see them as objects, pawns on a board. Moreover, the traditional superhero genre has a hard time understanding human beings as well. It objectifies them into projection screen, threat, barrier, or prize. Watchmen surrounds Rorschach with humans, rather than objects, and by doing so reveals the absurdity of his Objectivism.

Film noir was never concerned with heroism. Its subject was the darker sides of humanity, and how the naive man can be inadvertently drawn into them. Both the urban vigilante film and the superhero genre, however, take heroism as a central theme and trope. By mixing noir into these genres, Taxi Driver and Watchmen leave us questioning those tropes, and understanding that sometimes our cultural perception of good is no more valid than our perception of evil. Travis Bickle looks in the mirror and says, “You talkin’ to me?” But he’s only talking to himself. It’s Scorsese, Schrader, Moore, and Gibbons who are talking to us.

Shots from Watchmen and Taxi Driver of sleazy Times Square

Next Entry: Comin’ For To Carry Me Home
Previous Entry: The Superhuman Crew

The Watchmen Bestiary 17 – The Superhuman Crew

Once there was a man who revolutionized his field. Emerging from a working-class background in a desolate town, he absorbed every bit of knowledge he could, and in his youth joined a community of like-minded artists. Eventually he found work in the big city, and began attracting notice in his chosen arena. The pace of his creative genius accelerated, and soon he was releasing one brilliant work after another, in rapid succession. Each one individually was a mind-blowing leap forward, and taken in totality they completely upended everyone’s assumptions about what was artistically possible in the domain.

He took a genre that was considered disposable trash aimed at children, and made it matter, bringing a highly literate and literary sensibility it had never seen before. With humor, drama, and passion, he got the world’s attention on not only his own work, but the possibilities it implied for the entire medium. He emerged from this period an indisputable legend, and no matter how many fallow years or bizarre religious conversions may follow, nothing will tarnish that accomplishment.

This man goes by the name of Bob Dylan.

I think it’s easy to see why Alan Moore admires and appreciates Dylan, going so far as to quote him for two different epigraphs in Watchmen, a distinction matched only by the Bible. Moore is the Bob Dylan of comics, and has come to struggle similarly under the staggering weight of his well-earned prestige and fame. But enough of the parallel, let’s dig into the inspiration for Chapter 1’s quote and title. Be warned that spoilers abound below for Watchmen.

Watchmen, chapter 1, page 26, panel 8. Black panel with white lettering "At midnight all the agents and superhuman crew go out and round up everyone who knows more than they do. -Bob Dylan". Doomsday clock image underneath reads 12 minutes to midnight.Chapter 1 of Watchmen is titled “At Midnight, All The Agents…”, and the annotations quite rightly inform us that the quote comes from “Bob Dylan’s song ‘Desolation Row‘”. Of course, the “Bob Dylan” part isn’t terribly hard to track down — he’s cited in the final panel of the chapter, with a fuller version of the quote: “At midnight, all the agents and superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” (This is actually a misquote in several areas, as we’ll see below.) But “Desolation Row” is a huge song, a 10-verse epic that clocks in at 11 minutes and 21 seconds. So we’ve got a little room to expand – let’s have the full stanza! It’s the 8th one in the song.

At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

“Desolation Row” was released in 1965, a pretty good year for the agents and the superhuman crew. That year, Goldfinger broke box office records around the world, becoming the fastest-grossing film of all time. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a cultural phenomenon, spawning merchandise ranging from t-shirts to board games to record albums, not to mention a host of imitators and parodies. Meanwhile, in the superhero comicbook world a revolution was in swing, led by Stan Lee and his Merry Marvel Marching Society. Superheroes were popular not just with kids, but increasingly on college campuses as well.

Dylan’s lyric punctures this euphoria in a way that partly foreshadows Watchmen. Here, the heroes of 1965 aren’t targeting bank robbers or world-shattering conspiracies or what-have-you, but rather “everyone that knows more than they do.” They are the agents of anti-intellectualism and anti-creativity, enforcing hegemony on behalf of an Establishment status quo. All those smart people get bound to a machine, inside a factory, their art and intellect caged in symbols of capitalism, regimentation, and meaningless work. And it only gets worse from there, as more Establishment figures descend from Kafka-esque castles with kerosene, surely in preparation for something like a holocaust. The agents and superhumans work for these insurance men, ensuring that nobody escapes the consequences of enlightenment.

It’s also hard to escape the Vietnam draft angle on this verse. In 1965, the United States began calling up 35,000 young men every month to fight in the Vietnam War, a war against the specter of Communism, at least as it was perceived by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It was an insurance man’s war — a premium paid in lives, year over year, against the hypothetical catastrophe posited by the “Domino Theory”, the notion that if one republic falls to the Red Menace, a chain reaction would ensue and next thing you knew we’d be the only capitalist democracy in the world, drowning in a sea of red. The agents and superhuman crew were full participants in this narrative, battling one Communist menace after another in their comics, movies, and TV episodes. In addition to the actual government rounding up young people, these stories were doing cultural work to get kids on the government’s side.

The skeptical view of spies and crusaders in “Desolation Row” informs Watchmen too, though the book’s superhuman crew is far less monolithic than Dylan’s. The Watchmen character closest to what Dylan describes is surely The Comedian, who spends his time “working for the government… knocking over Marxist republics.” He would have no compunction whatsoever at rounding up whoever he was told to round up, and bringing them wherever he was told to bring them. Then there’s Ozymandias, who indeed spends much of the book rounding up artists, scientists, writers, and even the head of a dead psychic. They may or may not know more than the so-called “world’s smartest man”, but he certainly puts them to work in his island factory, and then destroys them with fire. Nobody escapes Adrian’s “lethal pyramid.”

Still, the title appears on page 6 as a caption to Rorschach, and it is Rorschach who ventures forth at midnight, rounding up the superhuman crew themselves. It’s certainly safe to say that Dr. Manhattan knows more than Rorschach does — he knows more than anyone does, though that knowledge doesn’t prevent him from being surprised sometimes, nor from sometimes enforcing the state’s agenda for a while, just as The Comedian does. And of course Ozymandias knows more than Rorschach does, since he is after all the author of the murder mystery Rorschach is attempting to solve through his midnight maneuvers. All these stories meet at the book’s metaphorical midnight, when the superhuman crew themselves know more than everyone else, and allow none to escape their pact of secrecy.

That final panel misquotes the lyric, skipping the definite article in front of “superhuman”, substituting “go” for “come”, and “who” for “that”. However, there may not be much to be drawn from that fact — in the original comic version of Watchmen #1, the final panel is simply black, with the doomsday clock at the bottom. Quotes appear in that final panel in every subsequent issue of Watchmen, so apparently the DC editors decided to alter the final panel of #1 to match for the graphic novel. That it misquotes the song is likely nothing to do with Moore, and everything to do with imprecise editorial work.

Watchmen, chapter 1, page 6, top splash panel. Rorschach is perched in the Comedian's window. Below in black lettering: "At Midnight, All The Agents..."

As long as we’re looking closely, though, let’s observe that in this verse, Desolation Row isn’t the place to escape from, it’s the place to escape to. Every verse in the song ends with the words “Desolation Row”, and in this case it stands outside the nightmarish factory, as an unreachable alternative to the horrors within.

So what is Desolation Row, anyway? To find out, let’s start at the beginning. Here’s how the song opens:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town

“Postcards of the hanging” is an image for which Dylan critic Mark Polizzotti has an explanation. In Polizzotti’s book on Highway 61 Revisited (the album which “Desolation Row” closes), he tells of a lynching which occurred in 1920 in Dylan’s birthplace: Duluth, Minnesota. Six young black circus hands were accused of sexually assaulting a white teenager. Three of the accused men were dragged from jail by a mob numbering in the thousands. They were beaten, and hung from lampposts. According to Polizzotti, “A photograph of the incident, which circulated widely as a commemorative postcard, shows a crowd of Duluthians proudly posing around the three limp bodies.” (Highway 61 Revisited, pg. 134)

This horrible image leads off a parade of grotesques, which the verse winds up with, “As Lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row.” Once again, Desolation Row is placed outside the realm of horror, as the observation point in which the song’s narrator stands. So, in some sense, it appears to be the everyday world, or at least the narrator’s place in that world. It’s a grim vantage point because of all the human cruelty and evil that surrounds it.

The image won’t be pinned down so easily, though. In other verses, it’s where Cinderella sweeps up after ambulances carry away a misguided lover. It’s where Einstein used to play the electric violin, an image evocative of both Nero and of Dylan himself, who was in the midst of shocking his audience by playing an electric version of his chosen instrument. It’s the site of a carnival to be attended by the Good Samaritan, the forbidden zone for Casanova, and a taboo peepshow for Ophelia. As all these archetypes come into play, and as the prepositions shift around it (from, to, about, on), the notion of Desolation Row transcends any sense of physical place. It is, instead, a state of mind.

Desolation Row is how it feels to see black bodies swinging from lampposts in your hometown. How it feels to watch young men die in the name of a paranoid fantasy. How it feels to see potential scholars and artists locked into roles they didn’t choose, their minds’ gifts and their true selves ignored in favor of what their back and hands can do before they break. How it feels to watch love carried away in an ambulance. How it feels to be Cassandra, speaking the truth but never believed. “How does it feel?” cries Dylan in “Like A Rolling Stone”, the song at the other end of Highway 61 Revisited. How it feels is Desolation Row.

It’s where you stand, outside the horror but seeing it clearly, framing it with symbols. What becomes clear from this observation point is that we are the authors of our own nightmares. As Polizzotti puts it, “the fault lies not in our political or social institutions, but hopelessly, irrevocably in ourselves.” (Ibid., pg. 138) Or, in the words of another Desolation Row denizen:

Watchmen, chapter 6, page 26. Voice balloon of Rorschach, saying "This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not god who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It's us. Only us."

I’ve mentioned lots of famous characters, both real and fictional — Cinderella, Ophelia, Einstein, Casanova, and so forth. There are plenty more in the lyrics of “Desolation Row”, such as Cain and Abel, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Phantom of the Opera. In fact, the agents and superhuman crew are unusual in the song for being referred to as a general category rather than a specific example. Dylan puts these figures to work as archetypes, fundamental examples of concepts such as poetry, romance, doomed love, brilliance, and so forth. However, we never find them doing quite what we expect — they’re placed well outside their usual stories. Pound and Eliot are fighting in the captain’s tower of the Titanic. Einstein wanders around disguised as Robin Hood, smoking and reciting the alphabet. And then of course there are those fascistic superheroes. Dylanologist Clinton Heylin sums it up: “Dylan relies almost solely on placing familiar characters in disturbingly unfamiliar scenarios, revealing a series of increasingly disturbing canvases.” (Revolution In The Air, pg. 248)

Ring any bells? Alan Moore didn’t have the familiar characters available, though not for lack of trying. Instead, he reflected the Charlton characters just enough to open up their connections to much broader categories. As Dave Gibbons puts it, “The Charlton characters were superhero archetypes. There was the Superman figure, the Batman figure…. We realized we could create our own archetypes and tell a story about all superheroes.” Except, these superheroic emblems weren’t doing their usual thing, but instead find themselves in disturbingly unfamiliar scenarios, such as the extreme grimness of Rorschach’s “origin”, Silk Spectre’s Tijuana Bible, and the Vietnam killings of Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian. Watchmen‘s world is a lot like that of Dylan’s song, but the only observation point is from outside the book. Even Mars isn’t far enough away.

In the tenth and final verse of “Desolation Row”, Dylan shows his cards at last, letting us know what he’s been doing in the other nine. The cultural tokens fade away, the symbolic giving way to the personal:

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

It doesn’t really matter whether he’s talking about people in his life or talking about the condition of humans in general — what matters is that he has to rearrange their faces, and give them all another name. That’s what Cinderella, Einstein, and the rest are up to — new faces and new names for the “lame” people he’s all too familiar with. Through this rearrangement, draping the people he knows in symbolic clothes, and sending them out to make their way in a world of horrors, Dylan lets us see the things we know ourselves in a startling new light.

New faces and new names are a core trope of the superhero genre, too. What Dylan does to his subjects, superheroes do to themselves — changing their faces with masks and cowls (or perhaps just strategic eyewear removal), and declaring new names, new identities for their heroic undertakings. The characters in Watchmen have certainly done this, sometimes more than once — Sally Juspeczyk sets aside her ethnic Polish surname for the flashier “Jupiter”, and then throws a Silk Spectre on top of that. In response to the Keene Act, some then rearrange again, going back to their old names. And finally, after attaining and then shedding an archetypal identity, a few transform once more, into the ultimate expression of that archetype. Dr. Manhattan goes from godlike to simply god. Ozymandias builds a futile monument for the ages. Rorschach becomes a blot.

Pulling back one more level, we can see that Watchmen itself does this. It rearranges the faces of the Charlton heroes, giving them all new names. And in an even larger sense than this, it invites us to view superheroes from Desolation Row, rearranging the face of the entire genre.

Watchmen, chapter 6, page 25. Full page image. Panel 1: Rorschach sets down a hacksaw. Voice balloon: "Hey, wait a minute! That's mine! What is this?". Panel 2: Rorschach picks up a tank. Killer says "You're giving me this? Is that it? Look, please, if you'd just say something." Panel 3: Rorschach spreads kerosene. Killer: "Hey! Hey! Are you crazy? That's kerosene!". Panel 4: Rorschach: "Yes. Shouldn't bother trying to saw through handcuffs. Never make it in time." Panel 5: Rorschach lights match. Killer: "What do you mean? What am I supposed to... Oh god. Oh Jesus, no. You're kidding. You have to be kidding." Panel 6: Rorschach drops match. Panel 7: Rorschach exits, fire and killer's screams behind him. Panel 8: Rorschach faces camera, coat stained with blood. Caption: "Stood in street. Watched it burn. Imagined limbless felt torsos inside; breasts blackening; bellies smoldering; bursting into flame one by one. Watched for an hour." Panel 9: Rorschach, maskless and in prison, talking to psychiatrist. Blot on desk. Rorschach: "Nobody got out."
Next Entry: A Real Rain
Previous Entry: Housekeeping, and Some Notes On Method

The Watchmen Bestiary – Housekeeping, and Some Notes on Method

Projects have a way of going fractal on me. When my Magical Randomized Reading Selector came up Watchmen, I remembered that I wanted to reread the book with the annotations alongside. So I googled up “Watchmen annotations” and found what seemed to be the most up-to-date version, a page calling itself “The Annotated Watchmen v2.0.” Basically someone took the existing annotations, farmed them around to a bunch of people for further comment, and collated the results, right in time for the 2009 Watchmen movie. So I printed out the chapter one notes and started into reading, only to find that the annotations themselves referred to a bunch of other works, various texts that had informed Watchmen, or at least so the notes claimed.

I was, at the time, looking for something to write about. Hey, I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to track down those other works, read them (or watch them, or listen to them, or whatever), and write little essays about how they interconnect to Watchmen? So I started into that, and I was right — it was fun.

I posted my first entry in the Watchmen Bestiary series (then called “The Annotated Annotated Watchmen”) in October 2012. That’s an eon ago in Internet years, and sure enough, some things have changed. For one thing, the Annotated Watchmen v2.0 page at http://www.csd.uwo.ca/faculty/andrews/AnnotatedWatchmenV2/ is no more. Now visitors to that page get a very unfriendly “Access forbidden!” message. Disappointingly, even the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive seems to have only spotty captures of the page — in particular the “spoiler version”, which includes information that gives away some of the book’s plot, was never archived.

Meanwhile, I find myself falling backwards into my own fractalism. Where in the early entries I would read a book or watch a movie, then write, now I seem to be reading five books full of background alongside the basic text, before writing a word. I think this really amped up around the DC Universe entry, as I found that I simply could not make heads or tails of the material by itself. Background research was vital. Same with the Bible — I never did much Bible study, and I couldn’t write authoritatively about Revelation without some study of the context.

Perhaps strangely, I’m having even more fun than when I started. I feel now like I’m conducting my own independent college degree, giving myself a course on something and then writing a final paper. The thing is, now the essays are coming 2-3 months apart rather than 1 month apart. At this rate, I’ll be writing them for another 5 years. At least. But hey, as long as it’s fun, I’ll keep going. It’s not like I’m doing this for the money and the fame. 16 essays in, I’ve reached a milestone: finished with chapter one. Ha! (Though in fairness I do think this chapter is thicker with references than many others, partly because it addresses some things — like the Charlton references — that span the entire book.)

All that said, I’m making a couple of changes. First of all, due to the aforementioned web volatility, I’m switching from the spoiler version to the non-spoiler version of the Annotated Watchmen v2.0. Luckily, the Internet Archive did preserve the non-spoiler version. Let’s hear it for the Internet Archive! I’ve updated all the entries to point to the Archive version of the annotations, and also added some cross-referencing here and there among the essays, including links at the end of each one to the previous and next entries. Oh, and I fixed the occasional infelicitous phrase when I just couldn’t help myself.

Finally, when I first headed down this road I decided to eliminate texts I had already read/heard/whatever. However, I’m finding the process rewarding enough that I’ve decided to put those works back in scope. So for chapter one, that means the title quotation of Bob Dylan, and the page one allusion to Taxi Driver. Consider that a sneak preview of the next two essays, and then it’s on to chapter two!

Next Entry: The Superhuman Crew
Previous Entry: Let’s See Action

The Watchmen Bestiary 16 – Let’s See Action

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s spoilers for Watchmen, and they’re coming this way! We’re through the actual comic book section of Watchmen #1, and on to its wonderful prose supplement, the first two chapters of Hollis Mason’s autobiography, Under The Hood.

In chapter 2, Mason starts with stories of his grandfather’s moral sense and his own experience on the New York City police force, cites with his love of pulp adventure fiction like The Shadow, and finally builds to a rather shamefaced declaration of his crimefighting career as Nite Owl I: “Okay. There it is. I’ve said it. I dressed up. As an owl. And fought crime.” From there, he explains that it was Action Comics #1, from April 1938, that began his owlish career:

There was a lot of stuff in that first issue. There were detective yarns, and stories about magicians whose names I can’t remember, but from the moment I set eyes on it, I only had eyes for the Superman story. Here was something that presented the basic morality of the pulps without all their darkness and ambiguity. The atmosphere of the horrific and faintly sinister that hung around The Shadow was nowhere to be seen in the bright primary colors of Superman’s world, and there was no hint of the repressed sex-urge which had sometimes been apparent in the pulps, to my discomfort and embarrassment. I’d never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane, but I’d bet it was nowhere near as innocent and wholesome as Clark Kent’s relationship with her namesake Lois.

As the annotations point out, Action Comics #1 was “the first appearance of Superman and perhaps the most important single work in the development of the superhero.” So I read it. And Mason is right — there’s a lot of stuff in there, but the 13-page Superman story is clearly what’s important. So I’ll maintain a focus on that, and not worry too much about Pep Morgan, Zatara, Scoop Scanlon, Tex Thompson, Sticky-Mitt Stimson, and all the rest.

Actually, it’s probably more correct to say “Superman stories”, plural — in those 13 pages we get Superman’s origin, Superman saving a woman wrongly convicted of murder, the introduction of Clark Kent, Superman defeating a wife-beater, the introduction of Lois Lane, Clark and Lois going on a date, Lois getting kidnapped, Superman defeating the kidnappers, and Clark getting sent to the fictional South American country of San Monte but instead heading to Washington D.C. and tackling congressional corruption. In modern comics, it would probably take a year to tell all those stories.

So what did Hollis Mason see in that first issue, and how did it influence him? Page one features an extremely compressed version of Superman’s spaceflight from “a distant planet” (not yet Krypton), and his incredible powers emerging in childhood and adulthood. There’s even “a scientific explanation of Clark Kent’s amazing strength”, invoking the proportional lifting and jumping abilities of ants and grasshoppers — unknowingly foreshadowing the strength and agility of a certain bug-based character of the future. But Clark’s abilities aren’t the ones we’ve come to know today. There’s no heat or x-ray vision, no super-hearing or super-breathing or super-thinking. He can’t even fly. The story says he can “leap 1/8th of a mile; hurdle a twenty-story building,” but he wouldn’t hover or swoop in the comics until years later.

Still, what’s clear is that, like Hugo Danner before him, Clark Kent has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Hollis Mason, a mere mortal himself, couldn’t have hoped to compete. Even though Superman’s powerset is far from what it would become, it was well beyond anything Mason would ever achieve. In fact, when a real super-being does come along, Mason realizes immediately that he is suddenly irrelevant: “The arrival of Dr. Manhattan would make the terms ‘masked hero’ and ‘costumed adventurer’ as obsolete as the persons they described.” So Superman’s superhumanity couldn’t have been what inspired Mason to his own crimebusting career. But Superman was more than just strength, speed, and toughness.

Once the story proper kicks in, we find Superman carrying a bound and gagged woman, then leaving her on the ground so he can burst into the governor’s house, breaking down first a wooden door then a steel one. He shrugs off a bullet and tosses off a few sarcastic quips in the process of bringing a signed confession to the governor, who is the only one that can pardon an innocent woman about to be electrocuted. A couple of the panels even helpfully provide an inset clock, ticking down to midnight, showing how many minutes Evelyn Curry, the innocent woman, has left. (Hmm, now where have I seen that image before?) The guilty woman, according to the note Superman leaves behind, is “bound and delivered on the front lawn of your estate.”

Panels 1 and 2 of Action Comics #1, page 4

So here we have Superman using those incredible powers and abilities to prevent an injustice, save an innocent, and punish the guilty. It’s a theme that will repeat twice more in the issue. First, Superman interrupts a domestic violence incident (to which he was tipped off as Clark Kent), throwing the abuser against the wall with a cry of, “You’re not fighting a woman, now!” Later, he apprehends some gangsters who have kidnapped Lois, chasing down their car and destroying it by hand. In all cases, Superman’s powers dictate the way he does things — hoisting cars and people above his head, facing down bullets and knives without flinching, overcoming opponents by pure brute force. However, those powers do not dictate what he chooses to do. After all, Hugo Danner had those same powers, but he sure never dressed up and fought crime.

Superman decides, according to the origin, that “he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind.” The reason for this decision is not made clear, and it’s difficult to discern whether Clark Kent would be a do-gooder if not for his powers. But those stories, of protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty, speak to a deeply held desire within us, certainly within Hollis Mason. They remind him of “juvenile fantasies” like saving pretty girls from bullies, or teachers from gangsters, and lead him to wonder whether he could make those fantasies come true.

Here is where the “basic morality of the pulps” comes into play. Doc Savage swore to “think of the right and lend my assistance to all those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.” The Shadow admonished us that “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.” And by issue #6 of Action Comics, Superman’s raison d’etre coalesced into some version of:

Friend of the helpless and oppressed is SUPERMAN, a man possessing the strength of a dozen Samsons! Lifting and rending gigantic weights, vaulting over skyscrapers, racing a bullet, possessing a skin impenetrable to even steel, are his physical assets used in his one-man battle against evil and injustice!

Nite Owl’s abilities are very different from Superman’s, but his mission is not. He surely didn’t have the strength of a dozen Samsons, but what he did have was a deeply rooted desire to help the helpless and oppressed, and to fight against evil and injustice. He waged this battle with nothing more than his fists, really a far braver battle than Superman’s, as Mason was so much more vulnerable. And yet, wasn’t Hollis Mason doing this already as a policeman? Why, after a day of fighting crime in regulation blue, did he need to dress up as an owl to fight crime at night?

Well, for one thing, there’s a clear appeal in Superman’s directness. No policeman could have saved Evelyn Curry — the time was too short and the barriers too great. As for the wife-beater and the kidnappers, a cop might have stopped them, sure, but he would be denied the visceral satisfaction of meeting their violence with violence. And as for going to Washington and threatening lobbyists, forget it. Superman was unconstrained by rules and regulations, and in his identity as Clark Kent, could seek information and situations that would allow him to do his thing. Hollis Mason never comes out and says so, but I think it’s safe to imagine that he might have longed for the kind of freedom enjoyed by Superman in his battle against evil and injustice.

Still, that longing may have remained unexpressed if not for Hooded Justice, who was the first to tie the strands from Action Comics #1 into a shape that could exist in Mason’s world: physical power, fighting evil, with a concealed identity. Mason sees Hooded Justice as “the first masked adventurer outside comic books,” and says, “I knew I had to be the second.”

Last time, I cited Adela Yarbro Collins talking about apocalyptic fiction as a way to “overcome the unbearable tension perceived by the author between what was and what ought to have been.” In Superman, and Hooded Justice, Mason sees a different path to overcoming that tension. He doesn’t have to destroy the world. He doesn’t even have to destroy himself — just hide himself a little, and create a persona that allows him to author the change he wishes to see.

Yet in doing so, a different tension arises. Mason makes a point of mentioning his relief about what is left out of Action Comics #1: darkness, sexuality, moral ambiguity. And yet Hooded Justice has all these things in spades. Far from “bright, primary colors”, he’s draped in darkness (with, okay, a long pink cape for some reason.) He’s not the least bit afraid of devastating violence, crippling and hospitalizing his victims. And in his baleful gaze at the Comedian’s nasty jibe, it’s clear that this man is well acquainted with the “repressed sex-urge”, an urge deeply entangled with his darkness and menace.

watchmen-ch2-pg7

Embedded within Hollis Mason’s dual inspirations is a contradiction. The very things that Mason was so relieved to see absent from Superman’s bright, primary-colored world, are there from the beginning in his own. From what we can see of his career, he seems to have tried to provide the counterpoint, to project a chaste and cheerful image — the perfect Silver Age crimefighter. And yet darkness and ambiguity are all around him, even in his compatriots the Minutemen, from the frightened, mentally ill Moth to the cruel, grinning Comedian. It only gets darker from there, and his namesake Nite Owl II is pretty much the post-Minutemen poster boy for repressed sex-urge.

It’s worth noting, though, that the early Superman isn’t entirely devoid of these things either. No, we don’t see a lot of sexuality coming from him, at least not when he’s in the tights — all his interactions with Lois seem to aim at getting rid of her as quickly as possible. Clark, on the other hand, does keep trying to date her, but self-sabotages his way out of every encounter, presumably to maintain his secret. This portrayal is in keeping with the audience Siegel & Shuster were aiming at: 10-year-old boys. The mysteries of sex are buried deep, only called dimly and distantly by images of Superman carrying helpless women, and being fawned over by Lois.

Darkness and ambiguity, on the other hand, are more present than you might expect, or at least so it appears when reading the stories today. In the first 12 issues of Action Comics, there’s nary a supervillain to be seen. Instead, Superman seems to be working through a list of social ills similar to Captain Metropolis’ bulletin board, except that his board has labels like “gambling”, “reckless driving”, “slum housing”, and “corruption in college football.”

He goes about these crusades in some unexpected ways. For instance, to fight slum housing he… destroys all the houses in the slums! “When I finish,” he declares, “this town will be rid of its filthy, crime-festering slums!” And indeed, as the helpful captions explain, “During the next weeks, the wreckage is cleared, emergency squads commence erecting huge apartment-projects… and in time the slums are replaced by splendid housing conditions.” Thanks, government of 1939!

Now here’s how he fights corruption in college football. He kidnaps a low-performing scrub from a college team, drugs him to keep him docile, and then replaces him on the team, thanks to the magic of “make-up grease-paint.” From there, he follows a rather complicated scheme of making the former scrub into a star, threatening to expose the corrupt coach of the opposing team, then winning the game on the scrub’s behalf while resisting the rotten coach’s hired thugs.

In fact, Superman is full of threats in those early days — he’s constantly suggesting he’ll kill or badly injure anyone who gets in his way. He gets a warmongering munitions magnate onto a boat heading into the war zone by saying, “Unless I find you aboard it when it sails, I swear I’ll follow you to whatever hole you hide in and tear out your cruel heart with my bare hands!” This is quite a long way from today’s morally pure Man of Steel. In fact, it’s a little closer to the second Nite Owl, in pain over Mason’s murder: “I oughtta take out this entire rat-hole neighborhood! I oughtta… oughtta break your neck, you… you…”

Panel of Superman threatening Norville

One more note about Action Comics. Just as issue #1 gave us the first superhero, issue #13 gave us the first supervillain: the Ultra-Humanite! Ultra was a reflection of Superman, right down to his name, but where Superman had strength, Ultra has “the most agile and learned brain on earth!” But, as he goes on to say, “unfortunately for mankind, I prefer to use this great intellect for crime. My goal? Domination of the world!!” Bald-headed and brainy, Ultra goes away a handful of issues later, to be replaced by Lex Luthor, for whom he was clearly the prototype.

Thus, an archetypal conflict was encoded very early on in the genre: brawn vs. brains. Somehow, brains frequently ended up on the evil side. As goes Action Comics, so go its successors… Watchmen included.

Next Entry: Housekeeping, and Some Notes on Method
Previous Entry: The End Of The World As We Know It

The Watchmen Bestiary 15 – The End Of The World As We Know It

“To me, when we talk about the world, we are talking about our ideas of the world. Our ideas of organisation, our different religions, our different economic systems, our ideas about it are the world. We are heading for a radical revision where you could say we are heading towards the end of the world, but more in the R.E.M. sense than the Revelation sense. That’s what apocalypse means — revelation. I could square that with the end of the world, a revelation, a new way of looking at things, something that completely radicalises our notions of the where we were, when we were, what we were, something like that would constitute an end to the world in the kind of abstract, yet very real, sense — that I am talking about. A change in the language, a change in the thinking, a change in the music. It wouldn’t take much — one big scientific idea, or artistic idea, one good book, one good painting — who knows?” — Alan Moore, 1998

Today’s topic, friends, is the end of the world. I say unto thee: behold and beware, for I bring you multitudes of Watchmen spoilers. Also, I suppose, Bible spoilers? Can the Bible be spoiled? Besides via misinterpretation, I mean? 🙂

The Christian holy book is at issue today because of an observation made by the Annotated Watchmen, v2.0, about page 24 of chapter 1:

The band name, “Pale Horse,” refers to Revelations [sic] 6:8, where the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, Death, is said to ride a pale horse.

watchmen-ch1-pg24-panel1

(The words “Pale Horse” are partially obscured in this panel, as frequently happens in Watchmen, but they show up plenty of other places, such as emblazoned above the dead bodies in Chapter 12.)

So, in quite a tonal switch from reading DC and Charlton comics, I read the Bible. Well, the last book of it anyway.

It makes sense that Watchmen would refer to Revelation. They are both stories of apocalypse, and not in the R.E.M. sense either. The modern meaning of “apocalypse” relates to catastrophic destruction, irrevocable change, the end of the world. But etymologically, “apocalypse” derives from Greek, meaning “uncover” or “reveal.” The book of Revelation encompasses both senses of the word. It describes destruction on an epic scale, with God visiting one catastrophe after another upon humanity — the earth quakes, the waters turn to blood, meteors fall and set the forests ablaze. Locusts with human faces and scorpions’ tails boil from a bottomless pit, slaughtering people alongside avenging angels, amid fire, darkness, starvation, drought, hailstones, and disease. These themes repeat throughout the book, starting with the four horsemen representing conquest, war, famine, and death. At the same time, Revelation is, well, a revelation, partly because it was revealed in a vision to its writer, John of Patmos, and partly because it demonstrates the final judgment of God, the creation of the New Jerusalem, and the vindication of Christian believers, who are of course separated from the Earth before all those horrible things happen to it.

Watchmen certainly includes the horror; Moore and Gibbons devote six splash pages in a row to making sure we know it as Chapter 12 opens. However, in the first of many inversions of the Biblical model, Veidt’s apocalypse is explicitly antithetical to revelation, demanding instead that everyone to whom it is revealed either keep it secret or be destroyed to preserve the secret. Revelation 12:9 refers to Satan as “the deceiver of the whole world”, and describes how he is defeated and thrown down to earth by the archangel Michael. The book equates deception with evil, and describes Jesus as bringing a fierce and disturbing truth — it refers no less than five times to a sword coming from Jesus’ mouth. Salvation of the world depends on this truth, and on the overthrow of Satan the deceiver.

In Watchmen, though, Veidt is the deceiver of the world, and in his mind at least, he deceives the world in order to save it. “Unable to unite the world by conquest…” says Veidt, “I would trick it: frighten it towards salvation with history’s greatest practical joke.” The sword comes not from Adrian’s mouth, but from somewhere altogether more hidden and secret — the bottom of the world. Not only that, he makes the other characters complicit in his secret, asking “Will you expose me, undoing the peace millions died for? …Morally, you’re in checkmate.” And the other characters agree, all except for Rorschach, who meets his own personal apocalypse at the hands of the book’s most godlike character. Where Revelation shows war in heaven, Watchmen‘s pantheon reluctantly unites, after destroying its lone dissenting vote.

Rorschach himself is the book’s prime examplar of the moral sense on display in Revelation. In many parts of the New Testament, Jesus’s teachings complicate and problematize the old vengeful approach of the Old Testament God. Take for example, this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:38-42

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

(All my Bible quotes are from the English Standard Version, BTW and FWIW.) But in Revelation, no cheeks are turned. The book couldn’t be more dualistic. God and Jesus stand on one side, Satan and his beasts on the other. Babylon the whore stands on one side, New Jerusalem the bride on the other. The 144,000 of Israel, along with a “great multitude” of the faithful from every nation are preserved in heaven, while the rest of humanity is condemned to round after round of torture and disaster. No Limbo, no Purgatory. Nobody gets just a mild punishment. Nobody even repents, despite what you’d have to think are some pretty convincing reasons to give it a shot:

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Revelation 9:20-21)

(John of Patmos really loved lists.)

In other words, as Rorschach’s journal tells us just a few panels down from the first Pale Horse reference:

watchmen-ch1-pg24-panel6

(The word “Armageddon” itself comes from Revelation too — it’s the gathering place of the armies of evil in preparation for their final battle: “And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.” (Rev 16:16))

In fact, Rorschach’s journal has another connection to Revelation, in which God several times makes the point, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” (Rev 21:6) So if God is the Alpha and Omega of Revelation, what is the Alpha and Omega of Watchmen? Why, it’s Rorschach’s journal. Chapter 1, page 1, panel 1, at the very top of the panel, reads: “Rorschach’s Journal. October 12th, 1985”. Then, at the very bottom of the final page of the final chapter is an image of Rorschach’s journal. In between the word and the image lies the full comic, the rest of the world. Watchmen‘s world leads us to wonder: what if God were like Dr. Manhattan? But Revelation presents a God who is much more like Rorschach, preserving the innocent and casting all the rest into a lake of fire.

Watchmen itself is an inversion of Revelation — all flawed humans and shades of grey, which contrasts so well with Rorschach’s dualism and the usual Good vs. Evil conflicts previously inherent to the superhero genre. In fact, one could argue that both Revelation and the general thrust of the superhero genre are expressions of the ancient combat myth pattern, which follows a familiar trajectory. Biblical scholar Adela Yarbro Collins, who has thoroughly made the case for Revelation’s connection to combat myth, maps out this trajectory:

A rebellion, usually led by a dragon or other beast, threatens the reigning gods, or the king of the gods. Sometimes the ruling god is defeated, even killed, and then the dragon reigns in chaos for a time. Finally the beast is defeated by the god who ruled before, or some ally of his. Following his victory the reestablished king of the gods (or a new, young king in his stead) builds his house or temple, marries and produces offspring, or hosts a great banquet. These latter elements represent the reestablishment of order and fertility.

(Crisis And Catharsis: The Power Of The Apocalypse, pg. 148)

Now, superhero stories don’t tend to be festooned with dragons, Fin Fang Foom aside. But if the dragon in ancient tales stood in for a force too overwhelming for ordinary humans to fight, then supervillains fill that role nicely. They threaten to overthrow whoever’s name is on the cover of the book, or that hero’s home city, country, planet, or galaxy. A mighty battle is joined, and the hero or team often is defeated or nearly defeated, before coming back and defeating the villain, restoring order. Due to the serial nature of the comics, we tend to skip over the final portion, since we understand that restoration of order is only temporary until the next issue arrives. Still, the X-Mansion gets rebuilt again and again, the Fantastic Four affirm or restore the safety of their children, and the Justice League shares convivial bonhomie at the beginnings and/or endings of its stories.

No such celebration happens in Watchmen, because the dragon is not defeated. Veidt carries out his plot and succeeds. He does not reign in chaos, but creates a fragile order based on deception. Moore upends the familiar and comforting story arc we’ve come to expect, and asks us whether we really wanted that story anyway. He shows us gods whose reign brought fear and uncertainty to their kingdoms, and were deposed (with varying degrees of success) by their subjects. But in their absence, the world finds still more chaos, brought about by ordinary human avarice, venality, and lust for power — no dragon necessary.

Indeed, Veidt sees himself as the king of the gods, and from his point of view the story does follow the combat myth pattern — he even throws a party for his scientists… as a means of killing them. He believes himself to have built a New Jerusalem of the world, but several signs point to his fallibility, the great distance between himself and the God of Revelation. Watchmen‘s most godlike figure questions the worth of Veidt’s plan, and the final scene intimates that the house of cards will tumble. Even Dan and Laurie gesture at fertility in the denouement (Dan’s comment, “Y’know, maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea of your mother’s…”), but immediately turn away. (“Children? Forget it.”)

In her study of the psychological power of apocalyptic tales, Yarbro Collins tells us, “The task of Revelation was to overcome the unbearable tension perceived by the author between what was and what ought to have been.” (Ibid, p. 141) Ozymandias authors his apocalypse for the same purpose, hoping to finally prove to the Comedian in his head that he wouldn’t just be “the smartest man on the cinder.” The artificial space squid’s appearance at the Pale Horse concert associates Veidt’s plan with Revelation’s fourth horseman of the apocalypse, and let’s not forget that John of Patmos saw those horsemen as a good thing, since the faithful would be spared from their destruction. John’s apocalypse never came, and Adrian’s is a pale shadow of it, because contrary to his apparent beliefs, Ozymandias is no savior, and certainly no god.

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Previous Entry: Across The Universes

The Watchmen Bestiary 14 – Across The Universes

I grew up a Marvel kid. I can absolutely tell you the names of every founding member of the New Mutants, or where Spider-Man went to college, or why the Avengers first got together. I knew about DC heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but I latched onto Marvel first (or maybe it latched onto me), so I never read a lot of DC comics, and that pattern continued through most of my life.

That’s not to say I didn’t give them a chance. My youthful comics obsession led me to check out pretty much every comic-related book in our local library (Dewey 741.5, baby!), which included a number of DC-oriented books. This was in the mid-to-late 1970s, when superhero comics still lacked the cultural cred (and numerous trade paperbacks) that would get actual stories stocked on public library shelves, but I checked out the Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman editions of the Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes several times each. Maybe the word “encyclopedia” got them in the door. Anyway, I dutifully read up, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that compared to my beloved Marvel heroes, the DC stable was just kind of… flat. Bland. Corny. And worst of all: silly. (The contemporaneous Super Friends cartoon, with its Wonder Twins and their super-monkey, surely didn’t help matters.)

What I didn’t realize back then was that DC was paying the price for blazing the trail. Those heroes had come along first, and by 1960 had become the Establishment against which Marvel rebelled, with their “real people and real problems” approach to superhero stories. In comparison, DC looked stodgy, and they were. Not only that, DC had learned to tread carefully in the wake of anti-comic hysteria and the Comics Code Authority. Their heroes were, in fact, flat, bland, and corny, to ensure that they would remain inoffensive and therefore not a target for any further congressional hearings. Not only that, the 1966 Batman TV series ushered in an arch, campy approach to masked heroics that drove the stories’ tone in the same direction. For a while, they got to explore territory that Marvel was (mostly) ignoring, but the Batman fad was short-lived and led to an even deeper crash.

Add to this the fact that they had already lived through one boom-and-bust superhero cycle. After Superman’s introduction in 1938, followed by Batman, The Flash, Wonder Woman, and others in the next few years, superheroes were big business in the comics industry, and DC (known at the time as National) had the vast majority of popular superheroes. They published many adventures of these marquee stars, and pulled them (as well as a number of lesser lights) into a supergroup called the Justice Society of America. Superheroes and groups like the JSA were the perfect American power fantasy at a time when the world seemed enmeshed in a stark good-versus-evil struggle, and they dutifully marched (or flew) off to fight Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini as well as the usual legions of scheming supervillains and ordinary crooks. However, after World War II ended, the country’s mood shifted, and superheroes seemed to lose their luster. By the late 1940s, DC had ceased publication of all but a few superhero titles. The Golden Age was over.

About a decade later, though, editor Julius Schwartz decided to give superheroes another try, with a revival of The Flash. The new Flash had a different identity, different costume, and different origin than the Golden Age Flash — about the only thing they had in common was the power of super-speed. Heartened by the story’s success, DC revived and revamped more heroes, and brought back the supergroup concept, though this time they were called the Justice League rather than the Justice Society. The stories caught on, and superheroes came charging back. The Justice League in particular inspired Stan Lee to try doing a supergroup his way, from whence sprang the Fantastic Four and the whole ever-lovin’ Marvel Universe.

In a brilliant move, Schwartz found a way to bring his Golden Age heroes into the new DC continuity, and once again The Flash was the key. In a 1961 story, Schwartz directed writer Gardner Fox to have The Flash “vibrate his molecules” (as it were), resulting in a sudden and unexpected teleportation into a parallel Earth. There on “Earth-Two”, he meets the Golden Age Flash, and the two of them team up to save the day before the newer Flash returns to Earth-One. The story was a smash success, and once again, success spurred expansion of the concept. So it was that a couple of summers later, DC published “Crisis on Earth-One!” and “Crisis on Earth-Two!”, a two-part story in the Justice League Of America comic, in which villains from Earth-Two find their way to Earth-One, defeating and imprisoning the JLA inside its own headquarters. Batman suggests that they conduct a seance, using a magic crystal ball left over from some other adventure, and from there they use the crystal ball to summon the JSA from Earth-Two! The two supergroups team up, defeat the villains, and set everything back to status quo.

The next summers brought “Crisis on Earth-Three!”, “Crisis on Earth-A!”, “Crisis Between Earth-One and Earth-Two!”, and so forth. Every summer, for years, some crisis prompted somebody to cross the “vibrational barrier,” and the JLA and JSA met to adventure across various alternate versions of the primary world. It quickly became clear that the DC Universe was no longer just a universe — it was a multiverse, teeming with parallel Earths. There was an Earth whose JLA was villainous, an Earth where the Nazis won World War II (featuring the Freedom Fighters, heroes acquired from the defunct Quality Comics), an Earth with the Charlton Heroes, an Earth with Captain Marvel and the Fawcett heroes, a post-nuclear-war Earth, an Earth where Superman was raised by apes, and so on, and on, and on. After a while, the concept had clearly become a victim of its own success. The surfeit of Earths was confusing, unfriendly to new readers, and, again, oftentimes just silly.

In 1985, DC decided to remedy these problems via a landmark 12-issue “maxi-series” called Crisis On Infinite Earths. Lots of stuff happened in this story, and it made such a big impression that despite the fact that there had been about a zillion story crises leading up to it, now when people say “Crisis” in reference to DC, what they mean is Crisis On Infinite Earths. Fans routinely refer to “pre-Crisis” and “post-Crisis” DC continuity. The biggest change of all was that it eliminated the multiverse. Due to the cosmic machinations of a Big Bad and a reality-shattering battle that ensues, all but five Earths get destroyed, and those get fused into one single Earth. The JLA, the JSA, the (Captain) Marvel family, the Freedom Fighters, and the Charlton Heroes all existed together, and none of them ever remembered having been apart. There were no more crises, because there was no more barrier to be crossed.

Harbinger explains the history of New Earth, from COIE 11.

So it remained, for about 20 years. But big-business superhero comics are a cyclical milieu, and no possible attention-getting or moneymaking idea remains untouched forever. DC pulled in thriller author Brad Meltzer to write a dark, violent JLA story that he cleverly titled Identity Crisis. That story began a long “uber-crossover”, in which crossover events were no longer events, but rather one long mega-story along the spine of the DC universe, divided into major movements which sometimes piled atop one another, sometimes contradicted one another, and always tried to be ultimate and unmissable, with mixed results. Following directly on the heels of Identity Crisis was Infinite Crisis, in which characters from Crisis on Infinite Earths checked in on 20 years of story development, and were disappointed in what they saw. The resulting battle ended with Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman all taking a break from the hero business for a while. Of course, DC couldn’t exactly write their books without the main characters, so they invoked a time-jumping gimmick. Suddenly all the books were branded “One Year Later” — a year’s worth of continuity had elapsed and there were various changes in the status quo, but the heroes were back.

The story of the missing year is chronicled in 52, a yearlong, 52-issue series in which (as you may have deduced) a new issue was released every week. The biggest effect of 52 is that it undoes the major change of Crisis On Infinite Earths by restoring the multiverse, or at least a portion of it. Due to some stuff that happened during Infinite Crisis, and a rampage by a giant worm that eats time and space (no, really), the DC Universe was full of differing parallel Earths again. 52 of them, to be exact. (Funny coincidence, that.) And this, my friends, is where the Watchmen annotations finally come in, continuing their discussion of the Charlton heroes:

Completing the circle, in the 2007-2008-2009 DC Crossover series 52, Countdown to Final Crisis and Final Crisis, it’s established that Earth-4 is the new home of different versions of the Charlton Comics heroes homaged in Watchmen. Writer Grant Morrison notes that Earth-4’s Question owes a certain amount to Rorschach, while in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond (2 issue limited series, writer Morrison), the Captain Atom of Earth-4 looks and acts much more like Dr. Manhattan than he does any previous version of Captain Atom.

So, possessing very little of the background provided above, I read 52, Countdown To Final Crisis, and Final Crisis. I found them utterly bewildering. We pick up on various characters dealing with developments that are never introduced or explained, because they happened in other books. Characters arrive in dramatic splash pages, with zero explanation as to who they are. Moments of unexplained history get casually referenced, like the untranslated French or Latin phrases that used to pepper literary novels. It gave me a real sense of what it must be like for a new reader to try to pick up a Marvel comic and understand what the hell is going on. These big event comics are the most heavily advertised books in the business — and sometimes garner mainstream press due to killing off some character, or making somebody gay, or what have you — but they are the very worst books for a new reader to pick up, because they presume a graduate degree in fictional universe history. You’re far better off with a copy of Watchmen, in which every reader of Chapter 1 starts on equal ground. Ironically, these are the very sorts of problems that Crisis On Infinite Earths was written to alleviate, but today’s crossovers complicate rather than simplify their universes.

Lucky for me, learning more superhero stuff doesn’t exactly feel like a chore, so I read a lot of background material and then returned to the crossovers. This time they made more sense, though not complete sense. There’s still a whole lot I don’t know, and the works themselves vary pretty dramatically in quality. In particular, Countdown to Final Crisis is rather a mess, starting out as a mirror-image of 52 (another weekly series, but this time starting at #52 and ending at #1) but changing title halfway through, and (quite literally) pushing characters around on a chessboard without much regard for the accuracy, consistency, or integrity of their portrayals. However, there was also plenty of interesting stuff to be found in the various series, some of which relates pretty directly to Watchmen. From here on out, you’re in a spoiler zone for Watchmen and all DC crossovers.

First of all, despite the annotations’ suggestion that 52 is what established the Charlton heroes on Earth-4, that designation happened way back in Crisis On Infinite Earths. Issue #1 of Crisis appeared in April of 1985, a couple of years after DC had acquired the Charlton heroes, and a little over a year prior to the first issue of Watchmen. Crisis #1 marks the introduction of Blue Beetle as a DC character, and thus the introduction of Earth-4, though it isn’t named as such until issue #7. Of course, Earth-4 gets wiped out a few issues later, as cataclysmic events force the five surviving universes into one, combining the histories of different stables of heroes. That’s what brings the Charlton heroes into the DC universe, a fusion which wouldn’t have happened if Alan Moore had been allowed to use them for Watchmen. But since Watchmen ended up with original characters, The Question and the rest ended up in the DC universe. In fact, The Question ends up being one of the main characters of 52, but more about that in a bit.

So Crisis took up most of 1985 and the beginning of 1986. Watchmen started in the middle of 1986 and went through to the middle of 1987. In between landed Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, its beginning slightly overlapping the end of Crisis. Where Crisis was concerned with cleaning up the wacky mess that had been made of the DC Universe, Watchmen and Dark Knight wanted to interrogate the superhero genre itself, to reveal (among other things) the political, sexual, and moral implications of a world where people got dressed up in tights and punched each other. All three series were extremely popular, which meant that while Crisis made way for new stories, those new stories were ushered in by Dark Knight and Watchmen.

Unfortunately, many of the writers who followed in Miller and Moore’s footsteps did so based on a rather shallow reading of their work (especially Watchmen), taking the dark, oppressive atmosphere but leaving out the variety of viewpoints and the psychological depth. The result was a wave of “grim and gritty” comics. Formerly simon-pure heroes became morally grey. Already morally grey heroes got really morally grey, sometimes becoming outright villains, or at least crossing boundaries that were formerly sacrosanct. The hair, the muscles, the guns, and the shoulder pads all got a lot bigger. Violence, gore, and horror climbed steadily. What would the heroes of an earlier era think of what they had become? Infinite Crisis would dramatize the answer.

Cover of Infinite Crisis trade paperback

Infinite Crisis was conceived as a kind of sequel to Crisis On Infinite Earths, and a marker of its 20th anniversary. At the end of Crisis, a few characters had walked off stage: an alternate Superman & Lois Lane (from Earth-Two, making them the Golden Age versions of the characters), an alternate Superboy (from Earth-Prime, where he was the only superpowered person), and an alternate son of Lex Luthor (from Earth-Three, where alignments are reversed and his father was the sole superhero fighting evil versions of the Justice League.) They all went to a netherworld “heaven” outside the universe proper. In Infinite Crisis, we learn that they’ve been watching how Earth-One has developed (and perhaps devolved) since, and they eventually come to the conclusion that they made a terrible mistake leaving its heroes on their own. These personifications of the pre-Watchmen comics era decide that it’s time to turn back the clock, to return the world to its more innocent times.

But of course, the genie is out of the bottle, and they themselves are part of the post-Watchmen landscape. Superboy-Prime’s rage amps up and up with his frustration, and he ends up going completely berserk battling Earth-One Superboy and a bunch of Teen Titans. In a heated moment he actually decapitates some poor D-list superheroine (albeit accidentally.) Try finding that in a Silver Age comic. Similarly, Earth-Three Luthor turns out to be the evil mastermind behind the whole thing (a 180-degree pivot from his Crisis persona), ruthlessly kidnapping heroes and eventually smashing planets together trying to create the perfect Earth. Earth-Two Superman finally decides he’s fighting on the wrong side, and sacrifices his life to defeat Superboy-Prime.

Several times in the course of the story, the Crisis exiles claim that Earth-One is a corrupting influence, and that it has ruined its heroes. In the context of the story, we’re meant to understand that this is a delusion, and that those characters are, at best, tragically misguided. On the symbolic level, though, I wonder. Superhero comics really did change forever in the mid-eighties, and Watchmen was one of the prime reasons for that. Once that book took superheroes apart, something shifted between writers and audience. Part of it was writers chasing the enduring success of Watchmen by imitating it (often very poorly), but part of it was an audience for whom simple good vs. evil conflicts seemed to have paled. If Earth-One is the superhero mainstream, it truly is a different place now, and while people are still writing stories with that more innocent feel, they are exceptions and curiosities. Our heroes will never again be “big, brave uncles and aunties”, for better or for worse.

52 reinforces that point. With the superhero “Trinity” gone, and much of the rest reeling from the events of Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis, 52 weaves a story from multiple viewpoints, each of which explores the nature of heroism, much like another book I could mention. 52 is no Watchmen — for one thing it’s far more sprawling, and far, far less self-contained — but it does visit some corners of superheroism where Watchmen didn’t travel, or at least not much.

For instance, Watchmen treats superheroes as a strictly American phenomenon, but 52 casts its net wider. We see the Great Ten, a Chinese supergroup with names like “August General In Iron” and “Accomplished Perfect Physician.” The group finds itself autonomous from the rest of the superhero universe, as China signs the Freedom Of Power Treaty, which bans foreign superbeings from operating within its borders. Beyond that, one of the series’ major plot threads is the ascension of Black Adam (basically Captain Marvel’s evil twin) to the throne of the fictional Middle East country Kahndaq. Adam starts out as a ruthless dictator, but his brutality becomes tempered by love, and he empowers a former refugee to become his queen Isis. Of course, love interests are always in the comic-book crosshairs, so Isis dies and Adam goes berserk, murdering pretty much an entire country and decimating the army of superheroes which comes after him. It isn’t until Captain Marvel sneakily changes Adam’s magic word that the madness stops.

Thus is each book a product of its time. Watchmen was a British writer’s dystopia of American dominance granted by godlike superpowers, and the missiles that could fly when that dominance evaporates. 52 isn’t fretting about nuclear war, but it is quite anxious indeed about a rampant Middle East, its power unleashed in a fanatical campaign of revenge killing that slaughters the innocent population of a nearby country. It is surely no coincidence that the writing team of 52 is 75% American. (The other 25% is Grant Morrison of Scotland, about whom more in a moment.) While Watchmen envisioned the national god as detached and unemotional, as indifferent to humanity’s fate as an atom bomb, 52‘s national god is motivated by the deepest human sins — lust, wrath, pride. He is a nihilist, a terrorist.

52 also marks the final destination of the Denny O’Neil incarnation of The Question. Charles Victor Szasz dies of lung cancer, high in the mountains of Tibet, passing his mantle to an alcoholic and lost Gotham City detective named Renee Montoya. Szasz becomes Montoya’s mentor over the course of 52, always peppering her with the question, “Who are you?”, until she finally answers it by becoming the new Question. By this point, The Question was just the most recent of the Charlton characters to become unrecognizable or extinct. The Ted Kord Blue Beetle is killed in a one-shot called Countdown to Infinite Crisis (not to be confused with Countdown To Final Crisis). Captain Atom bounced back and forth between hero and villain several times, and at the point of Infinite Crisis had flipped into a different identity called Monarch, then gone AWOL into another dimension. Nightshade had joined a team called Shadowpact, which got written out of the DC Universe for a while simultaneous with the publication of 52. Peacemaker had died in an early 90s issue of Eclipso, and Thunderbolt never made much of impression on the DC Universe in the first place. 20 years of continuity past Watchmen had killed, erased, or transformed most of its inspirations.

Enter the new Earth-4. By the end of 52 there’s a new 52-world multiverse, and world #4 in this lineup is pretty clearly shown to contain versions of the Charlton characters, which hew much more closely to their original versions rather than the DC mutations. But they can’t really be the original versions, not in this post-Watchmen world. Grant Morrison says in a post-52 interview that the idea of this “Megaverse” was to allow DC a banquet of franchise opportunities — “If you miss Vic Sage as the Question, you should be able to follow the adventures of Vic’s counterpart on the Charlton/Watchmen world of Earth 4.” However, a few breaths earlier in that same interview, he avers that “If you think you recognize and know any of these worlds from before, you’d be wrong,” insisting that the concepts would be revamped and rethought.

Those imagined franchises never launched, so we didn’t get to find out what that new “Charlton/Watchmen” world was like. However, we do get a taste of Earth-4’s Captain Atom in another Morrison series, Final Crisis, or more specifically, an offshoot of it called Final Crisis: Superman Beyond. In that book, certainly one of the trippier superhero comics I’ve ever seen, Superman travels in the interstitial spaces between the 52 universes, a space the book calls “The Bleed.” He’s accompanied by four alternate supermen:

The last of these, “Air Force captain Allen Adam, the ‘quantum superman’ of Earth 4,” clearly owes far more to Alan Moore than to Steve Ditko. He is clothed, and he shares his name with Captain Atom, but otherwise he is straight-up Dr. Manhattan. He’s blue. He’s got the image of a hydrogen atom on his forehead. His size varies depending on necessity or mood. He says stuff like “Allow me to demonstrate quantum super-position as used defensively,” at which point he replicates himself into a bunch of duplicates. He also says this, to the super-evil antimatter Ultraman: “I am the endgame of the idea that spawned the likes of you, Ultraman. I am beyond conflict.”

Superman, Captain Marvel, Ultraman, and Overman are all the “mightiest mortal” of their respective earths. But quantum Adam is no mortal. He is, essentially, a god, and perhaps beyond good and evil, as a certain Mr. Nietzsche might say. But Morrison plants some seeds to problematize that notion as well. First, there’s the fact that Adam takes drugs to “dampen his quantum sense to acceptable levels.” Why would a god need to do such a thing, unless there were some human part of him, struggling to mitigate the full experience of divinity? Second, he does become a force for good in the end. He fuses Superman and Ultraman for a moment, releasing tremendous energy from the matter/antimatter blast. He does this in order to help Superman obtain some “bottled Bleed” in order to save Lois Lane’s life, for which purpose Adam must obtain enough energy to “broadcast [Superman’s] pure essence to a receiver in a higher dimension.” His final words in the series? “Only Superman can save us now.”

It’s tempting to think that Morrison’s version of Dr. Manhattan is partly Captain Atom, but I would suggest that in fact, Moore’s character has these same qualities. He is not beyond emotion — witness his freakout at the press conference when he is told that he caused Janey Slater’s cancer. As much as he pretends to be above emotion, he can be far from rational when under duress. Also, his insistence on keeping Veidt’s secret at the end, and his murder of Rorschach to ensure the secret would stay safe, suggests that (perhaps due to Laurie’s revelation on Mars) he still has a vested interest in protecting humanity.

Of course, almost immediately afterwards he departs our galaxy, just as Captain Adam in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond says, “I must return to my world.” But unlike Dr. Manhattan, we may see the “quantum superman” again — if 52 and its successors prove anything it’s that in the DC Universe, nothing ever ends.

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