Ee yo, ee yo, ee yo, yo, yo, yo, YO, the following article contains spoilers for Watchmen.
I’m all reggatta de blanc today because of this panel, from page 19 of chapter 3:
The radiation symbol appears on the cover of chapter 3, and reverberates throughout the issue, including this panel and the one immediately preceding it on the previous page:
However, where the preceding panel juxtaposes the symbol with the words from Tales Of The Black Freighter and the dubious sagacity of Bernard the news vendor, the quarantine panel brings in a different overlay. Web annotations, do your thing:
The symbol, this time being painted on their bedroom door. The singer’s rendition of “Walking on the Moon” by the Police foreshadows Dr. Manhattan’s trip to Mars.
The song’s first line, “Giant steps are what you take,” is an ironic preview of Dr. Manhattan’s imminent departure, first from New York and then from Earth.
And yeah, that’s pretty much how this is working on the surface level. It’s a clever and mildly contemporary pop culture reference — “Walking On The Moon” came out in 1979, seven years prior to this issue of Watchmen. Its lyric about giant steps connects with Jon’s teleportation, and its lunar imagery resonates nicely with the iconic final image of this issue — Dr. Manhattan sitting alone in a cratered landscape against a backdrop of stars. That image also fits in well with the mention of quarantine. Talk about your social distancing.
But here’s the thing about references in Watchmen. Paying close attention to one is like closing your eyes and listening to a song on repeat, through really good headphones. Suddenly all this detail appears, little effects buried deep enough that you didn’t notice them before.
If you listen to “Walking On The Moon” like that, you’ll hear weird sci-fi sonics sliding by in the deep background — some kind of analog synth, or maybe a guitar note filtered through one of Andy Summers’ many effects pedals. And with the images of space, you’ll also hear lots of… space. Nigel Gray, the co-producer of this song, explains it thus:
“Walking On The Moon” has two guitar parts, but there are long gaps in it where you’d expect an extra guitar to fill in — and there’s nothing, just the groove. They get the backing track, add the vocals and one or two overdubs, then have the faith to leave it. If anyone else had recorded “Walking On The Moon” it wouldn’t have been a hit — it’s what the Police do to it that makes it special.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the song doesn’t start cleanly. There’s a stray bass note suggesting that things have already happened, a bit like the in medias res opening of Watchmen. Then the ticking drums, three notes of bass, and what Andy Summers calls “a big shining D minor eleventh chord that acts like fanfare to the subsequent get-under-your-skin melody.” (One Train Later, pg. 208).
Listen on repeat and certain parts will establish themselves as dominant, foremost of which is the groove. “Walking On The Moon” is loping, distant, spacey. Sting’s bass gives it an anchored and calm feeling, a confidence that takes us through the empty spaces. It’s the same few bass notes, over and over, for the first minute and a half of the song.
Behind the vocals, the bass, guitar, and drums begin to braid together. There are only three players in The Police, but they are more than the sum of their parts. They interweave to form a strong tripartite structure, like the three parts of this chapter. The news vendor’s story, Dr. Manhattan’s story, Dan and Laurie’s story. Sting, Stewart, Andy. A triangle.
In his memoir Broken Music, Sting describes what he learned about working in a band with this configuration: “By playing as a trio I would learn the value of space and clarity between musical frequencies, which larger bands can’t help but fill.” (pg. 179) That’s that space we hear in “Walking On The Moon.” But there was a bigger triangle in Sting’s life.
Young Gordon Sumner’s mother Audrey was married to his father Ernest, but she was in love with another man, a man named Alan. Ernest owned a dairy, and Alan worked there for a time, enough time to entrance Audrey and himself into a bond that would last their lives. For decades, she would go out on Thursday nights, under the threadbare excuse of visiting Nancy, one of the assistants at the dairy. Ernest knew it was a lie, but couldn’t bear to leave her, and instead hurled sarcastic taunts as she left, then wept miserably while she was gone. The terrible tension of this triangle would thread all through Sting’s childhood, as his home life turned into “a series of squalid, ugly conflicts” (pg. 64).
Eventually, almost inevitably, he found himself repeating that tension in his own relationships, both as the victim and as the transgressor, his father’s role and his mother’s. It’s all over his music, too — for every giddy-in-love “Walking On The Moon”, there are plenty of “So Lonely”s and “Can’t Stand Losing You”s, lots of lonely messages in lots of bottles.
Triangles loom large in Watchmen too. As the symbol for Pyramid Deliveries, one appears on the very first page of the book, and they repeat themselves throughout. Adrian’s picture in Nova Express is credited to Triangle Inc. Joey badgers Bernard into hanging up a poster for the band Pink Triangle. There’s a triangle around the Buddha at the crime scene that detective Fine investigates in chapter 5. They are all over Adrian’s costume, and his fortress.
In fact, the very panel we’re examining today features triangles, albeit in a more subtle way. The top of the radiation symbol and its diagonally-jutting lower parts form a triangle, and the angled lines of each section leading toward the center suggest alternating black and yellow triangles. Those three black shapes around the central disc echo these trios. Sting, Stewart, Andy. Laurie, Jon, Dan.
The central romantic triangle of Watchmen began forming in issue #1, as Dan and Laurie dine together without Jon, but it takes shape much more clearly in this issue, as Laurie leaves Jon and shows up at Dan’s door. Like Sting’s mother Audrey, Laurie pushes away from her cold and distant provider to connect with someone more down-to-earth, setting up a tension that lasts all the way through to the final scenes, where Jon releases them both with another giant step away.
As I listened to “Walking On The Moon” over and over, seeking keys to its connections with Watchmen, my imagination began to superimpose the characters over the musical parts. The skittering, restless energy of the drums, trying to push the song open: Laurie. Spaced out bursts of guitar, perfectly timed, with quavering pulsar textures behind: Jon. Repetitive, broken-record bass, occasionally leaping into heartfelt melodicism: Dan.
And then there are the lyrics — powerful, vulnerable, joyous, detached, confident, nervous, all at once: all of them encompassed. The triangle itself. Giant steps are what Dr. Manhattan takes, but surely he’s not worried about broken legs. The vulnerable, human concern for injury belongs more to Dan and Laurie. Forever belongs to the godlike being, but together does not — he ends up alone, where it’s simpler, contemplating his own creations, while Dan and Laurie end up together, visiting Nepenthe Gardens.
Sting traces the inspiration for at least some of these lyrics back to his first love, Deborah. “[W]alking back from Deborah’s house in those early days would eventually become a song,” he writes, “for being in love is to be relieved of gravity” (pg. 96)
In Watchmen, only one character is ever relieved of gravity, the one to whom this panel refers. And even he keeps finding himself caught in the tangle of people’s lives, pulled back to Earth from his extraterrestrial retreat, until he finally leaves this galaxy for one less complicated.
Everyone else is resolutely Earthbound. Some, like Hollis Mason, Edward Blake, Walter Kovacs, and millions of New Yorkers on November 2nd, 1985, return to Earth in death. All the rest can do is hang on to each other, and try to keep it up.
Attention, people of Earth! This article contains spoilers for Watchmen. In addition, there are spoilers for the novel and movie This Island Earth, and very minor spoilers for the HBO Watchmen series.
In Chapter 3 of Watchmen, Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk walk over to Hollis Mason’s apartment together. As so often happens in the book, Moore and Gibbons intercut this scene with another scene, in this case Dr. Manhattan preparing for his TV interview with Benny Anger. Juxtaposition abounds — on the top of page 11, panel one shows a receptionist overcome with existential nausea at Dr. Manhattan’s sudden materialization. “They’re not paying me enough for this…” she says. Then panel two:
Watchmen, up to its usual tricks, superimposes the dialogue from the previous panel onto this one and emphasizes two parts of the image to tie it to that dialogue: the Institute for Extraspatial Studies and the movie posters for This Island Earth. Both parts evoke “monsters from outta space” in a different way. The Institute for Extraspatial Studies operates more as foreshadowing for the final chapter (as well as an explicit reference to “outta space”), but the movie poster on the left serves up a great big monster on its face. The posters advertise a movie playing at the Utopia Cinema — we can tell that’s the name because the left-hand poster gives us the “PIA” while the right-hand poster has the “UTO”. This theater is apparently some kind of sci-fi revival house — as the web annotations helpfully point out:
The Utopia Cinema, which is showing “This Island Earth,” reappears later.
Indeed, we find it in Chapter 5 playing the movie Things To Come, and from Chapter 8 onwards playing The Day The Earth Stood Still (at least until the epilogue, in which it has become the “New Utopia” and shows a Russian cinema double feature.) Subjects for future posts, no doubt. For now, though, let’s focus on This Island Earth.
By 1955, Universal Pictures (named Universal-International at the time) was finding its successes in some odd places — Ma and Pa Kettle, Abbott and Costello, Francis the Talking Mule… and science fiction. The studio already had a stable of classic and beloved horror icons — Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Frankenstein, Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man — and was working to capitalize on a new sci-fi/monster craze kicked off in 1950 by Destination Moon.
Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold had turned in a couple of big black-and-white hits: It Came From Outer Space and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Arnold had also directed Revenge Of The Creature (a Black Lagoon sequel) and Tarantula, both of which did reasonably well. The studio felt it was time to make a “prestige” science fiction picture, and saw its chance in the novel This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones, the rights to which had been purchased by director Joseph M. Newman. Newman had commissioned Edward G. O’Callaghan to write a shooting script from the novel, but had failed to raise the necessary money to make his movie independently. Nevertheless, when Universal-International decided to buy the rights and engage Alland as the producer, those rights came attached to Newman as director and O’Callaghan as screenwriter.
U-I made some big investments in this movie. For one thing, they decided to shoot it in Technicolor, which was significantly more expensive than black-and-white stock but brought with it a “wow” factor, especially for sci-fi spectacle. They also brought in Franklin Coen to rewrite O’Callaghan’s script. Coen was not a science fiction writer, but knew how to focus on character and theme. His revisions brought some weight and depth to O’Callaghan’s original treatment. U-I may have also recruited Arnold to reshoot some of Newman’s work in the last act, though sources differ as to the extent of Arnold’s involvement, or indeed whether he was truly involved at all. Finally, the studio devoted quite a budget to visual effects, creating elaborate miniatures, matte paintings, fire, explosions, and (to Coen’s chagrin) a monster.
Prestige picture or no, This Island Earth was science fiction, and in Universal-International’s eyes, they’d never hook the teen and preteen audience they needed for it without a creature. As actor Jeff Morrow, who played the sympathetic alien Exeter in the film, later recalled, “the Studio felt that a Sci-Fi film had to have a monster”. (Universal Filmscripts Classic Science Fiction, Volume 1, pg. 15)
This monster from outer space was the Metaluna mutant, whose image we see on the Utopia Cinema’s poster in Watchmen. The mutant was invented wholly for the film — it doesn’t exist in the novel at all. And even in the movie, it feels pretty tacked-on. Nevertheless, the mutant is today the most famous and enduring aspect of This Island Earth (well, aside from the fact that this movie was somewhat unfairly chosen as the object of ridicule in the theatrical version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but that hadn’t happened yet in 1985) and it may be the primary reason why Moore and/or Gibbons chose the film to feature in the “monsters from outta space” panel. Certainly the mutant is one of the all-time iconic 1950s Hollywood space creatures.
Reassembling The Components
There’s more resonance here than appears in that panel, though, and to understand it we need to explore This Island Earth a little further. The book and the movie share a premise, but diverge radically about halfway through their stories. At the beginning of both, though, is Cal Meacham. He’s the kind of omnicompetent man common to 1950s sci-fi, a Scientist who does Science but who is also no stranger to action and fighting, plus he’s pretty good with the ladies. He receives a mysterious replacement part from a supply warehouse: a capacitor much smaller than he was expecting and with much greater capacity.
This leads to a catalog full of these mysterious parts, from which he orders the pieces for something called an “interociter.” Using his Science smarts, he builds the interociter, which turns out to have been his unsolicited audition for a mysterious outfit whose stated goal is to “put an end to war.” They fly him in a pilotless plane to their remote compound, where they’ve gathered other scientists like him, including PhD Ruth Adams (psychiatrist in the book, physicist in the movie), and entice him into working for them.
Something doesn’t feel quite right, though, and the same curiosity that drove Cal to build the interociter spurs him to investigate his benefactors. Before long, he discovers the truth: they’re aliens! Their purpose on Earth is to recruit humans to help them build tools and weapons for a war they’re waging against an implacable enemy.
From this point, the book and the movie diverge completely. In the book, the interociter turns out to facilitate telepathy, and it allows Meacham first to read his alien mentor’s mind, then to absorb the full context of a war between an affiliation of planets called the Llannan Council (i.e. the good guys) and another affiliation called the Guarra (bad guys.) Intrigue ensues, including a scary encounter with lizardlike Guarra agents.
Earth is destined to become a battleground between the Llannans and the Guarra, and the Llannas have decided to let it be overrun, until Cal goes before the council and argues that they’ve been executing the same plans (determined by a computer) for decades, and that their predictability has been their undoing. He persuades the Llannans to defend Earth, and ends the book looking forward to returning home with Ruth (to whom he’s become engaged in the course of the story.)
The movie, on the other hand, follows Cal’s discovery with an action sequence in which he and Ruth flee the compound with another scientist, played by Russell Johnson of Gilligan’s Island fame. Johnson’s character gets vaporized by some kind of space ray, and Meacham and Adams try to escape via plane, only to have their plane sucked into a flying saucer commanded by Exeter, leader of the alien compound. Exeter and company turn out to be from a planet called Metaluna, which is under relentless assault by another race called the Zahgons, whom we never see apart from their ships.
Exeter wants to bring Meacham and Adams to Metaluna to help create machines to power its defenses, and in the process of bringing them there we get to see a lot of those fancy visual effects that Universal-International paid for, including one in which Meacham and Adams step into tubes that put them through a mysterious process meant to help their bodies cope with the greater atmospheric pressure on Metaluna. What this looks like is some crazy lighting, and then the consecutive appearance of various anatomical systems — nervous, circulatory, skeletal, muscular.
For readers of Watchmen, it’s a familiar set of images:
Given that This Island Earth gets name-checked in chapter 3 of Watchmen and Dr. Manhattan’s system-by-system reconstruction of himself appears in chapter 4, it’s not beyond reason to wonder if the movie’s visuals influenced Moore and Gibbons’ portrayal of Osterman’s process. Certainly both sequences suggest bodies deconstructed and then reconstructed into something greater than they were before.
In any case, by the time Exeter and the humans reach Metaluna, they find they are too late to save it. They encounter the mutant, who inadvertently and unsuccessfully impedes their escape a couple of times, and then they are back on Earth — Cal and Ruth in their airplane, and the mortally wounded Exeter plunging his saucer into the sea.
We Have Met The Enemy
The plots of these stories differ — largely because the latter half of Jones’s book wasn’t visual enough for the movie producers, and introduced too much complexity to fit into a film. But they do have a metaphorical underpinning in common. In each of them, the people of Earth find themselves part of a greater galactic context than they’d imagined, and are exploited by extraterrestrials who are themselves at war.
1955 was a mere decade past the end of World War II, a war in which the Allied and Axis forces battled on many fronts, including islands in the Pacific whose indigenous people had no idea of the greater context of war around them. Those indigenous people were often recruited to build airstrips or help in the manufacture of military supplies. The novel’s version of Exeter calls out this parallel explicitly, in a line of reasoning that explains the title:
These primitive peoples… had no comprehension of the vast purpose to which they were contributing a meager part, but they helped in a conflict which was ultimately resolved in their favor.
“Earth is an island,” he says, “which can be by-passed completely, or temporarily occupied if need be.” (pg. 98) Similarly, film historian Robert Skotak, in the DVD commentary for the movie version, explains Joseph Newman’s intention with the film:
One of the themes that the director had in mind was to show the love of our planet and how valuable our planet is and how it is just a mere island in the vast infinity of space. And, if we aren’t careful, we could destroy ourselves — using Metaluna as… a metaphor for what could be us. This was made not too many years after the bombing of Hiroshima, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb, the Soviets getting the hydrogen bomb, the Cold War. So fears of the end of the world were on the minds of many artists, many people, and that was one of Joe Newman’s main themes.
Now, these readings are a little bit different from each other — one emphasizes Earth’s unawareness of the larger universe, and the other emphasizes its fragility and irreplacability. But in both of them, the story’s aliens stand in for humans. At the metaphorical level, we are both the exploitative aliens and the humans they exploit, two groups separated by facts of geography, culture, and technology.
Watchmen literalizes this metaphor further, by having a seeming alien invasion that is in fact a front for one human exploiting other humans for what he sees as the greater good. That’s the thread that ties This Island Earth to the Institute for Extraspatial Studies, more than just “monsters from outta space”. Here’s Joseph Newman one more time, explaining his first impressions upon reading the novel:
I think the overwhelming thing that came into my mind when I purchased Jones’ novel was to illustrate, as the title of the book suggests, that this planet is in reality a small island in an extremely vast and unknown universe, and that it is to the welfare of all the inhabitants of this island, Earth, to eliminate and submerge their petty hatreds of any of the many groups of human dwellers on this tiny island of matter. Our concerns might be, in the not-too-distant future, I thought, forces and elements beyond the present-known universe…
(Universal Filmscripts, pg. 19)
This is exactly the point that Adrian Veidt hopes to make as well, submerging the mutual hatred of the USA and USSR in the face of forces and elements beyond their present knowledge. It’s just that where Jones and Newman make their point through art alone, Adrian writes his fiction into the world as an enormous alien invasion hoax. As I mentioned in the Revelation post, Veidt authors his own apocalypse to resolve the unbearable tension between what he sees and what he desires. In doing so, he reframes Earth as an island subject to occupation, hoping that this new perspective brings all the natives into line.
Stories, Masks, and Trauma
Just as Veidt’s hoax is a kind of authorship, so I would argue are the masks and identities of Watchmen‘s costumed adventurers. In HBO’s excellent Watchmen series, Laurie Juspeczyk says this:
People who wear masks are driven by trauma. They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo, the mask. It hides the pain.
But hiding the pain isn’t all that masks do. They also tell a story, a new story, about the traumatized people behind them — rearranging their faces and giving them all other names. In this new story, the masked people aren’t powerless, but powerful. They exist to carry out their own agendas, rather than having their agency taken away from them. The new story told by the mask exists as an attempt to help mask-wearers process and relieve their trauma.
Well, isn’t this the function of art? Through the things that we create, we seek to understand our world and its inhabitants. At an individual level, it’s well-documented that the creation of art can channel grief, trauma, and heartbreak into some new form, transforming it via creative alchemy into something that briefly assuages those emotions both for the artist and the audience. That’s the catharsis that Aristotle describes in his Poetics.
But grief, trauma, and heartbreak don’t just exist at the individual level. There are larger versions of trauma that transcend the personal. Granted, using the term “trauma” becomes more metaphorical beyond the individual level, but I believe that a family can be traumatized, a school or workplace can be traumatized, a town can be traumatized, and a culture can be traumatized. And if we accept that trauma can exist at a cultural level, I think it becomes very clear that the art it produces functions in part to help process that cultural trauma.
This Island Earth, and 1950s science fiction movies in general, are an example of this. World War II, and in particular the enormity of the atomic bomb, was a massive cultural trauma. The rapid escalation of both calamitous bomb technology and tensions between the superpowers quickly brought us face to face with our ability to destroy ourselves. Hitler’s concentration camps made plain humanity’s capacity for barbarism. Not only that, the process of the war itself and its aftermath changed America radically — women had new roles after stepping into professions vacated by men, racial politics mutated after Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, and the 1944 G.I. Bill introduced a tremendous amount of new class mobility into society.
75 years on, we can see these changes as unalloyed benefits, but at the time they were just as frightening to some as the bomb and the Nazis. 50s B movies told stories of invasions, of incomprehensible malevolence, of science and technology run amok, of venturing into the unknown, of humanity’s warlike nature, and so forth. It’s not hard to see cultural anxieties projected onto those aliens, giant insects, and monsters from the deep. It’s a genre obsessed with unexpected consequences.
So if 1950s sci-fi movies were processing the cultural trauma of World War II, what set of cultural traumas does Watchmen meet? Well, some of this isn’t really subtext. 1985 was peak Nuclear Anxiety time, and Watchmen obviously means to grapple with that. In this way, it’s a direct descendant of stories like This Island Earth.
But there are other, more festering wounds at work in Watchmen too. The clash of political Left and Right, so strident and polarized now, had been climbing since the days of Goldwater vs. the counterculture, but hit a new level during the Reagan years, and found its Watchmen expression via Nova Express vs. The New Frontiersman. Even more than those two competing media sources, the superheroes themselves in Watchmen interrogate the competing values of individual action vs. social action. American culture reveres the lone principled individual, but in Watchmen the two individuals who best fit that description are Rorschach and Ozymandias. Though politically they are opposites, temperamentally they embody the same extremist impulses, and Watchmen shows both as deeply problematic.
This isn’t the Cold War. It’s closer to the Civil War — an ongoing series of battles in an America deeply divided against itself, with good and bad actors on both sides, plus a whole lot of grey in between. It’s part of why Watchmen remains relevant and powerful today, powerful enough to inspire the whole new story that appeared on HBO last fall.
I’ve called Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock“fan fiction” — meant gently — and in a way Damon Lindelof’s HBO Watchmen is no different. It’s an extension of intellectual property that has been taken rather than granted. The only ones who could really “officially” continue Moore and Gibbons’ story are Moore and Gibbons, or successors anointed by them, regardless of what corporation owns the rights. But what made Lindelof’s work so compelling, so true to the spirit of Watchmen, was its singular vision and its engagement with the cultural trauma of our time. In the HBO series’ case, that trauma is race in America rather than the Cold War, but its medicine is just as strong.
Also, note the comic “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the comic shop’s window, and the prevalence of pirate themes in the covers of the other comics. One comic has an “X” in its title, perhaps a sly reference to the “X-Men” comics of the real world. (The title “X-Ships” appears on a comic early in Issue 1.)
As much as I love to chase down every little reference, I won’t be writing a post on the X-Men and Watchmen — the connection is just too slight. The annotators are probably correct that “X-Ships” references X-Men, given that X-Men comics were at their peak of popularity when Watchmen was being written. Since pirate comics dominate the Watchmen world, X-Ships are their likely X-Men analog, but that strikes me as just a little joke, not the kind of intertextual allusion that this series digs into.
Mutiny On The Bounty is another matter. I would argue that this reference illuminates several levels of Watchmen. But before exploring that, let’s talk for a while about the story itself.
Making a Mutiny
One might ask first why Mutiny On The Bounty would be a pirate comic at all. Sure, it’s a nautical tale, but it’s hardly Treasure Island. Where are the pirates?
Well, it turns out that most versions of the story refer to the mutineers as pirates. They may not be one-legged parrot-keepers plundering merchant ships for doubloons, but they do in fact take the ship they had crewed, and anyone who seizes one of His Majesty’s ships becomes a pirate in the eyes of the British Navy.
The historical facts of the mutiny are as follows. The cutter Bounty was commissioned to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti and bring them to the West Indies, in hopes that the tree could be cultivated as a food source for plantation slaves on those islands. Lieutenant William Bligh commanded the ship, which had been specially fitted out to hold six hundred plants. This remodeling shrank the living space of everyone on board, making an already uncomfortable sea voyage even more difficult.
Bligh’s original plan was to travel west from England to Tahiti, rounding Cape Horn on the way to Oceania. However, bureaucratically-imposed delays meant that the Bounty didn’t start sailing until the weather had turned impassable south of the Cape. Bligh, a disciple and former navigator to the revered Captain Cook, was an immensely confident sailor, but this circumstance thwarted him. He tried for nearly a month to get through, but eventually gave up and headed east, stopping to re-provision the ship at Cape Town, then sailing onward, south of Australia (called New Holland at the time) and New Zealand to Tahiti, where he landed in late October of 1788.
By all accounts, Tahiti was a sailor’s paradise. It had gorgeous weather, stunning landscapes, abundant food and water, and friendly indigenous people, with a far less sexually inhibited culture than that of 18th century England. The Bounty‘s botanical mission obliged its crew to stay on the island for several months, so that they could secure agreements with various native chiefs to take plants from their groves. In the process, many members of the crew also formed relationships with native women. The initial delay in launching the ship also meant that it must wait out the western monsoon season, which wouldn’t end until April. Thus began a five-month tropical sojourn for the ship and its crew.
On April 5, 1789, laden with over 900 breadfruit plants (Bligh had somehow made room on the ship to store even more than planned), the Bounty set sail from Tahiti. Their orders were to pass through the Endeavour Straits (now known as the Torres Strait) between Australia and New Guinea, in hopes that Bligh’s navigation and surveying skills could help define a safe passage for future missions. But the Bounty would never travel through those Straits.
At dawn on April 28, master’s mate Fletcher Christian and several accomplices awakened Bligh. They dragged him, clad only in a nightshirt, up on deck. The mutineers ordered Bligh into the Bounty‘s launch, where he was joined by seventeen loyalists. Several others remained on board the Bounty, either detained by the mutineers for their skills, or simply unable to fit into the already dangerously overburdened launch.
Bligh and his crew traveled over 3,600 miles in an open boat, from the site of the mutiny to the island of Timor. They endured extraordinary hardships of starvation and exposure, and they did in fact pass through the Endeavour Straits. Bligh’s entire crew survived this journey, with the exception of quartermaster John Norton, who was killed by hostile indigenes on an island where the crew had attempted to re-provision. After reaching the Dutch settlement on Timor, Bligh and company found their way back to England, where his journey was rightly hailed as an astonishing act of seamanship.
Meanwhile, the mutineers and remaining loyalists splintered. Some stayed on Tahiti, taking wives and having children. These men were collected several years later by the British vessel Pandora, which itself then sank in the Endeavour Straits. The survivors of that shipwreck took the remaining prisoners back to England, where they were court-martialed. Some were acquitted, some were found guilty but pardoned by the crown, and some were hung. The rest of the mutineers had fled to the remote Pitcairn’s Island. The British never caught these men, but they fell out among themselves and the Tahitians they had brought along, such that there was only one Bounty crew member remaining when an American vessel stumbled upon the island twenty years later. The descendants of these mutineers and Tahitians live on the island to this day.
What doomed the Bounty? What brought Fletcher Christian and his fellow crewmen to such an emotional extreme that they were willing to become pirates and set eighteen men adrift to what must have seemed like certain death? What does this mutiny mean? The answers to these questions have been much disputed, and their portrayals over the years are a saga unto themselves.
Story vs. Story
Bligh returned to England in March of 1790. He was court-martialed — mandatory for any captain who lost his vessel — and exonerated of all charges. Within a few months, he published his Narrative of the Mutiny, which in fact devoted a scant six pages to the mutiny itself, and another eighty to his open-boat journey. He declined to speculate on Christian’s motivation, saying only that he heard the crew cheering “Huzza for Otaheite” (“Hooray for Tahiti”) as the launch pulled away. (The Bounty Mutiny, pg. 10) Based on this narrative, England hailed him as a hero. He met the king, was promoted twice, and subsequently set sail on another breadfruit expedition, departing in August 1791 aboard a ship called the Providence.
Meanwhile, the Pandora had launched to capture as many mutineers as it could find, and its survivors returned to England in March of 1792. The prisoners’ court-martial that summer resulted in three hangings, four acquittals, and two royal pardons.
After the dust settled, the first competing narrative began to take shape. Fletcher Christian’s brother Edward, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, took it upon himself to interview all returned survivors of the mutiny, both those who had journeyed with Bligh and those who had been captured by the Pandora. He released a pamphlet with a partial transcription of the court-martial, and an extensive appendix (The Bounty Mutiny, pg. 67), which used those interviews to condemn Bligh as a tyrant and show Fletcher Christian as a noble soul who rebelled only as a last resort under intolerable circumstances.
That argument saw print in 1794, in the midst of a historical moment ripe for such a story. The French Revolution had overthrown the monarchy there just a few years prior, and the American colonies had rebelled less than fifteen years before that. Individuals longing for freedom and deposing tyrannical authorities were the cultural order of the day, and Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge found an avatar in Fletcher Christian. In addition, the Jacobins of the French Revolution exalted the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose notions of mankind’s goodness in a “State Of Nature” were easy to overlay upon the Tahitian indigenes, thus providing another justification for men who wanted to leave a corrupt civilization and live amongst “noble savages.”
Bligh returned in 1794 and exchanged retorts with Edward Christian, but the sailor was ineffective against the lawyer, and the damage to Bligh’s reputation would never be fully undone. The discovery of survivors on Pitcairn’s Island in 1808 excited public interest again, and launched a new wave of Bountyphilia. Sir John Barrow published an account in 1831 which upheld the image of Bligh as an overbearing martinet. Barrow was a family friend of Peter Heywood, one of those captured by the Pandora and later pardoned by the crown. In 1870, Heywood’s stepdaughter Lady Diana Belcher published another version of the story, again justifying Heywood and Christian against a Bligh portrayed as ever more villainous.
There were theatrical plays made of the story, but it didn’t receive the full novelistic treatment until the twentieth century, when Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall published Mutiny On The Bounty in 1932. For dramatic purposes, they created the fictional viewpoint character Roger Byam, who stood in for Heywood on the Bounty‘s crew. Nordhoff and Hall grounded their story in many historical facts, but also invented details to corroborate Bligh’s cruelty and Christian’s nobility. There was in fact a full Nordhoff and Hall Bounty trilogy — book two followed Bligh’s voyage and book three the life of the mutineers on Pitcairn’s Island — but it was Mutiny On The Bounty that caught the public’s imagination most. Hollywood took notice.
Mutiny On The Big Screen
MGM released its film Mutiny On The Bounty in 1935, directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian, Charles Laughton as William Bligh, and Franchot Tone as Roger Byam. MGM’s movie directly adapted Nordhoff and Hall’s novel, and it was a smash success, capturing the 1935 Academy Award for Best Picture. Gable, Laughton, and Tone were all nominated for Best Actor, splitting the vote and leading to the creation the next year of the “supporting role” Oscars.
The Lloyd Mutiny film amplified every exaggeration of Nordhoff and Hall’s, and layered in quite a few new ones. For instance, in the novel Byam witnesses another captain order a man flogged, and the punishment kills its target. The captain then orders that the flogging continue until the full complement of lashes have been delivered to the bloody corpse. (This scene has no basis that I can find in the surviving historical evidence surrounding the Bounty.) In the movie, it is Bligh who gives that order, and stands watching with satisfaction until the grisly punishment is complete. In historical fact, Bligh had a fastidious aversion to flogging, and tried to avoid it as much as possible.
Similarly, where Bligh’s actual log records his disgust with his surgeon Thomas Huggan, who he saw as a “Drunken Sot” (The Bounty, pg 84), Nordhoff and Hall give the surgeon a wooden leg (nodding to Stevenson, I suppose) and an ever-present bottle of brandy. Lloyd’s film has everyone on board calling the surgeon “Old Bacchus”, introduces him by hauling him aboard in a net, and turns Dudley Digges loose on him with a ridiculously broad performance.
Then there are the scenes entirely invented for the film. Laughton’s Bligh keelhauls a man, which happened in neither the book nor the historical record — the practice had been outlawed in the British Navy for decades. Gable’s Christian turns to mutiny after some crew members are unjustly imprisoned, but in the book, he simply bristles at being unfairly accused of theft. Finally, Lloyd’s film shows Bligh himself in command of the Pandora, unlike the book which correctly depicts its captain as Edward Edwards. Aside from these story changes, the simple act of casting Gable as Christian and Laughton as Bligh tells the audience very clearly where its sympathies should lie. Laughton in particular turns in a marvelous performance as a corrupt, blustering villain.
All these changes are made for the sake of drama, and they work very well, but their dramatic logic is simple indeed. Every uncertainty and nuance of the historical record, already greatly flattened by Nordhoff and Hall, gets sanded down into a stark story of good versus evil, of corruption overthrown by force. Just as Hollis Mason observed about Superman’s relation to the pulps that preceded it, Lloyd’s film (released three years before the debut of Superman) similarly removes the last of its predecessors’ darkness and ambiguity in favor of a basic, boiled-down morality.
Interestingly, after 1935 the pendulum began to swing back in the other direction. In 1962, Carol Reed and Lewis Milestone directed a version of the story starring Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Bligh. When Gable clashed with Laughton, you knew who to root for, but in the 1962 version, no character is particularly sympathetic. Bligh is awful, of course, a sociopath who uses others to accomplish his mission without for a moment considering their experience or humanity. But Brando’s preening and simpering Christian is also far from admirable. He’s foppish and contemptuous from the start, only goaded into mutiny by the character of John Mills (played by Richard Harris) as the devil on his shoulder. Even the Tahitians come across as weirdly unpleasant. By making everyone a villain (or anti-hero), the 1962 version mostly indicts the system — showing the impossible position into which the men are put. They are utterly at the mercy of Bligh, who cares nothing for their lives, but they will also die if they go against him.
There was one more filmed version of the story: 1984’s The Bounty, starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. This is by far the most historically accurate Hollywood depiction. Bligh and Christian, rather than being exaggerated villain & hero, or exaggerated villain & anti-hero, come across as three-dimensional humans, both deeply ambitious and deeply flawed in their own ways. This version still injects a bit of fiction, giving Bligh a strangely burning desire to circumnavigate the globe, and very subtly suggesting that he had a homosexual attraction to Christian, but in general it redeploys historical detail to reshape the simple good and evil story that Mutiny On The Bounty had become, into a nuanced tragedy of complicated people at a complicated historical moment.
Here at last we can return to Watchmen. Tracing the path of Bounty portrayals up through 1935 makes it clear that they constitute a kind of Watchmen project in reverse. Where Moore and Gibbons started with the simplistic Golden Age and laid in layer after layer of realism, humanity, and grit, every new version of the Bounty story stripped those layers away, culminating with the Lloyd film’s simplistic depiction of hero Christian versus villain Bligh. This depiction has never left the public imagination — “Captain Bligh” is still a synonym for a tyrannical and oppressive leader.
Leslie Klinger’s annotations assert that the Watchmen panel in question shows a “vintage poster in the window for the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty“. This is a little different from the web annotations’ suggestion that we’re seeing a Mutiny on the Bountycomic, but either way it makes sense that the poster would reference the 1935 version of the story, since that was the most successful and culturally impactful version ever made. Not coincidentally, that version is the most simplified, melodramatic adaptation of the story known to mainstream audiences. Its appearance in the comic shop window is the pirate equivalent of Action Comics #1.
Watchmen itself, on the other hand, is more like the Hopkins/Gibson Bounty movie — a movie that happened to emerge in 1984, when Watchmen was being written. By placing Mutiny On The Bounty in a window of the Watchmen world, Moore and Gibbons give us a window into how narratives and genres can evolve over time, and they reflect their own project in doing so.
Watchmen itself was a kind of mutiny. It rebelled against the established order in mainstream comics, striking at the injustice and hypocrisy beneath the cultural authority of superhero narratives, narratives that had claimed the mantle of justice and righteousness for themselves. Like many mutinies, its results have been mixed — superheroes’ cultural authority is stronger than ever, as Marvel’s box office receipts will tell you, but at the same time they were forever changed by Moore’s story. That story is full of mutineers, too.
There’s a quote in Nordhoff and Hall’s novel that’s particularly apropos to Watchmen. It comes in a reflective moment, as Byam describes Fletcher Christian:
His sense of the wrongs he had suffered at Bligh’s hands was so deep and overpowering as to dominate, I believe, every other feeling. In the course of a long life I have met no others of his kind. I knew him, I suppose, as well as anyone could be said to know him, and yet I never felt that I truly understood the workings of his mind and heart. Men of such passionate nature, when goaded by injustice into action, lose all sense of anything save their own misery. They neither know nor care, until it is too late, what ruin they make of the lives of others.
That notion, that a supposed hero fighting for justice could ruin the lives of innocents, comes entwined in Watchmen‘s DNA, while the quote also captures the spirit of several characters. Certainly it applies to Rorschach, and no less to Ozymandias. Though not born from a passion for justice, detachment from human costs and consequences characterizes several others as well: The Comedian, Silk Spectre I, and of course Dr. Manhattan. Then there’s the narrator from Tales Of The Black Freighter, who certainly can be said to have lost all sense of anything save his own misery. The Black Freighter itself, as discussed earlier in this series, evokes Pirate Jenny, a true rebel against oppressive authority, who plots gleefully to slaughter them all.
The panel we’re examining juxtaposes two mutinies on the same page. Janey Slater rebels against Jon and the dominant story of her past by vilifying Dr. Manhattan to Nova Express. Laurie, as she walks by the Treasure Island window, is in the midst of defying the will of a government that just wants her to “get the H-bomb laid every once in a while.” In the government’s eyes, her mutiny may have doomed the ship, as “the linchpin of America’s strategic superiority has apparently gone to Mars!”
That same government enacted the Keene Act outlawing costumed vigilantes, and that’s an authority against which there are plenty of mutineers. Rorschach, of course, rebels from the start, killing a multiple rapist and using the body to deliver his note of refusal to police headquarters. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre join the mutiny many years later, as they suit up and go out on patrol in Chapter 7. Meanwhile, Ozymandias has been rebelling in secret all along, pretending to acquiesce to authority even as he engineered his fake doomsday plan, without a care for the ruin he’d make of the lives of others.
Story Vs. Story, Revisited
Ozymandias’ plan comes down to storytelling. That’s why he recruits writers and artists — he knows that his “practical joke” must be a convincing enough story that every nation in the world will believe it. But he’s not just telling a story to the world. Like Captain Bligh, his story to the world is also a story to himself, one that casts him in the role of hero and savior, the only one brave and capable enough to save the lives in his charge, despite all opposing forces. Like Bligh, he has no doubt that his narrative will prevail. Like Bligh, he will have an unexpected competitor.
Rorschach, through his diary as submitted to the New Frontiersman, will become the Edward Christian to Ozymandias’ Bligh, presenting an alternative version of events that radically recontextualizes the story known and accepted by the public. Like Christian, Rorschach has his own agenda and values that influence his version of events. I don’t mean to suggest that Christian has the truth on his side as Rorschach does, nor that Bligh intended a deception as Ozymandias does — only that the final level of drama in Watchmen comes from competing narratives, and invoking Mutiny On The Bounty can’t help but shine a light on how stories within Watchmen fight each other for dominance.
Rorschach and Ozymandias are the grand competing narrators of the work, but there are other narrative clashes within the book. For instance, every secret identity operates as a clash of narratives, in which a character keeps trying to smother the truth with a different explanation. In the case of a character like Hooded Justice, the competition becomes even more complex, especially as it’s reflected at the reader’s level. We never learn who Hooded Justice really was from the text itself, but we do get speculations from Hollis Mason. These speculations seem reasonable enough, but they are all we get from the text until Chapter 11, when Ozymandias tells his story of investigating Hooded Justice’s disappearance.
Veidt wonders: “Had Blake found Hooded Justice, killed him, reporting failure? I can prove nothing.” Now we as readers must evaluate several strands. There’s what we know about Rolf Müller, which comes strictly from the pages of Under The Hood — circus strongman, East German heritage, disappeared during the McCarthy anti-superhero hearings, found later shot through the head. Then there’s what we know about Hooded Justice — an early hero who came into serious conflict with The Comedian at least once. Then there’s what we know about Blake himself — someone who wouldn’t hesitate to execute an enemy and throw him in the ocean. These strands seem to present a coherent picture, but in all cases they are presented through the lens of another character telling a story for a particular purpose, some of whom may be more trustworthy than others. As with the history of the Bounty, we are left to discern the truth for ourselves.
Also like the Bounty, Watchmen itself has endured numerous forces trying to shape its story from the outside. Zack Snyder’s film version was loyal in its fashion, but also changed the story and the tone in ways both necessary and unnecessary. DC gave us Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock, which tried to extend the Watchmen world beyond the boundaries of the graphic novel, laying claim to canonical preequel and sequel stature by dint of being the original’s publisher, a claim which Alan Moore would vociferously dispute. Now, within just a few weeks of this post, HBO will debut yet another Watchmen story, this one a speculative sequel in TV series form.
All of these Watchmen versions wish to capitalize upon the status of the original, and to make us view it in a different light. They may not be mutinies, but at some level they are seizures, attempting to take a well-known ship in a new direction. Is that new direction fruitful? Is it necessary? Does it honor the mission? As befits the conclusion of Watchmen, that decision is left entirely in our hands.
In the beginning, there were Watchmen spoilers. There will also be Watchmen spoilers throughout.
We’re on to Watchmen Chapter 3 in the Bestiary, and with a new chapter comes a new chapter title and a new epigraph. While the firsttwo epigraphs came from the world of rock and roll, Chapter 3 casts much further backward, all the way back to the first book of the Bible — Genesis, chapter 18, verse 25: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Note that this is the King James Version [KJV] translation.)
We’ll get to what this means for Watchmen in a moment, but first let’s take a little time to ascertain the Biblical context of the quote. Genesis splits roughly into two parts, known as the Primeval History (chapters 1-11) and the Patriarchal History (chapters 12-50). The Primeval History narrates the creation myth, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, and the Tower of Babel. Lots of greatest hits. The Patriarchal History, on the other hand, starts with Abram (later called Abraham), then traces his lineage down through a series of patriarchs, in particular Abraham’s son Isaac, Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s son Joseph. The book tells a handful of stories from each man’s life, culminating in the “Joseph Novel”, which occupies (more or less) chapters 37-50.
Chapter 18, then, is early in the Patriarchal History, in the midst of the stories of Abraham. In this chapter, we find Abraham sitting in his tent, enduring the day’s heat, when he notices three men standing in front of him. Somehow sensing that there is more to these men than meets the eye, Abraham abases himself to them, begging them to partake of his hospitality. When they assent, he has his wife and his servants whip up the finest possible meal for them.
Very quickly, the text makes it clear that Yahweh (translated in various versions as “the LORD”) is among these men, a physical manifestation of the Israelites’ God, who had previously appeared to Abram in visions. After some conversation establishing that Abraham’s barren wife would in fact bear a child (and explaining the origin of the child’s name), the men walk out to look from afar at the city of Sodom. Yahweh wonders, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (All textual quotes from the English Standard Version, except where noted.)
Yahweh decides against deception, and lets Abraham know that he intends to evaluate the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, having heard that “the outcry against [them] is great and their sin is very grave. I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me.” Now, this is a bit of an odd statement for a deity generally depicted as all-knowing. Yahweh is unusually personified in this section, and seems to share (for the moment) the general human trait of limited knowledge, and the need to investigate to learn more. Various Biblical scholars have come up with rationales to explain this seeming paradox, suggesting that perhaps God was teaching us not to pass judgment before investigating the evidence, or that “if one’s actions are unworthy of God, one is said to be unworthy of his knowledge also.” (Ancient Christian Commentary On Scripture: Old Testament II, pg 68-70)
Whatever the case, Yahweh has a more human presentation than usual, which perhaps emboldens Abraham to approach him on a human level, attempting to haggle over amounts, as was common in his culture. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” he asks. “Suppose there are fifty righteous men within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” Warming to his theme, Abraham amps up the rhetoric: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Or, as the KJV would have it, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Abraham argues Yahweh all the way down to ten righteous, and Yahweh agrees, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it,” which brings Chapter 18 to a close. Then comes Chapter 19, in which “two angels” arrive in Sodom (seemingly without Yahweh in tow after all), and get harassed by a pack of xenophobes. We don’t get the sense that any kind of thorough examination of the city occurs — there’s no story of seeking righteous people. The text does specify that “the men of the city… all the people to the last man” are part of the mob — apparently women didn’t count in the righteousness census. (And I guess it’s a pretty small city?) In any case, the angels warn in short order that “we are about to destroy this place,” and indeed that morning Sodom is destroyed, with only Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family escorted from the destruction. The Judge of all the earth renders his judgment and punishment, Abraham’s bargaining notwithstanding.
A Panel Of Judges
In Chapter 3 of Watchmen, there are several candidates for “Judge of all the earth.” The first of these is God himself. In the very first panel, Bernie the news vendor asserts, “We oughta nuke Russia and let God sort it out!” Then, a few panels later, the Tales Of The Black Freighter narrator touches a similar theme: “In despair I sank beneath those foul, pink billows, offering up my wretched soul to almighty God, and his judgment.” Later on, that same character concludes that this judgment is in the negative: “I cursed God and wept, wondering if he wept also. But then, what use his tears, if his help was denied me?” The doomsayer (who has not yet been revealed to be Kovacs/Rorschach) doesn’t mention God explicitly, but seems to look to the sort of mysterious signs (“a two-headed cat born in Queens”) that doomsday cults use to predict divine punishment of humanity.
In the context of the Genesis quote, these notions of God’s judgment look rightly ominous. This is the same God who rained down fire on an entire city after his emissaries concluded that there weren’t even ten righteous people (sorry, MEN) within it. No wonder that invocations of his judgment don’t allow much latitude for the possibility of mercy. Yet at least in vendor Bernie’s quote, it isn’t really God who wants to rain down fire — it’s Bernie himself, just using God as a convenient prop to wave away the horror, and suggesting that if humans nuke each other, some higher power will “sort it out.” That brings us to the second category of judge in this chapter: humans themselves.
Late in the chapter, we see Richard Nixon close to following vendor Bernie’s advice. He stares at the Dr. Strangelove map board, contemplating the judgment he could render on Russia, and incidentally Europe and half the U.S. as well. Benny Anger’s audience is in on the bloodthirst too, asking Dr. Manhattan, “If the Reds act up in Afghanistan… will you be prepared to enter hostilities?” to widespread applause. Perhaps we expect a distant God to destroy us in judgment for our sins, but at least as this chapter depicts us, we are scarcely safer when left to our own devices.
Then there is Dr. Manhattan, who is between the poles of divinity and humanity — a human with godlike power, whose changed perceptions remove him further from humanity all the time. Certainly the Russian government seems to have viewed him as, if not a judge, at least a sort of referee, preventing hostile parties from “acting up.” As soon as the news hits that he’s left for Mars, Russia immediately invades Afghanistan (or perhaps counter-invades, given the references to “U.S. adventurism” there in Chapter 1.) Likewise, the U.S. government sees him as “the linchpin of America’s strategic superiority,” a judge who’s already in their pocket, at least until he disappears. Benny Anger’s audience seems to view him as more or less a weapon to be used by the U.S. at will.
So is he a judge? The chapter’s epigraph appears beneath his picture, which certainly suggests that he may be that “Judge of all the earth.” Yet throughout the chapter, he shows poor judgment over and over. Certainly he badly misjudges Laurie’s reactions, both when trying to “stimulate” her, and when talking with her afterwards. Janey Slater seems to have his number when she says, “You know how every damn thing in this world fits together except people!” He apparently becomes convinced during the Nova Express Q&A that he radiates death, and that night judges himself “incapable of cohabiting safely either emotionally or physically.” If he is Earth’s judge, it’s only inadvertently — his presence or absence is as near as he comes to action for or against the planet, and as Laurie well knows, even when he’s present, he can be pretty absent.
The fourth, hidden judge turns out to be Ozymandias, who will in fact rain destruction down upon a city just as the God of Genesis does, but with no intercessor Abraham to plead for the innocent. In fact, Adrian Veidt makes certain that nobody knows about his plan if they have “the slightest chance” of their affecting its outcome. Where Yahweh debates whether to share information with Abraham, and ultimately decides to do so, Adrian feels no such compunction.
Yet Veidt aspires to transcendence, to godhood. He speaks of assuming “the aspect of kingly Rameses, leaving Alexander the adventurer and his trappings to gather dust.” “My new world demands less obvious heroism,” he sneers, anointing himself a world-creator. He engineers much of the story that the other characters find themselves walking through, an authorial presence from behind the scenes, including the pivotal plot advancement of this chapter — Dr. Manhattan leaving Earth.
He describes himself as motivated by the Comedian during the 1966 Crimebusters meeting, and in turn characterizes Blake’s reaction to his plan as “professional jealousy.” But might Veidt be experiencing some professional jealousy of his own? He lives in the presence of Dr. Manhattan, a being of casual godlike power, but one with a total disinterest in remaking the world. How that must eat at Adrian Veidt. To carry out his judgment on humanity, he must remove Dr. Manhattan from the earth altogether.
As soon as this happens, the chapter fittingly turns to ruminations on the absence of God. It starts with the Black Freighter narrator: “That night, I slept badly beneath cold, distant stars, pondering upon the cold, distant God in whose hands the fate of Davidstown rested. Was he really there? Had he been there once, but now departed?” Then we see the return of the doomsayer, who counters vendor Bernie’s assertion that “the world didn’t end yesterday” with, “Are you sure?” Then, with news of Russia’s Afghanistan invasion, we turn to Nixon and his cabinet discussing nuclear scenarios, and the role played by wind, “a force of nature. It’s totally impartial… totally indifferent.”
By the time the chapter ends, our terror comes not from the notion of God’s punishment, but rather the random, meaningless universe we face without the notion of his presence. His most frightening judgment of all is his decision to leave us on our own, in a world that we can never be sure hasn’t just ended. The cliffhanger ending of the pirate comic sets up the narrator’s tragic actions in the next issue. Perhaps Jon’s unwillingness to stop what Adrian sees as the freighter bearing down on humanity — its penchant for self-destruction — prompts Adrian’s own Davidstown actions?
How Do You Plead?
Chapter 18 isn’t the first time in Genesis that God acts as “Judge of all the earth.” His first mass judgment comes in chapter 6, verse 5:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
Once again, one man has the power to sway Yahweh, and that one man will be spared from the judgment that affects everyone else. These judgments, of wickedness and sin, rely on a starkly binary scale for judgment of humans — everyone is either fully righteous or fully wicked. In the Noah story, only Noah is found righteous — his family is spared for its association with him. In Sodom, only Lot is spared, once again with his family as more or less an accessory. This despite the fact that Lot isn’t exactly virtuous — he offers his virginal daughters to the xenophobe mob, hoping to distract them from his visitors. Perhaps Lot is only spared because he is Abraham’s nephew, thus once again allowing a great patriarch’s relations to be saved for the sake of their connections with him.
The righteous/wicked binary of these chapters is typical of the Old Testament (and some parts of the New Testament, notably Revelation.) The same dualism grounds many a traditional superhero narrative, and Watchmen works to break down this simplistic approach. Rorschach embodies Old Testament moral absolutism in Watchmen, and in yet another Biblical inversion, he finds himself the black and white Abraham to Dr. Manhattan’s morally grey Yahweh at the end of Chapter 12. Unlike Abraham, his only plea is for his own death. He is not saved.
In Genesis, Abraham’s role as bargainer goes well beyond chapter 18. He bargains with Ephron for Sarah’s burial place in chapter 23, and bargains with Lot in chapter 13. We find him in political negotiations at the ends of chapters 14 and 20. He even presumes to plead with Yahweh (in a vision) for a blood heir, in chapter 15.
Yet in all these other scenes, he bargains for himself or his family. In chapter 18, he speaks for a greater humanity. This dynamic gets its Watchmen mirror in Chapter 11, between Laurie and Jon. Yet as usual, it’s a distorted mirror. Laurie pleads with Jon to intercede on humanity’s behalf, to save humankind from itself. Abraham, on the other hand, pleads with Yahweh not to intercede, and to let the righteous, even if they are greatly outnumbered, help influence humans toward a more just path.
They do have in common a sense of false victory. Both Laurie and Abraham manage to sway their gods, but neither of them can stem the tide of slaughter.
Watchmen: Second Genesis
So far we’ve seen how Watchmen offers various judges, including the indifferent Dr. Manhattan and the sociopathic Ozymandias. We’ve seen the moral binarism of Genesis reflected in Rorschach, and we’ve seen the bargaining motif of Genesis both reflected and inverted by Rorschach and Silk Spectre II, as they confront Dr. Manhattan in different scenes.
But Watchmen displays other themes from Genesis, including that book’s strong motif of trickery. Guile and deceit are all over the place in Genesis, and not just in the villainous characters. Sure, there’s the serpent beguiling Eve in the garden, but more often it is the patriarchs themselves who do the tricking. No less than three times (chapters 12 and 20 with Abraham, and chapter 26 with Isaac), a Biblical patriarch convinces a local ruler that the patriarch’s wife is actually his sister. Each time, God afflicts that ruler, even though each time the ruler is the victim of the deception.
In the story of Jacob, Laban, Rachel, and Leah (chapters 29-31), everyone is constantly tricking and swindling each other. Laban tells Jacob to serve him for seven years in order to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel, only to send his other daughter Leah instead, making Jacob serve seven more years for Rachel. Jacob makes a deal with Laban to own all his speckled livestock, then Laban removes all the speckled livestock, then Jacob ensures that more speckled livestock will be born and takes them anyway. Jacob sneaks away from Laban’s estate in secret, Rachel steals her father’s “household gods”, then Laban catches up with them and accuses them of theft, but Rachel fools him by hiding the gods in a camel’s saddle, then sitting on it and saying, “I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.”
On and on it goes. Jacob’s sons trick Shechem, slaughtering an entire town in revenge for their sister’s rape. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright. Joseph’s brothers trick him and sell him into slavery, then he tricks them back after coming into power. Usually it is the agents of God practicing the deception (and giving God credit for the results), but even God himself gets in on the action, tricking Abraham into binding his son Isaac for slaughter before calling him off at the last minute, saying, “now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Incidentally, Isaac is Rachel’s only son. Abraham has another son, Ishmael.)
There is only one trickster in Watchmen, and his name is Ozymandias. But oh, what a bag of tricks he carries! From the very first moment of the book, he deceives both readers and characters. The murder that spurs Rorschach’s “mask-killer” theory? A trick. The cancer epidemic that drives Dr. Manhattan from Earth? A trick. The assassination attempt on Veidt himself? A trick. The frame job on Rorschach, the (second) disintegration of Jon Osterman, Adrian’s somber face at Blake’s funeral: tricks, tricks, tricks, all in service of his greatest trick of all.
“Unable to unite the world by conquest,” he boasts, “I would trick it; frighten it towards salvation with history’s greatest practical joke.” He seems to truly believe that his brand of trickery is different from that of Genesis, that he is a different sort of patriarch, a different sort of god. Where Biblical characters practice deception to serve themselves — preserve their lives, build their wealth, gain power over others — Veidt’s sees his trick as preserving humanity at large. Where Yahweh tricks Abraham to ensure he fears what is most fearsome, Veidt tricks Earth into fearing the imaginary, so as to direct their fear away from each other.
On the one hand, Adrian’s self-serving belief seems patently ridiculous. His trick kills millions of the humans he claims to be saving. No Biblical patriarch does any such thing. Every wife/sister con gets retracted and the afflicted ruler recovers. Laban steals years of Jacob’s labor, Rachel steals “household gods”, Jacob steals Esau’s blessing from Isaac, but nobody gets killed by these ruses. The slaughter of Shechem’s town is as close as we get, and this happens on a much smaller scale, and for revenge — no pretense of saviorship. Even God makes sure that Abraham spares Isaac.
On the other hand, Watchmen‘s ending is ambiguous enough that we can’t be certain that Adrian is wrong. Perhaps his monstrous machination does save more people than it destroys? That question brings us to the final parallel with Genesis, the notion of good outcomes arising from evil deeds.
In the “Joseph novel”, Joseph’s jealous and hateful brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery, telling their father Jacob that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. While in Egypt, Joseph becomes a powerful prophet, whose prophecies save Egypt from a famine that afflicts everyone else. His brothers come to Egypt begging for food, and after several rounds of the usual trickery, Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers, and reunites with his father, who dies peacefully, knowing his youngest son has survived after all. In the end, those brothers worry (quite logically!) that Joseph will bear a grudge, and try — once again — a trick, telling Joseph that Jacob commanded him to forgive them. Joseph responds to them thus:
Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.
This is the climactic moment of the “Joseph novel”, and the book of Genesis as a whole ends a few verses later. For Joseph, two principles are at work. First, none but God is fit to be “Judge of all the earth.” Second, the harm done by humans can be resolved by God into good, or perhaps more problematically, God prompts humans to harm each other in order to accomplish a greater good down the line. Biblical scholar Bill Arnold sums up the message pretty succinctly: “Joseph represents the conviction that good can come from evil.” (Genesis [New Cambridge Bible Commentary], pg. 389)
This conviction is a central question at the end of Watchmen. Ozymandias believes it, though I doubt he would agree with the concept of an omniscient god prompting his actions. In his mind, he is the omniscient one, or at least the one blessed with a broader perspective than his fellow beings — “the smartest guy in the world.” He feels entitled to be “Judge of all the earth” due to his belief in this greater perspective, and he sees himself as a benevolent shepherd, willing to sacrifice some of his sheep for the good of the whole flock. Rorschach, on the other hand, rejects the notion that good can come from evil. For him, “there is good, and there is evil, and evil must be punished.”
Where does Watchmen itself land? I think it’s closer to Dr. Manhattan, observing it all from Mars. I think it’s closer to this 2003 quote from Alan Moore:
The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.
In other words, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” is the wrong question. There is no “Judge of all the earth” — only us. The real question is, “Shall I do right?” And if so, how?
Si può? Si può? Signore! Signori! Be warned that the following post contains spoilers for Watchmen and for the opera Pagliacci.
Way back in my first entry, I called Rorschach “the funniest character in Watchmen.” Granted, that’s a pretty low bar to clear, but I stand by the assessment. Sometimes he’s funny on purpose (“Big Figure. Small world.”) and sometimes the humor just arises naturally out of his incongruity with the world around him, as when he drops Captain Carnage down an elevator shaft. Rorschach being Rorschach, there’s pretty much always a grim edge to his humor, and today’s topic is no exception.
Today we look at page 27 of Chapter 2, in which Rorschach tells (well, writes) a joke:
The name of the opera Pagliacci literally means “clowns”, so Rorschach is mistaken if he thinks it is the name of a particular clown. The opera does, however, deal with a clown who must make others laugh although he is sad.
The annotators are quite right on the first point, but a bit reductive on the second, so let’s take the second point first, after taking in a little background.
Pagliacci (which does indeed mean “clowns”) is an opera written circa 1891 by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. At that time, Leoncavallo was a fine piano player, a vocal teacher, and an aspiring composer who had been frustrated in his attempts to get his operas produced. In particular, he was focused on a work called I Medici, meant to be the first in a Ring Cycle-esque series, but focusing on the Italian Renaissance rather than Teutonic mythology. He was engaged with the Italian publishing house Casa Ricordi, but it had become increasingly clear that Ricordi had very little interest in producing Leoncavallo’s work.
In 1890, composer Pietro Mascagni premiered Cavalleria Rusticana, a one-act opera about love and murder among the Italian peasantry. The work met with “sensational success” (Leoncavallo: Life And Works by Konrad Dryden, pg. 34), and Leoncavallo, desperate for income, set about writing a work in the same vein. The result was Pagliacci, the story of a traveling commedia dell’arte troupe whose players find their own lives echoing the show they stage.
The main characters from the troupe are:
Canio, a clown and head of the troupe
Nedda, his wife
Tonio, a hunchback clown
Tonio is in love with Nedda, who spurns his advances. Swearing revenge, Tonio finds Nedda’s secret: she is in love with the villager Silvio. Tonio leads Canio to find Nedda in an adulterous clinch with Silvio. Canio chases the villager in vain; Silvio escapes. Canio then demands that Nedda give him her lover’s name. She refuses, and their fight begins to escalate, but the time has come for the troupe’s show, and so they must stop and prepare their parts.
Here Canio sings the famous aria “Vesti la giubba” (“Put on the costume”), in which he agonizes over having to perform when his heart is broken by Nedda’s betrayal. The climax of this aria is one of the most famous in opera — appropriated everywhere from Seinfeld to Rice Krispies commercials. “Ridi, Pagliacco, sul tuo amore infranto” translates to “Laugh, clown, at your shattered love.” Thus ends Act 1.
Act 2 ushers us into the show-within-a-show. Nedda plays Columbina, who spurns the advances of Tonio’s character Taddeo. Columbina’s heart belongs to Arlecchino (Harlequin), and she wishes to conceal this fact from her husband Pagliaccio, played by Canio. As Canio approaches the stage, he hears Columbina address Harlequin using the very same words that Nedda had earlier used with Silvio: “Till tonight, and I shall be yours forever!” He drops his character and demands once more that Nedda reveal her lover’s name. Trying to salvage the show, she addresses him as “Pagliaccio”, prompting his furious arietta “No, Pagliaccio non son” (“No, I am not Pagliaccio”). His rage builds until he finally stabs and kills Nedda. Silvio tries to leap to her defense, and Canio kills him too. The play ends with the line, “La commedia è finita!” (“The comedy is ended!”)
I would argue that describing Canio as “a clown who must make others laugh although he is sad” is a bit wide of the mark. In fact, Canio never tries at all in the show to make anyone laugh — he breaks character immediately and escalates quickly to double murder. However, the sentiment of “Vesti la guibba” has become the main cultural takeaway from Pagliacci, and in that aria he does indeed cajole himself, “Laugh, clown, be merry… and they will all applaud! / You must transform your despair into laughter; / And make a jest of your sobbing, of your pain…” Of course, he fails to follow this self-advice, but its image remains indelible.
When Leoncavallo first wrote the libretto for this show, he titled it “Il pagliaccio,” which translates to “The clown.” However, he had made a friend of prominent baritone Victor Maurel, who saw a role for himself in Tonio, and who convinced Leoncavallo to pluralize the title to Pagliacci, so that Canio would not be the sole focus. With Maurel’s help, Leoncavallo presented the libretto to Casa Ricordi’s rival (and publisher of Cavalleria Rusticana) Edoardo Sonzogno, who immediately accepted the work. It was produced in May of 1892 to instant success, and has gone on to become a prominent part of the operatic canon, the only Leoncavallo work still widely performed.
The title change wasn’t the only gift that Leoncavallo gave to Maurel. He also wrote a prologue especially for Tonio to sing. In this prologue, Tonio (or is it the singer, or Leoncavallo himself?) claims that the author of the show has endeavored “to paint for you a slice of life”, and that “truth is his inspiration.” Breaking the fourth wall and claiming to speak directly for the author, the prologue seeks to establish a connection between what you see on the stage and what you experience in your life: “Now, then, you will see men love as in real life they love, and you will see true hatred and its bitter fruit.” Moreover, he reminds the audience that the players themselves are fellow humans: “Mark well, therefore, our souls… for we are men of flesh and bone, like you, breathing the same air of this orphan world.”
This prologue became the manifesto of the verismo movement in opera, for which both Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana became standard-bearers. Verismo was a reaction against the bel canto style, which had focused on songs at the expense of story — similar perhaps to superhero comics in the 1990s that focused on art at the expense of good writing. Verismo also steered operatic tradition away from loftier subjects — Wagner’s gods and heroes, or Verdi’s dukes, counts, and kings — and towards the dramas of ordinary people, such as peasants and clowns. As Pagliacci‘s prologue claimed, verismo wished to bring opera’s characters and players closer to its audience.
Now, at first blush this might seem like a ridiculous contradiction. The idea was to take opera, one of the most artificial and stylized storytelling forms ever, and somehow make it more realistic? The thing where every character is singing at the top of their lungs, accompanied by a full orchestra, instead of talking to each other? We were going to make that seem more like day to day life?
But really, is this any more absurd a proposition than injecting more realism into superhero comics? This would be the genre of storytelling where somebody somehow acquires supernatural abilities, and the way they handle this situation is to stitch together a crazy, colorful, skintight outfit and go out to “fight crime”, which generally means getting into fistfights with other people who have somehow acquired other supernatural abilities, and who decided to handle this by stitching more skintight garb and going out to, uh, do crime. Oh, and also pretty soon there are a whole bunch of the crimefighting people, and sometimes they fight each other, or join up into gangs and fight other gangs of the crime people, and bunches of them can fly without wings or punch down buildings or shoot laser beams from their eyes or maybe all that stuff at once, and a huge spectrum of other stuff too. And the world is always in jeopardy, always being saved. We were going to make that seem more like day to day life?
And yet, the power of verismo is that in such ludicrous and mannered forms, a little realism can go a long way! Sure, in Pagliacci everybody is still singing all the time, and the orchestra is still playing, but at least they’re not stiffly shuttling between recitatives and arias. They’re regular people rather than princesses or valkyries. In the context of the reigning operatic style, verismo was strong medicine, keeping opera a powerful and relevant cultural form into the early 20th century.
Similarly, Watchmen brings us a world where yeah, people dress up and fight crime, but only one of those people has any supernatural powers. The rest are just schmucks in Halloween suits. Moreover, those schmucks are fully realized, three-dimensional, flawed human beings rather than empty ciphers and walking metaphors. Not only that, the author has thought through the consequences of these powers and punch-outs, presenting a world where “superheroes” have been outlawed, and the one godlike figure heightens the tensions that could lead to nuclear annihilation, even as he’s the only one standing in the way of the powder keg exploding.
I would contend that one of the reasons Pagliacci resonates with Watchmen is that they share a similarity of purpose: to reinvigorate a constrained and formal genre by bringing it closer to earth, and therefore closer to its audience. They also share a structural approach — both of them feature a nested story that reflects and amplifies the main story. In Pagliacci it’s the commedia, and in Watchmen it’s the Tales Of The Black Freighter.
The plot parallels between Pagliacci‘s clowns and their characters are immediate and obvious from the beginning of Act 2, but Watchmen waits until Chapter 12 to fully reveal its hand. The pirate comic ends in Chapter 11 (shortly before its reader), with the viewpoint character finally realizing, “noble intentions had led me to atrocity.” He swims towards the Black Freighter itself, so that its crew could “claim the only soul they’d ever truly wanted.” This subplot takes its final bow on page 27 of Chapter 12, in which Ozymandias mentions that he has “struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity,” and that he dreams about “swimming toward a hideous…” before cutting himself off and saying, “it isn’t significant.”
But of course, we know it is significant — it signifies the parallel between the actions of Adrian Veidt and the actions of the Tales narrator. Both believe their crimes to have been “necessary”, and both think they are guided by “love, only love.” It is for us to see their folly, and as in Pagliacci, their tragic endings. Except that where Tonio or Canio might claim “La commedia è finita,” Dr. Manhattan would be quick to remind them that nothing ever ends.
Franco and Plácido
In 1982, just a few years before Watchmen, Franco Zeffirelli released a film of Pagliacci, based on his stage production at La Scala the year before, and starring Plácido Domingo as Canio. I watched that film as part of my research for this article, and a couple of things jumped out at me as comparisons to Watchmen.
The first is the clowns themselves. Before Tonio’s prologue begins, as the orchestra plays the overture, four clowns come out to entertain the audience. They are dressed in outlandish costumes. Their faces are obscured. They leap and bound athletically around the stage, enacting exaggerated dramas with each other and the audience. They are, in short, a bit reminiscent of superheroes. Both disguise their identities to assume personas in which they’re allowed to do things that would not be acceptable for civilians.
The other parallel is more overt and visual. In Nedda’s scene with Tonio, she at first laughs at his expression of desire, but when he becomes more aggressive, she must physically repel him. The libretto calls for her to do this with a whip, but Zeffirelli chooses to stage it differently. His Nedda is thrown by Tonio into her tent, from which she produces a knife and rakes it across Tonio’s face.
Tonio’s immediate reaction to this closely mirrors what we see of Eddie Blake when women attack his face in Watchmen.
Now, when Tonio is thus attacked, he responds by becoming an Iago-esque manipulator. (Leoncavallo was perhaps inspired by Verdi’s Otello, a huge success five years earlier, in which Victor Maurel had played Iago.) Blake prefers to meet violence with greatly escalated violence, attempting rape of Sally Jupiter and murdering his unnamed Vietnamese mistress. (He doesn’t strike back at Laurie when she throws her drink in his face, but then again it’s just a drink, and she is his daughter.)
Instead, if anyone is the Iago of Watchmen, it’s Ozymandias. Perhaps The Comedian’s lacerating words were the metaphorical equivalent of a knife to Adrian Veidt’s face. Perhaps Adrian’s stoic expression at the Crimebusters gathering, as Nelly’s display burns, is his equivalent of Tonio holding his cheek and swearing revenge.
I’ve been unable to find any clear evidence that Zeffirelli’s version of Pagliacci played on the BBC or anywhere else where Gibbons and/or Moore might have reasonably been able to see it. The timing is certainly right, and the film did play internationally (it was shown on U.S. television), but it’s difficult to establish whether The Comedian’s slashed face could possibly have been inspired by that of Tonio in this production. In the absence of such evidence, it must remain just a striking coincidence, and one more resonance between the works.
And yet, despite these resonances, the annotations are here to remind us that Rorschach’s invocation of Pagliacci seems to be rooted in error. There is no clown named Pagliacci, given that it’s the Italian plural of Pagliaccio. Moreover, Rorschach’s joke has been around for ages, appended to various famous clowns. (And a hat tip to Adamant on Science Fiction & Fantasy StackExchange, who tracked down many of these sources.)
Severalsources associate it with Joseph Grimaldi, a pantomime artist of the early 19th century who created much of the modern clown iconography. Grimaldi’s memoirs were in fact edited by Charles Dickens (under the name “Boz”), and they do detail a life marked by trauma, including an incident of childhood abuse in which his tears very literally washed away part of his clown makeup. (Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, pg. 9) However, the doctor story does not appear in these memoirs — historian Andrew McConnell Stott cites it simply as an anecdote that “dates from the 1820s.”
This version of the story is about an English clown called Garrik, who does not seem to be based on any particular historical figure. (I don’t think there’s any convincing reason to associate him with 18th-century Shakespearean actor David Garrick.) The clown has a long conversation about depression with a doctor, who suggests one treatment after another — travel, reading, love, etc. — before finally landing on “only by watching Garrik you can be cured.” To which, of course, the patient replies, “I am Garrik! Change my prescription.”
But while these Bestiary articles tend to focus mostly on what influenced Watchmen, this part of today’s story turns out to be about the influence of Watchmen itself. Because today the dominant form of the joke is as Rorschach tells it: “But doctor, I am Pagliacci.”
Google anything like “clown doctor joke” or “but doctor i am” and you’ll get hit after hit citing Pagliacci as the clown’s name, often referencing Watchmen directly. When Robin Williams died, Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu hashtagged it #ButDoctorIAmPagliacci, then wrote a whole thing on HuffPost about it. There’s even a podcast called The Hilarious World Of Depression, in which the host interviews the many comedians who suffer or have suffered from clinical depression. That podcast’s theme song was written by Rhett Miller of Old 97’s, and it basically sets the old joke to music. The song’s title? “Pagliacci”.
So how does the name of an opera get substituted for the name of a clown in this old workhorse of a joke? Part of it may have to do with Smokey Robinson, who made a similar substitution in his 1967 song “The Tears Of A Clown”: “Just like Pagliacci did / I’m gonna keep my sadness hid.” But in the case of Watchmen, the larger part of it has to do with Dave Gibbons. In Leslie Klinger’s Watchmen Annotated book, Gibbons reveals that he just made a mistake while talking about the scene with Moore:
I remember that I told Alan [Moore] the story of the sad clown and used the name Pagliacci because i couldn’t call Grimaldi to mind at that moment. I didn’t correct it in the lettering for some reason but did try to get [director] Zack Snyder to correct it in the movie [Watchmen]. He stuck with the words of the comic!
So two artists working together (without the benefit of an all-knowing Internet to help them chase down references) tell a joke but make a minor error in it, one which happens to tie their work to an appropriate opera. Then that work gets turned into a movie by a director who fetishizes the text enough to keep the error in, and between the movie and the book, the mistaken version turns into the dominant form of the joke.
Now that’s the kind of irony that makes for a great punchline.
First things first: this project has a new name. I was never entirely satisfied with The Annotated Annotated Watchmen as a project title. Not only is it an awkward mouthful, it’s factually inaccurate. I’m writing essays, not annotations. But The Essayed Watchmen never really did it for me either.
For many an entry have I fretted about this, but I just could not find an alternate title that spoke to me loudly and clearly enough. For this 25th post, though, I resolved to redouble my efforts, and in a reread of Chapter 1 noticed this panel:
The bestiary! In Watchmen, the bestiary seems to be two things. First, it’s a collection of items that underpin the universe, which Dr. Manhattan examines in order to better understand the workings of that universe. So far, so perfect — that’s exactly what these essays are working to do, one exotic and breathtaking specimen at a time. The other Bestiary in Watchmen is “where the real heavy-duty thinkin’ gets done” by the Gila Flats crew in Jon Osterman’s early days as a physicist. It’s the on-base bar where the various residents find themselves “at play amidst the strangeness and charm.”
That meaning works perfectly for me too, because these essays are my way of extending the tremendous strangeness and charm that Watchmen exerts over me and millions of other readers. And doing so is just plain fun for me, which is why I keep doing it. It sure isn’t for the money or fame.
Therefore, I proudly present The Watchmen Bestiary, a rechristening of my ongoing Watchmen project. As a part of this change, I’ve gone back in and renamed all the old entries, and in some cases done some light editing and updating of them. If anyone happens across anything screwed up as a result of this, please let me know.
And now, on with today’s entry. Please note that, as always, there are Watchmen spoilers in this post. I also discuss the plot of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.
Most of these essays focus on a single work, or at least the works of a single artist or author. Today’s entry, though, focuses on a name. It’s a name that spans many works, many authors. A name that echoes through millennia. Moloch.
Moloch, an ancient god who became a demon in Christian cosmology, is also the name given to the giant machine with a giant dial operated by the oppressed workers in Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis”.
The annotations are quite right to cite the Bible and Metropolis, as both were pretty clearly influences on Moore. He references the Bible throughout Watchmen — the Pale Horse reference to Revelation is just the first of many.
The Metropolis connection is a bit more tenuous, but apart from being able to count on Moore’s general erudition, there’s also the fact that both Metropolis and Lang’s recurring character Dr. Mabuse feature prominently in the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen story Nemo: The Roses Of Berlin. Granted, that book came out much later than Watchmen, but let’s also remember that in 1984, music producer Giorgio Moroder restored and re-released Lang’s film in theaters, with a pop music soundtrack. Between the fact that the pop Metropolis was roughly contemporary during the writing of Watchmen, and Moore’s later demonstrated connection to the material, I’m comfortable asserting that Metropolis would have been in Moore’s constellation of references when he chose to name a character Moloch.
Also in that constellation are the writers of the Beat movement. We’ve already seen how strong an influence William Burroughs had on Watchmen, but it turns out he wasn’t the only Beat with a connection. As it happens, Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl”, repeats the word “Moloch” 39 times in the 383 words of its second section, employing imagery that was clearly influenced by Lang. There are plenty of other writers who incorporate Moloch — Milton and Flaubert are a couple of the biggies — but it’s the Bible, Metropolis, and “Howl” that seem most connected with Moore’s repertoire, so let’s focus on them.
Moloch The Abomination
In the Bible, Moloch or Molech (both spellings appear in the King James Version) seems to derive from the Hebrew word melech, meaning “king”, combined with the vowels from the word for “shame” to give it a pejorative flavor. The implication is of a “Lord” (or god) whose worshipers should be ashamed.
Most of the mentions of Moloch occur in Leviticus, a book concerned with setting out rules for the Israelites. A typical mention, as translated in the KJV: “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy god: I am the LORD.” (Lev 18:21) This diction may obscure just what’s being forbidden, but the English Standard Version is as usual more straightforward: “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” In 1 Kings he is called an “abomination”, and we see Solomon seduced into worshiping him. (1 Kings 11:7)
So it would appear that Moloch is a rival god to Yahweh, and that Moloch’s distinguishing feature is his demand that followers sacrifice their children to him, likely by ritual burning if the oft-repeated phrase “pass through the fire” has any literal meaning at all. In fact, a couple of 19th-century German scholars offered the radical argument that the cult of Yahweh in fact grew out of the cult of Moloch, differentiating itself by its rejection of human sacrifice. Other critics saw anti-Semitism in this premise, an attempt to slander Jews by suggesting that the “orthodox” version of Judaism was entwined in blood rituals. For our purposes, what matters is that the Biblical Moloch is synonymous with human sacrifice, in particular the sacrifice of children, and that this practice sets him apart from Yahweh.
What does this idea of human sacrifice have to do with Watchmen‘s Moloch? Very little, I would argue. Edgar Jacobi, aka Moloch, who Hollis Mason describes as “an ingenious and flamboyant criminal mastermind” in his heyday, seems to be Watchmen‘s canonical example of the “schmuck in a Halloween suit” that the Comedian derides in one of this chapter’s flashbacks. He’s non-threatening enough that Veidt’s marketing department eventually wants to make an action figure out of him.
There is almost no hint of human sacrifice, nor indeed any kind of murder, in what we know about him. He initially styles himself as a stage magician, and tends to sport a tuxedo in the flashbacks to his active days. In Chapter 4 we see him with a spooky skull necklace, but that’s about as close as he gets to courting death. He appropriates the name (and perhaps the pointy ears?) of a demon-god, but does nothing very demonic or godlike, moving into organized crime in the 1940s before finally spending the Seventies in jail.
So why the name Moloch? What does the concept of Moloch have to do with anything in Watchmen? Well, the actual Edgar Jacobi may be a red herring, the literal example of false danger that The Comedian cites in the Crimebusters meeting, but there is indeed a figure who embodies all that Moloch represents: Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt fancies himself somewhere between a king and a god. In the Bible, the difference between good god Yahweh and wicked god Moloch is whether that god is willing to sacrifice its own. Yahweh doesn’t demand the killing of anyone’s children. (Well, except for that one time, and it turns out He was faking it.) Ozymandias, though, creates an entire plan predicated on human sacrifice, and not just any humans, but the very New Yorkers whom he protected in his days as a costumed hero.
Even before the book’s climactic slaughter, Adrian is methodically killing people all over the place. He blows up the boat containing all the writers, artists, and scientists he bribed and tricked into his scheme. He eliminates every underworld figure who could be traced back to Pyramid Deliveries. He irradiates Dr. Manhattan’s associates to give them cancer, thus making Watchmen‘s Moloch the subject rather than the object of sacrifice. All in the service of his vision.
When comparing Watchmen to the book of Revelation, we saw how much Moore and Gibbons’ story was an inversion of the Biblical apocalypse, from its disruption of the good/evil binary to its reversal of the typical combat myth. In Ozymandias, we see yet another Biblical reversal — rather than Yahweh’s rejection of child sacrifice, Ozymandias turns into the kind of god who embraces it. The closest thing to a child character in the book — Bernard the younger — dies in the arms of his elder namesake when Veidt’s squid creature arrives.
The Moloch Machine
Adrian also has a few things in common with Joh Fredersen, the master of the title Metropolis in Fritz Lang’s film. Both men are masters of a business empire, who have attendants hanging on their every word to carry out their orders. Where Veidt built the Antarctic refuge of Karnak and its fantastical vivarium, Fredersen created the “Stadium Of The Sons”, in which the male offspring of Metropolis’s 1% frolic among freely available plants, fountains, and women. Where Veidt registered the patent for spark hydrants thanks to possibilities opened up by Dr. Manhattan, Fredersen creates a dazzling city thanks to the inventions of archetypal mad scientist Carl Rotwang. And where Nite Owl and Rorschach uncover the horrific human cost that Veidt is willing to incur in order to realize his dream, in Metropolis it’s Joh’s son Freder who makes the sickening discovery.
One day, as Freder is having his usual grand time in the Stadium Of The Sons, his merriment is interrupted by a working-class woman named Maria, who has taken a group of children up to the stadium to see how the upper crust lives. He becomes obsessed with Maria, and tries to follow her down to the underside of Metropolis, where workers endure endless toil to keep all the city’s machines operating. As viewers, we’ve already witnessed scenes of exhausted workers trooping through the undercity, their lives ruled by an omnipresent clock — another symbol in common between Metropolis and Watchmen.
When Freder enters the undercity, one of the first sights he encounters is an enormous machine, with rows of workers pulling levers in steady rhythm to keep its mysterious energies flowing. As Freder watches in alarm, one enervated worker struggles to do his part, but falls short, and the mechanism’s temperature rises. Finally, the thermometer reaches a critical level, and an explosion rocks the machine, sending workers flying through the air. At this moment, Freder has a vision of the machine as a huge, terrifying demon that consumes workers alive. Shaved and chained, they trudge up the stairs to be thrown into the fires within its gaping mouth. Overcome by the vision, Freder shouts out one word: “MOLOCH!”
There’s not much ambiguity about the symbolic weight of this Moloch machine, nor in fact most of Metropolis, which takes its cue from the novel of the same name written by Lang’s then-wife Thea Von Harbou. The film announces in its first title card, “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!”, and then goes on to make it clear that the brain is capital (i.e. Joh) and the hands are the proletariat (i.e. those devoured by the Moloch machine.) In Joh Fredersen’s Metropolis, the price of that beautiful stadium, and the debauched club Yoshiwara, and all the other amazing conveyances and edifices and inventions, is human sacrifice. Working class people struggle and die to keep the machines fed, and when those machines go explosively wrong, the ruling class sees it as an impersonal correction, just one of those things.
When it seems like the “hands” might revolt, under the leadership of Maria, Fredersen and Rotwang disguise an android with her appearance, so as to disrupt the rebellion by discrediting its figurehead. Disaster ensues, culminating in a rooftop swordfight between Rotwang and Freder, who finally triumphs, killing the mad scientist. The film’s rather naive ending solves the problem of the city’s cruel machinery when Freder (as the mediating heart) joins the hands of capitalist Fredersen and lead worker Grot.
Ozymandias, too, builds an enormous machine to fuel his fondest dreams, but in his case the machine isn’t made of dials and levers and gears. It’s made of plans, and it consumes people for its purposes with no mediating heart in sight. Like the machines of Metropolis, it also reaches deep under the surface. According to this chapter, Veidt formed his intention in 1966 to solve the problem of inevitable nuclear war. According to Doug Roth in Chapter 4, Wally Weaver died of cancer in 1971. That means that Veidt’s plan was in motion within at least 5 years of that Crimebusters meeting, and that its turning gears had claimed their first life by then. In the ensuing 14 years, it finally realizes its destiny as “a lethal pyramid”, killing everyone involved, excepting some but not all of our main characters. After the hordes of corpses in chapter 12, Rorschach is the final slave to be marched into the gaping maw of Adrian’s Moloch machine.
It isn’t just planning, though. Veidt also relies upon a remarkable technology stack to create his “practical joke,” one even more farfetched than the androids and mega-machines of Metropolis. He kills his servants by elaborately staging their “deaths from exposure, after drunkenly opening [his] vivarium.” Like much of Metropolis, it makes for a hell of a visual, but falters under a bit of scrutiny — why would a tropical vivarium in Antarctica ever need to open in such a way, anyway? When Dan expresses skepticism that Adrian is even capable of killing half of New York, Veidt calmly explains that he cloned the brain of a psychic named Robert Deschaines into a “resonator”, with “terrible information” coded into it. Then, when its host creature dies, this mega-psychic brain somehow broadcasts “the signal triggered by the onset of death”, and that signal somehow kills 3 million people from “the shock”.
I think of Watchmen as a realistically grounded superhero narrative, maybe the most realistic one ever at the time of its publication. If you can accept the notion of Dr. Manhattan and how his existence would change the world, the rest plays out logically with no further recourse to the supernatural, right? Well, wrong. Because as wide-ranging as Dr. Manhattan’s powers and effects may be, they don’t reasonably explain the presence of psychic abilities in human beings. Veidt gestures to advancements in eugenics as Laurie fawns over Bubastis in Chapter 4, but telepathy is another story. Because Watchmen drapes itself in superhero tropes, it’s easy to overlook, but for Veidt’s plan to work, we must accept not only the implications of Dr. Manhattan, but the entirely separate implications of people who can project their thoughts.
Besides sharing in its implausibility, Ozymandias also echoes Metropolis by wielding super-scientific advancements as a murder weapon against anyone opposing his utopia. Despite his Egyptian iconography, Adrian Veidt is a technologist who achieves his victories through a combination of commerce and machines, using flesh draped on a bomb like the false Maria in Metropolis.
Moloch Whose Fingers Are Ten Armies
In Lang’s Metropolis, the Moloch machine consumes hordes of anonymous workers. In “Howl”, Allen Ginsberg ups the ante. His Moloch destroys “the best minds of my generation.” His Moloch is a “sphinx of aluminum and cement” that “bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination.” In other words, Ginsberg’s Moloch of industrialization doesn’t just destroy the working class hands, but also the open hearts that might have tried to serve as mediators.
He invokes “Moloch” like a chant in section II of the poem, and some of the imagery recalls Metropolis pretty clearly:
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!
The second quoted stanza clearly identifies various parts of the city as Moloch, and a Metropolis-like city it is, with skyscrapers, factories, smokestacks, and antennae. The anthropomorphization of buildings and tombs into body parts of the monster strongly echoes the way that the panels, apertures, and pipes of the Metropolis machine become eyes, mouth, and claws in Freder’s vision of Moloch. And of course the “cannibal dynamo” of its breast is pretty much a straight description of what happens in the Metropolis Moloch scene.
There may be another allusion to Lang here as well. One of the director’s trademarks was having a shot of a hand in each of his films, one way or another. Rotwang has an artificial hand that gets some attention, but there’s another sort of hand shot in the movie as well. There’s a sequence where Maria tells an allegorical story about building a “Tower of Babel”, another example of planning brains heartlessly directing working “hands”, and one famous shot from that sequence is of five columns of workers converging into a foreground of shave-pated men sullenly trudging forward.
As Tom Gunning points out in The Films Of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, the shot strongly suggests a hand. “The shape itself acts as a trope, based on the synecdoche introduced in Harbou’s text, the workers as ‘hands.’ We see the converging columns as the outspread fingers and the circular insert as a palm. The composition of roiling bodies also functions as a symbolic close-up of a hand, one of Lang’s most powerful visual tropes.” Separate regiments of workers coalesce into one central force. Or, if you’re Allen Ginsberg, “Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!”
So if the Biblical Moloch demands human sacrifices, like Adrian, and the Metropolis Moloch uses humans as fuel, like Adrian’s plan, what does Ginsberg’s work add to our understanding? Simply this: that those sacrifices aren’t just anonymous workers or unnamed children, but characters we come to know and care about through the course of the story. In section I of “Howl,” Ginsberg introduces us to a litany of behaviors and characters who embody them. Most of these are of the heroic-romantic nature, albeit from a bohemian point of view, fugitives from mass culture who bravely maintained intellectual independence and created unfettered works. They are all destroyed, and it is Moloch who destroys them.
In Watchmen, we come to know some of the “ordinary” people who get killed on November 2, 1985. There’s Bernard the newsstand vendor and Bernard the young reader, who we hear from throughout the book. There’s Malcolm Long and his wife Gloria, stars of Chapter 6. There’s Joey and her girlfriend, who we see in the throes of painful relationship dissolution. There’s Detective Steve Fine and his partner Joe, who open Chapter 1 and continue to investigate crimes on the fringes throughout the story. Ozymandias is the Moloch to whom all these victims are sacrificed, to appease his thirst for surreptitious control of the world’s nations.
That day is the final step in Adrian’s homicidal plan, and a trail of death leads up to it. There’s the island full of artists, writers, and scientists — Max Shea, Hira Manish, James Trafford March, Linette Paley, Norman Leith, Dr. Whittaker Furnesse. The best minds of their generation, destroyed in Veidt’s madness. Not to mention the literal “best mind”, Robert Deschaines, who apparently was more than a “so-called psychic and clairvoyant.” And Wally Weaver, and Janey Slater, and poor Edgar Jacobi himself, all marched into the maw of Ozymandias’ Moloch machinations, feeding their energies into its terrible purpose.
The sad, cancerous old man pinned to the ground by Rorschach did none of these things. In fact, he was just another victim of them. Jacobi pleads, “I’m not Moloch anymore,” and he’s right. The new Moloch is Ozymandias himself, whose mind is pure machinery.
[As always, many spoilers for Watchmen lurk below.]
Yes, Chapter 2 is full of flashbacks stitched together by present-day scenes. But that’s far from the only reminiscing it contains. As usual, Moore and Gibbons’ themes run several layers deep, and this is most apparent in the scene between Laurie and Sally at the beginning of the chapter.
Aside from the fact that the long and painful history between the characters is self-evident in their every utterance, there are also a number of memory cues scattered throughout the scene. Obviously, there’s the framed picture of the Minutemen, which leads Sally into her flashback. There are also framed pictures on the walls, tantalizing in their sketchiness. There’s the Tijuana bible, Sally’s way of “being reminded that people used to slobber over me.” And of course, there’s the ever-present bottle of Nostalgia (by Veidt) on the vanity.
Finally, as we come out of the flashback, we get a closer look at one of those pictures:
Which brings us to our subject today. Here’s what the web annotations have to say about this panel:
The portrait on the wall is inscribed “To Sally Jupiter, Best Wishes Varga”. In the real world an artist named Alfredo Vargas drew portraits of naked and half-naked women which appeared regularly in Playboy magazine. He sometimes signed his work “Vargas” and sometimes “Varga”. The portrait of Sally is very much in his style.
As often occurs with these web annotations, this is a case of “almost but not quite.” Some corrections:
There was in fact a pin-up artist named Vargas in the real world, but he was Alberto Vargas, not Alfredo Vargas.
His work did indeed appear in Playboy, but much more relevant to the reference here is the fact that his work appeared in Esquire from 1940 to 1946, in gatefold images that became a salient aspect of American soldiers’ lives during those World War II years. His Playboy art occurred much later (1957 through 1974) and was more explicit during those years, i.e. more naked than half-naked. Incidentally, while Leslie Klinger does a considerably better job with his Vargas gloss, he also gets these dates wrong, suggesting that Vargas didn’t separate from Esquire until 1957, when in fact the artist suffered a long fallow and desperate period between leaving Esquire and starting for Playboy.
There’s a specific reason why his signature varied between “Varga” and “Vargas”, and it maps directly onto his history with those magazines. According to Vargas’s autobiography, Esquire editor David Smart decided to call the artist’s creations “Varga Girls”, on the notion that it was “more euphonious” than “Vargas Girls”. (pg. 28) But Vargas’s parting from Esquire was a bitter one, and by 1950, after four years of court battles, he had completly lost the rights to the “Varga” name. (pg. 43) Consequently, his work from there on out was signed “Vargas”.
These facts bear directly on the Watchmen panel. Because the portrait is signed “Varga” rather than “Vargas”, we can reasonably conclude that the fictional Varga in this world did his portrait of Sally Jupiter during the war years. That conclusion also resonates with the many other manifestations of 1940s nostalgia, including the flashback itself.
So what was “Varga” all about, and why does it matter that he painted a portrait of Sally Jupiter that now hangs on her wall in the “City of the Dead”?
Alberto Vargas was born in Peru in 1896. At 20 years old, after a European schooling and a brief apprenticeship with a photographer, he found himself in New York, and there became entranced with American women. He was supposed to return home to Peru, but he chose to stay instead, and from that moment onward made his living as an artist, never straying far from paintings of idealized female forms.
During the 1920s he painted portraits for the Ziegfeld Follies, which in turn led him to gigs illustrating for newspapers, magazines, advertisements, fashion designs, and personal commissions. Through the 1930s he continued this sort of work and also found himself employed by Hollywood studios, creating many movie posters, as well as portraits of the era’s major film stars. It was in 1940, though, that he would begin the most iconic work of his lifetime.
For seven years, George Petty had been the pin-up artist of choice in the pages of Esquire, but Smart found him tiresome and demanding to work with. Petty was altogether too shrewd a businessman, so Smart sought someone who was as good with the paintbrush but not nearly so good at interpreting contracts. He found his ideal match in Alberto Vargas, who had been suffering from quite a few lean years during the Depression, and who was ecstatic to receive not only work but appreciation for the kind of work he wanted to do.
The first Varga Girl appeared in the October 1940 issue of Esquire, a little over a year before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The feature proved immediately and immensely popular, prompting Smart to begin a program of relentless exploitation. Esquire contracted with Vargas to produce a prodigious amount of work each year, and ran a calendar of twelve Vargas paintings only two months after his debut in the magazine.
From 1942 to 1945, Smart distributed over three million copies of Esquire to domestic military installations free of charge, selling another six million copies (without advertising) to troops overseas. The Varga Girl calendar would become an annual release throughout the war years, selling in the millions. Vargas became the premier pin-up artist of the World War Two era, a cultural phenomenon intimately connected with the times, whose work appeared in barracks worldwide, as well as on the noses of American airplanes.
It was widely suggested, perhaps even widely believed, that these images raised the morale of American soldiers overseas — reminded them of what they were fighting for back home. Vargas and Esquire reinforced this notion by presenting Varga Girls as brides, or bedecked in patriotic imagery, or posed with various military props — medals, uniforms, letters from home, army instruction books, and so forth. The images were often accompanied by some bit of verse or prose about heartfelt topics like peace, love, or Christmas.
And yet, as World War Two veteran Kurt Vonnegut points out in his brilliant foreword to a catalog of Vargas’s Esquire work, the notion of these images as morale-raisers doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. They bore little resemblance to the average American wife, mother, or sweetheart, and their net effect, if not their intention, was just “to make horny youths far from home hornier — to what end we can only speculate.”
Vonnegut suggests instead that what the Varga Girls represent is more akin to images from the Sears Roebuck catalog:
If I am right, the pinups of World War Two had the generalized appeal of merchandise, implied fixed prices and order forms. The fantasy: You really could buy one if you had the bucks, and you just might have the bucks someday. The paper woman in the girdle and bra, if you were a man, seemed as much in your power as the socket-wrench set or the level-winding fishing reel.
In other words, Vargas’s art and Esquire‘s use of it contributed to the cultural commodification of women during World War Two, and here we can return to Sally Jupiter at last.
“I’m sitting ON it!”
Sally states clearly, in the supplemental material to Chapter 9, that her career as Silk Spectre “was never a sex thing. It was a money thing.” Hollis Mason concurs, in Under The Hood, saying that Sally “was probably the first of us ever to realize that there could be commercial benefits in being a masked adventurer. The Silk Spectre used her reputation as a crimefighter primarily to make the front pages and receive exposure for her lucrative modeling career…”
Sally, with the eager assistance of her agent and later husband Laurence Shexnayder, created her image in order to sell it, during the same era in which the Varga Girls rose to prominence. It’s no wonder Vargas painted her — in a way, they were both in the same line of work. They sold fantasy images of women, turning the desires of “horny youths” into cash.
Though the Esquire Varga Girls were anonymous, Vargas painted lots of portraits of living stars, especially during his studio days in the 1930s. Even in the 40s, during the height of his Esquire work, he did portraits of Jane Russell and Ava Gardner. The notion that he’d have painted Silk Spectre during that time is totally plausible. Like those movie bombshells, Sally Jupiter was an object of desire, and she and Shexnayder did their level best to rake in earnings from the people who slobbered over her.
Sally makes no bones about any of this, recounting every “bright blue gag” about herself back to Nite Owl, and joking about the moneymaker her body has been for her, as in the intermittent voice balloons that drift over to Laurie in a flashback that takes place at Sally’s house:
And so she did, though like Alberto Vargas, she and Laurence don’t always seem to have had the greatest dealmaking acumen. Though she certainly lives in a nice enough house (at least, after divorcing Shexnayder), the film deal they make devolves from a documentary, into a children’s adventure serial, into a “B” action movie, and finally into something “too awful even to be dignified with the term ‘pornography.'”
The journey taken by the Silk Spectre biopic defines a continuum, with “classy” exploitation at one end and purely crass exploitation at the other. In Sally’s apartment, those two extremes get represented by the Varga portrait on one end, and the Tijuana bible on the other. And while Sally might prefer to be on the classy end, she makes it clear that she doesn’t mind the other end so much either, because it’s not a dignity thing, it’s a money thing. (“Listen, those things are valuable, like antiques. Eighty bucks an’ up.”)
Sally learns, in her career as a “big tough super-lady”, that her value resides in her body and her sexuality. Her function, as a woman, was more or less to be a Varga Girl: erotic and innocent at once, distant and accessible at once, glamorous and vulnerable at once, and all available for sale everywhere. Merchandise.
The Essence That Was So Divine
When she turns on Laurie at the end of the scene, Sally reveals that this view extends beyond herself. “At least I don’t sleep with an H-Bomb,” she says, and when Laurie objects that Jon is not an H-Bomb, she continues: “Honey, the only difference is that they didn’t have to get the H-Bomb laid every once in a while.” In Sally’s eyes, that’s Laurie’s job, her function as a woman: get the H-Bomb laid. She’s as much a morale-raiser as any Esquire gatefold. (And though she protests that Sally is “being totally unfair”, Laurie herself is stuck in a story where her main function is to change the state of male characters.)
Sally Jupiter’s morale-raising days are in the past, though. Her world is “the city of the dead” because the thing that gave her meaning and value has departed with age. Bitterness has replaced allure, and now her refuge is in her memories, a past that gets just keeps on getting brighter all the time.
In other words, nostalgia. Or rather, perhaps, Nostalgia, because there’s someplace else in the Watchmen world where Varga-esque images appear, and that’s in Adrian Veidt’s ad campaign for his “Nostalgia line of ladies’ and men’s cosmetics.” He describes the woman in the ad, but may as well be describing a Varga Girl: “overtly erotic, yet layered with enough romantic ambiance to avoid offense.” She’s wearing more clothing than the typical Varga Girl, but the gauzy, transparent dress that hangs down from her torso, revealing and obscuring her thigh at once is pure Vargas, as is her pose and knowing stare out of the frame, returning the viewer’s gaze with amusement.
Ozymandias, while watching his bank of randomly changing screens, muses about the “erotic undercurrent not uncommon in times of war,” and notes in his ad strategy that “when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past.” Vargas’s painted ladies might belong to either, smooth fantasy women adorned in furs and flowers, who all find themselves in a half-imagined climate so warm that they’re constantly shedding clothes. It’s hard to say whether they seemed nostalgic at the time of their highest popularity, but at the very least they represented a yearning for simplicity and pleasure that must have felt distant indeed for soldiers deployed throughout the globe. Vargas’s work certainly drips with nostalgia now, especially for those, like Vonnegut, who lived through the 1940s.
The primary caption for Nostalgia advertisements reaches back even further, to the 1930s. “Oh, how the ghost of you clings” is a quote from the song “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)”, a hit song from 1936 that was covered by multiple people that year, including Leslie Hutchinson, Benny Goodman, and Billie Holiday. Here’s one of my favorite versions, from Bryan Ferry in 1973:
Once again, multiple layers of nostalgia are present here. The song itself is about the pain of lost love, when every element of your life can feel like a reminder of what’s gone out of it. “The ghost of you” here is made of all the simple little things that evoke the departed lover, including the lingering scent of perfume. Beyond that, the use of this caption in a 1985 ad campaign quite consciously hearkens back to a bygone era, that mythical “simpler time” that itself is the object of little-n nostalgia. That clinging ghost is the old songs, the old styles, the old times that feel so distant, especially when the present time is full of “global uncertainty.”
More than that, though, within the story, pertaining to the specific characters, when a bottle of Nostalgia appears, so do the clinging ghosts of the past. Obviously it takes a starring role in Chapter 9, appearing in close-up on the cover and shattering the Martian castle in the issue’s climactic moment. There, the ghost is the circumstances of Laurie’s birth, come back to haunt her after years of suppression.
In the opening scene of Chapter 2, that same ghost is at work, though we don’t know it yet. In addition, we get ghosts of other kinds. Sally gazes at her picture of the Minutemen, remembering how the dark and bright parts of the past brought her to where and who she is today. That picture, the Tijuana bible, and the Varga portrait on the wall surround her with ghosts of her former self — departed desire, eroticism, vitality. Most of all, she and Laurie are haunted by their shared past, the tension between them a product of thousands of interactions, behavior itself driven by experiences reaching back generations, like any complicated relationship between parent and child. Those ghosts do cling, and sometimes nostalgia is the optimal outcome, far better anyway than bitterness and toxicity.
Last, and deepest, is the kind of nostalgia that Watchmen itself set out to explode, the decades-long attachment of comics fans to the same superheroes and superhero tropes iterated over and over and over again. Those fanboy fantasies were as surprisingly fragile as Doctor Manhattan’s Martian castle, and this book was the bottle hurled at them. It marked a turning point, taking us to a new vantage from which we could see those Golden, Silver, and Bronze age comics as innocent and problematic in their own way as the Varga Girls seem now.