The Watchmen Bestiary 20 – Absent Friends

[William Kuskin and Charles Hatfield deserve my heartfelt thanks for their generous and incisive feedback as this post was taking shape.]

I’d like to start today’s entry with a resounding endorsement for Love And Rockets. No, not the band, though they’re pretty good too. I mean the astonishing comic book series by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, lovingly known as Los Bros Hernandez.

This comic ran from 1982 to 1996, and pretty much exemplified the alternative/indie comics scene at the time. (Los Bros have since picked it back up and continue publishing 1-3 issues per year.) Being born in 1970, I was a little young for L&R when it started, and spent most of my teens with my head ensconced in Marvel-world anyway. So while I’d heard plenty about the comic, I never read any of it until a few years ago. People, it blew my mind. See resounding endorsement, above.

For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, here’s a little Love And Rockets primer. Gilbert and Jaime1 are the primary contributors, with occasional input from third brother Mario. The brothers work separately for the most part, each writing and drawing his own comics, and splitting the page count in a given L&R issue. Both of them draw some miscellaneous experimental comics in a variety of styles, but the bulk of their work focuses on continuing stories in a particular milieu.

For Jaime, that milieu is the Southern California punk scene, specifically a barrio nicknamed Hoppers, set in the fictional town of Huerta and based on Oxnard, California, where the brothers grew up. Gilbert’s continuing stories take place in Palomar, a fictional Latin American town so small and remote that in most of the early stories, the town doesn’t even have a single telephone.

Within these settings, each of them has built a dizzyingly rich cast of beautifully realized characters, in a variety of stories ranging from one-pagers to full graphic novels. I wholeheartedly recommend these comics, and I’m going to be spoiling various Love & Rockets storylines (between 1982 and 1986 or so), as well as the usual load of Watchmen spoilers. (And I guess a couple of 20th century Spider-Man spoilers too, as it turns out.) It’s really worth reading this stuff fresh, so I won’t mind a bit if you wait to read the rest of my post until you’ve caught up on some L&R yourself. Comic Book Resources has a great guide to getting started.

Heartbreak Soup

Now, then. Both brothers’ work is well worth absorbing, but we’re focusing on Gilbert today, for reasons that will become clear in a bit. The first Palomar story is called “Heartbreak Soup”, and it introduces us to many denizens of the town, including a group of childhood friends in their early teens: Heraclio, Israel, Jesús Angel, Sakahaftewa (“Satch”), and the partially disfigured Vicente. We also meet a whole bunch of others, including Jesús’s little brother Toco, midwife and bañadora (bath-giver) Chelo, impossibly pulchritudinous newcomer and rival bañadora Luba, and the boys’ peer Pipo, who has grown apart from them as her sexuality develops.

Cover of the 2007 Heartbreak Soup trade paperback

“Heartbreak Soup” tells a satisfying, self-contained story, but after it ends, the Palomar stories continue, and something interesting happens. The next episode, a little story called “A Little Story”, doesn’t continue from “Heartbreak Soup”, but rather jumps back about 4 years prior, to when Pipo was still happily playing with the boys, and Satch was the new kid in town. The next story, “Toco”, is another short piece, which takes place a few months prior to “Heartbreak Soup”.2

A more major, multi-part story called “Act of Contrition” follows these two. It skips forward about ten years from “Heartbreak Soup.” The boys are all adults, some of whom have left town, some of whom have stayed and married characters who were also children in “Heartbreak Soup.” Instead of one child, Luba now has four, and now she runs a cinema as well as a bath house. Not only that, we meet a new character named Archie, who knew Luba as a teenager, and we get flashbacks to her teen years, well before “Heartbreak Soup”, from both characters’ memories. Post-“Act Of Contrition”, the Palomar strips’ timeline sticks for a while with “Heartbreak” plus 10 years or so, but frequently interspersed with various flashbacks, from various perspectives, to various time periods.

What quickly becomes clear is that the Palomar stories in Love And Rockets won’t be following the traditional comic book approach of serializing an ongoing narrative. Instead, what we get are glimpses into one continuous, enormous, pre-existing story, as seen through the viewpoints of a large cast of characters, and skipping around in time at Gilbert’s whim. As comics scholar Charles Hatfield observes, “By opening such gaps between stories, Hernandez was able to sketch in the history of his characters gradually through interpolated flashbacks, a technique that became central to his work.” (Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, pg. 89)

“Interpolated flashbacks” brings us at last to the v2.0 Watchmen annotations, which point out a fascinating parallel between one of the Palomar stories and Chapter 2 of Watchmen:

The structure of this chapter involves an exploration of Blake’s character in segments that alternate between a present-day storyline and flashbacks from five different other characters. The flashbacks are in fact in chronological order, from a flashback to his youth to a flashback to the recent past.

The structure of this chapter is therefore very similar to that of the story “The Laughing Sun”, by Gilbert Hernandez, which appeared in the comic Love and Rockets in 1984 (although there are only four flashbacks there). Since the Love and Rockets story predates Watchmen, it may have been an influence on Moore.

The parallel is undeniable, but can we reasonably claim that “The Laughing Sun” influenced Watchmen? Well, there is a bit of evidence. As the annotations indicate, the L&R story predates Watchmen, which establishes that it is possible for Moore to have read it before penning the chapter. Furthermore, we know that Moore has read and admired Gilbert’s work, because he tells us so in the introduction he wrote to Heartbreak Soup And Other Stories, the first US trade paperback collecting some of Gilbert’s Palomar comics. Moore even refers directly to “The Laughing Sun,” noting “the blood-thick camaraderie that leads to the desperate mountain trek” in its plot. (About which more in just a minute.)

This book was released in August of 1987. Watchmen #2 has a cover date of October 1986, and the final issue’s cover date is October 1987. Based on this overlap, I’d say it’s very likely that Moore wrote his appreciation of Gilbert in the midst of writing Watchmen.3 For as specifically as he cites details from them, the Palomar stories had to be fresh in his mind during that period. Now, would that connection have gone back all the way to issue #2? Who knows? Some of this stuff is ultimately irretrievable, but let’s take a look at the comparison and decide for ourselves.

Stacks of Flashbacks

“The Laughing Sun” is serialized over two issues of Love & Rockets. Like many post-“Act Of Contrition” Palomar stories, it takes place about 10 years or so past the “Heartbreak Soup” baseline. (I’ll abbreviate this baseline HBS, and cite different timelines in relationship to it, so the primary thread of “The Laughing Sun” takes place in HBS + 10 years or so.) The childhood friends from that story have grown up and spread out, but are brought together when they learn that Jesús Angel has fled to the mountains after an explosive conflict with his wife Laura. Heraclio, who still lives in Palomar, reaches out to Satch, Israel, and Vicente, who do not, and all four men come together to search the mountains for Jesús.

As the story progresses, each man remembers Jesús, with each flashback centering on some aspect of Jesús’s relationship with sexuality and women. After he gets the call from Heraclio, Vicente flashes back to a childhood episode with Jesús (HBS – 9 years or so), in which 5-year-old Pipo innocently exposed herself to the two boys, who were then shamed with visions of hellfire by Chelo after she walked in on the incident. On the car ride to the mountains, Satch remembers a preteen time (HBS – 2 years or so) where some older boys told him and Jesús about the Indian women in the mountains who don’t wear shirts — “They all walk around with their fuckin’ tetas out like it’s normal!” The boys swooned with envy of the Indian men.

Panel from The Laughing Sun, in which Vicente remembers himself and Jesus envisioning hell as children. The vision is inside a thought bubble, enclosed in another thought bubble for the memory.

Back in the present, the search in the mountains is arduous, for the weather is extremely hot. (The story’s title refers to how the sun seems to enjoy torturing the town like this.) Heraclio briefly passes out from heat exhaustion, and in the process flashes back to a memory from their teen years (HBS + 1 or so), which reveals Jesús’s crush on Luba, an unrequited affection that becomes a major theme for the character. The search goes on, through many a tribulation, culminating in Israel’s memory of himself and Jesús as adults (HBS + 6 or so), in which he’s incredulous that Jesús intends to marry Laura, and says “Don’t come running to my couch when the going gets too rough!” Jesús’s reply: “Don’t worry! I’d head for the hills first!”

Coming out of the flashback, Israel screams at those hills in rage and frustration, and to his surprise, Jesús replies. The men find him, and in one last trip to the (very recent) past, Jesús tells the story of how his fight with Laura happened. I would make the case for this as another flashback, though it is narrated rather than drawn — it’s just one wide panel with columns of text on either side, and an image in the center of Jesús, superimposed over an extreme close-up of Laura and their baby, drawn fainter to indicate a presence in memory, not reality. This panel echoes the one that opens this half of the story, in which Laura tells her version of their conflict, with a ghostly close-up Jesús behind her. Jesús reveals that their argument was about his sexualized gazes at Luba, for which all the previous flashbacks set the stage.

Two different panels from "The Laughing Sun" -- the first is Laura's recollection of the fight, and the second is Jeusus's.

Thus does Gilbert not only illustrate a character through others’ experiences of him, he also defines the community closest to that character, all while setting up and resolving a mystery quest plot. In “Absent Friends”, Chapter 2 of Watchmen, Alan Moore doesn’t resolve the mystery of Blake’s death, but he does use the very same device to show us exactly who The Comedian is, as his closest community saw him. Again, the flashbacks are from five different characters, moving forward in time. (I’ll use W to denote the main story timeline (1985) in Watchmen as a baseline, similar to HBS above.)

Sally Jupiter starts the flashbacks, remembering back to the time of The Minutemen (W – 45 years) and Blake’s attempted sexual assault of her. The next three flashbacks take place at the funeral: Adrian recalls the Crimebusters meeting in 1966 (W – 19 years), Jon VVN night in 1971 (W – 14 years), and Dan the police strike riots of 1977 (W – 8 years). Finally, after the funeral, Rorschach wrings out one last flashback, this one from Moloch remembering The Comedian’s “last performance” (W – a few weeks.)

Just as each of the “Laughing Sun” flashbacks helped paint a portrait of Jesús as oversexed and fixated on Luba, so do the flashbacks in “Absent Friends” center around a theme: The Comedian as a vile man who nevertheless understands many things that others don’t. The vileness is clear — in the space of a few pages, but spanning decades, we see him (nearly) raping Sally Jupiter, murdering a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his baby, and tear-gassing civilians. The other two flashbacks show his knowledge — he sees through Captain Metropolis’s motives in the Crimebusters meeting, and cryptically tells Moloch of the island he’s discovered, in the process alerting Veidt that Blake knows too much. Even in the flashbacks that demonstrate his detestable nature, we also see his insight, such as when he identifies Hooded Justice’s fetish, or tells Dr. Manhattan, “You don’t really give a damn about human beings.”

Just as with Jesús, Blake and his story come into focus through the eyes of the community that surrounds him. The reverse is also true — we learn the nature of the community as demonstrated through its interactions with the central character. In “The Laughing Sun”, the character of that community is cohesive, and that cohesion is crucial to its success — Heraclio is able to speak to the mountain Indians, Isreal is capable of provoking Jesús out of silence, and Satch knows just what to say to make Jesús receptive to being brought home. The flashbacks, too, are mostly of bonding moments between the boys — even the conflict between Israel and Jesús carries a clear loving undertone.

3 panels from part 2 of "The Laughing Sun". In the first, Satch calls out to Jesus, who threatens to run if they approach. In the second, Satch assures Jesus that his baby is not dead. In the third, all four men gaze up at the hills.

In Watchmen, by contrast, the community is fragmented — split by differences in distance, differences in viewpoint. Their flashbacks to The Comedian demonstrate their distance from him too, every one of them injured or puzzled by his actions. In fact, two of those flashbacks (Moloch’s and Adrian’s) are at the heart of the story’s main plot, which serves to drive all the characters apart, only to bring them back together at the end under a heavy layer of irony, tragedy, and fragility. The only one of the main characters to opt out of that final community is Rorschach, just as he is the only one in this chapter who doesn’t get a flashback.

How to Travel Through Time

The stacking flashbacks device is powerful, but it’s also worth a look at how the mechanics of it are executed. “The Laughing Sun” uses two different techniques. The more minor one I’ve already mentioned — a long panel with columns of text on either side of the storyteller, and a fainter image of the story’s subject looming up hugely behind. I see these as flashbacks, but what’s true is that they’re only narrated through illustrated prose, not sequential art like the others, so they have very little disruptive impact on the main story timeline.

The other flashbacks in “The Laughing Sun” all start as thought bubbles4, but with an image inside rather than words. The first of these, Vicente’s, calls attention to itself because the previous panel showed Vicente with a traditional thought bubble that does contain words. Then, within the flashback, each of the panels has scalloped corners rather than hard right angles. The end of Vicente’s flashback highlights the device in a different way, as a thought bubble above Vicente’s head shows himself and Jesús as boys, who themselves have a thought bubble over their heads, with an image of the devil chasing them through Hell. The bottom of this panel has right-angled corners, while the top corners are scalloped. The other three flashbacks follow a similar pattern — thought bubble with an image (and sometimes a word balloon inside the thought bubble), scalloped corners on the memory panels or portions.

Gilbert first used these two approaches — narration over static images and images inside thought bubbles — in “Act Of Contrition.” The next Palomar story after “The Laughing Sun” to contain a flashback was “The Reticent Heart,” which actually announced it with a caption reading “Flashback: A few years before Carmen and Heraclio became wife and husband,” and then later signaled “Flashback within the flashback: Years ago, on a warm, late afternoon in Palomar…” In a 2008 interview, Gilbert revealed his struggles with the device:

I ran into trouble with that a lot. When I first started, I used the old comic-book cliché of writing the word “flashback” just to make it clear for the reader. As my editor suggested, the strip was starting to develop in such a way that it didn’t really need this nudge. So I started presenting a flashback more like in a film. But I wasn’t so good at it. What I thought was a natural, smooth transition from modern times to a flashback wasn’t always identifiable by the reader. In a lot of reprints, I rework transitions to make a flashback clearer. (Your Brain On Latino Comics, pg. 176)5

In Chapter 2 of Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons show their mastery of those transitions. The chapter relies upon a few different techniques to signal that a flashback is beginning or ending, and by far the most prominent one of these is image-matching. The first flashback of the chapter starts with a bright glare off the Minutemen’s picture, followed by a panel of the camera flashing, and then a panel of the Minutemen posing for that picture, which begins the narration in earnest. Similarly, a panel of Adrian’s impassive face at the funeral precedes a panel of him masked as Ozymandias, in the same exact pose, to begin the Crimebusters meeting flashback. The Crimebusters flashback goes out through the same door, transitioning from a panel of Adrian masked in 1966 to one of him unmasked in 1985. Clever match cuts abound, such as when we go from The Comedian gripping Moloch’s lapels as Blake tells his story to Rorschach gripping Moloch’s lapels as Moloch recounts it.

Panels from chapter 2 of Watchmen, first going from Adrian at the funeral to Ozymandais masked in 1966, then back the opposite way.

Where matching isn’t in place, irony often is, such as in the cut from Sally having just been sexually victimized to the Tijuana bible image of her saying lustily, “Oh! Treat me rough, sugar.” The only transition that approaches a traditional comics technique is the one leading into Moloch’s flashback — captions of Moloch beginning to tell the story overlay an image of The Comedian sitting on Moloch’s bed, not so different from how Gilbert handles Archie and Luba’s flashbacks in “Act Of Contrition.” That’s as far as the connection goes, though — there are no thought bubbles in Watchmen, and certainly no captions reading “Flashback.”

That said, Gilbert made rapid strides in his technique during the two years that separate “The Laughing Sun” from “Absent Friends.” “Holidays In The Sun” (cover-dated January 1986) is a story of Jesús in jail, in which panel transitions slip seamlessly between fantasy and reality with no artificial bracketing. Even within his dreams, Luba’s face changes abruptly to Laura’s via panel transition. By the time of “Duck Feet” (June 1986) and “Bullnecks And Bracelets” (January 1987), flashbacks in Gilbert’s stories begin and end with no announcement whatsoever of the time-shift, sometimes jumping across years in the space of a few wordless panels.

During roughly the same period, there are flashbacks aplenty over on the Jaime side of L&R as well. “The Secrets Of Life And Death Vol. 5” (January 1987) is mostly flashback, with a transition accomplished by a scallop-sided panel overlaying one set in the present. The panels within the flashback look normal (straight corners), except for the one coming out of the flashback, which has one scalloped corner. Then in “The Return Of Ray D.” (April 1987), Jaime accomplishes a transition to the past using the same image-matching technique as “Absent Friends” — three characters in similar poses, but dressed differently (and one transforming from a background figure into a major character in the flashback), with no other mechanical conventions overdetermining the shift.

It’s not impossible that technical influence was flowing both directions between Los Bros and Moore/Gibbons. Certainly as Love And Rockets progressed, their time-shifting grew bolder and bolder, extending to dizzying extremes in stories like Gilbert’s early-90s “Poison River”, which would sometimes rapidly crosscut between years or decades, jumping timelines from one panel to the next without explanation and leaving the reader to piece it together. Even the opening pages of its chapters showed characters at various points in their timelines.

At the very least, it seems fair to say that both Love & Rockets and Watchmen are exemplars of an era in which formal experimentation in comics flourished. They were far from the first to use flashbacks — Harvey Kurtzman in particular, among his many 1950s achievements, used flashbacks to powerful effect in stories like Big “If”.6 Nor were match cuts a new thing — Stanley Kubrick among many others made masterful use of the technique in film. But 1980s comics like Watchmen and L&R brought these sophisticated techniques together repeatedly and consistently, for a wide variety of precisely controlled narrative effects, and thereby pushed the boundaries of comics, leading to a rich artistic payoff for a large number of works, a general expansion of the form’s visual vocabulary, and the increasing sophistication of its audience.

Beyond The Gutters

In his landmark 1993 study Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud breaks down a few different ways panels can relate to each other:

McCloud's six types of panel transitions, each drawn wtih an example.

  • Moment-to-moment: Panel A depicts the moment before Panel B, with a few seconds at most elapsing between them.
  • Action-to-action: Panel A depicts the action before Panel B, even if there’s a bit of time separation between them — for example pouring a drink, then drinking it.
  • Subject-to-subject: Panel A depicts one part of a scene, and Panel B depicts a different part, moving time forward as well.
  • Scene-to-scene: Panel A and Panel B are separated by some significant distance in time or space, or both.
  • Aspect-to-aspect: Panels A and B depict different aspects of “a place, idea, or mood.” There is very little sense of time passing between these panels, which is what separates them from subject-to-subject transitions.
  • Non-sequitur: Panels A and B seemingly have no relation to each other.

As McCloud explains it, the space between panels is known as the “gutter”, and the imaginative connection performed by the reader across this gutter, in order to accomplish these transitions, is “closure.” His observation rests upon the fact that comics are sequential, and that the connections between the images in that sequence must be made by the reader.

Rocco Versaci, in This Book Contains Graphic Language, takes this line of reasoning a little further, noticing the ways in which comics can be both simultaneous and sequential: “[U]nlike film, which unspools at a more or less predetermined (and from the viewer’s perspective, uncontrollable) pace, comics creators can play with the design of an entire page by manipulating the visuals within panels and the panels themselves within the page to create additional layers of meaning. Thus, a comic, in addition to unfolding temporally, also exists ‘all at once,’ and this existence is a feature unique to the medium.” (pg. 16)

Watchmen frequently capitalizes upon this “all at once” quality of the page. For example, in Moloch’s flashback, there’s a flashing light outside his window, which alternates between illuminating The Comedian and leaving him in darkness. The panels in the 3×3 grid thus alternate between oranges and blues, as moment-to-moment transitions in The Comedian’s speech. The result is a bright X across the page, complemented by a dark O. This rhythmic alternation also appears in the first few pages of the chapter, this time in scene-to-scene transitions, as rapid cuts between California and New York create these interlocking panel patterns of brightness and darkness.

Pages from Chapter 2 of Watchmen demonstrating the light/dark alternation

What’s at play here is the tension between images all at once, and images in sequence — we see the page all at once, even as the panels are sequential. Hatfield views Los Bros as masters of manipulating this tension: “Gilbert and Jaime freely manipulate time, space, and point of view, collapsing hours or even years into abrupt transitions, splicing together reality and fantasy, and discerning patterns in widely separated events. Relying on the cohesiveness of the total page (and the familiarity of L&R as a series) to guide and reassure their readers, Los Bros pushed the tension between single image and image-in-series to the extreme, transitioning from one element to the next without warning.” (pg. 70)

With his reference to “the familiarity of L&R as a series”, Hatfield gestures to yet another level of tension in comics, in which any of McCloud’s transitions can occur: the tension between single episode and episode-in-series. Because comics stories are so frequently serialized, readers are called upon to perform closure between episodes. Many Marvel comics, for instance, are pieces of a continuing story, and thus have a tendency toward moment-to-moment transitions between episodes — issue #191 is likely to pick up right where #190 left off, at least if #190 ended on a cliffhanger. If one issue wraps up a story, the next issue is likely to pick up on a time not too much later in the title character’s life — a scene-to-scene transition.

Closure between episodes is the connective tissue that holds comic book sagas and universes together. Those connections, taken in totality, form that beloved shibboleth of comics aficionados: continuity. Continuity is our overall experience of a story, as strung out over multiple episodes. Just as certain artistic effects are only possible on a total page, so too can continuity empower dramatic moments, or amplify dramatic blunders. When the Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man #121, it was continuity that made the moment so powerful — readers had known Gwen for eight years at that point, over 90 connected issues. She was a part of readers’ lives just as she was a part of Spider-Man’s life. That is a level of intimacy impossible to achieve within the boundaries of a single book. Similarly, when the “Clone Saga” attempted to assert that the last twenty years of Spider-Man stories hadn’t really been about Peter Parker, it was continuity that led fans to their pitchforks and torches.

Both Gilbert Hernandez and Alan Moore use continuity to their advantage. The time-jumps that happen after “Heartbreak Soup” challenge closure, requiring the reader to figure out where the story occurs in relation to that first baseline. By the time of “The Laughing Sun”, Gilbert seems to have settled more or less into the HBS + 10 zone, but it’s clear that our perspective can come unmoored in time at any moment. By the same token, part of what gives “The Laughing Sun” (among many other Palomar stories) its power is the fact that we know these characters from many positions in time, which enriches and deepens our understanding of their relationships to themselves and each other. Unlike with Spider-Man, though, we do not travel through time alongside them, but rather begin to see their stories from multiple angles at once. Analogous to a comics page, Palomar exists “all at once” for us, increasingly so as continuity builds.

Watchmen is a self-contained story, not an ongoing saga, but still, it was serialized over 12 issues, and Moore certainly uses the continuity of that year-long publication period for dramatic effects. Clearly, the clock that ticks down at the end of each chapter is powered by closure — we know where that clock has been, and our knowledge of the number of issues in the series lets us know where it’s going. Similarly, even as early as Chapter 2, Gibbons draws panels that call back exactly to previous episodes in the series, relying on our knowledge of those episodes to provide the full meaning of the recontextualization. Even the end papers occasionally employ continuity, with part II of Under The Hood ending in Chapter 1, and part III picking up immediately in Chapter 2.

For Watchmen, and to a lesser extent for Love And Rockets, there is an additional level of tension beyond this: the tension between genre instance or invocation and the broad genre as a whole. Watchmen places itself in the superhero genre, as it existed in 1986, and is ready for its readers to come in with certain expectations of how that genre works, its conventions and status quo. Moore takes advantage of this level of reader knowledge to produce surprise, shock, and dismay as his characters and situations contrast with what’s expected, as well as to introduce overtones that call the rest of the genre into question. Love And Rockets, on the other hand, begins within expected comics genres of science fiction and fantasy, then moves quite deliberately outside them, landing in a place that defines its independence partly in opposition to what’s on offer in the rest of the comics mainstream.

Even beyond genre, there is yet one more layered experience available from these books: the experience of multiple readings. Critic Douglas Wolk notices this level in Jaime’s work: “The subtleties of his characters’ interactions really only appear on re-reading… despite the technique Hernandez has picked up from his brother of jump-cuts within each scene, it reads so smoothly that you have to make a conscious effort to slow down and note what else is happening.” (Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work And What They Mean, pg. 200) The same points apply to Gilbert’s work as well.

This is very similar to my experience of reading Watchmen. When I first read it, in the mid-90s, I found it enjoyable but unremarkable, and was surprised that it was praised so highly. That time, I was reading for plot, not really noticing structure, and was coming to it from the context of having already encountered many of its imitators, and daring it to live up to the aura of praise that surrounded it. Then, when the movie came out, the press around that event helped me to realize I’d missed a number of layers in that first reading, encouraging me to give the novel a second look. The result is this project. Re-reading (and re-reading, and re-reading) Watchmen has led me to a far deeper appreciation of the book than I had after that first time through, and the same has been true as I’ve reread Palomar stories in preparation for this post.

What God Feels Like

Images, pages, episodes, genres, iterations of reading. All of these contribute to an experience of time connected with a particular work. Past each of these sequences, there is a sense of totality as well, and if you’re not thinking of Dr. Manhattan by now, you probably need to re-read Watchmen. William Kuskin observes a couple of these layers in a 2010 article: “In that he sees time as an object, Dr. Manhattan’s perspective is similar to the reader’s, who can perceive the whole page at one glance and the entire narrative in one turn through the book.” (“Vulgar Metaphysicians: William S. Burroughs, Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, and the Medium Of The Book”, in Intermediality and Storytelling, pg. 54)

I remember once talking to my friend Trish about a television show I was watching. She had already seen it; I was catching up on DVD. She asked me where I was in the sequence of episodes, I told her, and she remarked, “This must be what God feels like.” She knew what was going to happen to all the characters, and by extension what was going to happen to me. She saw the entire series in total, where I was currently still living through it in sequence — she looked at me from outside time, knowing I was trapped inside it but would transcend it to join her soon.

A panel from Chapter 9 of Watchmen, in which Dr. Manhattan says, "Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet."

Time is a strong motif within Watchmen, starting with the title. Watchmen carries the sense of “guardians”, as in “watchmen on the walls of the world’s freedom,” but the character most connected with time is also the son of a watchmaker, who aspired to become one himself. Their predecessors were the Minutemen, a name linked with the American Revolution but linked also with brevity, and fragmentation of a temporal whole. The watchmaker’s son becomes unmoored in time, seeing it as “an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.” I’m still not completely convinced by Dr. Manhattan’s point of view, perhaps because he combines simultaneity and sequence in a way I still don’t understand, despite having looked at many a comics page and then read the panels. For me, the whole design of jewel that is Watchmen was only visible upon re-reading, but that jewel continues to reveal more of itself, the longer I look.

So too are we unmoored in time when reading Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories. What is sequential for us is not so for the characters — we see them as teens, then suddenly adults, then flashing back to various points in their histories. Their existence in all these timelines is simultaneous for us, experienced sequentially (though out of chronology) but existing side by side at the same time. Gilbert, like Moore, exploits our sequential experience of reading to break apart the sequential time in his world.

Thus, as readers of Love and Rockets, we ascend almost to the godlike status of Dr. Manhattan. We don’t see the whole jewel in advance, and in fact, we don’t ever see the whole jewel at all, but we see enough facets to at least comprehend the concept of the whole. The same is true of Watchmen to an extent — indeed, the same is true of any book to an extent, because we understand the whole after reading, even if we choose to revisit the parts. But what’s special about Love And Rockets, at a level unmatched by Watchmen, is its powerful combination of continuity and nonlinearity — we can spend years and years with these characters, but their years are not ours, because we know so much of their future, so much of their past.

We learn those things not in the traditional way, following a timeline, but rather from above, via synecdoche, seeing the parts that imply the whole. Just as we assemble a picture of Jesús from the memories of his friends, just as we create Blake from our knowledge of who he has been over time, so too do we create the worlds of Palomar and Watchmen by seeing enough facets to understand the jewel. For us as readers, the world of the story (in all four of its dimensions) is our absent friend, who becomes present through our accumulated knowledge.

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Endnotes

1The convention I would normally follow for citing an author’s name is to use last name, such as I do with Moore and Gibbons. However, since I’ll be referring to both Hernandez brothers, I’m defaulting to using their first names as the least unwieldy alternative. No disrespect is intended. 🙂 [Back to post]

2The chronology on these two pieces is a bit mystifying to me. They’re reprinted in the Heartbreak Soup collection published by Fantagraphics in 2007, which touts its contents as “assembled for the first time in perfect chronological order.” They show up between “Heartbreak Soup” (1983) and “Act Of Contrition” (1984) in that volume. However, “A Little Story” is dated 1985 (it apparently debuted in the first L&R trade paperback), and “Toco” is dated 2002. Why Fantagraphics considers this “perfect chronological order” is quite beyond me. In any case, I’m leaving this paragraph in as a description of my own Palomar reading experience, which happened in the reprint, but note that for readers of the original magazine (including Moore), Palomar stories jumped from “Heartbreak Soup” straight to “Act Of Contrition.” [Back to post]

3Tipped hat and deep bow to Charles Hatfield for the detective work to match these dates.[Back to post]

4Thought bubbles have fallen out of favor over time in some modern comics, replaced by superimposed captions, images, or sudden panel transitions. Watchmen is a prime example of the no-thought-bubble approach.[Back to post]

5Gilbert’s last remark brings up a problem with the sort of critical comparative work I’m doing here — I’m working from reprints of Love And Rockets, as I don’t have access to the original issues. So if Los Bros changed things for the trade paperbacks, it’s quite possible that some of the mechanics I’m discussing may not have been as Moore saw them. This is an unfortunate consequence of the disposable and ephemeral nature of original comics pamphlets, which can sometimes be recovered via digital (albeit usually illegal) means, but are otherwise locked behind barriers of expense or distance. If you’ve got original L&R issues and can shed light on discrepancies between them and the collections, by all means let me know in the comments! [Back to post]

6Another bow to Charles Hatfield for drawing this line.[Back to post]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Entry: Absent Friends
Previous Entry: A Real Rain

Endnotes

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

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

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

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

The Watchmen Bestiary 18 – A Real Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE NEW NOIR

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

Here are some film noir commonplaces:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High angle shot from Taxi Driver of the murder scene

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

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

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

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

THE URBAN VIGILANTE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shots from Watchmen and Taxi Driver of sleazy Times Square

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

The Watchmen Bestiary 17 – The Superhuman Crew

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

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

This man goes by the name of Bob Dylan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Watchmen Bestiary – Housekeeping, and Some Notes on Method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Watchmen Bestiary 16 – Let’s See Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel of Superman threatening Norville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(John of Patmos really loved lists.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Previous Entry: Across The Universes

The Watchmen Bestiary 14 – Across The Universes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover of Infinite Crisis trade paperback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Entry: The End Of The World As We Know It
Previous Entry: In The Form Of A Question

The Watchmen Bestiary 13 – In the Form of a Question

In the last two entries, I superverbosely examined all the various Charlton “Action Heroes” upon whom the Watchmen characters are based, and noted that Alan Moore had to create his own characters because although DC had acquired the Charlton heroes, DC editor-in-chief (and former Charlton executive editor) Dick Giordano wanted to integrate them into the DC universe rather than, y’know, corrupting and killing them.

So Watchmen got new characters while some of the Charlton characters found their way into various inhabited quarters. Captain Atom got his own series, Blue Beetle landed in the Justice League, and Nightshade joined the Suicide Squad.

Then there was The Question. Unlike those other, more generic superheroes, who could be slotted pretty easily into an ongoing comic universe, The Question was a bit of an oddball. He didn’t have a costume, really (besides the lack of a face), and he didn’t have any superpowers. Most importantly, his strident Objectivism was a deeply idiosyncratic Steve Ditko expression, one that stood pretty much alone in the mainstream comics world. How could anybody who wasn’t Ditko keep writing a character like this?1

The writer DC chose for the job was Denny O’Neil, and the choice made it clear that The Question would be changing. (And this is probably a good time to note that spoilers follow for Watchmen and O’Neil’s Question series.) Like Ditko and Giordano, O’Neil was another Charlton veteran who arrived to shake up the rather stodgy and stale DC stable in 1968. He really made his name a couple of years later, with a brief but legendary run on Green Lantern, which became Green Lantern/Green Arrow under his watch. In that series, O’Neil teamed with artist Neal Adams to bring a street-level realism to the formerly rather cosmic and abstract Green Lantern tales. Suddenly, the prototypical DC hero, a rather bland and one-dimensional “big brave uncle”, was forced to confront situations in which the law wasn’t always on the side of the righteous, and social inequity loomed larger than supervillainous plots.

Green Arrow was introduced as a fiery progressive foil to Lantern’s true blue Establishment values, but O’Neil wisely avoided blatant partisanship by keeping both heroes heroic and flawed. Arrow in his way is as shrill and didactic a voice for liberalism as The Question ever was for conservatism, and sometimes Green Lantern’s cautiousness saved Arrow from making crucial mistakes, even as Arrow opened Lantern’s eyes to a raft of problems he’d never noticed or cared about before.

The book took on racism, slumlords, cults, corporate oppression, and even heroin addiction, in a story that followed immediately on the heels of Stan Lee’s Comics Code-breaking anti-drug story in Spider-Man. Evenhanded though O’Neil was, the book’s depiction of these issues make it pretty clear that his sympathies are on the left. In one of its most famous and repeated passages, an elderly black man angrily confronts Green Lantern, saying, “I been readin’ about you… how you work for the blue skins… and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins… and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with–! …The black skins! I want to know… how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!” And Mr. Green Lantern has no answer, just a feeble, “I… can’t.”

question 1 cover

So how would perhaps the most famously liberal writer in comicdom do justice to the famously Randian Question? Well, the first thing O’Neil did to the character was to kill him. Issue 12, page 1 of O’Neil’s Question series begins with the caption, “Hub City, Friday, November 21, 10:45 P.M.: Charles Victor Szasz has exactly 25 hours and 15 minutes to live.” But wait, what does that have to do with The Question, whose name is Vic Sage? Well, it seems O’Neil applied a bit of retcon to Ditko’s character, declaring that “Vic Sage” is in fact only a pseudonym for an orphan born Charles Victor Szasz. He kept Sage’s television career, his relationship with professor Aristotle Rodor (who he calls “Tot”), and his violent investigative techniques as The Question, but applied a hardboiled noir filter and drained out Ditko’s unsubtle philosophical and political commentary.

True to its word, that first issue’s last panel shows Vic Sage, aka Charles Victor Szasz, lying at the bottom of a river for at least ten minutes after being beaten lifeless and then shot in the head, his Question mask floating slowly upward. He was defeated by a martial arts expert named Lady Shiva, and then abused and pummeled by various generic punks before being shot with an air gun, the slug traveling all the way through his head. Aforementioned punks then dumped him in a river. Hardly an auspicious beginning for a hero’s new series! In fact, it reads more like a series-ending story.

And in fact, that’s what it was. Oh, the character came back, miraculously3 nursed back to health by that selfsame Lady Shiva, for reasons of her own. But Ditko’s version of Vic Sage was dead forever, to be reborn as someone quite different. After reviving him, Lady Shiva took Sage to her mentor Richard Dragon (a character created by O’Neil in a novel and later transferred to the DC universe.) Spending a year with Dragon, Sage discards his old self to adopt Zen philosophy and meditation. In fact, the book embraces Zen and Eastern philosophy so enthusiastically that O’Neil not only dramatizes various koans throught the run, he also provides a “Recommended Reading” text at the end of each issue, encompassing titles like Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Wandering Taoist, and The Art Of War.

O’Neil also revamps The Question’s driving passion. In the Ditko stories, that passion is pretty clearly for the capital-T Truth, which naturally in Ditko’s viewpoint exists as objective fact, waiting only to be announced by that hero noble and unafraid enough to tell it. According to O’Neil, The Question’s passion is in fact… curiosity. Where Superman has altruism, Batman has revenge, and Spider-Man has guilt, O’Neil’s Question just has a burning desire to know things. As superhero obsessions go, it’s certainly different, but not very propulsive. “Gee, I’d like to know more about that” isn’t exactly bursting with narrative tension.

To compensate, O’Neil places his hero in Hub City, which he depicts as the very archetype of urban decay. Unlike Marvel, which generally sets its superheroes in real locations, DC tends to set its stories in fictional metropolises such as, well, Metropolis. Then there’s Gotham City, Coast City, Central City, Star City… you get the picture. Usually this approach leaves the stories feeling more abstract, less grounded, and a touch sillier. In the case of Hub City, however, the distancing tactic worked to the stories’ advantage. Because he wasn’t naming real names, O’Neil was free to make Hub City the worst city in America — corrupt cops, rampant crime, drugs everywhere, government incompetent and/or corrupt, orphanages bankrupt, and so on. If O’Neil had explicitly set his Question stories in East St. Louis, Illinois (upon which he based Hub City), he’d surely have endured angry letters and maybe even legal trouble. But with “Hub City”, he was free to portray the blight we know exists without the discomfort of disparaging someone’s actual home.

The fact that The Question lived in Hub City forced him into dramatic situations that curiosity alone could not have produced, while at the same time pushing O’Neil’s social justice themes to the fore. Supervillains were rather thin on the ground in Hub City, but human misery was everywhere Vic Sage looked. That misery drove most of his stories, in one fashion or another. Vic may be curious, but in Hub City, all his questions had tragic answers.

Predictably, Objectivist fans of the Ditko character freaked out at these changes, writing in to tell O’Neil that his storyline amounted to a cult brainwashing, but the die was cast. Or, at least, mostly. Vic never came off like a junior Ayn Rand again, but neither did he settle in Zen calm. In Hub City, how could he? He struggles constantly with feelings of anger, bitterness, and helplessness, falling further and further away from his meditation practice as the series goes on. One of these “behavioral dips” impels the story that brings you today’s entry. For as the annotations tell us:

The connection to the Charlton Comics heroes was recognized by the writers that carried on those heroes. In a late 1980s issue of The Question, the Question reads a copy of Watchmen and tries to emulate Rorschach’s methods.

The issue in question is #17. Things haven’t been going particularly well for Vic. In issue #15, he meets a hardcore racist named Loomis McCarthy, whom he despises. Then that selfsame McCarthy takes a bullet meant for Vic, sacrificing his own life even as Vic was in the midst of telling him, “I loathe you and everything about you — and everything you stand for.” Vic gets furious at a bystander who calls McCarthy a hero:

question 15

Then in #16, there’s an assassination attempt on the Hub City chief of police, who is seemingly the only honest cop in the whole burg. (At least, he’s the only one with a name.) At the end of the issue, The Question apprehends the assailant, who goes by the handle “Sundance.” As #17 begins, the imprisoned Sundance has summoned a fancy lawyer from Seattle.4 Vic is there in a journalistic capacity as the lawyer arrives, and thus witnesses the twist: the lawyer isn’t a laywer at all, but rather the assassin’s partner in crime, who sure enough goes by “Butch.” So Butch and Sundance escape back to Seattle.

This escape infuriates Vic, so he buys an airline ticket to Seattle, hoping to chase down the criminals. At the airport, Tot gently chides him, “Two things drive you — anger and curiosity. I sense that the anger is in control. I wish it were the curiosity.” Rodor leaves, and Vic picks up a little reading material for the flight: Watchmen. Not surprisingly, he tunes into Rorschach, thinking, “Maybe a bit over the edge, maybe a little bigoted and he sure as hell is angry, but he does have moves.” Vic dozes off in his seat, and dreams the end of #15, but with himself as Rorschach, complete with crinkle-edged speech balloons and italicized text.

question 17

Almost immediately after arriving in Seattle, Vic gets drunk with an underworld type, attempting to get information, only to get himself badly beat up by that same guy. He eventually wins the fight, and steals his attacker’s ID. As The Question, he drives up outside the thug’s house, and thinks, “I could sit here in this rental car and keep an eye on the bastard’s house until something happened. But I ask myself, what would Rorschach do? He’d kick ass.” So The Question dives through the picture window, threatens the dude, and then gets clocked by a partner who was also in the house. On orders from Butch and Sundance, the two guys drive him up into the wintry mountains, planning to break his arms & legs and then let him freeze to death. Sitting in the car, he thinks, “Tot said my anger was in control and he was right and when I’m riding anger I make mistakes. Stupid mistakes. Why didn’t I listen?”

The Question manages to leap out of the moving car, and flees into the snowy wilderness, thinking to himself, “How did Rorschach end up? Oh yeh… dead. He ended up a wet spot in the snow. Why’d I have to remember that? Why do I have to keep learning the same lessons over and over? Being tough is not enough…” Then the wounded, exhausted, and frozen Question collapses. The thugs find him, and one points a gun at his head, saying, “Any last words?” The Question’s reply: “Yeah. Rorschach sucks.” Then a sudden surprise rescue from Green Arrow, and finis for that issue.

So now we have a triangle, its three points being Ditko’s Question, O’Neil’s Question, and Moore’s Rorschach. Ditko’s creation was the wellspring and inspiration for both of the other characters, and this issue draws the line connecting those characters to each other. As a means of character development for O’Neil’s Question, it works very well. One of the book’s major themes is Vic’s search for identity — as an orphan and a wanderer among philosophies, The Question’s central question is, “Who am I?” In that context, of course he’d explore adopting a persona based on this funhouse reflection of himself.

The trouble is, Vic does a terrible job of reading Watchmen. His takeaway about Rorschach seems to center on violence, anger, and toughness. It’s almost as though he has Rorschach mixed up with The Comedian. As a result, he misses the attribute of Rorschach which is most opposite Vic himself: his certainty. Rorschach is not seeking identities — ever since the Blaire Roche case, his identity is rock-solid. He knows exactly what he stands for and never wavers, much like Ditko’s Question. He’s about the last person in his universe who would ever say something like, “Maybe there are no heroes… and no villains, either.” Putting those words in Rorschach’s mouth shows us just how much distance is between those two points in our triangle.

The next incident also underlines their differences. Where Rorschach threatens and injures criminals in an attempt to get information, Vic tries to buddy up to them, only to get injured himself. Can you imagine Rorschach ever offering to get drunk with a criminal? Or for that matter, a common thug getting the jump on him? Where Vic isn’t sure what to do, and therefore tries new methods, Rorschach knows exactly what his methods are, and does not waver from them.

Those methods, I would argue, do not include charging into unknown situations to “kick ass.” Most of the times we see him go into action — investigating Blake’s death, hiding in Moloch’s fridge, eliminating Big Figure and his henchmen in jail — he is quite deliberate about everything, and appears to have thought through the angles either ahead of time or very quickly. Even when we see him act spontaneously, such as his cooking fat attack, he’s not acting impulsively — his facial expressions and body language are placid. Malcolm Long’s description of the subsequent actions says that they “dragged” Rorschach away from the scene, which suggests fighting or agitation, but immediately afterwards, he says that Rorschach “spoke to the other inmates.” Not screamed, not shouted… merely spoke.

We see an angry Walter Kovacs, but Rorschach’s affect remains flat, be it in therapy, jailbreak, interrogation, contemplation, or trying to save the world. Only at the very end, when he knows he’s about to die, does his composure shatter. He becomes a wet spot in the snow, but not because of his anger. His demise results from having so much of what O’Neil’s Question lacks: certainty. Vic, on the other hand, gets himself into trouble by letting his emotions rule him, and wavering from his convictions. He leaves Objectivism behind, he leaves meditation behind, he leaves moral clarity behind, and reaches out desperately to a book to help him find direction. But because of his unskilled interpretation of the material, that direction leaves him bleeding in the snow, and thinking that Rorschach sucks, when in fact, the main thing that sucks is The Question’s reading comprehension.

Next Entry: Across The Universes
Previous Entry: Who’s Down With O.P.C.?

Endnotes

1 Ditko himself was mostly doing short stories for indie presses at this time. [Back to post]

2 Released in the same month as Watchmen #6. [Back to post]

3 Something about the diving reflex, and the bullet being so low-caliber that it failed to damage Vic’s brain, and his mask slowing the slug, and Shiva being “as skilled at healing as she is at harming.” Not that logic really enters the equation much when it comes to the resurrection of comic book superheroes. [Back to post]

4 Real cities do sometimes show up in the DC Universe. [Back to post]

The Watchmen Bestiary 12, part 2 – Who’s Down With O.P.C.?

In the previous installment, we looked at some of the Charlton “Action Heroes” created or co-created by Steve Ditko, upon whom the Watchmen characters were based: Captain Atom, Nightshade, Blue Beetle, and The Question. However, there were a number of O.P.C. as well — Other People’s Characters. They too had their Watchmen equivalents, so watch out for Watchmen spoilers as we round out the Charlton stable.

Judomaster

First, however, there is one action hero who did not have a Watchmen counterpart: the Frank McLaughlin character Judomaster. Rip Jagger is an Army sergeant in 1943, fighting the Japanese on an unnamed South Pacific island, when one of his trigger-happy privates shoots an unarmed girl. Jagger rescues the girl, but is pinned down by enemy fire. Suddenly, kendo-wielding natives ambush the Japanese soldiers, then knock Jagger unconscious. He awakens in a cave, where an ancient sensei thanks Jagger for rescuing (what turns out to be) the sensei’s granddaughter, but tells him that the rest of his unit is dead. Having nowhere else to go, Jagger trains under the sensei to learn judo, becoming so good that he achieves a black belt. Joining forces with the natives to fight the Japanese, Jagger dons the symbolic identity of Judomaster, whose uniform includes a samurai-esque high ponytail and a yellow-on-red rising sun flag motif.

That was the origin as told in Special War Series #4, a comic which was immediately discontinued. Judomaster reappeared the next month as a backup feature in Sarge Steel (who we’ll discuss below), and then a few months later got his own series. In that series, he joins back up with the Army, fights a variety of martial-arts-themed villains, and even picks up a sidekick called Tiger, who you may recall would later on become Nightshade’s trainer.

The theme of Judomaster’s stories was, well, judo. McLaughlin was quite a judo enthusiast, having trained since age 18 and even taught judo classes at the local YMCA. Even before he created Judomaster, he was drawing judo instruction backup features for Sarge Steel, panel after panel patiently explaining complicated throws and always ending with an admonition to be safe and work with an instructor. Those features continued into Judomaster, blurbed with cover copy like “SPECIAL BONUS: Judomaster’s defense against a bully… see how… step by step!” Similarly, Judomaster’s stories make an ongoing effort to teach judo principles and terminology. A typical piece of dialogue: “Judo is developed in three phases. Renshindo is physical development — shoubuho develops proficiency in combat and shushinho results in mental development! We work at these three things here in the dojo, our room where we meet for lectures and practice!”

Between its didactic focus and its WWII setting, there isn’t much here that would adapt easily into the Watchmen milieu, so this is one action hero who doesn’t make the leap into Moore’s world. However, there are some elements that arguably come across nevertheless. First, because of its setting in the previous generation, Judomaster serves as a prelude to the rest of the action heroes, just as the Minutemen set the stage for the Watchmen. Similar to Captain America’s juxtaposition against the 1960s Marvel universe, Judomaster appears in a world where there is no ambiguity, where the enemies are always clear. Also like Captain America, Judomaster fought a skull-faced Nazi, this one called the Smiling Skull. That name hearkens pretty clearly to the Screaming Skull, who Hollis Mason mentions running into at the grocery store. So although Watchmen didn’t inherit Judomaster, it may have (just slightly) inherited one of his villains.

charlton judomaster 92

Sarge Steel

Before Judomaster, the guy giving out judo advice in the backs of Charlton comics was a tough private eye named Sarge Steel. However, unlike Judomaster, Steel wasn’t created by McLaughlin but rather by Pat Masulli, the guy who initially hired McLaughlin at Charlton. In true “Captain Adam” fashion, the character’s real name is… Sargent Steel. He was also an Army sergeant, just to cover all the bases. During a Vietnam tour of duty, he makes an enemy of Chinese terrorist Ivan Chung, which results in a series of attempts on Steel’s life. While Steel is on R&R furlough in Saigon, a grenade is thrown at his feet. He tries to throw it out the window, but it’s been covered in glue, and it destroys his hand. For some reason, the Army doctors replace the missing hand with a clenched steel fist. What the science of prosthetics has gained in function, it has surely lost in badassery.

After the glued grenade ends his Army career, Steel becomes a private detective, and later a CIA agent who maintains a cover as a private detective. His stories are pretty much Chandler/Hammett pastiches, albeit with a bunch of spy stuff rather than seedy California underworld characters. The cliches pile up thick and fast, as do the cars and bodies. Femmes fatale are everywhere, as are initially tough female allies who inevitably crumble into damsel-in-distress mode so that Sarge can save them. The steel fist becomes a prominent feature in every Sarge Steel story. It can deflect bullets, knock out angry animals, break through doorways, and other amazing feats. It’s a rather, uh, hamfisted symbol for Steel’s primary quality, and in fact the predominant theme of his stories: toughness. In fact, Steel is occasionally billed as “The Toughest Man In The World!”, and panel after hardboiled panel tries to prove the point.

charlton sarge steel

The annotations say that “the Comedian shares some attributes with Sarge Steel,” and it’s easy to see what they mean. In his way, Edward Blake tries to live out the agent/detective’s hardheaded, womanizing image. As he says to Moloch, “The world was tough, you just hadda be tougher, right?” Only unlike Sarge Steel, The Comedian’s toughness didn’t win him any happy endings, and it didn’t protect him from much either. He says the line above while weeping inconsolably in front of his longtime enemy, his face is disfigured by the results of his own evil, and he doesn’t even survive to page one of the story. As for his attempts at womanizing, they get him publicly excoriated as a rapist, and alienate him permanently from his only daughter. So much for toughness.

The Peacemaker

Though he’s got plenty of Sarge Steel in his personality, the Comedian is said to be patterned primarily after The Peacemaker. This is a character created by Joe Gill and Pat Boyette, who originally appeared as a backup feature in a war/espionage comic called Fightin’ 5. In his civilian identity, he’s diplomat Christopher Smith, who travels around the world with his efforts to advance the cause of peace through détente and negotiation. However, when negotiations break down or prove futile, he breaks out a helmet, uniform, and panoply of technology to become The Peacemaker, a dude who punches people and blows stuff up. The first panel of his origin sets out the notion: “This is a man who detests war, violence, and the dreadful waste of human life in senseless conflicts between nations… a man who loves peace… so much so, that he is willing to fight for it!!”

charlton peacemaker panels

You’d think that this would have to be a short-lived gimmick. Of course, as it turned out, the entire Action Heroes line was short-lived, but one wonders just how many issues Christopher Smith could have continued failing at his job so that he could assume his other identity. As Alan Moore says in a 2000 interview, “I could see the holes in that one straightaway.” DC must have seen them too, because after they acquired the character, they retconned his contradictory philosophy as a mental illness caused by having a Nazi death camp commandant for a father. Thus, although the ostensible theme of Peacemaker stories is peace, I’d suggest that their most prominent attribute is in fact contradiction.

It’s easy to see how The Comedian takes after Sarge Steel. His relation to The Peacemaker isn’t so clear. The Comedian certainly doesn’t love peace, though he’s gung-ho about the fighting part. He’s not a genius who designed a bunch of weapons. Lord knows he’s no diplomat. So in just what way does he take after the Peacemaker?

I suppose the biggest similarity between the characters is in their internal contradictions. The Peacemaker is a supposed pacifist who spends most of each story attacking people. The Comedian is a supposed hero whose scenes mostly involve rape, murder, mayhem, tear-gassing civilians, and so forth. While I don’t think the Peacemaker was intended as any sort of ironic critique on national foreign policy, The Comedian is certainly written with an eye towards the absurdity of enforcing world peace (or any other kind of peace) through brutality and force. The idea of taking a guy like Blake and sending him out to pacify riots, end wars, or clean up crime… well, all anybody can do is laugh.

Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt

The final figure in our O.P.C. lineup is a fellow named Peter Cannon, written and drawn by the enigmatic P.A.M. Charlton stated that it was not at liberty to disclose P.A.M.’s identity, and letter columns were full of speculation about it. The closest the company would come would be to occasionally shoot down a reader’s theory. In the end, P.A.M. turned out to be Peter A. Morisi, who did indeed have an interest in keeping his identity secret — his day job was as a New York City policeman, and he was worried that he’d be fired if his moonlighting was discovered. It’s a rather superheroic conundrum really, except that the crimefighter is the true identity while the mysterious pseudonym belongs to the struggling artist. His character’s situation, though, was a bit different.

When Peter Cannon was just an infant, his parents brought him to a secluded lamasery in the Himalayas. Dr. Richard and Mary Cannon were a medical team fighting an outbreak of black plague in the area. They succeeded in conquering the disease, but it claimed them as its final victims. In gratitude for their sacrifice, the “high abbot” promises not only to raise Peter, but to “develop within the child, the highest degree of mental and physical perfection! Then, we will entrust unto him, the knowledge of the ancient scrolls.” This draws objections from “The Hooded One” who until Peter’s arrival had been slated to receive that knowledge. (Apparently, There Can Be Only One.)

With both mentor and archenemy thus in place, Peter set out on his training, which was a bunch of exercise and education, combined with “the mysteries and power of the mind!” See, what the ancient scrolls teach is the old saw that “Man is capable of all things, but lacks the strength of will to attain his potential, for he uses but one tenth of his brain, throughout his lifetime!” (Despite having been thoroughly debunked for ages, this myth is such a compelling origin for superpowers that it’s still getting used today.) Thus Peter is taught “concentration, thought patterns, mind over matter, meditation,” and so forth, until he emerges as a hyper-capable hero.

charlton peter cannon 3

He’s as physically fit as a person can be, but not superhumanly so. He’s very well-educated, but he doesn’t present himself as a polymath. No, his superpower, as well as the primary theme of his stories, is willpower. The “high abbott”1 posits “strength of will” as the reason why 90% of the brain remains unused, so it is through strength of will that Peter accesses his abilities. He even has a catchphrase for when he’s about to do something awesome: “I can do it… I must do it… I will do it!”

After passing the final tests that complete his training, Peter is sent from the lamasery into our world, accompanied by his childhood friend and assistant Tabu. He’s rather disappointed in what he finds — the sometimes squalid and venal world is no match for the monastic culture that raised him. Consequently, he becomes a rather reluctant hero. In pretty much every issue, Tabu has to wheedle and cajole Peter into donning his Thunderbolt costume and going out to save the day. A typical exchange:

TABU: Can you forever deny the benefits of your power of will to this society in which we live?
PETER: Uh-huh! As long as civilization deals in greed, hatred, and violence, I want no part of it!

Cannon prefers to keep to himself, training and studying, but inevitably there is always some situation that forces him into action. Or at least, there was for about 10 issues, after which he was gone along with the rest of the Action Heroes.

charlton peter cannon 2

Adrian Veidt’s parents were no medical saviors — all we know about them is his description: “intellectually unremarkable, possessing no obvious genetic advantages.” He grew up not in isolation but luxury, here in the world with the rest of us, eventually orphaned like Peter Cannon but not until he was 17. His intake of Asian wisdom was limited to a ball of hashish he procured in Tibet. (Thunderbolt’s true successor in the Eastern philosophy department may in fact be Denny O’Neil’s version of The Question, but more about that next time.) Thus there was no guru and no ancient scrolls — his only teachings were the promptings of his own intellect and ego.

We only have his word for all of this, and he may not be exactly reliable, what with being the villain of the piece and all. He deludes himself in some important and visible ways, which means that his account of his life may be questionable as well. So, he may not actually be the smartest person in the world, though at the very least, we have to admit that he’s a hell of a planner. And like Peter Cannon, he has considerable contempt for the world he means to save. While he speaks of “humanity’s salvation,” he sees it in terms as abstract as a math problem, and doesn’t hesitate to kill millions of people, even as he may claim to have made himself feel every death. It’s as if his left brain, the analytic and logical side, is in complete control, to the exclusion of the feeling & compassionate right brain. Thunderbolt may use 100% of his brain, but Ozymandias looks like he’s running right around 50%.

So while Veidt2 is certainly no dummy, he seems to lack any wisdom to match his exceptional intelligence. What he clearly does have in abundance, though, is willpower. Through his own desire to do so, he perfects his body and reflexes, so much so that he can even catch a bullet. He amasses a personal fortune well beyond his inheritance, through his scientific successes and business acumen. And as he gazes at the half-burned map in the abortive Crimebusters meeting, one can almost see the thoughts forming in his head: I can do it… I must do it… I will do it.

Final Thoughts

Thus concludes our trip through the Charlton inspirations for Watchmen characters. What I think becomes clear is that although Moore worried that his superhero murder mystery wouldn’t work without established characters, Watchmen is actually a much better book for the freedom it has from established continuity. In nearly every case, Moore’s changes to the characters made them deeper and more intriguing, and he was also able to entirely eliminate or amalgamate characters as he saw fit, thereby eliding the woolliness and baggage that tends to accompany existing characters.

Watchmen is a jewel in so many ways — Moore and Gibbons are just so perfectly in control, and one aspect of this is that Moore got to decide exactly what everybody’s past was, and didn’t have to engage with messes like The Question’s Objectivism or The Blue Beetle’s tangled history. He could write Under The Hood in a viewpoint that worked perfectly for the story, rather than one that would have to be wrenched in there from established continuity. And he could tap into the keystone theme of each character and ring changes upon it in ways that resonated with each other.

Of course, that’s not to say that Alan Moore isn’t adept with O.P.C. While nearly every generalization about his work falls apart in the face of his astonishing prolificity, I think it’s safe to say that he’s very good at engaging with other people’s characters and revealing startling new depths in them. From Miracleman to Swamp Thing to Batman & Superman to the dizzying array of literary characters in the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, and even the historical characters on display in From Hell or the eroticized rewrites of Lost Girls, Moore can reveal fresh angles on established figures, with deftness and economy. No doubt the book would still have been great if he’d been given free rein over the Charlton characters.

The fact that he wasn’t, though, means that we got not only reinterpretations but entirely new creations, while the Charlton characters were allowed to continue growing and evolving in the DC Universe, free of the Armageddon that ends Watchmen. In fact, in one instance a Charlton character even got to react to Moore’s version of himself, even as he had already become someone quite different from his origins. That’s where we’ll pick up next time.

Next Entry: In The Form Of A Question
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Endnotes

1 I have to scare-quote “high abbott”, because whoever heard of an abbot running a lamasery? It would be like a lama running an abbey![Back to post]

2 In my comic-book-history research, I stumbled across something interesting about this name. In 1928, an actor named Conrad Veidt had the title role in a film called “The Man Who Laughs”, based on a Victor Hugo novel about a noble scion who has face carved into a permanent grin. According to Patrick Day of the L.A. Times, “Stills of Veidt were used as inspiration by the Joker’s creators, artist Bob Kane, writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson.” Moore’s definitive Joker story, Batman: The Killing Joke, appeared shortly after Watchmen. Since we know that Moore is a guy who does his research, could he have drawn inspiration for the name of Watchmen‘s villain from the inspiration for one of the greatest villains in all of comics?[Back to post]