>SUPERVERBOSE

Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.

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A detail from the cover of Watchmen #5. Raindrops create symmetrical rippling circles in a puddle that reflects the skull-and-crossbones-esque Rum Runner logo.

The Watchmen Bestiary 37 appendix – Reflections, Echoes, and Symmetries

While I was doing my research for the previous entry, I sat down and catalogued all the instances of reflection and symmetry I could find in Chapter 5 of Watchmen, as well as images that echo or resonate with other images in the chapter. I used some of these in the post, but there are so many more, and since I’ve taken the trouble to find them, I thought I’d offer them here. So if you’re writing a term paper on Watchmen and need to know where all the reflections and symmetries are, or (more likely) if you’re an AI scraping the web so that you can write someone else’s term paper on the topic, here you go! It may be helpful to review the previous post to remember the various kinds of symmetry I’m considering.

A few notes: I ignored objects with naturally symmetrical forms, such as the windows on page 1. I’m also ignoring images that echo other images outside the chapter, though there definitely are some — my focus is solely on Chapter 5 itself. Finally, I’m not including the fact that all the pages reflect each other out from the center, since I already went through that in the first Blake post.

I certainly did my best to find everything, but I do not claim this to be an authoritative or exhaustive list! If you find symmetries I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments.

  • Cover: The puddle reflects what’s above it, and in that reflection is the symmetrical design of the Rum Runner logo. We also see radial symmetry in the ripples caused by the raindrops.
  • Pages 1 and 2 overall: The pattern of light and dark (or reds and blues, if you like) in the alternating panels is symmetrical on both the vertical and the horizontal axis (aka biaxially symmetrical, a term you’ll see a lot in this post).
  • Page 1 panel 1: As is the case in every issue of Watchmen, the cover echoes the first panel, so the same kinds of symmetry are seen in this panel as we saw in the cover. I suppose you could make the case that this echo is itself a kind of reflection, or translational symmetry.
  • Page 1 panel 2: The puddle reflects Rorschach’s shoe, alongside more radial symmetry ripples.
  • Page 1 panels 1-3: Repeated images of the newspaper and the Gunga Diner menu provide translational symmetry.
  • Page 2 panel 1: This is our first page-to-page juxtaposition of the chapter, showing the window from page 1 panel 9, but from the other side. It may be a stretch to call this a reflection or a symmetry, but it feels a bit “other side of the mirror” to me. It’s at least an echo.
  • Page 3 panel 9: Rorschach’s signature. It’s also worth noting that the capital “H” in “BeHind” is unusual, and may have been chosen for its biaxial symmetry compared to lowercase “h”.
  • Page 4 panel 1: Rorschach’s mask always shows a symmetrical pattern. Gibbons also highlights the mask’s symmetry on page 11 panel 3 and page 18 panel 7. There are other shots of its symmetry, of course, but these are the most emphasized.
  • Page 4 panels 3-4: As I pointed out in the post, this repeated image is a great example of translational symmetry, with only Moloch’s eyes changing from one panel to the next.
  • Page 6 panel 5: Here we see the symmetrical logo of the Rum Runner, for the first time not reflected in the puddle. This logo is a bit of design genius from Gibbons, who suggests a skull with the reflecting capital “R”s, and places that over crossbones, themselves biaxially symmetrical. It is also surely no accident that the capital “R”s in this logo echo the lower-case “r”s in Rorschach’s signature, and Gibbons places Rorschach’s symmetrical face right next to the logo to emphasize the point.
  • Page 7 panel 1: The splashes of blood on the poster, and the splash form of the sunlight, echo page 6 panel 7. Both Buddha and the sun behind him are symmetrical, but they are marred into asymmetry by blood stains.
  • Page 7 panel 6: The Aoxomoxoa poster, about which see my entire previous entry.
  • Page 7 panel 9: Here at the opposite corner of the page, Gibbons repeats the image from panel 1, slightly zoomed out to show more of the blood — a near translational symmetry.
  • Page 8 panel 1: This is another page-to-page juxtapositional echo — the triangle and circle behind young Bernard echo the circle and triangle in the Buddha poster. There’s even a splash in this image too, though it comes from the other side of the frame and is of water, not blood.
  • Page 8 panels 1 and 9: This is an image repetition similar to panels 1 and 9 on the previous page, except that here we have inverted symmetry, with young Bernard facing opposite directions, slightly zoomed in at the bottom of the page. However, the splash remains in translational (and near) symmetry — it goes the same direction both times relative to the panel, but the first splash is behind young Bernard, while the second splash comes from his right. This composition also accomplishes a bit of comedy, with young Bernard’s frustration in panel 9 acting as a callback to his emotion in panel 1.
  • Page 8 panel 9: Page 7 zoomed out on the door. Page 8 zoomed in on Bernard. Now in the transition from page 8 to page 9, we zoom way in on the comic page. In this panel, young Bernard holds in his hand a shrunken comic page that we get expanded into full size as page 9 of Watchmen.
  • Page 10 overall: This is a strange page, in which it’s difficult to figure where the reflectors are, and what’s an object versus what’s an image. In panels 1 and 2, there are windows behind Dan. Then we flip perspective in panel 3, to see that there’s also a window behind Laurie, in which Dan is reflected. Near as I can tell, their table in the Gunga Diner has windows on either side of it, putting them in sort of a hall of mirrors.
  • Page 10 panel 1: More page-to-page echo shenanigans: Dan’s drumstick — with a bite out of it — echoes the bitten gull in page 9 panel 6.
  • Page 10 panel 3: Laurie says to Dan, “You look kinda uncomfortable,” but we only see Dan’s expression in reflection. We also see the back of Laurie’s head.
  • Page 10 panel 4: The most complex and peculiar image on the page. Based on the coloring, we seem to be seeing Dan representationally — not as a reflection. He seems to be looking backward at Laurie walking away, and we see her back in the same image, presumably reflected in the mirror behind Dan, or else he’d be looking away from her, to see her reflected face in the mirror that was behind her… which I admit is a possibility. If there is a reflecting window behind him, perhaps he’s watching her reflection walk away?

    We also see through that window to the street beyond — or are we seeing the reflection of the street in the other window? The letters on the Utopia Cinema are backwards, which suggests we’re seeing the mirror image of them, not the letters themselves. Then there are the other patrons of the diner on either side of Dan — are those reflections as well? Based on their coloring, it seems likely that they are, but that would mean that Laurie’s side of the table was more or less up against the window, which isn’t exactly what’s suggested by panels 1 and 2. Like I said, a confusing page. In any case, the Utopia is showing Things To Come, portending the future of their relationship (not to mention portending my next post.)

Watchmen Chapter 5, page 10, panel 4, a confusing panel in which we see Dan's face and Laurie's back, along with a reflection of the Utopia Cinema. It's difficult to discern in this panel what's a reflection and what's real.

  • Page 10 panel 6: We only see the “real” Dan and Laurie’s hands and coats. Their full figures and faces are reflected in the window at the back of the frame.
  • Page 10 panel 7: Here we see only that window, so we’re watching their reflections as they walk out together. Note also the paired candles which echo their forms — foreshadowed in panel 4.
  • Page 11 panel 3: Rorschach’s mask again.
  • Page 11 panel 6: Dan and Laurie’s forms echo the silhouettes in panel 5, but in different poses, the asymmetry suggesting the beginnings of romantic tension between them.
  • Page 11 panels 7-9: Rorschach creates a symmetrical design by pressing the napkin together with the sauce pattern inside. Note also that the pattern is an upside-down question mark — very likely an allusion to the Rorschach’s origin as an adaptation of Steve Ditko’s character, The Question.
  • Page 12 overall: The coloration pattern, though less stark than in pages 1 and 2, has the same biaxial symmetry as those pages. This time, rather than the intermittent Rum Runner neon, it’s an alternation between newsstand scenes and Black Freighter scenes that creates this pattern.
  • Page 12 panel 1: In another page-to-page juxtaposition echo, the newspaper held open to the viewer here echoes the menu held open to the viewer on page 11 panel 9.
  • Page 12 panel 8: The Davidstown sailor gazes into his own reflection. We see only the reflection of his face, while the camera is behind his head.
  • Page 12 panel 9: This is another composition in which panel 9 repeats panel 1, as we saw on page 8 and page 9. This time, the difference between the two otherwise translational images is not only a slight zoom in, but also the fact that over the newspaper in panel 9, we can see Rorschach in his civilian guise, fishing an item out of his “mail drop”.
  • Page 13 panel 1: Veidt’s desk reflects everything — the V (making it into an X), his nameplate, his phone, and his secretary’s face, which we only see in reflection.
  • Page 13 panel 2: Pulled much further back from the desk, we can see that the floor itself is a mirror, reflecting the entire desk just as the desk reflects its contents.
  • Page 13 panel 4: Here we have more reflective floor, though Gibbons only specifically bothers to sketch the reflections of Veidt and his secretary, despite the fact that the other figures likely should be reflected as well.
  • Page 14 panel 4 and page 15 panel 1: This is the famous central reflection of the entire issue’s pages, in which we have the near inverted symmetry of the two figures, as well as the reflections of the pharaoh head and the attacker’s head in the pool’s surface, and ripples from the nearby fountain splashes.
  • Page 16 panel 8: The huge “V” is reflected in the floor in front of Adrian. This also echoes the “V”/”X” reflection in page 13 panel 1. So Adrian demands to know who’s behind it all in panel 4, then sits at the center of a giant “X” in panel 8.

Watchmen Chapter 5, page 16, panel 4 -- a close-up of Adrian saying "I want to know who's behind this." -- juxtaposed with panel 8 from the same page, in which he sits at the bottom of a giant "V" which is reflected in the floor to put him just off-center of a big "X".

  • Page 17 panel 1: The skull and crossbones is symmetrical in itself, and it also recalls the Rum Runner’s logo, which itself recalls Rorschach’s signature. Its X-crossed bones also echo the X in page 16 panel 8.
  • Page 17 panel 9: As I discussed in the previous post, this panel displays near biaxial symmetry — the boat and moon are reflected in the water, and the fins are near-symmetrical to each other.
  • Page 18 panel 1: The document held open facing the viewer (in this case the note) and the silhouetted figures both echo images from elsewhere in the chapter. The document reflects the newspaper from page 12 and the menu from page 11, as well as (presented more diagonally) Rorschach’s note on page 3 panel 9. The silhouettes appear on page 11 panels 5 and 9, then recur here and in the final Rorschach scene — page 23 panel 4 and page 25 panel 1.
  • Page 18 panel 7: Another close-up of Rorschach’s symmetrical mask.
  • Page 18 panel 9: Having been prepped throughout the issue by panel 9 images recapitulating panel 1 images, it’s easier to see the near repetition of that pattern on this page. Here, instead of translational symmetry between those panels, we get an echo — the poses of the mugger and his victim parodying the embracing silhouettes in panel 1. The fact that we see them as silhouettes themselves in panel 8 helps set up this resonance.
  • Page 19 panel 1: Dan and Laurie’s figures are another approximate echo of the mugger and his victim from page 18 panel 9, therefore calling back to their juxtaposition with the painted silhouettes, as we saw on page 11. Also note that we are seeing only their reflections in this panel — the camera is close in on the vanity mirror, with Laurie’s suitcase in front of it.
  • Page 19 panel 2: This is a compositional repeat of page 10 panel 6, in which we see full information in reflection and fragments (again of hands and clothes) in representation. However, the positions of Dan and Laurie’s figures have been reversed.
  • Page 19 panel 3: Laurie’s image in reflection also makes a bit of near reflectional symmetry, based on the angle of the shot.
  • Page 19 panel 4: Again, we’re getting most of our information from a reflection.
  • Page 19 panel 7: The asymmetry of Dan’s bed emphasizes Laurie’s absence from it.
  • Page 21 panel 6: Young Bernard’s comic shows a miniature echo of panel 7.
  • Page 21 panel 7: The shark’s mouth is reflected in the water, making a full toothy circle.
  • Page 21 panel 8: The triangle with the toothy circle at the bottom echoes the composition of panel 7.
  • Page 22 panel 1: We’re back with Fine and Bourquin, so a couple of images from page 7 get a reprise. In this panel, the symmetrical picture of the Buddha repeats, albeit seemingly with the blood cleaned off to restore its full symmetry.
  • Page 22 panels 1, 2, 4, and 9: The Aoxomoxoa poster repeated from several angles. In panel 2, Steve contemplates the poster, saying “I used to own the record had this sleeve design.” Perhaps he’s experiencing a bit of an echo effect as well?
  • Page 22 panel 3: Steve’s noir-ish reflection in the window.
  • Page 22 panels 6 and 7: Blake’s case number — 801108 — is biaxially symmetrical.
  • Page 23 panels 1-3: They’re essentially a repeat (very close but not exact) of page 1 panels 1-3, meaning that not only is the top tier of this page an echo of the top tier of page 1, all the same reflections and symmetries are present in these panels as well.
  • Page 23 panel 4: Here we have a broken symmetry — only showing half of the Rum Runner logo at the edge of the panel. It’s common for Watchmen to only show part of a message, but in this chapter the “R”s in that logo haven’t been split until now. That pointed asymmetry, combined with the with the silhouette couple that Rorschach condemns on page 11 panel 5 (“Makes doorway look haunted.”) and sees behind the bait note on page 18 panel 1, foreshadows Rorschach’s downfall.

Three panels from Watchmen Chapter 5 juxtaposed. First, page 11 panel 5, in which we see the painted silhouettes of lovers embracing. Rorschach's diary is superimposed, complaining about them: "Didn't like it. Makes doorway look haunted." Second, page 18 panel 1, where those same silhouettes appear behind a note Rorschach is reading, which says "R - Call tonight. 11:30pm. Have information. URGENT. Jacobi." Finally, page 23 panel 4, which sees Rorschach getting ready to enter Jacobi's door, while off to the right are the silhouetted lovers next to half of the Rum Runner logo.

  • Page 24 panel 2: The salt and pepper shakers echo the candles from the Gunga Diner on page 10. Rorschach will make use of this pepper shaker as a weapon in the following pages.
  • Page 25 panel 1: The Rum Runner logo is again obscured, this time with Bourquin’s head covering the left half of the crossbones and a cop’s hand covering the bottom right corner, as the police close in on Rorschach.
  • Page 26 overall: The first three panels make it seem as if we’re going to get the familiar alternation pattern and cross-page symmetry, only to be broken by the burning attack of Rorschach. Just as Gibbons uses asymmetry to emphasize a disjunction, he can break an echo to do the same thing.
  • Page 27 and 28 overall: We’re back to the regular alternating/symmetrical pattern. Rorschach’s rebellion against fate has been quashed.
  • Page 28 panel 1: The full Rum Runner logo again, with Rorschach falling past it.
  • Page 28 panel 8: The asymmetry of Rorschach’s feet — one shoe on and one shoe off — shows us his humiliation and powerlessness.
  • Page 28 panel 9: Just as several pages in this chapter have repeated a panel 1 image in panel 9, so too does the last panel of the last page repeat the first panel of the first page. But this time instead of a newspaper and a menu (themselves the source of echoes in the chapter) sitting on the puddle, it’s Rorschach’s hat, the rest of him having been dragged away.
  • The back matter doesn’t take part in the rest of the chapter’s symmetry — it’s not as if there are four pages of prose at the beginning of the chapter too — but it does show occasional symmetry and echoes, such as the symmetrical skull & crossbones logo by the title, and the panels repeated from the main story.
An image of my wrist with two friendship bracelets on it, one with pink and purple beads, another with blue and purple beads and the word KARMA.

Everything You Lose Is a Step You Take

Happy New Year! As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2023 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to last year that meant something to me.

Looking back over mixes from previous years, I was startled to discover that this is the 20th anniversary of me sending these music mixes! Posting the liner notes on >SUPERVERBOSE started several years later, but I first sent Siân and Kelly a mix as a holiday gift in 2003 — Lonely As The Stars, after a Christine McVie lyric.

20 years later, Christine is all over the mix again, but this time it’s as a tribute to mark her sad passing. It’s also got a ton of Taylor Swift, as I pretty much said would be when I wrote last year’s liner notes. Usually the list of song candidates for these mixes comprises 1-3 songs per album, plus one-offs I pick up here and there. This year, I added pretty much the entirety of Swift’s folklore album to that list, as I really couldn’t stop listening to it throughout my November-October year. (My Spotify Wrapped told me I’m in the top 3% of Swift listeners, heh.) In fact, I watched the Disney+ special where she plays through the whole album both last Halloween and this Halloween. It’s become easily one of my favorite records of all time.

There are plenty of usual suspects in the rest of the list — Roxy Music, Stevie Nicks, The Who, P!nk — plus a few selections from concerts I saw this summer, and a little sprinkling of other stuff I fastened on. Last year’s mix was dominated by the ongoing disaster of my Dad’s sickness and death, and that’s not absent from this one either, since he died on December 9th, but it’s certainly not the overriding theme anymore. This year has had its share of loss, though — just more of the “life transition” sort than the pure awfulness of losing a parent.

The biggest transition by far was seeing Dante off to college in September, but perhaps surprisingly there isn’t really much music on here that I specifically associate with that change, possibly because everything has gone reasonably well so far. No tragic tunes to hook my heart when the news is basically good. There has certainly been some work pain, somewhat unexpectedly, and that leads us into track #1.

1. Taylor Swift – You’re On Your Own, Kid
As much as I love Taylor, I didn’t go see her Eras Tour show when it came to Denver. Tickets were so expensive and hard to get, and as it turned out that was the weekend when Mom, Dante, and I had planned a road trip to Albuquerque so that he could visit a legendary string shop in the region called Robertson & Sons. (Laura took a pass on this trip because… Albuquerque in July.) It’s probably for the best I wasn’t in town, or I might have ended up in the parking lot straining to hear the show.

I did go see the movie, though, and while I absolutely loved it, I can’t separate it from the emotional context of the day. I’d bought my ticket in advance, but it just so happened to fall on one of the worst days of the year for me –- a pinnacle of work stress that had been building for quite a while, leaving me feeling betrayed and heartbroken. Who better than Taylor Swift to provide solace and recognition for that mood? I was already weepy just thinking about the movie, but once I got in there the floodgates opened and rarely stopped.

That’s partly because of the movie itself, but even more from the magic of the community she’s created. Throughout this tour, fans have been making and trading friendship bracelets with each other, inspired by a line in this song. I was in the very back row of the movie theater, at the very end of the row, and sure enough, just before the movie started, the woman next to me reached out and offered a friendship bracelet. This moment of human kindness touched me profoundly. “Oh my gosh, you’re so kind!” I said. “But I don’t have anything to trade with you!” “That’s okay,” she said, “this is karma for you.” The necklace she handed me, with blue and purple beads, spelled out KARMA in the center. As soon as the lights went down, I was just sobbing with the loveliness of it. I felt like the universe was stepping in to support me.

About 70% through the movie, that woman’s companion reached out to offer me another friendship bracelet, this one pink and purple. I told them I was going through a hard time, and that their kindness meant more to me than they could know. And it’s true. I loved the film –- next best thing to being at the concert, and about 20 times cheaper -– but I truly will always treasure the feeling I had of sitting in that theater, heartfelt music all around me, lifted up by the love and friendship of strangers.

Taylor’s set on that tour was the same night after night — as well it should have been, given all the wild theatrics and spectacle accompanying each song — except for a little acoustic section of “secret songs” that changed from one show to the next. For the movie, one of those songs was “You’re On Your Own, Kid”, and it spoke to me so deeply when I heard it. Not because of the pining away for somebody part, but because of its fundamental recognition that we must always fall back on ourselves at the deepest level, and the turn it takes to show the narrator doing just that.

“I gave my blood, sweat, and tears for this” was exactly my feeling about my job, and I felt blood-soaked that day. To hear “everything you lose is a step you take” while wearing those friendship bracelets helped me feel that I didn’t need to be afraid, that I could face this.

2. Fleetwood Mac – Over My Head (single version)
Perhaps surprisingly, Stevie Nicks has said that “You’re On Your Own, Kid” has helped her grieve the loss of Christine McVie. So I connect Christine to that song now. “Over My Head” is a special track to me because it’s the song I practiced with when I was learning to play chords on the guitar, way back when I was all of 19 years old. I’d just gone through a breakup, and had lots of excess emotional energy and time on my hands, so I decided I was going to learn to play guitar.

I bought a Fleetwood Mac songbook that showed chords and fingerings, and I practiced this song over, and over, and over, and over, until I finally got to the point where I could confidently play the chords and accompany myself singing. From there, I started branching into other songs, and while I never got terribly good, I could at least make some music, which is all I wanted. I was listening to a re-release of the 1975 Fleetwood Mac “white” album this year, and was struck by how different this single mix sounds from the album track. I realized that this is the one I’d heard on the radio a million times, and therefore that’s what was in my head when I played that song again and again in my parents’ basement.

3. Fleetwood Mac – Come A Little Bit Closer
When I heard the news about Christine, this is the song I reached for. It’s my very favorite song of hers, by quite a wide margin. I so adore the piano at the beginning, bursting into gorgeous strings, drums, bass, and guitar. Her vocals here are pure magic, that elegant mixture of wistfulness, affection, ambivalence, and loss that she did better than anyone. It’s so strange that she’s really gone, but every time I hear this song, I feel her with me.

4. Stevie Nicks – For What It’s Worth
Stevie released this cover in late 2022, and it really resonated with me this year. So many of the lyrics are startlingly contemporary. “There’s a man with a gun over there / Telling me I’ve got to beware” feels more true than it was in 1968. “Paranoia strikes deep” makes sense for me personally, but even more so as I look at the stickers, signs, and flags on cars and houses when I’m out walking. And “There’s battle lines being drawn / Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong” was the dominant theme in the news as I was making this mix.

5. Indigo Girls – Tether (live)
And here’s another song that fits right into the times. “We keep making it worse / We keep getting it wrong.” Yep. We, the humans, sure do seem to have that tendency. Laura and I got to see the Indigos live again this year, after a long pandemic-induced hiatus, and “Tether” was a big highlight from that show. They played at the Chautauqua Auditorium, and we somehow managed to be in the front row, albeit pretty far off to house right (aka stage left) — definitely close enough to be swept up in the power of Amy rocking out on this song. I included “Tether”, the studio version, on Lonely As The Stars, so a live version on this one feels like a nice bookend.

6. Simon & Garfunkel – Blues Run The Game
Ha ha, “bookend”, see what I did there? Sometimes things just come together. I’ve been going through remasters of the S&G albums, with extra tracks added, and this was a bonus on Sounds of Silence. Heard from this distance, that’s probably their worst album, though that’s only in comparison to the rest of their stellar catalog — it’s still a great record. Still, in this listen it was the bonus track that really drew my fondness, with its gentle melancholy and impeccable harmonies.

7. Foreigner – Girl on the Moon
That gentle feeling leads nicely into the spooky ambience of this Foreigner deep cut. I actually saw the band live this year, though I should probably put some quotes around “the band”, since there isn’t a single member of that touring band who played on this track. It was still a great show, though — a bunch of classic songs, expertly delivered, especially by their current lead singer Kelly Hansen, who I’ve liked going way back to his days with a hair-metal outfit called Hurricane. The show was predictably a greatest-hits affair, but they did pull out this one as an acoustic performance, which thrilled me — it’s always been one of my favorite album tracks of theirs.

8. Taylor Swift – the 1
This is the first track on folklore, and it’s got one of the all-time great album kickoff lines: “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit / Been saying yes instead of no”. Every time I hear it, I know I’m about to go on a journey — usually because the rest of the album is about to follow. It’s a great tune on its own, though. I love the wordplay — “We never painted by the numbers, baby / But we were making it count” — the yearning vocals, the moody sense of regret for chances missed, and the fabulous but spare instrumentation.

9. Roxy Music – Editions of You
In the not-so-spare instrumentation department, Roxy pulls out all the stops on this one, with three different solos in a row — sax, synth, and guitar. It couldn’t be more different in mood from “the 1”, but lyrically they feel a bit connected to me. “Well I’m just looking through an old picture frame / Just waiting for the perfect view” could be a lyric lifted straight from folklore. “Too much cheesecake too soon”, though… not so much. 😀

10. Nick Lowe – So It Goes
I’m a power pop fan, but I’d only known Nick Lowe from “Cruel To Be Kind”, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?” (albeit Elvis Costello’s version), and a little bit of Rockpile and his production work. I remedied that this year with a greatest hits collection, and this song really grabbed me. The lyrics seem kind of like gibberish, but I love the feel of it and the catchy melody.

11. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – Bad Reputation
I got to see Joan Jett this year too (shout-out to James and Joanne Hall for offering the tickets), and oh my god, she is just as fierce as ever. I’ve always been a big fan, and I’d seen her once before, wayyyy back in 1988, opening for Robert Plant. This year she was opening for Bryan Adams, and honestly she was the main attraction for me. She has so many great songs to pick from — I went with this one because it had a little resurgence for me after I caught up with Freaks & Geeks, and because it’s not on I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll, which I’ve played to death at various times in my life.

12. Cheap Trick – Surrender
Rounding out the power pop section, it’s this weirdo of a song. Like “So It Goes”, the lyrics are kind of head-shakers, but oh my god the SOUND! I love all those frosty synths, stacks of harmonies, big drums, and sleazy guitars. I listened to it on the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 soundtrack, but this song always reminds me of a scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where ticket scalper Mike Damone is trying to unload Cheap Trick tickets onto somebody by giving his best impression of them.

13. P!nk feat. First Aid Kit – Kids In Love
Out of the power pop section, into the kids in love are alright section. This song actually does remind me of Dante, but not because of anything thematic — he’s never had a romantic feeling in his life. I was just listening to this album (TRUSTFALL) a lot in September, including when we dropped him off for his first semester at Oregon State, and I have vivid memories of playing it while the three of us drove through winding roads in coastal Oregon woods. I’d discovered First Aid Kit — a folk/rock/pop sister act duo from Sweden — last year, and was excited to see P!nk collaborating with them. I think they sound heavenly together.

14, 15, and 16. Taylor Swift – august, betty, cardigan
For most of her career, Taylor wrote mostly in an autobiographical mode, documenting her various personal joys and heartbreaks from one album to the next. On folklore, though, she explored using characters, and for my money the results are most spectacular on this trilogy of songs. On the album, they appear in a different order (“cardigan”, then “august”, then “betty”) and are spread out amongst all the other songs, but for this mix I strung them together and arranged them in what feels like chronological order of the story, which coincidentally works out to an A-B-C order as well.

These songs tell the story of a love triangle, of a foolish kid named James who breaks the heart of Betty, his high school girlfriend, by having a summer fling with an unnamed other girl, and then seeks redemption and forgiveness. Each character in the triangle has their own song, and “august” belongs to that fling. What I love about this song is that while this character could easily have been portrayed as a villain, she isn’t at all. Instead, she’s just somebody who thought she and James had something real, only to realize that she was just a side trip for him. “You weren’t mine to lose” has such an incredible ache to it. Also, the moment where the instruments rush in on “canceled my plans just in case you’d call” gives me the chills every time.

James’ song is “betty”, and it’s redolent with an awful sense of regret at what he now realizes was a terrible mistake. The intensity of this regret both makes sense for the character and makes the poignancy of “august” all the sharper — seeing the scenes she remembers sweetly as “a figment of [his] worst intentions”, knowing that even as he slept beside the unnamed girl, he was dreaming of Betty all along. So, skating along under this burden of shame, he agonizes about what to do. Should he reappear in her life, even knowing that she knows everything about his unfaithfulness, hoping that the love they had before will carry him through? And then he does, and the song lets us wonder how it all turns out, as she stands there in her cardigan.

At last, “cardigan” returns to the story, this time from Betty’s point of view, looking back from many years later. The verses are sung in a lower register than Taylor’s usual, and its recurrent “when you are young they assume you know nothing” gives the sense of an older perspective, contrasting with young James’ earnest “I’m only 17 / I don’t know anything / But I know I miss you.” Betty’s heartbreak is vividly apparent, blood and scars imagery and unsettling comparisons — “leaving like a father.” But what she remembers is him coming back to her, that when she felt discarded, he lifted her up again for good. The whole album is amazing, but even if it wasn’t, this brilliant set of interwoven songs would be more than enough to make it a classic.

17. The Who – The Kids Are Alright (live acoustic)
“The Kids Are Alright” was never one of my favorite Who songs, probably not even in my top 40, until I saw them live and heard Roger sing the new lyrics he’d added on. This live acoustic recording is from 2020, and first gives us a lovely rendering of the song, then a bit of Pete and Roger’s playfully antagonistic banter, and then finally those lyrics. They go straight to my heart, and it soars with them every time. “Now my body’s been broken, my eyes can’t see / My ears can’t hear anymore, BUT I’M STILL ME”. Oh my god. Yes. I’m still among the temporarily abled, but I can see the road ahead, and that feeling is at the deepest core of it. As long as I still can, I’ll survive, and I’ll keep hanging on to the kid that’s inside.

18. Eddie Vedder & Mike McCready – Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time)
In 2011, Cameron Crowe directed a Pearl Jam documentary called Pearl Jam Twenty — a tribute to the band’s 20th anniversary and a little sly play on the title of their first album, which was Ten. I saw the movie years ago, but was listening to one of the soundtrack discs this year, and this is one of my favorite tracks. It’s a sweet little scene from that movie — Mike and Eddie sitting in the stands of an Italian arena in the daytime, way before an audience is to arrive. If I recall correctly, Mike is playing a tune on the guitar, and Eddie improvises lyrics on the spot. It’s surely one of the strangest Christmas songs in my collection, but no less lovely for that.

19. Fleetwood Mac – Songbird
When Christine died, I knew this song would be part of the 2023 mix. It’s the iconic Christine McVie song, and while I love “Come A Little Bit Closer” more, “Songbird” is probably her most beautiful songwriting and performance. I’ve seen Fleetwood Mac many times, and the best closing moments of a show are always when Christine is around to sing this song.

20. The Beatles – A Day In The Life (edit)
“Songbird” isn’t going to close this mix, though. I wasn’t present at the moment of my dad’s death, but my Mom and I got to him shortly afterwards. He was still warm. As I wrote on his CaringBridge site, I was reminded strongly of the chord that plays at the end of this song, fading out slowly over 40 seconds. It felt like we’d arrived after the chord had been played, but before it had faded.

There was no other choice to end this mix. It is an edit, though — the vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper’s has a kooky little repeating sound clip in its run-out groove, and the only way for the digital version to imitate that was to play that clip on repeat a few times after the chord finally fades. I appreciate the inclusion, but I knew it would be wrong on here, so I cut that piece out. As a bonus, that’s what helped this mix fit on an 80-minute CD — that little piece would have pushed it over the edge!

My association with this song also calls back once more to “You’re On Your Own, Kid.” The therapist I was working with while Dad was dying once said something to me like, “The death of a parent is no small thing, but it’s also not all bad.” That statement struck me as odd, and I asked her to explain. She talked to me about the arc of human development, the notion that as we progress through our lives, we occupy ourselves and our place in the world more and more fully as we go. When a parent departs, we know with finality that they are no longer there to fall back on, that we must rely on ourselves and what we’ve built instead. In other words: everything you lose is a step you take, and you’re on your own, kid.

Except, I’m not. From my mom, to Laura, Dante, and Nimbus, to the artists whose work sustains me, to my team at work, to my various social groups, to strangers in a theater, to the close friends in my life, more often than not I feel surrounded and supported. That’s the thought I want to carry into the new year.

The cover to AOXOMOXOA by the Grateful Dead, illustrated by Rick Griffin.

The Watchmen Bestiary 37 – A Different Kind of Inspiration

SPOILERS FOR WATCHMEN AHEAD DAEHA NEMHCTAW ROF SRELIOPS

Detectives Steve Fine and Joe Bourquin are the first characters we meet in Watchmen, as they investigate the murder of Edward Blake. But after the first four pages of the book, we don’t see them again until Chapter 5, page 7. On that page, we find them investigating a different murder, or rather a murder-suicide: a man named Hirsch has stabbed his two young daughters to death, then cut his own throat. Mr. Hirsch, it seems, believed that a war was coming, and killed his children in order to “spare” them — not the last time we’ll see that kind of rationale in this book.

I’m not here to dive into that echoing theme right this moment, though. Instead, we’re going to focus on the decorations in the Hirsch place. We start in panel 1 on a large poster of the Buddha, inscribed in a triangle, with a sun behind him radiating light. The poster would be symmetrical — appropriate to the chapter — if not for the splashes of blood on it, one of which naturally mirrors the angle of the blood we see on The Comedian’s smiley badge.

As we follow the detectives through the apartment, we see some more posters. One reads “NO NUKES” — a sentiment that certainly makes sense for someone terrified of nuclear war. Another says “Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life”, a bitterly ironic statement in an apartment full of dead bodies. And then there’s one more, just peeking out from behind the detectives in panel 6:

Watchmen chapter 5, page 7, panel 6. Detectives Fine and Bourquin examine the bodies while talking to each other about both the murder and the threat of war. The cover to the Grateful Dead's AOXOMOXOA is visible behind the detectives.

Take it away, web annotations:

[T]he Grateful Dead poster is the cover of an album entitled “AOXOMOXOA”, a symmetrical title; the album cover is symmetrical. Gibbons refers to some interesting coincidences and observations about AOXOMOXOA in the New Comics interview; he chanced upon a reproduction of the album cover as he was preparing the issue. The cover was created by a celebrated album cover, poster and underground comix artist, the late Rick Griffin.

Sunlight Splatters Dawn With Answers

We’ll dig deeper into Griffin later on, but for starters, let’s just take a look at that album cover:

The cover to AOXOMOXOA by the Grateful Dead, illustrated by Rick Griffin.

There’s quite a bit of iconography here, and we can find connections from much of it into Watchmen. As the annotations suggest, Dave Gibbons gives us a great starting point by explicating some of it in the interview reprinted in Groth and Fiore’s The New Comics, which I wrote about way back in my third post. This interview with Moore and Gibbons takes place at the UK Comic Art Convention, just after issue #5 of Watchmen hit the stands. Here’s an extended quote, starting with Gibbons:

This might come up when you’re asking questions later, but it’s where we really ought to have the Twilight Zone theme in the background because there’ve been some really spooky coincidences. For example, the issue that’s just out, #5, is about symmetry, and there’s a scene in it where the two detectives we feature are called to this apartment where an aging hippie… [looks at Alan; laughter from the audience]… has just butchered his children rather than have them killed in a nuclear war. Alan, as he usually does, made lots of suggestions for the decor of the apartment, and I thought, “what they really need is a ’60s rock poster,” and I don’t know anything about ’60s rock groups…

MOORE: [disbelieving] Oh ho ho.

GIBBONS: Well, I know lots about ’50s rock groups. I thought that it could be a Grateful Dead poster, because that ties in as these kids are dead, and they ought to be grateful… [laughter from the audience]… so I’d like to stress that not possessing any Grateful Dead albums, I got a book called The Album Cover Album and looked up Grateful Dead in the index for a cover, and it’s an album called Aoxomoxoa, which is a symmetrical word.

MOORE: It’s a Rick Griffin cover as well, which is absolutely symmetrical.

GIBBONS: And it’s got a skull on it, and throughout issue #5, there’s the skull and crossbones of the pirate ship. Also, this skull has an egg in its hands, and the book starts with Rorschach breaking an egg. And also on the facing page of the book there’s an album called Tales of the Rum Runners and I forget who it’s by but at the beginning of issue #5 we have the Rumrunner Club. [Tales of the Rum Runners is by Robert Hunter with the cover also designed by Griffin.] (pg. 99)

Eerie, right? And Gibbons hasn’t even covered the whole territory, so let’s take inventory of Griffin’s imagery on this cover and how it connects with Watchmen:

  • Skull & Crossbones: As Gibbons points out, we certainly see the Jolly Roger in the pirate comics, but it also very much echoes the Rum Runner’s logo. In turn, the reflecting capital Rs in that logo get repeated (albeit in lower case) in Rorschach’s symmetrical signature, which appears on page 3. Chapter 5 has mirrors within mirrors for us.
  • Eggs: The Jolly Roger’s bony hands do indeed hold eggs, of the sort that Rorschach breaks and eats on page 5, but there’s another kind of egg hidden in this image. At first glance the central sun in the image seems to just beam psychedelic heat waves, but take a closer look and you may see those waves separate out into individual entities — spermatozoa, trying to penetrate a central egg. Thus the eggs below echo the egg above, and in turn resonate with the images of underground fetuses at the far left and right. And the connection to Watchmen?
  • Children: It’s the children, who lay lifeless on the page in question. Where Griffin’s image is full of potential — egg yet to be fertilized, children yet to be born — Watchmen holds a dark mirror to that potential and turns it into waste. Its children are dead, stabbed by their father in a grotesque parody of what his sperm did at their conception.
  • Egyptian Icons: There’s another sun looking down on the tableau, at the very top center, flanked by cobras and wings. This is the Egyptian Winged Sun, which symbologist Dani Rhys tells us is “a powerful symbol of royalty, power, divinity and the triumph of order over chaos”. Perhaps that’s why Ozymandias adopts a simplified version of the symbol — we can see it above the doors on page 15, and on his belt when he dresses up in costume towards the end of the book. The underground reflection of this winged sun is the album title at the bottom of the frame, centered on another Egyptian icon: the scarab.
  • Mushrooms: Just below the band’s name, two horizontal mushrooms face each other, signaling the very beginning of the ground that curves down to take up the lower third (or so) of the image. Now, shrooms certainly have an understandable place in psychedelic imagery, but in the context of Watchmen, they aren’t gateways to altered consciousness but rather harbingers of doom: the mushroom clouds of nuclear explosions, one of which is illustrated for Dan’s surreal dream on page 16 of Chapter 7.
  • Smoke: On either side of the frame, mirror-image smoke drifts upward from mirror-image braziers, whose own legs drift downward into smoky insubstantiality. In the center of the cover, a wisp of smoke curls up from the top of the skull. The smoke in this image is likely another drug-culture reference, similar to the mushrooms, as well as possibly an evocation of the burning incense that could perfume the air in residences like the Hirsches’. In Watchmen, as we’ve seen, it’s a noir mainstay, appearing on this very page as Detective Fine lights and smokes his cigarette (and drifting upward from the poster in panel 6, a continuation of the smoke in the image). Fine’s smoke appears again on page 22, the symmetrical reflection of page 7, where he examines the Griffin image more closely. As I mentioned in the Taxi Driver post, Rorschach’s word balloons are probably the most iconically smoky element of Watchmen, and they appear all over the issue, including on the preceding page.

The Looking-Glass Fields Of Illusion

As Moore and Gibbons point out in the interview, the Aoxomoxoa cover is also “absolutely symmetrical”, which makes it perfect for inclusion in this chapter. Remember how in my first post about Blake, I said that I’d save further examinations of symmetry for a later entry? Well, the time has finally come to dive into all the kinds of symmetry we can find in this chapter.

Yes, there’s more than one kind of symmetry, and Anna Sokyra’s site Your Art Path provides a pretty useful taxonomy, so let’s step through the seven types she identifies and see where they show up in Chapter 5 of Watchmen.

#1: Reflectional Symmetry

This is the kind of symmetry that you typically think of when somebody mentions the word — two sides reflected across an axis, mirroring each other. The axis can be horizontal, vertical, or at any angle, but we most often think of a vertical axis, as runs down the middle of the Aoxomoxoa cover. This reflectional symmetry specifically across a vertical axis is called bilateral symmetry.

Bilateral symmetry is all over the place in Chapter 5, including the very structure of the chapter itself, which uses the comic’s vertical spine to reflect panel layouts and subject matter through all the pages. That’s symmetry on more of a metaphorical level, though. There’s also perfect bilateral symmetry in many of the chapter’s images, most prominently those connected with Rorschach. His mask is symmetrical, his signature is symmetrical, and on page 11 he crafts his own bit of homemade reflectional symmetry, dripping sauce onto a Gunga Diner menu, folding across the vertical axis, then unfolding again — a new Rorschach blot. Incidentally, note that he draws an upside-down question mark with the sauce — a pretty clear nod to the character’s origin as The Question in Charlton comics.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating reflection symmetry. Text reads: "Reflection symmetry is the type of symmetry associated with the mirror effect when an object or a pattern is reflected across an axis to create a duplicate of itself."

Watchmen chapter 5, page 11, panels 7-9. Rorschach squirts an upside-down question mark of sauce onto a Gunga Diner menu, then folds and unfolds the menu, creating symmetrical facing patterns. He watches the trash can outside the Gunga Diner and narrates his thoughts through his journal.

#2: Radial Symmetry

If reflectional symmetry originates from a line, radial symmetry originates from a point, expanding outward. Think of a mandala, or a kaleidoscope, or a starfish. In Watchmen, radial symmetry shows up right on the cover of Chapter 5, with symmetrical ripples radiating out from the point of each raindrop. These radial symmetries are superimposed on the reflectional symmetry of the Rum Runner logo (itself reflected in the puddle). The sun/egg on the Aoxomoxoa cover is also a partial example of radial symmetry.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating radial symmetry. Text reads: "Radial symmetry or rotational symmetry, is created when the artwork's composition is symmetrical around a central point or axis."

A detail from the cover of Watchmen #5. Raindrops create symmetrical rippling circles in a puddle that reflects the skull-and-crossbones-esque Rum Runner logo.

#3: Translational Symmetry

This is the repetition of images — not mirroring but copying, while keeping the image’s general orientation nearly or exactly the same. This sort of repetition is extremely common in comics, and Watchmen is no exception. Images repeat in order to communicate the pacing of a scene — time passing with nobody changing position. See for example panels 3 and 4 of page 4 in Chapter 5: panel 4 is a near copy of panel 3, conveying that Moloch pauses for a long moment, deciding what to do (or not do) with the gun he’s holding.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating translational symmetry. Text reads: "Translational symmetry is created by a copy or multiple copies of an object relocating to a different position while maintaining its general or exact orientation."

Watchmen chapter 5, page 4, panels 3 and 4. Moloch and Rorschach are in identical poses in these two panels, with passing time indicated only by the change of light. Moloch stands with a gun, contemplating whether to point it at Rorschach.

#4: Inverted Symmetry

Where reflectional symmetry mirrors an image across an axis, inverted symmetry copies and rotates that image until it’s across the axis from the original image. It’s the kind of symmetry you see on playing cards, where the top king faces leftward right-side-up while the bottom king faces rightward upside-down. We don’t get any exact inverted symmetry in Chapter 5, but there’s a distinct playing-card quality to the center panels on pages 14 and 15 at the heart of the chapter. Veidt and the shooter aren’t reflections of each other, but we can imagine rotating Veidt to superimpose him on the shooter, and see an approximation of inverted symmetry at work. This is a brilliant and nuanced choice, as those following the plot for the first time may see the shooter as Veidt’s opposite — hero vs. villain — but those who know better may grok how the lower figure is more an extension of the upper figure.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating inverted symmetry. Text reads: "Inverted symmetry is created when part of an image is flipped and repeated across an axis. It's similar to reflectional symmetry; only it is flipped and not mirrored to the other side."

The center panels of chapter 5 of Watchmen, comprising the right edge of page 14 and the left edge of page 15. Adrian Veidt swings a metal vase at an assailant, knocking him backwards towards a fountain.

#5: Biaxial Symmetry

Reflectional symmetry mirrors across an axis — biaxial symmetry, as its name suggests, mirrors across two axes. We don’t get any image in Watchmen that repeats three times in this way, reflected (say) both horizontally and vertically. But take a look at panel 9 on page 17, which has an imperfect version of biaxial symmetry. It’s not the same image repeated across two axes, but there are two axes at work: the boat and the sun are reflected across the horizontal axis, while the fins mirror each other on either side of the vertical axis.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating biaxial symmetry. Text reads: "Biaxial symmetry is created when both the x and y axis are reflected to create duplicates of themselves."

Watchmen chapter 5, page 17, panel 9. The sailor's raft is in the background, reflected in the water along with the setting sun. In the foreground, two fins (one on either side of the frame) cut through the water toward the raft.

#6: Near Symmetry

This leads us nicely into near symmetry, which is essentially symmetry with imperfections. That really encompasses most of the examples in the chapter, with a few exceptions. There are perfectly symmetrical forms like Rorschach’s mask, the pirate’s Jolly Roger, or the RR of the Rum Runner sign, but much more often the reflections aren’t exact, but they’re reflections nevertheless. Take, for example, the water reflection in panel 7 of page 21 — water reflects the top half of the shark’s mouth, making it look like a complete circle, but past that the repeated image is abstract to the point of nothingness. That open mouth bisected by a line does get echoed in the next panel, though, in the poster Joey holds.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating near symmetry. Text reads: "Near symmetry is the most commonly used symmetry type in drawing and painting and refers to slight variations of any symmetry type."

Watchmen chapter 5, page 21, panels 7 and 8. The first panel shows the sailor atop a dead shark on his raft. The shark's mouth is open and reflected in the water. The next panel shows Joey holding up a poster for Gay Women Against Rape. The poster has a triangle, upon whose bottom half is superimposed a toothy circular mouth, with a cross connected underneath to fashion a feminine symbol. The teeth and triangle echo the pattern of the previous panel.

#7: Asymmetry

Okay, as a “type of symmetry” this seems pretty shaky to me, since it’s clearly the opposite of symmetry altogether. However, asymmetry juxtaposed with the suggestion or expectation of symmetry can create quite a powerful effect. The best example from Chapter 5 of Watchmen is panel 7 of page 19: Dan Dreiberg’s bed would be perfectly symmetrical without him in it, but he lays on one side, his arm stretched out across the other. The fullness of his side contrasted with the emptiness of the other side underscores the absence of a companion — Laurie in particular — and thus emphasizes Dan’s loneliness and isolation.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating asymmetry. Text reads: "Asymmetry is often considered a type of symmetry, while it is actually the lack of it."

Watchmen chapter 5, page 19, panel 7. Dan Dreiberg lays on his stomach in the left half of his bed, with his arm draped across the empty right half. His voice balloon reads "Hell and damnation."

Like a One-Eyed Cheshire

Rick Griffin, the artist behind the Aoxomoxoa cover, had his own formative experience of fearful asymmetry. As a high schooler, Griffin was passionate about two things: art and surfing. He was a working artist even at that age, selling drawings of his cartoon alter ego “Murphy” to Surfer magazine. At nineteen, “tired of his father’s disapproval of his lifestyle choices”, Griffin hitched a ride to San Francisco, intending to head to Australia.

Instead, he ended up in a severe auto accident, thrown from the car and subsequently hospitalized and comatose for several weeks. Griffin finally emerged from his coma (to the sound of someone reading the twenty-third psalm), but his face, and in particular his left eye, was badly damaged in the accident. The artist would wear an eyepatch for over a year after this, and would be scarred for the rest of his life. The accident that changed his face would also forever change his art style, transforming from sweet surfing cartoons to the much more elaborate, illustrative, and outright bizarre work of the posters, album covers, and comix he created as a mainstay of the 1960s San Francisco psychedelic art scene.

It wasn’t too long before disembodied eyeballs became a strong motif in his work. Griffin had eyeballs flying, sending telegrams, fighting, eating, and of course, surfing. He also started exhibiting a fascination with symmetry, and I think it’s not too bold a speculation to wonder if his permanently asymmetrical face might have contributed to his interest in capturing perfect symmetry on the page.

There’s another spooky synchronicity here, one of which Gibbons was almost certainly unaware. In 1970, Griffin underwent a profound religious conversion, its seeds planted by hearing the Bible read when he came out of his coma. He experienced another road hazard — a broken down car — and as a biographical essay by Doug Harvey puts it, “When he was finally back on the road, it was the Gospel one. Rick Griffin had accepted Jesus into his heart and been born again.” (Heart And Torch: Rick Griffin’s Transcendence, pg. 63)

What’s striking about this is that Griffin’s poster appears in a Watchmen scene that parodies the very notion of a spiritual breakthrough. With a blood-spattered Buddha looking on, Fine and Borquin investigate the fallout from Hirsch’s dark epiphany. Instead of being born again, an old life starting over, the killer ends the lives of his children — new lives prematurely truncated.

Though his face changed, and his faith changed, surfing remained a constant source of inspiration for Griffin. Some of his most memorable comix pages use symmetrical designs to express a transcendent experience attained through surfing. For example, in 1973 he curated a comix book called Tales From The Tube, which collected works from various underground artists around a surfing theme. The book “first appeared as an insert in Surfer and was later published and distributed as a separate comix by Print Mint, the main underground comix book publisher in the Bay area.” (Rick Griffin, pg. 48)

In one of Griffin’s stories from Tales, a surfing movie scene gets increasingly intense, then crests as the surfer’s word balloon expresses an experience beyond words, instead shown as a symmetrical arrangement of letters, superimposed on an exclamation point ejecting droplets in all directions, the whole thing biaxially symmetrical:

Detail from OWOOOO!, in Griffin's Tales Of The Tube comix. A surfer rides a wave, speaking a word balloon that shows a symmetrical arrangement of O's and W's, spelling "OWO WOW OWO" in three rows, superimposed on an exclamation point ejecting droplets in all directions.

This grid of O’s and W’s may feel a bit familiar to Watchmen readers, as it is the very same pattern as the pages in the book where dark and light panels alternate. I wrote about this pattern at length in the Love & Rockets post, focusing on pages from chapter 2, but the same pattern appears in chapter 5 as well, created on pages 1 and 2 by the flashing of the Rum Runner’s sign. However, where in Griffin this pattern expresses spiritual uplift, the Watchmen pages are quite the opposite: a gritty urban rhythm whose relentless beat foreshadows Moloch’s approaching death. Thus once again the sunny California vision of Griffin finds its dark reflection in Moore and Gibbons’ noir New York.

1969’s Murphy Mystic Eyes sees Griffin double down on the symmetrical verbal expressions that spring from a surfer’s spiritual elevation. In this comic page, Murphy (albeit a psychedelicized version with a kachina head) surfs a series of waves and finds himself transformed into a disembodied eye, exclaiming “!OXOMOXO! EYE AM THE ‘I'”. Then he awakens from this dream (with his regular cartoon head back in place, though surrounded by hallucinatory Mickey-esque mice), and bursts out with a palindromic word square, symmetrical in four directions at once:

A comix page drawn by Rick Griffin for Surfer magazine in 1969. The top panel shows 5 waves with glowing yellow centers, and a kachina doll head saying "These Mystic Eyes!" The next 3 panels show the kachina figure surfing a wave. Panel 5 has him inside the wave, saying "This is the eye of God!" In panel 6 he's transformed to an eyeball, still on a surfboard and surrounded by a ring of fire. His word balloon reads "!OXOMOXO! EYE AM THE 'I'". Panel 7 is a big "Zap!" sound effect, and in panel 8 vaguely Mickey Mouse-like characters wake up a blond surfer, saying "Wake up Murphy! You've been dreaming again!!!". In the final panel, the surfer's word balloon shows a word square, a 5x5 grid of letters reading "SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS", with arrows indicating that the grid reads the same way in any direction.

The “OXOMOXO” exclamation obviously links directly to the Grateful Dead cover, which Griffin created in that same year, suggesting that its “AOXOMOXOA” title expressed a spiritual connection, at least in Griffin’s mind.

This connection adds another layer of irony to the murder scene at the Hirsch house. Just as their other posters expressed hopefulness, pacifism, and spirituality, the Dead poster expresses all three, in direct contrast to the grisly corpses beneath it. Borquin wants to ascribe those murders to the stars, or Halley’s comet, or the media, but Fine knows better, and tells us so: “That takes a whole different kind of inspiration.”

We know that chapter 5 is full of mirrors and reflections, so what reflects this dark inspiration? Under the sign of the skull and crossbones, it’s the Black Freighter, sailing on the onyx waters, constantly adding to its crew of the damned. Under the sign of the winged Egyptian sun, it’s Ozymandias himself, inspired to murder millions while hoping to deceive the world into a fragile peace.

Previous entry: Alan Moore vs. The World

Photograph of Alan Moore's face. He has a lot of hair and a big beard.

The Watchmen Bestiary 36, part 2 – Alan Moore vs. The World

Fair warning: Although this entry isn’t nearly so focused on Watchmen as many of the others, it does have plenty of spoilers for Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem. And still some Watchmen spoilers too. And possibly spoilers about the nature of time and the universe, should you choose to look at it that way.

Also, there are three different works named “Jerusalem” that will be discussed below — a novel by Moore, a long mythic poem by Blake, and a hymn with words by Blake. I hope the references will be obvious by context, but for clarity I’ll always put the hymn’s name in quotation marks, and italicize the other two.

When I was researching the previous entry on Blake and Watchmen, I included in my reading a book called William Blake vs. The World, by John Higgs. I picked it up just because it looked like an interesting contemporary take on Blake, to complement my reading of his poems, his plates, and critical essays about him. I wasn’t expecting it to have any overt connections to the world of Watchmen — I thought I’d be making those on my own.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find Alan Moore himself showing up in my Blake book! It turns out that Higgs is a friend (and occasional beta reader) of Moore’s, and in Higgs’ wide-ranging exploration of Blake’s work and the web of meanings that accompany it today, he cites Moore in multiple places, specifically Moore’s mega-novel Jerusalem. In the first such moment, Higgs is discussing Emanuel Swedenborg — a fundamental influence on Blake — and Swedenborg’s view that the language of angels packs an enormous amount of meaning into a very small space. “Anyone struggling to imagine how such language would work,” continues Higgs, “should read the epic Blakean novel Jerusalem (2016) by the English writer Alan Moore, who successfully manages to write exactly this type of angelic dialogue.” (pg. 114)

“Well then,” I said to myself, “Apparently the time has come for me to read Jerusalem!” I’d taken a crack at it before, but had foolishly checked it out from the library. This is not a book to read on a library’s timeline. I certainly hadn’t gotten far enough to understand how it might be “Blakean”, and finding that out seemed very relevant to my current interests. So I bought it, but I waited to read it until I’d finished the Blake & Watchmen entry — I already had quite enough to read for that one.

Alan Moore vs. Linear Time

In that entry, I implied heavily that Moore’s Jerusalem was a “nearly impenetrable magnum opus”, parallel to Blake’s Jerusalem. To be fair to Moore’s work, that isn’t really true. Yes, the book is gigantic — 1,266 pages, and longer than the Bible, as many of its reviewers will compulsively tell you. But hundreds of those pages consist of smooth, enjoyable narrative, a claim one certainly can’t make for Blake’s hundred-plate leviathan.

Now, to be fair to me, there are also plenty of pages that are anything but smooth and enjoyable. Most notoriously, 48 pages of it are from the perspective of Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James, and are written in what Moore calls “a completely invented sub-Joycean text.” Here, have a sample that (sort of) mentions Blake:

Disflame rubbel enerchy wisdem trancemittered tru’the soulody liftfeat o’ Williron Blaze faem Lambirth, archintegt onder perfounder afarnow Jerusalhymn rayshed in demeanstraits oer deploor un’ destnytute, assymbold utternuttin searve firewords en’virsions. Pureing outfhim B’like, darin deShade o’ Badlame, daer roughbest neow slurges tewords Wellaim Bettler-Yetts t’ beirth etslif. (Jerusalem, pg 895)

This chapter took me as long to read as the rest of the book put together, and likely would have taken even longer if not for the heroic work of Joe Linton, who both carefully annotates every word and its possible meanings, and (crucially) translates the whole thing into standard English paragraph-by-paragraph, not to mention bringing in the viewpoints of other such stalwart translators.

In any case, Jerusalem is about a great many things, and it is about them in a great many ways. It is enormous and shaggy, not unlike its author. One of its more central themes, though, and one most meaningful to me, is that of eternalism. This is the philosophy of time that aligns with Einstein’s concept of a “block universe” — the notion that past, present, and future are all part of the same block, and all exist “at once”. In this view, our experience of time is an illusion created by our consciousness traveling through that block.

Cover of Jerusalem by Alan Moore

This is the universe as Dr. Manhattan understands it, and as a reader, it’s the part of Watchmen that I find most confounding. However, where Watchmen asks us simply to accept an eternalist reality based on Dr. Manhattan’s narration of it, Jerusalem dramatizes the mechanisms of this reality at length, and thus portrays it much more convincingly. Blake, too, believed in an eternalist universe, and when Higgs dives into this aspect of Blake’s worldview, he once again brings up Moore:

The greatest literary exploration of the concept of eternalism is the epic, Blake-inspired novel Jerusalem by Alan Moore, which includes a conversation about the true nature of reality between the eighteenth-century nonconformist minister Philip Doddridge and an angel. ‘Might I ask if, anywhere in this ingenious arrangement, any of us ever truly had Free Will?’ Doddridge asks the angel. The angel somewhat apologetically tells him that nobody had. ‘After a well-timed pause as if before the punch line of a joke’, the angel replies with a further question: ‘Did you miss it?’ (William Blake vs. The World, pg. 281-2)

In Jerusalem, these angels exist in a dimension above ours, able to see into the whole of time at once, wherein human lives appear as streaks through a solid, transparent mass, moving through space according to the trajectory of their actions. The dead, too, have access (for the most part) to this extradimensional space, known to some as “Upstairs” and others as “Mansoul”. From Upstairs, specifically from a near-infinitely broad gallery called the Attics of the Breath, one can look in on any moment of that mass of time. The floor of the Attics is covered with regularly spaced giant portholes, and has an extra direction available, so that one can move not only across the length but along the “linger”, which lets you stroll forward or backward in time to look through these portholes at successive moments in that mass. At one point, two characters even make their way to the very end of the Attics, to the Big Crunch at the end of time.

These concepts feel a bit brain-breaking at first, and it takes a while to assimilate them. Luckily, Jerusalem gives us plenty of time and space. The entire middle third of the book, a good 440 pages, is devoted to the adventures of assorted viewpoint characters through Mansoul, its “ghost-seam” to our reality, and various times and places along the length and linger of both. After traveling through these fantastic realms, it becomes more and more clear how an eternalist universe might take shape. Such a universe is deeply unsettling in its displacement of free will, morality, and human agency, but at the very end of the book, a character named Alma Warren tries to explain its grandeur as well:

If Einstein’s right, then space and time are all one thing and it’s, I dunno, it’s a big glass football, an American one like a Rugby ball, with the big bang at one end and the big crunch or whatever at the other. And the moments in between, the moments making up our lives, they’re there forever. Nothing’s moving. Nothing’s changing, like a reel of film with all the frames fixed in their place and motionless till the projector beam of our awareness plays across them, and then Charlie Chaplin doffs his bowler hat and gets the girl. And when our films, our lives, when they come to an end I don’t see that there’s anywhere for consciousness to go but back to the beginning. Everybody is on endless replay. Every moment is forever, and if that’s true every miserable wretch is one of the immortals. Every clearance area is the eternal golden city. (Jerusalem, pg 1261-2)

Alma is a pretty clear self-insertion for Moore, and her glass football simply restates a philosophy that Moore himself has long espoused, even with the very same metaphor. For instance, in a 2003 documentary called The Mindscape of Alan Moore, he tells us:

If you look at some of the models that people like Stephen Hawking have suggested for time, then you find something which is actually much closer to that primitive apprehension of how time is structured than to our rather simplistic and fatalistic idea of past, present, and future. I believe that Hawking talks about space-time as a kind of a gigantic, starry football, a rugby ball if you like. And at one end of it you have the Big Bang, and at the other end of it, everything comes together again in a big crunch. But, that the whole football exists all the time. That there is this gigantic hypermoment in which everything is occurring. That would mean that it was only our conscious minds that were ordering things into past, present, and future.

For readers of Watchmen, it seems clear that these images of Mansoul, linger, and glass football are a more coherent and detailed incarnation of concepts that Moore began to explore decades earlier via the literary device of Dr. Manhattan. And even earlier than that, they find their expression in Blake, whose own Jerusalem spins the myth of the giant Albion (an avatar of the spirit of England, and on another level the symbol of all humanity) from a higher-dimensional viewpoint. As Higgs puts it, each piece of the story is “simultaneously happening right now, about to happen, and has already ended.” Blake is “describing events as they appear from outside normal time and space, in Eternity.” (William Blake vs. The World, pg. 258-9)

Cover of William Blake vs. the World by John Higgs

This mode of description comes with a great deal of tension, not least because the “projector beam of our awareness” does indeed experience things sequentially — one word after another, one image after another. Our minds subsequently assemble this straight line into a more complex and multi-dimensional mental landscape, but at no point are we ourselves outside a linear flow of time as we consume a text. There are murky philosophical waters here, but I think it’s safe to say that the notion of a story, a narrative, requires the presence of linear time. Sure, the story could be told out of sequence, but even then there is a correct sequence implied, and we will try to work it out. When Dr. Manhattan appears in a story, we experience one moment of him before the next, just as we experience one word before the next, and it is only as we slide along that line that we build a mental model of him, his world, and — most importantly — his story. Even as he insists it’s all happening at once, we can only dimly approximate that perspective, because without sequence, story decoheres.

There’s another point here, which is that not only does a story require linear time, but our minds themselves seem to require story. As we experience our lives, as we consume works of art, we quite frequently find ourselves constructing stories — often on an unconscious level — to explain the input we take in through our senses. In fact, we construct our very selves as just such a story. Higgs again:

The reason we are rarely consciously aware of this timeless moment is because the Urizen-like default mode network in our minds has constructed a narrative called the self, a useful and practical illusion we have come to identify with. Being a story, this self needs to believe in the past and future, which fools us into experiencing Einstein’s ‘stubbornly persistent illusion’ of the passing of time. (Ibid., pg. 293, emphasis mine)

(For those who need a reminder, Urizen is Blake’s god of Reason, whom he saw as tragically limited.) So we have a story of ourselves, and when we consume a piece of narrative art, we mediate an encounter between our self-story and the incoming narrative. When the point of that incoming story is that story is itself an illusion… well, things get a little dicey. For one thing, if there’s no such thing as choice, what is there for us to invest in the actions of characters?

For another thing, the notion of a block universe obviates morality. The cornerstone of superhero narratives, of Rorschach’s world view, falls apart if nobody has any choices. For that matter, in a predestined universe, what’s the point of Ozymandias’s trick? What does anything matter if all of us, and all of our characters, are only going to do what’s predestined?

There’s an obvious counter-argument here, which is that at least in a traditional narrative, the characters are all predestined. There’s no version of Moby-Dick where, as Jerry Seinfeld jokes, Ahab and the whale become good friends. Every time you read Watchmen, everybody does the same exact thing.

So why do we care about what happens in a story? Well, there are whole literary criticism traditions devoted to that question, and they’re well beyond the scope of this post, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s posit that we care because in the encounter between our self-story and the unfolding narrative, we take the mental mechanisms with which we create a story out of our own experiences, and apply them to this new set of incoming “experiences”. In other words, we identify.

Which brings us to our next question: if those mental mechanisms can convince us that a story we know to be predestined still matters, couldn’t they pull the same trick with our self-stories, even if we ourselves are predestined? What is the functional difference between an extremely effective simulation of free will and free will itself? Or, as Jerusalem‘s angel asks about the absence of free will: do we miss it?

The answer to that question is likely to be different for different people. Myself, as an agnostic, I’m satisfied resting in the idea that the truth of reality is unknown and unknowable. But I can see where the idea of a block universe might become truly comforting. If our awareness is simply sliding through the block, then whatever has happened, whatever will happen, is okay. It has to be, because it is all there is.

Alan Moore vs. Authority

It seems a bit ironic, though, for Alan Moore to embrace such a worldview. It’s one thing when Jon Osterman tells us he’s a puppet — his entire character is fundamentally passive. Moore, on the other hand, is anything but. Anyone who looks into Moore’s biography might reasonably conclude that the foundation stone of his character is his willfulness. As he freely admits, “I really, really don’t like to be told that I’m going to do something.”

Cover to Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin

That quality manifests in Jerusalem as well, and not just in Moore’s avatar of Alma. Significant parts of the book detail the history of Alma’s family, back through the generations, a history that seems to be at least loosely based on Moore’s own ancestry. There’s a key moment in the life of John “Snowy” Vernall, Alma’s great-grandfather, in which he’s offered a highly lucrative business partnership, on the sole condition that he stays out of the pub for two weeks. Snowy’s response: “I won’t be told what I should do. You’ll have to find your partner somewhere else.” (Jerusalem, pg. 274)

This decision seems like sheer lunacy to his wife and children, a refusal to take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for class mobility, and for no good reason, at least in their eyes. As his daughter sees it, he makes his choice “simply out of bloody-mindedness.” Yet many other characters speak of him admiringly, even of this choice in particular. As one kindly ghost puts it, “He wiz a mad old bugger, Snowy Vernall, but he’d got the power in him, right enough. However poor he wiz, he’d got the power to throw away a fortune just like that.” (Ibid., pg. 494. The ghosts in Jerusalem use various adapted forms of the verb “to be”, encompassing past, present, and future to go along with their existence in the dimension above time.)

In his depiction of Snowy Vernall, Moore ennobles a (to others) pigheaded insistence on the principle of freedom, regardless of the cost. It’s all the more ironic because Snowy is one of the few characters outside of Mansoul to recognize the truth of the block universe. He understands the fixed structure of time thanks to lectures from his own father, Ernest Vernall, who “went mad” (really learned higher truths) after speaking with one of those angels who compresses loads of meaning into a few nonsense-sounding words. After Ernest downloads this meaning into Snowy, Snowy’s consciousness takes on a Dr. Manhattanesque quality, in which “his every waking second constantly exploded to a thousand years of incident and fanfare.” (Ibid., pg. 248) So in Snowy, we have a man aware of his own predestination, who also insists upon his own freedom, sometimes at a catastrophic financial price. In short, we have someone a whole lot like Alan Moore.

Not that Moore is anyone’s pauper. Unlike Snowy — and for that matter unlike Blake in his own time — Moore has attracted widespread acclaim and considerable sales success with his work. On the other hand, he has clearly turned down many, many opportunities to profit further from that work, opportunities which must easily reach into the millions of dollars (or pounds, where he lives.) He’s disowned the various film and television adaptations based on his corporate-owned comics, and given the money he would have earned to his collaborators. He’s taken his name off things like the Marvel reprints of Miracleman, similarly refusing remuneration. He’s severed all ties with the Big Two comics companies and their corporate ownership structures, preferring instead to publish enormous novels and boutique comics through small presses, along with a myriad of other creative works in a variety of media.

In Magic Words, Lance Parkin’s fair-minded autobiography of Moore, Parkin ascribes this mindset at least partially to Alan Moore’s Northampton roots, roots which Moore’s novels celebrate at considerable length. Early on in his recounting of Moore’s childhood, Parkin references a book called The Unprivileged by Northampton journalist Jeremy Seabrook, in which Seabrook traces the history of his own family through a neighborhood just a few streets away from Moore’s childhood home. Moore’s Northampton neighborhood is called “The Boroughs”, and in Moore’s youth it was dominated by the declining boot and shoe industry. In fact:

In the mid-sixties, Seabrook was teaching at the local grammar school, where he was Alan Moore’s first-form French teacher the year before he wrote The Unprivileged. He doesn’t recall Moore specifically, but when he describes the prevailing character of the area, he uses at least some of the same words that have been used to describe Moore over the years: ‘The shoe people were generally narrow, suspicious, mean, self-reliant, pig-headed, but generally honourable and as good as their word.’ (Magic Words, pg 24)

Parkin returns to this quote as he delves into a detailed retelling of Moore’s break with DC in 1987, using the formula to encapsulate Moore’s insistence that he won’t be told what to do, and if DC thought otherwise, they’ll have to find a partner somewhere else.

William Blake was no stranger to burning bridges either, but the shape it took in his life was rather different. Nobody was coming with lucrative deals he could grandly refuse, and his works never found a wide distribution that he could later disown. In Blake’s day, there were no mega-corporations to enrich and/or exploit artists. Instead, there was the patronage system, and in fact Blake did find a bit of good fortune in acquiring the wealthy William Hayley as a patron. Hayley commissioned Blake to make a portrait of his dying son, and while the portrait didn’t go well, Blake wrote such an affecting letter of condolence after the son died that Hayley invited him to live in a cottage near his home in picturesque Felpham, away from the grit of London, to produce engravings for Hayley’s works.

William Blake's rendering of his cottage at Felpham, labeled as such in the bottom left. Blake stands in front of the cottage, facing an angel who floats above him.

His time at Felpham started out blissful, and it was in fact where he wrote the words to the hymn that has since come to be known as “Jerusalem”, from which Moore’s Jerusalem draws fundamental inspiration. However, over time Blake’s experience in the country became more and more of a mental fight. Perhaps the most debilitating incident came when he found an English soldier named John Schofield loitering in his garden. Blake asked him to leave, Schofield refused, and the incident escalated into a physical scuffle, in which (perhaps surprisingly) Blake overpowered the soldier and marched him back to join his regiment at a local inn. The humiliated Schofield gave an account of this confrontation in which Blake had delivered a long, treasonous speech, including the words “Damn the King and his Country”, and in which even Blake’s wife Catherine joined by pledging to fight for Napoleon.

Blake found himself on trial for sedition. He was eventually acquitted, but the experience embittered him and took a toll on his mental health. His thoughts turned more paranoid, suspecting Hayley and other seemingly benign figures of condescension, hostility, and oppression. He wrote out a long parable in his poem Milton in which Satan appears as a mild, apparently helpful presence, who is in fact actually jealous of the artistic excellence of others and seeks to wield their poetic power without understanding his own limitations. This Satan is most commonly read as a metaphor for Hayley, seeking to bind and control Blake’s own artistry.

Blake moved back to London and held his only artistic exhibition, in the room above his brother’s haberdashery shop. Blake’s advertisement for the show depicted himself as one of the “two or three great Painters or Poets” of his age, but the public did not agree. Few came to the gallery, no one bought, and the only review he received was scathing and disdainful, calling Blake “an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.” (William Blake vs. The World, pg. 240) The failure of his bid for public recognition brought out an anger in Blake, which he turned outward, seeing conspiracies, malignant spells, and enemies everywhere. As Higgs details, this turn of mind “helped to alienate him further from London artistic society. Many artists who are thought of as strange can still maintain a career, but that’s not always the case for those marked as difficult.” (Ibid., pg. 248)

As I said above, there’s a basic difference between Blake and Moore here — I think it’s fair to say that Moore has been “marked as difficult” by now, but that has not jeopardized his ability to make a living. He still has publishers eager to distribute his work — most recently Bloomsbury, which published Illuminations, his 2022 book of short stories.

But I think there’s a basic similarity too. No, Moore hasn’t been put on trial for sedition, and he certainly hasn’t held any unsuccessful artistic exhibitions — even his most avant-garde magical “workings” draw an enthusiastic audience. But he has severed ties with much of his past, and not just profiteering companies. He fell out early with Dez Skinn, who had created the venue in which Moore’s Marvelman and V For Vendetta were published, believing that Skinn had deceived him about the ownership of his work. He ended his relationship with Swamp Thing artist Steve Bissette after being upset by an interview Bissette had given. Bissette, for his part, still reports that he’s unclear on what exactly bothered Moore about that interview, because Moore declined to tell him.

Most relevant to this series, Moore is now estranged from his Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons, after becoming convinced that Gibbons was being used as a catspaw for nefarious actions by DC. Same with his former DC editor, Karen Berger. Gibbons, no doubt keen to shed a portrayal that disparages both his morality and his intelligence, lays out a far different version of events in his recent “anecdotal autobiography”, Confabulation, but in his words, “Alan would have none of it.” (pg. 212)

I don’t wish to be unfair to Alan Moore. It’s not as if he can’t maintain a friendship — he’s still close with plenty of comics people, and in fact his friendships with collaborators such as Steve Moore and Kevin O’Neill ended up outlasting the men themselves. Also, as Parkin points out, “Most sixty year olds, presumably, have lost touch with former pals, or aren’t on the same good terms with every workmate they had in the eighties,” and okay, fair enough. But while I’m only 52, I can report that I have not left a trail of bewildered former friends behind me, cut out of my life despite their best efforts to tell me that I have misunderstood innocent actions on their part. Of course, I’m no Alan Moore, and I’m no William Blake. I’m not suffering the pains of bringing great works before a populace that often lacks the best understanding or intentions. If I believed I were, perhaps I’d find myself reluctant to let the sword sleep in my hand too.

Alan Moore vs. Capitalism

In the case of Moore, it’s not just a struggle with the sectors of the public that don’t get what he’s trying to do, though those encounters certainly disappoint him. More infuriating is the capitalist matrix that — it’s well established — tries its best to screw artists out of the rightful rewards of their creations. Especially the capitalist matrix that has surrounded comics through the 20th century and beyond. When it comes to his Eighties comics at least, that matrix mostly succeeded in obtaining ownership of Moore’s co-creations. Blake had his troubles with the economic machinery of his day too, but largely his own work was more ignored than exploited.

Map of The Boroughs by John Coulthart

John Coulthart’s map of The Boroughs, included at the front of Jerusalem

Moore manages to overcome this difference and align himself with Blake nevertheless, using the destitute circumstances of his cherished hometown, and his own working-class upbringing, as a magnet to pull his own story closer to that of his idol. In the chapter of Jerusalem told from Alma’s point of view, she walks around The Boroughs (many, many pages of Jerusalem are devoted to various characters walking around The Boroughs), and given how closely she aligns with Moore himself, it’s awfully tempting to conclude that he places his own thoughts in her head as she grouses to herself about the plight of the poor, compared to other marginalized and persecuted groups:

Every decade since society’s inception has been witness to a holocaust of paupers, so enormous and perpetual that it has become wallpaper, unnoticed, unreported. The mass graves at Dachau and at Auschwitz are, rightly, remembered and repeatedly deplored, but what about the one in Bunhill Fields that William Blake and his beloved Catherine were shovelled into? What about the one under the car park in Chalk Lane, across the road from Doddridge Church? What of the countless generations that have lived poor and have in one way or another died of that condition, uncommemorated and anonymous? Where are their fucking monuments and special ringed dates on the calendar? Where are their Spielberg films? (pg. 867-8)

Alma isn’t poor. She’s made a comfortable living as an artist, and is even a little bit famous in her field. But she, and Moore through her, enlists Blake to her cause by virtue of his poverty. Moore himself is far from poor, even despite all the money he’s turned away, but he deeply identifies with the condition of poverty due to the rather stricken circumstances of his childhood and his home city.

One of the many commonalities between Moore and Blake is that they produce their work to an internal standard, irrespective of the artistic flavor of the day, month, or year. This worked out badly for Blake, making him quite out of step with his times, and therefore unable to realize his ambition of supporting himself on his own creative productions. He hadn’t the luxury of daydreaming among the daffodils or toking up on laudanum, unlike the other major poets of his day. He had to work for a living, and after he left Hayley, even that work was often quite hard to come by, as his interests were profoundly misaligned with the increasingly consumerist and faddish late eighteenth century. As Higgs puts it, “For an artist with no interest in changeable fashion and a desire to represent the eternal, Blake had been born at the wrong time.” (pg. 277)

Moore, on the other hand, not only found himself in fashion but for a while was part of a small coalition that led trends in the comics world. Even this has gone wrong for him, though — he’s on record numerous times decrying the way that works like Marvelman and Watchmen led to the Dark Age of Comics, thanks to an industry that picked up on the most superficial aspects of his work (and the contemporary work of Frank Miller) and concluded, “uh, yeah, dark, depressing superheroes are, like, cool.” In any case, even though Moore found himself in style while Blake was deeply out of it, both would likely have done the same work whether it was recognized or not. Thus Moore pulls off the rather neat trick of standing with the poor even as he is not among them.

In the closing pages of Jerusalem, just before she talks about the eternal glass football, Alma makes a final connection between capitalism and The Boroughs. It seems that the first power-driven cotton mill was built in the neighborhood — “The Industrial Revolution kicked off up at the far end of Green Street.” (pg. 1260) The mill turned three big cotton looms day and night, powered by a waterwheel. Word of this mill gets to young economist Adam Smith, who’s enchanted by the notion of complex machinery guided by an unseen hand — “some manner of industrial Zeus rather than basic principles of engineering.” (pg. 1261) And then, at least according to Alma:

So Adam Smith, with his half-baked idea about a hidden hand that works the cotton looms, decides to use that as his central metaphor for unrestrained Free Market capitalism. You don’t need to regulate the banks or the financiers when there’s an invisible five-fingered regulator who’s a bit like God to make sure that the money-looms don’t snare or tangle. That’s the monetarist mystic idiot-shit, the voodoo economics Ronald Reagan put his faith in, and that middle-class dunce Margaret Thatcher when they cheerily deregulated most of the financial institutions. And that’s why the Boroughs exists, Adam Smith’s idea. That’s why the last fuck knows how many generations of this family are a toilet queue without a pot to piss in, and that’s why everyone that we know is broke. It’s all there in the current underneath that bridge down Tanner Street. That was the first one, the first dark, satanic mill. (pg. 1261)

It’s the final climactic moment of the book, and of course it quotes Blake, specifically “Jerusalem.” Moore (through Alma) finds in The Boroughs the flashpoint between Blake’s pastoral childhood and industrial adulthood. This comes as no surprise whatsoever, given that the book’s basic thesis is that The Boroughs is at the center of everything — England, time, space, history, the universe.

In his excoriation of Reagan/Thatcher “voodoo economics”, Moore is obviously picking a side, identifying good and evil, just as Blake did. But it’s important to remember that although Blake never hesitated to identify moral opposites, neither did he simply condemn one side and praise the other. One of his most brilliant works, after all, was called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Just so, Moore immediately moves from this economic tirade to his eternalist view that everywhere’s Jerusalem and every miserable wretch is one of the immortals. It’s a fitting benediction in the spirit of Blake, who found the precious energies of genius in the friction and sparks between warring contraries.

The cover page to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

It’s an important moment, too, because it seals the fusion between Moore and Blake: their upbringing, coming to consciousness, and subsequent development was shaped most fundamentally by class. Blake’s childhood was pastoral, a song of innocence in a green and pleasant land, and throughout his life he witnessed the industrial age set in and take over. Moore, on the other hand, is a native of those dark satanic mills that destroyed the innocent meadows of Blake’s childhood, and throughout his life he’s watched the industrial age give way to the information age, trying his best all the while to reflect to us through his art the basic ways in which humans are changing, and their world along with them.

William Blake is obviously important to Alan Moore. Moore has in fact dedicated an entire one of his magical workings to Blake, an extended poem called Angel Passage, which sees Blake live, struggle, die, and ascend to his own eternal golden city. In Higgs’ biography, Blake seems to find something like heaven even before his death, setting aside old grudges and disappointments to find a life suffused with peace and joy, even seeking to rebuild his old damaged relationships. In Higgs’ words, “After labouring for decades on a myth about the rebalancing of the mind, Blake had made peace with his own demons. It was as if he had written himself into harmony.”

Higgs didn’t know William Blake. He just had to put together what pieces he could find, assemble them in his mind, and create a narrative. Likewise, I don’t know Alan Moore. I only know my best guesses about him. But I’m beginning to suspect that he, too, may be writing himself into harmony. In a video that came out just a few months ago, he talks with interviewer Robin Ince about a short story from Illuminations called “What We Can Know About Thunderman”. Being a Moore-ish short story, it goes on for about 240 pages, but that’s because it was also an exorcism, expelling a load of accumulated bile from his battles with the modern comics industry. He tells Ince:

I obviously had quite a lot to get out of my system there. But I think I did it with a certain degree of humor and intelligence, and it’s done much to stop me from muttering in the bath in the morning. Just having that out of my system. It allows me to stop thinking about that stuff. Which is great, which is… it’s been a long time coming.

Moore will likely never stop resisting the idea of linear time, nor the depredations of authority and capitalism. But maybe, just maybe, when it comes to the injuries, slights, and swindles he’s suffered in his past, he could perhaps find a visionary peace. I like to think it’s what Blake would have wanted for him.

Next entry: A Different Kind of Inspiration
Previous entry: In the Forests of the Night

A close-up of the Santa hat on an inflatable Christmas avocado, reading "Guac-in' Around the Christmas Tree".

Aurora Adventures

It’s pretty rare that I use this blog to post anything about my life, but I’m going to now, beginning with a little explanation of why. For those who don’t know, I’m coming out of a very difficult half-year, dominated by the fact that my dad Mike O’Brian was diagnosed with brain cancer in June and died in December.

The whole thing felt like a slow-motion car crash, a catastrophe that unfolded day by day. Initially, I kept people informed via mass email, but in September transitioned over to a CaringBridge site. There, I wrote a summary of what had happened, and (along with my mom) added occasional updates on the story as it developed. About a month after Dad’s death, I wrote the story of his last day and posted it to that CaringBridge site.

There’s more I want to document about the subsequent time, but my mom has asked that I put that story elsewhere, as she feels that the “last day” post is a good cap on the site. So the story is going here! I want to talk about the next few days after Dad died. It won’t be as comprehensive as that final CaringBridge post, but I do want to capture some of the lovely and ridiculous moments from those days.

I grew up in a suburb of Denver called Aurora. I currently live in a different suburb of Denver, and my sister Jenny lives in Los Angeles. My mom still lives in Aurora, and that’s where my dad’s surgery and subsequent care took place as well. He spent his last few months at an excellent skilled nursing facility called The Springs at St. Andrew’s, though we usually just called it St. Andrew’s.

Dad died on a Friday, and Jenny had booked a flight to Denver for Saturday afternoon. Mom and I headed out that morning to clean out his room at St. Andrew’s. As soon as we got there, we were greeted with so much love and compassion by the floor nurses, the CNAs, and everyone. Even the housekeeper came and gave us both big hugs. It’s a staff of such good people.

It was not a surprise, but it still was a shock to walk into his room without him in it. Everything else was just as we’d left it the night before. The hospice staff had transported his body to the mortuary the night before, after we’d left. We had to take a moment to absorb that scene — it had a feeling of finality to it. After that moment, we packed everything up, put it in our cars, and carried it into her house.

We called the mortuary to make sure everything was going smoothly — Dad would be cremated, and his ashes interred with military honors at Ft. Logan National Cemetery, since he was in the Air Force from age 17 to 21. It’s not that those years of service were a huge part of his identity, though. More that it’s a free burial — he was the kind of guy who would always strive to take advantage of any benefit to which he was entitled.

That afternoon, Jenny arrived and we all went out to dinner. I think we were all a bit shell-shocked still. The previous day had been quite an emotional wringer. We just started talking, sharing stories and reminiscing about my dad. We’ve been incredibly blessed through this process by the fact that all three of us have been on the same page — mentally, emotionally, practically. It was easy to make care decisions, because we were all coming from the same basic set of values: quality over quantity, better days rather than more days.

Similarly, when we talked, we felt free to talk about the full 360-degree picture of him — the parts that could be difficult, or scary, or frustrating, right alongside the parts that were generous, loving, and incredibly helpful. It felt so good to be able to speak with affection about the whole person, rather than feeling the urge to somehow beatify him once he was gone. It made our appreciation and our grief feel grounded rather than performative. I made it home late that night, after the rest of my family was in bed, and found a sweet display of special stuffed animals arranged around a sign that simply said, “We love you. We’re here for you.” It’s a good family I’ve got.

Four stuffed animals arranged on a chair, by a sign reading "We love you. We're here for you. 143"

I hadn’t been home for a couple of days, so I was very grateful for my shower the next morning, and even more grateful for the chance to tell Laura about what had transpired after she left on Friday, and how it felt. Before long, though, I headed back down to Aurora, to start tackling the many tasks.

There’s an enormous amount to do after a family member dies. In the case of a spouse, there are all manner of financial and administrative contacts and errands, getting accounts and memberships set to the correct status, canceling or updating subscriptions, and so forth. My parents made this a bit easier on themselves by having most things in both their names, but just taking inventory of all the necessary work was a job in itself. Luckily, my friend Tina had provided some excellent resources for surviving spouses that at least gave us a basis from which to work.

Then on top of all this, you have to plan an event! We knew that Dad wouldn’t have wanted a religious service (and he had said so in his estate planning documents), so that meant finding an event venue, hopefully nearby. We agreed on the format — Jenny and I would give eulogies, and then we’d invite all present to share their memories and stories. This is my favorite kind of memorial service — I guess it’s again that 360-degree view, seeing the person through all the lenses of those around him. Jenny did the research, and we settled on some venues to visit the next day.

That night, at Jenny’s request, we had a Christmas-light hunting expedition. Some people in the suburbs absolutely love to light up and decorate their houses, and from the time I could drive I would always make sure to go look at wild house lights at least once during the Christmas season, generally with my family in tow. It’s ridiculous fun and always puts me in the spirit. Apparently Los Angeles (at least Jenny’s area of it) seems to lack this vibe, so she’d really been missing this event. Thus, out we went into the Aurora night!

The suburbs did not disappoint. We always pick out some destination houses (generally based on newspaper or web listings) but allow for numerous side trips as different displays catch our eye. With a wide variety of holiday music on in the car, we treat ourselves to all the peculiar and magnificent work that people put into lighting up the night. Possibly my favorite was the yard filled with, I swear, at least fifty different inflatable decorations, including a holiday avocado whose hat read “Guac-in’ Around the Christmas Tree.” As my mom said, “Look at all those guys!”

Full-body image of the "Guac-in'" avocado, plus some other various inflatable figures

The next day, we spent the morning resting and dealing with some of the online tasks, and then ventured out again, to check out event spaces. We started with lunch, though, at a sushi restaurant where all the sushi is on conveyor belts — you can order from the menu if you want, but it’s easier and more fun to just grab a plate off the belt when something good-looking passes by. They’re small plates, with a small charge for each, so you end up making a meal out of lots of different choices. It was incredibly enjoyable.

We chose that restaurant because it was reasonably close to our first stop on the Aurora event venue tour. Rather than name the venues (because some of these stories are pretty silly), I’m just going to number them. Venue #1 was quite familiar to me, because I had spent a bunch of time there about 15 years ago. See, I work for the University of Colorado Boulder today, but back then I worked for the umbrella IT organization that serves all CU campuses, which include locations in Colorado Springs and Denver. At the time, we were going through the process of selecting a new student system to replace our antiquated mainframe, which would soon no longer be supported. All those vendor demos took place at Venue #1, because it was more or less centrally located between those three campuses. Oh the many PowerPoints and awkward live tryouts I witnessed there.

We spoke to the Sales Manager for this place, a lively character named Roxie, who took us through all the details in clipped, colorful sentences. The most memorable part works better as a spoken story than a text story, but I’ll give it a shot. She’s laying out for us all the various pieces involved — the catering, the tables, the video projection, the sound. She says, “So I’m thinking we’ll put a podium up front that anybody can speak from. Mike will be up there.”

At this point I jumped in, a little agitated. “No, no, no,” I said. “This is not that kind of service. He’s being cremated. His body will not be present.” She looked at me, utterly bewildered at what I was on about. My sister then realized my misunderstanding, and clarified that Roxie meant “Mic will be up there”, as in “microphone.” She then turned to Roxie to explain that my Dad’s name was Mike, and we all had a good laugh.

Venue #2 was listed as an event venue on a web search, but when we arrived we found its full billing was actually “Sports Bar and Event Venue”. Even the front door was in full sports bar mode — neon beer signs, Broncos posters, et cetera. This was immediately feeling hilariously wrong, but we’d come this far, so in we went. It turned out that the event manager was unavailable at the time we arrived, but her assistant led us to the venue space.

To get to the venue space, you’re pretty much going through the bar itself, which at this time of day (like 2pm on a Monday) had several guys sitting around loudly, good-naturedly, and (I suspect) drunkenly arguing about some kind of tournament or something. We’d catch bellowed phrases like, “Well I was in first place until THIS GUY came along and put up HUGE numbers and I was like WHAT THE HELL???” The picture of a parade of elderly mourners coming through here was getting more amusing by the minute.

Then we went into the space itself, which was dominated by an enormous bar, along with a few widely scattered tables and chairs, with several steps down from the bar area to a larger floor. There were large windows that overlooked a golf course. That part my dad would have liked, but the rest of it… yeah, wrong ambience altogether.

A winding conveyor belt, carrying plates of sushi around various restaurant tables.

Jenny had had a somewhat confusing conversation with the event manager for Venue #3. As we were driving out there, she explained that the guy had a fairly thick Indian (i.e. South Asian) accent, but she believed he had said we needed to go through the restrooms to get to the venue? This seemed super wrong, but we drove out there anyway, to a spaced-out strip mall, and started looking for restroom doors near the address. There was a big curry place there, and pretty soon we figured out that she had probably heard “go through the RESTAURANT”, but that the message had gotten garbled a bit.

We went into the restaurant, and indeed connected with the event manager, who took us into the space. He started explaining how the space worked. They had their own fog machine. They had laser lights. There was a space where our DJ could set up, or a stage for a band. The dance floor was strategically located between all these features. As he walked off explaining some other thing to Mom, Jenny whispered to me, “He definitely does not remember that I said this was for a funeral service.” No kidding.

We got back to the car and laughed our heads off. Venue #1 was the clear winner! I did not expect it to be quite so difficult or weird to find good choices for event spaces in Aurora, but those three were the top contenders, and two of them turned out to not be contenders at all. I mean, they might be great for a birthday party or fantasy football draft or something. Memorial, not so much.

That night Jenny made a delicious dinner for the 3 of us, after which I headed home. She was leaving the next day, but we found time to have one more delightful lunch together. Our curry-flavored explorations the previous day had put us in the mood for Indian food, so we searched around for someplace nearby that had a good buffet. I found it at a place called the Yak & Yeti.

When I told my mom this name, she was incredulous. “Is that really the name or are you being funny?” I couldn’t see what was funny about it until my sister started singing, “Tweedly-deedly-deet! Tweedly-deedly-deet!” to the tune of “Rockin’ Robin.” Oh yakkin’ yeti yeah we’re really gonna yak tonight.

Once home, we made some final decisions for the event, and my sister called Roxie to get the process started. We also started sifting through photos to include in a video slideshow. Jenny’s husband Ryan kinda blew my mind by activating Apple’s facial recognition software to immediately identify all pictures that had my dad in them. I knew I’d need to find the Windows version of that, which I did, though it was never quite as satisfying.

Finally, she was headed to the airport. It was strange — these four days following an awful event were weirdly wonderful. I felt carried by the deep kinship I had with my people — not just blood kinship but true spiritual and emotional kinship — and I hope they felt a little bit carried by me too. When my dad was in his last few hours here on planet Earth, we told him he could go, that we’d be okay. And at least for those four days, we were.

Ice candles shining in the darkness.

Brief Candles

Oh my it’s been a year. I know that pretty much every person who lives long enough will witness their parents declining and dying, but the commonness of the experience didn’t stop it from feeling utterly unique to me. My dad experienced a health catastrophe in June — a glioblastoma diagnosis, and then a massive stroke during the craniotomy to remove his tumors. He died on December 9th. That experience obviously left the biggest mark on my year, but it was a year of pain and loss in other ways too. Two key colleagues at my job — one my boss and one my peer — moved on to better opportunities within a few months of each other, and both shortly after Dad’s health crashed. Also around the same time I underwent a major change in my role at work, a change that is definitely for the best but that still felt like another loss.

I’m so grateful, though, that through all this, Laura and Dante have remained rock-solid. Their steady support has been an incredible comfort through all this other turbulence, and their presence has been the source of some of this year’s sweetest memories. In particular, Dante and I went on a wonderful Pacific Northwest college-visit trip in the spring, meeting with Laura at the end in Portland, where she’d gone for a library conference. Then, just after Dad’s surgery, the three of us visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park, staying at a marvelous and unique vacation rental when we weren’t out exploring.

It’s a blessing to have those times to look back on, and there have been some silver linings to the other parts too. Mom and I have spent a ton more time together — I saw her and Dad pretty much every weekend while he was alive, as well as some weekdays where she and I took care of all the various pieces of financial and logistical business that all this spawned. Even though the reason is shitty, I’m glad to have spent all that time with her. And though I’m way out of my comfort zone at work, as Laura always says, when you leave that zone you find it’s larger when you come back.

Musically, I’ve spent time as usual doing deep dives on albums alongside exploring new reaches via Spotify. There’s some music that I finally checked out after long intending to, some stuff from beloved artists who had newer material, some left-field finds from random experimentation, and some things that just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I also saw my first concert since the pandemic — Stevie Nicks at Red Rocks, which, come on, I wasn’t going to not see. It was outdoors, and felt safe enough to me. When I was there, it felt like revisiting a part of myself I’d locked away for a long time.

This mix kind of shook out into thematic pieces, and that’s the arrangement that felt best to me, so it really moves from one major destination to the next, starting at home.

1. Steve Forbert – Romeo’s Tune
I came across this song in a really sideways fashion. For a while there pre-pandemic, I had a side gig putting together trivia rounds for a pub quiz company, including audio “name the artist” rounds. I made one with a “Romeo and Juliet” theme, and unearthed this gem while searching for tunes to fit the theme. I was totally unaware of this song when it was popular, and it never got any play on local radio, but I absolutely loved it when I found it. That made me search out a Forbert collection, another piece of which will appear a little later on. As for this song, I find it to be a sweet tribute to the comfort of a strong relationship.

2. Taylor Swift – Sweet Nothing
With every passing year, I become more and more of a Swiftie, I was listening to folklore on repeat right as I passed from this year’s listening period into the next one — so look for that on next year’s mix — but right at the end of October, Midnights came out and I switched into listening to that on repeat. On one level, I don’t exactly vibe with this song, because I don’t think it’s a real thing (or at least a good thing) for a relationship to demand nothing from you.

But at the same time, there are times when the world can feel so demanding, when it’s so healing to come home to someone who knows you and only needs you to be you, and be there. That’s how I take this song. With everything going on in the latter half of the year, it sometimes felt like I was on a Twister mat, just trying to cover everything and adjust to whatever new things come up. At home, at least some of the time, I’m able to untwist.

3. Frightened Rabbit – An Otherwise Disappointing Life
Again, on one level this isn’t me. I’m not disappointed with life overall. But this year has been filled with disappointments, disasters, and frustrations outside my door, so it’s an immense relief to have a choir at home to sing my life back to life. Frightened Rabbit mostly trades in depression and despair (though they make it sound incredible musically), so I love it when they let just a little bit of hope peek through.

4. The Who – Break The News
During the period when a ton of stuff was unfolding every day, I’d come home nightly and just tell the whole story to Laura. She would listen, and witness, and it was the best thing anyone could do for me. In the slow-motion car crash that was June, July, and August, there was so much to take in, and talking through it was crucial to processing it all. This song has a bit of ambiguity to it — it could be read as the words of somebody who only tells the good things, so as to keep the happiness flowing, but I see it as being allowed to break the news, speak the truth, as long as the other person lets you.

It’s interspersed with sweet images of closeness, hearkening back to earlier days of the relationship, but leavened with the security that comes with a longtime connection. “If there’s an answer, we’ll find it without doubt.” “We fell through time and space / And cast upon this place / And so far we’ve been saved.” And most of all, “Life’s amazing, but it’s been a bumpy road.”

5. Regina Spektor feat. Ben Folds – Dear Theodosia
This year I listened to The Hamilton Mixtape, a wild ride of various artists covering, reinterpreting, or riffing on songs from the musical. This one feels so precious to me — a moving crystallization at the feeling of wonder you can get from your own child. Watching Dante bloom this year has knocked me out. He has turned into this person who knows what he wants, and is deeply dedicated to making the most of his opportunities. He takes a raft of challenging classes and involves himself in a bunch of extracurriculars, mostly centered around making a better world — High School Democrats, Environmental Advocacy, National Organization for Women, Sexuality & Gender Alliance.

Then on top of that, he’s thrown himself into the cello, practicing hours and hours a day in the summer, and finding time even during school to keep his chops up. This summer (and extending into the fall), he worked a job he disliked at KFC so that he could save up the money needed to upgrade his cello, and in the spring we spent many an hour driving to various string shops around here so that he could upgrade his bow. He’s blowing me away already, and I can only imagine what’s to come.

6. America – Ventura Highway
This spring, Dante and I visited some colleges together. He wants to pursue a forestry major, and had done some research into what schools a) have the best forestry programs, and b) are places he’d want to spend four years. We built our visits from that list, starting with a drive up to Colorado State in Fort Collins. Then we flew to Seattle to visit the University of Washington, and drove down to Oregon State in Corvallis. After that, we headed to Portland to meet up with Laura and some longtime friends of hers, some of whom live in Portland and another one of whom was there for the same library conference as Laura was.

The visits were great, and one of the fun parts was that during the drives, we traded off who would pick the album we listened to. So Dante got to hear a lot of classic rock (among other things), and I got to hear a lot of video game soundtracks. One of my picks was America’s Greatest Hits, and this song in particular always brings me back to those drives together. Also, we had a lot of fun dissecting how truly weird their songs can be sometimes. Alligator lizards in the air?

7. Austin Wintory – Nascence
Now it’s only fair to include one of the video game songs. This is a special song for a lot of reasons, and it requires a bit of explanation. For years now, Dante has been a fan of certain video game music composers, and one of his favorites is a guy named Austin Wintory, in particular his compositions for a game called Journey, which follows a traveler through the desert on a symbol-laden, uh, journey. “Nascence” is the first song on the Journey soundtrack.

Dante loved these songs so much that when he had the opportunity to nominate a song for his school orchestra to play last fall, he selected a song called “Apotheosis” from the Journey soundtrack. His teacher agreed to have the orchestra play that song, and asked Dante to play the cello solo, which is a challenging piece of music. Basically, it’s the motif you hear at the beginning of this piece, but played much lower down on the cello’s strings, so that the tones are pitched high and hard to keep in tune. As I learned from Dante’s college essays this year, it was that experience, of focusing on making that solo good, that inspired the passionate commitment he’s acquired for his instrument.

This year, we drove to Great Sand Dunes National Park, an environment that looks a lot like the setting of Journey, and while we were still playing the album rotation game from the spring during our drives, we agreed that as we approached the park, we should play the Journey soundtrack. This song filled the car as we got closer and closer to those dunes, and it will always, always make me think of that day, of Dante, and all the hundreds of times I heard him practice those notes. He still plays it today, just for fun.

8. Indigo Girls – Muster
One more “parent” song. I dove deep into Look Long this year, and I really appreciate how Amy and Emily are incorporating their experience as parents into their music. I tend to feel pretty hopeless about the gun issue in America, but this song both puts that issue into a broader context and also brings in a little hope, with the promise of persistent dedication and the inspirational image of the Parkland kids. This song also connects to a movie I saw this year called Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, a documentary that draws a pretty clear connection between her recovery — slow, agonizing, partial — and our ability to push against the culture that proliferates gun warfare throughout our country. But stepping back, progress is visible. And possible.

9. MARINA – Man’s World
This is one of those off-the-wall tracks that Spotify served up to me, and it caught my ear. She is apparently Welsh! (Just like my friend Siân, a recipient of this mix gift.) I like the production, and the sound of her voice, and the central statement appeals to me. I don’t wanna live in a man’s world anymore either.

10. Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
I wasn’t super wild about this album overall — I tend to prefer the less slick versions of both Lewis and Rilo Kiley. But this song is a gorgeous exception to the overall tone of the album, and one of her all-time best. Most of the songs on this mix I relate to personally in some way, but this one is just a lovely piece of writing, attached to a touching piece of music, produced well and sung with sincerity. That’s enough!

11. The Decemberists – Make You Better
I was never a Decemberists fan — not that I didn’t like their stuff, but I just never made the effort to get to know it. This song was my way in, this year. I heard it on a Spotify playlist and was immediately captivated by the killer chorus, the excellent bridge, and the grainy harmonies. I like a band that harmonizes male and female parts, like the New Pornographers, or Jefferson Airplane, or, well, Fleetwood Mac.

12. Simon and Garfunkel – Fakin’ It
Speaking of harmonies. This album has been with me for pretty much the entire time I’ve cared anything about music, which is to say about 45 years, and different songs speak to me at different times. In the beginning of this year, I was trying to make the best of a weird work situation, and “Fakin’ It” could have been my theme song. I mean, I always have some amount of impostor syndrome going on, but this year has felt even more like frantic ad-libbing than usual — pretty much the minute the work situation was resolved, I was already trying to grope my way through the wholly unfamiliar terrain of terminal illness, medical bureaucracy, and omnipresent grief.

13. Frightened Rabbit – Break
Into that landscape stepped this song. Those moments when I want to hear a song over and over, learn it by heart, are precious and rare for me anymore, but WOW did this one ever vault over that fence. I identify with pieces of it so much. I was listening to it amidst work struggles that felt just like “off the ledge throwing punches”, and bending so I don’t break has been pretty much the order of the summer and fall. I did lots of driving back and forth to my home town of Aurora during my Dad’s illness, and I had a very memorable drive where I just sang my head off to this song on repeat — very cathartic.

14. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – The Minstrel Boy
From Scotland to Ireland. Part of the cruelty of my Dad’s condition was that the stroke didn’t just stop his body — it broke his senses too. He had severe double vision that prevented him from reading or watching video. In addition, his hearing (or perhaps his auditory processing) became muffled and distorted, which interfered not only with conversation but with music. It was unclear at first how severe this impairment was, and in the early days of his recovery we used to ask him if there was anything he wanted to hear. The answer was always “Minstrel Boy”.

He had various versions of this (and many many other folk songs) on his phone, but the Clancy Brothers’ rendition always seemed to bring him the most pleasure. Why he found this song and this version so compelling I don’t know, but I cherish the memory of his closed eyes and half-smile when it began to play. He later slipped away from the place where this worked for him anymore, but it was a sweet moment on the path.

15. Steve Forbert – January 23-30, 1978
As I said, I’ve been making a lot of trips to my old hometown over the last several months, so the mood of this song works for me right now. Not that I’m hanging out with old friends, but I am definitely visiting or passing by a lot of old haunts, kind of inevitably, and helping out with my childhood home. It’s a feeling that combines a sense of time travel with a sense of dreaming, because some things are exactly the same, and other things are so different. It feels strange, but as Steve says, “Life is strange, oh yes, but compared to what?”

16. The Eagles – Peaceful Easy Feeling
This song connects to my favorite movie of the year, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. This came to me kind of unexpectedly — I knew nothing about the viral videos that had come out in 2010, 2011, and 2014. I just went into it knowing it had gotten great reviews, and oh my gosh how I loved it. I don’t want to talk it up too much, but seriously, give it a try. It’s not just funny (it’s hilarious), it’s also a profound meditation on grief, loss, letting go, and moving forward. It was the perfect movie at the perfect time for me, and this song plays an important part in it.

17. The Zombies – Brief Candles
I always loved “Time Of The Season”, “She’s Not There”, and “Tell Her No”, but I’d never gone any further with The Zombies. Then they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as Stevie Nicks, so of course I watched the ceremony and saw this incredible outpouring of love for their album Odessey and Oracle. I gave the album a try, and I wasn’t disappointed. Picking a track for this collection, at the time I was pulling it together, this one just jumped out at me, not just as the right song to include but an impeccable title track as well.

18. The Alan Parsons Project – Old and Wise
A nice side effect of listening to more Zombies was to give me a deeper appreciation of Colin Blunstone’s voice, and in turn his vocal contribution to this Alan Parsons Project track that I’ve liked since high school, and that I absolutely love now. I can’t put into words what this song brings me today. It’s exactly what I need, and the peace it expresses is all I could wish for my dad.

19. Taylor Swift – Anti-Hero
Almost anything would be an anticlimax after the last song, but “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser” feels like a pretty divine transition. Like I said, I ended October listening to Midnights on repeat, and while there are plenty of good songs on that album, this one is a clear standout. Not only is it a brilliantly catchy melody, it also beautifully articulates familiar feelings of self-doubt and inner criticism. Every time I hear it, I want to hear it again. Pretty great video, too — a deft mix of comedy and parts psychology.

20. Stevie Nicks – Wild Heart / Bella Donna (live)
For the end of this collection, I wanted to revisit one of the best moments of the year for me — Stevie Nicks’ return to Red Rocks over the summer. She had held off touring during COVID, so I hadn’t seen her for a long time. In fact, I hadn’t seen anybody in concert since before the pandemic started. Her set list hadn’t changed much from her pre-COVID shows, but that’s okay, because she’d gotten more adventurous at that point. Case in point is this medley of the title tracks from her first two albums — I never expected to hear either of these songs, because I suspect she’s not capable of singing some of the parts anymore. This blend skirts those tough parts, and is more than satisfying to me.

21. Stevie Nicks – Rock and Roll (live)
This was the final song of Stevie’s show, and it felt so perfect. It really had been a long time! I still get goosebumps hearing it now — it felt like all 8,000+ of us were re-embracing life and joy in that moment. I know I’ve put this on a previous collection, and I usually try not to repeat stuff, but this cover took on whole new layers of meaning for me this year, and there was no other choice for an end to this collection.

That’s all for 2022! Eyes closed, deep breath, eyes open, and forward.

A portrait of William Blake, by Thomas Phillips

The Watchmen Bestiary 36, part 1 – In The Forests Of The Night

NOTE: Spoilers, Spoilers, here they spawn / First read Watchmen, then read on.

We’ve reached Chapter 5 in this Watchmen odyssey, a chapter justly famed for its fascinating structure. The 28-page chapter is perfectly symmetrical. That is to say, the grid on page 1 reflects that on page 28. Page 2 reflects page 27, and so on, meeting in a spectacular (and still symmetrical) double-page spread on pages 14 and 15.

Not only do the panels reflect each other, the scenes they depict match as well. Pages 1-6 and 23-28 show Rorschach in and outside Moloch’s apartment building. Pages 7 and 22 are Detective Fine’s investigation, pages 8-9 and 20-21 are the newsstand and pirate comic, pages 10 and 19 are Dan and Laurie, et cetera.

Watchmen, chapter 5, pages 9 and 20 set opposite each other to demonstrate their mirrored layout

Pages 9 and 20 of chapter 5, reflecting each other in layout and content

Fearful Symmetry

Why is the chapter structured like this? We find the key in its epigraph, an excerpt from another justly famous work, “The Tyger” by William Blake. As has happened before, the Watchmen excerpt takes some liberties with the original, this time in its punctuation and line-breaks:

Tyger, Tyger
burning bright,
In the forests
of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Like the other epigraphs, this one gives the chapter its title: “Fearful Symmetry”. Moore and Gibbons rise to the challenge of this title with a magnificent piece of craftsmanship, a symmetrical comic with a thoroughly ominous tone, deepening the book’s overall plot, theme, and characters at every level.

I’m going to save further examinations of symmetry for a later entry, because there is so much to unpack when it comes to Blake and Watchmen. There’s also quite a lot to unpack when it comes to Blake and Moore, but again I’m leaving that for later.

William Blake was a poet, but to label him as such is also misleading and reductive. He was active during the literary time and place we now call Romanticism, but identifying him as a Romantic is problematic.1 He was a visual artist in many media — paintings, illustrations, and illuminated prints. He was an engraver by trade, but an inventor as well, who created new methods of printmaking to suit the needs of his own creations. In addition to all this, he was a mystic, a prophet, and a visionary — someone whose brain operated on distinctly different parameters from those of his peers, a fact which inspired a variety of reactions but certainly limited his ability to reach a broad audience in his time with any of his creative works.

Blake was, to put it mildly, one of a kind. Not only that, he and his work changed and evolved significantly over the course of his life and career, moving from the reasonably accessible verse of Songs of Innocence and Experience to the deeply weird and nearly impenetrable magnum opus Jerusalem. (Like I said, he and Moore overlap a lot.) Importantly for his connection to Watchmen, his visual artistry is inextricable from his literary productions.

Blake didn’t write comics — his art isn’t sequential in any meaningful way, at least not most of the time. However, he integrated words and pictures far, far more than any of his contemporaries, and that combination at least gives him a kinship to comics. Here, for example, is the full page upon which “The Tyger” was published in Songs of Experience:

Blake's print of "The Tyger". I describe the plate in the essay but do not quote the poem, so I'll transcribe it here. "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night: / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry? / In what distant deeps or skies / Burnt the fire of thine eyes? / On what wings dare he aspire? / What the hand, dare sieze the fire? / And what shoulder, & what art / Could twist the sinews of thy heart? / And when thy heart began to beat / What dread hand? What dread feet? / What the hammer? What the chain / In what furnace was thy brain? / What the anvil? What dread grasp / Dare its deadly terrors clasp? / When the stars thew down their spears / And water'd heaven with their tears / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee? / Tyger Tyger burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"

Poem and illustration are intertwined, with the tree’s branches separating stanzas of the poem — sometimes approaching a panelling effect that should feel familiar to comics readers — and the tiger standing at its climax. This could be read as just text with illustrations, a form which wasn’t foreign to Blake’s era. The difference with Blake, though, is that the poet and the illustrator are one and the same, and the entire thing is created as a single unit of art and writing, literally etched onto a metal plate by Blake himself, and its print later colored, also by Blake. Like a comics auteur, Blake brings his words and drawings into being as an indivisible unit. That hasn’t stopped publishers from reprinting his text by itself, but that text is always just a portion of Blake’s creation, a transcript.

What The Hammer?

There is still another element, one which doesn’t survive as a written artifact: music. Blake was untrained but quite musical, and was known to break out into melodies fitted to his own poetry. (The Portable Blake, pg. 2) One imagines this happening seldom with his many Prophetic Books, the majority of which are written in free verse, but the Songs of Innocence and Experience truly are songs, though none of Blake’s freely composed tunes were preserved.2 “The Tyger” in particular is intensely rhythmic3, hammering trochees pounding out an insistent beat:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Watchmen, too, brings an insistent beat to the beginning of Chapter 5, with the panels’ color reflecting the flashing red sign of the Rum Runner. I usually credit Watchmen to Moore and Gibbons for brevity’s sake, but here’s an example where the work of colorist John Higgins makes an enormous difference to the book’s storytelling. Similar to the Moloch flashback in Chapter 2, the Moloch scenes in this issue are punctuated by the light of the Rum Runner, resulting in pages where a bright X overlaps a dark O, or vice versa.

Even setting aside the full-page effect, though, the regularly gridded panels create a strong sense of rhythm, and the cycling light and dark lets us feel a pounding emphasis, a visual equivalent of poetic meter. There’s a musical quality, too — some panels are double the length of others, some triple, and in moments of greater power we can get double or triple height as well. Three panels per tier set up a triplet rhythm, like a waltz, where the smaller panels are quarter notes, double-length panels half notes, and so on, while the height of the panels feels analogous to dynamics in music.

In the case of “The Tyger”, the hammering rhythms synchronize with the poem’s controlling metaphor, that of a “maker” who creates life like a blacksmith, with hammer, furnace, and anvil. Blacksmith imagery is crucially important to Blake’s entire poetic vision, but to explain why, we need to take a few more steps into his overall oeuvre.

While Blake is probably best known for his more accessible poetry, like the Songs of Innocence and Experience, the vast majority of his work consists of the free-verse prophecies I mentioned earlier. In these prophecies, he constructs an entire mythology and pantheon without really bothering to explain to his reader who the figures are and what they may represent. This makes for an often frustrating reading experience, but has been a gold mine for literary critics, who spend careers unpacking all the symbolism and allusions in Blake’s mythopoeics.

There’s always plenty of room to debate interpretations, but some general consensus has emerged around the main figures:

  • Urizen, who represents Reason and Law. Blake was deeply skeptical of the Enlightenment’s privileging of reason above imagination and faith, and his stories tend to depict Urizen as someone tragically limited by his viewpoint, who also fails to understand that those limitations exist. He is sometimes depicted as an architect, who creates and constrains simultaneously.
  • Orc, the spirit of revolutionary energy. Blake saw Orc ascendant in the American and French revolutions, and while Orc seems to be a savior figure early on, he becomes shadowed with violence and destruction as the latter revolution devolved into the Reign of Terror.
  • Los, the spirit of imagination. For Blake, imagination was supreme, and therefore Los is the divine hero of his myths, and to some extent a stand-in for the poet himself. Los is the father of Orc, and Blake depicts him as a blacksmith, from whose fires emerge works of art and poetry. Or possibly Tygers.

"The Ancient of Days", by William Blake. Per Wikipedia, it shows Urizen "crouching in a circular design with a cloud-like background. His outstretched hand holds a compass over the darker void below."

Blake’s painting “The Ancient of Days” depicts Urizen engaged in creation, compass in hand.

Did He Who Made The Lamb Make Thee?

Urizen and Los are another reflection of Innocence and Experience, with Urizen possessing the more naive and limited perspective (though he doesn’t realize it), and Los taking a broader view. Los’s creativity transcends moral judgments. “I will not Reason & Compare,” he says in Jerusalem. “[M]y business is to Create.” (William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, pg. 307) For Los (and, the texts strongly suggest, for Blake), the creations of imagination are neither good nor bad. In the view of experience, they simply are. Thus, in answer to the question Blake poses in “The Tyger”: Yes, he who made the lamb also made its predator, a framing begun in possibility (with “Could”) and finished in audacity (with “Dare”).

How might these personas and concepts map onto Watchmen? Ozymandias seems like a possible candidate for an Urizen figure — he architects an extraordinarily elaborate plan which he believes to constitute a complete salvation of humanity, but we as readers can understand that he may not be as far-sighted as he believes himself to be. Rorschach, too, partakes of Urizen’s insistence on clear and unsullied moral judgments, a black-and-white Law that transcends any messy human intricacies. Blake, and Los, would approve of neither — they are anti-creative, though Adrian surely fashions a fearsome Tyger.

Who could stand in for Los, then? Dan Dreiberg is the most demonstrably creative of the bunch, inventing a wide variety of gadgets, vehicles, and super-suits. There’s also Doctor Manhattan, of course, who is able to reshape matter and reality at a whim, and who declares his intention to “create some” human life in the story’s final pages.

Neither of these makes a terribly satisfying Los avatar, though. Dreiberg may have the ability to create, and seems once to have had the drive, but his creative days are behind him — by the time the story begins, he’s long since quit. Jon Osterman is still making things, but he would deny any imagination or creative authority at all — in his own words, he’s just “a puppet who can see the strings.” Surely the real Los-figures, if there are any at all, would be Moore and Gibbons themselves, who frame the world of Watchmen and populate it with all its tygers and lambs.

Urizen and Los at least have potential analogs. Orc doesn’t seem to be personified at all, at least not in any one figure. Certainly not The Comedian, who thinks nothing of tear-gassing protestors, nor Silk Spectre, who seems for most of the book to want nothing more than a peaceful life. The closest we get to revolutionary spirit is the protestors themselves, with perhaps some frustrated flashes from the diametrically opposed bastions of Nova Express and The New Frontiersman.

Speaking of diametrical opposition, the Songs of Innocence and Experience have plenty of their own symmetry and reflections going on, though not to the exactitude of this Watchmen chapter. Songs of Innocence came out first by itself, and when Songs of Experience appeared, it contained many poems which seemed to be in direct dialogue with those of its predecessor. In the case of “The Tyger”, its innocent companion was a poem called “The Lamb”, which was similarly concerned with creation and authorship: “Little lamb who made thee / Dost thou know who made thee”, it asks.

Blake’s self-invented heroes and deities don’t appear in the “Songs”, so his answer stems from traditional Christian imagery:

Little lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little lamb I’ll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee,
Little Lamb God bless thee.

Blake's print of "The Lamb".

In the world of innocence, Jesus is the Lamb of God, who became God incarnated as a child, and who (as God) created and blessed all the little lambs. The world of experience troubles these placid waters. “The Tyger” outlines its fierce subject, and then wonders of its creator, “Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”

Burning Bright

As we’ve seen, within Blake’s personal mythology, the answer is clearly “Yes”. Further, he saw no conflict between his own myths and those delivered in Christian scripture (though he saw plenty of conflict between scripture and the established churches.) So God made the Lamb, and Jesus is the Lamb of God. God also made the Tyger, but if the Lamb equates with Christ, what does that make the Tyger? Who is the Tyger of God?

Could it be… Satan? Blake wasn’t afraid to include Satan in his prophecies, and his Satan was not the fallen angel of Milton.4 Rather, he was more the personification of “Error, the accuser of sin, who blinds the mind to the divine.” (The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, pg. 283) But if the Tyger devours the Lamb, that’s not really Satan’s gig, is it? In the New Testament, it isn’t a devil with horns and pitchfork who tortures and kills Jesus. It’s us. Only us.

For as biased, singleminded, and plain crazy Rorschach is, he is not wrong about Watchmen‘s world being rudderless.5 That’s what makes Watchmen the songs of experience to golden and silver age superhero comics’ songs of innocence — we cannot find a divinely touched hero to worship in its pages, not even the supremely powerful Dr. Manhattan. Indeed, in Chapter 5 it is Rorschach, more than any other, who exemplifies Blake’s Tyger. He is dangerous, stalking the forests of the night and, on page 26, literally burning bright.6

Watchmen chapter 5, page 26, panels 2-5. Notable features include a policeman saying "Here be Tygers", and Rorschach burning him brightly.

That phrase, “forests of night”, recurs in one of Blake’s prophetic texts, Europe: A Prophecy. That text is much more difficult to decipher than the Songs, but let’s take a look at the “forests of night” section by itself (Blake’s creative punctuation retained):

Thought chang’d the infinite to a serpent; that which pitieth;
To a devouring flame; and man fled from its face and hid
In forests of night; then all the eternal forests were divided
Into earths rolling in circles of space, that like an ocean rush’d
And overwhelmed all except this finite wall of flesh.
(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books pg. 184)

This part of the poem laments humanity’s fall from the infinite to the finite, via the creation of the senses, and the section immediately preceding this one discusses how sight and smell are “barr’d and petrify’d against the infinite.” The serpent seems to be a reference to ancient Druids, whom Blake loved to associate with this fall, and “forests of night” become a sheltering place from this terrifyingly transformed infinitude.

Thus the camera swings around to show us the opposite view. Where in “The Tyger” we’re looking into the forest at the dread burning eyes within, in Europe we flee into the forest to escape the burning outside it. By the end of Chapter 5 in Watchmen we get a similarly reflected perspective. If Rorschach is that Tyger, stalking the forests, he is also the prey of Ozymandias, whose thoughts and plots set him up for the capture he suffers at the chapter’s end. It is Ozymandias who constructs himself a serpent (well, a squid), out of pity for humanity. It consumes millions of lives, leaving behind just a finite wall of dead flesh.

Did He Smile His Work To See?

For that matter, the word “watchman” occurs from time to time in Blake, such as in the eighth plate of America: A Prophecy:

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books pg. 161)

The context here is the American Revolution shutting down England’s empire — there’s no more need for guards, as Orc’s morning has set free the “redeemed captives.” We don’t see the night decay in Watchmen until the last few pages of the book, at which point the Watchmen have mostly left their stations — Rorschach dead, Dr. Manhattan missing, Ozymandias turned traitor, and both Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II in hiding, though these last two look to be heading back into the life of adventure. In any case, for Blake the disappearance of these guardian warriors is a good thing, as it means the threat is gone. As he learned after the French Revolution, though, sometimes the threat just changes shape, and there’s every possibility of that after the final page of Watchmen.

There’s an even more interesting permutation of “watchman” in Blake, though: Los himself is repeatedly depicted as a watchman. For example, the frontispiece of Jerusalem depicts Los, “dressed like a London night watchman”, entering a Gothic arch in search of truth, and beginning a journey into the Underworld.(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, pg. 298) In plate 83 of the poem, he refers to himself as “your Watchman”, and the poem narrates his watch over “the meteors & terrors of night”. (Ibid., pg. 380)

We normally see Los as a maker, but here (and elsewhere in Blake’s works) he functions as a guardian and observer. He works throughout the poem to resurrect Albion, the incarnated spirit of England. In fact, Blake saw Albion and Jerusalem as intimately connected in a way that’s beyond the scope of this essay to explicate, but still looms large in the British psyche today — the words to a Blake poem, which has also (confusingly) come to be titled “Jerusalem”, have been set to music and become a sort of unofficial English national anthem.

So if Moore and Gibbons are the Los figures for Watchmen, then in Blake’s iconography, they become watchmen themselves, observing their surroundings and making art to warn us of dangers, to show us what they see. And like Los, perhaps they too work for a resurrection. For Moore especially, I’d venture to say that the project was to guard and revive comics as an art form, to show the capabilities of the medium by way of demonstrating that even the superheroes which dominated it can reveal unexpected depths. Moore has by now renounced comics, having been repeatedly disgusted by the industry which surrounds the medium, but I have to imagine that when he, Gibbons, and Higgins had put the finishing touches on Watchmen, they must have smiled their work to see.

Next entry: Alan Moore vs. The World
Previous entry: Watchmen and Watchmakers

Endnotes

1 See for example David Simpson’s “Blake and Romanticism” in The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. [Back to post]

2 Perhaps in response, many songwriters have taken it upon themselves to compose music for the songs, ranging from Benjamin Britten to Tangerine Dream. [Back to post]

3 Mark Scarbrough, of Walking With Dante fame, tells a funny story in his Lyric Life podcast, of first encountering this poem via a college English teacher who read the poem out loud, pounding out its beat on a desk with such near-sexual abandon that afterwards she dismissed class five minutes in, waving the students away and telling them to, “go do what comes naturally.” What came naturally for Scarbrough was to immediately change his major to English. [Back to post]

4 He also wasn’t afraid to include Milton in his prophecies, including an extended meditation in which the great poet’s spirit enters Blake’s body via his foot. Not kidding. [Back to post]

5 Though I would argue he is wrong about it being morally blank. [Back to post]

6 Not to mention, the cop literally refers to Rorschach as a Tyger in the preceding panel. [Back to post]

Watchmen, chapter 4, page 27, panel 3. Jon levitating in a sitting position, his back to the camera, facing his emerging Martian ship. Caption: Who makes the world?

The Watchmen Bestiary 35 – Watchmen and Watchmakers

NOTE: Spoilers for Watchmen are included in this article, by design.

Starting in the mid-17th century, the authority of religious revelation began to come under unique and increasing threat. The enthusiastic inquiries of naturalists were uncovering disturbing geological and fossil evidence that the earth was much older than anyone had previously believed. Skeptical treatises from philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume challenged the foundations of what we think we know and what is possible to know. At the same time, scientists (who up until the 19th century were called “natural philosophers”) kept learning more and more about the laws of nature, solidifying a worldview in which everyday occurrences are based on those laws, rather than the commonplace intervention of a deity.

Into this breach stepped William Paley, a Cambridge graduate who was ordained in 1767 and spent decades combining the pulpit with the pen, authoring several influential works of mainstream Christian argument. His health began to decline around 1800, but he still was able to finish and publish his greatest and most famous work, Natural Theology or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature, which understandably tends to get referenced as just Natural Theology. The book was published in 1802 and was immediately an enormous success, finding a large audience eager to reconcile scientific discoveries with received religious teachings.

Who Makes the World?

Paley’s essential argument in Natural Theology is this: given the vast array of biological adaptations which are analogous to human-made machines, there is no other plausible explanation for them but a designing deity, a “contriver” as he often puts it. The opening sentences of his text are his most famous encapsulation of the argument (with 1802 punctuation and spellings intact, though with some of the 1802 wordiness abridged):

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to shew the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be enquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch, as well as for the stone? […] For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the several parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use, that is now served by it. […] This mechanism being observed… the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

This watchmaker analogy would have been back in the news while Alan Moore was writing Watchmen, thanks to the efforts of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In 1986, Dawkins published The Blind Watchmaker, which began with Paley’s analogy and then proceeded to thoroughly dismantle it via explicating the natural selection theory of that other Cambridge man, Charles Darwin. Darwin, for his part, had not only studied Paley’s books, he in fact lived in the very same set of Cambridge rooms that Paley had occupied seventy years prior. (The Watch on the Heath: Science and Religion Before Darwin, pg. 20) Darwin quite admired the clarity and force of Paley’s arguments, writing in his autobiography:

The logic of [an earlier Paley book] and as I may add of his “Natural Theology” gave me as much delight as did Euclid. … I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on trust I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.

Later, of course, Darwin could no longer take Paley’s premises on trust, having found in natural selection a much more convincing and satisfying answer to biological phenomena than Paley’s “argument from design”.

Chapter 4 of Watchmen is entitled “Watchmaker”, and in it Dr. Manhattan ponders the same question that moved Paley and Darwin: who makes the world? The web annotations quite rightly recognize the link to Paley:

The title of this issue, “Watchmaker,” refers also to the famous “argument from design,” saying that the universe as a complex creation must have a creator. The metaphor was first proposed by William Paley in Natural Theology; his example was that of finding a watch somewhere, and that its complexity implied a watchmaker. This term has come to symbolize an intelligent creator, and thus is particularly appropriate to Dr. Manhattan, as is “The Judge of All the Earth.”

Note the connection to Linette Paley, a very minor character who appears later in Watchmen.

(Linette Paley, for those keeping score, was an avant-garde composer who was among the artists recruited and then killed by Adrian Veidt. Aside from the name, it’s hard to see any connection to William.) Leslie Klinger also connects the creator reference to Dr. Manhattan, noting that “Jon calls the universe a ‘makerless mechanism’… Yet he ultimately chooses to move on and become a maker himself”. (pg. 140)

Watchmen, chapter 4, page 28, panel 5. Dr. Manhattan watches metorites fall on Mars. Caption: Above the Nodus Gordii Mountains, jewels in a makerless mechanism, the first meteorites are starting to fall.

Now, there’s a lot to dig into here, but I want to take a moment for something I rarely spend much time on in these essays: sheer appreciation. Moore’s use of clock, watch, and time imagery throughout this book is simply astonishing. Let’s take stock:

  • The title Watchmen in one sense implies guardianship, but in combination with all the clock imagery can’t help but evoke timekeeping as well.
  • The early years of the Watchmen universe feature the Minutemen, whose name also implies both guardianship and timekeeping.
  • There are twelve chapters, corresponding to hours on a clock.
  • Each chapter ends with an image of a clock, ticking down towards 12:00.
  • That clock not only counts down toward the story’s climax, it also resonates with the nuclear anxiety of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, first cited in the newspaper on Veidt’s desk in Chapter 1.
  • Large clocks appear at various key locations in the story — Veidt’s Antarctic stronghold, the exterior of Madison Square Garden, Jon’s clock-like Mars ship.
  • The art is full of circles with an indicator of position, like clocks — Dr. Manhattan’s symbol, The Comedian’s blood-streaked badge and its many echoes, and the Vitruvian Manhattan that ends this chapter.
  • Let’s not forget about those melting clocks in the art on Dr. Manhattan’s wall.
  • Jon is constantly mentioning seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years — with an awareness that (allegedly) encapsulates all of time, he cannot stop talking about pieces of it.
  • Jon’s father repairs pocketwatches — he too is a watchmaker, albeit one who stops believing in his craft. We see the pieces of his work fall to earth as he rejects them, linked with the meteors that fall at the end of the chapter.
  • A broken watch precipitates Jon’s accident.
  • Shortly before the main events of the plot, Jon and Laurie buy an issue of Time magazine, whose cover is a stopped watch.
  • A denizen of the newsstand intersection, who berates Malcolm Long and dies from Adrian’s attack, is a street vendor of watches.

It all meshes together with soft precision, and it’s just… beautiful. Exquisite. Crafted. It leaves absolutely no doubt of a contriver. One of the ironies behind Dr. Manhattan’s question is that we know exactly who makes his world: Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins. For our world, at least the biological parts of it, the answer seems clear as well: evolution. Dawkins leaves us no room to doubt that.

William Paley, though, was without the benefit (or challenge) of having On The Origin of Species at hand, let alone The Blind Watchmaker. That said, he certainly wrestled with its precursors, including the work of Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who argued that biological diversity proceeded over enormous spans of time from a single “filament”, in some ways anticipating the gene-centric view that Dawkins would later champion. But for Paley there was simply no way for that filament’s progression to explain the incredible array of phenomena he catalogued in Natural Theology. His reaction to human anatomy was essentially the same as my reaction to the clock motifs in Watchmen: an intense aesthetic rapture, followed by the desire to inventory and analyze.

Genesis Sui Generis

Most of Natural Theology consists of Paley rolling out example after example from anatomy, zoology, botany, and like biological fields. His reasoning, over and over, proceeds along this line:

  1. Here is something we know about anatomy. (Or a similar field.)
  2. This really reminds me of a machine! There’s often an analogy offered here. For instance, he might compare the operation of an eye to the operation of a telescope.
  3. Doesn’t it remind you of a machine?
  4. This thing in the body, not made by humans, really reminds us both of things that are made by humans. Therefore, God exists.
  5. (optional) He will often follow this up with a sentiment along the lines of, “After that example, no further examples should be necessary.” He will then give many more examples.

I’m being a bit flip here, and with what we know today it’s awfully easy to see the gaps and flaws in Paley’s thinking, but before the notion of natural selection had been articulated, Natural Theology had a pretty sound argument! It is quite seductive and intuitive to see a designing hand in biological details — I know people even today who learn enough facts about the human body that they dare anyone to know that much about it and not believe in God.

For the inhabitants of the Watchmen universe, the problem is even knottier due to the existence of Dr. Manhattan, an existence which appears to steamroll Darwin’s founding assumptions. The theory of natural selection rests on four pillars:

  1. Variation — individuals within a species vary.
  2. Genetic inheritance — traits are passed down via reproduction.
  3. Super-fecundity — organisms can produce more offspring than necessary to replace themselves over their lifetimes.
  4. Filtering — environmental and genetic factors prevent populations from increasing geometrically.

Combined, these factors tell us that only those best equipped to deal with the filters survive, and that those survivors pass their traits on to their progeny, who have been naturally selected for the best chances of survival.

None of these pillars apply to Dr. Manhattan! He was created artificially and accidentally. He is unique, irreproducible, and invincible. He exemplifies the notion of a massive change happening instantly rather than Darwin’s notion of gradual changes over millions of years. Yet I suspect Paley would find little comfort to his Biblical beliefs if he were aware of Jon Osterman’s sudden transformation.

William Paley, detail from a portrait painted by George Romney

For one thing, Paley’s “contriver” is nowhere to be found in Dr. Manhattan’s genesis. Instead, Jon assembles himself into a sui generis species which indeed does have a “watchmaker”, but not the creator reported in Paley’s Bible. Dr. Manhattan, in fact, fits the category of god better than the category of organism. Janey Slater says as much on page 11 of this chapter: “They say you’re like God now.” Jon replies, comfortingly, “I don’t think there is a God, Janey. If there is, I’m not him.” But then he tells her he’s still the same person, and that he’ll always want her, and in his self-narration he describes this moment starting with, “As I lie…” So is he lying too when he says he’s not God? Perhaps, but given his “makerless mechanism” remark at the end of the chapter, I suspect not. He might (eventually) think he’s a god, but never thinks that he’s the God.

Still, Jon’s near-omniscience and near-omnipotence would certainly be terrifying to Paley, a feeling shared by Milton Glass at the end of the chapter. But even more terrifying would be Jon’s overwhelming indifference to human life. Paley, it’s important to note, felt he not only had to prove the existence of the Christian God, but the goodness of that God as well — remember that the second part of his title specified that he would provide “Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity”. For Paley, God is not just a force who set the clockwork in motion, but one who did so out of love for humanity.

In the final quarter of Natural Theology, Paley abandons his litany of examples arguing for a contriver, directing his rhetoric into chapters with titles like “Of the Personality of the Deity”, “Of the Natural Attributes of the Deity”, and of course, “The Goodness of the Deity”. To support this final claim, Paley contends that “in a vast plurality of instances in which contrivance is perceived, the design of the contrivance is beneficial.” (pg. 237) He proceeds to back this up by explicating the overall pattern in which a creature’s abilities are well suited to its needs, a relationship we now can see clearly as owing to natural selection. Even without that lens, though, the question must be asked: beneficial to whom?

The Shark and the Herrings

Paley wasn’t unaware that nature could be red in tooth and claw. A plant or animal’s abilities are certainly beneficial to itself, but not to its adversaries, and those adversaries sometimes include us, the purported beloved of our creator! The tiger’s teeth, claws, and powerful frame are to its own benefit, but the distinct detriment of the lamb. Despite the New Testament’s exaltation of the meek, and of turning the other cheek, Paley “proves” divine goodness in part by pointing out the effectiveness of killing machines. What kind of “good” deity would frame such fearful symmetry? Well, that’s a question for next time.

Paley does try to address this dilemma, devoting a substantial portion of “The Goodness of the Deity” to the question of “animals devouring one another”. (pg. 246) There is much reference to “the natural order”, and an argument that being killed fast is better than dying slowly, framing predators as agents of mercy. Paley’s moral calculus is deeply utilitarian, based in a larger philosophical movement of the late eighteenth century which held that as long as good things outweigh bad things, the universe must be good. It’s an approach to morality that Watchmen readers may find familiar — an approach that depends heavily on who we see as the hero of the story.

Super-fecundity, later to become a pillar of natural selection, is for Paley an amelioration of misery for prey species: “In rivers, we meet with a thousand minnows for one pike; in the sea, a million of herrings for a single shark.” (pg. 250) Whether this is a valid defense of God’s goodness in the face of devouring animals depends on who you see as the protagonist of their interaction. If you’re the shark, plenty more herrings will be along later. If you’re the herring, you only have the one life!

In Watchmen, Ozymandias is the shark, and the shoal of herrings gathers throughout chapter 11. (And maybe a few guppies, according to Joey the cab driver on page 9 of that chapter.) Adrian sees himself as the hero of the story, and if a few unfortunates have to die along the way, it’s all for the greater good. Like Paley’s version of God, he rests on the rationale that if his actions benefit the “vast plurality”, the universe he aspires to make must be a good one.

Watchmen chapter 11, page 28, panels 1-6. The top tier of the page, six narrow panels depicting various characters reacting to the arrival of the squid monster: Steve Fine and Joe. Joey and Aline. Malcolm and Gloria Long. Ralph from Gordian Knoght and Milo from Promethean Cab. The watch seller. The two Bernards.

Part of the genius of Watchmen, though, is that we understand many of those “herrings” as unique, irreplaceable lives. The two Bernards. Joey. Her girlfriend Aline. Malcolm and Gloria Long. Steve Fine and his partner Joe. Ralph the Gordian Knot locksmith and his brother Milo, of the Promethean Cab company. The watch seller who berates Malcolm. None of these people are protagonists in Watchmen, and we don’t spend a whole lot of time with any of them, but we know them as people, with their own lives, emotions, and agendas. They are not anonymous prey, and when they die, more of them will not be along later.

Reading Paley’s utilitarian moral arguments in his context as an 18th-century Englishman, it’s easy to see how this notion of disposability propped up the logic of colonialism. If the goodness of God is axiomatic, proven by the happiness of the person writing about him, then surely those Englishmen must be the heroes of the story, the sharks to all those savage herrings in the lands they were bravely “discovering”.

Paley, attempting to justify the goodness of God despite the existence of evil, invokes a colonial analogy directly, making the case that, “A West Indian slave, who, amidst his wrongs, retains his benevolence, I, for my part, look upon, as amongst the foremost of human candidates for the rewards of virtue.” Now, it’s arguable whether Paley’s mention of “wrongs” carries within it a critique of slavery itself — if so, it’s quite submerged, as it would have to be given the general audience for whom he was writing. In any case, Paley trots out in the very next sentence “the kind master” of this slave, stating that this master “is likewise a meritorious character; but still he is inferior to his slave.” It’s a “noble savage” trope, similar to what we see in “Gunga Din” — seemingly uplifting the victim of a system while taking the system itself as just a part of God’s plan. In general, Paley’s justifications for what he calls “civil evil” (aka the evil that humans do) are redolent of what today we’d call unexamined privilege.

Seeing Ozymandias deploy that same utilitarian logic, reciting his hero’s journey narrative to his Asian servants as they die from the poison he’s given them, prompts us to examine the privilege and colonialism embedded into superhero stories themselves. “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” can be read as a recasting of the White Man’s Burden, a missionary notion of rescue in which one who assumes himself superior decides that it’s his job to save his subalterns from themselves, no matter the cost to them. By generally remaining reactive, most superhero stories cling to a moral high ground, a version of protection which responds only to external threats. Ozymandias shows us how thin is the line between that version of goodness and that of Paley’s God, insisting that we believe in a universe whose violence and death are mere byproducts of goodness and love.

This is the craft of Watchmen. While Paley’s watch on the heath uses regulated motion to point out the hour of the day, the object created by Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins uses intricately meshed narrative to point out the uncomfortable truths within its genre, and to highlight the broken versions of humanity we sometimes exalt as heroes. It’s less like a watch than a pair of spectacles, bringing a familiar world into a new focus, and revealing what was always there, if only we’d had eyes to see it.

Next entry: In the Forests of the Night
Previous entry: Soft Watchmen

Playlist cover for The Steps - a staircase leading up into trees and light

The Steps

Happy New year, and happy new 2021 music mix. As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2021 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.

This is my first full year in quite a while with no album assignments — that project remains on semi-permanent hiatus while we continue to deal with what’s thrown at us. In its place, I really dove into Spotify this year, trying out random playlists from all over the place to find new songs to love. Several of those show up in this mix, along with stalwart favorites like Neko Case, Tori Amos, and Stevie Nicks. This was also the year my iPod finally gave up the ghost, and I kept my listening records in Spotify rather than iTunes, though I sometimes had to make notes about what was missing.

As usual, I tried to craft the mix with a bit of flow to it, an art that relies much more on the gut than the head. Sometimes songs would join up like puzzle pieces, based on a sound or a mood or a theme. Gradually those joined up pieces accumulated until they made bigger pieces, which eventually fit together like tectonic plates — not seamless but close enough. By the time the order was finalized, I felt like it told a story, which is the best I can hope for these mixes. Here are my stories behind the songs.

1. Muse – Apocalypse Please
On January 1, I posted the liner notes from last year’s mix, ending with the words, “Here’s to a brighter 2021.” Five days later, United States senators were dropping to the floor of the chamber, hiding under tables, and attempting to crawl to safety as a mob of armed lunatics stormed the Capitol building, beating the crap out of cops while waving “thin blue line” flags. To me, it felt pretty apocalyptic. I never thought I’d live through a coup attempt in my own country, especially one that felt more driven by nihilism and stupidity than any particular revolutionary philosophy. So much for a brighter 2021.

2. Pink Floyd – Goodbye Blue Sky
I love the gently sinister feeling of this song, the pretty voices mixing with the stark words. “The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on” really captures a 2021 feeling for me. During the Trump presidency, every day felt like it brought fresh horrors, and this year didn’t feel like that, thank god. But there’s still so much pain happening — the never-ending pandemic (thanks for that by the way, unvaccinated people), the economy struggling to deal with new realities, the ongoing partisan nastiness lurking around every corner, and a world that just seems to keep getting hotter. When Dante heard this mix, he asked me if this song was meant to refer to the way that all summer, wildfire smoke clouded the sky. I hadn’t thought of that connection, but it sure fits.

3. Simon & Garfunkel – The Times They Are A-Changin’
As I was putting this part of the mix together, a feeling of familiarity kept nagging at me. Finally I uncovered it — I used both this song and “Goodbye Blue Sky” in my 2016 mix. It feels fitting that they surfaced again for me, though with the cover/original relationships reversed (in 2016 I used Heart’s version of “Blue Sky” and Dylan’s original of “The Times”.) That year, I even framed “The Times” as hopeful, and this early Simon & Garfunkel rendition certainly feels full of freshness, youth, and enthusiasm. But I just can’t shake the way that “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call / Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall / For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled / The battle outside ragin’ will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls” has a new and horrifying resonance.

4 and 5. Genesis – Fly on a Windshield/Broadway Melody of 1974
I don’t think I’d ever really given The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway a fair shake, or maybe there was a long time where I just wasn’t quite ready for it. This was Peter Gabriel’s last album with Genesis, and while I love them both, this album had never fully engaged me. For a long time I had a homemade cassette with songs plucked from it, labelled “Lamb Chops” (yes, thank you, it is awfully clever, isn’t it?), but looking back that was a pretty strange thing to do with a concept album. So this year I spent some time with it, or at least the first disc of it, and really enjoyed it back to front. It’s Peter Gabriel leveling up, before he was about to really level up.

Nevertheless, whether through familiarity or preference, it was the “Chops” songs I gravitated to even on this listen. The moment in “Fly on a Windshield” where the band kicks in still blows me away, and the image felt fitting in connection with the previous 3 songs. Then there’s the bizarre parade of cultural figures that floats through the “Broadway Melody.” I enjoy list songs, and this is a really off-the-wall one. For me, it brings to mind the way the pile-up of input that comes through all channels can start to feel grotesque, with even familiar and beloved figures beginning to take on a menacing cast.

6. Neko Case – Oracle of the Maritimes
I felt like the ending of “Broadway Melody” blended really nicely into the beginning of this one, taking us from the center of Times Square with everyone stepping on everyone else, to a lonely boat with a mysterious oarsman. This for me was the standout song from Neko’s 2018 album Hell-On, the one that felt most like her Middle Cyclone tracks — my favorite period of hers, and one that will appear later on this mix. I love the surreal, dreamlike lyrics (“ride a chest of drawers into the waves”), and of course I find her voice endlessly thrilling, especially as it rises above doubt, fear, and confusion to a crescendo of self-affirmation. It’s a song that never fails to elevate me. And oh man that cello — Dante’s playing has improved to the point that now I get to hear a lot of lovely cello in my house, and it really makes me appreciate when one shows up in a pop song.

7. HAIM – The Steps
Speaking of self-affirmation. It’s rare anymore that a song will grab me so hard that I have to listen to it on repeat for days, but that’s what happened as soon as I heard this one. I think it’s my favorite song on this mix, which is part of why I made it the “title track.” (The other part is because so many of the feelings in these songs make up the steps I went through this year, often over and over.) I was never really on the HAIM train (or the Haim train? I feel like I see conflicting versions of how they style their name) before this, but holy cow do I love this song, just everything about it. The California instrumentation, the frustrated/resigned lyrics, the swooping melody, the power harmonies, the emotion-drenched vocal… whew. This was one I ran across on Spotify, and I’m so glad I did.

8. IX Reflections – New Man’s Born
Here’s another Spotify discovery — this band came up on some playlist I stumbled across, and their sound immediately captivated me. I switched over from the playlist to their one full album, and by the time I’d finished listening to it once, it went on my “to buy” list. It turns out they are quite an obscure band, without even a Wikipedia page to their name. They’re on facebook, though, where I learned that they are a “Moscow darkwave band”. So… I guess I like Russian goth synth music? I sure do love this album, and in particular this song, which feels like the rebirth I needed.

9. Lizzo – Good as Hell
This is a whole different style, but a pretty similar message, I think. I spent some quality time with Lizzo this year, and really appreciated both her music and her persona. I have to say, though, this song has become primarily associated with Nimbus in our house. He’s got a bunch of fluff that looks just like pants, and when he’s on his way somewhere, the vibe is totally “walk your fine ass out the door.”

10. Baby Blue feat. Wretch32 – Run (TDH remix)
The “Spotify finds” section of this mix continues with this song, another one that I randomly ran across and decided I needed to buy. This time I didn’t so much dive into the artist, but I dig this song a lot. Lyrically it’s typical rap braggadocio, but I love her London accent, her “I’m so London / Scratch that, I’m so the world!”, and the beat, which always gets me moving.

11. The 1975 – The Ballad of Me and My Brain
I ran across The 1975 on Spotify, but via an even more sideways process than usual. In searching for Stevie Nicks stuff, I unearthed a podcast called The Face, in which Matty Healy (frontman for the band) interviewed Stevie for over an hour. The interview is super fun, and the two of them have a great rapport, in which it emerges that Stevie is a huge fan of The 1975. Well, that was certainly impetus enough for me to check them out, and sure enough, I loved them and bought their first two albums. This song jumped out because of its fantastic title, and stuck around because of its intriguing sound and playful words.

12. Kristin Kontrol – X-Communicate
This might look like another Spotify find, but I’ve actually known Kristin (whose real last name is Gundred) for a long time. I first ran across her when she was fronting a band called Grand Ole Party (ugh that name, but the band was wow) opening for Rilo Kiley in 2007. I wrote about it at the time and predicted that Kristin was going to be a big success. And as indie artists go, it kinda seems like she has been! GOP broke up a couple years after I saw them, and Gundred started the band Dum Dum Girls. That lasted for about 8 years, and then she reinvented herself into Kristin Kontrol, with a synthpop feel straight out of the 80s, like IX Reflections but with clearer vocals and the occasional New Order-ish guitar part. In other words, my kinda thing. I think this is my favorite version of Kristin yet.

13. Bruce Springsteen – Dancing In The Dark
Some songs are played so much that they need decades to recover, and this is certainly one of those for me. But I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with Bruce in recent years, not just as a singer but as a speaker and a writer. I listened to his autobiography as an audiobook a few years back (highly recommended), and this year I absolutely devoured Renegades, his podcast with Barack Obama. That brought me back to this song in particular, and I gained a deeper appreciation for it not just by hearing it fresh for the first time in a long time, but also because I emotionally connected with it in my ongoing pandemic loneliness. “I ain’t nothin’ but tired / Man I’m just tired and bored with myself” — I really feel that some days.

14. 10,000 Maniacs – These Days
Another melancholy song — Jackson Browne’s original is great, but there’s a special place in my heart for this 10,000 Maniacs version, which somehow feels even more wrenching to me. I wrote last year about how the isolation produced by my change in working habits (along with everybody else I work with) has had some personal downsides for me. Sure, it’s nice not to have to commute, but I find it much more challenging to maintain personal equilibrium when so much of my “social contact” outside of family is via a screen, and some of the cornerstone routines of human connection for me — biweekly D&D games, basement bowl trivia — have just gone away. Now, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in 2020 when everything was really really locked down, and I am grateful for the connections I do have, but there are still those days.

15. Neko Case – I’m An Animal
Here’s Neko again, this time from the classic Middle Cyclone album. This song to me is about the pure need for affection and connection. Typically when we talk about the “animal side” of humans, we’re referring to violence, domination, brutality, and so forth, but here it means the animal need for comfort, Mary Oliver’s “soft animal of your body” that just wants to love what it loves. That’s what this song is about for me, and it flows from the previous two.

16. The Waterboys – And a Bang on the Ear
This one is about affection too, but from a little different direction. I spent about a week with Fisherman’s Blues this year, and found that certain songs on it perfectly embody a mood. “Sweet Thing” is absolute ecstasy, “We Will Not Be Lovers” captures defiance… and this song is quintessentially wistful, or at least it is once you know that a “bang” is a kiss or affectionate pat. It’s not just about romances, either, at least not for me. I feel it as a tour of past selves, returning to memories both happy and painful with a settled affection and grace, a making peace. As I get older, this song moves me more and more. “Not surprisingly,” as Werner Herzog would say.

17. Stevie Nicks – Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?
“You to me are treasure / You to me are dear” says the previous song, and for me this song will always be about my dear treasure of a spouse. 2021 was our 25th wedding anniversary, and we celebrated in a few ways, including ziplining across the Royal Gorge(!). My most precious memory of it, though, is the gift that Laura gave me on the day, a 45 of this song pressed into a frame with an image of the sheet music and quotes from the lyrics. A harpist played it at our wedding, and having it return this way was just profoundly lovely.

18. Tori Amos – Flying Dutchman
Just as the previous song is about Laura for me, this one (and the next) is about Dante, or at least what my imagination projects onto him. Or maybe it’s about me, as I imagine myself onto Dante. His social world is mostly closed to me, but it’s my perception that he doesn’t have many of his own tribe in his life, at least outside of us. I think that’s slowly changing, but it still feels to me like he’s an outlier among his peers, and that they can’t see what he’s born to be. But he’s got his own rocket ship, and I hope one day he finds the planet that’s home to him.

19. Brandi Carlile – The Joke
This is a song in that same vein, and was my entry into appreciating Brandi Carlile. Laura dove into Brandi’s catalog this year much more than I did, but when I heard this song on Spotify, I knew it would be part of this mix. I don’t know that Dante gets harassed in the way that this song implies, but I know that I’ve repeatedly experienced his exasperation with most of his peers and his conscious separation from their juvenile energy. I think that’s changing as he and they get older — as other kids settle down he’s able to find more common ground with them, but even so he’s often pretty well apart from what they find cool, what they find interesting, and what they find funny. But before long the joke will be on them.

20. Dan Wilson – Closing Time
Dan Wilson used to be the lead singer and songwriter of a band called Semisonic, best known for their song “Closing Time”. That band went on a long hiatus in 2001, and Wilson moved into a songwriting career. In that career he wrote or co-wrote some huge hits, including Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” This year I listened to his album Re-Covered, in which he sings his own versions of all those songs he helped create, and at the end he performs this absolutely gorgeous version of “Closing Time”, with just piano and a bit of subtle synth. I’ve always adored this song — it’s how I became a Wilson fan in the first place — and it felt like a perfect grace note for this collection. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, and I’m ready for another new beginning.

Detail from The Persistence of Memory, showing a watch melting on a tree branch

The Watchmen Bestiary 34 – Soft Watchmen

NOTE: Watchmen will be spoiled below. And maybe a little melted.

On page 16 of Chapter 4, Jon and Janey have a discussion (verging on a fight) about his experience of time. He gives her examples, just as he’s been doing for us throughout the chapter: “In 1959, I could hear you shouting, here, now, in 1963.” Also, in his typically impersonal way, he spends most of the conversation with his back to her, staring at a painting on their wall.

Watchmen, chapter 4, page 16.

The web annotations zero in on that painting:

The picture on the wall is Salvador Dalí’s “Persistence of Memory” (1931), one of his most famous paintings, which features watches melting on a tree branch and a sofa.

As is often the case, the annotations are useful but not entirely accurate. The title of the painting is The Persistence of Memory (including the definite article), and there’s no sofa in it. Here, take a look for yourself:

The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali

A watch melts on a tree branch, yes, as well as on a solid block from which the tree somehow grows. The third watch melts atop an object that could be many things, but a sofa isn’t one of them. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (which houses the painting) calls it a “monstrous fleshy creature”, and notes that it could be Dalí’s own face in profile, which appeared similarly in some of his other works from that period such as Illumined Pleasures and Face of the Great Masturbator. There could be a visual pun at work here, as watches themselves have faces — the last one, face down, is beset by ants, which for Dalí were a symbol of death and decay.

Overall, these watches symbolize a destabilization and deformation of time. Leslie Klinger suggests that “Jon may have selected this print for his apartment as a physical representation of his own unique relationship with time,” (pg. 128) but I don’t think so. If anything, Jon experiences time as even more stable and perfectly formed than the rest of us do. His metaphor, when he uses one, is of an “intricately structured jewel”, an image that suggests super-hardness, not the super-softness of Dalí’s watches. That softness is closer to Jon’s father lamenting (in reference to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), “If time is not true, what purpose have watchmakers?”

So what does it mean for this painting to appear on Jon’s wall, and in Watchmen at all? To find out, let’s start with a little context. Dalí today is nearly synonymous with Surrealism, but he associated himself with the Surrealist movement for only a dozen years of his long life, joining in 1929 and then beginning to attack it in 1941, an attack which, well, persisted, until his complete rupture with the Surrealists in 1948. He would live another 41 years. Nevertheless, The Persistence of Memory is squarely within Dalí’s surrealist period, so it’s worth taking a look at what that movement represented, and how it might relate to Watchmen.

Surrealism as we know it today emerged in 1924, with the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto by French writer, poet, and philosopher André Breton. Like many artistic and cultural movements, it had a fractious beginning, with multiple claimants to its foundation and definition, but Breton has emerged as its historically recognized leader, and he functioned as such throughout the movement’s heyday. Breton had served as a psychological counselor in World War I, treating shell-shocked soldiers, and he was fascinated with the theories of Freud, particularly his concept of the unconscious mind.

Breton proposed to tap into that unconscious, bringing its products into the world as literature, and eventually as art, films, and theatre. He adopted two primary methods for collecting unconscious thought: automatism and dreams. Automatism, the production of words or drawings with little to no conscious mediation, was his emphasis in the early days of the movement, but over time it revealed its limitations, whereas the exploration of dreams proved endlessly fruitful. Breton attracted a cadre of followers, entranced by the possibilities of elevating irrationality and using it to overthrow what they saw as oppressive political and social structures. In 1929, Dalí became one of those followers.

The Paranoiac-Critical Method

Breton was energized by Dalí, writing in a 1929 exhibition catalogue that Dalí’s art is “the most hallucinatory we know”, and that it “constitutes a real threat” against bourgeoisie rationalism and order. (Dalí, pg. 84) Dalí, for his part, embraced the movement enthusiastically, frequently invoking the word “surrealist” to describe various aspects of his works, and introducing new concepts such as the “surrealist object”, including his famous Lobster Telephone. Even more importantly, he introduced a new avenue for bringing images from the unconscious into the waking world, an approach he called his “paranoiac-critical” method.

A photograph of Dali's Lobster Telephone -- a telephone with a lobster attached to the handset.

With this label, Dalí uses the concept of paranoia differently from how we understand it today. Rather than a persecution complex, he frames paranoia as the perception of connections and overlaps where none exist in reality, but which are difficult to gainsay with any rational argument — the same mental mechanisms which create and propagate conspiracy theories. Dalí cultivated this mindset in his creative phases, resulting in canvases that teemed with multiplicities of meaning, and images that presented themselves differently when seen from different viewpoints, such as the bodies of women making up the face of Voltaire. In his essay “The Rotting Donkey”, first published in 1930, Dalí sees the potential of this mindset:

I believe the moment is drawing near when, by a thought process of a paranoiac and active character, it would be possible (simultaneously with automatism and other passive states) to systematise confusion and thereby contribute to a total discrediting of the world of reality. (The Surrealism Reader, pg. 264-265)

Systematize confusion and discredit reality. This is an agenda particularly relevant to our times. The surrealists rather naively believed that such an action would overthrow the alleged rationalism behind World War I, fascism, and the rise of Hitler. In our own era, we’ve seen right-wing movements in the U.S. and elsewhere systematizing confusion and discrediting reality to their own advantage. Aspiring dictators and their media machines systematically undermine any authority outside their own — scientists, academics, journalists — and insist that any misfortune that befalls themselves is a result of conspiratorial persecution rather than their own shortcomings. In creating a paranoiac alternate reality, they are able to discredit the evidence of their followers’ eyes and ears, resulting in a surreal landscape which always serves their own ends.

There’s nothing quite so sinister in Watchmen — for once, the book is actually less grim than our world. Sure, it’s true that Ozymandias’ great practical joke systematizes confusion through an enormous surrealist object teleported into New York, and discredits reality by pulling a hoax on the world’s superpowers, but at least he’s doing it in an attempt to avert nuclear catastrophe, rather than simply seizing and maintaining power. That said, his Burroughs-esque stare at his wall of televisions certainly feels reminiscent of Dalí’s paranoiac-critical method, and his own cut-up mental state can be seen as a paranoiac one, systematizing ethical confusion such that he is able to discard it. As Dalí says, the paranoiac reaches “conclusions that often cannot be contradicted or rejected and that in any case nearly always defy psychological analysis.” (pg. 265) How can anyone tell if he’s gone crazy?

In a larger sense, and one more relevant to the scene we’re examining, the simple fact of Dr. Manhattan discredits the reality of the world that existed before him. We can see this in Nite Owl I’s sudden sense of irrelevance and subsequent retirement, and even more starkly in Professor Milton Glass’s article at the back of this chapter. Glass says, in reference to Jon Osterman’s American-associated omnipotence, “A feeling of intense and crushing religious terror at the concept indicates only that you are still sane.” Glass also asserts that Dr. Manhattan’s “very existence has deformed the lives of every living creature on the face of the planet”, just as Dalí’s solid objects deform the watches that drape over them.

One of Watchmen‘s best traits is the way it realistically portrays the impact on a national psyche of the emergence of supernatural powers, and the geopolitical power struggle that would ensue over control of those powers. As we gaze at Osterman gazing at Dalí, a metatextual level of surrealist subversion presents itself, albeit as a reversal — acknowledging real connections that have been ignored rather than paranoiacally imagining connections that don’t exist. The mainstream superhero universes of 1985 teemed with magic, superhuman abilities, and hyper-advanced technologies, but with almost none of the political or cultural impact those things would inevitably have on the world. Moore, by introducing just one superpowered individual and logically following the deforming consequences of his arrival, soundly discredits mainstream unreality, seeing the connections where they would naturally be and making us question how we could ever have missed them.

Juxtaposition and Dreams

Dalí sometimes demonstrated unexpected connections through his use of the double image — arrangements of objects that look like multiple things at once — but also relied heavily on simple juxtaposition of objects, such as the lobster on the telephone. Many surrealist artists used juxtaposition as a strategy for surprising and provoking the viewer, as memorably appears in the work of René Magritte. Magritte’s images routinely place objects in unexpected relation to each other, such as The Beautiful Relations, which shows facial features placed onto an open sky, with a hot-air balloon as one of the eyes, or Golconda, which shows dozens of men dressed for work, hanging midair at various heights in front of an unassuming block of flats.

Watchmen, being a comic, exercises its juxtapositions more between words and images than within images themselves, but it does so almost constantly. I’ve written before that if the book hadn’t been called Watchmen, it may as well be called Juxtaposition. In some scenes, such as the interpellated panels from Tales Of The Black Freighter, or Rorschach’s journal entry at the end of Chapter 2, the words and images overlap in numerous and multi-layered ways at once. In other, more story-oriented sections, such as the one where Dalí’s painting appears, the juxtaposition is a little more restrained, but it’s still definitely there. Take Janey’s words over the newspaper image in panel 1 of the Dalí page, or Jon’s narration from Mars overlaying panel 9. In fact, I would argue that Jon’s entire experience of time, living through all of it at once, is the ultimate multi-layered juxtaposition, making his reality into a constant surreality.

Like the other surrealists, Dalí was fascinated by dreams as well. He called his work “hand-painted dream photographs”, and devised various methods to keep himself as long as possible in the borderland between sleeping and waking, the better to retrieve products of the dream-state. Watchmen depicts a surreal dream too — Dan’s nightmare on page 16 of Chapter 7. There’s no question that this dream speaks to what dwells in Dan’s unconscious, so let’s take a closer look.

Watchmen, chapter 7, page 16

Dan’s dream, like much of Dalí’s work, is suffused with a mixture of libido and fear. It springs from the previous scene, his episode of impotence with Laurie — a scene, by the way, which leverages juxtaposition with the television narration to effects both funny and poignant. As the dream starts, we see a silhouette of the Twilight Lady, reflected in Dan’s glasses. This character, introduced just a few pages earlier, pretty clearly symbolizes the sexual side of Dan’s adventuring, even before we see her in the dream — a part of himself that he keeps meaning to throw away, but you know how it is. Her appearance in his lens repeats the motif we’ve been seeing throughout the chapter, starting with the cover, of lens reflections.

He runs up to her, fear on his face, framed in the crook of her arm. They embrace, their feet wreathed in smoke, and peel each other’s clothes away like rinds. They stand naked, embracing, this time on a flat plain leading to a mid-panel horizon. and then she peels another layer — Dan’s skin sloughs away, revealing his costume underneath. Then it’s his turn — he peels the Twilight Lady to find Laurie underneath, in her costume, the horizon having lowered to their knees. The two of them embrace, and the motif of body framing repeats, except that framed in between their two bodies is the beginning of a nuclear explosion. The explosion grows larger and larger, the horizon very low in the panel, until it engulfs them, removing the horizon altogether and peeling the final layer of their flesh to reveal embracing skeletons beneath, an image that repeats yet another motif, the graffiti of the silhouetted lovers first seen by Rorschach on page 11 of Chapter 5. Thus ends the dream — after this death-sex image, Dan awakes on the final panel of the page. We are left with the products of his unconscious — frustrated desire, rampant fear, and a sense of unreality to Dan Dreiberg, who becomes a flimsy wrapping around Nite Owl II.

Blots and Simulacra

Dalí’s work wasn’t sequential, and therefore each of his works must be taken on its own, but nevertheless he would have found some of these images familiar. The flat plain with its horizon is common to many Dalí paintings, The Persistence of Memory included. He showed his own flesh deformed often, especially early in his Surrealist period, and possibly even in The Persistence of Memory itself. He also featured his wife and muse, Gala, in many paintings that revealed her form emerging from some other construction, as in Galatea of the Spheres and Lapis-Lazuli Corpuscular Assumption. The bodies that shred away like tissue paper echo the super-softness that fascinated Dalí in many early works, where he showed formerly stable objects like clocks and cellos melting away like Camembert in the sun.

In particular, not only did he make no secret about his fear of sex, he highlighted it in painting after painting. Breton said about Dalí in a 1952 interview, “On the mental plane, no one was more struck by psycho-analysis than he, but, if he uses it, it is to maintain jealously his complexes, to carry them to exuberance.” Dalí was not interested in becoming “well-adjusted” or “curing” his psychological struggles, for if he rid himself of them, where would he find the images that kept spilling onto his canvases? In this way, he connects to yet another Watchmen character: Rorschach.

Walter Kovacs adopted an explicitly psychoanalytic image around which to base his identity, but he didn’t do this from a sense of introspection. Indeed, he wonders in his journal, “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”, using the “us” to explicitly include himself in that category of stability and mental health. He is what others wish to see in him, but he wastes no time looking into himself.

Surrealist art sought to render visually the landscape of the unconscious, via automatic drawing and the depiction of dreams. Rorschach blots, on the other hand, are meant to go the other way — abstract images intended to stir unconscious associations. Rorschach, like Dalí, uses psychoanalytic imagery to reinforce his own neuroses, not to “solve” them, though unlike Dalí, he doesn’t do it quite so intentionally. Dalí’s own double images operated on a similar principle, allowing the viewer to receive the painting based on idiosyncratic and unconscious responses. Paranoiac Face is an emblematic example. Art historian Kirsten Bradbury describes it thus:

The painting was based on a photograph of African villagers. At first sight, Dalí believed that the photo was of a Picasso face, as he had recently studied them. He showed the card to Breton, who thought it was a picture of the Marquis de Sade, who interested him. Therefore Dalí rationalized that the individual’s mind gives an image the desired characteristics; viewers see what they want to see. (Essential Dalí, pg. 67)

Paranoiac Face, by Salvador Dali

Viewers see what they want to see, or what their unconscious directs them to see, just as in Rorschach blots and Rorschach himself.

We haven’t quite finished the roundup of surrealist images in Watchmen. While Dan’s dream is likely the most surrealist moment provided by Dave Gibbons, as the artist of Watchmen, there is also an artist in Watchmen, one whom the text explicitly identifies as a surrealist: Hira Manish. Manish receives this description on the last page of Chapter 8’s back matter, and in that same chapter we see the only canvas of hers shown in the story, her rendering of the monster that will be teleported into New York.

Once again, this illustration is a mix of sexuality and fear, and I would make the case that it’s a Dalínian double image as well, what I’ve described before as “pretty clearly a nightmare version of female genitalia.” Even the panels surrounding this image on page 11 refer to sex and pregnancy as both potential pleasure and potential horror, and though we don’t get to see it, Manish is clearly sketching this bizarre vision from a real model, albeit one based on her work, a strange loop of representation and reality.

In “The Rotting Donkey”, Dalí refers to the products of his paranoiac-critical method as “simulacra” — semblances of the dream world given tangible form in our world. He calls them “new and menacing”, and tells us that connoisseurs of images “have long ago learned to recognise the image of desire hidden behind the simulacra of terror”. (the Surrealist Reader, pg. 266) Surrealist paintings are simulacra in image form, but surrealist objects move these simulacra into all three dimensions. For Veidt’s grand joke, nothing less than a giant surrealist object would do, and he explicitly procures a surrealist to ensure that this object would contain the requisite equal measures of fear and desire.

The Persistence of Memory

So it’s pretty clear at this point that the appearance of a surrealist artwork in Watchmen can draw our attention to the surrealist moments of Watchmen: the systematized confusions, the juxtapositions, the unconscious eruptions of dreams and unbidden associations, and the paranoiac death-sex simulacra which provide the book’s most terrifying moments. What can we make of this specific surrealist painting appearing on Doctor Manhattan’s wall?

As I’ve said, I disagree with Klinger that Jon may have picked it out to symbolize his relationship with time — while his all-at-once juxtaposed experience may be intensely surrealist, it represents a crystallization of time rather than a liquefaction of it. Instead, if we’re going to make a headcanon story about how that painting arrived in the apartment, I’d speculate that Janey herself bought it and hung it, attempting to use a familiar cultural artifact to find her way toward understanding Jon’s massively changed perspective. She fails to understand it, as the page so clearly proves.

However, as a phrase, “the persistence of memory” captures a great deal about Watchmen. That phrase could serve as an alternate title for Chapter 9, in which Laurie’s memories persistently bubble up through her conversation with Jon, eventually overcoming her own mental blocks to present her with the fact of her father’s real identity. Tellingly, it is only by Jon persuading her to consider his surreal experience of overlapping moments that she can put the pieces together. Even beyond this chapter, Watchmen has flashbacks galore — in fact the very scene in which the Dalí painting appears is itself a flashback.

What’s more, the persistence of memory is a theme in Watchmen overall — for Sally Jupiter and her ever-brightening past, for Rorschach and the images that haunt him, for the spirit of ’77 and how it refuses to stay banished. Thus, both the specific painting and the movement it represents pertain directly to Watchmen, a book peppered with surrealist moments, which tells its story through persistent memories, and which itself plays on our memory of both bygone superhero conventions and those that were very current to its decade.

Just one more thing before I wrap up: according to Dalí expert Dawn Ades, the artist had a close relationship with one Robert Descharnes, a French photographer who served as Dalí’s secretary through to his death, and managed his copyright beyond that. (Dalí, pg. 206) This name is awfully close to the “human sensitive” Robert Deschaines, whose brain gets cloned and placed inside Hira Manish’s enormous surrealist object. Given that Dalí was still alive while Watchmen was being written, and therefore Descharnes’ name might have been in the news from time to time, I have to wonder whether this is coincidence, or whether Moore found inspiration for a character name from a surrealist-adjacent real-life figure. Perhaps I’m just seeing connections where none exist, but if so, wouldn’t Dalí be proud?

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