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

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?

Previous entry: The Morality of My Activities

Portrait of Dante by Botticelli

The Watchmen Bestiary 33 – The Morality of My Activities

Abandon all hope of avoiding Watchmen spoilers, ye who read this post.

Our journey through Watchmen references has now crossed into Chapter 4, a chapter devoted exclusively to exploring the character and memories of Jon Osterman, Doctor Manhattan. One of those memories contains the next reference — from his early foray into superheroing:
Watchmen Chapter 4, page 14, panel 2. Dr. Manhattan points at a gunman, whose head explodes. A large caption almost covers up the word "Dante's". A smaller caption reads "The morality of my activities escapes me."
The eagle-eyed Annotated Watchmen v2.0 finds a reference here that even Leslie Klinger missed, looking behind the caption box to notice:

The name of this “crime-den” is “Dante’s,” a reference to the Italian author best known for the Divine Comedy, which included a trip to Hell. The name and red lighting seem to be intended to invoke a hellish atmosphere.

Aside from the fact that the writer likely meant “evoke” rather than “invoke”, and that “vice-den” is improperly quoted as “crime-den”, this is an astute observation! The club name is mostly obscured, but once we see it as “Dante’s”, we can’t possibly see it as anything else, and indeed Dante’s version of Hell is underground, just as Moloch’s vice-den is said to be. The connection is very clear.

Dante and the Commedia

So let’s dive a bit into Dante and his greatest work. Dante Alighieri was born in 13th-century Florence, Italy. His birth year is widely accepted as 1265, though the logic behind establishing this birth year is, as Mark Scarbrough points out in his stellar podcast Walking With Dante, pretty specious. But it’s enough for our purposes to know that he was born midway through the 13th century, became active in Florentine politics as an adult, and was exiled in 1302 as the political terrain shifted. He died in 1321, having never returned to his home.

Dante had been writing and releasing poetry since well before the turn of the century, but it was in exile that he composed his master work, a work he simply called Comedy — “Commedia” in his medieval Tuscan. (The “Divine” would be added by his fan and commentator Boccaccio, well after Dante’s death. It’s also worth pointing out that the name “Comedy” isn’t after our modern sense of hilarity, but the older sense of a happy ending.) Comedy was a trip through the known universe, as Dante understood and imagined it, and it was also a comprehensive catalog of his moral and philosophical thought, deeply rooted in the Christianity (specifically Catholicism) of his time.

Dante composed his poem of individual cantos (think chapters or sections) grouped into three canticles: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It’s written in the first person voice, and claims to be an account of how Dante became lost in a dark wood, and with help from the ghost of the classical poet Virgil, traversed every level of Hell (Inferno) and Purgatory (Purgatorio). He must leave Virgil behind to travel through Heaven (Paradiso), so Beatrice — his idealized woman and the object of his courtly love poems, who had died in 1290 — becomes his guide for the final piece of the trilogy.

Comedy makes a number of surprising literary moves, not least the way that it mixes together figures from disparate parts of both literature, religion, history, and local politics. In his travels, Dante the pilgrim meets characters from the Bible standing alongside men, women, and creatures from mythology. People from history and Dante’s own Florentine contemporaries populate the mix as well, so that the landscape of God’s judgment includes everyone who ever was or ever was imagined.

From our modern perspective, mixtures like this may not be too startling — we’ve seen Bill and Ted joshing with Socrates and Joan of Arc, or a Marvel comics universe where Thor and Hercules (and seemingly all the members of every other pantheon) run around with futuristic scientists and soldiers. For that matter, we’ve got Watchmen, in which we get The Comedian shaking hands with Gerald Ford and Doctor Manhattan with JFK. But in the 13th century, religion, myth, history, and current events didn’t mix in fiction — until Dante.
A diagram of the universe described in the Comedy, including Hell, Purgatory, and the celestial spheres of paradise.
In addition to its bold approach to bricolage, Comedy also displays an astonishing level of structure. Medieval numerology is everywhere, peppering the work with threes, nines, tens and hundreds, among other sacred numbers. Three, being the holy number of the Trinity, appears at the highest level of abstraction — three parts of the Comedy itself — down to the lowest level of the poetic lines, which are written in a form called terza rima, in which rhymes repeat and interlock three times each. Nine, being three times three, is holy times holy, which is why we see nine circles of Hell, nine spheres of heaven, and so forth. Thirty-three is also a big one, with two of the canticles containing 33 cantos each, and most stanzas containing thirty-three syllables. (Dante would love the fact that this post is entry number 33 in the Watchmen Bestiary.)

Ten appears various places in the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments or the ten plagues of Egypt. Similarly, tens show up in the Comedy as well, such as when we add the “vestibules” to the nine levels of Hell and Heaven. Ten times ten — a perfect number in Dante’s sight — was the number of overall cantos in Comedy, and in fact that hundred is made of three thirty-threes plus an introductory one. (Inferno has 34 cantos.) This formulation of 9+1 or 99+1 undergirds the Comedy‘s structure, but there’s more to it than just numbers. Structure appears thematically, such as in Inferno, where Dante the pilgrim often echoes the sin he sees punished, and linguistically, such as the fact that each canticle of Comedy ends with the word “stelle” — stars.

In this way, Comedy resonates with Watchmen, which is itself richly structured. Moore and Gibbons aren’t so concerned with numbers, though Dante would doubtless appreciate the nine-panel layout employed throughout the book. With Watchmen, structure becomes more a matter of rhythm, such as the way that (for most of the book) plot-driven chapters alternate with character-driven chapters, or the way that changes in scene or lighting can create “X” and “O” shapes on the page.

Structure also shows up on the chapter level. In the Love & Rockets post, I went on at length about the structure of Chapter 2 — a present-day storyline interspersed with flashbacks, progressing in chronological order, with each showing The Comedian from a different character’s viewpoint. Probably the most famous structural trick in Watchmen occurs in Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry”, in which the panel layout for the entire issue is completely symmetrical, meeting in the middle with a double-page splash of Adrian Veidt fighting his would-be assassin. (Adrian, appropriately, is at the center of the story.) Symmetry appears in Comedy as well, with the mountain of Purgatory reflecting the cavern of Hell, and Purgatory itself poised midway through Dante’s journey, its middle cantos discussing the questions of free will that underpin the entire moral and theological structure of the poem.

The plots of the two works are quite different, of course. Watchmen operates (on the surface level anyway) as a mystery, while Comedy is essentially a tour — a very long tour through all the levels of a highly structured afterlife. That afterlife is divided according to sins and virtues, with each division populated by emblematic examples of the behavior — Judas as the ultimate traitor, Midas as the icon of avarice, and so on.

That said, Chapter 1 of Watchmen does take us on a tour, with Rorschach as our pilgrim and his own paranoia acting as his guide. As we follow, he takes us to each circle of “superhero” existence in his world, circles which encompass a number of solid archetypes. There’s the rough Comedian, grizzled and dark like a Punisher or Nick Fury. There’s the earnest Nite Owl and his cave full of gadgets and vehicles a la Batman. Ozymandias embodies the wealthy altruist — again Batman, but also Iron Man, Green Arrow, and many others — as well as the perfected human athlete such as Captain America or, uh… Batman. Silk Spectre comes across as the sex-bomb gymnast type, like Black Canary or Black Widow, while Dr. Manhattan has both the super-science of a Mr. Fantastic and the godlike power of a Superman. Thus our introduction to Watchmen takes us through a Dante-esque journey of figures exemplifying ideas, but the book holds their fates until its final chapter.

Manhattan and Morality

About those fates — one aspect of the moral structure that pervades the Inferno (and to a lesser extent Purgatorio) is the notion of contrapasso, which we may define more or less as “the punishment fitting the crime.” Thus usurers must carry a purse around their necks as they avoid fire raining from the sky. Soothsayers who tried to predict the future spend their time in Hell with their necks twisted 180 degrees, so they are only able to look backward. Flatterers are, well, immersed in shit. And so forth.
A painting by Stradanus of soothsayers in Hell, with their heads turned backwards.
Watchmen doesn’t portray an afterlife of just desserts, but it does endeavor to show a variety of human (and superhuman) natures and their consequences, with no shortage of poetic justice, or at least poetic irony. Thus The Comedian, who lives his life as a fallen hero, becomes a truly fallen hero at his life’s end. Thus Nite Owl, who can only really feel like himself behind a mask, ends up adopting a whole new identity at the story’s end. Thus Ozymandias, whose name evokes Shelley’s poem about a king whose works were far less lasting than he belived they would be, creates a peace so fragile that a diary can tip it over. Thus Rorschach becomes a blot on a featureless white surface.

And what of Doctor Manhattan, the character whose chapter gets the Dante reference? Here we see some of the widest gaps between Comedy and Watchmen. Dante’s entire project is to flesh out a moral universe overseen by a stern and loving God, whose limitless knowledge pairs with a vast array of punishments, rewards, and (in the case of Purgatorio) one that can lead to the other. The closest thing to God in Watchmen‘s universe, though, is Doctor Manhattan himself, and the transformed Jon Osterman has very little interest in engaging with humanity at all, let alone constructing an afterlife of individual contrapasso for each member of it. The moral universe of Watchmen, as I discussed in the Bible reference posts, inverts traditional Christian stories to become a parody of their viewpoints.

Thus Doctor Manhattan’s story ends with him deciding to become God, and having observed him through the course of Watchmen, we might justifiably have our doubts about the sort of universe he will create. Where Dante’s God has love, Manhattan has only curiosity, and a rather weary curiosity at that. But there’s even more to this question of creators and the moral dimensions of their creations.

Consider this: Dante presents Comedy as the exploration of an afterlife created by God. But is it that, really? Of course not. It is the exploration of an afterlife created by Dante. And to make things even more complicated, Dante the creator poet explores his creation via the viewpoint of a pilgrim… who is also Dante. These two — the poet and the pilgrim — claim the same identity, but they are clearly not the same. Dante the pilgrim is a fictional character, entirely controlled by Dante the poet, who was a real person.

Moore and Gibbons don’t insert themselves into their story, but they do create a world that opens thorny questions about the nature of authorship. In the last entry, I asked whether Jon Osterman might have collapsed the probability waveform of his universe at the moment he became Doctor Manhattan, thus creating the future of his world at the moment he observed it. Maybe, maybe not, but the story does make very clear that at least he can see that future. More than that, as Chapter 4 shows, he lives it in all in the same moment, inhabiting a bewildering consciousness of mixed simultaneity and linearity.

He is, he tells us, a puppet who can see the strings. But he clearly can’t see all of them, because he remains unaware of his creators: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. He is a sort of stand-in for the reader (or at least, the repeat reader) in his awareness of the full story, but even aside from not knowing the authors of it, there are other dimensions of his story that he fails to understand. In the panel that inspired this post, his voiceover states, “the morality of my activities escapes me,” as we see him exploding a gunman’s head. Let’s unpack that a little.

In the context of the story Dr. Manhattan is telling us, he’s been placed at that moment into a dubiously moral framework by the newspapers calling him a “crimefighter”, and the government insisting he live up to the label. So he might be saying that despite the entities claiming otherwise, he fails to see the morality of what he’s been sent out to do. As readers, we might agree with him there. But as is so often the case in Watchmen, the juxtaposition of words and pictures strikes a heavily ironic note — in this case, we’re watching the “crimefighter” casually murder a human who poses no threat to him. (No humans pose any threat to him, no matter how heavily armed.) The rest of the crowd, whatever their other vices, is shocked and horrified at this sight. Yet the immorality of Dr. Manhattan’s activities escapes him as well.

But it doesn’t escape us, and it doesn’t escape Moore and Gibbons. In that moment, they are clearly showing us the distance between Manhattan’s moral compass and their own, and presumably ours as well. So while Manhattan may be able to see the strings, that doesn’t mean he understands them. He is a compromised reader, and a compromised author. Why is he this way? I would suggest that, like Dante, Jon Osterman is an exile, and like Dante, the experience of exile fundamentally shapes his consciousness.

Osterman in Exile

In fact, Jon suffers a series of exiles, several of which we see in this chapter. In 1945, his father reacts to the news of Hiroshima by throwing away Jon’s cogs, in effect exiling him from his childhood identity as an aspiring watchmaker. From there, he is ejected from his childhood home, first to Princeton and then to Gila Flats. At that lab, inside the intrinsic field chamber, he suffers an exile far more profound: permanent estrangement from his own body.
Watchmen, Chapter 4, page 8, panel 4. Jon reduced to a skeleton, and even that disintegrating. Caption: The light is taking me to pieces.
There’s a section of the Inferno where Dante (the pilgrim) encounters the fate of suicides. The contrapasso for these souls, who shed their bodies voluntarily, is that they are forever denied those bodies in the afterlife. They are transformed into strange trees and bushes, gnarled and devoid of leaves. In this form, they can see other humans only as menaces — breakers of branches. After he constitutes an artificial body for himself, Jon Osterman finds himself similarly distanced from humanity, watching and participating in its activities with diminishing interest.

Finally, in the course of the book, he chooses to exile himself from humanity altogether, first to Mars, and then (we presume) much further by the story’s end. Perhaps in a sense this series of exiles echoes the progression of Comedy. Where at first Jon finds his expulsion from the life he imagined hellish, he seems to experience the removal of his body as purgatorial, a purgation of self, albeit an involuntary one. His final exiles out into space echo the images of the Paradiso, which was a journey through the celestial spheres of Ptolemaic medieval astronomy, including Mars. But Dante’s story of paradise centers the notion of transcendence, and Jon’s resignation and removal manifest as a parody of that paradise, not an attainment of it.

Jon’s detachment from humanity isn’t just because he loses the physical, carnal aspect of being human. Dante’s suffering shades have lost that aspect too, but those who haven’t ascended are as human and limited as they ever were. Dr. Osterman, though, reconstructs his consciousness as he reconstructs his body, and in doing so, becomes an exile from the human experience of linear time.

In Canto 29 of the Paradiso, Beatrice explains how the mind of God exists in an “eternity outside of time”, and that “after” and “before” did not exist until He created them. His angels, she says, have never turned their vision from the face of God, “so that their sight is never intercepted / by a new object, and they have no need / to recollect an interrupted concept.” (Translation by Allen Mandelbaum.) Dante scholar John Took sees these lines as defining a fundamental difference between human and divine experience:

Thus time enters into human experience in respect of one of the most fundamental aspects of man’s activity as man, namely in respect of his intentional reconstruction both of self and the world beyond self as the basis for everything coming next by way of its proper conception and celebration. The intentional reconstruction both of self and of the world beyond self, Dante thinks, is always temporally conditioned. It is always a matter of its successive moments. (Dante, pg. 386)

Took tends toward the obtuse and rococo, and this passage is certainly no exception, but it does help us understand just how far away Jon Osterman has been sent from us. If human experience is always temporally conditioned, always a matter of successive moments, then human experience is no longer available to Jon.

Given that reality, is it any wonder he finds himself a stranger to human morality? This panel, in a club called “Dante’s”, shows us how removed he has become from such concepts, even in 1960, well before the main events of the book’s plot. In fact, that panel is pretty much entirely devoid of morality — not just the Manhattan murder, but Moloch himself and all the sinners in the vice-den. Naming the club “Dante’s” is a perfect irony generator by Moore and Gibbons, since human morality was the basis of Dante’s entire project.

Dante explored morality by constructing an extended encounter between the human and the divine. Moore and Gibbons do something similar, but in their case the human and divine meet in a single figure, and that figure is very far from Christlike. Instead, he personifies the morality of the atomic bomb, of humankind ascended to godlike power without transcending its fundamental flaws. Jon Osterman cannot resolve this tension within himself, but he does his best to abandon it, hoping to leave our (and his) complicated and messy humanity behind for the cleaner and simpler stars.

Next entry: Soft Watchmen
Previous entry: Time Pieces

Cover of the D&D basic rulebook from 1981, described elsewhere in the post

D&D&Me

I’m the same age as the kids in Stranger Things. Like them, I rode my bike around the neighborhood a bunch, loved my Kenner Star Wars stuff, and dropped many a quarter on arcade games. Also like them, I played a whole lot of Dungeons and Dragons as a tween and early teen.

Exact ages and dates are a little hazy behind the mists of time, but my introduction to the game happened on a birthday — 11th or 12th I think. On some gift-giving occasions, my parents would send me on a treasure hunt through the house, following a trail of clues until I finally found a present. On that birthday, I opened a drawer at the end of the trail and found… something?

It was a bunch of solid shapes — a pyramid, a cube, and others with many more sides. Each one was a different color, and each side had a number written on it. They seemed like dice, maybe? The note with them said, “What are these? I don’t know either, but let’s find out together!”

Three very worn plastic dice

The survivors of that original batch of dice — edges worn down from many rolls!

Then out came the purple box, with the red rule book, each of which sported a picture of a couple of adventurers taking on a big water-dwelling dragon. I learned about the dice, the attribute scores, the combat, and all the other mechanics, and was quite intrigued. But what hooked me was this new kind of game playing, one that combined elements of the board games I loved with themes from the Tolkien and Zelazny books I’d been reading, while at the same time bringing in an element of pure pretend play, a part of childhood I’d been leaving behind with some ambivalence.

My dad was the Dungeon Master for our D&D session that night. I was an elf, lured into an underground vault to uncover its secrets alongside another character played by my mom. I still remember our kitchen table, Dad behind the cardboard screen, narrating our adventure. “You creep as quietly as possible through the dark underground passage. From far off, you hear the sound of water slowly dripping. Your torches illuminate gauzy threads, strung across the passageway AND SUDDENLY A GIANT SPIDER DROPS DOWN FROM THE CEILING!!” Oh man, my mom and I just about jumped out of our skins. But I was enchanted.

That was the last time for a very long time that I got to be a D&D player. I corralled some friends to play, but the only way I could sell the concept was if I was the Dungeon Master. That was okay — I was utterly fascinated with the game, and more than happy to spend hours populating dungeons with monsters and making up narrative threads for my friends’ characters. Through a combination of allowance spending and holiday gifts, I acquired all the advanced rulebooks, and many an adventure module. I even branched out into RPGs (role-playing games) from other genres — science fiction, James Bond spy stuff, and of course Marvel superheroes.

On a regular basis, 3 or 4 kids would gather in my basement and I’d take them through adventures. Or try to. As much as I dug everything about the game, there was always something a touch unsatisfying about those gaming sessions. My friends and I weren’t quite on the same wavelength, and I didn’t have the skill to even identify that, let alone talk about it. I wanted to be transported into a story and soar on the high-flown fantasy of it all, but most of the time everything remained stubbornly prosaic, a hack & slash gold-grubbing exercise, never really suspending disbelief. I suspect that’s down to my lack of skill as a DM, our ages, and the overall awkwardness of role-playing among non-theatrical types.

In any case, after a few years all the RPG stuff got packed away, and we all moved on to other pursuits, including — for me — actual theater. I sold a bunch of D&D modules and such on eBay some time ago, happy to recoup a little money for papers that were just mouldering away in a box. Selling that stuff made me quite sure that the D&D part of my life was over.

Then came Dante. As he became a teenager, Dante began to be deeply interested in game design. He’d always been someone who immediately wanted to make up variants to any game we played together, but as his brain matured, he started seriously exploring whatever gaming avenues he could find and learning about all sorts of genres and mechanics. This led him to discovering some retro roguelikes, in particular Angband. As he unpacked Angband‘s mechanics, he got very interested in their origins, which allowed me to explain to him all about Dungeons and Dragons.

A collection of vintage D&D rulebooks, along with a dungeon master's screen and a few peripherals

Some of those childhood rulebooks and accessories — I didn’t sell everything!

He wanted to try it. Of course, I’d sold much of my D&D stuff years ago, and I had no concept of the way the game had evolved since. But between the Internet and the resources I still had, I cobbled some rules together, getting as far as helping him put together a character and taking him on the rudimentary beginnings of an adventure. Right after that, magic struck.

I’d been talking to a co-worker of mine socially about Dante’s interest in D&D and well, it turns out her husband is a longtime DM who wanted to start up a campaign again. They invited us to join. I was a little shy about it at first, intimidated by the gulf between my early-teen self and my current self, and all the D&D lore that had gone by in the meantime. But “for Dante’s sake”, I warmed up to it, and we created some characters.

Starting then, and for about 16 months, Dante and I took our dwarven cleric and half-orc barbarian through a series of great adventures. The 5th edition D&D rules are a deep well of delight, and I got to be the D&D player I’d always secretly wanted to be, with a great DM and a great group. During that time, I realized something pretty profound: Dungeons and Dragons played a crucial part in making me who I am today, and some of my most ingrained personality characteristics are either extensions of the D&D aesthetic or attempts to complete the experience I reached for as a kid but couldn’t quite grasp.

Take that theater, for instance. You know one way to get involved in a story, becoming one of the characters? Audition for a play! In improv, you can even invent that character’s direction as you go along! I wouldn’t make the claim that my heavy involvement in high school theater was a direct outgrowth of my preteen D&D session frustrations, but I will say that being in plays scratched an itch that I could never quite get at via RPGs.

Here’s a broader, deeper one: systems and randomness. For all of my adult life, I’ve been someone who makes decisions via diceroll, in the framework of a set of rules. Not huge decisions, mind you (usually), but routine and daily ones. Today I decided to drink water (instead of tea or soda) via diceroll, and also what book I would read — 1950s Ditko/Lee comics on Marvel Unlimited, also selected randomly. I’m focused on writing this post today via a random choice. I’m drinking a beer right now because of what I rolled a half-hour ago.

Writing about it a little over fifteen years ago, I called this habit “a coping mechanism to deal with a world of too much choice.” And that’s still true. But after returning to D&D, I realized that of course I’d imprinted on this behavior because I fell in love with its manifestation in the D&D rules. One of the most fascinating and incredible things about the game is the way that the dice shape the characters’ lives, taking both mundane and exotic moments in directions that nobody can wholly predict, and around which everyone’s stories must flow. Of course, in the game those dice are merely symbolic of the randomness in the universe, but my personal universe’s randomness comes directly from dice and other random number generators.

Once I started thinking in this direction, I was floored to understand how much of my identity has its roots in the D&D experience. My love for interactive fiction, I realized, is also an attempt to find what childhood RPGing didn’t provide. Even the best IF doesn’t let you have totally free rein to take the story in any direction, but honestly neither does the best RPG session. The best IF does give you an interactive experience with a storyteller who is fully committed to immersing you in a compelling fictional world, with no risk of other humans ruining the vibe. Those hundreds upon hundreds of hours I spent text adventuring had an intrinsic value of their own, of course, but they were also a balm to the part of me that just kept longing for a deep, immersive role-playing experience.

Cover of the Player's Handbook from the 5th edition of the D&D rules

Why was that longing so powerful, that it set me on these lifelong courses of extension and compensation? Judging by the ache that comes up in me when I write about it, I think some part of it is deeply connected to loneliness. By most measures, I’m not a lonely person. I have a family who I genuinely enjoy living with, and friends across many different realms, from workplace to trivia to IF to longtime high school bonds. But looking back on those childhood D&D sessions feels lonely in a specific way: the loneliness of being with people who are all there for a different reason than you are.

That’s nothing against those childhood friends, who were perfectly fine and most likely very patient with my D&D obsession. It’s more about trying to find a match for a part of me, and it not being there. For all the friends and family I have, I still never found that match, until my adventures with Dante and my co-workers.

Getting to have that experience after all, almost forty years after first opening that drawer with the dice inside, was an enormous blessing. But this story doesn’t have the happiest ending. Our D&D campaign broke up about 9 months ago, foundering on the pandemic-scarred shoals of some ugly real-life events. According to our DM, it’s not coming back anytime soon, certainly not in 2021.

I miss those gaming sessions terribly, with an outsized grief that I only now understand has been sublimated for most of my life into other forms. Finally assuaging that lonely feeling and then having it come back makes it so much sharper. I really, really want to return to Dungeons and Dragons again, or more specifically, I really really want to be a Dungeons and Dragons player again. That’s where I found the joy for which I’d been unconsciously yearning. Dante hasn’t been grieving it the way I have, of course, and unlike me he’s more into mechanics than story, but I know he hopes to return to the D&D table as well.

Anybody want to run a campaign for a 50-year-old lapsed roleplayer and his gentle, genderqueer 15-year-old son?

Photo of Albert Einstein

The Watchmen Bestiary 32 – Time Pieces

Spoilers for Watchmen are relatively plentiful below.

Like Watchmen itself, The Annotated Watchmen v2.0 is divided into chapters, and the beginning of each chapter’s annotations outlines its motifs, its focus, its cover, and the source of its title quotation. Thus it is that as we enter Chapter 4, we focus on its epigraph, which the annotations cite as “A quotation from Albert Einstein.” Specifically, the epigraph is this:

The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking… The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.
— Albert Einstein

There’s only one problem: Einstein never said this. As Leslie Klinger correctly points out, the source of this alleged quote has not been found, and professional quote verifier Ralph Keyes has flatly stated that “Einstein said no such thing.” (The Quote Verifier, pg. 53.)

Say What?

The “quote” is in fact cobbled together from various things that Einstein said or sort-of said, but assembled to imply a sense that is quite false to Einstein’s actual viewpoints. There are three fundamental pieces to the epigraph:

1) “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking.”

This part of the epigraph nearly matches a sentence that Einstein wrote in a 1946 fund-raising telegram for the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. The first two sentences of that telegram are:

Our world faces crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

In the context created by Watchmen, this first portion of the Einstein “quote” sounds a bit resigned. In its true context, however, and with its final clause restored, it’s meant to instill a driving sense of urgency. The telegram winds up with a pitch for money — two hundred thousand dollars for a “nationwide campaign to let the people know that new type of thinking essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”

Einstein passionately believed that atomic weapons were too dangerous to rest in the hands of individual nations, and that the information on how to create them should be held only by a “supranational” world government organization. This was the mode of thinking he wished to change — a focus away from nationalism, and toward a one-world philosophy. Away from competition, toward cooperation. Having lived through two World Wars and having seen a Holocaust perpetrated against his people, Einstein felt convinced that if individual nations held atomic weapons, they would certainly use them against each other. He saw arms control as humanity’s best hope.

Unfortunately, though the Emergency Committee promoted peace plans, gave speeches, and even produced a couple of short movies to support its peaceful message, that message failed to gain a foothold in a world whose international temperature was rapidly plummeting toward Cold War. The Committee disbanded in 1951. Incidentally, one of the groups it funded during its lifespan was the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, also co-founded by Einstein, and more importantly for our purposes, creators of the Doomsday Clock whose iconography Moore and Gibbons weave into every issue of Watchmen.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock alongside the Watchmen one

2) “The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.”

The ellipsis in Chapter 4’s epigraph is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Normally that punctuation mark suggests that we’re skipping over some superfluous material to arrive at a later point in the same quoted document. However, this “heart of mankind” sentence does not appear at all in the Emergency Committee’s fundraising telegram. It instead paraphrases a sentiment that the post-WWII Einstein frequently expressed, one which was arguably most prominent in a June 23, 1946 article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Real Problem Is In the Hearts of Men.” Note that here Einstein does not argue that the solution is to be found in humanity’s heart, but rather the problem itself.

This article leads off with a recapitulation of the “new type of thinking” quote from the Emergency Committee’s telegram, so it’s reasonable enough to assume that “this problem” does in fact refer to the change in thinking Einstein saw as necessary. He then goes on to argue that the bomb makes armies irrelevant, now that nations can wage war on each other with rockets while never crossing each other’s borders. Furthermore, science has no defense against this kind of attack, and therefore national military buildup has become an obsolete strategy to secure safety. This article has several versions of Einstein’s famous “We cannot simultaneously plan for war and peace” sentiment, in service once again of the world government proposal.

The problem, as he states it, is that humans must cooperate to avoid self-inflicted destruction, but that competition comes much more easily to us than does cooperation. “It is easier to denature plutonium,” he asserts, “than it is to denature the evil spirit of man.” And yet, his only option is to speak to our higher selves, hoping to persuade enough people to change their way of thinking. “We will not change the hearts of other men by mechanisms,” he says, “but by changing our hearts and speaking bravely… When we are clear in heart and mind — only then shall we find courage to surmount the fear which haunts the world.”

This topic comes up a lot in a book called Einstein and the Poet, a fairly low-quality retelling of some Einstein interviews in which “the poet” (as the author has dubbed himself) speaks with Einstein on four different occasions: once before World War II, once during, and twice after. In the later discussions, Einstein returns again and again to the theme that humanity’s only hope is to alter its own heart. A sample:

I agree with you, intellect has never saved the world. If we want to improve the world we cannot do it with scientific knowledge but with ideals. Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Gandhi have done more for humanity than science has done. We must begin with the heart of man — with his conscience — and the values of conscience can only be manifested by selfless service to mankind. (The pages are unnumbered in this book, so I can’t cite a page number.)

However, while it’s true that Einstein saw this change as humanity’s only hope, his outlook was not optimistic. When “the poet” asks him, “Why is it that you stand so alone in your plan to create a supranational government?”, Einstein replies, “Because men don’t want to change their hearts. At the bottom of all problems stands the human animal, with his greed.”

If the need to change our way of thinking is the problem, than of course the solution must come from within us, but Einstein didn’t tend to see “the heart of mankind” as a solution, but rather as a problem which must be overcome despite humanity’s natural inclinations.

3) “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”

The last panel of Watchmen Chapter 4, displaying the Einstein epigraphHere we come to the most problematic piece of them all. While it’s very difficult to prove a negative, no one who has researched this quote can find any place where Einstein expresses any wistful proclivity for making watches. More’s the pity (I almost said “Moore’s the pity”) for Watchmen, which relies on that sentiment to tie Jon Osterman the walking bomb to his watchmaking father, and to the clock motif of the whole book. The very chapter title, “Watchmaker”, relies on the one word of this quote that Einstein does not seem to have said at all.

Not only that, but where Einstein did express this sort of regretful sentiment (albeit always with other professions like plumber or cobbler), it was not in the context that this epigraph tries to present. In the “quote” of Chapter 4’s last panel, the “if only I had known” seems to refer back to “the release of atom power”, and “this problem” of needing to instill new thinking in old human brains. The suggestion seems to be that if Einstein had known his investigations into relativity would result in the atomic bomb, he would never have become a scientist at all. But while he did feel some amount of guilt for his role in the bomb’s arrival, he never tied that guilt to any hindsight renunciation of his scientific career. On the contrary, science remained the guiding light of his entire life through his old age, and he continued passionately to advocate on behalf of its search for truth.

Now, he was certainly known to inveigh against things that irritated him in the human or physical realm, and to do so by rhetorically making a retroactive change to his profession — just not about his role in the creation of the bomb. Probably his most well-known use of this formula was in an 1954 interview in which he was bemoaning McCarthyism’s effects on academia.

In pushing back against the politicization of his profession, he stated that if he were young again and had to decide how to make a living in 1954, “I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler, in the hope of finding that modest degree of independence still available.” In other words, he’d still pursue science, just outside the academic cloister that had become a target of the political right. (This assertion, by the way, won him an honorary membership card in a plumber’s union.) (Einstein: His Life And Universe, pg. 533-4)

Even thirty years earlier, in a 1924 letter to Max Born, he made a statement like this about his deep discomfort with quantum physics and its notions of using probabilities and uncertainties in its model of the physical world:

I find it quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will not only its moment to jump off but also its direction. In that case, I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee of a gaming house, than a physicist. (Ibid., pg. 325)

This is not a statement of regret or guilt, but more an ultimatum delivered to physics itself. Though he’s often mistakenly associated with relativism (rather than relativity), Einstein in fact believed wholly in a physics whose rules were certain and unvarying — in fact he nearly named his theory of relativity the Invariance Theory, due to its strict causality and its assertion that the relationship between space and time remains constant no matter from what perspective it is viewed.

Photo of Einstein and Bohr

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, 1925

He spent the latter half of his career challenging Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Niels Bohr’s probabilistic model of the atom, frequently reiterating various versions of “God does not play dice with the universe.” Far from dramatically abandoning his discoveries, his letter to Born about wanting to be a cobbler or gaming-house employee was a rhetorical position that demanded the falsity of quantum theory in order for physics to retain Einstein’s allegiance. He remained loyal to his deterministic vision throughout his life, ironically displaying a reluctance to change his own mode of thinking.

The closest approximation I could find to any wish on Einstein’s part to revise his past because of the bomb didn’t invoke any other profession at all. In 1939, Einstein had co-authored a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, warning him that a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium could be made into an extremely powerful bomb, and that German scientists might be pursuing such a bomb. The letter suggested that Roosevelt may want to have “some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America.” Roosevelt agreed, and the result was the Manhattan Project.

After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the conclusion of World War II, Einstein was horrified by the moral dimensions of the bomb. Due to his letter to Roosevelt and his E=mc2 equation demonstrating the relationship between mass and energy, the popular press tagged Einstein as “father of the bomb”, though he’d done none of the technological work necessary to bring it to fruition. He was deeply uncomfortable with this label, lamenting the Roosevelt letter in a 1947 Newsweek article: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Again, this quote does not in the slightest shy away from a career in physics, let alone yearn for one in watchmaking. Instead, his sense of regret spurred his quest for a world government. Meanwhile Truman, that leader so beloved by Rorschach, dropped the bomb “with little high-level debate.” (Ibid, pg. 484)

Pieces of Time

So okay, Einstein didn’t really say what Watchmen says he said. But Chapter 4 focuses on Doctor Manhattan, and even choosing Einstein as the figure for the epigraph, regardless of the accuracy of the words, feels like a rich connection. What light can Einstein shed on the good Doctor?

Well, for one thing, their personalities have some attributes in common. Einstein was rebellious where Jon is passive, but they shared a similar difficulty in dealing with humans, especially in Einstein’s childhood. Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson wrote, “To use the language of psychologists, the young Einstein’s ability to systemize (identify the laws that govern a system) was far greater than his ability to empathize (sense and care about what other humans are feeling).” (Ibid., pg. 12) This doesn’t necessarily mean that he was “on the spectrum” as we say now (though some have certainly argued that case) — in fact he became very socially skilled in his adulthood. But human beings did pose more of a puzzle for him throughout his life than other natural phenomena — he knew how everything in this world fits together except people.

Perhaps related to this sense of remove, Einstein seemed to share with Dr. Manhattan a certain indifference to death. Here’s a quote from his letter of condolence to the family of his dear friend Michele Besso:

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. (The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, pg. 113)

Not only does his quote (to a grieving family!) veer rather close to “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles” territory, he also seems to echo Doctor Manhattan’s insistence that linear time is an illusion.

Chapter 1, page 21, panel 3 of Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan says, "A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there's no discernible difference. life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?"

From here, it’s probably worth a step or two into the theory of relativity, a theory that has some rather surprising implications for the Watchmen universe. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, and I’d welcome any corrections, but based on my understanding, the first piece of this theory that Einstein worked out, leading to his landmark paper on special relativity in 1905, was a realization about time. In the Newtonian model of the 19th century and prior, time exists in a pure form, detached from observation — Newton wrote in his Principia, “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.”

Einstein, however, asserted that time is not absolute, but rather localized to each individual observer, with no way to determine what observation is “correct”. What seems simultaneous to one observer may not be so to another, and those observations depend upon the observer’s position and movement through space, thus revealing time and space as dimensions of the same fundamental fabric.

Now, consider that realization in light of a universe in which one tall blue observer experiences all occurrences as simultaneous, independent of his relationship to space. Does this disrupt the relativistic model? Jon certainly seems to think so. In his frustration at how humans insist on on seeing the “intricately structured jewel” of time edge by edge, he strongly implies that his viewpoint is the correct one, whereas in a relativistic model, he might see that his experience of time is no more or less true than Laurie’s. The notion of time as an “intricately structured jewel” rather than a quality woven together with space seems to me somehow even more Newtonian than time as “absolute, true, and mathematical.” One wonders if Jon is mistaking his own observations for fact, just as Newton did before he was upended by Einstein.

But while Jon’s experience of a whole and “true” time may seem Newtonian, the idea that all of it is predetermined actually fits quite well into Einstein’s worldview. In a 1929 interview, Einstein stated plainly: “I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will.” In this way, his viewpoint comports well with Dr. Manhattan’s experience of reality. As Isaacson explains, “Einstein… believed, as did Spinoza, that a person’s actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet, or star.” (Ibid, pg. 391) For Einstein, everything was governed by natural laws, including humans. It must have been enticing to believe that if he could only discover the full truth of those laws, the future would be laid out before him, just as it is for Doctor Manhattan.

Spooky Action At A Distance

This is why Einstein was so deeply discomfited by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that, “an electron does not have a definite position or path until we observe it… It asserts that there is no objective reality — not even objective position of a particle — outside of our observations.” (Again, summarized by Isaacson, pg. 331-32) This assertion undermined the strict causality in which Einstein believed, and further fueled the arguments he had been having with Bohr about the structure of the atom and, by a web of interconnections, about the fundamental nature of reality itself. Bohr’s theories and observations seemed to argue against the existence of laws that determined a strict system of causation, and therefore against the existence of an objective reality, and certainly against Einstein’s determinism.

It would seem a question more for philosophers than physicists, but the quantum theory of Bohr and Heisenberg stood against Einstein’s notions of invariance to pose the fundamental query, “Is everything in the universe predetermined?” In the Watchmen universe, at least as experienced by Doctor Manhattan, the answer would seem to be: yes! It would have to be, in order for the Doctor to perceive time as all one piece. Einstein insists that God does not play dice, and Dr. Manhattan’s experience proves him right. But in fact, it appears that in our universe, he is wrong. In our universe, Bohr’s rejoinder is relevant: that it is not for us to tell God how to run his creation.

Einstein refused to accept quantum mechanical theory throughout his life, asserting that at best it is incomplete — he steadfastly refused to believe in the “spooky action at a distance” its tenets seemed to require. Consequently, he devoted much of his brilliance in the latter half of his career to devising thought experiments that could undermine the foundations of quantum physics. He co-published one of the most effective of these with Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky, and it became known as the EPR paradox, after the initials of its authors’ last names.

Diagram of the EPR paradox

An illustration of the EPR paradox, in which Alice and Bob are two separate observers.

Put simply, the argument asks us to consider two particles that have collided or been emitted from the same source, and whose properties are thus correlated. Quantum theory states that until these particles are observed, their position and momentum exist in multiple states at once. But once we observe the first particle, we know something about the second due to their correlation, without ever having observed the second. For Einstein, this meant that the second particle has a reality of its own which exists independent of its observation — otherwise the first particle would have to somehow communicate with the second particle faster than the speed of light, which would violate the theory of relativity.

Bohr responded by introducing the concept of quantum entanglement. Because the particles have affected each other, they are “entangled” despite their distance from each other, and thus part of the same system. To deal further with the EPR paradox, some quantum theorists introduced the notion of branching alternate histories. Isaacson:

In the case of the EPR thought experiment, the position of one of the two particles is measured on one branch of history. Because of the common origin of the particles, the position of the other one is determined as well. On a different branch of history, the momentum of one of the particles may be measured, and the momentum of the other one is also determined. On each branch nothing occurs that violates the laws of classical physics. The information about one particle implies the corresponding information about the other one, but nothing happens to the second particle as a result of the measurement of the first one. So there is no threat to special relativity and its prohibition of instantaneous transmission of information. What is special about quantum mechanics is that the simultaneous determination of the position and the momentum of a particle is impossible, so if these two determinations occur, it must be on different branches of history.(pg. 460)

Thus histories branch out from each other based on the “decisions” made by particles of their direction & speed. This “decoherent histories” view is fundamentally antithetical to Einstein’s determinism, and to Dr. Manhattan’s experience of time as a single coherent block. Yet the Doctor is no stranger to submatomic physics, locating gluinos & being muddled by tachyons. How can we reconcile his subatomic awareness with his encompassing knowledge of the future, which seems fundamentally hostile to the notion of probabilities and uncertainties?

Are alternate histories a way out? Perhaps what the Doctor thinks of as his single jewel of perceived time is only one of an infinite array of such jewels? I think this line of reasoning shuts down rather quickly. Doctor Manhattan doesn’t just know or predict the future — Chapter 4 demonstrates clearly that he experiences the future even as he experiences what the rest of us would call the present and the past, all simultaneously. If there were any uncertainty involved, he’d be experiencing a range of possible futures all at once, not just one. His experience still stands with the theories of Einstein, shutting down those of Bohr.

Schrödinger’s Future

But wait. We may be able to reconcile these two seemingly antagonistic theories through the work of one more quantum physicist: Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger, like Einstein, had his doubts about the prevailing interpretations of quantum theory, and also like Einstein, loved a good thought experiment. In fact, his most famous thought experiment by far was directly influenced by Einstein, both his work and Schrödinger’s discussions with him. I’m referring of course to the unfortunate feline known as Schrödinger’s cat.

A brief summary: Schrödinger posited a cat inside a closed, opaque box, in which there is a tiny amount of a radioactive substance, one which has a 50% chance of decaying in the course of an hour. If the substance decays, it emits a particle which causes the cat to be poisoned. If it doesn’t, the cat is safe. The prevailing quantum theory of the time (called the Copenhagen interpretation) asserts that the particle’s behavior is governed by a probability waveform until such time as its behavior is observed, at which point the waveform collapses into an observed behavior which conforms to classical mechanics. Thus, until the box is opened, the cat is (according to the Copenhagen interpretation) both alive and dead at the same time.

A photo of a cat in a box, with superimposed text: "In Ur Quantum Box... Maybe"

For us humans, the future is rather like that closed box — indeterminate and existing in a variety of possible states at once, until we observe what actually occurs. As it becomes the present and then instantly the past, its waveform collapses into a single, clear reality. Up until November 22, 1959, that’s what the future was like in the Watchmen universe too. But on that day, Jon Osterman reassembled his components in the correct sequence, and became the fully fleshed Doctor Manhattan for the first time. On that day, he became aware of all times simultaneously, experiencing them as a coherent whole. On that day, he opened the box.

Might it be the case that Jon’s incarnation as Doctor Manhattan is the event that collapsed the waveform of the future into a single reality? And if so, knowing that his powers also allow him to control that reality down to its smallest particle, what part might his consciousness have played in the shape that future took? In becoming unmoored from linear time, could his sudden awareness of the future have created that future? At the end of the book, Jon decides he’s going to go to some less complicated galaxy and create some human life. But what if he already has?

All the living and dead cats and other beings of Watchmen snapped into a single observed reality in that one November moment. What influence Jon had over them, it’s obviously impossible to say. He was an oddly passive 20th century man, a frustrated watchmaker and a reluctant physicist. The course of his life was forcibly altered by his father, based on the existence of the atomic bomb. He had recently experienced the profound trauma of having his body dismantled down to the atomic level, then putting it back together for himself. If he decided the future, might it look like a confused horrorshow that somehow does stop the bombs from falling? Perhaps it might.

But if Jon truly is the observer of the open box of time, there are some things we’re hard pressed to explain given the evidence of the text. There are several times we witness limits to Jon’s understanding, superior though it may be to any human’s. What are we to make of his drive to search out particles and add them to the bestiary? Surely if he’s aware of every infinitesimal piece of reality, he’d already know where all the gluinos are, wouldn’t he? So there must be a frontier of his awareness at the subatomic level. Furthermore, his awareness of the single jewel of time must be incomplete if he can be muddled by tachyons, right? There must be parts of the future whose waveform is still intact, still within that closed box, shielded even from his sight.

This is the level at which Watchmen itself begins to decohere. For all its astonishing structural integrity, the early issues of the book were released before the final ones had been written. Moore himself has affirmed on numerous occasions his surprise at some of the deeper levels that he and Gibbons found themselves reaching as the creation continued. Thus are inconsistencies introduced, and although Moore and Gibbons do a marvelous job of spackling most of the cracks, they don’t get them all. If Watchmen were a true “graphic novel” — created as a single whole and released as such — rather than a Dickensian serial collage, perhaps we wouldn’t bump into these logical problems with Doctor Manhattan.

In the world of comics, we call these continuity problems — the way something established in an early issue grates against something in a later one. People loved to write into Marvel and point them out, and Marvel decided to give those people a little award made of words only, literally called a “no-prize”. Then they got even cleverer, crowdsourcing solutions to these problems by saying that they’d only give no-prizes to those readers who not only find the problems but find an explanation to solve them.

So let me take my own shot at a Watchmen no-prize, with this suggestion about Doctor Manhattan. On the day he becomes himself, he experiences all his times at once, and perceives himself as knowing how he’d act in all of those times, and how others would too. But his understanding is more limited than he knows it is, and his freedom less limited than he believes. He could in fact choose to behave differently than he experiences himself doing, but if he did, he wouldn’t be Jon Osterman anymore, the man whose moves are all made by other people. His fate isn’t pre-determined, but rather calculated on a scale that is precise but not infinitely precise. He is still vulnerable to thermodynamic miracles he wasn’t expecting.

Next entry: The Morality of My Activities
Previous entry: Part Of The Legend

A Crack In The Shell cover image - a chick hatching among eggs

A Crack In The Shell

It’s January 1, and that means it’s time for another year-end 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 2020 (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.

As terrible a year as 2020 was, I spent much of it feeling pretty lucky. My job was able to smoothly transition into working safely at home, and I never felt the economic threat that hit so many people. (Laura’s job wasn’t quite so smooth, but she still has it at least.) I love the people I live with, and even after being in close proximity for much more time than usual, we still have a great time together. Our house has enough space for each of us to do our thing remotely if that’s needed.

Also, I’m so grateful that Dante is in high school, and therefore can pretty much self-manage everything he needs to do while we’re working. My colleagues and friends who have young children at home have it much rougher. For that matter, I’m grateful that school and work can even happen remotely. It’s hard to imagine how much more disruptive a pandemic like this would have been in pre-Internet days. I’m even able to virtually get together with friends for things like trivia, board games, and the occasional celebration, thanks to the Jetsons technology we all have now.

Still, god, what a year. As good as we have it, I defintely felt my share of disruptions, and one of those was in my life with music. The Album Assignments project went on pause, as Robby took on the daunting task of educating 5th graders remotely and I transitioned into a very different way of working. In the course of that transition, I found myself listening to music much less than I had before. My previous time with music was mostly spent on my commute, which evaporated after COVID-19 hit. I also worked a lot with music on, but that dried up too as I acclimated to working from home, with other people around.

Finally, sometime in June, it hit me that I was desperately missing music, and I made some changes. While I still listen to podcasts on my walks, I switched over to music while doing the dishes, cooking, and other household chores. I figured out ways to integrate it back into my work life, and I made it a part of the time I spent with Dante, including an awesome music trivia habit where we quiz each other on our favorite musical canons so that we can each learn from the other. (His are all instrumental videogame music, definitely not a strong genre for me.) We also found ourselves doing a lot of text adventures and board games (physical and virtual) together, activities which lend themselves to background music.

In any case, when it came time to make this mix, I was picking from a much shorter list than usual. Nevertheless, I’m very happy with how it came out. Here are some musical highlights from a pretty tough year.

1. Jonathan Coulton – Pictures Of Cats
How 2020 are these opening lines? “All at once, it fills up my feed / More bad news that I didn’t need / I can’t stop reading but I wish that I didn’t know.” I had that experience over and over this year, and definitely ended up doomscrolling through Twitter plenty of times when I should have just switched over to looking at pictures of cats. Strangely, I listened to this song before the full 2020 of it all hit the world, but when I reviewed the list, I knew there was no better song to kick off this mix.

2. Aimee Mann feat. James Mercer – Living A Lie
Like almost all of these tracks, this one was written prior to 2020, and in fact came out before the Trump era. And I don’t think it was ever intended politically — it’s about a relationship — but I felt like it perfectly captured a mood this year. When you’re stuck with a frantic liar, you have no choice but to live inside a lie. That was never more clear than in 2020, when the President’s relentless need for self-aggrandizement and seeking short-term advantage had him undermining and upending every single institution that any of the rest of us could trust. It got to the point where we couldn’t even be sure our own Centers For Disease Control were able to provide us reliable information. Often it felt like all we could do is wait for a crack in the shell. Thank god one came at the end of the year.

3. Richard Thompson – Keep Your Distance
I listened to a fair amount of Richard Thompson (and Linda too) toward the beginning of the year, so I wanted to include a song of his in this mix. When I looked over the list, the words “Keep Your Distance” jumped out at me. Once again, this is meant in the relationship sense, but “keep your distance” is so 2020! This was the year that simple trips to the grocery store felt like foraging expeditions into deadly territory, not helped by the wingnut contingent who wear their masks under their noses or not at all, because freedom or whatever. Keep your distance, wingnuts! (And sadly, everyone else too.)

4. Frank Sinatra – Mood Indigo
This was from one of the few 2020 album assignments, Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours. (Well, actually the tail end of 2019, but my listening year goes November-October, so it’s 2020 to me.) This was a concept album of sadness, and Sinatra’s smooth reading of this wonderful, melancholy Duke Ellington tune felt like a good summation of the story so far. Also, “Indigo” was particularly important this year, but more about that later.

5. Aretha Franklin – Chain Of Fools (unedited version)
And here’s the turn. I vividly remember waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store when this version of “Chain Of Fools” came into my ears. I’d never heard it before — it came up on Spotify or something. The slow, soulful intro — “the sound of pain” — suddenly bursting into “chain chain chain”… BLEW MY MIND. I’ve always loved the single version of this song, and having it set up like this made little fireworks of joy go off in my head. When I finally figured out in June that I needed to bring more music back in, Aretha’s Lady Soul was the album I started with, and it worked perfectly. I will never forget giddily dancing around the kitchen to these songs, like some kind of solo remake of The Big Chill, blissfully losing everything else in music and simple tasks.

6. Prince – Little Red Corvette
Lady Soul was the first album that brought music definitively back into my life. The Very Best Of Prince was the second. Prince hit big in the early ’80s, ages 12-14 for me, and I didn’t know how to process him. I think he scared me, honestly. I had friends who were fans, but all that sexuality, androgyny, and funk — I couldn’t deal with it. I pushed it away. This year, I invited it back in, and found that I love it now. Like a lot of parties, I’m very late to it, but having a great time now that I’m here.

7. Stevie Nicks – Stand Back
Anytime I hear “Little Red Corvette”, I’m pretty much always going to think of “Stand Back.” That’s because Stevie has a story she’s told many times, of driving on the highway towards her honeymoon of a short-lived, ill-advised marriage, pretty much the opposite of “a love that’s gonna last.” When “Little Red Corvette” came on the radio, she was inspired. She found a tape recorder, and composed her own song on top of Prince’s. Then, when recording “Stand Back”, she found the courage to call him and tell him this story, and in response he showed up and played the synth riff on it. “Stand Back” is the love child of ’80s chiffon royalty’s king and queen.

8. Stevie Nicks – Crying In The Night (live 2017)
You can hear that story, and many others, in Stevie’s concert film from her 24 Karat Gold tour. Despite the pandemic, I found my way to a movie theater twice this year. Once was for The New Mutants, a superhero movie that features my favorite Marvel character of all time, a Scottish mutant codenamed Wolfsbane. Having loved this character since I was 12, there was simply no way that I was going to miss seeing her played by Maisie Williams on the big screen. The movie had plenty of flaws, but it got Wolfsbane right, and for that I will always love it.

The other movie I showed up for was Stevie’s aforementioned concert film. It’s a filmed version of what I called “the Stevie Nicks show I’d been awaiting for 30 years.” In it, she told lots of stories like the one above — seriously, the movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes, and I think about 30 minutes of it is storytelling. She also sang songs she’d NEVER sung before in concert, including this one from the Buckingham Nicks album. That album isn’t even available on CD! What a thrill it was to hear her sing it in concert, and the movie brought back that thrill. Totally worth braving the virus.

9. Prince – Kiss
The next couple songs are just more sweet memories of my “soul kitchen” moments this year. “Kiss” is a super fun song on its own, and I can’t help hearing it in my mind juxtaposed with the version that The Art Of Noise recorded featuring Tom Jones. I thought about including that version in this mix, but after I went back and listened to it, I found that Prince outstripped it so dramatically that its inclusion could only feel disappointing after the real thing.

10. Aretha Franklin – (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone
There’s not a lot to say about this one, except that it’s another standout moment from Lady Soul. My thick socks sliding around on our wooden kitchen floor, with this song playing in earbuds, led to great moments of happiness this year.

11. clipping. – All Black
Conversely, there is a lot to say about this one. First, some explanation of who this band is. The vocalist is Daveed Diggs, who has a bunch of credits, all of which are far overshadowed by the fact that he originated the roles of Jefferson and Lafayette in the Broadway production of Hamilton. clipping. is an experimental hip-hop trio in which Diggs joins producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes. Their album Splendor & Misery was the last album assignment I wrote, posted just a few days before everybody went home and stayed there. Listening to it now, the music feels shockingly prophetic of what was to come. First of all, most of the story on the album is about a guy who is alone in space, first captured and then in control, but exiled from the world he knew. There have been plenty of times this year where I felt like I was in a space capsule, well-furnished and supplied with plenty of entertainment, but orbiting Earth rather than on it.

Secondly, the album and in particular this song is centrally concerned with Blackness and oppression. As it turned out, so was the summer of 2020. I wrote about this in the album post, how “all black everything” partakes of many layers of meaning, including as an allusion to other hip-hop songs that take it as a declaration of pride and strength. Those two images together — all black everything but isolated from everywhere — bundled up a lot of 2020 for me.

12. Jonathan Coulton – All This Time
Here’s another sci-fi song, albeit one in a vastly different musical mode. “All This Time” is from Coulton’s album Solid State, which I listened to a lot early in the year. It’s a wonderful album of thoughtful power pop about surveillance, technology, and love, and this is one of the standout songs. However, my attachment to this song in this year was more about its video than the song itself. That video was in the form of a text adventure — it’s by far the best text-adventure-themed video ever made, no disrespect to MC Frontalot’s “It Is Pitch Dark”.

That fits this year perfectly, because this was the year I jumped back into my passion for interactive fiction. Part of that was creating a new blog to house the many IF reviews that live on my old web page, and another big part of it was revisiting many games from the Infocom canon, but this time with Dante guiding the play. Together we replayed (or in his case, played for the first time) all the Zork and Enchanter games, and had a fantastic time doing it. I may write about it in the new blog at some point, but even if I don’t, I’ll treasure that experience. This year, many things were taken away in exchange for all this newfound time, and sometimes we made the most of it.

13. Genesis – No Reply At All
Some of those losses, though, had a really negative effect on me. Here’s one that I didn’t expect, until I understood how much I counted on what I didn’t have anymore. I found myself dealing with a pretty shocking (for me) level of insecurity this year. Uncharacteristically, I found myself frequently fretting about my relationships with pretty much everybody who doesn’t live with me, especially co-workers. Absences of replies, or even delays, had me worrying I’d somehow done something to upset whoever my anxious mind chose to focus on. It turns out that I really depend on mundane social interactions at work to provide a normalizing effect that reassures my brain that everything is okay. Take those away, and throw in a round of really stressful and destabilizing layoffs, and suddenly I become Anxious Guy.

By the way, I absolutely adore the bridge to this song. (The part that starts “Maybe deep down inside…”) I find bridges fascinating in general, the way they’re like a miniature new and different song inside the bigger song, and this one just really grabs me.

14. Adele – Cold Shoulder
Continuing the insecurity theme, this felt like the right Adele song to pick for my 2020. It’s not even that people were giving me the cold shoulder. (I don’t THINK?!? :P) I just spent way too much time worried about it. I’m still working on coping with that one.

15. Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth
What is all this anyway? It’s paranoia, that’s what. So here’s “For What It’s Worth”, the best song I know about paranoia. On the personal level, my paranoia strikes deep, but isn’t really justified. On the larger cultural level, I’m not so sure. There’s the erosion of trust I talked about in #2. There’s the general bone-chill about how much support there still is for the lying, bullshitting, racist, bullying Toddler-In-Chief and the party that bent its knee to his every whim. As Bruce Springsteen said in a recent interview, “Overall, as somebody who was a born populist, I’ve got a little less faith in my neighbors than I had four years ago.” And then, of course, there are the police.

The comparison that keeps coming to my mind, that I haven’t heard anyone else make yet, is to the Catholic church. Both the church and the police in America are these institutions that many of us (at least, the “us” at less danger of victimization) grow up seeing as helpful, honorable, and virtuous. In both cases, there are some fundamental problems with the concept and structure of the institution itself, but they also perform a great deal of good in the world. In both cases, becoming part of the priesthood or fraternity requires an amount of self-sacrifice that is reflexively seen as noble, but that carries within it seeds that can bloom into full-blown evil.

In the movie Spotlight, but there’s a moment in it that has always stuck with me. The team of reporters is just figuring out the scope of the abuse that has happened in the Boston diocese, and they’re on the phone with a researcher (a former priest and current psychotherapist) who has spent years gathering data about it. The researcher says “Look, the church wants us to believe that it’s a few bad apples, but it’s a much bigger problem than that.” How much bigger? “Well, based on the research, I would classify it as a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon.”

That’s big. I think something similar is at work with cops, race, and violence. In both cases, the evil behavior (I don’t think there’s any reasonable way out of that descriptor) is so shocking and repugnant when it comes to light that it permanently cracks my ability to ever trust that institution again. But even worse than that, in both cases, the institution does absolutely everything it possibly can to ensure that the perpetrators of that evil escape detection and escape the consequences. Over, and over, and over again, to the tune of thousands of cases. Thousands of innocent victims raped, molested, traumatized, killed. How in the hell is anybody supposed to trust them after that? In both cases, for me, that combination taints the institution so thoroughly that I don’t think it can be redeemed. We have to demolish it and start over with something fundamentally different.

Now, I know there’s about as much chance of doing that with the police as there is with the church. But I believe that there’s a version of it that could be as much a godsend to the police as to marginalized communities. What if we had another kind of first responder, someone trained to deal with issues of mental illness and addiction? After all, we don’t send police to fires. We don’t send them to epileptic seizures. We don’t expect a single kind of responder to have to deal with everything. What if we saved the police for, y’know, CRIME, and created a new role to take over some of the stuff we’re currently asking armed, uniformed officers of the state to take on, despite the fact that they’re trained much more for situations that require force, and therefore tend to bring it to situations that don’t when they’re sent there?

Okay, that was a long digression, wasn’t it? Anyway, great song, right? Moving on.

16. Indigo Girls – Pendulum Swinger
Amy and Emily were crucial to Laura and I this year. For a while there, as Look Long was getting ready to come out, they were doing weekly or near-weekly livestreams, and for each one we would joyfully gather ’round the screen, find a way to turn up the music, and feel like we were hanging out with old friends. The one they did where they were “playing for tips” to raise money for their crew, was an utter high point for me. Hearing them play stuff I’d never heard them do before — Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, Elton John’s “Love Song” and “Holiday Inn” — OMG it was so wonderful.

They featured this one in their “parking lot” concert in October, with Emily introducing it as just, “This is a song about change.” It felt like a little prayer, or a little wish that came true.

17. Amy Ray – Tear It Down
This was another special moment from that concert. I love how Amy here grapples with how she genuinely loves where she grew up and the traditions that shaped her, while still unshakably rejecting the racism and hate that is inextricably interwoven with that past. The studio version is a little sweeter and more subdued, but her solo acoustic live performance of it was just electrifying.

18. Mudcrutch – I Forgive It All
The Mudcrutch albums are hidden gems in Tom Petty’s catalog, and this one in particular is special, because it’s the last studio recording that Petty did before his death. For this mix, the Indigo Girls lift me out of fear and paranoia, into hope and resolution. Petty provides the final piece: forgiveness.

19. Stevie Nicks – Show Them The Way
Hope, resolution, and forgiveness all blend into Stevie’s 2020 song. Besides “All This Time”, this is the other song in this mix that I strongly associate with its video. That video, directed by Cameron Crowe, blends black and white footage from the 1960s into black and white footage from 2020 and points in between, drawing a clear line from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. And over it all, Stevie prays for all of us to find our way to a better future. Invoking the icons of 60s dreams — JFK, RFK, MLK — she tries to dream us back to ourselves. And Crowe, piling powerful images on top of each other with increasing urgency, ends with a simple message: “Vote”. In October of 2020, it felt like exactly the magic we needed.

20. Prince – 1999
When it came out, this song was about an apocalyptic future. Listening to it now, it feels like Prince was only 20 years off with the “party over, oops, out of time” description, and 1999 sounds like a pretty good place to be. The mood of it is of jubilation even through devastation, and I think we could use a little of that. Here’s to a brighter 2021.

Cover to DC's Watchmen Companion

The Watchmen Bestiary 31 – Part Of The Legend

[GM Note: There are spoilers in this article for Watchmen and the Watchmen-related materials produced for Mayfair Games, as well as HBO’s Watchmen series. Readers who don’t know this material and encounter these spoilers must make an INT action check against an OV/RV of 9/9 with a two column shift penalty or suffer 5 APs of disappointment.]

In 1972, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had an idea. What if you took the rules and mechanics of the board wargames they both loved, and adapted them so that players would control not only pieces, but actual characters in a story? The result was a new beast, a “role-playing game” (RPG) called Dungeons & Dragons, which gestated slowly throughout the 1970s and by 1980 blossomed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. In 1982, D&D even showed up in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, still one of the most successful movies of all time.

So of course, as the Eighties rolled on, everybody wanted a piece of that sweet D&D action. Sure, the trailblazing game was set in a fantasy milieu, but no doubt there would be lots of other fun genres in which RPGs could romp, right? D&D‘s publisher TSR Hobbies was already on that train, producing Top Secret (a spy RPG), Gangbusters (1920s crime), Star Frontiers (sci-fi), and Boot Hill (western), among many others. Superheroes were ripe for development, but unlike the aforementioned genres, they were more dependent on character than on setting, and the dominant sets of character IP were owned by the Big Two comic book companies, DC and Marvel.

TSR solved this problem in 1984 by acquiring the Marvel license and producing the Marvel Super Heroes RPG. But they could hardly play both sides of the field, so that left DC to partner with one of TSR’s many competitors. They found a match in Mayfair Games, which had started out publishing railroad-building boardgames, but ventured into the RPG craze with Role Aids, a line of adventure modules and supplements advertised as compatible with D&D. (Not surprisingly, this marketing tactic later got them into legal hot water with TSR. At least they never got sued by Rolaids.)

Be Part Of The Legend!

Thus it was that in 1985, Mayfair released the DC Heroes role-playing game. That game’s tag line was “Be Part Of The Legend!”, and its cover (gorgeously drawn by George Pérez) featured some marquee Justice League heroes along with the New Teen Titans — DC’s hottest team at that time — battling a legion of villains.

Cover of the DC Heroes RPG, first edition

This game faced a daunting design challenge, because some of that era’s DC characters were ludicrously powerful — for instance, Superman once destroyed a solar system by sneezing. How to represent such off-the-charts power alongside guys like Batman, who was essentially a peak athlete with wonderful toys? Designer Greg Gorden ingeniously married these extremes by introducing a logarithmic scale for game stats. Everything in the game gets measured in Attribute Points (AP), and every attribute point is worth twice as much as the one before it. As the manual explains, “Therefore, a DC Hero with a Strength of 6 is twice as strong as a DC Hero with a Strength of 5.”

So Batman has a strength of 5 (roughly 8 times stronger than an average human), while Superman has a strength of 50 (roughly 18 trillion times stronger than Batman). The two of them can exist on the same scale without having stats that are so long they run off the page. Of course, that mind-boggling gap also points out some of the structural problems of the DCU in those days — many of its heroes were so staggeringly powerful that it was almost impossible to place them in dramatic jeopardy. DC would attempt to solve those problems with its Crisis On Infinite Earths, a universal reboot that set DC characters back to more reasonable power levels. In the 1989 second edition of the game, Superman’s strength was down to 25, a mere 16-million-fold increase over Batman. Well, a little more reasonable anyway.

Crisis was also a 1985 event, a 12-issue “maxi-series” that ran from April 1985 to March 1986. In fact, the DC Heroes RPG got released right in the middle of the series, which put Gorden in an awkward position. Mayfair couldn’t wait a year for the series to complete — they needed to get their game out in time for the ’85 Christmas season — but releasing before Crisis was over meant that some of the game’s information would be drastically wrong almost immediately. In fact, Gorden had to include a section in his (charming) designer’s notes entitled “What about Crisis On Infinite Earths?”, which explained that he was bound not to include details in the game that would spoil developments in Crisis, some of which DC hadn’t decided yet anyway! Nevertheless, he assured us that he’d been working extensively with DC editorial, and that “The information in the game, concerning characters and places and events, are compatible with my latest information as to how things will be when Crisis is over…” mostly.

The yearlong story arc of Crisis wasn’t the only thing making DC Heroes‘ timing awkward. It also came out just before two other epochal publications that would change the tone of comics for years to come: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and another little series called Watchmen. Mayfair had followed up DC Heroes, as any good RPG publisher would, with a blizzard of supplements — adventure modules, sourcebooks, atlases, and so forth. How could they incorporate these radical new visions into the game’s generally sunny tone?

Well, Miller’s Batman was grizzled and futuristic, but he was still Batman, and could be addressed as a kind of “imaginary story” scenario. The Watchmen characters and their universe, though, were brand new, and would have to be statted up in new publications. Mayfair took three shots at this:

  • Who Watches The Watchmen?, a 1987 module by Dan Greenberg — set in 1966 of Watchmen time,
  • Taking Out The Trash, another 1987 module, this one by Ray Winninger and set in Watchmen‘s 1968, and finally the
  • Watchmen Sourcebook, also by Winninger and containing loads of background information for the characters and their world.

In 2019, DC very helpfully — no doubt motivated by Watchmen‘s latest media juicing on HBO — collected all three of these artifacts into a volume they call the Watchmen Companion. (It also conveniently includes that issue of The Question that “guest-stars” Rorschach.)

The supplements have a fascinating history, especially considering the fact that Alan Moore actively collaborated with their authors. This was before his contract disputes with DC, and obviously well before his current vituperation of all things superheroic. Back in the Mayfair days, he was just another DC creator, excited about the possibilities of exploring his fictional universe. Dave Gibbons also participated, contributing original art to the modules.

Cover to DC's Watchmen Companion

It’s worth noting that Moore and Gibbons’ participation makes these RPG materials the only extensions of Watchmen ever created that could reasonably lay claim to any kind of “canonical” status. Greenberg rejects this notion, saying, “Only the Watchmen series itself is canon. My game is only an adaptation — reflected light and not the source.” Similarly, Winninger considers his work “a little footnote in the Watchmen story.”

Ultimately, I think the question of this material’s canonicity is kind of a silly one. Did these stories “really happen” in the Watchmen universe? Are they “really” part of the legend, or aren’t they? Well, does it matter? Would it change anything about the series if they are, or aren’t? As Moore writes in his script for the 1986 final issue of Superman Volume One, “This is an IMAGINARY STORY… aren’t they all?”

Who Plays The Watchmen?

In any case, RPG modules aren’t really stories, but rather frameworks within which a variety of stories could take place. For Greenberg’s module, that meant exploring what might have happened after the failed attempt by Captain Metropolis (aka Nelson Gardner) to create the “Crimebusters” with the book’s six main characters in 1966. The module’s story picks up immediately after this meeting, with Nelly scheming a way to persuade the heroes over to his side.

Echoing the plot of Watchmen itself, Captain Metropolis decides that his would-be Crimebusters must have a common enemy to confront. He disguises himself as a mysterious underworld boss called only “M” (thus rather ingeniously linking not only himself and Moloch, but also two Fritz Lang references), and hires underworld goons to arrange kidnappings of people close to each of the characters, such as Hollis Mason, Sally Jupiter, and even his own mother, Matilda. Still more nefariously, Gardner ties the kidnappings to a civil rights group known as the American Negro Alliance, thus focusing superheroic attention on all that “black unrest” he was so worried about at the meeting.

He calls the heroes together, and asks them to work as a team to help find all the missing victims, since the kidnappings seem to have targeted the not-really-Crimebusters as a group. What happens next? Well, that’s up to the players. Interactive narratives can allow the story to travel down a number of different possible roads. Depending on the range of interactivity available, the story may be more or less “on rails”, but in a tabletop RPG, players are generally offered a very wide range of action. So maybe the characters look into the kidnappings, or maybe they look into why Captain Metropolis is the one to bring them together, or maybe they decide to write the whole thing off and go on patrol, or go to Antarctica, or go back home. Heck, maybe they’re homemade heroes who aren’t even the characters from Watchmen at all.

The module assumes that they are the Watchmen characters (though not Dr. Manhattan, it should be noted), and that they do decide to investigate the kidnappings. It’s up to a Gamemaster (GM) to decide how much to rein the players’ choices into what the module covers. Assuming they do decide to chase down the clues, how much they find depends on their ideas and their dice rolls.

If the players and their dice rolls cooperate with the story’s framework, and/or a GM engineers events such that players proceed through the module as written, they’re likely to visit the offices of the American Negro Alliance, the apartment of an underworld figure called “Mole”, and/or a counterculture rally in Battery Park. The GM is encouraged to play Captain Metropolis as uptight, whiny, and racist — challenging ANA workers for being “uppity”, or complaining at the rally, “That isn’t music! It’s noise! And to think they are playing on the same stand the Air Force Band and the Singing Sergeants play on every Fourth of July. There is no justice.” Even if the players don’t suspect him, they’re sure to dislike him.

Cover of Dan Greenberg's "Who Watches The Watchmen" DC Heroes RPG module

Finally, they’ll be led to Moloch, who has indeed been funding more radical protest groups, since their activities draw the attention of the police, thus distracting the cops from Moloch himself. If defeated in battle, Moloch will (truthfully) deny any knowledge of the kidnappings, though, and Gardner will find a way to “discover” a note with information as to the whereabouts of the missing people. If the rescue goes well, the players may believe that Moloch was behind the whole thing. If it goes badly, Captain Metropolis may have to reveal his secret in order to keep his mother alive.

Do the heroes find out who’s been pulling their strings? Do they come together as the Crimebusters after all? Do they splinter again, no different than they were before the beginning of the module? How it goes will vary from one gaming group to the next, an ambiguous outcome which is not only in keeping with the spirit of RPGs, but of Watchmen itself. The last page of the game deliberately echoes the “I leave it entirely in your hands” last page of the book, in the section describing a confrontation with Gardner:

What the Players elect to do with Captain Metropolis is their matter. They could turn him over to the police, ostracize him from hero society, or they could view his act as a noble, if dangerous, one and consider maintaining their allegiances. The decision is theirs.

The Harlot’s Curse Taking Out The Trash

Winninger also cared very much about staying true to the spirit of Watchmen, a fact which shines through several different aspects of his module, Taking Out The Trash. For one thing, it tries to be just as atmospheric and reference-heavy as Watchmen itself. DC Heroes modules are broken up into “encounters” (scenes, more or less), and the title of every encounter in Taking Out The Trash references a pop song — “The Sound Of Silence”, “Sympathy For The Devil”, “I Am the Walrus”, and so forth. (Or at least, most of them do — I couldn’t find a clear referent for a couple.) Not only that, the GM is encouraged to open most scenes with either a snippet of Rorschach’s Journal or an excerpt from William Blake’s poem “London”. One of the main antagonist groups scrawls graffiti everywhere that quotes from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven And Hell. A literary quote accompanies each main character’s stat block and history, pulling in authors like Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Sir Phillip Sidney. You get the picture.

The module also uses a similar storytelling technique to the back matter in Watchmen issues, providing exposition and background via newspaper clippings, interview excerpts, or “found” documents like a letter to Adrian Veidt from his head of marketing. With a smile and a wink, this letter purports to accompany “the manuscript the guy from Chicago turned in for the second adventure in the ‘Ozymandias Role Playing Game.'” Winninger, let it be noted, got the call to write this second Watchmen module while still a student at Northwestern.

That “manuscript” includes a historical breakdown of the Watchmen world, with a writing credit shared between Winninger and Moore. Now, based on everything Winninger has said about the process of creating these supplements, I don’t believe that means that Moore actually produced any of this module’s text at his own typewriter. Rather, I suspect that Winninger (and Mayfair) provided him a co-writing credit because this section of the module was a summary of the work Moore had already produced — with some extra details added here and there. This is different from the rest of the module, which was much more original to Winninger — the Blake-quoting street gang didn’t come from Moore.

In fact, that gang is an example of how the module’s references aren’t always handled with Moore’s grace — they often feel troweled in, or just tacked on. Then again, as Winninger notes in his introduction to The Watchmen Companion, he was all of 20 years old when he wrote the thing, so fair enough. The form and content of the entire adventure represent a bold grasp at the kind of ambition that marks Watchmen throughout. That includes the plot, which finds the main characters at the 1968 Republican convention, working to prevent Moloch from assassinating Richard Nixon, and (if they succeed) thereby ensuring the beginning of the Nixon presidency that continues all the way into Watchmen‘s 1985.

Or, at least, that’s what Winninger intended. Mayfair unfortunately took an editorial machete to Winninger’s manuscript, derailing much of its historicity. He tells it best:

Mayfair editorial excised all its references to real people and places and replaced most of them with goofy parodies. Oliver North became “Findlay Setchfield South.” Max’s Kansas City became “Mex’s Indy City,” home of the “Velour Underground.” Nixon is known only as “the VP,” confusing readers. (Hubert Humphrey was Vice President in 1968; Nixon was VP a full 10 years earlier.)… Worst of all, the book was hastily retitled “Taking Out The Trash.” My title, “The Harlot’s Curse,” was pulled from the William Blake poem that serves as an epigraph to the story, following the template Alan established in naming each of Watchmen‘s 12 chapters.

Now, in fairness to Mayfair, when your market is likely the parents of adolescent boys, having the word “harlot” in your title probably represents an unreasonable risk. Nevertheless, all of Mayfair’s changes do have a significant negative impact on the module, and signify the struggle that they had with incorporating Moore and Gibbons’ dark vision into their world of Teen Titans and Justice League. The “Velour Underground” and “Findlay Setchfield South” feel very mainstream DC, a bit like Metropolis and Hub City.

Cover of Ray Winninger's Watchmen module "Taking Out The Trash" for the DC Heroes RPG

Mayfair editorial could have helped in the department of fact-checking and proofreading, but several prominent errors remain in the book. The overall plot summary (captioned “The Big Picture”) cuts off mid-sentence, about 70% of the way through. (This error wasn’t created by the The Watchmen Companion‘s reprint — it exists in the original module.) Rorschach gets called “Joseph Walter Kovacs”, when in fact his correct name is “Walter Joseph Kovacs.” The module refers to Hooded Justice throughout as “The Hooded Justice”, or sometimes just “The Justice.” Perhaps it’s a misnomer acquired via Eighties DC comics’ habit of saying “The Batman” rather than just “Batman”?

In any case, the story of the module follows the heroes’ discovery of a gang called the Bretheren (the Blake-obsessed criminals), who turn out to pose a threat to the convention, which in the Watchmen game universe takes place in New York rather than in Miami. An NYPD captain and a Secret Service honcho ask the heroes to provide security for the convention, and players can find a number of clues that help them track down the gang. After a climactic battle on the convention floor, successful players may discover that Moloch was directing the Bretheren’s attacks, in hopes that he could eliminate the competition for a candidate called Ken Shade, who had essentially “sold his soul” to Moloch’s organized crime network in order to pay gambling debts. They may also choose to take down the gang once and for all at its headquarters.

Strangely, there’s a subplot running through the module that involves only The Comedian. In these scenes, The Comedian follows “Findlay Setchfield South”‘s orders to eliminate a different rival to Nixon. I haven’t logged the world’s most RPG hours myself, but I’ve played my share, and the experience is almost always a group one. Having a GM play out a separate series of scenes with just one player, especially when those scenes are meant to be interleaved with the main action and kept secret from the other players, seems like it would require a pretty unusual gaming group dynamic. I wonder how many of the GMs who ran this module ended up just jettisoning the extra Comedian stuff entirely?

As always, there are plenty of ways for the story to end, depending on what directions the players chose and how well the dice cooperated with their intentions. In the module’s epilogue, which assumes that they’ve successfully foiled Moloch and The Bretheren, the characters watch on television as Nixon (or rather “The VP”) accepts his nomination, and then the GM reads out a final Blake quote, this one incorporating “the youthful Harlot’s Curse” and how it “blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” Even in success, players get a very downbeat ending, in keeping with the mood of Watchmen itself.

Back To The Source

The third Mayfair Watchmen publication isn’t an adventure at all, but what the game calls a sourcebook. Here’s their explanation:

A sourcebook contains game-related and background material on a certain subject relating to the DC Universe, most often a specific group of heroes, a certain location, or a special genre. GMs who prefer writing their own adventures will find sourcebooks especially helpful, since in addition to characters’ statistics, sourcebooks contain historical, organizational, and reference material about the sourcebook’s subject.

By 1990, when this book was published, Mayfair had produced plenty of sourcebooks — Batman, Superman, Doom Patrol, Justice League, Apokolips, et cetera. These books tended to be detailed breakdowns of the characters in question, plus articles about their gear, their headquarters, their supporting casts and rogue’s galleries, and so on. The Watchmen sourcebook took a different tack.

Rather than just writing article after article about Watchmen characters, Winninger took a page from Moore’s book (often literally) and provided background in the spirit of Watchmen‘s back matter — newspaper clippings, correspondence, psychiatric reports, ID cards, excerpts from Under The Hood and so on. I say he literally took a page because maybe 25% of the sourcebook is reprints of Moore’s back matter itself, often reformatted or parceled out into different pieces, but otherwise intact.

Some of the new material reinforces the book’s story (such as a newspaper clipping whose headline reads “Nite Owl breaks Rorschach out of Riker’s Island!”), but much of it builds on tiny hints in the book. For instance, we get full stats and descriptions for every villain or joke-villain that even gets a whisper of a mention in Watchmen — Captain Axis, Underboss, The Twilight Lady, The Screaming Skull, and so on — with a brief origin story, a “whatever happened to” section, and even the most famous crime pulled by each. The book has a full writeup of the “Owlcar” that Dan and Laurie walk by in his basement, complete with budget and possible issues (“Standard Tires are woefully inadequate. Tires must be armored against damage.”) There’s a floor plan of Minutemen headquarters.

Page 85 of the Watchmen sourcebook, which lists RPG details of the Owl's Nest and Owlcar

Winninger managed to throw in a few jokes himself. For instance, in the Rorschach section, we get a scrap of Rorschach’s journal proclaiming that he has “at least one ally here in the lair of the weak”: a taxi driver. It seems Rorschach was fleeing the police when a cab driver offered him a ride. “Told me I was his hero. Told me he was compelled to war against the sinners and the politicians and the false prophets as well.” Winninger’s insertion of Travis Bickle (obviously) into Rorschach’s backstory draws similar conclusions to what annotators would be arguing for in years to come.

He also took open questions from the text of Watchmen and closed them. For instance: who killed Ursula Zandt, the Silhouette? Hollis Mason in Watchmen only tells us that “she was murdered, along with her lover, by one of her former enemies.” Winninger names this enemy in Taking Out The Trash: it was apparently “the Liquidator.” The Sourcebook gives us a description of the Minutemen’s battle with this Liquidator, his hospital report after the battle (including his real name), and the section of her biography that details the murder scene.

In a similar fashion, Winninger nails down the identity of Hooded Justice, which brings us at long last to the Watchmen web annotations. In their endpages notes for Chapter 3, those annotations state:

Hooded Justice was likely killed by the Comedian. (If Mueller (sic) was Hooded Justice. There is no evidence for this anywhere in the comic; but the Mayfair Games DC Heroes Module, “Taking Out the Trash,” agrees with this assessment, in the section co-written by Moore.)

This note resolving Hooded Justice’s identity is ironic when it annotates a page where Hollis Mason writes, “Real life is messy, inconsistent, and it’s seldom when anything ever really gets resolved.” Mayfair’s Watchmen materials are messy at times, but they’re pretty consistent, and at least when it comes to the sourcebook, they resolve a lot. Hooded Justice’s section of that book has immigration documents for Müller’s parents, police reports of their domestic violence cases, a note from Rolf’s father leaving his mother, ads from his circus strongman career, newspaper clippings, the New Frontiersman smear on him, and more.

It’s wonderful stuff, full of story hooks for enterprising GMs, but from today’s vantage point, at least for someone who’s watched the Watchmen HBO series, its neat resolutions have acquired some competition. I couldn’t help reading all the Rolf Müller stuff with a sense of disappointment, because while that take on the Hooded Justice story is fine, I found Damon Lindelof’s alternate origin of Hooded Justice as Will Reeves to be orders of magnitude more compelling. Perhaps it’s because the Watchmen sourcebook is an invitation to creativity, but the HBO series is an outpouring of creativity, a response to Watchmen‘s questions that, like the original, constructs a crystalline and multi-layered story that works on a myriad of levels.

It’s difficult, maybe impossible, for an interactive narrative to meet that standard, and that’s one of the fundamental problems with trying to make any aspect of Watchmen interactive. The book is a self-contained universe, a precision timepiece whose pieces fit together exquisitely, allowing for no deviation. Where all the other DC books (with the possible exception of The Dark Knight Returns) just go on and on and on, Watchmen has a very clear stopping point, after which most of the characters are either erased or so radically changed that they’re basically starting from scratch.

Consequently, when Mayfair wanted to create interactive experiences in the Watchmen universe, they had to go back into the past — 1966 or 1968 in their two attempts. Of course, because Watchmen is only 12 issues, and only part of those detail the past, there’s not a large menu of options to choose from — hence both modules’ reliance on Moloch as a villain. Similarly, the sourcebook pours a lot of effort into detailing character histories, but by the time Watchmen ends, most of those histories have ended permanently. To play through any scenario that matters with them, you’d have to go back into the past.

An interior page from the "Who Watches The Watchmen" module, starting with the text, "Welcome to 1966. This is a more innocent time than the world of 1986..."

That’s what made Lindelof’s choice to go forward instead such a brilliant one. He was able to still make use of some of the book’s characters, but he accepted the challenge of starting anew. Could Angela Abar’s story play out in an RPG? I can’t say it’s impossible, because there’s a world full of creativity out there, but I think it’s fair to say that the structures of the story inherently resist interactivity, because the way they travel through time, the way they reveal themselves gradually, and the sense of inevitability around them, is just too precise.

Doctor Manhattan personifies this inevitability, which is why he’s quickly written out of both modules. Well, that’s not quite true. Greenberg’s module allows for the possibility that Dr. Manhattan could be a player character, one with knowledge of Captain Metropolis’ plan, but cautions:

It is vital, however, that the Player not act on this information and confront Captain Metropolis because, in his timeline, Dr. Manhattan did not confront Captain Metropolis in the past, is not confronting Captain Metropolis in the present, and will not confront him in the future. Dr. Manhattan is tied to his timeline, and while he knows the future, he cannot alter it.

But in this case, really, what’s the point of role-playing? Not only that, unlike the Dr. Manhattan of the text, it’s completely impossible for an RPG Manhattan to see all eras simultaneously, because he’s not in a text. In a book or show where every narrative turn is already worked out, such a character is like someone who’s already read or watched the whole thing. But an RPG is tied to time far differently – not even the GM knows how things will work out.

I would argue that Watchmen inherently resists expansion, and all the projects that have tried have all had to find ways to escape the original’s gravity. I haven’t explored them all, and I don’t plan to, but reading Mayfair’s material makes it clear to me that another self-contained dramatic effort has a much greater chance of success than an open-ended interactive one. RPGs, like William Burroughs’ cut-ups, explore the way randomness can drive narrative, but Watchmen leaves nothing to chance.

Next Entry: Time Pieces
Previous entry: Triangolo des Vigilantes

[Acknowledgements: In preparation for writing this post, I watched Vincent Florio’s video explanations of the DC Heroes game, lurked on the DC Heroes facebook group, listened to the Hero Points Podcast, and checked out the All-Star Games show on DC Universe. All of these resources were extremely useful for helping me understand the game as it’s played, and I’m grateful to everyone who had a hand in their creation!]

PSA: WordPress.com Deceptive Marketing

Those of you who have followed this blog over the years may have noticed that it had ads on it for a long time, and was at the address superverbose.wordpress.com. Then, last September, the ads went away and the address became just superverbose.com. Now the ads and the old address are back. Why? Well, there hangs a tale.

I started this blog in 2004 on LiveJournal. LJ was a great home for a long time, but in 2011-2012 it started to feel like it was falling apart. I got more and more of a feeling of impending doom… which I guess turned out to be wrong, because it’s still running and hosting the old version of this blog, but in any case I moved over to WordPress.com in 2012. I’m careful to call it WordPress.com because there is also a WordPress.org, and they are apparently two very different things. People have strong opinions about the differences between them.

Well, I’ve loved being on WordPress.com. It makes having a blog extremely easy, it handles all the hosting stuff, and I think it looks great. Plus, the basic level of it is free and pretty good, albeit ad-strewn. So as I wrote more and more — Album Assignments, Watchmen, Geek Bowl, etc. — and got more and more visitors, I felt like it was time to pony up. Mainly, I wanted to get rid of ads, and the fact that I could have my blog on its own domain (rather than a subdomain of wordpress.com) was a bonus.

So in September of 2019, I decided to buy a “Personal Plan” — basically a bare-bones subscription that did what I wanted. When I bought it, the site seemed to offer me a free upgrade to the “Premium Plan” for a year, which I really didn’t need or care about, but hey, free, so why not?

Fast forward a year. I keep getting notices that my Premium Plan is expiring, but that’s fine — I’m happy to let it expire since I still have another year of the Personal Plan remaining. But then I notice — I’ve been switched to the free plan! A glitch, I guess. So I write the “Happiness Engineers” (yeah, that’s what WordPress.com calls its support staff) and say, “…now that the Premium has expired, it seems like WordPress has forgotten about my second year of the Personal plan. Can you please reinstate me to the proper status?”

The reply I get back tells me no no no, I didn’t get a free upgrade to Premium. I traded my two-year plan for a one-year plan. That was my “free upgrade”. WTF?!? I would never have traded two years for one if it had been in any way clear that I was canceling one plan and choosing another. In fact, my billing history shows full payment for two years of Personal, and another $0.00 for one year of Premium, which is why I thought I had a free one-year upgrade as a promotion, hoping to entice me to continue at a higher level. In my experience, plenty of subscription services offer such free temporary upgrades in hopes that customers will enjoy the higher level of service so much that they’d continue paying for it after the trial period expires.

Nope, after multiple back-and forth exchanges with multiple “Happiness Engineers” (who did not engineer my happiness very well at all), WordPress.com insists that they never offered any such promotion, and that they “understand that you might’ve missed that information while checking out on the upgrade.” ARGH!

So now they’re insisting I have to pay for a second year, when in my mind I’ve already paid for it. As the old Alison Moyet song goes, “I feel I’ve been had, and I’m boiling mad.”

I’ve gone round and round and round with these guys. No luck. The best offer I’ve gotten from them (the only offer I’ve gotten) is a code for 17% off their “two years for the price of three” deal. I can’t quite swallow that right now. So the ads are back, and I guess I chalk it up to a learning experience. I’m posting this for anybody thinking of paying for WordPress.com. Don’t fall for the same trick that swindled me!

One last note. My day job is as the product owner of a web site that provides critical services for college students. We have a User Experience (UX) team whose entire mission is to prevent ridiculous snafus like this. So in my final email exchange with the Frustration Engineers, I said this: “From your side, here’s what I’d request or suggest: you guys have a UX team, right? Will you please pass along my experience to them? I think a tweak to the UX when it comes to upgrading could avoid this entire issue. For instance, if in the process of claiming my ‘free’ upgrade, I’d gotten a message like ‘WARNING: You are cancelling your two-year Personal Plan and exchanging it for a one-year Premium Plan. Do you still want to proceed?’, I could have been saved many headaches and you could have been saved many emails.” Grrrrrrr…

A radiation symbol in black on a yellow background. Underneath are stenciled words: DANGER QUARANTINE AREA. The stencil for "AREA" is held by two hands at the bottom of the frame. A dialogue balloon pointing off panel reads "Walkin' on... Walkin' on the moooooooon"

The Watchmen Bestiary 30 – Triangolo des Vigilantes

Ee yo, ee yo, ee yo, yo, yo, yo, YO, the following article contains spoilers for Watchmen.

I’m all reggatta de blanc today because of this panel, from page 19 of chapter 3:

A radiation symbol in black on a yellow background. Underneath are stenciled words: DANGER QUARANTINE AREA. The stencil for "AREA" is held by two hands at the bottom of the frame. A dialogue balloon pointing off panel reads "Walkin' on... Walkin' on the moooooooon"

The radiation symbol appears on the cover of chapter 3, and reverberates throughout the issue, including this panel and the one immediately preceding it on the previous page:

The radiation quarantine panel alongside the previous panel, which has the radiation symbol on a sign reading "FALLOUT SHELTER". Superimposed dialogue box, in the pirate scroll style: "...and in the terrible silence I understood the true breadth of the word "isolation". At the bottom of the panel, a dialogue balloon: "All alone. Inna final analysis."
However, where the preceding panel juxtaposes the symbol with the words from Tales Of The Black Freighter and the dubious sagacity of Bernard the news vendor, the quarantine panel brings in a different overlay. Web annotations, do your thing:

The symbol, this time being painted on their bedroom door. The singer’s rendition of “Walking on the Moon” by the Police foreshadows Dr. Manhattan’s trip to Mars.

Leslie S. Klinger, in Watchmen Annotated, takes the analysis a step further:

The song’s first line, “Giant steps are what you take,” is an ironic preview of Dr. Manhattan’s imminent departure, first from New York and then from Earth.

And yeah, that’s pretty much how this is working on the surface level. It’s a clever and mildly contemporary pop culture reference — “Walking On The Moon” came out in 1979, seven years prior to this issue of Watchmen. Its lyric about giant steps connects with Jon’s teleportation, and its lunar imagery resonates nicely with the iconic final image of this issue — Dr. Manhattan sitting alone in a cratered landscape against a backdrop of stars. That image also fits in well with the mention of quarantine. Talk about your social distancing.

But here’s the thing about references in Watchmen. Paying close attention to one is like closing your eyes and listening to a song on repeat, through really good headphones. Suddenly all this detail appears, little effects buried deep enough that you didn’t notice them before.

If you listen to “Walking On The Moon” like that, you’ll hear weird sci-fi sonics sliding by in the deep background — some kind of analog synth, or maybe a guitar note filtered through one of Andy Summers’ many effects pedals. And with the images of space, you’ll also hear lots of… space. Nigel Gray, the co-producer of this song, explains it thus:

“Walking On The Moon” has two guitar parts, but there are long gaps in it where you’d expect an extra guitar to fill in — and there’s nothing, just the groove. They get the backing track, add the vocals and one or two overdubs, then have the faith to leave it. If anyone else had recorded “Walking On The Moon” it wouldn’t have been a hit — it’s what the Police do to it that makes it special.

(L’Historia Bandido, pg. 61)

The first thing you’ll notice is that the song doesn’t start cleanly. There’s a stray bass note suggesting that things have already happened, a bit like the in medias res opening of Watchmen. Then the ticking drums, three notes of bass, and what Andy Summers calls “a big shining D minor eleventh chord that acts like fanfare to the subsequent get-under-your-skin melody.” (One Train Later, pg. 208).

Listen on repeat and certain parts will establish themselves as dominant, foremost of which is the groove. “Walking On The Moon” is loping, distant, spacey. Sting’s bass gives it an anchored and calm feeling, a confidence that takes us through the empty spaces. It’s the same few bass notes, over and over, for the first minute and a half of the song.

Behind the vocals, the bass, guitar, and drums begin to braid together. There are only three players in The Police, but they are more than the sum of their parts. They interweave to form a strong tripartite structure, like the three parts of this chapter. The news vendor’s story, Dr. Manhattan’s story, Dan and Laurie’s story. Sting, Stewart, Andy. A triangle.

Cover of the "Walking On The Moon" single

In his memoir Broken Music, Sting describes what he learned about working in a band with this configuration: “By playing as a trio I would learn the value of space and clarity between musical frequencies, which larger bands can’t help but fill.” (pg. 179) That’s that space we hear in “Walking On The Moon.” But there was a bigger triangle in Sting’s life.

Young Gordon Sumner’s mother Audrey was married to his father Ernest, but she was in love with another man, a man named Alan. Ernest owned a dairy, and Alan worked there for a time, enough time to entrance Audrey and himself into a bond that would last their lives. For decades, she would go out on Thursday nights, under the threadbare excuse of visiting Nancy, one of the assistants at the dairy. Ernest knew it was a lie, but couldn’t bear to leave her, and instead hurled sarcastic taunts as she left, then wept miserably while she was gone. The terrible tension of this triangle would thread all through Sting’s childhood, as his home life turned into “a series of squalid, ugly conflicts” (pg. 64).

Eventually, almost inevitably, he found himself repeating that tension in his own relationships, both as the victim and as the transgressor, his father’s role and his mother’s. It’s all over his music, too — for every giddy-in-love “Walking On The Moon”, there are plenty of “So Lonely”s and “Can’t Stand Losing You”s, lots of lonely messages in lots of bottles.

Triangles loom large in Watchmen too. As the symbol for Pyramid Deliveries, one appears on the very first page of the book, and they repeat themselves throughout. Adrian’s picture in Nova Express is credited to Triangle Inc. Joey badgers Bernard into hanging up a poster for the band Pink Triangle. There’s a triangle around the Buddha at the crime scene that detective Fine investigates in chapter 5. They are all over Adrian’s costume, and his fortress.

Watchmen chapter 10, page 7, panel 4. A long shot of Adrian and his assistants at the top of a staircase, descending beneath a floor whose boundaries are marked with dozens of interlocking triangles.

In fact, the very panel we’re examining today features triangles, albeit in a more subtle way. The top of the radiation symbol and its diagonally-jutting lower parts form a triangle, and the angled lines of each section leading toward the center suggest alternating black and yellow triangles. Those three black shapes around the central disc echo these trios. Sting, Stewart, Andy. Laurie, Jon, Dan.

The central romantic triangle of Watchmen began forming in issue #1, as Dan and Laurie dine together without Jon, but it takes shape much more clearly in this issue, as Laurie leaves Jon and shows up at Dan’s door. Like Sting’s mother Audrey, Laurie pushes away from her cold and distant provider to connect with someone more down-to-earth, setting up a tension that lasts all the way through to the final scenes, where Jon releases them both with another giant step away.

As I listened to “Walking On The Moon” over and over, seeking keys to its connections with Watchmen, my imagination began to superimpose the characters over the musical parts. The skittering, restless energy of the drums, trying to push the song open: Laurie. Spaced out bursts of guitar, perfectly timed, with quavering pulsar textures behind: Jon. Repetitive, broken-record bass, occasionally leaping into heartfelt melodicism: Dan.

And then there are the lyrics — powerful, vulnerable, joyous, detached, confident, nervous, all at once: all of them encompassed. The triangle itself. Giant steps are what Dr. Manhattan takes, but surely he’s not worried about broken legs. The vulnerable, human concern for injury belongs more to Dan and Laurie. Forever belongs to the godlike being, but together does not — he ends up alone, where it’s simpler, contemplating his own creations, while Dan and Laurie end up together, visiting Nepenthe Gardens.

Sting traces the inspiration for at least some of these lyrics back to his first love, Deborah. “[W]alking back from Deborah’s house in those early days would eventually become a song,” he writes, “for being in love is to be relieved of gravity” (pg. 96)

In Watchmen, only one character is ever relieved of gravity, the one to whom this panel refers. And even he keeps finding himself caught in the tangle of people’s lives, pulled back to Earth from his extraterrestrial retreat, until he finally leaves this galaxy for one less complicated.

Everyone else is resolutely Earthbound. Some, like Hollis Mason, Edward Blake, Walter Kovacs, and millions of New Yorkers on November 2nd, 1985, return to Earth in death. All the rest can do is hang on to each other, and try to keep it up.

Next Entry: Part Of The Legend
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