Welcome back to this series in which we look at the works referenced by Watchmen, at least according to version 2.0 of The Annotated Watchmen. As always, proceed at your own risk of spoilage.
The references come fast and thick in the first part of these annotations, and in fact today’s episode takes us no further than one sentence past our previous exploration. That one ended with a mention of “the popular Gunga Diners”, a ubiquitious chain of Indian food restaurants in the Watchmen universe. The next sentence goes on to explain the reference:
(The name is a rather tasteless reference to Kipling’s poem “Gunga Din”, in which a faithful Indian servant brings water to British soldiers fighting in India, at the cost of his own life.)
Tasteless? Hmm, I’m not sure. “Gunga Din” portrays its Indian title character quite heroically, in contrast to the white British soldiers that surround him — its famous last line (“You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”) makes this point explicitly. Perhaps it’s in poor taste to name a chain of restaurants after a somewhat stereotyped Indian character, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly bothersome. Maybe it trivializes Din’s nobility to make him into a mascot, though it seems to me he’s already rather a mascot, even in the poem. In fact, you could argue (and many have) that parts of the poem are pretty tasteless to begin with. Why not read the whole poem and decide for yourself? It’s only 85 lines.
Let’s return to Din’s heroism, since that topic is highly relevant to Watchmen. In fact, I would suggest that an important goal of both works is to explore the nature of heroism. In the poem, Din is subaltern as a native of the colonized India, and subordinate to the white army men, serving as lowly water carrier for them. His clothing marks him as alien, and he endures constant abuse from the men whom he serves. And yet, the narrator names him “the finest man I knew” (albeit among the “blackfaced crew” — he’s not on the same scale with the white soldiers, though more about this later) and praises his speed, his bravery, and his endurance. When Din sacrifices his own life bringing the narrator to safety and medical attention, he incontrovertibly cements his place as the hero of the story.
Does any character in Watchmen match this level of heroism? Certainly not the Comedian, whom we never catch in anything remotely resembling a selfless act. In fact, if anything the Comedian is more like the white soldiers, undertaking the work of slaughter on behalf of a swaggering government. Dr. Manhattan is similarly employed, though quite differently motivated. Nevertheless, he’s still quite removed from any concept of heroism. He’s not interested in saving lives, what with life and death being unquantifiable abstracts and all. As for self-sacrifice, the concept hardly has any meaning in relation to him — as far as I can see, he can’t die or be killed, and he has infinte resources, give or take a few tachyons. How could he sacrifice himself for anything, even if he wanted to?
Nite Owl II’s heart is in the right place, at least compared to the last two, but he’s far from the tireless servant who “didn’t seem to know the use of fear.” I suspect that with him, it’s mostly about those wonderful toys. (Well, that and his personal feeling of power when he’s “under the hood.”) Silk Spectre I was mainly into superheroing for the attention and publicity, while Silk Spectre II was just trying to please her mother. Silk Spectre II does indeed “tend the wounded under fire” (albeit a different kind of fire), and her actions are brave and heroic, but not self-sacrificing. Nite Owl I is even more noble, writing that he “feels bad unless he’s doing good,” and as far as we can see, he does plenty of genuine good in the world, both as a cop and as a masked hero.
But when it comes to the extremities Kipling describes, to making the ultimate sacrifice and never surrendering, there’s only one character worth considering: Rorschach. It is Rorschach, from the beginning, who is trying to save his companions, despite his rather offputting approach to doing so. It is Rorschach who exemplifies the tireless drive of the bhisti, with his frequent repetitions of “Never despair. Never surrender,” and variations on that theme. And it is Rorschach whom the book most closely identifies with the Gunga Diner. His name is superimposed over the diner’s first appearance, and he makes one his headquarters, after a fashion anyway. He sits and watches from its window for the action at his trash can “mail drop”, as New York opens its heart to him.
Like Din, Rorschach comes from a despised class and chooses to rise from it as a protector, and even a public servant of sorts. Like Din, Rorschach endures endless abuse in the course of fulfilling his role, but soldiers on nevertheless. And like Din, Rorschach is killed in the pursuit of that role, by nearly as impersonal a force.
Kipling’s narrator writes of Din, “An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide / ‘E was white, clear white, inside / When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!” Racism permeates the poem, as it did colonial culture, but in Din we find one in whom the black and white existed side by side, a soul of “white” purity and faithfulness inside a skin that triggered instant abhorrence in his English masters. For Rorschach, it’s not about race, but that union of opposites is very much present. He’s literally dirty — the story makes reference to his body odor numerous times — but he wages a tireless battle against the darkness, at least as he perceives it. “Black and white. Moving. Changing shape… but not mixing. No gray. Very, very beautiful.”
There are a couple of irony-drenched differences though. While Din is drilled by an unexpected battlefield bullet, Rorschach meets his doom head on, tears streaming down his face. Moreover, according to the poem, Gunga Din’s fate ends in fire, as the heathen is consigned to Hell upon his death: “‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals / Givin’ drink to poor damned souls.” Rorschach, though, meets his end in the coldest place on earth. His afterlife is the last thought the story invites us to consider.
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