As always, citizen, I warn you that Watchmen spoilers are ahead. There’s also some stuff about 30 years of CIA activity, but I think the point of that (at least for Alan Moore) is to not keep it a secret.
Today’s excursion into The Annotated Watchmen v2.0 finds Dan Dreiberg speculating about The Comedian’s shady political operations and how they might provide a motive for his murder.
The annotators are reminded of a (roughly) contemporaneous Moore work:
The CIA is widely suspected to have been responsible (in the real world) for helping the military coup in Chile in the early 1970s that deposed and killed the left-wing President, Dr. Salvador Allende, and brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power. Moore explores some of these issues in his comic “Shadowplay”, illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, one of the two parts of the book Brought to Light. In Watchmen, it is Blake who is suspected of doing similar things.
Brought To Light came out in 1988, a year or so after the final issue of Watchmen emerged. It’s a peculiar artifact, in several ways. First of all, it’s one of those kooky reversible tête-bêche books, in which two texts are held in a single binding, rotated 180 degrees to each other. When you hit the upside-down pages, you flip the book over and start from the other end. “TWO BOOKS IN ONE,” as the cover proclaims. (Moore only worked on one of the included texts: Shadowplay: The Secret Team.) Second, it rather grandly announces itself as genre-defining: “Brought To Light fuses the intrigue of investigative reporting and the sophistication of the graphic novel package and invents a new form — the graphic docudrama.” It certainly owns the term — google “graphic docudrama” and every hit will be about Brought To Light. But is it really valid to claim that in 1988, nobody had ever dramatized nonfiction reporting in comic form? I wouldn’t say so.
Finally, there’s the fact that both sections of Brought To Light are based on Avirgan v. Hull, a lawsuit brought against the CIA under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. This lawsuit alleged that since the early Sixties, a “Secret Team” of CIA officials, U.S. military, and various associates had been conducting its own private wars in the name of anti-Communism: toppling governments, smuggling and selling drugs and weapons, arming terrorists, and doing it all behind the back of (or occasionally with the tacit approval of) the U.S. Congress. The suit used as its basis a bomb attack that occurred in the Nicaraguan town of La Penca, at a press conference with Contra leader Edén Pastora. Pastora was seriously wounded by the blast, and seven people were killed, including three journalists. A cameraman named Tony Avirgan was among the wounded, and with his wife Martha Honey, he investigated the bombing.
Avirgan and Honey became convinced that the CIA (and various associates, including businessman John Floyd Hull) was behind the attack. They joined forces with the Christic Institute, a public interest law firm which had also famously represented Karen Silkwood, to sue the Secret Team. The lawsuit named a wide variety of people, including several key figures in the Iran-Contra scandal. Going far, far beyond La Penca, the lawsuit attempted to establish the CIA’s guilt for a long history of alleged covert illegal activities.
Judge James L. King was not convinced. He not only dismissed the suit, he ordered Christic to pay over a million dollars in fees to the defendants, which essentially spelled the end of the firm. In the wake of this debacle, the various parties fell to arguing about what went wrong. Avirgan had apparently been inveighing against Christic founder and lead counsel Daniel Sheehan for years, protesting Sheehan’s indulgence in “wild allegations” about a 30-year conspiracy at the cost of paying attention to the legal fundamentals of the La Penca case. (Nowadays, Sheehan and his Open Skies Ministry would like to have a sincere conversation about how to spiritually, philosophically, and socially prepare for our first contact with extraterrestrials.)
What seems apparent now is that Christic and Avirgan did have some fairly damning evidence about some CIA activities, but the case overreached, trying to draw those activites into a larger and more complex web, some branches of which they simply could not substantiate. This overreach allowed an already hostile judge to not only torpedo the case, but to ensure that Christic was left a smoking hole in the ground.
Of course, a “graphic docudrama” needn’t concern itself with the niceties of evidence, and Shadowplay certainly doesn’t much bother. In it, Moore sets out to describe the breadth of Christic’s case, and he does so with gusto, employing devices like recurring images of red swimming pools representing deaths caused by CIA machinations. Each pool represents 20,000 dead — one gallon of blood per dead body.
These insanites are rendered brilliantly by the amazing Bill Sienkiewicz. I’ve been a huge Sienkiewicz fan ever since New Mutants #18 arrived in my mailbox and blew my 14-year-old mind. His run on New Mutants is still one of my all-time favorite runs of any comic. In this setting, he lets loose completely with some of his most grotesquely bonkers work ever.
The comic is written in the second person voice (e.g. “You don’t remember how you came to be here, putting in to this foul harbor where the dead cats bob upon the greycap waves amongst the oil drums and the excrement.”) Also, in case you can’t tell, it’s kinda dark. The second-person frame story quickly gives way to an extended monologue by an anthropomorphized bald eagle, who embodies the CIA. He sits alone at a bar until the narrator comes in, then starts declaiming the history of the Secret Team according to Christic. He gleefully describes all kinds of nefarious actions undertaken in the name of fighting communism: powermongering in Iran and Syria, organized crime collusion in Cuba, drug dealing in Laos, assassinating civilians in Vietnam, assassinating Allende in Chile, and so on and so forth.
After this narrative, he finally presents the narrator with a deal: “All we’re askin’ is your indifference. Just turn away. Pretend it ain’t happenin’. Ain’t like ya gotta give up part o’ y’self. No important part, anyway…” And he opens a suitcase, overflowing with gore.
The whole thing feels like a 30-page editorial cartoon, except the cartoonist has been listening to talk radio and scarfing powerful hallucinogens for a couple of decades. Readers of From Hell know that Moore loves a good conspiracy theory — in fact, the freemasons even get a shout-out at the beginning of Shadowplay. How much of it does he actually believe? How much of it is actually true? It’s hard to tell. I have no trouble believing that at least some of it is accurate, but it seems now like something from a long time ago. With its Iran-Contra references and its anti-Communist hysteria, this comic feels like just as much of a period piece as Watchmen. The difference, of course, is that Shadowplay lays claim to fact, with the narrator’s repeated phrase, bookending the eagle’s speech: “This is not a dream.”
It’s a stretch to call this comic “nonfiction,” but let’s just say it’s the first “graphic docudrama” Moore ever wrote. It is explicitly about the real world, and seems a natural next step from Watchmen, which was metaphorically about the real world. Both books are drenched in conspiracy, and both examine how immensely powerful entities affect the lives of ordinary people.
For Watchmen to explore “superheroes in the real world,” it must address how superheroes would interact with the most powerful entities in our world: governments and corporations. Corporations are represented by Ozymandias — in effect a super-capitalist, he has taken over commerce to such an extent that nearly all the advertising and branding we see throughout the story comes back to his holdings in some way. Governments, on the other hand have Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian as their superheroes.
Or rather, one government does. We never see evidence in Watchmen of non-American superheroes, and certainly the only truly superpowered being in the story’s universe is famously American. So the question is: what kind of government are they working for? Does the existence of superheroes obviate the need for anti-communist secret wars, or would it simply be another weapon in them? We don’t get a lot of direct evidence, but there’s plenty of suggestion that the U.S. government of Watchmen is no better than the government of Brought to Light. In the few pages we get of Nixon, Kissinger, Ford, and Liddy, we get a mention of Liddy’s CIA connections linked with anti-communist first-strike aggression. Then, of course, there’s the simple fact that this same cadre is still in power as of 1985 — surely a sign that some democratic fundamentals have slipped away. Not to mention the panel that started this discussion — suggesting that one of this world’s superheroes helps the U.S. government with “knocking over Marxist republics in South America.”
What does it do to a person, working for such an organization, carrying out its darkest urges? I think you would have to be blackhearted, naive, or utterly indifferent to last long in such an employ. Doctor Manhattan certainly has the latter covered, what with “life and death are unquantifiable abstracts,” and so forth. Blackheartedness, on the other hand, is the Comedian’s beat, or so it would seem. He is, as Manhattan describes him, “deliberately amoral” — a rapist, and a killer of women and children. I have no trouble imagining him neck-deep in any of the atrocities described in Brought To Light.
And yet, in the end he finds that there is still naïveté left in him after all. Weeping in Moloch’s apartment, he reaches the end of deliberate amorality: “I mean, this joke, I mean, I thought I was the Comedian, y’know? Oh, god, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe anybody would do that… I can’t… I can’t believe…” Confronted with the utter horror of Ozymandias’ plan, he learns that the corporation in his universe is capable of far worse than the government would ever dream. He learns that he has a moral center after all — it’s just a matter of how many swimming pools must be filled before he reaches it.