NOTE: Spoilers, Spoilers, here they spawn / First read Watchmen, then read on.
We’ve reached Chapter 5 in this Watchmen odyssey, a chapter justly famed for its fascinating structure. The 28-page chapter is perfectly symmetrical. That is to say, the grid on page 1 reflects that on page 28. Page 2 reflects page 27, and so on, meeting in a spectacular (and still symmetrical) double-page spread on pages 14 and 15.
Not only do the panels reflect each other, the scenes they depict match as well. Pages 1-6 and 23-28 show Rorschach in and outside Moloch’s apartment building. Pages 7 and 22 are Detective Fine’s investigation, pages 8-9 and 20-21 are the newsstand and pirate comic, pages 10 and 19 are Dan and Laurie, et cetera.
Why is the chapter structured like this? We find the key in its epigraph, an excerpt from another justly famous work, “The Tyger” by William Blake. As has happened before, the Watchmen excerpt takes some liberties with the original, this time in its punctuation and line-breaks:
In the forests
of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Like the other epigraphs, this one gives the chapter its title: “Fearful Symmetry”. Moore and Gibbons rise to the challenge of this title with a magnificent piece of craftsmanship, a symmetrical comic with a thoroughly ominous tone, deepening the book’s overall plot, theme, and characters at every level.
I’m going to save further examinations of symmetry for a later entry, because there is so much to unpack when it comes to Blake and Watchmen. There’s also quite a lot to unpack when it comes to Blake and Moore, but again I’m leaving that for later.
William Blake was a poet, but to label him as such is also misleading and reductive. He was active during the literary time and place we now call Romanticism, but identifying him as a Romantic is problematic.1 He was a visual artist in many media — paintings, illustrations, and illuminated prints. He was an engraver by trade, but an inventor as well, who created new methods of printmaking to suit the needs of his own creations. In addition to all this, he was a mystic, a prophet, and a visionary — someone whose brain operated on distinctly different parameters from those of his peers, a fact which inspired a variety of reactions but certainly limited his ability to reach a broad audience in his time with any of his creative works.
Blake was, to put it mildly, one of a kind. Not only that, he and his work changed and evolved significantly over the course of his life and career, moving from the reasonably accessible verse of Songs of Innocence and Experience to the deeply weird and nearly impenetrable magnum opus Jerusalem. (Like I said, he and Moore overlap a lot.) Importantly for his connection to Watchmen, his visual artistry is inextricable from his literary productions.
Blake didn’t write comics — his art isn’t sequential in any meaningful way, at least not most of the time. However, he integrated words and pictures far, far more than any of his contemporaries, and that combination at least gives him a kinship to comics. Here, for example, is the full page upon which “The Tyger” was published in Songs of Experience:
Poem and illustration are intertwined, with the tree’s branches separating stanzas of the poem — sometimes approaching a panelling effect that should feel familiar to comics readers — and the tiger standing at its climax. This could be read as just text with illustrations, a form which wasn’t foreign to Blake’s era. The difference with Blake, though, is that the poet and the illustrator are one and the same, and the entire thing is created as a single unit of art and writing, literally etched onto a metal plate by Blake himself, and its print later colored, also by Blake. Like a comics auteur, Blake brings his words and drawings into being as an indivisible unit. That hasn’t stopped publishers from reprinting his text by itself, but that text is always just a portion of Blake’s creation, a transcript.
What The Hammer?
There is still another element, one which doesn’t survive as a written artifact: music. Blake was untrained but quite musical, and was known to break out into melodies fitted to his own poetry. (The Portable Blake, pg. 2) One imagines this happening seldom with his many Prophetic Books, the majority of which are written in free verse, but the Songs of Innocence and Experience truly are songs, though none of Blake’s freely composed tunes were preserved.2 “The Tyger” in particular is intensely rhythmic3, hammering trochees pounding out an insistent beat:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Watchmen, too, brings an insistent beat to the beginning of Chapter 5, with the panels’ color reflecting the flashing red sign of the Rum Runner. I usually credit Watchmen to Moore and Gibbons for brevity’s sake, but here’s an example where the work of colorist John Higgins makes an enormous difference to the book’s storytelling. Similar to the Moloch flashback in Chapter 2, the Moloch scenes in this issue are punctuated by the light of the Rum Runner, resulting in pages where a bright X overlaps a dark O, or vice versa.
Even setting aside the full-page effect, though, the regularly gridded panels create a strong sense of rhythm, and the cycling light and dark lets us feel a pounding emphasis, a visual equivalent of poetic meter. There’s a musical quality, too — some panels are double the length of others, some triple, and in moments of greater power we can get double or triple height as well. Three panels per tier set up a triplet rhythm, like a waltz, where the smaller panels are quarter notes, double-length panels half notes, and so on, while the height of the panels feels analogous to dynamics in music.
In the case of “The Tyger”, the hammering rhythms synchronize with the poem’s controlling metaphor, that of a “maker” who creates life like a blacksmith, with hammer, furnace, and anvil. Blacksmith imagery is crucially important to Blake’s entire poetic vision, but to explain why, we need to take a few more steps into his overall oeuvre.
While Blake is probably best known for his more accessible poetry, like the Songs of Innocence and Experience, the vast majority of his work consists of the free-verse prophecies I mentioned earlier. In these prophecies, he constructs an entire mythology and pantheon without really bothering to explain to his reader who the figures are and what they may represent. This makes for an often frustrating reading experience, but has been a gold mine for literary critics, who spend careers unpacking all the symbolism and allusions in Blake’s mythopoeics.
There’s always plenty of room to debate interpretations, but some general consensus has emerged around the main figures:
- Urizen, who represents Reason and Law. Blake was deeply skeptical of the Enlightenment’s privileging of reason above imagination and faith, and his stories tend to depict Urizen as someone tragically limited by his viewpoint, who also fails to understand that those limitations exist. He is sometimes depicted as an architect, who creates and constrains simultaneously.
- Orc, the spirit of revolutionary energy. Blake saw Orc ascendant in the American and French revolutions, and while Orc seems to be a savior figure early on, he becomes shadowed with violence and destruction as the latter revolution devolved into the Reign of Terror.
- Los, the spirit of imagination. For Blake, imagination was supreme, and therefore Los is the divine hero of his myths, and to some extent a stand-in for the poet himself. Los is the father of Orc, and Blake depicts him as a blacksmith, from whose fires emerge works of art and poetry. Or possibly Tygers.
Did He Who Made The Lamb Make Thee?
Urizen and Los are another reflection of Innocence and Experience, with Urizen possessing the more naive and limited perspective (though he doesn’t realize it), and Los taking a broader view. Los’s creativity transcends moral judgments. “I will not Reason & Compare,” he says in Jerusalem. “[M]y business is to Create.” (William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, pg. 307) For Los (and, the texts strongly suggest, for Blake), the creations of imagination are neither good nor bad. In the view of experience, they simply are. Thus, in answer to the question Blake poses in “The Tyger”: Yes, he who made the lamb also made its predator, a framing begun in possibility (with “Could”) and finished in audacity (with “Dare”).
How might these personas and concepts map onto Watchmen? Ozymandias seems like a possible candidate for an Urizen figure — he architects an extraordinarily elaborate plan which he believes to constitute a complete salvation of humanity, but we as readers can understand that he may not be as far-sighted as he believes himself to be. Rorschach, too, partakes of Urizen’s insistence on clear and unsullied moral judgments, a black-and-white Law that transcends any messy human intricacies. Blake, and Los, would approve of neither — they are anti-creative, though Adrian surely fashions a fearsome Tyger.
Who could stand in for Los, then? Dan Dreiberg is the most demonstrably creative of the bunch, inventing a wide variety of gadgets, vehicles, and super-suits. There’s also Doctor Manhattan, of course, who is able to reshape matter and reality at a whim, and who declares his intention to “create some” human life in the story’s final pages.
Neither of these makes a terribly satisfying Los avatar, though. Dreiberg may have the ability to create, and seems once to have had the drive, but his creative days are behind him — by the time the story begins, he’s long since quit. Jon Osterman is still making things, but he would deny any imagination or creative authority at all — in his own words, he’s just “a puppet who can see the strings.” Surely the real Los-figures, if there are any at all, would be Moore and Gibbons themselves, who frame the world of Watchmen and populate it with all its tygers and lambs.
Urizen and Los at least have potential analogs. Orc doesn’t seem to be personified at all, at least not in any one figure. Certainly not The Comedian, who thinks nothing of tear-gassing protestors, nor Silk Spectre, who seems for most of the book to want nothing more than a peaceful life. The closest we get to revolutionary spirit is the protestors themselves, with perhaps some frustrated flashes from the diametrically opposed bastions of Nova Express and The New Frontiersman.
Speaking of diametrical opposition, the Songs of Innocence and Experience have plenty of their own symmetry and reflections going on, though not to the exactitude of this Watchmen chapter. Songs of Innocence came out first by itself, and when Songs of Experience appeared, it contained many poems which seemed to be in direct dialogue with those of its predecessor. In the case of “The Tyger”, its innocent companion was a poem called “The Lamb”, which was similarly concerned with creation and authorship: “Little lamb who made thee / Dost thou know who made thee”, it asks.
Blake’s self-invented heroes and deities don’t appear in the “Songs”, so his answer stems from traditional Christian imagery:
Little lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little lamb I’ll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee,
Little Lamb God bless thee.
In the world of innocence, Jesus is the Lamb of God, who became God incarnated as a child, and who (as God) created and blessed all the little lambs. The world of experience troubles these placid waters. “The Tyger” outlines its fierce subject, and then wonders of its creator, “Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
As we’ve seen, within Blake’s personal mythology, the answer is clearly “Yes”. Further, he saw no conflict between his own myths and those delivered in Christian scripture (though he saw plenty of conflict between scripture and the established churches.) So God made the Lamb, and Jesus is the Lamb of God. God also made the Tyger, but if the Lamb equates with Christ, what does that make the Tyger? Who is the Tyger of God?
Could it be… Satan? Blake wasn’t afraid to include Satan in his prophecies, and his Satan was not the fallen angel of Milton.4 Rather, he was more the personification of “Error, the accuser of sin, who blinds the mind to the divine.” (The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, pg. 283) But if the Tyger devours the Lamb, that’s not really Satan’s gig, is it? In the New Testament, it isn’t a devil with horns and pitchfork who tortures and kills Jesus. It’s us. Only us.
For as biased, singleminded, and plain crazy Rorschach is, he is not wrong about Watchmen‘s world being rudderless.5 That’s what makes Watchmen the songs of experience to golden and silver age superhero comics’ songs of innocence — we cannot find a divinely touched hero to worship in its pages, not even the supremely powerful Dr. Manhattan. Indeed, in Chapter 5 it is Rorschach, more than any other, who exemplifies Blake’s Tyger. He is dangerous, stalking the forests of the night and, on page 26, literally burning bright.6
That phrase, “forests of night”, recurs in one of Blake’s prophetic texts, Europe: A Prophecy. That text is much more difficult to decipher than the Songs, but let’s take a look at the “forests of night” section by itself (Blake’s creative punctuation retained):
Thought chang’d the infinite to a serpent; that which pitieth;
To a devouring flame; and man fled from its face and hid
In forests of night; then all the eternal forests were divided
Into earths rolling in circles of space, that like an ocean rush’d
And overwhelmed all except this finite wall of flesh.
(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books pg. 184)
This part of the poem laments humanity’s fall from the infinite to the finite, via the creation of the senses, and the section immediately preceding this one discusses how sight and smell are “barr’d and petrify’d against the infinite.” The serpent seems to be a reference to ancient Druids, whom Blake loved to associate with this fall, and “forests of night” become a sheltering place from this terrifyingly transformed infinitude.
Thus the camera swings around to show us the opposite view. Where in “The Tyger” we’re looking into the forest at the dread burning eyes within, in Europe we flee into the forest to escape the burning outside it. By the end of Chapter 5 in Watchmen we get a similarly reflected perspective. If Rorschach is that Tyger, stalking the forests, he is also the prey of Ozymandias, whose thoughts and plots set him up for the capture he suffers at the chapter’s end. It is Ozymandias who constructs himself a serpent (well, a squid), out of pity for humanity. It consumes millions of lives, leaving behind just a finite wall of dead flesh.
Did He Smile His Work To See?
For that matter, the word “watchman” occurs from time to time in Blake, such as in the eighth plate of America: A Prophecy:
The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books pg. 161)
The context here is the American Revolution shutting down England’s empire — there’s no more need for guards, as Orc’s morning has set free the “redeemed captives.” We don’t see the night decay in Watchmen until the last few pages of the book, at which point the Watchmen have mostly left their stations — Rorschach dead, Dr. Manhattan missing, Ozymandias turned traitor, and both Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II in hiding, though these last two look to be heading back into the life of adventure. In any case, for Blake the disappearance of these guardian warriors is a good thing, as it means the threat is gone. As he learned after the French Revolution, though, sometimes the threat just changes shape, and there’s every possibility of that after the final page of Watchmen.
There’s an even more interesting permutation of “watchman” in Blake, though: Los himself is repeatedly depicted as a watchman. For example, the frontispiece of Jerusalem depicts Los, “dressed like a London night watchman”, entering a Gothic arch in search of truth, and beginning a journey into the Underworld.(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, pg. 298) In plate 83 of the poem, he refers to himself as “your Watchman”, and the poem narrates his watch over “the meteors & terrors of night”. (Ibid., pg. 380)
We normally see Los as a maker, but here (and elsewhere in Blake’s works) he functions as a guardian and observer. He works throughout the poem to resurrect Albion, the incarnated spirit of England. In fact, Blake saw Albion and Jerusalem as intimately connected in a way that’s beyond the scope of this essay to explicate, but still looms large in the British psyche today — the words to a Blake poem, which has also (confusingly) come to be titled “Jerusalem”, have been set to music and become a sort of unofficial English national anthem.
So if Moore and Gibbons are the Los figures for Watchmen, then in Blake’s iconography, they become watchmen themselves, observing their surroundings and making art to warn us of dangers, to show us what they see. And like Los, perhaps they too work for a resurrection. For Moore especially, I’d venture to say that the project was to guard and revive comics as an art form, to show the capabilities of the medium by way of demonstrating that even the superheroes which dominated it can reveal unexpected depths. Moore has by now renounced comics, having been repeatedly disgusted by the industry which surrounds the medium, but I have to imagine that when he, Gibbons, and Higgins had put the finishing touches on Watchmen, they must have smiled their work to see.
3 Mark Scarbrough, of Walking With Dante fame, tells a funny story in his Lyric Life podcast, of first encountering this poem via a college English teacher who read the poem out loud, pounding out its beat on a desk with such near-sexual abandon that afterwards she dismissed class five minutes in, waving the students away and telling them to, “go do what comes naturally.” What came naturally for Scarbrough was to immediately change his major to English. [Back to post]