SPOILERS FOR WATCHMEN AHEAD DAEHA NEMHCTAW ROF SRELIOPS
Detectives Steve Fine and Joe Bourquin are the first characters we meet in Watchmen, as they investigate the murder of Edward Blake. But after the first four pages of the book, we don’t see them again until Chapter 5, page 7. On that page, we find them investigating a different murder, or rather a murder-suicide: a man named Hirsch has stabbed his two young daughters to death, then cut his own throat. Mr. Hirsch, it seems, believed that a war was coming, and killed his children in order to “spare” them — not the last time we’ll see that kind of rationale in this book.
I’m not here to dive into that echoing theme right this moment, though. Instead, we’re going to focus on the decorations in the Hirsch place. We start in panel 1 on a large poster of the Buddha, inscribed in a triangle, with a sun behind him radiating light. The poster would be symmetrical — appropriate to the chapter — if not for the splashes of blood on it, one of which naturally mirrors the angle of the blood we see on The Comedian’s smiley badge.
As we follow the detectives through the apartment, we see some more posters. One reads “NO NUKES” — a sentiment that certainly makes sense for someone terrified of nuclear war. Another says “Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life”, a bitterly ironic statement in an apartment full of dead bodies. And then there’s one more, just peeking out from behind the detectives in panel 6:
Take it away, web annotations:
[T]he Grateful Dead poster is the cover of an album entitled “AOXOMOXOA”, a symmetrical title; the album cover is symmetrical. Gibbons refers to some interesting coincidences and observations about AOXOMOXOA in the New Comics interview; he chanced upon a reproduction of the album cover as he was preparing the issue. The cover was created by a celebrated album cover, poster and underground comix artist, the late Rick Griffin.
Sunlight Splatters Dawn With Answers
We’ll dig deeper into Griffin later on, but for starters, let’s just take a look at that album cover:
There’s quite a bit of iconography here, and we can find connections from much of it into Watchmen. As the annotations suggest, Dave Gibbons gives us a great starting point by explicating some of it in the interview reprinted in Groth and Fiore’s The New Comics, which I wrote about way back in my third post. This interview with Moore and Gibbons takes place at the UK Comic Art Convention, just after issue #5 of Watchmen hit the stands. Here’s an extended quote, starting with Gibbons:
This might come up when you’re asking questions later, but it’s where we really ought to have the Twilight Zone theme in the background because there’ve been some really spooky coincidences. For example, the issue that’s just out, #5, is about symmetry, and there’s a scene in it where the two detectives we feature are called to this apartment where an aging hippie… [looks at Alan; laughter from the audience]… has just butchered his children rather than have them killed in a nuclear war. Alan, as he usually does, made lots of suggestions for the decor of the apartment, and I thought, “what they really need is a ’60s rock poster,” and I don’t know anything about ’60s rock groups…
MOORE: [disbelieving] Oh ho ho.
GIBBONS: Well, I know lots about ’50s rock groups. I thought that it could be a Grateful Dead poster, because that ties in as these kids are dead, and they ought to be grateful… [laughter from the audience]… so I’d like to stress that not possessing any Grateful Dead albums, I got a book called The Album Cover Album and looked up Grateful Dead in the index for a cover, and it’s an album called Aoxomoxoa, which is a symmetrical word.
MOORE: It’s a Rick Griffin cover as well, which is absolutely symmetrical.
GIBBONS: And it’s got a skull on it, and throughout issue #5, there’s the skull and crossbones of the pirate ship. Also, this skull has an egg in its hands, and the book starts with Rorschach breaking an egg. And also on the facing page of the book there’s an album called Tales of the Rum Runners and I forget who it’s by but at the beginning of issue #5 we have the Rumrunner Club. [Tales of the Rum Runners is by Robert Hunter with the cover also designed by Griffin.] (pg. 99)
Eerie, right? And Gibbons hasn’t even covered the whole territory, so let’s take inventory of Griffin’s imagery on this cover and how it connects with Watchmen:
- Skull & Crossbones: As Gibbons points out, we certainly see the Jolly Roger in the pirate comics, but it also very much echoes the Rum Runner’s logo. In turn, the reflecting capital Rs in that logo get repeated (albeit in lower case) in Rorschach’s symmetrical signature, which appears on page 3. Chapter 5 has mirrors within mirrors for us.
- Eggs: The Jolly Roger’s bony hands do indeed hold eggs, of the sort that Rorschach breaks and eats on page 5, but there’s another kind of egg hidden in this image. At first glance the central sun in the image seems to just beam psychedelic heat waves, but take a closer look and you may see those waves separate out into individual entities — spermatozoa, trying to penetrate a central egg. Thus the eggs below echo the egg above, and in turn resonate with the images of underground fetuses at the far left and right. And the connection to Watchmen?
- Children: It’s the children, who lay lifeless on the page in question. Where Griffin’s image is full of potential — egg yet to be fertilized, children yet to be born — Watchmen holds a dark mirror to that potential and turns it into waste. Its children are dead, stabbed by their father in a grotesque parody of what his sperm did at their conception.
- Egyptian Icons: There’s another sun looking down on the tableau, at the very top center, flanked by cobras and wings. This is the Egyptian Winged Sun, which symbologist Dani Rhys tells us is “a powerful symbol of royalty, power, divinity and the triumph of order over chaos”. Perhaps that’s why Ozymandias adopts a simplified version of the symbol — we can see it above the doors on page 15, and on his belt when he dresses up in costume towards the end of the book. The underground reflection of this winged sun is the album title at the bottom of the frame, centered on another Egyptian icon: the scarab.
- Mushrooms: Just below the band’s name, two horizontal mushrooms face each other, signaling the very beginning of the ground that curves down to take up the lower third (or so) of the image. Now, shrooms certainly have an understandable place in psychedelic imagery, but in the context of Watchmen, they aren’t gateways to altered consciousness but rather harbingers of doom: the mushroom clouds of nuclear explosions, one of which is illustrated for Dan’s surreal dream on page 16 of Chapter 7.
- Smoke: On either side of the frame, mirror-image smoke drifts upward from mirror-image braziers, whose own legs drift downward into smoky insubstantiality. In the center of the cover, a wisp of smoke curls up from the top of the skull. The smoke in this image is likely another drug-culture reference, similar to the mushrooms, as well as possibly an evocation of the burning incense that could perfume the air in residences like the Hirsches’. In Watchmen, as we’ve seen, it’s a noir mainstay, appearing on this very page as Detective Fine lights and smokes his cigarette (and drifting upward from the poster in panel 6, a continuation of the smoke in the image). Fine’s smoke appears again on page 22, the symmetrical reflection of page 7, where he examines the Griffin image more closely. As I mentioned in the Taxi Driver post, Rorschach’s word balloons are probably the most iconically smoky element of Watchmen, and they appear all over the issue, including on the preceding page.
The Looking-Glass Fields Of Illusion
As Moore and Gibbons point out in the interview, the Aoxomoxoa cover is also “absolutely symmetrical”, which makes it perfect for inclusion in this chapter. Remember how in my first post about Blake, I said that I’d save further examinations of symmetry for a later entry? Well, the time has finally come to dive into all the kinds of symmetry we can find in this chapter.
Yes, there’s more than one kind of symmetry, and Anna Sokyra’s site Your Art Path provides a pretty useful taxonomy, so let’s step through the seven types she identifies and see where they show up in Chapter 5 of Watchmen.
#1: Reflectional Symmetry
This is the kind of symmetry that you typically think of when somebody mentions the word — two sides reflected across an axis, mirroring each other. The axis can be horizontal, vertical, or at any angle, but we most often think of a vertical axis, as runs down the middle of the Aoxomoxoa cover. This reflectional symmetry specifically across a vertical axis is called bilateral symmetry.
Bilateral symmetry is all over the place in Chapter 5, including the very structure of the chapter itself, which uses the comic’s vertical spine to reflect panel layouts and subject matter through all the pages. That’s symmetry on more of a metaphorical level, though. There’s also perfect bilateral symmetry in many of the chapter’s images, most prominently those connected with Rorschach. His mask is symmetrical, his signature is symmetrical, and on page 11 he crafts his own bit of homemade reflectional symmetry, dripping sauce onto a Gunga Diner menu, folding across the vertical axis, then unfolding again — a new Rorschach blot. Incidentally, note that he draws an upside-down question mark with the sauce — a pretty clear nod to the character’s origin as The Question in Charlton comics.
#2: Radial Symmetry
If reflectional symmetry originates from a line, radial symmetry originates from a point, expanding outward. Think of a mandala, or a kaleidoscope, or a starfish. In Watchmen, radial symmetry shows up right on the cover of Chapter 5, with symmetrical ripples radiating out from the point of each raindrop. These radial symmetries are superimposed on the reflectional symmetry of the Rum Runner logo (itself reflected in the puddle). The sun/egg on the Aoxomoxoa cover is also a partial example of radial symmetry.
#3: Translational Symmetry
This is the repetition of images — not mirroring but copying, while keeping the image’s general orientation nearly or exactly the same. This sort of repetition is extremely common in comics, and Watchmen is no exception. Images repeat in order to communicate the pacing of a scene — time passing with nobody changing position. See for example panels 3 and 4 of page 4 in Chapter 5: panel 4 is a near copy of panel 3, conveying that Moloch pauses for a long moment, deciding what to do (or not do) with the gun he’s holding.
#4: Inverted Symmetry
Where reflectional symmetry mirrors an image across an axis, inverted symmetry copies and rotates that image until it’s across the axis from the original image. It’s the kind of symmetry you see on playing cards, where the top king faces leftward right-side-up while the bottom king faces rightward upside-down. We don’t get any exact inverted symmetry in Chapter 5, but there’s a distinct playing-card quality to the center panels on pages 14 and 15 at the heart of the chapter. Veidt and the shooter aren’t reflections of each other, but we can imagine rotating Veidt to superimpose him on the shooter, and see an approximation of inverted symmetry at work. This is a brilliant and nuanced choice, as those following the plot for the first time may see the shooter as Veidt’s opposite — hero vs. villain — but those who know better may grok how the lower figure is more an extension of the upper figure.
#5: Biaxial Symmetry
Reflectional symmetry mirrors across an axis — biaxial symmetry, as its name suggests, mirrors across two axes. We don’t get any image in Watchmen that repeats three times in this way, reflected (say) both horizontally and vertically. But take a look at panel 9 on page 17, which has an imperfect version of biaxial symmetry. It’s not the same image repeated across two axes, but there are two axes at work: the boat and the sun are reflected across the horizontal axis, while the fins mirror each other on either side of the vertical axis.
#6: Near Symmetry
This leads us nicely into near symmetry, which is essentially symmetry with imperfections. That really encompasses most of the examples in the chapter, with a few exceptions. There are perfectly symmetrical forms like Rorschach’s mask, the pirate’s Jolly Roger, or the RR of the Rum Runner sign, but much more often the reflections aren’t exact, but they’re reflections nevertheless. Take, for example, the water reflection in panel 7 of page 21 — water reflects the top half of the shark’s mouth, making it look like a complete circle, but past that the repeated image is abstract to the point of nothingness. That open mouth bisected by a line does get echoed in the next panel, though, in the poster Joey holds.
Okay, as a “type of symmetry” this seems pretty shaky to me, since it’s clearly the opposite of symmetry altogether. However, asymmetry juxtaposed with the suggestion or expectation of symmetry can create quite a powerful effect. The best example from Chapter 5 of Watchmen is panel 7 of page 19: Dan Dreiberg’s bed would be perfectly symmetrical without him in it, but he lays on one side, his arm stretched out across the other. The fullness of his side contrasted with the emptiness of the other side underscores the absence of a companion — Laurie in particular — and thus emphasizes Dan’s loneliness and isolation.
Like a One-Eyed Cheshire
Rick Griffin, the artist behind the Aoxomoxoa cover, had his own formative experience of fearful asymmetry. As a high schooler, Griffin was passionate about two things: art and surfing. He was a working artist even at that age, selling drawings of his cartoon alter ego “Murphy” to Surfer magazine. At nineteen, “tired of his father’s disapproval of his lifestyle choices”, Griffin hitched a ride to San Francisco, intending to head to Australia.
Instead, he ended up in a severe auto accident, thrown from the car and subsequently hospitalized and comatose for several weeks. Griffin finally emerged from his coma (to the sound of someone reading the twenty-third psalm), but his face, and in particular his left eye, was badly damaged in the accident. The artist would wear an eyepatch for over a year after this, and would be scarred for the rest of his life. The accident that changed his face would also forever change his art style, transforming from sweet surfing cartoons to the much more elaborate, illustrative, and outright bizarre work of the posters, album covers, and comix he created as a mainstay of the 1960s San Francisco psychedelic art scene.
It wasn’t too long before disembodied eyeballs became a strong motif in his work. Griffin had eyeballs flying, sending telegrams, fighting, eating, and of course, surfing. He also started exhibiting a fascination with symmetry, and I think it’s not too bold a speculation to wonder if his permanently asymmetrical face might have contributed to his interest in capturing perfect symmetry on the page.
There’s another spooky synchronicity here, one of which Gibbons was almost certainly unaware. In 1970, Griffin underwent a profound religious conversion, its seeds planted by hearing the Bible read when he came out of his coma. He experienced another road hazard — a broken down car — and as a biographical essay by Doug Harvey puts it, “When he was finally back on the road, it was the Gospel one. Rick Griffin had accepted Jesus into his heart and been born again.” (Heart And Torch: Rick Griffin’s Transcendence, pg. 63)
What’s striking about this is that Griffin’s poster appears in a Watchmen scene that parodies the very notion of a spiritual breakthrough. With a blood-spattered Buddha looking on, Fine and Borquin investigate the fallout from Hirsch’s dark epiphany. Instead of being born again, an old life starting over, the killer ends the lives of his children — new lives prematurely truncated.
Though his face changed, and his faith changed, surfing remained a constant source of inspiration for Griffin. Some of his most memorable comix pages use symmetrical designs to express a transcendent experience attained through surfing. For example, in 1973 he curated a comix book called Tales From The Tube, which collected works from various underground artists around a surfing theme. The book “first appeared as an insert in Surfer and was later published and distributed as a separate comix by Print Mint, the main underground comix book publisher in the Bay area.” (Rick Griffin, pg. 48)
In one of Griffin’s stories from Tales, a surfing movie scene gets increasingly intense, then crests as the surfer’s word balloon expresses an experience beyond words, instead shown as a symmetrical arrangement of letters, superimposed on an exclamation point ejecting droplets in all directions, the whole thing biaxially symmetrical:
This grid of O’s and W’s may feel a bit familiar to Watchmen readers, as it is the very same pattern as the pages in the book where dark and light panels alternate. I wrote about this pattern at length in the Love & Rockets post, focusing on pages from chapter 2, but the same pattern appears in chapter 5 as well, created on pages 1 and 2 by the flashing of the Rum Runner’s sign. However, where in Griffin this pattern expresses spiritual uplift, the Watchmen pages are quite the opposite: a gritty urban rhythm whose relentless beat foreshadows Moloch’s approaching death. Thus once again the sunny California vision of Griffin finds its dark reflection in Moore and Gibbons’ noir New York.
1969’s Murphy Mystic Eyes sees Griffin double down on the symmetrical verbal expressions that spring from a surfer’s spiritual elevation. In this comic page, Murphy (albeit a psychedelicized version with a kachina head) surfs a series of waves and finds himself transformed into a disembodied eye, exclaiming “!OXOMOXO! EYE AM THE ‘I'”. Then he awakens from this dream (with his regular cartoon head back in place, though surrounded by hallucinatory Mickey-esque mice), and bursts out with a palindromic word square, symmetrical in four directions at once:
The “OXOMOXO” exclamation obviously links directly to the Grateful Dead cover, which Griffin created in that same year, suggesting that its “AOXOMOXOA” title expressed a spiritual connection, at least in Griffin’s mind.
This connection adds another layer of irony to the murder scene at the Hirsch house. Just as their other posters expressed hopefulness, pacifism, and spirituality, the Dead poster expresses all three, in direct contrast to the grisly corpses beneath it. Borquin wants to ascribe those murders to the stars, or Halley’s comet, or the media, but Fine knows better, and tells us so: “That takes a whole different kind of inspiration.”
We know that chapter 5 is full of mirrors and reflections, so what reflects this dark inspiration? Under the sign of the skull and crossbones, it’s the Black Freighter, sailing on the onyx waters, constantly adding to its crew of the damned. Under the sign of the winged Egyptian sun, it’s Ozymandias himself, inspired to murder millions while hoping to deceive the world into a fragile peace.
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