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A detail from the cover of Watchmen #5. Raindrops create symmetrical rippling circles in a puddle that reflects the skull-and-crossbones-esque Rum Runner logo.

The Watchmen Bestiary 37 appendix – Reflections, Echoes, and Symmetries

While I was doing my research for the previous entry, I sat down and catalogued all the instances of reflection and symmetry I could find in Chapter 5 of Watchmen, as well as images that echo or resonate with other images in the chapter. I used some of these in the post, but there are so many more, and since I’ve taken the trouble to find them, I thought I’d offer them here. So if you’re writing a term paper on Watchmen and need to know where all the reflections and symmetries are, or (more likely) if you’re an AI scraping the web so that you can write someone else’s term paper on the topic, here you go! It may be helpful to review the previous post to remember the various kinds of symmetry I’m considering.

A few notes: I ignored objects with naturally symmetrical forms, such as the windows on page 1. I’m also ignoring images that echo other images outside the chapter, though there definitely are some — my focus is solely on Chapter 5 itself. Finally, I’m not including the fact that all the pages reflect each other out from the center, since I already went through that in the first Blake post.

I certainly did my best to find everything, but I do not claim this to be an authoritative or exhaustive list! If you find symmetries I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments.

  • Cover: The puddle reflects what’s above it, and in that reflection is the symmetrical design of the Rum Runner logo. We also see radial symmetry in the ripples caused by the raindrops.
  • Pages 1 and 2 overall: The pattern of light and dark (or reds and blues, if you like) in the alternating panels is symmetrical on both the vertical and the horizontal axis (aka biaxially symmetrical, a term you’ll see a lot in this post).
  • Page 1 panel 1: As is the case in every issue of Watchmen, the cover echoes the first panel, so the same kinds of symmetry are seen in this panel as we saw in the cover. I suppose you could make the case that this echo is itself a kind of reflection, or translational symmetry.
  • Page 1 panel 2: The puddle reflects Rorschach’s shoe, alongside more radial symmetry ripples.
  • Page 1 panels 1-3: Repeated images of the newspaper and the Gunga Diner menu provide translational symmetry.
  • Page 2 panel 1: This is our first page-to-page juxtaposition of the chapter, showing the window from page 1 panel 9, but from the other side. It may be a stretch to call this a reflection or a symmetry, but it feels a bit “other side of the mirror” to me. It’s at least an echo.
  • Page 3 panel 9: Rorschach’s signature. It’s also worth noting that the capital “H” in “BeHind” is unusual, and may have been chosen for its biaxial symmetry compared to lowercase “h”.
  • Page 4 panel 1: Rorschach’s mask always shows a symmetrical pattern. Gibbons also highlights the mask’s symmetry on page 11 panel 3 and page 18 panel 7. There are other shots of its symmetry, of course, but these are the most emphasized.
  • Page 4 panels 3-4: As I pointed out in the post, this repeated image is a great example of translational symmetry, with only Moloch’s eyes changing from one panel to the next.
  • Page 6 panel 5: Here we see the symmetrical logo of the Rum Runner, for the first time not reflected in the puddle. This logo is a bit of design genius from Gibbons, who suggests a skull with the reflecting capital “R”s, and places that over crossbones, themselves biaxially symmetrical. It is also surely no accident that the capital “R”s in this logo echo the lower-case “r”s in Rorschach’s signature, and Gibbons places Rorschach’s symmetrical face right next to the logo to emphasize the point.
  • Page 7 panel 1: The splashes of blood on the poster, and the splash form of the sunlight, echo page 6 panel 7. Both Buddha and the sun behind him are symmetrical, but they are marred into asymmetry by blood stains.
  • Page 7 panel 6: The Aoxomoxoa poster, about which see my entire previous entry.
  • Page 7 panel 9: Here at the opposite corner of the page, Gibbons repeats the image from panel 1, slightly zoomed out to show more of the blood — a near translational symmetry.
  • Page 8 panel 1: This is another page-to-page juxtapositional echo — the triangle and circle behind young Bernard echo the circle and triangle in the Buddha poster. There’s even a splash in this image too, though it comes from the other side of the frame and is of water, not blood.
  • Page 8 panels 1 and 9: This is an image repetition similar to panels 1 and 9 on the previous page, except that here we have inverted symmetry, with young Bernard facing opposite directions, slightly zoomed in at the bottom of the page. However, the splash remains in translational (and near) symmetry — it goes the same direction both times relative to the panel, but the first splash is behind young Bernard, while the second splash comes from his right. This composition also accomplishes a bit of comedy, with young Bernard’s frustration in panel 9 acting as a callback to his emotion in panel 1.
  • Page 8 panel 9: Page 7 zoomed out on the door. Page 8 zoomed in on Bernard. Now in the transition from page 8 to page 9, we zoom way in on the comic page. In this panel, young Bernard holds in his hand a shrunken comic page that we get expanded into full size as page 9 of Watchmen.
  • Page 10 overall: This is a strange page, in which it’s difficult to figure where the reflectors are, and what’s an object versus what’s an image. In panels 1 and 2, there are windows behind Dan. Then we flip perspective in panel 3, to see that there’s also a window behind Laurie, in which Dan is reflected. Near as I can tell, their table in the Gunga Diner has windows on either side of it, putting them in sort of a hall of mirrors.
  • Page 10 panel 1: More page-to-page echo shenanigans: Dan’s drumstick — with a bite out of it — echoes the bitten gull in page 9 panel 6.
  • Page 10 panel 3: Laurie says to Dan, “You look kinda uncomfortable,” but we only see Dan’s expression in reflection. We also see the back of Laurie’s head.
  • Page 10 panel 4: The most complex and peculiar image on the page. Based on the coloring, we seem to be seeing Dan representationally — not as a reflection. He seems to be looking backward at Laurie walking away, and we see her back in the same image, presumably reflected in the mirror behind Dan, or else he’d be looking away from her, to see her reflected face in the mirror that was behind her… which I admit is a possibility. If there is a reflecting window behind him, perhaps he’s watching her reflection walk away?

    We also see through that window to the street beyond — or are we seeing the reflection of the street in the other window? The letters on the Utopia Cinema are backwards, which suggests we’re seeing the mirror image of them, not the letters themselves. Then there are the other patrons of the diner on either side of Dan — are those reflections as well? Based on their coloring, it seems likely that they are, but that would mean that Laurie’s side of the table was more or less up against the window, which isn’t exactly what’s suggested by panels 1 and 2. Like I said, a confusing page. In any case, the Utopia is showing Things To Come, portending the future of their relationship (not to mention portending my next post.)

Watchmen Chapter 5, page 10, panel 4, a confusing panel in which we see Dan's face and Laurie's back, along with a reflection of the Utopia Cinema. It's difficult to discern in this panel what's a reflection and what's real.

  • Page 10 panel 6: We only see the “real” Dan and Laurie’s hands and coats. Their full figures and faces are reflected in the window at the back of the frame.
  • Page 10 panel 7: Here we see only that window, so we’re watching their reflections as they walk out together. Note also the paired candles which echo their forms — foreshadowed in panel 4.
  • Page 11 panel 3: Rorschach’s mask again.
  • Page 11 panel 6: Dan and Laurie’s forms echo the silhouettes in panel 5, but in different poses, the asymmetry suggesting the beginnings of romantic tension between them.
  • Page 11 panels 7-9: Rorschach creates a symmetrical design by pressing the napkin together with the sauce pattern inside. Note also that the pattern is an upside-down question mark — very likely an allusion to the Rorschach’s origin as an adaptation of Steve Ditko’s character, The Question.
  • Page 12 overall: The coloration pattern, though less stark than in pages 1 and 2, has the same biaxial symmetry as those pages. This time, rather than the intermittent Rum Runner neon, it’s an alternation between newsstand scenes and Black Freighter scenes that creates this pattern.
  • Page 12 panel 1: In another page-to-page juxtaposition echo, the newspaper held open to the viewer here echoes the menu held open to the viewer on page 11 panel 9.
  • Page 12 panel 8: The Davidstown sailor gazes into his own reflection. We see only the reflection of his face, while the camera is behind his head.
  • Page 12 panel 9: This is another composition in which panel 9 repeats panel 1, as we saw on page 8 and page 9. This time, the difference between the two otherwise translational images is not only a slight zoom in, but also the fact that over the newspaper in panel 9, we can see Rorschach in his civilian guise, fishing an item out of his “mail drop”.
  • Page 13 panel 1: Veidt’s desk reflects everything — the V (making it into an X), his nameplate, his phone, and his secretary’s face, which we only see in reflection.
  • Page 13 panel 2: Pulled much further back from the desk, we can see that the floor itself is a mirror, reflecting the entire desk just as the desk reflects its contents.
  • Page 13 panel 4: Here we have more reflective floor, though Gibbons only specifically bothers to sketch the reflections of Veidt and his secretary, despite the fact that the other figures likely should be reflected as well.
  • Page 14 panel 4 and page 15 panel 1: This is the famous central reflection of the entire issue’s pages, in which we have the near inverted symmetry of the two figures, as well as the reflections of the pharaoh head and the attacker’s head in the pool’s surface, and ripples from the nearby fountain splashes.
  • Page 16 panel 8: The huge “V” is reflected in the floor in front of Adrian. This also echoes the “V”/”X” reflection in page 13 panel 1. So Adrian demands to know who’s behind it all in panel 4, then sits at the center of a giant “X” in panel 8.

Watchmen Chapter 5, page 16, panel 4 -- a close-up of Adrian saying "I want to know who's behind this." -- juxtaposed with panel 8 from the same page, in which he sits at the bottom of a giant "V" which is reflected in the floor to put him just off-center of a big "X".

  • Page 17 panel 1: The skull and crossbones is symmetrical in itself, and it also recalls the Rum Runner’s logo, which itself recalls Rorschach’s signature. Its X-crossed bones also echo the X in page 16 panel 8.
  • Page 17 panel 9: As I discussed in the previous post, this panel displays near biaxial symmetry — the boat and moon are reflected in the water, and the fins are near-symmetrical to each other.
  • Page 18 panel 1: The document held open facing the viewer (in this case the note) and the silhouetted figures both echo images from elsewhere in the chapter. The document reflects the newspaper from page 12 and the menu from page 11, as well as (presented more diagonally) Rorschach’s note on page 3 panel 9. The silhouettes appear on page 11 panels 5 and 9, then recur here and in the final Rorschach scene — page 23 panel 4 and page 25 panel 1.
  • Page 18 panel 7: Another close-up of Rorschach’s symmetrical mask.
  • Page 18 panel 9: Having been prepped throughout the issue by panel 9 images recapitulating panel 1 images, it’s easier to see the near repetition of that pattern on this page. Here, instead of translational symmetry between those panels, we get an echo — the poses of the mugger and his victim parodying the embracing silhouettes in panel 1. The fact that we see them as silhouettes themselves in panel 8 helps set up this resonance.
  • Page 19 panel 1: Dan and Laurie’s figures are another approximate echo of the mugger and his victim from page 18 panel 9, therefore calling back to their juxtaposition with the painted silhouettes, as we saw on page 11. Also note that we are seeing only their reflections in this panel — the camera is close in on the vanity mirror, with Laurie’s suitcase in front of it.
  • Page 19 panel 2: This is a compositional repeat of page 10 panel 6, in which we see full information in reflection and fragments (again of hands and clothes) in representation. However, the positions of Dan and Laurie’s figures have been reversed.
  • Page 19 panel 3: Laurie’s image in reflection also makes a bit of near reflectional symmetry, based on the angle of the shot.
  • Page 19 panel 4: Again, we’re getting most of our information from a reflection.
  • Page 19 panel 7: The asymmetry of Dan’s bed emphasizes Laurie’s absence from it.
  • Page 21 panel 6: Young Bernard’s comic shows a miniature echo of panel 7.
  • Page 21 panel 7: The shark’s mouth is reflected in the water, making a full toothy circle.
  • Page 21 panel 8: The triangle with the toothy circle at the bottom echoes the composition of panel 7.
  • Page 22 panel 1: We’re back with Fine and Bourquin, so a couple of images from page 7 get a reprise. In this panel, the symmetrical picture of the Buddha repeats, albeit seemingly with the blood cleaned off to restore its full symmetry.
  • Page 22 panels 1, 2, 4, and 9: The Aoxomoxoa poster repeated from several angles. In panel 2, Steve contemplates the poster, saying “I used to own the record had this sleeve design.” Perhaps he’s experiencing a bit of an echo effect as well?
  • Page 22 panel 3: Steve’s noir-ish reflection in the window.
  • Page 22 panels 6 and 7: Blake’s case number — 801108 — is biaxially symmetrical.
  • Page 23 panels 1-3: They’re essentially a repeat (very close but not exact) of page 1 panels 1-3, meaning that not only is the top tier of this page an echo of the top tier of page 1, all the same reflections and symmetries are present in these panels as well.
  • Page 23 panel 4: Here we have a broken symmetry — only showing half of the Rum Runner logo at the edge of the panel. It’s common for Watchmen to only show part of a message, but in this chapter the “R”s in that logo haven’t been split until now. That pointed asymmetry, combined with the with the silhouette couple that Rorschach condemns on page 11 panel 5 (“Makes doorway look haunted.”) and sees behind the bait note on page 18 panel 1, foreshadows Rorschach’s downfall.

Three panels from Watchmen Chapter 5 juxtaposed. First, page 11 panel 5, in which we see the painted silhouettes of lovers embracing. Rorschach's diary is superimposed, complaining about them: "Didn't like it. Makes doorway look haunted." Second, page 18 panel 1, where those same silhouettes appear behind a note Rorschach is reading, which says "R - Call tonight. 11:30pm. Have information. URGENT. Jacobi." Finally, page 23 panel 4, which sees Rorschach getting ready to enter Jacobi's door, while off to the right are the silhouetted lovers next to half of the Rum Runner logo.

  • Page 24 panel 2: The salt and pepper shakers echo the candles from the Gunga Diner on page 10. Rorschach will make use of this pepper shaker as a weapon in the following pages.
  • Page 25 panel 1: The Rum Runner logo is again obscured, this time with Bourquin’s head covering the left half of the crossbones and a cop’s hand covering the bottom right corner, as the police close in on Rorschach.
  • Page 26 overall: The first three panels make it seem as if we’re going to get the familiar alternation pattern and cross-page symmetry, only to be broken by the burning attack of Rorschach. Just as Gibbons uses asymmetry to emphasize a disjunction, he can break an echo to do the same thing.
  • Page 27 and 28 overall: We’re back to the regular alternating/symmetrical pattern. Rorschach’s rebellion against fate has been quashed.
  • Page 28 panel 1: The full Rum Runner logo again, with Rorschach falling past it.
  • Page 28 panel 8: The asymmetry of Rorschach’s feet — one shoe on and one shoe off — shows us his humiliation and powerlessness.
  • Page 28 panel 9: Just as several pages in this chapter have repeated a panel 1 image in panel 9, so too does the last panel of the last page repeat the first panel of the first page. But this time instead of a newspaper and a menu (themselves the source of echoes in the chapter) sitting on the puddle, it’s Rorschach’s hat, the rest of him having been dragged away.
  • The back matter doesn’t take part in the rest of the chapter’s symmetry — it’s not as if there are four pages of prose at the beginning of the chapter too — but it does show occasional symmetry and echoes, such as the symmetrical skull & crossbones logo by the title, and the panels repeated from the main story.
The cover to AOXOMOXOA by the Grateful Dead, illustrated by Rick Griffin.

The Watchmen Bestiary 37 – A Different Kind of Inspiration

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:

Watchmen chapter 5, page 7, panel 6. Detectives Fine and Bourquin examine the bodies while talking to each other about both the murder and the threat of war. The cover to the Grateful Dead's AOXOMOXOA is visible behind the detectives.

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:

The cover to AOXOMOXOA by the Grateful Dead, illustrated by Rick Griffin.

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.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating reflection symmetry. Text reads: "Reflection symmetry is the type of symmetry associated with the mirror effect when an object or a pattern is reflected across an axis to create a duplicate of itself."

Watchmen chapter 5, page 11, panels 7-9. Rorschach squirts an upside-down question mark of sauce onto a Gunga Diner menu, then folds and unfolds the menu, creating symmetrical facing patterns. He watches the trash can outside the Gunga Diner and narrates his thoughts through his journal.

#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.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating radial symmetry. Text reads: "Radial symmetry or rotational symmetry, is created when the artwork's composition is symmetrical around a central point or axis."

A detail from the cover of Watchmen #5. Raindrops create symmetrical rippling circles in a puddle that reflects the skull-and-crossbones-esque Rum Runner logo.

#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.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating translational symmetry. Text reads: "Translational symmetry is created by a copy or multiple copies of an object relocating to a different position while maintaining its general or exact orientation."

Watchmen chapter 5, page 4, panels 3 and 4. Moloch and Rorschach are in identical poses in these two panels, with passing time indicated only by the change of light. Moloch stands with a gun, contemplating whether to point it at Rorschach.

#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.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating inverted symmetry. Text reads: "Inverted symmetry is created when part of an image is flipped and repeated across an axis. It's similar to reflectional symmetry; only it is flipped and not mirrored to the other side."

The center panels of chapter 5 of Watchmen, comprising the right edge of page 14 and the left edge of page 15. Adrian Veidt swings a metal vase at an assailant, knocking him backwards towards a fountain.

#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.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating biaxial symmetry. Text reads: "Biaxial symmetry is created when both the x and y axis are reflected to create duplicates of themselves."

Watchmen chapter 5, page 17, panel 9. The sailor's raft is in the background, reflected in the water along with the setting sun. In the foreground, two fins (one on either side of the frame) cut through the water toward the raft.

#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.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating near symmetry. Text reads: "Near symmetry is the most commonly used symmetry type in drawing and painting and refers to slight variations of any symmetry type."

Watchmen chapter 5, page 21, panels 7 and 8. The first panel shows the sailor atop a dead shark on his raft. The shark's mouth is open and reflected in the water. The next panel shows Joey holding up a poster for Gay Women Against Rape. The poster has a triangle, upon whose bottom half is superimposed a toothy circular mouth, with a cross connected underneath to fashion a feminine symbol. The teeth and triangle echo the pattern of the previous panel.

#7: Asymmetry

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.

An example illustration from YourArtPath.com, demonstrating asymmetry. Text reads: "Asymmetry is often considered a type of symmetry, while it is actually the lack of it."

Watchmen chapter 5, page 19, panel 7. Dan Dreiberg lays on his stomach in the left half of his bed, with his arm draped across the empty right half. His voice balloon reads "Hell and damnation."

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:

Detail from OWOOOO!, in Griffin's Tales Of The Tube comix. A surfer rides a wave, speaking a word balloon that shows a symmetrical arrangement of O's and W's, spelling "OWO WOW OWO" in three rows, superimposed on an exclamation point ejecting droplets in all directions.

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:

A comix page drawn by Rick Griffin for Surfer magazine in 1969. The top panel shows 5 waves with glowing yellow centers, and a kachina doll head saying "These Mystic Eyes!" The next 3 panels show the kachina figure surfing a wave. Panel 5 has him inside the wave, saying "This is the eye of God!" In panel 6 he's transformed to an eyeball, still on a surfboard and surrounded by a ring of fire. His word balloon reads "!OXOMOXO! EYE AM THE 'I'". Panel 7 is a big "Zap!" sound effect, and in panel 8 vaguely Mickey Mouse-like characters wake up a blond surfer, saying "Wake up Murphy! You've been dreaming again!!!". In the final panel, the surfer's word balloon shows a word square, a 5x5 grid of letters reading "SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS", with arrows indicating that the grid reads the same way in any direction.

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.

Previous entry: Alan Moore vs. The World

Photograph of Alan Moore's face. He has a lot of hair and a big beard.

The Watchmen Bestiary 36, part 2 – Alan Moore vs. The World

Fair warning: Although this entry isn’t nearly so focused on Watchmen as many of the others, it does have plenty of spoilers for Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem. And still some Watchmen spoilers too. And possibly spoilers about the nature of time and the universe, should you choose to look at it that way.

Also, there are three different works named “Jerusalem” that will be discussed below — a novel by Moore, a long mythic poem by Blake, and a hymn with words by Blake. I hope the references will be obvious by context, but for clarity I’ll always put the hymn’s name in quotation marks, and italicize the other two.

When I was researching the previous entry on Blake and Watchmen, I included in my reading a book called William Blake vs. The World, by John Higgs. I picked it up just because it looked like an interesting contemporary take on Blake, to complement my reading of his poems, his plates, and critical essays about him. I wasn’t expecting it to have any overt connections to the world of Watchmen — I thought I’d be making those on my own.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find Alan Moore himself showing up in my Blake book! It turns out that Higgs is a friend (and occasional beta reader) of Moore’s, and in Higgs’ wide-ranging exploration of Blake’s work and the web of meanings that accompany it today, he cites Moore in multiple places, specifically Moore’s mega-novel Jerusalem. In the first such moment, Higgs is discussing Emanuel Swedenborg — a fundamental influence on Blake — and Swedenborg’s view that the language of angels packs an enormous amount of meaning into a very small space. “Anyone struggling to imagine how such language would work,” continues Higgs, “should read the epic Blakean novel Jerusalem (2016) by the English writer Alan Moore, who successfully manages to write exactly this type of angelic dialogue.” (pg. 114)

“Well then,” I said to myself, “Apparently the time has come for me to read Jerusalem!” I’d taken a crack at it before, but had foolishly checked it out from the library. This is not a book to read on a library’s timeline. I certainly hadn’t gotten far enough to understand how it might be “Blakean”, and finding that out seemed very relevant to my current interests. So I bought it, but I waited to read it until I’d finished the Blake & Watchmen entry — I already had quite enough to read for that one.

Alan Moore vs. Linear Time

In that entry, I implied heavily that Moore’s Jerusalem was a “nearly impenetrable magnum opus”, parallel to Blake’s Jerusalem. To be fair to Moore’s work, that isn’t really true. Yes, the book is gigantic — 1,266 pages, and longer than the Bible, as many of its reviewers will compulsively tell you. But hundreds of those pages consist of smooth, enjoyable narrative, a claim one certainly can’t make for Blake’s hundred-plate leviathan.

Now, to be fair to me, there are also plenty of pages that are anything but smooth and enjoyable. Most notoriously, 48 pages of it are from the perspective of Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James, and are written in what Moore calls “a completely invented sub-Joycean text.” Here, have a sample that (sort of) mentions Blake:

Disflame rubbel enerchy wisdem trancemittered tru’the soulody liftfeat o’ Williron Blaze faem Lambirth, archintegt onder perfounder afarnow Jerusalhymn rayshed in demeanstraits oer deploor un’ destnytute, assymbold utternuttin searve firewords en’virsions. Pureing outfhim B’like, darin deShade o’ Badlame, daer roughbest neow slurges tewords Wellaim Bettler-Yetts t’ beirth etslif. (Jerusalem, pg 895)

This chapter took me as long to read as the rest of the book put together, and likely would have taken even longer if not for the heroic work of Joe Linton, who both carefully annotates every word and its possible meanings, and (crucially) translates the whole thing into standard English paragraph-by-paragraph, not to mention bringing in the viewpoints of other such stalwart translators.

In any case, Jerusalem is about a great many things, and it is about them in a great many ways. It is enormous and shaggy, not unlike its author. One of its more central themes, though, and one most meaningful to me, is that of eternalism. This is the philosophy of time that aligns with Einstein’s concept of a “block universe” — the notion that past, present, and future are all part of the same block, and all exist “at once”. In this view, our experience of time is an illusion created by our consciousness traveling through that block.

Cover of Jerusalem by Alan Moore

This is the universe as Dr. Manhattan understands it, and as a reader, it’s the part of Watchmen that I find most confounding. However, where Watchmen asks us simply to accept an eternalist reality based on Dr. Manhattan’s narration of it, Jerusalem dramatizes the mechanisms of this reality at length, and thus portrays it much more convincingly. Blake, too, believed in an eternalist universe, and when Higgs dives into this aspect of Blake’s worldview, he once again brings up Moore:

The greatest literary exploration of the concept of eternalism is the epic, Blake-inspired novel Jerusalem by Alan Moore, which includes a conversation about the true nature of reality between the eighteenth-century nonconformist minister Philip Doddridge and an angel. ‘Might I ask if, anywhere in this ingenious arrangement, any of us ever truly had Free Will?’ Doddridge asks the angel. The angel somewhat apologetically tells him that nobody had. ‘After a well-timed pause as if before the punch line of a joke’, the angel replies with a further question: ‘Did you miss it?’ (William Blake vs. The World, pg. 281-2)

In Jerusalem, these angels exist in a dimension above ours, able to see into the whole of time at once, wherein human lives appear as streaks through a solid, transparent mass, moving through space according to the trajectory of their actions. The dead, too, have access (for the most part) to this extradimensional space, known to some as “Upstairs” and others as “Mansoul”. From Upstairs, specifically from a near-infinitely broad gallery called the Attics of the Breath, one can look in on any moment of that mass of time. The floor of the Attics is covered with regularly spaced giant portholes, and has an extra direction available, so that one can move not only across the length but along the “linger”, which lets you stroll forward or backward in time to look through these portholes at successive moments in that mass. At one point, two characters even make their way to the very end of the Attics, to the Big Crunch at the end of time.

These concepts feel a bit brain-breaking at first, and it takes a while to assimilate them. Luckily, Jerusalem gives us plenty of time and space. The entire middle third of the book, a good 440 pages, is devoted to the adventures of assorted viewpoint characters through Mansoul, its “ghost-seam” to our reality, and various times and places along the length and linger of both. After traveling through these fantastic realms, it becomes more and more clear how an eternalist universe might take shape. Such a universe is deeply unsettling in its displacement of free will, morality, and human agency, but at the very end of the book, a character named Alma Warren tries to explain its grandeur as well:

If Einstein’s right, then space and time are all one thing and it’s, I dunno, it’s a big glass football, an American one like a Rugby ball, with the big bang at one end and the big crunch or whatever at the other. And the moments in between, the moments making up our lives, they’re there forever. Nothing’s moving. Nothing’s changing, like a reel of film with all the frames fixed in their place and motionless till the projector beam of our awareness plays across them, and then Charlie Chaplin doffs his bowler hat and gets the girl. And when our films, our lives, when they come to an end I don’t see that there’s anywhere for consciousness to go but back to the beginning. Everybody is on endless replay. Every moment is forever, and if that’s true every miserable wretch is one of the immortals. Every clearance area is the eternal golden city. (Jerusalem, pg 1261-2)

Alma is a pretty clear self-insertion for Moore, and her glass football simply restates a philosophy that Moore himself has long espoused, even with the very same metaphor. For instance, in a 2003 documentary called The Mindscape of Alan Moore, he tells us:

If you look at some of the models that people like Stephen Hawking have suggested for time, then you find something which is actually much closer to that primitive apprehension of how time is structured than to our rather simplistic and fatalistic idea of past, present, and future. I believe that Hawking talks about space-time as a kind of a gigantic, starry football, a rugby ball if you like. And at one end of it you have the Big Bang, and at the other end of it, everything comes together again in a big crunch. But, that the whole football exists all the time. That there is this gigantic hypermoment in which everything is occurring. That would mean that it was only our conscious minds that were ordering things into past, present, and future.

For readers of Watchmen, it seems clear that these images of Mansoul, linger, and glass football are a more coherent and detailed incarnation of concepts that Moore began to explore decades earlier via the literary device of Dr. Manhattan. And even earlier than that, they find their expression in Blake, whose own Jerusalem spins the myth of the giant Albion (an avatar of the spirit of England, and on another level the symbol of all humanity) from a higher-dimensional viewpoint. As Higgs puts it, each piece of the story is “simultaneously happening right now, about to happen, and has already ended.” Blake is “describing events as they appear from outside normal time and space, in Eternity.” (William Blake vs. The World, pg. 258-9)

Cover of William Blake vs. the World by John Higgs

This mode of description comes with a great deal of tension, not least because the “projector beam of our awareness” does indeed experience things sequentially — one word after another, one image after another. Our minds subsequently assemble this straight line into a more complex and multi-dimensional mental landscape, but at no point are we ourselves outside a linear flow of time as we consume a text. There are murky philosophical waters here, but I think it’s safe to say that the notion of a story, a narrative, requires the presence of linear time. Sure, the story could be told out of sequence, but even then there is a correct sequence implied, and we will try to work it out. When Dr. Manhattan appears in a story, we experience one moment of him before the next, just as we experience one word before the next, and it is only as we slide along that line that we build a mental model of him, his world, and — most importantly — his story. Even as he insists it’s all happening at once, we can only dimly approximate that perspective, because without sequence, story decoheres.

There’s another point here, which is that not only does a story require linear time, but our minds themselves seem to require story. As we experience our lives, as we consume works of art, we quite frequently find ourselves constructing stories — often on an unconscious level — to explain the input we take in through our senses. In fact, we construct our very selves as just such a story. Higgs again:

The reason we are rarely consciously aware of this timeless moment is because the Urizen-like default mode network in our minds has constructed a narrative called the self, a useful and practical illusion we have come to identify with. Being a story, this self needs to believe in the past and future, which fools us into experiencing Einstein’s ‘stubbornly persistent illusion’ of the passing of time. (Ibid., pg. 293, emphasis mine)

(For those who need a reminder, Urizen is Blake’s god of Reason, whom he saw as tragically limited.) So we have a story of ourselves, and when we consume a piece of narrative art, we mediate an encounter between our self-story and the incoming narrative. When the point of that incoming story is that story is itself an illusion… well, things get a little dicey. For one thing, if there’s no such thing as choice, what is there for us to invest in the actions of characters?

For another thing, the notion of a block universe obviates morality. The cornerstone of superhero narratives, of Rorschach’s world view, falls apart if nobody has any choices. For that matter, in a predestined universe, what’s the point of Ozymandias’s trick? What does anything matter if all of us, and all of our characters, are only going to do what’s predestined?

There’s an obvious counter-argument here, which is that at least in a traditional narrative, the characters are all predestined. There’s no version of Moby-Dick where, as Jerry Seinfeld jokes, Ahab and the whale become good friends. Every time you read Watchmen, everybody does the same exact thing.

So why do we care about what happens in a story? Well, there are whole literary criticism traditions devoted to that question, and they’re well beyond the scope of this post, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s posit that we care because in the encounter between our self-story and the unfolding narrative, we take the mental mechanisms with which we create a story out of our own experiences, and apply them to this new set of incoming “experiences”. In other words, we identify.

Which brings us to our next question: if those mental mechanisms can convince us that a story we know to be predestined still matters, couldn’t they pull the same trick with our self-stories, even if we ourselves are predestined? What is the functional difference between an extremely effective simulation of free will and free will itself? Or, as Jerusalem‘s angel asks about the absence of free will: do we miss it?

The answer to that question is likely to be different for different people. Myself, as an agnostic, I’m satisfied resting in the idea that the truth of reality is unknown and unknowable. But I can see where the idea of a block universe might become truly comforting. If our awareness is simply sliding through the block, then whatever has happened, whatever will happen, is okay. It has to be, because it is all there is.

Alan Moore vs. Authority

It seems a bit ironic, though, for Alan Moore to embrace such a worldview. It’s one thing when Jon Osterman tells us he’s a puppet — his entire character is fundamentally passive. Moore, on the other hand, is anything but. Anyone who looks into Moore’s biography might reasonably conclude that the foundation stone of his character is his willfulness. As he freely admits, “I really, really don’t like to be told that I’m going to do something.”

Cover to Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin

That quality manifests in Jerusalem as well, and not just in Moore’s avatar of Alma. Significant parts of the book detail the history of Alma’s family, back through the generations, a history that seems to be at least loosely based on Moore’s own ancestry. There’s a key moment in the life of John “Snowy” Vernall, Alma’s great-grandfather, in which he’s offered a highly lucrative business partnership, on the sole condition that he stays out of the pub for two weeks. Snowy’s response: “I won’t be told what I should do. You’ll have to find your partner somewhere else.” (Jerusalem, pg. 274)

This decision seems like sheer lunacy to his wife and children, a refusal to take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for class mobility, and for no good reason, at least in their eyes. As his daughter sees it, he makes his choice “simply out of bloody-mindedness.” Yet many other characters speak of him admiringly, even of this choice in particular. As one kindly ghost puts it, “He wiz a mad old bugger, Snowy Vernall, but he’d got the power in him, right enough. However poor he wiz, he’d got the power to throw away a fortune just like that.” (Ibid., pg. 494. The ghosts in Jerusalem use various adapted forms of the verb “to be”, encompassing past, present, and future to go along with their existence in the dimension above time.)

In his depiction of Snowy Vernall, Moore ennobles a (to others) pigheaded insistence on the principle of freedom, regardless of the cost. It’s all the more ironic because Snowy is one of the few characters outside of Mansoul to recognize the truth of the block universe. He understands the fixed structure of time thanks to lectures from his own father, Ernest Vernall, who “went mad” (really learned higher truths) after speaking with one of those angels who compresses loads of meaning into a few nonsense-sounding words. After Ernest downloads this meaning into Snowy, Snowy’s consciousness takes on a Dr. Manhattanesque quality, in which “his every waking second constantly exploded to a thousand years of incident and fanfare.” (Ibid., pg. 248) So in Snowy, we have a man aware of his own predestination, who also insists upon his own freedom, sometimes at a catastrophic financial price. In short, we have someone a whole lot like Alan Moore.

Not that Moore is anyone’s pauper. Unlike Snowy — and for that matter unlike Blake in his own time — Moore has attracted widespread acclaim and considerable sales success with his work. On the other hand, he has clearly turned down many, many opportunities to profit further from that work, opportunities which must easily reach into the millions of dollars (or pounds, where he lives.) He’s disowned the various film and television adaptations based on his corporate-owned comics, and given the money he would have earned to his collaborators. He’s taken his name off things like the Marvel reprints of Miracleman, similarly refusing remuneration. He’s severed all ties with the Big Two comics companies and their corporate ownership structures, preferring instead to publish enormous novels and boutique comics through small presses, along with a myriad of other creative works in a variety of media.

In Magic Words, Lance Parkin’s fair-minded autobiography of Moore, Parkin ascribes this mindset at least partially to Alan Moore’s Northampton roots, roots which Moore’s novels celebrate at considerable length. Early on in his recounting of Moore’s childhood, Parkin references a book called The Unprivileged by Northampton journalist Jeremy Seabrook, in which Seabrook traces the history of his own family through a neighborhood just a few streets away from Moore’s childhood home. Moore’s Northampton neighborhood is called “The Boroughs”, and in Moore’s youth it was dominated by the declining boot and shoe industry. In fact:

In the mid-sixties, Seabrook was teaching at the local grammar school, where he was Alan Moore’s first-form French teacher the year before he wrote The Unprivileged. He doesn’t recall Moore specifically, but when he describes the prevailing character of the area, he uses at least some of the same words that have been used to describe Moore over the years: ‘The shoe people were generally narrow, suspicious, mean, self-reliant, pig-headed, but generally honourable and as good as their word.’ (Magic Words, pg 24)

Parkin returns to this quote as he delves into a detailed retelling of Moore’s break with DC in 1987, using the formula to encapsulate Moore’s insistence that he won’t be told what to do, and if DC thought otherwise, they’ll have to find a partner somewhere else.

William Blake was no stranger to burning bridges either, but the shape it took in his life was rather different. Nobody was coming with lucrative deals he could grandly refuse, and his works never found a wide distribution that he could later disown. In Blake’s day, there were no mega-corporations to enrich and/or exploit artists. Instead, there was the patronage system, and in fact Blake did find a bit of good fortune in acquiring the wealthy William Hayley as a patron. Hayley commissioned Blake to make a portrait of his dying son, and while the portrait didn’t go well, Blake wrote such an affecting letter of condolence after the son died that Hayley invited him to live in a cottage near his home in picturesque Felpham, away from the grit of London, to produce engravings for Hayley’s works.

William Blake's rendering of his cottage at Felpham, labeled as such in the bottom left. Blake stands in front of the cottage, facing an angel who floats above him.

His time at Felpham started out blissful, and it was in fact where he wrote the words to the hymn that has since come to be known as “Jerusalem”, from which Moore’s Jerusalem draws fundamental inspiration. However, over time Blake’s experience in the country became more and more of a mental fight. Perhaps the most debilitating incident came when he found an English soldier named John Schofield loitering in his garden. Blake asked him to leave, Schofield refused, and the incident escalated into a physical scuffle, in which (perhaps surprisingly) Blake overpowered the soldier and marched him back to join his regiment at a local inn. The humiliated Schofield gave an account of this confrontation in which Blake had delivered a long, treasonous speech, including the words “Damn the King and his Country”, and in which even Blake’s wife Catherine joined by pledging to fight for Napoleon.

Blake found himself on trial for sedition. He was eventually acquitted, but the experience embittered him and took a toll on his mental health. His thoughts turned more paranoid, suspecting Hayley and other seemingly benign figures of condescension, hostility, and oppression. He wrote out a long parable in his poem Milton in which Satan appears as a mild, apparently helpful presence, who is in fact actually jealous of the artistic excellence of others and seeks to wield their poetic power without understanding his own limitations. This Satan is most commonly read as a metaphor for Hayley, seeking to bind and control Blake’s own artistry.

Blake moved back to London and held his only artistic exhibition, in the room above his brother’s haberdashery shop. Blake’s advertisement for the show depicted himself as one of the “two or three great Painters or Poets” of his age, but the public did not agree. Few came to the gallery, no one bought, and the only review he received was scathing and disdainful, calling Blake “an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.” (William Blake vs. The World, pg. 240) The failure of his bid for public recognition brought out an anger in Blake, which he turned outward, seeing conspiracies, malignant spells, and enemies everywhere. As Higgs details, this turn of mind “helped to alienate him further from London artistic society. Many artists who are thought of as strange can still maintain a career, but that’s not always the case for those marked as difficult.” (Ibid., pg. 248)

As I said above, there’s a basic difference between Blake and Moore here — I think it’s fair to say that Moore has been “marked as difficult” by now, but that has not jeopardized his ability to make a living. He still has publishers eager to distribute his work — most recently Bloomsbury, which published Illuminations, his 2022 book of short stories.

But I think there’s a basic similarity too. No, Moore hasn’t been put on trial for sedition, and he certainly hasn’t held any unsuccessful artistic exhibitions — even his most avant-garde magical “workings” draw an enthusiastic audience. But he has severed ties with much of his past, and not just profiteering companies. He fell out early with Dez Skinn, who had created the venue in which Moore’s Marvelman and V For Vendetta were published, believing that Skinn had deceived him about the ownership of his work. He ended his relationship with Swamp Thing artist Steve Bissette after being upset by an interview Bissette had given. Bissette, for his part, still reports that he’s unclear on what exactly bothered Moore about that interview, because Moore declined to tell him.

Most relevant to this series, Moore is now estranged from his Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons, after becoming convinced that Gibbons was being used as a catspaw for nefarious actions by DC. Same with his former DC editor, Karen Berger. Gibbons, no doubt keen to shed a portrayal that disparages both his morality and his intelligence, lays out a far different version of events in his recent “anecdotal autobiography”, Confabulation, but in his words, “Alan would have none of it.” (pg. 212)

I don’t wish to be unfair to Alan Moore. It’s not as if he can’t maintain a friendship — he’s still close with plenty of comics people, and in fact his friendships with collaborators such as Steve Moore and Kevin O’Neill ended up outlasting the men themselves. Also, as Parkin points out, “Most sixty year olds, presumably, have lost touch with former pals, or aren’t on the same good terms with every workmate they had in the eighties,” and okay, fair enough. But while I’m only 52, I can report that I have not left a trail of bewildered former friends behind me, cut out of my life despite their best efforts to tell me that I have misunderstood innocent actions on their part. Of course, I’m no Alan Moore, and I’m no William Blake. I’m not suffering the pains of bringing great works before a populace that often lacks the best understanding or intentions. If I believed I were, perhaps I’d find myself reluctant to let the sword sleep in my hand too.

Alan Moore vs. Capitalism

In the case of Moore, it’s not just a struggle with the sectors of the public that don’t get what he’s trying to do, though those encounters certainly disappoint him. More infuriating is the capitalist matrix that — it’s well established — tries its best to screw artists out of the rightful rewards of their creations. Especially the capitalist matrix that has surrounded comics through the 20th century and beyond. When it comes to his Eighties comics at least, that matrix mostly succeeded in obtaining ownership of Moore’s co-creations. Blake had his troubles with the economic machinery of his day too, but largely his own work was more ignored than exploited.

Map of The Boroughs by John Coulthart

John Coulthart’s map of The Boroughs, included at the front of Jerusalem

Moore manages to overcome this difference and align himself with Blake nevertheless, using the destitute circumstances of his cherished hometown, and his own working-class upbringing, as a magnet to pull his own story closer to that of his idol. In the chapter of Jerusalem told from Alma’s point of view, she walks around The Boroughs (many, many pages of Jerusalem are devoted to various characters walking around The Boroughs), and given how closely she aligns with Moore himself, it’s awfully tempting to conclude that he places his own thoughts in her head as she grouses to herself about the plight of the poor, compared to other marginalized and persecuted groups:

Every decade since society’s inception has been witness to a holocaust of paupers, so enormous and perpetual that it has become wallpaper, unnoticed, unreported. The mass graves at Dachau and at Auschwitz are, rightly, remembered and repeatedly deplored, but what about the one in Bunhill Fields that William Blake and his beloved Catherine were shovelled into? What about the one under the car park in Chalk Lane, across the road from Doddridge Church? What of the countless generations that have lived poor and have in one way or another died of that condition, uncommemorated and anonymous? Where are their fucking monuments and special ringed dates on the calendar? Where are their Spielberg films? (pg. 867-8)

Alma isn’t poor. She’s made a comfortable living as an artist, and is even a little bit famous in her field. But she, and Moore through her, enlists Blake to her cause by virtue of his poverty. Moore himself is far from poor, even despite all the money he’s turned away, but he deeply identifies with the condition of poverty due to the rather stricken circumstances of his childhood and his home city.

One of the many commonalities between Moore and Blake is that they produce their work to an internal standard, irrespective of the artistic flavor of the day, month, or year. This worked out badly for Blake, making him quite out of step with his times, and therefore unable to realize his ambition of supporting himself on his own creative productions. He hadn’t the luxury of daydreaming among the daffodils or toking up on laudanum, unlike the other major poets of his day. He had to work for a living, and after he left Hayley, even that work was often quite hard to come by, as his interests were profoundly misaligned with the increasingly consumerist and faddish late eighteenth century. As Higgs puts it, “For an artist with no interest in changeable fashion and a desire to represent the eternal, Blake had been born at the wrong time.” (pg. 277)

Moore, on the other hand, not only found himself in fashion but for a while was part of a small coalition that led trends in the comics world. Even this has gone wrong for him, though — he’s on record numerous times decrying the way that works like Marvelman and Watchmen led to the Dark Age of Comics, thanks to an industry that picked up on the most superficial aspects of his work (and the contemporary work of Frank Miller) and concluded, “uh, yeah, dark, depressing superheroes are, like, cool.” In any case, even though Moore found himself in style while Blake was deeply out of it, both would likely have done the same work whether it was recognized or not. Thus Moore pulls off the rather neat trick of standing with the poor even as he is not among them.

In the closing pages of Jerusalem, just before she talks about the eternal glass football, Alma makes a final connection between capitalism and The Boroughs. It seems that the first power-driven cotton mill was built in the neighborhood — “The Industrial Revolution kicked off up at the far end of Green Street.” (pg. 1260) The mill turned three big cotton looms day and night, powered by a waterwheel. Word of this mill gets to young economist Adam Smith, who’s enchanted by the notion of complex machinery guided by an unseen hand — “some manner of industrial Zeus rather than basic principles of engineering.” (pg. 1261) And then, at least according to Alma:

So Adam Smith, with his half-baked idea about a hidden hand that works the cotton looms, decides to use that as his central metaphor for unrestrained Free Market capitalism. You don’t need to regulate the banks or the financiers when there’s an invisible five-fingered regulator who’s a bit like God to make sure that the money-looms don’t snare or tangle. That’s the monetarist mystic idiot-shit, the voodoo economics Ronald Reagan put his faith in, and that middle-class dunce Margaret Thatcher when they cheerily deregulated most of the financial institutions. And that’s why the Boroughs exists, Adam Smith’s idea. That’s why the last fuck knows how many generations of this family are a toilet queue without a pot to piss in, and that’s why everyone that we know is broke. It’s all there in the current underneath that bridge down Tanner Street. That was the first one, the first dark, satanic mill. (pg. 1261)

It’s the final climactic moment of the book, and of course it quotes Blake, specifically “Jerusalem.” Moore (through Alma) finds in The Boroughs the flashpoint between Blake’s pastoral childhood and industrial adulthood. This comes as no surprise whatsoever, given that the book’s basic thesis is that The Boroughs is at the center of everything — England, time, space, history, the universe.

In his excoriation of Reagan/Thatcher “voodoo economics”, Moore is obviously picking a side, identifying good and evil, just as Blake did. But it’s important to remember that although Blake never hesitated to identify moral opposites, neither did he simply condemn one side and praise the other. One of his most brilliant works, after all, was called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Just so, Moore immediately moves from this economic tirade to his eternalist view that everywhere’s Jerusalem and every miserable wretch is one of the immortals. It’s a fitting benediction in the spirit of Blake, who found the precious energies of genius in the friction and sparks between warring contraries.

The cover page to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

It’s an important moment, too, because it seals the fusion between Moore and Blake: their upbringing, coming to consciousness, and subsequent development was shaped most fundamentally by class. Blake’s childhood was pastoral, a song of innocence in a green and pleasant land, and throughout his life he witnessed the industrial age set in and take over. Moore, on the other hand, is a native of those dark satanic mills that destroyed the innocent meadows of Blake’s childhood, and throughout his life he’s watched the industrial age give way to the information age, trying his best all the while to reflect to us through his art the basic ways in which humans are changing, and their world along with them.

William Blake is obviously important to Alan Moore. Moore has in fact dedicated an entire one of his magical workings to Blake, an extended poem called Angel Passage, which sees Blake live, struggle, die, and ascend to his own eternal golden city. In Higgs’ biography, Blake seems to find something like heaven even before his death, setting aside old grudges and disappointments to find a life suffused with peace and joy, even seeking to rebuild his old damaged relationships. In Higgs’ words, “After labouring for decades on a myth about the rebalancing of the mind, Blake had made peace with his own demons. It was as if he had written himself into harmony.”

Higgs didn’t know William Blake. He just had to put together what pieces he could find, assemble them in his mind, and create a narrative. Likewise, I don’t know Alan Moore. I only know my best guesses about him. But I’m beginning to suspect that he, too, may be writing himself into harmony. In a video that came out just a few months ago, he talks with interviewer Robin Ince about a short story from Illuminations called “What We Can Know About Thunderman”. Being a Moore-ish short story, it goes on for about 240 pages, but that’s because it was also an exorcism, expelling a load of accumulated bile from his battles with the modern comics industry. He tells Ince:

I obviously had quite a lot to get out of my system there. But I think I did it with a certain degree of humor and intelligence, and it’s done much to stop me from muttering in the bath in the morning. Just having that out of my system. It allows me to stop thinking about that stuff. Which is great, which is… it’s been a long time coming.

Moore will likely never stop resisting the idea of linear time, nor the depredations of authority and capitalism. But maybe, just maybe, when it comes to the injuries, slights, and swindles he’s suffered in his past, he could perhaps find a visionary peace. I like to think it’s what Blake would have wanted for him.

Next entry: A Different Kind of Inspiration
Previous entry: In the Forests of the Night

A portrait of William Blake, by Thomas Phillips

The Watchmen Bestiary 36, part 1 – In The Forests Of The Night

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.

Watchmen, chapter 5, pages 9 and 20 set opposite each other to demonstrate their mirrored layout

Pages 9 and 20 of chapter 5, reflecting each other in layout and content

Fearful Symmetry

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:

Tyger, Tyger
burning bright,
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:

Blake's print of "The Tyger". I describe the plate in the essay but do not quote the poem, so I'll transcribe it here. "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night: / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry? / In what distant deeps or skies / Burnt the fire of thine eyes? / On what wings dare he aspire? / What the hand, dare sieze the fire? / And what shoulder, & what art / Could twist the sinews of thy heart? / And when thy heart began to beat / What dread hand? What dread feet? / What the hammer? What the chain / In what furnace was thy brain? / What the anvil? What dread grasp / Dare its deadly terrors clasp? / When the stars thew down their spears / And water'd heaven with their tears / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee? / Tyger Tyger burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"

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.

"The Ancient of Days", by William Blake. Per Wikipedia, it shows Urizen "crouching in a circular design with a cloud-like background. His outstretched hand holds a compass over the darker void below."

Blake’s painting “The Ancient of Days” depicts Urizen engaged in creation, compass in hand.

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.

Blake's print of "The Lamb".

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?”

Burning Bright

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

Watchmen chapter 5, page 26, panels 2-5. Notable features include a policeman saying "Here be Tygers", and Rorschach burning him brightly.

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.

Next entry: Alan Moore vs. The World
Previous entry: Watchmen and Watchmakers

Endnotes

1 See for example David Simpson’s “Blake and Romanticism” in The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. [Back to post]

2 Perhaps in response, many songwriters have taken it upon themselves to compose music for the songs, ranging from Benjamin Britten to Tangerine Dream. [Back to post]

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]

4 He also wasn’t afraid to include Milton in his prophecies, including an extended meditation in which the great poet’s spirit enters Blake’s body via his foot. Not kidding. [Back to post]

5 Though I would argue he is wrong about it being morally blank. [Back to post]

6 Not to mention, the cop literally refers to Rorschach as a Tyger in the preceding panel. [Back to post]

Watchmen, chapter 4, page 27, panel 3. Jon levitating in a sitting position, his back to the camera, facing his emerging Martian ship. Caption: Who makes the world?

The Watchmen Bestiary 35 – Watchmen and Watchmakers

NOTE: Spoilers for Watchmen are included in this article, by design.

Starting in the mid-17th century, the authority of religious revelation began to come under unique and increasing threat. The enthusiastic inquiries of naturalists were uncovering disturbing geological and fossil evidence that the earth was much older than anyone had previously believed. Skeptical treatises from philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume challenged the foundations of what we think we know and what is possible to know. At the same time, scientists (who up until the 19th century were called “natural philosophers”) kept learning more and more about the laws of nature, solidifying a worldview in which everyday occurrences are based on those laws, rather than the commonplace intervention of a deity.

Into this breach stepped William Paley, a Cambridge graduate who was ordained in 1767 and spent decades combining the pulpit with the pen, authoring several influential works of mainstream Christian argument. His health began to decline around 1800, but he still was able to finish and publish his greatest and most famous work, Natural Theology or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature, which understandably tends to get referenced as just Natural Theology. The book was published in 1802 and was immediately an enormous success, finding a large audience eager to reconcile scientific discoveries with received religious teachings.

Who Makes the World?

Paley’s essential argument in Natural Theology is this: given the vast array of biological adaptations which are analogous to human-made machines, there is no other plausible explanation for them but a designing deity, a “contriver” as he often puts it. The opening sentences of his text are his most famous encapsulation of the argument (with 1802 punctuation and spellings intact, though with some of the 1802 wordiness abridged):

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to shew the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be enquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch, as well as for the stone? […] For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the several parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use, that is now served by it. […] This mechanism being observed… the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

This watchmaker analogy would have been back in the news while Alan Moore was writing Watchmen, thanks to the efforts of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In 1986, Dawkins published The Blind Watchmaker, which began with Paley’s analogy and then proceeded to thoroughly dismantle it via explicating the natural selection theory of that other Cambridge man, Charles Darwin. Darwin, for his part, had not only studied Paley’s books, he in fact lived in the very same set of Cambridge rooms that Paley had occupied seventy years prior. (The Watch on the Heath: Science and Religion Before Darwin, pg. 20) Darwin quite admired the clarity and force of Paley’s arguments, writing in his autobiography:

The logic of [an earlier Paley book] and as I may add of his “Natural Theology” gave me as much delight as did Euclid. … I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on trust I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.

Later, of course, Darwin could no longer take Paley’s premises on trust, having found in natural selection a much more convincing and satisfying answer to biological phenomena than Paley’s “argument from design”.

Chapter 4 of Watchmen is entitled “Watchmaker”, and in it Dr. Manhattan ponders the same question that moved Paley and Darwin: who makes the world? The web annotations quite rightly recognize the link to Paley:

The title of this issue, “Watchmaker,” refers also to the famous “argument from design,” saying that the universe as a complex creation must have a creator. The metaphor was first proposed by William Paley in Natural Theology; his example was that of finding a watch somewhere, and that its complexity implied a watchmaker. This term has come to symbolize an intelligent creator, and thus is particularly appropriate to Dr. Manhattan, as is “The Judge of All the Earth.”

Note the connection to Linette Paley, a very minor character who appears later in Watchmen.

(Linette Paley, for those keeping score, was an avant-garde composer who was among the artists recruited and then killed by Adrian Veidt. Aside from the name, it’s hard to see any connection to William.) Leslie Klinger also connects the creator reference to Dr. Manhattan, noting that “Jon calls the universe a ‘makerless mechanism’… Yet he ultimately chooses to move on and become a maker himself”. (pg. 140)

Watchmen, chapter 4, page 28, panel 5. Dr. Manhattan watches metorites fall on Mars. Caption: Above the Nodus Gordii Mountains, jewels in a makerless mechanism, the first meteorites are starting to fall.

Now, there’s a lot to dig into here, but I want to take a moment for something I rarely spend much time on in these essays: sheer appreciation. Moore’s use of clock, watch, and time imagery throughout this book is simply astonishing. Let’s take stock:

  • The title Watchmen in one sense implies guardianship, but in combination with all the clock imagery can’t help but evoke timekeeping as well.
  • The early years of the Watchmen universe feature the Minutemen, whose name also implies both guardianship and timekeeping.
  • There are twelve chapters, corresponding to hours on a clock.
  • Each chapter ends with an image of a clock, ticking down towards 12:00.
  • That clock not only counts down toward the story’s climax, it also resonates with the nuclear anxiety of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, first cited in the newspaper on Veidt’s desk in Chapter 1.
  • Large clocks appear at various key locations in the story — Veidt’s Antarctic stronghold, the exterior of Madison Square Garden, Jon’s clock-like Mars ship.
  • The art is full of circles with an indicator of position, like clocks — Dr. Manhattan’s symbol, The Comedian’s blood-streaked badge and its many echoes, and the Vitruvian Manhattan that ends this chapter.
  • Let’s not forget about those melting clocks in the art on Dr. Manhattan’s wall.
  • Jon is constantly mentioning seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years — with an awareness that (allegedly) encapsulates all of time, he cannot stop talking about pieces of it.
  • Jon’s father repairs pocketwatches — he too is a watchmaker, albeit one who stops believing in his craft. We see the pieces of his work fall to earth as he rejects them, linked with the meteors that fall at the end of the chapter.
  • A broken watch precipitates Jon’s accident.
  • Shortly before the main events of the plot, Jon and Laurie buy an issue of Time magazine, whose cover is a stopped watch.
  • A denizen of the newsstand intersection, who berates Malcolm Long and dies from Adrian’s attack, is a street vendor of watches.

It all meshes together with soft precision, and it’s just… beautiful. Exquisite. Crafted. It leaves absolutely no doubt of a contriver. One of the ironies behind Dr. Manhattan’s question is that we know exactly who makes his world: Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins. For our world, at least the biological parts of it, the answer seems clear as well: evolution. Dawkins leaves us no room to doubt that.

William Paley, though, was without the benefit (or challenge) of having On The Origin of Species at hand, let alone The Blind Watchmaker. That said, he certainly wrestled with its precursors, including the work of Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who argued that biological diversity proceeded over enormous spans of time from a single “filament”, in some ways anticipating the gene-centric view that Dawkins would later champion. But for Paley there was simply no way for that filament’s progression to explain the incredible array of phenomena he catalogued in Natural Theology. His reaction to human anatomy was essentially the same as my reaction to the clock motifs in Watchmen: an intense aesthetic rapture, followed by the desire to inventory and analyze.

Genesis Sui Generis

Most of Natural Theology consists of Paley rolling out example after example from anatomy, zoology, botany, and like biological fields. His reasoning, over and over, proceeds along this line:

  1. Here is something we know about anatomy. (Or a similar field.)
  2. This really reminds me of a machine! There’s often an analogy offered here. For instance, he might compare the operation of an eye to the operation of a telescope.
  3. Doesn’t it remind you of a machine?
  4. This thing in the body, not made by humans, really reminds us both of things that are made by humans. Therefore, God exists.
  5. (optional) He will often follow this up with a sentiment along the lines of, “After that example, no further examples should be necessary.” He will then give many more examples.

I’m being a bit flip here, and with what we know today it’s awfully easy to see the gaps and flaws in Paley’s thinking, but before the notion of natural selection had been articulated, Natural Theology had a pretty sound argument! It is quite seductive and intuitive to see a designing hand in biological details — I know people even today who learn enough facts about the human body that they dare anyone to know that much about it and not believe in God.

For the inhabitants of the Watchmen universe, the problem is even knottier due to the existence of Dr. Manhattan, an existence which appears to steamroll Darwin’s founding assumptions. The theory of natural selection rests on four pillars:

  1. Variation — individuals within a species vary.
  2. Genetic inheritance — traits are passed down via reproduction.
  3. Super-fecundity — organisms can produce more offspring than necessary to replace themselves over their lifetimes.
  4. Filtering — environmental and genetic factors prevent populations from increasing geometrically.

Combined, these factors tell us that only those best equipped to deal with the filters survive, and that those survivors pass their traits on to their progeny, who have been naturally selected for the best chances of survival.

None of these pillars apply to Dr. Manhattan! He was created artificially and accidentally. He is unique, irreproducible, and invincible. He exemplifies the notion of a massive change happening instantly rather than Darwin’s notion of gradual changes over millions of years. Yet I suspect Paley would find little comfort to his Biblical beliefs if he were aware of Jon Osterman’s sudden transformation.

William Paley, detail from a portrait painted by George Romney

For one thing, Paley’s “contriver” is nowhere to be found in Dr. Manhattan’s genesis. Instead, Jon assembles himself into a sui generis species which indeed does have a “watchmaker”, but not the creator reported in Paley’s Bible. Dr. Manhattan, in fact, fits the category of god better than the category of organism. Janey Slater says as much on page 11 of this chapter: “They say you’re like God now.” Jon replies, comfortingly, “I don’t think there is a God, Janey. If there is, I’m not him.” But then he tells her he’s still the same person, and that he’ll always want her, and in his self-narration he describes this moment starting with, “As I lie…” So is he lying too when he says he’s not God? Perhaps, but given his “makerless mechanism” remark at the end of the chapter, I suspect not. He might (eventually) think he’s a god, but never thinks that he’s the God.

Still, Jon’s near-omniscience and near-omnipotence would certainly be terrifying to Paley, a feeling shared by Milton Glass at the end of the chapter. But even more terrifying would be Jon’s overwhelming indifference to human life. Paley, it’s important to note, felt he not only had to prove the existence of the Christian God, but the goodness of that God as well — remember that the second part of his title specified that he would provide “Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity”. For Paley, God is not just a force who set the clockwork in motion, but one who did so out of love for humanity.

In the final quarter of Natural Theology, Paley abandons his litany of examples arguing for a contriver, directing his rhetoric into chapters with titles like “Of the Personality of the Deity”, “Of the Natural Attributes of the Deity”, and of course, “The Goodness of the Deity”. To support this final claim, Paley contends that “in a vast plurality of instances in which contrivance is perceived, the design of the contrivance is beneficial.” (pg. 237) He proceeds to back this up by explicating the overall pattern in which a creature’s abilities are well suited to its needs, a relationship we now can see clearly as owing to natural selection. Even without that lens, though, the question must be asked: beneficial to whom?

The Shark and the Herrings

Paley wasn’t unaware that nature could be red in tooth and claw. A plant or animal’s abilities are certainly beneficial to itself, but not to its adversaries, and those adversaries sometimes include us, the purported beloved of our creator! The tiger’s teeth, claws, and powerful frame are to its own benefit, but the distinct detriment of the lamb. Despite the New Testament’s exaltation of the meek, and of turning the other cheek, Paley “proves” divine goodness in part by pointing out the effectiveness of killing machines. What kind of “good” deity would frame such fearful symmetry? Well, that’s a question for next time.

Paley does try to address this dilemma, devoting a substantial portion of “The Goodness of the Deity” to the question of “animals devouring one another”. (pg. 246) There is much reference to “the natural order”, and an argument that being killed fast is better than dying slowly, framing predators as agents of mercy. Paley’s moral calculus is deeply utilitarian, based in a larger philosophical movement of the late eighteenth century which held that as long as good things outweigh bad things, the universe must be good. It’s an approach to morality that Watchmen readers may find familiar — an approach that depends heavily on who we see as the hero of the story.

Super-fecundity, later to become a pillar of natural selection, is for Paley an amelioration of misery for prey species: “In rivers, we meet with a thousand minnows for one pike; in the sea, a million of herrings for a single shark.” (pg. 250) Whether this is a valid defense of God’s goodness in the face of devouring animals depends on who you see as the protagonist of their interaction. If you’re the shark, plenty more herrings will be along later. If you’re the herring, you only have the one life!

In Watchmen, Ozymandias is the shark, and the shoal of herrings gathers throughout chapter 11. (And maybe a few guppies, according to Joey the cab driver on page 9 of that chapter.) Adrian sees himself as the hero of the story, and if a few unfortunates have to die along the way, it’s all for the greater good. Like Paley’s version of God, he rests on the rationale that if his actions benefit the “vast plurality”, the universe he aspires to make must be a good one.

Watchmen chapter 11, page 28, panels 1-6. The top tier of the page, six narrow panels depicting various characters reacting to the arrival of the squid monster: Steve Fine and Joe. Joey and Aline. Malcolm and Gloria Long. Ralph from Gordian Knoght and Milo from Promethean Cab. The watch seller. The two Bernards.

Part of the genius of Watchmen, though, is that we understand many of those “herrings” as unique, irreplaceable lives. The two Bernards. Joey. Her girlfriend Aline. Malcolm and Gloria Long. Steve Fine and his partner Joe. Ralph the Gordian Knot locksmith and his brother Milo, of the Promethean Cab company. The watch seller who berates Malcolm. None of these people are protagonists in Watchmen, and we don’t spend a whole lot of time with any of them, but we know them as people, with their own lives, emotions, and agendas. They are not anonymous prey, and when they die, more of them will not be along later.

Reading Paley’s utilitarian moral arguments in his context as an 18th-century Englishman, it’s easy to see how this notion of disposability propped up the logic of colonialism. If the goodness of God is axiomatic, proven by the happiness of the person writing about him, then surely those Englishmen must be the heroes of the story, the sharks to all those savage herrings in the lands they were bravely “discovering”.

Paley, attempting to justify the goodness of God despite the existence of evil, invokes a colonial analogy directly, making the case that, “A West Indian slave, who, amidst his wrongs, retains his benevolence, I, for my part, look upon, as amongst the foremost of human candidates for the rewards of virtue.” Now, it’s arguable whether Paley’s mention of “wrongs” carries within it a critique of slavery itself — if so, it’s quite submerged, as it would have to be given the general audience for whom he was writing. In any case, Paley trots out in the very next sentence “the kind master” of this slave, stating that this master “is likewise a meritorious character; but still he is inferior to his slave.” It’s a “noble savage” trope, similar to what we see in “Gunga Din” — seemingly uplifting the victim of a system while taking the system itself as just a part of God’s plan. In general, Paley’s justifications for what he calls “civil evil” (aka the evil that humans do) are redolent of what today we’d call unexamined privilege.

Seeing Ozymandias deploy that same utilitarian logic, reciting his hero’s journey narrative to his Asian servants as they die from the poison he’s given them, prompts us to examine the privilege and colonialism embedded into superhero stories themselves. “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” can be read as a recasting of the White Man’s Burden, a missionary notion of rescue in which one who assumes himself superior decides that it’s his job to save his subalterns from themselves, no matter the cost to them. By generally remaining reactive, most superhero stories cling to a moral high ground, a version of protection which responds only to external threats. Ozymandias shows us how thin is the line between that version of goodness and that of Paley’s God, insisting that we believe in a universe whose violence and death are mere byproducts of goodness and love.

This is the craft of Watchmen. While Paley’s watch on the heath uses regulated motion to point out the hour of the day, the object created by Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins uses intricately meshed narrative to point out the uncomfortable truths within its genre, and to highlight the broken versions of humanity we sometimes exalt as heroes. It’s less like a watch than a pair of spectacles, bringing a familiar world into a new focus, and revealing what was always there, if only we’d had eyes to see it.

Next entry: In the Forests of the Night
Previous entry: Soft Watchmen

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?

Next Entry: Watchmen and Watchmakers
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

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

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!]

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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