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:
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.
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 Watchmendoes 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. 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 Biblereference 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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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 shortmovies 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.
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.”
Here 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Attention, people of Earth! This article contains spoilers for Watchmen. In addition, there are spoilers for the novel and movie This Island Earth, and very minor spoilers for the HBO Watchmen series.
In Chapter 3 of Watchmen, Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk walk over to Hollis Mason’s apartment together. As so often happens in the book, Moore and Gibbons intercut this scene with another scene, in this case Dr. Manhattan preparing for his TV interview with Benny Anger. Juxtaposition abounds — on the top of page 11, panel one shows a receptionist overcome with existential nausea at Dr. Manhattan’s sudden materialization. “They’re not paying me enough for this…” she says. Then panel two:
Watchmen, up to its usual tricks, superimposes the dialogue from the previous panel onto this one and emphasizes two parts of the image to tie it to that dialogue: the Institute for Extraspatial Studies and the movie posters for This Island Earth. Both parts evoke “monsters from outta space” in a different way. The Institute for Extraspatial Studies operates more as foreshadowing for the final chapter (as well as an explicit reference to “outta space”), but the movie poster on the left serves up a great big monster on its face. The posters advertise a movie playing at the Utopia Cinema — we can tell that’s the name because the left-hand poster gives us the “PIA” while the right-hand poster has the “UTO”. This theater is apparently some kind of sci-fi revival house — as the web annotations helpfully point out:
The Utopia Cinema, which is showing “This Island Earth,” reappears later.
Indeed, we find it in Chapter 5 playing the movie Things To Come, and from Chapter 8 onwards playing The Day The Earth Stood Still (at least until the epilogue, in which it has become the “New Utopia” and shows a Russian cinema double feature.) Subjects for future posts, no doubt. For now, though, let’s focus on This Island Earth.
By 1955, Universal Pictures (named Universal-International at the time) was finding its successes in some odd places — Ma and Pa Kettle, Abbott and Costello, Francis the Talking Mule… and science fiction. The studio already had a stable of classic and beloved horror icons — Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Frankenstein, Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man — and was working to capitalize on a new sci-fi/monster craze kicked off in 1950 by Destination Moon.
Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold had turned in a couple of big black-and-white hits: It Came From Outer Space and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Arnold had also directed Revenge Of The Creature (a Black Lagoon sequel) and Tarantula, both of which did reasonably well. The studio felt it was time to make a “prestige” science fiction picture, and saw its chance in the novel This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones, the rights to which had been purchased by director Joseph M. Newman. Newman had commissioned Edward G. O’Callaghan to write a shooting script from the novel, but had failed to raise the necessary money to make his movie independently. Nevertheless, when Universal-International decided to buy the rights and engage Alland as the producer, those rights came attached to Newman as director and O’Callaghan as screenwriter.
U-I made some big investments in this movie. For one thing, they decided to shoot it in Technicolor, which was significantly more expensive than black-and-white stock but brought with it a “wow” factor, especially for sci-fi spectacle. They also brought in Franklin Coen to rewrite O’Callaghan’s script. Coen was not a science fiction writer, but knew how to focus on character and theme. His revisions brought some weight and depth to O’Callaghan’s original treatment. U-I may have also recruited Arnold to reshoot some of Newman’s work in the last act, though sources differ as to the extent of Arnold’s involvement, or indeed whether he was truly involved at all. Finally, the studio devoted quite a budget to visual effects, creating elaborate miniatures, matte paintings, fire, explosions, and (to Coen’s chagrin) a monster.
Prestige picture or no, This Island Earth was science fiction, and in Universal-International’s eyes, they’d never hook the teen and preteen audience they needed for it without a creature. As actor Jeff Morrow, who played the sympathetic alien Exeter in the film, later recalled, “the Studio felt that a Sci-Fi film had to have a monster”. (Universal Filmscripts Classic Science Fiction, Volume 1, pg. 15)
This monster from outer space was the Metaluna mutant, whose image we see on the Utopia Cinema’s poster in Watchmen. The mutant was invented wholly for the film — it doesn’t exist in the novel at all. And even in the movie, it feels pretty tacked-on. Nevertheless, the mutant is today the most famous and enduring aspect of This Island Earth (well, aside from the fact that this movie was somewhat unfairly chosen as the object of ridicule in the theatrical version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but that hadn’t happened yet in 1985) and it may be the primary reason why Moore and/or Gibbons chose the film to feature in the “monsters from outta space” panel. Certainly the mutant is one of the all-time iconic 1950s Hollywood space creatures.
Reassembling The Components
There’s more resonance here than appears in that panel, though, and to understand it we need to explore This Island Earth a little further. The book and the movie share a premise, but diverge radically about halfway through their stories. At the beginning of both, though, is Cal Meacham. He’s the kind of omnicompetent man common to 1950s sci-fi, a Scientist who does Science but who is also no stranger to action and fighting, plus he’s pretty good with the ladies. He receives a mysterious replacement part from a supply warehouse: a capacitor much smaller than he was expecting and with much greater capacity.
This leads to a catalog full of these mysterious parts, from which he orders the pieces for something called an “interociter.” Using his Science smarts, he builds the interociter, which turns out to have been his unsolicited audition for a mysterious outfit whose stated goal is to “put an end to war.” They fly him in a pilotless plane to their remote compound, where they’ve gathered other scientists like him, including PhD Ruth Adams (psychiatrist in the book, physicist in the movie), and entice him into working for them.
Something doesn’t feel quite right, though, and the same curiosity that drove Cal to build the interociter spurs him to investigate his benefactors. Before long, he discovers the truth: they’re aliens! Their purpose on Earth is to recruit humans to help them build tools and weapons for a war they’re waging against an implacable enemy.
From this point, the book and the movie diverge completely. In the book, the interociter turns out to facilitate telepathy, and it allows Meacham first to read his alien mentor’s mind, then to absorb the full context of a war between an affiliation of planets called the Llannan Council (i.e. the good guys) and another affiliation called the Guarra (bad guys.) Intrigue ensues, including a scary encounter with lizardlike Guarra agents.
Earth is destined to become a battleground between the Llannans and the Guarra, and the Llannas have decided to let it be overrun, until Cal goes before the council and argues that they’ve been executing the same plans (determined by a computer) for decades, and that their predictability has been their undoing. He persuades the Llannans to defend Earth, and ends the book looking forward to returning home with Ruth (to whom he’s become engaged in the course of the story.)
The movie, on the other hand, follows Cal’s discovery with an action sequence in which he and Ruth flee the compound with another scientist, played by Russell Johnson of Gilligan’s Island fame. Johnson’s character gets vaporized by some kind of space ray, and Meacham and Adams try to escape via plane, only to have their plane sucked into a flying saucer commanded by Exeter, leader of the alien compound. Exeter and company turn out to be from a planet called Metaluna, which is under relentless assault by another race called the Zahgons, whom we never see apart from their ships.
Exeter wants to bring Meacham and Adams to Metaluna to help create machines to power its defenses, and in the process of bringing them there we get to see a lot of those fancy visual effects that Universal-International paid for, including one in which Meacham and Adams step into tubes that put them through a mysterious process meant to help their bodies cope with the greater atmospheric pressure on Metaluna. What this looks like is some crazy lighting, and then the consecutive appearance of various anatomical systems — nervous, circulatory, skeletal, muscular.
For readers of Watchmen, it’s a familiar set of images:
Given that This Island Earth gets name-checked in chapter 3 of Watchmen and Dr. Manhattan’s system-by-system reconstruction of himself appears in chapter 4, it’s not beyond reason to wonder if the movie’s visuals influenced Moore and Gibbons’ portrayal of Osterman’s process. Certainly both sequences suggest bodies deconstructed and then reconstructed into something greater than they were before.
In any case, by the time Exeter and the humans reach Metaluna, they find they are too late to save it. They encounter the mutant, who inadvertently and unsuccessfully impedes their escape a couple of times, and then they are back on Earth — Cal and Ruth in their airplane, and the mortally wounded Exeter plunging his saucer into the sea.
We Have Met The Enemy
The plots of these stories differ — largely because the latter half of Jones’s book wasn’t visual enough for the movie producers, and introduced too much complexity to fit into a film. But they do have a metaphorical underpinning in common. In each of them, the people of Earth find themselves part of a greater galactic context than they’d imagined, and are exploited by extraterrestrials who are themselves at war.
1955 was a mere decade past the end of World War II, a war in which the Allied and Axis forces battled on many fronts, including islands in the Pacific whose indigenous people had no idea of the greater context of war around them. Those indigenous people were often recruited to build airstrips or help in the manufacture of military supplies. The novel’s version of Exeter calls out this parallel explicitly, in a line of reasoning that explains the title:
These primitive peoples… had no comprehension of the vast purpose to which they were contributing a meager part, but they helped in a conflict which was ultimately resolved in their favor.
“Earth is an island,” he says, “which can be by-passed completely, or temporarily occupied if need be.” (pg. 98) Similarly, film historian Robert Skotak, in the DVD commentary for the movie version, explains Joseph Newman’s intention with the film:
One of the themes that the director had in mind was to show the love of our planet and how valuable our planet is and how it is just a mere island in the vast infinity of space. And, if we aren’t careful, we could destroy ourselves — using Metaluna as… a metaphor for what could be us. This was made not too many years after the bombing of Hiroshima, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb, the Soviets getting the hydrogen bomb, the Cold War. So fears of the end of the world were on the minds of many artists, many people, and that was one of Joe Newman’s main themes.
Now, these readings are a little bit different from each other — one emphasizes Earth’s unawareness of the larger universe, and the other emphasizes its fragility and irreplacability. But in both of them, the story’s aliens stand in for humans. At the metaphorical level, we are both the exploitative aliens and the humans they exploit, two groups separated by facts of geography, culture, and technology.
Watchmen literalizes this metaphor further, by having a seeming alien invasion that is in fact a front for one human exploiting other humans for what he sees as the greater good. That’s the thread that ties This Island Earth to the Institute for Extraspatial Studies, more than just “monsters from outta space”. Here’s Joseph Newman one more time, explaining his first impressions upon reading the novel:
I think the overwhelming thing that came into my mind when I purchased Jones’ novel was to illustrate, as the title of the book suggests, that this planet is in reality a small island in an extremely vast and unknown universe, and that it is to the welfare of all the inhabitants of this island, Earth, to eliminate and submerge their petty hatreds of any of the many groups of human dwellers on this tiny island of matter. Our concerns might be, in the not-too-distant future, I thought, forces and elements beyond the present-known universe…
(Universal Filmscripts, pg. 19)
This is exactly the point that Adrian Veidt hopes to make as well, submerging the mutual hatred of the USA and USSR in the face of forces and elements beyond their present knowledge. It’s just that where Jones and Newman make their point through art alone, Adrian writes his fiction into the world as an enormous alien invasion hoax. As I mentioned in the Revelation post, Veidt authors his own apocalypse to resolve the unbearable tension between what he sees and what he desires. In doing so, he reframes Earth as an island subject to occupation, hoping that this new perspective brings all the natives into line.
Stories, Masks, and Trauma
Just as Veidt’s hoax is a kind of authorship, so I would argue are the masks and identities of Watchmen‘s costumed adventurers. In HBO’s excellent Watchmen series, Laurie Juspeczyk says this:
People who wear masks are driven by trauma. They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo, the mask. It hides the pain.
But hiding the pain isn’t all that masks do. They also tell a story, a new story, about the traumatized people behind them — rearranging their faces and giving them all other names. In this new story, the masked people aren’t powerless, but powerful. They exist to carry out their own agendas, rather than having their agency taken away from them. The new story told by the mask exists as an attempt to help mask-wearers process and relieve their trauma.
Well, isn’t this the function of art? Through the things that we create, we seek to understand our world and its inhabitants. At an individual level, it’s well-documented that the creation of art can channel grief, trauma, and heartbreak into some new form, transforming it via creative alchemy into something that briefly assuages those emotions both for the artist and the audience. That’s the catharsis that Aristotle describes in his Poetics.
But grief, trauma, and heartbreak don’t just exist at the individual level. There are larger versions of trauma that transcend the personal. Granted, using the term “trauma” becomes more metaphorical beyond the individual level, but I believe that a family can be traumatized, a school or workplace can be traumatized, a town can be traumatized, and a culture can be traumatized. And if we accept that trauma can exist at a cultural level, I think it becomes very clear that the art it produces functions in part to help process that cultural trauma.
This Island Earth, and 1950s science fiction movies in general, are an example of this. World War II, and in particular the enormity of the atomic bomb, was a massive cultural trauma. The rapid escalation of both calamitous bomb technology and tensions between the superpowers quickly brought us face to face with our ability to destroy ourselves. Hitler’s concentration camps made plain humanity’s capacity for barbarism. Not only that, the process of the war itself and its aftermath changed America radically — women had new roles after stepping into professions vacated by men, racial politics mutated after Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, and the 1944 G.I. Bill introduced a tremendous amount of new class mobility into society.
75 years on, we can see these changes as unalloyed benefits, but at the time they were just as frightening to some as the bomb and the Nazis. 50s B movies told stories of invasions, of incomprehensible malevolence, of science and technology run amok, of venturing into the unknown, of humanity’s warlike nature, and so forth. It’s not hard to see cultural anxieties projected onto those aliens, giant insects, and monsters from the deep. It’s a genre obsessed with unexpected consequences.
So if 1950s sci-fi movies were processing the cultural trauma of World War II, what set of cultural traumas does Watchmen meet? Well, some of this isn’t really subtext. 1985 was peak Nuclear Anxiety time, and Watchmen obviously means to grapple with that. In this way, it’s a direct descendant of stories like This Island Earth.
But there are other, more festering wounds at work in Watchmen too. The clash of political Left and Right, so strident and polarized now, had been climbing since the days of Goldwater vs. the counterculture, but hit a new level during the Reagan years, and found its Watchmen expression via Nova Express vs. The New Frontiersman. Even more than those two competing media sources, the superheroes themselves in Watchmen interrogate the competing values of individual action vs. social action. American culture reveres the lone principled individual, but in Watchmen the two individuals who best fit that description are Rorschach and Ozymandias. Though politically they are opposites, temperamentally they embody the same extremist impulses, and Watchmen shows both as deeply problematic.
This isn’t the Cold War. It’s closer to the Civil War — an ongoing series of battles in an America deeply divided against itself, with good and bad actors on both sides, plus a whole lot of grey in between. It’s part of why Watchmen remains relevant and powerful today, powerful enough to inspire the whole new story that appeared on HBO last fall.
I’ve called Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock“fan fiction” — meant gently — and in a way Damon Lindelof’s HBO Watchmen is no different. It’s an extension of intellectual property that has been taken rather than granted. The only ones who could really “officially” continue Moore and Gibbons’ story are Moore and Gibbons, or successors anointed by them, regardless of what corporation owns the rights. But what made Lindelof’s work so compelling, so true to the spirit of Watchmen, was its singular vision and its engagement with the cultural trauma of our time. In the HBO series’ case, that trauma is race in America rather than the Cold War, but its medicine is just as strong.
Also, note the comic “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the comic shop’s window, and the prevalence of pirate themes in the covers of the other comics. One comic has an “X” in its title, perhaps a sly reference to the “X-Men” comics of the real world. (The title “X-Ships” appears on a comic early in Issue 1.)
As much as I love to chase down every little reference, I won’t be writing a post on the X-Men and Watchmen — the connection is just too slight. The annotators are probably correct that “X-Ships” references X-Men, given that X-Men comics were at their peak of popularity when Watchmen was being written. Since pirate comics dominate the Watchmen world, X-Ships are their likely X-Men analog, but that strikes me as just a little joke, not the kind of intertextual allusion that this series digs into.
Mutiny On The Bounty is another matter. I would argue that this reference illuminates several levels of Watchmen. But before exploring that, let’s talk for a while about the story itself.
Making a Mutiny
One might ask first why Mutiny On The Bounty would be a pirate comic at all. Sure, it’s a nautical tale, but it’s hardly Treasure Island. Where are the pirates?
Well, it turns out that most versions of the story refer to the mutineers as pirates. They may not be one-legged parrot-keepers plundering merchant ships for doubloons, but they do in fact take the ship they had crewed, and anyone who seizes one of His Majesty’s ships becomes a pirate in the eyes of the British Navy.
The historical facts of the mutiny are as follows. The cutter Bounty was commissioned to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti and bring them to the West Indies, in hopes that the tree could be cultivated as a food source for plantation slaves on those islands. Lieutenant William Bligh commanded the ship, which had been specially fitted out to hold six hundred plants. This remodeling shrank the living space of everyone on board, making an already uncomfortable sea voyage even more difficult.
Bligh’s original plan was to travel west from England to Tahiti, rounding Cape Horn on the way to Oceania. However, bureaucratically-imposed delays meant that the Bounty didn’t start sailing until the weather had turned impassable south of the Cape. Bligh, a disciple and former navigator to the revered Captain Cook, was an immensely confident sailor, but this circumstance thwarted him. He tried for nearly a month to get through, but eventually gave up and headed east, stopping to re-provision the ship at Cape Town, then sailing onward, south of Australia (called New Holland at the time) and New Zealand to Tahiti, where he landed in late October of 1788.
By all accounts, Tahiti was a sailor’s paradise. It had gorgeous weather, stunning landscapes, abundant food and water, and friendly indigenous people, with a far less sexually inhibited culture than that of 18th century England. The Bounty‘s botanical mission obliged its crew to stay on the island for several months, so that they could secure agreements with various native chiefs to take plants from their groves. In the process, many members of the crew also formed relationships with native women. The initial delay in launching the ship also meant that it must wait out the western monsoon season, which wouldn’t end until April. Thus began a five-month tropical sojourn for the ship and its crew.
On April 5, 1789, laden with over 900 breadfruit plants (Bligh had somehow made room on the ship to store even more than planned), the Bounty set sail from Tahiti. Their orders were to pass through the Endeavour Straits (now known as the Torres Strait) between Australia and New Guinea, in hopes that Bligh’s navigation and surveying skills could help define a safe passage for future missions. But the Bounty would never travel through those Straits.
At dawn on April 28, master’s mate Fletcher Christian and several accomplices awakened Bligh. They dragged him, clad only in a nightshirt, up on deck. The mutineers ordered Bligh into the Bounty‘s launch, where he was joined by seventeen loyalists. Several others remained on board the Bounty, either detained by the mutineers for their skills, or simply unable to fit into the already dangerously overburdened launch.
Bligh and his crew traveled over 3,600 miles in an open boat, from the site of the mutiny to the island of Timor. They endured extraordinary hardships of starvation and exposure, and they did in fact pass through the Endeavour Straits. Bligh’s entire crew survived this journey, with the exception of quartermaster John Norton, who was killed by hostile indigenes on an island where the crew had attempted to re-provision. After reaching the Dutch settlement on Timor, Bligh and company found their way back to England, where his journey was rightly hailed as an astonishing act of seamanship.
Meanwhile, the mutineers and remaining loyalists splintered. Some stayed on Tahiti, taking wives and having children. These men were collected several years later by the British vessel Pandora, which itself then sank in the Endeavour Straits. The survivors of that shipwreck took the remaining prisoners back to England, where they were court-martialed. Some were acquitted, some were found guilty but pardoned by the crown, and some were hung. The rest of the mutineers had fled to the remote Pitcairn’s Island. The British never caught these men, but they fell out among themselves and the Tahitians they had brought along, such that there was only one Bounty crew member remaining when an American vessel stumbled upon the island twenty years later. The descendants of these mutineers and Tahitians live on the island to this day.
What doomed the Bounty? What brought Fletcher Christian and his fellow crewmen to such an emotional extreme that they were willing to become pirates and set eighteen men adrift to what must have seemed like certain death? What does this mutiny mean? The answers to these questions have been much disputed, and their portrayals over the years are a saga unto themselves.
Story vs. Story
Bligh returned to England in March of 1790. He was court-martialed — mandatory for any captain who lost his vessel — and exonerated of all charges. Within a few months, he published his Narrative of the Mutiny, which in fact devoted a scant six pages to the mutiny itself, and another eighty to his open-boat journey. He declined to speculate on Christian’s motivation, saying only that he heard the crew cheering “Huzza for Otaheite” (“Hooray for Tahiti”) as the launch pulled away. (The Bounty Mutiny, pg. 10) Based on this narrative, England hailed him as a hero. He met the king, was promoted twice, and subsequently set sail on another breadfruit expedition, departing in August 1791 aboard a ship called the Providence.
Meanwhile, the Pandora had launched to capture as many mutineers as it could find, and its survivors returned to England in March of 1792. The prisoners’ court-martial that summer resulted in three hangings, four acquittals, and two royal pardons.
After the dust settled, the first competing narrative began to take shape. Fletcher Christian’s brother Edward, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, took it upon himself to interview all returned survivors of the mutiny, both those who had journeyed with Bligh and those who had been captured by the Pandora. He released a pamphlet with a partial transcription of the court-martial, and an extensive appendix (The Bounty Mutiny, pg. 67), which used those interviews to condemn Bligh as a tyrant and show Fletcher Christian as a noble soul who rebelled only as a last resort under intolerable circumstances.
That argument saw print in 1794, in the midst of a historical moment ripe for such a story. The French Revolution had overthrown the monarchy there just a few years prior, and the American colonies had rebelled less than fifteen years before that. Individuals longing for freedom and deposing tyrannical authorities were the cultural order of the day, and Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge found an avatar in Fletcher Christian. In addition, the Jacobins of the French Revolution exalted the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose notions of mankind’s goodness in a “State Of Nature” were easy to overlay upon the Tahitian indigenes, thus providing another justification for men who wanted to leave a corrupt civilization and live amongst “noble savages.”
Bligh returned in 1794 and exchanged retorts with Edward Christian, but the sailor was ineffective against the lawyer, and the damage to Bligh’s reputation would never be fully undone. The discovery of survivors on Pitcairn’s Island in 1808 excited public interest again, and launched a new wave of Bountyphilia. Sir John Barrow published an account in 1831 which upheld the image of Bligh as an overbearing martinet. Barrow was a family friend of Peter Heywood, one of those captured by the Pandora and later pardoned by the crown. In 1870, Heywood’s stepdaughter Lady Diana Belcher published another version of the story, again justifying Heywood and Christian against a Bligh portrayed as ever more villainous.
There were theatrical plays made of the story, but it didn’t receive the full novelistic treatment until the twentieth century, when Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall published Mutiny On The Bounty in 1932. For dramatic purposes, they created the fictional viewpoint character Roger Byam, who stood in for Heywood on the Bounty‘s crew. Nordhoff and Hall grounded their story in many historical facts, but also invented details to corroborate Bligh’s cruelty and Christian’s nobility. There was in fact a full Nordhoff and Hall Bounty trilogy — book two followed Bligh’s voyage and book three the life of the mutineers on Pitcairn’s Island — but it was Mutiny On The Bounty that caught the public’s imagination most. Hollywood took notice.
Mutiny On The Big Screen
MGM released its film Mutiny On The Bounty in 1935, directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian, Charles Laughton as William Bligh, and Franchot Tone as Roger Byam. MGM’s movie directly adapted Nordhoff and Hall’s novel, and it was a smash success, capturing the 1935 Academy Award for Best Picture. Gable, Laughton, and Tone were all nominated for Best Actor, splitting the vote and leading to the creation the next year of the “supporting role” Oscars.
The Lloyd Mutiny film amplified every exaggeration of Nordhoff and Hall’s, and layered in quite a few new ones. For instance, in the novel Byam witnesses another captain order a man flogged, and the punishment kills its target. The captain then orders that the flogging continue until the full complement of lashes have been delivered to the bloody corpse. (This scene has no basis that I can find in the surviving historical evidence surrounding the Bounty.) In the movie, it is Bligh who gives that order, and stands watching with satisfaction until the grisly punishment is complete. In historical fact, Bligh had a fastidious aversion to flogging, and tried to avoid it as much as possible.
Similarly, where Bligh’s actual log records his disgust with his surgeon Thomas Huggan, who he saw as a “Drunken Sot” (The Bounty, pg 84), Nordhoff and Hall give the surgeon a wooden leg (nodding to Stevenson, I suppose) and an ever-present bottle of brandy. Lloyd’s film has everyone on board calling the surgeon “Old Bacchus”, introduces him by hauling him aboard in a net, and turns Dudley Digges loose on him with a ridiculously broad performance.
Then there are the scenes entirely invented for the film. Laughton’s Bligh keelhauls a man, which happened in neither the book nor the historical record — the practice had been outlawed in the British Navy for decades. Gable’s Christian turns to mutiny after some crew members are unjustly imprisoned, but in the book, he simply bristles at being unfairly accused of theft. Finally, Lloyd’s film shows Bligh himself in command of the Pandora, unlike the book which correctly depicts its captain as Edward Edwards. Aside from these story changes, the simple act of casting Gable as Christian and Laughton as Bligh tells the audience very clearly where its sympathies should lie. Laughton in particular turns in a marvelous performance as a corrupt, blustering villain.
All these changes are made for the sake of drama, and they work very well, but their dramatic logic is simple indeed. Every uncertainty and nuance of the historical record, already greatly flattened by Nordhoff and Hall, gets sanded down into a stark story of good versus evil, of corruption overthrown by force. Just as Hollis Mason observed about Superman’s relation to the pulps that preceded it, Lloyd’s film (released three years before the debut of Superman) similarly removes the last of its predecessors’ darkness and ambiguity in favor of a basic, boiled-down morality.
Interestingly, after 1935 the pendulum began to swing back in the other direction. In 1962, Carol Reed and Lewis Milestone directed a version of the story starring Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Bligh. When Gable clashed with Laughton, you knew who to root for, but in the 1962 version, no character is particularly sympathetic. Bligh is awful, of course, a sociopath who uses others to accomplish his mission without for a moment considering their experience or humanity. But Brando’s preening and simpering Christian is also far from admirable. He’s foppish and contemptuous from the start, only goaded into mutiny by the character of John Mills (played by Richard Harris) as the devil on his shoulder. Even the Tahitians come across as weirdly unpleasant. By making everyone a villain (or anti-hero), the 1962 version mostly indicts the system — showing the impossible position into which the men are put. They are utterly at the mercy of Bligh, who cares nothing for their lives, but they will also die if they go against him.
There was one more filmed version of the story: 1984’s The Bounty, starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. This is by far the most historically accurate Hollywood depiction. Bligh and Christian, rather than being exaggerated villain & hero, or exaggerated villain & anti-hero, come across as three-dimensional humans, both deeply ambitious and deeply flawed in their own ways. This version still injects a bit of fiction, giving Bligh a strangely burning desire to circumnavigate the globe, and very subtly suggesting that he had a homosexual attraction to Christian, but in general it redeploys historical detail to reshape the simple good and evil story that Mutiny On The Bounty had become, into a nuanced tragedy of complicated people at a complicated historical moment.
Here at last we can return to Watchmen. Tracing the path of Bounty portrayals up through 1935 makes it clear that they constitute a kind of Watchmen project in reverse. Where Moore and Gibbons started with the simplistic Golden Age and laid in layer after layer of realism, humanity, and grit, every new version of the Bounty story stripped those layers away, culminating with the Lloyd film’s simplistic depiction of hero Christian versus villain Bligh. This depiction has never left the public imagination — “Captain Bligh” is still a synonym for a tyrannical and oppressive leader.
Leslie Klinger’s annotations assert that the Watchmen panel in question shows a “vintage poster in the window for the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty“. This is a little different from the web annotations’ suggestion that we’re seeing a Mutiny on the Bountycomic, but either way it makes sense that the poster would reference the 1935 version of the story, since that was the most successful and culturally impactful version ever made. Not coincidentally, that version is the most simplified, melodramatic adaptation of the story known to mainstream audiences. Its appearance in the comic shop window is the pirate equivalent of Action Comics #1.
Watchmen itself, on the other hand, is more like the Hopkins/Gibson Bounty movie — a movie that happened to emerge in 1984, when Watchmen was being written. By placing Mutiny On The Bounty in a window of the Watchmen world, Moore and Gibbons give us a window into how narratives and genres can evolve over time, and they reflect their own project in doing so.
Watchmen itself was a kind of mutiny. It rebelled against the established order in mainstream comics, striking at the injustice and hypocrisy beneath the cultural authority of superhero narratives, narratives that had claimed the mantle of justice and righteousness for themselves. Like many mutinies, its results have been mixed — superheroes’ cultural authority is stronger than ever, as Marvel’s box office receipts will tell you, but at the same time they were forever changed by Moore’s story. That story is full of mutineers, too.
There’s a quote in Nordhoff and Hall’s novel that’s particularly apropos to Watchmen. It comes in a reflective moment, as Byam describes Fletcher Christian:
His sense of the wrongs he had suffered at Bligh’s hands was so deep and overpowering as to dominate, I believe, every other feeling. In the course of a long life I have met no others of his kind. I knew him, I suppose, as well as anyone could be said to know him, and yet I never felt that I truly understood the workings of his mind and heart. Men of such passionate nature, when goaded by injustice into action, lose all sense of anything save their own misery. They neither know nor care, until it is too late, what ruin they make of the lives of others.
That notion, that a supposed hero fighting for justice could ruin the lives of innocents, comes entwined in Watchmen‘s DNA, while the quote also captures the spirit of several characters. Certainly it applies to Rorschach, and no less to Ozymandias. Though not born from a passion for justice, detachment from human costs and consequences characterizes several others as well: The Comedian, Silk Spectre I, and of course Dr. Manhattan. Then there’s the narrator from Tales Of The Black Freighter, who certainly can be said to have lost all sense of anything save his own misery. The Black Freighter itself, as discussed earlier in this series, evokes Pirate Jenny, a true rebel against oppressive authority, who plots gleefully to slaughter them all.
The panel we’re examining juxtaposes two mutinies on the same page. Janey Slater rebels against Jon and the dominant story of her past by vilifying Dr. Manhattan to Nova Express. Laurie, as she walks by the Treasure Island window, is in the midst of defying the will of a government that just wants her to “get the H-bomb laid every once in a while.” In the government’s eyes, her mutiny may have doomed the ship, as “the linchpin of America’s strategic superiority has apparently gone to Mars!”
That same government enacted the Keene Act outlawing costumed vigilantes, and that’s an authority against which there are plenty of mutineers. Rorschach, of course, rebels from the start, killing a multiple rapist and using the body to deliver his note of refusal to police headquarters. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre join the mutiny many years later, as they suit up and go out on patrol in Chapter 7. Meanwhile, Ozymandias has been rebelling in secret all along, pretending to acquiesce to authority even as he engineered his fake doomsday plan, without a care for the ruin he’d make of the lives of others.
Story Vs. Story, Revisited
Ozymandias’ plan comes down to storytelling. That’s why he recruits writers and artists — he knows that his “practical joke” must be a convincing enough story that every nation in the world will believe it. But he’s not just telling a story to the world. Like Captain Bligh, his story to the world is also a story to himself, one that casts him in the role of hero and savior, the only one brave and capable enough to save the lives in his charge, despite all opposing forces. Like Bligh, he has no doubt that his narrative will prevail. Like Bligh, he will have an unexpected competitor.
Rorschach, through his diary as submitted to the New Frontiersman, will become the Edward Christian to Ozymandias’ Bligh, presenting an alternative version of events that radically recontextualizes the story known and accepted by the public. Like Christian, Rorschach has his own agenda and values that influence his version of events. I don’t mean to suggest that Christian has the truth on his side as Rorschach does, nor that Bligh intended a deception as Ozymandias does — only that the final level of drama in Watchmen comes from competing narratives, and invoking Mutiny On The Bounty can’t help but shine a light on how stories within Watchmen fight each other for dominance.
Rorschach and Ozymandias are the grand competing narrators of the work, but there are other narrative clashes within the book. For instance, every secret identity operates as a clash of narratives, in which a character keeps trying to smother the truth with a different explanation. In the case of a character like Hooded Justice, the competition becomes even more complex, especially as it’s reflected at the reader’s level. We never learn who Hooded Justice really was from the text itself, but we do get speculations from Hollis Mason. These speculations seem reasonable enough, but they are all we get from the text until Chapter 11, when Ozymandias tells his story of investigating Hooded Justice’s disappearance.
Veidt wonders: “Had Blake found Hooded Justice, killed him, reporting failure? I can prove nothing.” Now we as readers must evaluate several strands. There’s what we know about Rolf Müller, which comes strictly from the pages of Under The Hood — circus strongman, East German heritage, disappeared during the McCarthy anti-superhero hearings, found later shot through the head. Then there’s what we know about Hooded Justice — an early hero who came into serious conflict with The Comedian at least once. Then there’s what we know about Blake himself — someone who wouldn’t hesitate to execute an enemy and throw him in the ocean. These strands seem to present a coherent picture, but in all cases they are presented through the lens of another character telling a story for a particular purpose, some of whom may be more trustworthy than others. As with the history of the Bounty, we are left to discern the truth for ourselves.
Also like the Bounty, Watchmen itself has endured numerous forces trying to shape its story from the outside. Zack Snyder’s film version was loyal in its fashion, but also changed the story and the tone in ways both necessary and unnecessary. DC gave us Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock, which tried to extend the Watchmen world beyond the boundaries of the graphic novel, laying claim to canonical preequel and sequel stature by dint of being the original’s publisher, a claim which Alan Moore would vociferously dispute. Now, within just a few weeks of this post, HBO will debut yet another Watchmen story, this one a speculative sequel in TV series form.
All of these Watchmen versions wish to capitalize upon the status of the original, and to make us view it in a different light. They may not be mutinies, but at some level they are seizures, attempting to take a well-known ship in a new direction. Is that new direction fruitful? Is it necessary? Does it honor the mission? As befits the conclusion of Watchmen, that decision is left entirely in our hands.
First things first: this project has a new name. I was never entirely satisfied with The Annotated Annotated Watchmen as a project title. Not only is it an awkward mouthful, it’s factually inaccurate. I’m writing essays, not annotations. But The Essayed Watchmen never really did it for me either.
For many an entry have I fretted about this, but I just could not find an alternate title that spoke to me loudly and clearly enough. For this 25th post, though, I resolved to redouble my efforts, and in a reread of Chapter 1 noticed this panel:
The bestiary! In Watchmen, the bestiary seems to be two things. First, it’s a collection of items that underpin the universe, which Dr. Manhattan examines in order to better understand the workings of that universe. So far, so perfect — that’s exactly what these essays are working to do, one exotic and breathtaking specimen at a time. The other Bestiary in Watchmen is “where the real heavy-duty thinkin’ gets done” by the Gila Flats crew in Jon Osterman’s early days as a physicist. It’s the on-base bar where the various residents find themselves “at play amidst the strangeness and charm.”
That meaning works perfectly for me too, because these essays are my way of extending the tremendous strangeness and charm that Watchmen exerts over me and millions of other readers. And doing so is just plain fun for me, which is why I keep doing it. It sure isn’t for the money or fame.
Therefore, I proudly present The Watchmen Bestiary, a rechristening of my ongoing Watchmen project. As a part of this change, I’ve gone back in and renamed all the old entries, and in some cases done some light editing and updating of them. If anyone happens across anything screwed up as a result of this, please let me know.
And now, on with today’s entry. Please note that, as always, there are Watchmen spoilers in this post. I also discuss the plot of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.
Most of these essays focus on a single work, or at least the works of a single artist or author. Today’s entry, though, focuses on a name. It’s a name that spans many works, many authors. A name that echoes through millennia. Moloch.
Moloch, an ancient god who became a demon in Christian cosmology, is also the name given to the giant machine with a giant dial operated by the oppressed workers in Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis”.
The annotations are quite right to cite the Bible and Metropolis, as both were pretty clearly influences on Moore. He references the Bible throughout Watchmen — the Pale Horse reference to Revelation is just the first of many.
The Metropolis connection is a bit more tenuous, but apart from being able to count on Moore’s general erudition, there’s also the fact that both Metropolis and Lang’s recurring character Dr. Mabuse feature prominently in the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen story Nemo: The Roses Of Berlin. Granted, that book came out much later than Watchmen, but let’s also remember that in 1984, music producer Giorgio Moroder restored and re-released Lang’s film in theaters, with a pop music soundtrack. Between the fact that the pop Metropolis was roughly contemporary during the writing of Watchmen, and Moore’s later demonstrated connection to the material, I’m comfortable asserting that Metropolis would have been in Moore’s constellation of references when he chose to name a character Moloch.
Also in that constellation are the writers of the Beat movement. We’ve already seen how strong an influence William Burroughs had on Watchmen, but it turns out he wasn’t the only Beat with a connection. As it happens, Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl”, repeats the word “Moloch” 39 times in the 383 words of its second section, employing imagery that was clearly influenced by Lang. There are plenty of other writers who incorporate Moloch — Milton and Flaubert are a couple of the biggies — but it’s the Bible, Metropolis, and “Howl” that seem most connected with Moore’s repertoire, so let’s focus on them.
Moloch The Abomination
In the Bible, Moloch or Molech (both spellings appear in the King James Version) seems to derive from the Hebrew word melech, meaning “king”, combined with the vowels from the word for “shame” to give it a pejorative flavor. The implication is of a “Lord” (or god) whose worshipers should be ashamed.
Most of the mentions of Moloch occur in Leviticus, a book concerned with setting out rules for the Israelites. A typical mention, as translated in the KJV: “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy god: I am the LORD.” (Lev 18:21) This diction may obscure just what’s being forbidden, but the English Standard Version is as usual more straightforward: “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” In 1 Kings he is called an “abomination”, and we see Solomon seduced into worshiping him. (1 Kings 11:7)
So it would appear that Moloch is a rival god to Yahweh, and that Moloch’s distinguishing feature is his demand that followers sacrifice their children to him, likely by ritual burning if the oft-repeated phrase “pass through the fire” has any literal meaning at all. In fact, a couple of 19th-century German scholars offered the radical argument that the cult of Yahweh in fact grew out of the cult of Moloch, differentiating itself by its rejection of human sacrifice. Other critics saw anti-Semitism in this premise, an attempt to slander Jews by suggesting that the “orthodox” version of Judaism was entwined in blood rituals. For our purposes, what matters is that the Biblical Moloch is synonymous with human sacrifice, in particular the sacrifice of children, and that this practice sets him apart from Yahweh.
What does this idea of human sacrifice have to do with Watchmen‘s Moloch? Very little, I would argue. Edgar Jacobi, aka Moloch, who Hollis Mason describes as “an ingenious and flamboyant criminal mastermind” in his heyday, seems to be Watchmen‘s canonical example of the “schmuck in a Halloween suit” that the Comedian derides in one of this chapter’s flashbacks. He’s non-threatening enough that Veidt’s marketing department eventually wants to make an action figure out of him.
There is almost no hint of human sacrifice, nor indeed any kind of murder, in what we know about him. He initially styles himself as a stage magician, and tends to sport a tuxedo in the flashbacks to his active days. In Chapter 4 we see him with a spooky skull necklace, but that’s about as close as he gets to courting death. He appropriates the name (and perhaps the pointy ears?) of a demon-god, but does nothing very demonic or godlike, moving into organized crime in the 1940s before finally spending the Seventies in jail.
So why the name Moloch? What does the concept of Moloch have to do with anything in Watchmen? Well, the actual Edgar Jacobi may be a red herring, the literal example of false danger that The Comedian cites in the Crimebusters meeting, but there is indeed a figure who embodies all that Moloch represents: Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt fancies himself somewhere between a king and a god. In the Bible, the difference between good god Yahweh and wicked god Moloch is whether that god is willing to sacrifice its own. Yahweh doesn’t demand the killing of anyone’s children. (Well, except for that one time, and it turns out He was faking it.) Ozymandias, though, creates an entire plan predicated on human sacrifice, and not just any humans, but the very New Yorkers whom he protected in his days as a costumed hero.
Even before the book’s climactic slaughter, Adrian is methodically killing people all over the place. He blows up the boat containing all the writers, artists, and scientists he bribed and tricked into his scheme. He eliminates every underworld figure who could be traced back to Pyramid Deliveries. He irradiates Dr. Manhattan’s associates to give them cancer, thus making Watchmen‘s Moloch the subject rather than the object of sacrifice. All in the service of his vision.
When comparing Watchmen to the book of Revelation, we saw how much Moore and Gibbons’ story was an inversion of the Biblical apocalypse, from its disruption of the good/evil binary to its reversal of the typical combat myth. In Ozymandias, we see yet another Biblical reversal — rather than Yahweh’s rejection of child sacrifice, Ozymandias turns into the kind of god who embraces it. The closest thing to a child character in the book — Bernard the younger — dies in the arms of his elder namesake when Veidt’s squid creature arrives.
The Moloch Machine
Adrian also has a few things in common with Joh Fredersen, the master of the title Metropolis in Fritz Lang’s film. Both men are masters of a business empire, who have attendants hanging on their every word to carry out their orders. Where Veidt built the Antarctic refuge of Karnak and its fantastical vivarium, Fredersen created the “Stadium Of The Sons”, in which the male offspring of Metropolis’s 1% frolic among freely available plants, fountains, and women. Where Veidt registered the patent for spark hydrants thanks to possibilities opened up by Dr. Manhattan, Fredersen creates a dazzling city thanks to the inventions of archetypal mad scientist Carl Rotwang. And where Nite Owl and Rorschach uncover the horrific human cost that Veidt is willing to incur in order to realize his dream, in Metropolis it’s Joh’s son Freder who makes the sickening discovery.
One day, as Freder is having his usual grand time in the Stadium Of The Sons, his merriment is interrupted by a working-class woman named Maria, who has taken a group of children up to the stadium to see how the upper crust lives. He becomes obsessed with Maria, and tries to follow her down to the underside of Metropolis, where workers endure endless toil to keep all the city’s machines operating. As viewers, we’ve already witnessed scenes of exhausted workers trooping through the undercity, their lives ruled by an omnipresent clock — another symbol in common between Metropolis and Watchmen.
When Freder enters the undercity, one of the first sights he encounters is an enormous machine, with rows of workers pulling levers in steady rhythm to keep its mysterious energies flowing. As Freder watches in alarm, one enervated worker struggles to do his part, but falls short, and the mechanism’s temperature rises. Finally, the thermometer reaches a critical level, and an explosion rocks the machine, sending workers flying through the air. At this moment, Freder has a vision of the machine as a huge, terrifying demon that consumes workers alive. Shaved and chained, they trudge up the stairs to be thrown into the fires within its gaping mouth. Overcome by the vision, Freder shouts out one word: “MOLOCH!”
There’s not much ambiguity about the symbolic weight of this Moloch machine, nor in fact most of Metropolis, which takes its cue from the novel of the same name written by Lang’s then-wife Thea Von Harbou. The film announces in its first title card, “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!”, and then goes on to make it clear that the brain is capital (i.e. Joh) and the hands are the proletariat (i.e. those devoured by the Moloch machine.) In Joh Fredersen’s Metropolis, the price of that beautiful stadium, and the debauched club Yoshiwara, and all the other amazing conveyances and edifices and inventions, is human sacrifice. Working class people struggle and die to keep the machines fed, and when those machines go explosively wrong, the ruling class sees it as an impersonal correction, just one of those things.
When it seems like the “hands” might revolt, under the leadership of Maria, Fredersen and Rotwang disguise an android with her appearance, so as to disrupt the rebellion by discrediting its figurehead. Disaster ensues, culminating in a rooftop swordfight between Rotwang and Freder, who finally triumphs, killing the mad scientist. The film’s rather naive ending solves the problem of the city’s cruel machinery when Freder (as the mediating heart) joins the hands of capitalist Fredersen and lead worker Grot.
Ozymandias, too, builds an enormous machine to fuel his fondest dreams, but in his case the machine isn’t made of dials and levers and gears. It’s made of plans, and it consumes people for its purposes with no mediating heart in sight. Like the machines of Metropolis, it also reaches deep under the surface. According to this chapter, Veidt formed his intention in 1966 to solve the problem of inevitable nuclear war. According to Doug Roth in Chapter 4, Wally Weaver died of cancer in 1971. That means that Veidt’s plan was in motion within at least 5 years of that Crimebusters meeting, and that its turning gears had claimed their first life by then. In the ensuing 14 years, it finally realizes its destiny as “a lethal pyramid”, killing everyone involved, excepting some but not all of our main characters. After the hordes of corpses in chapter 12, Rorschach is the final slave to be marched into the gaping maw of Adrian’s Moloch machine.
It isn’t just planning, though. Veidt also relies upon a remarkable technology stack to create his “practical joke,” one even more farfetched than the androids and mega-machines of Metropolis. He kills his servants by elaborately staging their “deaths from exposure, after drunkenly opening [his] vivarium.” Like much of Metropolis, it makes for a hell of a visual, but falters under a bit of scrutiny — why would a tropical vivarium in Antarctica ever need to open in such a way, anyway? When Dan expresses skepticism that Adrian is even capable of killing half of New York, Veidt calmly explains that he cloned the brain of a psychic named Robert Deschaines into a “resonator”, with “terrible information” coded into it. Then, when its host creature dies, this mega-psychic brain somehow broadcasts “the signal triggered by the onset of death”, and that signal somehow kills 3 million people from “the shock”.
I think of Watchmen as a realistically grounded superhero narrative, maybe the most realistic one ever at the time of its publication. If you can accept the notion of Dr. Manhattan and how his existence would change the world, the rest plays out logically with no further recourse to the supernatural, right? Well, wrong. Because as wide-ranging as Dr. Manhattan’s powers and effects may be, they don’t reasonably explain the presence of psychic abilities in human beings. Veidt gestures to advancements in eugenics as Laurie fawns over Bubastis in Chapter 4, but telepathy is another story. Because Watchmen drapes itself in superhero tropes, it’s easy to overlook, but for Veidt’s plan to work, we must accept not only the implications of Dr. Manhattan, but the entirely separate implications of people who can project their thoughts.
Besides sharing in its implausibility, Ozymandias also echoes Metropolis by wielding super-scientific advancements as a murder weapon against anyone opposing his utopia. Despite his Egyptian iconography, Adrian Veidt is a technologist who achieves his victories through a combination of commerce and machines, using flesh draped on a bomb like the false Maria in Metropolis.
Moloch Whose Fingers Are Ten Armies
In Lang’s Metropolis, the Moloch machine consumes hordes of anonymous workers. In “Howl”, Allen Ginsberg ups the ante. His Moloch destroys “the best minds of my generation.” His Moloch is a “sphinx of aluminum and cement” that “bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination.” In other words, Ginsberg’s Moloch of industrialization doesn’t just destroy the working class hands, but also the open hearts that might have tried to serve as mediators.
He invokes “Moloch” like a chant in section II of the poem, and some of the imagery recalls Metropolis pretty clearly:
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!
The second quoted stanza clearly identifies various parts of the city as Moloch, and a Metropolis-like city it is, with skyscrapers, factories, smokestacks, and antennae. The anthropomorphization of buildings and tombs into body parts of the monster strongly echoes the way that the panels, apertures, and pipes of the Metropolis machine become eyes, mouth, and claws in Freder’s vision of Moloch. And of course the “cannibal dynamo” of its breast is pretty much a straight description of what happens in the Metropolis Moloch scene.
There may be another allusion to Lang here as well. One of the director’s trademarks was having a shot of a hand in each of his films, one way or another. Rotwang has an artificial hand that gets some attention, but there’s another sort of hand shot in the movie as well. There’s a sequence where Maria tells an allegorical story about building a “Tower of Babel”, another example of planning brains heartlessly directing working “hands”, and one famous shot from that sequence is of five columns of workers converging into a foreground of shave-pated men sullenly trudging forward.
As Tom Gunning points out in The Films Of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, the shot strongly suggests a hand. “The shape itself acts as a trope, based on the synecdoche introduced in Harbou’s text, the workers as ‘hands.’ We see the converging columns as the outspread fingers and the circular insert as a palm. The composition of roiling bodies also functions as a symbolic close-up of a hand, one of Lang’s most powerful visual tropes.” Separate regiments of workers coalesce into one central force. Or, if you’re Allen Ginsberg, “Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!”
So if the Biblical Moloch demands human sacrifices, like Adrian, and the Metropolis Moloch uses humans as fuel, like Adrian’s plan, what does Ginsberg’s work add to our understanding? Simply this: that those sacrifices aren’t just anonymous workers or unnamed children, but characters we come to know and care about through the course of the story. In section I of “Howl,” Ginsberg introduces us to a litany of behaviors and characters who embody them. Most of these are of the heroic-romantic nature, albeit from a bohemian point of view, fugitives from mass culture who bravely maintained intellectual independence and created unfettered works. They are all destroyed, and it is Moloch who destroys them.
In Watchmen, we come to know some of the “ordinary” people who get killed on November 2, 1985. There’s Bernard the newsstand vendor and Bernard the young reader, who we hear from throughout the book. There’s Malcolm Long and his wife Gloria, stars of Chapter 6. There’s Joey and her girlfriend, who we see in the throes of painful relationship dissolution. There’s Detective Steve Fine and his partner Joe, who open Chapter 1 and continue to investigate crimes on the fringes throughout the story. Ozymandias is the Moloch to whom all these victims are sacrificed, to appease his thirst for surreptitious control of the world’s nations.
That day is the final step in Adrian’s homicidal plan, and a trail of death leads up to it. There’s the island full of artists, writers, and scientists — Max Shea, Hira Manish, James Trafford March, Linette Paley, Norman Leith, Dr. Whittaker Furnesse. The best minds of their generation, destroyed in Veidt’s madness. Not to mention the literal “best mind”, Robert Deschaines, who apparently was more than a “so-called psychic and clairvoyant.” And Wally Weaver, and Janey Slater, and poor Edgar Jacobi himself, all marched into the maw of Ozymandias’ Moloch machinations, feeding their energies into its terrible purpose.
The sad, cancerous old man pinned to the ground by Rorschach did none of these things. In fact, he was just another victim of them. Jacobi pleads, “I’m not Moloch anymore,” and he’s right. The new Moloch is Ozymandias himself, whose mind is pure machinery.
[As always, many spoilers for Watchmen lurk below.]
Yes, Chapter 2 is full of flashbacks stitched together by present-day scenes. But that’s far from the only reminiscing it contains. As usual, Moore and Gibbons’ themes run several layers deep, and this is most apparent in the scene between Laurie and Sally at the beginning of the chapter.
Aside from the fact that the long and painful history between the characters is self-evident in their every utterance, there are also a number of memory cues scattered throughout the scene. Obviously, there’s the framed picture of the Minutemen, which leads Sally into her flashback. There are also framed pictures on the walls, tantalizing in their sketchiness. There’s the Tijuana bible, Sally’s way of “being reminded that people used to slobber over me.” And of course, there’s the ever-present bottle of Nostalgia (by Veidt) on the vanity.
Finally, as we come out of the flashback, we get a closer look at one of those pictures:
Which brings us to our subject today. Here’s what the web annotations have to say about this panel:
The portrait on the wall is inscribed “To Sally Jupiter, Best Wishes Varga”. In the real world an artist named Alfredo Vargas drew portraits of naked and half-naked women which appeared regularly in Playboy magazine. He sometimes signed his work “Vargas” and sometimes “Varga”. The portrait of Sally is very much in his style.
As often occurs with these web annotations, this is a case of “almost but not quite.” Some corrections:
There was in fact a pin-up artist named Vargas in the real world, but he was Alberto Vargas, not Alfredo Vargas.
His work did indeed appear in Playboy, but much more relevant to the reference here is the fact that his work appeared in Esquire from 1940 to 1946, in gatefold images that became a salient aspect of American soldiers’ lives during those World War II years. His Playboy art occurred much later (1957 through 1974) and was more explicit during those years, i.e. more naked than half-naked. Incidentally, while Leslie Klinger does a considerably better job with his Vargas gloss, he also gets these dates wrong, suggesting that Vargas didn’t separate from Esquire until 1957, when in fact the artist suffered a long fallow and desperate period between leaving Esquire and starting for Playboy.
There’s a specific reason why his signature varied between “Varga” and “Vargas”, and it maps directly onto his history with those magazines. According to Vargas’s autobiography, Esquire editor David Smart decided to call the artist’s creations “Varga Girls”, on the notion that it was “more euphonious” than “Vargas Girls”. (pg. 28) But Vargas’s parting from Esquire was a bitter one, and by 1950, after four years of court battles, he had completly lost the rights to the “Varga” name. (pg. 43) Consequently, his work from there on out was signed “Vargas”.
These facts bear directly on the Watchmen panel. Because the portrait is signed “Varga” rather than “Vargas”, we can reasonably conclude that the fictional Varga in this world did his portrait of Sally Jupiter during the war years. That conclusion also resonates with the many other manifestations of 1940s nostalgia, including the flashback itself.
So what was “Varga” all about, and why does it matter that he painted a portrait of Sally Jupiter that now hangs on her wall in the “City of the Dead”?
Alberto Vargas was born in Peru in 1896. At 20 years old, after a European schooling and a brief apprenticeship with a photographer, he found himself in New York, and there became entranced with American women. He was supposed to return home to Peru, but he chose to stay instead, and from that moment onward made his living as an artist, never straying far from paintings of idealized female forms.
During the 1920s he painted portraits for the Ziegfeld Follies, which in turn led him to gigs illustrating for newspapers, magazines, advertisements, fashion designs, and personal commissions. Through the 1930s he continued this sort of work and also found himself employed by Hollywood studios, creating many movie posters, as well as portraits of the era’s major film stars. It was in 1940, though, that he would begin the most iconic work of his lifetime.
For seven years, George Petty had been the pin-up artist of choice in the pages of Esquire, but Smart found him tiresome and demanding to work with. Petty was altogether too shrewd a businessman, so Smart sought someone who was as good with the paintbrush but not nearly so good at interpreting contracts. He found his ideal match in Alberto Vargas, who had been suffering from quite a few lean years during the Depression, and who was ecstatic to receive not only work but appreciation for the kind of work he wanted to do.
The first Varga Girl appeared in the October 1940 issue of Esquire, a little over a year before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The feature proved immediately and immensely popular, prompting Smart to begin a program of relentless exploitation. Esquire contracted with Vargas to produce a prodigious amount of work each year, and ran a calendar of twelve Vargas paintings only two months after his debut in the magazine.
From 1942 to 1945, Smart distributed over three million copies of Esquire to domestic military installations free of charge, selling another six million copies (without advertising) to troops overseas. The Varga Girl calendar would become an annual release throughout the war years, selling in the millions. Vargas became the premier pin-up artist of the World War Two era, a cultural phenomenon intimately connected with the times, whose work appeared in barracks worldwide, as well as on the noses of American airplanes.
It was widely suggested, perhaps even widely believed, that these images raised the morale of American soldiers overseas — reminded them of what they were fighting for back home. Vargas and Esquire reinforced this notion by presenting Varga Girls as brides, or bedecked in patriotic imagery, or posed with various military props — medals, uniforms, letters from home, army instruction books, and so forth. The images were often accompanied by some bit of verse or prose about heartfelt topics like peace, love, or Christmas.
And yet, as World War Two veteran Kurt Vonnegut points out in his brilliant foreword to a catalog of Vargas’s Esquire work, the notion of these images as morale-raisers doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. They bore little resemblance to the average American wife, mother, or sweetheart, and their net effect, if not their intention, was just “to make horny youths far from home hornier — to what end we can only speculate.”
Vonnegut suggests instead that what the Varga Girls represent is more akin to images from the Sears Roebuck catalog:
If I am right, the pinups of World War Two had the generalized appeal of merchandise, implied fixed prices and order forms. The fantasy: You really could buy one if you had the bucks, and you just might have the bucks someday. The paper woman in the girdle and bra, if you were a man, seemed as much in your power as the socket-wrench set or the level-winding fishing reel.
In other words, Vargas’s art and Esquire‘s use of it contributed to the cultural commodification of women during World War Two, and here we can return to Sally Jupiter at last.
“I’m sitting ON it!”
Sally states clearly, in the supplemental material to Chapter 9, that her career as Silk Spectre “was never a sex thing. It was a money thing.” Hollis Mason concurs, in Under The Hood, saying that Sally “was probably the first of us ever to realize that there could be commercial benefits in being a masked adventurer. The Silk Spectre used her reputation as a crimefighter primarily to make the front pages and receive exposure for her lucrative modeling career…”
Sally, with the eager assistance of her agent and later husband Laurence Shexnayder, created her image in order to sell it, during the same era in which the Varga Girls rose to prominence. It’s no wonder Vargas painted her — in a way, they were both in the same line of work. They sold fantasy images of women, turning the desires of “horny youths” into cash.
Though the Esquire Varga Girls were anonymous, Vargas painted lots of portraits of living stars, especially during his studio days in the 1930s. Even in the 40s, during the height of his Esquire work, he did portraits of Jane Russell and Ava Gardner. The notion that he’d have painted Silk Spectre during that time is totally plausible. Like those movie bombshells, Sally Jupiter was an object of desire, and she and Shexnayder did their level best to rake in earnings from the people who slobbered over her.
Sally makes no bones about any of this, recounting every “bright blue gag” about herself back to Nite Owl, and joking about the moneymaker her body has been for her, as in the intermittent voice balloons that drift over to Laurie in a flashback that takes place at Sally’s house:
And so she did, though like Alberto Vargas, she and Laurence don’t always seem to have had the greatest dealmaking acumen. Though she certainly lives in a nice enough house (at least, after divorcing Shexnayder), the film deal they make devolves from a documentary, into a children’s adventure serial, into a “B” action movie, and finally into something “too awful even to be dignified with the term ‘pornography.'”
The journey taken by the Silk Spectre biopic defines a continuum, with “classy” exploitation at one end and purely crass exploitation at the other. In Sally’s apartment, those two extremes get represented by the Varga portrait on one end, and the Tijuana bible on the other. And while Sally might prefer to be on the classy end, she makes it clear that she doesn’t mind the other end so much either, because it’s not a dignity thing, it’s a money thing. (“Listen, those things are valuable, like antiques. Eighty bucks an’ up.”)
Sally learns, in her career as a “big tough super-lady”, that her value resides in her body and her sexuality. Her function, as a woman, was more or less to be a Varga Girl: erotic and innocent at once, distant and accessible at once, glamorous and vulnerable at once, and all available for sale everywhere. Merchandise.
The Essence That Was So Divine
When she turns on Laurie at the end of the scene, Sally reveals that this view extends beyond herself. “At least I don’t sleep with an H-Bomb,” she says, and when Laurie objects that Jon is not an H-Bomb, she continues: “Honey, the only difference is that they didn’t have to get the H-Bomb laid every once in a while.” In Sally’s eyes, that’s Laurie’s job, her function as a woman: get the H-Bomb laid. She’s as much a morale-raiser as any Esquire gatefold. (And though she protests that Sally is “being totally unfair”, Laurie herself is stuck in a story where her main function is to change the state of male characters.)
Sally Jupiter’s morale-raising days are in the past, though. Her world is “the city of the dead” because the thing that gave her meaning and value has departed with age. Bitterness has replaced allure, and now her refuge is in her memories, a past that gets just keeps on getting brighter all the time.
In other words, nostalgia. Or rather, perhaps, Nostalgia, because there’s someplace else in the Watchmen world where Varga-esque images appear, and that’s in Adrian Veidt’s ad campaign for his “Nostalgia line of ladies’ and men’s cosmetics.” He describes the woman in the ad, but may as well be describing a Varga Girl: “overtly erotic, yet layered with enough romantic ambiance to avoid offense.” She’s wearing more clothing than the typical Varga Girl, but the gauzy, transparent dress that hangs down from her torso, revealing and obscuring her thigh at once is pure Vargas, as is her pose and knowing stare out of the frame, returning the viewer’s gaze with amusement.
Ozymandias, while watching his bank of randomly changing screens, muses about the “erotic undercurrent not uncommon in times of war,” and notes in his ad strategy that “when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past.” Vargas’s painted ladies might belong to either, smooth fantasy women adorned in furs and flowers, who all find themselves in a half-imagined climate so warm that they’re constantly shedding clothes. It’s hard to say whether they seemed nostalgic at the time of their highest popularity, but at the very least they represented a yearning for simplicity and pleasure that must have felt distant indeed for soldiers deployed throughout the globe. Vargas’s work certainly drips with nostalgia now, especially for those, like Vonnegut, who lived through the 1940s.
The primary caption for Nostalgia advertisements reaches back even further, to the 1930s. “Oh, how the ghost of you clings” is a quote from the song “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)”, a hit song from 1936 that was covered by multiple people that year, including Leslie Hutchinson, Benny Goodman, and Billie Holiday. Here’s one of my favorite versions, from Bryan Ferry in 1973:
Once again, multiple layers of nostalgia are present here. The song itself is about the pain of lost love, when every element of your life can feel like a reminder of what’s gone out of it. “The ghost of you” here is made of all the simple little things that evoke the departed lover, including the lingering scent of perfume. Beyond that, the use of this caption in a 1985 ad campaign quite consciously hearkens back to a bygone era, that mythical “simpler time” that itself is the object of little-n nostalgia. That clinging ghost is the old songs, the old styles, the old times that feel so distant, especially when the present time is full of “global uncertainty.”
More than that, though, within the story, pertaining to the specific characters, when a bottle of Nostalgia appears, so do the clinging ghosts of the past. Obviously it takes a starring role in Chapter 9, appearing in close-up on the cover and shattering the Martian castle in the issue’s climactic moment. There, the ghost is the circumstances of Laurie’s birth, come back to haunt her after years of suppression.
In the opening scene of Chapter 2, that same ghost is at work, though we don’t know it yet. In addition, we get ghosts of other kinds. Sally gazes at her picture of the Minutemen, remembering how the dark and bright parts of the past brought her to where and who she is today. That picture, the Tijuana bible, and the Varga portrait on the wall surround her with ghosts of her former self — departed desire, eroticism, vitality. Most of all, she and Laurie are haunted by their shared past, the tension between them a product of thousands of interactions, behavior itself driven by experiences reaching back generations, like any complicated relationship between parent and child. Those ghosts do cling, and sometimes nostalgia is the optimal outcome, far better anyway than bitterness and toxicity.
Last, and deepest, is the kind of nostalgia that Watchmen itself set out to explode, the decades-long attachment of comics fans to the same superheroes and superhero tropes iterated over and over and over again. Those fanboy fantasies were as surprisingly fragile as Doctor Manhattan’s Martian castle, and this book was the bottle hurled at them. It marked a turning point, taking us to a new vantage from which we could see those Golden, Silver, and Bronze age comics as innocent and problematic in their own way as the Varga Girls seem now.
[As always, be thee warned that these posts contain spoilers for Watchmen.]
In December, DC Comics came out with a new book. No, I don’t mean the latest issue of Doomsday Clock, the comic in which it turns out there’s more story after Watchmen ended, and the story is that the characters go hang out with Batman and Superman. Nope. Like its predecessor series Before Watchmen, I consider Doomsday Clock to be basically fan fiction. I don’t mean that as pejoratively as maybe it sounds — there’s nothing wrong with fan fiction, and sometimes it can be a lot of fun. It might even be written well — certainly I admire some of the writers involved. But I just do not have time or space for it in this project, or in my life.
No, the book I’m referencing is called Watchmen Annotated. It’s by Leslie S. Klinger, and it could be called a prettier, hardbound, authorized, and more cohesive version of the amateur crowdsourced web annotations I’ve been using throughout this project. Many of the comments are substantively the same. But Klinger has a copy editor, access to sources (such as Moore’s scripts and Gibbons himself), and he’s a thorough researcher. That combination can work wonders sometimes.
Case in point, this panel:
The web annotations gloss this as follows:
The sign on the left reads, “Moloch’s Solar Mirror Weapon”; the case on the right is “King Mob’s Ape Mask”. These are presumably trophies captured by the heroes from criminals. We will meet Moloch soon. We never see King Mob, but presumably his name is a play on the name “Queen Mab” (the fairy queen referred to by Shakespeare) and the notion of organized crime mob. [sic]
I thought this Queen Mab idea was a pretty clever connection, and one that had never occurred to me. But Klinger has something entirely different to say, and he waits to say it until the next page, when we actually see the ape mask labeled:
Klinger’s explanation is long, but here’s an excerpt:
The ape mask of King Mob, seen here in the Minutemen’s trophy room, is not explained in the story. The name King Mob, however, refers to a radical group of artists and provocateurs active in England in the 1960s and 1970s and known to Moore and Gibbons. An offshoot of the Situationist International movement, King Mob apparently took its name from a slogan painted on the wall of Newgate Prison during the Gordon Riots of 1790 — the rioters claimed the damage was done by His Majesty, King Mob.
Reading through this text makes it patently clear that King Mob’s activities were an influence on Watchmen. For one thing, in one of the collective’s early exploits they really did use an ape suit. Children of working class families in the Notting Hill area of 1968 London had no place to play, and were getting knocked down by cars in the street. The green spaces of the neighborhood were fenced off and annexed by housing developments for the wealthy.
To disrupt the situation, King Mob decided to dress one of its members in a gorilla suit, and a couple of others in a two-man horse costume. The gorilla man took a hit of speed, changed into his costume in a pub lavatory, and shot out of there roaring into the street, to be joined by the horse and the rest of the collective, who exhorted the Saturday afternoon throngs to help them tear down the fences. They didn’t actually get them torn down — in fact they got arrested and went to court two days later still in costume. But a wave of sympathetic protests did follow the absurdist action, and a public park was established shortly thereafter in Powis Square, though by that time King Mob had lost interest, having little taste for what Wise calls “mealy-mouthed council machinations” and “institutionalised space.”
In any case, King Mob was no stranger to gorilla/guerilla actions, which makes the ape mask an even more outright reference to the collective than the use of its name alone implies. But there’s an even clearer connection between England’s King Mob and the world of Watchmen, as Klinger correctly identifies: some of the graffiti in Watchmen is almost a direct crib of something King Mob wrote in huge block letters, on a wall paralleling the track between two London tube stops. The King Mob graffiti reads:
SAME THING DAY AFTER DAY — TUBE — WORK — DINER [sic] — WORK — TUBE — ARMCHAIR — TV — SLEEP — TUBE — WORK — HOW MUCH MORE CAN YOU TAKE? ONE IN TEN GO MAD — ONE IN FIVE CRACKS UP
Compare this to the graffiti seen multiple places in Watchmen, which boils down the message and intensifies it to “ONE IN EIGHT GO MAD”:
Klinger speculates that the increased ratio of madness has to do with a greater psychological pressure in the Watchmen universe than in ours, but the fact of King Mob’s mask showing up in a Minutemen flashback makes me wonder if there’s a simpler explanation to be found. There were in fact eight Minutemen: Captain Metropolis, The Comedian, Dollar Bill, Hooded Justice, Mothman, Nite Owl, The Silhouette, and Silk Spectre. And one of them did indeed go mad: as Sally mentions, “poor Byron Lewis” (aka Mothman) is “in the bughouse in Maine.”
This character flits around the edges of the Watchmen story. We see his wings bugging The Comedian in 1940, and we get Hollis Mason in Under The Hood mentioning that “the man behind the mask and wings of Mothman… has been committed to a mental institution after a long bout of alcoholism and a complete mental breakdown.” We hear that Dan Dreiberg spends some time “visiting a sick acquaintance at a hospital in Maine on behalf of a mutual friend.”
Mothman’s most significant appearance is in a Chapter 9 flashback, in which Laurie remembers a Minutemen reunion attended by Lewis. He’s clearly a wreck — frightened, incoherent, and minded by two caretakers who ensure that he drinks “just a club soda.” In the context of the chapter, the point of the appearance seems to be to provoke Laurie’s reaction: “Jesus, is that what I’m training for? What I got to look forward to?” It underscores her reluctance to follow in her mother’s footsteps, furthers Moore’s project of deglamorizing the superhero life, and validates the “one in eight” graffiti. And of course it contributes to the conversation between Laurie and Jon on Mars, debating whether there’s a point to human struggle.
But aside from all that, it is also the strongest example of madness in Watchmen, and madness was a significant topic for King Mob. Wise claims that “the dialectic of madness” was the common theme in the group’s first and most widely distributed magazine, King Mob Echo: “going mad with freedom; of breakdown as breakthrough; of disintegration as prelude to a new unity, or as justification for previous ‘mad’ interventions via the rantings of King Mob and with further actions coming your way soon.” They certainly used the threat of madness in their tube graffiti, as the consequence of a life spent in proletariat complacency.
Looking at Byron Lewis, though, Watchmen would seem to be making the opposite case. Lewis didn’t go mad because he spent his days in repetitive drudgery. On the contrary, he made himself wings and a moth costume, then hit the streets to fight crime, which is about as far from “ARMCHAIR — TV — SLEEP” as you could get. It’s never made quite clear what causes his breakdown, though there’s a strong hint in Under The Hood that being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee started his downward spiral. We also see him as a fearful person in every scene where he speaks, which would suggest that he self-medicated with alcohol for anxiety that was present even before his HUAC ordeal. It seems clear that costumes and vigilantism didn’t help him, despite the English King Mob’s prescription of costumes and vigilantism to disrupt what Wise calls “this grotesque society.”
Our world’s King Mob was militantly opposed to the status quo, the “impossible society.” As I’ve touched on severaltimes in this project, superheroes are militant defenders of the status quo. So it stands to reason that Watchmen‘s King Mob would oppose the Minutemen. By the look of their trophy room, it seems the status quo won the day, just as it did (for the most part) over the real King Mob. Much of Wise’s text has a heartbroken quality, mourning the painful failure of a utopian dream.
If the use of King Mob’s name in Watchmen is social commentary, then it’s commentary aimed at Brits. American audiences would see “mob” and think of organized crime, as the web annotations demonstrate. Their closest association between “King” and ape would be King Kong. There’s a point to be made here. Watchmen may be set in New York, and published by an American comics company, but its writer, artist, and colorist are all English, with a distinctly British set of cultural reference points. American readers like me, who lack that cultural context, are inevitably going to miss some things, and get others wrong.
This King Mob reference is a big case in point, but there are smaller ones too. I ran across a sentence in Wise’s text which seemed to jump out as a Watchmen reference: “How could so many women with a sure sense of what mattered end up as public school head mistress [sic] like Phillippa D’Eath?” D’Eath?? I thought “Red D’Eath” (the lead singer of Watchmen-world band Pale Horse) was a particularly silly rock pseudonym, albeit a literary one in a way I’m sure to investigate in a future post. The notion that there was a Phillippa D’Eath, who may have been associated with King Mob, was enough to make me sit up straight.
Well, some focused Googling showed me that not only is there indeed a Phillippa D’Eath living in London, there is in fact quite a contingent of D’Eaths. None named Red, but still — as an American the surname sounds purely invented to me, while in Britain it’s not unknown. As the web annotations point out, “De’Ath” is even more common, though still relatively uncommon overall. How many other UK touchstones have I missed or misunderstood? I suppose all I can do is rely on the annotations. Now that there are two sets, perhaps my chances have improved.
Nothing But Vain Fantasy
Speaking of that first set, while it seems clear that King Mob’s ape mask referenced the radical anti-art group, what about that Queen Mab connection? Who knows what may or may not have been in Moore’s head, but the odds seem against a Queen Mab reference now that we know about England’s real King Mob. Still, due to the fact that I started researching this post in November and didn’t lay eyes on Klinger’s book until after Christmas, I ended up spending a couple of months learning about Queen Mab. And while it may just be another Rorschach blot, I found some interesting connections to explore.
First of all, the web annotations say that Queen Mab is “referred to by Shakespeare”, but what they don’t mention is that Shakespeare in fact invented her. Researchers have identified a few faint leads as possible sources for her legend, but the first recorded mention we have of Queen Mab is in Romeo and Juliet. References proliferate after that, including an extended treatment by Percy Shelley, another poet who looms large in the landscape of Watchmen references due to his poem “Ozymandias.” In Shelley’s Queen Mab poem, he rails extensively against a number of things, most prominently religion, marriage, meat-eating, and the monarchy & peerage. In fact, the poem’s pro-labor, anti-aristocracy sentiments are quite in line with the ethos of the 20th century King Mob.
In Shelley’s poem, Queen Mab is a fairy who serves as a sort of tour guide to the universe, displaying a catalog of human misery, along with pointers about how it could be ended. In Shakespeare, though, the fairy is more mischievous. She’s the subject of an extended monologue by Romeo’s friend Mercutio, who first describes in detail her tiny size and accoutrements — she’s “no bigger than an agate stone / on the forefinger of an alderman”, her driver the size of a gnat, her chariot an empty hazelnut, et cetera. He then recites a long list of her activities, which seem to be centered on bringing apt dreams into the heads of all humans she encounters — lawyers dream of fees, soldiers dream of cutting throats, courtiers dream of curtsies, and of course lovers dream of love.
Mercutio’s usual mode is devilish teasing and mockery, and the Queen Mab speech starts out clearly in this vein. But as the speech continues, his tone gets darker, his imagery more grotesque, and his choice of words harsher and harsher, until Romeo interrupts him with a concerned, “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk’st of nothing.”
“True,” says Mercutio, “I talk of dreams, / Which are the children of an idle brain, / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.” Here we have the crux of what upsets Mercutio. In the scene leading up to his Queen Mab speech, he is frustrated with Romeo, who is pining away bemoaning his love for Rosaline (this is before he meets Juliet), embodying every cliché of Renaissance courtly love. Mercutio correctly ascribes these sentiments to “vain fantasy” — Rosaline has no interest in Romeo, and the latter’s love-wounded posturing is mostly performance, albeit an infuriating one for his friends. (Some critics have also speculated that Mercutio himself has a frustrated homoerotic desire for Romeo.)
This repudiation of idle fantasy finds an echo in Watchmen, which sets out to deconstruct the innocent fantasies of the superhero genre, holding them up to the harsh light of reality and finding how tiny and frail some of their underpinnings really are. And just as in Romeo and Juliet, when dreams are dispelled, darkness rushes in. Romeo ends the Queen Mab scene with portentous words, presaging the play’s tragic ending: “my mind misgives / Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars… some vile forfeit of untimely death.”
Meanwhile, in Watchmen the tragedy plays out before us. As King Mob’s ape mask looks on, it sees a story that looks like Romeo and Juliet reflected in a distorted mirror.
The Angry Mab
Romeo and Juliet see each other at a party and, following a Renaissance theatrical convention, fall deeply, authentically, and instantly in love. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt recognizes Romeo as a member of the rival Montague family and wants to attack him, but is restrained by Lord Capulet’s insistence upon decorum. When the lovers first speak to each other, their words emerge as an interwoven sonnet of dialogue, immediately bonding them together. They hold hands, then kiss, treating the acts as sacred.
Contrast that against the scene between the Comedian and Silk Spectre in Chapter 2 of Watchmen. The party has broken up, and Eddie waits to confront Sally when they are both alone. He attempts to impose a narrative of instant attraction and desire upon her, insinuating that she announced she was changing in order to invite his attention, saying, “I know what you need,” and attempting to turn her refusal around: “Sure. No. Spelled Y, E…” Rather than weaving in with his dialogue, Sally interrupts and contradicts it: “Spelled enn oh!”
Rather than holding his hand, she scratches his face, and rather than kiss her, The Comedian punches her, kicks her, and holds her face to the ground. The closest analog to Tybalt is Hooded Justice, who is allegedly Sally’s companion but “never seemed very interested in her.” — more of a kissing cousin. Nobody restrains him from attacking the faux-Romeo Comedian, though he’s taken aback by the Comedian’s insight, and falls short of following through on his threats. After a moment between Hooded Justice and Silk Spectre, the flashback ends. Queen Mab has turned into King Mob, who brings nightmares to lovers rather than dreams.
In his guide to Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare scholar Jay L. Halio posits that a “dichotomy between youth and age is at the center of this play.” (pg. 39) The actions of the very young lovers are in defiance of the age-old feud between their families, and the consequences of that feud bring ruin upon their love affair. Such a dichotomy is also behind the Sally Jupiter scenes in chapter 2. Laurie and Sally clash with each other from different sides of their generation gap, and Sally contrasts her aged self, and her life in the “city of the dead”, to her memories of the forties. She talks about how “Eddie was the youngest. Always jokin’ about how old we all were. He said he’d bury us.” We even get a panel of the old, white-haired Sally standing in front of a portrait painted of her at her most young, vibrant, and sexy. (More on that in the next post…)
The flashback itself is to the youth of superheroics in the Watchmen world, a time when the costumed crusader fad was in full flower and the Minutemen were at their peak. The King Mob mask emphasizes this youth — it appears nowhere but in the 1940 flashback, and hearkens to trophy comics from our world’s Silver Age, classically the one in the Batcave.
King Mob would seem to be the epitome of the “schmuck in a Halloween suit” type of villain that the Comedian references in a later flashback, from a more innocent time, before the superheroes found themselves fighting the public itself. Chapter 2’s own chronological progression of flashbacks is another contrast between youth and age, this time of the society itself. The Minutemen are Watchmen‘s Silver Age, inevitably supplanted by a grimmer, uglier version of themselves.
There’s one more parallel between Watchmen and Romeo and Juliet: their endings. In both the play and the comic, peace between rivals arises from the ashes of tragedy. In fact, there’s a radically abridged plot summary that could fit both works: “Some people have to die in order to quell a feud between two powerful clans.”
Halio asks, “Do these young lovers transcend their fate, achieving in death what might have been impossible had they lived…?” (pg. xi) Whether you see transcendence or just a tragedy that happens to have a nice side effect probably depends on how you see the world, but it seems clear in the text that Romeo and Juliet’s deaths (as well as the various other deaths in the story) permanently end the feud between Capulets and Montagues. Each patriarch pledges to raise a statue in gold of the other’s child, and they end the play hand in hand as the Prince pronounces “a glooming peace.”
The peace in Watchmen seems far more dubious, despite Ozymandias’s exultation. That’s because there’s a fundamental difference between these sacrificial achievements. The warring families are united by love, while the warring nations are united by fear. Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism argues that tragedy contains “a mimesis of sacrifice.” (pg. 214) But where Romeo and Juliet chose their sacrifice, the New York victims did not, and this is likely to make the difference between a true restoration of the civil social peace and a false one. Again, Halio:
Except for its fatalities, [Romeo and Juliet] follows the standard form of New Comedy. The two lovers are kept apart by a powerful external authority (some form of parental opposition is typical) and much of the action concerns their efforts to get around the obstacles put in their path. Their ultimate union — in a marriage feast — results in a transformation of the society that opposed them. (pg. 28, note 3)
Romeo and Juliet have a marriage, but feast only upon poison and steel. Yet the society that opposed them truly is transformed. We see a transformed society at the end of Watchmen too — those last few pages show an extensive Russian influence in American society, “One World One Accord” posters, and Millennium replacing Nostalgia. We even get a sort of marriage, between Dan and Laurie.
But all is not well. The “EIGHT” in “ONE IN EIGHT GO MAD” has been crossed out and replaced with a “3”. Both the “marriage” and the transformation contain an inherent layer of deception that we sense cannot last. Dan and Laurie are living under assumed names, and she nervously glances out the window, not feeling safe hanging around any one place too long. And of course in the final panel, Seymour’s hand hovers over the evidence that could undo Veidt’s entire fraud.
In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers practice an equally farfetched fraud, but theirs fails. That scheme intends to avoid death, but tragically causes death instead, successfully ending the feud. Ozymandias’s scheme intends to cause death, and the extent to which it ends the “feud” between the US and USSR is deeply questionable. Tragedy is there in both works, but Watchmen has only a parody of the comedy. Again, it’s Romeo and Juliet in a funhouse mirror, with both King Mob and Queen Mab looking on. Where King Mob might seek respite in absurdity or innocence, the angry Mab flies onward, sowing dreams that fester into madness, and laughing, laughing, laughing as she goes.
As is the case with every post in this series, massive plot spoilers for Watchmen will be contained herein. Our topic today is the 1960s texts of William S. Burroughs, but I don’t think a spoiler warning will be necessary for those. In order for there to be plot spoilers, there must first be a plot, and these texts find Burroughs in open rebellion against the very idea of a plot, not to mention language and coherency itself.
Page 1, Panel 2: Note the “Nostalgia” perfume ad and the issue of Nova Express. (The title comes from a novel by William Burroughs of the same name.)
And indeed it does. Nova Express has a somewhat convoluted publishing history, but based on its original publication date it is considered the third in Burroughs’ “cut-up” trilogy, the other two being The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. Of course, calling these a trilogy is a bit of a misnomer. For that matter, so is calling them novels. Not only are they not one long story, none of the books is a story in itself, and in fact the entire enterprise rejects the notion of narrative continuity upon which the concept of “story” relies. What brings them together is their radical method of prose experimentation, which is why they’re called the “cut-up” trilogy rather than some reference to the characters or setting.1 But what is a cut-up? The best answer to that requires a little background.
Literary historians categorize William S. Burroughs as part of the Beat Generation. That means he hung out with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and the rest — a group interested in breaking through the censorious cultural monotone of the 1950s with radical art and taboo subjects. Burroughs was certainly no stranger to taboo — his first two novels were largely autobiographical accounts of two core aspects of his persona: Junky and Queer. Queer: he was not only a gay man but an outright misogynist (“Women are trouble,” he was known to say), whose fixation on men and male erotic images persisted throughout his career. Junky: Burroughs lived for much of his life as a heroin addict, or more accurately an addict to opium in a wide variety of forms. In his words:
When I say addict I mean an addict to junk (generic term for opium and/or derivatives including all synthetics from Demerol to Palfium). I have used junk in many forms: morphine, heroin, Dilaudid, Eukodal, Pantopon, Diocodid, Diosane, opium, Demerol, Dolophine, Palfium. I have smoked junk, eaten it, sniffed it, injected it in vein-skin-muscle, inserted it in rectal suppositories. The needle is not important. Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction. (Naked Lunch, pg. 200)
That’s from “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”, which appeared in the 1962 edition of his best-known work, Naked Lunch. That book, claims Burroughs, consists of “detailed notes on sickness and delirium” that he experienced during his addiction. Not that you could necessarily divine this by reading it. Naked Lunch is a kaleidoscopic panoply of disturbing images and vignettes, little snippets of narratives that Burroughs called “routines”. Nevertheless, each of these routines has an internal coherency more or less, though it may be quite elliptical in its reliance on external referents to which the reader has no access. For his next set of works, Burroughs would venture much further into the murky zones beyond narrative.
For part of his time with the Beats, Burroughs lived at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in Paris, in one room of a hotel also occupied by Ginsberg, Corso, Sinclair Belles, and various others. This building came to be known as the Beat Hotel for the company it held, and the most important member of that company for Burroughs was a painter by the name of Brion Gysin. Burroughs found a kindred spirit in Gysin, and the two of them would stay up talking into the night about things like how painting techniques might be incorporated into literature.
One day, so the story goes, Gysin was cutting some materials with a utility knife. To protect the table he was working on, he’d laid down newspapers as a foundation. Once his work was through, he noticed how the slicing of the newspapers seemed to liberate the text they contained. Recalling his conversations with Burroughs (who was away in rehab at the time, though of course it wasn’t called rehab back then), he imagined how he might make a collage of words. He rearranged the newspapers and published the resulting new text as “First Cut-Ups” in a book called Minutes To Go. That book saw Burroughs, Corso, Gysin, and Belles experimenting with what they were now calling “the cut-up technique”.
The revelation came at a perfect time for Burroughs. He was looking to break new ground after Naked Lunch, and cut-ups fascinated him. He’d cut up his own pages, shuffle them at random, and splice them into each other, but also would intermix newspaper stories, song lyrics, and various pieces of literature written by others, be they books, plays, or poems. Thus was born the “cut-up” trilogy, which blended straight narrative with cut-up passages in which you might catch a glimpse of future or past stories, or of Shakespeare, Eliot, Cole Porter, or really almost anything. He also pioneered a variant called the fold-in — fold one page of a manuscript in half and superimpose it on another, then read the text straight across as if it were a single page. Here’s just a small taste, from the “A Bad Move” routine of Nova Express:
Could give no other information than wind walking in a rubbish heap to the sky — Solid shadow turned off the white film of noon heat — Exploded deep in the alley tortured metal Oz — Look anywhere, Dead hand — Phosphorescent bones — Cold Spring afterbirth of that hospital — Twinges of amputation — Bread knife in the heart paid taxi boys — If I knew I’d be glad to look anyplace — No good myself (Nova Express, pg. 80-81)
It goes on and on like that, sometimes for many pages in a row. The mere effort of making the barest sense of it has the poetic imagination putting in for overtime pay almost immediately.
Burroughs would claim, “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.” Ozymandias thought the same thing might be true of his own habitual behavior, sitting in front of a bank of TV screens, all tuned to different channels, changing at random every hundred seconds:
Let’s dig into this a bit. First, as William Kuskin has observed, Adrian Veidt’s grid of televisions is “clearly a parallel to our own view of the multi-paneled page.” (pg. 58) However, there’s a key difference between them. In the Love & Rockets post, I outlined the way that while panel-to-panel relations imply time passing, the page also exists all at once. Thus in comics, there’s a tension between the simultaneous nature of the page and the sequential nature of the panels, but Veidt’s bank of televisions has no such tension — they are all simply simultaneous. It’s only on the comics page that the future really leaks out, and the past as well — with the exception of splash pages, all three times are present at once on each page.
There’s more going on in that panel, though. As usual, Moore’s relentless cleverness in juxtaposition is at work, the result being that several flavors of time travel are available in this one image. Many of these give most of their power to the re-reader, who has already seen the future and come back to this piece of the past. For one thing, the image below the words about the future leaking through, the “impending world of exotica”, is a smudge in an otherwise white and snowy foreground. Through the smudge, we see the impending world of a few pages later, the interior of Adrian’s exotic domed Antarctic vivarium. Moreover, Veidt’s disembodied voice superimposed on the image portends a different reveal — in the near future, in fact on the very next page, we’ll see his sound track reunited with his image track as he sits and gazes at the televisions. And one of those televisions will finally move forward in time, by being the focus of three successive panels.
It’s not just the future that’s present in the smudge panel, though. The shape of that smudge is a familiar one. It’s the same shape as the bloody smear on The Comedian’s smiley badge. The general stain-on-face pattern of that badge echoes throughout the book — for example, the reflection of Archie’s “face” in Dreiberg’s goggles on the cover of Chapter 7 is dusty, except at a position over the left eye where Laurie has run a finger, recalling the bloodstained badge by creating a pattern of clarity like the one through which we see the vivarium.
The very specific shape of the blood-spatter repeats too, though not as much — take a look at the last image of the Bernies on the final page of Chapter 11. While the stain-on-face pattern repeats many places, the specific blood-spatter shape remains associated only with Ozymandias’ actions until the final page of the book, in which that same spatter appears on Seymour’s shirt. The shape’s appearance at that time seems like a strong hint that Ozymandias’ actions will once again become a focus, with the New Frontiersman publishing Rorschach’s journal.
The Laws of Juxtaposition and Association
Association is the engine of this time machine, and juxtaposition its fuel. Moore and Gibbons string images and words together, folding them into each other, and the associations they form send the mind careening around the story, as well as into external locations specific to each reader.
This is the same action precipitated by the cut-up and fold-in methods, though their paths are much more challenging to follow. In fact, “The Mayan Caper” routine of The Soft Machine ascribes actual time travel power to these methods. In this section, one of the longest pure-narrative parts of the book, the first-person narrator describes how he travels backwards in time. He starts by folding today’s newspaper in with yesterday’s, eight hours a day for three months, then doing the same thing with other works, then running films backwards, learning to talk and think backwards. Finally he transfers his consciousness to the body of a young Mayan boy, who is described as “what mediums call a ‘sensitive'” — the very term that Adrian Veidt uses to describe Robert Deschaines. Through the mystical actions of a “broker” the narrator then travels back in time in the Mayan boy’s body.
Cut-ups and fold-ins, as well as their audio and video equivalents, appear as fictional devices of power elsewhere in the trilogy. “The Death Dwarf In The Street” routine of Nova Express goes into great detail about how a photomontage or series of photomontages can help humans think in “association blocks” rather than language, blocks which can be “manipulated according to the laws of association and juxtaposition”:
The basic law of association and conditioning is known to college students even in America: Any object, feeling, odor, word, image in juxtaposition with any other object, feeling, odor, word or image will be associated with it — Our technicians learn to read newspapers and magazines for juxtaposition statements rather than alleged content — We express these statements in Juxtaposition Formulae — The Formulae of course control populations of the world (Nova Express, pg. 88-89)
Mechanisms of control are one of two overriding Burroughs obsessions, the other being gay male erotica. Again, it comes down to the portrait painted by those first two novels — where the erotica comes from his Queer side, the mania about control comes from the Junky side. And it makes sense — the experience of addiction is the experience of being controlled. Someone who struggles with that would legitimately be sensitized to how humans can be controlled, either by other humans or by external agencies.
Burroughs takes it farther than most, though, claiming that language itself is an alien virus that controls humans, operating as an invisible addiction. Cut-ups and fold-ins were claimed as the antidote to this virus, the element of chance breaking through the Juxtaposition Formulae to create new associations outside the control of whoever shaped the original string of words. Burroughs attacks the notion of authorship by deliberately disrupting textual intention, and by mixing different texts together entirely without attribution. If the cut-up trilogy can be said to be about anything, it is about resisting linguistic control by disrupting sequences of words and images.
This concept of disrupted sequence works itself not only through each book, but through the history of the books themselves. In his introduction to the current editions of each book, Burroughs historian Oliver Harris painstakingly sets out their publication history, and provides pages and pages of notes at the back of each one explaining his choices of what to keep and what to leave out. While it’s true that The Soft Machine was published first, Burroughs also went back and revised it, then republished it, twice. He did the same thing once for The Ticket That Exploded. Unlike most trilogies, this one has no canonical order, and there are cases to be made for a variety of different sequences.
As I said at the outset, it’s not as though these books tell one long story, so in a way it hardly matters what order they’re in. That’s part of Burroughs’ point — we create associations based on how words are ordered, and by removing certainty of sequence, he cedes control back to us. Being a writer who is anti-language is a rather precarious position, akin to Charlton’s Peacemaker, who “loves peace… so much so, that he is willing to fight for it!!” Nevertheless, Burroughs is very clear on the point that evil aliens are controlling us with their word lines.
Consequently, what unity the books have isn’t achieved via linear progression, but rather by repetition and echoes. We may see phrases in cut-ups that return from previous chapters, or even previous books. Likewise, we may encounter an image in a narrative section that we glimpsed in a previous cut-up, only now we have the context to understand it better. And just as how in Watchmen we keep seeing new variations on the stained face and other images, the trilogy books have images and phrases that become incantatory in their repetition, sometimes varying and sometimes not. These repetitions often serve a didactic purpose, instructing us over and over again from a variety of angles that words and images are “junk” whose hold over us must be broken.
Word Falling — Photo Falling
Moore and Gibbons might very well dispute the idea that they are aliens who mean to control us with words and images, but I can say with certainty that they are very, very skilled at the Juxtaposition Formulae. They ought to be — it’s a key skill in creating an excellent comic. As Scott McCloud informs us in Understanding Comics, juxtaposition is fundamental to the definition of the medium. The fact that comic words and images are placed next to each other is what makes comics different from animation, which is sequential art in which each new image rapidly replaces the last.
In fact, association is such a meta-theme in Watchmen that one of its characters is named for a test which purports to reveal a subject’s personality and emotions based upon the associations made by that subject. And then, because Moore and Gibbons never miss a trick, Rorschach himself is given a Rorschach test. And indeed, his associations do reveal his personality and emotions… eventually.
But before he chooses to share his true associations with Malcolm Long, he reports false ones. “A pretty butterfly.” “Some nice flowers.” Now those of us who have read through Watchmen at least once may be able to make some associations of our own — these two images, as it happens, are exactly what we see through the bloodstain-shaped smudge on the cover of Chapter 11. I don’t think that the story is somehow trying to position Rorschach as precognitive, but I also doubt very much that the association is accidental, because did I mention they never miss a trick?
Rorschach, echoing Burroughs, tells us that meaning is not inherent in what we see, what we read, and what we experience. It is consciousness itself that assembles meaning. Burroughs calls this the laws of juxtaposition and association, whereas Rorschach simply states that existence “has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long.” Like an ink blot.
But if this is true, if our own constructed meanings are our only reality, what happens when that meaning is constructed by a being so godlike as to be able to create a new reality for everyone? Doctor Manhattan claims to see the “whole design” of time simultaneously, and yet can have experiences like surprise, which would seem to depend on linear sequence. This is a paradox I’ve never been able to unravel, and I wonder what role the Burroughs references might play in it. Do Moore’s repeated references to Burroughs ask us to examine the notion of narrative continuity itself, and what it means when there’s a god in the story who’s aware of the story?
I’ve read Watchmen many times now, and thought about it quite extensively, and yet it can still surprise me. Even in the process of writing this post, I was startled to realize that the false images Rorschach reports to Malcolm Long, which seemed like throwaways, return quite forcefully 5 chapters later. But there’s an important distinction here. Those moments of surprise are realizations, new associative connections. They happen within me, not as events in the story. The plot of Watchmen can no longer surprise me — it lost that power after my first read-through.
And yet Doctor Manhattan can be surprised by events, as if they suddenly impinge on his consciousness where they hadn’t existed before. In fact, he can announce that he’s going to be surprised in a few minutes, and what information is going to surprise him, and then a few minutes later be surprised by the information he’d already announced. Yes, he can also have realizations, such as when he changes his mind about going to Earth in Chapter 9, but the fact that he can be surprised by the plot after seeing the whole book remains mystifying to me.
Could it be that he is creating reality to conform to his expectations? If he exists outside time, and controls existence at a molecular level, what powers would his subconscious have? His insecurities, his fears? Could he be the one imposing meaning on the world after staring at it for too long?
Moore links Doctor Manhattan to one of Burroughs’ most persistent refrains: “Word Falling — Photo Falling”. That phrase appears throughout the trilogy, frequently paired with “Break Through in Grey Room”, as an emblem of resistance against the word/image virus. As Kuskin observes (pg. 64), these phrases correspond closely to moments in Watchmen featuring Doctor Manhattan. In the first pages of Chapter 4, he holds a photograph, looking at it and experiencing multiple times simultaneously. Then he lets it fall, experiencing the moment of holding it, the moment of it resting in the sand, and the moment of it falling, all at once and in varying orders. Photo falling.
Then in Chapter 9, he looks on as Laurie showers the Martian Valles Marineris with letters and newspaper clippings from her mother’s scrapbook. More fly out as she waves the book at him after they’ve landed, as her memories are beginning to cascade in on her and her own realization hits. Word falling.2
Not only do both pieces of Burroughs’ incantation map clearly to pieces of Watchmen, both of the places they map to are clearly cutting up the narrative. In Chapter 4, panels appear out of chronological sequence, and narration very explicitly jumps around in time. In Chapter 9, as Laurie realizes who her father is, each panel’s image is superimposed with words from different parts of her previously narrated memories: “Only once.” — “What do you think I am?” — “…old friend’s daughter?” — “What do you think…” — “…his, y’know, his…”
In the latter case, the cut-up undeniably leads to a breakthrough. Jon tells Laurie that she should “relax enough to see the whole continuum, life’s pattern or lack of one.” Like Rorschach looking at the blot, she disassembles the pieces of her memories, putting them back together in a way that creates new associations, shining light where she’d been afraid to look. “Can’t a guy talk to his, y’know, his…” — “…daughter?”
Does she break out of control? Hard to say. You could make the case that her mother controlled her by withholding information, but that would seem to be the opposite of the kind of control that concerns Burroughs. Chapter 4, on the other hand, may represent a clearer break from control. In response to the revelation that cancer struck many of his associates, Doctor Manhattan has more of a breakdown than a breakthrough, banishing his tormentors to another location before disappearing himself to Arizona then Mars. In doing so, he breaks out of the situation that was creating his suffering. On the other hand, he does exactly what Veidt planned for him to do — despite his cut-up existence, he still seems subject to a higher form of control. Even in his descriptions of his actions, he casts himself as absent of free will — “a puppet who can see the strings.”
And who is Adrian Veidt’s catspaw in banishing Doctor Manhattan? Why it’s Doug Roth, a writer for the magazine Nova Express. Just why is there a magazine called Nova Express in the Watchmen world, and how can we interpret its role in the story in light of what we know about Burroughs?
It might be helpful at this point to explore some of the things that the phrase “nova express” can mean. In the context of the books, the clearest connection is to a recurring motif about the “nova mob” and the “nova police” who oppose it. In “The Nova Police” routine of The Ticket That Exploded, Burroughs introduces “Inspector J. Lee of the nova police”3, who explains how nova criminals operate:
“The basic nova technique is very simple: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts — This is done by dumping on the same planet life forms with incompatible conditions of existence — There is of course nothing ‘wrong’ about any given life form since ‘wrong’ only has reference to conflicts with other life forms — The point is these life forms should not be on the same planet — Their conditions of life are basically incompatible in present time form and it is precisely the work of the nova mob to see that they remain in present time form, to create and aggravate the conflicts that lead to the explosion of a planet, that is to nova” (The Ticket That Exploded, pg. 62)
In this case, “nova” means explosion, and if we take “express” with its meaning of “specially direct or fast”, then “nova express” is the aim of the nova mob — hastening the planet’s demise. “Express” can also mean articulation via language, which Burroughs views as one of the conditions leading to destruction. But the etymology of the explosion meaning of “nova” reaches back to the Latin “novus”, meaning new — the same root that’s behind words like “novelty” and “novice”. And among the many other meanings of “express” is the concept of manifestation, or putting into form. So another way of seeing “nova express” is the manifestation of something new, which Watchmen certainly was in the comics world.
Finally, there’s one more meaning of “express” which would be particularly available to a British writer: “a messenger or a message specially sent.”4 We see this reflected in the name of Britain’s Daily Express newspaper, a paper which as of Moore’s day (and since) seems fervently dedicated to the same aims as the nova mob itself.
With these definitions in hand, let’s have a look at the role of Nova Express the magazine. In its interrogation of Doctor Manhattan, resulting in his exile, it certainly aggravates existing conflicts. With Doctor Manhattan out of the picture, the Soviets are emboldened to step up their aggressive maneuvers, knowing that the United States’ countermeasure has been removed. Ironically, unlike the nova mob, Nova Express accelerates conflicts by removing an incompatible life form from the planet, convincing Doctor Manhattan that he is “incapable of cohabiting safely either emotionally or physically” with other humans.
In its role as a magazine, it obviously takes part in linguistic expression, exercising control through the word virus as Burroughs saw it. This covers the messenger/newspaper meanings as well. So what about the notion of manifesting something new? Does Nova Express do that in the Watchmen world? Well, its place in that world is to stand in progressive opposition to the right-wing New Frontiersman. In the sense that progressive positions tend to welcome novelty while conservative positions tend to reject it, I suppose we could say that it brings on the new, but on the other hand it doesn’t seem to do so with much wisdom.
Despite his clearly leftist sympathies, Moore does not make Nova Express into any kind of journalistic paragon in the Watchmen world. Instead, the magazine seems to be more or less an extension of Adrian Veidt’s will, doing his bidding to manipulate his fellow costumed adventurers and running the occasional hagiographic interview with him. It is Veidt, ultimately, who plays the nova mob role in Watchmen, hastening the planet’s destruction so that he can heroically step in and (attempt to) save it.
Listen to My Last Words Anywhere
Nova Express (the novel) opens with an elegiac yet clarion excoriation, in a routine called “Last Words”:
Listen to my last words anywhere. Listen to my last words any world. Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth. And you powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours. To sell the ground from unborn feet forever — (Nova Express, pg. 1)
If you’ve read past page 1 of Watchmen, you’re likely to associate the bitter tone of this declaration with what we read of Rorschach’s journal as the story opens. Similarly, the irony of beginning a book with a section called “Last Words” carries right over into Watchmen, in which Rorschach’s journal serves as the alpha and the omega of the series. Later in the routine, Burroughs calls for truth and revelation:
Listen: I call you all. Show your cards all players. Pay it all pay it all pay it all back. Play it all play it all play it all back. For all to see. In Times Square. In Piccadilly. (Nova Express, pg. 2)
Just so, Rorschach’s last words, the diary dropped in a mail slot, are intended to show the cards of all players, most particularly Adrian Veidt, who has been dealing secretly throughout the book. And the vehicle for these words of truth? Watchmen‘s antithesis to Nova Express, The New Frontiersman.
I hesitate to extract from this some definitive argument about which side Moore favors. Like an ink blot, Watchmen can tend to evoke the already extant politics, value system, and alignments of its readers, and Moore plays the story evenhandedly enough that there are legitimate claims on both sides.
However, I will argue that in their painstaking creation of the jewel-like structure of Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons refute the aleatory element of Burroughs’ cut-up technique. Because “juxtaposed sequential visual art” is not a sufficient definition of comics. Otherwise you could take a bunch of images, throw them in the air, paste them down in the sequence they fell, and call it a comic. While it would indeed be sequential, and while it indeed might create associations in its reader, it would be too random and arbitrary to be of value. As McCloud finds when refining his definition of comics, “deliberate sequence” is key to the medium.
It turns out that Moore and Gibbons are deeply interested in juxtaposition, but not at all interested in randomness.5 It is Ozymandias who thinks that random inputs provide him with greater insight, and it is also Ozymandias whose methods mirror those of the nova mob. If anyone in the story is associated with the kind of control that Burroughs spends the books resisting, it is Ozymandias. And it is Ozymandias who is most closely affiliated with the entity called Nova Express in Watchmen.
There is absolutely nothing random about any of Moore and Gibbons’ juxtapositions. Each one (and there are hundreds) is quite deliberate, “intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” The effectiveness of these juxtapositions repudiates Burroughs-style cut-ups as a structure for fiction, and their strong authorial presence stands in opposition to Burroughs’ desire to undermine the notion of authorship. However, in both the book’s structure and the experiences of the characters, Watchmenaffirms the value of disrupted sequence as a means of achieving breakthroughs or breaking control. As we’ve seen, Doctor Manhattan’s entire existence is a cut-up, and the book clearly associates it with moments of realization and interrupted control. Rorschach himself, in his last words, attempts to cut Ozymandias’s control lines with weapons of truth strung together in text.
There’s also the fact that Burroughs cut-up or folded-in a number of other sources into his text besides his own — Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Eliot, Wordsworth, Porter, Newsweek, etc. Burroughs didn’t choose these sources at random, and sometimes they are thematically aligned with whatever seems to be going on nearby. But Moore is much more intentional about his inclusions, as this entire project continues to explore. Sometimes, though, both with the annotations and with this bestiary, we have to ask whether we’re creating associations from the juxtapositions that may never have been there for Moore to begin with. I suspect that to be true, for example, with Diva. Even Graham Greene’s The Comedians, which Moore himself acknowledges as a source, seems to have very little bearing on the material.
Burroughs would answer, and I suspect Moore might agree, that it doesn’t matter — associations that exist within us are valid, and perhaps even as valid or more valid than whatever might fall under the umbrella of authorial control. But by the same token, I find as a reader that Moore’s intentional juxtapositions are far, far more valuable to me than Burroughs’ accidental ones. For me, Burroughs’ cut-up texts are mostly incoherent, with a few flashes of serendipitous meaning. Compare that to Watchmen, which is highly coherent and still contains those flashes of serendipity. Moore himself attests to these, in the New Comics interview:
The thing was that with Watchmen if you read that original synopsis it’s the bare skeleton. There’s the plot there, but it’s what’s happened since then that’s the real surprise because there’s all this other stuff that’s crept into it, all this deep stuff, the intellectual stuff. [laughs] That wasn’t planned. The thing seems to have taken on an identity of its own since we kicked it off, which is always nice. (The New Comics, pg. 98)
Watchmen demonstrates that randomness isn’t necessary to serendipitous associations, and that in fact an excess of randomness may be inimical to them. It may be that when you cut into the present, the future leaks out, but what’s even more powerful is arranging the present so that it becomes the future.
1Granted, they are sometimes called the Nova Trilogy, but that’s kind of a misnomer too — the Nova Mob/Nova Police concepts barely appear in The Soft Machine, and can hardly be said to dominate any of the books. [Back to post]
2And what about “Break Through in Grey Room”? Well, it doesn’t involve Doctor Manhattan, but arguably the book’s biggest breakthrough is when Nite Owl realizes that Adrian Veidt has been the prime mover behind all the book’s events. He cracks the case in Adrian’s penthouse office, which is lit only by the ambient glow of the city. John Higgins colors the room grey, as well as both Rorschach and Nite Owl. Break through in grey room. [Back to post]
3“Lee” was Burroughs’ mother’s maiden name, and a frequent pen name/alter ego of his. [Back to post]
4Some definitions of “express” taken from the Random House College Dictionary 1988 edition, which has been with me, not coincidentally, since my high school graduation. [Back to post]
5It should be said that Burroughs himself didn’t uncritically accept the results of every cut-up. He claims to have edited carefully to keep the gold and remove the dross, and his changing mind about which was which is part of what led to the multiple editions of various books in the cut-up trilogy. However, having slogged through the many cut-up passages in those three books, I would contend that his standards for what to retain were far, far too low. [Back to post]
NOTE: As usual for this series, Watchmen spoilers abound below.
Moore and Gibbons’ cathedral has many symmetries and echoes. Here’s an important one for our purposes today: every chapter ends with an epigraph, and every chapter’s title is a piece taken out of its epigraph. Thus, each chapter hands readers a fragment at its beginning, then gives its full context at the end, inviting them to consider how that fragment in its context reflects upon what has come between. It’s an invitation well worth accepting, as each title and epigraph resonates richly on a variety of levels.
I certainly found that to be true of the Chapter 1 epigraph, from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” Chapter 2’s epigraph comes from another song lyric, albeit one from just about twenty years later and across the Atlantic. The chapter is called “Absent Friends”, and the quote is from Elvis Costello’s 1984 song “The Comedians”:
And I’m up while the dawn is breaking, even though my heart is aching.
I should be drinking a toast to absent friends, instead of these comedians.
At a glance, it would appear that the first part of this quote is actually a mismatch for the chapter. Dawn is never breaking here, either literally or metaphorically. Noir that it is, Watchmen is set mostly at night. Every Comedian flashback in this chapter takes place in a night-time scene1, as does Rorschach’s interrogation of Moloch. Although the funeral occurs during the day, it too is shrouded in rainy darkness. Only the panels with Laurie and her mother are in sunlight, and between John Higgins’ pastel palette and the scene’s contrast to the rest of the book, those panels seem absolutely sun-drenched, far from the early light of breaking dawn. And even in that sunny scene, dark emotions rule — Laurie and her mother spend most of it squabbling.
But what’s important about that first clause is the narrator’s position in it. He’s up while the dawn is breaking, which could mean one of two things — either he’s woken up before sunrise, or he’s been up all through the night. The former reading suggests ambition, a quality shared by several Watchmen characters. Ambition defines the members of the Minutemen, though their goals weren’t all the same. By the time of the Crimebusters meeting and the second generation of masked heroes, those differences of intent have gotten magnified enough that any kind of group unity is impossible — individual ambitions are pointed in radically different directions, none more so than Ozymandias, as that meeting sets in motion the main plot of the book. The Vietnam and protest scenes show the results of that fragmentation.
By the time of the final flashback, Rorschach is pretty much the only one with any ambition left, at least as far as we can tell at this point. The other heroes have retired, Moloch just wants to be left alone, and the Comedian is dead. Even though he’s the subject of the chapter, I don’t think the Comedian himself is up for consideration as the “I” in the quote, since the last part of the quote specifically mentions (and thereby excludes) him. Also, despite his presence in the flashbacks, he’s still dead — not exactly an early riser.
What about the other kind of “up while the dawn is breaking”, the kind where you’ve been up all night? That could suggest ambition in itself, or anxiety, or intensity, or just insomnia, but even more so it implies a separation from society — when the rest of the world sleeps, the narrator is awake long enough to see the dawn. Well, there’s certainly plenty of social deviance to go around in the Watchmen cast. By definition, the costumed adventurers are set apart from the rest of society, and Chapter 2 tells the story of how society gradually came to reject them. Even Doctor Manhattan, embraced by the government for his capabilities, is much more distant from humanity than any daysleeper.
I wouldn’t argue for a “correct” meaning between these two — the beauty of poetry is that both can be present at once, their implications and overtones harmonizing with each other. You could make the case that the “even though” pivot after the first clause suggests the ambitious reading, as the character would seem to be overcoming heartache in order to get himself moving, but I’d say that this pivot fits every reading. No matter the reason, all of these characters are pushing forward through emotional pain.
There may be no real dawn breaking, but heartache abounds. Both of the Juspeczyk women are suffering from isolation, even isolated from each other. In the flashback, Sally learns how little she’s valued among her teammates, while even the imposing Hooded Justice lives in fear of being outed. Captain Metropolis’s fear is evident in his display of “social evils”, and Ozymandias in that meeting feels “helpless against forces greater than any [he’d] anticipated,” as he explains much later. Nite Owl II still longs for the days when he could imagine himself “part of a fellowship of legendary beings.” Rorschach, as much as he tries to suppress any emotion, is lonely, and disgusted by the world around him. And Moloch, well, Moloch is not only isolated, frightened, helpless, and lonely, he’s also dying, and that laetrile is not going to help.
Ambition, social deviation, and emotional pain — the first line of the quote certainly fits what we’ve seen in the chapter. How about the second line? “I should be drinking a toast to absent friends, instead of these comedians.” The clearest denotation is of respect misplaced — the toast raised to the wrong subject. It’s easy to see the parallel here — Edward Morgan Blake is buried with full military honors, carried by top-hatted pallbearers, and attended by a pantheon of the most powerful people in the world. Yet as we come to know him through the flashbacks, he is a poison seed who makes every situation he’s in much worse for his presence. He takes advantage of the Minutemen’s innocence and cordiality to sexually assault a teammate. He destroys any chance that the second generation of costumed heroes could work together, though arguably there wasn’t much chance of it anyway. He insults and belittles Ozymandias in a way that tips him over the edge into planning mass slaughter. He guns down a woman pregnant with his child, launches tear gas into a crowd of protesters, confuses the hell out of Moloch (without revealing the rather crucial information that Ozymandias is the source of Moloch’s cancer), and unwittingly sets his own death into motion by giving his “last performance” to a room bugged by Adrian Veidt.
“These comedians” — the reference is plural in the song, but it’s plainly meant to refer here to the singular Comedian — don’t deserve our time and respect, but who does? Absent friends. This is the crux of the quote, which is why Moore chose it for the chapter title. The central themes of this epigraph are loss and isolation, and Chapter 2 of Watchmen shows us the reasons for the characters’ isolation from each other, and what they’ve lost along the way.
History Repeats the Old Conceits
If Chapter 1 introduces the characters to us, Chapter 2 introduces their history, and their world. Moore’s ingenious structure ensures that no chapter (for that matter, almost no panel) is doing just one thing, so only the most obvious function of chapter 2 is to deepen our understanding of The Comedian. As I reviewed in the previous post, the chapter does this by showing the character to us through the eyes of his community.
However, by moving forward in time, those flashbacks also tell the story of that community and its world. That story starts when masked heroes were a fad, and there was some sense of camaraderie between the Minutemen. These heroes were friends, or at least some of them believed they were, enough for Nite Owl to chummily invite the gang over for beers. The first break we see in those bonds comes when The Comedian attacks Silk Spectre, and is attacked in turn by Hooded Justice, who then shows no sympathy for the Spectre’s plight.
26 years later, at the time of the next flashback, the Minutemen are gone, and with them any sense of a group dynamic. Liaisons still exist, but they tend to be dyads — Nite Owl II and Rorschach, or Dr. Manhattan and his wife Janey (soon to become a dyad of Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre II.) Thus the friendships of the 1940s are already absent in the 1960s, despite Captain Metropolis’s attempts to recapture them.
In the 1971 Vietnam flashback, connections have eroded still further. The government has co-opted the activities of two costumed adventurers and sent them off to join a war effort, just as The Comedian had hoped for in 1940. Thus these two adventurers are cut off from the rest of their brethren by both intention and distance. Moreover, Dr. Manhattan himself is becoming a friend to no one — as The Comedian observes, he’s drifting out of touch.
The characters are alienated from each other, and some alienated from humanity in general. The 1977 police strike protest flashback shows us the culmination of humanity’s alienation from them. Where at first vigilantes were seen as a welcome addition to police efforts, and then as a useful tool for national interests, by 1977 they are being rejected outright by the police, with that rejection supported by an angry grassroots movement. Any sense of friendship between the masked heroes and the public they ostensibly serve is long gone, and their connections to each other have broken down further, as Nite Owl II looks on in horror at The Comedian’s actions, and mutters that Rorschach “mostly works on his own these days.”
Come 1985, Rorschach is the only vigilante left active, and thus is officially absent from Blake’s funeral, lest he be recognized and detained. Like Moloch, he can only pay his respects in secret. Laurie, on the other hand, has no wish to pay any respects at all, and Sally is apparently not invited. The dyad of Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre II is breaking down, and she has not yet become attached to Nite Owl II.
Thus at the time of this chapter, all the characters are isolated from each other. It’s not just that friends are absent — friendships are absent. Ironically, just has he helped to break them apart in life, The Comedian in death helps to bring them closer together, with Rorschach visiting each of them, and a subset of them gathering at the funeral. Thanks to Blake, Ozymandias is about to bring them all closer still.
He also claims that the lyric “has something to do with temptation without being too specific.” That’s putting it mildly — references to temptation are extremely oblique if indeed they’re present at all. For my money, a clearer single-word précis would be “disillusionment.” Falling under gentle persuasion might qualify as being tempted, but lines like “they’re finding all that glitters is not chrome”, “what kind of love is this upon inspection”, and “all these newfound fond acquaintances / turn out to be the red rag to my bull” speak much more loudly to a sense of deception and disappointment. Cast in that light, the misplaced honors of the chorus seem to result from a series of mistakes on the narrator’s part.
According to his liner notes from the previous Goodbye Cruel World reissue, in 1995, Costello was feeling plenty of disillusionment himself in 1984. For example: “Many very private and personal concerns influenced the fate of these songs and sessions… It must suffice to say that I began the year as a married man and after a fraught and futile period, I found myself living alone by the time this record was released.” Moreover: “‘Pop Music’ was among the things about which I was depressed and demoralized.”
This album represents a crossroads in Costello’s career. After Declan Patrick MacManus adopted the name “Elvis Costello”, he burst onto the scene in 1977 as more or less an instant star, racking up an unbroken run of 8 singles in the UK Top 30. After his first few years, though, Costello began to wander into the valley tread by many a pop idol, albeit each in their own way. He recorded an album of all country music covers. His band The Attractions had started to shake itself apart, with relations especially tense between himself and bass player Bruce Thomas. And he managed to alienate just about everyone with his behavior in a Columbus, Ohio Holiday Inn bar.
That night in April 1979, Elvis and The Attractions were sharing the bar with Stephen Stills’ touring band. Costello claims to have been so drunk that he has no memory of the proceedings, but they are recounted more or less as follows. Costello began needling the Stills crew, with a motivation he speculates about in autobiographical hindsight: “My guess is that I had developed the rather juvenile view that the previous musical generation had squandered their inheritance and I started to believe we had been sent to sweep it all away.” (pg. 336) In any case, he antagonized them, they antagonized him, and the whole scene wound itself up to a ridiculous alcohol-fueled pitch, until Costello tried to “provoke a bar fight and finally put the lights out” by tossing off despicable racial slurs about James Brown and Ray Charles. He got the fight he wanted, as Bonnie Bramlett socked him in the mouth and the whole party collapsed “into a heap of flailing limbs that only ended when the barman came around the counter with a raised baseball bat.” (pg. 335) The whole thing would probably have just made for a silly tour story, except that Bramlett went on a radio call-in show the next morning, told her side of the story, and suddenly Elvis was national news as a horrible racist, banned from radio playlists and overwhelmed with death threats.
Costello has explained himself several times, in several different venues. He says that he was “speaking the exact opposite of [his] true beliefs”2, that it was “an absurd overstatement of opposites, a contradiction in terms” (pg. 336), and that he was “speaking in some absurd, exaggerated, supposedly ironic humour, in which everything is expressed in the reverse of that which one knows to be true.” Not to mention “drunken”, “idiotic”, and “completely irresponsible.”3 I believe him on all counts. There’s nothing else in his career or public persona to suggest racial bias, and plenty to suggest quite the opposite. What’s most important about the story today is the way it derailed him and caused the beginning of a spiral — he’s aptly compared it to Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle crash in the way it stopped the madness of the life he had been living, albeit in a very self-destructive fashion.
There are more parallels between Costello and Dylan, but we’ll get to that in a minute. I was mentioning how Goodbye Cruel World was a crossroads album for Costello, and the stories above are a bit of background for that assertion. There’s more. Another way in which Costello began to wander after his first several albums was in his choice of producer. The first five Costello albums saw Nick Lowe at the helm, but for the country covers record he went with a Nashville producer, and for the one after that he partnered with Geoff Emerick, the legendary engineer who worked on (among other things) Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, the White Album, and Abbey Road. That album (Imperial Bedroom) was an artistic triumph, but was less successful on the charts — neither of its singles cracked the UK top 40, and they weren’t even a blip on the US charts.
Enter Clive Langer (nicknamed “Clanger”) and Alan Winstanley. This duo had seen quite a bit of UK success producing several albums by Madness, and the breakout debut Too-Rye-Ay by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. They produced Costello’s 1983 album Punch The Clock, and gave him a considerable international hit with “Everyday I Write The Book.” The song brought Costello back into the UK Top 30, and gave him his first ever entry into the US Top 40. Rock critics hailed “Everyday” as Costello’s comeback.
So when it was time to record Goodbye Cruel World — the follow-up to Punch The Clock — Langer and Winstanley were seen as the obvious choice to produce. The problem was, Costello wasn’t on board. As you may recall, he was depressed and demoralized about pop music, and morose specimen that he was at the time, he “fought every attempt to apply the Clanger/Winstanley method to these songs.”4 “So in the end,” he says, “we agreed to a truce. Clive and Alan would produce two selected songs to the height of style and I could make the rest of the record as miserable as possible.”5 Neither of those two songs (“I Wanna Be Loved” and “The Only Flame In Town”) made anywhere near the splash that “Everyday” had, and Costello ended up dissolving The Attractions (though they’ve sporadically reunited over the years), and swerving into a journey of genre experimentation that has so far included chamber music, soundtracks, a ballet score, and concept albums, as well as collaborations with such artists as Paul McCartney, Allen Touissant, Burt Bacharach, and The Roots.
That swerve was still in the future when Alan Moore was writing Watchmen. “The Comedians” was a very contemporary reference in that comic — the album couldn’t have been much more than a year old while Moore was drafting Chapter 2. The fact that he chose a Costello quote to follow a Dylan quote in the book highlights the comparison between the two artists. Costello is in some ways the UK’s answer to Bob Dylan — a musically restless maverick with a supreme gift for well-turned and provocative lyrics. They’ve both had a combative relationship with the press over the years, and with their fans as well. Critic Larry David Smith comes right out and says it: “Elvis Costello is an English Bob Dylan: an irrepressible rebel who will reject you because you praise him, who feels artistic recognition is the harbinger of creative stagnation, and who — more than likely — battles with himself. The result is one impressive body of work.” (pg. 125)
But where Dylan came out of the early 1960s folk song tradition, Costello’s vintage is rather different: the late 1970s punk tradition. Smith in fact makes much of calling Elvis a punk no matter what genre territory he traverses, declaring Costello the creator of such oddities as the punk torch song, the punk chamber music record, the punk lounge album, the punk editorial, and so forth. This may all be a little overblown, but when Smith stakes out his definition of “punk” — melodramatic, irreverent, aggressive — it’s hard not to find those qualities in the lion’s share of Costello’s output.
Still, although he came of age in the midst of the punk movement, and was deeply influenced by it, Costello doesn’t easily slot into the punk stereotype. His thick glasses and knock knees of 1977 were a far cry from the jagged aggression of The Sex Pistols, the street tough aura of The Clash, or the horror-carnival aesthetic of The Damned. Like his contemporaries, Costello had venom to spare, but he also brought a highly literary sensibility to everything he created — layers and layers of wordplay, allusions, clever metaphors, and poetic imagery.
As so often happens in these Watchmen articles, this is all starting to sound a bit familiar, isn’t it? I made the case in a previous post that Alan Moore is the Bob Dylan of comics, but the more I’ve learned about Elvis Costello, the easier it’s become to see the Costello sides of Moore as well. For one thing, we know that Moore is a punk rock aficionado. In a 2015 interview with Pádraig Ó Méalóid, Moore declares his enthusiasm for punk rock, and goes on to boast, “I doubt that there’s many people out there with a better collection of early punk vinyl singles than I’ve got.” Later on he specifically cites his admiration for Costello, placing him alongside bands like X-Ray Spex and The Clash.
So is Moore a punk comic writer? Well of course that all depends on whose definition of “punk” we’re using. Smith’s triumvirate of aggression, irreverence, and melodrama don’t fit all that well as a description of Moore’s work, but then again I’m not sure I’m all that swayed by Smith’s definition of punk. Those three things all come into play in punk rock, but I would argue there’s a deeper linchpin beneath them: the spirit of resistance. Punk came about as a rebellion against the polished and often bloated popular music of the mid-1970s, and the general sound tended to combine a throwback to the garage rock sounds of the late ’50s and early ’60s with a snarling, pissed-off tone that was beyond anything rock had consistently manifested up until then.
The individual songs also tended to display some kind of rebellion or resistance, be it political, social, cultural, or — as is frequently the case in Costello’s oeuvre — romantic. You don’t find many punk songs celebrating something, unless it’s celebrating the spirit of destruction, a la “Anarchy in the UK.” Instead, the punk project is to take apart the status quo and replace it with something more authentic and true.6
Framed like that, our notion of punk starts to get closer to the spirit of Moore. He hit his stride in 1982 with Marvelman, which dug beneath the superhero concept to interrogate the connections between power, fear, mythology, perfection, and control. V For Vendetta, Swamp Thing, The Ballad Of Halo Jones, and lots of other stories soon followed, including some brilliant reinterpretations of characters like Superman and Batman. Each of these works, up to and including Watchmen, took an established status quo of some kind, deconstructed it, and emerged with a startlingly fresh new approach. If there’s a through-line to Moore’s work, it is his tendency to upend whatever genre, convention, character, or milieu he finds, replacing it with something more authentic and true.
So yeah, I think it can fairly be said that Alan Moore has a punk spirit, and that this spirit expressed itself in Watchmen. Like the epigraph he chose for this chapter, Moore knows something about respect misplaced, and like Costello himself, he wields linguistic virtuosity in the service of his rebellious projects. He’s never been punched for drunken racist remarks (that I know of), but then again he did start worshiping the snake-god Glycon on his fortieth birthday — everybody finds a different way to crash that motorcycle.
Black And White World
Larry David Smith has painstakingly categorized all of Costello’s songs (up through 2004) into classifications like “Relational Complaint”, “Relational Assault”, “Wordplay”, and “Narrative Impressionism”. In his rubric, the majority of songs in Costello’s first ten years fall into some relational category, and generally in the negative — complaint, assault, warning, plea, struggle, etc. As I learned when listening closely to his debut My Aim Is True, he’s angry and hurt, mostly about women.
But there’s another category that, while a minority of his output, still appears on most of his records: the societal or political complaint. It’s there from the beginning — his very first single “Less Than Zero” was was a shot at British fascist Oswald Mosley — and probably culminates in “Tramp The Dirt Down”, from the 1989 album Spike, in which he fantasizes about outliving Margaret Thatcher so that he can stomp on her grave. Costello seemed to have a particular animus toward Thatcher, so much so that academics David Pilgrim and Richard Ormrod were able to write an entire book called Elvis Costello And Thatcherism.
I’d argue that Thatcherism is an important topic for looking at Watchmen, too. Moore said midway through the release of Watchmen that part of his aim with the book was to “try and scare a little bit so that people would just stop and think about their country and their politics.” Watchmen wasn’t a direct commentary on British politics the way that V For Vendetta was — in fact, the entire thing is set in America and barely mentions any other countries at all, except for Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the USSR. Some of its themes, however, relate directly to Thatcher’s agenda — privileging the individual over society, a manichean view of morality, aggressive foreign policy, and what Costello called an “enthusiasm for Cold War posturing.”7
Pilgrim and Ormrod speak of Thatcher’s “fetish for the individual rather than society,” (pg. 9) and in this she was a fine avatar of right-wing politics, which tends to favor individual rights and actions over notions of a “social contract” and collective actions — hence the right’s enthusiasm for tax cuts, dismantling government apparatus, and eliminating “entitlements”. (Though there are some huge caveats in that philosophy as it played out under Thatcher and Reagan, as we’ll see below.)
Something of that same tension rears its head in the 1977 police strike flashback in Chapter 2 of Watchmen. “We don’ want vigilantes! We want reg’lar cops!” shouts a guy whose shirt might as well read “proletariat.” The strike is essentially the police saying “you want to handle crime as individuals? Go ahead. Good luck with that.” The Keene Act which arises from the resulting unrest is a reassertion of centralized social order over individual libertarianism, and what it represents for the genre is a fundamental challenge to the concept of superheroes.
That same question has been re-explored in superhero stories ever since, the most salient recent example being Marvel’s Civil War event and the Captain America movie patterned after it. Should we as a society allow individuals with their own agendas to act unilaterally and violently to enforce their values, or must we find a way to co-opt their actions? The conflict continues to play out in Watchmen through the oppositional viewpoints of Nova Express and The New Frontiersman. Those two publications, representing the left and the right respectively, see superheroes as an existential threat to democracy on one side, and the perfect expression of freedom on the other. That The New Frontiersmencompares the KKK favorably to superheroes, and that Moore shows us one individual’s actions causing millions of deaths, in the name of a peace we know can only be fragile and temporary, gives us a pretty good clue as to where he stands on the argument. Right?
Except… in V For Vendetta, it is the vigilante who is the hero, taking on a corrupt and oppressive dystopian regime. There, the “reg’lar cops” are complicit, and not to be trusted — much more of a threat than crime, as Evey learns in the first few pages. So maybe Moore isn’t so easy to pin down after all. Or maybe Watchmen was a form of second thoughts after V For Vendetta. The British government of V is horrific, but the American government in Watchmen is no treat either, especially in light of how it presages Moore’s later screed in Brought To Light. Yet V’s attacks are shown nobly, while Ozymandias’ unilateral vigilantism is abhorrent, as the first six pages of Chapter 12 make very, very clear.
But even that argument is an oversimplification. The truth is, neither V nor Ozymandias fits simply into a hero or villain mold, and one of the things both works have in common is that they problematize the notion of heroism, and open questions about where the lines are drawn between resistance and terrorism, between destroying lives and saving the world. It’s complicated, is what Moore is telling us, and attempts to make it seem otherwise are generally meant to manipulate you into compliance.
Moral complexity was never high on Margaret Thatcher’s list. She was a lay preacher in the Methodist church before her entry into politics, and she saw a clear connection between her economic policies and her religious beliefs. Just as the Republican party in the U.S. allied itself in the 1980s with social conservative organizations like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, so too did Thatcher pursue her own social conservative agenda, such as banning discussion of homosexuality in public schools8 and clamping down on the distribution of “nasty” videocassettes.
This is one of the paradoxes of Thatcherism, and Reaganism too for that matter. On the one hand, their philosophies proclaimed the the people’s rights to individual liberties. On the other hand, when it came to matters like who to marry, what to watch, and (especially in the US) legal access to safe abortions, individuals suddenly found their liberties sharply curtailed. As it turns out, while their administrations may have had a libertarian sheen, Thatcher and Reagan were more interested in the freedom of money to go where it wanted without state interference, and in the freedom of corporations to do what they wanted without regulatory interference. The people who worked for those corporations, well, they were free to come to work, but God help them if they tried to unionize, because their government was dead set against it.
Costello works through some of these same themes from a different angle in “Pills And Soap”, a song from Punch The Clock. It turns out that Costello also borrowed a superheroic trope for this song, releasing it not as Elvis Costello (already an alter ego for Declan MacManus), but as “The Imposter”, an alter ego for Elvis Costello. The lyrics themselves aren’t straightforward, but its central image of children and animals melted down to create the titular pills and soap certainly evokes the fascist British concentration camps of V For Vendetta. What made it particularly political was its release, under a pseudonym, shortly before the 1983 UK General Election in which Thatcher’s Conservative party was challenged by Labour. As it happened, the Tories (Conservatives) in that election gained 38 seats while Labour lost 58 — as Costello says in the 2003 Punch The Clock liner notes, “It was released for a limited period only and melodramatically deleted on the eve of the 1983 General Election. The need to re-issue it the following day on a celebratory red vinyl 12″ sadly never arose.”
As for moral simplicity, the most relevant Costello song is probably “Black and White World”, from Get Happy!!. That song’s primary metaphor is about comparing modern life to old films (i.e. the black-and-white world of pre-Technicolor movies), but with Costello’s usual aptitude for double meanings, it also carries a connotation of black-and-white morality, in lines like “There’ll never be days like that again / When I was just a boy and men were men.”
Where we might find a black-and-white view of morality in Watchmen? The answer seems fairly obvious, though his version of “when I was just a boy and men were men” sounds more like “They could have followed in the footsteps of good men, like my father and President Truman.” Rorschach, as we saw in our examination of Steve Ditko’s Charlton characters, is a reflection of The Question’s Objectivism, and ironically his opposition to Veidt cuts through the Gordian Knot of the Thatcherist paradox in a punk spirit, by reasserting the individual’s right to resist.
Peace In Our Time
Costello’s primary critique of Thatcher focused on her military adventurism, especially the 1982 Falklands War, in which Britain charged to the defense of some tiny islands in the South Atlantic, overseas territories left over from the high times of British colonialism in the 19th century. Argentina asserted (and still continues to assert) its sovereignty over these islands (which it calls the Malvinas), and in April of 1982 sent a force to occupy them. Thatcher’s Britain responded with a naval task force, and a 74-day conflict ensued which resulted in 907 casualties.
Liberal Brits like Costello were dismayed to see their country at war, especially in acts like the sinking of the Argentine ship General Belgrano, which was torpedoed while retreating. 321 Argentinians died in that incident, accounting for just about half the Argentine losses in the war. Meanwhile, British casualties reached the hundreds as well. Costello’s forceful response was “Shipbuilding”, a song he wrote with Clive Langer. Costello’s lyrics paint the picture of a small town whose economy depends on the jobs created by the business of constructing ships. Yet that same small town will be sending its young men off on those ships, possibly to die in conflicts like the Falklands War. Langer and Costello gave the song to British singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt, who released it in 1982 (in a single produced by Costello) to little response, but had a top 40 UK hit a year later when re-releasing it for the first anniversary of the war.
Costello released the song himself on 1983’s Punch The Clock, with a memorable trumpet solo by Chet Baker included. Alongside “Pills And Soap”, it made Punch a more political record than Costello had released in years. Goodbye Cruel World continued the trend. Songs like “The Great Unknown”, “Joe Porterhouse”, and even “The Comedians” itself had content that could easily be taken as political, though often other interpretations were possible as well. The final track, though, was unambiguous.
“Peace In Our Time”, like “Pills And Soap”, was released as a single by The Imposter, rather than Elvis Costello. It takes a wide-scoped view of war, with each verse dedicated to an era of conflict. Verse one references Neville Chamberlain‘s doomed Munich Agreement and the spectre of World War II, while reflecting that now Costello dances in Italian shoes to German disco music. Verse two cites Cold War anti-Communist hysteria, and the horrible possibilities of nuclear annihilation.
Finally, verse three discusses events that were current at the time. “Another tiny island invaded” could refer to the Falklands or to Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. “International Propaganda Star Wars” was a swipe at the US’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, which hoped to provide an anti-nuke “missile shield.” And the reference to spacemen in the White House addressed both the Presidential candidacy of John Glenn and Reagan’s supposed mental deficiencies.
After each of these evocations of conflict, the chorus repeats:
And the bells take their toll once again in a victory chime
And we can thank God that we’ve finally got peace in our time
The irony is layers deep here. For one thing, the title phrase connects directly with the image of Chamberlain in the lyrics:
Out of the aeroplane stepped Chamberlain with a condemned man’s stare
But we all cheered wildly, a photograph was taken,
As he waved a piece of paper in the air
There is indeed a famous photograph of that moment, Chamberlain just having returned from Germany with an agreement to allow Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia in exchange for peace between the UK and Germany. Even more famously, Chamberlain said that day, “I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” Hitler continued invading countries, and less than a year later the UK was at war with Germany. Today the phrase is mainly remembered (and slightly misquoted) ironically.
From that initial irony, we get the additional fact that the chorus repeats after every cycle of war in the verses. Though a chorus of victory chimes may ring over and over, and though we may declare that peace has arrived at last, there’s always another verse of battle just around the corner. Finally, there’s a play on “toll” — bells toll, but they don’t “take their toll.” Wars do that, and the peace they bring to many is the peace of the grave, over which funeral bells ring.
And now we’re back to Watchmen, in which The Comedian is the first casualty of Ozymandias’ peace campaign, a “practical joke” which he believes will bring lasting peace, not seeing how closely he resembles Chamberlain in front of that aeroplane.
In the liner notes for the 1995 reissue of Goodbye Cruel World, Costello writes of the song, “If it now seems like a relic of those days of anti-nuclear dread then I hope it stays that way.” On the next reissue, he says, “Writing in the late spring of ’04, the title of this piece seems a more distant prospect than ever. I have to hope that this flawed song doesn’t sound like a sick joke by November.” Much like in 1983, I don’t think Costello got the result he was hoping for. I doubt Ozymandias does either.
1Granted, the first one takes place entirely indoors and there is no supplemental information elsewhere in the book to elucidate the time. However, there are a few hints that, taken together, strongly suggest that this is a night-time scene. First, the window on panel 1 of page 5 shows only darkness. Second, Night Owl suggests that they “go back to the Owl’s Nest for a beer”, something less likely to happen in the middle of the day. Finally, the clock in panel 9 of page 7 shows (of course), a few minutes to 12:00, which given the previous two clues is much more likely to be midnight than noon. Moreover, we know from Under The Hood that Hollis Mason’s police work was his “day job”, and his superheroing took place mostly at night, hence his nickname. All these factors combined make me confident that the first Comedian flashback in Chapter Two takes place close to midnight. [Back to post]
2In the liner notes to the 2002 reissue of Get Happy!!, an album of Motown-style songs that he released after the incident. [Back to post]
8This, too, is complicated by the fact that early in her political career, Thatcher voted to decriminalize abortion and homosexuality. Her later swing towards social conservatism may have been more a matter of practicality than of conviction, or it could have been a genuine change of heart. With politicians it’s hard to tell, isn’t it? [Back to post]
[William Kuskin and Charles Hatfield deserve my heartfelt thanks for their generous and incisive feedback as this post was taking shape.]
I’d like to start today’s entry with a resounding endorsement for Love And Rockets. No, not the band, though they’re pretty good too. I mean the astonishing comic book series by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, lovingly known as Los Bros Hernandez.
This comic ran from 1982 to 1996, and pretty much exemplified the alternative/indie comics scene at the time. (Los Bros have since picked it back up and continue publishing 1-3 issues per year.) Being born in 1970, I was a little young for L&R when it started, and spent most of my teens with my head ensconced in Marvel-world anyway. So while I’d heard plenty about the comic, I never read any of it until a few years ago. People, it blew my mind. See resounding endorsement, above.
For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, here’s a little Love And Rockets primer. Gilbert and Jaime1 are the primary contributors, with occasional input from third brother Mario. The brothers work separately for the most part, each writing and drawing his own comics, and splitting the page count in a given L&R issue. Both of them draw some miscellaneous experimental comics in a variety of styles, but the bulk of their work focuses on continuing stories in a particular milieu.
For Jaime, that milieu is the Southern California punk scene, specifically a barrio nicknamed Hoppers, set in the fictional town of Huerta and based on Oxnard, California, where the brothers grew up. Gilbert’s continuing stories take place in Palomar, a fictional Latin American town so small and remote that in most of the early stories, the town doesn’t even have a single telephone.
Within these settings, each of them has built a dizzyingly rich cast of beautifully realized characters, in a variety of stories ranging from one-pagers to full graphic novels. I wholeheartedly recommend these comics, and I’m going to be spoiling various Love & Rockets storylines (between 1982 and 1986 or so), as well as the usual load of Watchmen spoilers. (And I guess a couple of 20th century Spider-Man spoilers too, as it turns out.) It’s really worth reading this stuff fresh, so I won’t mind a bit if you wait to read the rest of my post until you’ve caught up on some L&R yourself. Comic Book Resources has a great guide to getting started.
Now, then. Both brothers’ work is well worth absorbing, but we’re focusing on Gilbert today, for reasons that will become clear in a bit. The first Palomar story is called “Heartbreak Soup”, and it introduces us to many denizens of the town, including a group of childhood friends in their early teens: Heraclio, Israel, Jesús Angel, Sakahaftewa (“Satch”), and the partially disfigured Vicente. We also meet a whole bunch of others, including Jesús’s little brother Toco, midwife and bañadora (bath-giver) Chelo, impossibly pulchritudinous newcomer and rival bañadora Luba, and the boys’ peer Pipo, who has grown apart from them as her sexuality develops.
“Heartbreak Soup” tells a satisfying, self-contained story, but after it ends, the Palomar stories continue, and something interesting happens. The next episode, a little story called “A Little Story”, doesn’t continue from “Heartbreak Soup”, but rather jumps back about 4 years prior, to when Pipo was still happily playing with the boys, and Satch was the new kid in town. The next story, “Toco”, is another short piece, which takes place a few months prior to “Heartbreak Soup”.2
A more major, multi-part story called “Act of Contrition” follows these two. It skips forward about ten years from “Heartbreak Soup.” The boys are all adults, some of whom have left town, some of whom have stayed and married characters who were also children in “Heartbreak Soup.” Instead of one child, Luba now has four, and now she runs a cinema as well as a bath house. Not only that, we meet a new character named Archie, who knew Luba as a teenager, and we get flashbacks to her teen years, well before “Heartbreak Soup”, from both characters’ memories. Post-“Act Of Contrition”, the Palomar strips’ timeline sticks for a while with “Heartbreak” plus 10 years or so, but frequently interspersed with various flashbacks, from various perspectives, to various time periods.
What quickly becomes clear is that the Palomar stories in Love And Rockets won’t be following the traditional comic book approach of serializing an ongoing narrative. Instead, what we get are glimpses into one continuous, enormous, pre-existing story, as seen through the viewpoints of a large cast of characters, and skipping around in time at Gilbert’s whim. As comics scholar Charles Hatfield observes, “By opening such gaps between stories, Hernandez was able to sketch in the history of his characters gradually through interpolated flashbacks, a technique that became central to his work.” (Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, pg. 89)
“Interpolated flashbacks” brings us at last to the v2.0 Watchmen annotations, which point out a fascinating parallel between one of the Palomar stories and Chapter 2 of Watchmen:
The structure of this chapter involves an exploration of Blake’s character in segments that alternate between a present-day storyline and flashbacks from five different other characters. The flashbacks are in fact in chronological order, from a flashback to his youth to a flashback to the recent past.
The structure of this chapter is therefore very similar to that of the story “The Laughing Sun”, by Gilbert Hernandez, which appeared in the comic Love and Rockets in 1984 (although there are only four flashbacks there). Since the Love and Rockets story predates Watchmen, it may have been an influence on Moore.
The parallel is undeniable, but can we reasonably claim that “The Laughing Sun” influenced Watchmen? Well, there is a bit of evidence. As the annotations indicate, the L&R story predates Watchmen, which establishes that it is possible for Moore to have read it before penning the chapter. Furthermore, we know that Moore has read and admired Gilbert’s work, because he tells us so in the introduction he wrote to Heartbreak Soup And Other Stories, the first US trade paperback collecting some of Gilbert’s Palomar comics. Moore even refers directly to “The Laughing Sun,” noting “the blood-thick camaraderie that leads to the desperate mountain trek” in its plot. (About which more in just a minute.)
This book was released in August of 1987. Watchmen #2 has a cover date of October 1986, and the final issue’s cover date is October 1987. Based on this overlap, I’d say it’s very likely that Moore wrote his appreciation of Gilbert in the midst of writing Watchmen.3 For as specifically as he cites details from them, the Palomar stories had to be fresh in his mind during that period. Now, would that connection have gone back all the way to issue #2? Who knows? Some of this stuff is ultimately irretrievable, but let’s take a look at the comparison and decide for ourselves.
Stacks of Flashbacks
“The Laughing Sun” is serialized over two issues of Love & Rockets. Like many post-“Act Of Contrition” Palomar stories, it takes place about 10 years or so past the “Heartbreak Soup” baseline. (I’ll abbreviate this baseline HBS, and cite different timelines in relationship to it, so the primary thread of “The Laughing Sun” takes place in HBS + 10 years or so.) The childhood friends from that story have grown up and spread out, but are brought together when they learn that Jesús Angel has fled to the mountains after an explosive conflict with his wife Laura. Heraclio, who still lives in Palomar, reaches out to Satch, Israel, and Vicente, who do not, and all four men come together to search the mountains for Jesús.
As the story progresses, each man remembers Jesús, with each flashback centering on some aspect of Jesús’s relationship with sexuality and women. After he gets the call from Heraclio, Vicente flashes back to a childhood episode with Jesús (HBS – 9 years or so), in which 5-year-old Pipo innocently exposed herself to the two boys, who were then shamed with visions of hellfire by Chelo after she walked in on the incident. On the car ride to the mountains, Satch remembers a preteen time (HBS – 2 years or so) where some older boys told him and Jesús about the Indian women in the mountains who don’t wear shirts — “They all walk around with their fuckin’ tetas out like it’s normal!” The boys swooned with envy of the Indian men.
Back in the present, the search in the mountains is arduous, for the weather is extremely hot. (The story’s title refers to how the sun seems to enjoy torturing the town like this.) Heraclio briefly passes out from heat exhaustion, and in the process flashes back to a memory from their teen years (HBS + 1 or so), which reveals Jesús’s crush on Luba, an unrequited affection that becomes a major theme for the character. The search goes on, through many a tribulation, culminating in Israel’s memory of himself and Jesús as adults (HBS + 6 or so), in which he’s incredulous that Jesús intends to marry Laura, and says “Don’t come running to my couch when the going gets too rough!” Jesús’s reply: “Don’t worry! I’d head for the hills first!”
Coming out of the flashback, Israel screams at those hills in rage and frustration, and to his surprise, Jesús replies. The men find him, and in one last trip to the (very recent) past, Jesús tells the story of how his fight with Laura happened. I would make the case for this as another flashback, though it is narrated rather than drawn — it’s just one wide panel with columns of text on either side, and an image in the center of Jesús, superimposed over an extreme close-up of Laura and their baby, drawn fainter to indicate a presence in memory, not reality. This panel echoes the one that opens this half of the story, in which Laura tells her version of their conflict, with a ghostly close-up Jesús behind her. Jesús reveals that their argument was about his sexualized gazes at Luba, for which all the previous flashbacks set the stage.
Thus does Gilbert not only illustrate a character through others’ experiences of him, he also defines the community closest to that character, all while setting up and resolving a mystery quest plot. In “Absent Friends”, Chapter 2 of Watchmen, Alan Moore doesn’t resolve the mystery of Blake’s death, but he does use the very same device to show us exactly who The Comedian is, as his closest community saw him. Again, the flashbacks are from five different characters, moving forward in time. (I’ll use W to denote the main story timeline (1985) in Watchmen as a baseline, similar to HBS above.)
Sally Jupiter starts the flashbacks, remembering back to the time of The Minutemen (W – 45 years) and Blake’s attempted sexual assault of her. The next three flashbacks take place at the funeral: Adrian recalls the Crimebusters meeting in 1966 (W – 19 years), Jon VVN night in 1971 (W – 14 years), and Dan the police strike riots of 1977 (W – 8 years). Finally, after the funeral, Rorschach wrings out one last flashback, this one from Moloch remembering The Comedian’s “last performance” (W – a few weeks.)
Just as each of the “Laughing Sun” flashbacks helped paint a portrait of Jesús as oversexed and fixated on Luba, so do the flashbacks in “Absent Friends” center around a theme: The Comedian as a vile man who nevertheless understands many things that others don’t. The vileness is clear — in the space of a few pages, but spanning decades, we see him (nearly) raping Sally Jupiter, murdering a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his baby, and tear-gassing civilians. The other two flashbacks show his knowledge — he sees through Captain Metropolis’s motives in the Crimebusters meeting, and cryptically tells Moloch of the island he’s discovered, in the process alerting Veidt that Blake knows too much. Even in the flashbacks that demonstrate his detestable nature, we also see his insight, such as when he identifies Hooded Justice’s fetish, or tells Dr. Manhattan, “You don’t really give a damn about human beings.”
Just as with Jesús, Blake and his story come into focus through the eyes of the community that surrounds him. The reverse is also true — we learn the nature of the community as demonstrated through its interactions with the central character. In “The Laughing Sun”, the character of that community is cohesive, and that cohesion is crucial to its success — Heraclio is able to speak to the mountain Indians, Isreal is capable of provoking Jesús out of silence, and Satch knows just what to say to make Jesús receptive to being brought home. The flashbacks, too, are mostly of bonding moments between the boys — even the conflict between Israel and Jesús carries a clear loving undertone.
In Watchmen, by contrast, the community is fragmented — split by differences in distance, differences in viewpoint. Their flashbacks to The Comedian demonstrate their distance from him too, every one of them injured or puzzled by his actions. In fact, two of those flashbacks (Moloch’s and Adrian’s) are at the heart of the story’s main plot, which serves to drive all the characters apart, only to bring them back together at the end under a heavy layer of irony, tragedy, and fragility. The only one of the main characters to opt out of that final community is Rorschach, just as he is the only one in this chapter who doesn’t get a flashback.
How to Travel Through Time
The stacking flashbacks device is powerful, but it’s also worth a look at how the mechanics of it are executed. “The Laughing Sun” uses two different techniques. The more minor one I’ve already mentioned — a long panel with columns of text on either side of the storyteller, and a fainter image of the story’s subject looming up hugely behind. I see these as flashbacks, but what’s true is that they’re only narrated through illustrated prose, not sequential art like the others, so they have very little disruptive impact on the main story timeline.
The other flashbacks in “The Laughing Sun” all start as thought bubbles4, but with an image inside rather than words. The first of these, Vicente’s, calls attention to itself because the previous panel showed Vicente with a traditional thought bubble that does contain words. Then, within the flashback, each of the panels has scalloped corners rather than hard right angles. The end of Vicente’s flashback highlights the device in a different way, as a thought bubble above Vicente’s head shows himself and Jesús as boys, who themselves have a thought bubble over their heads, with an image of the devil chasing them through Hell. The bottom of this panel has right-angled corners, while the top corners are scalloped. The other three flashbacks follow a similar pattern — thought bubble with an image (and sometimes a word balloon inside the thought bubble), scalloped corners on the memory panels or portions.
Gilbert first used these two approaches — narration over static images and images inside thought bubbles — in “Act Of Contrition.” The next Palomar story after “The Laughing Sun” to contain a flashback was “The Reticent Heart,” which actually announced it with a caption reading “Flashback: A few years before Carmen and Heraclio became wife and husband,” and then later signaled “Flashback within the flashback: Years ago, on a warm, late afternoon in Palomar…” In a 2008 interview, Gilbert revealed his struggles with the device:
I ran into trouble with that a lot. When I first started, I used the old comic-book cliché of writing the word “flashback” just to make it clear for the reader. As my editor suggested, the strip was starting to develop in such a way that it didn’t really need this nudge. So I started presenting a flashback more like in a film. But I wasn’t so good at it. What I thought was a natural, smooth transition from modern times to a flashback wasn’t always identifiable by the reader. In a lot of reprints, I rework transitions to make a flashback clearer. (Your Brain On Latino Comics, pg. 176)5
In Chapter 2 of Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons show their mastery of those transitions. The chapter relies upon a few different techniques to signal that a flashback is beginning or ending, and by far the most prominent one of these is image-matching. The first flashback of the chapter starts with a bright glare off the Minutemen’s picture, followed by a panel of the camera flashing, and then a panel of the Minutemen posing for that picture, which begins the narration in earnest. Similarly, a panel of Adrian’s impassive face at the funeral precedes a panel of him masked as Ozymandias, in the same exact pose, to begin the Crimebusters meeting flashback. The Crimebusters flashback goes out through the same door, transitioning from a panel of Adrian masked in 1966 to one of him unmasked in 1985. Clever match cuts abound, such as when we go from The Comedian gripping Moloch’s lapels as Blake tells his story to Rorschach gripping Moloch’s lapels as Moloch recounts it.
Where matching isn’t in place, irony often is, such as in the cut from Sally having just been sexually victimized to the Tijuana bible image of her saying lustily, “Oh! Treat me rough, sugar.” The only transition that approaches a traditional comics technique is the one leading into Moloch’s flashback — captions of Moloch beginning to tell the story overlay an image of The Comedian sitting on Moloch’s bed, not so different from how Gilbert handles Archie and Luba’s flashbacks in “Act Of Contrition.” That’s as far as the connection goes, though — there are no thought bubbles in Watchmen, and certainly no captions reading “Flashback.”
That said, Gilbert made rapid strides in his technique during the two years that separate “The Laughing Sun” from “Absent Friends.” “Holidays In The Sun” (cover-dated January 1986) is a story of Jesús in jail, in which panel transitions slip seamlessly between fantasy and reality with no artificial bracketing. Even within his dreams, Luba’s face changes abruptly to Laura’s via panel transition. By the time of “Duck Feet” (June 1986) and “Bullnecks And Bracelets” (January 1987), flashbacks in Gilbert’s stories begin and end with no announcement whatsoever of the time-shift, sometimes jumping across years in the space of a few wordless panels.
During roughly the same period, there are flashbacks aplenty over on the Jaime side of L&R as well. “The Secrets Of Life And Death Vol. 5” (January 1987) is mostly flashback, with a transition accomplished by a scallop-sided panel overlaying one set in the present. The panels within the flashback look normal (straight corners), except for the one coming out of the flashback, which has one scalloped corner. Then in “The Return Of Ray D.” (April 1987), Jaime accomplishes a transition to the past using the same image-matching technique as “Absent Friends” — three characters in similar poses, but dressed differently (and one transforming from a background figure into a major character in the flashback), with no other mechanical conventions overdetermining the shift.
It’s not impossible that technical influence was flowing both directions between Los Bros and Moore/Gibbons. Certainly as Love And Rockets progressed, their time-shifting grew bolder and bolder, extending to dizzying extremes in stories like Gilbert’s early-90s “Poison River”, which would sometimes rapidly crosscut between years or decades, jumping timelines from one panel to the next without explanation and leaving the reader to piece it together. Even the opening pages of its chapters showed characters at various points in their timelines.
At the very least, it seems fair to say that both Love & Rockets and Watchmen are exemplars of an era in which formal experimentation in comics flourished. They were far from the first to use flashbacks — Harvey Kurtzman in particular, among his many 1950s achievements, used flashbacks to powerful effect in stories like Big “If”.6 Nor were match cuts a new thing — Stanley Kubrick among many others made masterful use of the technique in film. But 1980s comics like Watchmen and L&R brought these sophisticated techniques together repeatedly and consistently, for a wide variety of precisely controlled narrative effects, and thereby pushed the boundaries of comics, leading to a rich artistic payoff for a large number of works, a general expansion of the form’s visual vocabulary, and the increasing sophistication of its audience.
Beyond The Gutters
In his landmark 1993 study Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud breaks down a few different ways panels can relate to each other:
Moment-to-moment: Panel A depicts the moment before Panel B, with a few seconds at most elapsing between them.
Action-to-action: Panel A depicts the action before Panel B, even if there’s a bit of time separation between them — for example pouring a drink, then drinking it.
Subject-to-subject: Panel A depicts one part of a scene, and Panel B depicts a different part, moving time forward as well.
Scene-to-scene: Panel A and Panel B are separated by some significant distance in time or space, or both.
Aspect-to-aspect: Panels A and B depict different aspects of “a place, idea, or mood.” There is very little sense of time passing between these panels, which is what separates them from subject-to-subject transitions.
Non-sequitur: Panels A and B seemingly have no relation to each other.
As McCloud explains it, the space between panels is known as the “gutter”, and the imaginative connection performed by the reader across this gutter, in order to accomplish these transitions, is “closure.” His observation rests upon the fact that comics are sequential, and that the connections between the images in that sequence must be made by the reader.
Rocco Versaci, in This Book Contains Graphic Language, takes this line of reasoning a little further, noticing the ways in which comics can be both simultaneous and sequential: “[U]nlike film, which unspools at a more or less predetermined (and from the viewer’s perspective, uncontrollable) pace, comics creators can play with the design of an entire page by manipulating the visuals within panels and the panels themselves within the page to create additional layers of meaning. Thus, a comic, in addition to unfolding temporally, also exists ‘all at once,’ and this existence is a feature unique to the medium.” (pg. 16)
Watchmen frequently capitalizes upon this “all at once” quality of the page. For example, in Moloch’s flashback, there’s a flashing light outside his window, which alternates between illuminating The Comedian and leaving him in darkness. The panels in the 3×3 grid thus alternate between oranges and blues, as moment-to-moment transitions in The Comedian’s speech. The result is a bright X across the page, complemented by a dark O. This rhythmic alternation also appears in the first few pages of the chapter, this time in scene-to-scene transitions, as rapid cuts between California and New York create these interlocking panel patterns of brightness and darkness.
What’s at play here is the tension between images all at once, and images in sequence — we see the page all at once, even as the panels are sequential. Hatfield views Los Bros as masters of manipulating this tension: “Gilbert and Jaime freely manipulate time, space, and point of view, collapsing hours or even years into abrupt transitions, splicing together reality and fantasy, and discerning patterns in widely separated events. Relying on the cohesiveness of the total page (and the familiarity of L&R as a series) to guide and reassure their readers, Los Bros pushed the tension between single image and image-in-series to the extreme, transitioning from one element to the next without warning.” (pg. 70)
With his reference to “the familiarity of L&R as a series”, Hatfield gestures to yet another level of tension in comics, in which any of McCloud’s transitions can occur: the tension between single episode and episode-in-series. Because comics stories are so frequently serialized, readers are called upon to perform closure between episodes. Many Marvel comics, for instance, are pieces of a continuing story, and thus have a tendency toward moment-to-moment transitions between episodes — issue #191 is likely to pick up right where #190 left off, at least if #190 ended on a cliffhanger. If one issue wraps up a story, the next issue is likely to pick up on a time not too much later in the title character’s life — a scene-to-scene transition.
Closure between episodes is the connective tissue that holds comic book sagas and universes together. Those connections, taken in totality, form that beloved shibboleth of comics aficionados: continuity. Continuity is our overall experience of a story, as strung out over multiple episodes. Just as certain artistic effects are only possible on a total page, so too can continuity empower dramatic moments, or amplify dramatic blunders. When the Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man #121, it was continuity that made the moment so powerful — readers had known Gwen for eight years at that point, over 90 connected issues. She was a part of readers’ lives just as she was a part of Spider-Man’s life. That is a level of intimacy impossible to achieve within the boundaries of a single book. Similarly, when the “Clone Saga” attempted to assert that the last twenty years of Spider-Man stories hadn’t really been about Peter Parker, it was continuity that led fans to their pitchforks and torches.
Both Gilbert Hernandez and Alan Moore use continuity to their advantage. The time-jumps that happen after “Heartbreak Soup” challenge closure, requiring the reader to figure out where the story occurs in relation to that first baseline. By the time of “The Laughing Sun”, Gilbert seems to have settled more or less into the HBS + 10 zone, but it’s clear that our perspective can come unmoored in time at any moment. By the same token, part of what gives “The Laughing Sun” (among many other Palomar stories) its power is the fact that we know these characters from many positions in time, which enriches and deepens our understanding of their relationships to themselves and each other. Unlike with Spider-Man, though, we do not travel through time alongside them, but rather begin to see their stories from multiple angles at once. Analogous to a comics page, Palomar exists “all at once” for us, increasingly so as continuity builds.
Watchmen is a self-contained story, not an ongoing saga, but still, it was serialized over 12 issues, and Moore certainly uses the continuity of that year-long publication period for dramatic effects. Clearly, the clock that ticks down at the end of each chapter is powered by closure — we know where that clock has been, and our knowledge of the number of issues in the series lets us know where it’s going. Similarly, even as early as Chapter 2, Gibbons draws panels that call back exactly to previous episodes in the series, relying on our knowledge of those episodes to provide the full meaning of the recontextualization. Even the end papers occasionally employ continuity, with part II of Under The Hood ending in Chapter 1, and part III picking up immediately in Chapter 2.
For Watchmen, and to a lesser extent for Love And Rockets, there is an additional level of tension beyond this: the tension between genre instance or invocation and the broad genre as a whole. Watchmen places itself in the superhero genre, as it existed in 1986, and is ready for its readers to come in with certain expectations of how that genre works, its conventions and status quo. Moore takes advantage of this level of reader knowledge to produce surprise, shock, and dismay as his characters and situations contrast with what’s expected, as well as to introduce overtones that call the rest of the genre into question. Love And Rockets, on the other hand, begins within expected comics genres of science fiction and fantasy, then moves quite deliberately outside them, landing in a place that defines its independence partly in opposition to what’s on offer in the rest of the comics mainstream.
Even beyond genre, there is yet one more layered experience available from these books: the experience of multiple readings. Critic Douglas Wolk notices this level in Jaime’s work: “The subtleties of his characters’ interactions really only appear on re-reading… despite the technique Hernandez has picked up from his brother of jump-cuts within each scene, it reads so smoothly that you have to make a conscious effort to slow down and note what else is happening.” (Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work And What They Mean, pg. 200) The same points apply to Gilbert’s work as well.
This is very similar to my experience of reading Watchmen. When I first read it, in the mid-90s, I found it enjoyable but unremarkable, and was surprised that it was praised so highly. That time, I was reading for plot, not really noticing structure, and was coming to it from the context of having already encountered many of its imitators, and daring it to live up to the aura of praise that surrounded it. Then, when the movie came out, the press around that event helped me to realize I’d missed a number of layers in that first reading, encouraging me to give the novel a second look. The result is this project. Re-reading (and re-reading, and re-reading) Watchmen has led me to a far deeper appreciation of the book than I had after that first time through, and the same has been true as I’ve reread Palomar stories in preparation for this post.
What God Feels Like
Images, pages, episodes, genres, iterations of reading. All of these contribute to an experience of time connected with a particular work. Past each of these sequences, there is a sense of totality as well, and if you’re not thinking of Dr. Manhattan by now, you probably need to re-read Watchmen. William Kuskin observes a couple of these layers in a 2010 article: “In that he sees time as an object, Dr. Manhattan’s perspective is similar to the reader’s, who can perceive the whole page at one glance and the entire narrative in one turn through the book.” (“Vulgar Metaphysicians: William S. Burroughs, Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, and the Medium Of The Book”, in Intermediality and Storytelling, pg. 54)
I remember once talking to my friend Trish about a television show I was watching. She had already seen it; I was catching up on DVD. She asked me where I was in the sequence of episodes, I told her, and she remarked, “This must be what God feels like.” She knew what was going to happen to all the characters, and by extension what was going to happen to me. She saw the entire series in total, where I was currently still living through it in sequence — she looked at me from outside time, knowing I was trapped inside it but would transcend it to join her soon.
Time is a strong motif within Watchmen, starting with the title. Watchmen carries the sense of “guardians”, as in “watchmen on the walls of the world’s freedom,” but the character most connected with time is also the son of a watchmaker, who aspired to become one himself. Their predecessors were the Minutemen, a name linked with the American Revolution but linked also with brevity, and fragmentation of a temporal whole. The watchmaker’s son becomes unmoored in time, seeing it as “an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.” I’m still not completely convinced by Dr. Manhattan’s point of view, perhaps because he combines simultaneity and sequence in a way I still don’t understand, despite having looked at many a comics page and then read the panels. For me, the whole design of jewel that is Watchmen was only visible upon re-reading, but that jewel continues to reveal more of itself, the longer I look.
So too are we unmoored in time when reading Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories. What is sequential for us is not so for the characters — we see them as teens, then suddenly adults, then flashing back to various points in their histories. Their existence in all these timelines is simultaneous for us, experienced sequentially (though out of chronology) but existing side by side at the same time. Gilbert, like Moore, exploits our sequential experience of reading to break apart the sequential time in his world.
Thus, as readers of Love and Rockets, we ascend almost to the godlike status of Dr. Manhattan. We don’t see the whole jewel in advance, and in fact, we don’t ever see the whole jewel at all, but we see enough facets to at least comprehend the concept of the whole. The same is true of Watchmen to an extent — indeed, the same is true of any book to an extent, because we understand the whole after reading, even if we choose to revisit the parts. But what’s special about Love And Rockets, at a level unmatched by Watchmen, is its powerful combination of continuity and nonlinearity — we can spend years and years with these characters, but their years are not ours, because we know so much of their future, so much of their past.
We learn those things not in the traditional way, following a timeline, but rather from above, via synecdoche, seeing the parts that imply the whole. Just as we assemble a picture of Jesús from the memories of his friends, just as we create Blake from our knowledge of who he has been over time, so too do we create the worlds of Palomar and Watchmen by seeing enough facets to understand the jewel. For us as readers, the world of the story (in all four of its dimensions) is our absent friend, who becomes present through our accumulated knowledge.
1The convention I would normally follow for citing an author’s name is to use last name, such as I do with Moore and Gibbons. However, since I’ll be referring to both Hernandez brothers, I’m defaulting to using their first names as the least unwieldy alternative. No disrespect is intended. 🙂 [Back to post]
2The chronology on these two pieces is a bit mystifying to me. They’re reprinted in the Heartbreak Soup collection published by Fantagraphics in 2007, which touts its contents as “assembled for the first time in perfect chronological order.” They show up between “Heartbreak Soup” (1983) and “Act Of Contrition” (1984) in that volume. However, “A Little Story” is dated 1985 (it apparently debuted in the first L&R trade paperback), and “Toco” is dated 2002. Why Fantagraphics considers this “perfect chronological order” is quite beyond me. In any case, I’m leaving this paragraph in as a description of my own Palomar reading experience, which happened in the reprint, but note that for readers of the original magazine (including Moore), Palomar stories jumped from “Heartbreak Soup” straight to “Act Of Contrition.” [Back to post]
3Tipped hat and deep bow to Charles Hatfield for the detective work to match these dates.[Back to post]
4Thought bubbles have fallen out of favor over time in some modern comics, replaced by superimposed captions, images, or sudden panel transitions. Watchmen is a prime example of the no-thought-bubble approach.[Back to post]
5Gilbert’s last remark brings up a problem with the sort of critical comparative work I’m doing here — I’m working from reprints of Love And Rockets, as I don’t have access to the original issues. So if Los Bros changed things for the trade paperbacks, it’s quite possible that some of the mechanics I’m discussing may not have been as Moore saw them. This is an unfortunate consequence of the disposable and ephemeral nature of original comics pamphlets, which can sometimes be recovered via digital (albeit usually illegal) means, but are otherwise locked behind barriers of expense or distance. If you’ve got original L&R issues and can shed light on discrepancies between them and the collections, by all means let me know in the comments! [Back to post]