Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.

>SUPERVERBOSE

Tag: books Page 1 of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Moore vs. Linear Time

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

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

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

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

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

Cover of Jerusalem by Alan Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover of William Blake vs. the World by John Higgs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Moore vs. Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Moore vs. Capitalism

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

Map of The Boroughs by John Coulthart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A portrait of William Blake, by Thomas Phillips

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

NOTE: Spoilers, Spoilers, here they spawn / First read Watchmen, then read on.

We’ve reached Chapter 5 in this Watchmen odyssey, a chapter justly famed for its fascinating structure. The 28-page chapter is perfectly symmetrical. That is to say, the grid on page 1 reflects that on page 28. Page 2 reflects page 27, and so on, meeting in a spectacular (and still symmetrical) double-page spread on pages 14 and 15.

Not only do the panels reflect each other, the scenes they depict match as well. Pages 1-6 and 23-28 show Rorschach in and outside Moloch’s apartment building. Pages 7 and 22 are Detective Fine’s investigation, pages 8-9 and 20-21 are the newsstand and pirate comic, pages 10 and 19 are Dan and Laurie, et cetera.

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

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

Fearful Symmetry

Why is the chapter structured like this? We find the key in its epigraph, an excerpt from another justly famous work, “The Tyger” by William Blake. As has happened before, the Watchmen excerpt takes some liberties with the original, this time in its punctuation and line-breaks:

Tyger, Tyger
burning bright,
In the forests
of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Like the other epigraphs, this one gives the chapter its title: “Fearful Symmetry”. Moore and Gibbons rise to the challenge of this title with a magnificent piece of craftsmanship, a symmetrical comic with a thoroughly ominous tone, deepening the book’s overall plot, theme, and characters at every level.

I’m going to save further examinations of symmetry for a later entry, because there is so much to unpack when it comes to Blake and Watchmen. There’s also quite a lot to unpack when it comes to Blake and Moore, but again I’m leaving that for later.

William Blake was a poet, but to label him as such is also misleading and reductive. He was active during the literary time and place we now call Romanticism, but identifying him as a Romantic is problematic.1 He was a visual artist in many media — paintings, illustrations, and illuminated prints. He was an engraver by trade, but an inventor as well, who created new methods of printmaking to suit the needs of his own creations. In addition to all this, he was a mystic, a prophet, and a visionary — someone whose brain operated on distinctly different parameters from those of his peers, a fact which inspired a variety of reactions but certainly limited his ability to reach a broad audience in his time with any of his creative works.

Blake was, to put it mildly, one of a kind. Not only that, he and his work changed and evolved significantly over the course of his life and career, moving from the reasonably accessible verse of Songs of Innocence and Experience to the deeply weird and nearly impenetrable magnum opus Jerusalem. (Like I said, he and Moore overlap a lot.) Importantly for his connection to Watchmen, his visual artistry is inextricable from his literary productions.

Blake didn’t write comics — his art isn’t sequential in any meaningful way, at least not most of the time. However, he integrated words and pictures far, far more than any of his contemporaries, and that combination at least gives him a kinship to comics. Here, for example, is the full page upon which “The Tyger” was published in Songs of Experience:

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

Poem and illustration are intertwined, with the tree’s branches separating stanzas of the poem — sometimes approaching a panelling effect that should feel familiar to comics readers — and the tiger standing at its climax. This could be read as just text with illustrations, a form which wasn’t foreign to Blake’s era. The difference with Blake, though, is that the poet and the illustrator are one and the same, and the entire thing is created as a single unit of art and writing, literally etched onto a metal plate by Blake himself, and its print later colored, also by Blake. Like a comics auteur, Blake brings his words and drawings into being as an indivisible unit. That hasn’t stopped publishers from reprinting his text by itself, but that text is always just a portion of Blake’s creation, a transcript.

What The Hammer?

There is still another element, one which doesn’t survive as a written artifact: music. Blake was untrained but quite musical, and was known to break out into melodies fitted to his own poetry. (The Portable Blake, pg. 2) One imagines this happening seldom with his many Prophetic Books, the majority of which are written in free verse, but the Songs of Innocence and Experience truly are songs, though none of Blake’s freely composed tunes were preserved.2 “The Tyger” in particular is intensely rhythmic3, hammering trochees pounding out an insistent beat:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Watchmen, too, brings an insistent beat to the beginning of Chapter 5, with the panels’ color reflecting the flashing red sign of the Rum Runner. I usually credit Watchmen to Moore and Gibbons for brevity’s sake, but here’s an example where the work of colorist John Higgins makes an enormous difference to the book’s storytelling. Similar to the Moloch flashback in Chapter 2, the Moloch scenes in this issue are punctuated by the light of the Rum Runner, resulting in pages where a bright X overlaps a dark O, or vice versa.

Even setting aside the full-page effect, though, the regularly gridded panels create a strong sense of rhythm, and the cycling light and dark lets us feel a pounding emphasis, a visual equivalent of poetic meter. There’s a musical quality, too — some panels are double the length of others, some triple, and in moments of greater power we can get double or triple height as well. Three panels per tier set up a triplet rhythm, like a waltz, where the smaller panels are quarter notes, double-length panels half notes, and so on, while the height of the panels feels analogous to dynamics in music.

In the case of “The Tyger”, the hammering rhythms synchronize with the poem’s controlling metaphor, that of a “maker” who creates life like a blacksmith, with hammer, furnace, and anvil. Blacksmith imagery is crucially important to Blake’s entire poetic vision, but to explain why, we need to take a few more steps into his overall oeuvre.

While Blake is probably best known for his more accessible poetry, like the Songs of Innocence and Experience, the vast majority of his work consists of the free-verse prophecies I mentioned earlier. In these prophecies, he constructs an entire mythology and pantheon without really bothering to explain to his reader who the figures are and what they may represent. This makes for an often frustrating reading experience, but has been a gold mine for literary critics, who spend careers unpacking all the symbolism and allusions in Blake’s mythopoeics.

There’s always plenty of room to debate interpretations, but some general consensus has emerged around the main figures:

  • Urizen, who represents Reason and Law. Blake was deeply skeptical of the Enlightenment’s privileging of reason above imagination and faith, and his stories tend to depict Urizen as someone tragically limited by his viewpoint, who also fails to understand that those limitations exist. He is sometimes depicted as an architect, who creates and constrains simultaneously.
  • Orc, the spirit of revolutionary energy. Blake saw Orc ascendant in the American and French revolutions, and while Orc seems to be a savior figure early on, he becomes shadowed with violence and destruction as the latter revolution devolved into the Reign of Terror.
  • Los, the spirit of imagination. For Blake, imagination was supreme, and therefore Los is the divine hero of his myths, and to some extent a stand-in for the poet himself. Los is the father of Orc, and Blake depicts him as a blacksmith, from whose fires emerge works of art and poetry. Or possibly Tygers.

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

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

Did He Who Made The Lamb Make Thee?

Urizen and Los are another reflection of Innocence and Experience, with Urizen possessing the more naive and limited perspective (though he doesn’t realize it), and Los taking a broader view. Los’s creativity transcends moral judgments. “I will not Reason & Compare,” he says in Jerusalem. “[M]y business is to Create.” (William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, pg. 307) For Los (and, the texts strongly suggest, for Blake), the creations of imagination are neither good nor bad. In the view of experience, they simply are. Thus, in answer to the question Blake poses in “The Tyger”: Yes, he who made the lamb also made its predator, a framing begun in possibility (with “Could”) and finished in audacity (with “Dare”).

How might these personas and concepts map onto Watchmen? Ozymandias seems like a possible candidate for an Urizen figure — he architects an extraordinarily elaborate plan which he believes to constitute a complete salvation of humanity, but we as readers can understand that he may not be as far-sighted as he believes himself to be. Rorschach, too, partakes of Urizen’s insistence on clear and unsullied moral judgments, a black-and-white Law that transcends any messy human intricacies. Blake, and Los, would approve of neither — they are anti-creative, though Adrian surely fashions a fearsome Tyger.

Who could stand in for Los, then? Dan Dreiberg is the most demonstrably creative of the bunch, inventing a wide variety of gadgets, vehicles, and super-suits. There’s also Doctor Manhattan, of course, who is able to reshape matter and reality at a whim, and who declares his intention to “create some” human life in the story’s final pages.

Neither of these makes a terribly satisfying Los avatar, though. Dreiberg may have the ability to create, and seems once to have had the drive, but his creative days are behind him — by the time the story begins, he’s long since quit. Jon Osterman is still making things, but he would deny any imagination or creative authority at all — in his own words, he’s just “a puppet who can see the strings.” Surely the real Los-figures, if there are any at all, would be Moore and Gibbons themselves, who frame the world of Watchmen and populate it with all its tygers and lambs.

Urizen and Los at least have potential analogs. Orc doesn’t seem to be personified at all, at least not in any one figure. Certainly not The Comedian, who thinks nothing of tear-gassing protestors, nor Silk Spectre, who seems for most of the book to want nothing more than a peaceful life. The closest we get to revolutionary spirit is the protestors themselves, with perhaps some frustrated flashes from the diametrically opposed bastions of Nova Express and The New Frontiersman.

Speaking of diametrical opposition, the Songs of Innocence and Experience have plenty of their own symmetry and reflections going on, though not to the exactitude of this Watchmen chapter. Songs of Innocence came out first by itself, and when Songs of Experience appeared, it contained many poems which seemed to be in direct dialogue with those of its predecessor. In the case of “The Tyger”, its innocent companion was a poem called “The Lamb”, which was similarly concerned with creation and authorship: “Little lamb who made thee / Dost thou know who made thee”, it asks.

Blake’s self-invented heroes and deities don’t appear in the “Songs”, so his answer stems from traditional Christian imagery:

Little lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little lamb I’ll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee,
Little Lamb God bless thee.

Blake's print of "The Lamb".

In the world of innocence, Jesus is the Lamb of God, who became God incarnated as a child, and who (as God) created and blessed all the little lambs. The world of experience troubles these placid waters. “The Tyger” outlines its fierce subject, and then wonders of its creator, “Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”

Burning Bright

As we’ve seen, within Blake’s personal mythology, the answer is clearly “Yes”. Further, he saw no conflict between his own myths and those delivered in Christian scripture (though he saw plenty of conflict between scripture and the established churches.) So God made the Lamb, and Jesus is the Lamb of God. God also made the Tyger, but if the Lamb equates with Christ, what does that make the Tyger? Who is the Tyger of God?

Could it be… Satan? Blake wasn’t afraid to include Satan in his prophecies, and his Satan was not the fallen angel of Milton.4 Rather, he was more the personification of “Error, the accuser of sin, who blinds the mind to the divine.” (The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, pg. 283) But if the Tyger devours the Lamb, that’s not really Satan’s gig, is it? In the New Testament, it isn’t a devil with horns and pitchfork who tortures and kills Jesus. It’s us. Only us.

For as biased, singleminded, and plain crazy Rorschach is, he is not wrong about Watchmen‘s world being rudderless.5 That’s what makes Watchmen the songs of experience to golden and silver age superhero comics’ songs of innocence — we cannot find a divinely touched hero to worship in its pages, not even the supremely powerful Dr. Manhattan. Indeed, in Chapter 5 it is Rorschach, more than any other, who exemplifies Blake’s Tyger. He is dangerous, stalking the forests of the night and, on page 26, literally burning bright.6

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

That phrase, “forests of night”, recurs in one of Blake’s prophetic texts, Europe: A Prophecy. That text is much more difficult to decipher than the Songs, but let’s take a look at the “forests of night” section by itself (Blake’s creative punctuation retained):

Thought chang’d the infinite to a serpent; that which pitieth;
To a devouring flame; and man fled from its face and hid
In forests of night; then all the eternal forests were divided
Into earths rolling in circles of space, that like an ocean rush’d
And overwhelmed all except this finite wall of flesh.
(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books pg. 184)

This part of the poem laments humanity’s fall from the infinite to the finite, via the creation of the senses, and the section immediately preceding this one discusses how sight and smell are “barr’d and petrify’d against the infinite.” The serpent seems to be a reference to ancient Druids, whom Blake loved to associate with this fall, and “forests of night” become a sheltering place from this terrifyingly transformed infinitude.

Thus the camera swings around to show us the opposite view. Where in “The Tyger” we’re looking into the forest at the dread burning eyes within, in Europe we flee into the forest to escape the burning outside it. By the end of Chapter 5 in Watchmen we get a similarly reflected perspective. If Rorschach is that Tyger, stalking the forests, he is also the prey of Ozymandias, whose thoughts and plots set him up for the capture he suffers at the chapter’s end. It is Ozymandias who constructs himself a serpent (well, a squid), out of pity for humanity. It consumes millions of lives, leaving behind just a finite wall of dead flesh.

Did He Smile His Work To See?

For that matter, the word “watchman” occurs from time to time in Blake, such as in the eighth plate of America: A Prophecy:

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books pg. 161)

The context here is the American Revolution shutting down England’s empire — there’s no more need for guards, as Orc’s morning has set free the “redeemed captives.” We don’t see the night decay in Watchmen until the last few pages of the book, at which point the Watchmen have mostly left their stations — Rorschach dead, Dr. Manhattan missing, Ozymandias turned traitor, and both Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II in hiding, though these last two look to be heading back into the life of adventure. In any case, for Blake the disappearance of these guardian warriors is a good thing, as it means the threat is gone. As he learned after the French Revolution, though, sometimes the threat just changes shape, and there’s every possibility of that after the final page of Watchmen.

There’s an even more interesting permutation of “watchman” in Blake, though: Los himself is repeatedly depicted as a watchman. For example, the frontispiece of Jerusalem depicts Los, “dressed like a London night watchman”, entering a Gothic arch in search of truth, and beginning a journey into the Underworld.(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, pg. 298) In plate 83 of the poem, he refers to himself as “your Watchman”, and the poem narrates his watch over “the meteors & terrors of night”. (Ibid., pg. 380)

We normally see Los as a maker, but here (and elsewhere in Blake’s works) he functions as a guardian and observer. He works throughout the poem to resurrect Albion, the incarnated spirit of England. In fact, Blake saw Albion and Jerusalem as intimately connected in a way that’s beyond the scope of this essay to explicate, but still looms large in the British psyche today — the words to a Blake poem, which has also (confusingly) come to be titled “Jerusalem”, have been set to music and become a sort of unofficial English national anthem.

So if Moore and Gibbons are the Los figures for Watchmen, then in Blake’s iconography, they become watchmen themselves, observing their surroundings and making art to warn us of dangers, to show us what they see. And like Los, perhaps they too work for a resurrection. For Moore especially, I’d venture to say that the project was to guard and revive comics as an art form, to show the capabilities of the medium by way of demonstrating that even the superheroes which dominated it can reveal unexpected depths. Moore has by now renounced comics, having been repeatedly disgusted by the industry which surrounds the medium, but I have to imagine that when he, Gibbons, and Higgins had put the finishing touches on Watchmen, they must have smiled their work to see.

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

Endnotes

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

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

3 Mark Scarbrough, of Walking With Dante fame, tells a funny story in his Lyric Life podcast, of first encountering this poem via a college English teacher who read the poem out loud, pounding out its beat on a desk with such near-sexual abandon that afterwards she dismissed class five minutes in, waving the students away and telling them to, “go do what comes naturally.” What came naturally for Scarbrough was to immediately change his major to English. [Back to post]

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

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

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

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

The Watchmen Bestiary 35 – Watchmen and Watchmakers

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

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

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

Who Makes the World?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genesis Sui Generis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Paley, detail from a portrait painted by George Romney

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

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

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

The Shark and the Herrings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of Dante by Botticelli

The Watchmen Bestiary 33 – The Morality of My Activities

Abandon all hope of avoiding Watchmen spoilers, ye who read this post.

Our journey through Watchmen references has now crossed into Chapter 4, a chapter devoted exclusively to exploring the character and memories of Jon Osterman, Doctor Manhattan. One of those memories contains the next reference — from his early foray into superheroing:
Watchmen Chapter 4, page 14, panel 2. Dr. Manhattan points at a gunman, whose head explodes. A large caption almost covers up the word "Dante's". A smaller caption reads "The morality of my activities escapes me."
The eagle-eyed Annotated Watchmen v2.0 finds a reference here that even Leslie Klinger missed, looking behind the caption box to notice:

The name of this “crime-den” is “Dante’s,” a reference to the Italian author best known for the Divine Comedy, which included a trip to Hell. The name and red lighting seem to be intended to invoke a hellish atmosphere.

Aside from the fact that the writer likely meant “evoke” rather than “invoke”, and that “vice-den” is improperly quoted as “crime-den”, this is an astute observation! The club name is mostly obscured, but once we see it as “Dante’s”, we can’t possibly see it as anything else, and indeed Dante’s version of Hell is underground, just as Moloch’s vice-den is said to be. The connection is very clear.

Dante and the Commedia

So let’s dive a bit into Dante and his greatest work. Dante Alighieri was born in 13th-century Florence, Italy. His birth year is widely accepted as 1265, though the logic behind establishing this birth year is, as Mark Scarbrough points out in his stellar podcast Walking With Dante, pretty specious. But it’s enough for our purposes to know that he was born midway through the 13th century, became active in Florentine politics as an adult, and was exiled in 1302 as the political terrain shifted. He died in 1321, having never returned to his home.

Dante had been writing and releasing poetry since well before the turn of the century, but it was in exile that he composed his master work, a work he simply called Comedy — “Commedia” in his medieval Tuscan. (The “Divine” would be added by his fan and commentator Boccaccio, well after Dante’s death. It’s also worth pointing out that the name “Comedy” isn’t after our modern sense of hilarity, but the older sense of a happy ending.) Comedy was a trip through the known universe, as Dante understood and imagined it, and it was also a comprehensive catalog of his moral and philosophical thought, deeply rooted in the Christianity (specifically Catholicism) of his time.

Dante composed his poem of individual cantos (think chapters or sections) grouped into three canticles: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It’s written in the first person voice, and claims to be an account of how Dante became lost in a dark wood, and with help from the ghost of the classical poet Virgil, traversed every level of Hell (Inferno) and Purgatory (Purgatorio). He must leave Virgil behind to travel through Heaven (Paradiso), so Beatrice — his idealized woman and the object of his courtly love poems, who had died in 1290 — becomes his guide for the final piece of the trilogy.

Comedy makes a number of surprising literary moves, not least the way that it mixes together figures from disparate parts of both literature, religion, history, and local politics. In his travels, Dante the pilgrim meets characters from the Bible standing alongside men, women, and creatures from mythology. People from history and Dante’s own Florentine contemporaries populate the mix as well, so that the landscape of God’s judgment includes everyone who ever was or ever was imagined.

From our modern perspective, mixtures like this may not be too startling — we’ve seen Bill and Ted joshing with Socrates and Joan of Arc, or a Marvel comics universe where Thor and Hercules (and seemingly all the members of every other pantheon) run around with futuristic scientists and soldiers. For that matter, we’ve got Watchmen, in which we get The Comedian shaking hands with Gerald Ford and Doctor Manhattan with JFK. But in the 13th century, religion, myth, history, and current events didn’t mix in fiction — until Dante.
A diagram of the universe described in the Comedy, including Hell, Purgatory, and the celestial spheres of paradise.
In addition to its bold approach to bricolage, Comedy also displays an astonishing level of structure. Medieval numerology is everywhere, peppering the work with threes, nines, tens and hundreds, among other sacred numbers. Three, being the holy number of the Trinity, appears at the highest level of abstraction — three parts of the Comedy itself — down to the lowest level of the poetic lines, which are written in a form called terza rima, in which rhymes repeat and interlock three times each. Nine, being three times three, is holy times holy, which is why we see nine circles of Hell, nine spheres of heaven, and so forth. Thirty-three is also a big one, with two of the canticles containing 33 cantos each, and most stanzas containing thirty-three syllables. (Dante would love the fact that this post is entry number 33 in the Watchmen Bestiary.)

Ten appears various places in the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments or the ten plagues of Egypt. Similarly, tens show up in the Comedy as well, such as when we add the “vestibules” to the nine levels of Hell and Heaven. Ten times ten — a perfect number in Dante’s sight — was the number of overall cantos in Comedy, and in fact that hundred is made of three thirty-threes plus an introductory one. (Inferno has 34 cantos.) This formulation of 9+1 or 99+1 undergirds the Comedy‘s structure, but there’s more to it than just numbers. Structure appears thematically, such as in Inferno, where Dante the pilgrim often echoes the sin he sees punished, and linguistically, such as the fact that each canticle of Comedy ends with the word “stelle” — stars.

In this way, Comedy resonates with Watchmen, which is itself richly structured. Moore and Gibbons aren’t so concerned with numbers, though Dante would doubtless appreciate the nine-panel layout employed throughout the book. With Watchmen, structure becomes more a matter of rhythm, such as the way that (for most of the book) plot-driven chapters alternate with character-driven chapters, or the way that changes in scene or lighting can create “X” and “O” shapes on the page.

Structure also shows up on the chapter level. In the Love & Rockets post, I went on at length about the structure of Chapter 2 — a present-day storyline interspersed with flashbacks, progressing in chronological order, with each showing The Comedian from a different character’s viewpoint. Probably the most famous structural trick in Watchmen occurs in Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry”, in which the panel layout for the entire issue is completely symmetrical, meeting in the middle with a double-page splash of Adrian Veidt fighting his would-be assassin. (Adrian, appropriately, is at the center of the story.) Symmetry appears in Comedy as well, with the mountain of Purgatory reflecting the cavern of Hell, and Purgatory itself poised midway through Dante’s journey, its middle cantos discussing the questions of free will that underpin the entire moral and theological structure of the poem.

The plots of the two works are quite different, of course. Watchmen operates (on the surface level anyway) as a mystery, while Comedy is essentially a tour — a very long tour through all the levels of a highly structured afterlife. That afterlife is divided according to sins and virtues, with each division populated by emblematic examples of the behavior — Judas as the ultimate traitor, Midas as the icon of avarice, and so on.

That said, Chapter 1 of Watchmen does take us on a tour, with Rorschach as our pilgrim and his own paranoia acting as his guide. As we follow, he takes us to each circle of “superhero” existence in his world, circles which encompass a number of solid archetypes. There’s the rough Comedian, grizzled and dark like a Punisher or Nick Fury. There’s the earnest Nite Owl and his cave full of gadgets and vehicles a la Batman. Ozymandias embodies the wealthy altruist — again Batman, but also Iron Man, Green Arrow, and many others — as well as the perfected human athlete such as Captain America or, uh… Batman. Silk Spectre comes across as the sex-bomb gymnast type, like Black Canary or Black Widow, while Dr. Manhattan has both the super-science of a Mr. Fantastic and the godlike power of a Superman. Thus our introduction to Watchmen takes us through a Dante-esque journey of figures exemplifying ideas, but the book holds their fates until its final chapter.

Manhattan and Morality

About those fates — one aspect of the moral structure that pervades the Inferno (and to a lesser extent Purgatorio) is the notion of contrapasso, which we may define more or less as “the punishment fitting the crime.” Thus usurers must carry a purse around their necks as they avoid fire raining from the sky. Soothsayers who tried to predict the future spend their time in Hell with their necks twisted 180 degrees, so they are only able to look backward. Flatterers are, well, immersed in shit. And so forth.
A painting by Stradanus of soothsayers in Hell, with their heads turned backwards.
Watchmen doesn’t portray an afterlife of just desserts, but it does endeavor to show a variety of human (and superhuman) natures and their consequences, with no shortage of poetic justice, or at least poetic irony. Thus The Comedian, who lives his life as a fallen hero, becomes a truly fallen hero at his life’s end. Thus Nite Owl, who can only really feel like himself behind a mask, ends up adopting a whole new identity at the story’s end. Thus Ozymandias, whose name evokes Shelley’s poem about a king whose works were far less lasting than he belived they would be, creates a peace so fragile that a diary can tip it over. Thus Rorschach becomes a blot on a featureless white surface.

And what of Doctor Manhattan, the character whose chapter gets the Dante reference? Here we see some of the widest gaps between Comedy and Watchmen. Dante’s entire project is to flesh out a moral universe overseen by a stern and loving God, whose limitless knowledge pairs with a vast array of punishments, rewards, and (in the case of Purgatorio) one that can lead to the other. The closest thing to God in Watchmen‘s universe, though, is Doctor Manhattan himself, and the transformed Jon Osterman has very little interest in engaging with humanity at all, let alone constructing an afterlife of individual contrapasso for each member of it. The moral universe of Watchmen, as I discussed in the Bible reference posts, inverts traditional Christian stories to become a parody of their viewpoints.

Thus Doctor Manhattan’s story ends with him deciding to become God, and having observed him through the course of Watchmen, we might justifiably have our doubts about the sort of universe he will create. Where Dante’s God has love, Manhattan has only curiosity, and a rather weary curiosity at that. But there’s even more to this question of creators and the moral dimensions of their creations.

Consider this: Dante presents Comedy as the exploration of an afterlife created by God. But is it that, really? Of course not. It is the exploration of an afterlife created by Dante. And to make things even more complicated, Dante the creator poet explores his creation via the viewpoint of a pilgrim… who is also Dante. These two — the poet and the pilgrim — claim the same identity, but they are clearly not the same. Dante the pilgrim is a fictional character, entirely controlled by Dante the poet, who was a real person.

Moore and Gibbons don’t insert themselves into their story, but they do create a world that opens thorny questions about the nature of authorship. In the last entry, I asked whether Jon Osterman might have collapsed the probability waveform of his universe at the moment he became Doctor Manhattan, thus creating the future of his world at the moment he observed it. Maybe, maybe not, but the story does make very clear that at least he can see that future. More than that, as Chapter 4 shows, he lives it in all in the same moment, inhabiting a bewildering consciousness of mixed simultaneity and linearity.

He is, he tells us, a puppet who can see the strings. But he clearly can’t see all of them, because he remains unaware of his creators: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. He is a sort of stand-in for the reader (or at least, the repeat reader) in his awareness of the full story, but even aside from not knowing the authors of it, there are other dimensions of his story that he fails to understand. In the panel that inspired this post, his voiceover states, “the morality of my activities escapes me,” as we see him exploding a gunman’s head. Let’s unpack that a little.

In the context of the story Dr. Manhattan is telling us, he’s been placed at that moment into a dubiously moral framework by the newspapers calling him a “crimefighter”, and the government insisting he live up to the label. So he might be saying that despite the entities claiming otherwise, he fails to see the morality of what he’s been sent out to do. As readers, we might agree with him there. But as is so often the case in Watchmen, the juxtaposition of words and pictures strikes a heavily ironic note — in this case, we’re watching the “crimefighter” casually murder a human who poses no threat to him. (No humans pose any threat to him, no matter how heavily armed.) The rest of the crowd, whatever their other vices, is shocked and horrified at this sight. Yet the immorality of Dr. Manhattan’s activities escapes him as well.

But it doesn’t escape us, and it doesn’t escape Moore and Gibbons. In that moment, they are clearly showing us the distance between Manhattan’s moral compass and their own, and presumably ours as well. So while Manhattan may be able to see the strings, that doesn’t mean he understands them. He is a compromised reader, and a compromised author. Why is he this way? I would suggest that, like Dante, Jon Osterman is an exile, and like Dante, the experience of exile fundamentally shapes his consciousness.

Osterman in Exile

In fact, Jon suffers a series of exiles, several of which we see in this chapter. In 1945, his father reacts to the news of Hiroshima by throwing away Jon’s cogs, in effect exiling him from his childhood identity as an aspiring watchmaker. From there, he is ejected from his childhood home, first to Princeton and then to Gila Flats. At that lab, inside the intrinsic field chamber, he suffers an exile far more profound: permanent estrangement from his own body.
Watchmen, Chapter 4, page 8, panel 4. Jon reduced to a skeleton, and even that disintegrating. Caption: The light is taking me to pieces.
There’s a section of the Inferno where Dante (the pilgrim) encounters the fate of suicides. The contrapasso for these souls, who shed their bodies voluntarily, is that they are forever denied those bodies in the afterlife. They are transformed into strange trees and bushes, gnarled and devoid of leaves. In this form, they can see other humans only as menaces — breakers of branches. After he constitutes an artificial body for himself, Jon Osterman finds himself similarly distanced from humanity, watching and participating in its activities with diminishing interest.

Finally, in the course of the book, he chooses to exile himself from humanity altogether, first to Mars, and then (we presume) much further by the story’s end. Perhaps in a sense this series of exiles echoes the progression of Comedy. Where at first Jon finds his expulsion from the life he imagined hellish, he seems to experience the removal of his body as purgatorial, a purgation of self, albeit an involuntary one. His final exiles out into space echo the images of the Paradiso, which was a journey through the celestial spheres of Ptolemaic medieval astronomy, including Mars. But Dante’s story of paradise centers the notion of transcendence, and Jon’s resignation and removal manifest as a parody of that paradise, not an attainment of it.

Jon’s detachment from humanity isn’t just because he loses the physical, carnal aspect of being human. Dante’s suffering shades have lost that aspect too, but those who haven’t ascended are as human and limited as they ever were. Dr. Osterman, though, reconstructs his consciousness as he reconstructs his body, and in doing so, becomes an exile from the human experience of linear time.

In Canto 29 of the Paradiso, Beatrice explains how the mind of God exists in an “eternity outside of time”, and that “after” and “before” did not exist until He created them. His angels, she says, have never turned their vision from the face of God, “so that their sight is never intercepted / by a new object, and they have no need / to recollect an interrupted concept.” (Translation by Allen Mandelbaum.) Dante scholar John Took sees these lines as defining a fundamental difference between human and divine experience:

Thus time enters into human experience in respect of one of the most fundamental aspects of man’s activity as man, namely in respect of his intentional reconstruction both of self and the world beyond self as the basis for everything coming next by way of its proper conception and celebration. The intentional reconstruction both of self and of the world beyond self, Dante thinks, is always temporally conditioned. It is always a matter of its successive moments. (Dante, pg. 386)

Took tends toward the obtuse and rococo, and this passage is certainly no exception, but it does help us understand just how far away Jon Osterman has been sent from us. If human experience is always temporally conditioned, always a matter of successive moments, then human experience is no longer available to Jon.

Given that reality, is it any wonder he finds himself a stranger to human morality? This panel, in a club called “Dante’s”, shows us how removed he has become from such concepts, even in 1960, well before the main events of the book’s plot. In fact, that panel is pretty much entirely devoid of morality — not just the Manhattan murder, but Moloch himself and all the sinners in the vice-den. Naming the club “Dante’s” is a perfect irony generator by Moore and Gibbons, since human morality was the basis of Dante’s entire project.

Dante explored morality by constructing an extended encounter between the human and the divine. Moore and Gibbons do something similar, but in their case the human and divine meet in a single figure, and that figure is very far from Christlike. Instead, he personifies the morality of the atomic bomb, of humankind ascended to godlike power without transcending its fundamental flaws. Jon Osterman cannot resolve this tension within himself, but he does his best to abandon it, hoping to leave our (and his) complicated and messy humanity behind for the cleaner and simpler stars.

Next entry: Soft Watchmen
Previous entry: Time Pieces

Photo of Albert Einstein

The Watchmen Bestiary 32 – Time Pieces

Spoilers for Watchmen are relatively plentiful below.

Like Watchmen itself, The Annotated Watchmen v2.0 is divided into chapters, and the beginning of each chapter’s annotations outlines its motifs, its focus, its cover, and the source of its title quotation. Thus it is that as we enter Chapter 4, we focus on its epigraph, which the annotations cite as “A quotation from Albert Einstein.” Specifically, the epigraph is this:

The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking… The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.
— Albert Einstein

There’s only one problem: Einstein never said this. As Leslie Klinger correctly points out, the source of this alleged quote has not been found, and professional quote verifier Ralph Keyes has flatly stated that “Einstein said no such thing.” (The Quote Verifier, pg. 53.)

Say What?

The “quote” is in fact cobbled together from various things that Einstein said or sort-of said, but assembled to imply a sense that is quite false to Einstein’s actual viewpoints. There are three fundamental pieces to the epigraph:

1) “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking.”

This part of the epigraph nearly matches a sentence that Einstein wrote in a 1946 fund-raising telegram for the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. The first two sentences of that telegram are:

Our world faces crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

In the context created by Watchmen, this first portion of the Einstein “quote” sounds a bit resigned. In its true context, however, and with its final clause restored, it’s meant to instill a driving sense of urgency. The telegram winds up with a pitch for money — two hundred thousand dollars for a “nationwide campaign to let the people know that new type of thinking essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”

Einstein passionately believed that atomic weapons were too dangerous to rest in the hands of individual nations, and that the information on how to create them should be held only by a “supranational” world government organization. This was the mode of thinking he wished to change — a focus away from nationalism, and toward a one-world philosophy. Away from competition, toward cooperation. Having lived through two World Wars and having seen a Holocaust perpetrated against his people, Einstein felt convinced that if individual nations held atomic weapons, they would certainly use them against each other. He saw arms control as humanity’s best hope.

Unfortunately, though the Emergency Committee promoted peace plans, gave speeches, and even produced a couple of short movies to support its peaceful message, that message failed to gain a foothold in a world whose international temperature was rapidly plummeting toward Cold War. The Committee disbanded in 1951. Incidentally, one of the groups it funded during its lifespan was the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, also co-founded by Einstein, and more importantly for our purposes, creators of the Doomsday Clock whose iconography Moore and Gibbons weave into every issue of Watchmen.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock alongside the Watchmen one

2) “The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.”

The ellipsis in Chapter 4’s epigraph is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Normally that punctuation mark suggests that we’re skipping over some superfluous material to arrive at a later point in the same quoted document. However, this “heart of mankind” sentence does not appear at all in the Emergency Committee’s fundraising telegram. It instead paraphrases a sentiment that the post-WWII Einstein frequently expressed, one which was arguably most prominent in a June 23, 1946 article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Real Problem Is In the Hearts of Men.” Note that here Einstein does not argue that the solution is to be found in humanity’s heart, but rather the problem itself.

This article leads off with a recapitulation of the “new type of thinking” quote from the Emergency Committee’s telegram, so it’s reasonable enough to assume that “this problem” does in fact refer to the change in thinking Einstein saw as necessary. He then goes on to argue that the bomb makes armies irrelevant, now that nations can wage war on each other with rockets while never crossing each other’s borders. Furthermore, science has no defense against this kind of attack, and therefore national military buildup has become an obsolete strategy to secure safety. This article has several versions of Einstein’s famous “We cannot simultaneously plan for war and peace” sentiment, in service once again of the world government proposal.

The problem, as he states it, is that humans must cooperate to avoid self-inflicted destruction, but that competition comes much more easily to us than does cooperation. “It is easier to denature plutonium,” he asserts, “than it is to denature the evil spirit of man.” And yet, his only option is to speak to our higher selves, hoping to persuade enough people to change their way of thinking. “We will not change the hearts of other men by mechanisms,” he says, “but by changing our hearts and speaking bravely… When we are clear in heart and mind — only then shall we find courage to surmount the fear which haunts the world.”

This topic comes up a lot in a book called Einstein and the Poet, a fairly low-quality retelling of some Einstein interviews in which “the poet” (as the author has dubbed himself) speaks with Einstein on four different occasions: once before World War II, once during, and twice after. In the later discussions, Einstein returns again and again to the theme that humanity’s only hope is to alter its own heart. A sample:

I agree with you, intellect has never saved the world. If we want to improve the world we cannot do it with scientific knowledge but with ideals. Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Gandhi have done more for humanity than science has done. We must begin with the heart of man — with his conscience — and the values of conscience can only be manifested by selfless service to mankind. (The pages are unnumbered in this book, so I can’t cite a page number.)

However, while it’s true that Einstein saw this change as humanity’s only hope, his outlook was not optimistic. When “the poet” asks him, “Why is it that you stand so alone in your plan to create a supranational government?”, Einstein replies, “Because men don’t want to change their hearts. At the bottom of all problems stands the human animal, with his greed.”

If the need to change our way of thinking is the problem, than of course the solution must come from within us, but Einstein didn’t tend to see “the heart of mankind” as a solution, but rather as a problem which must be overcome despite humanity’s natural inclinations.

3) “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”

The last panel of Watchmen Chapter 4, displaying the Einstein epigraphHere we come to the most problematic piece of them all. While it’s very difficult to prove a negative, no one who has researched this quote can find any place where Einstein expresses any wistful proclivity for making watches. More’s the pity (I almost said “Moore’s the pity”) for Watchmen, which relies on that sentiment to tie Jon Osterman the walking bomb to his watchmaking father, and to the clock motif of the whole book. The very chapter title, “Watchmaker”, relies on the one word of this quote that Einstein does not seem to have said at all.

Not only that, but where Einstein did express this sort of regretful sentiment (albeit always with other professions like plumber or cobbler), it was not in the context that this epigraph tries to present. In the “quote” of Chapter 4’s last panel, the “if only I had known” seems to refer back to “the release of atom power”, and “this problem” of needing to instill new thinking in old human brains. The suggestion seems to be that if Einstein had known his investigations into relativity would result in the atomic bomb, he would never have become a scientist at all. But while he did feel some amount of guilt for his role in the bomb’s arrival, he never tied that guilt to any hindsight renunciation of his scientific career. On the contrary, science remained the guiding light of his entire life through his old age, and he continued passionately to advocate on behalf of its search for truth.

Now, he was certainly known to inveigh against things that irritated him in the human or physical realm, and to do so by rhetorically making a retroactive change to his profession — just not about his role in the creation of the bomb. Probably his most well-known use of this formula was in an 1954 interview in which he was bemoaning McCarthyism’s effects on academia.

In pushing back against the politicization of his profession, he stated that if he were young again and had to decide how to make a living in 1954, “I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler, in the hope of finding that modest degree of independence still available.” In other words, he’d still pursue science, just outside the academic cloister that had become a target of the political right. (This assertion, by the way, won him an honorary membership card in a plumber’s union.) (Einstein: His Life And Universe, pg. 533-4)

Even thirty years earlier, in a 1924 letter to Max Born, he made a statement like this about his deep discomfort with quantum physics and its notions of using probabilities and uncertainties in its model of the physical world:

I find it quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will not only its moment to jump off but also its direction. In that case, I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee of a gaming house, than a physicist. (Ibid., pg. 325)

This is not a statement of regret or guilt, but more an ultimatum delivered to physics itself. Though he’s often mistakenly associated with relativism (rather than relativity), Einstein in fact believed wholly in a physics whose rules were certain and unvarying — in fact he nearly named his theory of relativity the Invariance Theory, due to its strict causality and its assertion that the relationship between space and time remains constant no matter from what perspective it is viewed.

Photo of Einstein and Bohr

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, 1925

He spent the latter half of his career challenging Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Niels Bohr’s probabilistic model of the atom, frequently reiterating various versions of “God does not play dice with the universe.” Far from dramatically abandoning his discoveries, his letter to Born about wanting to be a cobbler or gaming-house employee was a rhetorical position that demanded the falsity of quantum theory in order for physics to retain Einstein’s allegiance. He remained loyal to his deterministic vision throughout his life, ironically displaying a reluctance to change his own mode of thinking.

The closest approximation I could find to any wish on Einstein’s part to revise his past because of the bomb didn’t invoke any other profession at all. In 1939, Einstein had co-authored a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, warning him that a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium could be made into an extremely powerful bomb, and that German scientists might be pursuing such a bomb. The letter suggested that Roosevelt may want to have “some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America.” Roosevelt agreed, and the result was the Manhattan Project.

After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the conclusion of World War II, Einstein was horrified by the moral dimensions of the bomb. Due to his letter to Roosevelt and his E=mc2 equation demonstrating the relationship between mass and energy, the popular press tagged Einstein as “father of the bomb”, though he’d done none of the technological work necessary to bring it to fruition. He was deeply uncomfortable with this label, lamenting the Roosevelt letter in a 1947 Newsweek article: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Again, this quote does not in the slightest shy away from a career in physics, let alone yearn for one in watchmaking. Instead, his sense of regret spurred his quest for a world government. Meanwhile Truman, that leader so beloved by Rorschach, dropped the bomb “with little high-level debate.” (Ibid, pg. 484)

Pieces of Time

So okay, Einstein didn’t really say what Watchmen says he said. But Chapter 4 focuses on Doctor Manhattan, and even choosing Einstein as the figure for the epigraph, regardless of the accuracy of the words, feels like a rich connection. What light can Einstein shed on the good Doctor?

Well, for one thing, their personalities have some attributes in common. Einstein was rebellious where Jon is passive, but they shared a similar difficulty in dealing with humans, especially in Einstein’s childhood. Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson wrote, “To use the language of psychologists, the young Einstein’s ability to systemize (identify the laws that govern a system) was far greater than his ability to empathize (sense and care about what other humans are feeling).” (Ibid., pg. 12) This doesn’t necessarily mean that he was “on the spectrum” as we say now (though some have certainly argued that case) — in fact he became very socially skilled in his adulthood. But human beings did pose more of a puzzle for him throughout his life than other natural phenomena — he knew how everything in this world fits together except people.

Perhaps related to this sense of remove, Einstein seemed to share with Dr. Manhattan a certain indifference to death. Here’s a quote from his letter of condolence to the family of his dear friend Michele Besso:

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. (The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, pg. 113)

Not only does his quote (to a grieving family!) veer rather close to “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles” territory, he also seems to echo Doctor Manhattan’s insistence that linear time is an illusion.

Chapter 1, page 21, panel 3 of Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan says, "A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there's no discernible difference. life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?"

From here, it’s probably worth a step or two into the theory of relativity, a theory that has some rather surprising implications for the Watchmen universe. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, and I’d welcome any corrections, but based on my understanding, the first piece of this theory that Einstein worked out, leading to his landmark paper on special relativity in 1905, was a realization about time. In the Newtonian model of the 19th century and prior, time exists in a pure form, detached from observation — Newton wrote in his Principia, “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.”

Einstein, however, asserted that time is not absolute, but rather localized to each individual observer, with no way to determine what observation is “correct”. What seems simultaneous to one observer may not be so to another, and those observations depend upon the observer’s position and movement through space, thus revealing time and space as dimensions of the same fundamental fabric.

Now, consider that realization in light of a universe in which one tall blue observer experiences all occurrences as simultaneous, independent of his relationship to space. Does this disrupt the relativistic model? Jon certainly seems to think so. In his frustration at how humans insist on on seeing the “intricately structured jewel” of time edge by edge, he strongly implies that his viewpoint is the correct one, whereas in a relativistic model, he might see that his experience of time is no more or less true than Laurie’s. The notion of time as an “intricately structured jewel” rather than a quality woven together with space seems to me somehow even more Newtonian than time as “absolute, true, and mathematical.” One wonders if Jon is mistaking his own observations for fact, just as Newton did before he was upended by Einstein.

But while Jon’s experience of a whole and “true” time may seem Newtonian, the idea that all of it is predetermined actually fits quite well into Einstein’s worldview. In a 1929 interview, Einstein stated plainly: “I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will.” In this way, his viewpoint comports well with Dr. Manhattan’s experience of reality. As Isaacson explains, “Einstein… believed, as did Spinoza, that a person’s actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet, or star.” (Ibid, pg. 391) For Einstein, everything was governed by natural laws, including humans. It must have been enticing to believe that if he could only discover the full truth of those laws, the future would be laid out before him, just as it is for Doctor Manhattan.

Spooky Action At A Distance

This is why Einstein was so deeply discomfited by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that, “an electron does not have a definite position or path until we observe it… It asserts that there is no objective reality — not even objective position of a particle — outside of our observations.” (Again, summarized by Isaacson, pg. 331-32) This assertion undermined the strict causality in which Einstein believed, and further fueled the arguments he had been having with Bohr about the structure of the atom and, by a web of interconnections, about the fundamental nature of reality itself. Bohr’s theories and observations seemed to argue against the existence of laws that determined a strict system of causation, and therefore against the existence of an objective reality, and certainly against Einstein’s determinism.

It would seem a question more for philosophers than physicists, but the quantum theory of Bohr and Heisenberg stood against Einstein’s notions of invariance to pose the fundamental query, “Is everything in the universe predetermined?” In the Watchmen universe, at least as experienced by Doctor Manhattan, the answer would seem to be: yes! It would have to be, in order for the Doctor to perceive time as all one piece. Einstein insists that God does not play dice, and Dr. Manhattan’s experience proves him right. But in fact, it appears that in our universe, he is wrong. In our universe, Bohr’s rejoinder is relevant: that it is not for us to tell God how to run his creation.

Einstein refused to accept quantum mechanical theory throughout his life, asserting that at best it is incomplete — he steadfastly refused to believe in the “spooky action at a distance” its tenets seemed to require. Consequently, he devoted much of his brilliance in the latter half of his career to devising thought experiments that could undermine the foundations of quantum physics. He co-published one of the most effective of these with Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky, and it became known as the EPR paradox, after the initials of its authors’ last names.

Diagram of the EPR paradox

An illustration of the EPR paradox, in which Alice and Bob are two separate observers.

Put simply, the argument asks us to consider two particles that have collided or been emitted from the same source, and whose properties are thus correlated. Quantum theory states that until these particles are observed, their position and momentum exist in multiple states at once. But once we observe the first particle, we know something about the second due to their correlation, without ever having observed the second. For Einstein, this meant that the second particle has a reality of its own which exists independent of its observation — otherwise the first particle would have to somehow communicate with the second particle faster than the speed of light, which would violate the theory of relativity.

Bohr responded by introducing the concept of quantum entanglement. Because the particles have affected each other, they are “entangled” despite their distance from each other, and thus part of the same system. To deal further with the EPR paradox, some quantum theorists introduced the notion of branching alternate histories. Isaacson:

In the case of the EPR thought experiment, the position of one of the two particles is measured on one branch of history. Because of the common origin of the particles, the position of the other one is determined as well. On a different branch of history, the momentum of one of the particles may be measured, and the momentum of the other one is also determined. On each branch nothing occurs that violates the laws of classical physics. The information about one particle implies the corresponding information about the other one, but nothing happens to the second particle as a result of the measurement of the first one. So there is no threat to special relativity and its prohibition of instantaneous transmission of information. What is special about quantum mechanics is that the simultaneous determination of the position and the momentum of a particle is impossible, so if these two determinations occur, it must be on different branches of history.(pg. 460)

Thus histories branch out from each other based on the “decisions” made by particles of their direction & speed. This “decoherent histories” view is fundamentally antithetical to Einstein’s determinism, and to Dr. Manhattan’s experience of time as a single coherent block. Yet the Doctor is no stranger to submatomic physics, locating gluinos & being muddled by tachyons. How can we reconcile his subatomic awareness with his encompassing knowledge of the future, which seems fundamentally hostile to the notion of probabilities and uncertainties?

Are alternate histories a way out? Perhaps what the Doctor thinks of as his single jewel of perceived time is only one of an infinite array of such jewels? I think this line of reasoning shuts down rather quickly. Doctor Manhattan doesn’t just know or predict the future — Chapter 4 demonstrates clearly that he experiences the future even as he experiences what the rest of us would call the present and the past, all simultaneously. If there were any uncertainty involved, he’d be experiencing a range of possible futures all at once, not just one. His experience still stands with the theories of Einstein, shutting down those of Bohr.

Schrödinger’s Future

But wait. We may be able to reconcile these two seemingly antagonistic theories through the work of one more quantum physicist: Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger, like Einstein, had his doubts about the prevailing interpretations of quantum theory, and also like Einstein, loved a good thought experiment. In fact, his most famous thought experiment by far was directly influenced by Einstein, both his work and Schrödinger’s discussions with him. I’m referring of course to the unfortunate feline known as Schrödinger’s cat.

A brief summary: Schrödinger posited a cat inside a closed, opaque box, in which there is a tiny amount of a radioactive substance, one which has a 50% chance of decaying in the course of an hour. If the substance decays, it emits a particle which causes the cat to be poisoned. If it doesn’t, the cat is safe. The prevailing quantum theory of the time (called the Copenhagen interpretation) asserts that the particle’s behavior is governed by a probability waveform until such time as its behavior is observed, at which point the waveform collapses into an observed behavior which conforms to classical mechanics. Thus, until the box is opened, the cat is (according to the Copenhagen interpretation) both alive and dead at the same time.

A photo of a cat in a box, with superimposed text: "In Ur Quantum Box... Maybe"

For us humans, the future is rather like that closed box — indeterminate and existing in a variety of possible states at once, until we observe what actually occurs. As it becomes the present and then instantly the past, its waveform collapses into a single, clear reality. Up until November 22, 1959, that’s what the future was like in the Watchmen universe too. But on that day, Jon Osterman reassembled his components in the correct sequence, and became the fully fleshed Doctor Manhattan for the first time. On that day, he became aware of all times simultaneously, experiencing them as a coherent whole. On that day, he opened the box.

Might it be the case that Jon’s incarnation as Doctor Manhattan is the event that collapsed the waveform of the future into a single reality? And if so, knowing that his powers also allow him to control that reality down to its smallest particle, what part might his consciousness have played in the shape that future took? In becoming unmoored from linear time, could his sudden awareness of the future have created that future? At the end of the book, Jon decides he’s going to go to some less complicated galaxy and create some human life. But what if he already has?

All the living and dead cats and other beings of Watchmen snapped into a single observed reality in that one November moment. What influence Jon had over them, it’s obviously impossible to say. He was an oddly passive 20th century man, a frustrated watchmaker and a reluctant physicist. The course of his life was forcibly altered by his father, based on the existence of the atomic bomb. He had recently experienced the profound trauma of having his body dismantled down to the atomic level, then putting it back together for himself. If he decided the future, might it look like a confused horrorshow that somehow does stop the bombs from falling? Perhaps it might.

But if Jon truly is the observer of the open box of time, there are some things we’re hard pressed to explain given the evidence of the text. There are several times we witness limits to Jon’s understanding, superior though it may be to any human’s. What are we to make of his drive to search out particles and add them to the bestiary? Surely if he’s aware of every infinitesimal piece of reality, he’d already know where all the gluinos are, wouldn’t he? So there must be a frontier of his awareness at the subatomic level. Furthermore, his awareness of the single jewel of time must be incomplete if he can be muddled by tachyons, right? There must be parts of the future whose waveform is still intact, still within that closed box, shielded even from his sight.

This is the level at which Watchmen itself begins to decohere. For all its astonishing structural integrity, the early issues of the book were released before the final ones had been written. Moore himself has affirmed on numerous occasions his surprise at some of the deeper levels that he and Gibbons found themselves reaching as the creation continued. Thus are inconsistencies introduced, and although Moore and Gibbons do a marvelous job of spackling most of the cracks, they don’t get them all. If Watchmen were a true “graphic novel” — created as a single whole and released as such — rather than a Dickensian serial collage, perhaps we wouldn’t bump into these logical problems with Doctor Manhattan.

In the world of comics, we call these continuity problems — the way something established in an early issue grates against something in a later one. People loved to write into Marvel and point them out, and Marvel decided to give those people a little award made of words only, literally called a “no-prize”. Then they got even cleverer, crowdsourcing solutions to these problems by saying that they’d only give no-prizes to those readers who not only find the problems but find an explanation to solve them.

So let me take my own shot at a Watchmen no-prize, with this suggestion about Doctor Manhattan. On the day he becomes himself, he experiences all his times at once, and perceives himself as knowing how he’d act in all of those times, and how others would too. But his understanding is more limited than he knows it is, and his freedom less limited than he believes. He could in fact choose to behave differently than he experiences himself doing, but if he did, he wouldn’t be Jon Osterman anymore, the man whose moves are all made by other people. His fate isn’t pre-determined, but rather calculated on a scale that is precise but not infinitely precise. He is still vulnerable to thermodynamic miracles he wasn’t expecting.

Next entry: The Morality of My Activities
Previous entry: Part Of The Legend

Poster for This Island Earth

The Watchmen Bestiary 29 – Lonely Planet

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 chapter 3, page 11, panel 2. Dan and Laurie walk towards the camera in the rain. To their right is a poster (mounted on something freestanding) reading "PIA CINEMA" at the top, showing a mutant with an exposed, oversized brain and hollow eyes, with the title "IS ISLAND EARTH" showing. To their left is a fragment of the same poster, showing "UTO" at the top and "THI" as the title. Behind them is the Institute for Extraspatial Studies. Superimposed over the image is a caption reading They're not paying me enough to handle monsters from outta space

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.

Universal Appeal

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.

A still frame from This Island Earth, showing the Metaluna Mutant

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.

Scene from This Island Earth: Cal Meacham and Ruth Adams in tubes being prepared for travel to Metaluna -- their bodies show a nervous system, then skeleton, then musculature.

For readers of Watchmen, it’s a familiar set of images:

Watchmen chapter 4, page 9, panels 4-7. Panel 4: two frightened men's faces in the foreground. One is looking back, screaming, at a brain and nervous system suspended in the air. Panel 5: caption "It's November 10th now. There is a circulatory system walking through the kitchen." The art illustrates this. Panel 6: caption "November 14th: A partially muscled skeleton stands at the perimeter fence and screams for thirty seconds before vanishing." Again the art is a straightforward illustration of the caption. Panel 7: caption "Really, it's just a question of reassembling the components in the correct sequence." Art is wristwatch pieces laid out on a black cloth. Young Osterman's hand is picking one up with tweezers.

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.

(This Island Earth, pg. 93)

“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.

Book cover for This Island Earth, showing the title, author, and a drawing of an alien against a field of stars.

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.

Watchmen chapter 3, page 17, panel 2. Dreiberg walks down the street alone at night. Behind him is a large poster advertisement for The New Frontiersman. Some of the letters are cut off but we can infer that it says "In your hearts, you know it's right." Underneath "right" a graffiti artist has scrawled "wing".

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/Thatcher 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.

Next Entry: Triangolo des Vigilantes
Previous Entry: Mutiny, I Promise You

The Watchmen Bestiary 28 – Mutiny, I Promise You

Ahoy there! Spoilers dead ahead, both for Watchmen and for the many versions of Mutiny On The Bounty. You’ve been warned.

I’ve got mutiny on my mind today because of this panel:

A panel from Watchmen Chapter 3, page 7, in which Laurie gets into a cab in front of the Treasure Island comic shop, which displays a Mutiny On The Bounty poster in its window.

Actually, let’s zoom in on the bottom right corner of that panel:

A detail from the panel, which shows the Mutiny On The Bounty poster clearly

The web annotations zoomed in on this spot as well, pointing out:

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.

A painting of the Bounty in front of a Tahitian landscape

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.

The front page from Edward Christian's version of the story. It reads "Minutes of the Proceedings of the Court-Martial held at Portsmouth, August 12, 1792, on Ten Persons charged with Mutiny on Board his Majesty's Ship the Bounty, with an Appendix containing a full account of the real causes and circumstances of that unhappy transaction, the most material of which have hitherto been withheld from the Public."

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.

A still from the preview of the 1935 film, showing Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh

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 Bounty comic, 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.

Mutineers

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.

A panel from Watchmen, Chapter 4, page 23. It shows a body with a note pinned to it, reading "Never!". The captions say, "The only other active vigilante is called Rorschach, real name unknown. He expresses his feelings toward compulsory retirement in a note left outside police headquarters along with a dead multiple rapist.

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.

A promotional image for HBO's Watchmen series. The words "Nothing Ever Ends" appear in the familiar Watchmen colors and font, with "2019 HBO" in smaller letters.

Next Entry: Lonely Planet
Previous Entry: The Righteous With The Wicked

The Watchmen Bestiary 25 – Whose Mind Is Pure Machinery

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:

Chapter 1, page 23, panel 7 of Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan is manipulating machinery and says, "I think I'm close to locating a gluino, which would completely validate supersymmetrical theory if we could include it in the bestiary."

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.

Chapter 2, page 21, panel 2 of Watchmen. Rorschach has Moloch pinned to the ground, and says, "No. Edgar William Jacobi, also known as Edgar William Vaughn, also known as William Edgar Bright, also known as Moloch."

Here’s what Chapter 2 of the web annotations has to say about him:

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.

18th-century depiction of Moloch as a statue with chambers for burning.

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!”

Side-by-side screen captures from Metropolis, first of the machine as it is, second the way Freder sees it in his vision.

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

Cover of Howl by Allen Ginsberg. It reads "Howl and other poems. Allen Ginsberg. Introduction by William Carlos Williams." The top banner reads "The Pocket Poets Series" and the footer reads "Number Four." 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.

The "workers hand" shot from Metropolis as described in the essay text.

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.

Next Entry: Tears Of A Clown
Previous Entry: How The Ghost Of You Clings

The Watchmen Bestiary 24 – How The Ghost Of You Clings

[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:

Panel 6, page 8, chapter 2 of Watchmen. Two-shot of Laurie and Sally, with Laurie exclaiming "Jon is not an H-Bomb!", and Sally replying, "Honey, the only difference is that they don't have to get the H-Bomb laid every once in a while." Behind them on the wall, hung such that the image is between their faces, is a portrait of a younger Sally in her Silk Spectre outfit, with the inscription "To Sally Jupiter, Best wishes Varga"

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.

Painted Ladies

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.

A typical Varga Girl image, a woman in a sailor's uniform reclining in a seductive pose.

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:

Panels 4 and 5, page 11, chapter 9 of Watchmen. In panel 4 Laurie is drying off from a workout, hearing voices come through the door, including Sally's: "...ell, as for me... what I achieved... sitting in it... and as... what I achieved it with..." Panel 5 shows us Sally continuing, as Laurie walks into the room with her, Nelson, and Hollis: "I'm sitting on it! HA HA HA!"

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.

A cropped image from page 31, chapter 10 of Watchmen. From the supplemental material to the chapter, this is a sample Nostaliga ad, a woman pulling her stocking down while wearing a gauzy nightgown. The caption above her reads "Oh, how the ghost of you clings..."

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.

Next Entry: Whose Mind Is Pure Machinery
Previous Entry: King Mob and Queen Mab

The Watchmen Bestiary 23 – King Mob and Queen Mab

[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:

Watchmen Chapter 2, page 5, panel 2. In the foreground are partial views of the heroes' trophies, and in the background they are emerging from a door, having finished with their photo shoot.

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:

Watchmen chapter 2, page 6, panel 9. In the foreground is a glass case with a gorilla head inside, its mouth open and fangs bared. A sign under neath reads"King Mob's Ape Mask". In the background, we see the Comedian's gloved hand holding down a bare arm. A speech bubble comes from off-panel, reading "Sally? What's keeping you?", and a speech bubble comes from the other side of the panel, where the attack is happening, reading "GHUUCHH"

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.

One In Eight Go Mad

As Klinger points out, the definitive account of King Mob is a book called King Mob: A Hidden Critical History, written by David Wise in collaboration with Stuart Wise and Nick Brandt. You could get a Kindle edition of it, or a really expensive out-of-print paperback edition, but in keeping with the group’s militant art-should-be-free ethos, the entirety of the text is posted at a website called Revolt Against Plenty.

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

Image of King Mob graffiti as described above

Compare this to the graffiti seen multiple places in Watchmen, which boils down the message and intensifies it to “ONE IN EIGHT GO MAD”:

Cropped panel from Watchmen chapter 1, page 24, panel 1. Rorschach walking in front of a fence painted with graffiti. I've added a box to highlight the "One in eight go mad" graffiti.

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 several times 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.

Watchmen chapter 7, page 15, panel 4. A talk show host is in the foreground, saying "...and with the eleven o'clock news coming up next, that's all we have time for. So from me, Benny Anger, and Pale Horse's Red D'eath, it's thank you and good night." A surly knot-topped rock star smokes and glares in the background.

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.”

Watchmen, chapter 2, page 6, panel 7. A shot of Moloch's solar mirror weapon, reflecting a distorted image of The Comedian kicking a prone Silk Spectre in the stomach.

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.

A panel from a Silver Age Batman issue, showing Batman and Robin in the Batcave's trophy room, which includes things like a giant penny, a robotic dinosaur, and a huge Joker head. Caption: Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder enter the strangest room of their secret Batcave -- their great hall of trophies! Robin: Batman, this new trophy is our one thousandth! Batman: A thousand trophies -- and every one represents a souvenir from an important case

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.

Next entry: How The Ghost of You Clings
Previous entry: Costumed Cut-Ups

Page 1 of 5

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén