Before you read any further, please heed this warning: Watchmen spoilers ahead!
As I mentioned in my notes on method, I had originally decided to leave out any works I’d seen/read/heard/whatever before, but as the project has expanded, I’ve decided to throw those back in. At the time, I believed that meant that to finish with Chapter One, I’d need to write a post on Dylan and another on Taxi Driver.
However, in rereading the v2.0 Watchmen annotations for that chapter, I realized I’d missed something. Though it’s flying well under the radar, there is in fact a cultural reference in this panel, or at least the beginnings of one:
The annotations tell us that this panel is in fact:
The first appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes. (I don’t know if these are a Veidt product; the “Chariot” reference is his style, but the name refers to a Gospel song, which isn’t.)
Now, it isn’t at all evident from the panel itself that the sugar cubes have any particular brand name. All we see is a can labeled “Sugar”, and cubes individually wrapped with an “S” stamped on them. The cubes reappear, again anonymously, in Chapter 3, when Dreiberg seeks to sweeten Laurie’s coffee. (“Hell, I thought I had more sugar than that.”) It isn’t until Chapter 6 that we learn the brand name, from their description in Rorschach’s arrest paperwork, which includes among his possessions “5 individually wrapped cubes ‘Sweet Chariot’ chewing sugar.”
Nevertheless, the annotations are quite right that this is their first appearance, so let’s deal with them here. I don’t think there’s evidence in the text either way for whether those sugar cubes are a Veidt product, and I don’t think it much matters. The reference, however, to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, matters a lot, on a few different levels.
First, even before touching the referent, I would argue that the cubes and their name operate as a symbol for the relationship between Dreiberg and Rorschach. Dan carries Rorschach in several ways, the first of which is evident on this very page of Chapter 1. Rorschach is destitute, and seems to live mostly off scraps provided by others, through their generosity, fear, or ignorance. Today he takes his meal from Dreiberg’s beans and sugar, a metaphorical ride which is literally sweet.
Dan also provides resources to Rorschach. They were initially partners, back in the pre-Keene days, but even now Rorschach benefits from the products of Dreiberg’s genius, such as the grappling hook gun he uses when we first see him in Chapter 1, and again when trying to evade capture in Chapter 5. Even closer to a literal sweet chariot is Dan’s owlship Archie, which swings low to rescue Rorschach from prison, and later carries him all the way to what will be his final resting place.
There’s a sweetness to that relationship, seen most clearly in the awkward handshake between them in Chapter 10. A sugar cube makes a fine symbol for their friendship, rigid but soluble. For Detective Fine, the sugar cubes crystallize the connection between Dreiberg and Rorschach — he knows that Rorschach had those sugar cubes on him at his arrest, and comments when he visits Dreiberg, “Hey, ‘Sweet Chariot’ sugar cubes! Only come in catering packs, right?”
Just as the words “sweet chariot” reflect on Rorschach’s relationship with Nite Owl, so does the song itself reflect on his story. It’s a song, first and foremost, about death.
When I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Comin’ for to carry me home
A band of angels comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home
According to scholar Christa K. Dixon, “in the spirituals ‘Jordan’ refers mostly to the dividing line between wilderness-like earthly life and promised heavenly life.”1 A great many spirituals call upon some notion of transformation — that’s why so many of them center on the Book of Revelation — and in many of them, death is that transformation, a deliverance from the misery of slave life, and the promise of a heavenly reward. In “Swing Low,” that band of angels comes to retrieve the departed, to take him across the Jordan from this world into the next. The repeated refrain, “comin’ for to carry me home”, emphasizes the fact that the slave’s true home is not on Earth, but in heaven.
Rorschach also feels out of place in this world — for him it’s rudderless, morally blank. The only sane responses to it, as he sees it, are his own, and the Comedian’s. Something else binds those two characters together as well — though there’s an awful lot of death in Watchmen, only two of the main characters die: Rorschach and The Comedian. And since The Comedian’s death occurs before the story begins, only Rorschach can be said to die in the course of the plot. So naturally it’s with Rorschach that the Sweet Chariot cubes are associated — they foreshadow his death, and as he rides to meet it in Antarctica, he drops his final wrapper, which looms up huge in the camera’s eye.
However, while “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is most clearly about death, it has another layer of meaning. Historical evidence suggests that, among other songs, it was sometimes sung as a part of a slave code, signaling that an opportunity for escape was coming. In this context, “home” isn’t heaven but the free states of the North, and the angels aren’t supernatural guardians, but rather Underground Railroad “conductors” like Harriet Tubman. In fact, when Tubman died, the local newspaper reported that “she led those at her bedside in singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with her final breath.”2
Escape and rescue are recurring themes in superhero fiction, and Watchmen interrogates them, just as it does most other superhero tropes. With the Sweet Chariot sugar cubes, though, that interrogation begins only gradually. Rorschach first shakes them out of their container as he pursues what appears to be a traditional heroic trajectory: saving those in danger, in this case by warning them that the danger is coming. They appear again when Dan is taking care of Laurie, or trying to. This is a slightly more problematic idea of rescue, as he’s clearly attracted to her, and therefore has a bit of an ulterior motive. Also, she arguably she doesn’t need saving, having made her own sort of escape from a life she had begun to see as servitude. Nevertheless, Dan’s approach at this point mostly conforms to a typical heroic code of conduct, with him as the rescuer and Laurie as the damsel in distress, albeit in a considerably less dramatic idiom than superheroes normally occupy.
However, we learn that the sugar cubes are in fact called “Sweet Chariot” through an inversion of superheroic rescue — they’re listed in Rorshach’s arrest report, as part of the inventory of taken of his pockets when he was captured. Now he is the prisoner rather than the rescuer, and has to wait for Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II to be his conductors from bondage. In fact, the sugar cubes appear again in chapter 7, as Dan is sweetening Laurie’s coffee (this time successfully), just before they listen to news reports about Rorschach and Dan frets about how Rorshach will fare in jail.3 Then, when Fine visits in the next chapter, the sugar cubes provide evidence of Dan’s connection with Rorschach, and spurs the rescue effort: “Springing Rorschach any later than tomorrow isn’t safe.”
The final appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes in chapter 11, that wrapper blowing in the Antarctic wind, brings together the ideas of death and rescue. Rorschach is (somewhat unknowingly) heading towards his own death, but the mission that brings him there with Nite Owl is a heroic one: stopping Veidt’s destructive actions. Watchmen won’t let us have this rescue. Not only has the destruction happened well before the pair can intervene, but Veidt believes that the death is the rescue. In his “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” mentality, Veidt horribly brings together the two meanings of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, sending death raining down and believing that he’s ushering in “an age of illumination” by doing so.
There’s one final aspect of this allusion to consider, and it’s a big one. By invoking a song directly connected with American slavery, Moore’s use of “Sweet Chariot” invites us to consider race, specifically the past and present of African-Americans. What can we say about African-Americans in Watchmen?
A number of incidental characters are black — the postal carrier who picks up Rorschach’s journal, the watch seller up the street from the newsstand, some victims of the tenement fire rescue by Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, some patrons at Happy Harry’s, the prisoner Rorschach burns with cooking fat, the maid at Sally Jupiter’s retirement community. There are also three named African-American characters in the book: Bernie the younger (who reads the pirate comics), Malcolm Long (Rorschach’s psychiatrist), and Gloria Long, Malcolm’s wife.
This collection of characters neither adheres to stereotypes nor studiously avoids them. Bernie hangs out on the corner all day while his mom works, and speaks in street slang — “suit y’self, jive-ass”, or “shee-it.” Malcolm and Gloria, on the other hand, are consummate white-collar professionals, with educated diction and middle-class dinner parties in their bourgeois apartment. Likewise, the unnamed characters run a gamut, from criminals up to ordinary workers. There’s nothing in particular binding them together outside of race. Gloria underscores this point with her indignant response to Bernie the elder’s suggestion that maybe the watch seller knows Malcolm: “What? You think we’re all in some Negro club; that we all know each other?”
By making sure his African-American characters are neither demonized nor sanctified, Moore makes a point about race, albeit not a particularly deep one. A little more subversive is his suggestion that superheroes might serve a racist agenda. When Captain Metropolis tries to organize the Crimebusters, his display includes his labels for the types of “crime” to be fought: promiscuity, drugs, anti-war demonstrations, and… “black unrest.” Given that this meeting took place in 1966, and given the placement of the tag over Southern states, this “unrest” was almost certainly the Civil Rights Movement. Gardner is obviously a conservative, but it’s a little startling to think that he would want to employ operatives like Dr. Manhattan or The Comedian against peace protests and civil rights marches.
The New Frontiersman lives much further out on the right wing, and is even more shocking, in its favorable comparison between superheroes and the KKK:
Nova Express makes many sneering references to costumed heroes as direct descendents of the Ku Klux Klan, but might I point out that despite what some might view as their later excesses, the Klan originally came into being because decent people had perfectly reasonable fears for the safety of their persons and belongings when forced into proximity with people from a culture far less morally advanced.
It’s already stunning to read an argument defending the KKK, but the comparison between that group and superheroes is chilling indeed. And yet, we’re forced to admit that the comparison isn’t entirely off-base. Klan members dress themselves in distinctive costumes and ride into the night to defend their status quo. I’ve written before about how superheroes also defend the status quo, fighting against the forces of change.
In a typical superhero comic, those forces of change are obviously negative, but Watchmen challenges the genre fan’s assumption that this would always be so. Sometimes even the most progressive change is disruptive, and sometimes it deeply frightens people attached to the old order. When those people put on masks and terrorize the change agents, we find their actions despicable. Yet what is so different about superheroes themselves, besides the nature of the status quo they defend? And if they were defending a repugnant philosophy, by use of violence, wouldn’t we want a law preventing that?
There’s one more overt reference to race in Watchmen. It comes towards the end of Chapter 6, after Long’s last session with Rorschach, the one in which Rorschach tells the story of Gerald Grice and his dogs. In the journal entry that follows, Long’s diction has acquired the clipped patterns of Rorschach:
Walked home along 40th street. A black man tried to sell me a Rolex watch. When I kept walking he started shouting “Nigger! Hey nigger!” Ignored him. Bought paper.
This narration happens at the top left panel of a page. The previous panel was Long, palm to face, overwhelmed by the darkness of Rorschach’s experiences. Rorschach has told him that existence has “no meaning, save what we choose to impose,” and that it is only humans who create the brutality and evil of this world. Immediately afterward, the world seems determined to prove Rorschach right. On the next page, Long stares at an ink blot, and realizes: “In the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness.” And the final panel before the quote is just that: pure blackness.
Let me suggest that this ending has a metaphysical level, yes, but on another level it is also about, well, blackness. In the end, skin color, nose shape, hair curliness, and the rest have no meaning, save what we choose to impose. To understand the meanings we have chosen around race is to understand the horror of our history. The captivity and slavery that made people long for death, the bloody war we fought to vanquish it, the hooded men searing the night with beatings, burnings, and lynchings… it’s us. Only us.
3 There’s something a bit odd about this scene. On page 11, panel 2, we see the full bag of sugar cubes, and can read part of the “Sweet Chariot” label. On the next page, Dan asks Laurie, “Did I put enough sugar in the coffee? I went out to the store specially…” The issue had already made the point he was at the store — he cites that as the reason Laurie was able to activate the flamethrower: “I was down here checking out the systems earlier. I left everything switched on when I went out to the store.” So we know he was at the store, and that his main purpose was to get sugar.
But if “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes only come in catering packs, how did Dan pop over to the store to buy some? In the scene with Detective Fine in the next chapter, the fact that those cubes aren’t available at the store is why Fine cites them — if they only come in catering packs, Rorschach couldn’t have bought them, and therefore was much more likely to have been supplied by Dreiberg. This strikes me as an idea Moore had when writing chapter 8, and liked enough that he decided to overlook the contradictory evidence in chapter 7. [Back to post]
Hey, you. Yes, I’m talkin’ to you, because I want you to know that there are spoilers in here, both for Watchmen and for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. We’re talkin’ about Taxi Driver today because of one firstname.lastname@example.org, who turns out to be named Christian Burnham. Burnham contributed to the v2.0 Watchmen Annotations, those annotations being a crowdsourced effort built atop Doug Atkinson’s original work. Burnham was the one who asserted way back in my first installment that “Edward Blake is obviously a reference to Blake Edwards,” and that “Rorschach’s methods of terrorism are all taken from Pink Panther movies.”
This time around, he claims that “Rorschach’s opener on page 1 issue 1 is a dead ringer for the dialogue of Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver.” Burnham has a tendency to overstate the case, and this time is no exception. While it’s true that both Rorschach and Bickle (Robert De Niro) keep a diary, and that their diary entries are provided in “voiceover” to give us insight into their minds, I wouldn’t call one a “dead ringer” for the other. There are definitely similarities, but also some important differences. Let’s compare styles.
Rorschach: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper ‘No.'”
Bickle: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain’ll come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”
Both these excerpts begin with shocking language and images. Both indicate a loathing and revulsion for the urban environment. But Rorschach’s opening sentence imitates his speech patterns — clipped sentence fragments, with articles and pronouns extracted, an almost Tonto-ish way of talking. Moore in fact uses this pattern as a tool later on to indicate the psychological split between when Walter Kovacs simply wore a mask and when he became Rorschach, as well as the psychological shift in Malcolm Long.
Interestingly, the rest of the excerpt (and most of Rorschach’s diary) is much more discursive than his usual speech. He spins grandiose, almost biblical images, like this one in which he stands as the vengeful god to punish human sins. Elsewhere, he documents the city as he sees it, or takes notes on the murder case. He even tells a joke.
Travis, on the other hand, is much more prosaic and down-to-earth. He talks about what happens in his job, how much he makes, and recounts details like “I had black coffee and apple pie with a slice of melted yellow cheese.” His diction is slangy and vernacular (not to mention casually racist and homophobic), where Rorschach tends toward theatrical, elevated words. Travis would never say something like, “This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.” When his diary entries become introspective, they tend to be vulnerable and searching, as opposed to Rorschach’s judgmental pronouncements. Travis reviles the city, sure, but he also explicitly laments his loneliness, something Rorschach only barely approaches when he asks (without a trace of irony), “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”
However, just because Rorschach’s journal isn’t a “dead ringer” for Travis’s diary doesn’t mean that the comparison between Watchmen and Taxi Driver is pointless. On the contrary, I think it’s a very useful juxtaposition, one which illuminates them both.
THE NEW NOIR
Taxi Driver gets called a neo-noir film, a term which more or less means “a whole lot like film noir but made after 1958.” (See Hirsch and Schwartz, for example.) The notion of film noir itself has never enjoyed a stable, consensus definition, and in fact there is still contention over, for instance, whether it’s a style or a genre. But like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s relationship to pornography, critics know it when they see it.
Here are some film noir commonplaces:
A mood of pessimism, cynicism, and/or fatalism
Night scenes, especially night scenes in a city
Rain. Lots and lots of rain.
Also lots of smoke and smoking
Femmes fatales. As Roger Ebert puts it, “Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.”
An ordinary person drawn into crime, often based on some relationship with a femme fatale
A grim investigator unraveling a crime, an investigation which often reveals deep corruption
Odd or askew camera angles
Shadowy or high-contrast visual composition
Flashbacks, particularly telling the bulk of the movie in flashback, introduced by a frame story
First-person voiceover narration
A movie doesn’t have to have all of these to be considered noir, but the more of them that occur in one movie, the more noir it becomes. Once I started thinking about Taxi Driver as a noir movie, it became blindingly obvious to me that Watchmen is a noir comic book, or at the very least that Rorschach is a noir character, right down to his 1940s trenchcoat and fedora. While his narration differs from that of Travis, the presence of their narration serves the same set of functions. It sets the grim tenor of the story but makes it clear that the mood is filtered through one character’s mind, and that this character is himself unreliable and twisted in certain aspects.
The juxtaposition of narration and images allows us sometimes to see the story’s world as the character sees it, and other times to understand through ironic contrast where the character’s perceptions are limited, or where he may be lying to himself or others. And as both Taxi Driver and Watchmen postdate the classic film noir period, they are fully aware of noir conventions and use voiceover as a kind of combination homage and allegiance.
They have plenty in common with the noir sensibility besides the voiceover, too. Both have an overall sinister tone, and both end with a psychopathic character unexpectedly cast in a heroic light. Both stalk the rainy night city, Travis in his cab and Rorschach on foot. Smoke, too, figures into each story in different ways. None of the characters in Taxi Driver smoke, but mist and steam emanates from the streets themselves — the first several shots in the film include a taxi emerging from a cloud of smoke (along with the title itself), and that same smoke following Travis as he walks into the cab service to apply for a job.
Lots of characters smoke in Watchmen. In just the first two chapters, we see Detective Fine, Hollis Mason, various criminals, restaurant patrons, Laurie Juspeczyk, and Eddie Blake smoking various types of cigarettes or cigars. In addition to his stogie, Blake also shoots riot gas to smoke up the streets, and makes Captain Metropolis’ map go up in smoke as well. However, the smokiest thing about the book is easily Rorschach’s dialogue balloons. The character is never seen with a cigarette, but every time he talks or thinks, the edges of his words crinkle and curl, an ever-present noir vapor.
Femmes fatales, on the other hand, are noticeably missing from both works. I’ve already discussed the role of women overall in Watchmen: they mainly exist to demonstrate or alter male emotional states. That is somewhat true for the classic femme fatale as well, but in Watchmen the women are more victims than masterminds. No woman is calling the shots on anything in that story, but rather stumbling or being thrown from one mishap to another. Even Janey Slater, clearly embittered and smoking up a storm, turns out to have been Adrian’s pawn in her takedown of Dr. Manhattan.
Women in Taxi Driver are filtered through Travis’s consciousness, which will only allow for two categories: virgin and whore. He can hardly bear either one. He idolizes what he sees as the purity and elevation of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), and even manages to take her out on a date, only to make the site of their date a porno theater, as if he must taint that purity and expose the taintedness of his own inner self. Then he fixates upon a different mix of virgin and whore: the twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). Where he wanted to sully Betsy’s innocence, he wants to restore Iris’s, trying to convince her to go back home, and sending her $500 to help her leave her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel). In neither case does he engage with the woman in question as a person, but rather interacts almost exclusively with his projections of them.
No, it isn’t a femme fatale who draws Travis into mass murder. Rather, it is his utter inability to connect with other human beings. Whether this disconnection is an aftereffect of service in Vietnam, or whether it is inherent to Travis himself, the film doesn’t make clear. However, his “loneliness has followed me all my life” voiceover suggests that while Vietnam may have stoked his inclination to violence, Travis’s fundamental alienation is his own.
De Niro does a masterful job of building upon screenwriter Paul Schrader’s script to demonstrate Travis’s utter lack of facility with simple personal interactions. He’s baffled by simple expressions like “moonlighting” or “how’s it hangin’?”. He’s culturally isolated — at various points he says he doesn’t know much about movies, much about music. He watches his television periodically, with a look of longing and confusion on his face; eventually he pushes that TV off its stand, destroying it. In a knowing twist on noir convention, Travis tries to kill the father figures of his various women, not at their urging, but as a sort of revenge for the relationships they have, which he is forever denied.
Watchmen takes the other noir plot — not the common man corrupted but the cynical detective whose astute investigations soon land him in trouble beyond his capacity to deal with. Moore begins the story as a standard murder mystery, and in fact for a moment we believe we might be following the police investigation of Eddie Blake’s death. Soon enough we are following Rorschach, but even then, the pattern of introducing a series of characters and providing background on the deceased is a familiar one to mystery readers. Watchmen turns out to have a lot more on its mind than just solving a crime, but at least from Rorschach’s point of view, his trajectory is not all that different from that of the classic Phillip Marlowe or J.J. Gittes type, the private eye whose own investigation devastates and undoes him.
As for visual style, both Watchmen and Taxi Driver employ enough shadows and unsettling angles to easily qualify as neo-noir. Taxi Driver gives us shots of Travis’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, framed by blackness. It shows us fetishized close-ups of the taxi itself, driving through the rain, with garish Times Square movie marquees and porn store signs in the background. There’s a motif of high-angle shots straight down on a tableau – the personnel officer’s desk, the porn theater counter, the gun suitcase, Betsy’s desk. These culminate in a magnificent high-angle shot of the mass murder scene, moving slowly past the heads of stunned policemen, down the hallway and out into the street.
That same high angle appears in Watchmen‘s very first set of panels, the ones with the narration that started us down this road. The camera looks down at the bloodstained street, gradually pulling up, up, up to the site of Blake’s defenestration. Weird camera angles and shadowy composition abound especially (and not surprisingly) in the portions of Watchmen focused on Rorschach.
In Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry”, we get a recurring shot of the Rumrunner’s neon sign, reflected in a puddle, disturbed by Rorschach’s footstep. It’s a perfect noir shot, encompassing rain, darkness, the sinister city, and a sense of foreboding and destruction. Rorschach’s mask itself is the ultimate in high-contrast, its shadows always moving across his face. This effect is played up in “The Abyss Gazes Also”, whose penultimate panel is in fact nothing but blackness.
Finally, there are the flashbacks. Taxi Driver has none — it refuses to explain Travis by exploring his past, and it almost exclusively sticks to his point of view, denying us the capacity of understanding his world beyond his perception of it. Watchmen, on the other hand, is flashback-crazy. Whole chapters take us into the backstory of various characters, and previous chapters get called back by later chapters. Even single panels sometimes quickly throw us back to the past before returning to the scene at hand. Both, in their way, subvert the traditional noir mode of a frame story taking us into the past, either by sticking zenlike in the present or jumping around through time all the time.
Still, while neither Watchmen nor Taxi Driver ticks every box on the film noir checklist, there is more than enough evidence to call them both noir stories. But there’s something more: they’re also both superhero stories.
THE URBAN VIGILANTE
There are many ways to interpret the plot of Taxi Driver. Here’s one. An ordinary man, Travis Bickle, takes a blue-collar job after returning from war. This job brings him in contact with the worst parts of New York City. He sees firsthand the violence, the constant menace, the routine attacks upon innocent people, including attacks upon Travis himself. He witnesses the sleaze and degradation occurring in the city at night, and it becomes clear to him that the establishment police and politicians are fundamentally unable to stem its tide. He even connects with a heartbreaking victim of the city’s evil: a twelve-year-old girl named Iris, forced into prostitution by a pimp named Sport. That pimp pays Travis $20 to look the other way.
This $20 bill becomes a totem to Travis. He carries it with him, plagued by his guilt about not saving Iris from her dangerous situation. Finally, he makes up his mind to make a difference. “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time,” he writes in his diary. “True force.” He embarks on an intense regimen of physical training, honing his body until every muscle is tight, and he is nearly impervious to pain. He purchases an arsenal of weaponry, and rigs up ways to attach those weapons to his body, deploying them quickly when needed. He puts together a uniform which allows him to conceal the equipment he carries. “Here is a man who would not take it anymore,” he writes.
He uses the $20 bill to pay for Iris’ time, in a failed attempt to get her to leave Sport of her own volition. But he finally realizes: he is the one who must rescue her, and save the innocence of the city itself. He creates a new persona and guise, one which will strike fear into the hearts of those he hunts. At first, he tries to bring down the corrupt system by targeting a political demagogue, but he soon realizes that he must go into the underworld directly. Armed with his equipment and his frightening appearance, he defeats Sport and two of Sport’s henchmen. He returns Iris to her parents, and is hailed by them and by the media in general as a hero. Some time later, he has returned to his job in his ordinary identity, but we know that he is ready to confront evil again, whenever he encounters it.
Sounds an awful lot like a superhero origin story, doesn’t it? In a certain light, Travis doesn’t look so different from Bruce Wayne, or Tony Stark, or Frank Castle: men without superhuman powers, but who nonetheless deploy muscles, weapons, and a frightening appearance to fight the crime in their societies. For that matter, he’s even closer to a character like Rorschach, who shares all those qualities with Travis, and a few more as well.
Rorschach’s own origin story touches a lot of those same points. Walter Kovacs comes from a traumatic past and enters a blue-collar job. In the course of that job, he encounters a woman who later becomes the victim of a horrifying crime. Kovacs sees not only the ineffectiveness of standard social structures, but also the impassive detachment of people in general to the evil that surrounds them. He trains his body for strength and endurance, and acquires a set of equipment, a uniform, and a countenance to frighten the criminals he’s chosen to fight. He records his thoughts in a journal, in which he repeats his philosophy to himself. His culminating trip over the edge happens in response to the victimization of a child — his personality finds its fullest cohesion by murdering the victimizer.
Taxi Driver wasn’t meant to serve as a commentary on superhero stories, but it certainly was aware of its cinematic precursors, urban vigilante films like Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, and Death Wish. In those films, a man suffers tragedy and/or witnesses evil, and decides it’s time to work outside the law. He arms himself and slaughters the criminal(s) responsible.
The difference is that in the preceding films, the vigilante is lionized and held as the moral center, in contrast to corrupt or incompetent law enforcement. Schrader applies a corrective to this narrative with Taxi Driver, showing us that the man who kills criminals is himself violently disturbed. In fact, in Taxi Driver Travis simply wants to kill the father figure to one of his women, and tries first to kill the presidential candidate. It’s only because he fails, and ends up killing the pimp, that he is hailed as a hero. Watchmen, too, deeply problematizes the notion of vigilante heroism, in response to a similar romanticization of it in superhero comics. It shows Rorschach, like Travis, to be a deeply lonely man, one who has become insane and dangerous based on his experiences and his disconnection.
Travis Bickle does not understand other human beings. He sees them as objects — threats, idols, barriers. His movies are porn movies, whose entire job is to turn people into objects. Porn lets you project yourself, explicitly, into a sexual interaction. It’s the closest Travis comes to a connection. Rorschach, too, does not relate to other people, and tends to see them as objects, pawns on a board. Moreover, the traditional superhero genre has a hard time understanding human beings as well. It objectifies them into projection screen, threat, barrier, or prize. Watchmen surrounds Rorschach with humans, rather than objects, and by doing so reveals the absurdity of his Objectivism.
Film noir was never concerned with heroism. Its subject was the darker sides of humanity, and how the naive man can be inadvertently drawn into them. Both the urban vigilante film and the superhero genre, however, take heroism as a central theme and trope. By mixing noir into these genres, Taxi Driver and Watchmen leave us questioning those tropes, and understanding that sometimes our cultural perception of good is no more valid than our perception of evil. Travis Bickle looks in the mirror and says, “You talkin’ to me?” But he’s only talking to himself. It’s Scorsese, Schrader, Moore, and Gibbons who are talking to us.
Once there was a man who revolutionized his field. Emerging from a working-class background in a desolate town, he absorbed every bit of knowledge he could, and in his youth joined a community of like-minded artists. Eventually he found work in the big city, and began attracting notice in his chosen arena. The pace of his creative genius accelerated, and soon he was releasing one brilliant work after another, in rapid succession. Each one individually was a mind-blowing leap forward, and taken in totality they completely upended everyone’s assumptions about what was artistically possible in the domain.
He took a genre that was considered disposable trash aimed at children, and made it matter, bringing a highly literate and literary sensibility it had never seen before. With humor, drama, and passion, he got the world’s attention on not only his own work, but the possibilities it implied for the entire medium. He emerged from this period an indisputable legend, and no matter how many fallow years or bizarre religious conversions may follow, nothing will tarnish that accomplishment.
This man goes by the name of Bob Dylan.
I think it’s easy to see why Alan Moore admires and appreciates Dylan, going so far as to quote him for two different epigraphs in Watchmen, a distinction matched only by the Bible. Moore is the Bob Dylan of comics, and has come to struggle similarly under the staggering weight of his well-earned prestige and fame. But enough of the parallel, let’s dig into the inspiration for Chapter 1’s quote and title. Be warned that spoilers abound below for Watchmen.
Chapter 1 of Watchmen is titled “At Midnight, All The Agents…”, and the annotations quite rightly inform us that the quote comes from “Bob Dylan’s song ‘Desolation Row‘”. Of course, the “Bob Dylan” part isn’t terribly hard to track down — he’s cited in the final panel of the chapter, with a fuller version of the quote: “At midnight, all the agents and superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” (This is actually a misquote in several areas, as we’ll see below.) But “Desolation Row” is a huge song, a 10-verse epic that clocks in at 11 minutes and 21 seconds. So we’ve got a little room to expand – let’s have the full stanza! It’s the 8th one in the song.
At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row
“Desolation Row” was released in 1965, a pretty good year for the agents and the superhuman crew. That year, Goldfinger broke box office records around the world, becoming the fastest-grossing film of all time. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a cultural phenomenon, spawning merchandise ranging from t-shirts to board games to record albums, not to mention a host of imitators and parodies. Meanwhile, in the superhero comicbook world a revolution was in swing, led by Stan Lee and his Merry Marvel Marching Society. Superheroes were popular not just with kids, but increasingly on college campuses as well.
Dylan’s lyric punctures this euphoria in a way that partly foreshadows Watchmen. Here, the heroes of 1965 aren’t targeting bank robbers or world-shattering conspiracies or what-have-you, but rather “everyone that knows more than they do.” They are the agents of anti-intellectualism and anti-creativity, enforcing hegemony on behalf of an Establishment status quo. All those smart people get bound to a machine, inside a factory, their art and intellect caged in symbols of capitalism, regimentation, and meaningless work. And it only gets worse from there, as more Establishment figures descend from Kafka-esque castles with kerosene, surely in preparation for something like a holocaust. The agents and superhumans work for these insurance men, ensuring that nobody escapes the consequences of enlightenment.
It’s also hard to escape the Vietnam draft angle on this verse. In 1965, the United States began calling up 35,000 young men every month to fight in the Vietnam War, a war against the specter of Communism, at least as it was perceived by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It was an insurance man’s war — a premium paid in lives, year over year, against the hypothetical catastrophe posited by the “Domino Theory”, the notion that if one republic falls to the Red Menace, a chain reaction would ensue and next thing you knew we’d be the only capitalist democracy in the world, drowning in a sea of red. The agents and superhuman crew were full participants in this narrative, battling one Communist menace after another in their comics, movies, and TV episodes. In addition to the actual government rounding up young people, these stories were doing cultural work to get kids on the government’s side.
The skeptical view of spies and crusaders in “Desolation Row” informs Watchmen too, though the book’s superhuman crew is far less monolithic than Dylan’s. The Watchmen character closest to what Dylan describes is surely The Comedian, who spends his time “working for the government… knocking over Marxist republics.” He would have no compunction whatsoever at rounding up whoever he was told to round up, and bringing them wherever he was told to bring them. Then there’s Ozymandias, who indeed spends much of the book rounding up artists, scientists, writers, and even the head of a dead psychic. They may or may not know more than the so-called “world’s smartest man”, but he certainly puts them to work in his island factory, and then destroys them with fire. Nobody escapes Adrian’s “lethal pyramid.”
Still, the title appears on page 6 as a caption to Rorschach, and it is Rorschach who ventures forth at midnight, rounding up the superhuman crew themselves. It’s certainly safe to say that Dr. Manhattan knows more than Rorschach does — he knows more than anyone does, though that knowledge doesn’t prevent him from being surprised sometimes, nor from sometimes enforcing the state’s agenda for a while, just as The Comedian does. And of course Ozymandias knows more than Rorschach does, since he is after all the author of the murder mystery Rorschach is attempting to solve through his midnight maneuvers. All these stories meet at the book’s metaphorical midnight, when the superhuman crew themselves know more than everyone else, and allow none to escape their pact of secrecy.
That final panel misquotes the lyric, skipping the definite article in front of “superhuman”, substituting “go” for “come”, and “who” for “that”. However, there may not be much to be drawn from that fact — in the original comic version of Watchmen #1, the final panel is simply black, with the doomsday clock at the bottom. Quotes appear in that final panel in every subsequent issue of Watchmen, so apparently the DC editors decided to alter the final panel of #1 to match for the graphic novel. That it misquotes the song is likely nothing to do with Moore, and everything to do with imprecise editorial work.
As long as we’re looking closely, though, let’s observe that in this verse, Desolation Row isn’t the place to escape from, it’s the place to escape to. Every verse in the song ends with the words “Desolation Row”, and in this case it stands outside the nightmarish factory, as an unreachable alternative to the horrors within.
So what is Desolation Row, anyway? To find out, let’s start at the beginning. Here’s how the song opens:
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
“Postcards of the hanging” is an image for which Dylan critic Mark Polizzotti has an explanation. In Polizzotti’s book on Highway 61 Revisited (the album which “Desolation Row” closes), he tells of a lynching which occurred in 1920 in Dylan’s birthplace: Duluth, Minnesota. Six young black circus hands were accused of sexually assaulting a white teenager. Three of the accused men were dragged from jail by a mob numbering in the thousands. They were beaten, and hung from lampposts. According to Polizzotti, “A photograph of the incident, which circulated widely as a commemorative postcard, shows a crowd of Duluthians proudly posing around the three limp bodies.” (Highway 61 Revisited, pg. 134)
This horrible image leads off a parade of grotesques, which the verse winds up with, “As Lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row.” Once again, Desolation Row is placed outside the realm of horror, as the observation point in which the song’s narrator stands. So, in some sense, it appears to be the everyday world, or at least the narrator’s place in that world. It’s a grim vantage point because of all the human cruelty and evil that surrounds it.
The image won’t be pinned down so easily, though. In other verses, it’s where Cinderella sweeps up after ambulances carry away a misguided lover. It’s where Einstein used to play the electric violin, an image evocative of both Nero and of Dylan himself, who was in the midst of shocking his audience by playing an electric version of his chosen instrument. It’s the site of a carnival to be attended by the Good Samaritan, the forbidden zone for Casanova, and a taboo peepshow for Ophelia. As all these archetypes come into play, and as the prepositions shift around it (from, to, about, on), the notion of Desolation Row transcends any sense of physical place. It is, instead, a state of mind.
Desolation Row is how it feels to see black bodies swinging from lampposts in your hometown. How it feels to watch young men die in the name of a paranoid fantasy. How it feels to see potential scholars and artists locked into roles they didn’t choose, their minds’ gifts and their true selves ignored in favor of what their back and hands can do before they break. How it feels to watch love carried away in an ambulance. How it feels to be Cassandra, speaking the truth but never believed. “How does it feel?” cries Dylan in “Like A Rolling Stone”, the song at the other end of Highway 61 Revisited. How it feels is Desolation Row.
It’s where you stand, outside the horror but seeing it clearly, framing it with symbols. What becomes clear from this observation point is that we are the authors of our own nightmares. As Polizzotti puts it, “the fault lies not in our political or social institutions, but hopelessly, irrevocably in ourselves.” (Ibid., pg. 138) Or, in the words of another Desolation Row denizen:
I’ve mentioned lots of famous characters, both real and fictional — Cinderella, Ophelia, Einstein, Casanova, and so forth. There are plenty more in the lyrics of “Desolation Row”, such as Cain and Abel, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Phantom of the Opera. In fact, the agents and superhuman crew are unusual in the song for being referred to as a general category rather than a specific example. Dylan puts these figures to work as archetypes, fundamental examples of concepts such as poetry, romance, doomed love, brilliance, and so forth. However, we never find them doing quite what we expect — they’re placed well outside their usual stories. Pound and Eliot are fighting in the captain’s tower of the Titanic. Einstein wanders around disguised as Robin Hood, smoking and reciting the alphabet. And then of course there are those fascistic superheroes. Dylanologist Clinton Heylin sums it up: “Dylan relies almost solely on placing familiar characters in disturbingly unfamiliar scenarios, revealing a series of increasingly disturbing canvases.” (Revolution In The Air, pg. 248)
Ring any bells? Alan Moore didn’t have the familiar characters available, though not for lack of trying. Instead, he reflected the Charlton characters just enough to open up their connections to much broader categories. As Dave Gibbons puts it, “The Charlton characters were superhero archetypes. There was the Superman figure, the Batman figure…. We realized we could create our own archetypes and tell a story about all superheroes.” Except, these superheroic emblems weren’t doing their usual thing, but instead find themselves in disturbingly unfamiliar scenarios, such as the extreme grimness of Rorschach’s “origin”, Silk Spectre’s Tijuana Bible, and the Vietnam killings of Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian. Watchmen‘s world is a lot like that of Dylan’s song, but the only observation point is from outside the book. Even Mars isn’t far enough away.
In the tenth and final verse of “Desolation Row”, Dylan shows his cards at last, letting us know what he’s been doing in the other nine. The cultural tokens fade away, the symbolic giving way to the personal:
Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row
It doesn’t really matter whether he’s talking about people in his life or talking about the condition of humans in general — what matters is that he has to rearrange their faces, and give them all another name. That’s what Cinderella, Einstein, and the rest are up to — new faces and new names for the “lame” people he’s all too familiar with. Through this rearrangement, draping the people he knows in symbolic clothes, and sending them out to make their way in a world of horrors, Dylan lets us see the things we know ourselves in a startling new light.
New faces and new names are a core trope of the superhero genre, too. What Dylan does to his subjects, superheroes do to themselves — changing their faces with masks and cowls (or perhaps just strategic eyewear removal), and declaring new names, new identities for their heroic undertakings. The characters in Watchmen have certainly done this, sometimes more than once — Sally Juspeczyk sets aside her ethnic Polish surname for the flashier “Jupiter”, and then throws a Silk Spectre on top of that. In response to the Keene Act, some then rearrange again, going back to their old names. And finally, after attaining and then shedding an archetypal identity, a few transform once more, into the ultimate expression of that archetype. Dr. Manhattan goes from godlike to simply god. Ozymandias builds a futile monument for the ages. Rorschach becomes a blot.
Pulling back one more level, we can see that Watchmen itself does this. It rearranges the faces of the Charlton heroes, giving them all new names. And in an even larger sense than this, it invites us to view superheroes from Desolation Row, rearranging the face of the entire genre.
Projects have a way of going fractal on me. When my Magical Randomized Reading Selector came up Watchmen, I remembered that I wanted to reread the book with the annotations alongside. So I googled up “Watchmen annotations” and found what seemed to be the most up-to-date version, a page calling itself “The Annotated Watchmen v2.0.” Basically someone took the existing annotations, farmed them around to a bunch of people for further comment, and collated the results, right in time for the 2009 Watchmen movie. So I printed out the chapter one notes and started into reading, only to find that the annotations themselves referred to a bunch of other works, various texts that had informed Watchmen, or at least so the notes claimed.
I was, at the time, looking for something to write about. Hey, I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to track down those other works, read them (or watch them, or listen to them, or whatever), and write little essays about how they interconnect to Watchmen? So I started into that, and I was right — it was fun.
I posted my first entry in the Watchmen Bestiary series (then called “The Annotated Annotated Watchmen”) in October 2012. That’s an eon ago in Internet years, and sure enough, some things have changed. For one thing, the Annotated Watchmen v2.0 page at http://www.csd.uwo.ca/faculty/andrews/AnnotatedWatchmenV2/ is no more. Now visitors to that page get a very unfriendly “Access forbidden!” message. Disappointingly, even the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive seems to have only spotty captures of the page — in particular the “spoiler version”, which includes information that gives away some of the book’s plot, was never archived.
Meanwhile, I find myself falling backwards into my own fractalism. Where in the early entries I would read a book or watch a movie, then write, now I seem to be reading five books full of background alongside the basic text, before writing a word. I think this really amped up around the DC Universe entry, as I found that I simply could not make heads or tails of the material by itself. Background research was vital. Same with the Bible — I never did much Bible study, and I couldn’t write authoritatively about Revelation without some study of the context.
Perhaps strangely, I’m having even more fun than when I started. I feel now like I’m conducting my own independent college degree, giving myself a course on something and then writing a final paper. The thing is, now the essays are coming 2-3 months apart rather than 1 month apart. At this rate, I’ll be writing them for another 5 years. At least. But hey, as long as it’s fun, I’ll keep going. It’s not like I’m doing this for the money and the fame. 16 essays in, I’ve reached a milestone: finished with chapter one. Ha! (Though in fairness I do think this chapter is thicker with references than many others, partly because it addresses some things — like the Charlton references — that span the entire book.)
All that said, I’m making a couple of changes. First of all, due to the aforementioned web volatility, I’m switching from the spoiler version to the non-spoiler version of the Annotated Watchmen v2.0. Luckily, the Internet Archive did preserve the non-spoiler version. Let’s hear it for the Internet Archive! I’ve updated all the entries to point to the Archive version of the annotations, and also added some cross-referencing here and there among the essays, including links at the end of each one to the previous and next entries. Oh, and I fixed the occasional infelicitous phrase when I just couldn’t help myself.
Finally, when I first headed down this road I decided to eliminate texts I had already read/heard/whatever. However, I’m finding the process rewarding enough that I’ve decided to put those works back in scope. So for chapter one, that means the title quotation of Bob Dylan, and the page one allusion to Taxi Driver. Consider that a sneak preview of the next two essays, and then it’s on to chapter two!
Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s spoilers for Watchmen, and they’re coming this way! We’re through the actual comic book section of Watchmen #1, and on to its wonderful prose supplement, the first two chapters of Hollis Mason’s autobiography, Under The Hood.
In chapter 2, Mason starts with stories of his grandfather’s moral sense and his own experience on the New York City police force, cites with his love of pulp adventure fiction like The Shadow, and finally builds to a rather shamefaced declaration of his crimefighting career as Nite Owl I: “Okay. There it is. I’ve said it. I dressed up. As an owl. And fought crime.” From there, he explains that it was Action Comics #1, from April 1938, that began his owlish career:
There was a lot of stuff in that first issue. There were detective yarns, and stories about magicians whose names I can’t remember, but from the moment I set eyes on it, I only had eyes for the Superman story. Here was something that presented the basic morality of the pulps without all their darkness and ambiguity. The atmosphere of the horrific and faintly sinister that hung around The Shadow was nowhere to be seen in the bright primary colors of Superman’s world, and there was no hint of the repressed sex-urge which had sometimes been apparent in the pulps, to my discomfort and embarrassment. I’d never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane, but I’d bet it was nowhere near as innocent and wholesome as Clark Kent’s relationship with her namesake Lois.
As the annotations point out, Action Comics #1 was “the first appearance of Superman and perhaps the most important single work in the development of the superhero.” So I read it. And Mason is right — there’s a lot of stuff in there, but the 13-page Superman story is clearly what’s important. So I’ll maintain a focus on that, and not worry too much about Pep Morgan, Zatara, Scoop Scanlon, Tex Thompson, Sticky-Mitt Stimson, and all the rest.
Actually, it’s probably more correct to say “Superman stories”, plural — in those 13 pages we get Superman’s origin, Superman saving a woman wrongly convicted of murder, the introduction of Clark Kent, Superman defeating a wife-beater, the introduction of Lois Lane, Clark and Lois going on a date, Lois getting kidnapped, Superman defeating the kidnappers, and Clark getting sent to the fictional South American country of San Monte but instead heading to Washington D.C. and tackling congressional corruption. In modern comics, it would probably take a year to tell all those stories.
So what did Hollis Mason see in that first issue, and how did it influence him? Page one features an extremely compressed version of Superman’s spaceflight from “a distant planet” (not yet Krypton), and his incredible powers emerging in childhood and adulthood. There’s even “a scientific explanation of Clark Kent’s amazing strength”, invoking the proportional lifting and jumping abilities of ants and grasshoppers — unknowingly foreshadowing the strength and agility of a certain bug-based character of the future. But Clark’s abilities aren’t the ones we’ve come to know today. There’s no heat or x-ray vision, no super-hearing or super-breathing or super-thinking. He can’t even fly. The story says he can “leap 1/8th of a mile; hurdle a twenty-story building,” but he wouldn’t hover or swoop in the comics until years later.
Still, what’s clear is that, like Hugo Danner before him, Clark Kent has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Hollis Mason, a mere mortal himself, couldn’t have hoped to compete. Even though Superman’s powerset is far from what it would become, it was well beyond anything Mason would ever achieve. In fact, when a real super-being does come along, Mason realizes immediately that he is suddenly irrelevant: “The arrival of Dr. Manhattan would make the terms ‘masked hero’ and ‘costumed adventurer’ as obsolete as the persons they described.” So Superman’s superhumanity couldn’t have been what inspired Mason to his own crimebusting career. But Superman was more than just strength, speed, and toughness.
Once the story proper kicks in, we find Superman carrying a bound and gagged woman, then leaving her on the ground so he can burst into the governor’s house, breaking down first a wooden door then a steel one. He shrugs off a bullet and tosses off a few sarcastic quips in the process of bringing a signed confession to the governor, who is the only one that can pardon an innocent woman about to be electrocuted. A couple of the panels even helpfully provide an inset clock, ticking down to midnight, showing how many minutes Evelyn Curry, the innocent woman, has left. (Hmm, now where have I seen that image before?) The guilty woman, according to the note Superman leaves behind, is “bound and delivered on the front lawn of your estate.”
So here we have Superman using those incredible powers and abilities to prevent an injustice, save an innocent, and punish the guilty. It’s a theme that will repeat twice more in the issue. First, Superman interrupts a domestic violence incident (to which he was tipped off as Clark Kent), throwing the abuser against the wall with a cry of, “You’re not fighting a woman, now!” Later, he apprehends some gangsters who have kidnapped Lois, chasing down their car and destroying it by hand. In all cases, Superman’s powers dictate the way he does things — hoisting cars and people above his head, facing down bullets and knives without flinching, overcoming opponents by pure brute force. However, those powers do not dictate what he chooses to do. After all, Hugo Danner had those same powers, but he sure never dressed up and fought crime.
Superman decides, according to the origin, that “he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind.” The reason for this decision is not made clear, and it’s difficult to discern whether Clark Kent would be a do-gooder if not for his powers. But those stories, of protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty, speak to a deeply held desire within us, certainly within Hollis Mason. They remind him of “juvenile fantasies” like saving pretty girls from bullies, or teachers from gangsters, and lead him to wonder whether he could make those fantasies come true.
Here is where the “basic morality of the pulps” comes into play. Doc Savage swore to “think of the right and lend my assistance to all those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.” The Shadow admonished us that “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.” And by issue #6 of Action Comics, Superman’s raison d’etre coalesced into some version of:
Friend of the helpless and oppressed is SUPERMAN, a man possessing the strength of a dozen Samsons! Lifting and rending gigantic weights, vaulting over skyscrapers, racing a bullet, possessing a skin impenetrable to even steel, are his physical assets used in his one-man battle against evil and injustice!
Nite Owl’s abilities are very different from Superman’s, but his mission is not. He surely didn’t have the strength of a dozen Samsons, but what he did have was a deeply rooted desire to help the helpless and oppressed, and to fight against evil and injustice. He waged this battle with nothing more than his fists, really a far braver battle than Superman’s, as Mason was so much more vulnerable. And yet, wasn’t Hollis Mason doing this already as a policeman? Why, after a day of fighting crime in regulation blue, did he need to dress up as an owl to fight crime at night?
Well, for one thing, there’s a clear appeal in Superman’s directness. No policeman could have saved Evelyn Curry — the time was too short and the barriers too great. As for the wife-beater and the kidnappers, a cop might have stopped them, sure, but he would be denied the visceral satisfaction of meeting their violence with violence. And as for going to Washington and threatening lobbyists, forget it. Superman was unconstrained by rules and regulations, and in his identity as Clark Kent, could seek information and situations that would allow him to do his thing. Hollis Mason never comes out and says so, but I think it’s safe to imagine that he might have longed for the kind of freedom enjoyed by Superman in his battle against evil and injustice.
Still, that longing may have remained unexpressed if not for Hooded Justice, who was the first to tie the strands from Action Comics #1 into a shape that could exist in Mason’s world: physical power, fighting evil, with a concealed identity. Mason sees Hooded Justice as “the first masked adventurer outside comic books,” and says, “I knew I had to be the second.”
Last time, I cited Adela Yarbro Collins talking about apocalyptic fiction as a way to “overcome the unbearable tension perceived by the author between what was and what ought to have been.” In Superman, and Hooded Justice, Mason sees a different path to overcoming that tension. He doesn’t have to destroy the world. He doesn’t even have to destroy himself — just hide himself a little, and create a persona that allows him to author the change he wishes to see.
Yet in doing so, a different tension arises. Mason makes a point of mentioning his relief about what is left out of Action Comics #1: darkness, sexuality, moral ambiguity. And yet Hooded Justice has all these things in spades. Far from “bright, primary colors”, he’s draped in darkness (with, okay, a long pink cape for some reason.) He’s not the least bit afraid of devastating violence, crippling and hospitalizing his victims. And in his baleful gaze at the Comedian’s nasty jibe, it’s clear that this man is well acquainted with the “repressed sex-urge”, an urge deeply entangled with his darkness and menace.
Embedded within Hollis Mason’s dual inspirations is a contradiction. The very things that Mason was so relieved to see absent from Superman’s bright, primary-colored world, are there from the beginning in his own. From what we can see of his career, he seems to have tried to provide the counterpoint, to project a chaste and cheerful image — the perfect Silver Age crimefighter. And yet darkness and ambiguity are all around him, even in his compatriots the Minutemen, from the frightened, mentally ill Moth to the cruel, grinning Comedian. It only gets darker from there, and his namesake Nite Owl II is pretty much the post-Minutemen poster boy for repressed sex-urge.
It’s worth noting, though, that the early Superman isn’t entirely devoid of these things either. No, we don’t see a lot of sexuality coming from him, at least not when he’s in the tights — all his interactions with Lois seem to aim at getting rid of her as quickly as possible. Clark, on the other hand, does keep trying to date her, but self-sabotages his way out of every encounter, presumably to maintain his secret. This portrayal is in keeping with the audience Siegel & Shuster were aiming at: 10-year-old boys. The mysteries of sex are buried deep, only called dimly and distantly by images of Superman carrying helpless women, and being fawned over by Lois.
Darkness and ambiguity, on the other hand, are more present than you might expect, or at least so it appears when reading the stories today. In the first 12 issues of Action Comics, there’s nary a supervillain to be seen. Instead, Superman seems to be working through a list of social ills similar to Captain Metropolis’ bulletin board, except that his board has labels like “gambling”, “reckless driving”, “slum housing”, and “corruption in college football.”
He goes about these crusades in some unexpected ways. For instance, to fight slum housing he… destroys all the houses in the slums! “When I finish,” he declares, “this town will be rid of its filthy, crime-festering slums!” And indeed, as the helpful captions explain, “During the next weeks, the wreckage is cleared, emergency squads commence erecting huge apartment-projects… and in time the slums are replaced by splendid housing conditions.” Thanks, government of 1939!
Now here’s how he fights corruption in college football. He kidnaps a low-performing scrub from a college team, drugs him to keep him docile, and then replaces him on the team, thanks to the magic of “make-up grease-paint.” From there, he follows a rather complicated scheme of making the former scrub into a star, threatening to expose the corrupt coach of the opposing team, then winning the game on the scrub’s behalf while resisting the rotten coach’s hired thugs.
In fact, Superman is full of threats in those early days — he’s constantly suggesting he’ll kill or badly injure anyone who gets in his way. He gets a warmongering munitions magnate onto a boat heading into the war zone by saying, “Unless I find you aboard it when it sails, I swear I’ll follow you to whatever hole you hide in and tear out your cruel heart with my bare hands!” This is quite a long way from today’s morally pure Man of Steel. In fact, it’s a little closer to the second Nite Owl, in pain over Mason’s murder: “I oughtta take out this entire rat-hole neighborhood! I oughtta… oughtta break your neck, you… you…”
One more note about Action Comics. Just as issue #1 gave us the first superhero, issue #13 gave us the first supervillain: the Ultra-Humanite! Ultra was a reflection of Superman, right down to his name, but where Superman had strength, Ultra has “the most agile and learned brain on earth!” But, as he goes on to say, “unfortunately for mankind, I prefer to use this great intellect for crime. My goal? Domination of the world!!” Bald-headed and brainy, Ultra goes away a handful of issues later, to be replaced by Lex Luthor, for whom he was clearly the prototype.
Thus, an archetypal conflict was encoded very early on in the genre: brawn vs. brains. Somehow, brains frequently ended up on the evil side. As goes Action Comics, so go its successors… Watchmen included.
“To me, when we talk about the world, we are talking about our ideas of the world. Our ideas of organisation, our different religions, our different economic systems, our ideas about it are the world. We are heading for a radical revision where you could say we are heading towards the end of the world, but more in the R.E.M. sense than the Revelation sense. That’s what apocalypse means — revelation. I could square that with the end of the world, a revelation, a new way of looking at things, something that completely radicalises our notions of the where we were, when we were, what we were, something like that would constitute an end to the world in the kind of abstract, yet very real, sense — that I am talking about. A change in the language, a change in the thinking, a change in the music. It wouldn’t take much — one big scientific idea, or artistic idea, one good book, one good painting — who knows?” — Alan Moore, 1998
Today’s topic, friends, is the end of the world. I say unto thee: behold and beware, for I bring you multitudes of Watchmen spoilers. Also, I suppose, Bible spoilers? Can the Bible be spoiled? Besides via misinterpretation, I mean? 🙂
The Christian holy book is at issue today because of an observation made by the Annotated Watchmen, v2.0, about page 24 of chapter 1:
The band name, “Pale Horse,” refers to Revelations [sic] 6:8, where the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, Death, is said to ride a pale horse.
(The words “Pale Horse” are partially obscured in this panel, as frequently happens in Watchmen, but they show up plenty of other places, such as emblazoned above the dead bodies in Chapter 12.)
So, in quite a tonal switch from reading DCandCharltoncomics, I read the Bible. Well, the last book of it anyway.
It makes sense that Watchmen would refer to Revelation. They are both stories of apocalypse, and not in the R.E.M. sense either. The modern meaning of “apocalypse” relates to catastrophic destruction, irrevocable change, the end of the world. But etymologically, “apocalypse” derives from Greek, meaning “uncover” or “reveal.” The book of Revelation encompasses both senses of the word. It describes destruction on an epic scale, with God visiting one catastrophe after another upon humanity — the earth quakes, the waters turn to blood, meteors fall and set the forests ablaze. Locusts with human faces and scorpions’ tails boil from a bottomless pit, slaughtering people alongside avenging angels, amid fire, darkness, starvation, drought, hailstones, and disease. These themes repeat throughout the book, starting with the four horsemen representing conquest, war, famine, and death. At the same time, Revelation is, well, a revelation, partly because it was revealed in a vision to its writer, John of Patmos, and partly because it demonstrates the final judgment of God, the creation of the New Jerusalem, and the vindication of Christian believers, who are of course separated from the Earth before all those horrible things happen to it.
Watchmen certainly includes the horror; Moore and Gibbons devote six splash pages in a row to making sure we know it as Chapter 12 opens. However, in the first of many inversions of the Biblical model, Veidt’s apocalypse is explicitly antithetical to revelation, demanding instead that everyone to whom it is revealed either keep it secret or be destroyed to preserve the secret. Revelation 12:9 refers to Satan as “the deceiver of the whole world”, and describes how he is defeated and thrown down to earth by the archangel Michael. The book equates deception with evil, and describes Jesus as bringing a fierce and disturbing truth — it refers no less than five times to a sword coming from Jesus’ mouth. Salvation of the world depends on this truth, and on the overthrow of Satan the deceiver.
In Watchmen, though, Veidt is the deceiver of the world, and in his mind at least, he deceives the world in order to save it. “Unable to unite the world by conquest…” says Veidt, “I would trick it: frighten it towards salvation with history’s greatest practical joke.” The sword comes not from Adrian’s mouth, but from somewhere altogether more hidden and secret — the bottom of the world. Not only that, he makes the other characters complicit in his secret, asking “Will you expose me, undoing the peace millions died for? …Morally, you’re in checkmate.” And the other characters agree, all except for Rorschach, who meets his own personal apocalypse at the hands of the book’s most godlike character. Where Revelation shows war in heaven, Watchmen‘s pantheon reluctantly unites, after destroying its lone dissenting vote.
Rorschach himself is the book’s prime examplar of the moral sense on display in Revelation. In many parts of the New Testament, Jesus’s teachings complicate and problematize the old vengeful approach of the Old Testament God. Take for example, this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:38-42
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
(All my Bible quotes are from the English Standard Version, BTW and FWIW.) But in Revelation, no cheeks are turned. The book couldn’t be more dualistic. God and Jesus stand on one side, Satan and his beasts on the other. Babylon the whore stands on one side, New Jerusalem the bride on the other. The 144,000 of Israel, along with a “great multitude” of the faithful from every nation are preserved in heaven, while the rest of humanity is condemned to round after round of torture and disaster. No Limbo, no Purgatory. Nobody gets just a mild punishment. Nobody even repents, despite what you’d have to think are some pretty convincing reasons to give it a shot:
The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Revelation 9:20-21)
(John of Patmos really loved lists.)
In other words, as Rorschach’s journal tells us just a few panels down from the first Pale Horse reference:
(The word “Armageddon” itself comes from Revelation too — it’s the gathering place of the armies of evil in preparation for their final battle: “And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.” (Rev 16:16))
In fact, Rorschach’s journal has another connection to Revelation, in which God several times makes the point, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” (Rev 21:6) So if God is the Alpha and Omega of Revelation, what is the Alpha and Omega of Watchmen? Why, it’s Rorschach’s journal. Chapter 1, page 1, panel 1, at the very top of the panel, reads: “Rorschach’s Journal. October 12th, 1985”. Then, at the very bottom of the final page of the final chapter is an image of Rorschach’s journal. In between the word and the image lies the full comic, the rest of the world. Watchmen‘s world leads us to wonder: what if God were like Dr. Manhattan? But Revelation presents a God who is much more like Rorschach, preserving the innocent and casting all the rest into a lake of fire.
Watchmen itself is an inversion of Revelation — all flawed humans and shades of grey, which contrasts so well with Rorschach’s dualism and the usual Good vs. Evil conflicts previously inherent to the superhero genre. In fact, one could argue that both Revelation and the general thrust of the superhero genre are expressions of the ancient combat myth pattern, which follows a familiar trajectory. Biblical scholar Adela Yarbro Collins, who has thoroughly made the case for Revelation’s connection to combat myth, maps out this trajectory:
A rebellion, usually led by a dragon or other beast, threatens the reigning gods, or the king of the gods. Sometimes the ruling god is defeated, even killed, and then the dragon reigns in chaos for a time. Finally the beast is defeated by the god who ruled before, or some ally of his. Following his victory the reestablished king of the gods (or a new, young king in his stead) builds his house or temple, marries and produces offspring, or hosts a great banquet. These latter elements represent the reestablishment of order and fertility.
Now, superhero stories don’t tend to be festooned with dragons, Fin Fang Foom aside. But if the dragon in ancient tales stood in for a force too overwhelming for ordinary humans to fight, then supervillains fill that role nicely. They threaten to overthrow whoever’s name is on the cover of the book, or that hero’s home city, country, planet, or galaxy. A mighty battle is joined, and the hero or team often is defeated or nearly defeated, before coming back and defeating the villain, restoring order. Due to the serial nature of the comics, we tend to skip over the final portion, since we understand that restoration of order is only temporary until the next issue arrives. Still, the X-Mansion gets rebuilt again and again, the Fantastic Four affirm or restore the safety of their children, and the Justice League shares convivial bonhomie at the beginnings and/or endings of its stories.
No such celebration happens in Watchmen, because the dragon is not defeated. Veidt carries out his plot and succeeds. He does not reign in chaos, but creates a fragile order based on deception. Moore upends the familiar and comforting story arc we’ve come to expect, and asks us whether we really wanted that story anyway. He shows us gods whose reign brought fear and uncertainty to their kingdoms, and were deposed (with varying degrees of success) by their subjects. But in their absence, the world finds still more chaos, brought about by ordinary human avarice, venality, and lust for power — no dragon necessary.
Indeed, Veidt sees himself as the king of the gods, and from his point of view the story does follow the combat myth pattern — he even throws a party for his scientists… as a means of killing them. He believes himself to have built a New Jerusalem of the world, but several signs point to his fallibility, the great distance between himself and the God of Revelation. Watchmen‘s most godlike figure questions the worth of Veidt’s plan, and the final scene intimates that the house of cards will tumble. Even Dan and Laurie gesture at fertility in the denouement (Dan’s comment, “Y’know, maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea of your mother’s…”), but immediately turn away. (“Children? Forget it.”)
In her study of the psychological power of apocalyptic tales, Yarbro Collins tells us, “The task of Revelation was to overcome the unbearable tension perceived by the author between what was and what ought to have been.” (Ibid, p. 141) Ozymandias authors his apocalypse for the same purpose, hoping to finally prove to the Comedian in his head that he wouldn’t just be “the smartest man on the cinder.” The artificial space squid’s appearance at the Pale Horse concert associates Veidt’s plan with Revelation’s fourth horseman of the apocalypse, and let’s not forget that John of Patmos saw those horsemen as a good thing, since the faithful would be spared from their destruction. John’s apocalypse never came, and Adrian’s is a pale shadow of it, because contrary to his apparent beliefs, Ozymandias is no savior, and certainly no god.
I grew up a Marvel kid. I can absolutely tell you the names of every founding member of the New Mutants, or where Spider-Man went to college, or why the Avengers first got together. I knew about DC heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but I latched onto Marvel first (or maybe it latched onto me), so I never read a lot of DC comics, and that pattern continued through most of my life.
That’s not to say I didn’t give them a chance. My youthful comics obsession led me to check out pretty much every comic-related book in our local library (Dewey 741.5, baby!), which included a number of DC-oriented books. This was in the mid-to-late 1970s, when superhero comics still lacked the cultural cred (and numerous trade paperbacks) that would get actual stories stocked on public library shelves, but I checked out the Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman editions of the Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes several times each. Maybe the word “encyclopedia” got them in the door. Anyway, I dutifully read up, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that compared to my beloved Marvel heroes, the DC stable was just kind of… flat. Bland. Corny. And worst of all: silly. (The contemporaneous Super Friends cartoon, with its Wonder Twins and their super-monkey, surely didn’t help matters.)
What I didn’t realize back then was that DC was paying the price for blazing the trail. Those heroes had come along first, and by 1960 had become the Establishment against which Marvel rebelled, with their “real people and real problems” approach to superhero stories. In comparison, DC looked stodgy, and they were. Not only that, DC had learned to tread carefully in the wake of anti-comic hysteria and the Comics Code Authority. Their heroes were, in fact, flat, bland, and corny, to ensure that they would remain inoffensive and therefore not a target for any further congressional hearings. Not only that, the 1966 Batman TV series ushered in an arch, campy approach to masked heroics that drove the stories’ tone in the same direction. For a while, they got to explore territory that Marvel was (mostly) ignoring, but the Batman fad was short-lived and led to an even deeper crash.
Add to this the fact that they had already lived through one boom-and-bust superhero cycle. After Superman’s introduction in 1938, followed by Batman, The Flash, Wonder Woman, and others in the next few years, superheroes were big business in the comics industry, and DC (known at the time as National) had the vast majority of popular superheroes. They published many adventures of these marquee stars, and pulled them (as well as a number of lesser lights) into a supergroup called the Justice Society of America. Superheroes and groups like the JSA were the perfect American power fantasy at a time when the world seemed enmeshed in a stark good-versus-evil struggle, and they dutifully marched (or flew) off to fight Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini as well as the usual legions of scheming supervillains and ordinary crooks. However, after World War II ended, the country’s mood shifted, and superheroes seemed to lose their luster. By the late 1940s, DC had ceased publication of all but a few superhero titles. The Golden Age was over.
About a decade later, though, editor Julius Schwartz decided to give superheroes another try, with a revival of The Flash. The new Flash had a different identity, different costume, and different origin than the Golden Age Flash — about the only thing they had in common was the power of super-speed. Heartened by the story’s success, DC revived and revamped more heroes, and brought back the supergroup concept, though this time they were called the Justice League rather than the Justice Society. The stories caught on, and superheroes came charging back. The Justice League in particular inspired Stan Lee to try doing a supergroup his way, from whence sprang the Fantastic Four and the whole ever-lovin’ Marvel Universe.
In a brilliant move, Schwartz found a way to bring his Golden Age heroes into the new DC continuity, and once again The Flash was the key. In a 1961 story, Schwartz directed writer Gardner Fox to have The Flash “vibrate his molecules” (as it were), resulting in a sudden and unexpected teleportation into a parallel Earth. There on “Earth-Two”, he meets the Golden Age Flash, and the two of them team up to save the day before the newer Flash returns to Earth-One. The story was a smash success, and once again, success spurred expansion of the concept. So it was that a couple of summers later, DC published “Crisis on Earth-One!” and “Crisis on Earth-Two!”, a two-part story in the Justice League Of America comic, in which villains from Earth-Two find their way to Earth-One, defeating and imprisoning the JLA inside its own headquarters. Batman suggests that they conduct a seance, using a magic crystal ball left over from some other adventure, and from there they use the crystal ball to summon the JSA from Earth-Two! The two supergroups team up, defeat the villains, and set everything back to status quo.
The next summers brought “Crisis on Earth-Three!”, “Crisis on Earth-A!”, “Crisis Between Earth-One and Earth-Two!”, and so forth. Every summer, for years, some crisis prompted somebody to cross the “vibrational barrier,” and the JLA and JSA met to adventure across various alternate versions of the primary world. It quickly became clear that the DC Universe was no longer just a universe — it was a multiverse, teeming with parallel Earths. There was an Earth whose JLA was villainous, an Earth where the Nazis won World War II (featuring the Freedom Fighters, heroes acquired from the defunct Quality Comics), an Earth with the Charlton Heroes, an Earth with Captain Marvel and the Fawcett heroes, a post-nuclear-war Earth, an Earth where Superman was raised by apes, and so on, and on, and on. After a while, the concept had clearly become a victim of its own success. The surfeit of Earths was confusing, unfriendly to new readers, and, again, oftentimes just silly.
In 1985, DC decided to remedy these problems via a landmark 12-issue “maxi-series” called Crisis On Infinite Earths. Lots of stuff happened in this story, and it made such a big impression that despite the fact that there had been about a zillion story crises leading up to it, now when people say “Crisis” in reference to DC, what they mean is Crisis On Infinite Earths. Fans routinely refer to “pre-Crisis” and “post-Crisis” DC continuity. The biggest change of all was that it eliminated the multiverse. Due to the cosmic machinations of a Big Bad and a reality-shattering battle that ensues, all but five Earths get destroyed, and those get fused into one single Earth. The JLA, the JSA, the (Captain) Marvel family, the Freedom Fighters, and the Charlton Heroes all existed together, and none of them ever remembered having been apart. There were no more crises, because there was no more barrier to be crossed.
So it remained, for about 20 years. But big-business superhero comics are a cyclical milieu, and no possible attention-getting or moneymaking idea remains untouched forever. DC pulled in thriller author Brad Meltzer to write a dark, violent JLA story that he cleverly titled Identity Crisis. That story began a long “uber-crossover”, in which crossover events were no longer events, but rather one long mega-story along the spine of the DC universe, divided into major movements which sometimes piled atop one another, sometimes contradicted one another, and always tried to be ultimate and unmissable, with mixed results. Following directly on the heels of Identity Crisis was Infinite Crisis, in which characters from Crisis on Infinite Earths checked in on 20 years of story development, and were disappointed in what they saw. The resulting battle ended with Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman all taking a break from the hero business for a while. Of course, DC couldn’t exactly write their books without the main characters, so they invoked a time-jumping gimmick. Suddenly all the books were branded “One Year Later” — a year’s worth of continuity had elapsed and there were various changes in the status quo, but the heroes were back.
The story of the missing year is chronicled in 52, a yearlong, 52-issue series in which (as you may have deduced) a new issue was released every week. The biggest effect of 52 is that it undoes the major change of Crisis On Infinite Earths by restoring the multiverse, or at least a portion of it. Due to some stuff that happened during Infinite Crisis, and a rampage by a giant worm that eats time and space (no, really), the DC Universe was full of differing parallel Earths again. 52 of them, to be exact. (Funny coincidence, that.) And this, my friends, is where the Watchmen annotations finally come in, continuing their discussion of the Charlton heroes:
Completing the circle, in the 2007-2008-2009 DC Crossover series 52, Countdown to Final Crisis and Final Crisis, it’s established that Earth-4 is the new home of different versions of the Charlton Comics heroes homaged in Watchmen. Writer Grant Morrison notes that Earth-4’s Question owes a certain amount to Rorschach, while in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond (2 issue limited series, writer Morrison), the Captain Atom of Earth-4 looks and acts much more like Dr. Manhattan than he does any previous version of Captain Atom.
So, possessing very little of the background provided above, I read 52, Countdown To Final Crisis, and Final Crisis. I found them utterly bewildering. We pick up on various characters dealing with developments that are never introduced or explained, because they happened in other books. Characters arrive in dramatic splash pages, with zero explanation as to who they are. Moments of unexplained history get casually referenced, like the untranslated French or Latin phrases that used to pepper literary novels. It gave me a real sense of what it must be like for a new reader to try to pick up a Marvel comic and understand what the hell is going on. These big event comics are the most heavily advertised books in the business — and sometimes garner mainstream press due to killing off some character, or making somebody gay, or what have you — but they are the very worst books for a new reader to pick up, because they presume a graduate degree in fictional universe history. You’re far better off with a copy of Watchmen, in which every reader of Chapter 1 starts on equal ground. Ironically, these are the very sorts of problems that Crisis On Infinite Earths was written to alleviate, but today’s crossovers complicate rather than simplify their universes.
Lucky for me, learning more superhero stuff doesn’t exactly feel like a chore, so I read a lot of background material and then returned to the crossovers. This time they made more sense, though not complete sense. There’s still a whole lot I don’t know, and the works themselves vary pretty dramatically in quality. In particular, Countdown to Final Crisis is rather a mess, starting out as a mirror-image of 52 (another weekly series, but this time starting at #52 and ending at #1) but changing title halfway through, and (quite literally) pushing characters around on a chessboard without much regard for the accuracy, consistency, or integrity of their portrayals. However, there was also plenty of interesting stuff to be found in the various series, some of which relates pretty directly to Watchmen. From here on out, you’re in a spoiler zone for Watchmen and all DC crossovers.
First of all, despite the annotations’ suggestion that 52 is what established the Charlton heroes on Earth-4, that designation happened way back in Crisis On Infinite Earths. Issue #1 of Crisis appeared in April of 1985, a couple of years after DC had acquired the Charlton heroes, and a little over a year prior to the first issue of Watchmen. Crisis #1 marks the introduction of Blue Beetle as a DC character, and thus the introduction of Earth-4, though it isn’t named as such until issue #7. Of course, Earth-4 gets wiped out a few issues later, as cataclysmic events force the five surviving universes into one, combining the histories of different stables of heroes. That’s what brings the Charlton heroes into the DC universe, a fusion which wouldn’t have happened if Alan Moore had been allowed to use them for Watchmen. But since Watchmen ended up with original characters, The Question and the rest ended up in the DC universe. In fact, The Question ends up being one of the main characters of 52, but more about that in a bit.
So Crisis took up most of 1985 and the beginning of 1986. Watchmen started in the middle of 1986 and went through to the middle of 1987. In between landed Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, its beginning slightly overlapping the end of Crisis. Where Crisis was concerned with cleaning up the wacky mess that had been made of the DC Universe, Watchmen and Dark Knight wanted to interrogate the superhero genre itself, to reveal (among other things) the political, sexual, and moral implications of a world where people got dressed up in tights and punched each other. All three series were extremely popular, which meant that while Crisis made way for new stories, those new stories were ushered in by Dark Knight and Watchmen.
Unfortunately, many of the writers who followed in Miller and Moore’s footsteps did so based on a rather shallow reading of their work (especially Watchmen), taking the dark, oppressive atmosphere but leaving out the variety of viewpoints and the psychological depth. The result was a wave of “grim and gritty” comics. Formerly simon-pure heroes became morally grey. Already morally grey heroes got really morally grey, sometimes becoming outright villains, or at least crossing boundaries that were formerly sacrosanct. The hair, the muscles, the guns, and the shoulder pads all got a lot bigger. Violence, gore, and horror climbed steadily. What would the heroes of an earlier era think of what they had become? Infinite Crisis would dramatize the answer.
Infinite Crisis was conceived as a kind of sequel to Crisis On Infinite Earths, and a marker of its 20th anniversary. At the end of Crisis, a few characters had walked off stage: an alternate Superman & Lois Lane (from Earth-Two, making them the Golden Age versions of the characters), an alternate Superboy (from Earth-Prime, where he was the only superpowered person), and an alternate son of Lex Luthor (from Earth-Three, where alignments are reversed and his father was the sole superhero fighting evil versions of the Justice League.) They all went to a netherworld “heaven” outside the universe proper. In Infinite Crisis, we learn that they’ve been watching how Earth-One has developed (and perhaps devolved) since, and they eventually come to the conclusion that they made a terrible mistake leaving its heroes on their own. These personifications of the pre-Watchmen comics era decide that it’s time to turn back the clock, to return the world to its more innocent times.
But of course, the genie is out of the bottle, and they themselves are part of the post-Watchmen landscape. Superboy-Prime’s rage amps up and up with his frustration, and he ends up going completely berserk battling Earth-One Superboy and a bunch of Teen Titans. In a heated moment he actually decapitates some poor D-list superheroine (albeit accidentally.) Try finding that in a Silver Age comic. Similarly, Earth-Three Luthor turns out to be the evil mastermind behind the whole thing (a 180-degree pivot from his Crisis persona), ruthlessly kidnapping heroes and eventually smashing planets together trying to create the perfect Earth. Earth-Two Superman finally decides he’s fighting on the wrong side, and sacrifices his life to defeat Superboy-Prime.
Several times in the course of the story, the Crisis exiles claim that Earth-One is a corrupting influence, and that it has ruined its heroes. In the context of the story, we’re meant to understand that this is a delusion, and that those characters are, at best, tragically misguided. On the symbolic level, though, I wonder. Superhero comics really did change forever in the mid-eighties, and Watchmen was one of the prime reasons for that. Once that book took superheroes apart, something shifted between writers and audience. Part of it was writers chasing the enduring success of Watchmen by imitating it (often very poorly), but part of it was an audience for whom simple good vs. evil conflicts seemed to have paled. If Earth-One is the superhero mainstream, it truly is a different place now, and while people are still writing stories with that more innocent feel, they are exceptions and curiosities. Our heroes will never again be “big, brave uncles and aunties”, for better or for worse.
52 reinforces that point. With the superhero “Trinity” gone, and much of the rest reeling from the events of Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis, 52 weaves a story from multiple viewpoints, each of which explores the nature of heroism, much like another book I could mention. 52 is no Watchmen — for one thing it’s far more sprawling, and far, far less self-contained — but it does visit some corners of superheroism where Watchmen didn’t travel, or at least not much.
For instance, Watchmen treats superheroes as a strictly American phenomenon, but 52 casts its net wider. We see the Great Ten, a Chinese supergroup with names like “August General In Iron” and “Accomplished Perfect Physician.” The group finds itself autonomous from the rest of the superhero universe, as China signs the Freedom Of Power Treaty, which bans foreign superbeings from operating within its borders. Beyond that, one of the series’ major plot threads is the ascension of Black Adam (basically Captain Marvel’s evil twin) to the throne of the fictional Middle East country Kahndaq. Adam starts out as a ruthless dictator, but his brutality becomes tempered by love, and he empowers a former refugee to become his queen Isis. Of course, love interests are always in the comic-book crosshairs, so Isis dies and Adam goes berserk, murdering pretty much an entire country and decimating the army of superheroes which comes after him. It isn’t until Captain Marvel sneakily changes Adam’s magic word that the madness stops.
Thus is each book a product of its time. Watchmen was a British writer’s dystopia of American dominance granted by godlike superpowers, and the missiles that could fly when that dominance evaporates. 52 isn’t fretting about nuclear war, but it is quite anxious indeed about a rampant Middle East, its power unleashed in a fanatical campaign of revenge killing that slaughters the innocent population of a nearby country. It is surely no coincidence that the writing team of 52 is 75% American. (The other 25% is Grant Morrison of Scotland, about whom more in a moment.) While Watchmen envisioned the national god as detached and unemotional, as indifferent to humanity’s fate as an atom bomb, 52‘s national god is motivated by the deepest human sins — lust, wrath, pride. He is a nihilist, a terrorist.
52 also marks the final destination of the Denny O’Neil incarnation of The Question. Charles Victor Szasz dies of lung cancer, high in the mountains of Tibet, passing his mantle to an alcoholic and lost Gotham City detective named Renee Montoya. Szasz becomes Montoya’s mentor over the course of 52, always peppering her with the question, “Who are you?”, until she finally answers it by becoming the new Question. By this point, The Question was just the most recent of the Charlton characters to become unrecognizable or extinct. The Ted Kord Blue Beetle is killed in a one-shot called Countdown to Infinite Crisis (not to be confused with Countdown To Final Crisis). Captain Atom bounced back and forth between hero and villain several times, and at the point of Infinite Crisis had flipped into a different identity called Monarch, then gone AWOL into another dimension. Nightshade had joined a team called Shadowpact, which got written out of the DC Universe for a while simultaneous with the publication of 52. Peacemaker had died in an early 90s issue of Eclipso, and Thunderbolt never made much of impression on the DC Universe in the first place. 20 years of continuity past Watchmen had killed, erased, or transformed most of its inspirations.
Enter the new Earth-4. By the end of 52 there’s a new 52-world multiverse, and world #4 in this lineup is pretty clearly shown to contain versions of the Charlton characters, which hew much more closely to their original versions rather than the DC mutations. But they can’t really be the original versions, not in this post-Watchmen world. Grant Morrison says in a post-52 interview that the idea of this “Megaverse” was to allow DC a banquet of franchise opportunities — “If you miss Vic Sage as the Question, you should be able to follow the adventures of Vic’s counterpart on the Charlton/Watchmen world of Earth 4.” However, a few breaths earlier in that same interview, he avers that “If you think you recognize and know any of these worlds from before, you’d be wrong,” insisting that the concepts would be revamped and rethought.
Those imagined franchises never launched, so we didn’t get to find out what that new “Charlton/Watchmen” world was like. However, we do get a taste of Earth-4’s Captain Atom in another Morrison series, Final Crisis, or more specifically, an offshoot of it called Final Crisis: Superman Beyond. In that book, certainly one of the trippier superhero comics I’ve ever seen, Superman travels in the interstitial spaces between the 52 universes, a space the book calls “The Bleed.” He’s accompanied by four alternate supermen:
The last of these, “Air Force captain Allen Adam, the ‘quantum superman’ of Earth 4,” clearly owes far more to Alan Moore than to Steve Ditko. He is clothed, and he shares his name with Captain Atom, but otherwise he is straight-up Dr. Manhattan. He’s blue. He’s got the image of a hydrogen atom on his forehead. His size varies depending on necessity or mood. He says stuff like “Allow me to demonstrate quantum super-position as used defensively,” at which point he replicates himself into a bunch of duplicates. He also says this, to the super-evil antimatter Ultraman: “I am the endgame of the idea that spawned the likes of you, Ultraman. I am beyond conflict.”
Superman, Captain Marvel, Ultraman, and Overman are all the “mightiest mortal” of their respective earths. But quantum Adam is no mortal. He is, essentially, a god, and perhaps beyond good and evil, as a certain Mr. Nietzsche might say. But Morrison plants some seeds to problematize that notion as well. First, there’s the fact that Adam takes drugs to “dampen his quantum sense to acceptable levels.” Why would a god need to do such a thing, unless there were some human part of him, struggling to mitigate the full experience of divinity? Second, he does become a force for good in the end. He fuses Superman and Ultraman for a moment, releasing tremendous energy from the matter/antimatter blast. He does this in order to help Superman obtain some “bottled Bleed” in order to save Lois Lane’s life, for which purpose Adam must obtain enough energy to “broadcast [Superman’s] pure essence to a receiver in a higher dimension.” His final words in the series? “Only Superman can save us now.”
It’s tempting to think that Morrison’s version of Dr. Manhattan is partly Captain Atom, but I would suggest that in fact, Moore’s character has these same qualities. He is not beyond emotion — witness his freakout at the press conference when he is told that he caused Janey Slater’s cancer. As much as he pretends to be above emotion, he can be far from rational when under duress. Also, his insistence on keeping Veidt’s secret at the end, and his murder of Rorschach to ensure the secret would stay safe, suggests that (perhaps due to Laurie’s revelation on Mars) he still has a vested interest in protecting humanity.
Of course, almost immediately afterwards he departs our galaxy, just as Captain Adam in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond says, “I must return to my world.” But unlike Dr. Manhattan, we may see the “quantum superman” again — if 52 and its successors prove anything it’s that in the DC Universe, nothing ever ends.
In the last twoentries, I superverbosely examined all the various Charlton “Action Heroes” upon whom the Watchmen characters are based, and noted that Alan Moore had to create his own characters because although DC had acquired the Charlton heroes, DC editor-in-chief (and former Charlton executive editor) Dick Giordano wanted to integrate them into the DC universe rather than, y’know, corrupting and killing them.
So Watchmen got new characters while some of the Charlton characters found their way into various inhabited quarters. Captain Atom got his own series, Blue Beetle landed in the Justice League, and Nightshade joined the Suicide Squad.
Then there was The Question. Unlike those other, more generic superheroes, who could be slotted pretty easily into an ongoing comic universe, The Question was a bit of an oddball. He didn’t have a costume, really (besides the lack of a face), and he didn’t have any superpowers. Most importantly, his strident Objectivism was a deeply idiosyncratic Steve Ditko expression, one that stood pretty much alone in the mainstream comics world. How could anybody who wasn’t Ditko keep writing a character like this?1
The writer DC chose for the job was Denny O’Neil, and the choice made it clear that The Question would be changing. (And this is probably a good time to note that spoilers follow for Watchmen and O’Neil’s Question series.) Like Ditko and Giordano, O’Neil was another Charlton veteran who arrived to shake up the rather stodgy and stale DC stable in 1968. He really made his name a couple of years later, with a brief but legendary run on Green Lantern, which became Green Lantern/Green Arrow under his watch. In that series, O’Neil teamed with artist Neal Adams to bring a street-level realism to the formerly rather cosmic and abstract Green Lantern tales. Suddenly, the prototypical DC hero, a rather bland and one-dimensional “big brave uncle”, was forced to confront situations in which the law wasn’t always on the side of the righteous, and social inequity loomed larger than supervillainous plots.
Green Arrow was introduced as a fiery progressive foil to Lantern’s true blue Establishment values, but O’Neil wisely avoided blatant partisanship by keeping both heroes heroic and flawed. Arrow in his way is as shrill and didactic a voice for liberalism as The Question ever was for conservatism, and sometimes Green Lantern’s cautiousness saved Arrow from making crucial mistakes, even as Arrow opened Lantern’s eyes to a raft of problems he’d never noticed or cared about before.
The book took on racism, slumlords, cults, corporate oppression, and even heroin addiction, in a story that followed immediately on the heels of Stan Lee’s Comics Code-breaking anti-drug story in Spider-Man. Evenhanded though O’Neil was, the book’s depiction of these issues make it pretty clear that his sympathies are on the left. In one of its most famous and repeated passages, an elderly black man angrily confronts Green Lantern, saying, “I been readin’ about you… how you work for the blue skins… and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins… and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with–! …The black skins! I want to know… how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!” And Mr. Green Lantern has no answer, just a feeble, “I… can’t.”
So how would perhaps the most famously liberal writer in comicdom do justice to the famously Randian Question? Well, the first thing O’Neil did to the character was to kill him. Issue 12, page 1 of O’Neil’s Question series begins with the caption, “Hub City, Friday, November 21, 10:45 P.M.: Charles Victor Szasz has exactly 25 hours and 15 minutes to live.” But wait, what does that have to do with The Question, whose name is Vic Sage? Well, it seems O’Neil applied a bit of retcon to Ditko’s character, declaring that “Vic Sage” is in fact only a pseudonym for an orphan born Charles Victor Szasz. He kept Sage’s television career, his relationship with professor Aristotle Rodor (who he calls “Tot”), and his violent investigative techniques as The Question, but applied a hardboiled noir filter and drained out Ditko’s unsubtle philosophical and political commentary.
True to its word, that first issue’s last panel shows Vic Sage, aka Charles Victor Szasz, lying at the bottom of a river for at least ten minutes after being beaten lifeless and then shot in the head, his Question mask floating slowly upward. He was defeated by a martial arts expert named Lady Shiva, and then abused and pummeled by various generic punks before being shot with an air gun, the slug traveling all the way through his head. Aforementioned punks then dumped him in a river. Hardly an auspicious beginning for a hero’s new series! In fact, it reads more like a series-ending story.
And in fact, that’s what it was. Oh, the character came back, miraculously3 nursed back to health by that selfsame Lady Shiva, for reasons of her own. But Ditko’s version of Vic Sage was dead forever, to be reborn as someone quite different. After reviving him, Lady Shiva took Sage to her mentor Richard Dragon (a character created by O’Neil in a novel and later transferred to the DC universe.) Spending a year with Dragon, Sage discards his old self to adopt Zen philosophy and meditation. In fact, the book embraces Zen and Eastern philosophy so enthusiastically that O’Neil not only dramatizes various koans throught the run, he also provides a “Recommended Reading” text at the end of each issue, encompassing titles like Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Wandering Taoist, and The Art Of War.
O’Neil also revamps The Question’s driving passion. In the Ditko stories, that passion is pretty clearly for the capital-T Truth, which naturally in Ditko’s viewpoint exists as objective fact, waiting only to be announced by that hero noble and unafraid enough to tell it. According to O’Neil, The Question’s passion is in fact… curiosity. Where Superman has altruism, Batman has revenge, and Spider-Man has guilt, O’Neil’s Question just has a burning desire to know things. As superhero obsessions go, it’s certainly different, but not very propulsive. “Gee, I’d like to know more about that” isn’t exactly bursting with narrative tension.
To compensate, O’Neil places his hero in Hub City, which he depicts as the very archetype of urban decay. Unlike Marvel, which generally sets its superheroes in real locations, DC tends to set its stories in fictional metropolises such as, well, Metropolis. Then there’s Gotham City, Coast City, Central City, Star City… you get the picture. Usually this approach leaves the stories feeling more abstract, less grounded, and a touch sillier. In the case of Hub City, however, the distancing tactic worked to the stories’ advantage. Because he wasn’t naming real names, O’Neil was free to make Hub City the worst city in America — corrupt cops, rampant crime, drugs everywhere, government incompetent and/or corrupt, orphanages bankrupt, and so on. If O’Neil had explicitly set his Question stories in East St. Louis, Illinois (upon which he based Hub City), he’d surely have endured angry letters and maybe even legal trouble. But with “Hub City”, he was free to portray the blight we know exists without the discomfort of disparaging someone’s actual home.
The fact that The Question lived in Hub City forced him into dramatic situations that curiosity alone could not have produced, while at the same time pushing O’Neil’s social justice themes to the fore. Supervillains were rather thin on the ground in Hub City, but human misery was everywhere Vic Sage looked. That misery drove most of his stories, in one fashion or another. Vic may be curious, but in Hub City, all his questions had tragic answers.
Predictably, Objectivist fans of the Ditko character freaked out at these changes, writing in to tell O’Neil that his storyline amounted to a cult brainwashing, but the die was cast. Or, at least, mostly. Vic never came off like a junior Ayn Rand again, but neither did he settle in Zen calm. In Hub City, how could he? He struggles constantly with feelings of anger, bitterness, and helplessness, falling further and further away from his meditation practice as the series goes on. One of these “behavioral dips” impels the story that brings you today’s entry. For as the annotations tell us:
The connection to the Charlton Comics heroes was recognized by the writers that carried on those heroes. In a late 1980s issue of The Question, the Question reads a copy of Watchmen and tries to emulate Rorschach’s methods.
The issue in question is #17. Things haven’t been going particularly well for Vic. In issue #15, he meets a hardcore racist named Loomis McCarthy, whom he despises. Then that selfsame McCarthy takes a bullet meant for Vic, sacrificing his own life even as Vic was in the midst of telling him, “I loathe you and everything about you — and everything you stand for.” Vic gets furious at a bystander who calls McCarthy a hero:
Then in #16, there’s an assassination attempt on the Hub City chief of police, who is seemingly the only honest cop in the whole burg. (At least, he’s the only one with a name.) At the end of the issue, The Question apprehends the assailant, who goes by the handle “Sundance.” As #17 begins, the imprisoned Sundance has summoned a fancy lawyer from Seattle.4 Vic is there in a journalistic capacity as the lawyer arrives, and thus witnesses the twist: the lawyer isn’t a laywer at all, but rather the assassin’s partner in crime, who sure enough goes by “Butch.” So Butch and Sundance escape back to Seattle.
This escape infuriates Vic, so he buys an airline ticket to Seattle, hoping to chase down the criminals. At the airport, Tot gently chides him, “Two things drive you — anger and curiosity. I sense that the anger is in control. I wish it were the curiosity.” Rodor leaves, and Vic picks up a little reading material for the flight: Watchmen. Not surprisingly, he tunes into Rorschach, thinking, “Maybe a bit over the edge, maybe a little bigoted and he sure as hell is angry, but he does have moves.” Vic dozes off in his seat, and dreams the end of #15, but with himself as Rorschach, complete with crinkle-edged speech balloons and italicized text.
Almost immediately after arriving in Seattle, Vic gets drunk with an underworld type, attempting to get information, only to get himself badly beat up by that same guy. He eventually wins the fight, and steals his attacker’s ID. As The Question, he drives up outside the thug’s house, and thinks, “I could sit here in this rental car and keep an eye on the bastard’s house until something happened. But I ask myself, what would Rorschach do? He’d kick ass.” So The Question dives through the picture window, threatens the dude, and then gets clocked by a partner who was also in the house. On orders from Butch and Sundance, the two guys drive him up into the wintry mountains, planning to break his arms & legs and then let him freeze to death. Sitting in the car, he thinks, “Tot said my anger was in control and he was right and when I’m riding anger I make mistakes. Stupid mistakes. Why didn’t I listen?”
The Question manages to leap out of the moving car, and flees into the snowy wilderness, thinking to himself, “How did Rorschach end up? Oh yeh… dead. He ended up a wet spot in the snow. Why’d I have to remember that? Why do I have to keep learning the same lessons over and over? Being tough is not enough…” Then the wounded, exhausted, and frozen Question collapses. The thugs find him, and one points a gun at his head, saying, “Any last words?” The Question’s reply: “Yeah. Rorschach sucks.” Then a sudden surprise rescue from Green Arrow, and finis for that issue.
So now we have a triangle, its three points being Ditko’s Question, O’Neil’s Question, and Moore’s Rorschach. Ditko’s creation was the wellspring and inspiration for both of the other characters, and this issue draws the line connecting those characters to each other. As a means of character development for O’Neil’s Question, it works very well. One of the book’s major themes is Vic’s search for identity — as an orphan and a wanderer among philosophies, The Question’s central question is, “Who am I?” In that context, of course he’d explore adopting a persona based on this funhouse reflection of himself.
The trouble is, Vic does a terrible job of reading Watchmen. His takeaway about Rorschach seems to center on violence, anger, and toughness. It’s almost as though he has Rorschach mixed up with The Comedian. As a result, he misses the attribute of Rorschach which is most opposite Vic himself: his certainty. Rorschach is not seeking identities — ever since the Blaire Roche case, his identity is rock-solid. He knows exactly what he stands for and never wavers, much like Ditko’s Question. He’s about the last person in his universe who would ever say something like, “Maybe there are no heroes… and no villains, either.” Putting those words in Rorschach’s mouth shows us just how much distance is between those two points in our triangle.
The next incident also underlines their differences. Where Rorschach threatens and injures criminals in an attempt to get information, Vic tries to buddy up to them, only to get injured himself. Can you imagine Rorschach ever offering to get drunk with a criminal? Or for that matter, a common thug getting the jump on him? Where Vic isn’t sure what to do, and therefore tries new methods, Rorschach knows exactly what his methods are, and does not waver from them.
Those methods, I would argue, do not include charging into unknown situations to “kick ass.” Most of the times we see him go into action — investigating Blake’s death, hiding in Moloch’s fridge, eliminating Big Figure and his henchmen in jail — he is quite deliberate about everything, and appears to have thought through the angles either ahead of time or very quickly. Even when we see him act spontaneously, such as his cooking fat attack, he’s not acting impulsively — his facial expressions and body language are placid. Malcolm Long’s description of the subsequent actions says that they “dragged” Rorschach away from the scene, which suggests fighting or agitation, but immediately afterwards, he says that Rorschach “spoke to the other inmates.” Not screamed, not shouted… merely spoke.
We see an angry Walter Kovacs, but Rorschach’s affect remains flat, be it in therapy, jailbreak, interrogation, contemplation, or trying to save the world. Only at the very end, when he knows he’s about to die, does his composure shatter. He becomes a wet spot in the snow, but not because of his anger. His demise results from having so much of what O’Neil’s Question lacks: certainty. Vic, on the other hand, gets himself into trouble by letting his emotions rule him, and wavering from his convictions. He leaves Objectivism behind, he leaves meditation behind, he leaves moral clarity behind, and reaches out desperately to a book to help him find direction. But because of his unskilled interpretation of the material, that direction leaves him bleeding in the snow, and thinking that Rorschach sucks, when in fact, the main thing that sucks is The Question’s reading comprehension.
3 Something about the diving reflex, and the bullet being so low-caliber that it failed to damage Vic’s brain, and his mask slowing the slug, and Shiva being “as skilled at healing as she is at harming.” Not that logic really enters the equation much when it comes to the resurrection of comic book superheroes. [Back to post]
In the previous installment, we looked at some of the Charlton “Action Heroes” created or co-created by Steve Ditko, upon whom the Watchmen characters were based: Captain Atom, Nightshade, Blue Beetle, and The Question. However, there were a number of O.P.C. as well — Other People’s Characters. They too had their Watchmen equivalents, so watch out for Watchmen spoilers as we round out the Charlton stable.
First, however, there is one action hero who did not have a Watchmen counterpart: the Frank McLaughlin character Judomaster. Rip Jagger is an Army sergeant in 1943, fighting the Japanese on an unnamed South Pacific island, when one of his trigger-happy privates shoots an unarmed girl. Jagger rescues the girl, but is pinned down by enemy fire. Suddenly, kendo-wielding natives ambush the Japanese soldiers, then knock Jagger unconscious. He awakens in a cave, where an ancient sensei thanks Jagger for rescuing (what turns out to be) the sensei’s granddaughter, but tells him that the rest of his unit is dead. Having nowhere else to go, Jagger trains under the sensei to learn judo, becoming so good that he achieves a black belt. Joining forces with the natives to fight the Japanese, Jagger dons the symbolic identity of Judomaster, whose uniform includes a samurai-esque high ponytail and a yellow-on-red rising sun flag motif.
That was the origin as told in Special War Series #4, a comic which was immediately discontinued. Judomaster reappeared the next month as a backup feature in Sarge Steel (who we’ll discuss below), and then a few months later got his own series. In that series, he joins back up with the Army, fights a variety of martial-arts-themed villains, and even picks up a sidekick called Tiger, who you may recall would later on become Nightshade’s trainer.
The theme of Judomaster’s stories was, well, judo. McLaughlin was quite a judo enthusiast, having trained since age 18 and even taught judo classes at the local YMCA. Even before he created Judomaster, he was drawing judo instruction backup features for Sarge Steel, panel after panel patiently explaining complicated throws and always ending with an admonition to be safe and work with an instructor. Those features continued into Judomaster, blurbed with cover copy like “SPECIAL BONUS: Judomaster’s defense against a bully… see how… step by step!” Similarly, Judomaster’s stories make an ongoing effort to teach judo principles and terminology. A typical piece of dialogue: “Judo is developed in three phases. Renshindo is physical development — shoubuho develops proficiency in combat and shushinho results in mental development! We work at these three things here in the dojo, our room where we meet for lectures and practice!”
Between its didactic focus and its WWII setting, there isn’t much here that would adapt easily into the Watchmen milieu, so this is one action hero who doesn’t make the leap into Moore’s world. However, there are some elements that arguably come across nevertheless. First, because of its setting in the previous generation, Judomaster serves as a prelude to the rest of the action heroes, just as the Minutemen set the stage for the Watchmen. Similar to Captain America’s juxtaposition against the 1960s Marvel universe, Judomaster appears in a world where there is no ambiguity, where the enemies are always clear. Also like Captain America, Judomaster fought a skull-faced Nazi, this one called the Smiling Skull. That name hearkens pretty clearly to the Screaming Skull, who Hollis Mason mentions running into at the grocery store. So although Watchmen didn’t inherit Judomaster, it may have (just slightly) inherited one of his villains.
Before Judomaster, the guy giving out judo advice in the backs of Charlton comics was a tough private eye named Sarge Steel. However, unlike Judomaster, Steel wasn’t created by McLaughlin but rather by Pat Masulli, the guy who initially hired McLaughlin at Charlton. In true “Captain Adam” fashion, the character’s real name is… Sargent Steel. He was also an Army sergeant, just to cover all the bases. During a Vietnam tour of duty, he makes an enemy of Chinese terrorist Ivan Chung, which results in a series of attempts on Steel’s life. While Steel is on R&R furlough in Saigon, a grenade is thrown at his feet. He tries to throw it out the window, but it’s been covered in glue, and it destroys his hand. For some reason, the Army doctors replace the missing hand with a clenched steel fist. What the science of prosthetics has gained in function, it has surely lost in badassery.
After the glued grenade ends his Army career, Steel becomes a private detective, and later a CIA agent who maintains a cover as a private detective. His stories are pretty much Chandler/Hammett pastiches, albeit with a bunch of spy stuff rather than seedy California underworld characters. The cliches pile up thick and fast, as do the cars and bodies. Femmes fatale are everywhere, as are initially tough female allies who inevitably crumble into damsel-in-distress mode so that Sarge can save them. The steel fist becomes a prominent feature in every Sarge Steel story. It can deflect bullets, knock out angry animals, break through doorways, and other amazing feats. It’s a rather, uh, hamfisted symbol for Steel’s primary quality, and in fact the predominant theme of his stories: toughness. In fact, Steel is occasionally billed as “The Toughest Man In The World!”, and panel after hardboiled panel tries to prove the point.
The annotations say that “the Comedian shares some attributes with Sarge Steel,” and it’s easy to see what they mean. In his way, Edward Blake tries to live out the agent/detective’s hardheaded, womanizing image. As he says to Moloch, “The world was tough, you just hadda be tougher, right?” Only unlike Sarge Steel, The Comedian’s toughness didn’t win him any happy endings, and it didn’t protect him from much either. He says the line above while weeping inconsolably in front of his longtime enemy, his face is disfigured by the results of his own evil, and he doesn’t even survive to page one of the story. As for his attempts at womanizing, they get him publicly excoriated as a rapist, and alienate him permanently from his only daughter. So much for toughness.
Though he’s got plenty of Sarge Steel in his personality, the Comedian is said to be patterned primarily after The Peacemaker. This is a character created by Joe Gill and Pat Boyette, who originally appeared as a backup feature in a war/espionage comic called Fightin’ 5. In his civilian identity, he’s diplomat Christopher Smith, who travels around the world with his efforts to advance the cause of peace through détente and negotiation. However, when negotiations break down or prove futile, he breaks out a helmet, uniform, and panoply of technology to become The Peacemaker, a dude who punches people and blows stuff up. The first panel of his origin sets out the notion: “This is a man who detests war, violence, and the dreadful waste of human life in senseless conflicts between nations… a man who loves peace… so much so, that he is willing to fight for it!!”
You’d think that this would have to be a short-lived gimmick. Of course, as it turned out, the entire Action Heroes line was short-lived, but one wonders just how many issues Christopher Smith could have continued failing at his job so that he could assume his other identity. As Alan Moore says in a 2000 interview, “I could see the holes in that one straightaway.” DC must have seen them too, because after they acquired the character, they retconned his contradictory philosophy as a mental illness caused by having a Nazi death camp commandant for a father. Thus, although the ostensible theme of Peacemaker stories is peace, I’d suggest that their most prominent attribute is in fact contradiction.
It’s easy to see how The Comedian takes after Sarge Steel. His relation to The Peacemaker isn’t so clear. The Comedian certainly doesn’t love peace, though he’s gung-ho about the fighting part. He’s not a genius who designed a bunch of weapons. Lord knows he’s no diplomat. So in just what way does he take after the Peacemaker?
I suppose the biggest similarity between the characters is in their internal contradictions. The Peacemaker is a supposed pacifist who spends most of each story attacking people. The Comedian is a supposed hero whose scenes mostly involve rape, murder, mayhem, tear-gassing civilians, and so forth. While I don’t think the Peacemaker was intended as any sort of ironic critique on national foreign policy, The Comedian is certainly written with an eye towards the absurdity of enforcing world peace (or any other kind of peace) through brutality and force. The idea of taking a guy like Blake and sending him out to pacify riots, end wars, or clean up crime… well, all anybody can do is laugh.
Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt
The final figure in our O.P.C. lineup is a fellow named Peter Cannon, written and drawn by the enigmatic P.A.M. Charlton stated that it was not at liberty to disclose P.A.M.’s identity, and letter columns were full of speculation about it. The closest the company would come would be to occasionally shoot down a reader’s theory. In the end, P.A.M. turned out to be Peter A. Morisi, who did indeed have an interest in keeping his identity secret — his day job was as a New York City policeman, and he was worried that he’d be fired if his moonlighting was discovered. It’s a rather superheroic conundrum really, except that the crimefighter is the true identity while the mysterious pseudonym belongs to the struggling artist. His character’s situation, though, was a bit different.
When Peter Cannon was just an infant, his parents brought him to a secluded lamasery in the Himalayas. Dr. Richard and Mary Cannon were a medical team fighting an outbreak of black plague in the area. They succeeded in conquering the disease, but it claimed them as its final victims. In gratitude for their sacrifice, the “high abbot” promises not only to raise Peter, but to “develop within the child, the highest degree of mental and physical perfection! Then, we will entrust unto him, the knowledge of the ancient scrolls.” This draws objections from “The Hooded One” who until Peter’s arrival had been slated to receive that knowledge. (Apparently, There Can Be Only One.)
With both mentor and archenemy thus in place, Peter set out on his training, which was a bunch of exercise and education, combined with “the mysteries and power of the mind!” See, what the ancient scrolls teach is the old saw that “Man is capable of all things, but lacks the strength of will to attain his potential, for he uses but one tenth of his brain, throughout his lifetime!” (Despite having been thoroughly debunked for ages, this myth is such a compelling origin for superpowers that it’s still getting used today.) Thus Peter is taught “concentration, thought patterns, mind over matter, meditation,” and so forth, until he emerges as a hyper-capable hero.
He’s as physically fit as a person can be, but not superhumanly so. He’s very well-educated, but he doesn’t present himself as a polymath. No, his superpower, as well as the primary theme of his stories, is willpower. The “high abbott”1 posits “strength of will” as the reason why 90% of the brain remains unused, so it is through strength of will that Peter accesses his abilities. He even has a catchphrase for when he’s about to do something awesome: “I can do it… I must do it… I will do it!”
After passing the final tests that complete his training, Peter is sent from the lamasery into our world, accompanied by his childhood friend and assistant Tabu. He’s rather disappointed in what he finds — the sometimes squalid and venal world is no match for the monastic culture that raised him. Consequently, he becomes a rather reluctant hero. In pretty much every issue, Tabu has to wheedle and cajole Peter into donning his Thunderbolt costume and going out to save the day. A typical exchange:
TABU: Can you forever deny the benefits of your power of will to this society in which we live?
PETER: Uh-huh! As long as civilization deals in greed, hatred, and violence, I want no part of it!
Cannon prefers to keep to himself, training and studying, but inevitably there is always some situation that forces him into action. Or at least, there was for about 10 issues, after which he was gone along with the rest of the Action Heroes.
Adrian Veidt’s parents were no medical saviors — all we know about them is his description: “intellectually unremarkable, possessing no obvious genetic advantages.” He grew up not in isolation but luxury, here in the world with the rest of us, eventually orphaned like Peter Cannon but not until he was 17. His intake of Asian wisdom was limited to a ball of hashish he procured in Tibet. (Thunderbolt’s true successor in the Eastern philosophy department may in fact be Denny O’Neil’s version of The Question, but more about that next time.) Thus there was no guru and no ancient scrolls — his only teachings were the promptings of his own intellect and ego.
We only have his word for all of this, and he may not be exactly reliable, what with being the villain of the piece and all. He deludes himself in some important and visible ways, which means that his account of his life may be questionable as well. So, he may not actually be the smartest person in the world, though at the very least, we have to admit that he’s a hell of a planner. And like Peter Cannon, he has considerable contempt for the world he means to save. While he speaks of “humanity’s salvation,” he sees it in terms as abstract as a math problem, and doesn’t hesitate to kill millions of people, even as he may claim to have made himself feel every death. It’s as if his left brain, the analytic and logical side, is in complete control, to the exclusion of the feeling & compassionate right brain. Thunderbolt may use 100% of his brain, but Ozymandias looks like he’s running right around 50%.
So while Veidt2 is certainly no dummy, he seems to lack any wisdom to match his exceptional intelligence. What he clearly does have in abundance, though, is willpower. Through his own desire to do so, he perfects his body and reflexes, so much so that he can even catch a bullet. He amasses a personal fortune well beyond his inheritance, through his scientific successes and business acumen. And as he gazes at the half-burned map in the abortive Crimebusters meeting, one can almost see the thoughts forming in his head: I can do it… I must do it… I will do it.
Thus concludes our trip through the Charlton inspirations for Watchmen characters. What I think becomes clear is that although Moore worried that his superhero murder mystery wouldn’t work without established characters, Watchmen is actually a much better book for the freedom it has from established continuity. In nearly every case, Moore’s changes to the characters made them deeper and more intriguing, and he was also able to entirely eliminate or amalgamate characters as he saw fit, thereby eliding the woolliness and baggage that tends to accompany existing characters.
Watchmen is a jewel in so many ways — Moore and Gibbons are just so perfectly in control, and one aspect of this is that Moore got to decide exactly what everybody’s past was, and didn’t have to engage with messes like The Question’s Objectivism or The Blue Beetle’s tangled history. He could write Under The Hood in a viewpoint that worked perfectly for the story, rather than one that would have to be wrenched in there from established continuity. And he could tap into the keystone theme of each character and ring changes upon it in ways that resonated with each other.
Of course, that’s not to say that Alan Moore isn’t adept with O.P.C. While nearly every generalization about his work falls apart in the face of his astonishing prolificity, I think it’s safe to say that he’s very good at engaging with other people’s characters and revealing startling new depths in them. From Miracleman to Swamp Thing to Batman & Superman to the dizzying array of literary characters in the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, and even the historical characters on display in From Hell or the eroticized rewrites of Lost Girls, Moore can reveal fresh angles on established figures, with deftness and economy. No doubt the book would still have been great if he’d been given free rein over the Charlton characters.
The fact that he wasn’t, though, means that we got not only reinterpretations but entirely new creations, while the Charlton characters were allowed to continue growing and evolving in the DC Universe, free of the Armageddon that ends Watchmen. In fact, in one instance a Charlton character even got to react to Moore’s version of himself, even as he had already become someone quite different from his origins. That’s where we’ll pick up next time.
1 I have to scare-quote “high abbott”, because whoever heard of an abbot running a lamasery? It would be like a lama running an abbey![Back to post]
2 In my comic-book-history research, I stumbled across something interesting about this name. In 1928, an actor named Conrad Veidt had the title role in a film called “The Man Who Laughs”, based on a Victor Hugo novel about a noble scion who has face carved into a permanent grin. According to Patrick Day of the L.A. Times, “Stills of Veidt were used as inspiration by the Joker’s creators, artist Bob Kane, writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson.” Moore’s definitive Joker story, Batman: The Killing Joke, appeared shortly after Watchmen. Since we know that Moore is a guy who does his research, could he have drawn inspiration for the name of Watchmen‘s villain from the inspiration for one of the greatest villains in all of comics?[Back to post]
Greetings, fellow Watchmenites. I have not been derailed, merely distracted. It’s crazy how fast six months can go by. Doesn’t seem like it ever used to happen that way twenty years ago, but then again, it’s crazy how fast twenty years can go by. In any case, it’s been a while. Sorry about that, but I did have a lot of reading to do. Let me tell you why, and as usual, I warn that Watchmen spoilers are ahead.
For the first time since this project began, I’m jumping a considerable (well, comparatively so) gap in the Annotated Watchmen v2.0 While the last couple of references, which turned out to be more or less red herrings, were on pages 12 and 15 of Chapter 1, we now jump all the way to page 23, having completed Rorschach’s tour through the main cast:
Now that we have met the main characters, it’s useful to look at the characters that they are loosely based on.
Moore’s original plan for Watchmen was that it would involve the Charlton Comics heroes, whom DC had purchased from the defunct Charlton in the early 1980’s. DC eventually decided to insert these characters into its own super-hero universe, leaving Moore to rework the characters in Watchmen. The Charlton characters and their Watchmen analogues are as follows:
The Question: Rorschach
The Comedian: The Peacemaker, though the Comedian shares some attributes with Sarge Steel as well
Nite Owls I and II: Blue Beetles I and II
Silk Spectre: Nightshade
Dr. Manhattan: Captain Atom
Ozymandias: Pete Cannon, Thunderbolt
The annotations then go on to briefly describe each Charlton character, but I’m not quoting that part, because I’m going to cover the same ground, albeit with trademark superverbosity. But first, a little history.
Once upon a time, in a town called Derby, Connecticut, there was a publishing company. Founded by Italian immigrant John Santangelo in 1931, the company’s first business was publishing lyric books for current popular songs. Unfortunately for Santangelo, this business model was illegal, and he ended up with a year-long jail term in 1934 for copyright violations. In the pokey, he met an attorney named Ed Levy, and the two went into business together after paying their debt to society. They both had sons named Charles, which is how the name “Charlton” came to be. They got hold of an old cereal box printing press, and made it part of a publishing venture. Where other companies contracted out for printing and distribution, Charlton put everything under one roof. They published (legal) music magazines (including the long-lived Hit Parader), fiction magazines, crossword puzzles, and, yes, comics. They published all kinds of comics — science fiction, funny animals, licensed properties (e.g. The Flintstones), crime, romance, war, horror, and when the circumstances dictated, superheroes too.
They were never a prestigious comics company, and they paid some of the lowest page rates in the business. In fact, the main reason that they published comics at all was that it was cheaper to do so than to shut the presses down, or so the story goes. Consequently, they were never known for their quality — writers and artists pounded out work quickly in order to make a living at such low wages. Nevertheless, for a time Charlton was a place where talented creators could hone their craft at the beginnings of their careers. Because the audience was small and the work high-volume, beginners could acquire a great deal of practice with a low public profile, and earn a few bucks in the process.
One of these beginners was a gifted, serious artist named Steve Ditko. Ditko did his first Charlton story in 1954, and continued working for the company throughout the 1950s, illustrating eerie tales and science fiction stories with an unusual flair and distinctiveness. However, after enduring a bout of tuberculosis in the mid-50’s, Ditko began taking side work at another company: Atlas Comics, which was soon to become Marvel. Ditko turned out the same kind of stories for Atlas as he did for Charlton, though at the former he was partnered with a veteran comics writer named Stan Lee.
As the 1960s dawned, superheroes were starting to gather a bit of steam again, so Ditko collaborated with Charlton writer Joe Gill to create a new superhero for the atomic age: Captain Atom! More about him later. Over at the company now known as Marvel, Ditko and Lee also got together to create a quirky superhero, whose debut was exiled to the final issue of an ailing anthology series called Amazing Adult Fantasy.
This was the birth of Spider-Man, one of the most famous and successful superheroes of all time. Month after month, Ditko and Lee turned out compelling, surprising Spider-Man stories, in the process generating an enduring supporting cast and rogues gallery for the instantly popular hero. They also collaborated on an even weirder creation: Doctor Strange, Master of The Mystic Arts, whose journeys through surreal extradimensional landscapes had college kids convinced that Ditko must have been on drugs.
The joke was on them, though, because not only was Ditko sober, he was straight and rigid as a steel arrow, and an arch-conservative Ayn Rand follower to boot. Lee, on the other hand, was a classic New York liberal, and not only that, he adhered to the notion that credit for a character’s creation should go solely to the writer. So as Spider-Man’s popularity skyrocketed (along with the rest of the Marvel line), the die was cast for these two guys to come into conflict. In fact, they weren’t even on speaking terms for the last year or so of their Spider-Man run, meaning that Lee would provide a line or two of plot summary, then Ditko would turn in full pages of art, into which Lee had to figure out how to slot his captions and dialogue.
When Ditko finally left, after Spider-Man #38, he never publicly said why. Onlookers have speculated about political conflict, character ownership claims, royalty disputes, and even a disagreement over the true identity of the Green Goblin. We will likely never know, as Ditko became more or less a media recluse, refusing most interviews and most questions.
What we do know is that after leaving Marvel in 1966, he returned to Charlton. By this time, he’d secured his place in the pantheon of legendary superhero artists, and a new Charlton executive editor named Dick Giordano wanted to capitalize on the opportunity. Thus was born the Charlton “Action Hero” line, including four Ditko-drawn heroes: Captain Atom, The Blue Beetle, The Question, and (briefly) Nightshade. To these, Giordano added other creators’ characters, such as Joe Gill & Pat Boyette’s Peacemaker, Peter A. Morisi’s Thunderbolt, Gill & Frank McLaughlin’s Judomaster, and Pat Masulli’s Sarge Steel. Sadly, while the Action Heroes line had its fans, it couldn’t sustain itself, and by the end of 1967 the whole thing had been scrapped.
Fast forward to 1983. By this time, Giordano had left Charlton, and had in fact become editor-in-chief at DC Comics. Charlton itself had fallen on hard times, publishing only reprints of its old material year after year. DC Executive Vice President Paul Levitz bought the rights to the entire Action Hero line from Charlton, as a gift to Giordano, who was encouraged to use the characters however he pleased.
Meanwhile, Alan Moore was contemplating a superhero murder mystery with established characters, and mapped out a pitch based around the recently acquired Charlton heroes. Giordano, wanting to use the characters as a part of the mainstream DC universe, balked at the changes that Moore’s storyline would force upon them, and encouraged Moore to create new characters for his project. And so here we are, with a book full of characters who share DNA with their Charlton ancestors, but who have also mutated in important and interesting ways.
Let’s look at each Charlton action hero in turn, along with how they map to their Watchmen analogues. In this entry I’ll focus on the Ditko characters, and then next time around I’ll pick up the rest.
Captain Atom premiered in March of 1960, as the heroic alter ego of… Captain Adam, an eye-roller of a “secret” identity name if there ever was one. Captain Allen Adam, at least as he’s described on the first page of his origin story, is pretty superlative even before he gets his powers: “the Air Force career man who knew more about rocketry, missiles, and the universe than any man alive… a specialist of the missile age, a trained, dedicated soldier who was a physics prodigy at eight, a chemist, a ballistics genius!” For some reason, this invaluable genius is inside an Atlas missile, making final adjustments with just three minutes until blast-off. Wouldn’t you know it, he drops the screwdriver and can’t extricate himself in time, so he is launched into the stratosphere alongside an atomic warhead, preset to explode in space.
And explode it does! Captain Adam is disintegrated, but… “at the instant of fission, Captain Adam was not flesh, bone and blood at all… the desiccated molecular skeleton was intact but a change, never known to man, had taken place!” In point of fact, he mysteriously reintegrates, but as a (literally) radioactive man. His first task is to find himself a suit that will protect others from his radioactivity, and so his military buddies fetch him something called “dilustel”, which “converts the escaping rays to another frequency in the light spectrum.”
Captain Atom possesses a wide variety of powers, some of which seem to fluctuate at the writer’s whim. There are a few constants. He can fly and survive outer space like Superman. He can disintegrate and reintegrate to phase through solid matter. He can project heat from his body, and is strong and invulnerable. Otherwise, he can do whatever the plot needs him to do.
The main theme to Captain Atom stories is American superiority. Early on, these tended to take the form of short, fantastical red-baiters like “The Second Man In Space,” in which Captain Atom rescues a Russian astronaut who is dying in his capsule but ignored by Russian leaders on the ground, desperate to score a propaganda victory over the USA. (The astronaut lands safely and proclaims that an American saved him, meaning that the Russian was not the first man in space, hence the title.)
Later, the Captain turned his attention to marauding aliens, and finally, in the 1966 revival, to supervillains like Doctor Spectro, Thirteen, and The Ghost. Throughout all his stories, he remains a military officer whose loyalty is to the United States government. Even the supervillainy of his supervillains tended to be along the lines of “I stole some of the Air Force’s valuable equipment!” (In fact, his most frequent nemesis The Ghost was that worst of all blackguards, a former military adviser turned traitor.) All of CA’s victories, whether over Communists, aliens, supervillains, or rogue asteroids, were assertions of American invincibility1, and when they were complete he always returned to his life as Captain Adam, USAF.
Like Allen Adam, Jon Osterman has considerable scientific knowledge, and like Adam, he finds himself locked in an inescapable chamber upon which the power of Big Science is unleashed. Osterman is similarly disintegrated, and then reassembles himself again, albeit rather more gradually and gruesomely than does his predecessor. Finally, like Captain Atom, Dr. Manhattan can do pretty much anything he wants to, and for a time he even does it in the service of the United States government, lending it the same air of total indomitability.
Such are the similarities. But the differences mean more. Where Captain Atom is a military captain, representing armed aggression and might, Doctor Manhattan is an academic Doctor of Philosophy, representing intellectual inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Consequently, the Doctor soon loses interest in the kinds of hegemonic operations that occupy the Captain, moving his sphere of exploration to another sphere altogether. In any case, the Doctor’s government is a far cry from the unquestioned source of good that government represents in the Captain’s world.
Moreover, Dr. Manhattan’s persona takes Captain Atom’s godlike powers to their logical conclusion of godhood. For someone who travels among the stars and witnesses the wonders of the universe, the Captain seems content to keep his energies focused on the rather small beer of supervillain battles and national defense. The Doctor, on the other hand, comes to view such topics with utter indifference, finding fervency only in quantum miracles and the spontaneous creation of life. Reflecting this schism, the American people love the Captain2 but are utterly terrified of the Doctor, and perhaps rightly so. They realize that his loyalty is not to the United States nor even to humanity, and that therefore their own safety hangs always by the thread of his whims.
In issue #823 of the rebooted Captain Atom, the Captain picks up a partner. This is a heroine named Nightshade, “The Darling Of Darkness.” Nightshade is basically the punching kicking type, but she does have the superpower to change into a shadow (although she hates to do it), and also carries an arsenal of stuff like “ebony bombs” and a “black light gun.”
Of all the Charlton heroes, she bears the least resemblance to her Watchmen counterpart, and for good reason: Moore has said that he found her the least interesting, and that he patterned Silk Spectre II more after heroines like the Phantom Lady and the Black Canary. Stay with me though, because it’s still worth looking at how Nightshade herself made her way into the character of Laurie Juspeczyk.
Nightshade didn’t have too many Charlton appearances. She was created by Ditko and Joe Gill for Captain Atom, but she only showed up in a handful of issues before that series was canceled. However, she did have three solo stories as a CA backup feature, written by Dave Kaler and drawn by future Batman artist Jim Aparo. The predominant theme of these stories was childhood trauma, specifically centered around the character’s mother. Eve Eden is a senator’s daughter and jet-setting party girl, but this is merely a front for her deadly serious vigilante activities as Nightshade. She trains relentlessly on different fighting styles under the tutelage of Tanaka, also known as Tiger, the former sidekick of Judomaster4. (More on Judomaster next time.)
Why is she so driven, and why the deception? Well, it turns out that Nightshade has a nightmare in her past. One day when her father was away, her mother Magda brought Eve and her brother Larry into a room, drew the curtains and turned out the light. She explained that “once I was a princess in the land of the nightshades! And you’ve inherited the power of the royal nightshades from me!” She had fled this fairy/fantasy world because of a monster called The Incubus. So, for some reason, she decides to take her kids back to that land, and who should immediately show up but minions of The Incubus himself? They seize Magda, who yells at the children to run away and turn into shadows. Eve successfully does so, for the first time in her life, while the demons kill Magda in front of Larry.
Eve runs toward Magda, who grabs her hand and uses the last of her power to bring Eve back to our world, then dies, but not before extracting a promise from Eve that she will never tell her father, and will go back for Larry. Unfortunately for Nightshade, the Action Heroes line was cancelled before she could ever fulfill this promise. It wasn’t until years later, after the character had been well-integrated into the DC universe, that the story continued, albeit with slightly altered post-Crisis continuity.
So it’s true that Silk Spectre II does not have the power to turn into a shadow, or do anything supernatural at all. She is no princess from the land of the Nightshades. But what she does have is a mother who, recklessly and unwisely, drew her into a mysterious and shadowy world at a very young age. Sally Jupiter doesn’t bind her daughter with a dying wish, but she certainly makes it clear what she intends for Laurel to do, and the obedient girl tries her best to live up to that demand. Thus begins her life as an adjunct, first to an atomic-powered superhero and then to a millionaire gadget freak. Her powers and her look may have been based more on the Black Canaries of the world, but the legacy of Nightshade lives on in Silk Spectre II.
“Millionaire gadget freak” is a nice transition to Ditko’s Blue Beetle, but first we must once again hop into the wayback machine. Further back, I mean.
The Blue Beetle didn’t start out at Charlton. No, he was created in 1939 at a company called Fox Comics. Here, let’s ask Jim Steranko to slip into comic book historian mode and tell us about it:
Fox Publications was the poverty row of comic books and their superheroes were completely derivative. Their most important hero was the Blue Beetle. I remember one day I talked to Charlie Nicholas, the creator of the Blue Beetle, and I asked him what was it that inspired him to create this rather unusual character named after a bug. And he explained everything about the Fox mentality to me in two words: Green Hornet.
So Blue Beetle began as a pulpy masked detective, but very quickly morphed into an extremely generic Superman clone. His civilian identity was Dan Garret, rookie cop, who made sure to bumble through his job so that nobody would suspect his secret. He got pestered by a girl reporter, who was suspicious about all his disappearances. Sometimes he took something called “Vitamin 2X” to turn into the Blue Beetle, and sometimes he just changed without any help at all, with perhaps a handwave to radioactivity maybe being the source of his powers somehow. His stories were almost incoherent, at least to my modern eye — very stylized and elliptical. He’d acquire new superpowers every issue, whatever happened to fit the plot, but he was always your basic flying, invulnerable, super-strong guy with eye powers like x-ray and heat vision.
By 1950, Fox had crumbled, and its assets were put up for sale. Charlton picked up the rights to the Blue Beetle, and reprinted stories from Fox’s inventory. These didn’t catch on, though, and it wasn’t until 1964 that Blue Beetle saw the light of day again, this time in a reboot from Joe Gill and Tony Tallarico. In this second incarnation, Dan Garrett (who had somehow picked up an extra “t”) was no longer a rookie cop, but was instead one of those comic book science types who knows everything about everything. He’s ostensibly an archaeologist, but can produce knowledge of physics, chemistry, linguistics, or whatever as the plot demands it.
This time around there’s at least a clear explanation for his powers, which he acquires when investigating a pyramid. He opens a casket, which releases the kind of great evil for which pyramid caskets are famous worldwide. However, he also finds a scarab nearby. When he picks up the scarab, he has a vision of a mighty ancient pharaoh, who tells him it is now his duty to fight evil as the Blue Beetle.
He’s still no less derivative — his base powerset is flight, x-ray vision, strength, invulnerability, and heat vision. And again, he displays random new powers on cue from problems in the story: he can “transmit electrical energy” past a broken wire or use his “micro-vision” to analyze broken machinery. However, he’s not just derivative of Superman — he also gets a Captain Marvel code word (“Kaji Dha!”) to say whenever he wants to switch back and forth between identities. Or sometimes clasping the scarab itself gives him his powers. It varies.
This Blue Beetle ran out of steam in early 1966, and so the character was shelved for a while. But a few months later, in the back pages of Captain Atom #83, an entirely new Blue Beetle took the stage, created and drawn by Steve Ditko. This one wasn’t Dan Garret(t) at all, but was instead a (you guessed it) millionaire gadget freak by the name of Ted Kord. Kord had a more interesting costume than the previous Blue Beetles, and his fighting style was dynamic and acrobatic, in the vein of Spider-Man. However, Kord had no superpowers, relying instead on a bug-shaped airship which ferried him from one crime scene to the next, entering and exiting his secret lab via an underwater entrance. Along with his fists, he used a variety of high-tech gimmicks designed to protect himself and beat up the bad guys.
So where did this new Blue Beetle come from, and what happened to Dan Garret? That’s just what the police would like to know, in an ongoing subplot depicting dogged Irish cops from Central Casting, who hassle Kord and his lab assistant/paramour Tracey about Garret’s disappearance. Readers are kept in the dark too, at least until the new Blue Beetle gets his own series in the summer of 1967. Issue #2 of this series reveals all. It seems that back when Kord was a junior scientist, he fell in with his Uncle Jarvis, working as a lab assistant and doing mysterious tests. Jarvis is mum about the purpose of his work, but Kord’s genius helps him solve all his operational problems. Finally, the lab explodes, with Jarvis apparently inside, and Kord uncovers the true purpose of his work: to create unstoppable super-strong androids. He also finds a map, to the mysterious Pago Island.
Kord, conflicted and confused, turns to his mentor, a college professor by the name of… Dan Garret. (Who once again seems to have lost his extra “t”.) Kord strongly suspects that his uncle faked his death, and is completing his scheme on Pago Island. He and Garret agree to investigate, and indeed they find an army of androids on the island. Garret becomes the Blue Beetle to fight them, but is killed when Jarvis makes his robots self-destruct. As Garret is dying, he makes Kord promise to keep his secret and carry on the legacy of the Blue Beetle. Legacy is, in fact, the overriding theme of the Ditko Blue Beetle stories. Kord decides to use his genius to whip up a fancy ship and an arsenal of crimefighting tools, and a new superhero is born.
Moore mashes up various parts of this story to make Nite Owl. Like the early Blue Beetle, the first Nite Owl is also a cop, though there’s no mention of the incompetence ruse. Such a tactic probably wouldn’t last long in Watchmen’s more realistic milieu anyway. And like the latest Blue Beetle, Dan Dreiberg is a brilliant tinkerer whose closets are bursting with suits and gizmos for crimefighting. Archie the owl-ship is pretty much a copy-and-paste of Blue Beetle’s bug-ship, right down to their propensity for dramatically emerging from beneath the waves.
As with the Blue Beetle stories, the idea of legacy permeates the Nite Owl stories. The first time we see Dreiberg, he’s reverently absorbing hero anecdotes from the first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason. There’s clearly a warmth to the relationship, and Dreiberg later tells Laurie Juspeczyk that he idolized Mason. As he says, “I guess that’s pretty obvious.” There’s no Pago Island and no heroic sacrifice — in fact, Dreiberg just approached him as a fan and asked for the use of the name Nite Owl. However, the elder Nite Owl does end up dying violently, and as with Ted Kord and Dan Garret, the mentor’s death is an indirect result of the protege’s actions, in this case freeing Rorschach from prison.
It’s not just Mason, though. Dan Dreiberg is a throwback in all kinds of ways. He doesn’t listen to Devo — he listens to Billie Holiday and Louis Jordan. He wishes the Crimebusters meeting would have worked out, because he wants to belong to a “fellowship of legendary beings” like the Minutemen, or the Knights of the Round Table. He wonders aloud what’s happened to the American Dream. He’s trying not only to carry on the name and legacy of Nite Owl, but to carry on the Golden Age ethos as a whole. Like Blue Beetle, he wants to extend a tradition, and as with Blue Beetle, it doesn’t always work out so well.
Just as the newest Blue Beetle began as a backup feature for Captain Atom, The Question began as a backup feature for Blue Beetle. The cover of Blue Beetle #1 (volume 4, that is) dramatically asks: “WHO IS THE QUESTION?” I’ll tell you: The Question is the most Ditko-esque Charlton hero of them all. Vic Sage is a “hard-hitting TV newscaster.” (Gosh, that sounds awfully dated now, doesn’t it?) He’s not afraid to ask the tough questions, not afraid to hold people strictly accountable for their actions. He alienates many of his co-workers by being so unflinchingly dedicated to the Truth, so unwilling to compromise his principles one iota. Moral weaklings are constantly trying to get him to avoid controversy, which he nobly refuses to do. Consequently, his enemies at the TV station (who fear the loss of revenue that controversy could bring) keep trying to get him fired, but his friends are completely loyal, as is the station owner. And yet, his excellence is all too often unfairly ignored by a docile and apathetic public.
When it appears that the relentless broadcast Honesty of Vic Sage isn’t enough to bring down the forces of corruption and venality, Sage slips into a secluded place and applies a latex mask to his face, which obscures his features. He then releases a special gas invented by a Professor Rodor. The gas binds the mask to his face and changes the appearance of his clothes to a pale blue. He beats up the bad guys, and freaks them out as the eerie gas flows from his hands, revealing hitherto unseen question marks on innocent objects. A precursor to clench-jawed vigilantes like The Punisher, he gleefully sends criminals to the electric chair, or kicks them into the sewer and lets them drown.
In case it’s not clear, the overriding theme of all The Question’s stories is Objectivism. Like Ayn Rand, Vic Sage (whose 3-letter/4-letter naming pattern is surely no accident) holds that morality is not relative but absolute. He adheres to a black-and-white set of principles that leaves no room for compassion (or as he would view it, coddling.) He ensures that his version of justice is always done, meaning that the criminals he has judged pay the maximum consequences for their actions. He also frequently asserts his right to control his own behavior, and of others to control theirs, as when he narrowly escapes an assassination attempt via bombing at the office. The station owner says, “I can’t expect anyone to face violence for me!”, to which Sage replies, “No one can force me to face violence! But neither can they stop me from facing it! That is my decision! What’s up to you is whether or not I’m allowed to continue broadcasting!”
Everybody talks like this in Question stories. It’s page after page of polemic, with Sage boldly declaiming Objectivist views on TV (“I repeat, rights can only belong to individuals! Groups, by themselves, have no rights! The rights belong to the individual within the group!”) while his enemies at the station say things like, “Why does he have to stir up so much trouble? With this many people against him, he must be wrong!” The criminals in his stories cry, “He deserves everything he gets! He didn’t have to pry into my affairs!”, and The Question laughs in their faces when they try to offer him a cut of their loot. Seriously, if he’d lasted long enough to establish an archenemy, it would totally have to be Strawman.
In Blue Beetle #5, the last published issue before the Action Heroes line was cancelled, Ditko lets loose completely. The villain of the Blue Beetle story is an art critic, Boris Ebar, who praises a depressing sculpture on the opening splash page, in a long speech peppered with references to “man’s inevitable weaknesses” and “man’s inability to solve or control the illusion we call existence.” Ted Kord (who, as the hero of the story, has suddenly become an Objectivist) is disgusted at this rejection of objective reality, and couldn’t be more pleased when Vic Sage (in a rare crossover appearance) tells the critic, “That thing and your views belong on a junk heap!” A depressed janitor adopts a costume to resemble the depressing statue, and goes around town trying to destroy more valiant-looking art, cheered on by a bunch of moral relativist hippies. Luckily, the Blue Beetle stops his downer rampage while an admiring Vic Sage looks on.
Then, in The Question backup story, that same Ebar tries to bring a depressing painting into Sage’s TV station (“It represents… the refusal of man to help his fellow man get out of the gutter!”), and as recompense for his gift asks for Sage’s termination. Then Sage’s loyal assistant Nora confronts the critic with a more noble and uplifting painting, which gets him so upset that he hires thugs to go into Nora’s apartment and destroy the painting. Luckily The Question is there to fight them off. In a final climactic scene, Nora again confronts Ebar with the bold painting, and he breaks down in tears, addressing the figure on the canvas: “Why won’t you let me lie to myself? Why do you keep making me see what I left myself become… stop it! I must destroy you… to destroy the proof of what I once wanted to be!” It’s the only superhero comic I’ve ever seen where heroic art defeats the villain, and it is just about as uptight and didactic as you could possibly imagine.
With Rorschach, Moore copies The Question’s absolutism and fierce sense of purpose, as well as his tendency to moralize, albeit to himself in a diary rather than to a city at large. (Well, perhaps that changes after the story’s final panel.) Like The Question, Rorschach sees the world in black and white (“…but not mixing. No gray. Very, very beautiful.”) Like The Question, Rorschach does not hesitate to maim or murder those he sees as scum — he’d just as soon drop a criminal down an elevator shaft as listen to him. And like The Question, he sees himself as a warrior for The Truth in a degraded and corrupt world.
The crucial difference is that Rorschach exists in a world of human beings rather than cardboard cutouts designed to represent caricatured worldviews. Those humans tend to view Rorschach as, well, insane. And with good reason. But Moore does not even let us off that easily.
Yes, Rorschach’s civilian “profession” of carrying a doomsday sign seems like a clear parody of Vic Sage’s televised proclamations. And yes, his tendency towards violence can seem extremely misplaced when applied to harmless cranks like Captain Carnage. And yes, his casual contempt for the majority of humanity is quite obviously at odds with his self-professed heroism. And yet.
And yet in the end Rorschach becomes arguably the most admirable figure in the story, as his refusal to sacrifice his principles in the face of Veidt’s monstrous deception gives him a level of heroism which none of the others can claim. Forget about the Keene Act — even in the face of Armageddon, Rorschach will never compromise.
Not only that, Chapter 6 lets us in on Rorschach’s own humanity, the horrors he has seen which make him the horror that he is. We see him as a child, weeping as abuse rains down upon him, furious as he strikes back at the cruelty around him. We see him shaped by a real incident (it’s vital that the incident be real) in which a docile and apathetic public is accessory to murder. We see the utter blackness of sadism and violent crime which brings out his absolute opposition.
In short, we see enough to understand Rorschach, and to have compassion for him. That compassion is the key to such a character is, perhaps, the final satirical twist on Ditko’s own stiff brand of storytelling, and on the Randian disdain for emotions.
There are more action heroes and more Watchmen counterparts to discuss, but this entry has certainly gone on long enough. Next time: Peacemaker, Thunderbolt, Judomaster, and Sarge Steel! I’ll try to take less than six months to write it this time.
1 The one exception to this is the couple of stories where Captain Atom takes a paternalistic role to a young boy in trouble. In particular, a story called “The Boy And The Stars”, originally from Space Adventures #40, has Captain Atom taking a sick child “to a star which does not appear on maps of the solar system… a lovely star which emanates a ray that I have found useful.” There’s a particularly touching panel in which CA holds the boy’s hand as they stand in a fantastic landscape of swirling Ditko smoke. [Back to post]
2 Though in one issue of the 1966-67 revival, Captain Atom suffers a public backlash highly reminiscent of Spider-Man. [Back to post]
3Charlton’s issue numbering is notoriously weird, presumably from their attempts to skirt postal fees for new publications by changing the names of existing ones instead. So issue #83 of the rebooted Captain Atom is really the 6th issue of the relaunch, since Strange Suspense Stories was renamed to Captain Atom with issue #78. [Back to post]
4Crossovers between the Charlton heroes are rare, and their letter columns at the time explained this policy as intentional, saying that they wanted to focus on establishing their line of heroes before they started mixing them up. However, Nightshade seems to have been the exception to this — between the fact that she’s partnered with Captain Atom and the fact that she trained with Judomaster’s sidekick, her stories probably have the most connective tissue of all the Charlton stable. The uncharitable interpretation of this might be that writers believed there would be no interest in a girl character unless there was an already popular man in her stories. Or, to put another spin on it, she’s a minor character who just coincidentally happens to be the only female of all the “Action Heroes.” [Back to post]