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The Watchmen Bestiary 6 – Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

You know that thing where you pursue every lead from the Watchmen annotations? This is that thing. So we’re once again entering spoiler-town for Watchmen. That’s my only alert this time, because I don’t believe in spoiler warnings for anything written over 1800 years ago.

We only get two panels further on page 9 past our last dive when the annotations throw another reference our way:

Panel 7: “Who Watches the Watchmen” was popular graffiti around the time of the Keene act. It comes from the Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” from Juvenal’s Satires and, of course, is the source of the title of the series. The phrase never appears in its entirety in the series; it is always cut off somehow.

Watchmen chapter 1, page 9, panel 7. Dreiberg descendes the stairs from Mason's apartment. Alongside him is a garage upon which we can see part of a graffiti message: "ho tches e tchmen?" Mason: You too, Danny. God bless.

I’d never heard of Juvenal or his Satires, so I had to start from scratch on this one. Turns out that there was a guy in late 1st/early 2nd century Rome by the name of Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, but because we give all the cool writers of antiquity just one name, we call him Juvenal. He wrote 16 satires, back when the term had a little different definition — not so much about comedy, but certainly still about social critique.

So I read these satires. This isn’t necessarily a straightforward task. Because I don’t read Latin, I had to read the Satires in translation, but there are boatloads of translations out there. I’m no classicist, so I know nothing about the relative merits of Juvenal’s translators, and researching them was beyond the scope of this project. So I picked the Peter Green translation because, hey, Fleetwood Mac! (Not the same guy, I hasten to add. I may not be a classicist, but I am a Macist.)

Lucky for me, I thought the translation was fabulous. I mean, I’m in no position to judge its accuracy (or else I wouldn’t need it), but Green’s introduction is wonderful, and his notes both erudite and entertaining. He explains the choices he’s made, like introducing modern diction in spots, and replacing Juvenal’s references to specific people with references to types, when it appears that Juvenal was naming the person to invoke the type anyway. The satires read very smoothly — his approach worked for me.

As for the Satires themselves, they change a bit as you go through them. The first several are just venomous, a torrent of shrill invective whose closest Watchmen analogue is Rorschach’s opening page jeremiad about the immoral dregs populating the city. They mellow out a bit after that, but still remain at heart a lamentation of how crappy things are now. (“Now” being around 110-130 CE.) Overall they resonate remarkably with the overriding sense of disappointment and degradation in Watchmen. Just as Nite Owl plaintively asks, “What happened to the American dream?”, Juvenal’s entire oeuvre seems to be asking the same question about Rome.

By the way, before we get much further I should address the fact that unlike many of the references in Watchmen, Moore claims to have made this one accidentally. Apparently he’d heard “Who watches the watchmen?” as an aphorism, and used it in the book, but was only later informed (by Harlan Ellison, so the story goes) of the phrase’s classical provenance. Still, there are some interesting connections between the two works.

For instance, there’s a social parallel between Watchmen‘s superheroes and Juvenal’s persona in the Satires. Green spends a large part of the introduction arguing that Juvenal was socially conservative to the point of being reactionary:

His most violent invective… is reserved for those who, in one way or another, threaten to disrupt the existing pattern of society, to inject some mobility and dynamism into the class structure. […] His particular dilemma, like that of many another laudator temporis acti yearning for some mythical Golden Age, is that he is living by a set of moral and social assumptions that were obsolete before he was born.

Green makes a very convincing argument that Juvenal is all about preserving the status quo. The poet’s anger is towards forces of change, like the merchant classes, or aristocrats who cross class lines to have liaisons “beneath” them. (He’s also not fond of patrons who fail to support poets properly — the idea of doing something useful to earn his living never seems to occur to him.)

Superheroes, too, are reactive, and seek to preserve the current order. They patrol the city, looking for forces of disruption, and then neutralize those forces. Or perhaps they get wind of a person or group of people in distress, and they leap to the rescue. Before long, their stories come to be dominated by entities they’ve thwarted in the past, always back to seek revenge or plot a new disruption.

Rarely does a superhero take the initiative to try to prevent disruptions before they happen, or to reshape society into something different and better. In fact, when superheroes become proactive forces of change, they generally stop being superheroes and turn into supervillains, as Watchmen indelibly demonstrates. (This problem may map to superpower countries in our world — Moore says in the New Comics interview that part of his aim with Watchmen was to “try and scare a little bit so that people would just stop and think about their country and their politics.”)

JuvenalcrownedAnother connection is through the concept of lineage. Satire VIII tears into Romans who ride on the coattails of their noble forbears to claim superiority to others, even though they themselves are degenerates. Lineage takes on its own significance in superhero stories, especially in the DC Universe, as identities are passed from mentor to student, father to son, mother to daughter, and so forth. We see plenty of this in Watchmen, with both Nite Owl and Silk Spectre passing the baton to a younger generation, who inevitably embody the identities differently than their predecessors.

Juvenal’s point in Satire VIII is that deeds outshine names, and while the point applies to Watchmen, the more salient aspect is the notion of degeneration, which is one of Juvenal’s constant themes throughout all the satires. Nite Owl II isn’t the hero that Nite Owl I was, though he certainly marshals more power — he’s a more ambiguous figure with more dubious achievements, befitting his time. Similarly, Silk Spectre II doesn’t even like being a superhero, and has trouble living up to her mother’s expectations.

Even within one incarnation, degeneration can occur — Rorschach goes through a clear change to become a much darker figure than he once was. We see it on the larger scale as well — the disgust that Nite Owl I (representative of the earlier generation) expresses for The Comedian (the link to the next generation) illuminates the decline from the Minutemen to the Watchmen (or the Crimebusters, or the loosely associated main characters, or whoever they are.) As Juvenal writes:

But if ambition and lust dictate your headlong progress,
if you splinter the rods in blood across provincial backs, if
blunt axes and weary headsmen are your prime delight,
then you will find your noble background itself beginning
to turn against you, to hold a bright torch to your shamelessness.

Yet another tie worth noting is the portrayals of Alexander The Great in each work. The satires don’t dwell on him, but where they do mention him, Juvenal provides a great counter to Ozymandias’ fascination with Alexander and with antiquity in general. For instance, in Satire X, Juvenal holds forth on how our human desires often go horribly awry. He cites example after example of this, Alexander being one:

One globe seemed all too small for the youthful Alexander:
unhappily he chafed at this world’s narrow confines,
as though caged on some bare rocky Aegean islet. Yet
when he entered the city of brick-walled Babylon,
a coffin was to suffice him. Death alone reveals
our puny human dimensions.

Similarly, in Satire XIV, Juvenal depicts the meeting between Alexander and Diogenes, noting “how much happier was the man who desired / nothing than he whose ambitions encompassed the whole world, / yet would suffer perils as great as all he’d achieved.” As Green notes, for Juvenal it is Diogenes, not Alexander, who is “great.” Contrast this with Ozymandias’ rapturous description of Alexander in Chapter 11 of Watchmen. For Adrian, Alexander is one of the few role models history offers, though he eventually sees that “he’d not united all the world, nor built a unity that would survive him.” It’s an ironic echo of Dr. Manhattan’s words in chapter 12 — “Nothing ever ends.” Juvenal sees this too — Alexander’s quest for the wide world finally arrives in a narrow coffin, and while he takes over much land, he is not made happier for it.

All these connections are worth examining, but what really got me thinking was Satire VI. This satire, the longest and most complex in Juvenal’s quiver, is an epic diatribe against women. For 662 lines (almost 300 lines longer than its nearest competitor), Juvenal alleges one feminine flaw after another. Women are controlling, quarrelsome, conniving, superstitious, greedy, profligate, cruel to slaves and neighbors, consumed with lust, and prone to running off with gladiators and poisoning stepsons and husbands. On and on it goes. In fact, it is the source of the “who watches the watchmen” line, the context being a lamentation about the futility of controlling feminine lust. Here, Green’s translation:

Oh, I know
the advice my old friends would give, on every occasion —
“Lock her up and bar the doors.” But who is to stand guard
over the guards themselves? They get paid in common coin
to forget their mistress’s sex life: both hide the same offence.
Any shrewd wife, planning ahead, will first turn the heat on them.

This is one frightened man. We get glimpses of that same fear of women in Watchmen — Rorschach’s mother is horribly abusive, and leaves him so gynophobic that he’s repulsed by even handling “female clothing.” Also, the monster that Hira Manish designs for Ozymandias is pretty clearly a nightmare version of female genitalia, as underscored by some rather strong hints in Chapter 8.

Watchmen chapter 8, page 11, panels 5 and 6. Manish is putting the finishing touches on her drawing, then she and Shea walk away, revealing a drawing that shows the space squid as a clear horror parody of a female vulva and anus. Manish: More pleasant than your current one, I hope. Illustrating that sequence where the young chew their way out of their mother's womb was quite an experience. There. Finished. Shall we go and wave our baby goodbye, Mr. Shea? Shea: Baby? Ha! If that's any baby of mine there's just gotta be a more enjoyable way of making 'em! Okay, c'mon... we'll go check for a family resemblance. Let's give the tyke a final once-over.

There aren’t very many women in Watchmen, full stop. (In fact, the title Watchmen rather begs the question “What about women?”) What women we do see are not a tour of flaws a la Satire VI, but neither are they fully realized characters in themselves. For the most part, women in this book exist to demonstrate or change the way men feel about things.

We see this in small examples, such as the nameless pregnant Vietnamese woman gunned down by The Comedian in Chapter 2. She exists to show us what a despicable man he is, and to slash his face in a way that echoes Sally Jupiter’s fingernails and will later be echoed by Laurie Juspeczyk’s drink. Later in the story, Malcolm Long’s wife operates as a token to show us how his life is falling apart. She could just as easily be an unfed goldfish, or an unpaid electric bill, but making her a woman gives his descent a greater emotional impact. Chapter 11 gives us a scenario that almost seems like it might pass the Bechdel Test: two women talk to each other about their own relationship. However, only one of the women has a name, and as it turns out, the reason for their interaction, within the dazzlingly intricate structure of that chapter, is still to make a point about Malcolm: that he cannot turn away from the suffering in the world, even when it costs him his own marriage.

To a certain extent, Janey Slater is a token to demonstrate Dr. Manhattan’s feelings, or lack thereof. (The unnamed pregnant Vietnamese women also operates on this level, as The Comedian explicitly points out.) More than that, though, she is a token to manipulate his feelings. She’s used as a pawn by Nova Express (and a pawn in a far larger game by Ozymandias) to drive Dr. Manhattan off the planet. It will take another woman to change his feelings back.

Which brings us to Laurie. For a supposed superhero, she does very little heroing of any kind, with the exception of playing Robin to Nite Owl II’s Batman in the burning building. No, her main function is to change the state of male characters. It starts when she leaves Dr. Manhattan. As he tells us later, this severs his only link to Earth and humanity, and (simultaneously influenced by an embittered and cancerous Janey) he leaves the planet. Then she moves in with Dan Dreiberg, and transforms him from schlub to hero by spending some quality time with him, beating up thugs and then patrolling in full superhero gear. Each time, there is a clear (sometimes hilariously clear) sexual undercurrent. Finally, she has a long dialogue with Dr. Manhattan on Mars, which ends with him convinced to return to Earth.

In none of these cases does she form an intention and succeed with a plan. When she leaves Dr. Manhattan, she is driven purely by rage and frustration, reacting to his freakishly distant demeanor and his disconcertingly supernatural actions. Then her sexuality drives the story with Dreiberg, while her family tragedy causes Dr. Manhattan’s later reversal. (The locus of that tragedy is, unsurprisingly, a man.) Perhaps her best moment is when she shoots Adrian in chapter 12 — too bad she fails.

So what about the elder Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter? She’d certainly give Juvenal plenty of ammunition — she’s adulterous, controlling, passive-aggressive, and sometimes cruel. She also trades off her sexuality, and defines herself in sexual terms, as when Laurie overhears her joke from a room away, “As for me… what I achieved… sitting in it… and as… what I achieved it with… I’m sitting on it!” Early in the story, she occupies a typical marker function, like Watchmen‘s other women — her rape by The Comedian is the first in a series of Chapter 2 episodes designed to demonstrate his aggression, violence, and depravity.

However, the revelations of Chapter 9 put her in a different category. As Dr. Manhattan observes, she loves a man she has every reason to hate, and though that still defines her in terms of her relationship to a man, that encounter gives her a daughter — the “thermodynamic miracle” that brings Jon back to Earth.

I keep circling back to some effect on a male character, but I can’t help thinking that Sally at least comes the closest to breaking through the limits around Watchmen‘s other female characters. The fact that years after the rape, she had a willing liaison with Blake isn’t designed to show us something about him. It shows us something about her. In the book’s penultimate scene, it is her emotions on display. For that moment at least, we feel like we’re reading her story rather than some man’s story in which she plays a part. Her tear-stained face is more real, more human, than any of Juvenal’s caricatures, and the mysteries of her heart deeper by far than any other woman in Watchmen.

Next Entry: There’s Nothing To Get
Previous Entry: The Gods Now Walk Amongst Us

The Watchmen Bestiary 5 – The Gods Now Walk Amongst Us

Won’t you return with me once again to an exploration of the many works referenced by Watchmen, at least according to version 2.0 of The Annotated Watchmen? I warn you, though: only come with me if you’re okay with spoilers for both Watchmen itself and Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator, because there are spoilers aplenty ahead.

So now that we’re done with Gunga Din, we’re finally able to leave page 5 of Chapter 1 behind, rocketing ahead all the way to… page 9! On this page, we get a glimpse of Hollis Mason’s home, and panel 4 brings us this note:

The statuette was presented to Mason upon his retirement. The books are: Two copies of his autobiography, Under the Hood; Automobile Maintenance; and Gladiator by Philip Wylie (one of the first novels about a superhero, and partial inspiration for Superman). Note the owl items.

Watchmen chapter 1, page 9, panel 4. Foreground shows Hollis Mason's bookshelf, including his "Gratitude" statuette, owl tchotchkes, and books such as his own autobiography, Automobile Maintenance, and Philip Wylie's Gladiator. Background shows Mason and Dreiberg. Dreiberg: You know better than that. These Saturday night beer sessions are what keeps me going. Mason: Yeah, well, us old retired guys gotta stick together. Lemme put this out and I'll be right with ya.

So I read Gladiator. Wylie apparently wrote a lot of nutty apocalyptic stuff later on, but I found this book quite enjoyable, even verging on poetic in parts. More to the point, it was remarkably prescient. Not only is much of the modern superhero narrative prefigured in this novel, much of its subsequent deconstruction is as well. And it came out 8 years prior to Action Comics #1, the debut of Superman. So for those of you who haven’t read Gladiator and don’t plan to, here’s a plot summary:

Abednego Danner is an ineffectual but brilliant scientist in a small Colorado town, who discovers a formula for greatly enhancing the density and strength of living tissue. He injects a kitten with the formula, and it subsequently becomes a holy terror that hunts and kills a full-grown cow before Danner decides it’s too dangerous to live, and poisons it. Consumed with curiosity about how the formula would manifest in a human subject, he injects his unborn son without his wife’s knowledge.

From the time the boy, Hugo, is born, he is superhumanly strong and nearly invulnerable. However, he experiences this power as more of a curse than a blessing. His freakish strength sets him apart from other kids, and his refusal to use it (for fear of injuring someone) brands him a coward. He is only able to fully test his strength while deep in the mountains, far away from humanity. He builds himself a fortress there.

Finally, Hugo leaves his hometown and heads to college, where he becomes a football star. In a momentary loss of control, he accidentally kills an opposing player during the final game of the season. Overwhelmed with guilt, he decides he can never return to college, and sets out to find his place in the world. He never quite finds it, though he does go through a long series of varied roles, including circus strongman, fisherman, steelworker, farmhand, and bank teller. He tends to be forced out of each role in one way or another when his superhuman nature manifests. He tries to do good deeds and save lives, to atone for his earlier manslaughter. He also amasses a fortune along the way by diving for pearls far more effectively than any normal human could.

He experiences various relationships with women, sometimes as a dewy-eyed innocent, sometimes as a generous benefactor, sometimes as forbidden fruit to a neglected wife. He makes friends, and tries to act normal around them, concealing his powers. He meets the occasional mentor, who understands his plight but must be left behind for one reason or another.

He also goes to war — World War I. He avoids using his abilities at first, but eventually makes himself known as a dynamo of the battlefield, shrugging off bullets and shredding enemy lines like tissue. When his best friend is killed, he goes berserk, massacring every enemy soldier in every nearby trench barehanded before dropping unconscious from fatigue. He is sent to the hospital, and shortly afterward, the war ends.

Upon hearing the news that his father is dying, Hugo returns to Colorado. When Abednego eagerly inquires as to what impact his boy has made on the world, Hugo cannot bear to tell him the truth, that he never found a way to make his abilities benefit humanity. So he says instead that he stopped the war, and that he’s now going to “right the wrongs of politics and government.” His father is thrilled with this news, and gives Hugo his notebooks with the secret formula. After his father dies, Hugo tries to live up to the lie he told, but his earnest efforts in Washington are soon swallowed by the all-too-human venality, tribalism, and power struggles of those around him.

Finally, Hugo exiles himself again, this time by joining an archaeological expedition, hoping to serve pure science rather than any corrupt human. His powers once again emerge, but this time under the friendly eyes of the expedition’s chief scientist, who exhorts Hugo to undertake a eugenic campaign to make more supermen like himself. Wracked with doubt in the night, Hugo climbs a mountain in a torrential rain and shouts out a challenge to God: “Can I defy You? Can I defy Your world? Is this Your will? Or are You, like all mankind, impotent?” Finally, a bolt of lightning stabs out from the sky, incinerating both Hugo and the notebooks he carries.

gladiatorFor anyone who reads superhero comics, a lot of this should sound very familiar. The alienated childhood and adolescence recalls many a mutant, and the power concealment, while not a secret identity per se, plays out as one for the most part. The power of science and the uneasy tension of science against nature threads through the genre, manifesting prominently in characters like The Hulk and The Thing. Doing good deeds as atonement for a deadly mistake echoes Spider-Man, though Hugo’s samaritan fervor was much more short-lived. And then, of course, there are the clear parallels to Superman — the Fortress Of Solitude, the loneliness, and the powers that match almost identically what Siegel & Shuster initially gave their creation. (In fact, Wylie threatened to sue Siegel for plagiarism in 1940, but never followed through on the threat.)

Hugo does just about everything but put on a cape and fight crime. It’s hardly surprising that he avoids becoming a professional do-gooder, though — almost every time Hugo uses his powers for good, he suffers bad consequences. As Marvel would explore thirty-odd years later, humanity does not react well to an unknown power in its presence. For example, during Hugo’s tenure as a bank teller, a crisis arises: a man is trapped in the vault! The lock is jammed, and the air is running out! It’s an utterly familiar scenario in superhero comics, and what Clark Kent would do is slip away, suit up, show up as Superman, and save the day. Hugo, having no such alter ego, must rely on clumsier methods. He arrives on the scene and tells the bank president that he can save the trapped man, but only if everybody leaves the room for five minutes. In desperation, the bank employees agree, and Hugo rips open the vault. The freed man thanks him, and the bank president demands to know how Hugo opened the safe. When Hugo refuses to tell, the president has him arrested.

After all, a man who can open the bank’s vault by mysterious means constitutes a threat to its security, and therefore to the security of the nation itself! “Society,” the bank president explains, “cannot afford to permit a man like you to go at large until it has a thoroughly effective defense against you. Society must disregard your momentary sacrifice, momentary nobleness. Your process, unknown by us, constitutes a great social danger.” The bank president and his cronies lock Hugo up and torture him. They can’t hurt him physically, but they can starve him, strip him, scream at him, and feed him castor oil. He allows it, for fear of hurting them in an attempt to fight back or break free. Such is his reward for altruism.

In the New Comics interview, Dave Gibbons speaks of drawing “a world deformed by super-heroes.” One of the themes Watchmen explores is just how the world feels about being deformed in such a way. We see it in the graffiti, the Keene Act, and most keenly in the ending text to Chapter 4, “Dr. Manhattan: Super-powers And The Superpowers.” In speaking of the emergence of Dr. Manhattan, the author writes, “The Gods now walk amongst us, affecting the lives of every man, woman and child on the planet in a direct way rather than through mythology and the reassurances of faith. The safety of a whole world rests in the hands of a being far beyond what we understand to be human.”

Like Hugo, Dr. Manhattan exists alongside humanity, but apart from it. Manhattan’s difference is more obvious, and his power more godlike, but each of them are aware of the incredible destruction they could wreak, should they so choose. Also like Hugo, Dr. Manhattan is made into a weapon of war, with his uneasy consent, and the result is a wholesale human slaughter. And like Hugo, Dr. Manhattan finally removes himself from the whole nasty human mess.

So Wylie’s work was prescient, foreshadowing not only the metahuman, but his struggle against the ordinary world, a struggle which the early DC tales conveniently elided. The difference makes me wonder whether one of Superman’s less-noticed powers was his super-branding. When the guy standing next to you suddenly demonstrates otherworldly abilities, you might be justified in freaking out a little, feeling your sudden vulnerability and inferiority. However, when those otherworldly abilities arrive in a bright shiny package of reassuring primary colors, complete with a friendly name and symbol, perhaps you might not feel the threat so directly. Superman’s welcome was altogether different from Hugo Danner’s, in part because the early stories chose to ignore reflexive human fear and ignorance, but also because Superman harnessed the tricks of marketing to create a safe and appealing image, one easily swallowed by the masses.

Once that image succeeded, the floodgates were opened, and the brightly colored heroes came pouring in. In Watchmen‘s world, those heroes inspired real-life counterparts, albeit ones lacking in metahuman abilities. Indeed, though we see Gladiator on Nite Owl’s shelf, it’s Action Comics #1 that truly inspires him, as he writes in Under The Hood. The Superman story within “presented the basic morality of [pulp adventure fiction stories] without all their darkness and ambiguity.” And from that inspiration, Nite Owl is born.

Darkness and ambiguity, however, are never held at bay for long, the darkness arriving in the form of The Comedian, and the ambiguity coming with Dr. Manhattan. True superpowers, as Mason writes, “would make the terms ‘masked hero’ and ‘costumed adventurer’ as obsolete as the persons they described.” Dr. Manhattan didn’t need to create an image, and in fact rejects the world’s attempts to give him one. He does not market himself, but rather lets the world react to him.

Watchmen chapter 4, page 12, panels 4-5. Dr Manhattan rejects his costume's helmet, and burns the hydrogen symbol in his forehead. Manhattan: It's meaningless. A hydrogen atom would be more appropriate. I don't think I shall be wearing this. Photographer: B-but thats the only place hwere your symbol shows. The marketing boys say you need a symbol... Manhattan: They don't know what I need. You don't know what I need. If I'm to have a symbol, it shall be one that I respect.

Hugo Danner lacks Dr. Manhattan’s omniscient qualities, and was so lost and desperate in his attempts to fit in that perhaps he might have become a superhero, had the idea occurred to him. But it would likely not have reassured any bank presidents, and it certainly wouldn’t have answered the questions Hugo shouts to God atop a Yucatan mountain. Gladiator never comes right out and says so, but it strongly suggests that God strikes down this aberration at last. In Watchmen, we see no evidence of a Christian God to do any such thing. Instead, the closest thing there is to God decides instead to leave this galaxy, for one less complicated.

Next Entry: Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?
Previous Entry: You’re A Better Man Than I Am, Walter K

The Watchmen Bestiary 4: You’re A Better Man Than I Am, Walter K

Welcome back to this series in which we look at the works referenced by Watchmen, at least according to version 2.0 of The Annotated Watchmen. As always, proceed at your own risk of spoilage.

The references come fast and thick in the first part of these annotations, and in fact today’s episode takes us no further than one sentence past our previous exploration. That one ended with a mention of “the popular Gunga Diners”, a ubiquitious chain of Indian food restaurants in the Watchmen universe. The next sentence goes on to explain the reference:

(The name is a rather tasteless reference to Kipling’s poem “Gunga Din”, in which a faithful Indian servant brings water to British soldiers fighting in India, at the cost of his own life.)

Tasteless? Hmm, I’m not sure. “Gunga Din” portrays its Indian title character quite heroically, in contrast to the white British soldiers that surround him — its famous last line (“You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”) makes this point explicitly. Perhaps it’s in poor taste to name a chain of restaurants after a somewhat stereotyped Indian character, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly bothersome. Maybe it trivializes Din’s nobility to make him into a mascot, though it seems to me he’s already rather a mascot, even in the poem. In fact, you could argue (and many have) that parts of the poem are pretty tasteless to begin with. Why not read the whole poem and decide for yourself? It’s only 85 lines.

Watchmen chapter 1, page 4, panel 5. Detective Fine and his partner walk in front of a Gunga Diner. Partner: I dunno. I think you take this vigilante stuff too seriously. Since the Keene Act was passed in '77, only the government-sponsored weirdos are active. They don't interfere. Fine: Screw them. What about Rorschach?

Let’s return to Din’s heroism, since that topic is highly relevant to Watchmen. In fact, I would suggest that an important goal of both works is to explore the nature of heroism. In the poem, Din is subaltern as a native of the colonized India, and subordinate to the white army men, serving as lowly water carrier for them. His clothing marks him as alien, and he endures constant abuse from the men whom he serves. And yet, the narrator names him “the finest man I knew” (albeit among the “blackfaced crew” — he’s not on the same scale with the white soldiers, though more about this later) and praises his speed, his bravery, and his endurance. When Din sacrifices his own life bringing the narrator to safety and medical attention, he incontrovertibly cements his place as the hero of the story.

Does any character in Watchmen match this level of heroism? Certainly not the Comedian, whom we never catch in anything remotely resembling a selfless act. In fact, if anything the Comedian is more like the white soldiers, undertaking the work of slaughter on behalf of a swaggering government. Dr. Manhattan is similarly employed, though quite differently motivated. Nevertheless, he’s still quite removed from any concept of heroism. He’s not interested in saving lives, what with life and death being unquantifiable abstracts and all. As for self-sacrifice, the concept hardly has any meaning in relation to him — as far as I can see, he can’t die or be killed, and he has infinte resources, give or take a few tachyons. How could he sacrifice himself for anything, even if he wanted to?

Nite Owl II’s heart is in the right place, at least compared to the last two, but he’s far from the tireless servant who “didn’t seem to know the use of fear.” I suspect that with him, it’s mostly about those wonderful toys. (Well, that and his personal feeling of power when he’s “under the hood.”) Silk Spectre I was mainly into superheroing for the attention and publicity, while Silk Spectre II was just trying to please her mother. Silk Spectre II does indeed “tend the wounded under fire” (albeit a different kind of fire), and her actions are brave and heroic, but not self-sacrificing. Nite Owl I is even more noble, writing that he “feels bad unless he’s doing good,” and as far as we can see, he does plenty of genuine good in the world, both as a cop and as a masked hero.

Watchmen chapter 5, page 11, panel 9. Rorschach's hands holding a Gunga Diner napkin, unfolded to reveal an impromptu Rorschach blot he has made on it. Caption: I sat watching teh trashcan, and New York opened its heart to me.But when it comes to the extremities Kipling describes, to making the ultimate sacrifice and never surrendering, there’s only one character worth considering: Rorschach. It is Rorschach, from the beginning, who is trying to save his companions, despite his rather offputting approach to doing so. It is Rorschach who exemplifies the tireless drive of the bhisti, with his frequent repetitions of “Never despair. Never surrender,” and variations on that theme. And it is Rorschach whom the book most closely identifies with the Gunga Diner. His name is superimposed over the diner’s first appearance, and he makes one his headquarters, after a fashion anyway. He sits and watches from its window for the action at his trash can “mail drop”, as New York opens its heart to him.

Like Din, Rorschach comes from a despised class and chooses to rise from it as a protector, and even a public servant of sorts. Like Din, Rorschach endures endless abuse in the course of fulfilling his role, but soldiers on nevertheless. And like Din, Rorschach is killed in the pursuit of that role, by nearly as impersonal a force.

Kipling’s narrator writes of Din, “An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide / ‘E was white, clear white, inside / When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!” Racism permeates the poem, as it did colonial culture, but in Din we find one in whom the black and white existed side by side, a soul of “white” purity and faithfulness inside a skin that triggered instant abhorrence in his English masters. For Rorschach, it’s not about race, but that union of opposites is very much present. He’s literally dirty — the story makes reference to his body odor numerous times — but he wages a tireless battle against the darkness, at least as he perceives it. “Black and white. Moving. Changing shape… but not mixing. No gray. Very, very beautiful.”

There are a couple of irony-drenched differences though. While Din is drilled by an unexpected battlefield bullet, Rorschach meets his doom head on, tears streaming down his face. Moreover, according to the poem, Gunga Din’s fate ends in fire, as the heathen is consigned to Hell upon his death: “‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals / Givin’ drink to poor damned souls.” Rorschach, though, meets his end in the coldest place on earth. His afterlife is the last thought the story invites us to consider.

Watchmen chapter 12, page 32, panel 7. Seymour's hand reaching for Rorschach's diary. The smiley face on his shirt has a ketchup stain in the usual spot of the blood stain. Godfrey (off-panel): I leave it entirely in your hands.

Next Entry: The Gods Now Walk Amongst Us
Previous Entry: The Old New Comics

The Watchmen Bestiary 3: The Old New Comics

[Note: As usual, here be Watchmen spoilers.]

Today’s task is another investigation of the references embedded in The Annotated Watchmen. In a note about panel 5 on page 4 of issue 1, we find this:

Moore, in the New Comics interview, says that in the Watchmen universe, there was some conflict in Asia that resulted in famine in India and a lot of Indian refugees coming to the US. Hence, Indian food has caught on in the US, including the popular Gunga Diners.

The “New Comics interview” referenced rather casually here is from Gary Groth and Robert Fiore’s book The New Comics, an anthology of interviews from Groth’s magazine The Comics Journal. Even when the book was published in 1988, calling some of the comics discussed “new” was quite a stretch — large swaths are devoted to underground comics of the late ’60s and early ’70s, as well as to architects of the form like Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman. Still, many of the subjects were at least newish at the time, like a pre-Hate Peter Bagge and a pre-Simpsons Matt Groening, as well as Bill Watterson and Harvey Pekar towards the beginnings of their arcs. Not to mention Watchmen itself, which was just a couple years old when the book came out.

In fact, the interview (conducted by a pre-Sandman Neil Gaiman at a comics convention, with lots of questions from the audience) took place right after the release of issue #5, so rather than discussing the book’s whole story, it focuses mostly on how the book came to be, as well as its overall intent and various details with in it. Nevertheless, it’s full of great tidbits, like the worldbuilding insight above. Gibbons describes the serendipity he’s encountered in making the comic, and talks about how he imagined the technological state of a world “deformed by super-heroes”, but most important to me is the revelation that Moore didn’t necessarily have all the resonant themes of the book worked out in advance:

There’s the plot there, but it’s what happened since then that’s the real surprise because there’s all this other stuff that’s crept into it, all this deep stuff, the intellectual stuff. [laughs] That wasn’t planned.

That’s significant, because it suggests that Moore didn’t have all the details worked out in advance, but rather filled many things in as he went along, which goes quite a ways towards explaining the logical discrepancies in various aspects of the story, such as Dr. Manhattan’s vacillation between timeless awareness and his occasional surprise and changes of mind.

Still, as valuable as it is, the interview is rather short. The book as a whole, on the other hand, does a wonderful job of painting a portrait, depicting a crucial era in comics, when possibilities were expanding, and concepts were being pursued that fed Moore and Gibbons’ vision in Watchmen. For instance:


Over and over again in this book, creators (and the editors) exalt realism as a powerful and underused technique in comics. Harvey Kurtzman’s war stories in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat are hailed for being “tough-minded, deglamorized, and painstakingly researched.” A loving description of Harvey Pekar’s work says that it portrays “the minute details of life that even serious fiction ignores.” The interview with Los Bros. Hernandez celebrates the way that Jaime’s realistic subplot in “Mechanics” grew to take over the comic itself, pushing the science fiction element to the fringes.

Watchmen, too, is concerned with realism, picking up where Marvel left off in trying to answer the question, “What would happen if there really were super heroes in our world?” The reason that the Fantastic Four bicker and argue, and struggle with self-loathing, and don’t have secret identities, and didn’t even have costumes at first, is because Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created them as a reaction to the bland, beaming, formulaic DC heroes who dominated the market at that time. Lee injected more humanness into his characters, and the audience loved it. Or, as Moore once put it:

The DC comics were always a lot more true blue. Very enjoyable, but they were big, brave uncles and aunties who probably insisted on a high standard of you know mental and physical hygiene. Whereas the Stan Lee stuff, the Marvel comics, he went from one dimensional characters whose only characteristic was they dressed up in costumes and did good. Whereas Stan Lee had this huge breakthrough of two-dimensional characters.

Moore goes one better in Watchmen, delivering a slate of characters who, despite their costumes, are neither heroes nor villains, but rather complex and broken people, each trying to enact (or retreat from) the concept of heroism in their own ways. Just like real people.

Nuclear Anxiety

I was a teenager in the 80s, when these comics were coming out, and the overriding existential angst of the time was about nuclear war. Knowing that your country had the technological capability to destroy the world many times over was bad enough, but when there was another country that could do it too, and those two countries happened to hate each other… well, it could make you pretty nervous if you thought about it too much. Artists were thinking about it, and the topic pops up throughout these interviews. Justin Green describes the grim potential of atomic holocaust on his way to expressing a faith that human consciousness will squelch the possibility. Gary Panter talks about “releasing a nightmare on paper” in his comic about the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

Moore and Gibbons were working out nuclear anxiety in Watchmen, but in the beautiful mode of the superhero genre, they did it mostly on a metaphorical level. Instead of just America vs. Russia in a game of Bombs And Bunkers, they personify the bomb itself in the form of Dr. Manhattan, a being almost (but not quite) completely indifferent to the human race, but who profoundly changes the human condition simply by existing. Of all the costumed heroes in the story, he is the only one who is truly superhuman, and his elevation beyond the human scale makes him ultimately alien and terrifying. He embodies our new planet-shattering capabilities, and when Laurie Juspeczyk tugs on the thread of his humanity in Chapter 9, she embodies that consciousness that Green hoped would be our salvation.

Then there’s Ozymandias’s plan, which he explains as his own Alexandrian solution to the Gordian knot of mutually assured destruction. It’s shortsighted lunacy, of course, but in the context of the story, we have to take it seriously for a moment. As Dreiberg says, who’s qualified to judge whether the smartest man in the world has gone crazy? Peter Bagge writes about being the editor of the underground comic anthology Weirdo with Robert Crumb, saying that he was never comfortable running sincere “issue” pieces like antinuke comics, because he always found them obvious: “I don’t want to just keep all these antinuke people happy by telling them things they already know.” I don’t think Watchmen is seriously arguing that the destruction of a major city and the slaughter of millions of people is a viable plan in the face of looming nuclear destruction, but it makes us think about it for at least a few minutes, and that’s far from obvious.

Subverting Superheroes

If Gary Groth had a superpower, it would be the Power Of Disdain. In his introduction and the interstitial material of the book, Groth is overflowing with contempt for all aspects of the mainstream comics industry, including newspaper comics, but he saves his deepest derision for superheroes and their creators. You can practically see both Groth and Fiore holding their noses anytime they must refer to Marvel or DC, or to costumed crusaders. Interestingly, Groth seems unaware that he places himself and his magazine firmly within an utterly stock heroic narrative, as the plucky underdog outsider taking on a corrupt establishment. Check out this sentence from this introduction:

The comics profession, represented at the time predominantly by Marvel and DC Comics, and therefore composed overwhelmingly of hacks, was outraged and appalled by the Journal‘s nervy challenge to the artistic and ethical status quo of an industry with which they had grown comfortable.

Ow, my eyes, how they hurt from all the rolling. It goes on like that, paragraph after paragraph of self-congratulation, mixed in with the suggestion that perhaps he deserves the credit for the 1980s blossoming of alternative comics. (No doubt if he’d been publishing in the 60s, he’d have taken credit for underground comics too.) As I read it, I kept feeling the nagging hint of familiarity, and then realized where I’d heard it all before: trolls. Groth’s position is essentially that of the internet troll, poking his head up in a community in order to heap abuse upon its members, all the while attempting to claim a moral and intellectual high ground by dismissing the vast majority of their work as “puerile junk, shoddily produced.”

This isn’t to say that he’s completely wrong. Like all areas of human endeavor, superhero comics contain plenty of crap. There’s nothing wrong with a reasoned critique of any artistic production. I’m actually a huge fan of criticism, as I suppose I ought to be, given the number of reviews I’ve written. I think a critic can be an invaluable teacher for audiences and creators, and that criticism can be quite salutary both for artists and art forms. However, I’m much more skeptical about the value of smugness and condescension, with which criticism is sometimes confused. When these traits infect criticism, or substitute for it, nobody wins.

There’s a section of The New Comics devoted to writers and artists of superhero comics (sneeringly titled “Men In Tights.”) Besides Moore and Gibbons, it features Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Howard Chaykin. These men are mainly celebrated for how they’ve subverted the superhero premise or undercut its artistic tropes. With mild astonishment, Groth reports that Moore’s approach is instead to “examine a genre and try to bring the best out of it, while staying, for the most part, within its conventions.” Still, Watchmen wouldn’t be included in this book if it didn’t shake up the superhero genre, and Groth grudgingly allows that it “is likely to be as close as costumed character comics will ever get to literature, and it comes closer than anyone might have expected.”

I doubt that Moore wrote Watchmen in order to impress Gary Groth. However, the book is definitely interested in interrogating the basic superhero concept. From the genre’s beginnings, one of its unquestioned foundations was that if somebody set out to “fight crime” or “save the world”, they were doing the right thing. Even when they encountered failures or setbacks, their moral authority was never in question. An even more deeply held assumption of the genre is that superheroes really do make a difference, that the world really can be saved by a handful of extraordinary beings.

In Watchmen, that notion goes up in flames as the Comedian’s lighter incinerates Captain Metropolis’ fussy display of “social evils” (like “black unrest” and “anti-war demos”.) His point in doing so is about the futility of action in the face of an inevitable atomic holocaust, but what he says a few panels earlier cuts even deeper:

Watchmen, Chapter 2, page 10, panels 6 and 7. The Comedian confronts Ozymandias. Comedian: Got any ideas, Ozzy? I mean, you are the smartest guy in the world, right? Ozymandias: It doesn't require genius to see that America has problems that need tackling... Comedian: Damn straight. An' it takes a moron to thin that they're small enough for clowns like you guys to handle. What's going down in this world, you got no idea. Believe me.

Since the Marvel Age began, heroes had been struggling with “ordinary problems”, like paying rent or having to do stuff when you have the flu. Spider-Man had even wondered whether his desire to dress up and punch bad guys was a form of psychosis. But I don’t know of a pre-Watchmen comic in which a superhero consciously encounters the most fundamental flaw in the entire superhero premise: the fact that the world’s problems are deep and complex, and that no amount of punching is ever going to solve them. In Watchmen, the Comedian’s eloquence changes Ozymandias, setting into motion the plot of the book. In the comics world, Watchmen‘s eloquence changed the superhero genre, setting into motion a wave of books that questioned whether superheroes were even the good guys at all, or whether there was even such a thing as good guys and bad guys. We’re still watching the fallout today.

Next Entry: You’re A Better Man Than I Am, Walter K
Previous Entry: There’s A Ship…

The Watchmen Bestiary 1: The Black And White Panther

[NOTE: This post contains spoilers for the Watchmen graphic novel, and I’m assuming readers are familiar with its plot and characters.]

Remember a few years ago, when I said that I wanted to reread Watchmen, but this time with the Annotated Watchmen alongside? Well, the time has come at last. As expected, it’s producing a much more satisfying reading experience — even just rereading the graphic novel with an eye towards structure and symbolism is deeply rewarding, as opposed to the first time, when I was just reading for the plot. Now the project is spawning a few sub-projects of its own.

I thought it would be fun to pursue the references embedded in the annotations, so as to get a richer understanding of Watchmen‘s various layers of allusion. Here was the first one I saw, in reference to The Comedian’s secret(ish) identity as Edward Blake:

“Edward Blake is obviously a reference to Blake Edwards, the director of the Pink Panther comedies. And, no one’s spotted this, Rorschach’s methods of terrorism are all taken from Pink Panther movies.”

Are they, now? Are they really? Very well, I believe I’ll watch the Pink Panther movies. (That means the Sellers/Edwards Pink Panther movies, mind you. I’m sure Alan Moore wouldn’t want me to have to plow through Alan Arkin, Ted Wass, Roberto Benigni, Steve Martin[who I love, but come on — those are paycheck movies for him], or the truly execrable Trail of The Pink Panther, about which more later.)

Verdict: There’s something valid in the comment, but it’s quite overstated. I’ll buy that Edward Blake refers to Blake Edwards. And there are definitely some parallels between Rorschach’s behavior and one of the movies, The Return Of The Pink Panther. For instance, in the film, retired jewel thief Sir Charles Litton, aka “The Phantom” (played here by Christopher Plummer, taking over the David Niven role from the first movie) investigates a crime for which he’s being framed. In doing so, he pushes around a stoolie, abusing the man’s fingers just as Rorschach does to a low-level underworld type in chapter 1 of Watchmen. Well, not exactly “just as” — Litton’s victim is played for laughs as his hands are squeezed, whereas Rorschach’s target is clearly in agony as his bones snap. But still, the finger torture analogue is there.

There’s an even more blatant connection, though. In Return Of The Pink Panther, Edwards revists the running gag from the previous Inspector Clouseau movie (A Shot In The Dark), in which Clouseau has instructed his manservant Cato to attack him by surprise at any time, so as to keep the Inspector’s battle skills sharp. In Shot, Cato attacks Clouseau in the bedroom and in the bathtub, but in Return he steps up his game by leaping at Clouseau out of the freezer:

Cato leaping at Clouseau out of the freezer in Return Of The Pink Panther

In chapter 3 of Watchmen, Moloch encounters a similarly unpleasant surprise:

Watchmen Chapter 2, page 20, panel 7: Rorschach leaps out of Moloch's fridge, slamming into Moloch.

So yeah, there are definitely parallels, and the “Edward Blake” thing seems like a clear enough reference that the parallels are unlikely to be coincidental. However, that’s about as far as it goes. You don’t see Cato following up on his freezer trick by leaving a “Behind you” note next time around. The Phantom doesn’t shoot anybody in the chest with a grappling hook gun. And Clouseau sure as hell never burns somebody with cooking fat or kills dogs with a cleaver, even if they bite.

Isn’t it odd, too, that while Edward Blake is supposedly The Comedian, it’s Rorschach who gets all the best gags? I mentioned in my last writeup that The Comedian is never funny, but what I didn’t notice is that Rorschach often is. And by “often”, I mean “seldom”, but a lot more often than most of the other characters. It’s Rorschach who actually tells a joke (albeit in his diary — the Pagliacci joke at the end of chapter 2.) He delivers many of his lines with bone-dry irony and sometimes even biting wit. (“Tall order.”) And he provides the biggest laugh in the book — indirectly, admittedly — by dropping Captain Carnage down an elevator shaft, a rather Clouseauesque fate for a villain to meet. His moral simplicity, along with his talent for verbal understatement and physical overstatement, make him the funniest character in Watchmen.

As for the Pink Panther movies themselves, well. One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, to this day, is The Trail Of The Pink Panther. I didn’t actually walk out of the theater, but considering I was twelve years old when I saw it, I think it was the first movie I’d seen in my life that was bad enough to make me think, “This is a terrible movie,” as it unspooled. It was the first time I can recall thinking critically about a movie while watching it.

Trail is basically the movie equivalent of one of those clip shows that long-running television programs sometimes resort to when deadlines are plentiful but inspiration is not — a loose frame story provides excuses to show lots of highlight reels from previous episodes. Peter Sellers died fully 18 months before production began on the movie, and Edwards strings together a Sellers “performance” by using a bunch of deleted scenes from the fifth and last Pink Panther film, along with the funniest bits from the first four. They haul out the carcasses of Sellers’ major co-stars from the previous films to give talking-head interviews about Clouseau. David Niven was so weak that they actually chose to have his lines dubbed in by Rich Little in post-production.

The movie is so bad that Sellers’ widow in fact sued its producers, claiming that it had diminished her late husband’s reputation. The courts agreed, and awarded her over a million dollars. Still, watching all five Pink Panther movies in a row, I could see why the clip show approach must have appealed to Edwards. Every one of these movies is essentially a bunch of middling-to-great set pieces and jokes dangling from a plot that’s more or less beside the point. I saw these movies first in bits and pieces myself, watching over my parents’ shoulders growing up, and re-watching them now, it’s clear how much they were just vehicles for Peter Sellers to be funny. To watch them in sequence is to witness an actor and director zeroing in on a character’s comedic voice.

In the first, eponymous Pink Panther movie, Sellers isn’t even the lead. He’s a supporting character to David Niven’s roguish jewel thief, but Sellers steals the show so wonderfully as Clouseau that Edwards immediately sought another showcase for the character. He found it with A Shot In The Dark, originally a stage play with no connection to the Pink Panther universe whatsoever. Edwards rewrote the screenplay (along with a pre-Exorcist William Peter Blatty) around the Clouseau character, and Sellers hit another home run.

Lots of people cite Shot as the best Pink Panther movie, but I’d have to disagree. In my opinion, the one where the pieces all came together is the one to which Moore tips his hat: Return of The Pink Panther. That movie reprises the compelling characters and setting from the first movie, layers in the funniest elements of Shot (Cato, Dreyfus), and strips away some of the previous distractions — Clouseau as cuckold, Clouseau starry-eyed in love — to focus on the detecive pursuing a case through one spectacular failure after another. They crib some costuming from the intervening Arkin movie, and Sellers perfects his outrageous ultra-French accent, complete with befuddled reactions from other characters. After the formula jells in Return, the subsequent films have the easy rhythm (and sometimes the tiredness) of recurring SNL sketches.

Sellers certainly nails all the physical comedy — I laughed out loud the first time he spun a globe and then tried to lean on it — but I found that my favorite parts were the more subtle verbal interchanges. The conversations where Clouseau, in his certainty, completely bewilders another character while not even realizing he’s doing so, are pure genius to me. And I adore him getting worked up and confronting a suspect with, “I submit, Inspector Ballon, that you arrived home, found Miguel with Maria Gambrelli, and killed him in a rit of fealous jage!” Once the films had fully codified the character, even his wardrobe was funny. Come to think of it, that trenchcoat-and-hat combination looks awfully familiar. Haven’t I seen it in something I read recently…?

Next Entry: There’s A Ship…

The Avengers

[We interrupt our regularly scheduled IF reviews for this topical superhero discussion. That review of Mentula Macanus is coming soon– er, on its way.]

I’ve been reading a lot of 1960s Marvel comics lately, letter columns and all. I did this once before, with just Spider-Man comics, which was a lot of fun. This time I’m skipping around more from title to title, getting a feel for the way the universe gelled, and how the constant stream of feedback from readers contributed to that process. It’s really given me a sense for what Marvel did differently back in those early days. For a while there, they could almost do no wrong — “what they did differently” was more or less synonymous with “what they did right.”

Know what else I’ve been doing a lot lately? Seeing Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie. Well, okay, just twice, but that counts as “a lot” in my movie-watching book. The movie is everything I wanted it to be. It was even more satisfying the second time around. Like those early Marvels, it makes the right call pretty much every time. Really: just like those early Marvels.

Continued stories
In 1961, when the Marvel Universe as we know it began, comic books were disposable, not collectible. There was no expectation that whoever bought issue #41 would necessarily have bought issue #40 or have any intention to buy issue #42. Consequently, each one was required to be self-contained, with one story, or even multiple stories, that began and ended within its covers. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the general expectation was that a comic book contained at least one complete story. Sure, there were motifs that continued from one issue to the next, but they were more or less in the form of an established status quo. Clark Kent always works at the Daily Planet. Lois Lane never gets any closer to figuring out his secret identity. Jimmy Olsen is always just as young and eager and boneheaded as he ever was or ever will be. Stories that deviated from this status quo always made sure to return to it before the issue was over.

Many early Marvels followed this pattern too, though their internal status quo was a fair bit more interesting. However, it quickly became apparent that the stories they wanted to tell were too complex to be contained within a single book. Not only that, they seemed to be attracting older, more sophisticated readers, who might be more reasonably expected to buy a title consistently. So, in many books, “continued stories” became the rule, and whoever read issue #41 might in fact need the previous one or the next one, or several iterations thereof, to get the full tale.

Oh, the complaints that readers sent in about this! The company was accused of greed, insensitivity, poor storytelling, and more. In fact, the hue and cry was so great that at one point Marvel actually abandoned continued stories and tried to keep all issues self-contained. The (predictable) result? Duller, more superficial stories. In fact, it may have almost been a calculated move on their part — by the time they did it, the Marvel Universe had already been established as an enormous tapestry of characters whose lives regularly interwove, collided, and separated again. To write the very kind of stories they had made obsolete may have been their way of saying, “Oh, this? Is this really what you want?” Needless to say, continued stories returned soon afterwards.

In 2012, the majority of movies are self-contained, but there are plenty of franchises in which each sequel moves the characters along a larger arc. However, what we hadn’t seen yet is a movie that ties together multiple franchises in the way that The Avengers does. There are four different lines of movies, each with its own sequel trajectory, that come together in this one. Four sets of stories feed in, and this story will resonate along at least three lines in the future. (I’m not sure if there are going to be any more Hulk movies, though no doubt the success of Avengers makes that outcome more likely. Heck, maybe even Black Widow and Hawkeye will get their own franchises.)

This is an immensely powerful position for a movie to occupy. In the comics, a shared universe gets you several great things:

  • If you’re following multiple lines that come together, you get to feel like an insider when the collisions happen. The more lines you follow, the more satisfying this can be.
  • The coherency of each strand is enhanced by its participation in a greater coherent whole. When Spider-Man bursts into Stark Industries, he may wonder why Iron Man isn’t showing up. Those of us reading Iron Man know that he’s trapped by a villain in another part of the factory, and knowing this lets us feel that both Spidey and Stark are a legitimate part of a larger, grander story.
  • When personalities do come together, especially if they clash, the drama of the encounter is greatly enhanced when each character is fully fleshed out with a detailed background and a story of his own.The Avengers movie inherits each of these advantages, along with the sheer pleasure of seeing a bunch of great actors thrown into an ensemble cast, and an enormous sense of payoff from the most elaborate setup ever.

These people do not get along
As I said, Marvel set up a fictional universe in which its superheroes were constantly running into each other. And when that would happen, inevitably, they would fight at least once. Fans loved seeing the good guys square off against each other, if only from the geeky desire to take the measure of each hero. And so Stan Lee would contrive some sort of misunderstanding or unusual circumstance that would force the heroes into conflict. Letter columns were always full of people eager to know who would win in a fight: Hulk vs. Thor? Thing vs. Iron Man? Spidey vs. Black Widow? Hero vs. hero conflict gave those fans a little satisfaction, though not always as much as they wanted, given that the story often took a left turn before either hero suffered a full defeat.

The Avengers takes this cue and runs with it. And, uh, now it’s probably time for the SPOILERS ASSEMBLE! warning.

The movie gives us so many awesome hero vs. hero matchups:

  • Black Widow vs. Hulk, twice. She dominates him strategically as Banner, he dominates her physically (of course) as Hulk
  • Thor vs. Iron Man vs. Captain America
  • Hawkeye vs. everybody, which was a great way of establishing Hawkeye’s badass credentials. (Casting Jeremy Renner didn’t hurt either.)
  • Stark, Banner, and Cap piercing Fury’s subterfuge, leading to a great 6-way argument and a lovely Whedonesque camera move, inverting the heroes and placing the Staff Of Bad Influence in the foreground
  • Thor vs. Hulk
  • Black Widow vs. Hawkeye

And that’s all before they team up to fight the Big Bad! No wonder this movie had to be 143 minutes long. These matchups do several things for the movie, besides their obvious Big Action Thrill value. I mentioned how turning Hawkeye against everyone, and having him nearly take down the whole shebang, was a great way of establishing him as a powerhouse to be reckoned with, despite his lack of superpowers. Really, that’s true for all the inter-hero fights. In order for us to believe in the enormous victory the Avengers pull off in the movie’s climax, we have to believe in their powers and abilities. Having them establish these against each other is both efficient and effective. This way, we see more heroes in action more of the time, and our belief in one reinforces our belief in the others.

Moreover, the physical conflicts help the movie express the characters’ underlying philosophical conflicts. Superhero stories, at least when they’re done well, are metaphors writ large. So when Thor fights Iron Man, it isn’t just Thor fighting Iron Man — it’s the Mythical/Ancient/Pastoral at war with the Modern/Scientific/Technological, and it’s not accidental that the image of Idealized Patriotism and Selfless Heroism is defeated by neither and brings both together.

Finally, the conflicts move the plot along, which is far from a given in modern action movies. Heroes fighting each other does everything from achieving key turning points (such as when the Widow administers a “cognitive recalibration” to Hawkeye, switching him back to the side of the angels) to subtly filling in explanatory details (such as when Banner finds himself holding the Stick of Psychic Malevolence as he’s getting angry.)

How do you solve a problem like The Hulk?
In fact, this last one helped me understand something about the movie that puzzled me the first time around. I’ve mentioned before that although the Hulk exists in a world of superheroes, he’s not a superhero himself — he’s a monster. Unlike everybody else on the team, he’s not necessarily here to help. This is a hard problem to solve for any story that includes him as a protagonist, and the first time I saw The Avengers, I thought the film hadn’t quite solved it. Why is he all “SMASH BLACK WIDOW!” the first time he appears and then all “SMASH ONLY BAD GUYS AND CATCH IRON MAN AND GENERALLY HELP OUT!” the second time?

Then my friend Tashi suggested this interpretation to me: Banner’s revelation during the climactic battle (“I’m always angry”) indicates that he has figured out that suppressing his anger is the wrong way to go. So instead, he lives with it all the time so that it doesn’t blossom into rage, and tries to atone for his past damage by helping the helpless. (Boy, sounds Whedonishly familiar, doesn’t it?) He believes that he might be able to control “the other guy” now that he’s learned to live with his anger, but he’d rather not take the chance if he doesn’t have to.

Then he gets tangled up with the whole SHIELD thing. He finds himself aboard a massive airship — as he comments when it takes off, that’s a worse place for him to be than even a submarine. Loki’s whole plan is to get the Hulk to wreck everything once he’s aboard the Helicarrier. Well, that and also get Hawkeye to wreck everything from outside the Helicarrier. So, using the remote magic of the Nasty Pointy Spear Of Malefic Intent, he manipulates Banner’s mind (as indicated by the “put down the scepter” scene), weakening his mental control so that when Hawkeye strikes, the Hulk is in rampage mode rather than “I’m at peace with my anger” mode. Then, later, when Banner motors up for the final battle, he’s himself again, and can drive the beast enough to be a hero.

I love this explanation, and I think it’s supported by the film. It’s certainly better than anything Stan Lee figured out in the 60’s. His Hulk was constantly hunted, and his Banner was far from reconciled with his anger. (That is, once it was established that anger is what triggers the change. At first it was actually nightfall that did it, like a werewolf. The anger/stress thing set in pretty early, though.) He tried pills, and he tried locking himself away. He tried staying out of stressful situations. You can imagine how well all that worked out. The comics Hulk was often well-intentioned, but always misunderstood.

There wasn’t a trace in this movie of Thunderbolt Ross-esque anti-Hulkism — on the contrary, the government is looking for Banner to enlist his help, despite knowing he could potentially Hulk out. You don’t get much of that in the early comics, though they repeatedly attempted to cast the monster as a hero. In fact, he was even a charter member of the original Avengers… but he was out of there by the third issue. He’s really not much of a team player.

Homage and better
Having the Hulk be present for the founding of the movie Avengers is just one of the many lovely ways this film pays respect to its source material. Just as in the comics, Loki is intimately involved with the Avengers’ formation. Just as in the comics, the early Hawkeye and Black Widow are a couple, albeit one frequently beset by misfortune. Just as in the comics, the Avengers bicker and argue and crack wise, although the players and personalities are a bit different in the film from how they work in the original stories.

The movie is far from a literal recreation of those early Avengers issues. Instead, like the first Iron Man movie, it faithfully absorbs the spirit of the comics, but compresses, abridges, and enhances to make a coherent story that fits together like an exquisite puzzle. Thank you Joss, for mining the gold from an enormous vein, then shaping and polishing it so beautifully for us. And by the way, that really long sequence shot that went from hero to hero during the third act was JUST AWESOME. Mmmm, I think it’s time to see this movie again.

Good Questions, part 4

Sad to say, I just found out I’ll miss the next Basement Bowl, due to vacation. Drat! On the plus side, I’m scheming to attend the Trivia Championships of North America, a weekend-long trivia explosion scheduled for Las Vegas in July. In any case, it’s time for one more installment of this series. Previous posts have focused more on the philosophical aspects of question construction, but in this one, I’ll get a little more technical — more about the craft than the art, as it were. I think I’m about out of gas after this, so let’s call it the season finale and get rolling.

Trivial Matters With a Vengeance

Okay, so some of this is covered in my review of Wordplay, but here it is from a slightly different angle. But before we go there, answers to the last entry’s questions:

Following in the footsteps of Anthony Michael Hall and Jason Lively, he played Rusty Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. More famously, he appeared as David Healey, Darlene’s boyfriend and eventual husband, in 92 episodes of Roseanne. Name this actor who currently stars as Dr. Leonard Hofstader on The Big Bang Theory.
Answer: Johnny Galecki

In the 1960s, Marvel Comics loved to liven up its titles by throwing in an extra adjective. I’ll give you a comic book title, you fill in the missing adjective, for five points each.
1. The Incredible Hulk
2. The Amazing Spider-Man
3. The Invincible Iron Man
4. The Uncanny X-Men
5. The Mighty Thor
6. The Astonishing Ant-Man

During CU‘s 2001 revival of the Trivia Bowl, I heard rumors of this thing called a “Basement Bowl.”

Trivial Matters 2: Electric Boogaloo

In my last entry, I explained the structure of the trivia bowl, and talked about its history at CU. Before I continue, let me provide some answers to the questions I posed there:

Q: James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot were the writers behind what song medley, which won Record Of The Year, topped the charts for six weeks in 1969, and was the biggest hit in the 5th Dimension’s career?
Answer: “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”

I’ll name a fictional computer from a movie, you name the movie, for ten points each.
1. MU-TH-R 182 model 2, the ship-board computer on the space ship Nostromo, known by the crew as ‘mother.’

Answer: Alien
2. Deep Thought, a computer created by a pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent race of beings who look to us exactly like white mice.
Answer: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
3. EMERAC, a room-sized computer recently acquired by the Federal Broadcasting Network, whose worth is advocated by inventor Richard Sumner and doubted by reference librarian Bunny Watson.
Answer: Desk Set
4. WOPR, or War Operations Plan Response, a military simulator housed at NORAD.
Answer: Wargames

Now for my trivia autobiography

Sword Of My Mouth

One of the people I met at PAX was Jim Munroe, an interactive fiction author who’s also a novelist, filmmaker, and comic book writer. (Other reviewers might switch the order of those accomplishments.) Jim’s IF works include Punk Points, which I’ve played, and Everybody Dies and Roofed, which I haven’t, since they came out while I was frozen.

Turns out that one of Jim’s current projects is Sword Of My Mouth, a graphic novel about life in Detroit after The Rapture, written by Munroe and illustrated by Shannon Gerard. The book is itself apparently a spinoff from Munroe’s earlier post-Rapture story with Salgood Sam, Therefore Repent!. Now, the first thing I think of when I hear “Post-Rapture story” is Left Behind, a series of 167 or so novels, products, and novel-like products. Although I have not read or viewed any of them them, I get the impression that they want me to get on board with being some specific kind of Christian, and think that if I don’t, I’m in for a scary time sometime soon here.

This does not seem to be Sword Of My Mouth‘s agenda. Instead, it treats the Rapture as a straight-up fantasy premise. In fact, several of the characters suspect that what’s happened to the world has nothing to do with God, and is instead a pretext for some kind of extradimensional invasion. Given that angels are slaughtering people in Chicago and have put New York under martial law, not to mention the fact that suddenly magic works, causing all kinds of unpredictable mutations and freaky phenomena, I think it’s a pretty convincing theory.

The book centers on Ella, a newly-single mother of a baby born after the Rapture, a completely normal infant except for his full set of adult teeth. She’s newly single because her ex, Andre, went to Chicago to join the anti-angel resistance movement. She’s adrift in a Detroit even more abandoned than it is now, and after some unfortunate events she finds herself part of a post-apocalyptic urban farmstead commune. It’s as idyllic a setting as there is to be had in this world, but it’s surrounded by roiling trouble: not just the angels and volatile magic, but cultists known as The Risen, and the unsettling appearance of Famine, a physical incarnation of one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The story’s world is imaginative and engrossing, with plenty of embedded bits that feel like they could launch books of their own. The supporting characters felt convincing and real to me, even the ones with fish scales, missing eyes, or big scary fangs. In fact, part of the way the book effectively leverages its format is by setting prosaic dialogue in the mouths of otherworldly-looking characters. The dialogue doesn’t have to make a big deal of the character’s appearance — the art does that — and consequently the people feel more down-to-earth and knowable than they would if they used more elevated diction.

The art itself eschews the typical comic panel format — there’s not a gutter to be seen. Instead, Gerard conveys action by drawing the same figure in several poses on the page, poses which usually read left-to-right and top-to-bottom to depict sequential events. The style takes a little getting used to, but I was surprised at how natural it soon felt. Drawings overlapping and flowing into each other evocatively echo the erosion of boundaries in the story’s milieu — now that magic works, you never know when something you say or think will have a physical effect in the world.

The lettering, on the other hand, was a distraction and a detraction from the story. I think it’s Gerard’s own lettering, having seen some of her other work, but it kept reminding me of Delirium from Sandman. The story would have been better served by using either digital fonts or just a less trippy handwritten style. As it was, all the characters sounded half-drunk in my head. Really, though, a comic is pretty good when my main complaint is about the lettering.

Well, actually I do have one more complaint: I thought the ending was too abrupt. That may have been a product of the fragmented way I ended up reading the story, but what it comes down to is that I thought the book ended too soon. The fact that I wanted to spend more time in Munroe and Gerard’s world tells you what you need to know about my response to this book.

(Full disclosure: Jim sent me an advance digital copy of the book when I expressed interest in writing about it.)

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