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Photo of Albert Einstein

The Watchmen Bestiary 32 – Time Pieces

Spoilers for Watchmen are relatively plentiful below.

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

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

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

Say What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Einstein and Bohr

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, 1925

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

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

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

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

Pieces of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spooky Action At A Distance

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

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

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

Diagram of the EPR paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schrödinger’s Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous entry: Part Of The Legend

Cover to DC's Watchmen Companion

The Watchmen Bestiary 31 – Part Of The Legend

[GM Note: There are spoilers in this article for Watchmen and the Watchmen-related materials produced for Mayfair Games, as well as HBO’s Watchmen series. Readers who don’t know this material and encounter these spoilers must make an INT action check against an OV/RV of 9/9 with a two column shift penalty or suffer 5 APs of disappointment.]

In 1972, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had an idea. What if you took the rules and mechanics of the board wargames they both loved, and adapted them so that players would control not only pieces, but actual characters in a story? The result was a new beast, a “role-playing game” (RPG) called Dungeons & Dragons, which gestated slowly throughout the 1970s and by 1980 blossomed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. In 1982, D&D even showed up in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, still one of the most successful movies of all time.

So of course, as the Eighties rolled on, everybody wanted a piece of that sweet D&D action. Sure, the trailblazing game was set in a fantasy milieu, but no doubt there would be lots of other fun genres in which RPGs could romp, right? D&D‘s publisher TSR Hobbies was already on that train, producing Top Secret (a spy RPG), Gangbusters (1920s crime), Star Frontiers (sci-fi), and Boot Hill (western), among many others. Superheroes were ripe for development, but unlike the aforementioned genres, they were more dependent on character than on setting, and the dominant sets of character IP were owned by the Big Two comic book companies, DC and Marvel.

TSR solved this problem in 1984 by acquiring the Marvel license and producing the Marvel Super Heroes RPG. But they could hardly play both sides of the field, so that left DC to partner with one of TSR’s many competitors. They found a match in Mayfair Games, which had started out publishing railroad-building boardgames, but ventured into the RPG craze with Role Aids, a line of adventure modules and supplements advertised as compatible with D&D. (Not surprisingly, this marketing tactic later got them into legal hot water with TSR. At least they never got sued by Rolaids.)

Be Part Of The Legend!

Thus it was that in 1985, Mayfair released the DC Heroes role-playing game. That game’s tag line was “Be Part Of The Legend!”, and its cover (gorgeously drawn by George Pérez) featured some marquee Justice League heroes along with the New Teen Titans — DC’s hottest team at that time — battling a legion of villains.

Cover of the DC Heroes RPG, first edition

This game faced a daunting design challenge, because some of that era’s DC characters were ludicrously powerful — for instance, Superman once destroyed a solar system by sneezing. How to represent such off-the-charts power alongside guys like Batman, who was essentially a peak athlete with wonderful toys? Designer Greg Gorden ingeniously married these extremes by introducing a logarithmic scale for game stats. Everything in the game gets measured in Attribute Points (AP), and every attribute point is worth twice as much as the one before it. As the manual explains, “Therefore, a DC Hero with a Strength of 6 is twice as strong as a DC Hero with a Strength of 5.”

So Batman has a strength of 5 (roughly 8 times stronger than an average human), while Superman has a strength of 50 (roughly 18 trillion times stronger than Batman). The two of them can exist on the same scale without having stats that are so long they run off the page. Of course, that mind-boggling gap also points out some of the structural problems of the DCU in those days — many of its heroes were so staggeringly powerful that it was almost impossible to place them in dramatic jeopardy. DC would attempt to solve those problems with its Crisis On Infinite Earths, a universal reboot that set DC characters back to more reasonable power levels. In the 1989 second edition of the game, Superman’s strength was down to 25, a mere 16-million-fold increase over Batman. Well, a little more reasonable anyway.

Crisis was also a 1985 event, a 12-issue “maxi-series” that ran from April 1985 to March 1986. In fact, the DC Heroes RPG got released right in the middle of the series, which put Gorden in an awkward position. Mayfair couldn’t wait a year for the series to complete — they needed to get their game out in time for the ’85 Christmas season — but releasing before Crisis was over meant that some of the game’s information would be drastically wrong almost immediately. In fact, Gorden had to include a section in his (charming) designer’s notes entitled “What about Crisis On Infinite Earths?”, which explained that he was bound not to include details in the game that would spoil developments in Crisis, some of which DC hadn’t decided yet anyway! Nevertheless, he assured us that he’d been working extensively with DC editorial, and that “The information in the game, concerning characters and places and events, are compatible with my latest information as to how things will be when Crisis is over…” mostly.

The yearlong story arc of Crisis wasn’t the only thing making DC Heroes‘ timing awkward. It also came out just before two other epochal publications that would change the tone of comics for years to come: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and another little series called Watchmen. Mayfair had followed up DC Heroes, as any good RPG publisher would, with a blizzard of supplements — adventure modules, sourcebooks, atlases, and so forth. How could they incorporate these radical new visions into the game’s generally sunny tone?

Well, Miller’s Batman was grizzled and futuristic, but he was still Batman, and could be addressed as a kind of “imaginary story” scenario. The Watchmen characters and their universe, though, were brand new, and would have to be statted up in new publications. Mayfair took three shots at this:

  • Who Watches The Watchmen?, a 1987 module by Dan Greenberg — set in 1966 of Watchmen time,
  • Taking Out The Trash, another 1987 module, this one by Ray Winninger and set in Watchmen‘s 1968, and finally the
  • Watchmen Sourcebook, also by Winninger and containing loads of background information for the characters and their world.

In 2019, DC very helpfully — no doubt motivated by Watchmen‘s latest media juicing on HBO — collected all three of these artifacts into a volume they call the Watchmen Companion. (It also conveniently includes that issue of The Question that “guest-stars” Rorschach.)

The supplements have a fascinating history, especially considering the fact that Alan Moore actively collaborated with their authors. This was before his contract disputes with DC, and obviously well before his current vituperation of all things superheroic. Back in the Mayfair days, he was just another DC creator, excited about the possibilities of exploring his fictional universe. Dave Gibbons also participated, contributing original art to the modules.

Cover to DC's Watchmen Companion

It’s worth noting that Moore and Gibbons’ participation makes these RPG materials the only extensions of Watchmen ever created that could reasonably lay claim to any kind of “canonical” status. Greenberg rejects this notion, saying, “Only the Watchmen series itself is canon. My game is only an adaptation — reflected light and not the source.” Similarly, Winninger considers his work “a little footnote in the Watchmen story.”

Ultimately, I think the question of this material’s canonicity is kind of a silly one. Did these stories “really happen” in the Watchmen universe? Are they “really” part of the legend, or aren’t they? Well, does it matter? Would it change anything about the series if they are, or aren’t? As Moore writes in his script for the 1986 final issue of Superman Volume One, “This is an IMAGINARY STORY… aren’t they all?”

Who Plays The Watchmen?

In any case, RPG modules aren’t really stories, but rather frameworks within which a variety of stories could take place. For Greenberg’s module, that meant exploring what might have happened after the failed attempt by Captain Metropolis (aka Nelson Gardner) to create the “Crimebusters” with the book’s six main characters in 1966. The module’s story picks up immediately after this meeting, with Nelly scheming a way to persuade the heroes over to his side.

Echoing the plot of Watchmen itself, Captain Metropolis decides that his would-be Crimebusters must have a common enemy to confront. He disguises himself as a mysterious underworld boss called only “M” (thus rather ingeniously linking not only himself and Moloch, but also two Fritz Lang references), and hires underworld goons to arrange kidnappings of people close to each of the characters, such as Hollis Mason, Sally Jupiter, and even his own mother, Matilda. Still more nefariously, Gardner ties the kidnappings to a civil rights group known as the American Negro Alliance, thus focusing superheroic attention on all that “black unrest” he was so worried about at the meeting.

He calls the heroes together, and asks them to work as a team to help find all the missing victims, since the kidnappings seem to have targeted the not-really-Crimebusters as a group. What happens next? Well, that’s up to the players. Interactive narratives can allow the story to travel down a number of different possible roads. Depending on the range of interactivity available, the story may be more or less “on rails”, but in a tabletop RPG, players are generally offered a very wide range of action. So maybe the characters look into the kidnappings, or maybe they look into why Captain Metropolis is the one to bring them together, or maybe they decide to write the whole thing off and go on patrol, or go to Antarctica, or go back home. Heck, maybe they’re homemade heroes who aren’t even the characters from Watchmen at all.

The module assumes that they are the Watchmen characters (though not Dr. Manhattan, it should be noted), and that they do decide to investigate the kidnappings. It’s up to a Gamemaster (GM) to decide how much to rein the players’ choices into what the module covers. Assuming they do decide to chase down the clues, how much they find depends on their ideas and their dice rolls.

If the players and their dice rolls cooperate with the story’s framework, and/or a GM engineers events such that players proceed through the module as written, they’re likely to visit the offices of the American Negro Alliance, the apartment of an underworld figure called “Mole”, and/or a counterculture rally in Battery Park. The GM is encouraged to play Captain Metropolis as uptight, whiny, and racist — challenging ANA workers for being “uppity”, or complaining at the rally, “That isn’t music! It’s noise! And to think they are playing on the same stand the Air Force Band and the Singing Sergeants play on every Fourth of July. There is no justice.” Even if the players don’t suspect him, they’re sure to dislike him.

Cover of Dan Greenberg's "Who Watches The Watchmen" DC Heroes RPG module

Finally, they’ll be led to Moloch, who has indeed been funding more radical protest groups, since their activities draw the attention of the police, thus distracting the cops from Moloch himself. If defeated in battle, Moloch will (truthfully) deny any knowledge of the kidnappings, though, and Gardner will find a way to “discover” a note with information as to the whereabouts of the missing people. If the rescue goes well, the players may believe that Moloch was behind the whole thing. If it goes badly, Captain Metropolis may have to reveal his secret in order to keep his mother alive.

Do the heroes find out who’s been pulling their strings? Do they come together as the Crimebusters after all? Do they splinter again, no different than they were before the beginning of the module? How it goes will vary from one gaming group to the next, an ambiguous outcome which is not only in keeping with the spirit of RPGs, but of Watchmen itself. The last page of the game deliberately echoes the “I leave it entirely in your hands” last page of the book, in the section describing a confrontation with Gardner:

What the Players elect to do with Captain Metropolis is their matter. They could turn him over to the police, ostracize him from hero society, or they could view his act as a noble, if dangerous, one and consider maintaining their allegiances. The decision is theirs.

The Harlot’s Curse Taking Out The Trash

Winninger also cared very much about staying true to the spirit of Watchmen, a fact which shines through several different aspects of his module, Taking Out The Trash. For one thing, it tries to be just as atmospheric and reference-heavy as Watchmen itself. DC Heroes modules are broken up into “encounters” (scenes, more or less), and the title of every encounter in Taking Out The Trash references a pop song — “The Sound Of Silence”, “Sympathy For The Devil”, “I Am the Walrus”, and so forth. (Or at least, most of them do — I couldn’t find a clear referent for a couple.) Not only that, the GM is encouraged to open most scenes with either a snippet of Rorschach’s Journal or an excerpt from William Blake’s poem “London”. One of the main antagonist groups scrawls graffiti everywhere that quotes from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven And Hell. A literary quote accompanies each main character’s stat block and history, pulling in authors like Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Sir Phillip Sidney. You get the picture.

The module also uses a similar storytelling technique to the back matter in Watchmen issues, providing exposition and background via newspaper clippings, interview excerpts, or “found” documents like a letter to Adrian Veidt from his head of marketing. With a smile and a wink, this letter purports to accompany “the manuscript the guy from Chicago turned in for the second adventure in the ‘Ozymandias Role Playing Game.'” Winninger, let it be noted, got the call to write this second Watchmen module while still a student at Northwestern.

That “manuscript” includes a historical breakdown of the Watchmen world, with a writing credit shared between Winninger and Moore. Now, based on everything Winninger has said about the process of creating these supplements, I don’t believe that means that Moore actually produced any of this module’s text at his own typewriter. Rather, I suspect that Winninger (and Mayfair) provided him a co-writing credit because this section of the module was a summary of the work Moore had already produced — with some extra details added here and there. This is different from the rest of the module, which was much more original to Winninger — the Blake-quoting street gang didn’t come from Moore.

In fact, that gang is an example of how the module’s references aren’t always handled with Moore’s grace — they often feel troweled in, or just tacked on. Then again, as Winninger notes in his introduction to The Watchmen Companion, he was all of 20 years old when he wrote the thing, so fair enough. The form and content of the entire adventure represent a bold grasp at the kind of ambition that marks Watchmen throughout. That includes the plot, which finds the main characters at the 1968 Republican convention, working to prevent Moloch from assassinating Richard Nixon, and (if they succeed) thereby ensuring the beginning of the Nixon presidency that continues all the way into Watchmen‘s 1985.

Or, at least, that’s what Winninger intended. Mayfair unfortunately took an editorial machete to Winninger’s manuscript, derailing much of its historicity. He tells it best:

Mayfair editorial excised all its references to real people and places and replaced most of them with goofy parodies. Oliver North became “Findlay Setchfield South.” Max’s Kansas City became “Mex’s Indy City,” home of the “Velour Underground.” Nixon is known only as “the VP,” confusing readers. (Hubert Humphrey was Vice President in 1968; Nixon was VP a full 10 years earlier.)… Worst of all, the book was hastily retitled “Taking Out The Trash.” My title, “The Harlot’s Curse,” was pulled from the William Blake poem that serves as an epigraph to the story, following the template Alan established in naming each of Watchmen‘s 12 chapters.

Now, in fairness to Mayfair, when your market is likely the parents of adolescent boys, having the word “harlot” in your title probably represents an unreasonable risk. Nevertheless, all of Mayfair’s changes do have a significant negative impact on the module, and signify the struggle that they had with incorporating Moore and Gibbons’ dark vision into their world of Teen Titans and Justice League. The “Velour Underground” and “Findlay Setchfield South” feel very mainstream DC, a bit like Metropolis and Hub City.

Cover of Ray Winninger's Watchmen module "Taking Out The Trash" for the DC Heroes RPG

Mayfair editorial could have helped in the department of fact-checking and proofreading, but several prominent errors remain in the book. The overall plot summary (captioned “The Big Picture”) cuts off mid-sentence, about 70% of the way through. (This error wasn’t created by the The Watchmen Companion‘s reprint — it exists in the original module.) Rorschach gets called “Joseph Walter Kovacs”, when in fact his correct name is “Walter Joseph Kovacs.” The module refers to Hooded Justice throughout as “The Hooded Justice”, or sometimes just “The Justice.” Perhaps it’s a misnomer acquired via Eighties DC comics’ habit of saying “The Batman” rather than just “Batman”?

In any case, the story of the module follows the heroes’ discovery of a gang called the Bretheren (the Blake-obsessed criminals), who turn out to pose a threat to the convention, which in the Watchmen game universe takes place in New York rather than in Miami. An NYPD captain and a Secret Service honcho ask the heroes to provide security for the convention, and players can find a number of clues that help them track down the gang. After a climactic battle on the convention floor, successful players may discover that Moloch was directing the Bretheren’s attacks, in hopes that he could eliminate the competition for a candidate called Ken Shade, who had essentially “sold his soul” to Moloch’s organized crime network in order to pay gambling debts. They may also choose to take down the gang once and for all at its headquarters.

Strangely, there’s a subplot running through the module that involves only The Comedian. In these scenes, The Comedian follows “Findlay Setchfield South”‘s orders to eliminate a different rival to Nixon. I haven’t logged the world’s most RPG hours myself, but I’ve played my share, and the experience is almost always a group one. Having a GM play out a separate series of scenes with just one player, especially when those scenes are meant to be interleaved with the main action and kept secret from the other players, seems like it would require a pretty unusual gaming group dynamic. I wonder how many of the GMs who ran this module ended up just jettisoning the extra Comedian stuff entirely?

As always, there are plenty of ways for the story to end, depending on what directions the players chose and how well the dice cooperated with their intentions. In the module’s epilogue, which assumes that they’ve successfully foiled Moloch and The Bretheren, the characters watch on television as Nixon (or rather “The VP”) accepts his nomination, and then the GM reads out a final Blake quote, this one incorporating “the youthful Harlot’s Curse” and how it “blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” Even in success, players get a very downbeat ending, in keeping with the mood of Watchmen itself.

Back To The Source

The third Mayfair Watchmen publication isn’t an adventure at all, but what the game calls a sourcebook. Here’s their explanation:

A sourcebook contains game-related and background material on a certain subject relating to the DC Universe, most often a specific group of heroes, a certain location, or a special genre. GMs who prefer writing their own adventures will find sourcebooks especially helpful, since in addition to characters’ statistics, sourcebooks contain historical, organizational, and reference material about the sourcebook’s subject.

By 1990, when this book was published, Mayfair had produced plenty of sourcebooks — Batman, Superman, Doom Patrol, Justice League, Apokolips, et cetera. These books tended to be detailed breakdowns of the characters in question, plus articles about their gear, their headquarters, their supporting casts and rogue’s galleries, and so on. The Watchmen sourcebook took a different tack.

Rather than just writing article after article about Watchmen characters, Winninger took a page from Moore’s book (often literally) and provided background in the spirit of Watchmen‘s back matter — newspaper clippings, correspondence, psychiatric reports, ID cards, excerpts from Under The Hood and so on. I say he literally took a page because maybe 25% of the sourcebook is reprints of Moore’s back matter itself, often reformatted or parceled out into different pieces, but otherwise intact.

Some of the new material reinforces the book’s story (such as a newspaper clipping whose headline reads “Nite Owl breaks Rorschach out of Riker’s Island!”), but much of it builds on tiny hints in the book. For instance, we get full stats and descriptions for every villain or joke-villain that even gets a whisper of a mention in Watchmen — Captain Axis, Underboss, The Twilight Lady, The Screaming Skull, and so on — with a brief origin story, a “whatever happened to” section, and even the most famous crime pulled by each. The book has a full writeup of the “Owlcar” that Dan and Laurie walk by in his basement, complete with budget and possible issues (“Standard Tires are woefully inadequate. Tires must be armored against damage.”) There’s a floor plan of Minutemen headquarters.

Page 85 of the Watchmen sourcebook, which lists RPG details of the Owl's Nest and Owlcar

Winninger managed to throw in a few jokes himself. For instance, in the Rorschach section, we get a scrap of Rorschach’s journal proclaiming that he has “at least one ally here in the lair of the weak”: a taxi driver. It seems Rorschach was fleeing the police when a cab driver offered him a ride. “Told me I was his hero. Told me he was compelled to war against the sinners and the politicians and the false prophets as well.” Winninger’s insertion of Travis Bickle (obviously) into Rorschach’s backstory draws similar conclusions to what annotators would be arguing for in years to come.

He also took open questions from the text of Watchmen and closed them. For instance: who killed Ursula Zandt, the Silhouette? Hollis Mason in Watchmen only tells us that “she was murdered, along with her lover, by one of her former enemies.” Winninger names this enemy in Taking Out The Trash: it was apparently “the Liquidator.” The Sourcebook gives us a description of the Minutemen’s battle with this Liquidator, his hospital report after the battle (including his real name), and the section of her biography that details the murder scene.

In a similar fashion, Winninger nails down the identity of Hooded Justice, which brings us at long last to the Watchmen web annotations. In their endpages notes for Chapter 3, those annotations state:

Hooded Justice was likely killed by the Comedian. (If Mueller (sic) was Hooded Justice. There is no evidence for this anywhere in the comic; but the Mayfair Games DC Heroes Module, “Taking Out the Trash,” agrees with this assessment, in the section co-written by Moore.)

This note resolving Hooded Justice’s identity is ironic when it annotates a page where Hollis Mason writes, “Real life is messy, inconsistent, and it’s seldom when anything ever really gets resolved.” Mayfair’s Watchmen materials are messy at times, but they’re pretty consistent, and at least when it comes to the sourcebook, they resolve a lot. Hooded Justice’s section of that book has immigration documents for Müller’s parents, police reports of their domestic violence cases, a note from Rolf’s father leaving his mother, ads from his circus strongman career, newspaper clippings, the New Frontiersman smear on him, and more.

It’s wonderful stuff, full of story hooks for enterprising GMs, but from today’s vantage point, at least for someone who’s watched the Watchmen HBO series, its neat resolutions have acquired some competition. I couldn’t help reading all the Rolf Müller stuff with a sense of disappointment, because while that take on the Hooded Justice story is fine, I found Damon Lindelof’s alternate origin of Hooded Justice as Will Reeves to be orders of magnitude more compelling. Perhaps it’s because the Watchmen sourcebook is an invitation to creativity, but the HBO series is an outpouring of creativity, a response to Watchmen‘s questions that, like the original, constructs a crystalline and multi-layered story that works on a myriad of levels.

It’s difficult, maybe impossible, for an interactive narrative to meet that standard, and that’s one of the fundamental problems with trying to make any aspect of Watchmen interactive. The book is a self-contained universe, a precision timepiece whose pieces fit together exquisitely, allowing for no deviation. Where all the other DC books (with the possible exception of The Dark Knight Returns) just go on and on and on, Watchmen has a very clear stopping point, after which most of the characters are either erased or so radically changed that they’re basically starting from scratch.

Consequently, when Mayfair wanted to create interactive experiences in the Watchmen universe, they had to go back into the past — 1966 or 1968 in their two attempts. Of course, because Watchmen is only 12 issues, and only part of those detail the past, there’s not a large menu of options to choose from — hence both modules’ reliance on Moloch as a villain. Similarly, the sourcebook pours a lot of effort into detailing character histories, but by the time Watchmen ends, most of those histories have ended permanently. To play through any scenario that matters with them, you’d have to go back into the past.

An interior page from the "Who Watches The Watchmen" module, starting with the text, "Welcome to 1966. This is a more innocent time than the world of 1986..."

That’s what made Lindelof’s choice to go forward instead such a brilliant one. He was able to still make use of some of the book’s characters, but he accepted the challenge of starting anew. Could Angela Abar’s story play out in an RPG? I can’t say it’s impossible, because there’s a world full of creativity out there, but I think it’s fair to say that the structures of the story inherently resist interactivity, because the way they travel through time, the way they reveal themselves gradually, and the sense of inevitability around them, is just too precise.

Doctor Manhattan personifies this inevitability, which is why he’s quickly written out of both modules. Well, that’s not quite true. Greenberg’s module allows for the possibility that Dr. Manhattan could be a player character, one with knowledge of Captain Metropolis’ plan, but cautions:

It is vital, however, that the Player not act on this information and confront Captain Metropolis because, in his timeline, Dr. Manhattan did not confront Captain Metropolis in the past, is not confronting Captain Metropolis in the present, and will not confront him in the future. Dr. Manhattan is tied to his timeline, and while he knows the future, he cannot alter it.

But in this case, really, what’s the point of role-playing? Not only that, unlike the Dr. Manhattan of the text, it’s completely impossible for an RPG Manhattan to see all eras simultaneously, because he’s not in a text. In a book or show where every narrative turn is already worked out, such a character is like someone who’s already read or watched the whole thing. But an RPG is tied to time far differently – not even the GM knows how things will work out.

I would argue that Watchmen inherently resists expansion, and all the projects that have tried have all had to find ways to escape the original’s gravity. I haven’t explored them all, and I don’t plan to, but reading Mayfair’s material makes it clear to me that another self-contained dramatic effort has a much greater chance of success than an open-ended interactive one. RPGs, like William Burroughs’ cut-ups, explore the way randomness can drive narrative, but Watchmen leaves nothing to chance.

Next Entry: Time Pieces
Previous entry: Triangolo des Vigilantes

[Acknowledgements: In preparation for writing this post, I watched Vincent Florio’s video explanations of the DC Heroes game, lurked on the DC Heroes facebook group, listened to the Hero Points Podcast, and checked out the All-Star Games show on DC Universe. All of these resources were extremely useful for helping me understand the game as it’s played, and I’m grateful to everyone who had a hand in their creation!]

A radiation symbol in black on a yellow background. Underneath are stenciled words: DANGER QUARANTINE AREA. The stencil for "AREA" is held by two hands at the bottom of the frame. A dialogue balloon pointing off panel reads "Walkin' on... Walkin' on the moooooooon"

The Watchmen Bestiary 30 – Triangolo des Vigilantes

Ee yo, ee yo, ee yo, yo, yo, yo, YO, the following article contains spoilers for Watchmen.

I’m all reggatta de blanc today because of this panel, from page 19 of chapter 3:

A radiation symbol in black on a yellow background. Underneath are stenciled words: DANGER QUARANTINE AREA. The stencil for "AREA" is held by two hands at the bottom of the frame. A dialogue balloon pointing off panel reads "Walkin' on... Walkin' on the moooooooon"

The radiation symbol appears on the cover of chapter 3, and reverberates throughout the issue, including this panel and the one immediately preceding it on the previous page:

The radiation quarantine panel alongside the previous panel, which has the radiation symbol on a sign reading "FALLOUT SHELTER". Superimposed dialogue box, in the pirate scroll style: "...and in the terrible silence I understood the true breadth of the word "isolation". At the bottom of the panel, a dialogue balloon: "All alone. Inna final analysis."
However, where the preceding panel juxtaposes the symbol with the words from Tales Of The Black Freighter and the dubious sagacity of Bernard the news vendor, the quarantine panel brings in a different overlay. Web annotations, do your thing:

The symbol, this time being painted on their bedroom door. The singer’s rendition of “Walking on the Moon” by the Police foreshadows Dr. Manhattan’s trip to Mars.

Leslie S. Klinger, in Watchmen Annotated, takes the analysis a step further:

The song’s first line, “Giant steps are what you take,” is an ironic preview of Dr. Manhattan’s imminent departure, first from New York and then from Earth.

And yeah, that’s pretty much how this is working on the surface level. It’s a clever and mildly contemporary pop culture reference — “Walking On The Moon” came out in 1979, seven years prior to this issue of Watchmen. Its lyric about giant steps connects with Jon’s teleportation, and its lunar imagery resonates nicely with the iconic final image of this issue — Dr. Manhattan sitting alone in a cratered landscape against a backdrop of stars. That image also fits in well with the mention of quarantine. Talk about your social distancing.

But here’s the thing about references in Watchmen. Paying close attention to one is like closing your eyes and listening to a song on repeat, through really good headphones. Suddenly all this detail appears, little effects buried deep enough that you didn’t notice them before.

If you listen to “Walking On The Moon” like that, you’ll hear weird sci-fi sonics sliding by in the deep background — some kind of analog synth, or maybe a guitar note filtered through one of Andy Summers’ many effects pedals. And with the images of space, you’ll also hear lots of… space. Nigel Gray, the co-producer of this song, explains it thus:

“Walking On The Moon” has two guitar parts, but there are long gaps in it where you’d expect an extra guitar to fill in — and there’s nothing, just the groove. They get the backing track, add the vocals and one or two overdubs, then have the faith to leave it. If anyone else had recorded “Walking On The Moon” it wouldn’t have been a hit — it’s what the Police do to it that makes it special.

(L’Historia Bandido, pg. 61)

The first thing you’ll notice is that the song doesn’t start cleanly. There’s a stray bass note suggesting that things have already happened, a bit like the in medias res opening of Watchmen. Then the ticking drums, three notes of bass, and what Andy Summers calls “a big shining D minor eleventh chord that acts like fanfare to the subsequent get-under-your-skin melody.” (One Train Later, pg. 208).

Listen on repeat and certain parts will establish themselves as dominant, foremost of which is the groove. “Walking On The Moon” is loping, distant, spacey. Sting’s bass gives it an anchored and calm feeling, a confidence that takes us through the empty spaces. It’s the same few bass notes, over and over, for the first minute and a half of the song.

Behind the vocals, the bass, guitar, and drums begin to braid together. There are only three players in The Police, but they are more than the sum of their parts. They interweave to form a strong tripartite structure, like the three parts of this chapter. The news vendor’s story, Dr. Manhattan’s story, Dan and Laurie’s story. Sting, Stewart, Andy. A triangle.

Cover of the "Walking On The Moon" single

In his memoir Broken Music, Sting describes what he learned about working in a band with this configuration: “By playing as a trio I would learn the value of space and clarity between musical frequencies, which larger bands can’t help but fill.” (pg. 179) That’s that space we hear in “Walking On The Moon.” But there was a bigger triangle in Sting’s life.

Young Gordon Sumner’s mother Audrey was married to his father Ernest, but she was in love with another man, a man named Alan. Ernest owned a dairy, and Alan worked there for a time, enough time to entrance Audrey and himself into a bond that would last their lives. For decades, she would go out on Thursday nights, under the threadbare excuse of visiting Nancy, one of the assistants at the dairy. Ernest knew it was a lie, but couldn’t bear to leave her, and instead hurled sarcastic taunts as she left, then wept miserably while she was gone. The terrible tension of this triangle would thread all through Sting’s childhood, as his home life turned into “a series of squalid, ugly conflicts” (pg. 64).

Eventually, almost inevitably, he found himself repeating that tension in his own relationships, both as the victim and as the transgressor, his father’s role and his mother’s. It’s all over his music, too — for every giddy-in-love “Walking On The Moon”, there are plenty of “So Lonely”s and “Can’t Stand Losing You”s, lots of lonely messages in lots of bottles.

Triangles loom large in Watchmen too. As the symbol for Pyramid Deliveries, one appears on the very first page of the book, and they repeat themselves throughout. Adrian’s picture in Nova Express is credited to Triangle Inc. Joey badgers Bernard into hanging up a poster for the band Pink Triangle. There’s a triangle around the Buddha at the crime scene that detective Fine investigates in chapter 5. They are all over Adrian’s costume, and his fortress.

Watchmen chapter 10, page 7, panel 4. A long shot of Adrian and his assistants at the top of a staircase, descending beneath a floor whose boundaries are marked with dozens of interlocking triangles.

In fact, the very panel we’re examining today features triangles, albeit in a more subtle way. The top of the radiation symbol and its diagonally-jutting lower parts form a triangle, and the angled lines of each section leading toward the center suggest alternating black and yellow triangles. Those three black shapes around the central disc echo these trios. Sting, Stewart, Andy. Laurie, Jon, Dan.

The central romantic triangle of Watchmen began forming in issue #1, as Dan and Laurie dine together without Jon, but it takes shape much more clearly in this issue, as Laurie leaves Jon and shows up at Dan’s door. Like Sting’s mother Audrey, Laurie pushes away from her cold and distant provider to connect with someone more down-to-earth, setting up a tension that lasts all the way through to the final scenes, where Jon releases them both with another giant step away.

As I listened to “Walking On The Moon” over and over, seeking keys to its connections with Watchmen, my imagination began to superimpose the characters over the musical parts. The skittering, restless energy of the drums, trying to push the song open: Laurie. Spaced out bursts of guitar, perfectly timed, with quavering pulsar textures behind: Jon. Repetitive, broken-record bass, occasionally leaping into heartfelt melodicism: Dan.

And then there are the lyrics — powerful, vulnerable, joyous, detached, confident, nervous, all at once: all of them encompassed. The triangle itself. Giant steps are what Dr. Manhattan takes, but surely he’s not worried about broken legs. The vulnerable, human concern for injury belongs more to Dan and Laurie. Forever belongs to the godlike being, but together does not — he ends up alone, where it’s simpler, contemplating his own creations, while Dan and Laurie end up together, visiting Nepenthe Gardens.

Sting traces the inspiration for at least some of these lyrics back to his first love, Deborah. “[W]alking back from Deborah’s house in those early days would eventually become a song,” he writes, “for being in love is to be relieved of gravity” (pg. 96)

In Watchmen, only one character is ever relieved of gravity, the one to whom this panel refers. And even he keeps finding himself caught in the tangle of people’s lives, pulled back to Earth from his extraterrestrial retreat, until he finally leaves this galaxy for one less complicated.

Everyone else is resolutely Earthbound. Some, like Hollis Mason, Edward Blake, Walter Kovacs, and millions of New Yorkers on November 2nd, 1985, return to Earth in death. All the rest can do is hang on to each other, and try to keep it up.

Next Entry: Part Of The Legend
Previous Entry: Lonely Planet

Poster for This Island Earth

The Watchmen Bestiary 29 – Lonely Planet

Attention, people of Earth! This article contains spoilers for Watchmen. In addition, there are spoilers for the novel and movie This Island Earth, and very minor spoilers for the HBO Watchmen series.

In Chapter 3 of Watchmen, Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk walk over to Hollis Mason’s apartment together. As so often happens in the book, Moore and Gibbons intercut this scene with another scene, in this case Dr. Manhattan preparing for his TV interview with Benny Anger. Juxtaposition abounds — on the top of page 11, panel one shows a receptionist overcome with existential nausea at Dr. Manhattan’s sudden materialization. “They’re not paying me enough for this…” she says. Then panel two:

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

Watchmen, up to its usual tricks, superimposes the dialogue from the previous panel onto this one and emphasizes two parts of the image to tie it to that dialogue: the Institute for Extraspatial Studies and the movie posters for This Island Earth. Both parts evoke “monsters from outta space” in a different way. The Institute for Extraspatial Studies operates more as foreshadowing for the final chapter (as well as an explicit reference to “outta space”), but the movie poster on the left serves up a great big monster on its face. The posters advertise a movie playing at the Utopia Cinema — we can tell that’s the name because the left-hand poster gives us the “PIA” while the right-hand poster has the “UTO”. This theater is apparently some kind of sci-fi revival house — as the web annotations helpfully point out:

The Utopia Cinema, which is showing “This Island Earth,” reappears later.

Indeed, we find it in Chapter 5 playing the movie Things To Come, and from Chapter 8 onwards playing The Day The Earth Stood Still (at least until the epilogue, in which it has become the “New Utopia” and shows a Russian cinema double feature.) Subjects for future posts, no doubt. For now, though, let’s focus on This Island Earth.

Universal Appeal

By 1955, Universal Pictures (named Universal-International at the time) was finding its successes in some odd places — Ma and Pa Kettle, Abbott and Costello, Francis the Talking Mule… and science fiction. The studio already had a stable of classic and beloved horror icons — Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Frankenstein, Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man — and was working to capitalize on a new sci-fi/monster craze kicked off in 1950 by Destination Moon.

Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold had turned in a couple of big black-and-white hits: It Came From Outer Space and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Arnold had also directed Revenge Of The Creature (a Black Lagoon sequel) and Tarantula, both of which did reasonably well. The studio felt it was time to make a “prestige” science fiction picture, and saw its chance in the novel This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones, the rights to which had been purchased by director Joseph M. Newman. Newman had commissioned Edward G. O’Callaghan to write a shooting script from the novel, but had failed to raise the necessary money to make his movie independently. Nevertheless, when Universal-International decided to buy the rights and engage Alland as the producer, those rights came attached to Newman as director and O’Callaghan as screenwriter.

U-I made some big investments in this movie. For one thing, they decided to shoot it in Technicolor, which was significantly more expensive than black-and-white stock but brought with it a “wow” factor, especially for sci-fi spectacle. They also brought in Franklin Coen to rewrite O’Callaghan’s script. Coen was not a science fiction writer, but knew how to focus on character and theme. His revisions brought some weight and depth to O’Callaghan’s original treatment. U-I may have also recruited Arnold to reshoot some of Newman’s work in the last act, though sources differ as to the extent of Arnold’s involvement, or indeed whether he was truly involved at all. Finally, the studio devoted quite a budget to visual effects, creating elaborate miniatures, matte paintings, fire, explosions, and (to Coen’s chagrin) a monster.

Prestige picture or no, This Island Earth was science fiction, and in Universal-International’s eyes, they’d never hook the teen and preteen audience they needed for it without a creature. As actor Jeff Morrow, who played the sympathetic alien Exeter in the film, later recalled, “the Studio felt that a Sci-Fi film had to have a monster”. (Universal Filmscripts Classic Science Fiction, Volume 1, pg. 15)

This monster from outer space was the Metaluna mutant, whose image we see on the Utopia Cinema’s poster in Watchmen. The mutant was invented wholly for the film — it doesn’t exist in the novel at all. And even in the movie, it feels pretty tacked-on. Nevertheless, the mutant is today the most famous and enduring aspect of This Island Earth (well, aside from the fact that this movie was somewhat unfairly chosen as the object of ridicule in the theatrical version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but that hadn’t happened yet in 1985) and it may be the primary reason why Moore and/or Gibbons chose the film to feature in the “monsters from outta space” panel. Certainly the mutant is one of the all-time iconic 1950s Hollywood space creatures.

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

Reassembling The Components

There’s more resonance here than appears in that panel, though, and to understand it we need to explore This Island Earth a little further. The book and the movie share a premise, but diverge radically about halfway through their stories. At the beginning of both, though, is Cal Meacham. He’s the kind of omnicompetent man common to 1950s sci-fi, a Scientist who does Science but who is also no stranger to action and fighting, plus he’s pretty good with the ladies. He receives a mysterious replacement part from a supply warehouse: a capacitor much smaller than he was expecting and with much greater capacity.

This leads to a catalog full of these mysterious parts, from which he orders the pieces for something called an “interociter.” Using his Science smarts, he builds the interociter, which turns out to have been his unsolicited audition for a mysterious outfit whose stated goal is to “put an end to war.” They fly him in a pilotless plane to their remote compound, where they’ve gathered other scientists like him, including PhD Ruth Adams (psychiatrist in the book, physicist in the movie), and entice him into working for them.

Something doesn’t feel quite right, though, and the same curiosity that drove Cal to build the interociter spurs him to investigate his benefactors. Before long, he discovers the truth: they’re aliens! Their purpose on Earth is to recruit humans to help them build tools and weapons for a war they’re waging against an implacable enemy.

From this point, the book and the movie diverge completely. In the book, the interociter turns out to facilitate telepathy, and it allows Meacham first to read his alien mentor’s mind, then to absorb the full context of a war between an affiliation of planets called the Llannan Council (i.e. the good guys) and another affiliation called the Guarra (bad guys.) Intrigue ensues, including a scary encounter with lizardlike Guarra agents.

Earth is destined to become a battleground between the Llannans and the Guarra, and the Llannas have decided to let it be overrun, until Cal goes before the council and argues that they’ve been executing the same plans (determined by a computer) for decades, and that their predictability has been their undoing. He persuades the Llannans to defend Earth, and ends the book looking forward to returning home with Ruth (to whom he’s become engaged in the course of the story.)

The movie, on the other hand, follows Cal’s discovery with an action sequence in which he and Ruth flee the compound with another scientist, played by Russell Johnson of Gilligan’s Island fame. Johnson’s character gets vaporized by some kind of space ray, and Meacham and Adams try to escape via plane, only to have their plane sucked into a flying saucer commanded by Exeter, leader of the alien compound. Exeter and company turn out to be from a planet called Metaluna, which is under relentless assault by another race called the Zahgons, whom we never see apart from their ships.

Exeter wants to bring Meacham and Adams to Metaluna to help create machines to power its defenses, and in the process of bringing them there we get to see a lot of those fancy visual effects that Universal-International paid for, including one in which Meacham and Adams step into tubes that put them through a mysterious process meant to help their bodies cope with the greater atmospheric pressure on Metaluna. What this looks like is some crazy lighting, and then the consecutive appearance of various anatomical systems — nervous, circulatory, skeletal, muscular.

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

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

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

Given that This Island Earth gets name-checked in chapter 3 of Watchmen and Dr. Manhattan’s system-by-system reconstruction of himself appears in chapter 4, it’s not beyond reason to wonder if the movie’s visuals influenced Moore and Gibbons’ portrayal of Osterman’s process. Certainly both sequences suggest bodies deconstructed and then reconstructed into something greater than they were before.

In any case, by the time Exeter and the humans reach Metaluna, they find they are too late to save it. They encounter the mutant, who inadvertently and unsuccessfully impedes their escape a couple of times, and then they are back on Earth — Cal and Ruth in their airplane, and the mortally wounded Exeter plunging his saucer into the sea.

We Have Met The Enemy

The plots of these stories differ — largely because the latter half of Jones’s book wasn’t visual enough for the movie producers, and introduced too much complexity to fit into a film. But they do have a metaphorical underpinning in common. In each of them, the people of Earth find themselves part of a greater galactic context than they’d imagined, and are exploited by extraterrestrials who are themselves at war.

1955 was a mere decade past the end of World War II, a war in which the Allied and Axis forces battled on many fronts, including islands in the Pacific whose indigenous people had no idea of the greater context of war around them. Those indigenous people were often recruited to build airstrips or help in the manufacture of military supplies. The novel’s version of Exeter calls out this parallel explicitly, in a line of reasoning that explains the title:

These primitive peoples… had no comprehension of the vast purpose to which they were contributing a meager part, but they helped in a conflict which was ultimately resolved in their favor.

(This Island Earth, pg. 93)

“Earth is an island,” he says, “which can be by-passed completely, or temporarily occupied if need be.” (pg. 98) Similarly, film historian Robert Skotak, in the DVD commentary for the movie version, explains Joseph Newman’s intention with the film:

One of the themes that the director had in mind was to show the love of our planet and how valuable our planet is and how it is just a mere island in the vast infinity of space. And, if we aren’t careful, we could destroy ourselves — using Metaluna as… a metaphor for what could be us. This was made not too many years after the bombing of Hiroshima, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb, the Soviets getting the hydrogen bomb, the Cold War. So fears of the end of the world were on the minds of many artists, many people, and that was one of Joe Newman’s main themes.

Now, these readings are a little bit different from each other — one emphasizes Earth’s unawareness of the larger universe, and the other emphasizes its fragility and irreplacability. But in both of them, the story’s aliens stand in for humans. At the metaphorical level, we are both the exploitative aliens and the humans they exploit, two groups separated by facts of geography, culture, and technology.

Watchmen literalizes this metaphor further, by having a seeming alien invasion that is in fact a front for one human exploiting other humans for what he sees as the greater good. That’s the thread that ties This Island Earth to the Institute for Extraspatial Studies, more than just “monsters from outta space”. Here’s Joseph Newman one more time, explaining his first impressions upon reading the novel:

I think the overwhelming thing that came into my mind when I purchased Jones’ novel was to illustrate, as the title of the book suggests, that this planet is in reality a small island in an extremely vast and unknown universe, and that it is to the welfare of all the inhabitants of this island, Earth, to eliminate and submerge their petty hatreds of any of the many groups of human dwellers on this tiny island of matter. Our concerns might be, in the not-too-distant future, I thought, forces and elements beyond the present-known universe…

(Universal Filmscripts, pg. 19)

This is exactly the point that Adrian Veidt hopes to make as well, submerging the mutual hatred of the USA and USSR in the face of forces and elements beyond their present knowledge. It’s just that where Jones and Newman make their point through art alone, Adrian writes his fiction into the world as an enormous alien invasion hoax. As I mentioned in the Revelation post, Veidt authors his own apocalypse to resolve the unbearable tension between what he sees and what he desires. In doing so, he reframes Earth as an island subject to occupation, hoping that this new perspective brings all the natives into line.

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

Stories, Masks, and Trauma

Just as Veidt’s hoax is a kind of authorship, so I would argue are the masks and identities of Watchmen‘s costumed adventurers. In HBO’s excellent Watchmen series, Laurie Juspeczyk says this:

People who wear masks are driven by trauma. They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo, the mask. It hides the pain.

But hiding the pain isn’t all that masks do. They also tell a story, a new story, about the traumatized people behind them — rearranging their faces and giving them all other names. In this new story, the masked people aren’t powerless, but powerful. They exist to carry out their own agendas, rather than having their agency taken away from them. The new story told by the mask exists as an attempt to help mask-wearers process and relieve their trauma.

Well, isn’t this the function of art? Through the things that we create, we seek to understand our world and its inhabitants. At an individual level, it’s well-documented that the creation of art can channel grief, trauma, and heartbreak into some new form, transforming it via creative alchemy into something that briefly assuages those emotions both for the artist and the audience. That’s the catharsis that Aristotle describes in his Poetics.

But grief, trauma, and heartbreak don’t just exist at the individual level. There are larger versions of trauma that transcend the personal. Granted, using the term “trauma” becomes more metaphorical beyond the individual level, but I believe that a family can be traumatized, a school or workplace can be traumatized, a town can be traumatized, and a culture can be traumatized. And if we accept that trauma can exist at a cultural level, I think it becomes very clear that the art it produces functions in part to help process that cultural trauma.

This Island Earth, and 1950s science fiction movies in general, are an example of this. World War II, and in particular the enormity of the atomic bomb, was a massive cultural trauma. The rapid escalation of both calamitous bomb technology and tensions between the superpowers quickly brought us face to face with our ability to destroy ourselves. Hitler’s concentration camps made plain humanity’s capacity for barbarism. Not only that, the process of the war itself and its aftermath changed America radically — women had new roles after stepping into professions vacated by men, racial politics mutated after Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, and the 1944 G.I. Bill introduced a tremendous amount of new class mobility into society.

75 years on, we can see these changes as unalloyed benefits, but at the time they were just as frightening to some as the bomb and the Nazis. 50s B movies told stories of invasions, of incomprehensible malevolence, of science and technology run amok, of venturing into the unknown, of humanity’s warlike nature, and so forth. It’s not hard to see cultural anxieties projected onto those aliens, giant insects, and monsters from the deep. It’s a genre obsessed with unexpected consequences.

So if 1950s sci-fi movies were processing the cultural trauma of World War II, what set of cultural traumas does Watchmen meet? Well, some of this isn’t really subtext. 1985 was peak Nuclear Anxiety time, and Watchmen obviously means to grapple with that. In this way, it’s a direct descendant of stories like This Island Earth.

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

But there are other, more festering wounds at work in Watchmen too. The clash of political Left and Right, so strident and polarized now, had been climbing since the days of Goldwater vs. the counterculture, but hit a new level during the Reagan years, and found its Watchmen expression via Nova Express vs. The New Frontiersman. Even more than those two competing media sources, the superheroes themselves in Watchmen interrogate the competing values of individual action vs. social action. American culture reveres the lone principled individual, but in Watchmen the two individuals who best fit that description are Rorschach and Ozymandias. Though politically they are opposites, temperamentally they embody the same extremist impulses, and Watchmen shows both as deeply problematic.

This isn’t the Cold War. It’s closer to the Civil War — an ongoing series of battles in an America deeply divided against itself, with good and bad actors on both sides, plus a whole lot of grey in between. It’s part of why Watchmen remains relevant and powerful today, powerful enough to inspire the whole new story that appeared on HBO last fall.

I’ve called Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock “fan fiction” — meant gently — and in a way Damon Lindelof’s HBO Watchmen is no different. It’s an extension of intellectual property that has been taken rather than granted. The only ones who could really “officially” continue Moore and Gibbons’ story are Moore and Gibbons, or successors anointed by them, regardless of what corporation owns the rights. But what made Lindelof’s work so compelling, so true to the spirit of Watchmen, was its singular vision and its engagement with the cultural trauma of our time. In the HBO series’ case, that trauma is race in America rather than the Cold War, but its medicine is just as strong.

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The Watchmen Bestiary 28 – Mutiny, I Promise You

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, note the comic “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the comic shop’s window, and the prevalence of pirate themes in the covers of the other comics. One comic has an “X” in its title, perhaps a sly reference to the “X-Men” comics of the real world. (The title “X-Ships” appears on a comic early in Issue 1.)

As much as I love to chase down every little reference, I won’t be writing a post on the X-Men and Watchmen — the connection is just too slight. The annotators are probably correct that “X-Ships” references X-Men, given that X-Men comics were at their peak of popularity when Watchmen was being written. Since pirate comics dominate the Watchmen world, X-Ships are their likely X-Men analog, but that strikes me as just a little joke, not the kind of intertextual allusion that this series digs into.

Mutiny On The Bounty is another matter. I would argue that this reference illuminates several levels of Watchmen. But before exploring that, let’s talk for a while about the story itself.

Making a Mutiny

One might ask first why Mutiny On The Bounty would be a pirate comic at all. Sure, it’s a nautical tale, but it’s hardly Treasure Island. Where are the pirates?

Well, it turns out that most versions of the story refer to the mutineers as pirates. They may not be one-legged parrot-keepers plundering merchant ships for doubloons, but they do in fact take the ship they had crewed, and anyone who seizes one of His Majesty’s ships becomes a pirate in the eyes of the British Navy.

The historical facts of the mutiny are as follows. The cutter Bounty was commissioned to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti and bring them to the West Indies, in hopes that the tree could be cultivated as a food source for plantation slaves on those islands. Lieutenant William Bligh commanded the ship, which had been specially fitted out to hold six hundred plants. This remodeling shrank the living space of everyone on board, making an already uncomfortable sea voyage even more difficult.

Bligh’s original plan was to travel west from England to Tahiti, rounding Cape Horn on the way to Oceania. However, bureaucratically-imposed delays meant that the Bounty didn’t start sailing until the weather had turned impassable south of the Cape. Bligh, a disciple and former navigator to the revered Captain Cook, was an immensely confident sailor, but this circumstance thwarted him. He tried for nearly a month to get through, but eventually gave up and headed east, stopping to re-provision the ship at Cape Town, then sailing onward, south of Australia (called New Holland at the time) and New Zealand to Tahiti, where he landed in late October of 1788.

By all accounts, Tahiti was a sailor’s paradise. It had gorgeous weather, stunning landscapes, abundant food and water, and friendly indigenous people, with a far less sexually inhibited culture than that of 18th century England. The Bounty‘s botanical mission obliged its crew to stay on the island for several months, so that they could secure agreements with various native chiefs to take plants from their groves. In the process, many members of the crew also formed relationships with native women. The initial delay in launching the ship also meant that it must wait out the western monsoon season, which wouldn’t end until April. Thus began a five-month tropical sojourn for the ship and its crew.

A painting of the Bounty in front of a Tahitian landscape

On April 5, 1789, laden with over 900 breadfruit plants (Bligh had somehow made room on the ship to store even more than planned), the Bounty set sail from Tahiti. Their orders were to pass through the Endeavour Straits (now known as the Torres Strait) between Australia and New Guinea, in hopes that Bligh’s navigation and surveying skills could help define a safe passage for future missions. But the Bounty would never travel through those Straits.

At dawn on April 28, master’s mate Fletcher Christian and several accomplices awakened Bligh. They dragged him, clad only in a nightshirt, up on deck. The mutineers ordered Bligh into the Bounty‘s launch, where he was joined by seventeen loyalists. Several others remained on board the Bounty, either detained by the mutineers for their skills, or simply unable to fit into the already dangerously overburdened launch.

Bligh and his crew traveled over 3,600 miles in an open boat, from the site of the mutiny to the island of Timor. They endured extraordinary hardships of starvation and exposure, and they did in fact pass through the Endeavour Straits. Bligh’s entire crew survived this journey, with the exception of quartermaster John Norton, who was killed by hostile indigenes on an island where the crew had attempted to re-provision. After reaching the Dutch settlement on Timor, Bligh and company found their way back to England, where his journey was rightly hailed as an astonishing act of seamanship.

Meanwhile, the mutineers and remaining loyalists splintered. Some stayed on Tahiti, taking wives and having children. These men were collected several years later by the British vessel Pandora, which itself then sank in the Endeavour Straits. The survivors of that shipwreck took the remaining prisoners back to England, where they were court-martialed. Some were acquitted, some were found guilty but pardoned by the crown, and some were hung. The rest of the mutineers had fled to the remote Pitcairn’s Island. The British never caught these men, but they fell out among themselves and the Tahitians they had brought along, such that there was only one Bounty crew member remaining when an American vessel stumbled upon the island twenty years later. The descendants of these mutineers and Tahitians live on the island to this day.

What doomed the Bounty? What brought Fletcher Christian and his fellow crewmen to such an emotional extreme that they were willing to become pirates and set eighteen men adrift to what must have seemed like certain death? What does this mutiny mean? The answers to these questions have been much disputed, and their portrayals over the years are a saga unto themselves.

Story vs. Story

Bligh returned to England in March of 1790. He was court-martialed — mandatory for any captain who lost his vessel — and exonerated of all charges. Within a few months, he published his Narrative of the Mutiny, which in fact devoted a scant six pages to the mutiny itself, and another eighty to his open-boat journey. He declined to speculate on Christian’s motivation, saying only that he heard the crew cheering “Huzza for Otaheite” (“Hooray for Tahiti”) as the launch pulled away. (The Bounty Mutiny, pg. 10) Based on this narrative, England hailed him as a hero. He met the king, was promoted twice, and subsequently set sail on another breadfruit expedition, departing in August 1791 aboard a ship called the Providence.

Meanwhile, the Pandora had launched to capture as many mutineers as it could find, and its survivors returned to England in March of 1792. The prisoners’ court-martial that summer resulted in three hangings, four acquittals, and two royal pardons.

After the dust settled, the first competing narrative began to take shape. Fletcher Christian’s brother Edward, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, took it upon himself to interview all returned survivors of the mutiny, both those who had journeyed with Bligh and those who had been captured by the Pandora. He released a pamphlet with a partial transcription of the court-martial, and an extensive appendix (The Bounty Mutiny, pg. 67), which used those interviews to condemn Bligh as a tyrant and show Fletcher Christian as a noble soul who rebelled only as a last resort under intolerable circumstances.

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

That argument saw print in 1794, in the midst of a historical moment ripe for such a story. The French Revolution had overthrown the monarchy there just a few years prior, and the American colonies had rebelled less than fifteen years before that. Individuals longing for freedom and deposing tyrannical authorities were the cultural order of the day, and Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge found an avatar in Fletcher Christian. In addition, the Jacobins of the French Revolution exalted the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose notions of mankind’s goodness in a “State Of Nature” were easy to overlay upon the Tahitian indigenes, thus providing another justification for men who wanted to leave a corrupt civilization and live amongst “noble savages.”

Bligh returned in 1794 and exchanged retorts with Edward Christian, but the sailor was ineffective against the lawyer, and the damage to Bligh’s reputation would never be fully undone. The discovery of survivors on Pitcairn’s Island in 1808 excited public interest again, and launched a new wave of Bountyphilia. Sir John Barrow published an account in 1831 which upheld the image of Bligh as an overbearing martinet. Barrow was a family friend of Peter Heywood, one of those captured by the Pandora and later pardoned by the crown. In 1870, Heywood’s stepdaughter Lady Diana Belcher published another version of the story, again justifying Heywood and Christian against a Bligh portrayed as ever more villainous.

There were theatrical plays made of the story, but it didn’t receive the full novelistic treatment until the twentieth century, when Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall published Mutiny On The Bounty in 1932. For dramatic purposes, they created the fictional viewpoint character Roger Byam, who stood in for Heywood on the Bounty‘s crew. Nordhoff and Hall grounded their story in many historical facts, but also invented details to corroborate Bligh’s cruelty and Christian’s nobility. There was in fact a full Nordhoff and Hall Bounty trilogy — book two followed Bligh’s voyage and book three the life of the mutineers on Pitcairn’s Island — but it was Mutiny On The Bounty that caught the public’s imagination most. Hollywood took notice.

Mutiny On The Big Screen

MGM released its film Mutiny On The Bounty in 1935, directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian, Charles Laughton as William Bligh, and Franchot Tone as Roger Byam. MGM’s movie directly adapted Nordhoff and Hall’s novel, and it was a smash success, capturing the 1935 Academy Award for Best Picture. Gable, Laughton, and Tone were all nominated for Best Actor, splitting the vote and leading to the creation the next year of the “supporting role” Oscars.

The Lloyd Mutiny film amplified every exaggeration of Nordhoff and Hall’s, and layered in quite a few new ones. For instance, in the novel Byam witnesses another captain order a man flogged, and the punishment kills its target. The captain then orders that the flogging continue until the full complement of lashes have been delivered to the bloody corpse. (This scene has no basis that I can find in the surviving historical evidence surrounding the Bounty.) In the movie, it is Bligh who gives that order, and stands watching with satisfaction until the grisly punishment is complete. In historical fact, Bligh had a fastidious aversion to flogging, and tried to avoid it as much as possible.

Similarly, where Bligh’s actual log records his disgust with his surgeon Thomas Huggan, who he saw as a “Drunken Sot” (The Bounty, pg 84), Nordhoff and Hall give the surgeon a wooden leg (nodding to Stevenson, I suppose) and an ever-present bottle of brandy. Lloyd’s film has everyone on board calling the surgeon “Old Bacchus”, introduces him by hauling him aboard in a net, and turns Dudley Digges loose on him with a ridiculously broad performance.

Then there are the scenes entirely invented for the film. Laughton’s Bligh keelhauls a man, which happened in neither the book nor the historical record — the practice had been outlawed in the British Navy for decades. Gable’s Christian turns to mutiny after some crew members are unjustly imprisoned, but in the book, he simply bristles at being unfairly accused of theft. Finally, Lloyd’s film shows Bligh himself in command of the Pandora, unlike the book which correctly depicts its captain as Edward Edwards. Aside from these story changes, the simple act of casting Gable as Christian and Laughton as Bligh tells the audience very clearly where its sympathies should lie. Laughton in particular turns in a marvelous performance as a corrupt, blustering villain.

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

All these changes are made for the sake of drama, and they work very well, but their dramatic logic is simple indeed. Every uncertainty and nuance of the historical record, already greatly flattened by Nordhoff and Hall, gets sanded down into a stark story of good versus evil, of corruption overthrown by force. Just as Hollis Mason observed about Superman’s relation to the pulps that preceded it, Lloyd’s film (released three years before the debut of Superman) similarly removes the last of its predecessors’ darkness and ambiguity in favor of a basic, boiled-down morality.

Interestingly, after 1935 the pendulum began to swing back in the other direction. In 1962, Carol Reed and Lewis Milestone directed a version of the story starring Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Bligh. When Gable clashed with Laughton, you knew who to root for, but in the 1962 version, no character is particularly sympathetic. Bligh is awful, of course, a sociopath who uses others to accomplish his mission without for a moment considering their experience or humanity. But Brando’s preening and simpering Christian is also far from admirable. He’s foppish and contemptuous from the start, only goaded into mutiny by the character of John Mills (played by Richard Harris) as the devil on his shoulder. Even the Tahitians come across as weirdly unpleasant. By making everyone a villain (or anti-hero), the 1962 version mostly indicts the system — showing the impossible position into which the men are put. They are utterly at the mercy of Bligh, who cares nothing for their lives, but they will also die if they go against him.

There was one more filmed version of the story: 1984’s The Bounty, starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. This is by far the most historically accurate Hollywood depiction. Bligh and Christian, rather than being exaggerated villain & hero, or exaggerated villain & anti-hero, come across as three-dimensional humans, both deeply ambitious and deeply flawed in their own ways. This version still injects a bit of fiction, giving Bligh a strangely burning desire to circumnavigate the globe, and very subtly suggesting that he had a homosexual attraction to Christian, but in general it redeploys historical detail to reshape the simple good and evil story that Mutiny On The Bounty had become, into a nuanced tragedy of complicated people at a complicated historical moment.

Here at last we can return to Watchmen. Tracing the path of Bounty portrayals up through 1935 makes it clear that they constitute a kind of Watchmen project in reverse. Where Moore and Gibbons started with the simplistic Golden Age and laid in layer after layer of realism, humanity, and grit, every new version of the Bounty story stripped those layers away, culminating with the Lloyd film’s simplistic depiction of hero Christian versus villain Bligh. This depiction has never left the public imagination — “Captain Bligh” is still a synonym for a tyrannical and oppressive leader.

Leslie Klinger’s annotations assert that the Watchmen panel in question shows a “vintage poster in the window for the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty“. This is a little different from the web annotations’ suggestion that we’re seeing a Mutiny on the Bounty comic, but either way it makes sense that the poster would reference the 1935 version of the story, since that was the most successful and culturally impactful version ever made. Not coincidentally, that version is the most simplified, melodramatic adaptation of the story known to mainstream audiences. Its appearance in the comic shop window is the pirate equivalent of Action Comics #1.

Watchmen itself, on the other hand, is more like the Hopkins/Gibson Bounty movie — a movie that happened to emerge in 1984, when Watchmen was being written. By placing Mutiny On The Bounty in a window of the Watchmen world, Moore and Gibbons give us a window into how narratives and genres can evolve over time, and they reflect their own project in doing so.

Mutineers

Watchmen itself was a kind of mutiny. It rebelled against the established order in mainstream comics, striking at the injustice and hypocrisy beneath the cultural authority of superhero narratives, narratives that had claimed the mantle of justice and righteousness for themselves. Like many mutinies, its results have been mixed — superheroes’ cultural authority is stronger than ever, as Marvel’s box office receipts will tell you, but at the same time they were forever changed by Moore’s story. That story is full of mutineers, too.

There’s a quote in Nordhoff and Hall’s novel that’s particularly apropos to Watchmen. It comes in a reflective moment, as Byam describes Fletcher Christian:

His sense of the wrongs he had suffered at Bligh’s hands was so deep and overpowering as to dominate, I believe, every other feeling. In the course of a long life I have met no others of his kind. I knew him, I suppose, as well as anyone could be said to know him, and yet I never felt that I truly understood the workings of his mind and heart. Men of such passionate nature, when goaded by injustice into action, lose all sense of anything save their own misery. They neither know nor care, until it is too late, what ruin they make of the lives of others.

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

That notion, that a supposed hero fighting for justice could ruin the lives of innocents, comes entwined in Watchmen‘s DNA, while the quote also captures the spirit of several characters. Certainly it applies to Rorschach, and no less to Ozymandias. Though not born from a passion for justice, detachment from human costs and consequences characterizes several others as well: The Comedian, Silk Spectre I, and of course Dr. Manhattan. Then there’s the narrator from Tales Of The Black Freighter, who certainly can be said to have lost all sense of anything save his own misery. The Black Freighter itself, as discussed earlier in this series, evokes Pirate Jenny, a true rebel against oppressive authority, who plots gleefully to slaughter them all.

The panel we’re examining juxtaposes two mutinies on the same page. Janey Slater rebels against Jon and the dominant story of her past by vilifying Dr. Manhattan to Nova Express. Laurie, as she walks by the Treasure Island window, is in the midst of defying the will of a government that just wants her to “get the H-bomb laid every once in a while.” In the government’s eyes, her mutiny may have doomed the ship, as “the linchpin of America’s strategic superiority has apparently gone to Mars!”

That same government enacted the Keene Act outlawing costumed vigilantes, and that’s an authority against which there are plenty of mutineers. Rorschach, of course, rebels from the start, killing a multiple rapist and using the body to deliver his note of refusal to police headquarters. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre join the mutiny many years later, as they suit up and go out on patrol in Chapter 7. Meanwhile, Ozymandias has been rebelling in secret all along, pretending to acquiesce to authority even as he engineered his fake doomsday plan, without a care for the ruin he’d make of the lives of others.

Story Vs. Story, Revisited

Ozymandias’ plan comes down to storytelling. That’s why he recruits writers and artists — he knows that his “practical joke” must be a convincing enough story that every nation in the world will believe it. But he’s not just telling a story to the world. Like Captain Bligh, his story to the world is also a story to himself, one that casts him in the role of hero and savior, the only one brave and capable enough to save the lives in his charge, despite all opposing forces. Like Bligh, he has no doubt that his narrative will prevail. Like Bligh, he will have an unexpected competitor.

Rorschach, through his diary as submitted to the New Frontiersman, will become the Edward Christian to Ozymandias’ Bligh, presenting an alternative version of events that radically recontextualizes the story known and accepted by the public. Like Christian, Rorschach has his own agenda and values that influence his version of events. I don’t mean to suggest that Christian has the truth on his side as Rorschach does, nor that Bligh intended a deception as Ozymandias does — only that the final level of drama in Watchmen comes from competing narratives, and invoking Mutiny On The Bounty can’t help but shine a light on how stories within Watchmen fight each other for dominance.

Rorschach and Ozymandias are the grand competing narrators of the work, but there are other narrative clashes within the book. For instance, every secret identity operates as a clash of narratives, in which a character keeps trying to smother the truth with a different explanation. In the case of a character like Hooded Justice, the competition becomes even more complex, especially as it’s reflected at the reader’s level. We never learn who Hooded Justice really was from the text itself, but we do get speculations from Hollis Mason. These speculations seem reasonable enough, but they are all we get from the text until Chapter 11, when Ozymandias tells his story of investigating Hooded Justice’s disappearance.

Veidt wonders: “Had Blake found Hooded Justice, killed him, reporting failure? I can prove nothing.” Now we as readers must evaluate several strands. There’s what we know about Rolf Müller, which comes strictly from the pages of Under The Hood — circus strongman, East German heritage, disappeared during the McCarthy anti-superhero hearings, found later shot through the head. Then there’s what we know about Hooded Justice — an early hero who came into serious conflict with The Comedian at least once. Then there’s what we know about Blake himself — someone who wouldn’t hesitate to execute an enemy and throw him in the ocean. These strands seem to present a coherent picture, but in all cases they are presented through the lens of another character telling a story for a particular purpose, some of whom may be more trustworthy than others. As with the history of the Bounty, we are left to discern the truth for ourselves.

Also like the Bounty, Watchmen itself has endured numerous forces trying to shape its story from the outside. Zack Snyder’s film version was loyal in its fashion, but also changed the story and the tone in ways both necessary and unnecessary. DC gave us Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock, which tried to extend the Watchmen world beyond the boundaries of the graphic novel, laying claim to canonical preequel and sequel stature by dint of being the original’s publisher, a claim which Alan Moore would vociferously dispute. Now, within just a few weeks of this post, HBO will debut yet another Watchmen story, this one a speculative sequel in TV series form.

All of these Watchmen versions wish to capitalize upon the status of the original, and to make us view it in a different light. They may not be mutinies, but at some level they are seizures, attempting to take a well-known ship in a new direction. Is that new direction fruitful? Is it necessary? Does it honor the mission? As befits the conclusion of Watchmen, that decision is left entirely in our hands.

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

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Previous Entry: The Righteous With The Wicked

The Watchmen Bestiary 27 – The Righteous With The Wicked

In the beginning, there were Watchmen spoilers. There will also be Watchmen spoilers throughout.

We’re on to Watchmen Chapter 3 in the Bestiary, and with a new chapter comes a new chapter title and a new epigraph. While the first two epigraphs came from the world of rock and roll, Chapter 3 casts much further backward, all the way back to the first book of the Bible — Genesis, chapter 18, verse 25: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Note that this is the King James Version [KJV] translation.)

We’ll get to what this means for Watchmen in a moment, but first let’s take a little time to ascertain the Biblical context of the quote. Genesis splits roughly into two parts, known as the Primeval History (chapters 1-11) and the Patriarchal History (chapters 12-50). The Primeval History narrates the creation myth, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, and the Tower of Babel. Lots of greatest hits. The Patriarchal History, on the other hand, starts with Abram (later called Abraham), then traces his lineage down through a series of patriarchs, in particular Abraham’s son Isaac, Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s son Joseph. The book tells a handful of stories from each man’s life, culminating in the “Joseph Novel”, which occupies (more or less) chapters 37-50.

Chapter 18, then, is early in the Patriarchal History, in the midst of the stories of Abraham. In this chapter, we find Abraham sitting in his tent, enduring the day’s heat, when he notices three men standing in front of him. Somehow sensing that there is more to these men than meets the eye, Abraham abases himself to them, begging them to partake of his hospitality. When they assent, he has his wife and his servants whip up the finest possible meal for them.

Very quickly, the text makes it clear that Yahweh (translated in various versions as “the LORD”) is among these men, a physical manifestation of the Israelites’ God, who had previously appeared to Abram in visions. After some conversation establishing that Abraham’s barren wife would in fact bear a child (and explaining the origin of the child’s name), the men walk out to look from afar at the city of Sodom. Yahweh wonders, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (All textual quotes from the English Standard Version, except where noted.)

Yahweh decides against deception, and lets Abraham know that he intends to evaluate the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, having heard that “the outcry against [them] is great and their sin is very grave. I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me.” Now, this is a bit of an odd statement for a deity generally depicted as all-knowing. Yahweh is unusually personified in this section, and seems to share (for the moment) the general human trait of limited knowledge, and the need to investigate to learn more. Various Biblical scholars have come up with rationales to explain this seeming paradox, suggesting that perhaps God was teaching us not to pass judgment before investigating the evidence, or that “if one’s actions are unworthy of God, one is said to be unworthy of his knowledge also.” (Ancient Christian Commentary On Scripture: Old Testament II, pg 68-70)

Whatever the case, Yahweh has a more human presentation than usual, which perhaps emboldens Abraham to approach him on a human level, attempting to haggle over amounts, as was common in his culture. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” he asks. “Suppose there are fifty righteous men within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” Warming to his theme, Abraham amps up the rhetoric: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Or, as the KJV would have it, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

Panels from the R. Crumb comic illustrating this story, starting with Abraham standing before the Lord, and ending with Abraham beginning to haggle

Panels from R. Crumb’s illustrated version of this story. Translation by Robert Alter et. al.

Abraham argues Yahweh all the way down to ten righteous, and Yahweh agrees, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it,” which brings Chapter 18 to a close. Then comes Chapter 19, in which “two angels” arrive in Sodom (seemingly without Yahweh in tow after all), and get harassed by a pack of xenophobes. We don’t get the sense that any kind of thorough examination of the city occurs — there’s no story of seeking righteous people. The text does specify that “the men of the city… all the people to the last man” are part of the mob — apparently women didn’t count in the righteousness census. (And I guess it’s a pretty small city?) In any case, the angels warn in short order that “we are about to destroy this place,” and indeed that morning Sodom is destroyed, with only Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family escorted from the destruction. The Judge of all the earth renders his judgment and punishment, Abraham’s bargaining notwithstanding.

A Panel Of Judges

In Chapter 3 of Watchmen, there are several candidates for “Judge of all the earth.” The first of these is God himself. In the very first panel, Bernie the news vendor asserts, “We oughta nuke Russia and let God sort it out!” Then, a few panels later, the Tales Of The Black Freighter narrator touches a similar theme: “In despair I sank beneath those foul, pink billows, offering up my wretched soul to almighty God, and his judgment.” Later on, that same character concludes that this judgment is in the negative: “I cursed God and wept, wondering if he wept also. But then, what use his tears, if his help was denied me?” The doomsayer (who has not yet been revealed to be Kovacs/Rorschach) doesn’t mention God explicitly, but seems to look to the sort of mysterious signs (“a two-headed cat born in Queens”) that doomsday cults use to predict divine punishment of humanity.

In the context of the Genesis quote, these notions of God’s judgment look rightly ominous. This is the same God who rained down fire on an entire city after his emissaries concluded that there weren’t even ten righteous people (sorry, MEN) within it. No wonder that invocations of his judgment don’t allow much latitude for the possibility of mercy. Yet at least in vendor Bernie’s quote, it isn’t really God who wants to rain down fire — it’s Bernie himself, just using God as a convenient prop to wave away the horror, and suggesting that if humans nuke each other, some higher power will “sort it out.” That brings us to the second category of judge in this chapter: humans themselves.

Late in the chapter, we see Richard Nixon close to following vendor Bernie’s advice. He stares at the Dr. Strangelove map board, contemplating the judgment he could render on Russia, and incidentally Europe and half the U.S. as well. Benny Anger’s audience is in on the bloodthirst too, asking Dr. Manhattan, “If the Reds act up in Afghanistan… will you be prepared to enter hostilities?” to widespread applause. Perhaps we expect a distant God to destroy us in judgment for our sins, but at least as this chapter depicts us, we are scarcely safer when left to our own devices.

Then there is Dr. Manhattan, who is between the poles of divinity and humanity — a human with godlike power, whose changed perceptions remove him further from humanity all the time. Certainly the Russian government seems to have viewed him as, if not a judge, at least a sort of referee, preventing hostile parties from “acting up.” As soon as the news hits that he’s left for Mars, Russia immediately invades Afghanistan (or perhaps counter-invades, given the references to “U.S. adventurism” there in Chapter 1.) Likewise, the U.S. government sees him as “the linchpin of America’s strategic superiority,” a judge who’s already in their pocket, at least until he disappears. Benny Anger’s audience seems to view him as more or less a weapon to be used by the U.S. at will.

So is he a judge? The chapter’s epigraph appears beneath his picture, which certainly suggests that he may be that “Judge of all the earth.” Yet throughout the chapter, he shows poor judgment over and over. Certainly he badly misjudges Laurie’s reactions, both when trying to “stimulate” her, and when talking with her afterwards. Janey Slater seems to have his number when she says, “You know how every damn thing in this world fits together except people!” He apparently becomes convinced during the Nova Express Q&A that he radiates death, and that night judges himself “incapable of cohabiting safely either emotionally or physically.” If he is Earth’s judge, it’s only inadvertently — his presence or absence is as near as he comes to action for or against the planet, and as Laurie well knows, even when he’s present, he can be pretty absent.

The fourth, hidden judge turns out to be Ozymandias, who will in fact rain destruction down upon a city just as the God of Genesis does, but with no intercessor Abraham to plead for the innocent. In fact, Adrian Veidt makes certain that nobody knows about his plan if they have “the slightest chance” of their affecting its outcome. Where Yahweh debates whether to share information with Abraham, and ultimately decides to do so, Adrian feels no such compunction.

Yet Veidt aspires to transcendence, to godhood. He speaks of assuming “the aspect of kingly Rameses, leaving Alexander the adventurer and his trappings to gather dust.” “My new world demands less obvious heroism,” he sneers, anointing himself a world-creator. He engineers much of the story that the other characters find themselves walking through, an authorial presence from behind the scenes, including the pivotal plot advancement of this chapter — Dr. Manhattan leaving Earth.

He describes himself as motivated by the Comedian during the 1966 Crimebusters meeting, and in turn characterizes Blake’s reaction to his plan as “professional jealousy.” But might Veidt be experiencing some professional jealousy of his own? He lives in the presence of Dr. Manhattan, a being of casual godlike power, but one with a total disinterest in remaking the world. How that must eat at Adrian Veidt. To carry out his judgment on humanity, he must remove Dr. Manhattan from the earth altogether.

As soon as this happens, the chapter fittingly turns to ruminations on the absence of God. It starts with the Black Freighter narrator: “That night, I slept badly beneath cold, distant stars, pondering upon the cold, distant God in whose hands the fate of Davidstown rested. Was he really there? Had he been there once, but now departed?” Then we see the return of the doomsayer, who counters vendor Bernie’s assertion that “the world didn’t end yesterday” with, “Are you sure?” Then, with news of Russia’s Afghanistan invasion, we turn to Nixon and his cabinet discussing nuclear scenarios, and the role played by wind, “a force of nature. It’s totally impartial… totally indifferent.”

By the time the chapter ends, our terror comes not from the notion of God’s punishment, but rather the random, meaningless universe we face without the notion of his presence. His most frightening judgment of all is his decision to leave us on our own, in a world that we can never be sure hasn’t just ended. The cliffhanger ending of the pirate comic sets up the narrator’s tragic actions in the next issue. Perhaps Jon’s unwillingness to stop what Adrian sees as the freighter bearing down on humanity — its penchant for self-destruction — prompts Adrian’s own Davidstown actions?

How Do You Plead?

Chapter 18 isn’t the first time in Genesis that God acts as “Judge of all the earth.” His first mass judgment comes in chapter 6, verse 5:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.

Once again, one man has the power to sway Yahweh, and that one man will be spared from the judgment that affects everyone else. These judgments, of wickedness and sin, rely on a starkly binary scale for judgment of humans — everyone is either fully righteous or fully wicked. In the Noah story, only Noah is found righteous — his family is spared for its association with him. In Sodom, only Lot is spared, once again with his family as more or less an accessory. This despite the fact that Lot isn’t exactly virtuous — he offers his virginal daughters to the xenophobe mob, hoping to distract them from his visitors. Perhaps Lot is only spared because he is Abraham’s nephew, thus once again allowing a great patriarch’s relations to be saved for the sake of their connections with him.

The righteous/wicked binary of these chapters is typical of the Old Testament (and some parts of the New Testament, notably Revelation.) The same dualism grounds many a traditional superhero narrative, and Watchmen works to break down this simplistic approach. Rorschach embodies Old Testament moral absolutism in Watchmen, and in yet another Biblical inversion, he finds himself the black and white Abraham to Dr. Manhattan’s morally grey Yahweh at the end of Chapter 12. Unlike Abraham, his only plea is for his own death. He is not saved.

Panels 1-4 from Chapter 12, page 24 of Watchmen. Rorschach realizes that Dr. Manhattan is going to kill him, and screams at him to do it. Manhattan vaporizes Rorschach.

In Genesis, Abraham’s role as bargainer goes well beyond chapter 18. He bargains with Ephron for Sarah’s burial place in chapter 23, and bargains with Lot in chapter 13. We find him in political negotiations at the ends of chapters 14 and 20. He even presumes to plead with Yahweh (in a vision) for a blood heir, in chapter 15.

Yet in all these other scenes, he bargains for himself or his family. In chapter 18, he speaks for a greater humanity. This dynamic gets its Watchmen mirror in Chapter 11, between Laurie and Jon. Yet as usual, it’s a distorted mirror. Laurie pleads with Jon to intercede on humanity’s behalf, to save humankind from itself. Abraham, on the other hand, pleads with Yahweh not to intercede, and to let the righteous, even if they are greatly outnumbered, help influence humans toward a more just path.

They do have in common a sense of false victory. Both Laurie and Abraham manage to sway their gods, but neither of them can stem the tide of slaughter.

Watchmen: Second Genesis

So far we’ve seen how Watchmen offers various judges, including the indifferent Dr. Manhattan and the sociopathic Ozymandias. We’ve seen the moral binarism of Genesis reflected in Rorschach, and we’ve seen the bargaining motif of Genesis both reflected and inverted by Rorschach and Silk Spectre II, as they confront Dr. Manhattan in different scenes.

But Watchmen displays other themes from Genesis, including that book’s strong motif of trickery. Guile and deceit are all over the place in Genesis, and not just in the villainous characters. Sure, there’s the serpent beguiling Eve in the garden, but more often it is the patriarchs themselves who do the tricking. No less than three times (chapters 12 and 20 with Abraham, and chapter 26 with Isaac), a Biblical patriarch convinces a local ruler that the patriarch’s wife is actually his sister. Each time, God afflicts that ruler, even though each time the ruler is the victim of the deception.

In the story of Jacob, Laban, Rachel, and Leah (chapters 29-31), everyone is constantly tricking and swindling each other. Laban tells Jacob to serve him for seven years in order to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel, only to send his other daughter Leah instead, making Jacob serve seven more years for Rachel. Jacob makes a deal with Laban to own all his speckled livestock, then Laban removes all the speckled livestock, then Jacob ensures that more speckled livestock will be born and takes them anyway. Jacob sneaks away from Laban’s estate in secret, Rachel steals her father’s “household gods”, then Laban catches up with them and accuses them of theft, but Rachel fools him by hiding the gods in a camel’s saddle, then sitting on it and saying, “I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.”

On and on it goes. Jacob’s sons trick Shechem, slaughtering an entire town in revenge for their sister’s rape. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright. Joseph’s brothers trick him and sell him into slavery, then he tricks them back after coming into power. Usually it is the agents of God practicing the deception (and giving God credit for the results), but even God himself gets in on the action, tricking Abraham into binding his son Isaac for slaughter before calling him off at the last minute, saying, “now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Incidentally, Isaac is Rachel’s only son. Abraham has another son, Ishmael.)

There is only one trickster in Watchmen, and his name is Ozymandias. But oh, what a bag of tricks he carries! From the very first moment of the book, he deceives both readers and characters. The murder that spurs Rorschach’s “mask-killer” theory? A trick. The cancer epidemic that drives Dr. Manhattan from Earth? A trick. The assassination attempt on Veidt himself? A trick. The frame job on Rorschach, the (second) disintegration of Jon Osterman, Adrian’s somber face at Blake’s funeral: tricks, tricks, tricks, all in service of his greatest trick of all.

Panel 4 from Chapter 11, page 24 of Watchmen. Ozymandias kicks open the Comedian's door, with voiceover panels reading "Unable to unite the world by conquest... Alexander's method... I would trick it; frighten it towards salvation with history's greatest practical joke. That's what upset the Comedian, when awareness of my scheme crashed in upon him: professional jealousy."

“Unable to unite the world by conquest,” he boasts, “I would trick it; frighten it towards salvation with history’s greatest practical joke.” He seems to truly believe that his brand of trickery is different from that of Genesis, that he is a different sort of patriarch, a different sort of god. Where Biblical characters practice deception to serve themselves — preserve their lives, build their wealth, gain power over others — Veidt’s sees his trick as preserving humanity at large. Where Yahweh tricks Abraham to ensure he fears what is most fearsome, Veidt tricks Earth into fearing the imaginary, so as to direct their fear away from each other.

On the one hand, Adrian’s self-serving belief seems patently ridiculous. His trick kills millions of the humans he claims to be saving. No Biblical patriarch does any such thing. Every wife/sister con gets retracted and the afflicted ruler recovers. Laban steals years of Jacob’s labor, Rachel steals “household gods”, Jacob steals Esau’s blessing from Isaac, but nobody gets killed by these ruses. The slaughter of Shechem’s town is as close as we get, and this happens on a much smaller scale, and for revenge — no pretense of saviorship. Even God makes sure that Abraham spares Isaac.

On the other hand, Watchmen‘s ending is ambiguous enough that we can’t be certain that Adrian is wrong. Perhaps his monstrous machination does save more people than it destroys? That question brings us to the final parallel with Genesis, the notion of good outcomes arising from evil deeds.

In the “Joseph novel”, Joseph’s jealous and hateful brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery, telling their father Jacob that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. While in Egypt, Joseph becomes a powerful prophet, whose prophecies save Egypt from a famine that afflicts everyone else. His brothers come to Egypt begging for food, and after several rounds of the usual trickery, Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers, and reunites with his father, who dies peacefully, knowing his youngest son has survived after all. In the end, those brothers worry (quite logically!) that Joseph will bear a grudge, and try — once again — a trick, telling Joseph that Jacob commanded him to forgive them. Joseph responds to them thus:

Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.

This is the climactic moment of the “Joseph novel”, and the book of Genesis as a whole ends a few verses later. For Joseph, two principles are at work. First, none but God is fit to be “Judge of all the earth.” Second, the harm done by humans can be resolved by God into good, or perhaps more problematically, God prompts humans to harm each other in order to accomplish a greater good down the line. Biblical scholar Bill Arnold sums up the message pretty succinctly: “Joseph represents the conviction that good can come from evil.” (Genesis [New Cambridge Bible Commentary], pg. 389)

This conviction is a central question at the end of Watchmen. Ozymandias believes it, though I doubt he would agree with the concept of an omniscient god prompting his actions. In his mind, he is the omniscient one, or at least the one blessed with a broader perspective than his fellow beings — “the smartest guy in the world.” He feels entitled to be “Judge of all the earth” due to his belief in this greater perspective, and he sees himself as a benevolent shepherd, willing to sacrifice some of his sheep for the good of the whole flock. Rorschach, on the other hand, rejects the notion that good can come from evil. For him, “there is good, and there is evil, and evil must be punished.”

Where does Watchmen itself land? I think it’s closer to Dr. Manhattan, observing it all from Mars. I think it’s closer to this 2003 quote from Alan Moore:

The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.

In other words, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” is the wrong question. There is no “Judge of all the earth” — only us. The real question is, “Shall I do right?” And if so, how?

Next Entry: Mutiny, I Promise You
Previous Entry: Tears Of A Clown

A Toast To Absent Friends

Happy New Year, and welcome to another year-end music list. Just to review, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2018 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that nothing on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.

For the first time, I’m linking to a Spotify playlist for these rather than linking each song, because for almost the first time Spotify actually contains all the songs in the mix. I’m also going back and adding these playlists to previous mixtape posts and to Album Assignments posts, because I like the idea of the music being available right in the post when I’m writing about music. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!

1. Elvis Costello – The Comedians
Over the past few years, I’ve mentioned how the Album Assignments project with my friend Robby has influenced my music listening, and consequently the makeup of these mixes. However, sometimes my other project — The Watchmen Bestiary — can have a big influence too. Alan Moore quotes this Elvis Costello song in Chapter 2 of Watchmen, and I wrote about the connections between them in 2017. I also bought this album, Goodbye Cruel World, on CD at that time, but the delay inherent in having a big stack of CDs to listen to (and interspersing them with a podcast, an audiobook, and periodic iPod shuffles) means that I didn’t listen to it until 2018. Costello doesn’t have many good things to say about this album himself, but I’ve come to like this song quite a bit — possibly Stockholm Syndrome. Its weird, off-kilter time signature, the typically clever Costello wordplay in its lyrics, and of course the Watchmen connection make me fond of it. And really, “a toast to absent friends” couldn’t be better as a title for this collection, since I make it for our friends across the ocean. Cheers!

2. The Killers – Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine
As I wrote in my post on Hot Fuss, I think this is an amazing debut song. That bass line grabs me every time, and Brandon Flowers’ voice could bring thrilling drama to absolute nonsense (and has.) Listening to this song was my favorite part of doing the deeper dive into Hot Fuss.

3. Rilo Kiley – Does He Love You?
Speaking of intensity, I can’t get enough of Jenny Lewis’ vocal theater on this song. She takes us through a full three-act play, complete with twist ending, and plays the character’s arc to the hilt. She starts loving and innocent, then gradually introduces notes of contempt and abandonment. When she comes back to a softer tone, her earlier aggrieved self-pity makes her sound distant rather than supportive, and when she finally reveals the connection between her “married man” and her interlocutor’s husband, she couldn’t sound more disgusted with EVERYTHING. By the time she’s returning to “let’s not forget ourselves”, her vocal is distorted and venomous, and the emotional strings swirl around it, until those strings are all that’s left. Just marvelous.

4. The Go-Go’s – Our Lips Are Sealed
Now here’s a more fun take on secrets. I loved the chance to dissect why I think this is such a perfect pop song, and every single time I hear it I can’t help but be uplifted and opened. And my god, how I love that drum break at 1:51. Air drums every time.

5. Stevie Nicks – The Dealer (demo)
Stevie did an album called 24 Karat Gold a few years ago, in which she took a bunch of old demos (most of which had been circulating in the fan community for decades) and recorded them with a professional band. This was wonderful, no doubt, but there are also just some unavoidable differences between Stevie in her 30’s and Stevie in her 60’s, and they felt pretty glaring on certain songs. “The Dealer” has been one of my favorite unreleased Stevie songs forever, and the version on 24 Karat Gold didn’t feel like it held up in comparison to the demos. Lucky for me, she re-released her first two albums, remastered with a bunch of extra tracks, and this polished-up version of an old “Dealer” demo showed up with the Bella Donna remaster. This was the best of both worlds for me — all the power and energy of the initial recording, professionally released and cleaned up.

6. The Go-Go’s – I’m With You
I was inspired to assign Beauty And The Beat to Robby after listening to a re-release of Talk Show, the album on which this song appears. I’ve always been deeply partial to The Go-Go’s, not just for their fun but for the musical surprises they always delivered. This song feels like one of those hidden gems — I love the strange minor key melody, paired with such fiercely devoted lyrics. I think this is one of the best things Jane Wiedlin ever wrote (in this case with Gina Schock as co-writer), and it’s the first of a few unabashed love songs in this collection.

7. Wilco – Remember The Mountain Bed
I spent a week or two with Mermaid Avenue Volume 2 this year, and became infatuated with this song. Woody Guthrie’s lyrics paint an incredibly vivid picture of memories of a bygone love — indelible images like “Your stomach moved beneath your shirt and your knees were in the air / Your feet played games with mountain roots as you lay thinking there.” But while the lyrics thrum with life, it’s Tweedy’s voice and music that send them straight into my heart. “I see my life was brightest where you laughed and laid your head” makes me want to cry with the poignancy of it. This song is exactly why I decided I finally needed to learn more about Wilco. (I’ll be coming back to that later.)

8. Fleetwood Mac – Brown Eyes (alternate version with Peter Green)
Wrapping up the love song section is this astounding (to me) alternate version of a lovely Christine song from Tusk. This song has completely different lyrics from the album version — for one thing, it doesn’t mention brown eyes at all. Where the released version is full of Christine’s trademark ambivalence, this one is sweeter and purer. Obviously I’ve known the Tusk version for ages, so this one felt very powerful to me, especially the way Peter Green’s spooky guitar creates a gorgeous, haunting tone that ties it back to the earliest days of Fleetwood Mac.

9. Eric Clapton – Motherless Children
This is one of those songs where the tragic words lay inexplicably atop a joyful foundation. It’s one of my favorite Clapton riffs, and the whole feel of the thing is just a groove party. So why the lyrics about losing a parent? Beats me — all I know is I love all the other pieces of it, no matter what he’s singing about.

10. Talking Heads – Crosseyed and Painless
More from the joyful dancing division — I listened to Remain In Light quite a bit at home during part of this year, and the whole thing just made me dance around the house. Like “Motherless Children”, the words to this one aren’t exactly sunny — and in fact I’m really not sure what they’re even about — but man oh man the Talking Heads had the keys to funky rock castle during this period.

11. Wilco – I am trying to break your heart
So, I wrote about this one at length in my Yankee Hotel Foxtrot post, and would just be repeating myself here by breaking it down. I’ll just say that my experience of Wilco up to this point (on the Mermaid Avenue albums) had led me to a set of expectations that got completely demolished by the first 90 seconds of this song, in the best possible way. I love how the crazy surrealist shit leads your attention one way and lets you be shocked by gut-punches like “What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt?”

12. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Change The Locks
But there’s a straighter path to devastating catharsis. At the beginning of my November to October listening period, I was still in the midst of a grief-fueled Tom Petty jag. I could have picked a lot of songs from his catalog, or even just from She’s The One, the album I ended up writing about. This one just hit me right as the right way to crash out of Wilco. It starts intense, and then cranks things up from there. I love the buildup in this song, the way it keeps cycling back to the same thundering chords, somehow gaining power each time until Petty hits us with that unbelievable scream. It’s not the first thing people usually mention when cataloging his many talents, but he was a hell of an expressive vocalist.

13. Muse – Madness
You want to talk about expressive vocalists? How about Matthew freaking Bellamy? You want to talk about buildup? How about this delicious song, with the thick synths, ever-increasing layered harmonies, elements gelling tighter and tighter until by the end he’s hitting operatic musical heights to go with the lyrical epiphanies? You want me to try summarizing a song using nothing but rhetorical questions? What better place to try a little experiment than on a Muse song?

14. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (feat. Xperience) – Let’s Eat
Change of pace. My family was listening to this album during some of the time we were driving around on our Grand Canyon trip this year, and Laura cracked up at this song, so much so that we listened to it a bunch of times during that trip, and she brought home the printed lyrics from her job one day. Even now she’ll occasionally bust out with “I wanna be like Hugh Jackman / You know, jacked, man!” or “My girlfriend’s shaped like a bottle o’ Coke / Me, I’m shaped like a bottle o’ NOPE”. It’s become part of our family vocabulary.

15. Paul Simon – Wristband
Here’s somebody else who has a way with a humorous lyric. I listened to Paul’s Stranger To Stranger album this year, and this song really jumped out at me. I love how his wry and conversational tone turns serious at the bridge, and suddenly his funny little story reveals itself as a metaphor, illuminating inequality and lack of access as one of the central problems of our time. There’s those who have the wristband, those who don’t have it, and those who don’t even need it. Paul Simon is in the third group now, but he wants to talk to us about the second.

16. Stevie Nicks – After The Glitter Fades
Stevie grew up with plenty of privilege — her dad was an exec for various companies including Greyhound and Armour — but she wrote this song about her own stardom well before she had any kind of success. As I listened to the Bella Donna remaster this year, I loved every song, but this one struck me as particularly elevated by the remastering process. It’s a country song at heart, and the steel guitar blends beautifully with her vocal.

17. Joan Jett – I Love Rock N’ Roll
Right around that same era, another woman was breaking away from her band, to amazing success. This song compelled me from the very first time I heard it — well, saw it. This was the era when much of my music exposure came from MTV, and I loved the way she stood out as a woman totally owning what had seemed to me as a very male world. Before I knew anything about what feminism was, Joan Jett embodied for me what it meant to be a fearless and tough human being, questions of gender aside.

18. Stevie Nicks – Wild Heart
Fearlessness is fearlessness, and as you know if you’ve read much of my other stuff, Stevie’s blend of fierceness and vulnerability speaks to me like nobody else. I don’t know that I could ever pick a favorite song of hers, but this one is always in that top group. As with some of the other songs in this collection, I already broke it down in detail when writing about the album, so no point recapitulating that. Instead I’ll just say that this year was freeing for me in many ways, with breakthroughs happening on the professional, family, and world levels, and this song unfailingly takes me to the place where that freedom lives.

The Watchmen Bestiary 26 – Tears Of A Clown

Si può? Si può? Signore! Signori! Be warned that the following post contains spoilers for Watchmen and for the opera Pagliacci.

Way back in my first entry, I called Rorschach “the funniest character in Watchmen.” Granted, that’s a pretty low bar to clear, but I stand by the assessment. Sometimes he’s funny on purpose (“Big Figure. Small world.”) and sometimes the humor just arises naturally out of his incongruity with the world around him, as when he drops Captain Carnage down an elevator shaft. Rorschach being Rorschach, there’s pretty much always a grim edge to his humor, and today’s topic is no exception.

Today we look at page 27 of Chapter 2, in which Rorschach tells (well, writes) a joke:

Page 27 from Chapter 2 of Watchmen. The images in the panels switch back and forth between scenes from Blake's murder and scenes from the various flashbacks in the chapter. The relevant part of Rorshach's narration is as follows: Heard joke once. Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you right up. Man bursts into tears. Says, but doctor... I am Pagliacci.

The web annotations have this to say about those panels:

The name of the opera Pagliacci literally means “clowns”, so Rorschach is mistaken if he thinks it is the name of a particular clown. The opera does, however, deal with a clown who must make others laugh although he is sad.

The annotators are quite right on the first point, but a bit reductive on the second, so let’s take the second point first, after taking in a little background.

Ridi, Pagliaccio

Pagliacci (which does indeed mean “clowns”) is an opera written circa 1891 by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. At that time, Leoncavallo was a fine piano player, a vocal teacher, and an aspiring composer who had been frustrated in his attempts to get his operas produced. In particular, he was focused on a work called I Medici, meant to be the first in a Ring Cycle-esque series, but focusing on the Italian Renaissance rather than Teutonic mythology. He was engaged with the Italian publishing house Casa Ricordi, but it had become increasingly clear that Ricordi had very little interest in producing Leoncavallo’s work.

In 1890, composer Pietro Mascagni premiered Cavalleria Rusticana, a one-act opera about love and murder among the Italian peasantry. The work met with “sensational success” (Leoncavallo: Life And Works by Konrad Dryden, pg. 34), and Leoncavallo, desperate for income, set about writing a work in the same vein. The result was Pagliacci, the story of a traveling commedia dell’arte troupe whose players find their own lives echoing the show they stage.

The main characters from the troupe are:

  • Canio, a clown and head of the troupe
  • Nedda, his wife
  • Tonio, a hunchback clown

Tonio is in love with Nedda, who spurns his advances. Swearing revenge, Tonio finds Nedda’s secret: she is in love with the villager Silvio. Tonio leads Canio to find Nedda in an adulterous clinch with Silvio. Canio chases the villager in vain; Silvio escapes. Canio then demands that Nedda give him her lover’s name. She refuses, and their fight begins to escalate, but the time has come for the troupe’s show, and so they must stop and prepare their parts.

Here Canio sings the famous aria “Vesti la giubba” (“Put on the costume”), in which he agonizes over having to perform when his heart is broken by Nedda’s betrayal. The climax of this aria is one of the most famous in opera — appropriated everywhere from Seinfeld to Rice Krispies commercials. “Ridi, Pagliacco, sul tuo amore infranto” translates to “Laugh, clown, at your shattered love.” Thus ends Act 1.

Act 2 ushers us into the show-within-a-show. Nedda plays Columbina, who spurns the advances of Tonio’s character Taddeo. Columbina’s heart belongs to Arlecchino (Harlequin), and she wishes to conceal this fact from her husband Pagliaccio, played by Canio. As Canio approaches the stage, he hears Columbina address Harlequin using the very same words that Nedda had earlier used with Silvio: “Till tonight, and I shall be yours forever!” He drops his character and demands once more that Nedda reveal her lover’s name. Trying to salvage the show, she addresses him as “Pagliaccio”, prompting his furious arietta “No, Pagliaccio non son” (“No, I am not Pagliaccio”). His rage builds until he finally stabs and kills Nedda. Silvio tries to leap to her defense, and Canio kills him too. The play ends with the line, “La commedia è finita!” (“The comedy is ended!”)

The cover of Leoncavallo's sheet music for Pagliacci, featuring a glowering clown.

I would argue that describing Canio as “a clown who must make others laugh although he is sad” is a bit wide of the mark. In fact, Canio never tries at all in the show to make anyone laugh — he breaks character immediately and escalates quickly to double murder. However, the sentiment of “Vesti la guibba” has become the main cultural takeaway from Pagliacci, and in that aria he does indeed cajole himself, “Laugh, clown, be merry… and they will all applaud! / You must transform your despair into laughter; / And make a jest of your sobbing, of your pain…” Of course, he fails to follow this self-advice, but its image remains indelible.

When Leoncavallo first wrote the libretto for this show, he titled it “Il pagliaccio,” which translates to “The clown.” However, he had made a friend of prominent baritone Victor Maurel, who saw a role for himself in Tonio, and who convinced Leoncavallo to pluralize the title to Pagliacci, so that Canio would not be the sole focus. With Maurel’s help, Leoncavallo presented the libretto to Casa Ricordi’s rival (and publisher of Cavalleria Rusticana) Edoardo Sonzogno, who immediately accepted the work. It was produced in May of 1892 to instant success, and has gone on to become a prominent part of the operatic canon, the only Leoncavallo work still widely performed.

Verismo

The title change wasn’t the only gift that Leoncavallo gave to Maurel. He also wrote a prologue especially for Tonio to sing. In this prologue, Tonio (or is it the singer, or Leoncavallo himself?) claims that the author of the show has endeavored “to paint for you a slice of life”, and that “truth is his inspiration.” Breaking the fourth wall and claiming to speak directly for the author, the prologue seeks to establish a connection between what you see on the stage and what you experience in your life: “Now, then, you will see men love as in real life they love, and you will see true hatred and its bitter fruit.” Moreover, he reminds the audience that the players themselves are fellow humans: “Mark well, therefore, our souls… for we are men of flesh and bone, like you, breathing the same air of this orphan world.”

This prologue became the manifesto of the verismo movement in opera, for which both Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana became standard-bearers. Verismo was a reaction against the bel canto style, which had focused on songs at the expense of story — similar perhaps to superhero comics in the 1990s that focused on art at the expense of good writing. Verismo also steered operatic tradition away from loftier subjects — Wagner’s gods and heroes, or Verdi’s dukes, counts, and kings — and towards the dramas of ordinary people, such as peasants and clowns. As Pagliacci‘s prologue claimed, verismo wished to bring opera’s characters and players closer to its audience.

Now, at first blush this might seem like a ridiculous contradiction. The idea was to take opera, one of the most artificial and stylized storytelling forms ever, and somehow make it more realistic? The thing where every character is singing at the top of their lungs, accompanied by a full orchestra, instead of talking to each other? We were going to make that seem more like day to day life?

But really, is this any more absurd a proposition than injecting more realism into superhero comics? This would be the genre of storytelling where somebody somehow acquires supernatural abilities, and the way they handle this situation is to stitch together a crazy, colorful, skintight outfit and go out to “fight crime”, which generally means getting into fistfights with other people who have somehow acquired other supernatural abilities, and who decided to handle this by stitching more skintight garb and going out to, uh, do crime. Oh, and also pretty soon there are a whole bunch of the crimefighting people, and sometimes they fight each other, or join up into gangs and fight other gangs of the crime people, and bunches of them can fly without wings or punch down buildings or shoot laser beams from their eyes or maybe all that stuff at once, and a huge spectrum of other stuff too. And the world is always in jeopardy, always being saved. We were going to make that seem more like day to day life?

And yet, the power of verismo is that in such ludicrous and mannered forms, a little realism can go a long way! Sure, in Pagliacci everybody is still singing all the time, and the orchestra is still playing, but at least they’re not stiffly shuttling between recitatives and arias. They’re regular people rather than princesses or valkyries. In the context of the reigning operatic style, verismo was strong medicine, keeping opera a powerful and relevant cultural form into the early 20th century.

Similarly, Watchmen brings us a world where yeah, people dress up and fight crime, but only one of those people has any supernatural powers. The rest are just schmucks in Halloween suits. Moreover, those schmucks are fully realized, three-dimensional, flawed human beings rather than empty ciphers and walking metaphors. Not only that, the author has thought through the consequences of these powers and punch-outs, presenting a world where “superheroes” have been outlawed, and the one godlike figure heightens the tensions that could lead to nuclear annihilation, even as he’s the only one standing in the way of the powder keg exploding.

I would contend that one of the reasons Pagliacci resonates with Watchmen is that they share a similarity of purpose: to reinvigorate a constrained and formal genre by bringing it closer to earth, and therefore closer to its audience. They also share a structural approach — both of them feature a nested story that reflects and amplifies the main story. In Pagliacci it’s the commedia, and in Watchmen it’s the Tales Of The Black Freighter.

Panels 1 and 2 from Chapter 12, page 27 of Watchmen. Ozymandias says, Jon... I know people think me callous, but I've made myself feel every death. By day I imagine endless faces. By night... well, I dream about swimming towards a hideous... no. Never mind. It isn't significant... What's significant is that I know. I know I've struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity... But someone had to take the weight of that awful, necessary crime. I'd hoped you'd understand, unlike Rorschach...

The plot parallels between Pagliacci‘s clowns and their characters are immediate and obvious from the beginning of Act 2, but Watchmen waits until Chapter 12 to fully reveal its hand. The pirate comic ends in Chapter 11 (shortly before its reader), with the viewpoint character finally realizing, “noble intentions had led me to atrocity.” He swims towards the Black Freighter itself, so that its crew could “claim the only soul they’d ever truly wanted.” This subplot takes its final bow on page 27 of Chapter 12, in which Ozymandias mentions that he has “struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity,” and that he dreams about “swimming toward a hideous…” before cutting himself off and saying, “it isn’t significant.”

But of course, we know it is significant — it signifies the parallel between the actions of Adrian Veidt and the actions of the Tales narrator. Both believe their crimes to have been “necessary”, and both think they are guided by “love, only love.” It is for us to see their folly, and as in Pagliacci, their tragic endings. Except that where Tonio or Canio might claim “La commedia è finita,” Dr. Manhattan would be quick to remind them that nothing ever ends.

Franco and Plácido

In 1982, just a few years before Watchmen, Franco Zeffirelli released a film of Pagliacci, based on his stage production at La Scala the year before, and starring Plácido Domingo as Canio. I watched that film as part of my research for this article, and a couple of things jumped out at me as comparisons to Watchmen.

The first is the clowns themselves. Before Tonio’s prologue begins, as the orchestra plays the overture, four clowns come out to entertain the audience. They are dressed in outlandish costumes. Their faces are obscured. They leap and bound athletically around the stage, enacting exaggerated dramas with each other and the audience. They are, in short, a bit reminiscent of superheroes. Both disguise their identities to assume personas in which they’re allowed to do things that would not be acceptable for civilians.

The other parallel is more overt and visual. In Nedda’s scene with Tonio, she at first laughs at his expression of desire, but when he becomes more aggressive, she must physically repel him. The libretto calls for her to do this with a whip, but Zeffirelli chooses to stage it differently. His Nedda is thrown by Tonio into her tent, from which she produces a knife and rakes it across Tonio’s face.

Two shots from Zeffirelli's Pagliacci, of Tonio clutching at his face and looking baleful. The captions read: By Our Lady Of The Assumption... I'll make you pay for that

Tonio’s immediate reaction to this closely mirrors what we see of Eddie Blake when women attack his face in Watchmen.

Two panels from chapter 2 of Watchmen -- one after Sally Jupiter scratches his face, the other after his Vietnamese mistress cuts his face with a broken bottle. In each, he's holding a hand to his face.

Now, when Tonio is thus attacked, he responds by becoming an Iago-esque manipulator. (Leoncavallo was perhaps inspired by Verdi’s Otello, a huge success five years earlier, in which Victor Maurel had played Iago.) Blake prefers to meet violence with greatly escalated violence, attempting rape of Sally Jupiter and murdering his unnamed Vietnamese mistress. (He doesn’t strike back at Laurie when she throws her drink in his face, but then again it’s just a drink, and she is his daughter.)

Instead, if anyone is the Iago of Watchmen, it’s Ozymandias. Perhaps The Comedian’s lacerating words were the metaphorical equivalent of a knife to Adrian Veidt’s face. Perhaps Adrian’s stoic expression at the Crimebusters gathering, as Nelly’s display burns, is his equivalent of Tonio holding his cheek and swearing revenge.

I’ve been unable to find any clear evidence that Zeffirelli’s version of Pagliacci played on the BBC or anywhere else where Gibbons and/or Moore might have reasonably been able to see it. The timing is certainly right, and the film did play internationally (it was shown on U.S. television), but it’s difficult to establish whether The Comedian’s slashed face could possibly have been inspired by that of Tonio in this production. In the absence of such evidence, it must remain just a striking coincidence, and one more resonance between the works.

Reír Llorando

And yet, despite these resonances, the annotations are here to remind us that Rorschach’s invocation of Pagliacci seems to be rooted in error. There is no clown named Pagliacci, given that it’s the Italian plural of Pagliaccio. Moreover, Rorschach’s joke has been around for ages, appended to various famous clowns. (And a hat tip to Adamant on Science Fiction & Fantasy StackExchange, who tracked down many of these sources.)

Several sources associate it with Joseph Grimaldi, a pantomime artist of the early 19th century who created much of the modern clown iconography. Grimaldi’s memoirs were in fact edited by Charles Dickens (under the name “Boz”), and they do detail a life marked by trauma, including an incident of childhood abuse in which his tears very literally washed away part of his clown makeup. (Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, pg. 9) However, the doctor story does not appear in these memoirs — historian Andrew McConnell Stott cites it simply as an anecdote that “dates from the 1820s.”

Other versions of the joke mention the Swiss clown Grock, or just a generic clown. The oldest reference I’ve been able to find in writing (Stott’s assertion aside) dates back to the 1880s, and is in Spanish: Reír Llorando (“To Laugh While Crying”) by Mexican poet Juan de Dios Peza.

This version of the story is about an English clown called Garrik, who does not seem to be based on any particular historical figure. (I don’t think there’s any convincing reason to associate him with 18th-century Shakespearean actor David Garrick.) The clown has a long conversation about depression with a doctor, who suggests one treatment after another — travel, reading, love, etc. — before finally landing on “only by watching Garrik you can be cured.” To which, of course, the patient replies, “I am Garrik! Change my prescription.”

But while these Bestiary articles tend to focus mostly on what influenced Watchmen, this part of today’s story turns out to be about the influence of Watchmen itself. Because today the dominant form of the joke is as Rorschach tells it: “But doctor, I am Pagliacci.”

Google anything like “clown doctor joke” or “but doctor i am” and you’ll get hit after hit citing Pagliacci as the clown’s name, often referencing Watchmen directly. When Robin Williams died, Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu hashtagged it #ButDoctorIAmPagliacci, then wrote a whole thing on HuffPost about it. There’s even a podcast called The Hilarious World Of Depression, in which the host interviews the many comedians who suffer or have suffered from clinical depression. That podcast’s theme song was written by Rhett Miller of Old 97’s, and it basically sets the old joke to music. The song’s title? “Pagliacci”.

So how does the name of an opera get substituted for the name of a clown in this old workhorse of a joke? Part of it may have to do with Smokey Robinson, who made a similar substitution in his 1967 song “The Tears Of A Clown”: “Just like Pagliacci did / I’m gonna keep my sadness hid.” But in the case of Watchmen, the larger part of it has to do with Dave Gibbons. In Leslie Klinger’s Watchmen Annotated book, Gibbons reveals that he just made a mistake while talking about the scene with Moore:

I remember that I told Alan [Moore] the story of the sad clown and used the name Pagliacci because i couldn’t call Grimaldi to mind at that moment. I didn’t correct it in the lettering for some reason but did try to get [director] Zack Snyder to correct it in the movie [Watchmen]. He stuck with the words of the comic!

So two artists working together (without the benefit of an all-knowing Internet to help them chase down references) tell a joke but make a minor error in it, one which happens to tie their work to an appropriate opera. Then that work gets turned into a movie by a director who fetishizes the text enough to keep the error in, and between the movie and the book, the mistaken version turns into the dominant form of the joke.

Now that’s the kind of irony that makes for a great punchline.

Three panels from Chapter 2, page 28 of Watchmen. The first two depict The Comedian falling, and the last is all red. The captions read: Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.

Next Entry: The Righteous With The Wicked
Previous Entry: Whose Mind Is Pure Machinery

The Watchmen Bestiary 25 – Whose Mind Is Pure Machinery

First things first: this project has a new name. I was never entirely satisfied with The Annotated Annotated Watchmen as a project title. Not only is it an awkward mouthful, it’s factually inaccurate. I’m writing essays, not annotations. But The Essayed Watchmen never really did it for me either.

For many an entry have I fretted about this, but I just could not find an alternate title that spoke to me loudly and clearly enough. For this 25th post, though, I resolved to redouble my efforts, and in a reread of Chapter 1 noticed this panel:

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

The bestiary! In Watchmen, the bestiary seems to be two things. First, it’s a collection of items that underpin the universe, which Dr. Manhattan examines in order to better understand the workings of that universe. So far, so perfect — that’s exactly what these essays are working to do, one exotic and breathtaking specimen at a time. The other Bestiary in Watchmen is “where the real heavy-duty thinkin’ gets done” by the Gila Flats crew in Jon Osterman’s early days as a physicist. It’s the on-base bar where the various residents find themselves “at play amidst the strangeness and charm.”

That meaning works perfectly for me too, because these essays are my way of extending the tremendous strangeness and charm that Watchmen exerts over me and millions of other readers. And doing so is just plain fun for me, which is why I keep doing it. It sure isn’t for the money or fame.

Therefore, I proudly present The Watchmen Bestiary, a rechristening of my ongoing Watchmen project. As a part of this change, I’ve gone back in and renamed all the old entries, and in some cases done some light editing and updating of them. If anyone happens across anything screwed up as a result of this, please let me know.

And now, on with today’s entry. Please note that, as always, there are Watchmen spoilers in this post. I also discuss the plot of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.

Most of these essays focus on a single work, or at least the works of a single artist or author. Today’s entry, though, focuses on a name. It’s a name that spans many works, many authors. A name that echoes through millennia. Moloch.

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

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

Moloch, an ancient god who became a demon in Christian cosmology, is also the name given to the giant machine with a giant dial operated by the oppressed workers in Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis”.

The annotations are quite right to cite the Bible and Metropolis, as both were pretty clearly influences on Moore. He references the Bible throughout Watchmen — the Pale Horse reference to Revelation is just the first of many.

The Metropolis connection is a bit more tenuous, but apart from being able to count on Moore’s general erudition, there’s also the fact that both Metropolis and Lang’s recurring character Dr. Mabuse feature prominently in the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen story Nemo: The Roses Of Berlin. Granted, that book came out much later than Watchmen, but let’s also remember that in 1984, music producer Giorgio Moroder restored and re-released Lang’s film in theaters, with a pop music soundtrack. Between the fact that the pop Metropolis was roughly contemporary during the writing of Watchmen, and Moore’s later demonstrated connection to the material, I’m comfortable asserting that Metropolis would have been in Moore’s constellation of references when he chose to name a character Moloch.

Also in that constellation are the writers of the Beat movement. We’ve already seen how strong an influence William Burroughs had on Watchmen, but it turns out he wasn’t the only Beat with a connection. As it happens, Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl”, repeats the word “Moloch” 39 times in the 383 words of its second section, employing imagery that was clearly influenced by Lang. There are plenty of other writers who incorporate Moloch — Milton and Flaubert are a couple of the biggies — but it’s the Bible, Metropolis, and “Howl” that seem most connected with Moore’s repertoire, so let’s focus on them.

Moloch The Abomination

In the Bible, Moloch or Molech (both spellings appear in the King James Version) seems to derive from the Hebrew word melech, meaning “king”, combined with the vowels from the word for “shame” to give it a pejorative flavor. The implication is of a “Lord” (or god) whose worshipers should be ashamed.

Most of the mentions of Moloch occur in Leviticus, a book concerned with setting out rules for the Israelites. A typical mention, as translated in the KJV: “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy god: I am the LORD.” (Lev 18:21) This diction may obscure just what’s being forbidden, but the English Standard Version is as usual more straightforward: “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” In 1 Kings he is called an “abomination”, and we see Solomon seduced into worshiping him. (1 Kings 11:7)

So it would appear that Moloch is a rival god to Yahweh, and that Moloch’s distinguishing feature is his demand that followers sacrifice their children to him, likely by ritual burning if the oft-repeated phrase “pass through the fire” has any literal meaning at all. In fact, a couple of 19th-century German scholars offered the radical argument that the cult of Yahweh in fact grew out of the cult of Moloch, differentiating itself by its rejection of human sacrifice. Other critics saw anti-Semitism in this premise, an attempt to slander Jews by suggesting that the “orthodox” version of Judaism was entwined in blood rituals. For our purposes, what matters is that the Biblical Moloch is synonymous with human sacrifice, in particular the sacrifice of children, and that this practice sets him apart from Yahweh.

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

What does this idea of human sacrifice have to do with Watchmen‘s Moloch? Very little, I would argue. Edgar Jacobi, aka Moloch, who Hollis Mason describes as “an ingenious and flamboyant criminal mastermind” in his heyday, seems to be Watchmen‘s canonical example of the “schmuck in a Halloween suit” that the Comedian derides in one of this chapter’s flashbacks. He’s non-threatening enough that Veidt’s marketing department eventually wants to make an action figure out of him.

There is almost no hint of human sacrifice, nor indeed any kind of murder, in what we know about him. He initially styles himself as a stage magician, and tends to sport a tuxedo in the flashbacks to his active days. In Chapter 4 we see him with a spooky skull necklace, but that’s about as close as he gets to courting death. He appropriates the name (and perhaps the pointy ears?) of a demon-god, but does nothing very demonic or godlike, moving into organized crime in the 1940s before finally spending the Seventies in jail.

So why the name Moloch? What does the concept of Moloch have to do with anything in Watchmen? Well, the actual Edgar Jacobi may be a red herring, the literal example of false danger that The Comedian cites in the Crimebusters meeting, but there is indeed a figure who embodies all that Moloch represents: Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt fancies himself somewhere between a king and a god. In the Bible, the difference between good god Yahweh and wicked god Moloch is whether that god is willing to sacrifice its own. Yahweh doesn’t demand the killing of anyone’s children. (Well, except for that one time, and it turns out He was faking it.) Ozymandias, though, creates an entire plan predicated on human sacrifice, and not just any humans, but the very New Yorkers whom he protected in his days as a costumed hero.

Even before the book’s climactic slaughter, Adrian is methodically killing people all over the place. He blows up the boat containing all the writers, artists, and scientists he bribed and tricked into his scheme. He eliminates every underworld figure who could be traced back to Pyramid Deliveries. He irradiates Dr. Manhattan’s associates to give them cancer, thus making Watchmen‘s Moloch the subject rather than the object of sacrifice. All in the service of his vision.

When comparing Watchmen to the book of Revelation, we saw how much Moore and Gibbons’ story was an inversion of the Biblical apocalypse, from its disruption of the good/evil binary to its reversal of the typical combat myth. In Ozymandias, we see yet another Biblical reversal — rather than Yahweh’s rejection of child sacrifice, Ozymandias turns into the kind of god who embraces it. The closest thing to a child character in the book — Bernard the younger — dies in the arms of his elder namesake when Veidt’s squid creature arrives.

The Moloch Machine

Adrian also has a few things in common with Joh Fredersen, the master of the title Metropolis in Fritz Lang’s film. Both men are masters of a business empire, who have attendants hanging on their every word to carry out their orders. Where Veidt built the Antarctic refuge of Karnak and its fantastical vivarium, Fredersen created the “Stadium Of The Sons”, in which the male offspring of Metropolis’s 1% frolic among freely available plants, fountains, and women. Where Veidt registered the patent for spark hydrants thanks to possibilities opened up by Dr. Manhattan, Fredersen creates a dazzling city thanks to the inventions of archetypal mad scientist Carl Rotwang. And where Nite Owl and Rorschach uncover the horrific human cost that Veidt is willing to incur in order to realize his dream, in Metropolis it’s Joh’s son Freder who makes the sickening discovery.

One day, as Freder is having his usual grand time in the Stadium Of The Sons, his merriment is interrupted by a working-class woman named Maria, who has taken a group of children up to the stadium to see how the upper crust lives. He becomes obsessed with Maria, and tries to follow her down to the underside of Metropolis, where workers endure endless toil to keep all the city’s machines operating. As viewers, we’ve already witnessed scenes of exhausted workers trooping through the undercity, their lives ruled by an omnipresent clock — another symbol in common between Metropolis and Watchmen.

When Freder enters the undercity, one of the first sights he encounters is an enormous machine, with rows of workers pulling levers in steady rhythm to keep its mysterious energies flowing. As Freder watches in alarm, one enervated worker struggles to do his part, but falls short, and the mechanism’s temperature rises. Finally, the thermometer reaches a critical level, and an explosion rocks the machine, sending workers flying through the air. At this moment, Freder has a vision of the machine as a huge, terrifying demon that consumes workers alive. Shaved and chained, they trudge up the stairs to be thrown into the fires within its gaping mouth. Overcome by the vision, Freder shouts out one word: “MOLOCH!”

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

There’s not much ambiguity about the symbolic weight of this Moloch machine, nor in fact most of Metropolis, which takes its cue from the novel of the same name written by Lang’s then-wife Thea Von Harbou. The film announces in its first title card, “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!”, and then goes on to make it clear that the brain is capital (i.e. Joh) and the hands are the proletariat (i.e. those devoured by the Moloch machine.) In Joh Fredersen’s Metropolis, the price of that beautiful stadium, and the debauched club Yoshiwara, and all the other amazing conveyances and edifices and inventions, is human sacrifice. Working class people struggle and die to keep the machines fed, and when those machines go explosively wrong, the ruling class sees it as an impersonal correction, just one of those things.

When it seems like the “hands” might revolt, under the leadership of Maria, Fredersen and Rotwang disguise an android with her appearance, so as to disrupt the rebellion by discrediting its figurehead. Disaster ensues, culminating in a rooftop swordfight between Rotwang and Freder, who finally triumphs, killing the mad scientist. The film’s rather naive ending solves the problem of the city’s cruel machinery when Freder (as the mediating heart) joins the hands of capitalist Fredersen and lead worker Grot.

Ozymandias, too, builds an enormous machine to fuel his fondest dreams, but in his case the machine isn’t made of dials and levers and gears. It’s made of plans, and it consumes people for its purposes with no mediating heart in sight. Like the machines of Metropolis, it also reaches deep under the surface. According to this chapter, Veidt formed his intention in 1966 to solve the problem of inevitable nuclear war. According to Doug Roth in Chapter 4, Wally Weaver died of cancer in 1971. That means that Veidt’s plan was in motion within at least 5 years of that Crimebusters meeting, and that its turning gears had claimed their first life by then. In the ensuing 14 years, it finally realizes its destiny as “a lethal pyramid”, killing everyone involved, excepting some but not all of our main characters. After the hordes of corpses in chapter 12, Rorschach is the final slave to be marched into the gaping maw of Adrian’s Moloch machine.

It isn’t just planning, though. Veidt also relies upon a remarkable technology stack to create his “practical joke,” one even more farfetched than the androids and mega-machines of Metropolis. He kills his servants by elaborately staging their “deaths from exposure, after drunkenly opening [his] vivarium.” Like much of Metropolis, it makes for a hell of a visual, but falters under a bit of scrutiny — why would a tropical vivarium in Antarctica ever need to open in such a way, anyway? When Dan expresses skepticism that Adrian is even capable of killing half of New York, Veidt calmly explains that he cloned the brain of a psychic named Robert Deschaines into a “resonator”, with “terrible information” coded into it. Then, when its host creature dies, this mega-psychic brain somehow broadcasts “the signal triggered by the onset of death”, and that signal somehow kills 3 million people from “the shock”.

I think of Watchmen as a realistically grounded superhero narrative, maybe the most realistic one ever at the time of its publication. If you can accept the notion of Dr. Manhattan and how his existence would change the world, the rest plays out logically with no further recourse to the supernatural, right? Well, wrong. Because as wide-ranging as Dr. Manhattan’s powers and effects may be, they don’t reasonably explain the presence of psychic abilities in human beings. Veidt gestures to advancements in eugenics as Laurie fawns over Bubastis in Chapter 4, but telepathy is another story. Because Watchmen drapes itself in superhero tropes, it’s easy to overlook, but for Veidt’s plan to work, we must accept not only the implications of Dr. Manhattan, but the entirely separate implications of people who can project their thoughts.

Besides sharing in its implausibility, Ozymandias also echoes Metropolis by wielding super-scientific advancements as a murder weapon against anyone opposing his utopia. Despite his Egyptian iconography, Adrian Veidt is a technologist who achieves his victories through a combination of commerce and machines, using flesh draped on a bomb like the false Maria in Metropolis.

Moloch Whose Fingers Are Ten Armies

Cover of Howl by Allen Ginsberg. It reads "Howl and other poems. Allen Ginsberg. Introduction by William Carlos Williams." The top banner reads "The Pocket Poets Series" and the footer reads "Number Four." In Lang’s Metropolis, the Moloch machine consumes hordes of anonymous workers. In “Howl”, Allen Ginsberg ups the ante. His Moloch destroys “the best minds of my generation.” His Moloch is a “sphinx of aluminum and cement” that “bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination.” In other words, Ginsberg’s Moloch of industrialization doesn’t just destroy the working class hands, but also the open hearts that might have tried to serve as mediators.

He invokes “Moloch” like a chant in section II of the poem, and some of the imagery recalls Metropolis pretty clearly:

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!

The second quoted stanza clearly identifies various parts of the city as Moloch, and a Metropolis-like city it is, with skyscrapers, factories, smokestacks, and antennae. The anthropomorphization of buildings and tombs into body parts of the monster strongly echoes the way that the panels, apertures, and pipes of the Metropolis machine become eyes, mouth, and claws in Freder’s vision of Moloch. And of course the “cannibal dynamo” of its breast is pretty much a straight description of what happens in the Metropolis Moloch scene.

There may be another allusion to Lang here as well. One of the director’s trademarks was having a shot of a hand in each of his films, one way or another. Rotwang has an artificial hand that gets some attention, but there’s another sort of hand shot in the movie as well. There’s a sequence where Maria tells an allegorical story about building a “Tower of Babel”, another example of planning brains heartlessly directing working “hands”, and one famous shot from that sequence is of five columns of workers converging into a foreground of shave-pated men sullenly trudging forward.

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

As Tom Gunning points out in The Films Of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, the shot strongly suggests a hand. “The shape itself acts as a trope, based on the synecdoche introduced in Harbou’s text, the workers as ‘hands.’ We see the converging columns as the outspread fingers and the circular insert as a palm. The composition of roiling bodies also functions as a symbolic close-up of a hand, one of Lang’s most powerful visual tropes.” Separate regiments of workers coalesce into one central force. Or, if you’re Allen Ginsberg, “Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!”

So if the Biblical Moloch demands human sacrifices, like Adrian, and the Metropolis Moloch uses humans as fuel, like Adrian’s plan, what does Ginsberg’s work add to our understanding? Simply this: that those sacrifices aren’t just anonymous workers or unnamed children, but characters we come to know and care about through the course of the story. In section I of “Howl,” Ginsberg introduces us to a litany of behaviors and characters who embody them. Most of these are of the heroic-romantic nature, albeit from a bohemian point of view, fugitives from mass culture who bravely maintained intellectual independence and created unfettered works. They are all destroyed, and it is Moloch who destroys them.

In Watchmen, we come to know some of the “ordinary” people who get killed on November 2, 1985. There’s Bernard the newsstand vendor and Bernard the young reader, who we hear from throughout the book. There’s Malcolm Long and his wife Gloria, stars of Chapter 6. There’s Joey and her girlfriend, who we see in the throes of painful relationship dissolution. There’s Detective Steve Fine and his partner Joe, who open Chapter 1 and continue to investigate crimes on the fringes throughout the story. Ozymandias is the Moloch to whom all these victims are sacrificed, to appease his thirst for surreptitious control of the world’s nations.

That day is the final step in Adrian’s homicidal plan, and a trail of death leads up to it. There’s the island full of artists, writers, and scientists — Max Shea, Hira Manish, James Trafford March, Linette Paley, Norman Leith, Dr. Whittaker Furnesse. The best minds of their generation, destroyed in Veidt’s madness. Not to mention the literal “best mind”, Robert Deschaines, who apparently was more than a “so-called psychic and clairvoyant.” And Wally Weaver, and Janey Slater, and poor Edgar Jacobi himself, all marched into the maw of Ozymandias’ Moloch machinations, feeding their energies into its terrible purpose.

The sad, cancerous old man pinned to the ground by Rorschach did none of these things. In fact, he was just another victim of them. Jacobi pleads, “I’m not Moloch anymore,” and he’s right. The new Moloch is Ozymandias himself, whose mind is pure machinery.

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Previous Entry: How The Ghost Of You Clings

The Watchmen Bestiary 24 – How The Ghost Of You Clings

[As always, many spoilers for Watchmen lurk below.]

Yes, Chapter 2 is full of flashbacks stitched together by present-day scenes. But that’s far from the only reminiscing it contains. As usual, Moore and Gibbons’ themes run several layers deep, and this is most apparent in the scene between Laurie and Sally at the beginning of the chapter.

Aside from the fact that the long and painful history between the characters is self-evident in their every utterance, there are also a number of memory cues scattered throughout the scene. Obviously, there’s the framed picture of the Minutemen, which leads Sally into her flashback. There are also framed pictures on the walls, tantalizing in their sketchiness. There’s the Tijuana bible, Sally’s way of “being reminded that people used to slobber over me.” And of course, there’s the ever-present bottle of Nostalgia (by Veidt) on the vanity.

Finally, as we come out of the flashback, we get a closer look at one of those pictures:

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

Which brings us to our subject today. Here’s what the web annotations have to say about this panel:

The portrait on the wall is inscribed “To Sally Jupiter, Best Wishes Varga”. In the real world an artist named Alfredo Vargas drew portraits of naked and half-naked women which appeared regularly in Playboy magazine. He sometimes signed his work “Vargas” and sometimes “Varga”. The portrait of Sally is very much in his style.

As often occurs with these web annotations, this is a case of “almost but not quite.” Some corrections:

  • There was in fact a pin-up artist named Vargas in the real world, but he was Alberto Vargas, not Alfredo Vargas.
  • His work did indeed appear in Playboy, but much more relevant to the reference here is the fact that his work appeared in Esquire from 1940 to 1946, in gatefold images that became a salient aspect of American soldiers’ lives during those World War II years. His Playboy art occurred much later (1957 through 1974) and was more explicit during those years, i.e. more naked than half-naked. Incidentally, while Leslie Klinger does a considerably better job with his Vargas gloss, he also gets these dates wrong, suggesting that Vargas didn’t separate from Esquire until 1957, when in fact the artist suffered a long fallow and desperate period between leaving Esquire and starting for Playboy.
  • There’s a specific reason why his signature varied between “Varga” and “Vargas”, and it maps directly onto his history with those magazines. According to Vargas’s autobiography, Esquire editor David Smart decided to call the artist’s creations “Varga Girls”, on the notion that it was “more euphonious” than “Vargas Girls”. (pg. 28) But Vargas’s parting from Esquire was a bitter one, and by 1950, after four years of court battles, he had completly lost the rights to the “Varga” name. (pg. 43) Consequently, his work from there on out was signed “Vargas”.

These facts bear directly on the Watchmen panel. Because the portrait is signed “Varga” rather than “Vargas”, we can reasonably conclude that the fictional Varga in this world did his portrait of Sally Jupiter during the war years. That conclusion also resonates with the many other manifestations of 1940s nostalgia, including the flashback itself.

Painted Ladies

So what was “Varga” all about, and why does it matter that he painted a portrait of Sally Jupiter that now hangs on her wall in the “City of the Dead”?

Alberto Vargas was born in Peru in 1896. At 20 years old, after a European schooling and a brief apprenticeship with a photographer, he found himself in New York, and there became entranced with American women. He was supposed to return home to Peru, but he chose to stay instead, and from that moment onward made his living as an artist, never straying far from paintings of idealized female forms.

During the 1920s he painted portraits for the Ziegfeld Follies, which in turn led him to gigs illustrating for newspapers, magazines, advertisements, fashion designs, and personal commissions. Through the 1930s he continued this sort of work and also found himself employed by Hollywood studios, creating many movie posters, as well as portraits of the era’s major film stars. It was in 1940, though, that he would begin the most iconic work of his lifetime.

For seven years, George Petty had been the pin-up artist of choice in the pages of Esquire, but Smart found him tiresome and demanding to work with. Petty was altogether too shrewd a businessman, so Smart sought someone who was as good with the paintbrush but not nearly so good at interpreting contracts. He found his ideal match in Alberto Vargas, who had been suffering from quite a few lean years during the Depression, and who was ecstatic to receive not only work but appreciation for the kind of work he wanted to do.

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

The first Varga Girl appeared in the October 1940 issue of Esquire, a little over a year before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The feature proved immediately and immensely popular, prompting Smart to begin a program of relentless exploitation. Esquire contracted with Vargas to produce a prodigious amount of work each year, and ran a calendar of twelve Vargas paintings only two months after his debut in the magazine.

From 1942 to 1945, Smart distributed over three million copies of Esquire to domestic military installations free of charge, selling another six million copies (without advertising) to troops overseas. The Varga Girl calendar would become an annual release throughout the war years, selling in the millions. Vargas became the premier pin-up artist of the World War Two era, a cultural phenomenon intimately connected with the times, whose work appeared in barracks worldwide, as well as on the noses of American airplanes.

It was widely suggested, perhaps even widely believed, that these images raised the morale of American soldiers overseas — reminded them of what they were fighting for back home. Vargas and Esquire reinforced this notion by presenting Varga Girls as brides, or bedecked in patriotic imagery, or posed with various military props — medals, uniforms, letters from home, army instruction books, and so forth. The images were often accompanied by some bit of verse or prose about heartfelt topics like peace, love, or Christmas.

And yet, as World War Two veteran Kurt Vonnegut points out in his brilliant foreword to a catalog of Vargas’s Esquire work, the notion of these images as morale-raisers doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. They bore little resemblance to the average American wife, mother, or sweetheart, and their net effect, if not their intention, was just “to make horny youths far from home hornier — to what end we can only speculate.”

Vonnegut suggests instead that what the Varga Girls represent is more akin to images from the Sears Roebuck catalog:

If I am right, the pinups of World War Two had the generalized appeal of merchandise, implied fixed prices and order forms. The fantasy: You really could buy one if you had the bucks, and you just might have the bucks someday. The paper woman in the girdle and bra, if you were a man, seemed as much in your power as the socket-wrench set or the level-winding fishing reel.

In other words, Vargas’s art and Esquire‘s use of it contributed to the cultural commodification of women during World War Two, and here we can return to Sally Jupiter at last.

“I’m sitting ON it!”

Sally states clearly, in the supplemental material to Chapter 9, that her career as Silk Spectre “was never a sex thing. It was a money thing.” Hollis Mason concurs, in Under The Hood, saying that Sally “was probably the first of us ever to realize that there could be commercial benefits in being a masked adventurer. The Silk Spectre used her reputation as a crimefighter primarily to make the front pages and receive exposure for her lucrative modeling career…”

Sally, with the eager assistance of her agent and later husband Laurence Shexnayder, created her image in order to sell it, during the same era in which the Varga Girls rose to prominence. It’s no wonder Vargas painted her — in a way, they were both in the same line of work. They sold fantasy images of women, turning the desires of “horny youths” into cash.

Though the Esquire Varga Girls were anonymous, Vargas painted lots of portraits of living stars, especially during his studio days in the 1930s. Even in the 40s, during the height of his Esquire work, he did portraits of Jane Russell and Ava Gardner. The notion that he’d have painted Silk Spectre during that time is totally plausible. Like those movie bombshells, Sally Jupiter was an object of desire, and she and Shexnayder did their level best to rake in earnings from the people who slobbered over her.

Sally makes no bones about any of this, recounting every “bright blue gag” about herself back to Nite Owl, and joking about the moneymaker her body has been for her, as in the intermittent voice balloons that drift over to Laurie in a flashback that takes place at Sally’s house:

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

And so she did, though like Alberto Vargas, she and Laurence don’t always seem to have had the greatest dealmaking acumen. Though she certainly lives in a nice enough house (at least, after divorcing Shexnayder), the film deal they make devolves from a documentary, into a children’s adventure serial, into a “B” action movie, and finally into something “too awful even to be dignified with the term ‘pornography.'”

The journey taken by the Silk Spectre biopic defines a continuum, with “classy” exploitation at one end and purely crass exploitation at the other. In Sally’s apartment, those two extremes get represented by the Varga portrait on one end, and the Tijuana bible on the other. And while Sally might prefer to be on the classy end, she makes it clear that she doesn’t mind the other end so much either, because it’s not a dignity thing, it’s a money thing. (“Listen, those things are valuable, like antiques. Eighty bucks an’ up.”)

Sally learns, in her career as a “big tough super-lady”, that her value resides in her body and her sexuality. Her function, as a woman, was more or less to be a Varga Girl: erotic and innocent at once, distant and accessible at once, glamorous and vulnerable at once, and all available for sale everywhere. Merchandise.

The Essence That Was So Divine

When she turns on Laurie at the end of the scene, Sally reveals that this view extends beyond herself. “At least I don’t sleep with an H-Bomb,” she says, and when Laurie objects that Jon is not an H-Bomb, she continues: “Honey, the only difference is that they didn’t have to get the H-Bomb laid every once in a while.” In Sally’s eyes, that’s Laurie’s job, her function as a woman: get the H-Bomb laid. She’s as much a morale-raiser as any Esquire gatefold. (And though she protests that Sally is “being totally unfair”, Laurie herself is stuck in a story where her main function is to change the state of male characters.)

Sally Jupiter’s morale-raising days are in the past, though. Her world is “the city of the dead” because the thing that gave her meaning and value has departed with age. Bitterness has replaced allure, and now her refuge is in her memories, a past that gets just keeps on getting brighter all the time.

In other words, nostalgia. Or rather, perhaps, Nostalgia, because there’s someplace else in the Watchmen world where Varga-esque images appear, and that’s in Adrian Veidt’s ad campaign for his “Nostalgia line of ladies’ and men’s cosmetics.” He describes the woman in the ad, but may as well be describing a Varga Girl: “overtly erotic, yet layered with enough romantic ambiance to avoid offense.” She’s wearing more clothing than the typical Varga Girl, but the gauzy, transparent dress that hangs down from her torso, revealing and obscuring her thigh at once is pure Vargas, as is her pose and knowing stare out of the frame, returning the viewer’s gaze with amusement.

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

Ozymandias, while watching his bank of randomly changing screens, muses about the “erotic undercurrent not uncommon in times of war,” and notes in his ad strategy that “when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past.” Vargas’s painted ladies might belong to either, smooth fantasy women adorned in furs and flowers, who all find themselves in a half-imagined climate so warm that they’re constantly shedding clothes. It’s hard to say whether they seemed nostalgic at the time of their highest popularity, but at the very least they represented a yearning for simplicity and pleasure that must have felt distant indeed for soldiers deployed throughout the globe. Vargas’s work certainly drips with nostalgia now, especially for those, like Vonnegut, who lived through the 1940s.

The primary caption for Nostalgia advertisements reaches back even further, to the 1930s. “Oh, how the ghost of you clings” is a quote from the song “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)”, a hit song from 1936 that was covered by multiple people that year, including Leslie Hutchinson, Benny Goodman, and Billie Holiday. Here’s one of my favorite versions, from Bryan Ferry in 1973:

Once again, multiple layers of nostalgia are present here. The song itself is about the pain of lost love, when every element of your life can feel like a reminder of what’s gone out of it. “The ghost of you” here is made of all the simple little things that evoke the departed lover, including the lingering scent of perfume. Beyond that, the use of this caption in a 1985 ad campaign quite consciously hearkens back to a bygone era, that mythical “simpler time” that itself is the object of little-n nostalgia. That clinging ghost is the old songs, the old styles, the old times that feel so distant, especially when the present time is full of “global uncertainty.”

More than that, though, within the story, pertaining to the specific characters, when a bottle of Nostalgia appears, so do the clinging ghosts of the past. Obviously it takes a starring role in Chapter 9, appearing in close-up on the cover and shattering the Martian castle in the issue’s climactic moment. There, the ghost is the circumstances of Laurie’s birth, come back to haunt her after years of suppression.

In the opening scene of Chapter 2, that same ghost is at work, though we don’t know it yet. In addition, we get ghosts of other kinds. Sally gazes at her picture of the Minutemen, remembering how the dark and bright parts of the past brought her to where and who she is today. That picture, the Tijuana bible, and the Varga portrait on the wall surround her with ghosts of her former self — departed desire, eroticism, vitality. Most of all, she and Laurie are haunted by their shared past, the tension between them a product of thousands of interactions, behavior itself driven by experiences reaching back generations, like any complicated relationship between parent and child. Those ghosts do cling, and sometimes nostalgia is the optimal outcome, far better anyway than bitterness and toxicity.

Last, and deepest, is the kind of nostalgia that Watchmen itself set out to explode, the decades-long attachment of comics fans to the same superheroes and superhero tropes iterated over and over and over again. Those fanboy fantasies were as surprisingly fragile as Doctor Manhattan’s Martian castle, and this book was the bottle hurled at them. It marked a turning point, taking us to a new vantage from which we could see those Golden, Silver, and Bronze age comics as innocent and problematic in their own way as the Varga Girls seem now.

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