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:
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.
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!”)
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.
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.
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.
Tonio’s immediate reaction to this closely mirrors what we see of Eddie Blake when women attack his face in Watchmen.
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.
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.)
Severalsources 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.”
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.
First things first: this project has a new name. I was never entirely satisfied with The Annotated Annotated Watchmen as a project title. Not only is it an awkward mouthful, it’s factually inaccurate. I’m writing essays, not annotations. But The Essayed Watchmen never really did it for me either.
For many an entry have I fretted about this, but I just could not find an alternate title that spoke to me loudly and clearly enough. For this 25th post, though, I resolved to redouble my efforts, and in a reread of Chapter 1 noticed this panel:
The bestiary! In Watchmen, the bestiary seems to be two things. First, it’s a collection of items that underpin the universe, which Dr. Manhattan examines in order to better understand the workings of that universe. So far, so perfect — that’s exactly what these essays are working to do, one exotic and breathtaking specimen at a time. The other Bestiary in Watchmen is “where the real heavy-duty thinkin’ gets done” by the Gila Flats crew in Jon Osterman’s early days as a physicist. It’s the on-base bar where the various residents find themselves “at play amidst the strangeness and charm.”
That meaning works perfectly for me too, because these essays are my way of extending the tremendous strangeness and charm that Watchmen exerts over me and millions of other readers. And doing so is just plain fun for me, which is why I keep doing it. It sure isn’t for the money or fame.
Therefore, I proudly present The Watchmen Bestiary, a rechristening of my ongoing Watchmen project. As a part of this change, I’ve gone back in and renamed all the old entries, and in some cases done some light editing and updating of them. If anyone happens across anything screwed up as a result of this, please let me know.
And now, on with today’s entry. Please note that, as always, there are Watchmen spoilers in this post. I also discuss the plot of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.
Most of these essays focus on a single work, or at least the works of a single artist or author. Today’s entry, though, focuses on a name. It’s a name that spans many works, many authors. A name that echoes through millennia. Moloch.
Moloch, an ancient god who became a demon in Christian cosmology, is also the name given to the giant machine with a giant dial operated by the oppressed workers in Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis”.
The annotations are quite right to cite the Bible and Metropolis, as both were pretty clearly influences on Moore. He references the Bible throughout Watchmen — the Pale Horse reference to Revelation is just the first of many.
The Metropolis connection is a bit more tenuous, but apart from being able to count on Moore’s general erudition, there’s also the fact that both Metropolis and Lang’s recurring character Dr. Mabuse feature prominently in the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen story Nemo: The Roses Of Berlin. Granted, that book came out much later than Watchmen, but let’s also remember that in 1984, music producer Giorgio Moroder restored and re-released Lang’s film in theaters, with a pop music soundtrack. Between the fact that the pop Metropolis was roughly contemporary during the writing of Watchmen, and Moore’s later demonstrated connection to the material, I’m comfortable asserting that Metropolis would have been in Moore’s constellation of references when he chose to name a character Moloch.
Also in that constellation are the writers of the Beat movement. We’ve already seen how strong an influence William Burroughs had on Watchmen, but it turns out he wasn’t the only Beat with a connection. As it happens, Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl”, repeats the word “Moloch” 39 times in the 383 words of its second section, employing imagery that was clearly influenced by Lang. There are plenty of other writers who incorporate Moloch — Milton and Flaubert are a couple of the biggies — but it’s the Bible, Metropolis, and “Howl” that seem most connected with Moore’s repertoire, so let’s focus on them.
Moloch The Abomination
In the Bible, Moloch or Molech (both spellings appear in the King James Version) seems to derive from the Hebrew word melech, meaning “king”, combined with the vowels from the word for “shame” to give it a pejorative flavor. The implication is of a “Lord” (or god) whose worshipers should be ashamed.
Most of the mentions of Moloch occur in Leviticus, a book concerned with setting out rules for the Israelites. A typical mention, as translated in the KJV: “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy god: I am the LORD.” (Lev 18:21) This diction may obscure just what’s being forbidden, but the English Standard Version is as usual more straightforward: “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” In 1 Kings he is called an “abomination”, and we see Solomon seduced into worshiping him. (1 Kings 11:7)
So it would appear that Moloch is a rival god to Yahweh, and that Moloch’s distinguishing feature is his demand that followers sacrifice their children to him, likely by ritual burning if the oft-repeated phrase “pass through the fire” has any literal meaning at all. In fact, a couple of 19th-century German scholars offered the radical argument that the cult of Yahweh in fact grew out of the cult of Moloch, differentiating itself by its rejection of human sacrifice. Other critics saw anti-Semitism in this premise, an attempt to slander Jews by suggesting that the “orthodox” version of Judaism was entwined in blood rituals. For our purposes, what matters is that the Biblical Moloch is synonymous with human sacrifice, in particular the sacrifice of children, and that this practice sets him apart from Yahweh.
What does this idea of human sacrifice have to do with Watchmen‘s Moloch? Very little, I would argue. Edgar Jacobi, aka Moloch, who Hollis Mason describes as “an ingenious and flamboyant criminal mastermind” in his heyday, seems to be Watchmen‘s canonical example of the “schmuck in a Halloween suit” that the Comedian derides in one of this chapter’s flashbacks. He’s non-threatening enough that Veidt’s marketing department eventually wants to make an action figure out of him.
There is almost no hint of human sacrifice, nor indeed any kind of murder, in what we know about him. He initially styles himself as a stage magician, and tends to sport a tuxedo in the flashbacks to his active days. In Chapter 4 we see him with a spooky skull necklace, but that’s about as close as he gets to courting death. He appropriates the name (and perhaps the pointy ears?) of a demon-god, but does nothing very demonic or godlike, moving into organized crime in the 1940s before finally spending the Seventies in jail.
So why the name Moloch? What does the concept of Moloch have to do with anything in Watchmen? Well, the actual Edgar Jacobi may be a red herring, the literal example of false danger that The Comedian cites in the Crimebusters meeting, but there is indeed a figure who embodies all that Moloch represents: Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt fancies himself somewhere between a king and a god. In the Bible, the difference between good god Yahweh and wicked god Moloch is whether that god is willing to sacrifice its own. Yahweh doesn’t demand the killing of anyone’s children. (Well, except for that one time, and it turns out He was faking it.) Ozymandias, though, creates an entire plan predicated on human sacrifice, and not just any humans, but the very New Yorkers whom he protected in his days as a costumed hero.
Even before the book’s climactic slaughter, Adrian is methodically killing people all over the place. He blows up the boat containing all the writers, artists, and scientists he bribed and tricked into his scheme. He eliminates every underworld figure who could be traced back to Pyramid Deliveries. He irradiates Dr. Manhattan’s associates to give them cancer, thus making Watchmen‘s Moloch the subject rather than the object of sacrifice. All in the service of his vision.
When comparing Watchmen to the book of Revelation, we saw how much Moore and Gibbons’ story was an inversion of the Biblical apocalypse, from its disruption of the good/evil binary to its reversal of the typical combat myth. In Ozymandias, we see yet another Biblical reversal — rather than Yahweh’s rejection of child sacrifice, Ozymandias turns into the kind of god who embraces it. The closest thing to a child character in the book — Bernard the younger — dies in the arms of his elder namesake when Veidt’s squid creature arrives.
The Moloch Machine
Adrian also has a few things in common with Joh Fredersen, the master of the title Metropolis in Fritz Lang’s film. Both men are masters of a business empire, who have attendants hanging on their every word to carry out their orders. Where Veidt built the Antarctic refuge of Karnak and its fantastical vivarium, Fredersen created the “Stadium Of The Sons”, in which the male offspring of Metropolis’s 1% frolic among freely available plants, fountains, and women. Where Veidt registered the patent for spark hydrants thanks to possibilities opened up by Dr. Manhattan, Fredersen creates a dazzling city thanks to the inventions of archetypal mad scientist Carl Rotwang. And where Nite Owl and Rorschach uncover the horrific human cost that Veidt is willing to incur in order to realize his dream, in Metropolis it’s Joh’s son Freder who makes the sickening discovery.
One day, as Freder is having his usual grand time in the Stadium Of The Sons, his merriment is interrupted by a working-class woman named Maria, who has taken a group of children up to the stadium to see how the upper crust lives. He becomes obsessed with Maria, and tries to follow her down to the underside of Metropolis, where workers endure endless toil to keep all the city’s machines operating. As viewers, we’ve already witnessed scenes of exhausted workers trooping through the undercity, their lives ruled by an omnipresent clock — another symbol in common between Metropolis and Watchmen.
When Freder enters the undercity, one of the first sights he encounters is an enormous machine, with rows of workers pulling levers in steady rhythm to keep its mysterious energies flowing. As Freder watches in alarm, one enervated worker struggles to do his part, but falls short, and the mechanism’s temperature rises. Finally, the thermometer reaches a critical level, and an explosion rocks the machine, sending workers flying through the air. At this moment, Freder has a vision of the machine as a huge, terrifying demon that consumes workers alive. Shaved and chained, they trudge up the stairs to be thrown into the fires within its gaping mouth. Overcome by the vision, Freder shouts out one word: “MOLOCH!”
There’s not much ambiguity about the symbolic weight of this Moloch machine, nor in fact most of Metropolis, which takes its cue from the novel of the same name written by Lang’s then-wife Thea Von Harbou. The film announces in its first title card, “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!”, and then goes on to make it clear that the brain is capital (i.e. Joh) and the hands are the proletariat (i.e. those devoured by the Moloch machine.) In Joh Fredersen’s Metropolis, the price of that beautiful stadium, and the debauched club Yoshiwara, and all the other amazing conveyances and edifices and inventions, is human sacrifice. Working class people struggle and die to keep the machines fed, and when those machines go explosively wrong, the ruling class sees it as an impersonal correction, just one of those things.
When it seems like the “hands” might revolt, under the leadership of Maria, Fredersen and Rotwang disguise an android with her appearance, so as to disrupt the rebellion by discrediting its figurehead. Disaster ensues, culminating in a rooftop swordfight between Rotwang and Freder, who finally triumphs, killing the mad scientist. The film’s rather naive ending solves the problem of the city’s cruel machinery when Freder (as the mediating heart) joins the hands of capitalist Fredersen and lead worker Grot.
Ozymandias, too, builds an enormous machine to fuel his fondest dreams, but in his case the machine isn’t made of dials and levers and gears. It’s made of plans, and it consumes people for its purposes with no mediating heart in sight. Like the machines of Metropolis, it also reaches deep under the surface. According to this chapter, Veidt formed his intention in 1966 to solve the problem of inevitable nuclear war. According to Doug Roth in Chapter 4, Wally Weaver died of cancer in 1971. That means that Veidt’s plan was in motion within at least 5 years of that Crimebusters meeting, and that its turning gears had claimed their first life by then. In the ensuing 14 years, it finally realizes its destiny as “a lethal pyramid”, killing everyone involved, excepting some but not all of our main characters. After the hordes of corpses in chapter 12, Rorschach is the final slave to be marched into the gaping maw of Adrian’s Moloch machine.
It isn’t just planning, though. Veidt also relies upon a remarkable technology stack to create his “practical joke,” one even more farfetched than the androids and mega-machines of Metropolis. He kills his servants by elaborately staging their “deaths from exposure, after drunkenly opening [his] vivarium.” Like much of Metropolis, it makes for a hell of a visual, but falters under a bit of scrutiny — why would a tropical vivarium in Antarctica ever need to open in such a way, anyway? When Dan expresses skepticism that Adrian is even capable of killing half of New York, Veidt calmly explains that he cloned the brain of a psychic named Robert Deschaines into a “resonator”, with “terrible information” coded into it. Then, when its host creature dies, this mega-psychic brain somehow broadcasts “the signal triggered by the onset of death”, and that signal somehow kills 3 million people from “the shock”.
I think of Watchmen as a realistically grounded superhero narrative, maybe the most realistic one ever at the time of its publication. If you can accept the notion of Dr. Manhattan and how his existence would change the world, the rest plays out logically with no further recourse to the supernatural, right? Well, wrong. Because as wide-ranging as Dr. Manhattan’s powers and effects may be, they don’t reasonably explain the presence of psychic abilities in human beings. Veidt gestures to advancements in eugenics as Laurie fawns over Bubastis in Chapter 4, but telepathy is another story. Because Watchmen drapes itself in superhero tropes, it’s easy to overlook, but for Veidt’s plan to work, we must accept not only the implications of Dr. Manhattan, but the entirely separate implications of people who can project their thoughts.
Besides sharing in its implausibility, Ozymandias also echoes Metropolis by wielding super-scientific advancements as a murder weapon against anyone opposing his utopia. Despite his Egyptian iconography, Adrian Veidt is a technologist who achieves his victories through a combination of commerce and machines, using flesh draped on a bomb like the false Maria in Metropolis.
Moloch Whose Fingers Are Ten Armies
In Lang’s Metropolis, the Moloch machine consumes hordes of anonymous workers. In “Howl”, Allen Ginsberg ups the ante. His Moloch destroys “the best minds of my generation.” His Moloch is a “sphinx of aluminum and cement” that “bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination.” In other words, Ginsberg’s Moloch of industrialization doesn’t just destroy the working class hands, but also the open hearts that might have tried to serve as mediators.
He invokes “Moloch” like a chant in section II of the poem, and some of the imagery recalls Metropolis pretty clearly:
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!
The second quoted stanza clearly identifies various parts of the city as Moloch, and a Metropolis-like city it is, with skyscrapers, factories, smokestacks, and antennae. The anthropomorphization of buildings and tombs into body parts of the monster strongly echoes the way that the panels, apertures, and pipes of the Metropolis machine become eyes, mouth, and claws in Freder’s vision of Moloch. And of course the “cannibal dynamo” of its breast is pretty much a straight description of what happens in the Metropolis Moloch scene.
There may be another allusion to Lang here as well. One of the director’s trademarks was having a shot of a hand in each of his films, one way or another. Rotwang has an artificial hand that gets some attention, but there’s another sort of hand shot in the movie as well. There’s a sequence where Maria tells an allegorical story about building a “Tower of Babel”, another example of planning brains heartlessly directing working “hands”, and one famous shot from that sequence is of five columns of workers converging into a foreground of shave-pated men sullenly trudging forward.
As Tom Gunning points out in The Films Of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, the shot strongly suggests a hand. “The shape itself acts as a trope, based on the synecdoche introduced in Harbou’s text, the workers as ‘hands.’ We see the converging columns as the outspread fingers and the circular insert as a palm. The composition of roiling bodies also functions as a symbolic close-up of a hand, one of Lang’s most powerful visual tropes.” Separate regiments of workers coalesce into one central force. Or, if you’re Allen Ginsberg, “Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!”
So if the Biblical Moloch demands human sacrifices, like Adrian, and the Metropolis Moloch uses humans as fuel, like Adrian’s plan, what does Ginsberg’s work add to our understanding? Simply this: that those sacrifices aren’t just anonymous workers or unnamed children, but characters we come to know and care about through the course of the story. In section I of “Howl,” Ginsberg introduces us to a litany of behaviors and characters who embody them. Most of these are of the heroic-romantic nature, albeit from a bohemian point of view, fugitives from mass culture who bravely maintained intellectual independence and created unfettered works. They are all destroyed, and it is Moloch who destroys them.
In Watchmen, we come to know some of the “ordinary” people who get killed on November 2, 1985. There’s Bernard the newsstand vendor and Bernard the young reader, who we hear from throughout the book. There’s Malcolm Long and his wife Gloria, stars of Chapter 6. There’s Joey and her girlfriend, who we see in the throes of painful relationship dissolution. There’s Detective Steve Fine and his partner Joe, who open Chapter 1 and continue to investigate crimes on the fringes throughout the story. Ozymandias is the Moloch to whom all these victims are sacrificed, to appease his thirst for surreptitious control of the world’s nations.
That day is the final step in Adrian’s homicidal plan, and a trail of death leads up to it. There’s the island full of artists, writers, and scientists — Max Shea, Hira Manish, James Trafford March, Linette Paley, Norman Leith, Dr. Whittaker Furnesse. The best minds of their generation, destroyed in Veidt’s madness. Not to mention the literal “best mind”, Robert Deschaines, who apparently was more than a “so-called psychic and clairvoyant.” And Wally Weaver, and Janey Slater, and poor Edgar Jacobi himself, all marched into the maw of Ozymandias’ Moloch machinations, feeding their energies into its terrible purpose.
The sad, cancerous old man pinned to the ground by Rorschach did none of these things. In fact, he was just another victim of them. Jacobi pleads, “I’m not Moloch anymore,” and he’s right. The new Moloch is Ozymandias himself, whose mind is pure machinery.
[As always, many spoilers for Watchmen lurk below.]
Yes, Chapter 2 is full of flashbacks stitched together by present-day scenes. But that’s far from the only reminiscing it contains. As usual, Moore and Gibbons’ themes run several layers deep, and this is most apparent in the scene between Laurie and Sally at the beginning of the chapter.
Aside from the fact that the long and painful history between the characters is self-evident in their every utterance, there are also a number of memory cues scattered throughout the scene. Obviously, there’s the framed picture of the Minutemen, which leads Sally into her flashback. There are also framed pictures on the walls, tantalizing in their sketchiness. There’s the Tijuana bible, Sally’s way of “being reminded that people used to slobber over me.” And of course, there’s the ever-present bottle of Nostalgia (by Veidt) on the vanity.
Finally, as we come out of the flashback, we get a closer look at one of those pictures:
Which brings us to our subject today. Here’s what the web annotations have to say about this panel:
The portrait on the wall is inscribed “To Sally Jupiter, Best Wishes Varga”. In the real world an artist named Alfredo Vargas drew portraits of naked and half-naked women which appeared regularly in Playboy magazine. He sometimes signed his work “Vargas” and sometimes “Varga”. The portrait of Sally is very much in his style.
As often occurs with these web annotations, this is a case of “almost but not quite.” Some corrections:
There was in fact a pin-up artist named Vargas in the real world, but he was Alberto Vargas, not Alfredo Vargas.
His work did indeed appear in Playboy, but much more relevant to the reference here is the fact that his work appeared in Esquire from 1940 to 1946, in gatefold images that became a salient aspect of American soldiers’ lives during those World War II years. His Playboy art occurred much later (1957 through 1974) and was more explicit during those years, i.e. more naked than half-naked. Incidentally, while Leslie Klinger does a considerably better job with his Vargas gloss, he also gets these dates wrong, suggesting that Vargas didn’t separate from Esquire until 1957, when in fact the artist suffered a long fallow and desperate period between leaving Esquire and starting for Playboy.
There’s a specific reason why his signature varied between “Varga” and “Vargas”, and it maps directly onto his history with those magazines. According to Vargas’s autobiography, Esquire editor David Smart decided to call the artist’s creations “Varga Girls”, on the notion that it was “more euphonious” than “Vargas Girls”. (pg. 28) But Vargas’s parting from Esquire was a bitter one, and by 1950, after four years of court battles, he had completly lost the rights to the “Varga” name. (pg. 43) Consequently, his work from there on out was signed “Vargas”.
These facts bear directly on the Watchmen panel. Because the portrait is signed “Varga” rather than “Vargas”, we can reasonably conclude that the fictional Varga in this world did his portrait of Sally Jupiter during the war years. That conclusion also resonates with the many other manifestations of 1940s nostalgia, including the flashback itself.
So what was “Varga” all about, and why does it matter that he painted a portrait of Sally Jupiter that now hangs on her wall in the “City of the Dead”?
Alberto Vargas was born in Peru in 1896. At 20 years old, after a European schooling and a brief apprenticeship with a photographer, he found himself in New York, and there became entranced with American women. He was supposed to return home to Peru, but he chose to stay instead, and from that moment onward made his living as an artist, never straying far from paintings of idealized female forms.
During the 1920s he painted portraits for the Ziegfeld Follies, which in turn led him to gigs illustrating for newspapers, magazines, advertisements, fashion designs, and personal commissions. Through the 1930s he continued this sort of work and also found himself employed by Hollywood studios, creating many movie posters, as well as portraits of the era’s major film stars. It was in 1940, though, that he would begin the most iconic work of his lifetime.
For seven years, George Petty had been the pin-up artist of choice in the pages of Esquire, but Smart found him tiresome and demanding to work with. Petty was altogether too shrewd a businessman, so Smart sought someone who was as good with the paintbrush but not nearly so good at interpreting contracts. He found his ideal match in Alberto Vargas, who had been suffering from quite a few lean years during the Depression, and who was ecstatic to receive not only work but appreciation for the kind of work he wanted to do.
The first Varga Girl appeared in the October 1940 issue of Esquire, a little over a year before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The feature proved immediately and immensely popular, prompting Smart to begin a program of relentless exploitation. Esquire contracted with Vargas to produce a prodigious amount of work each year, and ran a calendar of twelve Vargas paintings only two months after his debut in the magazine.
From 1942 to 1945, Smart distributed over three million copies of Esquire to domestic military installations free of charge, selling another six million copies (without advertising) to troops overseas. The Varga Girl calendar would become an annual release throughout the war years, selling in the millions. Vargas became the premier pin-up artist of the World War Two era, a cultural phenomenon intimately connected with the times, whose work appeared in barracks worldwide, as well as on the noses of American airplanes.
It was widely suggested, perhaps even widely believed, that these images raised the morale of American soldiers overseas — reminded them of what they were fighting for back home. Vargas and Esquire reinforced this notion by presenting Varga Girls as brides, or bedecked in patriotic imagery, or posed with various military props — medals, uniforms, letters from home, army instruction books, and so forth. The images were often accompanied by some bit of verse or prose about heartfelt topics like peace, love, or Christmas.
And yet, as World War Two veteran Kurt Vonnegut points out in his brilliant foreword to a catalog of Vargas’s Esquire work, the notion of these images as morale-raisers doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. They bore little resemblance to the average American wife, mother, or sweetheart, and their net effect, if not their intention, was just “to make horny youths far from home hornier — to what end we can only speculate.”
Vonnegut suggests instead that what the Varga Girls represent is more akin to images from the Sears Roebuck catalog:
If I am right, the pinups of World War Two had the generalized appeal of merchandise, implied fixed prices and order forms. The fantasy: You really could buy one if you had the bucks, and you just might have the bucks someday. The paper woman in the girdle and bra, if you were a man, seemed as much in your power as the socket-wrench set or the level-winding fishing reel.
In other words, Vargas’s art and Esquire‘s use of it contributed to the cultural commodification of women during World War Two, and here we can return to Sally Jupiter at last.
“I’m sitting ON it!”
Sally states clearly, in the supplemental material to Chapter 9, that her career as Silk Spectre “was never a sex thing. It was a money thing.” Hollis Mason concurs, in Under The Hood, saying that Sally “was probably the first of us ever to realize that there could be commercial benefits in being a masked adventurer. The Silk Spectre used her reputation as a crimefighter primarily to make the front pages and receive exposure for her lucrative modeling career…”
Sally, with the eager assistance of her agent and later husband Laurence Shexnayder, created her image in order to sell it, during the same era in which the Varga Girls rose to prominence. It’s no wonder Vargas painted her — in a way, they were both in the same line of work. They sold fantasy images of women, turning the desires of “horny youths” into cash.
Though the Esquire Varga Girls were anonymous, Vargas painted lots of portraits of living stars, especially during his studio days in the 1930s. Even in the 40s, during the height of his Esquire work, he did portraits of Jane Russell and Ava Gardner. The notion that he’d have painted Silk Spectre during that time is totally plausible. Like those movie bombshells, Sally Jupiter was an object of desire, and she and Shexnayder did their level best to rake in earnings from the people who slobbered over her.
Sally makes no bones about any of this, recounting every “bright blue gag” about herself back to Nite Owl, and joking about the moneymaker her body has been for her, as in the intermittent voice balloons that drift over to Laurie in a flashback that takes place at Sally’s house:
And so she did, though like Alberto Vargas, she and Laurence don’t always seem to have had the greatest dealmaking acumen. Though she certainly lives in a nice enough house (at least, after divorcing Shexnayder), the film deal they make devolves from a documentary, into a children’s adventure serial, into a “B” action movie, and finally into something “too awful even to be dignified with the term ‘pornography.'”
The journey taken by the Silk Spectre biopic defines a continuum, with “classy” exploitation at one end and purely crass exploitation at the other. In Sally’s apartment, those two extremes get represented by the Varga portrait on one end, and the Tijuana bible on the other. And while Sally might prefer to be on the classy end, she makes it clear that she doesn’t mind the other end so much either, because it’s not a dignity thing, it’s a money thing. (“Listen, those things are valuable, like antiques. Eighty bucks an’ up.”)
Sally learns, in her career as a “big tough super-lady”, that her value resides in her body and her sexuality. Her function, as a woman, was more or less to be a Varga Girl: erotic and innocent at once, distant and accessible at once, glamorous and vulnerable at once, and all available for sale everywhere. Merchandise.
The Essence That Was So Divine
When she turns on Laurie at the end of the scene, Sally reveals that this view extends beyond herself. “At least I don’t sleep with an H-Bomb,” she says, and when Laurie objects that Jon is not an H-Bomb, she continues: “Honey, the only difference is that they didn’t have to get the H-Bomb laid every once in a while.” In Sally’s eyes, that’s Laurie’s job, her function as a woman: get the H-Bomb laid. She’s as much a morale-raiser as any Esquire gatefold. (And though she protests that Sally is “being totally unfair”, Laurie herself is stuck in a story where her main function is to change the state of male characters.)
Sally Jupiter’s morale-raising days are in the past, though. Her world is “the city of the dead” because the thing that gave her meaning and value has departed with age. Bitterness has replaced allure, and now her refuge is in her memories, a past that gets just keeps on getting brighter all the time.
In other words, nostalgia. Or rather, perhaps, Nostalgia, because there’s someplace else in the Watchmen world where Varga-esque images appear, and that’s in Adrian Veidt’s ad campaign for his “Nostalgia line of ladies’ and men’s cosmetics.” He describes the woman in the ad, but may as well be describing a Varga Girl: “overtly erotic, yet layered with enough romantic ambiance to avoid offense.” She’s wearing more clothing than the typical Varga Girl, but the gauzy, transparent dress that hangs down from her torso, revealing and obscuring her thigh at once is pure Vargas, as is her pose and knowing stare out of the frame, returning the viewer’s gaze with amusement.
Ozymandias, while watching his bank of randomly changing screens, muses about the “erotic undercurrent not uncommon in times of war,” and notes in his ad strategy that “when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past.” Vargas’s painted ladies might belong to either, smooth fantasy women adorned in furs and flowers, who all find themselves in a half-imagined climate so warm that they’re constantly shedding clothes. It’s hard to say whether they seemed nostalgic at the time of their highest popularity, but at the very least they represented a yearning for simplicity and pleasure that must have felt distant indeed for soldiers deployed throughout the globe. Vargas’s work certainly drips with nostalgia now, especially for those, like Vonnegut, who lived through the 1940s.
The primary caption for Nostalgia advertisements reaches back even further, to the 1930s. “Oh, how the ghost of you clings” is a quote from the song “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)”, a hit song from 1936 that was covered by multiple people that year, including Leslie Hutchinson, Benny Goodman, and Billie Holiday. Here’s one of my favorite versions, from Bryan Ferry in 1973:
Once again, multiple layers of nostalgia are present here. The song itself is about the pain of lost love, when every element of your life can feel like a reminder of what’s gone out of it. “The ghost of you” here is made of all the simple little things that evoke the departed lover, including the lingering scent of perfume. Beyond that, the use of this caption in a 1985 ad campaign quite consciously hearkens back to a bygone era, that mythical “simpler time” that itself is the object of little-n nostalgia. That clinging ghost is the old songs, the old styles, the old times that feel so distant, especially when the present time is full of “global uncertainty.”
More than that, though, within the story, pertaining to the specific characters, when a bottle of Nostalgia appears, so do the clinging ghosts of the past. Obviously it takes a starring role in Chapter 9, appearing in close-up on the cover and shattering the Martian castle in the issue’s climactic moment. There, the ghost is the circumstances of Laurie’s birth, come back to haunt her after years of suppression.
In the opening scene of Chapter 2, that same ghost is at work, though we don’t know it yet. In addition, we get ghosts of other kinds. Sally gazes at her picture of the Minutemen, remembering how the dark and bright parts of the past brought her to where and who she is today. That picture, the Tijuana bible, and the Varga portrait on the wall surround her with ghosts of her former self — departed desire, eroticism, vitality. Most of all, she and Laurie are haunted by their shared past, the tension between them a product of thousands of interactions, behavior itself driven by experiences reaching back generations, like any complicated relationship between parent and child. Those ghosts do cling, and sometimes nostalgia is the optimal outcome, far better anyway than bitterness and toxicity.
Last, and deepest, is the kind of nostalgia that Watchmen itself set out to explode, the decades-long attachment of comics fans to the same superheroes and superhero tropes iterated over and over and over again. Those fanboy fantasies were as surprisingly fragile as Doctor Manhattan’s Martian castle, and this book was the bottle hurled at them. It marked a turning point, taking us to a new vantage from which we could see those Golden, Silver, and Bronze age comics as innocent and problematic in their own way as the Varga Girls seem now.
[As always, be thee warned that these posts contain spoilers for Watchmen.]
In December, DC Comics came out with a new book. No, I don’t mean the latest issue of Doomsday Clock, the comic in which it turns out there’s more story after Watchmen ended, and the story is that the characters go hang out with Batman and Superman. Nope. Like its predecessor series Before Watchmen, I consider Doomsday Clock to be basically fan fiction. I don’t mean that as pejoratively as maybe it sounds — there’s nothing wrong with fan fiction, and sometimes it can be a lot of fun. It might even be written well — certainly I admire some of the writers involved. But I just do not have time or space for it in this project, or in my life.
No, the book I’m referencing is called Watchmen Annotated. It’s by Leslie S. Klinger, and it could be called a prettier, hardbound, authorized, and more cohesive version of the amateur crowdsourced web annotations I’ve been using throughout this project. Many of the comments are substantively the same. But Klinger has a copy editor, access to sources (such as Moore’s scripts and Gibbons himself), and he’s a thorough researcher. That combination can work wonders sometimes.
Case in point, this panel:
The web annotations gloss this as follows:
The sign on the left reads, “Moloch’s Solar Mirror Weapon”; the case on the right is “King Mob’s Ape Mask”. These are presumably trophies captured by the heroes from criminals. We will meet Moloch soon. We never see King Mob, but presumably his name is a play on the name “Queen Mab” (the fairy queen referred to by Shakespeare) and the notion of organized crime mob. [sic]
I thought this Queen Mab idea was a pretty clever connection, and one that had never occurred to me. But Klinger has something entirely different to say, and he waits to say it until the next page, when we actually see the ape mask labeled:
Klinger’s explanation is long, but here’s an excerpt:
The ape mask of King Mob, seen here in the Minutemen’s trophy room, is not explained in the story. The name King Mob, however, refers to a radical group of artists and provocateurs active in England in the 1960s and 1970s and known to Moore and Gibbons. An offshoot of the Situationist International movement, King Mob apparently took its name from a slogan painted on the wall of Newgate Prison during the Gordon Riots of 1790 — the rioters claimed the damage was done by His Majesty, King Mob.
Reading through this text makes it patently clear that King Mob’s activities were an influence on Watchmen. For one thing, in one of the collective’s early exploits they really did use an ape suit. Children of working class families in the Notting Hill area of 1968 London had no place to play, and were getting knocked down by cars in the street. The green spaces of the neighborhood were fenced off and annexed by housing developments for the wealthy.
To disrupt the situation, King Mob decided to dress one of its members in a gorilla suit, and a couple of others in a two-man horse costume. The gorilla man took a hit of speed, changed into his costume in a pub lavatory, and shot out of there roaring into the street, to be joined by the horse and the rest of the collective, who exhorted the Saturday afternoon throngs to help them tear down the fences. They didn’t actually get them torn down — in fact they got arrested and went to court two days later still in costume. But a wave of sympathetic protests did follow the absurdist action, and a public park was established shortly thereafter in Powis Square, though by that time King Mob had lost interest, having little taste for what Wise calls “mealy-mouthed council machinations” and “institutionalised space.”
In any case, King Mob was no stranger to gorilla/guerilla actions, which makes the ape mask an even more outright reference to the collective than the use of its name alone implies. But there’s an even clearer connection between England’s King Mob and the world of Watchmen, as Klinger correctly identifies: some of the graffiti in Watchmen is almost a direct crib of something King Mob wrote in huge block letters, on a wall paralleling the track between two London tube stops. The King Mob graffiti reads:
SAME THING DAY AFTER DAY — TUBE — WORK — DINER [sic] — WORK — TUBE — ARMCHAIR — TV — SLEEP — TUBE — WORK — HOW MUCH MORE CAN YOU TAKE? ONE IN TEN GO MAD — ONE IN FIVE CRACKS UP
Compare this to the graffiti seen multiple places in Watchmen, which boils down the message and intensifies it to “ONE IN EIGHT GO MAD”:
Klinger speculates that the increased ratio of madness has to do with a greater psychological pressure in the Watchmen universe than in ours, but the fact of King Mob’s mask showing up in a Minutemen flashback makes me wonder if there’s a simpler explanation to be found. There were in fact eight Minutemen: Captain Metropolis, The Comedian, Dollar Bill, Hooded Justice, Mothman, Nite Owl, The Silhouette, and Silk Spectre. And one of them did indeed go mad: as Sally mentions, “poor Byron Lewis” (aka Mothman) is “in the bughouse in Maine.”
This character flits around the edges of the Watchmen story. We see his wings bugging The Comedian in 1940, and we get Hollis Mason in Under The Hood mentioning that “the man behind the mask and wings of Mothman… has been committed to a mental institution after a long bout of alcoholism and a complete mental breakdown.” We hear that Dan Dreiberg spends some time “visiting a sick acquaintance at a hospital in Maine on behalf of a mutual friend.”
Mothman’s most significant appearance is in a Chapter 9 flashback, in which Laurie remembers a Minutemen reunion attended by Lewis. He’s clearly a wreck — frightened, incoherent, and minded by two caretakers who ensure that he drinks “just a club soda.” In the context of the chapter, the point of the appearance seems to be to provoke Laurie’s reaction: “Jesus, is that what I’m training for? What I got to look forward to?” It underscores her reluctance to follow in her mother’s footsteps, furthers Moore’s project of deglamorizing the superhero life, and validates the “one in eight” graffiti. And of course it contributes to the conversation between Laurie and Jon on Mars, debating whether there’s a point to human struggle.
But aside from all that, it is also the strongest example of madness in Watchmen, and madness was a significant topic for King Mob. Wise claims that “the dialectic of madness” was the common theme in the group’s first and most widely distributed magazine, King Mob Echo: “going mad with freedom; of breakdown as breakthrough; of disintegration as prelude to a new unity, or as justification for previous ‘mad’ interventions via the rantings of King Mob and with further actions coming your way soon.” They certainly used the threat of madness in their tube graffiti, as the consequence of a life spent in proletariat complacency.
Looking at Byron Lewis, though, Watchmen would seem to be making the opposite case. Lewis didn’t go mad because he spent his days in repetitive drudgery. On the contrary, he made himself wings and a moth costume, then hit the streets to fight crime, which is about as far from “ARMCHAIR — TV — SLEEP” as you could get. It’s never made quite clear what causes his breakdown, though there’s a strong hint in Under The Hood that being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee started his downward spiral. We also see him as a fearful person in every scene where he speaks, which would suggest that he self-medicated with alcohol for anxiety that was present even before his HUAC ordeal. It seems clear that costumes and vigilantism didn’t help him, despite the English King Mob’s prescription of costumes and vigilantism to disrupt what Wise calls “this grotesque society.”
Our world’s King Mob was militantly opposed to the status quo, the “impossible society.” As I’ve touched on severaltimes in this project, superheroes are militant defenders of the status quo. So it stands to reason that Watchmen‘s King Mob would oppose the Minutemen. By the look of their trophy room, it seems the status quo won the day, just as it did (for the most part) over the real King Mob. Much of Wise’s text has a heartbroken quality, mourning the painful failure of a utopian dream.
If the use of King Mob’s name in Watchmen is social commentary, then it’s commentary aimed at Brits. American audiences would see “mob” and think of organized crime, as the web annotations demonstrate. Their closest association between “King” and ape would be King Kong. There’s a point to be made here. Watchmen may be set in New York, and published by an American comics company, but its writer, artist, and colorist are all English, with a distinctly British set of cultural reference points. American readers like me, who lack that cultural context, are inevitably going to miss some things, and get others wrong.
This King Mob reference is a big case in point, but there are smaller ones too. I ran across a sentence in Wise’s text which seemed to jump out as a Watchmen reference: “How could so many women with a sure sense of what mattered end up as public school head mistress [sic] like Phillippa D’Eath?” D’Eath?? I thought “Red D’Eath” (the lead singer of Watchmen-world band Pale Horse) was a particularly silly rock pseudonym, albeit a literary one in a way I’m sure to investigate in a future post. The notion that there was a Phillippa D’Eath, who may have been associated with King Mob, was enough to make me sit up straight.
Well, some focused Googling showed me that not only is there indeed a Phillippa D’Eath living in London, there is in fact quite a contingent of D’Eaths. None named Red, but still — as an American the surname sounds purely invented to me, while in Britain it’s not unknown. As the web annotations point out, “De’Ath” is even more common, though still relatively uncommon overall. How many other UK touchstones have I missed or misunderstood? I suppose all I can do is rely on the annotations. Now that there are two sets, perhaps my chances have improved.
Nothing But Vain Fantasy
Speaking of that first set, while it seems clear that King Mob’s ape mask referenced the radical anti-art group, what about that Queen Mab connection? Who knows what may or may not have been in Moore’s head, but the odds seem against a Queen Mab reference now that we know about England’s real King Mob. Still, due to the fact that I started researching this post in November and didn’t lay eyes on Klinger’s book until after Christmas, I ended up spending a couple of months learning about Queen Mab. And while it may just be another Rorschach blot, I found some interesting connections to explore.
First of all, the web annotations say that Queen Mab is “referred to by Shakespeare”, but what they don’t mention is that Shakespeare in fact invented her. Researchers have identified a few faint leads as possible sources for her legend, but the first recorded mention we have of Queen Mab is in Romeo and Juliet. References proliferate after that, including an extended treatment by Percy Shelley, another poet who looms large in the landscape of Watchmen references due to his poem “Ozymandias.” In Shelley’s Queen Mab poem, he rails extensively against a number of things, most prominently religion, marriage, meat-eating, and the monarchy & peerage. In fact, the poem’s pro-labor, anti-aristocracy sentiments are quite in line with the ethos of the 20th century King Mob.
In Shelley’s poem, Queen Mab is a fairy who serves as a sort of tour guide to the universe, displaying a catalog of human misery, along with pointers about how it could be ended. In Shakespeare, though, the fairy is more mischievous. She’s the subject of an extended monologue by Romeo’s friend Mercutio, who first describes in detail her tiny size and accoutrements — she’s “no bigger than an agate stone / on the forefinger of an alderman”, her driver the size of a gnat, her chariot an empty hazelnut, et cetera. He then recites a long list of her activities, which seem to be centered on bringing apt dreams into the heads of all humans she encounters — lawyers dream of fees, soldiers dream of cutting throats, courtiers dream of curtsies, and of course lovers dream of love.
Mercutio’s usual mode is devilish teasing and mockery, and the Queen Mab speech starts out clearly in this vein. But as the speech continues, his tone gets darker, his imagery more grotesque, and his choice of words harsher and harsher, until Romeo interrupts him with a concerned, “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk’st of nothing.”
“True,” says Mercutio, “I talk of dreams, / Which are the children of an idle brain, / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.” Here we have the crux of what upsets Mercutio. In the scene leading up to his Queen Mab speech, he is frustrated with Romeo, who is pining away bemoaning his love for Rosaline (this is before he meets Juliet), embodying every cliché of Renaissance courtly love. Mercutio correctly ascribes these sentiments to “vain fantasy” — Rosaline has no interest in Romeo, and the latter’s love-wounded posturing is mostly performance, albeit an infuriating one for his friends. (Some critics have also speculated that Mercutio himself has a frustrated homoerotic desire for Romeo.)
This repudiation of idle fantasy finds an echo in Watchmen, which sets out to deconstruct the innocent fantasies of the superhero genre, holding them up to the harsh light of reality and finding how tiny and frail some of their underpinnings really are. And just as in Romeo and Juliet, when dreams are dispelled, darkness rushes in. Romeo ends the Queen Mab scene with portentous words, presaging the play’s tragic ending: “my mind misgives / Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars… some vile forfeit of untimely death.”
Meanwhile, in Watchmen the tragedy plays out before us. As King Mob’s ape mask looks on, it sees a story that looks like Romeo and Juliet reflected in a distorted mirror.
The Angry Mab
Romeo and Juliet see each other at a party and, following a Renaissance theatrical convention, fall deeply, authentically, and instantly in love. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt recognizes Romeo as a member of the rival Montague family and wants to attack him, but is restrained by Lord Capulet’s insistence upon decorum. When the lovers first speak to each other, their words emerge as an interwoven sonnet of dialogue, immediately bonding them together. They hold hands, then kiss, treating the acts as sacred.
Contrast that against the scene between the Comedian and Silk Spectre in Chapter 2 of Watchmen. The party has broken up, and Eddie waits to confront Sally when they are both alone. He attempts to impose a narrative of instant attraction and desire upon her, insinuating that she announced she was changing in order to invite his attention, saying, “I know what you need,” and attempting to turn her refusal around: “Sure. No. Spelled Y, E…” Rather than weaving in with his dialogue, Sally interrupts and contradicts it: “Spelled enn oh!”
Rather than holding his hand, she scratches his face, and rather than kiss her, The Comedian punches her, kicks her, and holds her face to the ground. The closest analog to Tybalt is Hooded Justice, who is allegedly Sally’s companion but “never seemed very interested in her.” — more of a kissing cousin. Nobody restrains him from attacking the faux-Romeo Comedian, though he’s taken aback by the Comedian’s insight, and falls short of following through on his threats. After a moment between Hooded Justice and Silk Spectre, the flashback ends. Queen Mab has turned into King Mob, who brings nightmares to lovers rather than dreams.
In his guide to Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare scholar Jay L. Halio posits that a “dichotomy between youth and age is at the center of this play.” (pg. 39) The actions of the very young lovers are in defiance of the age-old feud between their families, and the consequences of that feud bring ruin upon their love affair. Such a dichotomy is also behind the Sally Jupiter scenes in chapter 2. Laurie and Sally clash with each other from different sides of their generation gap, and Sally contrasts her aged self, and her life in the “city of the dead”, to her memories of the forties. She talks about how “Eddie was the youngest. Always jokin’ about how old we all were. He said he’d bury us.” We even get a panel of the old, white-haired Sally standing in front of a portrait painted of her at her most young, vibrant, and sexy. (More on that in the next post…)
The flashback itself is to the youth of superheroics in the Watchmen world, a time when the costumed crusader fad was in full flower and the Minutemen were at their peak. The King Mob mask emphasizes this youth — it appears nowhere but in the 1940 flashback, and hearkens to trophy comics from our world’s Silver Age, classically the one in the Batcave.
King Mob would seem to be the epitome of the “schmuck in a Halloween suit” type of villain that the Comedian references in a later flashback, from a more innocent time, before the superheroes found themselves fighting the public itself. Chapter 2’s own chronological progression of flashbacks is another contrast between youth and age, this time of the society itself. The Minutemen are Watchmen‘s Silver Age, inevitably supplanted by a grimmer, uglier version of themselves.
There’s one more parallel between Watchmen and Romeo and Juliet: their endings. In both the play and the comic, peace between rivals arises from the ashes of tragedy. In fact, there’s a radically abridged plot summary that could fit both works: “Some people have to die in order to quell a feud between two powerful clans.”
Halio asks, “Do these young lovers transcend their fate, achieving in death what might have been impossible had they lived…?” (pg. xi) Whether you see transcendence or just a tragedy that happens to have a nice side effect probably depends on how you see the world, but it seems clear in the text that Romeo and Juliet’s deaths (as well as the various other deaths in the story) permanently end the feud between Capulets and Montagues. Each patriarch pledges to raise a statue in gold of the other’s child, and they end the play hand in hand as the Prince pronounces “a glooming peace.”
The peace in Watchmen seems far more dubious, despite Ozymandias’s exultation. That’s because there’s a fundamental difference between these sacrificial achievements. The warring families are united by love, while the warring nations are united by fear. Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism argues that tragedy contains “a mimesis of sacrifice.” (pg. 214) But where Romeo and Juliet chose their sacrifice, the New York victims did not, and this is likely to make the difference between a true restoration of the civil social peace and a false one. Again, Halio:
Except for its fatalities, [Romeo and Juliet] follows the standard form of New Comedy. The two lovers are kept apart by a powerful external authority (some form of parental opposition is typical) and much of the action concerns their efforts to get around the obstacles put in their path. Their ultimate union — in a marriage feast — results in a transformation of the society that opposed them. (pg. 28, note 3)
Romeo and Juliet have a marriage, but feast only upon poison and steel. Yet the society that opposed them truly is transformed. We see a transformed society at the end of Watchmen too — those last few pages show an extensive Russian influence in American society, “One World One Accord” posters, and Millennium replacing Nostalgia. We even get a sort of marriage, between Dan and Laurie.
But all is not well. The “EIGHT” in “ONE IN EIGHT GO MAD” has been crossed out and replaced with a “3”. Both the “marriage” and the transformation contain an inherent layer of deception that we sense cannot last. Dan and Laurie are living under assumed names, and she nervously glances out the window, not feeling safe hanging around any one place too long. And of course in the final panel, Seymour’s hand hovers over the evidence that could undo Veidt’s entire fraud.
In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers practice an equally farfetched fraud, but theirs fails. That scheme intends to avoid death, but tragically causes death instead, successfully ending the feud. Ozymandias’s scheme intends to cause death, and the extent to which it ends the “feud” between the US and USSR is deeply questionable. Tragedy is there in both works, but Watchmen has only a parody of the comedy. Again, it’s Romeo and Juliet in a funhouse mirror, with both King Mob and Queen Mab looking on. Where King Mob might seek respite in absurdity or innocence, the angry Mab flies onward, sowing dreams that fester into madness, and laughing, laughing, laughing as she goes.
As is the case with every post in this series, massive plot spoilers for Watchmen will be contained herein. Our topic today is the 1960s texts of William S. Burroughs, but I don’t think a spoiler warning will be necessary for those. In order for there to be plot spoilers, there must first be a plot, and these texts find Burroughs in open rebellion against the very idea of a plot, not to mention language and coherency itself.
Page 1, Panel 2: Note the “Nostalgia” perfume ad and the issue of Nova Express. (The title comes from a novel by William Burroughs of the same name.)
And indeed it does. Nova Express has a somewhat convoluted publishing history, but based on its original publication date it is considered the third in Burroughs’ “cut-up” trilogy, the other two being The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. Of course, calling these a trilogy is a bit of a misnomer. For that matter, so is calling them novels. Not only are they not one long story, none of the books is a story in itself, and in fact the entire enterprise rejects the notion of narrative continuity upon which the concept of “story” relies. What brings them together is their radical method of prose experimentation, which is why they’re called the “cut-up” trilogy rather than some reference to the characters or setting.1 But what is a cut-up? The best answer to that requires a little background.
Literary historians categorize William S. Burroughs as part of the Beat Generation. That means he hung out with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and the rest — a group interested in breaking through the censorious cultural monotone of the 1950s with radical art and taboo subjects. Burroughs was certainly no stranger to taboo — his first two novels were largely autobiographical accounts of two core aspects of his persona: Junky and Queer. Queer: he was not only a gay man but an outright misogynist (“Women are trouble,” he was known to say), whose fixation on men and male erotic images persisted throughout his career. Junky: Burroughs lived for much of his life as a heroin addict, or more accurately an addict to opium in a wide variety of forms. In his words:
When I say addict I mean an addict to junk (generic term for opium and/or derivatives including all synthetics from Demerol to Palfium). I have used junk in many forms: morphine, heroin, Dilaudid, Eukodal, Pantopon, Diocodid, Diosane, opium, Demerol, Dolophine, Palfium. I have smoked junk, eaten it, sniffed it, injected it in vein-skin-muscle, inserted it in rectal suppositories. The needle is not important. Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction. (Naked Lunch, pg. 200)
That’s from “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”, which appeared in the 1962 edition of his best-known work, Naked Lunch. That book, claims Burroughs, consists of “detailed notes on sickness and delirium” that he experienced during his addiction. Not that you could necessarily divine this by reading it. Naked Lunch is a kaleidoscopic panoply of disturbing images and vignettes, little snippets of narratives that Burroughs called “routines”. Nevertheless, each of these routines has an internal coherency more or less, though it may be quite elliptical in its reliance on external referents to which the reader has no access. For his next set of works, Burroughs would venture much further into the murky zones beyond narrative.
For part of his time with the Beats, Burroughs lived at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in Paris, in one room of a hotel also occupied by Ginsberg, Corso, Sinclair Belles, and various others. This building came to be known as the Beat Hotel for the company it held, and the most important member of that company for Burroughs was a painter by the name of Brion Gysin. Burroughs found a kindred spirit in Gysin, and the two of them would stay up talking into the night about things like how painting techniques might be incorporated into literature.
One day, so the story goes, Gysin was cutting some materials with a utility knife. To protect the table he was working on, he’d laid down newspapers as a foundation. Once his work was through, he noticed how the slicing of the newspapers seemed to liberate the text they contained. Recalling his conversations with Burroughs (who was away in rehab at the time, though of course it wasn’t called rehab back then), he imagined how he might make a collage of words. He rearranged the newspapers and published the resulting new text as “First Cut-Ups” in a book called Minutes To Go. That book saw Burroughs, Corso, Gysin, and Belles experimenting with what they were now calling “the cut-up technique”.
The revelation came at a perfect time for Burroughs. He was looking to break new ground after Naked Lunch, and cut-ups fascinated him. He’d cut up his own pages, shuffle them at random, and splice them into each other, but also would intermix newspaper stories, song lyrics, and various pieces of literature written by others, be they books, plays, or poems. Thus was born the “cut-up” trilogy, which blended straight narrative with cut-up passages in which you might catch a glimpse of future or past stories, or of Shakespeare, Eliot, Cole Porter, or really almost anything. He also pioneered a variant called the fold-in — fold one page of a manuscript in half and superimpose it on another, then read the text straight across as if it were a single page. Here’s just a small taste, from the “A Bad Move” routine of Nova Express:
Could give no other information than wind walking in a rubbish heap to the sky — Solid shadow turned off the white film of noon heat — Exploded deep in the alley tortured metal Oz — Look anywhere, Dead hand — Phosphorescent bones — Cold Spring afterbirth of that hospital — Twinges of amputation — Bread knife in the heart paid taxi boys — If I knew I’d be glad to look anyplace — No good myself (Nova Express, pg. 80-81)
It goes on and on like that, sometimes for many pages in a row. The mere effort of making the barest sense of it has the poetic imagination putting in for overtime pay almost immediately.
Burroughs would claim, “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.” Ozymandias thought the same thing might be true of his own habitual behavior, sitting in front of a bank of TV screens, all tuned to different channels, changing at random every hundred seconds:
Let’s dig into this a bit. First, as William Kuskin has observed, Adrian Veidt’s grid of televisions is “clearly a parallel to our own view of the multi-paneled page.” (pg. 58) However, there’s a key difference between them. In the Love & Rockets post, I outlined the way that while panel-to-panel relations imply time passing, the page also exists all at once. Thus in comics, there’s a tension between the simultaneous nature of the page and the sequential nature of the panels, but Veidt’s bank of televisions has no such tension — they are all simply simultaneous. It’s only on the comics page that the future really leaks out, and the past as well — with the exception of splash pages, all three times are present at once on each page.
There’s more going on in that panel, though. As usual, Moore’s relentless cleverness in juxtaposition is at work, the result being that several flavors of time travel are available in this one image. Many of these give most of their power to the re-reader, who has already seen the future and come back to this piece of the past. For one thing, the image below the words about the future leaking through, the “impending world of exotica”, is a smudge in an otherwise white and snowy foreground. Through the smudge, we see the impending world of a few pages later, the interior of Adrian’s exotic domed Antarctic vivarium. Moreover, Veidt’s disembodied voice superimposed on the image portends a different reveal — in the near future, in fact on the very next page, we’ll see his sound track reunited with his image track as he sits and gazes at the televisions. And one of those televisions will finally move forward in time, by being the focus of three successive panels.
It’s not just the future that’s present in the smudge panel, though. The shape of that smudge is a familiar one. It’s the same shape as the bloody smear on The Comedian’s smiley badge. The general stain-on-face pattern of that badge echoes throughout the book — for example, the reflection of Archie’s “face” in Dreiberg’s goggles on the cover of Chapter 7 is dusty, except at a position over the left eye where Laurie has run a finger, recalling the bloodstained badge by creating a pattern of clarity like the one through which we see the vivarium.
The very specific shape of the blood-spatter repeats too, though not as much — take a look at the last image of the Bernies on the final page of Chapter 11. While the stain-on-face pattern repeats many places, the specific blood-spatter shape remains associated only with Ozymandias’ actions until the final page of the book, in which that same spatter appears on Seymour’s shirt. The shape’s appearance at that time seems like a strong hint that Ozymandias’ actions will once again become a focus, with the New Frontiersman publishing Rorschach’s journal.
The Laws of Juxtaposition and Association
Association is the engine of this time machine, and juxtaposition its fuel. Moore and Gibbons string images and words together, folding them into each other, and the associations they form send the mind careening around the story, as well as into external locations specific to each reader.
This is the same action precipitated by the cut-up and fold-in methods, though their paths are much more challenging to follow. In fact, “The Mayan Caper” routine of The Soft Machine ascribes actual time travel power to these methods. In this section, one of the longest pure-narrative parts of the book, the first-person narrator describes how he travels backwards in time. He starts by folding today’s newspaper in with yesterday’s, eight hours a day for three months, then doing the same thing with other works, then running films backwards, learning to talk and think backwards. Finally he transfers his consciousness to the body of a young Mayan boy, who is described as “what mediums call a ‘sensitive'” — the very term that Adrian Veidt uses to describe Robert Deschaines. Through the mystical actions of a “broker” the narrator then travels back in time in the Mayan boy’s body.
Cut-ups and fold-ins, as well as their audio and video equivalents, appear as fictional devices of power elsewhere in the trilogy. “The Death Dwarf In The Street” routine of Nova Express goes into great detail about how a photomontage or series of photomontages can help humans think in “association blocks” rather than language, blocks which can be “manipulated according to the laws of association and juxtaposition”:
The basic law of association and conditioning is known to college students even in America: Any object, feeling, odor, word, image in juxtaposition with any other object, feeling, odor, word or image will be associated with it — Our technicians learn to read newspapers and magazines for juxtaposition statements rather than alleged content — We express these statements in Juxtaposition Formulae — The Formulae of course control populations of the world (Nova Express, pg. 88-89)
Mechanisms of control are one of two overriding Burroughs obsessions, the other being gay male erotica. Again, it comes down to the portrait painted by those first two novels — where the erotica comes from his Queer side, the mania about control comes from the Junky side. And it makes sense — the experience of addiction is the experience of being controlled. Someone who struggles with that would legitimately be sensitized to how humans can be controlled, either by other humans or by external agencies.
Burroughs takes it farther than most, though, claiming that language itself is an alien virus that controls humans, operating as an invisible addiction. Cut-ups and fold-ins were claimed as the antidote to this virus, the element of chance breaking through the Juxtaposition Formulae to create new associations outside the control of whoever shaped the original string of words. Burroughs attacks the notion of authorship by deliberately disrupting textual intention, and by mixing different texts together entirely without attribution. If the cut-up trilogy can be said to be about anything, it is about resisting linguistic control by disrupting sequences of words and images.
This concept of disrupted sequence works itself not only through each book, but through the history of the books themselves. In his introduction to the current editions of each book, Burroughs historian Oliver Harris painstakingly sets out their publication history, and provides pages and pages of notes at the back of each one explaining his choices of what to keep and what to leave out. While it’s true that The Soft Machine was published first, Burroughs also went back and revised it, then republished it, twice. He did the same thing once for The Ticket That Exploded. Unlike most trilogies, this one has no canonical order, and there are cases to be made for a variety of different sequences.
As I said at the outset, it’s not as though these books tell one long story, so in a way it hardly matters what order they’re in. That’s part of Burroughs’ point — we create associations based on how words are ordered, and by removing certainty of sequence, he cedes control back to us. Being a writer who is anti-language is a rather precarious position, akin to Charlton’s Peacemaker, who “loves peace… so much so, that he is willing to fight for it!!” Nevertheless, Burroughs is very clear on the point that evil aliens are controlling us with their word lines.
Consequently, what unity the books have isn’t achieved via linear progression, but rather by repetition and echoes. We may see phrases in cut-ups that return from previous chapters, or even previous books. Likewise, we may encounter an image in a narrative section that we glimpsed in a previous cut-up, only now we have the context to understand it better. And just as how in Watchmen we keep seeing new variations on the stained face and other images, the trilogy books have images and phrases that become incantatory in their repetition, sometimes varying and sometimes not. These repetitions often serve a didactic purpose, instructing us over and over again from a variety of angles that words and images are “junk” whose hold over us must be broken.
Word Falling — Photo Falling
Moore and Gibbons might very well dispute the idea that they are aliens who mean to control us with words and images, but I can say with certainty that they are very, very skilled at the Juxtaposition Formulae. They ought to be — it’s a key skill in creating an excellent comic. As Scott McCloud informs us in Understanding Comics, juxtaposition is fundamental to the definition of the medium. The fact that comic words and images are placed next to each other is what makes comics different from animation, which is sequential art in which each new image rapidly replaces the last.
In fact, association is such a meta-theme in Watchmen that one of its characters is named for a test which purports to reveal a subject’s personality and emotions based upon the associations made by that subject. And then, because Moore and Gibbons never miss a trick, Rorschach himself is given a Rorschach test. And indeed, his associations do reveal his personality and emotions… eventually.
But before he chooses to share his true associations with Malcolm Long, he reports false ones. “A pretty butterfly.” “Some nice flowers.” Now those of us who have read through Watchmen at least once may be able to make some associations of our own — these two images, as it happens, are exactly what we see through the bloodstain-shaped smudge on the cover of Chapter 11. I don’t think that the story is somehow trying to position Rorschach as precognitive, but I also doubt very much that the association is accidental, because did I mention they never miss a trick?
Rorschach, echoing Burroughs, tells us that meaning is not inherent in what we see, what we read, and what we experience. It is consciousness itself that assembles meaning. Burroughs calls this the laws of juxtaposition and association, whereas Rorschach simply states that existence “has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long.” Like an ink blot.
But if this is true, if our own constructed meanings are our only reality, what happens when that meaning is constructed by a being so godlike as to be able to create a new reality for everyone? Doctor Manhattan claims to see the “whole design” of time simultaneously, and yet can have experiences like surprise, which would seem to depend on linear sequence. This is a paradox I’ve never been able to unravel, and I wonder what role the Burroughs references might play in it. Do Moore’s repeated references to Burroughs ask us to examine the notion of narrative continuity itself, and what it means when there’s a god in the story who’s aware of the story?
I’ve read Watchmen many times now, and thought about it quite extensively, and yet it can still surprise me. Even in the process of writing this post, I was startled to realize that the false images Rorschach reports to Malcolm Long, which seemed like throwaways, return quite forcefully 5 chapters later. But there’s an important distinction here. Those moments of surprise are realizations, new associative connections. They happen within me, not as events in the story. The plot of Watchmen can no longer surprise me — it lost that power after my first read-through.
And yet Doctor Manhattan can be surprised by events, as if they suddenly impinge on his consciousness where they hadn’t existed before. In fact, he can announce that he’s going to be surprised in a few minutes, and what information is going to surprise him, and then a few minutes later be surprised by the information he’d already announced. Yes, he can also have realizations, such as when he changes his mind about going to Earth in Chapter 9, but the fact that he can be surprised by the plot after seeing the whole book remains mystifying to me.
Could it be that he is creating reality to conform to his expectations? If he exists outside time, and controls existence at a molecular level, what powers would his subconscious have? His insecurities, his fears? Could he be the one imposing meaning on the world after staring at it for too long?
Moore links Doctor Manhattan to one of Burroughs’ most persistent refrains: “Word Falling — Photo Falling”. That phrase appears throughout the trilogy, frequently paired with “Break Through in Grey Room”, as an emblem of resistance against the word/image virus. As Kuskin observes (pg. 64), these phrases correspond closely to moments in Watchmen featuring Doctor Manhattan. In the first pages of Chapter 4, he holds a photograph, looking at it and experiencing multiple times simultaneously. Then he lets it fall, experiencing the moment of holding it, the moment of it resting in the sand, and the moment of it falling, all at once and in varying orders. Photo falling.
Then in Chapter 9, he looks on as Laurie showers the Martian Valles Marineris with letters and newspaper clippings from her mother’s scrapbook. More fly out as she waves the book at him after they’ve landed, as her memories are beginning to cascade in on her and her own realization hits. Word falling.2
Not only do both pieces of Burroughs’ incantation map clearly to pieces of Watchmen, both of the places they map to are clearly cutting up the narrative. In Chapter 4, panels appear out of chronological sequence, and narration very explicitly jumps around in time. In Chapter 9, as Laurie realizes who her father is, each panel’s image is superimposed with words from different parts of her previously narrated memories: “Only once.” — “What do you think I am?” — “…old friend’s daughter?” — “What do you think…” — “…his, y’know, his…”
In the latter case, the cut-up undeniably leads to a breakthrough. Jon tells Laurie that she should “relax enough to see the whole continuum, life’s pattern or lack of one.” Like Rorschach looking at the blot, she disassembles the pieces of her memories, putting them back together in a way that creates new associations, shining light where she’d been afraid to look. “Can’t a guy talk to his, y’know, his…” — “…daughter?”
Does she break out of control? Hard to say. You could make the case that her mother controlled her by withholding information, but that would seem to be the opposite of the kind of control that concerns Burroughs. Chapter 4, on the other hand, may represent a clearer break from control. In response to the revelation that cancer struck many of his associates, Doctor Manhattan has more of a breakdown than a breakthrough, banishing his tormentors to another location before disappearing himself to Arizona then Mars. In doing so, he breaks out of the situation that was creating his suffering. On the other hand, he does exactly what Veidt planned for him to do — despite his cut-up existence, he still seems subject to a higher form of control. Even in his descriptions of his actions, he casts himself as absent of free will — “a puppet who can see the strings.”
And who is Adrian Veidt’s catspaw in banishing Doctor Manhattan? Why it’s Doug Roth, a writer for the magazine Nova Express. Just why is there a magazine called Nova Express in the Watchmen world, and how can we interpret its role in the story in light of what we know about Burroughs?
It might be helpful at this point to explore some of the things that the phrase “nova express” can mean. In the context of the books, the clearest connection is to a recurring motif about the “nova mob” and the “nova police” who oppose it. In “The Nova Police” routine of The Ticket That Exploded, Burroughs introduces “Inspector J. Lee of the nova police”3, who explains how nova criminals operate:
“The basic nova technique is very simple: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts — This is done by dumping on the same planet life forms with incompatible conditions of existence — There is of course nothing ‘wrong’ about any given life form since ‘wrong’ only has reference to conflicts with other life forms — The point is these life forms should not be on the same planet — Their conditions of life are basically incompatible in present time form and it is precisely the work of the nova mob to see that they remain in present time form, to create and aggravate the conflicts that lead to the explosion of a planet, that is to nova” (The Ticket That Exploded, pg. 62)
In this case, “nova” means explosion, and if we take “express” with its meaning of “specially direct or fast”, then “nova express” is the aim of the nova mob — hastening the planet’s demise. “Express” can also mean articulation via language, which Burroughs views as one of the conditions leading to destruction. But the etymology of the explosion meaning of “nova” reaches back to the Latin “novus”, meaning new — the same root that’s behind words like “novelty” and “novice”. And among the many other meanings of “express” is the concept of manifestation, or putting into form. So another way of seeing “nova express” is the manifestation of something new, which Watchmen certainly was in the comics world.
Finally, there’s one more meaning of “express” which would be particularly available to a British writer: “a messenger or a message specially sent.”4 We see this reflected in the name of Britain’s Daily Express newspaper, a paper which as of Moore’s day (and since) seems fervently dedicated to the same aims as the nova mob itself.
With these definitions in hand, let’s have a look at the role of Nova Express the magazine. In its interrogation of Doctor Manhattan, resulting in his exile, it certainly aggravates existing conflicts. With Doctor Manhattan out of the picture, the Soviets are emboldened to step up their aggressive maneuvers, knowing that the United States’ countermeasure has been removed. Ironically, unlike the nova mob, Nova Express accelerates conflicts by removing an incompatible life form from the planet, convincing Doctor Manhattan that he is “incapable of cohabiting safely either emotionally or physically” with other humans.
In its role as a magazine, it obviously takes part in linguistic expression, exercising control through the word virus as Burroughs saw it. This covers the messenger/newspaper meanings as well. So what about the notion of manifesting something new? Does Nova Express do that in the Watchmen world? Well, its place in that world is to stand in progressive opposition to the right-wing New Frontiersman. In the sense that progressive positions tend to welcome novelty while conservative positions tend to reject it, I suppose we could say that it brings on the new, but on the other hand it doesn’t seem to do so with much wisdom.
Despite his clearly leftist sympathies, Moore does not make Nova Express into any kind of journalistic paragon in the Watchmen world. Instead, the magazine seems to be more or less an extension of Adrian Veidt’s will, doing his bidding to manipulate his fellow costumed adventurers and running the occasional hagiographic interview with him. It is Veidt, ultimately, who plays the nova mob role in Watchmen, hastening the planet’s destruction so that he can heroically step in and (attempt to) save it.
Listen to My Last Words Anywhere
Nova Express (the novel) opens with an elegiac yet clarion excoriation, in a routine called “Last Words”:
Listen to my last words anywhere. Listen to my last words any world. Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth. And you powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours. To sell the ground from unborn feet forever — (Nova Express, pg. 1)
If you’ve read past page 1 of Watchmen, you’re likely to associate the bitter tone of this declaration with what we read of Rorschach’s journal as the story opens. Similarly, the irony of beginning a book with a section called “Last Words” carries right over into Watchmen, in which Rorschach’s journal serves as the alpha and the omega of the series. Later in the routine, Burroughs calls for truth and revelation:
Listen: I call you all. Show your cards all players. Pay it all pay it all pay it all back. Play it all play it all play it all back. For all to see. In Times Square. In Piccadilly. (Nova Express, pg. 2)
Just so, Rorschach’s last words, the diary dropped in a mail slot, are intended to show the cards of all players, most particularly Adrian Veidt, who has been dealing secretly throughout the book. And the vehicle for these words of truth? Watchmen‘s antithesis to Nova Express, The New Frontiersman.
I hesitate to extract from this some definitive argument about which side Moore favors. Like an ink blot, Watchmen can tend to evoke the already extant politics, value system, and alignments of its readers, and Moore plays the story evenhandedly enough that there are legitimate claims on both sides.
However, I will argue that in their painstaking creation of the jewel-like structure of Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons refute the aleatory element of Burroughs’ cut-up technique. Because “juxtaposed sequential visual art” is not a sufficient definition of comics. Otherwise you could take a bunch of images, throw them in the air, paste them down in the sequence they fell, and call it a comic. While it would indeed be sequential, and while it indeed might create associations in its reader, it would be too random and arbitrary to be of value. As McCloud finds when refining his definition of comics, “deliberate sequence” is key to the medium.
It turns out that Moore and Gibbons are deeply interested in juxtaposition, but not at all interested in randomness.5 It is Ozymandias who thinks that random inputs provide him with greater insight, and it is also Ozymandias whose methods mirror those of the nova mob. If anyone in the story is associated with the kind of control that Burroughs spends the books resisting, it is Ozymandias. And it is Ozymandias who is most closely affiliated with the entity called Nova Express in Watchmen.
There is absolutely nothing random about any of Moore and Gibbons’ juxtapositions. Each one (and there are hundreds) is quite deliberate, “intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” The effectiveness of these juxtapositions repudiates Burroughs-style cut-ups as a structure for fiction, and their strong authorial presence stands in opposition to Burroughs’ desire to undermine the notion of authorship. However, in both the book’s structure and the experiences of the characters, Watchmenaffirms the value of disrupted sequence as a means of achieving breakthroughs or breaking control. As we’ve seen, Doctor Manhattan’s entire existence is a cut-up, and the book clearly associates it with moments of realization and interrupted control. Rorschach himself, in his last words, attempts to cut Ozymandias’s control lines with weapons of truth strung together in text.
There’s also the fact that Burroughs cut-up or folded-in a number of other sources into his text besides his own — Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Eliot, Wordsworth, Porter, Newsweek, etc. Burroughs didn’t choose these sources at random, and sometimes they are thematically aligned with whatever seems to be going on nearby. But Moore is much more intentional about his inclusions, as this entire project continues to explore. Sometimes, though, both with the annotations and with this bestiary, we have to ask whether we’re creating associations from the juxtapositions that may never have been there for Moore to begin with. I suspect that to be true, for example, with Diva. Even Graham Greene’s The Comedians, which Moore himself acknowledges as a source, seems to have very little bearing on the material.
Burroughs would answer, and I suspect Moore might agree, that it doesn’t matter — associations that exist within us are valid, and perhaps even as valid or more valid than whatever might fall under the umbrella of authorial control. But by the same token, I find as a reader that Moore’s intentional juxtapositions are far, far more valuable to me than Burroughs’ accidental ones. For me, Burroughs’ cut-up texts are mostly incoherent, with a few flashes of serendipitous meaning. Compare that to Watchmen, which is highly coherent and still contains those flashes of serendipity. Moore himself attests to these, in the New Comics interview:
The thing was that with Watchmen if you read that original synopsis it’s the bare skeleton. There’s the plot there, but it’s what’s happened since then that’s the real surprise because there’s all this other stuff that’s crept into it, all this deep stuff, the intellectual stuff. [laughs] That wasn’t planned. The thing seems to have taken on an identity of its own since we kicked it off, which is always nice. (The New Comics, pg. 98)
Watchmen demonstrates that randomness isn’t necessary to serendipitous associations, and that in fact an excess of randomness may be inimical to them. It may be that when you cut into the present, the future leaks out, but what’s even more powerful is arranging the present so that it becomes the future.
1Granted, they are sometimes called the Nova Trilogy, but that’s kind of a misnomer too — the Nova Mob/Nova Police concepts barely appear in The Soft Machine, and can hardly be said to dominate any of the books. [Back to post]
2And what about “Break Through in Grey Room”? Well, it doesn’t involve Doctor Manhattan, but arguably the book’s biggest breakthrough is when Nite Owl realizes that Adrian Veidt has been the prime mover behind all the book’s events. He cracks the case in Adrian’s penthouse office, which is lit only by the ambient glow of the city. John Higgins colors the room grey, as well as both Rorschach and Nite Owl. Break through in grey room.
3“Lee” was Burroughs’ mother’s maiden name, and a frequent pen name/alter ego of his. [Back to post]
4Some definitions of “express” taken from the Random House College Dictionary 1988 edition, which has been with me, not coincidentally, since my high school graduation. [Back to post]
5It should be said that Burroughs himself didn’t uncritically accept the results of every cut-up. He claims to have edited carefully to keep the gold and remove the dross, and his changing mind about which was which is part of what led to the multiple editions of various books in the cut-up trilogy. However, having slogged through the many cut-up passages in those three books, I would contend that his standards for what to retain were far, far too low. [Back to post]
NOTE: As usual for this series, Watchmen spoilers abound below.
Moore and Gibbons’ cathedral has many symmetries and echoes. Here’s an important one for our purposes today: every chapter ends with an epigraph, and every chapter’s title is a piece taken out of its epigraph. Thus, each chapter hands readers a fragment at its beginning, then gives its full context at the end, inviting them to consider how that fragment in its context reflects upon what has come between. It’s an invitation well worth accepting, as each title and epigraph resonates richly on a variety of levels.
I certainly found that to be true of the Chapter 1 epigraph, from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” Chapter 2’s epigraph comes from another song lyric, albeit one from just about twenty years later and across the Atlantic. The chapter is called “Absent Friends”, and the quote is from Elvis Costello’s 1984 song “The Comedians”:
And I’m up while the dawn is breaking, even though my heart is aching.
I should be drinking a toast to absent friends, instead of these comedians.
At a glance, it would appear that the first part of this quote is actually a mismatch for the chapter. Dawn is never breaking here, either literally or metaphorically. Noir that it is, Watchmen is set mostly at night. Every Comedian flashback in this chapter takes place in a night-time scene1, as does Rorschach’s interrogation of Moloch. Although the funeral occurs during the day, it too is shrouded in rainy darkness. Only the panels with Laurie and her mother are in sunlight, and between John Higgins’ pastel palette and the scene’s contrast to the rest of the book, those panels seem absolutely sun-drenched, far from the early light of breaking dawn. And even in that sunny scene, dark emotions rule — Laurie and her mother spend most of it squabbling.
But what’s important about that first clause is the narrator’s position in it. He’s up while the dawn is breaking, which could mean one of two things — either he’s woken up before sunrise, or he’s been up all through the night. The former reading suggests ambition, a quality shared by several Watchmen characters. Ambition defines the members of the Minutemen, though their goals weren’t all the same. By the time of the Crimebusters meeting and the second generation of masked heroes, those differences of intent have gotten magnified enough that any kind of group unity is impossible — individual ambitions are pointed in radically different directions, none more so than Ozymandias, as that meeting sets in motion the main plot of the book. The Vietnam and protest scenes show the results of that fragmentation.
By the time of the final flashback, Rorschach is pretty much the only one with any ambition left, at least as far as we can tell at this point. The other heroes have retired, Moloch just wants to be left alone, and the Comedian is dead. Even though he’s the subject of the chapter, I don’t think the Comedian himself is up for consideration as the “I” in the quote, since the last part of the quote specifically mentions (and thereby excludes) him. Also, despite his presence in the flashbacks, he’s still dead — not exactly an early riser.
What about the other kind of “up while the dawn is breaking”, the kind where you’ve been up all night? That could suggest ambition in itself, or anxiety, or intensity, or just insomnia, but even more so it implies a separation from society — when the rest of the world sleeps, the narrator is awake long enough to see the dawn. Well, there’s certainly plenty of social deviance to go around in the Watchmen cast. By definition, the costumed adventurers are set apart from the rest of society, and Chapter 2 tells the story of how society gradually came to reject them. Even Doctor Manhattan, embraced by the government for his capabilities, is much more distant from humanity than any daysleeper.
I wouldn’t argue for a “correct” meaning between these two — the beauty of poetry is that both can be present at once, their implications and overtones harmonizing with each other. You could make the case that the “even though” pivot after the first clause suggests the ambitious reading, as the character would seem to be overcoming heartache in order to get himself moving, but I’d say that this pivot fits every reading. No matter the reason, all of these characters are pushing forward through emotional pain.
There may be no real dawn breaking, but heartache abounds. Both of the Juspeczyk women are suffering from isolation, even isolated from each other. In the flashback, Sally learns how little she’s valued among her teammates, while even the imposing Hooded Justice lives in fear of being outed. Captain Metropolis’s fear is evident in his display of “social evils”, and Ozymandias in that meeting feels “helpless against forces greater than any [he’d] anticipated,” as he explains much later. Nite Owl II still longs for the days when he could imagine himself “part of a fellowship of legendary beings.” Rorschach, as much as he tries to suppress any emotion, is lonely, and disgusted by the world around him. And Moloch, well, Moloch is not only isolated, frightened, helpless, and lonely, he’s also dying, and that laetrile is not going to help.
Ambition, social deviation, and emotional pain — the first line of the quote certainly fits what we’ve seen in the chapter. How about the second line? “I should be drinking a toast to absent friends, instead of these comedians.” The clearest denotation is of respect misplaced — the toast raised to the wrong subject. It’s easy to see the parallel here — Edward Morgan Blake is buried with full military honors, carried by top-hatted pallbearers, and attended by a pantheon of the most powerful people in the world. Yet as we come to know him through the flashbacks, he is a poison seed who makes every situation he’s in much worse for his presence. He takes advantage of the Minutemen’s innocence and cordiality to sexually assault a teammate. He destroys any chance that the second generation of costumed heroes could work together, though arguably there wasn’t much chance of it anyway. He insults and belittles Ozymandias in a way that tips him over the edge into planning mass slaughter. He guns down a woman pregnant with his child, launches tear gas into a crowd of protesters, confuses the hell out of Moloch (without revealing the rather crucial information that Ozymandias is the source of Moloch’s cancer), and unwittingly sets his own death into motion by giving his “last performance” to a room bugged by Adrian Veidt.
“These comedians” — the reference is plural in the song, but it’s plainly meant to refer here to the singular Comedian — don’t deserve our time and respect, but who does? Absent friends. This is the crux of the quote, which is why Moore chose it for the chapter title. The central themes of this epigraph are loss and isolation, and Chapter 2 of Watchmen shows us the reasons for the characters’ isolation from each other, and what they’ve lost along the way.
History Repeats the Old Conceits
If Chapter 1 introduces the characters to us, Chapter 2 introduces their history, and their world. Moore’s ingenious structure ensures that no chapter (for that matter, almost no panel) is doing just one thing, so only the most obvious function of chapter 2 is to deepen our understanding of The Comedian. As I reviewed in the previous post, the chapter does this by showing the character to us through the eyes of his community.
However, by moving forward in time, those flashbacks also tell the story of that community and its world. That story starts when masked heroes were a fad, and there was some sense of camaraderie between the Minutemen. These heroes were friends, or at least some of them believed they were, enough for Nite Owl to chummily invite the gang over for beers. The first break we see in those bonds comes when The Comedian attacks Silk Spectre, and is attacked in turn by Hooded Justice, who then shows no sympathy for the Spectre’s plight.
26 years later, at the time of the next flashback, the Minutemen are gone, and with them any sense of a group dynamic. Liaisons still exist, but they tend to be dyads — Nite Owl II and Rorschach, or Dr. Manhattan and his wife Janey (soon to become a dyad of Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre II.) Thus the friendships of the 1940s are already absent in the 1960s, despite Captain Metropolis’s attempts to recapture them.
In the 1971 Vietnam flashback, connections have eroded still further. The government has co-opted the activities of two costumed adventurers and sent them off to join a war effort, just as The Comedian had hoped for in 1940. Thus these two adventurers are cut off from the rest of their brethren by both intention and distance. Moreover, Dr. Manhattan himself is becoming a friend to no one — as The Comedian observes, he’s drifting out of touch.
The characters are alienated from each other, and some alienated from humanity in general. The 1977 police strike protest flashback shows us the culmination of humanity’s alienation from them. Where at first vigilantes were seen as a welcome addition to police efforts, and then as a useful tool for national interests, by 1977 they are being rejected outright by the police, with that rejection supported by an angry grassroots movement. Any sense of friendship between the masked heroes and the public they ostensibly serve is long gone, and their connections to each other have broken down further, as Nite Owl II looks on in horror at The Comedian’s actions, and mutters that Rorschach “mostly works on his own these days.”
Come 1985, Rorschach is the only vigilante left active, and thus is officially absent from Blake’s funeral, lest he be recognized and detained. Like Moloch, he can only pay his respects in secret. Laurie, on the other hand, has no wish to pay any respects at all, and Sally is apparently not invited. The dyad of Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre II is breaking down, and she has not yet become attached to Nite Owl II.
Thus at the time of this chapter, all the characters are isolated from each other. It’s not just that friends are absent — friendships are absent. Ironically, just has he helped to break them apart in life, The Comedian in death helps to bring them closer together, with Rorschach visiting each of them, and a subset of them gathering at the funeral. Thanks to Blake, Ozymandias is about to bring them all closer still.
He also claims that the lyric “has something to do with temptation without being too specific.” That’s putting it mildly — references to temptation are extremely oblique if indeed they’re present at all. For my money, a clearer single-word précis would be “disillusionment.” Falling under gentle persuasion might qualify as being tempted, but lines like “they’re finding all that glitters is not chrome”, “what kind of love is this upon inspection”, and “all these newfound fond acquaintances / turn out to be the red rag to my bull” speak much more loudly to a sense of deception and disappointment. Cast in that light, the misplaced honors of the chorus seem to result from a series of mistakes on the narrator’s part.
According to his liner notes from the previous Goodbye Cruel World reissue, in 1995, Costello was feeling plenty of disillusionment himself in 1984. For example: “Many very private and personal concerns influenced the fate of these songs and sessions… It must suffice to say that I began the year as a married man and after a fraught and futile period, I found myself living alone by the time this record was released.” Moreover: “‘Pop Music’ was among the things about which I was depressed and demoralized.”
This album represents a crossroads in Costello’s career. After Declan Patrick MacManus adopted the name “Elvis Costello”, he burst onto the scene in 1977 as more or less an instant star, racking up an unbroken run of 8 singles in the UK Top 30. After his first few years, though, Costello began to wander into the valley tread by many a pop idol, albeit each in their own way. He recorded an album of all country music covers. His band The Attractions had started to shake itself apart, with relations especially tense between himself and bass player Bruce Thomas. And he managed to alienate just about everyone with his behavior in a Columbus, Ohio Holiday Inn bar.
That night in April 1979, Elvis and The Attractions were sharing the bar with Stephen Stills’ touring band. Costello claims to have been so drunk that he has no memory of the proceedings, but they are recounted more or less as follows. Costello began needling the Stills crew, with a motivation he speculates about in autobiographical hindsight: “My guess is that I had developed the rather juvenile view that the previous musical generation had squandered their inheritance and I started to believe we had been sent to sweep it all away.” (pg. 336) In any case, he antagonized them, they antagonized him, and the whole scene wound itself up to a ridiculous alcohol-fueled pitch, until Costello tried to “provoke a bar fight and finally put the lights out” by tossing off despicable racial slurs about James Brown and Ray Charles. He got the fight he wanted, as Bonnie Bramlett socked him in the mouth and the whole party collapsed “into a heap of flailing limbs that only ended when the barman came around the counter with a raised baseball bat.” (pg. 335) The whole thing would probably have just made for a silly tour story, except that Bramlett went on a radio call-in show the next morning, told her side of the story, and suddenly Elvis was national news as a horrible racist, banned from radio playlists and overwhelmed with death threats.
Costello has explained himself several times, in several different venues. He says that he was “speaking the exact opposite of [his] true beliefs”2, that it was “an absurd overstatement of opposites, a contradiction in terms” (pg. 336), and that he was “speaking in some absurd, exaggerated, supposedly ironic humour, in which everything is expressed in the reverse of that which one knows to be true.” Not to mention “drunken”, “idiotic”, and “completely irresponsible.”3 I believe him on all counts. There’s nothing else in his career or public persona to suggest racial bias, and plenty to suggest quite the opposite. What’s most important about the story today is the way it derailed him and caused the beginning of a spiral — he’s aptly compared it to Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle crash in the way it stopped the madness of the life he had been living, albeit in a very self-destructive fashion.
There are more parallels between Costello and Dylan, but we’ll get to that in a minute. I was mentioning how Goodbye Cruel World was a crossroads album for Costello, and the stories above are a bit of background for that assertion. There’s more. Another way in which Costello began to wander after his first several albums was in his choice of producer. The first five Costello albums saw Nick Lowe at the helm, but for the country covers record he went with a Nashville producer, and for the one after that he partnered with Geoff Emerick, the legendary engineer who worked on (among other things) Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, the White Album, and Abbey Road. That album (Imperial Bedroom) was an artistic triumph, but was less successful on the charts — neither of its singles cracked the UK top 40, and they weren’t even a blip on the US charts.
Enter Clive Langer (nicknamed “Clanger”) and Alan Winstanley. This duo had seen quite a bit of UK success producing several albums by Madness, and the breakout debut Too-Rye-Ay by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. They produced Costello’s 1983 album Punch The Clock, and gave him a considerable international hit with “Everyday I Write The Book.” The song brought Costello back into the UK Top 30, and gave him his first ever entry into the US Top 40. Rock critics hailed “Everyday” as Costello’s comeback.
So when it was time to record Goodbye Cruel World — the follow-up to Punch The Clock — Langer and Winstanley were seen as the obvious choice to produce. The problem was, Costello wasn’t on board. As you may recall, he was depressed and demoralized about pop music, and morose specimen that he was at the time, he “fought every attempt to apply the Clanger/Winstanley method to these songs.”4 “So in the end,” he says, “we agreed to a truce. Clive and Alan would produce two selected songs to the height of style and I could make the rest of the record as miserable as possible.”5 Neither of those two songs (“I Wanna Be Loved” and “The Only Flame In Town”) made anywhere near the splash that “Everyday” had, and Costello ended up dissolving The Attractions (though they’ve sporadically reunited over the years), and swerving into a journey of genre experimentation that has so far included chamber music, soundtracks, a ballet score, and concept albums, as well as collaborations with such artists as Paul McCartney, Allen Touissant, Burt Bacharach, and The Roots.
That swerve was still in the future when Alan Moore was writing Watchmen. “The Comedians” was a very contemporary reference in that comic — the album couldn’t have been much more than a year old while Moore was drafting Chapter 2. The fact that he chose a Costello quote to follow a Dylan quote in the book highlights the comparison between the two artists. Costello is in some ways the UK’s answer to Bob Dylan — a musically restless maverick with a supreme gift for well-turned and provocative lyrics. They’ve both had a combative relationship with the press over the years, and with their fans as well. Critic Larry David Smith comes right out and says it: “Elvis Costello is an English Bob Dylan: an irrepressible rebel who will reject you because you praise him, who feels artistic recognition is the harbinger of creative stagnation, and who — more than likely — battles with himself. The result is one impressive body of work.” (pg. 125)
But where Dylan came out of the early 1960s folk song tradition, Costello’s vintage is rather different: the late 1970s punk tradition. Smith in fact makes much of calling Elvis a punk no matter what genre territory he traverses, declaring Costello the creator of such oddities as the punk torch song, the punk chamber music record, the punk lounge album, the punk editorial, and so forth. This may all be a little overblown, but when Smith stakes out his definition of “punk” — melodramatic, irreverent, aggressive — it’s hard not to find those qualities in the lion’s share of Costello’s output.
Still, although he came of age in the midst of the punk movement, and was deeply influenced by it, Costello doesn’t easily slot into the punk stereotype. His thick glasses and knock knees of 1977 were a far cry from the jagged aggression of The Sex Pistols, the street tough aura of The Clash, or the horror-carnival aesthetic of The Damned. Like his contemporaries, Costello had venom to spare, but he also brought a highly literary sensibility to everything he created — layers and layers of wordplay, allusions, clever metaphors, and poetic imagery.
As so often happens in these Watchmen articles, this is all starting to sound a bit familiar, isn’t it? I made the case in a previous post that Alan Moore is the Bob Dylan of comics, but the more I’ve learned about Elvis Costello, the easier it’s become to see the Costello sides of Moore as well. For one thing, we know that Moore is a punk rock aficionado. In a 2015 interview with Pádraig Ó Méalóid, Moore declares his enthusiasm for punk rock, and goes on to boast, “I doubt that there’s many people out there with a better collection of early punk vinyl singles than I’ve got.” Later on he specifically cites his admiration for Costello, placing him alongside bands like X-Ray Spex and The Clash.
So is Moore a punk comic writer? Well of course that all depends on whose definition of “punk” we’re using. Smith’s triumvirate of aggression, irreverence, and melodrama don’t fit all that well as a description of Moore’s work, but then again I’m not sure I’m all that swayed by Smith’s definition of punk. Those three things all come into play in punk rock, but I would argue there’s a deeper linchpin beneath them: the spirit of resistance. Punk came about as a rebellion against the polished and often bloated popular music of the mid-1970s, and the general sound tended to combine a throwback to the garage rock sounds of the late ’50s and early ’60s with a snarling, pissed-off tone that was beyond anything rock had consistently manifested up until then.
The individual songs also tended to display some kind of rebellion or resistance, be it political, social, cultural, or — as is frequently the case in Costello’s oeuvre — romantic. You don’t find many punk songs celebrating something, unless it’s celebrating the spirit of destruction, a la “Anarchy in the UK.” Instead, the punk project is to take apart the status quo and replace it with something more authentic and true.6
Framed like that, our notion of punk starts to get closer to the spirit of Moore. He hit his stride in 1982 with Marvelman, which dug beneath the superhero concept to interrogate the connections between power, fear, mythology, perfection, and control. V For Vendetta, Swamp Thing, The Ballad Of Halo Jones, and lots of other stories soon followed, including some brilliant reinterpretations of characters like Superman and Batman. Each of these works, up to and including Watchmen, took an established status quo of some kind, deconstructed it, and emerged with a startlingly fresh new approach. If there’s a through-line to Moore’s work, it is his tendency to upend whatever genre, convention, character, or milieu he finds, replacing it with something more authentic and true.
So yeah, I think it can fairly be said that Alan Moore has a punk spirit, and that this spirit expressed itself in Watchmen. Like the epigraph he chose for this chapter, Moore knows something about respect misplaced, and like Costello himself, he wields linguistic virtuosity in the service of his rebellious projects. He’s never been punched for drunken racist remarks (that I know of), but then again he did start worshiping the snake-god Glycon on his fortieth birthday — everybody finds a different way to crash that motorcycle.
Black And White World
Larry David Smith has painstakingly categorized all of Costello’s songs (up through 2004) into classifications like “Relational Complaint”, “Relational Assault”, “Wordplay”, and “Narrative Impressionism”. In his rubric, the majority of songs in Costello’s first ten years fall into some relational category, and generally in the negative — complaint, assault, warning, plea, struggle, etc. As I learned when listening closely to his debut My Aim Is True, he’s angry and hurt, mostly about women.
But there’s another category that, while a minority of his output, still appears on most of his records: the societal or political complaint. It’s there from the beginning — his very first single “Less Than Zero” was was a shot at British fascist Oswald Mosley — and probably culminates in “Tramp The Dirt Down”, from the 1989 album Spike, in which he fantasizes about outliving Margaret Thatcher so that he can stomp on her grave. Costello seemed to have a particular animus toward Thatcher, so much so that academics David Pilgrim and Richard Ormrod were able to write an entire book called Elvis Costello And Thatcherism.
I’d argue that Thatcherism is an important topic for looking at Watchmen, too. Moore said midway through the release of Watchmen that part of his aim with the book was to “try and scare a little bit so that people would just stop and think about their country and their politics.” Watchmen wasn’t a direct commentary on British politics the way that V For Vendetta was — in fact, the entire thing is set in America and barely mentions any other countries at all, except for Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the USSR. Some of its themes, however, relate directly to Thatcher’s agenda — privileging the individual over society, a manichean view of morality, aggressive foreign policy, and what Costello called an “enthusiasm for Cold War posturing.”7
Pilgrim and Ormrod speak of Thatcher’s “fetish for the individual rather than society,” (pg. 9) and in this she was a fine avatar of right-wing politics, which tends to favor individual rights and actions over notions of a “social contract” and collective actions — hence the right’s enthusiasm for tax cuts, dismantling government apparatus, and eliminating “entitlements”. (Though there are some huge caveats in that philosophy as it played out under Thatcher and Reagan, as we’ll see below.)
Something of that same tension rears its head in the 1977 police strike flashback in Chapter 2 of Watchmen. “We don’ want vigilantes! We want reg’lar cops!” shouts a guy whose shirt might as well read “proletariat.” The strike is essentially the police saying “you want to handle crime as individuals? Go ahead. Good luck with that.” The Keene Act which arises from the resulting unrest is a reassertion of centralized social order over individual libertarianism, and what it represents for the genre is a fundamental challenge to the concept of superheroes.
That same question has been re-explored in superhero stories ever since, the most salient recent example being Marvel’s Civil War event and the Captain America movie patterned after it. Should we as a society allow individuals with their own agendas to act unilaterally and violently to enforce their values, or must we find a way to co-opt their actions? The conflict continues to play out in Watchmen through the oppositional viewpoints of Nova Express and The New Frontiersman. Those two publications, representing the left and the right respectively, see superheroes as an existential threat to democracy on one side, and the perfect expression of freedom on the other. That The New Frontiersmencompares the KKK favorably to superheroes, and that Moore shows us one individual’s actions causing millions of deaths, in the name of a peace we know can only be fragile and temporary, gives us a pretty good clue as to where he stands on the argument. Right?
Except… in V For Vendetta, it is the vigilante who is the hero, taking on a corrupt and oppressive dystopian regime. There, the “reg’lar cops” are complicit, and not to be trusted — much more of a threat than crime, as Evey learns in the first few pages. So maybe Moore isn’t so easy to pin down after all. Or maybe Watchmen was a form of second thoughts after V For Vendetta. The British government of V is horrific, but the American government in Watchmen is no treat either, especially in light of how it presages Moore’s later screed in Brought To Light. Yet V’s attacks are shown nobly, while Ozymandias’ unilateral vigilantism is abhorrent, as the first six pages of Chapter 12 make very, very clear.
But even that argument is an oversimplification. The truth is, neither V nor Ozymandias fits simply into a hero or villain mold, and one of the things both works have in common is that they problematize the notion of heroism, and open questions about where the lines are drawn between resistance and terrorism, between destroying lives and saving the world. It’s complicated, is what Moore is telling us, and attempts to make it seem otherwise are generally meant to manipulate you into compliance.
Moral complexity was never high on Margaret Thatcher’s list. She was a lay preacher in the Methodist church before her entry into politics, and she saw a clear connection between her economic policies and her religious beliefs. Just as the Republican party in the U.S. allied itself in the 1980s with social conservative organizations like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, so too did Thatcher pursue her own social conservative agenda, such as banning discussion of homosexuality in public schools8 and clamping down on the distribution of “nasty” videocassettes.
This is one of the paradoxes of Thatcherism, and Reaganism too for that matter. On the one hand, their philosophies proclaimed the the people’s rights to individual liberties. On the other hand, when it came to matters like who to marry, what to watch, and (especially in the US) legal access to safe abortions, individuals suddenly found their liberties sharply curtailed. As it turns out, while their administrations may have had a libertarian sheen, Thatcher and Reagan were more interested in the freedom of money to go where it wanted without state interference, and in the freedom of corporations to do what they wanted without regulatory interference. The people who worked for those corporations, well, they were free to come to work, but God help them if they tried to unionize, because their government was dead set against it.
Costello works through some of these same themes from a different angle in “Pills And Soap”, a song from Punch The Clock. It turns out that Costello also borrowed a superheroic trope for this song, releasing it not as Elvis Costello (already an alter ego for Declan MacManus), but as “The Imposter”, an alter ego for Elvis Costello. The lyrics themselves aren’t straightforward, but its central image of children and animals melted down to create the titular pills and soap certainly evokes the fascist British concentration camps of V For Vendetta. What made it particularly political was its release, under a pseudonym, shortly before the 1983 UK General Election in which Thatcher’s Conservative party was challenged by Labour. As it happened, the Tories (Conservatives) in that election gained 38 seats while Labour lost 58 — as Costello says in the 2003 Punch The Clock liner notes, “It was released for a limited period only and melodramatically deleted on the eve of the 1983 General Election. The need to re-issue it the following day on a celebratory red vinyl 12″ sadly never arose.”
As for moral simplicity, the most relevant Costello song is probably “Black and White World”, from Get Happy!!. That song’s primary metaphor is about comparing modern life to old films (i.e. the black-and-white world of pre-Technicolor movies), but with Costello’s usual aptitude for double meanings, it also carries a connotation of black-and-white morality, in lines like “There’ll never be days like that again / When I was just a boy and men were men.”
Where we might find a black-and-white view of morality in Watchmen? The answer seems fairly obvious, though his version of “when I was just a boy and men were men” sounds more like “They could have followed in the footsteps of good men, like my father and President Truman.” Rorschach, as we saw in our examination of Steve Ditko’s Charlton characters, is a reflection of The Question’s Objectivism, and ironically his opposition to Veidt cuts through the Gordian Knot of the Thatcherist paradox in a punk spirit, by reasserting the individual’s right to resist.
Peace In Our Time
Costello’s primary critique of Thatcher focused on her military adventurism, especially the 1982 Falklands War, in which Britain charged to the defense of some tiny islands in the South Atlantic, overseas territories left over from the high times of British colonialism in the 19th century. Argentina asserted (and still continues to assert) its sovereignty over these islands (which it calls the Malvinas), and in April of 1982 sent a force to occupy them. Thatcher’s Britain responded with a naval task force, and a 74-day conflict ensued which resulted in 907 casualties.
Liberal Brits like Costello were dismayed to see their country at war, especially in acts like the sinking of the Argentine ship General Belgrano, which was torpedoed while retreating. 321 Argentinians died in that incident, accounting for just about half the Argentine losses in the war. Meanwhile, British casualties reached the hundreds as well. Costello’s forceful response was “Shipbuilding”, a song he wrote with Clive Langer. Costello’s lyrics paint the picture of a small town whose economy depends on the jobs created by the business of constructing ships. Yet that same small town will be sending its young men off on those ships, possibly to die in conflicts like the Falklands War. Langer and Costello gave the song to British singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt, who released it in 1982 (in a single produced by Costello) to little response, but had a top 40 UK hit a year later when re-releasing it for the first anniversary of the war.
Costello released the song himself on 1983’s Punch The Clock, with a memorable trumpet solo by Chet Baker included. Alongside “Pills And Soap”, it made Punch a more political record than Costello had released in years. Goodbye Cruel World continued the trend. Songs like “The Great Unknown”, “Joe Porterhouse”, and even “The Comedians” itself had content that could easily be taken as political, though often other interpretations were possible as well. The final track, though, was unambiguous.
“Peace In Our Time”, like “Pills And Soap”, was released as a single by The Imposter, rather than Elvis Costello. It takes a wide-scoped view of war, with each verse dedicated to an era of conflict. Verse one references Neville Chamberlain‘s doomed Munich Agreement and the spectre of World War II, while reflecting that now Costello dances in Italian shoes to German disco music. Verse two cites Cold War anti-Communist hysteria, and the horrible possibilities of nuclear annihilation.
Finally, verse three discusses events that were current at the time. “Another tiny island invaded” could refer to the Falklands or to Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. “International Propaganda Star Wars” was a swipe at the US’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, which hoped to provide an anti-nuke “missile shield.” And the reference to spacemen in the White House addressed both the Presidential candidacy of John Glenn and Reagan’s supposed mental deficiencies.
After each of these evocations of conflict, the chorus repeats:
And the bells take their toll once again in a victory chime
And we can thank God that we’ve finally got peace in our time
The irony is layers deep here. For one thing, the title phrase connects directly with the image of Chamberlain in the lyrics:
Out of the aeroplane stepped Chamberlain with a condemned man’s stare
But we all cheered wildly, a photograph was taken,
As he waved a piece of paper in the air
There is indeed a famous photograph of that moment, Chamberlain just having returned from Germany with an agreement to allow Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia in exchange for peace between the UK and Germany. Even more famously, Chamberlain said that day, “I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” Hitler continued invading countries, and less than a year later the UK was at war with Germany. Today the phrase is mainly remembered (and slightly misquoted) ironically.
From that initial irony, we get the additional fact that the chorus repeats after every cycle of war in the verses. Though a chorus of victory chimes may ring over and over, and though we may declare that peace has arrived at last, there’s always another verse of battle just around the corner. Finally, there’s a play on “toll” — bells toll, but they don’t “take their toll.” Wars do that, and the peace they bring to many is the peace of the grave, over which funeral bells ring.
And now we’re back to Watchmen, in which The Comedian is the first casualty of Ozymandias’ peace campaign, a “practical joke” which he believes will bring lasting peace, not seeing how closely he resembles Chamberlain in front of that aeroplane.
In the liner notes for the 1995 reissue of Goodbye Cruel World, Costello writes of the song, “If it now seems like a relic of those days of anti-nuclear dread then I hope it stays that way.” On the next reissue, he says, “Writing in the late spring of ’04, the title of this piece seems a more distant prospect than ever. I have to hope that this flawed song doesn’t sound like a sick joke by November.” Much like in 1983, I don’t think Costello got the result he was hoping for. I doubt Ozymandias does either.
1Granted, the first one takes place entirely indoors and there is no supplemental information elsewhere in the book to elucidate the time. However, there are a few hints that, taken together, strongly suggest that this is a night-time scene. First, the window on panel 1 of page 5 shows only darkness. Second, Night Owl suggests that they “go back to the Owl’s Nest for a beer”, something less likely to happen in the middle of the day. Finally, the clock in panel 9 of page 7 shows (of course), a few minutes to 12:00, which given the previous two clues is much more likely to be midnight than noon. Moreover, we know from Under The Hood that Hollis Mason’s police work was his “day job”, and his superheroing took place mostly at night, hence his nickname. All these factors combined make me confident that the first Comedian flashback in Chapter Two takes place close to midnight. [Back to post]
2In the liner notes to the 2002 reissue of Get Happy!!, an album of Motown-style songs that he released after the incident. [Back to post]
8This, too, is complicated by the fact that early in her political career, Thatcher voted to decriminalize abortion and homosexuality. Her later swing towards social conservatism may have been more a matter of practicality than of conviction, or it could have been a genuine change of heart. With politicians it’s hard to tell, isn’t it? [Back to post]
[William Kuskin and Charles Hatfield deserve my heartfelt thanks for their generous and incisive feedback as this post was taking shape.]
I’d like to start today’s entry with a resounding endorsement for Love And Rockets. No, not the band, though they’re pretty good too. I mean the astonishing comic book series by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, lovingly known as Los Bros Hernandez.
This comic ran from 1982 to 1996, and pretty much exemplified the alternative/indie comics scene at the time. (Los Bros have since picked it back up and continue publishing 1-3 issues per year.) Being born in 1970, I was a little young for L&R when it started, and spent most of my teens with my head ensconced in Marvel-world anyway. So while I’d heard plenty about the comic, I never read any of it until a few years ago. People, it blew my mind. See resounding endorsement, above.
For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, here’s a little Love And Rockets primer. Gilbert and Jaime1 are the primary contributors, with occasional input from third brother Mario. The brothers work separately for the most part, each writing and drawing his own comics, and splitting the page count in a given L&R issue. Both of them draw some miscellaneous experimental comics in a variety of styles, but the bulk of their work focuses on continuing stories in a particular milieu.
For Jaime, that milieu is the Southern California punk scene, specifically a barrio nicknamed Hoppers, set in the fictional town of Huerta and based on Oxnard, California, where the brothers grew up. Gilbert’s continuing stories take place in Palomar, a fictional Latin American town so small and remote that in most of the early stories, the town doesn’t even have a single telephone.
Within these settings, each of them has built a dizzyingly rich cast of beautifully realized characters, in a variety of stories ranging from one-pagers to full graphic novels. I wholeheartedly recommend these comics, and I’m going to be spoiling various Love & Rockets storylines (between 1982 and 1986 or so), as well as the usual load of Watchmen spoilers. (And I guess a couple of 20th century Spider-Man spoilers too, as it turns out.) It’s really worth reading this stuff fresh, so I won’t mind a bit if you wait to read the rest of my post until you’ve caught up on some L&R yourself. Comic Book Resources has a great guide to getting started.
Now, then. Both brothers’ work is well worth absorbing, but we’re focusing on Gilbert today, for reasons that will become clear in a bit. The first Palomar story is called “Heartbreak Soup”, and it introduces us to many denizens of the town, including a group of childhood friends in their early teens: Heraclio, Israel, Jesús Angel, Sakahaftewa (“Satch”), and the partially disfigured Vicente. We also meet a whole bunch of others, including Jesús’s little brother Toco, midwife and bañadora (bath-giver) Chelo, impossibly pulchritudinous newcomer and rival bañadora Luba, and the boys’ peer Pipo, who has grown apart from them as her sexuality develops.
“Heartbreak Soup” tells a satisfying, self-contained story, but after it ends, the Palomar stories continue, and something interesting happens. The next episode, a little story called “A Little Story”, doesn’t continue from “Heartbreak Soup”, but rather jumps back about 4 years prior, to when Pipo was still happily playing with the boys, and Satch was the new kid in town. The next story, “Toco”, is another short piece, which takes place a few months prior to “Heartbreak Soup”.2
A more major, multi-part story called “Act of Contrition” follows these two. It skips forward about ten years from “Heartbreak Soup.” The boys are all adults, some of whom have left town, some of whom have stayed and married characters who were also children in “Heartbreak Soup.” Instead of one child, Luba now has four, and now she runs a cinema as well as a bath house. Not only that, we meet a new character named Archie, who knew Luba as a teenager, and we get flashbacks to her teen years, well before “Heartbreak Soup”, from both characters’ memories. Post-“Act Of Contrition”, the Palomar strips’ timeline sticks for a while with “Heartbreak” plus 10 years or so, but frequently interspersed with various flashbacks, from various perspectives, to various time periods.
What quickly becomes clear is that the Palomar stories in Love And Rockets won’t be following the traditional comic book approach of serializing an ongoing narrative. Instead, what we get are glimpses into one continuous, enormous, pre-existing story, as seen through the viewpoints of a large cast of characters, and skipping around in time at Gilbert’s whim. As comics scholar Charles Hatfield observes, “By opening such gaps between stories, Hernandez was able to sketch in the history of his characters gradually through interpolated flashbacks, a technique that became central to his work.” (Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, pg. 89)
“Interpolated flashbacks” brings us at last to the v2.0 Watchmen annotations, which point out a fascinating parallel between one of the Palomar stories and Chapter 2 of Watchmen:
The structure of this chapter involves an exploration of Blake’s character in segments that alternate between a present-day storyline and flashbacks from five different other characters. The flashbacks are in fact in chronological order, from a flashback to his youth to a flashback to the recent past.
The structure of this chapter is therefore very similar to that of the story “The Laughing Sun”, by Gilbert Hernandez, which appeared in the comic Love and Rockets in 1984 (although there are only four flashbacks there). Since the Love and Rockets story predates Watchmen, it may have been an influence on Moore.
The parallel is undeniable, but can we reasonably claim that “The Laughing Sun” influenced Watchmen? Well, there is a bit of evidence. As the annotations indicate, the L&R story predates Watchmen, which establishes that it is possible for Moore to have read it before penning the chapter. Furthermore, we know that Moore has read and admired Gilbert’s work, because he tells us so in the introduction he wrote to Heartbreak Soup And Other Stories, the first US trade paperback collecting some of Gilbert’s Palomar comics. Moore even refers directly to “The Laughing Sun,” noting “the blood-thick camaraderie that leads to the desperate mountain trek” in its plot. (About which more in just a minute.)
This book was released in August of 1987. Watchmen #2 has a cover date of October 1986, and the final issue’s cover date is October 1987. Based on this overlap, I’d say it’s very likely that Moore wrote his appreciation of Gilbert in the midst of writing Watchmen.3 For as specifically as he cites details from them, the Palomar stories had to be fresh in his mind during that period. Now, would that connection have gone back all the way to issue #2? Who knows? Some of this stuff is ultimately irretrievable, but let’s take a look at the comparison and decide for ourselves.
Stacks of Flashbacks
“The Laughing Sun” is serialized over two issues of Love & Rockets. Like many post-“Act Of Contrition” Palomar stories, it takes place about 10 years or so past the “Heartbreak Soup” baseline. (I’ll abbreviate this baseline HBS, and cite different timelines in relationship to it, so the primary thread of “The Laughing Sun” takes place in HBS + 10 years or so.) The childhood friends from that story have grown up and spread out, but are brought together when they learn that Jesús Angel has fled to the mountains after an explosive conflict with his wife Laura. Heraclio, who still lives in Palomar, reaches out to Satch, Israel, and Vicente, who do not, and all four men come together to search the mountains for Jesús.
As the story progresses, each man remembers Jesús, with each flashback centering on some aspect of Jesús’s relationship with sexuality and women. After he gets the call from Heraclio, Vicente flashes back to a childhood episode with Jesús (HBS – 9 years or so), in which 5-year-old Pipo innocently exposed herself to the two boys, who were then shamed with visions of hellfire by Chelo after she walked in on the incident. On the car ride to the mountains, Satch remembers a preteen time (HBS – 2 years or so) where some older boys told him and Jesús about the Indian women in the mountains who don’t wear shirts — “They all walk around with their fuckin’ tetas out like it’s normal!” The boys swooned with envy of the Indian men.
Back in the present, the search in the mountains is arduous, for the weather is extremely hot. (The story’s title refers to how the sun seems to enjoy torturing the town like this.) Heraclio briefly passes out from heat exhaustion, and in the process flashes back to a memory from their teen years (HBS + 1 or so), which reveals Jesús’s crush on Luba, an unrequited affection that becomes a major theme for the character. The search goes on, through many a tribulation, culminating in Israel’s memory of himself and Jesús as adults (HBS + 6 or so), in which he’s incredulous that Jesús intends to marry Laura, and says “Don’t come running to my couch when the going gets too rough!” Jesús’s reply: “Don’t worry! I’d head for the hills first!”
Coming out of the flashback, Israel screams at those hills in rage and frustration, and to his surprise, Jesús replies. The men find him, and in one last trip to the (very recent) past, Jesús tells the story of how his fight with Laura happened. I would make the case for this as another flashback, though it is narrated rather than drawn — it’s just one wide panel with columns of text on either side, and an image in the center of Jesús, superimposed over an extreme close-up of Laura and their baby, drawn fainter to indicate a presence in memory, not reality. This panel echoes the one that opens this half of the story, in which Laura tells her version of their conflict, with a ghostly close-up Jesús behind her. Jesús reveals that their argument was about his sexualized gazes at Luba, for which all the previous flashbacks set the stage.
Thus does Gilbert not only illustrate a character through others’ experiences of him, he also defines the community closest to that character, all while setting up and resolving a mystery quest plot. In “Absent Friends”, Chapter 2 of Watchmen, Alan Moore doesn’t resolve the mystery of Blake’s death, but he does use the very same device to show us exactly who The Comedian is, as his closest community saw him. Again, the flashbacks are from five different characters, moving forward in time. (I’ll use W to denote the main story timeline (1985) in Watchmen as a baseline, similar to HBS above.)
Sally Jupiter starts the flashbacks, remembering back to the time of The Minutemen (W – 45 years) and Blake’s attempted sexual assault of her. The next three flashbacks take place at the funeral: Adrian recalls the Crimebusters meeting in 1966 (W – 19 years), Jon VVN night in 1971 (W – 14 years), and Dan the police strike riots of 1977 (W – 8 years). Finally, after the funeral, Rorschach wrings out one last flashback, this one from Moloch remembering The Comedian’s “last performance” (W – a few weeks.)
Just as each of the “Laughing Sun” flashbacks helped paint a portrait of Jesús as oversexed and fixated on Luba, so do the flashbacks in “Absent Friends” center around a theme: The Comedian as a vile man who nevertheless understands many things that others don’t. The vileness is clear — in the space of a few pages, but spanning decades, we see him (nearly) raping Sally Jupiter, murdering a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his baby, and tear-gassing civilians. The other two flashbacks show his knowledge — he sees through Captain Metropolis’s motives in the Crimebusters meeting, and cryptically tells Moloch of the island he’s discovered, in the process alerting Veidt that Blake knows too much. Even in the flashbacks that demonstrate his detestable nature, we also see his insight, such as when he identifies Hooded Justice’s fetish, or tells Dr. Manhattan, “You don’t really give a damn about human beings.”
Just as with Jesús, Blake and his story come into focus through the eyes of the community that surrounds him. The reverse is also true — we learn the nature of the community as demonstrated through its interactions with the central character. In “The Laughing Sun”, the character of that community is cohesive, and that cohesion is crucial to its success — Heraclio is able to speak to the mountain Indians, Isreal is capable of provoking Jesús out of silence, and Satch knows just what to say to make Jesús receptive to being brought home. The flashbacks, too, are mostly of bonding moments between the boys — even the conflict between Israel and Jesús carries a clear loving undertone.
In Watchmen, by contrast, the community is fragmented — split by differences in distance, differences in viewpoint. Their flashbacks to The Comedian demonstrate their distance from him too, every one of them injured or puzzled by his actions. In fact, two of those flashbacks (Moloch’s and Adrian’s) are at the heart of the story’s main plot, which serves to drive all the characters apart, only to bring them back together at the end under a heavy layer of irony, tragedy, and fragility. The only one of the main characters to opt out of that final community is Rorschach, just as he is the only one in this chapter who doesn’t get a flashback.
How to Travel Through Time
The stacking flashbacks device is powerful, but it’s also worth a look at how the mechanics of it are executed. “The Laughing Sun” uses two different techniques. The more minor one I’ve already mentioned — a long panel with columns of text on either side of the storyteller, and a fainter image of the story’s subject looming up hugely behind. I see these as flashbacks, but what’s true is that they’re only narrated through illustrated prose, not sequential art like the others, so they have very little disruptive impact on the main story timeline.
The other flashbacks in “The Laughing Sun” all start as thought bubbles4, but with an image inside rather than words. The first of these, Vicente’s, calls attention to itself because the previous panel showed Vicente with a traditional thought bubble that does contain words. Then, within the flashback, each of the panels has scalloped corners rather than hard right angles. The end of Vicente’s flashback highlights the device in a different way, as a thought bubble above Vicente’s head shows himself and Jesús as boys, who themselves have a thought bubble over their heads, with an image of the devil chasing them through Hell. The bottom of this panel has right-angled corners, while the top corners are scalloped. The other three flashbacks follow a similar pattern — thought bubble with an image (and sometimes a word balloon inside the thought bubble), scalloped corners on the memory panels or portions.
Gilbert first used these two approaches — narration over static images and images inside thought bubbles — in “Act Of Contrition.” The next Palomar story after “The Laughing Sun” to contain a flashback was “The Reticent Heart,” which actually announced it with a caption reading “Flashback: A few years before Carmen and Heraclio became wife and husband,” and then later signaled “Flashback within the flashback: Years ago, on a warm, late afternoon in Palomar…” In a 2008 interview, Gilbert revealed his struggles with the device:
I ran into trouble with that a lot. When I first started, I used the old comic-book cliché of writing the word “flashback” just to make it clear for the reader. As my editor suggested, the strip was starting to develop in such a way that it didn’t really need this nudge. So I started presenting a flashback more like in a film. But I wasn’t so good at it. What I thought was a natural, smooth transition from modern times to a flashback wasn’t always identifiable by the reader. In a lot of reprints, I rework transitions to make a flashback clearer. (Your Brain On Latino Comics, pg. 176)5
In Chapter 2 of Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons show their mastery of those transitions. The chapter relies upon a few different techniques to signal that a flashback is beginning or ending, and by far the most prominent one of these is image-matching. The first flashback of the chapter starts with a bright glare off the Minutemen’s picture, followed by a panel of the camera flashing, and then a panel of the Minutemen posing for that picture, which begins the narration in earnest. Similarly, a panel of Adrian’s impassive face at the funeral precedes a panel of him masked as Ozymandias, in the same exact pose, to begin the Crimebusters meeting flashback. The Crimebusters flashback goes out through the same door, transitioning from a panel of Adrian masked in 1966 to one of him unmasked in 1985. Clever match cuts abound, such as when we go from The Comedian gripping Moloch’s lapels as Blake tells his story to Rorschach gripping Moloch’s lapels as Moloch recounts it.
Where matching isn’t in place, irony often is, such as in the cut from Sally having just been sexually victimized to the Tijuana bible image of her saying lustily, “Oh! Treat me rough, sugar.” The only transition that approaches a traditional comics technique is the one leading into Moloch’s flashback — captions of Moloch beginning to tell the story overlay an image of The Comedian sitting on Moloch’s bed, not so different from how Gilbert handles Archie and Luba’s flashbacks in “Act Of Contrition.” That’s as far as the connection goes, though — there are no thought bubbles in Watchmen, and certainly no captions reading “Flashback.”
That said, Gilbert made rapid strides in his technique during the two years that separate “The Laughing Sun” from “Absent Friends.” “Holidays In The Sun” (cover-dated January 1986) is a story of Jesús in jail, in which panel transitions slip seamlessly between fantasy and reality with no artificial bracketing. Even within his dreams, Luba’s face changes abruptly to Laura’s via panel transition. By the time of “Duck Feet” (June 1986) and “Bullnecks And Bracelets” (January 1987), flashbacks in Gilbert’s stories begin and end with no announcement whatsoever of the time-shift, sometimes jumping across years in the space of a few wordless panels.
During roughly the same period, there are flashbacks aplenty over on the Jaime side of L&R as well. “The Secrets Of Life And Death Vol. 5” (January 1987) is mostly flashback, with a transition accomplished by a scallop-sided panel overlaying one set in the present. The panels within the flashback look normal (straight corners), except for the one coming out of the flashback, which has one scalloped corner. Then in “The Return Of Ray D.” (April 1987), Jaime accomplishes a transition to the past using the same image-matching technique as “Absent Friends” — three characters in similar poses, but dressed differently (and one transforming from a background figure into a major character in the flashback), with no other mechanical conventions overdetermining the shift.
It’s not impossible that technical influence was flowing both directions between Los Bros and Moore/Gibbons. Certainly as Love And Rockets progressed, their time-shifting grew bolder and bolder, extending to dizzying extremes in stories like Gilbert’s early-90s “Poison River”, which would sometimes rapidly crosscut between years or decades, jumping timelines from one panel to the next without explanation and leaving the reader to piece it together. Even the opening pages of its chapters showed characters at various points in their timelines.
At the very least, it seems fair to say that both Love & Rockets and Watchmen are exemplars of an era in which formal experimentation in comics flourished. They were far from the first to use flashbacks — Harvey Kurtzman in particular, among his many 1950s achievements, used flashbacks to powerful effect in stories like Big “If”.6 Nor were match cuts a new thing — Stanley Kubrick among many others made masterful use of the technique in film. But 1980s comics like Watchmen and L&R brought these sophisticated techniques together repeatedly and consistently, for a wide variety of precisely controlled narrative effects, and thereby pushed the boundaries of comics, leading to a rich artistic payoff for a large number of works, a general expansion of the form’s visual vocabulary, and the increasing sophistication of its audience.
Beyond The Gutters
In his landmark 1993 study Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud breaks down a few different ways panels can relate to each other:
Moment-to-moment: Panel A depicts the moment before Panel B, with a few seconds at most elapsing between them.
Action-to-action: Panel A depicts the action before Panel B, even if there’s a bit of time separation between them — for example pouring a drink, then drinking it.
Subject-to-subject: Panel A depicts one part of a scene, and Panel B depicts a different part, moving time forward as well.
Scene-to-scene: Panel A and Panel B are separated by some significant distance in time or space, or both.
Aspect-to-aspect: Panels A and B depict different aspects of “a place, idea, or mood.” There is very little sense of time passing between these panels, which is what separates them from subject-to-subject transitions.
Non-sequitur: Panels A and B seemingly have no relation to each other.
As McCloud explains it, the space between panels is known as the “gutter”, and the imaginative connection performed by the reader across this gutter, in order to accomplish these transitions, is “closure.” His observation rests upon the fact that comics are sequential, and that the connections between the images in that sequence must be made by the reader.
Rocco Versaci, in This Book Contains Graphic Language, takes this line of reasoning a little further, noticing the ways in which comics can be both simultaneous and sequential: “[U]nlike film, which unspools at a more or less predetermined (and from the viewer’s perspective, uncontrollable) pace, comics creators can play with the design of an entire page by manipulating the visuals within panels and the panels themselves within the page to create additional layers of meaning. Thus, a comic, in addition to unfolding temporally, also exists ‘all at once,’ and this existence is a feature unique to the medium.” (pg. 16)
Watchmen frequently capitalizes upon this “all at once” quality of the page. For example, in Moloch’s flashback, there’s a flashing light outside his window, which alternates between illuminating The Comedian and leaving him in darkness. The panels in the 3×3 grid thus alternate between oranges and blues, as moment-to-moment transitions in The Comedian’s speech. The result is a bright X across the page, complemented by a dark O. This rhythmic alternation also appears in the first few pages of the chapter, this time in scene-to-scene transitions, as rapid cuts between California and New York create these interlocking panel patterns of brightness and darkness.
What’s at play here is the tension between images all at once, and images in sequence — we see the page all at once, even as the panels are sequential. Hatfield views Los Bros as masters of manipulating this tension: “Gilbert and Jaime freely manipulate time, space, and point of view, collapsing hours or even years into abrupt transitions, splicing together reality and fantasy, and discerning patterns in widely separated events. Relying on the cohesiveness of the total page (and the familiarity of L&R as a series) to guide and reassure their readers, Los Bros pushed the tension between single image and image-in-series to the extreme, transitioning from one element to the next without warning.” (pg. 70)
With his reference to “the familiarity of L&R as a series”, Hatfield gestures to yet another level of tension in comics, in which any of McCloud’s transitions can occur: the tension between single episode and episode-in-series. Because comics stories are so frequently serialized, readers are called upon to perform closure between episodes. Many Marvel comics, for instance, are pieces of a continuing story, and thus have a tendency toward moment-to-moment transitions between episodes — issue #191 is likely to pick up right where #190 left off, at least if #190 ended on a cliffhanger. If one issue wraps up a story, the next issue is likely to pick up on a time not too much later in the title character’s life — a scene-to-scene transition.
Closure between episodes is the connective tissue that holds comic book sagas and universes together. Those connections, taken in totality, form that beloved shibboleth of comics aficionados: continuity. Continuity is our overall experience of a story, as strung out over multiple episodes. Just as certain artistic effects are only possible on a total page, so too can continuity empower dramatic moments, or amplify dramatic blunders. When the Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man #121, it was continuity that made the moment so powerful — readers had known Gwen for eight years at that point, over 90 connected issues. She was a part of readers’ lives just as she was a part of Spider-Man’s life. That is a level of intimacy impossible to achieve within the boundaries of a single book. Similarly, when the “Clone Saga” attempted to assert that the last twenty years of Spider-Man stories hadn’t really been about Peter Parker, it was continuity that led fans to their pitchforks and torches.
Both Gilbert Hernandez and Alan Moore use continuity to their advantage. The time-jumps that happen after “Heartbreak Soup” challenge closure, requiring the reader to figure out where the story occurs in relation to that first baseline. By the time of “The Laughing Sun”, Gilbert seems to have settled more or less into the HBS + 10 zone, but it’s clear that our perspective can come unmoored in time at any moment. By the same token, part of what gives “The Laughing Sun” (among many other Palomar stories) its power is the fact that we know these characters from many positions in time, which enriches and deepens our understanding of their relationships to themselves and each other. Unlike with Spider-Man, though, we do not travel through time alongside them, but rather begin to see their stories from multiple angles at once. Analogous to a comics page, Palomar exists “all at once” for us, increasingly so as continuity builds.
Watchmen is a self-contained story, not an ongoing saga, but still, it was serialized over 12 issues, and Moore certainly uses the continuity of that year-long publication period for dramatic effects. Clearly, the clock that ticks down at the end of each chapter is powered by closure — we know where that clock has been, and our knowledge of the number of issues in the series lets us know where it’s going. Similarly, even as early as Chapter 2, Gibbons draws panels that call back exactly to previous episodes in the series, relying on our knowledge of those episodes to provide the full meaning of the recontextualization. Even the end papers occasionally employ continuity, with part II of Under The Hood ending in Chapter 1, and part III picking up immediately in Chapter 2.
For Watchmen, and to a lesser extent for Love And Rockets, there is an additional level of tension beyond this: the tension between genre instance or invocation and the broad genre as a whole. Watchmen places itself in the superhero genre, as it existed in 1986, and is ready for its readers to come in with certain expectations of how that genre works, its conventions and status quo. Moore takes advantage of this level of reader knowledge to produce surprise, shock, and dismay as his characters and situations contrast with what’s expected, as well as to introduce overtones that call the rest of the genre into question. Love And Rockets, on the other hand, begins within expected comics genres of science fiction and fantasy, then moves quite deliberately outside them, landing in a place that defines its independence partly in opposition to what’s on offer in the rest of the comics mainstream.
Even beyond genre, there is yet one more layered experience available from these books: the experience of multiple readings. Critic Douglas Wolk notices this level in Jaime’s work: “The subtleties of his characters’ interactions really only appear on re-reading… despite the technique Hernandez has picked up from his brother of jump-cuts within each scene, it reads so smoothly that you have to make a conscious effort to slow down and note what else is happening.” (Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work And What They Mean, pg. 200) The same points apply to Gilbert’s work as well.
This is very similar to my experience of reading Watchmen. When I first read it, in the mid-90s, I found it enjoyable but unremarkable, and was surprised that it was praised so highly. That time, I was reading for plot, not really noticing structure, and was coming to it from the context of having already encountered many of its imitators, and daring it to live up to the aura of praise that surrounded it. Then, when the movie came out, the press around that event helped me to realize I’d missed a number of layers in that first reading, encouraging me to give the novel a second look. The result is this project. Re-reading (and re-reading, and re-reading) Watchmen has led me to a far deeper appreciation of the book than I had after that first time through, and the same has been true as I’ve reread Palomar stories in preparation for this post.
What God Feels Like
Images, pages, episodes, genres, iterations of reading. All of these contribute to an experience of time connected with a particular work. Past each of these sequences, there is a sense of totality as well, and if you’re not thinking of Dr. Manhattan by now, you probably need to re-read Watchmen. William Kuskin observes a couple of these layers in a 2010 article: “In that he sees time as an object, Dr. Manhattan’s perspective is similar to the reader’s, who can perceive the whole page at one glance and the entire narrative in one turn through the book.” (“Vulgar Metaphysicians: William S. Burroughs, Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, and the Medium Of The Book”, in Intermediality and Storytelling, pg. 54)
I remember once talking to my friend Trish about a television show I was watching. She had already seen it; I was catching up on DVD. She asked me where I was in the sequence of episodes, I told her, and she remarked, “This must be what God feels like.” She knew what was going to happen to all the characters, and by extension what was going to happen to me. She saw the entire series in total, where I was currently still living through it in sequence — she looked at me from outside time, knowing I was trapped inside it but would transcend it to join her soon.
Time is a strong motif within Watchmen, starting with the title. Watchmen carries the sense of “guardians”, as in “watchmen on the walls of the world’s freedom,” but the character most connected with time is also the son of a watchmaker, who aspired to become one himself. Their predecessors were the Minutemen, a name linked with the American Revolution but linked also with brevity, and fragmentation of a temporal whole. The watchmaker’s son becomes unmoored in time, seeing it as “an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.” I’m still not completely convinced by Dr. Manhattan’s point of view, perhaps because he combines simultaneity and sequence in a way I still don’t understand, despite having looked at many a comics page and then read the panels. For me, the whole design of jewel that is Watchmen was only visible upon re-reading, but that jewel continues to reveal more of itself, the longer I look.
So too are we unmoored in time when reading Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories. What is sequential for us is not so for the characters — we see them as teens, then suddenly adults, then flashing back to various points in their histories. Their existence in all these timelines is simultaneous for us, experienced sequentially (though out of chronology) but existing side by side at the same time. Gilbert, like Moore, exploits our sequential experience of reading to break apart the sequential time in his world.
Thus, as readers of Love and Rockets, we ascend almost to the godlike status of Dr. Manhattan. We don’t see the whole jewel in advance, and in fact, we don’t ever see the whole jewel at all, but we see enough facets to at least comprehend the concept of the whole. The same is true of Watchmen to an extent — indeed, the same is true of any book to an extent, because we understand the whole after reading, even if we choose to revisit the parts. But what’s special about Love And Rockets, at a level unmatched by Watchmen, is its powerful combination of continuity and nonlinearity — we can spend years and years with these characters, but their years are not ours, because we know so much of their future, so much of their past.
We learn those things not in the traditional way, following a timeline, but rather from above, via synecdoche, seeing the parts that imply the whole. Just as we assemble a picture of Jesús from the memories of his friends, just as we create Blake from our knowledge of who he has been over time, so too do we create the worlds of Palomar and Watchmen by seeing enough facets to understand the jewel. For us as readers, the world of the story (in all four of its dimensions) is our absent friend, who becomes present through our accumulated knowledge.
1The convention I would normally follow for citing an author’s name is to use last name, such as I do with Moore and Gibbons. However, since I’ll be referring to both Hernandez brothers, I’m defaulting to using their first names as the least unwieldy alternative. No disrespect is intended. 🙂 [Back to post]
2The chronology on these two pieces is a bit mystifying to me. They’re reprinted in the Heartbreak Soup collection published by Fantagraphics in 2007, which touts its contents as “assembled for the first time in perfect chronological order.” They show up between “Heartbreak Soup” (1983) and “Act Of Contrition” (1984) in that volume. However, “A Little Story” is dated 1985 (it apparently debuted in the first L&R trade paperback), and “Toco” is dated 2002. Why Fantagraphics considers this “perfect chronological order” is quite beyond me. In any case, I’m leaving this paragraph in as a description of my own Palomar reading experience, which happened in the reprint, but note that for readers of the original magazine (including Moore), Palomar stories jumped from “Heartbreak Soup” straight to “Act Of Contrition.” [Back to post]
3Tipped hat and deep bow to Charles Hatfield for the detective work to match these dates.[Back to post]
4Thought bubbles have fallen out of favor over time in some modern comics, replaced by superimposed captions, images, or sudden panel transitions. Watchmen is a prime example of the no-thought-bubble approach.[Back to post]
5Gilbert’s last remark brings up a problem with the sort of critical comparative work I’m doing here — I’m working from reprints of Love And Rockets, as I don’t have access to the original issues. So if Los Bros changed things for the trade paperbacks, it’s quite possible that some of the mechanics I’m discussing may not have been as Moore saw them. This is an unfortunate consequence of the disposable and ephemeral nature of original comics pamphlets, which can sometimes be recovered via digital (albeit usually illegal) means, but are otherwise locked behind barriers of expense or distance. If you’ve got original L&R issues and can shed light on discrepancies between them and the collections, by all means let me know in the comments! [Back to post]
Before you read any further, please heed this warning: Watchmen spoilers ahead!
As I mentioned in my notes on method, I had originally decided to leave out any works I’d seen/read/heard/whatever before, but as the project has expanded, I’ve decided to throw those back in. At the time, I believed that meant that to finish with Chapter One, I’d need to write a post on Dylan and another on Taxi Driver.
However, in rereading the v2.0 Watchmen annotations for that chapter, I realized I’d missed something. Though it’s flying well under the radar, there is in fact a cultural reference in this panel, or at least the beginnings of one:
The annotations tell us that this panel is in fact:
The first appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes. (I don’t know if these are a Veidt product; the “Chariot” reference is his style, but the name refers to a Gospel song, which isn’t.)
Now, it isn’t at all evident from the panel itself that the sugar cubes have any particular brand name. All we see is a can labeled “Sugar”, and cubes individually wrapped with an “S” stamped on them. The cubes reappear, again anonymously, in Chapter 3, when Dreiberg seeks to sweeten Laurie’s coffee. (“Hell, I thought I had more sugar than that.”) It isn’t until Chapter 6 that we learn the brand name, from their description in Rorschach’s arrest paperwork, which includes among his possessions “5 individually wrapped cubes ‘Sweet Chariot’ chewing sugar.”
Nevertheless, the annotations are quite right that this is their first appearance, so let’s deal with them here. I don’t think there’s evidence in the text either way for whether those sugar cubes are a Veidt product, and I don’t think it much matters. The reference, however, to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, matters a lot, on a few different levels.
First, even before touching the referent, I would argue that the cubes and their name operate as a symbol for the relationship between Dreiberg and Rorschach. Dan carries Rorschach in several ways, the first of which is evident on this very page of Chapter 1. Rorschach is destitute, and seems to live mostly off scraps provided by others, through their generosity, fear, or ignorance. Today he takes his meal from Dreiberg’s beans and sugar, a metaphorical ride which is literally sweet.
Dan also provides resources to Rorschach. They were initially partners, back in the pre-Keene days, but even now Rorschach benefits from the products of Dreiberg’s genius, such as the grappling hook gun he uses when we first see him in Chapter 1, and again when trying to evade capture in Chapter 5. Even closer to a literal sweet chariot is Dan’s owlship Archie, which swings low to rescue Rorschach from prison, and later carries him all the way to what will be his final resting place.
There’s a sweetness to that relationship, seen most clearly in the awkward handshake between them in Chapter 10. A sugar cube makes a fine symbol for their friendship, rigid but soluble. For Detective Fine, the sugar cubes crystallize the connection between Dreiberg and Rorschach — he knows that Rorschach had those sugar cubes on him at his arrest, and comments when he visits Dreiberg, “Hey, ‘Sweet Chariot’ sugar cubes! Only come in catering packs, right?”
Just as the words “sweet chariot” reflect on Rorschach’s relationship with Nite Owl, so does the song itself reflect on his story. It’s a song, first and foremost, about death.
When I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Comin’ for to carry me home
A band of angels comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home
According to scholar Christa K. Dixon, “in the spirituals ‘Jordan’ refers mostly to the dividing line between wilderness-like earthly life and promised heavenly life.”1 A great many spirituals call upon some notion of transformation — that’s why so many of them center on the Book of Revelation — and in many of them, death is that transformation, a deliverance from the misery of slave life, and the promise of a heavenly reward. In “Swing Low,” that band of angels comes to retrieve the departed, to take him across the Jordan from this world into the next. The repeated refrain, “comin’ for to carry me home”, emphasizes the fact that the slave’s true home is not on Earth, but in heaven.
Rorschach also feels out of place in this world — for him it’s rudderless, morally blank. The only sane responses to it, as he sees it, are his own, and the Comedian’s. Something else binds those two characters together as well — though there’s an awful lot of death in Watchmen, only two of the main characters die: Rorschach and The Comedian. And since The Comedian’s death occurs before the story begins, only Rorschach can be said to die in the course of the plot. So naturally it’s with Rorschach that the Sweet Chariot cubes are associated — they foreshadow his death, and as he rides to meet it in Antarctica, he drops his final wrapper, which looms up huge in the camera’s eye.
However, while “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is most clearly about death, it has another layer of meaning. Historical evidence suggests that, among other songs, it was sometimes sung as a part of a slave code, signaling that an opportunity for escape was coming. In this context, “home” isn’t heaven but the free states of the North, and the angels aren’t supernatural guardians, but rather Underground Railroad “conductors” like Harriet Tubman. In fact, when Tubman died, the local newspaper reported that “she led those at her bedside in singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with her final breath.”2
Escape and rescue are recurring themes in superhero fiction, and Watchmen interrogates them, just as it does most other superhero tropes. With the Sweet Chariot sugar cubes, though, that interrogation begins only gradually. Rorschach first shakes them out of their container as he pursues what appears to be a traditional heroic trajectory: saving those in danger, in this case by warning them that the danger is coming. They appear again when Dan is taking care of Laurie, or trying to. This is a slightly more problematic idea of rescue, as he’s clearly attracted to her, and therefore has a bit of an ulterior motive. Also, she arguably she doesn’t need saving, having made her own sort of escape from a life she had begun to see as servitude. Nevertheless, Dan’s approach at this point mostly conforms to a typical heroic code of conduct, with him as the rescuer and Laurie as the damsel in distress, albeit in a considerably less dramatic idiom than superheroes normally occupy.
However, we learn that the sugar cubes are in fact called “Sweet Chariot” through an inversion of superheroic rescue — they’re listed in Rorshach’s arrest report, as part of the inventory of taken of his pockets when he was captured. Now he is the prisoner rather than the rescuer, and has to wait for Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II to be his conductors from bondage. In fact, the sugar cubes appear again in chapter 7, as Dan is sweetening Laurie’s coffee (this time successfully), just before they listen to news reports about Rorschach and Dan frets about how Rorshach will fare in jail.3 Then, when Fine visits in the next chapter, the sugar cubes provide evidence of Dan’s connection with Rorschach, and spurs the rescue effort: “Springing Rorschach any later than tomorrow isn’t safe.”
The final appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes in chapter 11, that wrapper blowing in the Antarctic wind, brings together the ideas of death and rescue. Rorschach is (somewhat unknowingly) heading towards his own death, but the mission that brings him there with Nite Owl is a heroic one: stopping Veidt’s destructive actions. Watchmen won’t let us have this rescue. Not only has the destruction happened well before the pair can intervene, but Veidt believes that the death is the rescue. In his “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” mentality, Veidt horribly brings together the two meanings of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, sending death raining down and believing that he’s ushering in “an age of illumination” by doing so.
There’s one final aspect of this allusion to consider, and it’s a big one. By invoking a song directly connected with American slavery, Moore’s use of “Sweet Chariot” invites us to consider race, specifically the past and present of African-Americans. What can we say about African-Americans in Watchmen?
A number of incidental characters are black — the postal carrier who picks up Rorschach’s journal, the watch seller up the street from the newsstand, some victims of the tenement fire rescue by Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, some patrons at Happy Harry’s, the prisoner Rorschach burns with cooking fat, the maid at Sally Jupiter’s retirement community. There are also three named African-American characters in the book: Bernie the younger (who reads the pirate comics), Malcolm Long (Rorschach’s psychiatrist), and Gloria Long, Malcolm’s wife.
This collection of characters neither adheres to stereotypes nor studiously avoids them. Bernie hangs out on the corner all day while his mom works, and speaks in street slang — “suit y’self, jive-ass”, or “shee-it.” Malcolm and Gloria, on the other hand, are consummate white-collar professionals, with educated diction and middle-class dinner parties in their bourgeois apartment. Likewise, the unnamed characters run a gamut, from criminals up to ordinary workers. There’s nothing in particular binding them together outside of race. Gloria underscores this point with her indignant response to Bernie the elder’s suggestion that maybe the watch seller knows Malcolm: “What? You think we’re all in some Negro club; that we all know each other?”
By making sure his African-American characters are neither demonized nor sanctified, Moore makes a point about race, albeit not a particularly deep one. A little more subversive is his suggestion that superheroes might serve a racist agenda. When Captain Metropolis tries to organize the Crimebusters, his display includes his labels for the types of “crime” to be fought: promiscuity, drugs, anti-war demonstrations, and… “black unrest.” Given that this meeting took place in 1966, and given the placement of the tag over Southern states, this “unrest” was almost certainly the Civil Rights Movement. Gardner is obviously a conservative, but it’s a little startling to think that he would want to employ operatives like Dr. Manhattan or The Comedian against peace protests and civil rights marches.
The New Frontiersman lives much further out on the right wing, and is even more shocking, in its favorable comparison between superheroes and the KKK:
Nova Express makes many sneering references to costumed heroes as direct descendents of the Ku Klux Klan, but might I point out that despite what some might view as their later excesses, the Klan originally came into being because decent people had perfectly reasonable fears for the safety of their persons and belongings when forced into proximity with people from a culture far less morally advanced.
It’s already stunning to read an argument defending the KKK, but the comparison between that group and superheroes is chilling indeed. And yet, we’re forced to admit that the comparison isn’t entirely off-base. Klan members dress themselves in distinctive costumes and ride into the night to defend their status quo. I’ve written before about how superheroes also defend the status quo, fighting against the forces of change.
In a typical superhero comic, those forces of change are obviously negative, but Watchmen challenges the genre fan’s assumption that this would always be so. Sometimes even the most progressive change is disruptive, and sometimes it deeply frightens people attached to the old order. When those people put on masks and terrorize the change agents, we find their actions despicable. Yet what is so different about superheroes themselves, besides the nature of the status quo they defend? And if they were defending a repugnant philosophy, by use of violence, wouldn’t we want a law preventing that?
There’s one more overt reference to race in Watchmen. It comes towards the end of Chapter 6, after Long’s last session with Rorschach, the one in which Rorschach tells the story of Gerald Grice and his dogs. In the journal entry that follows, Long’s diction has acquired the clipped patterns of Rorschach:
Walked home along 40th street. A black man tried to sell me a Rolex watch. When I kept walking he started shouting “Nigger! Hey nigger!” Ignored him. Bought paper.
This narration happens at the top left panel of a page. The previous panel was Long, palm to face, overwhelmed by the darkness of Rorschach’s experiences. Rorschach has told him that existence has “no meaning, save what we choose to impose,” and that it is only humans who create the brutality and evil of this world. Immediately afterward, the world seems determined to prove Rorschach right. On the next page, Long stares at an ink blot, and realizes: “In the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness.” And the final panel before the quote is just that: pure blackness.
Let me suggest that this ending has a metaphysical level, yes, but on another level it is also about, well, blackness. In the end, skin color, nose shape, hair curliness, and the rest have no meaning, save what we choose to impose. To understand the meanings we have chosen around race is to understand the horror of our history. The captivity and slavery that made people long for death, the bloody war we fought to vanquish it, the hooded men searing the night with beatings, burnings, and lynchings… it’s us. Only us.
3 There’s something a bit odd about this scene. On page 11, panel 2, we see the full bag of sugar cubes, and can read part of the “Sweet Chariot” label. On the next page, Dan asks Laurie, “Did I put enough sugar in the coffee? I went out to the store specially…” The issue had already made the point he was at the store — he cites that as the reason Laurie was able to activate the flamethrower: “I was down here checking out the systems earlier. I left everything switched on when I went out to the store.” So we know he was at the store, and that his main purpose was to get sugar.
But if “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes only come in catering packs, how did Dan pop over to the store to buy some? In the scene with Detective Fine in the next chapter, the fact that those cubes aren’t available at the store is why Fine cites them — if they only come in catering packs, Rorschach couldn’t have bought them, and therefore was much more likely to have been supplied by Dreiberg. This strikes me as an idea Moore had when writing chapter 8, and liked enough that he decided to overlook the contradictory evidence in chapter 7. [Back to post]
Hey, you. Yes, I’m talkin’ to you, because I want you to know that there are spoilers in here, both for Watchmen and for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. We’re talkin’ about Taxi Driver today because of one email@example.com, who turns out to be named Christian Burnham. Burnham contributed to the v2.0 Watchmen Annotations, those annotations being a crowdsourced effort built atop Doug Atkinson’s original work. Burnham was the one who asserted way back in my first installment that “Edward Blake is obviously a reference to Blake Edwards,” and that “Rorschach’s methods of terrorism are all taken from Pink Panther movies.”
This time around, he claims that “Rorschach’s opener on page 1 issue 1 is a dead ringer for the dialogue of Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver.” Burnham has a tendency to overstate the case, and this time is no exception. While it’s true that both Rorschach and Bickle (Robert De Niro) keep a diary, and that their diary entries are provided in “voiceover” to give us insight into their minds, I wouldn’t call one a “dead ringer” for the other. There are definitely similarities, but also some important differences. Let’s compare styles.
Rorschach: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper ‘No.'”
Bickle: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain’ll come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”
Both these excerpts begin with shocking language and images. Both indicate a loathing and revulsion for the urban environment. But Rorschach’s opening sentence imitates his speech patterns — clipped sentence fragments, with articles and pronouns extracted, an almost Tonto-ish way of talking. Moore in fact uses this pattern as a tool later on to indicate the psychological split between when Walter Kovacs simply wore a mask and when he became Rorschach, as well as the psychological shift in Malcolm Long.
Interestingly, the rest of the excerpt (and most of Rorschach’s diary) is much more discursive than his usual speech. He spins grandiose, almost biblical images, like this one in which he stands as the vengeful god to punish human sins. Elsewhere, he documents the city as he sees it, or takes notes on the murder case. He even tells a joke.
Travis, on the other hand, is much more prosaic and down-to-earth. He talks about what happens in his job, how much he makes, and recounts details like “I had black coffee and apple pie with a slice of melted yellow cheese.” His diction is slangy and vernacular (not to mention casually racist and homophobic), where Rorschach tends toward theatrical, elevated words. Travis would never say something like, “This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.” When his diary entries become introspective, they tend to be vulnerable and searching, as opposed to Rorschach’s judgmental pronouncements. Travis reviles the city, sure, but he also explicitly laments his loneliness, something Rorschach only barely approaches when he asks (without a trace of irony), “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”
However, just because Rorschach’s journal isn’t a “dead ringer” for Travis’s diary doesn’t mean that the comparison between Watchmen and Taxi Driver is pointless. On the contrary, I think it’s a very useful juxtaposition, one which illuminates them both.
THE NEW NOIR
Taxi Driver gets called a neo-noir film, a term which more or less means “a whole lot like film noir but made after 1958.” (See Hirsch and Schwartz, for example.) The notion of film noir itself has never enjoyed a stable, consensus definition, and in fact there is still contention over, for instance, whether it’s a style or a genre. But like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s relationship to pornography, critics know it when they see it.
Here are some film noir commonplaces:
A mood of pessimism, cynicism, and/or fatalism
Night scenes, especially night scenes in a city
Rain. Lots and lots of rain.
Also lots of smoke and smoking
Femmes fatales. As Roger Ebert puts it, “Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.”
An ordinary person drawn into crime, often based on some relationship with a femme fatale
A grim investigator unraveling a crime, an investigation which often reveals deep corruption
Odd or askew camera angles
Shadowy or high-contrast visual composition
Flashbacks, particularly telling the bulk of the movie in flashback, introduced by a frame story
First-person voiceover narration
A movie doesn’t have to have all of these to be considered noir, but the more of them that occur in one movie, the more noir it becomes. Once I started thinking about Taxi Driver as a noir movie, it became blindingly obvious to me that Watchmen is a noir comic book, or at the very least that Rorschach is a noir character, right down to his 1940s trenchcoat and fedora. While his narration differs from that of Travis, the presence of their narration serves the same set of functions. It sets the grim tenor of the story but makes it clear that the mood is filtered through one character’s mind, and that this character is himself unreliable and twisted in certain aspects.
The juxtaposition of narration and images allows us sometimes to see the story’s world as the character sees it, and other times to understand through ironic contrast where the character’s perceptions are limited, or where he may be lying to himself or others. And as both Taxi Driver and Watchmen postdate the classic film noir period, they are fully aware of noir conventions and use voiceover as a kind of combination homage and allegiance.
They have plenty in common with the noir sensibility besides the voiceover, too. Both have an overall sinister tone, and both end with a psychopathic character unexpectedly cast in a heroic light. Both stalk the rainy night city, Travis in his cab and Rorschach on foot. Smoke, too, figures into each story in different ways. None of the characters in Taxi Driver smoke, but mist and steam emanates from the streets themselves — the first several shots in the film include a taxi emerging from a cloud of smoke (along with the title itself), and that same smoke following Travis as he walks into the cab service to apply for a job.
Lots of characters smoke in Watchmen. In just the first two chapters, we see Detective Fine, Hollis Mason, various criminals, restaurant patrons, Laurie Juspeczyk, and Eddie Blake smoking various types of cigarettes or cigars. In addition to his stogie, Blake also shoots riot gas to smoke up the streets, and makes Captain Metropolis’ map go up in smoke as well. However, the smokiest thing about the book is easily Rorschach’s dialogue balloons. The character is never seen with a cigarette, but every time he talks or thinks, the edges of his words crinkle and curl, an ever-present noir vapor.
Femmes fatales, on the other hand, are noticeably missing from both works. I’ve already discussed the role of women overall in Watchmen: they mainly exist to demonstrate or alter male emotional states. That is somewhat true for the classic femme fatale as well, but in Watchmen the women are more victims than masterminds. No woman is calling the shots on anything in that story, but rather stumbling or being thrown from one mishap to another. Even Janey Slater, clearly embittered and smoking up a storm, turns out to have been Adrian’s pawn in her takedown of Dr. Manhattan.
Women in Taxi Driver are filtered through Travis’s consciousness, which will only allow for two categories: virgin and whore. He can hardly bear either one. He idolizes what he sees as the purity and elevation of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), and even manages to take her out on a date, only to make the site of their date a porno theater, as if he must taint that purity and expose the taintedness of his own inner self. Then he fixates upon a different mix of virgin and whore: the twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). Where he wanted to sully Betsy’s innocence, he wants to restore Iris’s, trying to convince her to go back home, and sending her $500 to help her leave her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel). In neither case does he engage with the woman in question as a person, but rather interacts almost exclusively with his projections of them.
No, it isn’t a femme fatale who draws Travis into mass murder. Rather, it is his utter inability to connect with other human beings. Whether this disconnection is an aftereffect of service in Vietnam, or whether it is inherent to Travis himself, the film doesn’t make clear. However, his “loneliness has followed me all my life” voiceover suggests that while Vietnam may have stoked his inclination to violence, Travis’s fundamental alienation is his own.
De Niro does a masterful job of building upon screenwriter Paul Schrader’s script to demonstrate Travis’s utter lack of facility with simple personal interactions. He’s baffled by simple expressions like “moonlighting” or “how’s it hangin’?”. He’s culturally isolated — at various points he says he doesn’t know much about movies, much about music. He watches his television periodically, with a look of longing and confusion on his face; eventually he pushes that TV off its stand, destroying it. In a knowing twist on noir convention, Travis tries to kill the father figures of his various women, not at their urging, but as a sort of revenge for the relationships they have, which he is forever denied.
Watchmen takes the other noir plot — not the common man corrupted but the cynical detective whose astute investigations soon land him in trouble beyond his capacity to deal with. Moore begins the story as a standard murder mystery, and in fact for a moment we believe we might be following the police investigation of Eddie Blake’s death. Soon enough we are following Rorschach, but even then, the pattern of introducing a series of characters and providing background on the deceased is a familiar one to mystery readers. Watchmen turns out to have a lot more on its mind than just solving a crime, but at least from Rorschach’s point of view, his trajectory is not all that different from that of the classic Phillip Marlowe or J.J. Gittes type, the private eye whose own investigation devastates and undoes him.
As for visual style, both Watchmen and Taxi Driver employ enough shadows and unsettling angles to easily qualify as neo-noir. Taxi Driver gives us shots of Travis’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, framed by blackness. It shows us fetishized close-ups of the taxi itself, driving through the rain, with garish Times Square movie marquees and porn store signs in the background. There’s a motif of high-angle shots straight down on a tableau – the personnel officer’s desk, the porn theater counter, the gun suitcase, Betsy’s desk. These culminate in a magnificent high-angle shot of the mass murder scene, moving slowly past the heads of stunned policemen, down the hallway and out into the street.
That same high angle appears in Watchmen‘s very first set of panels, the ones with the narration that started us down this road. The camera looks down at the bloodstained street, gradually pulling up, up, up to the site of Blake’s defenestration. Weird camera angles and shadowy composition abound especially (and not surprisingly) in the portions of Watchmen focused on Rorschach.
In Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry”, we get a recurring shot of the Rumrunner’s neon sign, reflected in a puddle, disturbed by Rorschach’s footstep. It’s a perfect noir shot, encompassing rain, darkness, the sinister city, and a sense of foreboding and destruction. Rorschach’s mask itself is the ultimate in high-contrast, its shadows always moving across his face. This effect is played up in “The Abyss Gazes Also”, whose penultimate panel is in fact nothing but blackness.
Finally, there are the flashbacks. Taxi Driver has none — it refuses to explain Travis by exploring his past, and it almost exclusively sticks to his point of view, denying us the capacity of understanding his world beyond his perception of it. Watchmen, on the other hand, is flashback-crazy. Whole chapters take us into the backstory of various characters, and previous chapters get called back by later chapters. Even single panels sometimes quickly throw us back to the past before returning to the scene at hand. Both, in their way, subvert the traditional noir mode of a frame story taking us into the past, either by sticking zenlike in the present or jumping around through time all the time.
Still, while neither Watchmen nor Taxi Driver ticks every box on the film noir checklist, there is more than enough evidence to call them both noir stories. But there’s something more: they’re also both superhero stories.
THE URBAN VIGILANTE
There are many ways to interpret the plot of Taxi Driver. Here’s one. An ordinary man, Travis Bickle, takes a blue-collar job after returning from war. This job brings him in contact with the worst parts of New York City. He sees firsthand the violence, the constant menace, the routine attacks upon innocent people, including attacks upon Travis himself. He witnesses the sleaze and degradation occurring in the city at night, and it becomes clear to him that the establishment police and politicians are fundamentally unable to stem its tide. He even connects with a heartbreaking victim of the city’s evil: a twelve-year-old girl named Iris, forced into prostitution by a pimp named Sport. That pimp pays Travis $20 to look the other way.
This $20 bill becomes a totem to Travis. He carries it with him, plagued by his guilt about not saving Iris from her dangerous situation. Finally, he makes up his mind to make a difference. “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time,” he writes in his diary. “True force.” He embarks on an intense regimen of physical training, honing his body until every muscle is tight, and he is nearly impervious to pain. He purchases an arsenal of weaponry, and rigs up ways to attach those weapons to his body, deploying them quickly when needed. He puts together a uniform which allows him to conceal the equipment he carries. “Here is a man who would not take it anymore,” he writes.
He uses the $20 bill to pay for Iris’ time, in a failed attempt to get her to leave Sport of her own volition. But he finally realizes: he is the one who must rescue her, and save the innocence of the city itself. He creates a new persona and guise, one which will strike fear into the hearts of those he hunts. At first, he tries to bring down the corrupt system by targeting a political demagogue, but he soon realizes that he must go into the underworld directly. Armed with his equipment and his frightening appearance, he defeats Sport and two of Sport’s henchmen. He returns Iris to her parents, and is hailed by them and by the media in general as a hero. Some time later, he has returned to his job in his ordinary identity, but we know that he is ready to confront evil again, whenever he encounters it.
Sounds an awful lot like a superhero origin story, doesn’t it? In a certain light, Travis doesn’t look so different from Bruce Wayne, or Tony Stark, or Frank Castle: men without superhuman powers, but who nonetheless deploy muscles, weapons, and a frightening appearance to fight the crime in their societies. For that matter, he’s even closer to a character like Rorschach, who shares all those qualities with Travis, and a few more as well.
Rorschach’s own origin story touches a lot of those same points. Walter Kovacs comes from a traumatic past and enters a blue-collar job. In the course of that job, he encounters a woman who later becomes the victim of a horrifying crime. Kovacs sees not only the ineffectiveness of standard social structures, but also the impassive detachment of people in general to the evil that surrounds them. He trains his body for strength and endurance, and acquires a set of equipment, a uniform, and a countenance to frighten the criminals he’s chosen to fight. He records his thoughts in a journal, in which he repeats his philosophy to himself. His culminating trip over the edge happens in response to the victimization of a child — his personality finds its fullest cohesion by murdering the victimizer.
Taxi Driver wasn’t meant to serve as a commentary on superhero stories, but it certainly was aware of its cinematic precursors, urban vigilante films like Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, and Death Wish. In those films, a man suffers tragedy and/or witnesses evil, and decides it’s time to work outside the law. He arms himself and slaughters the criminal(s) responsible.
The difference is that in the preceding films, the vigilante is lionized and held as the moral center, in contrast to corrupt or incompetent law enforcement. Schrader applies a corrective to this narrative with Taxi Driver, showing us that the man who kills criminals is himself violently disturbed. In fact, in Taxi Driver Travis simply wants to kill the father figure to one of his women, and tries first to kill the presidential candidate. It’s only because he fails, and ends up killing the pimp, that he is hailed as a hero. Watchmen, too, deeply problematizes the notion of vigilante heroism, in response to a similar romanticization of it in superhero comics. It shows Rorschach, like Travis, to be a deeply lonely man, one who has become insane and dangerous based on his experiences and his disconnection.
Travis Bickle does not understand other human beings. He sees them as objects — threats, idols, barriers. His movies are porn movies, whose entire job is to turn people into objects. Porn lets you project yourself, explicitly, into a sexual interaction. It’s the closest Travis comes to a connection. Rorschach, too, does not relate to other people, and tends to see them as objects, pawns on a board. Moreover, the traditional superhero genre has a hard time understanding human beings as well. It objectifies them into projection screen, threat, barrier, or prize. Watchmen surrounds Rorschach with humans, rather than objects, and by doing so reveals the absurdity of his Objectivism.
Film noir was never concerned with heroism. Its subject was the darker sides of humanity, and how the naive man can be inadvertently drawn into them. Both the urban vigilante film and the superhero genre, however, take heroism as a central theme and trope. By mixing noir into these genres, Taxi Driver and Watchmen leave us questioning those tropes, and understanding that sometimes our cultural perception of good is no more valid than our perception of evil. Travis Bickle looks in the mirror and says, “You talkin’ to me?” But he’s only talking to himself. It’s Scorsese, Schrader, Moore, and Gibbons who are talking to us.
Once there was a man who revolutionized his field. Emerging from a working-class background in a desolate town, he absorbed every bit of knowledge he could, and in his youth joined a community of like-minded artists. Eventually he found work in the big city, and began attracting notice in his chosen arena. The pace of his creative genius accelerated, and soon he was releasing one brilliant work after another, in rapid succession. Each one individually was a mind-blowing leap forward, and taken in totality they completely upended everyone’s assumptions about what was artistically possible in the domain.
He took a genre that was considered disposable trash aimed at children, and made it matter, bringing a highly literate and literary sensibility it had never seen before. With humor, drama, and passion, he got the world’s attention on not only his own work, but the possibilities it implied for the entire medium. He emerged from this period an indisputable legend, and no matter how many fallow years or bizarre religious conversions may follow, nothing will tarnish that accomplishment.
This man goes by the name of Bob Dylan.
I think it’s easy to see why Alan Moore admires and appreciates Dylan, going so far as to quote him for two different epigraphs in Watchmen, a distinction matched only by the Bible. Moore is the Bob Dylan of comics, and has come to struggle similarly under the staggering weight of his well-earned prestige and fame. But enough of the parallel, let’s dig into the inspiration for Chapter 1’s quote and title. Be warned that spoilers abound below for Watchmen.
Chapter 1 of Watchmen is titled “At Midnight, All The Agents…”, and the annotations quite rightly inform us that the quote comes from “Bob Dylan’s song ‘Desolation Row‘”. Of course, the “Bob Dylan” part isn’t terribly hard to track down — he’s cited in the final panel of the chapter, with a fuller version of the quote: “At midnight, all the agents and superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” (This is actually a misquote in several areas, as we’ll see below.) But “Desolation Row” is a huge song, a 10-verse epic that clocks in at 11 minutes and 21 seconds. So we’ve got a little room to expand – let’s have the full stanza! It’s the 8th one in the song.
At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row
“Desolation Row” was released in 1965, a pretty good year for the agents and the superhuman crew. That year, Goldfinger broke box office records around the world, becoming the fastest-grossing film of all time. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a cultural phenomenon, spawning merchandise ranging from t-shirts to board games to record albums, not to mention a host of imitators and parodies. Meanwhile, in the superhero comicbook world a revolution was in swing, led by Stan Lee and his Merry Marvel Marching Society. Superheroes were popular not just with kids, but increasingly on college campuses as well.
Dylan’s lyric punctures this euphoria in a way that partly foreshadows Watchmen. Here, the heroes of 1965 aren’t targeting bank robbers or world-shattering conspiracies or what-have-you, but rather “everyone that knows more than they do.” They are the agents of anti-intellectualism and anti-creativity, enforcing hegemony on behalf of an Establishment status quo. All those smart people get bound to a machine, inside a factory, their art and intellect caged in symbols of capitalism, regimentation, and meaningless work. And it only gets worse from there, as more Establishment figures descend from Kafka-esque castles with kerosene, surely in preparation for something like a holocaust. The agents and superhumans work for these insurance men, ensuring that nobody escapes the consequences of enlightenment.
It’s also hard to escape the Vietnam draft angle on this verse. In 1965, the United States began calling up 35,000 young men every month to fight in the Vietnam War, a war against the specter of Communism, at least as it was perceived by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It was an insurance man’s war — a premium paid in lives, year over year, against the hypothetical catastrophe posited by the “Domino Theory”, the notion that if one republic falls to the Red Menace, a chain reaction would ensue and next thing you knew we’d be the only capitalist democracy in the world, drowning in a sea of red. The agents and superhuman crew were full participants in this narrative, battling one Communist menace after another in their comics, movies, and TV episodes. In addition to the actual government rounding up young people, these stories were doing cultural work to get kids on the government’s side.
The skeptical view of spies and crusaders in “Desolation Row” informs Watchmen too, though the book’s superhuman crew is far less monolithic than Dylan’s. The Watchmen character closest to what Dylan describes is surely The Comedian, who spends his time “working for the government… knocking over Marxist republics.” He would have no compunction whatsoever at rounding up whoever he was told to round up, and bringing them wherever he was told to bring them. Then there’s Ozymandias, who indeed spends much of the book rounding up artists, scientists, writers, and even the head of a dead psychic. They may or may not know more than the so-called “world’s smartest man”, but he certainly puts them to work in his island factory, and then destroys them with fire. Nobody escapes Adrian’s “lethal pyramid.”
Still, the title appears on page 6 as a caption to Rorschach, and it is Rorschach who ventures forth at midnight, rounding up the superhuman crew themselves. It’s certainly safe to say that Dr. Manhattan knows more than Rorschach does — he knows more than anyone does, though that knowledge doesn’t prevent him from being surprised sometimes, nor from sometimes enforcing the state’s agenda for a while, just as The Comedian does. And of course Ozymandias knows more than Rorschach does, since he is after all the author of the murder mystery Rorschach is attempting to solve through his midnight maneuvers. All these stories meet at the book’s metaphorical midnight, when the superhuman crew themselves know more than everyone else, and allow none to escape their pact of secrecy.
That final panel misquotes the lyric, skipping the definite article in front of “superhuman”, substituting “go” for “come”, and “who” for “that”. However, there may not be much to be drawn from that fact — in the original comic version of Watchmen #1, the final panel is simply black, with the doomsday clock at the bottom. Quotes appear in that final panel in every subsequent issue of Watchmen, so apparently the DC editors decided to alter the final panel of #1 to match for the graphic novel. That it misquotes the song is likely nothing to do with Moore, and everything to do with imprecise editorial work.
As long as we’re looking closely, though, let’s observe that in this verse, Desolation Row isn’t the place to escape from, it’s the place to escape to. Every verse in the song ends with the words “Desolation Row”, and in this case it stands outside the nightmarish factory, as an unreachable alternative to the horrors within.
So what is Desolation Row, anyway? To find out, let’s start at the beginning. Here’s how the song opens:
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
“Postcards of the hanging” is an image for which Dylan critic Mark Polizzotti has an explanation. In Polizzotti’s book on Highway 61 Revisited (the album which “Desolation Row” closes), he tells of a lynching which occurred in 1920 in Dylan’s birthplace: Duluth, Minnesota. Six young black circus hands were accused of sexually assaulting a white teenager. Three of the accused men were dragged from jail by a mob numbering in the thousands. They were beaten, and hung from lampposts. According to Polizzotti, “A photograph of the incident, which circulated widely as a commemorative postcard, shows a crowd of Duluthians proudly posing around the three limp bodies.” (Highway 61 Revisited, pg. 134)
This horrible image leads off a parade of grotesques, which the verse winds up with, “As Lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row.” Once again, Desolation Row is placed outside the realm of horror, as the observation point in which the song’s narrator stands. So, in some sense, it appears to be the everyday world, or at least the narrator’s place in that world. It’s a grim vantage point because of all the human cruelty and evil that surrounds it.
The image won’t be pinned down so easily, though. In other verses, it’s where Cinderella sweeps up after ambulances carry away a misguided lover. It’s where Einstein used to play the electric violin, an image evocative of both Nero and of Dylan himself, who was in the midst of shocking his audience by playing an electric version of his chosen instrument. It’s the site of a carnival to be attended by the Good Samaritan, the forbidden zone for Casanova, and a taboo peepshow for Ophelia. As all these archetypes come into play, and as the prepositions shift around it (from, to, about, on), the notion of Desolation Row transcends any sense of physical place. It is, instead, a state of mind.
Desolation Row is how it feels to see black bodies swinging from lampposts in your hometown. How it feels to watch young men die in the name of a paranoid fantasy. How it feels to see potential scholars and artists locked into roles they didn’t choose, their minds’ gifts and their true selves ignored in favor of what their back and hands can do before they break. How it feels to watch love carried away in an ambulance. How it feels to be Cassandra, speaking the truth but never believed. “How does it feel?” cries Dylan in “Like A Rolling Stone”, the song at the other end of Highway 61 Revisited. How it feels is Desolation Row.
It’s where you stand, outside the horror but seeing it clearly, framing it with symbols. What becomes clear from this observation point is that we are the authors of our own nightmares. As Polizzotti puts it, “the fault lies not in our political or social institutions, but hopelessly, irrevocably in ourselves.” (Ibid., pg. 138) Or, in the words of another Desolation Row denizen:
I’ve mentioned lots of famous characters, both real and fictional — Cinderella, Ophelia, Einstein, Casanova, and so forth. There are plenty more in the lyrics of “Desolation Row”, such as Cain and Abel, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Phantom of the Opera. In fact, the agents and superhuman crew are unusual in the song for being referred to as a general category rather than a specific example. Dylan puts these figures to work as archetypes, fundamental examples of concepts such as poetry, romance, doomed love, brilliance, and so forth. However, we never find them doing quite what we expect — they’re placed well outside their usual stories. Pound and Eliot are fighting in the captain’s tower of the Titanic. Einstein wanders around disguised as Robin Hood, smoking and reciting the alphabet. And then of course there are those fascistic superheroes. Dylanologist Clinton Heylin sums it up: “Dylan relies almost solely on placing familiar characters in disturbingly unfamiliar scenarios, revealing a series of increasingly disturbing canvases.” (Revolution In The Air, pg. 248)
Ring any bells? Alan Moore didn’t have the familiar characters available, though not for lack of trying. Instead, he reflected the Charlton characters just enough to open up their connections to much broader categories. As Dave Gibbons puts it, “The Charlton characters were superhero archetypes. There was the Superman figure, the Batman figure…. We realized we could create our own archetypes and tell a story about all superheroes.” Except, these superheroic emblems weren’t doing their usual thing, but instead find themselves in disturbingly unfamiliar scenarios, such as the extreme grimness of Rorschach’s “origin”, Silk Spectre’s Tijuana Bible, and the Vietnam killings of Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian. Watchmen‘s world is a lot like that of Dylan’s song, but the only observation point is from outside the book. Even Mars isn’t far enough away.
In the tenth and final verse of “Desolation Row”, Dylan shows his cards at last, letting us know what he’s been doing in the other nine. The cultural tokens fade away, the symbolic giving way to the personal:
Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row
It doesn’t really matter whether he’s talking about people in his life or talking about the condition of humans in general — what matters is that he has to rearrange their faces, and give them all another name. That’s what Cinderella, Einstein, and the rest are up to — new faces and new names for the “lame” people he’s all too familiar with. Through this rearrangement, draping the people he knows in symbolic clothes, and sending them out to make their way in a world of horrors, Dylan lets us see the things we know ourselves in a startling new light.
New faces and new names are a core trope of the superhero genre, too. What Dylan does to his subjects, superheroes do to themselves — changing their faces with masks and cowls (or perhaps just strategic eyewear removal), and declaring new names, new identities for their heroic undertakings. The characters in Watchmen have certainly done this, sometimes more than once — Sally Juspeczyk sets aside her ethnic Polish surname for the flashier “Jupiter”, and then throws a Silk Spectre on top of that. In response to the Keene Act, some then rearrange again, going back to their old names. And finally, after attaining and then shedding an archetypal identity, a few transform once more, into the ultimate expression of that archetype. Dr. Manhattan goes from godlike to simply god. Ozymandias builds a futile monument for the ages. Rorschach becomes a blot.
Pulling back one more level, we can see that Watchmen itself does this. It rearranges the faces of the Charlton heroes, giving them all new names. And in an even larger sense than this, it invites us to view superheroes from Desolation Row, rearranging the face of the entire genre.