Back Issues is a feature discussing collected comics series in the hopes that A.V. Club regulars will read along with us and participate in a group discussion of each major arc. This week follows part one with an examination of Watchmen #4-6 and Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach.
Watchmen #4-6 summary: During his self-imposed exile on Mars, Dr. Manhattan looks back at his life and contemplates his future, creating a glass clockwork fortress on the surface of the red planet. Back on Earth, Rorschach continues his investigation into the cape killer by checking back with Moloch and digging through garbage, Laurie Juspeczyk moves in with Dan Dreiberg, and an assassin comes after Adrian Veidt. Rorschach is taken into police custody after being set up, and his therapist learns about Walter Kovacs’ traumatic history and what it means to truly understand the man’s fractured mind.
Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach summary: In Brian Azzarello and J.G. Jones’ Comedian, the story of Edward Blake is connected to the history of the United States from 1962 to 1968. The series details Blake’s connection to the Kennedy clan, his entrance into the Vietnam War, and the terror that comes when The Comedian drops acid in the middle of a war zone. Azzarello is joined by artist Lee Bermejo for Rorschach, a hyper-violent look at how Walter Kovacs passes a few days in seedy 1970s New York City that pits the vigilante against a scarred Vietnam-vet warlord and a serial killer who carves poetry into his victims’ flesh.
Oliver Sava: In the text piece at the end of Watchmen #4, Jon Osterman’s colleague Professor Milton Glass writes about his initial reaction to seeing Osterman’s transformation, clarifying the popular misquotation that he said, “The superman exists and he’s American.” In actuality, his words were, “God exists and he's American,” but it’s a lot easier for a terrified public to accept a superman living among them than a god. The word “man” is even in the label, and a man can be controlled whereas a god cannot. Yet while Dr. Manhattan may be an omnipotent being, holding onto his former humanity has made him vulnerable.
Watchmen #4 is when he begins to sever those ties by examining where he came from and what he’s become during his self-imposed exile. It’s also another ingenious use of the comic-book medium by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, depicting Dr. Manhattan’s complex relationship with time and space through the interaction of words and images on the page. Dr. Manhattan is in tune with the quantum mechanics of the universe; he experiences the past, present, and future all at once, no longer observing life one second at a time like his watchmaker father. There’s no easy way to depict that point of view in static images, but this is another instance where the book’s rigid nine-panel grid is an advantage. I mentioned last week that the layout visually evokes the ticking of a clock, and that’s an integral part of this issue’s structure. The panels are constantly switching between then and now with Jon’s narration always in the present tense, signifying that he is always experiencing everything in the moment, no matter where in the timeline.
I first attempted to read Watchmen in the seventh grade, and while some of the darker comics of the late ’90s prepared me for the mature elements of the first three issues, I had never read anything like the fourth chapter of this book. It was also the last issue I read during that first attempt; I had no frame of reference for its philosophical concepts and personal-relationship issues, so they effectively scared away the 13-year-old who still delighted in the Power Rangers’ simplistic adventures. I needed to accumulate more life experiences before I could relate to a story about a person who is reliving his past, present, and future at all times and is constantly aware of all his successes and failures.
Reliving the smallest bit of past shame through the warped perception of my memory is hard enough, so I can’t even imagine the emotional taxation of constantly feeling the reality of that moment plus every other one. Luckily, I have Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons to do the imagining for me, creating a reasonable facsimile of Dr. Manhattan’s infinite viewing experience that makes it out to be a life of emotional detachment and depressing loneliness. Jason, what do you think Alan Moore is saying about the relationship between human emotion and time in Dr. Manhattan’s story? And taking a meta detour, how do you feel about the idea that Dr. Manhattan is a stand-in for the readers, who hold the entirety of the Watchmen universe in their hands but are unable to change any of the fixed narrative’s events?
Jason Heller: I’m glad you brought up the theme of time, Oliver—not just because it’s so central to Watchmen, to the point where it’s built right into the title’s double entendre, but because Moore uses it as far more than an intellectual plaything. Dr. Manhattan’s emotional detachment is as much of a function of time as anything else—or at least his manner of experiencing it, as you’ve summed up. Not to dwell too much on the structural elements of Watchmen and what they might symbolize, but the strict, nine-panel grid always struck me as a way for Moore to emphasize the arbitrary superimposition of a specific worldview or perceptual bias upon the chaos of reality—one that makes that chaos easier to process. It also reminds the reader that these panels act as windows (you know, like the one The Comedian got thrown through), and that we are indeed watching from a distance—not necessarily with Dr. Manhattan being a surrogate for the reader, as you speculate, but as a fellow dispassionate watchperson. Unlike many authors (or filmmakers or playwrights), Moore doesn’t want you to forget you’re watching a constructed drama unfold—he wants to continually reinforce that reality.
In that sense, I do think that Moore was in line with the hip pop-physics of the era. Fritjoff Capra’s The Tao Of Physics wasn’t yet that old, and its popularization of the already established connections between quantum physics and Eastern philosophy—including the way interacting with a reality (or choosing not to) has an effect on said reality. I was in high school when Watchmen was coming out as individual issues; I believe #9 was the first one I bought, and I backtracked from there while trying to keep up with the new issues as they came out, which wasn’t easy back then in the age of spottier retail stocking. (Sorry, I managed a comic-book store in the early ’90s, so I still look back on that era with my wonk-goggles on.) In any case, I didn’t have the luxury of experiencing Watchmen for the first time in “linear” fashion—and I use quotes because even reading all 12 chapters straight through isn’t a strictly linear experience in the first place. At the time, I was also very much into books like The Tao Of Physics, so it all made a synchronous kind of sense to me. I can’t pretend I was (or am) smart enough to fully grasp the nuts and bolts of quantum mechanics. But I do know that my brain worked in a pretty convoluted way as a kid, and I was drawn to Moore’s unconventional use of time (for comics, anyway).
Remember, this was six whole years before Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics came out—a book that draws out and defines the kinds of techniques and approaches toward graphic narrative that Moore had already utilized in Watchmen. And Moore had done so in a way that cleverly ties into his whole quantum physics thing. A foundation of that science is the seemingly paradoxical fact that light can be perceived as either a wave or a particle; in a sense, that’s what Moore is saying about the flow of time and perception on a comic-book page, with panels being discrete particles that nonetheless fully define a wave of narrative. With film, as McCloud points out in Understanding Comics, that illusion—the gaps between frames—is smoothed over in our minds. Not so with comics; a page of panels does indeed appear as a wave and a stream of particles simultaneously.
I’d say I was reading way too much into all this, only we’re talking Alan Moore here. This is the kind of thing at which he excels: taking his pet themes and motifs and working analogs into the very structure of his narratives. But there is the emotional element, too, and I think if anything, there’s an overwhelming poignancy to Dr. Manhattan’s detachment. In fact, I think “detachment” is too simple a word; we see, in chapter 4 of Watchmen, just how much he lingers with a weary, inscrutable smile on some of the most intimate moments of his experience. I’ve read Watchmen probably a dozen times since it came out, and the more I do, the more Dr. Manhattan reminds me of Thoreau at Walden: removing himself from humanity in order to connect with his humanity, the ultimate introvert, which of course is what God would also have to be. Just a quick glance at some Thoreau quotes reveals just how much they align with Dr. Manhattan’s contemplation of Earth from, in essence, heaven:
“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.”
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.”
“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”
“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.”
That last quote is the zinger, as far as the Thoreau-at-Walden/Dr. Manhattan-on-Mars synchronicity goes. “Aim above morality,” indeed. And on that note, Oliver, it seems like a good point to ask you how you view Dr. Manhattan’s Nietzschean-superman transcendence over feckless human morality, and how it plays out in the other two chapters that you and I will be discussing—chapters that focus on Nietzsche’s hideous little foot soldier, Rorschach.
OS: These are the times I wish I had spent more time paying attention in my philosophy courses instead of reading comics in the back of the classroom. I view Dr. Manhattan not as the Nietzschean superman but as the Nietzschean God who represents a system of beliefs (in this case, nuclear power is the higher power) that is eliminated by the work of the Übermensch Ozymandias. It’s the Übermensch’s role to create a new value system in the void left by God’s absence, a role that Adrian Veidt is happy to assume. And then there’s Rorschach, the ultimate nihilist, who doesn’t look at Dr. Manhattan as God because he doesn’t believe God exists. Dr. Manhattan is a living weapon to Rorschach, a weapon taken out of commission at a very inopportune time.
Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are drastically different, but they’ve both detached themselves from that feckless human morality you mention. Dr. Manhattan’s separation came courtesy of a freak accident that changed his entire perception of reality, but Rorschach’s break is the result of years of psychological trauma. Walter Kovacs’ experience as the child of a verbally and physically abusive prostitute severely alters his perception of morality at a young age, and his viewpoint becomes more warped once he became a costumed vigilante. That’s when Rorschach ends up working the kidnapping case that rips away the veil and reveals the universe’s true nihilistic nature:
“Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose.”
After all we’ve written about structure, it’s impossible for me to not see all the meta layers of the line, “Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long,” especially when it comes after an issue that is all about ascribing a strict visual blueprint to the narrative. In a series known for its ingenious use of the comic-book medium, Watchmen #5, “Fearful Symmetry,” is the structural highpoint, a completely symmetrical chapter in which the panel layouts of the first half are reflected in the second half. “Fearful Symmetry” is the bridge between the Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach-centric issues, with Ozymandias smack dab in the middle, less than God but more than a man. There’s a lot happening in #5, and Ozymandias is at the center of it all, foreshadowing the big reveal at the end of the series.
Before diving into Rorschach specifically, I want to go back to your comment that Moore wants to reinforce that we are watching a constructed drama occur. Moore isn’t shy about Bertolt Brecht’s influence on his work, citing the playwright by name in the text piece at the end of #5, but that’s in reference to Tales Of The Black Freighter taking its name from the pirate ship in Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Moore would return to The Threepenny Opera in League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century—1910, casting Captain Nemo’s daughter Janni as the play’s Pirate Jenny, a spiteful maid who joins the Black Freighter’s crew when pirates ransack her town.
One of the main principles of Brechtian epic theatre is reminding the viewer that they are watching a play. These works should not engender an illusion that allows the viewers to lose themselves in the characters and the situations. By keeping the audience aware that they are in a theater watching a performed piece, epic theatre gives them the opportunity to become critical observers rather than living vicariously through the staged experiences. The Black Freighter comics are thematically tied to the main narrative, but their essential function is Brechtian in nature, making the reader conscious that this is, indeed, a comic book. Moore and Gibbons do fantastic work creating an immersive world in Watchmen, but it’s equally impressive how they still manage to keep the reader at a distance.
As much as I enjoy Watchmen, it’s far more of an intellectually stimulating experience than an emotional one, but that’s also because I’ve become so enamored with the structure of the thing and how the creative teams puts all these pieces together. Rereading “Fearful Symmetry” is always a good hour of me flipping back and forth to see how the layouts line up, looking for transitions that I didn’t notice before and how they factor into the narrative. When Detectives Fine and Bourquin are at a murder-suicide crime scene and Bourquin mentions that these events are mostly media-inspired, Fine tells him, “That takes a whole different kind of inspiration.” That panel lingers on a blood-splattered poster showing Buddha (blood on his right eye just like the book’s opening smiley face) outlined by a purple pyramid representing Ozymandias, and the first panel of the next page shows the purple triangle logo of Pyramid Deliveries, which is owned by Adrian Veidt. The foreshadowing is all over the place in this issue, but like Rorschach, we don’t have enough information yet to complete the puzzle.
The structure of #4 mimicked the way that Dr. Manhattan views reality, so why do you think Moore and Gibbons use the completely symmetrical layout in “Fearful Symmetry”? And is there are a reason why this chapter comes just before we learn Rorschach’s backstory?
JH: Oliver, I love that you brought up Brecht. Of course Moore loves him, and it isn’t just League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen; the vaudeville scenes of V For Vendetta bear a Brechtian tinge, and he definitely goes overboard (um, so to speak) with Tales Of The Black Freighter. Tellingly, Black Freighter’s other main point of reference is vintage EC Comics (specifically Joe Orlando’s), which adds one more layer of that almost infuriating meta-comic-ness: an homage to a comic within an homage to a comic. If that doesn’t make you realize you’re reading a comic, I don’t know what will.
The intellectual dead-end of this whole concept is that no one truly forgets they’re reading a comic. Plays? Movies? Yes. Books? Sometimes. But there’s a perceptual leap, an extra level of effort, that comes from making your brain combine words and pictures to form a symbiotic, narrative whole. I’ve never once gotten so lost in a comic that I’ve temporarily forgotten I was reading one—and that’s not a condemnation of comics. If anything, that’s another reason I love them. They’re glaringly self-conscious in a way that’s wholly American, and in fact relates to jazz in a far more fundamental way than the glib, jingoistic “Comics and jazz are the two wholly American artforms!” argument that’s thrown around often.
Could Moore have realized all this while writing Watchmen? Well, one thing’s for sure: The emotion isn’t bleeding off the page. That said, I don’t think emotion vs. intellect is an either/or, nor do I think emotion needs to be evoked in a piece of art or literature. It’s the distance, the formal abstraction, of Watchmen that drives home the emotional alienation of, well, all of its characters. And not to jump ahead too far, but Dan Dreiberg is, I think, the closest to a surrogate the reader is given (unless said reader is a sociopath, in which case he has a whole cast to choose from). The poignancy is there; it’s just trapped under glass. Or it’s like a butterfly in a blizzard.
The symmetry thing is what bothers me most as I re-read Watchmen: It’s an utterly hollow conceit, no matter how much Moore tries to invest it with metaphorical significance. Moore has a contempt for such binary views of reality, and it shows. His sympathy isn’t with Rorschach—the graphic emblem of symmetry and its perverse imposition of strict order on chaotic reality—but with The Comedian. Along with Dreiberg, Eddie Blake is the only character in Watchmen that feels like anything more than an intellectual marionette.
With that in mind, Oliver, how do you think Before Watchmen deals with Rorschach and The Comedian? On a personal level, I’m glad we get to talk about these books. When I was a kid reading Watchmen for the first time, Rorschach was my hands-down favorite character. (I was also reading a lot of Ayn Rand at the time; read into that what you will.) Now, as a world-weary grownup, The Comedian makes much more sense to me—his compromises, his desensitization, his pragmatism, his pathetic attempts at absolution? I loathe him, but I understand him as a human being. Do you think Before Watchmen honors the essence of these characters, in part or in whole?
OS: I would say “honors the essence” is a good phrase to describe Brian Azzarello’s two miniseries, even if I don’t view them with the same canonical eye as Minutemen and Silk Spectre. I can see those first series existing in the same world as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ source material, but Comedian and Rorschach are almost like “What If?” stories set in an alternate universe. What if The Comedian was a close confidante of the Kennedy family? What if Rorschach starred in a gritty ’70s crime film? Azzarello shows a strong understanding of what lies at the core of his two leads, but they’re so stylistically different from Watchmen that I can’t quite place them in the timeline I’ve created in my head.
When I read Comedian last summer, I was annoyed that Azzarello blatantly contradicted Moore’s hints in Watchmen that Blake was responsible for John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but I’ve grown to appreciate the book upon reading it all at once. Azzarello plays with the expectations Moore placed on Watchmen readers, and while Eddie Blake isn’t responsible for Jack’s death, he certainly is to blame for Marilyn Monroe’s and Bobby’s. After Laurie, Eddie is the character that benefits the most from the prequels, and with his appearances in Minutemen, Silk Spectre, and his own miniseries, The Comedian becomes a fascinating, surprisingly sympathetic character. Azzarello achieves that by emphasizing how deeply connected Blake is to the shifting political climate of the United States in the ’60s, painting him as a patriot whose broken sense of morality is further damaged by the hypocrisy he sees from those above him. Blake is thrown into the Vietnam War to be a figurehead that would inspire the troops, but the government bites off way more than it can chew when they see the carnage that follows in The Comedian’s wake. He thinks he’s in Vietnam to stop the war, and the steps he takes to make that happen create even more problems for his employers.
Rorschach doesn’t do much to make me care for Walter Kovacs, but it sure does make him look like a total badass. Whereas Comedian is a sprawling story taking place over many years, Azzarello goes in the opposite direction for Rorschach to look at a particularly shitty couple of days in the life of our favorite Nietzschean foot soldier. Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo are channeling early Martin Scorsese in this book with its excessive violence, aggressively macho villain, and a protagonist who decides to take the law into his own bloody hands. They even throw in an appearance from Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, who gives Rorschach a ride in #3 and tells the vigilante that it was a dumb for the government to outlaw his kind. The series is a little too cheeky and self-aware to belong in Moore and Gibbons’ world, but Azzarello gets Rorschach’s point of view.
The entire Before Watchmen project began with Azzarello going to DC with the idea that he and Bermejo collaborate on a Rorschach prequel, and if I had to pick a writer for this character, the man behind 100 Bullets, one of the best crime comics of the past decade, would be one of my first choices. What do you think Azzarello’s artistic collaborators, J.G. Jones and Lee Bermejo, bring to their respective titles? And as someone who has had a longer relationship with Watchmen, do you find these two prequels to be complementary to the original story?
JH: Not too indulge in too many fanboyish woulda-beens, but… as much as I love 100 Bullets, I would’ve been far more excited to see Ed Brubaker apply his Criminal mind to Rorschach (ideally with artist Sean Phillips in tow). It’s not that I think Azzarello does a horrible job with Rorshach, but he comes close. The homage to early Scorsese is great in theory, but in falls flat in the execution. Oliver, as much as I appreciate your prompt to enjoy Rorschach and The Comedian as alternate-history Watchmen, well, Watchmen already is alternate history—and I don’t like having to work so hard just to make Azzarello’s can of cold Rorschach beans palatable enough to keep down.
Speaking of alt-history, I agree that The Comedian is more successful. He’s like the Zelig of superheroes, inserted into historic events and iconic scenes we think we know by heart. But the mucking about with the Kennedy mythos feels forced and clumsy, as does the heavy-handed Vietnam-era political puppetry, which Moore already covered in the original series with much more subtlety (okay, maybe not subtlety… but at least more economy). If there are two examples that vividly show just how inessential Before Watchmen is, it’s Rorschach and The Comedian. It might have been better to find creators who didn’t slavishly revere the original series and have them deconstruct Watchmen in whatever way they wanted—much in the way Moore did the first time around with superheroes in general (and the hollowed-out husks of the Charlton characters the Watchmen cast was loosely based on). But that would have proven that Watchmen had a lasting and fundamental effect on the conceptual foundation of comics, rather than just all the surface grimness and cynicism. And that might be giving too much credit.
I know I’m risking sounding like the grumpy old curmudgeon who’s trying to chase Azzarello et al. off his lawn—or even worse, one of those bores who prattles on and on about the genius of Watchmen as if it’s some sacrosanct scripture handed down from on high. The original is not perfect, and its faults become more and more apparent to me as the years go by. But those flaws didn’t need to be magnified by the prequels (or, you know, Zack Snyder’s film). That said, they were. I actually surprised myself when Before Watchmen was announced; my initial reaction was not, as I would’ve expected, outrage or disgust at the crass, exploitative commercialism of it all. Instead I thought, “Cool, maybe someone will do something interesting with these.” Mostly that didn’t happen—but weirdly enough, I’d be intrigued if someone else tried their hand at reinterpreting Watchmen at some point in the future. Just give it a little while, eh, DC?