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: Watchmen #10-12 and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair.
Watchmen #10-12 summary: As Russia and the U.S. inch ever closer to nuclear Armageddon, Rorschach and Nite Owl investigate the “cape killer” theory, following the money that paid for Adrian Veidt’s would-be assassin and learning that the trail ends at Ozymandias himself. While the dynamic duo makes its way to Veidt’s Antarctic base, a group of missing intellectuals and artists dies in a boat explosion. After pushing a red button, Veidt dictates his past to some of his servants, whom he poisons and kills by exposing them to subzero temperatures. Nite Owl and Rorschach encounter Adrian and are quickly incapacitated, forced to listen to him outline the plot that he concluded 35 minutes before when he dropped a giant telepathic squid on New York City, killing more than three million people. Jon and Laurie return to Manhattan after Veidt’s weapon, witnessing the carnage before teleporting to Antarctica to join the action. The group ultimately agrees that exposing Veidt would undo all the good that comes from his genocidal actions, with the exception of Rorschach, who is vaporized by Dr. Manhattan when he refuses to compromise. The series ends with Veidt smugly reassuring himself, Dr. Manhattan leaving this universe to create human life, Laurie and Dan assuming new identities as a couple, and Seymour the New Frontiersman assistant reaching for Rorschach’s journal, a drop of ketchup smeared on his smiley-face T-shirt.
Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair summary: Watchmen editor Len Wein and artist Jae Lee fill in the blanks of Adrian Veidt’s history with Ozymandias, chronicling his evolution from tormented child to costumed crusader and ultimately self-appointed savior of mankind. Wein is joined by Watchmen colorist John Higgins for Crimson Corsair, a pirate story inspired by The Black Freighter, and Steve Rude for Dollar Bill, a one-shot providing a quick synopsis of the Minuteman who was shot dead after his cape got stuck in a revolving door.
Oliver Sava: Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together? Everyone who could stand in Adrian Veidt’s way has been taken off the board, and it’s time for Ozymandias’ giant squid monster to make its appearance and usher in a new age of peaceful cooperation among the nations of the world. Before the prequels and the movie, the ending of Watchmen was the most controversial aspect of the story, concluding the mostly realistic narrative with a wave of fantasy by teleporting an alien monster into New York City and killing half the population. (The giant squid was notably removed from the Watchmen film, probably because it would have been extremely hard to make the design not look silly.)
Before we get to 11:25pm, I want to look at the hours leading up to Veidt pushing that little red button. #10 is the issue where we get to see Rorschach and Nite Owl back in action as a team, beating up the city’s underworld while doing the investigative work needed to solve the case. As the world inches ever closer to nuclear apocalypse, things are beginning to look up for our heroes, who finally uncover the mastermind behind their recent troubles when they follow the money and discover Adrian Veidt at the end of the trail. It’s a continuation of the superhero adventure that began when Dan slipped his costume back on in #7, and it gives the reader a false sense of comfort that will ultimately be shattered in the next issue.
Adrian Veidt is a character that Moore doesn’t spend much time with before #10, but is a constant presence in the background of the narrative. There are ads for Veidt products lining the streets of Manhattan and commercials playing on television, and once we learn Veidt is also behind Pyramid Deliveries and Dimensional Developments, his influence throughout Watchmen becomes even stronger. How do you feel about Alan Moore saving most of Adrian’s story for the final three chapters, Andrea? I feel that because we spend less time with him, he doesn’t get quite as much development as the other characters.
Andrea Battleground: I agree with that, Oliver. In fact, because Watchmen spent so little time building out Veidt’s story, when I first heard about the prequels, I thought the Ozymandias story would be the one with the most potential for a dynamic, new installment in the Watchmen universe. I was, uh, mistaken in that assessment.
But more about the prequels later.
The first time I read Watchmen was the summer after my freshman year in college. I had never been much of a comics reader, but I made friends with one who suggested Watchmen, Love & Rockets, and The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book (which had just come out a year or two before) as things I’d “probably be into.” This was the same person who suggested we try to read Infinite Jest together, but we’ll forgive him this and just focus on the comics. Confession time: I didn’t love Watchmen the first time I read it. I liked it well enough, but I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. Granted, I wasn’t familiar enough with the tropes of the superhero-comics genre to know how much Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were subverting them. And I certainly wasn’t as well versed in U.S. history as I became in later years, so I didn’t pick up on nearly enough breadcrumbs or nods there. I remember finding it a bit too preachy, and I didn’t find any of the characters particularly compelling, except for Rorschach. I dismissed many of the relationships as simplistic. I didn’t give either of the Silk Spectres much thought as they seemed trapped in some run-of-the-mill “girls and their mothers” drama that was removed from the story. But I do remember being genuinely shocked at the final act of the narrative upon that first read.
The next time I read Watchmen was about seven years later. I was in graduate school at the time and didn’t have very much time for pleasure reading, so I found myself picking up things that I had already read as a means of relaxing. (Yes, I read other books to relieve the pressure of all that reading of books.) During this read, I was definitely reading Watchmen with a grad student’s eye. All the references seemed to jump off the page at me. I remember going over each panel meticulously, reading every newspaper headline, making connections. (So much for my relaxing re-read of familiar works.) I remember I even took pages of notes like, “Birth of Dr. Manhattan and the death of JFK are exactly four years apart. Significant?” or, “Two girls murdered by father named Clare and Dominique. St. Clare of Assisi, patron saint of television? Dominique, similar to ‘dominica,’ Latin for Sunday. Statement on religion?” Man, I really wish I knew what happened to those notes. They would have been useful for this discussion. For that second read, I observed much more of the character development at work here, but the only character I can truly say I saw differently was The Comedian. My conclusion was something along the lines of, “Wow. That guy spends a solid 50 years really messed up. He’s basically pure id, government-sanctioned id!”
But with this third reading, which occurs approximately five years after my last, I knew I would be talking about Ozymandias in particular. So I paid closer attention to his location in regard to each three-chapter segment we’ve been discussing here in Back Issues and what information is revealed about him throughout the narrative. Approaching the re-read in this manner seems to tip Moore’s hand a bit. Ozymandias seems noticeably lacking throughout, in comparison to the others. Not just in the straightforward, linear part of the narrative, but also in the flashbacks. When Veidt does speak, his statements seem ominous. The one comment he has during his flashback at Blake’s funeral says it all:
“Given correct handling, none of the world’s problems are insurmountable. All it takes is a little intelligence.”
Also, he rarely seems to have actual conversations. For most of the book, on the rare occasions when the action turns to Adrian Veidt, he’s having a decidedly one-sided conversation with someone who works for him directly or is currently performing some sort of service for him. After doing some research, I discovered that Moore’s original text of Ozymandias’ confession/plan-explanation/narration in #11 was actually even longer, but Gibbons was able to persuade him that the amount of action in the scene could not sustain such a long speech. That’s what Ozymandias does: speechify. Explain the shit out of every little thing. One detail I did find fascinating happens in #12: When the plan has been carried out, and Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Rorschach have all taken their leave, Dr. Manhattan returns to find Ozymandias perched in front of his model solar system (ha!). Manhattan informs him of his intention to leave the galaxy and create life elsewhere, and Ozymandias replies, “I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.” Is this statement indicative of a streak of self-doubt running through Adrian Veidt’s profound narcissism, or simply a human’s response when faced with the absolute, detached reasoning of a non-human? What do you think, Oliver?
OS: Clearly your notes during the alleged “relaxation reading” have served you well, because I never noticed how Adrian doesn’t really engage in much dialogue. Moore is aware that the piece’s antagonist is engaging in stereotypical expository supervillain monologuing in these later chapters, but that doesn’t mean he gets a free pass for falling into those clichés. Thank god Gibbons talked Moore down from including extra material, because, as Todd mentioned in the last segment, leaving some loose ends is ultimately what helps sell the reality of Watchmen. When you go into too much detail, the holes begin to show, which is one of the major problems with the prequels. Minutemen fills in a lot of background blanks, but it benefits from not being directly related to the major happenings of Watchmen and focusing on characters that are only briefly mentioned in the source material. The prequels diminish in quality as they get closer and closer to Watchmen’s timeline, and the miniseries that directly intersect are by far the weakest of the bunch. Again, more on that later.
To answer your question, it’s important that the second half of that Adrian quote ends with a period. He briefly wonders if he did the right thing, and then immediately assures himself that everything worked out in the end, even though it’s really just the end of his planning. Jon responds, “‘In the end?’ Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” And then he disappears to create some human life, leaving an ominous mushroom cloud behind Adrian’s model solar system. Adrian may have 10 times the average human’s intelligence, but he still lacks the foresight to see beyond his initial success. He thinks he’s solved humanity’s problems by rallying the countries of Earth around a shared threat, but there are always new challenges on the horizon. There will be new wars and new injustices in the upcoming millennium, but at least everyone will look back fondly on the days after the giant squid killed millions in Manhattan when everyone was working together.
Adrian Veidt is exceptionally self-centered and proud, and those traits explain why he doesn’t have very many interactions with others over the course of the narrative. Unfortunately, that lack of connection with any other person means that there’s no reason for us to give a shit about him. Behind the superhero deconstruction and political commentary, Watchmen is largely about relationships and how they are mutated by circumstance. Even a character like The Comedian, who is dead for all the present-day material, makes multiple personal connections over the course of the narrative. We get a strong idea of how he interacts with other characters and how his general presence influences those around him, but that isn’t the case with Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt’s influence is always in the background; you don’t realize how important a part all those Veidt references play until after you know his plan. The Comedian isn’t trying to pull a fast one on anyone. He operates loudly and publicly, making sure the entire world gets the joke by laughing as hard as he can in his own maniacal way.
There is so much that happens in the last issue of Watchmen, and that’s after six full-page spreads showing the carnage wrought by the multicolored squid. I’m so happy that when DC re-colored Watchmen for the oversized Absolute edition, they brought on original series colorist John Higgins to polish it up without bringing too much realism to the artwork. I just read this fantastic Comics Alliance piece about Barry Windsor-Smith in which writer (and comics artist) Tom Scioli outlines how modern coloring can remove a lot of the visual impact from work that was specifically created for the limited technology of the time. Scioli writes that color creates rhythm, and Higgins didn’t lose the beat when he remastered the book, keeping the highly saturated yet restricted color palette while adding extra texture where appropriate. It’s more than just color that dictates rhythm in comics, though, and the combination of color and layout is what maximizes the impact of the opening pages of Watchmen #12. All the pages before this point have had multiple panels to create a sense of motion, but Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins deliver one long sustained chord for the first six horrific pages of the final issue. And it’s one ugly mash-up of notes, with Higgins rendering the squid’s arrival in a wave of garish green, pink, purple, and yellow.
Andrea, do you think the creative team put too much on their plate for the final issue? Is Rorschach’s death rushed or is Moore trying to make a statement about human futility? And has your perception of the “girls and their mothers” drama changed upon rereading?
AB: Well, there is certainly a lot of ground to cover in the final issue. And the action moves quickly, especially considering the pace of the previous two issues. I was struck during this reading by how much space is given establishing Rorschach and Nite Owl’s relationship in #10. Most of that chapter is essentially a conversation between these two characters. Yes, it’s while they are investigating the elimination of the masked heroes, but still, it’s one long conversation that would’ve ended in tears and bro hugs if this were another comic. But this is Watchmen, so the conversation concludes with a handshake and Rorschach saying, “You are a good friend… I’m sorry that it is sometimes difficult.” Yet establishing the dynamic between these two and including Rorschach’s lengthy final journal entry is important. When he is quickly obliterated at the end of #12, all his effort for naught, it informs what came before or, rather, the two circumstances inform each other. So I’m inclined to believe the abrupt end of Rorschach is an intentional choice.
To answer your other question, I gave the Sally/Laurie story far more thought after this third read than I had before, which is the only read thus far where I wasn’t utterly annoyed with those characters. Perhaps this is because I was reading the Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre prequel along with it—and I do agree with Genevieve that this volume [Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre] is the only one I felt added value to the Watchmen universe. Or perhaps this is because I read the Silk Spectre supplementary materials in Watchmen more carefully this time and found more nuance to the elder as a character. Sally’s Silk Spectre press and career decisions get more desperate and unseemly as the years wear on, as she keeps grasping for the limelight.
It’s interesting to look at Watchmen from the perspective of relationships mutated by circumstance. That’s particularly true of Sally Jupiter and The Comedian, in that she ended up having a child with her would-be rapist. Jon Osterman’s romance with Janey Slater warps into something truly ugly by the end. The realization of Laurie’s true parentage convinces Dr. Manhattan to return to Earth. And the public’s relationship with costumed heroes, or masked adventurers, certainly evolves.
I’m glad you brought up the art, Oliver, especially the wordless six-page intro of #12 depicting the destruction caused by the squid monster. At first reading, my reaction to this plot point was a confused “Huh?” But later I came to see it as a clever little deus ex machina. While I agree with the observation that including it in the film would have been a challenge and perhaps even disruptive, it just became a different story without it. Now, since the previous Back Issues entries and participants have voiced their opinions on Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation, please allow me to offer mine: Apparently, I didn’t hate the Watchmen movie nearly enough. My initial reaction after seeing it was, “Well that was a dark little superhero movie. I liked it… but it wasn’t Watchmen.” Granted, pertinent details always get cut when a book is adapted into a film; this is inevitable. But considering how meticulously certain frames match panels from the comic, I thought it strange how many of the musical cues were changed in the film. This doesn’t seem to be a rights issue, either, as the correct songs were used, but in different scenes. (See “Unforgettable,” “You’re My Thrill.” I agree with you: The use of “Hallelujah” is just ridiculous.) These choices immediately messed with the authenticity of the work for me. And while Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jackie Earle Haley’s performances were revelatory, the less said about Malin Akerman and Matthew Goode the better.
But back to the art, as this might be the only aspect of Before Watchmen: Ozymandias/Crimson Corsair that I actually found enjoyable. (In fact, if these prequels were just art books with various artists’ interpretations of Watchmen characters, I’d be all over them. Does this exist? Has this ever happened with other properties? Let me know.) Perhaps I began this prequel with unrealistic expectations; I thought the involvement of Len Wein, editor of the original Watchmen, was very encouraging. And I figured that the character of Ozymandias was most fertile for backstory creation because he spends so much of Watchmen as this oblique presence. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Narratively speaking, this prequel provides very little in the way of new information. Having read Watchmen, we already know about Adrian’s astronomical test scores as a young boy. We already know he decided not to repeat this mistake and put a significant effort into appearing ordinary. We already know his parents died and left him a sizable inheritance, which he proceeded to give away. We already know about his travels, retracing the steps of Alexander of Macedonia. We already know that when he and The Comedian first met, they had a terrible fight, one that found Ozymandias on the losing end. All of these events are repeated in the prequel but not expanded on very much. In fact, the only new plot point that I could see was Veidt’s romance with Miranda St. John and her subsequent (accidental?) drug overdose. But she’s not around very long, and there isn’t a huge cache of reader sympathy for Adrian to begin with.
Having said all that, there were two things I found particularly amusing while reading Before Watchmen: Ozymandias. One, Adrian Veidt prefers the “Ozymandias” pronunciation that emphasizes the “di” syllable over the pronunciation that emphasizes the “man” syllable, because of course he does. Veidt wants so much to be a deity, to be divine, but he just isn’t. He’s a man. Two, Nostalgia perfume smells like his mommy. Besides giving these characters some fancy (and, yes, very interesting) new artwork, Adrian’s prequel added nothing to his story.
OS: Damn it, Andrea! I had that Cranston clip locked and loaded for this last round and you beat me to it. My major issue with the Before Watchmen prequels collected here is that they’re just so insufferably boring. Len Wein’s superhero work was the kind of writing that Alan Moore was deconstructing in Watchmen, and his hyper-traditional storytelling reads as exceedingly bland when put alongside Moore. If you thought Veidt’s monologues were languorous before, just wait until that same content is padded out to fill six issues. The story is just a vehicle for Jae Lee’s intensely stylized artwork, which creates beautifully atmospheric snapshots of key moments in Veidt’s life but struggles when it comes to character work. Lee’s art is best when the writer does most of the emotional heavy lifting, and the expository, by-the-numbers nature of Wein’s script doesn’t do Lee any favors. Nite Owl at leastgrabbed my attention by being a total trainwreck, but Ozymandias just makes me want to take a nap. Except for the scene where Ozymandias explains the meaning of “Who watches the Watchmen?”, which made me want to bang my head against a wall.
I’d like to think that the cold, impersonal tone of Wein’s script is a callback to Moore’s insular interpretation of the character, but reading his Dollar Bill one-shot and coming across the same type of storytelling reveals that Wein is just not the right man to be writing about characters in the world of Watchmen. (Dollar Bill is especially heartbreaking because it’s the only major superhero work the magnificent Steve Rude has done in recent memory, and it’s a complete waste.) He may have edited the original series, but that doesn’t mean he’s fit to return to these characters as a writer, and I think Ozymandias could have been a far more intriguing book with a different collaborator for Lee. Someone like Grant Morrison or Neil Gaiman could have done something very cool with Adrian Veidt, but those creators are wise enough to steer clear of any involvement in a project that will piss off their pal Alan.
The Crimson Corsair story was originally serialized in two-page segments that appeared in the back of each Before Watchmen single issue, as if DC thought the allure of the Black Freighter was the novelty that there was a pirate comic within a superhero comic. The story was difficult to follow in those short bursts because it’s so generic, and it doesn’t read much better when collected. Alan Moore uses the Black Freighter comic to remark on events unfolding in the narrative as well as for structural reasons I detailed back in part two, and the Crimson Corsair story has no relation to what is happening in the other prequels and is tacked on at the end of the issue as if it’s some sort of bonus. Extra material that is lackluster might as well not exist at all.
While on the topic of bonus material, there’s extra content in the Watchmen: The Deluxe Edition that provides some really fascinating insights into the creative process for this book. I love seeing Dave Gibbons’ handwritten notes on the visual style, which include “no bland characters—all tend to caricature” and “weather-time of day-atmosphere stressed.” Gibbons’ character breakdowns are revelatory, describing the major personal qualities and cultural influences for the main cast members. Dr. Manhattan is attached to David Bowie and Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Ozymandias to Robert Redford and JFK, and The Comedian is described as Dirty Harry meets Nick Fury meets Hannibal. For all the characters except Silk Spectre (who is considerably less defined than the rest of the list), Gibbons includes how they see the world, with Dr. Manhattan viewing it as a subatomic system, Ozymandias as an organism with him at the center, and Rorschach seeing something immoral, flabby, and in desperate need of a moral code. Nite Owl doesn’t know how he views the world and The Comedian has no interest in “seeing” anything. That kind of in-depth analysis and eagerness to explore all aspects of these characters is what gives Watchmen so much depth, and I don’t see that kind of specificity in the majority of the prequels.
AB: Oh, an Ozymandias prequel written by Neil Gaiman sounds delightful. It really is too bad that would never happen. You mention that the Ozymandias and Crimson Corsair books made you want to take a nap; once I reached the Crimson Corsair segment, I actually did end up napping. It took me an unreasonable amount of time to finish because I kept falling asleep on it. I can’t even imagine trying to follow this story in two-page segments spread out over each issue. The narrative goes absolutely nowhere, and I cared so little about the protagonist I don’t even remember his name anymore. (Gordon Something?) This was just a wasted attempt to imitate the magic of the predecessor, but it did get me thinking about possible aspects of Watchmen, particularly in connection to Ozymandias, that could have been mined for prequel material: a one-shot taking place on the island Veidt has the creative people marooned on before he kills them, the backstories of the three servants before they are poisoned and frozen in Antarctica… Hell, just an expanded collection of the advertisements for various Veidt products could have been an enjoyable little oddity.
The Dollar Bill one-shot was a delight simply due to the retro-comics visual style it uses. But the story itself wasn’t really anything special. After putting a little thought into it, couldn’t we have guessed that Dollar Bill was a college-athlete/failed-actor type? How else would someone end up posing as a superhero at a bank to protect the money?
The additional content at the end of Watchmen: The Deluxe Edition was fascinating, especially Gibbons’ notes (Adrian Veidt as Robert Redford? Wow, now I can’t un-see that. And from henceforth, Rorschach will always be “Nietzsche’s hideous little foot soldier.” Thanks, Jason!) Yet there was something noticeably missing. I’m not going to bang this “Silk Spectre is underdeveloped” drum much more, but every character gets one of the informative breakdowns of psychological motivations except for Silk Spectres I and II? Unacceptable.
I know it’s time we wrapped up this round of Back Issues, but there are just so many references in Watchmen that I loved, and they haven’t even come up in this conversation. So I’m going to rattle off a few. Every single name is significant, especially business establishments: Prometheus cabs, Gordian Knot locksmiths, Nepenthe Gardens Rest Resort. The movies playing at the Utopia Cinema are This Island Earth, Things To Come, and The Day The Earth Stood Still. Walter Kovacs lived at the Charlton Home For Problem Children, for crying out loud! Though the references and symbolism occur so frequently and kaleidoscopically, it can induce whiplash upon the first (or fifth) read, that’s one of the things that makes Watchmen such a tour de force of storytelling and worthy of these multiple re-reads. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.