Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 18th installment.
The Watchmen: Absolute Edition from 2005 reprints important supplemental material from a limited edition Graphitti Designs hardcover, where we get to see the early versions of the ideas that would inform the final miniseries. In Alan Moore’s original proposal for the series – even the original character descriptions – there was no Dr. Manhattan, or Rorschach, or the Comedian. Instead, Watchmen was conceived as a revamp of DC’s then-recently-acquired Charlton Comics characters. Captain Atom. The Question. Peacemaker. Etc.
Those Charlton characters were long gone by the time the first issue of Watchmen hit the stands in the late summer of 1986. Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created their own original characters to replace the Charlton archetypes. But Watchmen was never really about those specific characters. It was about a superhero universe in decline as a reflection of a modern world in decline.
And though it may be popular these days to dismiss Watchmen, to write it off as overrated because it’s been held up as the ultimate superhero comic book for so long, or to diminish its importance because of the weak movie version or controversial spin-offs, when I sat down to reread Watchmen I found that it hasn’t lost its edge. What it does may not be as revolutionary in these 26 years since, but it remains a dense, textured, substantial work of narrative. It’s hailed as one of the greatest comics – maybe the best comic – for a reason: it’s two creators, in top form, telling a shocking story that resonates because of the way it’s told.
It deserves an issue-by-issue look, even if I don’t address every single point that might be made.
Watchmen#1 (DC Comics, September 1986)
Will Eisner was the first prominent comic book artist to use the reader’s eye as a kind of cinema camera and guide it through the scene, but few artists followed The Spirit’s lessons with regularity, and there’s very little in Dave Gibbon’s style that pairs it with Eisner’s bombastic, melodramatic approach to cartooning. So the Eisner connection is easy to miss. As is the Harvey Kurtzman influence, but the rhythms of Watchmen owe as much to the EC Comics work of that legendary figure as they do to Eisner’s storytelling patterns.
The thing is: the influence of those two comic book icons shows up more in the script, and when translated to the page by Dave Gibbons, the entire production takes on an air of austerity. Gibbons is a remarkable draftsman, and his fine attention to detail creates a palpable reality for the characters in this series. It’s just that Alan Moore’s typewritten, all-caps, extremely long scripts for each issue dictate a kind of panel-to-panel storytelling that takes the teachings of Eisner and Kurtzman and uses them to tell a fully-realized story about a superhero world gone wrong. Deadpan. Serious. Tragic.
The weight of Watchmen is immense, from the first pages of its opening issue. The techniques – nine-panel grid, camera moves, first-person captions – may not have been wholly original, but employed as they are here, they don’t look like any comics that had come before. This is an ambitious comic from page one. It aspires to become a masterpiece of the form, and, amazingly, it succeeds.
It has a sense of humor about itself, but it’s a nasty one, drenched in irony.
The first issue, after all, features a smiley face awash in blood on the front cover.
Before I dig into the issue, I need to point out that Watchmen, in 1986, demanded a different kind of reading than any other superhero comic. It was so unlike everything else, in its delivery of narrative. And though decades of Watchmen-lite comics have filled the marketplace, it’s still unlike everything else. What struck me most as I reread issue #1 was the quantity of moments in just a single comic.
A quick comparison – and these numbers may not be exact, but the proportions are what matters: I counted 196 panels in Watchmen #1, plus a text piece in the back that further explored the world presented in the comic. A quick flip through an average issue of a recent comic from 2012, Green Lantern Corps, showed a total of 70 panels – 70 moments – in that one issue. That seemed about right for a contemporary comic, but then I remembered that Ed Brubaker and Butch Guice’s Winter Soldier had plenty of inset panels and virtuoso storytelling tricks of its own, so I added up what I found in there. More, with 107 panels, but still far fewer than Watchmen #1.
I think it’s safe to say, based on those statistics and a few more comics I flipped through just to confirm, that each issue of Watchmen has about twice as much “stuff” happening as a normal superhero comic book. But a sizeable percentage of the “stuff” – the panel to panel transitions – is not one dynamic incident after another. It’s slow burn revelations and reactions. Methodical movement through time.
And one of the things you get when reading it in a collected edition – like my preferred version, the Absolute edition – are the echoes throughout the past and present. In this first issue, as the detectives try to reconstruct what happened in Edward Blake’s apartment, Moore and Gibbons intercut flashback panels showing the beaten Blake thrown through the window. The third panel on panel three – Blake battered and bloody, his broken nose dripping red onto his small Comedian button – is just a single slice of narrative here. But the composition of that panel with Blake/The Comedian staring toward the reader, recurs several times in Watchmen as a whole.
So does the photograph of the Minutemen. Or the pieces of clockwork. Or the graffiti, “Who Watches the Watchmen?” in a comic where no one ever calls the superheroes by that name, even though it’s the title of the series.
These are the kinds of patterns and layers that enhance the structural power of Watchmen. They underline that the how is as important as the what. Yes, as in the case of the recurring Comedian headshot, the style reinforces the meaning of the story. The Comedian, Edward Blake, is at the center of Watchmen. It’s his death that spurs the plot that drives the twelve issues. It’s easy to forget that Watchmen opens as a murder mystery, because it becomes so much more, but that’s what kicks everything off. The death of the Comedian. And everything that follows from that.
Besides the opening murder mystery, the first issue also introduces us to all of the main characters. We see Rorschach’s investigations (and, notably, we “hear” him before we ever see him in costume, through the journal entries on the first page), and we meet both Nite Owls, establishing that this series takes place in a world where costumed characters have existed for at least two generations. We meet Ozymandias, in his tower. Dr. Manhattan, 20-feet tall, glowing blue, completely naked. And the woman who once was the Silk Spectre.
There’s something else about Watchmen that makes it stand out from other examples of the superhero genre: the sense of exhaustion.
In Silver or Bronze Age comics – particularly the ones from Marvel – you might get heroes who struggle and fall down and have to rise up against impossible challenges. Spider-Man might have to punch bad guys while fighting a nasty cold. But in Watchmen, the whole world seems exhausted. All of these superheroes – past and present – that we see in the comic are barely holding it together. They are beaten down by life, or, in the case of Dr. Manhattan, hardly interested in what remains in the human world. They are all world-weary, and the world around them is just as exhausted.
Most readers, I suspect – and this is an interpretation echoed by the unsuccessful film adaptation – think of Watchmen as set against a backdrop of global violence and impending nuclear war. Ozymandias’s machinations are an attempt to bring unity through external conflict. Or so he seems to believe.
That notion creeps into the series soon enough, but it’s almost completely absent from the first issue. There’s no “brink of war” histrionics in this opener.
After rereading Watchmen #1, I can’t help but think Ozymandias’s plot has more to do with waking people up, with snapping them out of their exhausted boredom. Or, perhaps, his own.
Watchmen#2 (DC Comics, October 1986)
The mystery unfolds, and Alan Moore uses the scene at Eddie Blake’s burial as a device to flash back into the memories of Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan, and Nite Owl. But this issue will always be remembered for what comes before that. The devastating bombshell that follows Laurie Juspeczyk’s visit to her mother at Nepenthe Gardens. The infamous rape scene.
The glint of sunlight on the old photo of the Minutemen throws us back – through, presumably, Sally Jupiter’s memories – to the sequence of events immediately after the photograph was taken. Eddie Blake – our now-dead Comedian, then a junior Pagliacci-adorned crimefighter – pushes himself onto the first Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter, in her prime. She claws at him, and he beats her up. It’s brutal, unheroic, terrifying.
Hooded Justice walks in to find Eddie Blake, pants down, mounted atop the prone Jupiter. We never see the extent of the violation, and the gutters between the panels allow us to fill in the gaps with what might have occurred, but what we do see is horrible enough.
Blake is a rapist. Jupiter, his victim.
And this is where Moore gets himself into trouble, because though there’s no titillation in the scene, we later discover that Blake and Jupiter did have a later relationship. Jupiter fathered Blake’s child, even if the young Laurie Juspeczyk never knew the paternal truth. Because Jupiter seemingly forgave – even possibly fell in love – with her rapist, Moore falls into the depths of misogynistic cliché. At least, that’s what some have argued.
The whole situation is indeed troubling, but it’s at the heart of Watchmen. It’s not as simple as an easy romance between rapist and victim. It’s not that all is forgiven and the terrible, violent act is forgotten. No, it stands as the emotionally tumultuous center of the story. Blake’s death is the catalyst for the detective plot that eventually ties the series together, but his life is what led everything to this point. Edward Blake – the Comedian – is never more than a selfish, violent man. He is never redeemed, just because others sometimes forgive him for his awful offenses.
And Sally Jupiter lives, as she closes out her life, at Nepenthe Gardens, a rest home. “Nepenthe” is “anti-sorrow” through forgetfulness. But nothing indicates that Jupiter has forgotten, or forgiven. At least not permanently. Through Alan Moore’s characterization, she just seems to recognize that life is more complicated than simple clichés.
Issue #2 also provides more clues to lead to later conclusions, and more moments to echo into the future, as we see the failed first meeting of “The Crimebusters,” Captain Metropolis’s aborted attempt at gathering a team of 1960s do-gooders. The Comedian literally burns Metropolis’s plans to ashes, but the repercussions of the meeting would linger to the present day in the mind of Ozymandias, as we’ll see by the end of the series.
And even the Dr. Manhattan flashback, to Vietnam, does more than just show the vile nature of the Comedian (and explain where he got that nasty scar on his face). We see a Dr. Manhattan challenged for his non-interventionism. And that confrontation between the Comedian and Manhattan would linger into the present as well, as Dr. Manhattan (the only true superhuman in the series) would ultimately leave Earth entirely, and ponder his relationship to humanity.
Then there’s the militant crowd control flashback with the Comedian and Nite Owl, ending with Nite Owl’s lamentation, “What’s happened to the American Dream?” and the Comedian’s reply: “It came true. You’re lookin’ at it.” He might be referring to himself, or to the police state and civil unrest around him. Either way, the result embodies the failure of the Dream, by any rational measure.
Rorschach doesn’t earn a flashback in this issue – his memories will come later – but he forces one out of Moloch, the vampiric Lex Luthor former super-villain who attends Blake’s funeral. From Moloch, we learn of a list – and a disturbing visit by the Comedian shortly before he died. It furthers the mystery plot and exposes the corners of a vast conspiracy which will ultimately draw in all of the major players in the series. And the entire flashback is told from one point of view – one camera angle – as we look through Moloch’s eyes toward the foot of his bed, where the manic, and clearly frightened, Eddie Blake whimpers and rages.
The issue ends with the same flashback to Blake’s murder that we saw in issue #1 – only this time the other flashbacks echo throughout, like a refrain – and Rorschach’s journal provides the narration: “[Blake] saw the true face of the twentieth century and chose to become a reflection of it, a parody of it. No one else saw the joke. That’s why he was lonely.”
Over the panels of Blake, falling to his death in the past, we see Rorschach tell a joke about the clown who cried.
Watchmen #3 (DC Comics, November 1986)
After two issues – of what is ostensibly a superhero comic, even if, at the time, it was conceived as the superhero comic to end all superhero comics – we still haven’t had a fight scene. We’ve had Eddie Blake beat up a woman in her underwear, before getting beat up himself for his attempted rape. We’ve seen Rorschach tackle an old man. But we haven’t seen that staple of superhero conventionality, the old-fashioned brawl between good guys and bad.
But in issue three, we do get Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk – the former Nite Owl II and the former Silk Spectre II – battling some street punks. And Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons present it as a sexual release, complete with the couple gasping at the end and then some shame and cigarette smoking.
So much for the conventions of superhero comics. Not only is nothing sacred to Moore and Gibbons in Watchmen, but the series is built to punch holes in the traditions of the genre. The great American hero, the Comedian, is an utterly loathsome bastard. The glittering past of the Golden Age heroes is filthy with corruption and repression and dirty little secrets. Costumes are fetishes. The one character seemingly in the pursuit of the truth is a sociopath who breaks fingers and hides inside refrigerators. The one superhuman being on the planet gives his loved ones cancer.
That last point is at the center of this issue.
Though the fallout shelter detail on the cover closes in to the city block where the two Bernies stand (or sit) at the newsstand, it’s a more apt symbol for what happens in the major sequence in the issue as Dr. Manhattan is accused, on live television, of killing those close to him. We learn that many of his former acquaintances, and even enemies, have been stricken with cancer, and the clear implication is that his blue, glowing form would have irradiated those nearby, and over the years that exposure has killed some and put a death warrant on the rest.
Dr. Manhattan, confronted with that information, flees. But since he’s superhuman, he doesn’t run away, he teleports. First to Arizona, where his story began (as we will see in the future of this series – time is an intricate machine in this comic), and then to Mars. He doesn’t have a Fortress of Solitude to retreat to. But Mars will do. It’s suitably remote.
And with Dr. Manhattan off the board, the world is more precipitously close to all-out nuclear war. Manhattan had been the ultimate Doomsday device, the ultimate defense against foreign aggression. With him off planet, the clock towards Armageddon ticks away. President Nixon – yes, Nixon is still in charge in the mid-1980s of this series. Dr. Manhattan’s presence, historically, changed everything in the reality presented in this series.
But now he’s gone. And as Dr. Manhattan sits on Mars and looks at an old photograph from before he was “born,” Nixon’s voice overlaps this Martian scene: “humanity is in the hands of a higher authority than mine. Let’s just hope he’s on our side.”
A few final notes before I leave you for the week: (1) Moore and Gibbons and letterer/colorist John Higgins completely remove thought bubbles or sound effects from the series. Those comic booky techniques are never used, and their absence here influenced an entire generation of creators to abandon them. (2) The series takes place in 1985 but the fashions are completely unlike any 1980s fashions in our world. Gibbons draws everyone in thick fabrics, styled like some mod/bohemian fusion of the best of the 1960s and the more understated of the 1970s. That attention to parallel universe detail is emblematic of Watchmen as a whole. (3) John Higgins recoloring job on the Absolute Edition really cleans things up, more than I remembered. But when I went back to read the original issues, I found the browns and purples to make the issues a bit too sloppy for such a well-chiseled series. I believe the most recent hardcover and softcover reprints – even at the smaller size – use the new coloring, and it’s a significant improvement over the look of the original issues.
It’s nice when a great comic book series ends up looking even greater.
NEXT: Watchmen Part 2. Still Very Good.