Art that cannot move people effectively loses the war. (The Last War in Albion Book Two, Part One: The Beginning)


Figure 832: The cover of Watchmen #1,
depicting the iconic badge.
Yellow smile in bloodpool as panel one, single stain on right eye. An image and synecdoche, it is Watchmen’s true face. Marketing and trade dress have made it a precisely defined sigil of Watchmen, just as the Guy Fawkes mask is the sigil of V for Vendetta and the serpent of Alan Moore. It is a Harvey Ball style smiley, a type first drawn in 1963, linked with a host of 1970s culture both kitsch and psychedelic. The bloodstain is four-pronged splash in the upper left, three droplets petering out before the eye, a fourth traversing the eye at a sharp angle like a pair of clock hands converging on midnight. In some renditions there are six precisely placed patches of white, as on the cover, but in the first panel the badge is already in the midground, framed by a monotone slate of red upon purple-grey bricks. There is a gutter in the lower left which the blood flows into. It is an iconic opening panel of comics as an artform, setting up the book’s aesthetic approach from the beginning. The War begins thusly, in the middle of a cataclysmic battle the history of which will serve as its own battleground.

Figure 833: The first page of Watchmen. (Written by
Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins,
from Watchmen  #1, 1986)
The close-up, a cover-to-panel transition, defines a mystery even before the comic’s six-panel pan up from the street to a man staring out a broken window many stories up. A red-haired man carrying a “The End is Nigh” sign walks down the street, yelled at by a man hosing down the bloodstain. In four pages the red-heard man will tacitly be revealed as Walter Kovacs, the civilian identity of Rorschach, whose journal provides these panels’ narration, written in a slightly blobby typeface upon caption boxes like torn notepaper, with splatters of ink on every scrap, never in the same arrangement twice. The monologue is as famous as the image: “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.” 

These first six panels are arranged in two rows of three, occupying the upper two-thirds of the page. The bottom third is a single panel, precisely three times wider than each of the six. These demonstrate the first narrative conceit of Watchmen, the juxtaposition of text and images from different parts of the narrative. The reader does not yet know that Rorschach is visually present in the second through fifth of these panels. The journal, dated October 12, 1985 (eleven months earlier than the release of Watchmen #1), occupies a different place - he is not writing it concurrently with these panels. But the two run in odd synchronization, the blood running into the gutter exactly as “the gutters are full of blood” in Rorschach’s narration. In the sixth panel, Kovacs disappears into the crowd of people on the street as his journal trails off with the phrase “and all of a sudden nobody can think of anything to say.” The page’s seventh panel, the full-width one, tacitly responds to Rorschach’s narration as the man staring out the window speaks the most banal of observations.

The next three pages further develop this structure of juxtaposition, alternating between two timeframes - the narrative’s present day, in which two cops are investigating a murder, and the events of that murder, shown from the murderer’s perspective, the panels tinged red by John Higgins to distinguish them. The detectives’ dialogue continues throughout the scene, appearing in square caption boxes over the red frames, which show a middle-aged man being savagely beaten, blood dripping from his face onto the yellow smiley badge he’s wearing on his bathrobe, and thrown out a window, the murder at the heart of the mystery that Watchmen initially pretends to be.

As above; so below. For all that it existed as a serialized object unearthed meticulously page by page and month by month, the Watchmen that is by far best known is the static object, a graphic novel in twelve chapters that came out long ago, and whose historical consequences have echoed out across a shockingly vast amount of history. Its most fundamental nature - its base state - is as a thing that has happened. This essential nature of Watchmen is key to its own function; in a key sense it is this aspect of it that made DC’s eventual Before Watchmen project such an egregious slight against Moore and Gibbons’s original work and, by extension, to Moore and Gibbons themselves; it contaminated the crime scene. 

The facts of the case, then: Watchmen was a twelve issue series written by Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons and color from John Higgins, released by DC Comics between May 13th, 1986 and June 23rd, 1987, and a three months thereafter collected as a graphic novel that has remained in print since. The comic is a postmodern take on superhero stories that picks at the desires and contradictions that animate the genre. In it, Moore and Gibbons design an intricate and bespoke superhero continuity, and then unleash into it an apocalypse firmly rooted in cold war paranoias of an altogether more realist sort. The result was a critical and commercial success beyond the expectations of anyone involved, but in its aftermath Moore had a sizeable falling out with the management at DC and terminated his relationship with the company. This decision, in a very real sense, marked the end of the career he had built up to that point, and, as an almost incidental side effect, the end of both the British and American comics industries in which he had built that career. 

These facts, at least, are easily established. But a mystery is not the crime scene; rather it is the act of navigating a path through the scene’s implications. A mystery is, in the end, nothing without a detective. In Watchmen’s case, the detective is Rorschach, whose journal opens the first chapter, and whose investigation drives its structure and, ultimately, the structure of the entire book. It is safe to say that Rorschach is central both to the book’s appeal; he is one of the great literary characters of the twentieth century. Like any such character, there is something off-putting about him. His opening narration is indicative - the fixation on the seemingly random brutality of a run over dog, and the seething, contemptuous hatred he displays. It is no surprise that, towards the end of Watchmen, when Rorschach sends his journal to the right-wing newspaper the New Frontiersman, the editor responds to the first line by asking, “Jesus, who’s it from? Son of Sam,” not least because Moore has openly admitted that his “main inspiration for that character’s voice was the notes Son of Sam gave to the police.” For every instance of Rorschach offering a chillingly brilliant moment like “and I’ll look down and whisper ‘no.’” there’s another that’s openly ridiculous, such as his declaration later in the first issue, “beneath me, this awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children. New York.” 

Figure 834: One of David Berkowitz's "Son
of Sam" letters, which were a major source
of inspiration for Rorschach's psyche
And yet for all of this, indeed, because of all this, Rorschach’s opening monologue is one of the most famous passages in comics. Part of this is simply Moore’s typical skill at language - the heavily iambic meter he adopts for many of the monologue’s great moments: this CIty IS afRAID of ME; and I’LL look DOWN and WHISper NO. But this is, unusually for Moore’s classic monologues, not actually quite so iambically driven as some. Stretches instead slip into a paranoid, staccato meter dominated by dactyls and trochees - DOG CARcass in ALLey this MORning, TIre TREAD on BURST STOmach - and by the use of sentence fragments. The result is to both communicate unambiguously that Rorschach’s journal is the product of a disturbed mind and to sell the reader on the grandeur of Rorschach’s vision. He is at once seductive and repugnant, fascinating the reader while remaining at a worrisome and unsettling distance.

What is crucial about Rorschach, and what makes him the ideal detective through which to wind through the fractal mystery of Watchmen, is the depth of his obsessiveness. This is hinted at as the two detectives depart the scene of Edward Blake’s murder, musing on the possible dangers of investigating this case too openly. “Rorschach never retired,” says one, “even after him and his buddies fell outta grace. Rorschach’s still out there somewhere,” a strange and haunted reaction to a mysterious murder that hints at a larger, more unsettling aspect of this world. And it is seen in particular in his final monologue in the first issue, the speech that Kieron Gillen observes serves as the moment where his tragic fate is sealed. “Soon there will be war,” he says, as he contemplates the Comedian’s death. “Millions will perish in sickness and misery. Why does one death matter against so many? Because there is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of armageddon I shall not compromise in this. But there are so many deserving of retribution… and there is so little time.” 

This cracked yet obsessive sense of vision is ultimately that of Watchmen itself. The book is densely structured, but it is more to the point imperfectly and erratically structured. Just as Rorschach’s monologues make use of the effects of poetic meter without slipping into the actual precision of any given meter, the book’s structure is, for all its visual rhymes and repeated images, in no way the comics equivalent of a rigid form like a sonnet or a sestina. Its structure is one of near-precision. Its twelve chapters can be sensibly divided into two types; the first spanning the scope of the book’s world, the second tightly focused on the origins and motivations of specific characters. For the most part these alternate, save for issues six and seven, which are character-specific chapters on Rorschach and Night Owl respectively, thus giving the book an overall symmetry. But for all that this is clearly a structure that defines the comic, it is nevertheless not strictly adhered to - “Look On My Works, Ye Mighty…,” for instance, serves the purpose of explicating Ozymandias’s character, but lacks the sort of bespoke formal structure that characterizes chapters like “Watchmaker” or “The Abyss Gazes Also.” And the most formally baroque chapter, “Fearful Symmetry,” is not one of the character-specific chapters. 

Figure 835: The Comedian's empty
costume, literally defining the character
as an empty space in the narrative. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and
John Higgins, from Watchmen #1, 1986)
More broadly, the six characters who get issues focusing on them - the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Night Owl, Silk Spectre, and Ozymandias - imperfectly correspond to the characters focused on by the first issue, which is structured around a series of four panels, each occupying six of the nine frames comprising a Watchmen page, which introduce major characters. These panels establish Rorschach, Night Owl, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan as major characters, but the Comedian is absent, while Silk Specter appears in the background of Dr. Manhattan’s panel instead of getting her own. In both cases, of course, this is in its own way revealing: the Comedian is introduced only in negative space, and Silk Specter is literally marginalized.

Ultimately there is no formal rule within Watchmen that can truly be called absolute. Even the nine-panel grid, the most basic formal unit of the comic, is violated at the end of every chapter to accommodate a small panel featuring the full quote from which the issue’s title is extracted. More (or perhaps less) substantively, there are several instances in the first two issues where a row of panels is divided into four, although this, like the indulgence in narration early in V for Vendetta
Figure 836: One of the few breaks in Watchmen's nine-panel
grid, a row of four panels. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave
Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #1, 1986)
can probably be chalked up as an artifact of Watchmen’s serial nature, amounting to nothing more than an early indiscipline 
of the sort that would be revised out if a graphic novel such as Watchmen could have its beginning edited to better match its end like a traditional prose novel would be. 

But momentary lapses aside, the nine panel grid really is the beating, or perhaps more accurately ticking heart of Watchmen. [continued]


Daru 4 years, 4 months ago

Not read it yet, but real excited you've reached this point and really looking forwards to reading book 2.

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iWill 4 years, 4 months ago

Excellent essay, looking forward to examining Watchmen again- it's been half a decade since I last read it. Really looking forward to hearing what you have to say about the nine-panel page structure, as I remember finding it a bit weird when I first started reading it.

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Daru 4 years, 4 months ago

I was studying design and illustration when I first read this and I remember - and still am - a fan of the nine-panel structure and the way it is played with. For me it feels like it set a rhythm, a changing tempo and a kind of music through the whole piece.

That's got me wondering what kind of soundtrack the book has - apart from the songs mentioned and quoted in the text. Thinking of something like Carpenter and Morricone's soundtrack for The Thing (1982) mashed up with something more beat driven.

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Daru 4 years, 4 months ago

Anyone else got any other thoughts on music?

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Chrshea 4 years, 4 months ago

The music was one of (many) things that really hurt the Watchmen movie for me. I can't see that world making the same or even similar music to our 80's. Despite being set in the 80's, it's more of a never ending late 70's. I hear a radio at that news stand playing a some new punk band that are an even angrier Sex Pistols.

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C. 4 years, 4 months ago

very much agree the music of the movie was dreadful and one of its many tonal miscues.

The underlying music of the comic seems to be an extended "2nd generation" punk and new wave (Pale Horse is like what if Sid Vicious had lived and formed a band with Billy Idol in 1983). Iggy Pop's "Neighborhood Threat" is heard blasting from a radio in the 1st issue and of course Laurie's into Devo.

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Daru 4 years, 4 months ago

Yeah the music in the movie didn't work for me either. With the rhythm of the book I got a vibe of something the had a beat that was really driving and continuous throughout.

I've got a kind of Phillip Glass electronica punk moving through my head.

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Dave 4 years, 4 months ago

"What we demand is the unity of politics and art, the unity of content and form, the unity of revolutionary poltical content and the highest possible perfection of artistic form. Works of art, which lack artistic quality, have no force, however progressive they may be politically." -Mao, 1942

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Heath 4 years, 4 months ago

This is great. The Watchmen analysis the world has been waiting for. Can't wait for the next installment.

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Scott 4 years, 4 months ago

Y'know, I think it's time to crack open Watchmen again...

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arcbeatle 4 years, 4 months ago

I think the trailer made a fairly convincing argument that Billy Corgan would have made a very appropriate soundtrack to the tone of the film:

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Spoilers Below 4 years, 4 months ago

I'm sure this will come up in later chapters, for for those interested in picking up their extended reading lists early, the "real" Before Watchmen is the Action Heroes Archive vol. 2, detailing all the early adventures of the Blue Beetle, The Question, Captain Atom, and other Charlton Heroes that the Watchmen characters are based off of. Volume 1 is all Captain Atom, and therefore not quite as interesting to the project, but vol 2 has all the relevant Steve Ditko.

We'll no doubt get to Moore's absolutely brutal tear down of Ditko and his system of values and ideals in time, but for those interested in the where's and how's, this volume is indispensable. Should be available via interlibrary loan from any library, if they don't already have it.

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camestrosfelapton 4 years, 4 months ago

I know there is only one Elvis Costello reference in the book but it is an Elvis Costello sort of sound that I associate with the book.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 4 years, 4 months ago

I've been using the two mixes Alex made me for the Swamp Thing chapter so far, though Alex is going to make me a Watchmen-specific mix when he gets around to it.

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Daru 4 years, 4 months ago

I'm on route down to Shropshire for a long weekend with my partner, so can't follow up all of the links right now.
But love the sound of Elvis Costello and will definitely have s listen to the link from Alex Phil - sounds great!
Got a soundtrack of Barry Adamson & the Velvet Underground going through me right now.

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Dan Abel 4 years, 3 months ago

I'd like to see the trailer cut to this:

In fact I think i need to read Watchmen again listening to this:

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FrF 4 years, 3 months ago

Sometimes, in order to provide compressed information, one has to ask the reader to suspend disbelief or not to look too closely. Cases in point are the first panels of Watchmen #1: As crime evidence the smiley face button has no business of laying there in the gutter, unless you want to have proof for a seriously careless police investigation! The shop owner hosing down a huge puddle of blood like a butcher in a slaughterhouse, endangering potential evidence in process? These are iconic, powerful images which work very well on one level but maybe less on another, in this context less important one.

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Chris Andersen 4 years, 3 months ago

The imperfectly symmetrical nature of the layout of the chapters is evocative of the Rorschach pattern. The blots are always uneven and imperfect.

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John 4 years, 3 months ago

Is it wrong that I kind of liked the montage set to "The Times They Are A Changin'"?

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Spoilers Below 4 years, 3 months ago

I think it's probably the best part of the entire movie.

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Daru 4 years, 3 months ago

Yeah I do love "The Times They Are A Changin'" section too - and will have to try to have a listen to the playlists on the links you posted Phil another time as I've got an out of date browser just now (but thanks!)

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Daru 4 years, 3 months ago

Yeah that's the interesting thing about Rorschach ink blots, they never really are symmetrical exactly, but our perception wants to reconcile them into something that is not only balanced, but also since they seem symmetrical, turn them into an image that makes sense to us.

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Cat Rambo 4 years, 3 months ago

This is near and dear to my heart, having written a paper in grad school on Dr. Manhattan and the nuclear sublime - really looking forward to reading through the rest of your pieces on this.

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Neo Tuxedo 4 years, 3 months ago

I was rereading Chapter One on my Nook the other day, and this passage jumped out at me:

if a graphic novel such as Watchmen could have its beginning edited to better match its end like a traditional prose novel would be.

If the rights had reverted to Moore and Gibbons, they might have made that change. Rick Veitch made several changes to Bratpack for its TPB, including a vastly different ending that made explicit a reveal one could have blinked and missed, as well as maing the series more explicitly the climax of the King Hell Heroica (which I think you ought to cover, but given that it's incomplete and hard to find, I'll understand if you don't).

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