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]