Asmodeus is That Light Throbbing of Temple and Pulse Warning That Approaching Thunder Heads Our Way. (The Last War in Albion Book Two, Part Twenty-Eight: Fearful Symmetry)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore simultaneously experienced the whole of his existence and also finished Watchmen. The experience left him a bit drained.
Moore’s disorientation and confusion in the wake of Watchmen is wholly understandable. Even reading Watchmen is, at times, enough to generate a sense of dazed exhaustion. And this is very much the point – an effect consciously generated by Moore’s use of the dense uniformity of the nine-panel grid. As Kieron Gillen puts it in Kieron Gillen Talks Watchmen, “if we’re talking about the many icons of Watchmen, [the nine-panel grid] is the invisible one. It underlies everything. We’re to watch these little boxes – hundreds of them – and make sense by combining them all into a larger piece of meaning. Watch,” he says, and snaps his fingers to cue his projectionist to advance his PowerPoint to a shot of Ozymandias watching his wall of television screens. Gillen talks about the comic as a “clockwork machine” in which “everything is predetermined. The forces that are put into motion mean this… the clock will carry on ticking, and if you read Watchmen enough you’ll know what the next tick is.” Gillen, here, is talking about the comic’s famously ambiguous ending, making a strong case that in fact there is only one possible “next step” for the book to take, and that the inevitable momentum of that step hangs impermeably over the entire work, which is in turn what Morrison speaks of when he talks about how the god of Watchmen is always shoving his cock in the reader’s face.
|Figure 944: Watchmen #5 (Written by Alan Moore, Art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins)|
Nowhere is this sense clearer, perhaps, than Watchmen #5, the famed “Fearful Symmetry” chapter. It has been noted by many that Moore’s focus and enthusiasm for a project often wanes over the course of it. If so, it is hard not to see “Fearful Symmetry” as a crucial turning point in the comic. Moore has spoken in interviews of how the third issue marked the point where he and Gibbons really mastered the technique of juxtaposition that would serve as one of the major engines of the book. Similarly, issue #4, “Watchmaker,” is a virtuosic and experimental piece playing with the nature of time, in which Moore, channeling Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, depicts the life of Dr. Manhattan as a simultaneously occurring eternity. And with “Fearful Symmetry” Moore reaches the formal zenith of the work, if not of his entire career. In a real sense it is impossible to imagine that Moore could devote the focus and attention that “Fearful Symmetry” required to any subsequent issue. In terms of Watchmen as a set of storytelling techniques – the grounds on which Moore, at least, has long been inclined to judge it – “Fearful Symmetry” marks the tale’s end. On top of that, its release in October of 1986 marks the last issue of Watchmen to come out prior to the explosion of the ratings controversy that would result in Moore’s acrimonious departure from DC. Moore would, of course, have been ahead in actually writing the book at this point, but the point stands – not long after “Fearful Symmetry” came the point where Moore began actively distancing himself from his DC superhero work. But perhaps most significantly, the truth is simply that, broadly speaking, Watchmen’s first half is much stronger than its second. It is not that “Fearful Symmetry” is the last good chapter – the next issue has several of the series’ most iconic moments, and the denouement is rightly legendary. But again, it marks a peak – the moment when Watchmen stops being concerned with proving what it can do and starts calmly advancing towards its end.
|Figure 945: Paralleled panels from pages 5 and 24 of “Fearful Symmetry.” (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #5, 1986)|
The main conceit of “Fearful Symmetry” is flagged in the title; the issue is symmetrically structured, with the back half of the issue mirroring the front on a panel-to-panel level so that, for instance, the panel revealing that Moloch has been shot in the head on page twenty-four corresponds, in a famously grim joke, to a panel on page five of Rorschach cracking an egg on the counter as Moloch looks on, facing the reader as he does in the later panel. Other correspondences exist in dialogue – a first-half panel where Bernard the newsvendor declares boasts that people like him “see every damned connection” is mirrored by one where he rues that “all we see is what’s on the surface.” And still others are oblique commentaries – a late panel in which the cops comment that “it’s a dead end. He can’t get out” matches an earlier one not just because they visually complement each other, but because the earlier one features Moloch meandering towards Rorschach’s trap for him, such that the cops’ dialogue serves as a wry description of Moloch’s situation.
The nature of this structure, of course, is that the issue seems textually incommensurable until the inflection point midway through the issue. And so for thirteen pages “Fearful Symmetry” seems like a perfectly straightforward installment of Watchmen. There are, perhaps, a few cryptically gnomic moments – a sequence where Rorschach uses the sauce at the Gunga Diner to draw a pattern on his placemat and then folds it to make a Rorschach blot, for instance, serves little purpose other than to provide a demonstration of symmetry within the issue. But for the most part it appears to be a return to the basically unconstrained approach of issues #1 and #3 from the high formalism of “Watchmaker.” And yet there is a sense of unease across the first thirteen pages – a clear feeling that the comic is winding its way through some labyrinth towards an unknown, perhaps unknowable revelation. This sense is generated perhaps most clearly by the start, a three page sequence that positively luxuriates in the slow tension of Rorschach’s cat and mouse game with Moloch, with two straight pages of Moloch just walking through his apartment looking for the intruder.
On the one hand this lengthy exercise in taut subtlety is directly paid off by the corresponding sequence at the end, in which Rorschach is taken by the police in a sequence that’s as action-packed and chaotic as the opening is quiet and suspenseful. But it’s also paid off in the overall sense of unease that hangs over the first half of the issue. The Rorschach-Moloch scene continues for three pages after Rorschach actually confronts Moloch, taking up six of the first fourteen pages. With the arguable exception of a two-page sequence in which the first overlays dialogue from Tales of the Black Freighter on a newsstand scene and the second is a straightforward Black Freighter sequence, no other scene until the issue’s four page centerpiece lasts more than one page. And these scenes generally end on strangely ambivalent notes, so that what accrues over the course of the issue’s first half is not so much a sense of suspense and momentum as simply questions. The effect is a sense of building tension in which there’s not a clear direction or object.
|Figure 946: The center turning point of “Fearful Symmetry.” (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #5, 1986)|
And then, with the issue’s center two pages, it finally becomes clear. Pages fourteen and fifteen of “Fearful Symmetry” are, notably, the sole double-page spread in the entire twelve-issue series. On top of that, it is a spread that leans massively and heavily upon the idea of symmetry, with Ozymandias and his nameless assailant each occupying one of the two panels, the vase Ozymandias strikes him with split perfectly across them, and an ostentatious V in the background to further hammer home the fact that the spread is composed with particularly rigorous symmetry. Emphasizing this is the fact that the center two panels are very clearly two panels, with the usual gutter between them. (This effect is lost in the standard trade paperback edition, where the thickness of the binding makes it look like a standard double-page spread with a panel traversing the center, but is visible in the original issue and actively emphasized in the oversized Absolute edition.) Sort of actually including an explanatory essay (they opted instead to use the backmatter to talk about the fictional history of pirate comics) it is hard to imagine how Moore and Gibbons could signpost what they’re doing more explicitly.
More than just flagging the baroque structure of this particular issue, however, Moore and Gibbons tacitly flag large amounts of information about the series’ overall plot and structure. Put simply, Ozymandias is literally at the heart of it all, with the entire story hinging on him. More broadly, the fact that Ozymandias sits at the center of an issue that opens and closes with Rorschach is significant – the first time the series has clearly positioned them as opposites. The issue also lays a lot of deeper symbolic groundwork in this regard, including a sequence in Tales of the Black Freighter where the castaway is attacked by a shark, and another where Rorschach’s name is misheard as “raw shark,” a pair of moments that have significant implications given that the castaway is more broadly paralleled with Ozymandias within Watchmen.
It is fair to wonder, however, where these aggressively dense and formalist instincts came from. It’s not quite that they are unprecedented in Moore’s work – he had always been conscious of form and demanding of his reader’s attention, after all. Nor is it unclear what the specific influences that led him down the path are – he’s been open about the main one being Burroughs. But equally, there is nothing prior to Watchmen in his career that contains even close to the formal density of “Fearful Symmetry,” nor indeed of much else in Watchmen. Whereas there are numerous later works – From Hell, Big Numbers, Promethea, and Providence, for instance – that are in the same general range of density and ambition. It’s hardly surprising that Watchmen should mark a turning point in Moore’s style as well as in the history of Albion, but that still doesn’t explain: why it? Why this project as opposed to, say, Miracleman or Swamp Thing?
There are of course pragmatic and obvious answers. The self-contained and (supposedly) creator-owned setup of Watchmen made it prime territory for a self-consciously major work. There’s also the presence of Dave Gibbons, who Moore credits with the idea of using the nine panel grid, and whose clean style and propensity for detail allowed Moore to write the comic in a way he simply couldn’t have for Steve Bissette or John Totleben, little yet Chuck Austen. (Moore says as much in a 1988 interview: “I couldn’t have done this with Steve Bissette. Steve Bissette is a wonderful artist but there isn’t that degree of control and precision that Dave’s got.”) There are also the more ineffable but nevertheless obvious answers: this was simply the point in Moore’s career where he was ready to do something like Watchmen. One need only look at his steady development of confidence and versatility over the course of Swamp Thing as he learned to work in the longer style of the American single issue as opposed to the British anthologized short to see that the idea of him writing “Fearful Symmetry” in 1983 or 84 is preposterous.
But the issue of timing has wider implications for Watchmen. Moore has often made the joke that Watchmen was the result of a “bad mood” that he was in during the period. This is by and large understating things. In interviews from the time, Moore seems genuinely convinced that the world is going to end, certainly during his children’s lifetime, if not during his, and probably in some sort of nuclear explosion. In one interview, for instance, he notes that “in forty years the rain forests will be gone. If the rain forests are gone, we can’t breathe. Simple as that. There’s nothing that’s more simple than that: no trees, no air. One of my children is eight. She said to me the other day, “I’ll only be forty-eight, won’t I?’ and I said. ‘Yeah’. It’s a pretty depressing thought. [continued]