Reading “Absent Friends”

TW: brief discussion of attempted rape

The story goes that when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were plotting out Watchmen, then decided that they didn’t have enough material to reasonably fill twelve issues (in the contemporary era of comics decompression, this seems kind of silly, especially since any one issue of Watchmen is so incredibly dense), so they decided that they’d implement a structure where they’d alternate plot heavy issues with more reflective ones that focused on giving backstory and exploring motivations of each of the six main characters.  This structure doesn’t hold up perfectly through all twelve issues (a couple of the character specific issues come back-to-back late in the run to allow the final issue to be devoted to the story’s climax and resolution), but early on it’s very much in effect.

Issue #2 focuses heavily on the character who died at the beginning of issue #1, Edward Blake the Comedian.  The frame of the issue is Blake’s funeral, which is attended by several of the former heroes we met previously (and pointedly not attended by Laurie Juspeczyk).  Each character in turn recalls a defining moment in Blake’s life that they witnessed firsthand: Laurie’s mother Sally, who was the original Silk Spectre, remembers the night Blake sexually assaulted her after one of the meetings of the Minutemen, the first group of costumed heroes that formed in this timeline; Adrian Veidt recalls the first, failed meeting of the Crimebusters, the second group of superheroes, where Blake derided the motivations of the other costumed heroes and laughed at the idea that they could actually do any real good; Jon Osterman remembers an incident in Vietnam after America won the war where Blake murdered a woman he had impregnated in retaliation for her slashing his face with a broken beer bottle; Dan Dreiberg remembers working with the Comedian during the riots that followed a nationwide police strike over the presence of superheroes; a former foe of the Minutemen, Moloch, remembers the night Blake broke into his apartment shortly before he was murdered, raving about something that didn’t make any sense to him; and Rorschach thinks back to Blake’s murder.

The picture of Blake that we gather from these experiences is that he’s a violent, deeply cynical man who prefers to hurt others before he can be hurt himself.  The irony of this portrait is that Blake’s inordinately bad at avoiding harm, at least physically.  Half of the moments depicted revolve around Blake being brutally punished for a transgression he commits against someone.  In the midst of attempting to rape Sally Jupiter, he’s caught by Hooded Justice and beaten bloody, getting his nose broken in the process; later in Vietnam the pregnant woman whom he’s planning on abandoning eviscerates his face, leaving a gruesome scar that pulls his mouth into a permanent half smile (it’s this incident that leads to him wearing a full mask in the ’70s, to cover the deformity and protect his identity); and his murder, recapitulated from the last issue, ends with him beaten and thrown out the window from his high rise apartment.  The first two incidents are arguably justifiable (Blake’s treatment of women is unambiguously deplorable), but his murder doesn’t make quite as much sense.  His ramblings in Moloch’s apartment suggest that he’s stumbled across some kind of plot that won’t be fully explained for a long while and that he was murdered to prevent him from giving the game away.

This panel of Blake’s face is pretty iconic to me. I like how it evokes the dramatic masks of comedy and tragedy. The Comedian’s ultimately a persona that Blake puts on to hide his fear and confusion about the senselessness of the world. (Artwork by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Contrasting with these moments when Blake is harshly rebuked for violating social and moral norms (and for knowing too much) are the instances where Blake gets one up on everyone else by reinforcing the power structures in place.  Blake is a violent man, and his coming of age right at the start of World War II puts him in a position to turn his aggression towards nominally productive ends.  Blake distinguishes himself as a valuable asset for the US government in his overseas tours, and the trajectory of his career as a superhero relies on his continued support of that system.  He ridicules the mission of the Crimebusters not only because it’s out of touch with the zeitgeist (the map of the US that Captain Metropolis has on display is marked with notes complaining about popular trends that stemmed directly from the social revolutions of the 1960s), but also because his work as a cog in the larger social machine gives him a perspective that understands exactly how irrelevant the work of superheroes is to the larger problems in America.  This attitude is the through line for Blake’s entire life; it serves to highlight just how horrific the plot he discovers must be that it leaves a lifelong cynic like him helplessly flailing about for some bit of meaning.

My best guess is that Blake’s total breakdown just before his murder comes about because he’s spent his entire life benefiting from an indifferent system that only required he also be indifferent to others; this is a system that Blake has viewed as implacable his whole life, and whatever he finds out leaves his trust in the system utterly shattered.

Despite the cynicism that underpins Blake’s character, he is perhaps also the most conservative of the characters we’ll be examining.  Though he keeps his original code name throughout his career, the visual transformation Blake undergoes as the Comedian shows him fully embracing American iconography as part of his identity.  His original costume, a bright yellow clown suit (probably a nod towards the tendency to give young characters in comics a yellow palette to make them more appealing to younger readers; Blake is only sixteen when he assaults Sally) gives way to black leather with accents that recall the American flag, noting his commitment to serving the government, first as a soldier during war time and later as a secret operative.  Blake has no illusions about the ugliness of the system he defends, but he’s totally committed to it.  It’s fitting that his death opens the story, since we’ll eventually learn that it’s about overturning that very system.

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