Reading “Old Ghosts”

It’s been a while since we had a plot-heavy issue of Watchmen to pick apart.  Rorschach and Dan Dreiberg’s issues are really good at getting into the motivations behind the characters, but since they’re so heavily interested in the past the plot of the series tends to get lost.  Moore and Gibbons are playing around a good bit with parallel pacing in this issue and the two previous ones (a technique that’s easy to overlook at first, but which will become really important as we move into the series’s second half and its climax).  Rorschach’s issue focuses on the week that he spends in prison, and then Dreiberg’s issue goes back and explains what happened at the start of that same week with him and Laurie Juspeczyk.  Issue #8 rounds things out by flashing forward to the end of the week; Dreiberg and Juspeczyk are planning to break Rorschach out of prison while the rest of the city discusses all the current events: Russia’s increased aggression in the Middle East after Dr. Manhattan’s disappearance, the reappearance of masked heroes after Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre rescued people from a tenement fire, the possibility of a prison riot following Rorschach’s maiming an inmate who attempted to shank him, and also Halloween (the majority of the action in this issue takes place on October thirty-first).

Essentially, this issue zooms out from focusing exclusively on the superheroes to take the temper of the regular people that we’ve periodically met throughout the series in light of the global instability that has precipitated since Dr. Manhattan abandoned planet.  I’ve pointed this out before, but Moore and Gibbons are extremely interested in exploring the way that superheroes would impact the real world, and one of their favorite vehicles for that exploration is the cast of street level characters who appear in relation to the news vendor’s stand.  They’re the functional Greek Chorus of the series, and we get a big dose of them here mostly drawing a strong correlation between the resurgence of superheroes in the news and the general downturn in other parts of current affairs.  For the most part that’s all it is: a correlation; only Dr. Manhattan’s disappearance has any actual impact on global events, but the coincidence of Rorschach’s arrest and the tenement fire rescue lead people to think there’s some causation built in as well.  The issue ends with a gang of punks carrying this false connection out to its worst possible conclusion as they confuse Dan Dreiberg’s Nite Owl, who witnesses saw assist Rorschach in his escape from prison, with Hollis Mason’s Nite Owl, who was home preparing to receive trick-or-treaters for Halloween, and beat Mason to death in his home.

I’ve had the weird feeling before now that Watchmen was eerily reminiscent of America’s current political turmoil, but this issue’s centering of the bickering between elements of the far-right and the left really clinches it for me. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

The false equivalence established between the Nite Owls carries some distinctly unpleasant echoes of our current reality; if you imagine superheroes as a scapegoated group where punishing any member of the group is considered just as acceptable as punishing specific members who perpetrate crimes and wrongs you start to see the parallels.  Obviously this analogy only goes so far (superheroes in the Watchmen universe are remarkably rare individuals, and most of them really do make things around them objectively worse), but it’s a weird reverberation nonetheless.

Even stronger a parallel to current events (and less of a stretch) is the oppositional relationship established between the two major fictional news magazines of Watchmen, the New Frontiersman and Nova ExpressNova Express has appeared before in relation to Jon Osterman’s self-imposed exile; its editor, Doug Roth, is the one who breaks the story that multiple past associates of Osterman have developed terminal cancer.  The New Frontiersman has received less exposure, though its regularly referred to by Rorschach in his journal as the only source of news that he trusts.  In this issue we finally get to see more of the Frontiersman and its contentious relationship with Nova Express.  At the start of the issue, Nova Express has published an editorial called “Spirit of ’77,” which refers to events in 1977 surrounding the police union strike that forced the government to outlaw masked vigilantism.  We don’t get to see the content of this editorial, but based on the talk on the street, we can infer that it’s a relatively broad criticism of masked heroes based on the way their presence destabilized the country in the early years of the Nixon administration (don’t forget that in Watchmen Nixon has been president for over a decade) and how recent events reflect that same trend but now on a global scale.  To rebut, the New Frontiersman publishes its own editorial, “Honor is Like the Hawk… Sometimes It Must Go Hooded,” which defends masked heroics as part of a long American tradition.  We get to see this editorial in full in the issue’s appendix, and it’s presented from a perspective that’s meant to come across as fringe far-right.  What’s uncomfortable reading this editorial now is that it’s espousing views that are getting mainstreamed into American conservatism.  The racism on display in the New Frontiersman (the editorial defends the Ku Klux Klan, and the paper features a political cartoon filled with caricatures of Jews, Black people, and Italians) is supposed to be outlandish and beyond the pale of political discourse in 1985; in 2017 it’s bizarre just how closely it matches the rhetoric we’re now seeing coming from the mainstreamed fascist right (like I said, Rorschach would be thrilled with America’s current political predicament).  So much of all this back-and-forth between Nova Express and the New Frontiersman feels like something that was meant to fix the story in a specific political climate, and yet it’s re-emerged some thirty years later, but with the veneer of parody rubbed off.

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