Reading “A Stronger Loving World”

Watchmen ends with a near full inversion of the archetypical super hero narrative.  The villain succeeds in carrying out his heinous plot, murdering millions in order to conquer the world; the heroes are defeated and forced to slink away only with the promise that they’ll return to do good in some other fashion; happily ever after isn’t on the table.

Except that the villain’s plan was designed to stop the world from destroying itself, the heroes’ promise of hope has the potential to completely undo the villain’s accomplishments, and happily ever after is never a sure thing in superheroics anyway.

When the last issue opens, we’re presented with a series of six full page panels that highlight the devastation wrought at the intersection where Adrian Veidt teleported his alien at the start of the previous issue.  It quickly becomes apparent that we’re surveying the destruction from Laurie Juspeczyk’s perspective just after Jon Osterman teleports her and himself to ground zero.  The effect of these panels is striking precisely because up to this point Gibbons has exercised enormous restraint in how he lays out the book; every issue is built on a simple three-by-three panel structure, and only rarely does any page of Watchmen consist of fewer than nine panels laid out in a grid.  Occasional moments requiring especially striking art might get a double-sized panel (Dr. Manhattan gets a number of particularly large panels displaying the scale of his powers, but none are a whole page by themselves).  The decision to reserve the full page splash for this moment is a good one, especially when taken in context of the trend that superhero comics would adopt not too many years after Watchmen of presenting splash pages just for the sake of showing off artwork.  These panels serve a story purpose as well as highlighting Gibbons’s art.

Following the massive destruction (what I find most moving about it is that if you look carefully you’ll see the bodies of all the regular folks who were just living their lives before the incident), we get an extended fallout where everyone reacts with varying levels of horror to what Veidt has done.  Juspeczyk has the most visceral reaction, probably because she actually surveys the damage firsthand, and unlike Osterman she hasn’t grown detached from humanity; Dan Dreiberg is horrified but quickly placated by arguments for the greater good; Rorschach wants nothing to do with any of it and so sets out to tell the world what happened before Osterman is forced to murder him; Osterman warns Veidt that nothing ever really ends before wandering off to another galaxy to create some life.  Veidt wants to revel in his victory, but he sits uneasy following Osterman’s admonishment.

In accordance with these varied reactions to genocide, the superheroes all receive endings that seem to be tailored to their particular flaws and hangups regarding superheroics.  Veidt used his superhero career as a means to an end, and is now generally satisfied enough to leave capes and masks behind him forever; Osterman has become estranged from humanity, and without a human anchor in the form of Juspeczyk, he’s free to go explore the mysteries of the universe as his whims guide him; Rorschach insists to the bitter end that there must never be compromise, and so he dies trying to uncover Veidt’s plan despite it very likely resulting in a much larger calamity; Dreiberg and Juspeczyk go into hiding (they did assist Rorschach with his jailbreak) with plans to continue being crime fighters, presumably because Dreiberg still craves the lifestyle.  For these last two, I get a slight whiff of Tom and Daisy Buchanan at the end of The Great Gatsby; having failed spectacularly at stopping a worldwide conspiracy, they retreat into their carefree life of inconsequential crime fighting while everyone else who was more seriously invested in the venture is left holding the bag (let’s imagine in this scenario that Rorschach is Nick and Osterman is Gatsby, but their fates are switched; also, just for fun we’ll say that Veidt is Jordan Baker, though I don’t think there are too many parallels between them).  It’s all well and good that they get to continue indulging their fantasies, but a lot of people died because of the existence of superheroes, and they’re not helping matters.

This ending resolution drives home how Moore has been pushing to deconstruct the superhero genre from the series’s beginning.  We see the total inefficacy of street level crime fighters in the face of global conflict, the near pathological indifference of a hero with actual powers, and the commission of a genocide in order to actually resolve a problem that was exacerbated by the presence of those same heroes.  Veidt’s death toll is in the millions, but the characters are all forced to confront the reality that that number was the alternative to a nearly assured nuclear war that would have rated in the billions.  It’s a dark ending to a dark series built on Moore’s insistence that superhero stories are fundamentally immature and flawed.  His point is well taken, especially when you acknowledge that he likely wanted to balance the critique of superheroes with relatively hopeful vignettes about the lives of regular people just trying to get by in a world where forces much larger than them are at work (at least, this is how I choose to read the scenes of the intersection in relation to the main plot).

“I will give you bodies beyond your wildest imaginings.” Well played, gentlemen. (Artwork by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)


Reading “Look On My Works, Ye Mighty…”

I’ve read Watchmen about four times now, and one thing that puzzled me in the past was how this issue was meant to be primarily about Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias.  The subplot of the chaos that erupts on the street corner is so compelling, and so essential to the plot of the series, that I often forget that most of this issue is built around Veidt monologuing to various listeners about his life and master plan.

Adrian Veidt understands the real world almost as well as he understands the fictional world he lives in. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

If there’s a defining trait for Veidt as a character, it’s hubris.  He actually hews pretty closely to a classically tragic hero; in addition to his overwhelming self confidence, Veidt is one of the richest, most well respected people in America and he’s driven by his hubris to carry out a plan that in a more traditional superhero narrative would culminate with his disgrace and potential demise.  Moore and Gibbons aren’t interested in that model though, so while we’re going to see some interesting shades of Veidt filled in in the last issue of the series, in this one he’s very much someone who has decided to commit a heinous atrocity for what he believes are the best reasons, and he’s aware enough of the conventions of the story in which he exists to take steps that would prevent anyone from foiling him.

Veidt’s story is intriguing simply because it is utterly devoid of tragedy.  The closest thing to a serious hardship that he experiences is the death of his parents when he’s relatively young, and even that is described more as an opportunity for Veidt to prove himself rather than as something that haunts him.  If you discount the fact that he wants to murder millions of people to scare America and the Soviet Union out of nuclear war, Adrian Veidt comes across as a perfectly well-adjusted, if smug, person.  This is an important feature of Veidt’s personality to remember, because when he discusses his time as a superhero, he makes it clear that he became disillusioned with the lifestyle’s approach to justice almost immediately.  Unlike Nite Owl and Rorschach, who do superheroics as something of a passion project, Ozymandias was always meant to be a means to a larger end.  Instead of these characters, Veidt explicitly places himself in the same category as Edward Blake.

Like Blake, Veidt believes himself to be a person who sees the world for precisely what it is, but in place of cynicism he adopts a stance of idealism.  The irony of this idealism is that it’s not rooted in optimism about humanity writ large but in Veidt’s own capabilities.  He’s totally convinced of his capacity to manipulate the entire world into a lasting peace, and while he appears dispassionate as he explains all the steps in his master plan, there’s an undeniable sense of zealotry and narcissism.  Veidt believes utterly that only he is capable of resolving the world’s chief problem.  In terms of the scope of what he wants to do, he’s totally megalomaniacal; he just happens to be doing it because he genuinely wants to save the world.  This is really where the differences between Blake and Veidt end though.  Blake is a thoroughly violent man who has built his whole life on violence in small, intimate doses; people who know the Comedian know he is not someone to be trifled with.  Veidt, while maintaining the appearance of a more genteel person, is the same, only on a larger scale.  His chief power is his intelligence, and he uses that to create access to other forms of power for himself, which he wields ruthlessly; Veidt exposes multiple people to enough radiation to give them cancer, arranges a failed assassination attempt on himself that results in the deaths of his personal assistant and the assassin in order to avoid suspicion, systematically murders every person who can potentially be connected to his plan, and destroys half of New York City.  In most cases he won’t beat you senseless himself (except for Blake, whom I suspect Veidt personally murders as a bit of revenge for the humiliation of losing to the Comedian when he was an inexperienced adventurer), but Veidt makes it starkly clear that he is a dangerous man if you get in the way of his ambitions.

Malcolm’s arc is a really brief one, but where he arrives in this moment is one of the best in the whole series. Shame we don’t get to see the journey from his moment of despair in his last appearance. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Running parallel to Veidt’s reveling in his moment of triumph is the last story of the New York street corner.  We get to see the stories of several of the ordinary people who have been interacting with the superheroes in passing come to a head just before Veidt’s alien crashes into the city and kills them all.  We see the news vendor finally connect with the boy who has been reading the pirate comic after weeks of his lonely observations about the state of the world; we see the detectives who were so close to catching Dan Dreiberg as Nite Owl choosing to intervene in a street fight while they’re off duty; we see a cabby who frequents the news stand caught in the heat of the moment as her girlfriend breaks up with her; we see Malcolm Long, Rorschach’s prison therapist, finally assert to his wife Gloria what he’s come to value after being exposed to the worst of humanity.  All these thoroughly mundane stories culminate with this moment of ultimate intersection and concern.  Just before Veidt turns them all into collateral damage, they demonstrate the hope that humanity can somehow learn to care about itself.  It’s a poignant moment where empathy cuts through all the noise of life, and I’m generally of the opinion that it represents the moment that Moore was most interested in arriving at as he wrote Watchmen.  It’s the moments of clarity in the lives of ordinary people that are special and worthy examining, not the big flashy spectacles of people in costumes.

What more fitting moment do you need for this idea than a man, thoroughly convinced of his own specialness, casually murdering millions of people so that he can say he saved the world?

“My name is Ozymandias king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” (Artwork by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Reading “Two Riders Were Approaching…”

There’s one major revelation in this issue and a whole mess of good character development for Rorschach and Nite Owl.  We learn here that Adrian Veidt, who’s been only a marginal presence since the beginning of the series (he might actually have appeared less at this point than Edward Blake, and he’s dead) is the mastermind behind the mask killer plot, and that there’s a whole lot more of something going on.  Veidt’s absence throughout has felt somewhat conspicuous given his dramatic introduction in the series’s first issue (he gets equal space with the other five main characters).  Veidt’s remained mostly a mystery; all we’re really told about him is that he got into the superhero scene at a young age and then somehow leveraged his success there into creating a massive business empire.  In comparison to the rest of the cast of Watchmen, he seems on the outside to be a generally well-adjusted individual.

In hindsight, it should have been obvious that he would end up being the “villain” of the story.  The entire mask killer plot, as Rorschach and Nite Owl discuss in this issue, is a bizarre and highly theatrical conspiracy that doesn’t make a lot of sense unless it’s being executed by someone who has long been part of the superhero community.  We’re still not yet privy to precisely why Veidt has orchestrated everything (that will be clarified in the next issue), but what we can ascertain so far is that he absolutely has a flair for the grandiose.  The machinations hinted at here with a brief scene showing all the missing scientists and artists who were mentioned in the copy from the New Frontiersman included at the end of issue #8 meeting their end in a fiery explosion at sea suggest something far more elaborate than simple revenge.  That all of Veidt’s time on panel here is devoted to him analyzing the global trends in order to figure out how to invest his money in the future shows that he’s thinking on a very complex level (though it also betrays the possibility that there’s a profit motive involved here as well).  Whatever the case, we now know who the antagonist is, and it’s just a matter of time before Moore and Gibbons lay all their cards on the table.

More important than Adrian Veidt is the impending sense of doom that this issue is meant to convey.  The issue opens with a sequence of President Nixon and Vice President Ford retreating to a secure location where they can monitor the movements of the Soviets in anticipation of nuclear war, and it maintains that tone of barely contained panic with frequent cuts back to the now familiar street corner where the news vendor is fretting over things far beyond his control while the young boy closes in on the end of the pirate story that has echoed themes of the primary story since its introduction in issue #3.  Things are spiraling into chaos, and everyone is aware of it even if they want desperately to deny it (this feeling is most sharply captured when the news vendor berates a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are out proselytizing in anticipation of an apocalypse; their Watchtower magazine is a nice subtle nod to the inspiration of the issue’s title and themes, “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan).  Things look bad, and everyone knows it.

Of Rorschach and Nite Owl, Nite Owl is the optimist. Also, take some time to peruse the graffiti and posters in the background; Gibbons packs all kinds of fun stuff in his panels. (Artwork and letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Rorschach’s one moment of pity. Also, because I don’t say it enough, but Dave Gibbons does the best faces. (Artwork by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

The focus characters for this issue are Nite Owl and Rorschach, and we get to see them carry out an investigation over two days that leads them to figure out that Veidt is the person they need to go see to get to the bottom of everything.  In the whole of Watchmen, this issue probably feels the most like a traditional superhero story.  Rorschach and Nite Owl do some detective work, bicker over how one should best go about doing detective work, and bond over mutual nostalgia for their younger days.  If you don’t look too closely at the seams of the scenario, it feels like a really fun bit of adventure; naturally that doesn’t last too long since you have details like Rorschach’s reveling in brutality to gather information and Nite Owl’s abuse of an innocent barfly upon hearing of Hollis Mason’s murder.  These men are engaging in a grand fantasy against the backdrop of a world that has bigger problems than some supervillain’s revenge plot, and the way they both casually wreck the lives of the people that get in their way is jarring.  The only saving grace for both men is that they do have moments of self awareness as they go about their adventure.  Nite Owl notes the absurdity of pursuing the mask killer plot while everyone else waits on World War III, and Rorschach has one fleeting moment of mercy when he chooses to skip humiliating his landlady in front of her children who are unaware that she is doing sex work to earn money.  It’s reassuring, however briefly, that our heroes are aware their work is most likely a farce.  Like everyone else we see in this issue, they’re ultimately just trying to fill the time with anything that will take their mind off how powerless they are.

In our penultimate issue, we’ll finally get to know more about Adrian Veidt and his master plan.  It’s a doozy.

(Artwork and letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Reading “The Darkness of Mere Being”

Laurie Juspeczyk suffers as a character through most of Watchmen because so much of what we see of her is through the eyes of various men in her life.  She’s depicted largely as an object of sexual desire for Dan Dreiberg and a human anchor for Jon Osterman.  Rorschach doesn’t like her (Rorschach doesn’t like any women), and Edward Blake’s life is lived mostly outside her sphere.  The only male character’s eyes we don’t get to see Juspeczyk through is Adrian Veidt (his focus issue is coming up in a bit).  Juspeczyk exists at a remove from the reader until this issue, and I think that’s a disservice to her.  We spend so much time seeing how other characters see her that her own character feels a little cloudy at times.  Even this issue, which is supposed to be her big set piece and origin story, turns on a revelation that feels like it has way more repercussions for her mother than for her.

Not pictured: Jon Osterman’s flat “No.” (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

In a way, this filtering of Juspeczyk’s story is a fitting way to portray her.  In the broad list of motivations for why different people become superheroes, hers boils down simply to this: her mother wanted her to.  There are parts of the adventuring life that she enjoys herself, but every moment in the series where her reasons are interrogated, Juspeczyk never suggests a great passion or deep-seated psychological need was the reason she put on a costume and beat up criminals.  The core parts of Juspeczyk’s identity that we see depicted are her ambivalence about her relationship with her mother and her ambivalence about being a superhero.  These complex, contradictory feelings allow us to see Juspeczyk both scolding her mother Sally Jupiter for reveling in her own glory days (including her status as a one-time sex symbol) and lashing out in defense of Jupiter whenever anyone brings up Edward Blake’s attempted rape of her.  It’s these same feelings that have Juspeczyk enjoying an evening of superheroics with Dan Dreiberg after she’s said with all sincerity that she doesn’t mind being retired.

Unfortunately, ambivalence is really the fullest depth we get to see of Juspeczyk’s character.  Her focus issue, while it does explore her origins (and emphasizes that Juspeczyk was pushed into the adventuring life rather than having chosen it), is most specifically concerned with her relationship to two men: Jon Osterman and Edward Blake.  Osterman has been Juspeczyk’s romantic partner for nearly twenty years, and while the events of Watchmen show her finally leaving him after she gets fed up with his detachment, he still requires her assistance to make up his mind about intervening in the ongoing world events on Earth.  Blake, we learn here, is Juspeczyk’s biological father.  Caught between these two men, the issue drags Juspeczyk, in the middle of attempting to cobble together a new life for herself, back into her past.  It’s an unfair situation for her, and it’s exacerbated by Osterman’s callousness and Blake’s looming legacy.

The thing that most consistently impresses me about Gibbons and Higgins’s art is how they work in details that suggest Juspeczyk’s relation to Blake, like their similarly textured and colored hair. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

On the subject of Blake’s relation to Juspeczyk, I feel ambivalent myself.  There’s a lot of complexity in the relationship between Juspeczyk’s parents, and I’m not really sure what to make of it.  Sally Jupiter is a victim of sexual assault at the hands of Edward Blake, and despite that she chose at least once to have consensual sex with him.  This decision isn’t so hard to parse; many victims of sexual assault do have ongoing sexual relationships with their attackers because of survival needs and the dynamics that emerge in abusive relationships.  Even Jupiter’s lifelong ambivalence towards Blake is understandable (we see in this issue that she cycled between hating him and feeling some sort of pity for him).  What confounds me is the issue’s resolution where Osterman, finally moved to wonder by the fact that Juspeczyk is the unlikely offspring of two people who shouldn’t have had reason to be together, decides that humanity is worth saving after all.  It feels like there’s a thin line between marveling at the unpredictability of human behavior (though I don’t think we’re that unpredictable) and marveling at the fact that Juspeczyk’s the result of a would-be rapist finally having sex with his victim.

Altogether, this issue is a difficult one to process.  It has some truly lovely character moments, but they all, unfortunately, fall to characters beside our focal point.

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.

Reading “A Brother to Dragons”

This panel’s the prelude to a sex scene where Dreiberg suffers performance anxiety to the tune of Adrian Veidt being an Olympian marvel in the background. It’s not subtle, but the art is beautiful. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

The second half of Watchmen begins with another character-focused issue (Moore and Gibbons reversed the pattern of the first half so that the final issue would be plot-relevant instead of a character sketch), this time with a focus on Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl.  The majority of the issue is just a prolonged conversation that Dreiberg has with Laurie Juspeczyk, who is staying with him after she gets evicted from the government base where she was living with Jon Osterman following Osterman’s disappearance.  It’s sort of an extended reflection on the pair’s history as crime fighters and their first “date” together (Dan and Laurie have been meeting up for meals as friends for a couple weeks at this point, but it’s painfully obvious to everyone that Dan wants to be more than friends).  These two are the most sympathetic out of the whole cast, so it’s nice to see an issue focused only on the two of them.

Like with all of the other character-focused issues, Dreiberg’s explores his motivations for being a superhero.  There’s no origin story to speak of, no defining trauma that leads him to become Nite Owl; he had a privileged childhood and when he was a young man he decided he wanted to follow in the footsteps of one of his heroes.  Though he’s generally more of a good-faith actor, Dreiberg’s motivations for getting into superheroics fall significantly more in line with Edward Blake than with either Osterman or Rorschach.  He fights crime mostly because it satisfies a personal need rather than because of any perceived temporal or moral obligation.  Really, Dan Dreiberg is probably the purest representation in Watchmen of the power fantasy that superhero stories sell to men.

The twist on this fantasy is that Dreiberg also bears a sexual fetish for the pageantry of superheroics.  Much of this issue explores Dreiberg’s existential malaise following his forced retirement, and it’s expressed most strikingly in the story of how he and Laurie Juspeczyk come to have sexual intercourse for the first time.  Of course, Dreiberg’s kink is a benign quirk of his character; the deeper, and more troubling, aspect being explored through it is his psychological need to feel powerful despite being a man who has led a very privileged life.  Dreiberg casually mentions at several points his substantial personal fortune, inherited from his father, that allows him to maintain all the necessary resources for being Nite Owl.  Literally the only thing that makes him a superhero is his access to money.

It’s this paradox between Dreiberg’s actual access to power and his need to feel like he’s powerful that sits at the core of his character.  In a cast with other characters who have suffered some severe trauma, Dreiberg comes off as kind of a weird pretender to superheroing.  Like we’ve already pointed out, he lacks the tragic backstory, and the other elements of a superhero that we’re familiar with (the powers and the general sense of “specialness”) aren’t intrinsic to the character either.  Though he doesn’t seem to have any animosity towards Osterman, he clearly envies his relationship with Juspeczyk; though he thinks Rorschach is odd, he believes the man is a brilliant crime fighter with more natural talent for the profession; his array of gadgets compensate for his deficits in comparison to his peers.  Even his identity as a legacy superhero emphasizes that Dreiberg lacks anything to clearly define him.  All these markers make Dreiberg significantly less interesting than the other characters on the surface, but I think that’s why he works so well as the male reader surrogate.  He’s the closest thing we get to an everyman, but he’s also depicted as sort of worthy of derision.

He’s not just talking about the fact that he’s having trouble performing. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Part of this implied derision comes from Dreiberg’s coding as a typical nerdy, bookish type.  He wears glasses, enjoys ornithology, and is clearly a brilliant enough engineer to build and maintain all of his own gadgets.  Additionally, unlike the rest of the main characters, Dreiberg is consistently portrayed in the present as being slightly overweight.  He doesn’t look like a superhero affecting a civilian identity; he looks like a civilian.  All of these details belie the fact that Dreiberg is still fully capable of all the physicality that comes with superheroing (it can’t be ignored that he and Juspeczyk pummeled a gang of muggers several issues back without the aid of any extra gadgetry).  He’s a walking male nerd power fantasy, throwing off all the identity markers and then also getting to be a superhero right along with Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach (all the while still dealing with deep-seated self esteem issues as he unconsciously compares himself with Adrian Veidt, an archetypical super man who doesn’t rely on any of the crutches that Dreiberg does).

All of this stuff with Dreiberg aligns with the overall critique Moore has leveled at superhero fiction for years: it’s a genre designed for children that encourages overly simplistic moral reasoning and an insistence that conflicts can be resolved through properly aimed use of force.  Dreiberg’s the boy who grew up reading comics and internalized that message, then when he became an adult with the means to do so, he replicated what he had idealized when he was younger.  In this line of thinking, he becomes the character most worthy of contempt because he’s chosen the superhero life out of nothing more than a desire to indulge part of his childhood full time.  I don’t think he’s a particularly monstrous character (I actually like Dan a lot), but the fact of how closely he mirrors the stereotypical comics reader that Moore and Gibbons were likely thinking of makes it even more imperative to highlight and critique his flaws.  They’re the flaws that the creators were specifically thinking of in their audience, and with how the discourse in comics has proceeded in recent years, it’s clear that this is a personality that requires critique.

Reading “The Abyss Gazes Also”

This issue is a doozy.

The first half of Watchmen ends with the series’s third character focused issue, this time looking at the history and psychology of Walter Kovacs, Rorschach.  I’ve noted in past posts that he stands out as sort of the dark horse character of Watchmen.  When people think about the grittiness of the series and its impact on comics in the decade following its publication, they’re usually imagining Rorschach, the uncompromising vigilante who sees the world in terms of stark black and white.  He doesn’t shy away from using brutal methods when he’s looking for information, and his response to threats is always unapologetically extreme.  Many readers see in Rorschach a character who acts with unadulterated conviction, but they overlook the signs of mental illness and willful ignorance of moral complexity.  Rorschach is presented as a traditional superhero character acting with traditional superhero morality in a world that demands more nuance.  It’s fitting that he’s grouped into the first half of the character studies with Edward Blake and Jon Osterman; both men act monstrously, but they rationalize their monstrosity behind their circumstances.  Blake revels in nihilism because it excuses him from culpability for his worst impulses (everything is meaningless, so why shouldn’t he do only what’s best for himself?), and Osterman lets his different perspective of time act as a shield against his own passivity in the face of events he’d otherwise have the power to change.  Rorschach, in contrast, never tries to rationalize his behavior; he is simultaneously convinced of his rightness and at peace with the ugliness of his actions.  His monstrosity is grounded in a sort of naivete that neither Blake nor Osterman can claim.

All of this is not to say that Rorschach is a naive character.  His worldview has a lot in common with Blake; both men have at the foundation of their ideologies a belief in the fundamentally meaningless nature of human existence.  What’s interesting is how they diverge from that same starting point.  Blake builds on this nihilism a sense of self-protective cynicism, but Rorschach takes that understanding of the universe and melds it with his own childlike need for a concrete sense of right and wrong; he exists in a framework of thought that has a lot in common with existentialism, though it’s locked into a very crude form.  If Blake is Watchmen‘s quintessential cynic, Rorschach is its ultimate zealot.

Rorschach’s very insistent about his identity. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Naturally, Moore and Gibbons aren’t satisfied to simply present Rorschach as this fully formed zealot.  This issue has as its frame a series of interviews between Rorschach and a psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Long, in prison after Rorschach’s capture in the previous issue.  Long is an affable person who thinks that treating Rorschach is his ticket to professional notoriety; it’s clear at the beginning that he’s the sort of person who exists in a bubble of comfortable ignorance about the extent to which darkness exists in the world.  He’s not exactly lacking empathy, but he clearly has other motives for treating Rorschach.  Through Long’s exploration of Rorschach’s history, we get a picture of how Rorschach came to be the way he is.

The early life of Walter Kovacs is marked with a series of experiences that highlight the various blind spots in Rorschach’s worldview.  His mother worked as a prostitute to support them, and this fact was a point of harassment from other children in Kovacs’s neighborhood.  After he beat and maimed a pair of boys for bullying him about his mother’s reputation, he was placed in foster care.  Kovacs always resented his mother (she neglected to shield Kovacs from the reality of her work and beat him when he interrupted her) and built an idealized fantasy of his absent father.  On presumably multiple occasions before he was placed in foster care, Kovacs observed his mother having sex with clients.  These experiences had a cumulatively traumatic effect, leading Rorschach to express a strong distaste in women and sex.  It’s this aggressive combination of misogyny and sex negativity (along with a low-level preoccupation with the sexuality of other masked heroes) that fuels readings of Rorschach as a gay character; I’m inclined to read Rorschach more as asexual, especially since the more I think about his worldview and development, the more I think Moore and Gibbons intended to depict him as someone with stunted maturity.  He’s more a prepubescent child in a grown man’s body than anything.

Further complicating Rorschach’s worldview is the fact that he’s simply not very smart.  It’s not a point I’ve thought much about before, especially since Rorschach proves to be an incredibly resourceful vigilante (he can improvise a way to torture or disable someone very fluidly based on what’s available to him in his environment), but he’s not a complex thinker.  You can map Rorschach’s political ideology as an amalgamation of the various forms of ’70s conservatism (anti-communism, obsession with “law and order,” belief in American exceptionalism) bordering on fascism (in the bizarro universe where Watchmen takes place in 2016 rather than alternate history 1985, Rorschach would be thrilled by the results of the recent election), and what I keep realizing is that his ideology only holds together for him because he’s incapable of seeing the nuance of complex moral situations.  We see Walter Kovacs being beaten by his mother Sylvia after he interrupts a session with one of her clients, resulting in a poor payment, but the scene doesn’t give us any context about Sylvia’s life.  We can extrapolate the difficult circumstances Sylvia must have been dealing with to be a single mother in the ’40s who had to do sex work to earn income for herself and her child, but Rorschach lacks the imagination and empathy to see that side of the story (none of this excuses the fact that Sylvia beat her son, though I doubt Rorschach sees the punishment as egregious).

Moving past his childhood, Rorschach’s origin as a masked hero begins with his acquisition of a specially designed dress that a customer at the garment shop where he worked refuses to buy after she decides the finished product is ugly.  As Kovacs, he takes the dress and re-cuts it until it doesn’t “look like a woman anymore.”  After Kovacs learns that the woman who had commissioned the dress was murdered in an alley while her neighbors looked on (Moore leaves it deliberately ambiguous whether Rorschach is correctly remembering Kitty Genovese as the woman who ordered the dress), he takes the fabric and makes his signature mask.  Like with many heroes, Rorschach begins his story with trauma, although he’s unusual in that it’s not his own trauma that acts as the impetus to action.

In the story of Rorschach’s life, there’s a final event that marks the turning point from his self-identification as Walter Kovacs to the full adoption of his superhero persona as his only identity.  This last trauma is the most severe, and it occupies the largest amount of space in the issue.  Rorschach recounts for Dr. Long a case from 1975 where he investigates the kidnapping of a young girl.  He finds that the man who has kidnapped the girl has murdered her and fed her remains to his dogs.  The nature of this crime traumatizes Rorschach in a way that other events in his life haven’t.  I suspect that it’s something to do with the lack of coincidence and symbolism that pervades Rorschach’s earlier experiences (he became a masked vigilante because he saw parallels in Kitty Genovese’s death and his acquisition of the dress, but no aspect of the girl’s murder makes discernible sense in this narrative), but after resolving this kidnapping-turned-murder case, Rorschach fully embraces the nihilism at the heart of his moral philosophy.  The world is cruel and violent and meaningless, and people who fail to uphold the fragile social veneer floating atop that reality deserve to be punished without mercy.

I want to discuss briefly Dr. Long as a character in this issue.  Like I already mentioned, he’s an affable man with a comfortable upper-middle class life.  He’s depicted as someone who has gotten where he is with minimal difficulty; he has no firsthand trauma of his own to speak of.  Over the course of the week that Dr. Long spends treating Rorschach, he becomes fascinated with Rorschach’s worldview.  We see glimpses of Dr. Long’s personal life being impacted by his work with Rorschach (he grows moody, has trouble sleeping, and repeatedly rejects sexual advances from his wife Gloria).  Dr. Long’s reaction to Rorschach reminds me strongly of the sort of symptoms that come with secondary trauma.  My experience working with children who had backgrounds of severe trauma often had similar sorts of stressful effects, though they were never as pronounced or had as rapid an onset as what Dr. Long experiences here.  Part of this is a convention of the narrative; the stress that comes from experiencing secondary trauma builds up over a significant period of time, and this issue’s story is only supposed to span a week.  It wouldn’t make for a very satisfying parallel to see Dr. Long just grow a little grumpy from his time with a difficult patient when the issue’s core assertion is that exposure to the nonsensical parts of universe is an immensely traumatic experience.  Still, it’s nice to see a semi-realistic depiction of secondary trauma.