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.

So I Just Saw Arrival

This post discusses spoilers for the film Arrival.  Believe me when I say that you don’t want this film to be spoiled before you see it.  If you like science fiction and don’t want another popcorn action movie, then go see it.

I am not a linguistics nerd; that’s more Rachael’s wheelhouse.  I enjoy the English language and the ways that we can play with it to communicate meaning, but I don’t geek out over broader topics in language.  Rachael assures me that the linguistic theory being used in Arrival is pretty cool stuff, especially as it relates to the challenges that come from trying to build a system of communication between people who have absolutely no common knowledge.  The central conceit of the story, that the aliens’ language necessarily imposes a different perspective of time, is a good metaphor for the linguistic idea that our language shapes our understanding of our environment (there’s a great moment later in the movie where the protagonist Dr. Louise Banks points out that trying to teach the aliens language through any sort of game that is built around competition will necessarily impose an understanding of all ideas in terms of winning and losing; she’s not happy about the implications of other countries using such a system in their attempts to communicate with the aliens).  This concept’s not a new one; George Orwell famously used it as the basis for Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four as a way to eliminate resistant ideation by minimizing the populace’s available vocabulary.  The long and short is that language matters immensely, which I find to be an incredibly easy idea to get behind, though I might be biased.

Arrival Poster

This is kind of a terrible poster that suggests the movie’s going to be all action-y and stuff. It’s not. (Image credit: IMDb)

In order to give this relatively highfalutin idea some emotional resonance, the movie builds a frame story around Dr. Banks’s relationship with her daughter, whom we learn in the beginning died at an early age because of some untreatable terminal illness.  The beginning is designed to give us an impression of Dr. Banks as a relatively lonely woman who is probably managing depression in the aftermath of her daughter’s death; the father isn’t in the picture (never mind that Amy Adams, who plays Dr. Banks, appears to be the same age in every scene with her daughter, who lives to her teenage years at least).  As Dr. Banks learns about the language of the Heptapods (because they resemble giant cephalopods with seven appendages) she finds herself coming unmoored in her personal timeline; she increasingly experiences what we learn are flash forwards to her daughter Hannah’s life.  The Heptapod language doesn’t operate linearly (this is demonstrated in a visually beautiful way with the circular designs of Heptapod writing, which superficially resemble coffee cup stains) in the way that human languages usually do, and developing an understanding of it shifts Dr. Banks’s perspective so that she can see her whole life.

At this point I have to stop and point out that I’m totally geeked over this idea because it coincides so well with the issue of Watchmen that I just read about Jon Osterman and his own nonlinear perspective.  The big difference between the two stories is that where Osterman’s perspective is treated as essentially dehumanizing (he increasingly dissociates from his actions in linear time, often evoking certain reactions from other people by pointing out that they are going to have those reactions, and then in turn reacting in a predetermined way that’s divorced from his foreknowledge of the situation), Dr. Banks’s realization of her own nonlinear experience is presented as ultimately hopeful; she uses her perspective to give herself necessary information in the past to defuse the international crisis that arises from the Heptapods’ arrival, and she comes to a place of acceptance regarding the course of her daughter’s life.  For her, experiencing her whole life in a sort of eternal now mitigates the grief of seeing her daughter’s death since the whole of Hannah’s life is always present before her.

It’s also useful to compare these two stories because Arrival‘s format as a film helps highlight how the medium conceals the nonlinear perspective until it becomes relevant to the plot.  The audience’s familiarity with the ideas of flashback and flash forward are used to confuse the two in a way that disguises the chronology of the story until it becomes most emotionally resonant.  In Watchmen, Osterman’s nonlinear perspective is an interesting feature of the format that serves more to inform character than plot; we get not particular insight into the larger story by knowing that this one character experiences time differently than all the other characters.

Now, as is expected with any story, there are some flaws in this movie.  My biggest complaint is the casting of Jeremy Renner, who is a perfectly cromulent actor, but who is always going to leave a bad taste in my mouth following his doubling down on slut-shaming Black Widow during the promotional run up to the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron.  When a person exposes their ugly side in public and doesn’t back down from it, you shouldn’t forget that.  Besides that, I find the requirement that we believe Amy Adams is going to look the same for a span of twenty years a little hard to swallow; I was distracted by questions of how she could look the same age at the beginning of her daughter’s life as at its end, and then even more perplexed when it was revealed that we meet Dr. Banks before she’s even met her future husband.  This fact doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the story, but it definitely niggles after you’re out of the theater and the high has worn off.  Also, as always, it would be nice to see more diversity in the casting; nothing about the story necessitates that Dr. Banks be white, and it’s kind of jarring to see only white people in the background of the military encampment outside the spaceship.

Still, overall this is a remarkably good movie, and you should go see it.  Of course, I already said that at the beginning, so maybe you have.

Reading “Fearful Symmetry”

Dan Dreiberg is so into Laurie Juspeczyk. (Artwork by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Issue #5 of Watchmen gets back to the story on Earth.  While Jon Osterman is busy reminiscing on Mars, we go back to follow Rorschach as he furthers his investigation into the “mask killer” theory.

In discussing the ways that Moore and Gibbons designed Watchmen to be a story that highlights the narrative features of the comics medium, I think of two specific issues that highlight this idea most effectively.  The first was issue #4 “Watchmaker,” and the second is this one.  The plot outline for this chapter is extremely simple; Rorschach visits Edgar Jacobi, Moloch, to get more information about the list of people that Edward Blake found (Rorschach suspects the list is connected with the smear performed on Osterman back in issue #3), then he spends a day resting before returning to Jacobi’s apartment the next night where he’s ambushed and captured by the police.  In the intervening day we see an attempt on Adrian Veidt’s life, Dan Dreiberg invites Laurie Juspeczyk to stay with him following her eviction from the military base, and an assortment of everyday people (including the detectives investigating Edward Blake’s murder and the news vendor) react to the news that the Soviets have become more aggressive following Osterman’s disappearance.

Rorschach’s mask after he removes it for the day. (Artwork and letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

What’s interesting about the structure of this plot is how Moore and Gibbons design the sequence of events to have a parallel structure in the first and second halves of the issue.  Each scene in the first fourteen pages has a corresponding scene in the last fourteen that completes the arc set up there along with mirrored key images (some of my favorite examples are a couple panels looking at Rorschach’s mask from his perspective and a pair of panels showcasing Dreiberg looking longingly at Juspeczyk in front of a mirror with her back turned to him).  These are pairings that only become apparent when you look at the issue nonlinearly instead of reading the story straight through.

Rorschach’s mask before he puts it on for the night. (Artwork and letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

The intricacies of the layout aren’t just restricted to the symmetry of the issue.  Gibbons excels at doing match cuts between scenes, but in this issue he’s relentless about it.  Every scene ends with a panel that’s immediately echoed by the first panel of the following scene.  He and Moore are working extra hard to build thematic connections between the mystery that Rorschach’s busying himself with, the steadily growing dread of another world war that the regular folks are feeling while they try to go on with their lives, the insecurities that Dreiberg and Juspeczyk are navigating as castoffs, and the comics story about the sailor trying to get home after being marooned (this subplot was introduced in issue #3; the boy warming himself at the charging station by the news stand is reading a pirate comic which has scenes spliced in as a meta-commentary on the events of the series).  As the story approaches its inflection point (you know things have to get significantly worse soon, as we’re almost to the halfway point of the story), Moore and Gibbons are pushing to build their main theme: that everyone is just trying to get by in a world that seems to be spiraling further and further out of their control.  Pretty much the only person who isn’t having this reaction is Rorschach (he ponders unironically in his journal, “Is everyone but me going mad?”); we’ll get more into his character in the next issue, but this one gives us some insight into Rorschach’s perspective on other people.  He refuses to surrender to anything that’s outside his control (the closing scene where he’s cornered by the police shows him improvising a variety of ways to stave them off while he tries to escape, even as they push him farther into an inescapable situation), and this persistence of will leads him to treat even the most hopeless scenarios as though he can overcome them.  It’s Rorschach’s most admirable trait, though he’s also perhaps the most deranged of the main cast.

Dan Dreiberg is so into Laurie Juspeczyk. (Artwork and letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

This derangement gets confirmed even further at the end of this issue when the police catch Rorschach, and he’s unmasked as the doomsayer who has been wandering around since the first issue.  Rorschach lives in a world that’s perpetually on the brink of destruction, so perhaps his levelheadedness in this issue stems from simple desensitization (in issue #3 he comments to the news vendor that the world is going to end, and when the vendor replies that the world hasn’t ended the following day he remarks that Dr. Manhattan’s disappearance suggests otherwise).  Rorschach has expected doom for so long that he’s well past the point of needing to process events in the same way that the other characters do.

Reading “Watchmaker”

One thing about Watchmen that I’ve always found fascinating is the ways in which it exploits the comics format to tell its story.  The fourth issue, “Watchmaker,” is one of the most notable examples in the series.

Like with issue #2, which focused on taking a look at the life and character of Edward Blake the Comedian, this issue is all about exploring Jon Osterman, Dr. Manhattan.  Osterman is the only one of the superheroes featured in the series to have genuine super powers.  His backstory involves a nuclear experiment gone awry where he was trapped in a test chamber and disintegrated, and then in the ensuing days either he or an impression of himself pieced together a new body with full control over all matter at the atomic level.  One of the side effects of Osterman’s powers is a dissociative view of time; that is, he experiences the entirety of his personal timeline simultaneously and has no ability to change the outcome of future events.

Osterman really is a pretty pitiful character; Moore’s opinion about a nonlinear experience of time is decidedly in the realm of, “IT SUCKS.” (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

The way Moore and Gibbons demonstrate this dissociation is in how they structure the story of this issue.  Here, Osterman serves as our narrator, flashing back and forth between past events in his life and the present moment with occasional small glimpses into the immediate future.  For Osterman, all of these scenes happen at the same time, much like a reader can observe multiple panels on the comic book page at the same time.  It’s a really delightful narrative trick, and I don’t get tired of it.  As an aside, the adaptation of this issue is one of my main complaints with the Watchmen movie; the point is to be able to see all the significant events in Osterman’s life as a tapestry that your eye can wander over free of linearity in a way similar to how Osterman himself experiences his life, but the limitations of film (that images must be presented in sequence connected to time) prevent the adaptation from achieving the same effect that the comic does.

Besides points of structural interest, this issue also offers up a meditation on the watershed moment of humanity harnessing nuclear energy.  Osterman’s origins are based in science fiction (the idea of an “intrinsic field” might have some relation to the concepts of the strong and weak nuclear forces, but as far as I can tell Moore is just making up something that sounds good), but everything about his origin story echoes with symbols of the dawn of the Atomic Age.  Osterman’s intended profession, before his father informs him that his future is in physics, is as a watchmaker (the title of the issue is pulled from the quote from Albert Einstein reflecting that had he known the power he was going to help unleash, he would have become a watchmaker instead).  In the chain of events that lead to his disintegration, Osterman witnesses a fat man step on and break Janey Slater’s watch while a little boy cries nearby; these features of the scene at the fair all echo key icons from the early history of the atomic bomb (Fat Man and Little Boy were the code names given to the two bomb types that were eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and within this issue Moore highlights the watch that stopped at the moment of the blast in Hiroshima).  After he reintegrates, Osterman uses his ability to easily synthesize any raw material to kick start a technological revolution in America, mirroring the advances heralded by the advent of nuclear energy in our world.  The parallels are pretty clear; Osterman’s transformation marks the beginning of a new era in the world filled with obscene power to destroy and incredible potential to create.

The metaphor is an unsubtle one.  I find it less interesting than Osterman’s dissociation, but it’s significant to the story at large.  Remember, Watchmen‘s central conceit is to explore a world in which superheroes really existed and actually impacted the sociopolitical movements of the twentieth century.  Dr. Manhattan’s existence is treated as a uniquely significant event, and the best real world parallel to help the reader understand that significance is the atomic bomb.  The power he brings to the table promises to improve life in a lot of ways (it’s hard to overlook the positive impact on the climate from decades of electric cars and airships in place of the last half century of hard core fossil fuel use), but it also presents some significant risks, especially with regard to the way America comes to overly rely on Dr. Manhattan for defense (the government’s plan involves bullying Soviet-aligned nations with the assumption that Osterman is capable of neutralizing any nuclear warheads that would be sent in retaliation, ignoring the fact that for all his power Osterman is still one man who can be removed from play with the right pressure applied to him).  Dr. Manhattan comes along in a fashion that precludes the systems in which he’s embedded from learning how to handle such a drastic change to the status quo.

The tragedy for Jon Osterman is that his nonlinear perspective traps him in a position where he can only observe himself as a single gear in an incredibly delicate timepiece.

This page is the best example of what I’m talking about with the comic format and the nonlinearity. Osterman’s experiencing his life in at least five distinct moments of time on this one page. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)