The witching hour

watch

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Watchmen
Titan Books 2007 (1986-7)

As a classical musician I’ve learned there’s a delicate balancing act between heart and mind, between emotional response and cool analysis. I’ve also learned that this balancing act is a transferable skill when it comes to other areas of human endeavour, whether art, architecture, drama or narrative. At a recent live performance of Wintereisse I was mentally transported to the bleak landscape of Schubert’s song cycle, the stark monochrome images of the poems perfectly echoed by the composer’s sparse writing and a sympathetic musical interpretation, whilst simultaneously admiring Schubert’s sustained technical mastery. I sensed the same kind of balance when reading the now classic graphic novel Watchmen, a symbiosis of writing and imagery that in some respects parallels Wintereisse.

After being rejected in love Schubert’s protagonist undertakes a solitary winter’s journey, where everything seems emblematic of his state: he’s pushed around by fate like the weathervane by the wind, showered with snow knocked off roofs by crows, joined by a raven which reminds him of death, and identifies himself with a despised itinerant hurdy-gurdy man. Watchmen has the same atmosphere of doom and gloom by being mostly set in autumn 1985, in the days leading up to All Souls Day on November 2nd, even concluding via the snowy wastes of Antarctica with the midwinter festival of Christmas. The twenty-four songs of Wintereisse are matched by Watchmen’s twelve chapters with eleven interludes and a kind of postlude. And the same themes of rejection and loneliness are present everywhere in the graphic novel.

The action largely takes place on an alternate Earth at a time when most costumed vigilantes in the United States have been forced to retire from fighting crime. The novel starts with a bang: the Comedian is thrown from his city apartment onto the streets, beginning a reign of terror for others in the group of heroes once loosely banded together as the Watchmen. The masked Rorschach, a rogue crimefighter who has ignored the embargo on vigilantes, begins visiting the others to voice his suspicions — Nite Owl, Dr Manhattan, the Silk Spectre’s daughter – but before he gets to visit Ozymandias there is an assassination attempt on the latter and Rorschach himself is arrested: by the midpoint of the novel everything seems to have ground to a halt with no resolution in sight. And in the meantime all this is taking place during an escalation of the Cold War, with Russian expansion in the Middle East threatening the stability of peace in the world.

Immediately after, the blockage creating the impasse begins to be cleared: sexual tension is released and Rorschach is sprung from jail. But global conflict still threatens, the near certainty of which is underlined by a chapter set symbolically on the planet named after the god of war. Meanwhile a final showdown becomes inevitable as the remaining Watchmen assemble in Antarctica and the answers to questions finally start to appear, to us as readers and finally, probably, to the people of this alternate world.

DangerThis bald synopsis makes Watchmen sound like any other superhero comic series of the 80s, vaguely noir but only aimed at geeks and losers of a rightwing persuasion. Costumed vigilantes are so predictable, aren’t they? Superheroes have nothing to say to us in the real world, right? Well, so might I have thought, despite an enjoyable dalliance with DC Comics stretching from childhood into the eighties. But Watchmen deserves its reputation and especially its designation as a graphic novel: this is a complex composition of words with pictures as counterpoint, an annotated tapestry, a dance choreographed both backwards and forwards in time, a drama on a revolving stage. The collaboration of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons has produced a seamless garment where text and visuals (both elements aided by John Higgins’ colouring, reconstructed and digitally finished for this edition) are inseparable.

jollyrogerTo overlay yet another metaphor, Watchmen reminds me of the glass bead game from the novel Das Glasperlenspiel. In Hermann Hesse’s story the placing of coloured beads on a board creates patterns of real beauty, with interplays that might simultaneously evoke, say, the subject of a Bach fugue, a mathematical formula, a philosophical truth or an emotion. The same applies here, especially with the visuals that add resonance to the dialogue. Symbols especially abound: circles (a watch or clock face and the Smiley face, owl eyes and Dr Manhattans’s ‘third eye’, Silk Spectre’s pipe bowl and Moloch’s mirror weapon, even Ozymandias’ brow circlet); triangles (a fallout shelter sign, a meditation poster, an electric-hook-up van, shark fins); parallel lines (especially in chapter VI with prison bars, a furrowed brow, stair banisters, lines in a notebook). Symbols are varied or combined: the inverted open triangle V of Veidt’s logo when reflected produces an X, echoing the crossbones of the Jolly Roger; conjoined Vs produce the N logo for Veidt’s perfume product. And so it goes on – once you spot a correspondence its resonances are everywhere, amplifying the themes explicitly stated through words.

ink blotThe beating heart of a novel should really show itself by being character-driven, and here again Watchmen delivers more than just the tortured soul of many a conventional superhero. These are very human and recognisable individuals, and their back stories – delivered to us piecemeal over many pages – deepen our understanding of how they came to be who they are, their psychologies and what motivates them. Rorschach, and the deeply disturbed individual that lies beneath the mask, is a believable anti-hero with whom one has most sympathy, despite his violent actions; the inkblot test that provides his nom de guerre is also a key for the symmetry that underlies most of the novel. The man who uses the Nite Owl persona is also a flawed human, one that comes to know when to act his role and when to voluntarily put it aside. For a woman of the eighties Silk Spectre is quite feisty though today she might be portrayed as more proactive, less passive than she is; nevertheless she has somewhat interesting relationships with her mother and with the men in her life.

The remaining three Watchmen are more enigmatic.  The Comedian, who is associated with the smiley face, is actually not much of a laugh – his twisted moral compass allows him licence to pretty much do what he wants, but his aggressive and blustery exterior hides a frightened man. Jon Osterman became Dr Manhattan due to that staple of comicbookdom, the laboratory experiment that goes wrong, but becoming a sort of superman has actually stripped him of his humanity. Just as Nite Owl has a Batman look about him Dr Manhattan reminds me a little of another DC superhero, J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter, due to his appearance, his powers and his link with Mars – though we do know that Alan Moore originally morphed his characters from an unrelated superhero team in a subsidiary comic that DC had bought.

Finally, the most inscrutable character of the lot: Adrian Veidt, formerly Ozymandias. Here is a man who appears to have it all: intelligence, athleticism, business acumen, financial clout, and yet he too has a twisted moral compass. He shares a Machiavellian philosophy with many who appear to have absolute power – that the ends justify the means – and, as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. He characterises the Comedian as an amoral mercenary and Rorschach as a man of integrity who nevertheless sees the world in almost Manichaean terms, but he himself comes over as dissembling where his own worldview is concerned.

HThis, I believe, is a dense novel that needs to be re-read more than once to get the most out of it. There are lots of little details that are so appetising. For example, in one of the fascinating interludes (they include interviews, letters, magazine articles, extracts from an autobiography and psychological reports) a certain Professor Milton Glass discusses worsening East-West relationships and the relevance of Jon Osterman, “the man to end wars”, who despite being “completely disintegrated, at least in a physical sense” was able to “rebuild an approximation of the body [he] had lost” because of the survival of “a form of electromagnetic pattern resembling consciousness” (Dr Manhattan: super-powers and the superpowers). Now the good professor’s name, Milton Glass, is an obvious transformation of the phrase “molten glass”; this is turn evokes the residue – called trinitium after the Trinity site — formed in the desert after atom bomb testing, part of the US’s second world war effort and codenamed the Manhattan Project; and the project provided the inspiration for the name of Jon Osterman’s alter ego. Through such little details the authors meditate on the paradox of the belief that violence can end violence.

Another curiosity: Ozymandias was Adrian Veidt’s former vigilante name, another group of words to meditate on. Calling oneself after the title of a long-dead conquering Pharaoh is ominous enough, but the fact that the ruler’s statue is, in the words of Shelley, a “colossal wreck” amidst the decay of empire, suggests misplaced hubris. In addition, Adrian’s forename is derived from Hadrian, the Roman emperor famed for building a wall across Northern Britain, ironic because Veidt wants to dismantle the Iron Curtain that divides East from West. And the name Veidt is equally significant: derived from Saint Vitus, the patron saint of dancers, actors and other performers, a notable bearer of that name was the film actor Conrad Veidt. Now, a poster of this actor playing a criminal with a leering grin famously inspired Bob Kane to create the face of Batman’s adversary the Joker, as this is turn influenced the choice of name for the first Watchman victim, the Comedian.

The most sustained metaphor in the whole novel is provided by issues in a fictional comic book series called Tales of the Black Freighter (which a minor character reads for free at a newsstand). This in part concerns a sole raft survivor who strives to reach his village to kill off the phantom pirates of The Black Freighter before they kill his family and friends: but his murder victims are not the pirates he imagined but those he frantically sought to protect. This metafiction is soon seen to be a commentary on the main action of the graphic novel, made more telling by an interlude after chapter V purporting to describe the personalities and processes involved in the creation of this comic series – no doubt reflecting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ own familiarity with the ups and downs of their profession.

smiley-faceWatchmen is a fantastical but reflective novel, holding a mirror up to nature while superficially appearing to be just a bit of fun. I’m grateful to my grown-up son for giving me it as an unexpected present, especially apt as I’d passed my own old eighties comics for him to read when he was barely in his teens. And I’m also grateful to Lizzie Ross for suggesting our tag-team review as posts on Twitter, a compilation of which you can find here on her excellent blog. At a time of year when trick-or-treating is a familiar enough occurrence, Moore and Gibbons’ tricky narrative should be a wonderful treat for the reader seeking nuanced novelty.

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13 thoughts on “The witching hour

  1. Watchmen truly is the gift that keeps on giving. Having read it a number of times, I thought I was fully au fait with everything it had to offer, but your review has proven me wrong. I must dig it out again…

    1. Oh, I’m glad I’ve encouraged you to re-read it! There’s so much written about it out there online (though I hesitated to research too much) that I thought that perhaps I wouldn’t have anything new to say about it.

  2. Chris, I was going to comment that I didn’t have you down for a fan of the superhero genre but then I thought, what am I saying, he’s a King Arthurite. The ultimate in tales of superheroes.
    You have made this sound so much like a must-read that I have no alternative but to purchase it on audiobook.

    1. A comic on audiobook? Let me know, Kate, how you get on with your search…

      Most boys go through a superhero phase, even if some don’t grow out of it. However, I’m not a fan of superheroes per se — most of the genre is too testosterone-charged for me — but I do find the psychological aspects interesting (Watchmen is particularly strong on this), plus the visuals (composition and colour for example) fascinate me for the way they might develop or subvert comic book conventions.

      1. Oh, dear, I did hope that graphic novels would be simpler, not more complicated, to put onto audiobook. But now you have me thinking: perhaps not.
        Time to put it onto that ever-growing reading list, then 🙂

  3. Thank you Chris for the wonderful review. As a fan of classic German literature I was intrigued by your comparison of the two genres.
    Every Christmas I put two or three comics in my son’s stocking. Usually older Iron Man comics. This year I will be giving him a copy of The Watchmen.

    1. Really pleased you liked it, Sari. As I was typing the Hesse comparison I was thinking I must re-read it — and I still haven’t got round to Steppenwolf!

      Make sure your son’s Christmas stocking is large enough: Watchmen is almost the size of a telephone directory. Well, at least as big as twelve Iron Man comics bound together…

  4. Pingback: Still watching | Lizzie Ross

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