Re-Reading Watchmen: Issue #2

Tue, December 30th, 2008 at 4:29pm PST

Comic Books
Atom Freeman & Carr D'Angelo, Guest Writers

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"Watchmen" Chapter II: "Absent Friends"
DYING IS EASY, COMEDY IS HARD

Each week until the March release of Warner Bros.' film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen,” Eisner-Award winning retailers Carr D’Angelo (Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, CA) and Atom! Freeman (Brave New World in Newhall, CA) will review one chapter of the landmark DC Comics graphic novel with a new perspective. Along the way, they may get some help from a friend or two.

Carr is reading from his “Absolute Watchmen” while Atom! is perusing his well-worn early edition trade paperback. There's also a full set of original issues handy to settle the questions of what was in the first printing and what wasn't.

If you missed part one, you can check out Atom! and Carr's commentary right here.

Story continues below

CHAPTER 2: “ABSENT FRIENDS”

ATOM!: So, this issue was brutal.

CARR: That's one way of putting it.  Even after a story like “Identity Crisis,” the Comedian's sexual assault on Sally is intense.  It sets him up as such a "take no prisoners" character that his breakdown at the end of the issue is that much more moving. 

ATOM!: It's as though Moore was trying remove any thoughts you might have had after the first one that this was "your father's superheroes." Or, I suppose, he was telling us that these were your father's superheroes and he just didn't know it.

CARR: That was Alan Moore's specialty, making us look at familiar archetypes with brand new eyes. Swamp Thing isn't a man who was turned into a muck-monster but a muck-monster that thinks its human. Adam Strange may seem like a hero on Rann but the advanced society actually looks at him like he's a monkey with a jetpack and a ray gun. This is the logical extension: a kick-ass warrior like the Comedian isn't going to be a gentleman with the ladies.

ATOM!: Also, before we really get into the good stuff, I have a note from last time. Steve Bissette published the “From Hell” scripts, not Rick Veitch. I’m an idiot. (Hi John Harter!) Bissette was a brilliant comics artist who also tried his hand at publishing for a while and if memory serves (and what are the chances?) was the inspiration for the 24-Hour Comics Challenge. And if he’s reading this, my four-year-old son desperately wants more “Tyrant.”

Pages #1 - 11 Silk Spectre II visits her mother, Silk Spectre I. The Crime Busters get their picture taken, Comedian tries to take more from Sally, and survivors gather around for a last laugh.

ATOM!: See, this here is the problem with these "grim and gritty" comics. Nobody actually believes that Green Arrow tried to rape Black Canary but Batman beat the crap out of him. No, wait, that could have happened. Have you seen those fishnets and bustier? She was asking for it. Seriously though, these themes have been played with so many times since, it's hard to remember that this was once new.

CARR: That's more the vibe I get.  For Moore, the costumes keep coming back to sexual perversion as motivation.  The masochist that Dan and Laurie are joking about at the end of issue , for example. Ultimately, Hollis Mason, the cop who put on a costume just to fight crime, is the exception. Kind of naive, actually, the way Moore presents it.

ATOM!: What strikes me first about this spotlight on Silk Spectre I is how on the surface she seems to be carrying fewer scars than any of her other teammates. Sure, we find out later that her brave front has a bit more history to it, but that's for another week. I’m also amazed that there don't seem to be any throw away lines in this book. Sally's over-zealous show of bigotry belying her own background. "Every day, the future looks a bit darker. But, the past, even the grimy bits, well it just keeps getting brighter all the time." If there's a better mission statement for this book, I don't know what it is.

Reminds me of a quote from a Billy Joel song that plays in my head when I get nostalgic, "The good old days weren't always good. And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems." Nothing like the fear of tomorrow to make yesterday that much friendlier. See what I did there? I quoted two smarter people and then reworded what they said so everyone would think I was that smart.

CARR: I used to work for a company that made action movies starring Playboy playmates and Sally totally reminds me of the former Playmate mentality. At a certain point, she has to acknowledge that the foundation of her career was her ability to arouse lust in men.  But you're right.  The time element is central to the story.  Even though “Watchmen”  is a meta-commentary on comic book superheroes, the narrative motor is classic murder mystery.  There's an old detective story cliché about the killer showing up at the funeral, and that may be true here but the funeral is also used to launch into a series of flashbacks as our mourners--Dan "Nite-Owl" Dreiberg, Adrian "Ozymandias" Veidt, and Dr. Manhattan (who used to be John Osterman but calling him John "Dr. Manhattan" Osterman like it was a secret identity seems wrong)--recall key moments when they crossed paths with the Comedian. 

Pages #9-12: Crime-Busters Assemble!

CARR:  I love the  first--and last--meeting of the Crime-Busters.  One of the things about the “Watchmen” world is that while a fair number of people were motivated to become costumed heroes, the villains never rose to the challenge.  There are no Lex Luthors or Jokers in this universe.  Moloch seems to be as dangerous as the bad guys get and he's ultimately fairly harmless.

ATOM!: Who doesn’t want to be the hero of their own story? Getting dressed up to go out and do something other than hand out flyers for a hotdog stand takes a whole lot of I-Need-Attention. Criminals just wanna get paid.

CARR: Moore takes to the extreme the Marvel Universe idea that if you bring a bunch of costumed characters together, they aren't going to get along. The Minutemen seemed more of a social club than a crimefighting team. An anti-social team in the Comedian's case. But Captain Metropolis, who seems horribly lonely, wants to revive the old club of heroes concept. First time around, I read this as a funny scene, the comic relief in the Comedian's tale. Captain Metropolis is a funny character, but ultimately, without him, there would be no story.

Pages #13 – 19 Dr. Manhattan and Nite-Owl remember the Comedian

CARR:  The flashbacks put together a fairly succinct portrait of the Comedian's life from his origins as an aggressive young crime-fighter, his move into being a government-sponsored hero, and his final tortured days.  If the device of alternating a present-day storyline with scenes from a character's past feel familiar, it should.  Co-creator Damon Lindelof admits to being inspired by “Watchmen” in developing the dual-timeline storytelling in the hit TV series “Lost.”

ATOM!: I love that the answer to Black Unrest is to team-up a bunch of paunchy guys in costumes.

CARR:  I'm sure it's intentional but it struck me how passive Nite-Owl is in his own flashback.  He's just piloting the Owl-Ship while Comedian does all the work.

ATOM!: “Just doing my job, ma’am.” Also, I dunno about you, but if I'm in an angry mob and an owl-shaped ship starts floating at me with a bulky man in a pervert suit hangin' off the front, I'm running the other way.

CARR: I'm not sure it's the Civil Rights Movement that they are getting involved in. There's some mention of a police strike. And there's a headline referring to the Keene Act, which is the law that required costumed crimefighters to sign up with the government or hang up their masks. An obvious precursor to “Civil War.” Maybe this is explained elsewhere, but I think the cops went on strike to protest the vigilante movement and the Keene Act was passed to gets the cops back on the street. Moore hypothesizing that in the real word, cops would not put up with masked vigilantes.

ATOM!: And so begins the differences between their world and ours. Funny that the only thing keeping us from winning Vietnam was superheroes. I'm rooting for Peter Petrelli to show up and figure out how to get us out of Iraq.

CARR: Is winning Vietnam what allowed Nixon to repeal the 22nd amendment limiting Presidential terms? Or was there no 22nd Amendment in “Watchmen” because of Dr. Manhattan? The amendment passed in 1951 so I will keep that year in mind as we get to the next chapters.

ATOM!: Am I reading too much into this or is the fact that women keep going after The Comedian's right cheek a metaphor for his inability to turn it?

CARR:  The Comedian sure does get beat up a lot.  Symmetry is one of the themes of the series, usually around Rorschach, but you can't deny that Gibbons deliberately uses the same close-up shot for the Comedian getting beaten up by Hooded Justice and the unseen murderer.  His face bleeding, the assailant holding him up by the costume.

Pages #20 – 28: Rorschach confronts Moloch, The Comedian breaks down, Rorschach needs a Coke and a smile

ATOM!: Blake sits on the edge of nemesis' bed having a meltdown. More nine-panel power. Can you imagine that sort of point-of-view working in any other page format?

CARR:  Probably not. Each time I read the book, it's the stylistic things that keep jumping out.  I remember someone saying that the reason the colors are changing every panel when the Comedian is in Moloch's apartment is because of the flashing neon sign outside.  Unfortunately, it's one of the tricks that doesn't hold up.  Neon flashes are rhythmic and brief, yet each one of these panels is filled with a big ol' word balloon; the timing doesn't match up.  It was one of those "trying too hard" moments. 

ATOM!: I dunno, though. It works for me. Gives a bit of shabby realism at the same time as it maintains the page design from other parts of the story. Plus, it’s not any harder to take than say a monologue from Superman as he delivers one punch.

CARR:  Some of the dialogue here is amazing.  Moloch's bit about cancer, that he's got the kind you don't get better from, is a great line. We'll have these comments every issue but when you know where the story is going, it's amazing to see how much foreshadowing Moore and Gibbons laid in.  When you re-read this issue, you see how Rorschach knew that Moloch was at the funeral.  You see what motivates Ozymandias to change from a simple metropolitan crime-fighter to someone with more of a "big picture" worldview. 

Nowadays, it feels like all the big events like "Secret Invasion" or "Batman R.I.P." come with rumors of changed endings, which renders the idea of building motifs and clues into the story impossible.  You can't lay in hints of the ending when the corporate editorial structure could make you switch out your master villain or change the outcome of the final battle or even let you actually end the story at all because it needs to lead into the next big crossover.

Rorschach tells a joke.

ATOM!: Rorschach's journal. This one made me laugh out loud. Rorschach (or Moore as Rorschach) is bemoaning the loss of true Americana and says that he misses "real Coke in green glass bottles." We sell just that in the store. It's made in Mexico.

CARR:  Mexican Coke is better because it uses cane sugar instead of corn syrup.  I was in a West Hollywood restaurant and ordered a Diet Coke and the waitress was thrilled to tell me it was better because it was from Mexico.  So I asked her if they use real sugar in the Diet Coke too and she said yes.  Has nothing to do with “Watchmen,” but clearly Rorschach has a sweet tooth: the sugar cubes, real Coke.  Any chance that Moore was thinking about the "Twinkie defense" that suggest people become violent from too much junk food?

ATOM!: He must be covering something up with that mask. Who knew it was tooth decay?

CARR: Rorschach’s a classy guy. Pulling the rose off the grave and pinning it to his lapel is a nice touch. I wonder if that rose tracks like the sugar cubes?

ATOM!: Say! I don't remember that Elvis Costello quote being there!

CARR:  You're talking about the final panel in the collected edition? The chapter titles are part of quotations or song lyrics or lines from poems, but the comics did not reprint all the source quotes.  The first issue that actually has the quote in the last panel of the issue is chapter IV, "Watchmaker."  It's a quote from Albert Einstein and therefore public domain.  But the first two titles are from modern songs:  "At Midnight, All the Agents" is from the 1960s Bob Dylan song, "Desolation Row," and "Absent Friends" is derived from an Elvis Costello song called "The Comedians."  Appropriate since this issue is basically built around the Comedian's funeral and flashback to his life.

My recollection is that it was a legal rights concern that kept the lyrics from being published but eventual permissions were received by the time the issues were collected into trade paperback.  "At Midnight All the Agents..." sounded like a reference to something, but even though I was a big Elvis Costello fan, I didn't connect the phrase "Absent Friends" to the song.  "The Comedians" was from a lesser Costello album, "Goodbye Cruel World" which was sandwiched between "Imperial Bedroom," which was considered a masterpiece and "Punch the Clock," which contained his first top 40 hit, "Everyday I Write The Book."

ATOM!: Lesser Costello album? Them’s is fightin’ words.

CARR: I have been a Costello fan since "My Aim is True," but let's be honest, "Goodbye Cruel World" is not Mr. McManus's shining moment. I think even he said it was over-produced. "The Comedians" also had some popularity as a Roy Orbison cover during his 1980s comeback. Curiously, the Grateful Dead apparently covered “Desolation Row” regularly. And the Grateful dead is one of the bands that Gibbons has cited as having a symmetrical album cover that he uses in one of the later issues.

PAGES #29 – 32: Text Piece: “Under The Hood” Chapters III & IV

ATOM!: Reading this is like reading the pitches for every superhero comic of the last 20 years. It’s not to say that there hasn’t been some original thought in the last two decades, but if you were a comics writer, you really could (and I suspect some have) base a career off of just mining this entire section for story ideas and jumping off points. Once again, it’s hard to remember that at some point this way of thinking was new.

CARR: Not to single out Mark Millar again but the “Kick-Ass” pitch is the deconstruction of the process of being the first one to put on the costume in the real world. There are echoes in “The Twelve” as well.

ATOM!: Also, Schexnayder is a fantastic name.

CARR: I was obsessed with finding meaning in all the names. Edward Blake obviously suggests famed comedy director Blake Edwards ("The Pink Panther"). But other names refer to comedy. Walter Kovacs recalls TV great Ernie Kovacs. Veidt could refer to Conrad Veidt, the actor who played the grinning freak in "The Man Who Laughs," the movie that was a visual inspiration for the Joker. Sally's surname is Jupiter; another name for the god Jupiter is Jove; and I presume that's where "jovial" comes from. I never cracked a comedic meaning for "Dreiberg." I think it's just a play on "tree bird" or "dry bird." My brain literally exploded one day when I was reading a Donald Westlake short story collection and came across a character that was a stand-up comic named "Eddie Blake." That convinced me for a while that Moore borrowed all the character names from other writers, possibly a precursor to “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Ultimately, that's probably a coincidence or Westlake was also inverting Blake Edwards because it sounded right.

The mistake I got called on is that "Under the Hood" actually runs for three issues, not two (Thanks, Matt Lehman!). What's sad about this chapter is Hollis Mason's admission that the Minutemen weren't interested in stopping unglamorous crimes like drug trafficking. Moore can't even let Hollis Mason remain a completely noble figure.

Carr D'Angelo is a member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. and co-owner of Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, California, the 2007 winner of the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award. Visit them online at: http://www.earth2comics.com.

Atom! Freeman co-owns Brave New World Comics (2008 winner of the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award) in Santa Clarita with his wife Portlyn. Since Watchmen came out the first time, he's lived in 10 different houses, had 5 different jobs, got married, bought a business and had a son. Read it today and maybe you can, too.

TAGS:  watchmen, re-reading watchmen, atom! freeman, carr d'angelo, dc comics

 
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