Time, See What's Become of Me
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.
Joining this week’s discussion is Charles Hatfield, associate professor of English at California State University, Northridge, who teaches a course in comics. So pay attention; there may be a quiz.
CH:: Believe it or not, I’ve never owned the “Watchmen” book collection until now! And, though I’ve been teaching courses on comics for almost eight years, this coming semester will mark my first effort at teaching this book. I’ve just never taken the plunge, probably because I was leery of having to spend weeks of class time on what is, obviously, a very complicated work.
I've read “Watchmen” at least three times in its original 12-issue comic book form, first on its original serialization (1986-87) and then a couple of times over the ensuing years, when I had gumption and time enough to dig those (bagged and boarded!) babies out of a long box somewhere. Until this holiday season, it had probably been at least 10 years since I had read “Watchmen” or any part of it. Yow.
Now that I’ve got the collected “Watchmen” open in front of me, I can say with confidence that I am an idiot. Having the whole thing in front of you makes its coherence and depth that much more impressive, because you can see how Moore and Gibbons created each chapter with every other chapter in mind.
ATOM!: Which brings us to "Watchmaker": The origin of the big blue naked guy and much of the back story that has gone unspoken so far. I don’t mind say that this is one of my favorites. As it removes the heart from Jon, it gives the entire story a bit more.
CARR: In one sense, this is the “Watchmen” equivalent of a “Seinfeld” episode: nothing happens. In the plot sense, anyway. The story stands still, as the entire issue takes place in a moment on Mars. But since Dr. Manhattan now seems to be experiencing everything at once, his entire life unfolds in those 8 seconds.
CH: Yeah, nothing happens. But everything happens! There's a lot of back-story and a lot of thought happening during that stillness. In fact this is my favorite chapter in the book, maybe because it gets closest to demonstrating and explaining Alan Moore’s fascination with comics, period. My sense is that Moore has something of the cosmic watchmaker in him, and that he is thrilled by the way comics can organize space into stories, by way of design, repetition, and structure. It’s an almost architectural thing, the way “Watchmen” is built and the way this chapter in particular is built. “Watchmen” is compulsively well-organized; hell, it’s got structures inside of structures. “Watchmaker” is one of those, a delicate narrative clockwork if there ever was one.
Pages 1&2: Solace in his solitude
CARR: Men go to Mars, women go to Venus.
ATOM!: Also, I love that this bit seems to be the intro in the same way that you would write an academic paper. “Here’s what I’m about to tell you.”
CH: Yes, the overture, the overview. I'm going to go off on this for a bit, because I think this first page is the key to the whole chapter. Especially that snapshot of Jon and Jamey at Palisades Park in 1959: that photo is one of those privileged objects out of which “Watchmen” is built, one of the objects that we see on the comic book’s cover and that serves as a structuring motif. If “Watchmen” is an elaborate watchworks, it’s those little motifs that hold it together: the smiley face, the perfume bottle, the Rorschach blots. The ones that are on the covers are the most obvious ones, of course, starting off each chapter and usually appearing at the chapter’s end as well. But there are other repeating motifs too: the silhouetted lovers, for instance, or, in this chapter, the falling watch parts, or the hand-off of the beer mug from Janey to Jon.
CARR: This issue establishes more of the plot alternating with background structure of the series. Issue #2 was a Comedian flashback but since he was dead, the story was told through the other characters' memories and still had plenty of plot.
CH: This one's all about repeated signs, from the very start. The image of the photo resting on the sands of Mars (the cover image for this chapter) appears twice even on the first page. Another motif – actually it's another whole panel, repeated several times – is the image of Jon dropping the photo (page #1, lower left). So here is where we start to see the removal of heart from Jon, right? That is, we see his increasing withdrawal from humanness. (I love the way this is contrasted with the thrown perfume bottle in Chapter 9, which is a sign of Laurie’s humanness and vulnerability.) The kernel of the whole story is here!
This chapter clearly shows how Moore and Gibbons build structure out of repeated visual elements: specific objects or panels that keep coming back. Dig, for instance, the watch parts on black velvet, or the hand holding the photo. Since I’m always looking for pithy (but of course also impressive-sounding!) terms for stuff like this, I’ll call the technique iconic repetition or motific repetition. (Hey, I love jargon.)
Let me walk out on a limb here and say that page #2, panel 7 gestures toward teleology, that is, the belief in design or purpose behind seemingly random events. Jon is trying “to give a name” to the animating principle of the cosmos. God? Well, maybe not, because the end of the chapter has Jon referring to “a clock without a craftsman,” as if there is no designer and no purpose behind the clockwork of the universe. This is one of the philosophical questions that gives “Watchmen” some enduring heft. Moore and Gibbons have a lot of chutzpah to be doing this in a costume comic!
Pages 3 – 12: Time is a River
CARR: Philosophical parallel: The elder Osterman feels the atom bomb makes his profession as a watchmaker obsolete. Is it because he knows that all the Bond villains in the future are going to be using digital timers so they can count down to "007?"
CH: I love the way (the obvious way, I have to admit) that Dr. Manhattan’s origins are tied up precisely in the confrontation between watchmaking and the Bomb: making versus the potential for unmaking; orderliness versus destructive force. On another note, dig the obsession with numbers on pages #2 and #3. Jon rattles off quite a few: 227 million; ten, two, twelve, seventy-six; 1945, sixteen; 1985, fifty-six; forty, 115; 1948, 1958. This shows Jon’s frame of mind but also shows Moore’s preoccupation (partly inherited from Harvey Kurtzman?) with timing in comics -- one of the preoccupations driving this chapter!
The tumbling watchworks in the last panel (1948, 1958…) are a motif to rival the smiley face! And something of Jon’s character is revealed here, both the sense of order he would like the world to have (inherited from his father) and the fact that he can’t quite cope when that order is upended. I'd say quite a few of Watchmen’s characters have this rage for order: Rorschach, arguably, with his black/white sense of moral order, and Dan, and even Veidt. (Moore, it seems to me, has a rage for order and yet an anarchist’s politics. Huh.)
CARR: I love atomic labs located in the desert. That was one of the big mistakes with the Ang Lee Hulk movie. No atomic base in the desert.
ATOM!: Early days at Princeton. Apparently, when you talk about Albert Einstein, you get linked in USA Today Online. Albert Einstein would have loved being talked about in this book. Albert Einstein was such a swell guy. I’m pretty sure that Albert Einstein would want our hit count to be very, very high.
CH: Some things are just too obvious in hindsight: look at how page #4, panel five anticipates Jon’s fate. Ouch! On page #5, panels one and two: Jon remembers a future that, from our POV, ain’t happened yet (déjà vu). From this point forward, I have a sense of being unstuck in time, even though, in fact, Moore and Gibbons give us a pretty straightforward retelling of Jon’s life.
CARR: When you say, "unstuck in time," it makes me realize that Moore is probably influenced by Kurt Vonnegut's anti-war masterpiece “Slaughterhouse Five.”
CH: See how we can be in multiple time frames on a single page, without losing the flow of the story? We’re seeing something here that only comics can do so well, that is, the spatializing of time (this is a topic discussed a lot in comics studies). Only comics can pull this off, exploiting the tension between linear time and the nonlinear, holistic space of the page to make us aware of different time frames simultaneously. The page is a sequence, sure, but also a whole surface, an at-once-ness (it’s 1959 and 1985). Moore is using Jon’s story to get at one of the things that most interests him about comics, the question of narrative time. (Ever notice how many Moore stories turn on the manipulation of time? See “Time Twisters,” “Mystery, Inc.,” or “From Hell”)
The last two panels on page #5 play with iconic repetition again. The image of the beer mug (note that Janey is wearing her watch, ha) establishes a new motif, while the recurring snapshot taps into an already-established pattern, harking back to page #1. Forgive me for these wonky observations, but, damn, I love these formal games in comics! (I go into this kind of thing in, plug plug, my 2005 book “Alternative Comics.”)
CARR: The Gila Flats stuff connects with me because it's Moore and Gibbons' smart take on the Silver Age. There's wacky alliteratively-named sidekick Wally Weaver. The Betty-Ross-style love interest (what the hell does this pretty girl do at an atomic lab anyway?). And scientist/hero Osterman's got Barry Allen's crewcut. That wide panel of them looking at each other I swear could be Barry and Iris Allen or Ray Palmer and Jean Loring. The sequence takes place in 1959, while not the year he first appeared, it is the year the Silver Age Flash got his own title. The first superhero title of the Silver Age.
CH: Ah. I love that point about Jon and Janey resembling Barry and Iris Allen. For me there's something very Infantino-esque about that panel.
ATOM!: At the carnival, two major background characters? Fat Man and Little Boy.
CARR: I would almost believe Alan Moore wrote that into the script.
CH: Damn, that's good! There's other good stuff on page #6, too. Dig panel 2: “Killing time”? Oy, what an arch pun. (And of course time will “kill” Jon, because it’s a “time-lock” test vault that will entrap him.) Or how about panel 3, where we at last get to see “the moment” of the Palisades Park snapshot as it’s being lived, rather than as an old, tattered photo. (Moore and Gibbons induce déjà vu in us readers as well!) Or the last three panels: not only are the images unstuck in time, but Jon’s narration is out of phase with the images. See how the images show Jon and Janey making love, while the text recounts the boring details leading up to their lovemaking? It’s revealing that Jon never says anything like, “And then we made love.” His narration is evacuated of all feeling. And here comes that numbers obsession, again, in the very last panel.
CARR: Another “Watchmen” reference in “Lost”: Desmond also becomes unstuck in time and there's a similar photo of him and his lover Penelope that we see first as an artifact but later see the moment when the photo gets taken.
CH: Y'know, something that is blindingly obvious has just reoccurred to me: that Jon always speaks in the present tense (duh). But of course.
ATOM!: This is such a ‘50s origin story. I keep expecting The Blob to come out of that chamber with him.
CARR: It's the Hulk's origin except where Banner exposed himself to gamma rays while saving an innocent life, Jon Osterman becomes a quantum guinea pig while trying to rescue a wristwatch from certain doom. The shot of Osterman's intrinsic field being removed is a tribute to the infamous Jack Kirby panel of Bruce Banner getting blasted.
CH: Yes, archetypical stuff here. I like that line, “the light is taking me to pieces." It resonates with the tumbling watch parts (pieces) that we keep seeing.
ATOM!: The other day, someone asked me if I thought that the film was going to be true to the comic. I told him only if they showed 15 minutes of Dr. Manhattan penis.
CH: Yeah, such beautiful classicism here. Gibbons does right by his influences: Hampson, Bellamy, Swan, Infantino… and Moebius, yes!
As I look at these pages, I’m blown away by the economy and precision of Gibbons’ staging and the clean, eminently readable nature of his drawing. Gibbons is neat and meticulous; among Moore's collaborators, he’s closer to Chris Sprouse, say, than to Steve Bissette or Eddie Campbell. I admit, one of the reasons I like “From Hell” – one of the reasons that I tend to tell myself I prefer “From Hell” to “Watchmen” – is that Campbell’s organic scratchiness offsets the neat formalism of Moore’s script to good effect. But I also have to admit, looking at “Watchmen” again, I don’t think anyone else but Gibbons could have pulled off what’s required here: the precise repetition of images, consistent and recognizable from one instance to the next. I’m floored by Gibbons’ deliberateness and control. I also admire his masterful way of staging action in depth.
On page #10, panel 5, I note that Jon is already becoming distanced from humankind: though he himself is a ghost, it’s the onlookers that seem “pale and insubstantial” from his POV.
CARR: Is that factoid about gold coming from supernovas true? That's just plain weird.
CH: Apparently true! The supernova bit is an odd detail, until you think about Janey’s Christmas gift to Jon: a golden ring, a plain, smooth band (held, on page #11, panel 3, so as to resemble the shape of the supernova, yes?). The fact that Jon likes the atomic structure of the ring -- “a perfect grid, like a checkerboard" -- strikes me as another one of those self-referential moments in the book, since it reflects not only both Jon’s but also Moore’s love of order. A perfect grid -- like “Watchmen’s” layouts, no?
ATOM!: I would totally wear that helmet.
CARR: It would work for the Earth-4 Captain Atom where the Charlton characters that inspired “Watchmen” in the first place are more like their counterparts. He's in the “Final Crisis Secret Files” that just came out. It's the secret way that DC can actually do a “Watchmen” ongoing series.
CH: Ugh. If there was ever a graphic novel that begged for no sequel, it's “Watchmen!” I love the contradiction on page #12: Jon passively does what the government requires of him but asserts himself on small matters, such as whether or not he will where a costume or what “symbol” he will decorate himself with. Moore does a canny job of explaining, through Jon’s character, how such a godlike being could allow himself to be bossed around for so long. Jon’s essentially passive, even though he has the power to destroy and remake worlds!
Pages 13 – 16: I am Superman and I can do anything.
CARR: Is that Clark Kent reading the news about America's Superman?
CH: I dunno, but the business of dismantling a rifle without touching it, didn't Marvel Girl do that first, in “X-Men” #1?
Page #13, panel 6: Pity Captain Metropolis. Obviously, Dr. Manhattan has just made the poor guy obsolete. There’s a kind of symbolic splitting going on here, with one character who echoes Superman (Captain. Metropolis) being superseded by another (Dr. Manhattan). Sure, I know Dr. Manhattan is supposed to have been based on the Captain Atom character, not Superman, but Moore and Gibbons still use him to suggest things about the Man of Steel. No? Wouldn't you say that, in a similar way, Moore and Gibbons evoke Batman via another symbolic split, Rorschach versus Nite-Owl, basically the “bad” Batman vs. the “good” one? (Yeah, Rorschach is a riff on Ditko’s Question, but isn’t he just Batman without the apologies?)
CARR: That was the name of my band in college.
CH: “The morality of my activities escapes me.” I love that – for my money, a more chilling remark than any of Rorschach’s more famous lines. Dr. Manhattan versus petty crooks: that’s a pretty uneven matchup, wouldn’t you say? (I wonder what that poor bastard did that could justify blowing up his head.)
ATOM!: There’s got to be a joke about Hollis Mason and General Motors that gives us an excuse to insert that panel.
CARR: It's kind of sad that without a superhero powered by quantum physics we never got the electric car. Hollis Mason is reacting the same way Osterman's father did. Hollis is now obsolete as both a costumed crusader and an auto mechanic. Mason writes about this meeting in "Under the Hood." I really like when we see scenes repeated from different points of view.
CH: Oh God, yes, repeating things from different POVs is what this whole book is about! Page #15, panels 1 and 2: Note the Nite-Owl statue, another one of those privileged objects in “Watchmen.” Disarming to see it here, presented as a retirement gift, when of course it will eventually be used to murder Mason. In hindsight, this too seems to be an awful inevitability, rather like that of JFK’s murder.
The bit about electric cars is a lovely bit of world-building on Moore and Gibbons’ part: the idea that Jon’s mere presence in the world will change everything.
ATOM!: Seems as though Janey was more affected by the Kennedy assassination than Jon was.
CARR: I'll go back to my theory from last issue. The Kennedy assassination showed Jon he is powerless to change history. Or because he sees a version of history, he doesn't try to change it. Yet he gets involved in the war. It's hard to determine exactly what his powers are. Last issue had the scene where he puts back together the vial he drops. Is he reversing time? If he can turn bullets into flowers and transport people with his mind, why couldn't save Kennedy? That bugs me.
CH: Good point about Jon's powerlessness. I'm thinking of page #14, panel 3: To be aware of all time simultaneously, yet unable to prevent an assassination, a death, a disaster. As I see it, Moore is drawing on our national memory of JFK here not only to situate this story historically but also to underscore themes of inevitability and futility. Question: Is Jon also powerless to prevent [the villain's] plot? I presume he knows about it in advance. (And that really bugs me!)
Page #16: Note Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (sometimes also called “The Persistence of Time”) on the wall, replete with melting watches! Motific repetition with a vengeance.
ATOM!: Perhaps he can see far enough ahead in time to know that it is essential for the future history we don't see.
Pages 17 – 25: Upgrade
CH: Again, repeating from a different POV. Now we can understand this scene differently, because now we realize that Jon has been eyeing Laurie during the meeting, to Janey’s displeasure, and that this is prelude to Jon and Janey’s breakup. This sort of circling-back reminds me of the way Citizen Kane revisits certain moments (in particular the “opera” scene) from different perspectives. The structuring and repetition get very subtle!
ATOM!: I’m not sure which is more tragic. Not being able to stop things like presidential assassinations or not being able to stop yourself from picking crazy women.
CARR: I don't blame the woman. It's like Jim Carrey's description of his first marriage after “Ace Ventura” became a hit: "I'm out on Mars all day and then I come home and she asks me to take out the garbage." You have two people living two very different lives.
CH: Speaking of relationships failing, compare page #18, panel 2, a vis-à-vis profile shot of Jon and Janey, with the similar close-up of Jon and Janey's meeting, back on page #5. That visual echo must be deliberate, no? Dig how the question of time, or rather Jon’s timelessness, has come between the two of them (just as the Dali painting literally comes between them in panel 2).
On page #19, more visual echoing: check out the resemblance in pose between panel 2 (Laurie clings to Jon as he carries her over the threshold of their new apartment) and panel 4 (Blake’s Vietnamese girlfriend, who we know will be murdered by him, clings to his neck). This gives me a chill, because it suggests a likeness between Blake’s amoral viciousness and Jon’s own lack of human empathy. Then dig that last panel on page #19, a beautiful scary image, thanks to Gibbons' monster lighting and Higgins' bold (I'd even say garish) coloring. Really brings out Blake’s character. Brrr.
And how about page #21? In panels 5 and 6, Jon’s line about conscience seems to give Veidt pause. Are we to infer that Jon already sees what Veidt is planning to do? Back on page #16, Jon says that he cannot prevent the future, that to him “it’s already happening.” The pensive expressions of the two men in panel 6 seem to suggest that both are contemplating Veidt’s plans for the future. Jon remarks that Veidt’s eyes “are sad and knowing” (a line that will mean a lot more to us when we get to the novel’s end!).
A minor but cool thing: note, in panel 6, that Laurie is wearing the same earrings Jon gave to Janey back on page #16.
CARR: I mentioned the watch symbolism earlier and it comes up again on the Time Magazine cover. I was thinking this was a real-world inspiration for Moore and Gibbons so I looked it up. Turns out there was a 1985 Time Magazine issue commemorating the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima but it was mushroom cloud cover. However, there is also a pocket watch that was found in the wreckage stopped at 8:15 that's on display in the Hiroshima museum. So it's a pastiche but a clever one. The bomb literally stopped time.
ATOM!: These visual themes of Hiroshima come back around heavy next issue and then payoff in issue #6. (Yes, I'm reading ahead.)
CH: A few more observations:
Page #23: Here’s where an essential bit of back story – about the outlawing of costumed vigilantes – finally comes into focus. (Rings a few bells, doesn't it? The Incredibles, anyone?) I love how Moore and Gibbons fold in the Iranian hostage crisis in panel 3. In general, I like the way this chapter exploits Jon’s nonlinear sense of time in order to bring us readers up to date on “Watchmen's” world.
CARR: I've been wondering if the Keene act is symbolically named after cartoonist Bill Keane because if there's anything that is the complete antithesis of “Watchmen” it's the “Family Circus” comic strip.
CH: Page #25 replays things that we’ve already seen in the earlier chapters, but now from Jon’s perspective. Of these eight panels, at least five, by my count, have appeared before (déjà vu all over again!). And then of course there’s the snapshot of Janey and Jon, once again, this time pried loose from its broken frame by Jon and carried away. Damn. Think of the discipline Moore and Gibbons needed to pull this off!
Pages #26 to #28: Finally, here comes the lovely, meditative coda to this whole mind-rattling chapter: Jon creates a sparkling crystal palace, its design redolent of clockwork, out of Martian sand, all the while contemplating fate, design, and the (as he sees it) designer-less-ness of the cosmos, that “maker-less mechanism” (page #28). There's a philosophical struggle here between teleology and the idea of randomness, or mere chance. And there's Jon's awful remoteness, too: as he watches the meteorites falling on the last page (a moment anticipated way back on page #2), his withdrawal from humanity seems complete. Chilly and beautiful, that last page.
ATOM!: Hey look! A quote from Albert Einstein! Albert Einstein should have lived to see this. Truly, Albert Einstein would have enjoyed the Watchmen.
Doctor Manhattan: Super-powers and superpowers
CARR: Okay, I admit, after three issues of "Under the Hood" excerpts, I found this essay kind of one-note. In retrospect, and based on things Gibbons has said, I think the original plan was to have a letters column. Could you imagine that? After this issue and the note it ends on, reading letters from T.M. Maple and Guy H. Lillian III? "Dear Editor: I love this new ‘Watchmen’ book, but I'm confused. Why create a new character like Rorschach when DC just bought the rights to The Question? Any chance of a Minutemen miniseries? Hey, what's the deal with the sugar-cubes? They keep changing color. I want a No-Prize!"
ATOM!: So, Charlie, one professor on another, how batty is Milton?
CH: Well, you know, I'm not a scientist, so I'm not qualified to speak. Heh. (Seriously, academia these days is not as forgiving of battiness as one might think: there are very few tweedy, absent-minded professors, with or without slide rules, making headway in academe these days!) I do like the fact that Glass -- gee, his name reminds me of a number of things in “Watchmen,” most particularly Jon's crystal palace -- is more Oppenheimer than Teller, if you know what I mean. That is, Glass is regretful of atomic weaponry and not so much in thrall to the idea of national security.
My sense is that this essay is meant to foreshadow the nuclear brinksmanship that happens later in the novel. I admit that it's not as flavorful as the "Under the Hood" stuff, but there are some striking lines, my favorite being that Dr. Manhattan's existence "has deformed the lives of every living creature on the face of this planet." That word, "deformed," shows that Moore and Gibbons are thinking speculatively, like SF writers, not just taking the conventions of the superhero genre at face value. Little wonder that “Watchmen” won a Hugo Award in 1988.
On a final note, thanks for inviting me to be part of this, guys! I've enjoyed and learned from this rereading of “Watchmen,” and I'm looking forward to class discussions of the book this semester. “Watchmen” as a whole, and this chapter especially, represent a high watermark in comics: aiming high, triggering all kinds of thought, and delivering, visually and verbally, with crystalline elegance.
ATOM!: Thank you, Charlie. I'm so glad that you were able to be our first guest. You did a fantastic job. Be back next week, folks, our special guest will be Gerry Duggan, writer of “Infinite Horizon” and more truly funny, funny books than most.
Charles Hatfield is an associate professor of English at California State University, Northridge, specializing in comics, word/image studies, popular culture, and children’s literature. He is the author of Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (University Press of Mississippi, 2005) and is now finishing a book on Jack Kirby. His writing has appeared in various places, in particular The Comics Journal and such academic journals as ImageTexT, The Lion and the Unicorn, the International Journal of Comic Art, and Inks. Since 1997 Charles has been one of the organizers of the annual International Comic Arts Forum (www.internatinalcomicartsforum.org), and he has also presented at many other conferences. These days he does much of his non-academic writing for the comics blog Thought Balloonists (www.thoughtballoonists.com) in collaboration with friend and colleague Craig Fischer, with whom he is also writing a book about Eddie Campbell. This semester Charles will be teaching his course on “Comics & Graphic Novels” for the fifth time.
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.