Re-Reading Watchmen: Issue #10

Fri, February 20th, 2009 at 12:28pm PST

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

"Watchmen" Chapter X: "Two Riders Were Approaching"

WALK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN

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.

We are honored this week to be joined by a third rider, BOOM! Studios co-founder and C.E.O. Ross Richie, who has also changed the comic book landscape with an innovative line of hit titles, from cool genre books like “Zombie Tales” to the intense space thriller “Station” and the latest hit, the “Farscape” comic book series based on the Sci Fi television show.

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 previous installments of RE-READING WATCHMEN, you can check out Atom! and Carr's past commentaries right here.

Story continues below

CHAPTER X: TWO RIDERS WERE APPROACHING

CARR:  I think it's fair to say that you must have been influenced at a crucial point in your comic book lives by “Watchmen.”

ROSS: I completely missed this book the first time around.  I was 16, and the first issue was one of the last comics I bought before I left comics for girls.  I had been an Alan Moore fan since the early days of “Swamp Thing,” so I bought the first issue knowing it was something special, but I didn't follow up, despite how I'd followed Alan on just about everything he did, going so far as to buy the original U.K. editions of “Warrior” where Miracleman (Marvelman) first appeared.  About four years later, I returned to comics, and in 1992 I bought an entire set of “Watchmen” and read them on my move out from Austin, TX to Los Angeles, CA, where I've lived ever since.  I'll never forget the two-day drive and reading all twelve issues in a row.  It was riveting, I couldn't wait to run out of gas and read a few more pages at the next rest stop!

ATOM!: That's funny. When I moved out here from Ft Worth, TX, I read “Grapes Of Wrath” for the first time without knowing what it was about in advance. Okay, maybe not Ha Ha funny.

ROSS: That drive out from the middle of the country to the West Coast is massive. A barren west Texas landscape, the Grand Canyon, New Mexico, and Arizona -- all that desert just screams, "Ponder something!"  Looks like you and me landed on some doozies on the way out.  Re-reading the series, I really am struck by just how ominous this book is. It has never been so plain to me as now, being a little older, and a lot more optimistic in my attitudes...

But influenced?  Hell, yes.  The bottom line is that there are two points in every comic fan or pro's life/career.  The pre-“Watchmen” period and the post-“Watchmen” period.

Pages 1-3 Who wants to play Global Thermonuclear War?

CARR:  I don't know if he's named, but it's clearly Gerald Ford, not Spiro Agnew, stepping off Air Force Two.  Agnew resigned because he was being investigated for taking bribes while in local office.  It always seemed to me that Ford was chosen for very political reasons; Nixon may not have known he was going to resign but I bet others in the party saw Ford as a safe bet for President should that (or impeachment) happen.  Ford was on the Warren Commission so his appearance here ties in nicely to the Comedian's role in the JFK assassination. 

ATOM!: Is it possible that "The Football" that contains the launch-codes was ever actually football shaped? I'm curious now as to whether it's artistic license or historical reference.

ROSS: I love the repeated use of the number two in the first few pages. We start with Defcon 2, then we don't see Air Force One's number, we see only Air Force Two's number on its tail in panel four on page one, there's also only two issues left until the end, two minutes left until midnight...  the two most powerful men in the world arriving and disembarking on page two...

Page 4-6 Rorschach picks up a new outfit

ROSS: I think what's fascinating about this sequence is that it's this great portrait of these guys before they go to war.  Here's Rorschach confronting a woman who is, in essence, his own mother.  He calls her a "whore" in front of her kids -- and yet, he was one of those kids 30 years before!

CARR:  Gibbons tries to give each character their own body language.  Kovacs climbing into the window, sitting on the sill is the same pose he strikes as Rorschach climbing into the Comedian's place in the first issue. 

CARR:  Atom, I think this clears up any question of whether or not Rorschach really did proposition the landlady.

ATOM!: Yeah, if there was any doubts in the minds of our readers that we're reading this with fresh eyes, the number of times I've been surprised should clear those up.

CARR: Guy stands in front of you with blood all over his shirt, calls you a liar.  Not a good day. 

ROSS: Exactly.  Bitterness, bile, anger. He's totally unaware that he's venting his anger on his own past.  And I think what makes it even more fascinating is that this is a big Act II to Act III moment -- the "calm before the storm" beat when your heroes are about to sharpen their blades, don their battle gear, and go kick some ass.  And Moore gives us this insight into them, this reflection of exactly who our "heroes" are.

ROSS: Just the page before, we get one of the best character moments of the series with them talking.  Rorschach is saying, "Must be more careful in the future" and Nite Owl says, "Future?  What future?"  It's his perfect line.  Here's this guy, hanging out with Hollis, talking about the old days, fat and depressed, "retired" and having given up.  Rorschach is out of prison and ready to throw down, and Nite Owl's getting dragged along begrudgingly, full of anxiety.  Sure, Nite Owl's line is a reference to nuclear Armageddon, but it's also a quick one-line portrait of who he is deep inside.  This is a guy who's given up because he doesn't believe there's a future.  He's retired and now lives in the past.

CARR:  That's pretty cool.  It also relates in a weird way to what Atom! has commented on: the future being blocked in Jon's view. My brain immediately starts thinking that on another level, Moore is also commenting on 1980s comic-book publishing: a bunch of guys enamored of the previous age of heroes unwilling to imagine a different future and constantly retelling past glories. 

ROSS: Same thing for Rorschach saying, "Some of us have always lived on the edge, Daniel... Just hang on by fingernails and never look down."  This guy is born of pain and chaos, so he's created this stark moral landscape that helps him understand the world and cope and deal with it.  But he's a cauldron of anger, resentment, self-loathing, and denial of his own past and the pain that helped create him.  He relishes living on the edge, not understanding that doing so it what got him there in the first place...

ATOM!: I dunno, Ross. I'm pretty sure he was telling Dan the secret way into his apartment. Maybe, I'm overthinking it, though.

Pages 7-8 57 Channels and Nothing's On

CARR:  I couldn't help thinking, what would Ozymandias buy today in the stock market.  Next time my wife catches me flipping through a thousand channels on DirecTV I might just tell her I am developing my investment strategy. 

ROSS: "I need information.  Information in its most concentrated form."  Ozy and Manhattan are two sides of the same coin.  Ozy's the smartest man in the world, willing to do "the logical thing" to "save the world."  While Manhattan has gotten so logical that he can't see the forest for the trees, and has lost touch with everything.  Both men have gotten so intelligent they've gone mad.

ATOM!: Which is why I've chosen to stay dumb. Every meet a sad dumb person?

ROSS: That final shot, "All alone, just me and the world" is kind of similar to Manhattan on Mars, contemplating earth from a cold, removed perspective.  That's also a big theme for the book, how everyone sees the world, from what vantage point.  Rorschach is in the streets.  Nite Owl is curled up on the couch at home.  Manhattan is in space.  And Ozy sits in front of those massive, dehumanizing TV screens and tries to find trends and patterns...

CARR:  Ozymandias is using television to become omniscient, to become a god. 

ATOM!: Here again my strategy to stay dumb works to my advantage. I hope to become a dog.

Pages 9-11  Masked Man to Masked Man

ROSS: So they keep calling the nameless adversary they're hunting here "The Mask Killer."  And of all of the heroes, Rorschach is the most driven to find him.  And of all of the heroes, Rorschach is the most "masked" of them all.  Great moment there, him grabbing his full-face mask and saying, "This face all that's necessary... All I need."  Nietzsche's void birthed him, and he stares back into it with chaos written all over his face.  He even refers to the mask here not as his mask, but his face!  There's great themes there about how we see the world, how we filter what we see, how we cover our faces, and how the world sees us.  The metaphor is just really, really rich.

I love the bonding moment between Rorschach and Dan.  As the stress increases, each of the characters has his own perspective on how to deal with it, and each is character-consistent: Rorschach is "superhuman will to conquer and beat back the darkness," while Nite Owl is "be careful and don't do anything too crazy."  Manhattan is "we are insignificant" and Ozy is "the ends justify the means."  And as issue 12 approaches, and the end of the world is imminent, we're not really convinced that any of these guys have the answer or the solution to the problem being presented.

ATOM!: As I read that, I had image of Dan as a boy scout and every time he comes to a new problem he checks his sash to see if he has the patch for that. Always prepared. Cause if he ain't he's out of there.

ROSS: Moving on, the bit where Rorschach acknowledges he's a bit difficult to deal with is one of the moments we get that really makes us love him; it really humanizes him.  And as a character that is so content to get on his high horse and see things in terms of black and white, it gives him some humility.

CARR:  I love this scene.  We haven't really seen this kind of superhero bonding in the story.  All these characters are associated with each other by circumstance but have we seen any genuine relationships between them?  That's why the revelation of the Sally-Comedian relationship is so powerful in the last issue.  Does Laurie really love Jon?  He would seem incapable of loving her. That Rorschach takes the time to thank Dan for being a real friend is awesome.  Rorschach does seem to be the only one in the whole story with a moral guidance system.

ATOM!: I do want to point out how prissy Dan's being about having to pick up Rorschach's “outfit.” The dude does more costume changes than Prince.

CARR: And the last panel of page #11.  That seems to be the shot that was in the first movie trailer, the Owlship rising from the deep.  Goosebumps it gives me.  Or maybe owlbumps.

 
Page 12-13 Dial "Arrrr" for Revelations

CARR:  Not a lot of religious groups cited in “Watchmen” -- did the appearance of Dr. Manhattan make the world less religious?  It's a funny moment: the Jehovah's Witnesses pitching their magazine, the “Watchtower” (get it?).  And this time they are right: Armageddon is approaching.

ATOM!: I cannot believe I missed that. The only reason that this sequence doesn't ring true is that they gave up so easy. Ever try to get a Jehovah's Witness to leave your door?

ROSS: I find our "hero" in “Black Freighter” fascinating to read. It's almost like he's a double of Rorschach.  "Recovering, I became more rational" -- what?  More rational after caving a dude's skull in with a rock in a murderous rage?  More rational after caving a woman's windpipe in -- who, by the way, is a completely innocent bystander you're branded as a whore -- that you complain it "took considerably longer than I had anticipated"?  Really?!!  Really?!!  Whoa!!!

CARR:  That goes back to the way Hitchcock filmed murder scenes.  Torn Curtain or Topaz has a really extended murder.  Hitchcock loved the idea that murder is messy and not easy. 

ROSS:  I think that this sequence touches on what “Watchmen” is really about.  It's about survival.  It's about looking at the world, full of chaos and pain, whether that's the threat of nuclear destruction or it's the chaos and pain of being the son of a prostitute who was helpless as a child and should have been sheltered from the world, and trying to figure out how you will survive through it.  Rorschach's solution is to define it in reductive black-and-white terms and punch it in the chops.  Nite Owl gives up and sits on the sidelines, pretending it's not there.  Manhattan says, "It doesn't matter."  And Ozy rationalizes an horrific solution to bring the world to peace -- by murdering.  Our hero in “The Black Freighter” isn't that different -- he will rationalize and do anything to survive.  To live.  And I think ultimately Moore presents these different view points and sees they are all incomplete, and none of them are the answer, and the restlessness and bleakness of the work is that unsettling understanding that there really, ultimately, is no answer...

ATOM!: Are you telling me that's it's not really about a guy who fixes watches? I'm so disappointed.

Pages 14-16  Rorschach's Back in Town

CARR:  The murder of Hollis Mason in the previous issue was tough enough to deal with, but Dan learning it from a thug in a bar is devastating.  It really was a clever way to get that plot information to Dan. In other stories, people would find that out from a phone call or a friend, but here, the Knot-Top reacts to Nite Owl with genuine fear--don't blame me, I didn't do it--and Dan has to process this guy's reaction. 

ROSS: I have a bleakly humorous reaction to this, because Rorschach's method for getting information is to go to bars and beat people up.  It's definitely a commentary on 1970s Batman comics and the Dirty Harry archetype of the tough cop, but what's funny about this is that it's the sole summary of Rorschach's skills.  Earlier in the issue, he cites this on page #10, "Trace killer.  Visit bars.  Squeeze people.  Been lazing around a long time.  Maybe you've forgotten how we do things."  Imagine if you were watching “CSI” or “Cold Case” and that was the sum total of their detective methods.  Insane!  I think Moore presents it as an unfair and unjust way to investigate -- basically, threatened violence and coercion as a brutal inhuman method -- and then reveals some of the most important information in the book doing it!  Very ironic.  These guys do it because it works...

ATOM: And that's why we had Gitmo!

CARR:  By the way, the guy who spills the beans is the Pyramid Deliveries driver who has been recharging his truck at the newsstand on his way out of the city.

Pages 17-18  Some Days You Just Can't get Rid of a Bomb

CARR:  Reading this again, I am surprised at how little there was of the island.  In my memory, there was much more of it, like one of those endless sub-plots that would run through Marvel Comics in the 1970s.  There would be a page cutting away to a villain plotting something but that story wouldn't pay off for months.  I always thought it was a way to create an illusion of continuity and suspense.  In DC, Lex Luthor would just show up and fight Superman.  In a Marvel comic, you'd see Doc Ock living as a bum on the streets for three or four issues before he regained his memory and attacked Spidey. 

Steve Gerber made fun of this with his "Killer Elf" sub-plot in “Defenders.”  There would be a page every other issue where you met some new character and in the final panel, they would be killed by and elf with a revolver.  I believe Gerber has said he had no plans for that and was just going to drag it out until an editor stopped him.  Do I have to give a SPOILER WARNING for anyone reading the “Essential Defenders?”  David Anthony Kraft wrapped it up in a way that reminds me of this sequence.  After all the build-up, the Elf gets run over by a truck across the street from the Defenders HQ.  They never meet.  This scene had me feeling like I feel now watching Lost: great, they got off the island, and then, Ka-Blam!  Actually. no Ka-Blam as this is another scene that really drives home the fact that Moore and Gibbons are not using conventional comic book tools like sound effects. 

ATOM!: Wouldn't a freighter exploding sound more like BOOM!? Get it? Cause of Ross? What? You guys are making me reach for the laughs in this one.

CARR: I am embarrassed I wrote Ka-Blam!

Pages 19-21  And the Villain is...

CARR:  I am going to go off on a theory here.  One of the reasons why this work is so impressive is because it does seem so deliberate and planned out and I think readers--and scholars--appreciate that.  Clearly, Moore set out from the beginning to make Ozymandias the man behind the entire conspiracy and there are clues and pointers throughout the entire book towards that.  I mentioned it before but nowadays, stories don't always feel that way, especially with big event books that are rumored to be interfered with editorially.  But prior to “Watchmen,” I would argue that the Silver Age standard was coming up with big crazy ideas like Earth-1 and Earth-2, or a planet-eating giant with a herald on a silver surfboard, or a Kree-Skrull war and then working to make them make sense afterwards.

ROSS: I think that's a hallmark of Alan's style: while “Big Numbers” was never finished, it had this architectural structure to it, very tight, well laid out and planned.  “From Hell” has it as well.  I think what helped was that this was planned as a 12-issue miniseries, something we don't really often see in comics publishing anymore.  Alan knew he had 12 issues and was able to structure and build the story that way.  The layering in the storytelling is almost superhuman, forgive the pun.  Most of the writers that I know make things up as they go along: with a novel or screenplay, when you hit on something halfway into the writing, you can put it back in the beginning for a set-up, pay-off scenario.  But in periodical comics publishing, you can't go back to the first issue when you discover a unique layer or wrinkle in issue six that would be great to build on.

ATOM!: I remember a post-mortem interview with one of the writers of “Lost” T who said that things like the numbers on the jerseys in the airport had to be shot right before air-date because nobody thought to do them before. This stuff is hard!

ROSS: Moore's structural flair really came into its own here. I don't think it's as visible in his work previous to this, like “2000 A.D.” or “Miracleman” or “Swamp Thing.” What's even more interesting to me is the repetition of the Egyptian fascination with death, and seeing death as a voyage -- when you partner it with the “Black Freighter,” where death is literally a voyage (and a horrendous struggle), and  partner that with Rorschach's statement on page #20 that "disturbing dead is out job."  Hmmmm.  Hurm.  Indeed.

CARR:  I am definitely re-reading “Swamp Thing” and “Miracleman” after this. 

ATOM!: We should pitch CBR on our next round of book reports now.

Pages 22-24  The Notebook

ROSS: "Veidt.  Cannot imagine more dangerous opponent."  Wow, what a statement from Rorschach!  This guy is fearless, and Ozy makes him worried.  There's a really fascinating law vs. chaos pairing they have.  Rorschach is the outlaw who is enforcing his own system of justice.  Ozy is "The Man" who has decided to go rogue with his own solution to the world's problems.  Rorschach is a cop, Ozy is the criminal.  But Ozy is order, the system of things as a businessman and uber-wealthy captain of industry, while Rorschach is chaotic, a vigilante who hides his costume in alleys and appears without warning, who sneaks into buildings past policeman and marches to his own drum-beat.

CARR:  The guys on Comic Geekspeak have been doing a similar overview of “Watchmen.”  I don't listen to their podcasts until after we do our article so I don't accidentally borrow any of their observations.  But one of them, back in the first issue, pointed out how Rorschach takes his hat off when he visits Adrian.  It really is a sign of respect, especially when you see how he treats Dreiberg in his home.

ROSS: I think perhaps the strongest statement in this book is Rorschach delivering the answer to the mystery that will change the world to "the media" on page #24, and they toss it away to be destroyed.  It's very existential.  It's a huge theme and makes Rorschach a kind of Don Quixote figure, this outsider who's chasing the truth, but to the world he's just a madman.  He finds the truth, but the world is indifferent to it.  The real question here is: "If we find what we're looking for, does it really make any difference?  Can it change the world?  Could it save someone or make a difference in their life?  Does it matter?"

CARR: Well, we have seen that the editor at “The New Frontiersman” does sometimes pull stuff from the crank file so the book's fate is questionable.  It's a meta-moment because the red-headed kid opens up the book and is reading the journal entry that is on the first page of “Watchmen.”  In essence, he is reading the book we are reading.  And the more I think about it, I think that's why Moore and Gibbons are obsessed with the image of hands holding an object in front of them.  Isn't that how we all experience comic books?  A series of images held between our hands (more often that not faces looking out at us) is what we see as we read, and that image is repeated through the book.  Sometimes, it's actually someone holding a comic book or newspaper.

ATOM!: We've got the whole world in our hands.

Pages 25-28  Baby It's Cold Outside

CARR: This sort of reminded me of the stuff outside the Fortress in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”  The snowy wasteland as a symbol of Armageddon?

ROSS: That's totally what this is.  It's an Armageddon showdown at the end of the world.  And it's also a tip of the hat to Superman's Fortress of Solitude.  It's Alpha and Omega, the Last Superhero Story taking place in an environment made famous by The First Superhero.

ATOM!: You two are missing the most monumental future-seeing in the whole book! Granted, so far the only people who have embraced them are wealthy geeks and mall-cops but it's now obvious that Watchmen must have inspired Dean Kaman to invent what Steve Jobs claimed would be "as big a deal as the PC". Ladies and gentlemen, the SEGWAY!

Adrian Veidt's Desktop

ROSS: This is a great, sly comment on how we take our heroes and turn them into commodities. We're seeing it now with the commerce and merchandise springing up around Obama Mania.  It's also a comment on how superhero comics take violent men who have mental issues and turn them into merchandisable trademarks.

ATOM!: Speaking for comics retailers everywhere, I will ask you to refrain from speaking ill of Obama merchandising.

CARR:  MY question is, did Adrian really not want to infringe on his associates' images or is it an ego thing?  I can speak from personal experience that Ozymandias action figures do not sell as well as Rorschach and Nite Owl. 

ROSS: Adrian's answer is even more amusing: "Let's make money off of war!"  His cold, calculating "logic" and "reason" shines through and like a Bond supervillain, all he really cares about is his cat!   

CARR:  That's why they are on opposite sides: Ozy's a cat person while Rorschach's a dog person. 

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, dc comics, carr d'angelo, atom! freeman

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