Re-Reading Watchmen: Issue #11

Fri, February 27th, 2009 at 4:29pm PST | Updated: February 27th, 2009 at 4:34pm

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

THE END IS NIGH

"Watchmen" Chapter XI: "Look on My Works, Ye Mighty"

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.

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.

This week, we are joined by a guy who knows a little bit about superhero mythology, Mark Waid.  Now Editor-in-Chief at BOOM! Studios, Mark is known as the author of such genre-busting epics as “Kingdom Come,” “Empire and “Superman Birthright.”  Currently, when not writing “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Mark is working on his new series “Irredeemable,” about a good guy gone bad.  How appropriate then that he join us to discuss this issue.

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 XI:  LOOK ON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY

CARR:  Mark, I know you've been reading superhero comics since you were 5.  Where were you in your comic book life when “Watchmen” came out and what was your reaction?

MARK:  Four. And no one who wasn't already buying comics in 1986 can imagine what that year was like. “Crisis on Infinite Earths” was wrapping up just as “The Dark Knight Returns,” “Watchmen,” and “Maus” were premiering. “Love and Rockets” was new and fresh, streetcars were everywhere, phone calls cost a penny, and everyone had a personal nickelodeon for entertainment.

But my mind was blown.  I was, if you'll excuse the suspect use of this word, living in Wichita Falls, Texas in '86, and it wasn't just because there was nothing else to do in Wichita Falls that I re-read “Watchmen” #1 every day until issue two came out. Rinse, repeat. I was already an Alan Moore aficionado, but this was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. It looked like a mainstream comic, but... but... dirty words and sex and mature themes and resonance? With no local fandom to sustain me in those days, I just had to process it on my own.

By the time issue twelve rolled around, everything was different for me. I was, by then, working on-staff as an editor at DC Comics, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that when I began there, even the fact that “Watchmen” was taking what seemed like forever to come out hadn't quelled anyone's enthusiasm. The editors were just as high on it as the readers were, and advance peeks at the last couple of issues were tough to negotiate -- no one wanted the secrets to slip out. Nonetheless, staffers and freelancers alike were constantly stopping by editor Barbara Kesel's desk to see what had come in, and she may as well have had a revolving door on her office.

The fever pitch became so great that inker Al Gordon, living in California and unable to swing by the offices for a look, called up everyone at DC so incessantly, begging for advance faxes from anyone, that editors Mike Carlin and Andy Helfer actually used existing art and pulled in letterer Steve Bove to mock up "believable-once-they're-run-through-a-fax-machine" but utterly fake pages to send the guy to get him to shoo. And while I know that, technically, we're on issue 11 in this commentary and I'm jumping an issue ahead, here's a brief sample (thanks, Carlini!):

Examples of falsley lettered "Watchmen" pages DC editors Mike Carlin and Andy Helfer cruelly faxed to inker Al Gordon, whose only crime was being too eager to see new pages!

MARK: It gets increasingly wackier, but it's really subtle at first. The first dozen pages or so, you wouldn't know your mind was being messed with unless you were paying super-close attention, I swear. Gradually, however, small alterations in the lettering and art turn into huge ones. In the end, by the time Veidt reveals that his agent of psychic delivery isn't the squid, it's reruns of “Pee Wee's Playhouse,” you'd kinda have to catch on.

ATOM!: Oh, that is fantastic. We as retailers are always begging for previews so that we can make ordering decisions. I'm not sure if I'd get irritated or enjoy the game if they pulled something like that today. No, wait, I'm pretty sure I would enjoy that.

MARK: Where were we, again?  Oh, right.  Eleven. By issue eleven, we knew the who of it all but not the how or the why, and re-reading this chapter last night gives me a whole new appreciation for how long the suspense had built. For the longest time, we'd been led to believe that the huge reveal was gonna be who the Mask Killer was (my money was on Hooded Justice), but as with all great mysteries, the answer to that question only served to open up more horror and more story.

PAGES 1-5:  WELCOME TO THE PLEASUREDOME

CARR:  I am going to be nit-picky here.  The first panel doesn't track with the cover.  Shouldn't the cover be white if the first panel is white?  Instead, the cover is a detail of the second panel.  Should I be upset?  Am I wrong to think that a solid white cover was vetoed?

ATOM!: Nitpicky? Not MY Carr.

MARK: I'll ask Dave. I wouldn't be surprised. As much respect as “Watchmen” had around the office even then -- and it wasn't a hundredth of what it is now -- I can't imagine anyone up there at the time thinking a blank white cover would be a good idea or wouldn't just look like a printing screw-up. A year later, we printed an issue of “Wasteland” with a solid white cover, but that was technically a second print because we'd screwed up the previous month, mis-numbered it or some-such, and I'm off-topic again, aren't I?

CARR:  Yeah, but how often do you get to make a reference to “Wasteland?” 

MARK:  I am quite taken at how Ozymandias's viewscreen setup parallels how Dr. Manhattan sees the world -- everything unfolding all at once right before his eyes. The man with The Plan versus the man subordinate to The Plan. "Heart of darkness," from Rorschach, is a nice play on words since this whole plot turn is reminiscent of Conrad's short story -- hero fighting his way upstream to bring back an old comrade who's gone over the edge with a mad plan for his world.

The visual similarity between a reel of tape and a nuclear symbol is a sweet, sweet touch, too.

CARR:  That totally explains the reel-to-reel.  It jumped out at me as old-fashioned and I was going to comment that Moore didn't foresee digital recording, but we did have CDs in 1986.  I think you nailed why that was chosen.

ATOM!: In anticipation of this week's column, I got a great e-mail from one of our readers. Rather than try and summarize it, I'll let Richard Martinez speak for himself about page 5 panel 6:

"When you review this next issue, could you take a moment to consider the possibilities this panel presents.  When Oz stops, turns, and deliberately looks at the camera, who is he looking to for recognition?  Is it possible that he is knowingly looking at the readers?  Just a weird interpretation of mine."

ATOM!: I'll admit, I completely missed this the first time. I can't seem to come up with another interpretation.

CARR:  I also feel like an idiot because that e-mail made me look back at that page and re-read it closely, and I don't think I fully realized before that page #5 is Ozymandias pressing the button, launching his attack.  There's a clock that reads 11:25 as he presses the button and makes something in the viewing chamber disappear.  That's the "35 minutes ago" he refers to later.  That turn outward to the reader is fascinating in that regard.  Does DC have copies of all the scripts on file?  They must.  A “Watchmen” scriptbook would be wonderful.  I'd love to read the description of that panel. 

In terms of production value, I looked at an old printing (the Graphitti hardcover) and the coloring makes it hard to see Adrian's face in panel 6.  It's much clearer in the Absolute and I will be damned if he's not looking at me.  So maybe Animal Man wasn't first.  Is he looking at us for approval?  Does he know it's just a comic book so it doesn't really matter?  Or is he just averting his gaze from the glow inside the teleportation chamber? 

MARK: I knew I stopped by here for a reason.  I never noticed that. Not even in re-reading this week. Man, I gotta call Dave. Why isn't this Martinez guy Re-Reading these with you? Can you pull him in for "Re-Reading Youngblood?"

ATOM!: In other visual media, this would be called "Breaking The Fourth Wall." The idea being that in theater, the stage has three walls and the audience creates the fourth wall in their mind. When the character addresses the audience, he breaks that fourth wall.

If you'll forgive a little pet theory of mine, what Grant Morrison did in “Animal Man” and Dave Sim did later in “Cerebus” was what I have always thought of as "Breaking The Fifth Wall." If the fourth wall is between character and audience, then the fourth wall must be between character and writer. I've always thought that this is one of those tricks that the other visual media would have a hard time with compared to comics. The filter of the illustrator makes the conversation between writer and character work easier than, say, an actor talking to the writer. Of course, as I type that, I recognize that Sim didn't have that filter, but he tends to break all the rules doesn't he?

PAGES 6, 9, 13, 20, 23:  MEANWHILE...BACK AT THE NEWSSTAND

MARK: Rorschach's psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Long, reappears, and to me, it's one of the most heartwarming and reassuring moments in all of “Watchmen” when he steps up to break up the fight despite his wife's protests. I love how, despite the growing tension, he serves as our moral compass in the novel even after having stared into the abyss that is Rorschach. It's a tiny touch, but its impact is inestimable; it reminds us that humanity is worth saving because, at its best, it is selfless.

ATOM!: My only disappointment was that his wife wasn't able to accept who he was at the end. I was rooting for those crazy kids to work it out.

MARK: Don't say "crazy kids" to a psychiatrist.

CARR:  I think I just read somewhere that while these side characters will be recognizable to readers of the graphic novel, they get less screen time in the movie.  Which makes sense. 

PAGE 7-8:  A GLASS OF WINE BEFORE YOU GO

ATOM!: Poor guys, first they escape death in “the tropics” (and, yes, that's a reference to Cheney), to live in a dome with a crazy person and then the end comes the first time they get to taste the master's wine.

CARR: There’s a great shot of the full glass of wine behind Adrian indicating that he’s not drinking it.

MARK: This scene is a microcosm of my experience at CrossGen.

CARR:  Now that everyone's gone all Fifth Wall, I am re-reading Veidt's dialogue about "two alien universe separates by a membrane of fragile glass" as a description of the multiverse.  Combined with the line Mark references later in the interview, it is arguable that Ozymandias knows he is a citizen of a fictional world.  In the shot, we the reader are outside the glass looking down at Adrian. 

I also have to mention that Adrian was born in 1939, which is the year “Detective Comics” #27 came out, introducing Batman. While Nite Owl represents certain 1950s-60s aspects of Batman, Adrian more clearly represents the classic Batman concept of a hero who is the pinnacle of mental and physical perfection.  My friend Matt Lehman has also suggested that maybe Adrian killed his own parents for the inheritance. 

PAGE 10-12:  DON'T FORGET TO CLOSE THE DOOR ON YOUR WAY OUT

CARR:  Can I say chilling, pun not intended?

ATOM!: I'm surprised that Rorschach doesn't say that.

MARK: This is a great scene and says volumes about Veidt's real attitude towards human life, but it's one of the very, very few scenes in the novel that I feel is there for show rather than to move the plot along; unless I'm overlooking something, there's really no reason for Veidt to eradicate the entire vivarium just to dispose of three bodies. I could be overthinking. It's still horrifying.

ATOM!: I guess you could argue that the servants were the last link between Veidt and the squid. Sure, it's more of a whimper than a “BOOM!” but it does call back to the boat. And yes, that last sentence was so that I could say BOOM! in a sentence again. Did it again.

CARR:  It makes me feel that Adrian doesn't expect to get out of here alive. 

PAGES 13-17:  GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER?

CARR:  You need this scene to remind you that Ozymandias is not only intellectually dangerous but physically dangerous as well.  Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt is a non-entity to me.  I don't think I have ever read a story with the character in it.  So I have no idea how Ozy relates to that character. 

MARK: Adrian's pretty far afield from Peter Cannon by this point. Part of the Thunderbolt conceit was that Peter Cannon "used the other 90% of his brain where we use only 10% blah blah" nonsense, but while we kept being told how smart and insightful he was, he rarely demonstrated superhuman intellect or, frankly, ever came across at all as the physical and mental paragon he espoused to be. He was a (well-drawn) crimebuster who punched people. I say this with love and affection, but with the exception of The Question (and to a far lesser extent, Blue Beetle), pretty much all the Charlton heroes upon which the Watchmen were based were personality-free, even by Silver Age standards.

ATOM!: An entire line of superheroes with Asperger's.

CARR:  Isn't the inherent blandness of some of the Silver Age characters what allowed Moore to come along and twist them?  It's a pretty traditional thing in comics for someone to take on the name of a retired hero, but Moore takes that and decides that the second Blue Beetle would have to be impotent and lacking confidence if he couldn't even come up with his own identity.  I still think the way he warped Adam Strange's simple mythology in “Swamp Thing” was brilliant. 

PAGES 18-19, 21-22: OZYMANDIAS EXPLAINS IT ALL

CARR:  It seems it is never explicitly stated but presumably the Gordian Knot Lock Company is one of Adrian's holdings.  They are seen repairing the locks at Dan's after Rorschach breaks in and Moloch's door locks are also Gordian.  I am presuming they are spies of Adrian's or the locks contain listening devices. 

MARK: That is an extraordinarily good catch and something I'd never considered.

ATOM!: I think it's probably a fair assumption at this point that every organization mentioned is in the Ozy portfolio. And, yes, I'm including the lesbian fundraiser.

CARR:  Rorschach keeps trying to hold on to his mask as he fights with Adrian.  Great touch. 

ATOM!: Saving face.

PAGES 23-28:  IT'S TOO LATE, BABY

CARR:  "I did it thirty-five minutes ago" is one of the best villain psyche-outs since Auric Goldfinger told James Bond he expects him to die. 

MARK: My second-favorite moment in the novel, similar in purpose to my first: Bernie the newsstand owner takes Bernie the kid in his arms as they die, their image morphing from "Hiroshima shadow" to an echo of the second panel on page one -- a flicker of life in Adrian's wasteland.

ATOM!: Oh, excellent catch. There is also something poetic about the Banksy knot tops becoming their own silhouette.

CARR:  Ending on the whiteness convinces me Moore and Gibbons wanted a white cover.  Not sure all the visual puns are intentional but you are left thinking "nuclear winter."  And the TV screens Mark was talking about?  A blank TV screen is usually referred to as "snow." 

The Shelley quote was a favorite from high school English.  Not to spoil it (do poems need spoiler warnings?) but the irony of "Ozymandias" is that the traveler is reading the legend of Ozymandias' conquests off the ruins of his statue.  Just quoting the excerpt removes that irony, but suggests that Moore the author's not 100% confident that Ozymandias's scheme is foolproof. 

ATOM!: You were talking all that smart stuff and I am stuck on the fact that you just gave a spoiler warning for a hundreds of years old poem.

AFTER THE MASQUERADE

CARR:  This backup takes me back to the “Under the Hood” days.  Now this is a meaty look into one of our main characters.

ATOM!: Oh yeah. This is the stuff I'm enjoying most about the back-matter. The extra intense looks at the cast that we often never get. Plus, his attention to writing in the voice of a “Rolling Stone”-style in-your-face interviewer is inspired.

MARK: This contains what is probably my favorite line in the whole series: Veidt saying, "I don't mind being the smartest man in the world. I just wish it wasn't this one."  Also nice: how Veidt wishes his fellow crimefighters luck.  Muu ha haaah.

ATOM!: Dude, Carr, we just made the writer of “Kingdom Come” use his evil villain voice. Why even bother with issue #12 now?

MARK: Here, have some wine.

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, mark waid

 
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