Watchmen at Thirty, pt. 2: Absent Friends

"What's happened to the American dream?"
"It came true. You're looking at it."

"Moore and Gibbons' exposure of the antisocial, fascist, and psychologically diseased implications of superheroes was chilling, especially to adult readers still fascinated by superheroes but no longer quite comfortable with the fascination."

The quote above - from either Morrison's Supergods or Jones and Jacobs' The Comic Book Heroes, I didn't write down which - cuts to the quick of how and why Watchmen hit the way it did thirty years ago. Thirty years before its arrival, Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent claimed to expose the Freudian catacombs and corruptive dangers of comics as an art form. And failed completely. Wertham's staff was too long; he was digging in the wrong place. Watchmen's excavation was far more precise.

Within five years of its publication, though, exposing the fascist implications of superheroes was no longer all that chilling or uncomfortable - it was the new norm. Well, I could put that better. What actually became the post-Watchmen norm was watered-down-Watchmen: all the sex and violence with little of the withering insight.


Chapter Two is broken into three sections, each anchored by Eddie Blake's funeral.

In the first part, Jon teleports Laurie across the country to visit with her mother Sally, the original Silk Spectre. They bicker - the usual mother/ daughter stuff:

Laurie is horrified at her mother's lack of reaction to the news that Edward Blake has died. Sally seems almost sympathetic to and about the man who raped her. Sally declines to clarify things. As she looks at a picture of the Minutemen, she flashes back to when the photo was taken.

Another fine visual segue, (aka "a Watchmen segue") there, with Sally's line about the past getting brighter cutting to the flashbulb in the past. The motion picture comic manages to one-up things with the magic of cut-away and voiceover.  

In the comic, above, Laurie's "extinguished" line does not bleed over to the next panel. Whereas in the m.p.c.:

Sally's "I've got spots in my eyes" line is suggestive, as well, since the photograph is the prelude to Blake's sexual assault while she's changing out of her costume. The costumes are all-important here, especially when Hooded Justice comes in to see what's taking Sally so long and discovers what's going on. He immediately begins to beat Blake, whereupon things get even creepier: 

Blake is sent home, and Hooded Justice tells Sally to cover herself up. 

It's a disturbing and multi-faceted scene, even thirty years on, but as discussed by Atom and Carr here, these themes (the fishnet-stocking-and-bustier-wearing heroine "asking for it," the sadist who gets off on beating people up, etc.) have been played around with in so many different ways in the years since that it's difficult to remember or imagine when this was utterly taboo terrain in comics. (Nevertheless, I imagine it would necessitate the creation of a safe space nearby to be discussed in a college classroom in 2016.) As much as similarly-themed material proliferated in its wake, though, Watchmen represents a high water mark in the deconstruction of "suits" as sexual perversion. 

In the second section, each of the Crimebusters at Blake's funeral remembers a different moment they shared with the Comedian. 

Ozymandias reflects on the time the Comedian sabotaged Captain Metropolis' attempt at establishing the Crimebusters. The parallel in the "real" comics world would be the creation of the Silver Age: the first "modern" Flash and the emergence of Marvel. In the Watchmen-verse, the Silver Age is aborted. (How you gonna keep em on the Silver Age farm once they seen Doc Manhattan's penis? Not to mention rapes at the team HQ.) That Moore and Gibbons achieve this with avatars of the caped crusaders from relatively deep in the closet (the old Charlton heroes acquired by DC, lest we forget) is an added bonus.

I also liked this:

Ozymandias is the killer mastermind behind the whole plot and the figure in whom Watchmen's many genres - police procedural, sci-fiction, noir murder mystery, etc. - coalesce. So of course we see him at the funeral of his victim - the mastermind/killer in these things always shows up at the funeral.  

Also: have another look at the panels above. How many flashback-explaining-present-scenario Lost season moments are modeled on this sort of transition? A lot of them. When Lost was huge, I remember a lot of talk on the forums on how Watchmen-inspired it was, and (at least in the first season) it totally was. Chapeau, Lindeloff and the gang.

Next up is Doctor Manhattan, who remembers (some time after the Ozymandias flashback) the last time he saw Eddie Blake "in country." Things went a little differently in the Watchmen-world's Vietnam, as Doc Manhattan was around to intervene on the American and South Vietnamese side. As a result of having a super-powered giant at his beckoned call, Nixon never left the Oval Office. 

This was a conceit Watchmen shared with that other subversive groundbreaker of 1986. In Dark Knight Returns, Superman's working for Uncle Sam meant Reagan was President forever.

A very drunk Eddie Blake ruminates on how much he hates Vietnam before a heavily-pregnant woman appears. The child she's carrying is Blake's, and she confronts him. He rejects her, rudely. She slashes his face with a broken bottle, and he shoots her dead in anger, as Doc Manhattan watches. 

"You coulda changed the gun into steam or the bullets into mercury or the bottle into snowflakes! You coulda teleported either of us to goddamn Australia, but you didn't lift a finger! You don't really give a damn about human beings. I've watched you. (...) Soon you won't care about Sally Jupiter's little girl."

Later we learn that Laurie is more than just Sally Jupiter's little girl, which gives an even more jagged edge to this scene.

Finally, Nite Owl remembers the time he and the Comedian were called upon to help quell the riots that preceded the passage of the Keane Act

Nite Owl, as we'll see more of in later issues, is the insider/outsider narrator common to so much American fiction. This flashback establishes him as a reluctant participant in the sadism, sexual perversion, and fascism of his fellow "masks," but a participant nonetheless.

The final section of Chapter II involves Rorschach, who watches the funeral from outside the gates in his civilian guise as homeless apocalyptic riff-raff. 

When he sees Moloch - the super-villain he and his fellow Crimebusters put away back in the day - attending the funeral, he breaks into his house and assaults him to find out why.

Turns out Blake paid a drunken visit to Moloch shortly before he died, babbling about an "Island" and having learned some secret that dismantled his worldview. But what he actually saw or learned Moloch doesn't know.

The 18 panels of Blake's anguish (from Moloch's flashback) are a tad overdone to my eyes now. It seems a stretch to me that the Comedian would be quite so shell-shocked as he appears by learning what is going on at the Island (and elsewhere).

The issue ends with Rorschach going to the grave to pay his own peculiar respects and to mull things over in True Detective genre fashion. He tells the famous joke about the guy who goes to the doctor and says he's depressed, and the doctor says "You're in luck, go and see the great clown Pagliacci." The man breaks down and cries and says "But doctor, I am Pagliacci."

Just last weekend I heard Danny Clover tell the same joke on an episode of Broadway Is My Beat on audionoir. So I guess it's been around for awhile. What was interesting was how it was used on Broadway Is My Beat was exactly the way it was used in Watchmen #2: to emphasize an ambivalent mood over noiry-type music. Sure, you've got to imagine the music in Watchmen, but it's there. Anyway, it was a fun connection to make, standing in my kitchen.

And now it's time for:

At the last minute, Rorschach turns expectation on its head, though:

It's almost more jarring to see a positive (or at least non-negative) sentiment in the midst of Rorschach's otherwise-disturbed inner monologue.

"Absent Friends" deepens and darkens the journey begun in Chapter I. Thirty years on, it strikes me as not just just superhero deconstruction at its finest but Cold-War-nuclear-family-death-thrill-kill-cult deconstruction at its finest.  


  1. Fantastic. One of my all time favorite comics. I read a lot of comics but I am not as good at analyzing them as you are. I really enjoyed your insight.

    1. Hey, Angie! Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed.

      I agree on the cover - beautiful, ain't it?

  2. I'd forgotten about the Lost/Watchmen connections. It's like we finally got the multi-episode Watchmen adaptation after all. How did Hurley's comics comment on the rest of the plot, if at all? I remember a polar bear on the cover but that's it.

    1. I don't specifically recall. Perhaps it was about a bear whose back was broken by too many straws. I'm curious, but I bet trying to find the answer would rekindle my Lost-rage and I'd waste precious weekend time compiling all the ways Lost went off the rails and squandered its considerable goodwill.

  3. I've recently obtained a copy of Lance Parkin's "Magic Words". So far it's the only in-depth examination of Moore and his themes that has the subject's direct blessing.

    I think it's relevant because right in the opening pages Parkin (and Moore) state that the main inspiration for all the DC work he's most famous for had it's origins in the Mad Magazine parody of Superman and Captain Marvel (and yes, I now know the copyright issues around the latter character).

    I bring all this up because it helps put not just Watchman, but some more recent comments that Moore made that at first sound shocking, but when put into perspective. His comments can be found here:


    The interview is put into some kind of context here:


    Taken together, it's quite a statement to make, especially in a Superhero saturated culture like today.

    For my part, all I know is that, going back to your Silver Age dissection of Batman, what I said back then about how something's been lost in the current age as opposed to times like the Silver one still stands.

    I think that's the vibe I get from Watchman more than anything else.

    Incidentally, this is way off topic, but Bryant has a post about the second "11/22/63" episode up.


    1. Oh, that interview is great. I remember when it first came out and wasting an entire morning at work - well, "wasting" - making my way through it while emailing a friend who was doing the same.

      There's another interview with Moore from around that time where he addresses his feud with Grant Morrison; I believe it's the last chronological word on the subject. It was another morning spent in the same circumstances described above, though that one was considerably longer. It might have been a transcript from something.

      Moore's take on it all on either (or any) occasion is always fascinating. I can definitely respect his urge to pull back from the fray. That's a sensible attitude to take in one's seventh decade. Moore's work speaks for itself anyway - I'll gladly listen to anything the man has to say about it or more or less anything, I just mean it's all on the page (and burned in your mind forever after).

      I hope to watch the 2nd ep of "11.22.63" tomorrow eve and then go check out the goings-on at TTITL.

  4. It's been said elsewhere by people much better-equipped than me to say it eloquently, but part of what really makes "Watchmen" sing is how very good Moore was/is at exploiting comics as a singular medium. Comics can do things no other medium can do, and that two-panel cut from Ozymandias at the failed Crimebusters meeting to the funeral decades later is a PRIME example. Sure, you can employ a device like that in a movie; but the inherent stillness of the images as they exist on the page give that moment a rich coldness that no movie could ever touch. You know (though only on a second read) what's going on in Adrian's mind; but you have no access to the specifics of it. You are a permanent outsider, even once you are on the inside. Chilling.

    The whole series is great, but this is certainly one of the best single issues.