9.14.2016

Watchmen at Thirty, pt. 9: The Darkness of Mere Being


WATCHMEN AT THIRTY,
PT. 9:
 

"We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another's vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away."

This ninth chapter of Watchmen is all about epiphanies, specifically Doc Manhattan's (that life on Earth is worth saving) and Laurie's (that the Comedian is her biological father.) After being whisked away to Mars - 

where Jon almost forgets that Laurie needs air

Jon tells her in his time-displaced jargon ("This is where we hold our conversation. It commences when you surprise me with the information that you and Dreiberg have been sleeping together." "You... you know about me and Dan?" "No, not yet. But in a few minutes you're going to tell me.") that this is where she tries to get him to lift a finger to stop humanity from destroying itself. But he's doubtful that she will have any success. She was his last link to humanity, and by leaving him she may have inadvertently doomed the planet to extinction. 

The ultimate break-up fantasy!

I'll be quoting liberally from the pertinent section of Tim Callahan's Great Alan Moore Re-Read for today's post. Anything you see in quotations (unless otherwise noted) is from it.

"The cover of this issue features a bottle of Nostalgia cologne, part of the Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias) line of fragrances. The symbolism of the fragrance is clear – and Nostalgia posters and ads appear throughout the series –with Veidt leveraging the power of the past for his own personal gain, but it’s also about the characters in Watchmen failing to move beyond their own pasts. They are constantly bound up in who they were twenty (or forty) years earlier, in their superhero primes. There’s also the fact that the entire superhero genre feeds off nostalgia. That’s kind of an important point in the grand scheme of things. But for plot purposes, the bottle of Nostalgia floating against a field of stars is a symbol of Laurie’s memories." 


"Her moment of clarity comes not through any one moment or memory, but from the cumulative effect of her fragments of memory, and the growing picture of Eddie Blake’s role in her life. She throws the Nostalgia bottle through the air, crashing into the walls of the crystal palace, but in the world of Watchmen, particularly when Dr. Manhattan is around, time doesn’t move chronologically. The Nostaligia bottle floats throughout the issue, appearing like a momentary flash-forward whenever it arrives in a panel, turning against its starry background."


This leads to Doc's epiphany, bound up as it is - co-mingling/ quantum entanglement - in Laurie's.


Writing an epiphany that feels real is one of the most difficult things for a storyteller to do. Because characters often need to have epiphanies in works of fiction, we've all grown accustomed to seeing them as a matter of course, but upon examination, few of them are truly earned. We live in an age of relentless false epiphanies, is another way of putting it, fueled by media (here I mean fictional media, but I guess that encompasses large swaths of the press now, eh? Go USA) expectations that every story has to have one. 

Often-times the standard go-to for a character-breakthrough is the sudden revelation of a family relationship. Laurie's arc, here, is of that variety. That's not to say it's false or unearned, only that it is what I'd call "found epiphany." No shame or criticism implied here - almost all the earth-shattering events of the fiction we love are found epiphanies. (Thinking of a certain Skywalker dynasty, most specifically, but this tradition of discovering one's true parentage goes all the way back to the Mahabharata and probably even beyond that.) But it's also a wonderful moment for the ongoing story:

"Plot-wise, the revelation of Laurie’s true father provides a reason for two of the main characters to head back to Earth and return toward the story’s denouement. Character-wise, it provides Laurie with a missing piece of her life. Now she knows where her anger comes from, and what has been hidden from her all these years. She has been part of a conspiracy of ignorance all her life, and that changes her attitude toward the world, it would seem. If the world lasts long enough for her to do anything about it.

Back to the Nostalgia bottle.

"The attention to detail in this issue is unbelievable, particularly when you realize – as he illustrates in Watching the Watchmenthat Dave Gibbons charted out the proper rotation of a partially-full cologne bottle against a constant field of stars. His diagram is in that book, and he used it to make the flight of the Nostalgia bottle completely accurate to the laws of physics and perspective. There was no need to do that. Even with the obsessive Watchmen fandom that followed, no one would have bothered to check the accuracy of a cologne bottle rotating through the air. But Gibbons charted it out anyway, and that’s the kind of detail underlying the pages of this series."

" The mise-en-scene is rich."

"To Dr. Manhattan, the lifeless surface of Mars is as important as all the human lives on Earth. They are all just atoms, one no more important than the other. But what ultimately convinces him to return to Earth with Laurie is the 'thermodynamic miracle' of her birth. The love between Sally Jupiter and Eddie Blake, the man she had every reason to hate forever,– that led to the birth of Laurie."

Jon also refers to Mars' "chaotic terrain" as a metaphor for human life. I like that, too. Laurie tries to liken the things he seems to care about (i.e. the Martian landscape) to the plight of humanity, but it fails to move him. The above, however, does. It's a wonderful moment. I like to think of a life - any human life - as a "thermodynamic miracle." And that's what I meant to get at up there about earned epiphanies. This is a really deep thing to learn from a comic book, and it's not just the kind of "God is Love" dross meant to placehold the requisite "epiphany" part of any given script. (Ahem, Friends don't lie, ahem) This is a life-changing epiphany, here, for Doc Manhattan, certainly, but also for the reader. I'm not going to say this reader, i.e. I did not put down Watchmen #9 with a sudden and deeper insight into existence and the human mystery. But I recognized - both then and now - that this was an epic moment and a revelation of a much different and higher order than the standard fare, almost as if some new (though, it's actually pretty ancient, which is a nice double-back to the quote that opened this post) theorem was being revealed in the pages of Watchmen instead of an academic journal, completely organic to its surroundings.

Speaking of chaotic terrain, I grabbed some side-by-side shots so you can see some of the color revamping by John Higgins. It's been fascinating for me to watch John Higgins at work, so to speak, to see what decisions he's making in updating and re-mixing the colors.


Original.
Retouched.
Retouched.
Original.

"Comics, and the superhero genre, are not lifeless. They just need to be approached from a fresh perspective. So says Dr. Manhattan in 1987, and who can argue with a radioactive naked blue guy?" 

My wife, that's who. She likes Watchmen and isn't a prude or anything, but her reaction to the last few posts has been "Someone needs to tell those two to put some clothes on!" If the fate of the Earth rested on Dawn's shoulders in these issues, I have a feeling we'd all be speaking Martian. 

(I know this metaphor doesn't quite work - does Doc Manhattan "speak Martian?" - but I'll end on it, just the same.)


~

6 comments:

  1. Actually, I'm wrong above - Watchmen #9 DID leave me with a sudden and deeper insight into existence and the human mystery. The whole series, really. I don't often list it among the media that changed my life (i.e. gave me a Pale Blue Dot moment) but I should. I'm kind of shocked at this oversight. I mean, I've always loved it and nominated as one of the best series ever and a pivotal moment of my comics-reading evolution, as it was for many people, and led to a deeper understanding of both comics as a medium and comics as delivery mechanism for Literary Art, etc. But I should also include it on that other list in my head that includes Lost Horizon by James Hilton, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star by Ben Barzman, and Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman and the gang: ie markers of my own growth (such as it is, i.e. compared only to the person I was before taking any of the above into my brain/ heart) as a participant of the human parade.

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    1. Sounds like an idea for a blog post, to me...

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  2. (1) "You... you know about me and Dan?" "No, not yet. But in a few minutes you're going to tell me." -- That remains one of the most alien things I've ever read. It's a simple idea, but it will break your brain. My brain, at least, can't really get a handle on it; and yet, it makes perfect sense.

    (2) "We live in an age of relentless false epiphanies, is another way of putting it, fueled by media (here I mean fictional media, but I guess that encompasses large swaths of the press now, eh? Go USA) expectations that every story has to have one." -- Preach, brother. And most of the time, the real epiphanies go unsung.

    (3) That stuff about Gibbons properly drawing the stars in relation to the perfume bottle is awesome. I'd probably live for ten thousand years without picking up on it despite reading the series annually; but I'm glad to know it's there.

    (4) I'm not sure I'd say I had any life-changing epiphanies as a result -- that came during the first chapter of "Voice of the Fire" -- but I do distinctly remember being affected by this chapter of the comic. It might have been the first story I'd encountered that really tried to give you an idea of what it could, theoretically, be like to possess the knowledge of a god. Doc Manhattan's is more limited than that (sort of), but still, being able at all to convey what existing in multiple points in time simultaneously might be like . . . I mean, that's a heck of a thing, is what that is. Rarely has Moore been better than he is/was/will be in this issue.

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    1. (4) Agreed. I guess the Miracleman stuff was a good warm-up, but I definitely think he was/is/will-have-been on the top of his game. At least for this type of superhero deconstruction and cosmic godhead-supertype stuff.

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  3. It the key moment in the entire comic, more or less. As such, it's not surprising that Moore packs more than several treasure chests full of concepts drawn from various works of physics and philosophy.

    The most clear idea (for those who keep score) is Einstein's "Theory of Relativity". On the other hand, the one book this sequence reminds me of is a tome called "The Art of Memory" by Frances Yates.

    It's one of those "out there" books that might be stacked alongside Joe Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces", to name just one. In it, Yates takes her readers on a guided tour of the only ways people had of remembering the past, both personal and collective.

    It was done by the development of a system of mental exercises known as memo-technics. The way it worked was that a certain memory would be mentally linked with a certain type of imaginary image that shared an associative link to the memory itself. Eventually, other memories would be linked to the first in the same fashion, linking remembrance and image one after another in a slowly growing chain, until sometimes it became necessary to view the images under which these memories were gathers as housed inside a kind of "memory palace", which, taken together or individually, made a kind of architecture of an entire life.

    Yeah, I said it was one of those "out there" books. Basically, it's just what this sequence puts me in mind of, that's all.

    Gotta say, though, Yates (and Moore?) sure make our ancestors sound smarter than us in a lot of ways.

    ChrisC

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    1. I'll keep an eye out for it! Sounds interesting.

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