Watchmen at 30, pt. 11: Look on My Works, Ye Mighty...

pt. 11

"Needing nothing, I burned with the 
paradoxical urge to do everything."

Issue 11 opens up with what might be the very first reference to William S. Burroughs in a mainstream comic book.

Okay, so a) I have no idea that is true, b) googling isn't much help, and c) whether it was actually the first reference to WSB nor not it went totally over my head at the time. He only got on my radar when Cronenberg's Naked Lunch was at the Avon for what seemed like months when I was a senior in high school.

The cut-up method described by Burroughs (and Brion Gysin) is the philosophical precursor to mash-up culture, something Moore explored in some depth in the years after Watchmen. Something else he mentions (via Ozymandias) that he explores in other work is this bit about JFK:

As we saw in pt. 10, Rorschach and Nite Owl have traveled to Antractica to stop Ozymandias from executing his master plan. They only find out what said plan is, though, 35 minutes after it's too late to stop it. ("I'm not a Republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I'd explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?") And what is his plan? That one's less simple: it involves teleporting a huge alien-looking monster, cloned from a "human sensitive", constructed by a hand-picked group of engineers, parapsychologists, artists, and writers, into New York City, where imperfections of teleportation technology will cause it to explode and spread a wave of psychic fear and devastation, thus uniting the people, finally, beyond their personal and national psychodramas.

Some (such as Grant Morrison, whose review in Supergods we'll look at next time) dismiss this part of Watchmen as blatant absurdity. Here's the Tor re-read's take:  

"I see it as the most intelligent character in a comic book universe taking a very comic booky approach to solving the world's problems. Of course he retreats to a science fiction cliché in the end. For all of Watchmen's nods towards realism, it's not realistic at all, is it? It takes its characters seriously and develops a complex narrative schema around them, but Watchmen is a superhero comic to the end, with costumed vigilantes and matter-manipulating superhumans and devious villains who declare their maniacal intentions in the climax."
Agreed. That all of this takes place in Adrian's "Fortress of Solitude" drives the point home, as does the whole "faked alien invasion to unite humanity" thing. I think it's entirely in keeping with the deconstructive and meta-spirit of Watchmen, myself. 

It has some overtones of 9/11 conspiracy theory that were of course not applicable in 1986. I only point it out to shrug at this, that's all. The people of the Watchmen-world, conditioned as they are to an actual Doctor Manhattan and a Rockefeller Military Research Institute and all the rest, are uniquely positioned to believe the impossible. It's too bad we'll never see a sequel from the original creators, exploring that world. Would the people see through the ruse? Everyone is out of the loop, here, power structure-wise; would no one else put any of it together? Would Nixon and Kissinger truly lock arms with the USSR against the threat of an imaginary alien invasion? Would it all go according to Adrian's simulations or would it just be another thwarted supervillain plot after a year-long multi-parter?


The first of the ones I made note of occurs when Adrian is telling Dan and Rorschach about his experiments with teleportation.

Well-played. I often think of Alan Moore's days working at the tannery and the gravedigger's humor it engendered in him. We're all reaping the benefits of this unfortunate stint of employment.

Alexander the Great's solution to the Gordian Knot plays no small role in his origin story, and it's recalled with no fanfare in the background of this panel:

Considering it's the violence between this couple that works to bring together the various strangers we've seen around the newsstand, directly before the Big Finish, it's another cruel moment of irony.

As is this last-page-obliteration recall (l) of the image from the cover (r).

"I want to be straight... I want to be dead" (said by Josephine before the break-up turns violent) juxtaposed against the Black Freighter story, too:

The longing for oblivion is strong in a world so perpetually koyanisqaatsi.


Again from Tor:

"This is Adrian Veidt’s spotlight issue. The smartest man in the world. A self-proclaimed, self-made modern Alexander the Great. And Moore and Gibbons hammer that point home here, with half a dozen explicit references to the ancient Macedonian."

I like the Citizen Kane effect of having flashback-Adrian always in shadow or turned away in-frame.
I love this subtle landing of the butterfly on his servants' face. Uh-oh.


Once again, John Higgins does an exemplary job subtly remastering and remixing his colors from the original issues. Here are just a few examples.

Remastered. That blue on the right is probably the most dramatic change of all of them.
Original (l) Remastered (r)
Original (l) Remastered (r)
Original (l) Remastered (r)

Before I began this series of posts, I'd seen a few variations of the opinion that Watchmen might be ground-breaking, sure, and it's one of the best things ever, but objectively, it loses steam towards the end. I've come across that a lot out there. I'm finding that to not at all be the case for me personally. More on this next time, though.

One last thing, though: the certainty with which Watchmen and much apocalyptic fiction of the 70s and 80s speak to nuclear annihilation is striking in retrospect. Everyone was so damn convinced the future was nuclear winter. Kind of funny in retrospect, isn't it?

Let's hope it stays that way. (Funny, I mean.)



  1. (1) I've never minded the "alien" subplot of this story. Scratch that; not only have I never minded it, I've always actively loved it. It's NOT realistic, true, but that very unreality is what enables it to seem so shockingly true within the story. It's a well-constructed enough simulacrum to pass examination, and it appears in such a way as to utterly refute any attempts to debunk its existence. Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and read that such a thing had happened in our world (well, maybe not OUR world, but our 1985); there'd be no arguing with it. Veidt banked on that, and may have actually gotten away with it.

    As to whether it would actually have the long-term impact he wanted? Well, no, probably not. Short-run, maybe; long-run, likely not.

    (2) I can still remember being shocked by that moment when the butterfly lands on the servant's face. It was probably one of the first times I'd really noticed a comic do a thing that ONLY a comic can do. You can't pull that trick off in a movie, or in prose. Only in comics. There's a lot of that sort of thing in "Watchmen," of course, which is part of the reason it works so well.

    (3) I like some of the "new" panels more, and I like some of the originals more. Hard to say which I prefer overall. And that's cool, because I've got both, so I don't have to choose; I can just read 'em both.

    (4) I'm with you: I don't think it loses steam toward the end at all. It intensifies in meaning; and that's where all the steam of the comic actually is. If all you're into it for is the superhero stuff, then yeah, I guess you'd say it loses steam. But that was never what Moore and Gibbons were after.

    (5) All that Burroughs stuff makes my heard hurt. I need Moore to deliver a two-hour lecture on it that I can listen to repeatedly until I understand it. And, like, I totally would.

    1. (2) Very much agreed!

      (3) and (4) Ditto.

      (5) Alan Moore reads the work of WSB would be a project I could get behind. When it comes to Burroughs, I find many of his wacky ideas fascinating. The Job (a book length interview between Burroughs and Daniel Odier) is a great overview of his peculiar perspectives with relevant excerpts from all his books. I'd recommend that and Junky and maybe even a copy of that Disposable Heroes of Hypocrisy box set if you can find it, which put trip-hop beats and fx over his reading his bizarre poetry/ rants. "Some Words and Advice for Young People" in particular. But all of that aside: the abstract cut-up stuff is indeed as abstract as it gets ("The Last Words of Dutch Schultz" is a good example, but any Burroughs, really; so few of his books made any kind of literal sense.) What a character. Have you seen the Cronenberg movie? I can't recall.

    2. No, I haven't seen it. I remember it making quite a splash when it came out, but I never saw it. I'm determined to eventually work my way through all of Cronenberg, though, so it's on the docket labeled "one of these days."

    3. Cronenberg's catalog is pretty awesome. "Naked Lunch" is one of his weirder ones, but it fascinates me. Much more than the book itself, I must say.

  2. It's been said that this aspect of "Watchmen" may have been drawn from an old "Outer Limits" episode.

    Now I find a "Beat Comics Culture" article that deepens the mystery:


    However, for my part, it really doesn't matter. For those who think it defeats the purpose of the comic, it helps to remember that Moore's whole purpose is the deconstruction of the very idea of the superhero.

    One could almost argue the Moore is taking the concept right back to Nietzsche's Uber Mensch, and through this exposure is able to reveal the whole concept as wanting.

    I don't know how lost such themes could be on a casual audience, but its pretty sure that Moore's whole point, not to mention his sense of irony and wit, are lost on the current overseers at DC.

    Long story short, much as I hate to admit, but recent trends have made me wonder if it isn't best to just tell future readers that, on the whole, maybe they should more or less stop at the Bronze Era of the classic run, and then just stop. I don't know, but it just seems like DC is losing its way in its judgments.

    And yes, I am still thinking of the recent re-intro of Dr. Manhattan.


    1. "just tell future readers that, on the whole, maybe they should more or less stop at the Bronze Era of the classic run, and then just stop."

      I hear you. And I agree on the whole point of Watchmen being about this sort of stuff. A self-aware pause to look around as an entire age and way of doing things came to an end. We're fortunate to have had Moore on the walls for such a moment. Watchmen might even be viewed that way in years to come, not so much as its own thing but as an important primary source reaction to the end of the Cold War.

    2. I'm of two minds about the bleeding of Watchmen characters outside of "Watchmen" itself. Maybe more than two minds, even.

      On the one hand, it's heresy. I'd like to think I'd feel that way even if Moore himself wrote a sequel; I definitely feel it about somebody else doing it.

      On the other hand, it's SUCH a comics thing to do that I almost applaud DC for saying, "Ah, fuck this, we're using it!" In some strange way, it almost strengthens "Watchmen" for me.

      I have no intention of reading any of it, although I read the entirety of "Before Watchmen." It's not as bad as it might have been. It shouldn't exist, but it certainly could have been worse.

    3. I definitely liked the Darwyn Cooke parts of Before Watchmen.

      I agree with your one hand/other hand remarks. I'd be interested to see Moore and Gibbons and Higgins flesh out a sequel, even if it was more DK2 than Godfather 2. But I get the sense they're well beyond such a thing, and to force it would be terrible.