"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.