p.2 Â CaveatÂ – A Word to the Wise
p.3-8 Â Chapter 1 – There are no facts, just interpretations
- What is narrative?
- So what is narrative, and how is it portrayed in comics?
p.9-20 Â Chapter 2 – You shouldn’t trust the storyteller, only trust the story
- Finding the narrators.
- Similarity and potential chronological earliness.
- How does this fare with Vladimir Propp and his analysis though?
p.21-37 Â Chapter 3 – For the Eye altering alters all
- Imagery and interpretation.
- Names and identity.
- Hearts and eyes.
~ PICTURE INSERTS ~
p.38-53Â Chapter 4 – Little patches of colour or sounds, momentary things
- “Uncoding” the comic.
- How is Sandman a breakthrough then in its affecting the medium?
- Organic and man-made colour.Â Colour in comics
- Talking birds and alien cats. The “speech bubble”
- Red and green at the same time. Words and the use of them
p.54-63 Chapter 5 – They make the images, we give them flesh
- Who is the audience of The Sandman and how does knowing this affect the creation of the story, and the interpretations of the myth?
- “Let Me Count the Ways “Aristotle and Vladimir Propp’s narratolgical examinations
- “Show and Tell “Mimesis and diegesis, focalized and focaliser
- “Closure for Blood, Gutter for Veins
“Scott McCloud’s examination of “The Gutter”
- “Debunking the Myth “Transcript of interview with Dr. Mary Economou-Bailey
“An examination of the Orpheus tale in Sandman
- “The Author Replies “Copy of Questions answered on author’s website
- “Injury to the Eye “Frederic Werthams “injury-to-the-eye” motif.
A word to the wise
September the 14th, 1988.
Morpheus, Dream of the Endless, breaks out of his imprisonment from Wych Cross.
Simply put, the action of the first graphic novel of the Sandman series, Preludes and Nocturnes. But of course, that is like saying Germanys political forces tried to conquer Europe and lost as a description for the Second World War.
Why “of course”? For anyone familiar with the Sandman series, the two thousand pages of Neil Gaimans crafted tale of Morpheus and his interaction (or lack of) with the universe, summating any of The Sandman is doing it a great injustice. It is not just the tale told, but how it is told, the twists of plot and the manner of discourse that engages the audience.
Originally crafted in seventy-six comics, the gathered form into ten graphic novels (and a few spin-offs as well) offer a tale richly entreated in myth and imagination. This is not just my own personal opinion, but also a paraphrase of a whole host of critics and writers alike that all agree that The Sandman series is worth reading.
My aim within this work is to examine why. Not defend graphic novella as a literature art form, nor to deconstruct the plot and praise Gaiman to the highest achievement. No, this is an effort made on the part of a student who wants to examine how the story is told, why it is told and how well it is told. The narratology of The Sandman with a hint of art criticism thrown in, all blended to create an analysis of narrative.
Two thousand pages to analyse.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Written at Gregynog, Wales, 8.51pm, 15 March 2003 after an especially large dinner.
New Frame for Comic Books:
The Genuine Literary Value of the Comic Book Medium
A. David Lewis
- THE COMIC MEDIUM AS LITERATURE
- WATCHMEN, The Onion
- THE SANDMAN, The Watermelon
- “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”
- Works Cited
comics (as defined by Understanding Comics): juxtaposed pictoral and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer
It saddens me that, by and large, Americans still don’t know the literary value of comic books. Much of the world and certain domestic pockets already know that the cultural stereotypes on comic books is long past over and a new generation of exceptional works awaits our discovery. Given, comics consist of words and pictures; Captain America throws his shield as a bunch of upper-case words spill out of his mouth into a word balloon. But this combination is an enhancing synergy, not some sort of bastardization. Comics are not a mish-mash, ramshackle, shorthand, piecemeal, handicap or dumbing-down of the components. Those views are held by the biased and uninitiated, those that know Batman only from Adam West’s show, Superman from the last defunct screen adaptation, and Spider-Man from the warblings of their Saturday morning cartoon-induced young nephews. Those that have never read MAUS, those that have never seen Preacher, those that, when you really get down to it, have never actually experienced comic books in the way they should be. Pity them, for such persons might also lump comic books and newspaper comic strips together into one, ugly category, “funny pages,” unaware of the separate aesthetic and cultural values that each of the sequential art brethren provide. Alas, some of these persons may actually act on their recessive Werthamian instincts and wrest away from their young wards the moral allegories, fantastic worlds, and Code-approved action. They would deprive the youthful, eager minds of comics’ rich stories all in the name of “finding something real to read.” Well, not only am I happy in this paper to show the disenfranchised that comics are very real indeed, but that the mediums capacity for intelligent, aesthetic content can even rival accepted literatures own influential values! Simply, comics have power, depth, and intelligence – when is our culture going to provide reciprocal appreciation?
Again, comics are the synergy of pictures and words; great comics, though, are the synergy of art and literature. As editor Carl Potts says, “the combining of graphics and written word creates a product that is greater than pure written word or pure graphics could achieve.” And while this would (properly?) imply the more incredible comics to be something evolutionarily superior to literature, I won’t aim for so lofty a goal at this time – I can only go with what I’ve got. The case first must at least be made that comics are, at minimum, possibly literature. I contend that comic books – whether graphic novels or monthly serials – are a medium worthy of serious study and literary consideration.
Consideration is the key word to that previous sentence since not all comics are literature. But that’s no shock: not every book is literature either. Should we ditch Moby Dick because the same medium that produced Melville’s work also fashioned a god-awful adaptation of the latest Kevin Costner movie? Or should we abandon Fahrenheit 451 from all academic consideration because many of its sci-fi brothers and sisters, while amusingly futuristic and all, just dont cut the mustard as legendary texts? It’s the best of a medium – the works that best exemplify the fulfillment of its potential – that should be mulled over and delicately examined; the rest of its varied creations should not nullify all validity. An example from cinema: I really enjoyed Field of Dreams, but it wasn’t as brilliant as Citizen Kane. Does that invalidate Citizen Kane as art since both of them are grouped under the header “movie?” As much as I may have despised Cool World, movies’ potential for art and deep thought should remain untainted. In fact, it is because I know that movies can be great that Cool World induces even greater nausea for me. So, Cool World‘s putrescence does not void Citizen Kane nor the movie medium as art. Likewise, neither John Grisham’s commercial fluff nor the misery that is Dave Barry diminish writing itself.
A fundamental qualification to establishing a medium as literary, artful, aesthetic, or otherwise is showing at least one example of its potential recognized. Illustrate the break-out, the opus, the one for which it all came together. Show more than one if you like (and if you can), but demonstrate that your particular examples pioneered the enterprise to a place no one has gone before but all are welcome to follow. Comics have an up-hill battle in this regard; their own creators admit to it. Pioneers have set out repeatedly over the years, yet their advances were rarely successfully relayed to the general public or academians. In short, their explorations never make it on to our culture’s preconceived map. Marvel editor Tom Brevoort acknowledges that comics can be viewed as ‘adolescent male power fantasies.’ As such, while successive generations of creators have succeeded in plumbing new depths and crafting works of compelling beauty centered around such characters,” comics still cant break free of their juvenile origins. Writer Joe Kelly elaborates on the paradox of the industry:
The bias against comics stems from the belief that it’s literature for the illiterate. Some believe that since the words depend on the pictures and vice versa, there can be no room for true drama, intelligence, character, etc. “Funny Books are for kids who haven’t yet learned the joys of true literature” seems to be the general apprehension of what we do. Unfortunately, in a lot of the mainstream comics, this is not far from the truth. If there are a hundred comics on the racks…[only] ten of them could be called “Literature”. If we’re ever going to gain widespread acceptance as a medium, we need to hold up more than five shining examples of comic literature.
The business of comic book production could be the arts worst enemy. They have winnied their audience down to an elite few by embracing a thin demographic: the fanboy. Where once comic books could be found on any sidewalk magazine rack and be affordable to any passing teen, distributors now ship almost exclusively to the local comic outlet while slapping on prices that rival the video store or movie theater. Additionally, the creative teams behind a title are commonly in flux as companies ink contracts with different creators for varied amounts of time, based more on their sales than quality. Kelly also adds that “the rotation of a creative team has a profound affect on how a book is received. Not so much with the writer (unfortunately) but definitely with the artist. Now, throw in editorial interference, and you have the recipe for disaster.”
Penciler Dan Panosian, however, notes that “the trade paperback is probably the best thing to happen to comics in along time” by bringing comic books from the exclusionary racks of the specialty shops into the legitimate venues of commercial bookstores. Coherent, successful multi-month plot arcs – written with one meshed vision by one creative team – are repackaged for tradepaperback sale. These TPBs and graphic novels, often, are the most viable entries into the collective consciousness reconsideration of comic books. By once again digging for dollars, the industry leaders have inadvertently created their possible salvation as accidentally as they first cornered themselves. Bookstore chains such as Barnes and Noble or Borders provide an outlet for the quality creations to find new advocates and audiences. As Panosian says, “People will always respect and recognize quality,” but only if it gets to them.
Below, I’m going to elaborate on how two tradepaperback examples of comics have taken their medium to the next level; I add my voice in praise of their value and brilliance. I will testify to their genius, their depth, and the possibilities they have created for their industry. Finally, I will lobby for their reception and study by asking you to consider their potential. We have the tools to unlock their secrets and messages; now all American educators need is the vision to recognize these true treasurers lurking inside comic books. I hope for this paper to be a lense that focuses their attention and burns through their long-time prejudice against “the funny pages.”
There’s a popular myth on my campus that bears relating. This myth (wholly unproven and pure hearsay to the best of my knowledge, thus reaffirming itself as a myth) concerns an unknown student at an unknown college writing, for an unknown humanities class, a legendary paper. His (her?) topic matter was palindromes, words or phrases that are the same forwards or backwards – “step on no pets” or the word “radar.” Presumably, the paper was a no-brainer; after all, how hard is it to write about a grammatical phenomenon? Would all that effort be put into an essay on synonyms or allusions? The assignment was seemingly simplistic, as, one could imagine, the instructor intended. Aside from the fact that the end product was a rumored twenty-two pages, one factor propelled this report from commonplace to immortal: in a fit of exuberance and panache, the student wrote the assignment itself as a palindrome! Apparently, the entire document dealt with forwards-backwards symmetry, made comprehensible sense, and read exactly the same in reverse. The writing both addressed and exemplified the subject at once – incredible synergy. I’m sure students over the years have played with variations on this (e.g. a frightening report on Steven King’s writing or a case study on selective agnosia composed without vowels; the first, however, will most likely never elicit the same fear nor exhibit the same talent as its subject while the seconds fitting style makes the paper incomprehensible).
Palindromes are terrifically difficult and I have only appreciation for its writer if the paper truly exists. To him/her: I say “wow!, ya!, sÃ!“ But, as grueling as that task may have been, I suspect that something was missing. Both the gimmick and lucidity of the paper must have become paramount to all other considerations. Metaphors were abandoned, allusions were ignored like Echo, and alliteration appeared absent. All of the tools available to the writer were rendered moot unless they could further the construction of the palindrome. In constructing what I called an “incredible synergy,” all other pursuits and flourishes needed to be sacrificed. Still, the palindrome paper remains a kooky exemplar of synergy, even if fictitious.
Beyond this fiction, though, there is the reality of the comic book medium, the one creative field capable of perfect synergy for a storyteller. Comics by definition accomplish synergy in every panel. That is, they manage to mesh together two alternate avenues of communication into an amalgamated, comprehensible, and complimentary package. In every frame and with every speech balloon, content and form blend into perfect synch like harmony and melody. Never, even in the most flawed and puerile comic, is this interplay totally absent; the structure and nature of a comic makes this sort of error impossible. An odd frame have a picture without text or a sentence without illustration, but only when the two combine – “pictoral and other images,” namely static letters, “in deliberate sequence” – does a story by definition become a comic book (McCloud, p.9).
In his work Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud engages in a catalogue, an actual naming system, of how words and pictures can interact in a panel. What can they do for each other? Further, what can they do for a comic book? In ascending order of complexity/subjectivity, they are: word specific (the pictures simply illustrate what the captions might say), picture specific (the words are flourishes and dependant on the picture – “Pow!”), duo-specific (they both convey the same information with the same importance), additive (one works solely to augment the other), parallel (seemingly, two separate channels, each with their own message/content), montage (words become pictures in their own right), and – most important – interdependent where only together do the words and pictures actually convey the true gist, the subtext, of a scene. Words and pictures have a versatile array of possible interactions in even the most standard comic book; these are the many tools of the comic book storyteller, never requiring him as either a writer or artist to focus on solely one constricted avenue of communication, unlike the palindrome paper. Additionally, one category is hardly ever maintained solely for the course of an entire page, much less an entire comic. The synergistic pallette is diverse with many interchangeable techniques. Comics are, as Wil Eisner put it, “the cross-breeding of illustration and prose” (p. 8).
One minor defense before I tackle the bigger fish: Arguments have been made, particularly by narrow-minded educators, that reading the Illustrated Moby Dick comic book actually deprives a child of using his imagination to the fullest. The pictures draw out the scenes that were to be constructed in her mind from the prose; the mood is imposed through the inking, coloring, and lettering, so seemingly no effort is made by the comic book reader to determine the tone through the exquisitely selective words. In short, where is the challenge for the reader and where is her imagination to go? Among other places, I respond, the reader’s mind should go in the gutter.
I’m being serious; the “gutter” is comic book terminology for the space that comes between each panel. (Or, in lieu of definite panels, is the implied transition space and time from one illustration to another. In fact, WATCHMEN actually puns on this term right at its beginning; “the gutters are full of blood” (I.1) comments Rorschach in his journal, even though the blood washing into the street gutter is closed off by the panels fream. If theres any blood in the comics gutter, the readers imagination puts it there.) It’s in this gutter that the reader actually envisions more of the story than the writer or artist; again, the reader’s imagination must be extremely active to read a comic book, because she fills in what happens from one panel to the next. First, there is the deeply complex issue of marking time. Time is the responsibility of the artist to denote, but of the reader to translate. While he and McCloud go in to much lengthier (and appropriate) detail on the subject, Eisner gives the best metaphor for the reader’s time-translating complexity by comparing the frames of a comic to Morse code and musical notation; a casual, understood system of time’s progression from one panel to the next is struck between the creators and the reader. Like a jump-cutting movie or slow-moving animation, translating time in a comic sequence is a major activity of the reader.
Also, connecting the two panels both spatially and logically is essential to reading a comic sequence. McCloud identifies six different ways panels can “jump” – that is, six different ways to understand the transition between two panels – but I see no need to go into them here. (Lucky you!) Think, instead, of what having these six (maybe more, maybe less) different translations means: (A) Active interpretation is being performed by the reader from each panel to the next. (B) As shown by his graphs and commentary on pages 75-80, not only do different artists employ varying mixes of these gutter-jumps, but different cultures do as well; this provides an extensive stylistic subcategorization that one might equate with the “missing” mood. (C) And, so much more goes on between the panels requiring the reader’s imagination and interpretation! Like the standard cut-away shot in a movie where the couple is making love but the camera only focuses on a vase of swaying flowers (or, conversely, the murderer kills his victim while the audience only sees blood flowing down the drain), understanding a comic goes cognitively and imaginatively far beyond just reading the words and looking at the pretty pictures. Ha, Moby Dick! Take that!
So, comics are remarkably creative and complex, yes. But, is it literature? Or, rather, should it be read, scrutinized, analyzed, deconstructed, and risk manhandling by the entire populace like literature? Simply…no.
Hold on, that doesn’t sink my whole paper (or independent study) just yet! I say, no, comics should not be read as literature for several reasons. The first is that not all comics should be read as literature. Many are written without a great deal of artistic effort employed to produce them and we as scholars should not artificially inject that sort of significance into a work aimed at only being entertaining but not deep or profound. Second, even some works that are provocative and artistically sound should not be seen as literature for the reasons best given by Ronald Dworkin – seeing them as literature might not ultimately help them as a work. The goal of using his aesthetic hypothesis is to see a work in its most flattering artistic light – “an interpretation of a piece of literature attempts to show which way of reading the text reveals it as the best work of art” (p. 531). Therefore, some works such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns might be best left as an exceptionally good yarn (or, conversely, analyzed with different tools: artistically, sociologically, economically) rather than hack it to bits on the literary chopping block. (Dworkin makes the same comparison with the analysis of an Agatha Christie mystery, if not the same bloody metaphor.) It’s a square-peg work that we’d be trying to shove through a round-peg-hole.
I am going to take a moment here to showcase two works – Marvel Comics’ 1987 tradepaperback books: The Best of Marvel Comics and Wolverine – that are both fabulous standards for the medium even if they shouldnt be dissected as literature. Each of these is a collection of reproduced stories that had already been presented in serial, comic-rack format over previous years. The first book runs the gamut of Marvel’s publishing history. The classic work of Stan Lee with collaborators Jack “The King” Kirby and Steve Ditko is juxtaposed by work from 70’s-80’s go-to guys like Roger Stern, John Byrne, and Sal Buscema. Also included are short, 6-10 back-up pieces and showcases of more modern creators like John Romita Jr., Paul Smith, and Chris Claremont. However, The Best of Marvel Comics is most impressive because of the careful selections included; in its own way, it epitomizes the best that comics can offer by packaging all of these disparate tales into one tome. It reads like a Academy Award montage of great movies, maybe not award-winners in and of themselves, but each contains something that makes the whole great. The Best of Marvel Comics starts with a early two-part Fantastic Four story introducing the Black Panther and his nemesis, Klaw. Not only are Lee and Kirby’s revolutionary story-telling devices present – superheroes were brought into comic vogue by their pioneering – but there is also a nice ethnic reversal of the jungle black man being the canny hero and the technological white man being the villian. Following that is an issue of The Incredible Hulk, that, in its simplicity, nicely sums up the conflict of Dr. Bruce Banner and the destructive superhuman creature within him. It does this, of course, not without a massive fight scene between the Hulk and the guest-starring Sasquatch. A mature Uncanny X-Men story lines the back along with a frenzied Wolverine short feature; both utilize the X-Men’s immense readership and popularity to different ends. The diversity is wonderful and extraordinarily entertaining.
Between the Hulk feature and another classic Lee-Ditko Spider-Man two-parter is a little 10 page story called “The Boy Who Collected Spider-Man.” In its brief span, it is able to summarize Spider-Man’s origin, display his uncanny powers, and recap the highlights of his career all through the loving, young eyes of his biggest fan. Its coup de grace comes when Peter Parker reveals his guarded identity to the boy – a baffling action – until, in the final panel, the reader is informed that the boy is terminally ill and has only weeks to live. The short, violenceless story may not be literature, but is a jewel for its ability to generate raw empathy through its sequential art.
The only component that The Best of Marvel Comics lacks as a solid example is a through-line plot linking its nine independent stories. No one vision was at work in its construction. Granted, there was insightfulness on the part of its editor to select these specific stories in an attempt to say something about Marvel. In each, the trademark fallibility of the heroes is apparent; these are superhumans, still weighed down by the vulnerabilities of a normal person despite great power. As Marvel Comics Editor-In-Chief Bob Harras explains, it’s this element that drives a majority of their heroes and attracts young fans:
In any fiction, if you can’t look into a character’s the angst and fears as a person then his cosmic adventure will mean that much less…I think one of the things that Stan [Lee] did is that he definitely tried to put the angst in there. Every single character he brought back or created with Jack [Kirby] had some problem that a fan could identify with…Their ‘engine.’
Again, The Best of Marvel Comics comprises a wonderful overview of the publisher’s maintained strengths over the years. But, there is no plot linking the vignettes together in a Pulp Fiction manner.
The four-part Wolverine is its own tangent-story from his team membership in The Uncanny X-Men comic and had just such a cohesion. The Wolverine limited-series is an entire plot that was originally divided into four monthly, serial issues. Each issue could be viewed as act of a play, with its own rise and fall of action contributing to the overall pace. The sole vision of writer Chris Claremont (who largely developed Wolverine) and artist Frank Miller, the book captures all the necessary components of a superhero-story and imbeds them in not-too-challenging-but-fun-to-read, page-turner plot: it has Wolverine’s origin, his superhuman abilities, fight scenes galore, conflict, subplot, a bad guy, personal struggle, and, of course, a show-down followed by a denouement. The formula gets a few additions – exotic locale, an injection of ninja-like nobility, some stunning art – but it’s mostly all surface work with little philosophical meat to its bones. Overall, it’s a good moderately-intelligent story, with attitude and adrenaline. But, as sure as Bruce Springsteen is not a classical composer, it is not literature.
Before we get to the long-awaited examples of comics-as-literature, Ill remind you of the one last reason in opting not to look at a graphic novel or comic book as literature: sometimes they’re better than simple literature. Might they occupy a realm that actually encompasses, actually envelops, literature? I’ve already said that they can over-synergize written text (even remarkably synergistic poetry like ee cumming’s) in their most basic forms. Instead of analyzing them as literature, we may want to reserve them for something greaterWell, to at least partially support that exceptionally haughty comment, I quote Frank McConnell in his introduction to Neil Gaiman’s “The Kindly Ones” (see Figure 1):
The Furies…chase down his life throughout this book because he killed his son, Orpheus; at Orpheus’ request, to be sure, but nevertheless, he has killed him…After he has left the sanctuary of the Dreaming, the fairy Nuala, who has summoned him, asks his the question that may be the central secret of the tale. “You…you wan them to punish you, don’t you? You want to be punished for Orpheus’ death.” And the next frame, Dream’s response, is simple a wordless, tight close-up of his tortured face. (That’s an effect, by the way, that neither novel nor a film could achieve with the same force, since a novel would have to describe his face, and a film could only give us an actor trying to imitate that bleak mask of regret. The comic…gives us the thing itself…)
It is the final categories of McCloud’s text/picture interaction that allow sequential art this special knack. Additive, parallel, montage, and interdependent interactions between the two channels actually open up possibilities that provide new access to the reader. Greater power, wider interpretation, deeper meaning, and heightened subtleties are just a few of the many, major advantages that can be teased out by these tools in the right hands. In fact, in looking ahead to the future of the graphic novel, Eisner also implies a possible super-literary position for comics-to-come:
The future of this form awaits participants who truly believe that the application of sequential art, with its interweaving of words and pictures, could provide a dimension that contributes – hopefully on a level never before attained – to the body of literature that concerns itself with the examination of the human experience. (141-142)
However, with the exception of certain masterful panel-sequences, this superliterary breed of comic has yet to be discovered. In the meantime, I think that being considered literature or literary is a lofty enough (though attainable!) goal for comics to attain. So, rather than snootily demand that they be recognize as something more, something greater, let’s start with providing some sound examples of those that best qualify as literature and are best seen as literature.
In doing so, we have the both the blessing and direction of Mr. Frank Miller in his epilogue notes to, ironically, Wolverine. His work on Daredevil’s “Born Again” storyline is praised by critics and even analyzed by academians as a variation on the Oedipus myth; his landmark Elseworlds story Batman: The Dark Knight Returns can be seen as one of the catalysts to the rebirth of the comic book medium. So, it’s no coincidence that he’s happy to preach the gospel and speak against comics as only “funny books.” To the readers of Wolverine, he beautifully summarizes just about everything I said above in about 1/10th the space:
I hope that this is the first comic book you’ve read in a while. I hope you found it on a shelf in a real bookstore somewhere, and took a chance. I hope a lot of people are picking up comic books for the first time…You see, a lot of people think comic books are just for kids, like Saturday morning cartoons. And many of them are, though they’re usually better drawn and written. That’s great but it’s hardly the whole story. Maybe you’ve seen a story in your local newspaper or a spot on TV that told you about the new kinds of comics that are coming up, all kinds, many of which have the kind of intense character involvement and sophistication of plot you’d expect from a novel. Maybe you’ve heard of Marvel’s Moonshadow or DC’s Watchmen. Comics are growing up, expanding the borders to include the kind of stories that people of any age might enjoy.
When Miller said “any age,” I assume he meant “any age group.” Yet with the influx of greater sophistication, the best graphic novels could become timeless if their market and academic reception expands. Comics have become something more and to provide an example, I need go no further than Miller’s comments and examine Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN. (Something, phonetically, more? Is that a pun?)
WATCHMEN begs to be analyzed. To see it as anything other than literature is insulting to the thought and brilliance that went into it…Okay, maybe that’s slightly overstated; I will not condemn the fifteen year-old who only wishes to read it as a really incredible comic book story. In fact, that’s what it is first and foremost. Therefore, the first praise I must give to this Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons work is that they allow it to be simply a comic; unlike The Sandman, you can read it as only a comic since its deeper levels and higher-order components have been so neatly tucked away or subtly woven into the fabric of the story. In short, you aren’t hit over the head by things you don’t understand as you might with Neil Gaiman’s work; you can read WATCHMEN once and only once, taking away a sense of both closure and entertainment, or you can submit to that tugging voice in the back of your head and read it again (and again and again and again) to see if something you thought you might have seen/read was actually, intentionally there…Didn’t that radar screen look like the Comedian’s trademark smiley-face? Are the obscured letters on that fall-out shelter actually meant to be read as “all hel?”
Moore knows what he’s doing; he’s writing a comic book that, in its own way, is a “seduction of the innocent” (with no apologies to Fredric Wertham). First, he sneakily imbeds all sorts of metaphor, allusion, theme, foil, and other literary devices all about WATCHMEN without the Flash fan being aware; it’s like subliminal depth. Then he takes standard, traditional spandex-wearing, group-membering, bad guy-busting superheroic clunks and shreds away all clichÃ©s. He leaves the reader with actual three-dimensional characters in a four-dimensional world on a two-dimensional page. And it’s all masterfully deliberate, as one can glean from Moore’s own words prefacing Frank Miller’s similarly deviant super-hero work, The Dark Knight Returns:
The field of comic books, seen since its inception as a juvenile medium in which any interjection of adult themes and subject matter are likely to be met with howls of outrage and the threat or actuality of censorship, has not been so fortunate [as cinema and literature.]comic books have largely had to plod along with the same old muscle-bound oafs spouting the same old muscle-bound platitudes while attempting to dismember each otherhow are comic books to reinterpret their traditional icons so as to interest an audience growing progressively further away from them? Obviously, the problem becomes one that can only be solves by people who understand the dilemma and, further to that, have an equal understanding of heroes and what makes them tick.
Or maybe Elliot S! Maggin says it more succinctly in Kingdom Come‘s introduction by echoing Miller’s words: “Even super-heroes need to grow. We know that now.”
Or, at least, we should know that by now. For those who don’t, read on.
And welcome to – and be prepared for – the next addition to literature.
Moore begins the background mind-games straight from the jump with the title WATCHMEN. It is not named Captain America Adventure Comics, directly referring to its protagonist and its genre in the title. Nor, coming into the story, do we know who the “Watchmen” are. Speaking from a commercial point of view, Moore’s prestige and the work’s mystique are all that will lure readers to pick this first issue off the shelf. And the bloodwashed smiley-face button on the cover, an image that might taunt and confound the consumer just enough to accept the challenge that WATCHMEN embodies., The Onion
WATCHMEN has its origin, appropriately enough, entangled in two languages, Latin and English. Both cases are cited by Moore in the epigraph. The term comes from two reports on the government. It first comes from Juvenal’s Satires in the line “quis custodiet ipsos custodes.” Its translation – Who watches the watchmen? – can also be found in the Tower Commission Report of 1987 on the Iran-Contra Affair. Both cases question political power, i.e. who ensures that power is not misused, especially the abuse of power ensuring its fair use. The title, therefore, begins to hint at the interplay bewteen the past and present that will run through the course of the story. Most notably, two of the main characters, Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan, will come to embody this meshed, timeless power; the former will draw from ancient wisdom to lead in the present day while Doctor Manhattan (once a maker of watches, a “watchman”) will transcend all time with his superhuman abilities. The use of old Charlton superheroes as modern day characters, pirate comics as contemporary merchandise, and Nixon-Ford as the 1980s executive branch are just a few of the other examples of the past-present hybrids. In fact, Time itself will be a huge theme (in both the art, story, an plot-chronology). But, hold on. Ill get to that soon.
I will also only briefly note here the title’s relation to the concept of a Watchman-God, i.e. a God who constructed the Universe as one would a massive watch and, once complete, let it run as He sat back to view it. This idea of a laisse-faire, passive Watchman-God also opens up the possibilities of Paganism and alternate mythologies to the reader such (e.g. Egyptian beliefs of Ozymandias, the wealth of Egyptian imagery in the story, and the largely absent role of Judeo-Christian religion in the story). Of course, I only mention those here to whet your appetite.
One other insight that the title provides is a name for our core group of exceptional characters. Unlike their predecessors (and most traditional modern-day superhero comics), WATCHMEN‘s band of adventurers are never given a proper group name. The costumed vigilantes of the 1950s in their world went by the name of the Minutemen, reminiscent of the Revolutionary War citizen-soldiers, and their post-war spin-off group was entitled Crimebusters. Yet the team brought together by the circumstances of Edward Blake’s murder will bear no official title. This can be seen to both reflect the state of disorder in which they band together as well as their metaphorical lack of identity. While it is never stated outright in the book, I think it is safe to say that Moore intended for these superheroes (at least in this one plot-arc) to be known as the Watchmen in much the same way that Quentin Tarantino’s characters are referred to as the titular Reservoir Dogs.
(And all that from the title. Who’d have thunk it?)
Edward Blake (The Comedian), Daniel Dreiberg (Nite Owl II), Sally Jupiter (Silk Spectre I), Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre II), Hollis Mason (Nite Owl I), Jon Osterman (Doctor Manhattan), Rorschach (Walter Kovacs), and Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias).
While all of the characters are the fictional creations of writer Alan Moore, each is based on a defunct hero. In its original pitch to the DC editorial staff, Moores concept was a revisiting of the untainted Golden Age Charlton Comics characters with a gruesome real-world bent. Though DC had purchased all of the defunct companys rights and assets, they foresaw introducing the Charlton stable of characters into the main DC continuity (as they had done in the past with Captain Marvel from Whiz Comics). Moore was asked to alter the identities of his heroes for WATCHMEN. While still early in the scripting with collaborator Dave Gibbons, Moore metamorphosed the Charlton Comics heroes into the following Watchmen characters:
- The Blue Beetle I & III became Nite Owl I & II. The originals were both police officers. Both of the secondary incarnations were highly skilled in technology and used hi-tech gadgetry to fight crime. The winged animal imagery of the name was maintained. Nite Owl II was formerly partnered in saner days with Rorschach. Both Nite Owls are now comfortably retired, the first as an autobiography author and mechanic, the latter as a private inventor and aviary journal writer.
- Captain Atom became Doctor Manhattan. Both were gawky scientists accidentally caught in a catastrophic experiment, leading to incredible superhuman powers over atoms and nuclear power. Doctor Manhattan derives his name from the infamous Manhattan Project. His intervention resulted in victory in Vietnam and the ramifications of that victory. Since that time, he has been at the employ of the US government and has advanced technology to an appreciable degree (e.g. electric cars, public-transit dirigibles, etc.). He and Silk Spectre II are long-time lovers.
- Nightshade became Silk Spectre I & II. Nightshade was the token female heroine of the Golden Age comics, much like Silk Spectre I. She also shares the characteristic of working alongside an immensely powerful partner like Silk Spectre II. Douglas Atikinson’s The Annotated Watchmen attributes the mother-to-daughter transition of the Silk Spectre identity to another early DC superheroine, the Black Canary. The name Silk Spectre appears to be fairly arbitrary outside of its loose connection to an ephemeral shade or spirit. Silk Spectre I was raped by The Comedian.
- Peacemaker became The Comedian. Violence was both of their trademarks. Both were masked government employees who heavily utilized firearms in combat. Like Doctor Manhattan, he is the only other vigilante authorized by the United States government. He has been murdered in his home.
- The Question became Rorschach. The hard-boiled urban vigilantes wore masks to obscure their faces. Unlike Rorschach, the Question’s mask was entirely blank, giving him a faceless, supernatural look. Rorschach gets his name from his mask’s shifting details and the Rorschach Ink Blot Test once popularly used by psychologist. Despite the anti-vigilante laws in the Keene Act, Rorschach continues to operate doling out harsh and lethal justice to criminals.
- Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt became Ozymandias. The aspects of Eastern martial arts training and mental/physical perfection were retained in Moore’s makeover. Ozymandias takes his alias from Ramsees II Greek name and the poem by Percy Blysshe Shelley. Ozymandias quit the hero game before the Keene Act and is the head of the multimillion dollar Veidt empire, including Nostalgia cologne, the Promethean Taxi Company, Pyramid Deliveries, and several other commercial ventures.
Moore’s retooled team still had the personal attributes and overall element he was looking for; none had any modern comics usage, leaving their circumstances both malleable and status uncertain. Whether they were directly Charlton superheroes or thinly, if you’ll forgive the term, masked derivatives was irrelevant. They had been innocent crusaders for justice and the American way decades ago. How would these Golden Age-based once-heroes function in the tense present and the present tense?
Naming this book and these characters is where the ease of reporting on Watchmen stops. Like the metaphorical onion, the story is a series of unending layers, allowing for a host of different readings, including character motives, hyperbole, social commentary, etc. I detailed the specifics of our team so heavily above because that is where the cut-and-dry certainties end; the top layer that everyone can see has now been peeled. From here on in, you join me on a trek of speculation, analyzation, and interpretation, all of which will pay off immeasurably. Already, it should be apparent that these are not your presupposed super-heroes. These are true characters, people, with all the failings of humanity. One of our heroes is a certified psychotic, fighting for the common man that hates him. Another is Americas authorized agent, responsible for freeing the Iran hostages, while also a rapist and cold-blooded murderer. The most powerful man on Earth has not only affected the play of history, but also begun to lose touch with his own humanity; similarly, the smartest man on Earth has largely isolated his true, cunning self in plain view as the head of a business empire that will kill New York for the worlds own good. Not your typical stock characters, either in comics or in any tale.
(One interesting note: While superheroes are rarely ever killed (for good), it is the death of the Comedian that acts as the catalyst for WATCHMEN. Years later, a second Eisner Award-winning series focused on the autumn years of DC Superheroes entitled Kingdom Come. In addition to obvious homage given to Moore and Gibbons (e.g. a brick wall with the graffiti “Who Watches the Watchmen?” on it), collaborators Mark Waid and Alex Ross make the death of another Charlton hero the kick-off event. This time it is Captain Atom (Doctor Manhattan) who is murdered, leading to the nuclear destruction of Kansas as well as fellow golden age heroes Peter Cannon (Ozymandias), Peacemaker (The Comedian) and Nightshade (Silk Spectre). Death, in both of these cases, will act as a prelude to the further destruction of assumptions – and lives- to come.)
Even in format alone, WATCHMEN is not your normal comic. Moore and particularly Gibbons quietly break several comic book conventions, sometimes to provide greater reality to work and other time to provide great esotericism. Using the comic book format (later TPB) is bold and innovative in itself for tackling adult and profound subject matter. Yet, they do it with pride; with no resentment towards either the medium nor its audience-shortcomings ever hinted, Moore and Gibbons surgically select the pieces of the comic book format they wish to utilize and amputate some of its other, less applicable elements. Spread out as a 12-issue maxi-series, WATCHMEN was distributed in the typical comic book serial manner. However, it had these following deviations from normal comic book storytelling:
In WATCHMEN, there is no 3rd-party narrator captioning (all the captions are from a source within the story, not an omnipresent voice), no sound effects and limited zip-lines (each panel is a “snapshot” without these embellishing tools for noise and sudden motion), no thought balloons (only what is spoken is recorded; no access to immediate thought processes or internal monologue), and no “gutter use” or frame-breaking illustrations (popular technique for dramatic and/or eye-catching lay-outs). It would seem that none of these techniques had a place in the Gibbons/Moore vision, nor did they wish to rely on them. All of these conventions, while useful to communicate a story, remove comic books from reality. That is, in real life, sounds are heard, not seen; motion is perceived, not represented by squiggles; and thoughts are private, neither spelled out nor illustrated by the Charlie Brown “frustrated squiggle.” Moore and Gibbons limit their tool box, sacrificing ease for reality. In fact, there’s a nicely post-modern element to a small discussion between Detectives Fine and Borquin as the latter is forced to alert his partner of the invisible, unattended sound waves coming from the phone; his partner seems as unaware as the reader that it’s ringing, an event that Gibbons would have as much trouble depicting realistically as a Charlie Chaplin silent film would. Neither the Comics Code seal nor any preestablished comic character marks WATCHMEN. This would seem like marketing suicide. Given, the Comics Code, a self-policing set of decency guidelines developed by the once-suspect 50s comics industry, has, in recent years, become more of a taint than a stamp of approval. Originally, it was the industrys last, best hope to survive an era of finger-pointing; psychologist Frederic Wertham had convinced Americas populace and government that comic books and delinquency were deeply intertwined. So, instead of going underground, the industry submitted to this set of self-imposed rules in order to survive; today, after two massive revisions, the Code is merely the toothless watchdog that one must pass in order to be placed at eye-level to twelve year-olds even though many parents and teachers still consider them “violent and subversive” says Harras. However, Gibbons and Moore would not even compromise to the diluted guidelines so whoosh they go to the top shelves and out of the comic-buyers direct line-of-sight.
To that, add the fact that absolutely no history – no, as fanboys like to say, “continuity” – supports the story. No favorite character makes a cameo nor do the events in this Universe effect any other comic title. Often, comic cross-pollination will bring readers to another title in an attempt to hook them or at least bolster sales. Wolverine will appear in The Fantastic Four, Superman will appear in Green Arrow, and – if youre real lucky – a character might even be signed to jump companies for a one-shot issue, like Batman and Spawn fighting street crime together! Sometimes its done for greater company unity, sometimes its gone for greater storytelling, but often its simply done for money. Until the mid 1990s, Marvel had its own separate Universe, the New Universe, that was unconnected to the rest of their titles. Likewise, until recently, DCs Elseworlds titles were defined by not being part of continuity. Unfortunately, both of these boundaries have been crossed, allowing no definite “out-of-bounds” designation. Still, for WATCHMEN, the inclusion of no established characters/locales was risky in this regard: Without any sort of lead-in or predisposition to it, why would a buyer go looking for that top-shelf comic in the first place?
Moore elected to add a few of his own conventions to this untested mix. Except for the final one, each chapter given a written appendix (e.g. article, chapter sample, psychological report, letters) that, in ways not immediately clear to the reader, augmented and more greatly detailed the actual story. These documents were also not written by a omniscient narrator, but acted more like evidence for the reality of the WATCHMEN Universe. Also, to signal its intended audience, each of the chapter titles taken from their own literary/lyrical epigraph quotations.
These werent just fancy lines of poetry thrown in so Moore could say, “Ha, ha, look how smart I am.” Their selection was artistically immaculate and deliberate. I offer two brief examples. Chapter 11 is entitled “Look On My Works, Ye Mighty…” from the Percy Blysshe Shelley poem Ozymandias. Its no surprise that this chapter deals heavily with the background and nefarious plan of Adrian Veidt, the former hero known as Ozymandias. The poem deals with the haughty, powerful ancient king Ramsees II and an already-destroyed kingdom. Echoing that, Rorschach and Dan arrive to confront a smug Adrian, only to find out that his trap has already been sprung: he has already unleashed his monster on a now-dead New York City. The time to stop him has passed, as has Ramsees rule. Once they arrive at Veidts Antarctic headquarters, they have no options left but despair. To paraphrase, nothing besides him remains.
I could plumb that example further, but I fear that I am not qualified to reach its full depth; equally, only the most astonishing aspects of Chapter 5s title are available to me. Chapter 5 gets its title from the William Blake poem “The Tyger.” In the poem, a narrator muses over how one could ever truly capture the meaning and passion of the tygers fire, eyes, and “fearful symmetry” (e.g. face, stripes, reflection of man, etc). Compare this to the chapter, “Fearful Symmetry,” which largely deals with the pursuit and apprehension of the elusive Rorschach (interestingly, it also deals with disturbing circumstances of unbalance, such as Dans unsatiated libido or Lauries displacement). First, on a level of pure design, the chapter is true to its name since its panel layout is a symmetrical mirror spreading forth from the center page. Second, much of the chapter is shown through the reflections of water or polished surfaces, like a mirror. Third, the chapter consists largely of figurative reflections and the ruminations of dark, dreary subjects. But, in the end, it comes down to Rorschach. He is the Tyger: ferocious, beyond understanding to the authorities, and a lesson in symmetry with his mask – what he calls his “face.” Moore also makes my head ache wonderfully by mysteriously naming the late Comedian after Blake; what does that mean?! Also, the quotation from “The Tyger” questions who can truly even capture the tyger, either physically, spiritually, and artistically. But…but…isnt that what Moore and Gibbons are trying to do? To catch this story on paper, its passion and is power, and pass it to us? Does this quote imply that they cant? Or does it imply that they can only do this partially, in the same way that the police can only physically imprison Rorschach but neither understand him nor break him?? Or, I…I…ouch…my head…I need to move on and leave this beautiful enigma for others to, hopefully, disentangle. Let the academians figure it out if they ever begin to look at comic books puzzles as something more than the cheap toys inside a Cracker Jack box.
Lastly, Gibbons is not to be outdone by Moore nor overlooked by my literary-minded analysis. He adds in his own remarkable flourishes to the series. Each chapter cover is itself a hint at the motif that will run for at least the next 28 pages (if not the entire rest of the book). Chapter 6, “Watchmaker,” begins with the ragged black-and-white picture of a human Jon Osterman lying on the surface of the Mars; the chapter will both be a look into Doctor Manhattans origin as well as a playful mish-mash of the past, present, and future. That is, the span of Jon Ostermans life will be the subject of the chapter, time-jumbling will be its motif. The symmetrical layout elements of “Fearful Symmetry” could only have been a collaborative effort between the two men, but what could be a more appropriate and artful a cover than Gibbon’s skull-and-crossbones-like initials of a mirrored RR sign being reflected up in a puddle of dirty, street water? Oh, and by the way — RR? Thats the way Rorschach signs his letters. Freaky, huh?
Gibbons art also establishes other essential WATCHMEN trademarks. Douglas Atkinsons The Annotated Watchmen explains the clock counting down on each issue as “the clock in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which is an estimate of the world’s closeness to nuclear war.” Gibbons employs an largely different drawing style whenever he allows the reader into the doubly-fictional world of the Black Freighter pirate comic, popularly read by kids in the WATCHMEN Universe instead of super-hero tales. (Note: The pirate books of the Entertaining Comics Company folded in our reality due to the pressures put upon the industry by people like Frederic Wertham and the anti-comics faction in the 1950s. As Amy Kiste Nyberg says in her opening to Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, “It is true that some companies, like William Gaines’s EC Comics, were casualties of the new standards; in fact, most fan-historians focus on the demise of EC Comics as an example of the impact of the code” (Nyberg p. xi). The appendix to “Fearful Symmetry” is a reproduction of the fictitious Treasure Island Treasury of Comics which reports that the US Government supported the industry rather than groups like the Catholic Church’s National Office of Decent Literature or the Cincinnati Committee of the Evaluation of Comics. In the WATCHMEN Universe, “the government of the day [had come] down squarely on the side of comic books in an effort to protect the image of certain comic book-inspired agents in their employ.” Thus, pirate comics stayed aloft and vital, and the Silver Age of the comic superhero was never to be.) As letterer, Gibbons even goes out of his way to draw different styles of word balloons based on the character and the time period. Most interestingly, there is the recurrent use of triangles (for Pyramids? for geometric perfection? I dont know.) and the books main symbol – established from first panel to last – the blood-spattered Smiley-Face. Modeled after the “Have a Nice Day” logo, it was the ironic trademark of the homicidal Comedian (see Figure 2). Even if the chronic presence of the Smiley-Face werent eerie enough, the angle of the contaminant streaked over the sinister eye always matches the minute hand of that issues clock. Further, many characters through the twelve issues either drip liquids across their lapel in the exact place that The Comedian once wore his trademark pin or receive streaks across the left eye. This goes for pictures, masks, animals and anything else that might resemble a face, too (like the fire-stained clouds or the snow-coated glass of Veidts vivarium). In short, Gibbons is no less brilliant a man and should be no less credited than Moore in bringing layers and innovations to their tightly intermingled WATCHMEN.
So, obviously, WATCHMEN is not your normal series, but what ekes it from the “atypical comic” category to “literary example?” Well, since the peoples of Earth have not come to a consensus on the definite List of elements that unerringly makes a work literary, other steps had to be taken. I was challenged by my mentor to brainstorm and whip up a list of things, no matter how clichÃ© or obvious, that on average every work of recognized literature contained. He instructed me to compare this list, my list and by no means the end-all checklist, to WATCHMEN and look at how many fingers of this textual glove it fit. For clarity, I mentally split my list into categories. There were the blatantly obvious components necessary for any story, literature or not. Then there were those readily available but varyingly employed writing devices that one would come to expect. The more optional of these, in my mind, constituted a third category. Finally, the meta-elements, those that hold the book together but rarely poke their heads above the surface completed the fourth. Certainly, my designations are debatable, but I still present them such as they are: (I) Title, Characters, Setting, Plot Arc, (ii) Interesting/Appealing Use of Language, Writing Style, Innovative Story Approach, Contrasting Figures/Foils, Archetypes, Character Development, Metaphor/Simile, Irony, Symbolism, Foreshadowing, Imagery, Subdivisions, (iii) Sensory Imagery, Sexual Imagery, Romantic/Sexual Overtones, Historical Allusion, Literary Allusion, Manipulation of Time, (iv) Timeless Nature, Theme, Political Statement, Motifs, Social Commentary, and Comment on the Human Condition.
For those of you keeping score at home, I have already cannily snuck several of the above into the discussion to date, specifically Title and Characters. So, I think it’s prudent that before I laude any further the final core categories of Setting and Plot Arc be addressed (especially for those poor uninitiated souls, sadly in the dark on WATCHMEN‘s plot).
WATCHMEN does have a realistic setting (even if greatly altered) as well as a beginning, middle, and end (even if the book itself denies it). You see, the WATCHMEN Universe was exactly the same as our own until the arrival of the costumed adventurer shortly before World War II. During that time and into the 50s, there consisted a group of American masked heroes known under the moniker of the Minutemen. This group, while largely just a crime-fighting unit of normal humans, altered the WATCHMEN‘ s Universe from our own. For, by the story’s opening in 1985, crucial elements of their world differ from here. Richard Nixon is serving his fourth term in the White House, largely due to the fact that the Vietnam War was won with the superhuman intervention of Jon “Doctor Manhattan” Osterman. Cold War tensions run extraordinarily high, but, with the only actual hyper-empowered being on the U.S. side, a stalemate is maintained. With few exceptions, masked vigilantes have become legally prohibited in the last thirty years and that sentiment has led to other small changes, such as the popularity of pirate – and not superhero – comics. Doctor Manhattan has made everyday life in New York City slightly more futuristic than in our own, with flying dirigibles and electric cars being commonplace. Not all is perfect, though, and with the Keene Act allowing only official officers to fight crime, the police must still deal with things like drugs, social unrest, and murder.
As mentioned before, a murder is exactly where WATCHMEN begins: the murder of diplomat Edward Blake, AKA The Comedian. Still stubbornly operating despite the ban, Rorschach investigates the death, discovers Blake’s alter identity, and warns the retired “superhero” community of a possible serial murderer aimed at masked adventurers. In addition, he uncovers information concerning a neurotic Blake just before his demise, prattling on about a mysterious island of writers, artists, and scientists involved in something terrible. The story’s middle section involves Rorschach’s neurosis infecting Dan Dreiberg and rekindling his desire to be Nite Owl, especially as Jon Osterman – under suspicion for causing cancer by his mere presence – abandons Earth. Political tensions escalate putting the world on the bring of World War III even while and further attempts are made on the lives of the original Nite Owl, Veidt, and the villainous Moloch. Rorschach is ambushed and finally captured by the authorities, the catalyst that inadvertently puts Nite Owl and Silk Spectre back into action to free him. These Watchmen split up: On Mars, Laurie pleads with Jon to return, while Rorschach and Dan confront Veidt as the mask killer. Nuclear Armageddon looms nigh, setting up Veidts masterstroke. He unleashes a devastating, faux alien invasion on New York and bring Earth together in xenophobia. Before their Veidt-ordered deaths, the rumored island of creators fashioned the self-destructing, unhuman monster to teleport into the concert-filled center of NYC at the stroke of midnight, November 2nd. In this morality play’s final Act, Laurie returns with Jon too late, except to punish Ozymandias. But the five Watchmen are left with the question of whether to expose Veidt’s successful plan; global destruction has been avoided at only the price of three million lives and one large lie. All of them consent to uphold the illusion, except for Rorschach who opts to be killed rather than be false. The remaining members pledge to maintain the secret of the hoodwink (pun intended) and go their separate ways. Whether it will remain their private knowledge is uncertain; Rorschach’s tell-all journal still waits to be uncovered by the public domain and, as Doctor Manhattan warns before leaving for points unknown, “Nothing ever ends” (XII.27, see Figure 3).
That synopsis is about as thorough as saying that Moby Dick is a book about a whale, but it will suffice in order to show both WATCHMEN’s structure and discuss its levels. As for subplots, a Osterman-Laurie-Dan love triangle results, as do conflicts of several commonplace periphery characters that brush against the fringes of the main heroes’ lives. Additionally, there is a brilliant story-within-a-story entitled “Marooned.” Taken from the fictitious Tales of the Black Freighter series popular in the WATCHMEN Universe, it tells the tale of a young sailor, the only survivor of the evil Black Freighter. Not only is he surrounded by dead companions on a deserted isle, but he also believes that the hellish Freighter is en route towards his home to wreak havoc, destruction, and all that really nasty pirate stuff. In order to forewarn his home, the desperate man commits unspeakable deeds (okay, not true, I’ll speak some of them: using dead shipmates as raft, eating animals raw, murdering an innocent couple of horseback riders, and likely more!), but in the end finds himself to be the only evil brought upon his town. This inner-story, while serving as more of a distraction the first eight or nine times I read WATCHMEN rather than skeleton key, has a host of purposes. As Carl Potts notes, “it reminded me a bit of Melville’s Billy Budd where the author keeps cutting in with a seemingly unconnected episode that points out the thematic statement of the piece.” The EC Comics world of Black Freighter is just one of the exotic locales this seemingly linear tale sneaks us off to; the reader actually bounces all about time and space. Vietnam, Jon Osterman’s pre-Doctor Manhattan life, the Alexandrine journeys young of Adrian Veidt, Antarctica, the meeting of the Minutemen, the abusive creation of Rorschach, and – yes, you read it correctly above – Mars.
To continue, the case for some of my more obvious categories (e.g. Metaphor, Irony, etc.) will be made clear in the discussion of other areas, such as Foils. Foils, to me, are far more interesting than Archetypes, which both appeal more to academians but further condemn comics, theorizes Joe Kelly:
Personally, as a fan, I prefer my comics to be character heavy…I want my villains to be complicated, and my heroes to make mistakes from time to time so that there can be a true redemption…In terms of the academics, if a character seems archetypal or iconographic enough in a comic, or if it is a retelling of a classic character, then it seems to bear discussion. [But] if the character seems too narrow or specific to a limited audience, it’s ignored.
So, while it might interest some, I find it too easy too see Nite Owl II as a Batman substitute, even though both are rich bachelor-inventors employing night-flyer imagery and high technology. The Minutemen, yes, are the classic Golden Age set of heroes, but they’re only set up that way to be knocked down. On greater scale, isn’t the Golden Age comic book hero much like The Untouchables or the Revolutionary War Minutemen themselves? All are a team of ready-to-go, normal-human fighters, but seemingly immune to harm, corruption, or cynicism. Citizen-soldiers. Eager patriots, firmly rooted in the American principle of democracy and the power of a single voice. Push further and you have the Three Musketeers. Or the Knights of the Round Table. So, if we need Archetypes, they’re here, like it or lump it.
But only one Archetype-example really interests me as much as the numerous Foils. That would be looking at Jon Osterman as (say it with me now, English majors) a Christ Figure. Now maybe I’m looking at this too soon after reading Kingdom Come with Superman as a long-haired farmer/carpenter holding three nails and two planks in one panel, but look at the facts. Osterman is the only superhuman on the planet; that is, unlike Superman and his Justice League of America, he’s a singularity. Second, he deeply wants to help mankind, yet finds himself further and further distanced from them. With a grin on my face, I’d like to mention that the press does absolutely crucify the guy over the cancer issue. Third – and most important – is the origin of his power; his physicality was absolutely destroyed, leaving only his disembodied mind (soul?) to resurrect a form for himself. He becomes a creature that cannot only turn water into wine, but make water itself…on Mars! His father was a watchmaker, he can walk on water and – get this – Osterman, in German, means “the Easter Man” (see Figure 4) In this case, I’m willing to enjoy the thought of Osterman as an intentional Christ figure if for no other reason than to fill what I feel is a quantitative lack of Judeo-Christian imagery elsewhere in the book.
But, Foils, wow!, that’s where the really compelling character stuff is. I think its because the readers view – or rather, my view, our view – of the cast flip-flops so many times. That is, each of these characters are the audiences touchstones in the story and, as such, the audience is compelled to side with one or another of them. WATCHMEN is a book about good versus evil, bad guys versus good guys, and right versus wrong – Morality. And, largely, we need identification with the characters to achieve our own position, our moral anchor, on the story. The great trick that Moore plays is that by latching on to any one of the characters completely, they truly do become an “anchor” when their full personae is revealed. It makes our spirits sink right to the bottom of the vile sea.
Simply said, no one is completely moral in WATCHMEN, no one is completely innocent. As I said, none of the characters should be read as archetypal absolutes, since their beautiful complexity lies in the way each of them is flawed. Comparing them to each other best illustrates their juxtaposed strengths and weaknesses, and considering those comparisons best reveals the readers own moral sensibilities. Moore has provided us with his own tricky Rorschach Ink-Blot Test just like the one used in “The Abyss Also Gazes” that forces us to assign our own values and interpretations to the ink pictures and character sketches.
The partnership of Rorschach and Dan Dreiberg is an awkward but complimentary one with their many polar opposites despite similar goal of thwarting crime. The broad pairing may be one of the few chances the reader has to solidly root for a team; there has to be something about the literally dynamic duo that appeals to the reader, since Rorschach and Dan seem to cover the whole spectrum of both strengths and failings. To itemize: One is sane, the other is not (Ill let you guess which is which). In addition, Kovacs had been abused and forced to live in poverty while Dan seems to have been raised in a world of relative comfort. Its no wonder that Kovacs adopted the Rorschach identity and forced himself to live by wit and body alone even as Nite Owl depends on gadgetry and surrogate mechanical strength. Likewise, Rorschach seems to live hand-to-mouth even as Dan has become fat. Yet, both fight crime, both uphold the law (even if selectively), and both are initially without the capacity for love or intimacy. Rorschach longs for the abstract “American love,” which he says is now absent in the world (II.25); Dan literally cannot love due to impotency. The final difference between this odd couple is their respective views on the sanctity of life: Rorschach kills, Dan apparently does not. Should we, for this last reason, condemn Rorschach and his methods? Or is killing the guilty, thinning their herd, understandable?
Those questions should give you pause, since they are key issues to WATCHMEN and other characters like Ozymandias, The Comedian, the “Marooned” sailor, and even Bernie, the man-on-the-street vendor. Each of these men either preach or practice the principle that murder can be a justifiable act. In fact, even Laurie could be thrown into that mix, considering her attempt to shoot Veidt in retaliation for killing Jon in Chapter 12. (And Jon does the same to silence Rorschach.) But let’s first focus on the “villains” of our piece – Veidt and Blake – especially in the context of murder-as-defense. What links these men and what separates them? Well, they’re both supporters of capitalism, Blake having fought for America and Veidt having profited off of it. They also fight crime, even if they enact atrocities on their own. Third, they both see “the big picture;” at the first (and only) meeting of Crimebusters, Blake opens Veidt’s eyes wide to the truth that humanity’s self-destruction is imminent. And, surprisingly, both express some unRorschachian uncertainty towards their actions – its the actions, however, that allow us to separate the men and individually judge them. Blake – the most “deliberately amoral” person Osterman reported to have ever met (including himself?) – has been an assassin, a soldier, a diplomat, a torturer, and a rapist (IV.19). He killed one Vietnamese lover pregnant with his son and raped Sally Jupiter – Silk Spectre I and another carrier of his seed. Horrible as it sounds, though, Blake’s actions are human. That is, it’s conceivable for a human to do such sickening things. Individual murders, individual assaults, individual atrocities. By his own admission, he says, “I done some bad things. I did bad things to women. I shot kids in ‘Nam. I shot kids…But I never did anything like, like” (II.23)
…Like Veidt. Blake may disgust himself, but Veidt disgusts him even more. For, Veidt commits inhumanities on a far higher level, both in scope, quantity, and motivation. In order to save humanity, Veidt will actively give people cancer. He will frame fellow crime fighters and jeopardize the lives of those close to him. He will blow up and poison his own employees. He will manipulate the laws of science and deliberately doom people to a lifetime of nightmares. He will kill three million New Yorkers all for “humanity’s salvation” (XI.25). His acts are far more massive than Blake’s, Rorschach’s, Osterman’s, and Lauries all put together, yet the reason for his genocide has a chance to balance it all out. Like the sailor in Tales of the Black Freighter‘s “Marooned,” he commits his acts of murder and uses the bodies of the dead in order to save the living. Rorschach condemns him, Osterman seems to support him, and Laurie and Dan abstain, remaining silent. But even Veidt has moral uncertainty over his acts. In words that echo the final panels of “Marooned,” Veidt tells Osterman (see, again, Figure 3):
Jon…I know people think me callous. But I’ve made myself feel every death. By day I imagine endless faces. By night…Well, I dream about swimming towards a hideous…No, never mind, it isn’t significant…What’s significant is that I know. I know I’ve struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity…But someone had to take the weight of that awful, necessary crime. I’d hoped you understand, unlike Rorschach…
…I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end. (XII.27)
To this de facto admission of uncertainty, Osterman simply replies “‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” He seems to neither affirm nor condemn Veidt’s act.
Before I abandon Foils, let’s do one last round-up on the morality-meter, but include Osterman this time. Dan: Doesn’t kill, but has been largely ineffective and pathetic. Rorschach: Does kill, has made some progress on crime, but does not fit in Veidt’s world of manipulated peace. Blake has done even worse and cannot be part of Veidt’s prank, mostly because he understands it. Veidt is the worst killer of all, but is arguably pardoned by his motivation to save modern civilization. Then, there’s Osterman who, over the last thirty years, largely shaped this rampant society and had the power to avert any war and stop any crime if he truly wanted. In short, society is about to rip itself apart, yet Osterman remained as passive as Dan even though he has the power to make Veidt’s plan obsolete and unnecessary. Without Veidt’s redeeming rationale, is Osterman, in the end, WATCHMEN‘ s greatest villain? Probably not, but he is the closest to a true alien that appears in the book. His removal from humanity is even greater than Veidt’s, his only tie being the physical sex with Laurie anchoring him to his lost manhood. Speaking of lost manhoods, Osterman’s body was destroyed and he was, in effect, killed. Doctor Manhattan came into being when his empowered consciousness managed to piece a body back together (blue and without pupils, of course!). He has gone beyond Veidt’s status of human perfection – he’s superhuman. And, as such, has lost his connection to the norms. In the series final Chapter “Stronger, Loving World,” Doctor Manhattan speaks as if Osterman was another person and confirms his disconnection as he scolds Veidt for trying to kill him:
I am disappointed, Veidt. Very disappointed. Reconstructing myself after the subtraction of my intrinsic field was the first trick I learned. If it didn’t kill Osterman…did you think it would kill me? I’ve walked across the sun. I’ve seen events so tiny and so fast that they hardly can be said to have occurred at all, but you…You are a man. …And this world’s smartest man means no more to me than does its smartest termite. (XII.18)
Even though Doctor Manhattan (for Osterman now seems the wrong name for him) seemingly embarks to create new life at the story’s end, he has become more of a curious god than a caring, empowered human; this nicely reflects the entire myth mentioned above of the Watchman-God. Doctor Manhattan leaves to make life, not for life itself – only to watch it tick.
It would seem that gods in WATCHMEN are less concerned with helping humanity through life than towards death. In addition to Doctor Manhattan and the Watchman-God, there’s the pervasive Egyptian theology to which Veidt subscribes. He “rewards” his manservants by giving them death. In fact, his whole plan derives from the fact that he sees the world aimed for death and destruction; Rorschach’s analysis of Veidt’s Egyptian decorum says it nicely:
Egyptian decor coloring logic…Recognize dog-headed bust. Anubis, watcher over dead. Whole culture death-fixated, obsessively securing their tombs against intruders…Didn’t like thought of corpses being interfered with.
…Funny…Ancient pharaohs looked forward to end of world: Believed cadavers would rise, reclaim hearts from golden jars. Must currently be holding breath with anticipation. Understand now why always mistrusted fascination with relics and dead kings…In final analysis, it’s them or us. (X.20)
Rorschach’s sentiment nicely echoes layman Bernie’s own pessimistic, strike-first “final analysis.” Yet, Veidt finds the Egyptian sentiment comforting, saying that “death wasn’t morbid to the ancient Egyptians. They saw it as launching on a voyage of spiritual discovery” (V.13). Of course, he’s saying this to the secretary he’s arranged to have shot. And voyages have go so well in this book: the “Marooned” sailor, the explosion aboard the artists/scientists boat, Archimedes crash-landing in Antarctica…Veidt’s gods seem no better than Doctor Manhattan or the Watchman-God. And where’s the Judeo-Christian God except for in a copy of Watchtower? Shortly after becoming Doctor Manhattan, Osterman says that “I don’t think there is a God, Janey. If there is, I’m not him” (IV.11). WATCHMEN‘s answers do not lies with the gods, any of them.
Foils, it would seem, offered up a lot more than expected at first glance – already we have the first of our Themes, some Historical Allusion, a pretty massive, pessimistic Social Commentary linked with a chunk of Commentary on the Human Condition, and, in a sense, Character Development. Doctor Manhattan goes from superpowered human to new god, Hollis Mason dies, the periphery human cast (Bernie, Detectives Fine and Borquin, Joey, etc.) dies, Rorschach…geez…dies, Blake dies (but that’s nothing new), and Laurie and Dan find each other and return to crime fighting. Really, is this character development? Maybe society changes, but the surviving Watchmen seem to adapt, not grow or change. True, Laurie’s final words hint at a change in her future when she mentions a redesign of her Silk Spectre costume to resemble her unmasked, biological father, The Comedian. But, I argue that WATCHMEN generally frustrates the literary tradition of the dynamic character for this reason: Comic books, traditionally, could not afford to have its characters change dramatically without an extensive run and gradual shift. Thus, by using the comic medium instead of the pure textual medium, Moore may have had to concede to the episodic nature of comic books and slow much of his characters’ change. Like a good soap opera and unlike a bad sitcom, the characters cannot be altered faster than the flow of time. In a book, where years or centuries can pass in the span of a chapter, this option is more readily employable. Not for comics, though. Not without seriously taxing the suspension of disbelief and compromising their reality.
Specific to WATCHMEN, though, is a great bias not just against growth but against creation. Look, Veidt does what he does to preserve humanity, sure, but it’s a destructive act, not a constructive one. He destroys the beautiful Antarctic hothouse that took years to cultivate. The massive Mars fortress of Doctor Manhattan is reduced to rubble. All of the teams fall apart and rarely ever in the story, to paraphrase Mr. Yeats, does a center ever hold. Even the commercial products of their culture are based on things having past or things being destroyed – on the transient: Mmeltdowns candy, Nostalgia cologne, Pale Horse and Krystalnacht rock groups. Only things that are rickety and ridiculed – such as the Promethean Cab Company, Mason’s Auto Repairs, or The New Frontiersman – give any sign of progressiveness or enduring hope.
Even sex, the act of procreation, is linked to destruction and/or violence in the WATCHMEN Universe. In the footnotes, I’ve already theorized that Rorschach’s twisted mind is due to the abuse dealt to him by his openly whoring mother. Sex, violence. Missing writer Max Shea dies while fucking in the steerage of a cruiseliner. Sex, destruction. Blake rapes Sally Jupiter, Laurie’s Mom, and is then beaten for it by a possibly sado-masochistic Hooded Justice. Sex, violence. After a flaccidly failed attempt to make love to Laurie, Dan dreams of them coming together nude only to be destroyed in a bomb blast. Sex, destruction. Rorschach finally flips while investigating the abduction, rape, and killing of a young child. Sex, violence. Laurie and Dan each demonstrate gender-stereotyped post-coitus acts after finishing off a pack of street thugs; exhausted, he rolls over while she lights up a smoke. Violence, sex.
Moore seems to speak through Veidt as he comments on the television commercials: “You’re ignoring the subtext: Increased sexual imagery, even in the candy ads. It implies an erotic undercurrent not uncommon in times of war” (X.8). The Freudian drives are apparently cross-connected in the WATCHMEN Universe; Stuart Moulthrop, author of Watching the Detectives, argues that even Veidt’s destructive teleporting monster is fashioned after female genitalia (not too far-fetched considering the many the mentions of motherhood and the womb that surround its sketching in the short span of six panels, see Figure 5).
With the possible exception of Osterman and cancer-inflicted ex-girlfriend Janey Slater, only one sexual coupling is free of violence and/or destruction: Laurie and Dan’s eventual coming together as Silk Spectre and Nite Owl. They take part in some other nice Sexual Imagery such as the passing of the cup (an act that echoes Slater and Osterman) and the television’s de facto play-by-play of their making-out. But, only in their costumed identities can Dan actually function (another nice piece of imagery: Dan’s Owlship, Archimedes, ejaculates fire as the couple makes love). Dan himself admits a strange comfort of sharing his odd costume-lust with another person, “to come out of the closet” being his exact words. This is not the first time that the costumes or masked adventuring is vaguely linked to homosexuality. I mentioned Rorschach’s sexual disorientation and his personal suspicion of Veidt in my footnotes already. I think it is also important to note that while another masked hero, the Minuteman Silhouette, was revealed to be a lesbian, there seems to be a relatively tolerant atmosphere of homosexuals in the WATCHMEN Universe (two men hold hands affectionately and publically in a panel in Chapter 1, page 25). In fact, the prejudicial bias against homosexuality seems to have been passed to the costumed adventurers; many call them freaks, sexual deviants, “faggots,” and “superfags.” This only seems to enforce the notion that heterosexual intercourse is not safe in Moore’s reality, especially for its hatred-tainted heroes.
Even as I hunt for a segue into a discussion of Symbolism, I find that the “Hiroshima Lovers” are the perfect symbol of the pervasive Death-Sex Theme. A silhouette image of a man and woman conjoined face-to-face has been spraypainted on to the New York city walls, named “The Hiroshima Lovers” in honor of the permanent shadows left on the brick walls of bombed Hiroshima. The forever-clutching couple is, in fact, a neat symbol of Love and Death in one; their closeness and the nuke’s power are simultaneously displayed. Variations on the Hiroshima Lovers can be found in young Kovacs recollection of a dream he had – a beast consisting of his mother interlocked with another man – and in the patterns of the Rorschach blot-mask. Love and Death are everywhere (see Figure 6).
The Smiley-Face is also everywhere, and it symbolizes another key amalgamation of WATCHMEN: Elation and Despair. Like the two Greek masks of theater, the traditional interpretation of the Smiley-Face – an optimistic “Have a Nice Day” – is grossly corrupted by the streak that runs across its left eye. Often, the streak is blood (Blake’s, a shark’s, a child’s), but other times it is simply smoke, ketchup, or a sweeping radar hand (see, again, Figure 2). In any case, the effect is the same: the happy emblem is scarred, a concise and fitting symbol for the WATCHMEN world. It’s scarred, I should mention, just like The Comedian’s face…if that means anything…? In short, the Smiley-Face is deeply Ironic, like a perverse little joke. It’s the perfect sign for the brutal, late Comedian – the last laugh was on him.
Following a close second to the Smiley-Face in symbolic pervasiveness is something I also mentioned above, the Triangle. I know, triangles aren’t all that distinct and they are a pretty common geometric shape. That’s a fair argument. Gibbons, however, puts them everywhere and calls a good deal of attention to them. The Veidt logo and its two cologne products, Nostalgia and Millennium, both have triangular icons. Pyramid Deliveries, the front-company for Veidt’s work, also sports a triangle as its logo. And Ozymandias’ fortress is loaded with triangles, like Gibbons was going for some sort of record. Or was he, pun intended, trying to make a point? The triangle, especially the equilateral triangle which many of these appear to be, is one of the most stable simple formations in existence. It can withstand all sorts of pressure, making it the most logical shape from which to construct things. Also, like the aptly-named pyramid scheme, its wide base eventually thins down to a singular point on which everything hinges. For these two reasons, isn’t the Triangle the perfect symbol for Adrian Veidt (AV)? Does his representative Triangle fight for dominance over The Comedian’s representative Smiley-Face? If so, it’s important to note that the Smiley-Face still begins and ends WATCHMEN, not the Triangle. Again, nice Irony.
Each and every business sign and displayed advertisement in WATCHMEN is deliberate and often they are just as symbolic. The best lump example of this are the signs that litter the opening pages of “A Stronger Loving World” just after the destructive creature has been unleashed. Remember the scene: Three million New Yorkers are dead due to Veidt’s creature all in the name of ensuring peace. Bodies, all resting in peace and pieces, lay motionless on the New York City streets, some spilling out of the Utopia theater. Playing at the theater tonight? “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Posters, magazines, and newspapers also lay strewn in the debris. Both the Promethean Light cab company and Gordian Knot lock company have been destroyed by Ozymandias; like his role models Alexander and Ramsees II, he has ravaged a representative of Greek culture and smashed the historically named entanglement of Gordium. The back cover to Tales of the Black Freighter has an ad for one of Veidt’s work-out regimens, saying “I will give you bodies beyond your wildest imaginings” (XII.6). The street that fills the scene is, of course, one way; Doctor Manhattan’s the only one going any reincarnating after death in this book, folks. And, just to nail home the Death Imagery, I’ll mention that the corpses bursting through the glass windows of Madison Square Garden were there to see the rock bands Pale Horse and Krystalnacht. The German evening of destruction, the WWII krystalnacht, could not have been more horrific.
But, as intended, the reference to the krystal nacht does put an added emphasis on the issue of Glass in WATCHMEN. I really cannot say if Glass acts exactly as a Symbol, a set of Imagery, or even a Theme in WATCHMEN, but it’s definitely something. I was convinced of this fact by a fascinating online discussion group posting by Bill Svitavsky, which I reproduce in part below:
Each major character has a relationship with glass which is indicative of their approach to life. The Comedian is associated with smashed glass. He is thrown out the window, has his head smashed against a mirror, has his face gashed by a broken bottle, has a drink thrown in his face (not a broken glass, but a violent use of one which parallels the broken bottle), etc. His approach to life is to violently smash through barriers in perception, giving him a strong sense of the world, but ultimately a harmful one. Rorschach’s glass motif is the reverse of the Comedian’s. In his first scene, we see him climb in through Edward Blake’s smashed window…In a parallel sequence after he escapes from prison, Rorschach climbs in his own…Rorschachs cynicism breaches the same sort of barriers as the Comedian’s does, but Rorschach then finds a mask to put on things – he knows there is no order in the world, so he *imposes* order. Night Owl is any easy one – he looks at the world through rose colored glasses, literally and figuratively…It’s significant that the accident which turned John Osterman into Dr. Manhattan was an experiment carried out by Professor Glass. We see Osterman looking out the glass window of the containment chamber, and later we see Dr. Manhattan’s glass clockwork construction on Mars. Dr. Manhattan’s perception of reality is a cold, scientific one in which individual human lives do not matter. Which brings us to Silk Spectre. She is the Comedian’s daughter, and like him she is a glass smasher. She shatters a snow globe, she throws the drink in the Comedian’s face, and ultimately she causes Dr. Manhattan to smash his glass clockwork. Her glass-smashing is not destructive, but creative, a breaching of barriers to create personal relationships. Finally..Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt is constantly shown looking through glass of one sort or another. He looks out his office windows, he watches everything via monitors, and even his action figures look out through the cellophane windows of their packaging. Eventually we see he’s placed a forest under glass in his Antarctic sanctuary. Ozymandias thinks he can put the world under glass, observing it and controlling it from the outside. But we also see that Veidt is constantly *reflected* – in his windows, on his marble desktop, and in that pool of water as he commits an act of violence. Ozymandias fails to realize that the new order he seeks to create will reflect the ruthlessness and violence he has employed in creating it.
Svitavsky ‘s character analysis may not be perfect (that is, in perfect synch with my own imperfect analysis), but his examples give compelling evidence towards the symbolic importance of Glass.
The one reason I thought Glass might be Imagery is that, unlike in a novel where everything must be described textually, in a comic book you have actual images! Doesn’t this somewhat affect the nature of Imagery when considering what the writer scripted to be read, scripted to be shown, and left for the artist to compose himself? Imagery is largely a literary tool used to help paint a scene, establish a mood, or convey sensory information. However, in a comic book where art and text are combined, a great deal of that responsibility is carried by the penciler after reading the script and conferring with the writer. Therefore, objective analysis of Imagery, like Character Development, is a little more difficult with comics. But, in addition to the Sexual Imagery, I can offer a few more goodies that had to be deliberate on the part of Moore and Gibbons. Below are examples that I have not yet mentioned which may in fact be largely reflected by the art, but had to be the brainchildren of Moore in this fashioning of his world:
- Superhero costumes, by necessity. Traditional costumes are made to resemble whatever motif, creature, or element the adventurer wished to adopt. This trend seems to have been begun by Bob Kane’s Batman and his using a bat-inspired costume to inspire fear in criminals. Thus, Nite Owl’s costume resembles an owl, Ozymandias looks like ancient royalty.
- Skull & Crossbones. This symbol is often related to poison, hazardous conditions, piracy, or death. So, no wonder it pops up so frequently in here! In any capacity, it is a constant reminder of the story’s death and high stakes. The ever-present radiation symbol imagery (found on the side of the Institute for Spatial Studies, Nixon’s war room, described by the “Marooned” sailor, and reminiscent of Veidt’s recording device) strikes me as the skull and crossbones modern equivalent. Both images imply destruction, disease, doom, and decay (but not necessarily alliteration).
- Color Shifts for Time. This very savvy use of color falls best into the category of Imagery, I feel, as a source of Time Imagery (if there is such a thing). In both “Absent Friends” and “Fearful Symmetry” Gibbons has the flashing light outside of Moloch’s apartment alternate color in each frame, providing the reader with a third option for gauging time. (Generally, only two venues are available: One is the frame-by-frame movielike motion of the panels and the other is the speech balloons according to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.)
Number 3 above is no surprise, because Time itself is a subject with which Moore, Gibbons, and their entire work seem preoccupied. Yeah, it’s really easy to say that a novel or a story deals with Time as an abstract concept; everything deals with Time! Saying that, without some really solid examples is a cop-out, because, since we are human and still without Marty McFly time travel technology, everything we do needs to be done linearly. But, for WATCHMEN, I think I have those solid examples that will establish Time as its final Theme.
(And, lucky for me, it involves many of the Literary Elements with which I have not yet dealt. Woo-hoo!)
WATCHMEN may have futuristic elements to it, but a great deal of it deals with the present focusing on the past. Examples are numerous: Flashbacks of Eddie Blake by the attendants to his funeral, Doctor Manhattan’s jumping hyperspace perceptions of time, Rorschach recounting his childhood, Sally Jupiter’s memories of the Minutemen, and Veidt not only telling his origin but taking inspiration from Alexander and ancient Pharaohs. This constant stream of recollection is a symptom of beginning en media res, but as the book goes on, Moore once again speaks through the characters to emphasize its intentionality. In a conversation between the aged, retired masked heroes, Sally Jupiter says to Hollis Mason, “Don’t get too misty eyed about old times. It ain’t healthy” (VIII.2). That Chapter “Old Ghosts” ends with Mason being bludgeoned to death with his own Nite Owl statuette. Gibbons inserts shots of a virile Nite Owl from yesteryear besting the Screaming Skull and Captain Axis even as his true, modern self falls at the hands of a pack of drugged-up kids. For Mason and the victims of Veidt’s Egyptian inspiration, focusing on the past truly isn’t healthy at all.
So then, why do Moore and Gibbons do it so much? They have Laurie confront her past and the fact that Blake is her biological father. They quote a whole variety of literary sources (e.g. Blake, Shelley, Genesis, the Book of Job, Bob Dylan) and they drop in all sorts of Historical Allusions (e.g. the Minutemen, Vietnam, Alexander the Great, EC Comics, Ramsees II, Krystalnacht). They even opted to write a story based on old Charlton Comics superheroes. The world they create seems to have no future; all of the Imagery foreshadows some mass destruction, all of the serial issues denote a countdown, the entire tone implies an imminent doom. And, in many ways, that doom either comes (e.g. the New Yorkers, Mason, Rorschach, Blake) or continues to loom (e.g. Rorschach’s journal, Doctor Manhattan’s cautionary final words). Is the past the only safe place to hide?
Well, at present and during WATCHMEN‘s run, the past certainly looked the only safe place for comic books to reside. Then as now, the industry was in a slump and Moore & Gibbons couldn’t have known that their book and The Dark Knight Returns would reinvigorate it for at least the next decade. The Golden Age of comics had been exactly that, its heyday, before the limited market and the anti-comic protesters and the cliched storylines. Moralities were very black and white for the color comics and their audience was large. WATCHMEN, I suppose, can be seen as the Golden Age’s introduction to the grim, commercial, and nuclear-fearing world of the 1980s. Thrust the do-gooders of the WWII era into the modern context of both the comic industry and America and you are most likely left with the shattered glass and dreams that Moore, Gibbons, and The Dark Knight Returns writer Frank Miller envisioned.
Unfortunately, their radical take and hard-nosed brilliance ultimately had a detrimental effect on their works that was entirely beyond their control; the market was soon drowned in a wash of Dark Knight and WATCHMEN wannabes. As Dan Jurgens says:
marked a turning point in the industry, along with THE DARK KNIGHT…WATCHMEN and some of Moore’s other work was the big bang that stated it off…The effects of WATCHMEN were many; some good, some bad. Too many writers tried to evoke the same style in their own works, often where it was inappropriate, and the result was a darkening of too many super-hero characters. “Grim and gritty” were ushered in about that time and tend to think we’ve paid a price ever since, as our product has become geared more and more for the disenfranchised rather than mainstream consumer.In short, Moore, Gibbons, and Miller may have overinspired, overstimulated the starving 80s comic industry. Vicious heroes first like Wolverine and Guy Gardner, and later like Cable and Spawn began to dominate the racks with stories of varying depth. Most often, though, the tale was shallow and hollow, hurting the genre and the advances made. Like Veidt, they created a monster that fixed the short-term problem but left the long-term results up for grabs.
Whether a result of outside influence or not, WATCHMEN has become largely dated. Some of this has to do with the above mentioned “swamping;” the 80s were all about the “grim and gritty” heroes and the industry has since, it seems, tried to pull away. That also pulls sentiment away from WATCHMEN, however, ditching it with the 1980s. However, its underpinning threat – nuclear Armageddon – has since been filled with other popular global calamities. Biological warfare has come into vogue as both a national fear and plot-point in comics just as natural disasters, volcanoes, and falling asteroids was a trend for movies over the last half-decade. In essence, the threat of nuclear weapons is somewhat dated, just like the Russians as the Evil Empire and other fads. Considering how often the book comments on the costumed adventurer fad, it’s disappointing how easily compromised its own Timeless Nature has been. But, perhaps in time, the series will read as fresher when the nuclear bomb trend is less associated with the failed plots of recent yesteryear.
Speaking of Neil Gaiman’s work, Peter Straub said that “if this isnt literature, nothing is.” McConnell echoed that by praising The Sandman series as “the stuff of which literature is made: Learned, complex, straightforward, funny, melancholy, and irresistibly humanizing” (Kindly Ones). True, they said this about The Sandman and not WATCHMEN, but, in my opinion, it largely applies to both as a criterion that has been well-met and achieved. It’s also the perfect set of criteria by which to judge these volumes as literature: Are they all learned, complex, straightforward, funny, melancholy, and irresistibly humanizing? I will say, for WATCHMEN, that the answer is a resounding yes. Learned, complex, and melancholy are apparent. As for funny? The humor in WATCHMEN is very dark, almost pitch black, but let’s also consider the Comedian telling the joke. Moore was never trying to amuse us, per se. He was trying to shock us and perhaps make us produce a startled laugh. The joke – the fact that brutal humanity can only be saved by a sacrifice and by false fear – is a blunt one that pulls no punches. It does make one feel more human, but, to paraphrase Mr. Spock, perhaps that’s not exactly a compliment. Would you want to be part of Veidt’s “stronger, loving world” knowing the cost it took to get there?
Anyhow, in short, for WATCHMEN my answer is “yes,” it is literature. Now, to explain why the answer is also “yes” for The Sandman for markedly different reasons.
To explain why the McConnell quote appears here, now, after my analysis of WATCHMEN, I can only say that – at first – I thought it might be a mistake to make a run at analyzing The Sandman as literature. At least, for my purposes and my headset, I thought that perhaps it should be left alone by me and untouched for someone with the same breadth and panache and sheer weirdness of Gaiman. Wait until someone can surgically pull it apart far better and praise it for all its worth. It’s definitely literature (it even begins to poke at Eisner’s idea of comic evolution), but – I don’t know; going at it dry made me wary. Instead, I opted to build momentum with a book and set of criteria that fit my quicksilver, peel-the-onion-layers analyzation style like WATCHMEN before charging in. The levels to The Sandman do not form the metaphorical onion nor would they fit my point-by-point list of Literary Elements nearly so neatly; its levels weave and feedback upon each other so marvelously that it would be better to liken them to a watermelon with little seeds acting as checkpoints to the complex whole. Neither book is necessarily better than the other; as I implied above the industry needs a variety, not just a pile of onions or a slew of watermelons. But neither are a kid’s empty-calorie candy bar.
As my metaphor begins to fail, I now offer as a further example of comics’ credibility as literature The Sandman series. Let’s try smashing into this melon.
, The Watermelon
If WATCHMEN is the demystification of the comic book superhero, then Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series is the remystification of the entire medium. Or, perhaps more directly, it is an elegant and eloquent demonstration of the storytelling breadth that a comic book can contain. The Sandman is not really about superheroes; it is about the superpowerful. Supernatural myths, old gods, ancient pantheons, and fantastic fables. It is about how they each function, if at all, in the modern world. The Sandman asks “where have the gods gone?” and “what influence has today’s humanity had in their existences?” Simply, where have the unseen ended up in by the 1990s? The forthcoming answers – some are dead, some have retired, some have become entrepreneurs, and some sadly still stand their post – will reflect human society’s 90s status just as well as the pantheons’ own. Even if a god’s origin is impossible to recount, Gaiman has made us privy to the demise of such a being. Therefore, let’s begin at the end, with the penultimate story arc of The Sandman‘s 75-issue run named The Kindly Ones. These final pages of Gaiman’s series spell out the ultimate fate of its primary supernatural character, Morpheus – Dream of the Endless, a being who, seemingly, could never die. And does.
Across many realms, those that have known Morpheus have given him their own name: The Greeks called him Oneiros, once the one love of Calliope. Martians call him Lord L’Zoril, flaming god of the dream path. The ancient peoples of Africa’s glass city called him Kai’ckul, suitor and tormentor of Queen Nada. The former occupants of Princess Barbara’s fallen Land called him Murphy, its original creator and keeper of its contract. Lucien the Librarian, Abel of the House of Secrets, and Cain of the House of Mysteries call him “Sire.” Matthew the Raven and Mervyn the Pumpkinhead call him “Boss.” The Endless call him brother. He is Morpheus, Lord-Shaper of the Dreaming. He is the Sandman.
Yes, powerful Morpheus is just one of a larger family just as his territory is just one area of a larger universe. He rules the Dreaming, a realm of infinite possibilities where all forms of creature from all planes of reality come when they sleep and dream; his deep and vital connection with the land allows him to shape and mold its reality as he wishes. As Lord-Shaper Dream of the Endless, Morpheus oversees this land separate of his six siblings own self-named jurisdictions – Destiny, Destruction, Death, Despair, Delirium and Desire. They are not gods nor are they deities, per se, but the Endless still play essential cosmic roles in the framework of existence and in ways not perceptible to the human eye. In fact, since they oversee elements of other realities in addition to our own, it could be said that they operate in ways imperceptible to also the inhuman eye. Or ear. Or tentacle. Or sense organ, whatever.
During his reign, Morpheus has been involved in many events across realities, but a recent one seems to have left its damning mark. Issue #1 of The Sandman tells about a gathering in Wych Cross, England in 1916 and of a group of amateur conjurers plot to imprison Death and gain immortality. Their spell backfires, though, capturing only her brother, Dream. Hoping to wrest secrets from their captive, that is success enough. And until 1988 – the year of The Sandman‘ s first issue – Morpheus remains shackled there, silent. His powers are absent, his kingdom crumbles, and he is the prisoner of mere humans for over seventy years. All he can do is sit and wait, determined to outlive the caution and lifespans of his captors.
By issue # 57, Morpheus has returned to power in his native kingdom, but his half-century bondage has not left him unscathed. First, once he escaped and set out to put the Dreaming back in order, he had to set right several dreams that went astray. This lead to his dissipation of Trevor Hall’s ghost and the enmity of his pregnant widow, Hippolyta Hall. Second, had he not embarked into Hell (yes, literally, Hell) to find his stolen powerful headpiece, Morpheus would not have incurred Lucifer’s spite as well. When the Devil later quits his post (again, you read that right), he makes good on his ire by putting the burdensome keys to Hell in Morpheus’ possession. This leads to a whole bunch of headaches (with Heaven, with Order, with Chaos, with the Asian gods, with the Norse myths, etc); it’s three most pertinent results are Heaven’s repossession of Hell under new management, the unleashing the mischief god Loki back upon the world, and the bondage of the faerie Nuala in Morpheus palace, the Heart of the Dreaming.
The last stop on my ultra-brief, incredibly important synopsis of The Sandman’s first threescores issues is the status of Morpheus’ son, the tragic Orpheus. Against his father’s advice, Orpheus went to free his dead wife Eurydice from the Underworld. When he failed and fell victim to the Bacchantes ravages, Orpheus is left alive but only as a bodiless head. He shunned by the family and made to suffer forever. Forever, that is, until Morpheus finally returns to him. His own seventy-year imprisonment has made the Dream-King experience a change of heart on many matters. And, catalyzed by several generations of reflection, Morpheus gives Orpheus the release of death that his son always desired. And that’s the story to date.
The twists of myth and reality, of what we would call real life and what we would call fiction, should already be obvious in this glimpsing the Sandman’s world. The list that I crafted for WATCHMEN – consisting of Literary Allusion, Historical Allusion, and Innovative Story Approach to name a few – should already be getting check-marks next to each item. The Sandman series is dense. Like a juggler, Gaiman has thrown many balls into the air. Except to make the analogy complete, I’d have to say that Gaiman does this on the planet Vega III where some balls hang in the air indefinitely, some are propelled into deep space, some fall back to his hand, and some turn into a whale and explode. In short, what I’m saying is that Gaiman has set a very elaborate, unpredictable trap to spring on poor Morpheus. Like his son, this will be a tale of tragedy and downfall for Dream.
This specific thirteen-issue segment (thread?) is The Sandman series final Act, entitled The Kindly Ones. (Note: Id actually prefer to see it as a 12-issue arc with a one-issue interlude. Part six is not only drawn by an artist other than Mark Hempel and is tangential to the main story, but also follows Gaimans standard practice of inserting such an interlude to break up his tales (e.g. The Dolls House and Seasons of Mist to name two). The reason for my preference will become obvious later in the paper.) While they once helped him in recovering his kingdom, the Kindly Ones serve in large part as this book’s antagonists. At times, they are plainly shown/written to be the Greek Furies, otherwise known as the Erinyes or Eumenides. They pursue Morpheus for aiding Orpheus in his long-deprived death; they view this act as kin-killing and, at the impetus of Lyta Hall, aim to destroy him. If they have any motivation, its to take awkward revenge on Orpheus by destroying his father – as Persephone warned, they never forgave Orpheus for making them cry in the Underworld. Many warn not to call them the Furies, in fear of their wrath. Instead, it is heavily suggested that they only be referred to as “the nice ladies” or the Kindly Ones.
Never one to leave things as simple, though, Gaiman complicates this straight reading. He richly ties together the Furies existence with the lives of several other female trios. The women are at times depicted as the Gorgons Stentho and Euarayle, a group of very peculiar women at an English nursing home (more on this later), the Grey Women who assisted Perseus, Macbeths Three Witches, and the three Fates Atropos, Clotho, and Lacheisis (see Figure 7). Therefore, never able to be entirely certain with which manifestation they might be seeing, critical readers have elected to more generally call the women the Triple Goddess (with all the echoes of the Trinity and Mary that such a name might entail).
Another Fury is central to the story: Hippolyta Hall, once the costumed heroine called the Fury. This character, like Wesley Dodds, appeared in the post-Crisis DC Universe.
(Note: I only provide this explanation for a significance it could have later: The DC Universe underwent a total revamping during the 1980s entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths. Before it, the DCU existed in what they termed a “multiverse.” That is, many different Earths existed, each with its own slight differences and each in its own dimension. This was the rationale given for the many contradictory stories printed by DC over its fifty years, specifically those that involved convoluted origins (e.g. our Earth had the baby Superman land in Kansas, while Earth-2 had him land in Maryland, both of which were printed by DC). Crisis had the effect of not only destroying all the “infinite Earths,” but also recombined pieces of them all into one amalgamated universe. In pre-Crisis continuity, Hyppolyta Hall was the daughter of Steve Trevor and Earth-2s Wonder Woman, an Amazonian princess.)
She was the biological daughter of the original Fury, but was orphaned and raised by the Trevors. Fighting crime as a member of Infinity Inc., Fury later left the group to join her dead, disembodied husband, Hector Hall – the third Sandman – in a pocket dimension to continue their fight against evil on a higher level. When Morpheus journeyed out to heal and reunify his kingdom, he was forced to close down the dimension, send Hector along to the afterlife, and return Lyta to Earth. For unknown reasons, Morpheus told her that he would one day come from her unborn child Daniel that had gestated in the Dreaming. When, at the beginning of The Kindly Ones, Daniel goes missing and is presumed dead, she snaps mentally and vows to have revenge on her prime suspect, Morpheus.
Her title as the “Fury” is staggeringly appropriate. First, she wants revenge for the death of her kin: the ghostly husband Morpheus was forced to banish and the son she suspects he also abducted and killed. Second, her name and origin already have mythological ties. Hippolyta was the name of the amazon queen confronted by Hercules. While The Kindly Ones states that she was “given in marriage by Hercules to Theseus” the Minotaur-killer, other myths have it that Hercules slayed her in battle, proving his might to the Amazons. Since Wonder Woman was her pre-Crisis mother, her Amazonian heritage is no fluke. Finally, her post-Crisis mother (who might or might not be the woman in The Kindly Ones, part 6, page 8, panel 1) received her powers directly from Tisiphone, one of the Furies.
However, neither the Kindly Ones nor Lytas motives are strictly evil; in fact, there are no true villains depicted in the story. Even the mischievous Puck and Loki – who are to blame for Daniel’s disappearance – seem to be in the employ of some unseen being. Loki is intentionally trying to complicate Morpheus’ life. Robin “The Puck” Goodfellow just seems to be committing the acts of lunacy to which he’s used. Their acts difficult to categorize as purely malicious. Other bizarre characters, such as the immortal mortal Hob Gadling, the land that walks like a man Fiddler’s Green, or Lucien the once-raven librarian all try to aid Morpheus. Therefore, the title could also be a reference to the other characters, each generally goodhearted and victims in their own rights.
So, before we take an even deeper bite, let’s mention whatever else we can about our main seed, especially his name. His personal name, Morpheus, seems arbitrary; none of the other Endless seem to have any names outside of their titles and I could find no reference to any other “Morpheus” from whom Gaiman might have gotten the name (as is his style). Worth considering, though, is his title as the “Lord-Shaper” of the Dreaming and the meaning of his names root word: morph. In an age where we see computer graphics everyday, it should be no shock that the “morph” of “morphing technology” comes from “metamorphosis” or “a change of shape.” Also, according to Gaiman’s telling, Morpheus is the father of musical Orpheus by Calliope. The similarities of their names is apparent, but its significance is unknown (especially since to the Greeks, Morpheus is known as “Oneiros,” even to Calliope).
I do have one…well, maybe not explanation, but…one nice take on his name and how it relates to the rest of the tale. Remember, we’re already dealing with a tricky proposition: the death or end of an Endless. Throughout the series, several different characters comment on how nothing is forever; all things change. That’s all according to Destruction in World’s End, the Furies in Kindly Ones, and Lucien in The Wake. All things change. Dream did not agree, and many concurred that he was forever constant and fixed, including his ex-wife Calliope. But maybe his name, Morpheus for “change,” was a subtle hint of his own inevitable change from the years of imprisonment. Matthew the Raven asks Lucien, “Why did it happen? Why did he let it happen?” And, similar Nuala’s own belief – that Dream may have engineered his own demise – Lucien replies (see Figure 8):
Let it, Matthew? I think he did a little more than let it happen…Charitably…I think…Sometimes, perhaps, one must change or die. And, in the end, there were, perhaps, limits to how much he would let himself change. (Wake, p. 59)
Morpheus’ inheritor, the child Daniel, takes on the role of Dream of the Endless, but not the same name (see Figure 9a). No longer a baby, he says that he is “not Morpheus. I have no right to that name. I am Dream of the Endless: it is enough” (Wake, p. 26).
I’ll take Daniel at his word and move on.
Its obvious that Gaiman put a tonnage of time into considering the existences, names, and entangled histories of his characters. Their juxtapositions, I feel, are just as deliberate as WATCHMEN’s. The following are some of the more interesting and troubling ones to be found in The Kindly Ones:
So, if we see them as death ambassadors, why don’t they work for Death herself, Dreams sister? What slowly becomes clear over The Sandman series is that Death more generally works for Dream. Maybe she does this is the capacity of a sibling looking out for another sibling or maybe their jurisdictions are more complexly crossed than we might imagine. More certain is the fact that, if he desired, Dream could have a much more active hand in who lives and who dies; he can kill and reincarnate relatively easily, it seems. He allows Orpheus death, brings back Abel and Corinthian, and obliterates Trevor Hall. What an interesting comment by Gaiman: Dream can be just as much, if not more, powerful than Death!
I think whats so interesting about these two is how their respective realms view them and what fates they suffer for their actions. Arguably, they are roughly the same (with maybe some marginal difference in their motives; oddly enough Loki seems to also want revenge for simply being indebted to Morpheus!). Yet Loki is a criminal in his world, a rogue fit to be bound in the entrails of his son and have scalding venom leaked over his eyes for all time. He has directly maligned Odin and the rulers of his strict land. Puck, however, also comes from a monarchy, but one that seems to delight in mischief and merriment so long as it isnt visited upon the royals themselves. Their morals do not divide them; their worlds determine their possible condemnations. The Corinthian doles out punishments that reflects all this: He breaks Lokis neck, gouges out Lokis eyes, eats the orbs, and leaves the trickster to Odin. With Robin, he merely exchanges words and lets the Puck go on his way.
Here’s a kooky pair, similar in circumstance but leagues apart in reception. Both are powerful beings in their own worlds: Lyta was once the superpowered hero Fury, and Delirium was once the Endless member known as Delight. Yet both have suffered a terrible loss. Gaiman shrouds Delight’s in secret – perhaps it was the death of the original Despair, perhaps it was the rise of greater lunacy in the world, who knows? For whatever reason, she is now the deranged Delirium and is desperate to find the dog that her missing brother Destruction gave her named Barnabas. Lyta’s loss has been made clear – her family. What makes these two so interesting in The Kindly Ones is that both hunt for something they have lost, yet they must embrace their insanity in order to find it.
Now, wouldn’t you think that we mortal readers would care a little bit more about Lyta’s pursuit of her family? Or, maybe, we’d be more enthralled by the supernatural, crazed wanderings of an Endless? Though counterintuitive, the reverse happens. Lytas plight becomes vengeful and increasingly inhuman; her demands for Morpheus death strike the reader as excessive and unfair. Even the one who defends her, the Thessalian witch Larissa, warns:
And you…are a pawn…who briefly became a knight…or a queen. And youve just been taken off the board…As I understand it, your actions have ensured that you will never see Daniel again…Id take a shower, and then start running, if I were you. Lots of people are going to want to hurt you for what youve done. Including me. (Kindly, 13.20)
Sympathy for Lyta is hard to summon; pity for Delirium is as easy to experience as for an abused child. Something in her past – known only to Gaiman, who says that he ain’t tellin’! – destroyed the beauty of Delight and left only Delirium in its wake. Now, powerful but pitiful, she incoherently searches for her four-legged traveling companion. And, along the way, she helplessly frets over her brother’s situation like the kid sister that she is. Few things are sweeter in The Kindly Ones than when she does manage to find Barnabas in the care of a faithful street beggar.
Of course, that’s all very subjective (and I welcome you to shoot down my reading by writing your own paper on The Sandman please), but the human-inhuman reversal can also be found between Hob Gadling and Dream himself. Robert “Hob” Gadling is mortal, but ancient. Like a few, select others in human history, he simply does not age or die. Nothing specific, per se, has made him this way; Death had just simply never come for him. He has assumed multiple identities since his first life as a contemporary of Chaucer. Also in that time, he has befriended Morpheus and they sit to have a drink together every hundred years. The friendship is natural enough, as these supernatural friendships go; both have seen generations pass, both have different names in different cultures and different times, and both cannot remain for long with a mortal woman (a particular fetish of Morpheus’ it would seem). Yet over their next several meetings, it is the godlike being that instructs Hob on the inhumanity of slavery, while Hob is the one that finds no passion to young Will Shakespeare’s plays. The human is the one who observes objectively that life is full of pain and suffering, while Morpheus is the one to have an emotional outburst during their sit-down in the late 19th Century. But it is in The Kindly Ones that their biggest reversal comes: mortal Hob warns the Endless that he can feel Death coming for Morpheus – he can smell the stink of death on him, says Hob. What a reversal! The human not only worries about the “god,” but manages to outlive him! Gaiman makes it clear that the death, maiming, destruction, and the overall manhandling of deities and myths are fair game, allowing the reader no easy assumptions in viewing each of them. Fate might be real, but absolute safety is not; both of these pairs remind us that all of The Kindly Ones‘ characters are in peril, regardless of their spiritual/cosmic status.
But take a step back from the humor and you might see that Gaiman’s still in full control and having the last laugh on us. Like, don’t Luke and Gordy look an awful lot like Detectives Fine and Borquin from WATCHMEN (see Figure 10)? Is that Christopher Robin Milne’s piglet doll lying next to the comatose old man? Is the new, angelic citadel in Hell meant to be so phallically shaped for its genitalless occupants? And…well, I’m no expert on numerology by this strikes me as suspicious: multiples of 3 are hidden everywhere. Three women appear on the cover of the People magazine Lyta holds as she walks down a street with multiples of 3 on each sign. Also, she meets a three-headed Geyron. Corinthian has three mouths while Luke Pinkerton wears three bandages. Rose spends three hours at the Wynch Cross rest home. The Corinthian eats three sets of eyes. The Dreaming pulls Matthew back three times. Morpheus happens upon Larissa, his third jilted lover. The three Fates cut Morpheus’ lifeline even as the three Furies hound him (or are they one and the same?).And, with the exception of the intermission drawn by a different artist, The Kindly Ones actually runs 12 issues (3×4), starting with issue #57 (3×19) and ending The Sandman‘s ninth (3×3) story arc with issue #69 (3×13) of the 75-issue (3×25) series. Am I just making this all up or is Gaiman really pushing the point of the Triple Goddess through devout number-dropping?
It’s all happening, all at once, in the pages of The Kindly Ones, but for what reason? Maybe Gaimans viewpoint on faith should be considered; he could be saying something. After all, he seems comfortable with freely co-opting, tailoring, and writing all sorts of belief-tied characters. In addition, many of the mythos of which he writes seem to be in decline: the faeries have abandoned Earth, the Endless are in strife or missing, Christianity is largely altered by Satans boredom and abandonment with Hell, Odin is hunting for options to Ragnarok, etc. Amazing things are happening all about humans everyday (even if you eliminate the activity of superheroes), yet Gaiman shows them all to be fairly blind to it. Sounds like some sort of social commentary to me. Like he doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about what’s sacred if it interferes with his story; in fact, his love of the story and his playing with the all characters, human and otherwise, is more of a commentary in support of Humanity rather than Divinity. Crafting stories make humans like gods, and in stories gods aren’t worth a damn. Oddly enough, it is the ever-lying Loki as Luke Pinkerton who gives the most honest commentary on the gods’ mutability and modern roles in The Sandman series. When asked who he is, Loki responds:
[I am] merely one who regrets the abandonment of Theology, in these strange warm times…You don’t have to believe in God. But what about gods? Eh? The purality of Powers and Dominions. The Lords and Ladies of Field and Thorn, of Asphalt and Sewer, gods of the Telephone and Whore, gods of the Hospital and Car-Crash? (Kindly, 5.24)
In fact, The Sandman series is all about “the story,” not the myths and not the gods. World’s End consists entirely of stories. And stories within stories. And stories within stories within stories – you get the point. Whether beginning, ending, embellishing, or debunking them, Gaiman has Morpheus live up to another of his names, the Prince of Stories, and makes Storytelling the number one priority above all else (similar to but geometrically more successful than the obsessiveness of the paradox paper). The Setting is compromised by a certain vagueness, given all the many locales Gaiman places his cast. In dealing with all of these multiple lands, dimensions, characters, continuities, times, and places, the author opts for a fluidity between locales rather than a rigid and limited time/place setting. For example, he never deems it necessary to explain the Christian settings of Heaven and Hell (or, for that matter, the Christian theology) in terms of the Dreaming. Yet angels come and go from the Dreaming to Earth and to other points unknown. Greek legends, from places beyond any of the worlds like Olympus and Hades Underworld, freely do the same. The Dreaming itself is said to be fluid and ever-changing. So, while places are given names, their actual geography is largely indefinite.
Time is chronological (at least, in The Kindly Ones) and even adheres to the series printing schedule (five years of publishing the comic coincides with five years of Morpheus being free from imprisonment). But how it coincides with the separate mythos is troubling. In terms of Norse mythology, how close/far are we to Ragnarok? In terms of Shakespeares characters, how long has it been since the events of Midsummer Nights Dream (if they really did take place) took place? Most troubling (and, probably, the smartest thing to ignore) is Sandmans proven connection to the DCU, the stereotypical slow-aging of comic heroes, the never-ending superheroics, and, again pardon the pun, its crisises. Does Clark Kent go to the Dreaming when he sleeps? Is the death of Bruce Waynes parents replayed as a nightly nightmare on its shores? Has Lex Luthor ever, in his sleep, attempted to usurp Morpheus and take over that world? Presumably, the answers would all be yes, but Gaiman wisely decides never to show such mainstream cross-overs. All we know for certain is that it is the early nineties in the depicted “real world” with no definite relationship to any other timetable. Gaiman will give us no explanation because that could in fact lessen the gestalt tale. And he very much seems to be saying that the story, much like the play, is the thing.
Even as it comes to its conclusion, The Sandman series seems so drunk with storytelling glee that many tales only begin or continue on by issue #75 with no ending set forth by Gaiman. Morpheus finds an end, true, as does Lyta Halls quest, Zeldas ailing, and Alex Burgess torment. But Daniels reign just begins, Cluracans Nemesis was just born, and Nualas wanderings are never explored. Further, many threads of the tapestry remain unresolved. The ramifications of Hells new management have not been addressed, the mystery employer of Puck and Loki remains unrevealed, Destructions realm is still without a ruler, and Lucifer sets out for points unknown. The Plot Arc is clear for Morpheus himself, but obviously Gaiman felt under no obligation to tidily deal with the outcomes of his many secondary characters. While this leaves things somewhat unresolved, it also adds to both the pseudorealism and focus on Morpheus life story.
The point could even be made that Gaiman, like Moore, uses the other characters in a postmodern capacity by talking through them in The Kindly Ones. But I can’t take credit for this insight. Instead, I only wish to embellish on McConnell’s testimony from his introduction to The Kindly Ones. Below, he talks of the neat gimmick embedded in the story that also provides evidence for Gaiman’s story-obsession:
Notice that the conversation among the ladies at the opening is deliberately constructed to refer to the act of telling the final major tale in The Sandman series. “What are you making him them,” asks Clotho of Lachesis in the third frame of the first chapter. “I can’t say that I’m terribly certain, my Popsy,” she replies. “But it’s a fine yarn, and I don’t doubt that it’ll suit. Go with anything, this will.” The story begins as a story about storytelling, but also as a story…in its own right…In fact eight of the thirteen chapters begin, in the first frame, with a thread of some sort sunning across the panel, and with a comment that applies equally to the telling of the tale and to the tale itself.
Those postmodern opening comments reveal a great deal of Gaiman’s meticulousness and personal uncertainty in shaping this “fine yarn.” A anxiousness begins Parts One and Two- “Is it ready yet? Are you done?” and “Well? How long is it going to take?” Part Three offers a cautious, delicate tone with Loki and Puck saying “It think it’s going to be bigger than I had planned,” and “I don’t mind. As big as it needs to be.” (Note: By his own admission in the Afterword, Gaiman admits that “this was the longest of all the Sandman stories, and it was in many ways the hardest to write.” Part of that difficulty must have included parting with a (cast of) character(s) that he had written for so long. See Part Four’s opening.) “I wish I could be certain I was doing the right thing,” comments an angel at the beginning of Part Four, and a calmer and more evenly paced sentiment begins Part Five with “It’s happening. Very slowly, but it’s happening.” Once past the half-way point and Part Six’s intermission, the end is in sight by Part Seven – “I never thought I would ever get to this place,” and “Destinations are often a surprise to the Destined.” Part Nine warns that it’s “almost time,” – “Nearly. Very nearly,” responds one of the other Fates – and Part Ten abruptly ends the metacommentary when the death-bringing Corinthian snaps the cord with a solid “There.” The end is now assured (see Figure 12). All Matthew the Raven can ask the reader by Part Twelve is “Still here, then?” a la Ferris Bueller. It’s already a foregone conclusion by the time Part Thirteen opens with Dream just sitting there that he’s waiting for his sister Death to arrive.
By the time Dream actually dies in Part Thirteen, you have to feel like an idiot that you didn’t see it coming, because Gaiman’s hints are everywhere. For instance, in Fables and Reflections Morpheus’ heir Daniel is found in the crib in holding a raven’s feather. Death, it would seem to say, is on the way. By the time the boy is captured by Loki and Puck and tossed into the fire (to burn away his mortality, like Hercules), that feather has become a Phoenix’s. Death, once again, but…c’mon! The kid was holding a Phoenix feather and now he’s in the fire! Gaiman has twice told us that “A King will forsake his kingdom. Life and Death will clash and fray. The oldest battle begins once more.” The Grey Ladies tell Destiny this is Seasons of Mist and then the Fates (again, one and the same?) read it again off a fortune cookie, saying “We’ve had that one before, haven’t we?” and “It’s definitely familiar, dearie.”
(Note: We do have something of a self-fulfilling prophesy here. The fortune comes true when Morpheus comes to Nuala’s aid, allowing the Kindly Ones to tear apart the Dreaming and force his death. Nuala only came into his life as a gift from the Faerie trying to obtain Hell from Morpheus. Morpheus got the key to Hell due to an old grudge held by Lucifer. And Morpheus only encountered Lucifer again because of the guilt trip laid on him by Death in Destiny’s Garden. Why were Death and Dream there in the first place? Because the fortune spoken by the Grey Ladies makes Destiny call a meeting of the Endless. In essence, the fortune sets events into motion that fulfill the fortune.)
Illustrator Marc Hempel also signals the dark days ahead by constantly shading the frame-gutters black whenever action shifts to the Dreaming. Simply, darkness surrounds the Dreaming, a darkness that is off-set when the pure-white Daniel becomes the new Dream.
And, in the end, isn’t that precisely what The Kindly Ones and The Sandman series are about? A new Dream. Morpheus imprisonment was both a humanizing and dehumanizing experience for the Endless; in The Kindly Ones, he finally acknowledges it. After admitting that he is responsible for Orpheus’ death and showing Nuala the “bleak mask of regret” of which McConnell spoke, Morpheus says:
Have you ever been imprisoned, Nuala? I was…I spent over eighty years in a glass bottle, like a genie…or a city…I could have waited until the earth crumbled to dust. But still, I waited. I told Ishtar that she was wrong. That I was not changed. That I did not change. But in truth, I think I lied to her. (Kindly, 11.6, see Figure 1)
(Note: Morpheus is referring to the city of Baghdad which, at the request of its King Haroun, Dream forever keeps in a bottle to ensure its eternal glory. I think he misunderstood Haroun’s motive; Baghdad isn’t trapped so much as it is preserved. Likewise, Morpheus should well know that Nuala understands imprisonment – after all, she was forced to work in the Heart of the Dreaming as a gift from the Faerie! Still, he absently overlooks this, emphasizing the need for a more compassionate version of Dream.)
But it is that traumatic change that also gives him new insight into his son and the mortals whose dreams he oversees. Largely because of the tainting imprisonment, Morpheus’ growing weariness, and his personal guilt, a new Dream (upper-case and lower-case) is needed and created. The Endless office of Dream itself is merely tailored by the addition of Daniel’s human origins. Daniel is Dream, but different. The Heart of the Dreaming’s watchmen (heh) ask if he is both Morpheus and Daniel in one, commenting that “our Lord would not have done as your are doing. In the thousands of years that I served him, he did not touch me” (Wake, p. 72) Daniel-as-Dream balks at answering the question, but the alteration is clear. When his errant brother, Destruction of the Endless, finally does show up, a very different conversation is had between them than ever before:
DESTRUCTION: I wasn’t going to come and then I thought, sod it. I’ll stop by, give you a little advice. You’ve never been inclined to listen to my advice in the past, but, well: Things change, don’t they?
DREAM: Yes, they do.
DESTRUCTION: Wise lad. (Wake, p. 75)
Mutability, Humanity, and Responsibility – these are what The Sandman series is all about. They are the rich and juicy pulp of this watermelon called The Kindly Ones. Is it learned, complex, straightforward, funny, melancholy, and irresistibly humanizing? Certainly, but it is also something more: it’s true. Not true in the sense that it actually happened. Of that I cannot be sure. But I feel like Puck as he watched “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” first performed: “The is magnificent — And it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true. What magic art is this?” (Dream County, 3.13) About this Dream also says that “things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot” (3.21). Gaiman’s The Sandman series does have that touch of Puck’s “magic art” to it. The fruit of his labors does have truth to it that only a work of fiction might contain; it addresses issues and emotions that the facts of our reality would gloss over and neglect. And, if we as readers and humans have any sense at all, this incredible series of brilliance will endure when much else is forgotten.
Even if it is just a comic book.
In his book DOOM PATROLS, Steve Shaviro slices the role of a comic book into two neat factions:
[Comics] are cheap commodities, printed in limited quantities on low-grade paper, designed for rapid turnover and almost instantaneous obsolescence…Some people buy new comics and encase them in plastic without even reading them; they hope to sell them later for an enormous profit…The mechanically reproduced object has two lives: one as an ephemeral throw-away item, the other as a precious fetish. This also corresponds to two ways that comics are consumed by their audience. On the one hand, you need to leaf through them…it’s precisely in this suspended state that they become so strangely absorbing. On the other hand, you need to go back over them, studying every word and every panel, with a fanatical attention to detail. The letters pages of any comic book are filled with the most minutely passionate comments and observations. The letter-writers worry about inconsistencies and continuity errors, express approval or disapproval of the characters, engage in lengthy symbolic analyses, critique the artists’ renderings, and make earnest suggestions for future plot directions. In this way, these books become interactive; as Marshall McLuhan was apparently the first to note, comics are “a highly participational form of expression.”
If my argument has been stated eloquently enough, the following should be true: Comics can be just as packed with aestheticism and intelligence as spandex and fight-scenes. A world of incredible thought can (and often does) exist within their format. If this has not become apparent to you as my reader, then the fault is with my words, not the content of the comics themselves. Their brilliance is profound and it’s real. And if I have been unable to display the amazing layers of WATCHMEN and The Kindly Ones compellingly, I ask that you look to read further essays on works such as MAUS, The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, Uncle Scrooge, Sin City, Daredevil: Born Again, The Spirit, or The Uncanny X-Men. They’re all out there waiting to be discovered by you.
But, if my point has struck home, then there is a third existence to the comic book not mentioned by Shaviro. Beyond being a “throw-away item” or “precious fetish,” I believe that a comics also exist as literary texts and that, if institutions of education in America were wise, schools should embrace these rich comics rather than discourage them along with their less-developed brethren. When will academians accept the challenge that both I and Frank McConnell lay before them?
As soon as the academic critics get off their famously insensitive butts – I work with them, so trust me, these guys would sleep through the Second Coming – As soon as they get off their butts and realize it’s okay to admire a mere comic book, you’ll see dissertations, books, annotation galore on The Sandman, and then on the great comic writers – Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Wil Eisner, the list is so long – who were his “precursors.”
When will other authors and creative minds overcome the bias that Harlan Ellison reported in his introduction to Seasons of Mist?
I sat thereand watched with devilish pleasure as Neil won the highly-prized FantasyCon “Howard Phillips Lovecraft” trophy for the Years Best Short Storyan issue of The Sandman “comic book.” Devilish pleasure, I tell you, because all those artsy-fartsy writers and artists and critics sitting there expecting a standard-print short story to win, choked on their little almond cups as this renegade funnybook guy carted off the Diamond as Big as the Ritz.the Great Gray Eminences who run the FantasyCon from behind their nightshadow veil of secrecy have rewritten the rules so that, heaven forfend, no “comic book” will ever again be nominated, much less have an opportunity to kick serious artistic butt.
I have no answer other than the prediction that it will continue to be a difficult battle. The fanboy audience of the monthly serials is whittled away everyday by alternate mediums such as television, the Internet, and movies. Harras even suggests that the resurgent popularity of pro wrestling hurts the quantity of their fanbase even as critics attack the quality – “Quite frankly, comics in the country have a very…’down-market’ connotation. Right now, we are limited.” And if the month-to-month business of comics book production is still on the defensive, trust that the risky, highbrow projects like WATCHMEN or The Sandman are going to be delayed further and further as the bottom-line dollar becomes more essential.
Their fate lies with the enlightened, those that know the potential power of a graphic novel and will not let it go the way of the 8-track. If I have succeeded with this paper then you have both a power and responsibility to spread the gospel. By reading, by talking, by writing, or even by thinking about comic books. The millennium is coming and after 100 years of their existence the world may finally be ready to look at comic books a second time, but only if people like you aid it in slouching towards Universities to be reborn.
So, the call goes out. You can be a hero. Do you accept the challenge? Will we accept the responsibility?
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