Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Peace, Calm, Happiness. An Ending. (A Stronger Loving World)

TW: Discussions of Rape.

A STRONGER LOVING WORLD: The closing words of John Cales’ spoken word piece “Santies”. The full quote as cited in Watchmen is “It would be a/stronger world,/a stronger loving/world, to die in.” Given the piece is about the tragic and abusive relationship between a woman and her mother ending in the woman’s suicide, this was most likely chosen because it was a good quote to end on rather than its lyrical implications (though said implications do help Moore’s reading that Watchmen came about during a bad mood called the 80’s).

Perhaps one of the most famous structural tricks of the entire comic, a series of six pages consisting of solely one panel each depicting the wreckage of New York, with the slightly bleak detail of all the lovers (be they familial or sexual) coming together in their deaths. And yet, it is perhaps the easiest sequence to adapt into a feature film, should one be dumb enough to do so: a 35 minute Tarkovsky shot starting from the squid and ending with the cover. Less talked about is the transition back into the 9-panel grid, which starts out with a set of three widescreen panels before returning to the grid proper.

A rather unsubtle bit of foreshadowing, albeit one that’s easy to miss after six pages of overwhelming horror.
DAN DREIBERG: Adrian, your assassination attempt: you couldn’t have planned it! What if he’d shot you first instead of your secretary?
VEIDT: I suppose I’d have had to catch the bullet, wouldn’t I?
For all his proclamations that he isn’t a “Republic Serial Villain,” Veidt is very much Adam West Batman.
VEIDT: No one will doubt this Earth has met a force so dreadful it must be repelled, all former enmities aside.
As with many a utopian (especially those with an eye for empire building), Veidt’s solution is to use (or in this case invent) a race of barbarians who plot to tear down the walls of society and conquer us the way we conquered others.

In perhaps one of the more humorous implications of Watchmen (which one imagines won’t be picked up on in Doomsday Clock), the possibility arises for a future story wherein Bubastis reconfigures herself into a blue lynx unstuck in time, pondering the pointlessness of existence.

Many people claim that Dr. Manhattan is the sole superhero with superhuman abilities. And yet, here it is shown that Veidt can catch bullets, with an emphasis placed on the seemingly slow motion of his body, the only moment in the comic that highlights a character’s movement in this way with the rest of the comic opting for a more static, almost photographic, style of action (one of the many reasons why a film adaptation of Watchmen would never work).
VEIDT: …And yet that failure overshadows every past success! By default, you usher in an age of illumination so dazzling that humanity will reject the darkness in its heart…
As with many a utopian, at his heart Veidt is an optimist about human nature, believing that when given the opportunity, humanity will join their gods in the sun. This may to contradict his plan that seems to hinge on the belief that humanity’s base nature prevents this enlightenment, but more likely it’s an attempt to push humanity out of its anthropocene phase towards the jetpacks promised by the dreams of Heinlein.

An argument in a more general overview of Watchmen could be made that, out of all the characters, Laurie is the one who is the most visually astute, being the one who finds a gun in a relatively hard place to find as well as being the first person to notice Dr. Manhattan looming outside waiting for the dramatically perfect moment to strike. Why else would he opt to punch his hand through the window as opposed to simply tapping Veidt’s shoulder?
DR. MANHATTAN: What’s that in your hand, Veidt? Another ultimate weapon?
VEIDT: Yes. Yes, you could say that.
One of the more talked about aspects of the comic is the relationship between reality and fiction; the ways in which ideas should be used as inspiration to be a better person rather than to go out at night and punch people in the face. This scene is one of the more subtle invocations of this theme, highlighting the ultimate power of watching television.

For all that analysis of this sequence rightfully focuses on Rorschach, it should be noted that for the sequence to work, Laurie would have had to jump behind Dr. Manhattan for no discernable reason. And while such unreality wouldn’t work in a film (even though the sequence is essentially a zoom in to Rorschach), you can get away with it in a comic due to its ability to jump from image to image.
DR. MANHATTAN: Logically, I’m afraid he’s right. Exposing this plot, we destroy any chance of peace, dooming earth to worse destruction. On Mars, you demonstrated life’s value. If we would preserve life here, we must remain silent.
Let’s look at these arguments in regards to keeping Veidt’s plan a secret one at a time. Dr. Manhattan essentially argues a consequentialist position, highlighting how if the truth were revealed, life would be destroyed. And if we hold life to be valuable, then we must prevent it from dying out completely. Of course, his assessment of life on earth is the potential miracle within every form of life to create life via procreation, effectively making his viewpoint one akin to reproductive futurism. Problematic to say the least, especially given two of the victims of the Squid were queer women.
LAURIE JUSPECZYK: Never tell anyone? W-We really have to buy this? Jesus, he was right. All we did was fail to stop him from saving the Earth. Jesus.
Laurie’s argument effectively hinges on the failure state of the protector fantasy. For those unaware, the protector fantasy refers to a vision of superheroes that isn’t so much a power fantasy, but rather one that wishes to protect those around them from harm, due primarily to a trauma that pushed them into being a superhero. Much like Superman, Laurie’s trauma is more of a subconscious one than a conscious one, that being her mother’s rape at the hands of her father. One such harm would be that of change, which, as playwright Tony Kushner notes in his play Angels in America, is extremely painful. Thus a failed protector fantasy would be that of someone who allowed change to occur (given this blog, I should note that Spider-Man is essentially a history filled to the brim with stories about him being a failed protector fantasy, including the comic this blog is ostensibly about). I should point out however that just because there’s change doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. To invoke Octavia Butler, the goal of change isn’t to let it happen but rather to shape it. And given that the architect of this change is one who compares himself to Alexander the Great, Rameses, and Ozimandias, I wouldn’t say the world has been saved.
DAN DREIBERG: How… how can humans make decisions like this? We’re damned if we stay quiet, Earth’s damned if we don’t. We… okay. Okay, count me in. We say nothing.
As a later part of the scene will highlight, Dan’s logic is akin to that espoused by Jim Gordon and Ellen Yindel in The Dark Knight Returns, wherein things like Batman, Pearl Harbor, and a Giant Squid teleporting into New York City, killing millions are too big of ideas to be comprehended by people who aren’t great men of history, thus they must toe the party line or doom the world. Moore would most likely be aware of this aspect of the work as the final issue of that series came out two months before the first issue of Watchmen was released. Like many people of the time, he probably wasn’t aware of Miller’s more fascist leanings, but the implication of that line of thinking is clearly a large part of the concept of the superhero.

Which brings us to Rorschach’s response. This is one of two mask designs to appear in the comic and each have their own meanings. For all his protests to the contrary, when all the streets are filled with death, all the dead and the abused look up and shout “Save us” he responded with a hand to help. Because as the panel where this mask design appeared previously states, “There is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished.” Rorschach’s objectivist viewpoint pushes an extremely black and white worldview such that he could never compromise, save in death. Rorschach, who perhaps best represents the protector fantasy archetype, actively tries to undo this change (thereby changing the world again) and bring about the apocalypse (for more on the relationship between superheroes and the apocalypse, read Jed Blue’s The Near Apocalypse of ‘09). Essentially while the other mask represents moments in the comic where Rorschach makes a shocking discovery, this mask design represents a rejection of a viewpoint where cruelty is deemed to be the correct choice and it’s trolley problems all the way down. In other words, “Fuck you, I’m Superman!”
VEIDT: Hmm. Now what would you call that, I wonder? “Blotting out reality” perhaps? Ah well… in all likelihood it’s of no consequence. As a reliable witness, Rorschach is hardly… how shall we put it… “Without stain”?
More evidence that Veidt is extremely Adam West Batman.
LAURIE JUSPECZYK: No. I mean I need you. Need you now. Dan, all those people, they’re dead. They can’t disagree or eat Indian food, or love each other… Oh, it’s sweet. Being alive is so damn sweet.
DAN DREIBERG: Laurie? Wh-what do you want me to do?
LAURIE JUSPECZYK: I want you to love me. I want you to love me because we’re not dead.
Given the entirety of Alan Moore’s career, this is perhaps the most crucial conversation to understanding his positionality. In V for Vendetta, Moore talks about the one inch you must never give up, the thing that you must keep close to yourself. He calls the inch “integrity,” but there is more to it than just that. When citing it, it was in the context of a queer woman coming out to her parents by introducing them to the woman she loved. Love then is key to that one inch, and what Laurie values in this moment. Love can be seen echoing throughout the work of Alan Moore from the beautiful Mirror of Love to the wondrous polyamory of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 3: Century to the mystical implications within Promethea. Indeed, it can also be found in Watchmen, from Dr. Manhattan’s revelation of the nature of humanity to the bleak joke of the lovers reuniting in their deaths at the tendrils of the squid to something we’ll get to in a later bit.
RORSCHACH: Of course. Must protect Veidt’s new utopia. One more body amongst the foundations makes little difference.
I have grown to the understanding that the difference between a utopia and a dystopia is whether or not you’re the Child of Omelas. To be a good Utopian then is to try to find the children and make it so they’re no longer in their cages. There is little proof that Veidt cares to do this (especially given the advertisements for his utopia focus on an Aryan ideal), making his world inherently dystopic for a large majority of people.

This is probably my favorite moment in all of Watchmen. Something that’s so small and seemingly insignificant, yet implying so much. (Since I have no where else to put it, I might as well give my thoughts on Watchmen: it’s very much a middling work of Alan Moore’s, which speaks more to the quality of Moore than of Watchmen. Equally, I’m always going to have a slight remove from the comic, as it was one of the comics I read when I was first getting into comics [ironically, because of the movie, which I liked at the time, but have since grown distant from] but it wasn’t the one that exploded my brain into loving the genre [that would be Transmetropolitan]. And the person I was back then had… mostly dull tastes that genuinely liked how Geoff Johns ripped people’s arms off and couldn’t see why Alan was so PO’ed at Before Watchmen. So I’m not sure if my mixed feelings towards the book are due to the book itself or who I was back then.)
DR. MANHATTAN: …But yes, I understand, without condoning or condemning. Human affairs cannot be my concern. I’m leaving this galaxy for one less complicated.
VEIDT: But you’d regained interest in human life
DR. MANHATTAN: Yes, I have. I think perhaps I’ll create some.
As Phil Sandifer (the writer this post is most indebted to) noted on Tumblr a while back, Swamp Thing #56 explores the possibility of a god like being creating human life, and the comic found the results to be less than promising.
VEIDT: Jon, wait, before you leave… I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.
DR. MANHATTAN: “In the end”? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.
In perhaps the second cruelest irony of Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan’s response invokes, of all things, the opening lines of Spider-Man and Zoids #18: Grant Morrison’s first issue on the comic: “Yeah. I guess the fighting never ends, does it? It never ends.” The character who says this is named Phil, which might make this even crueler. (Though one could argue that line is prefigured by Simon Furman in The Transformers (UK) #99, where Optimus Prime says "But it's not the end is it? It's never the end. It just goes on and on- one battle blurring into the next," making the implications less stinging.)
DAN DREIBERG: “Nite Owl and Silk Spectre”. Sounds neat.
LAURIE JUSPECZYK: “Silk Spectre’s” too girly, y’know? Plus, I want a better costume, that protects me: maybe something leather, with a mask over my face… Also, maybe I oughtta carry a gun.
The cruelest irony is that here, Alan Moore accurately predicts the aesthetic of Rob Leifeld.

This is a bit of a hornets’ nest. On the one hand the storyline of “rape survivor falls in love with her rapist” is a toxic one to say the least. On the other hand, there’s an equally toxic view of perfect survivors and Sally Jupiter cannot be said to be the moral center of Watchmen. Indeed, Jupiter herself is a somewhat problematic figure within the comic, so for her to fall in love with someone as terrible as Blake could work within the structure of Watchmen. But while I think it works on its own, in the end I don’t think this fully works in the context of the story. It feels a bit like redemption of the character, not the least of which due to this being the final word on Blake within Watchmen (save for the recurring image of the bloody smiley face, but that’s more Rorschach’s moment than Blake’s). Though I think my main contention with this moment is that the scene is juxtaposed with the previous note, which has Laurie blatantly try to emulate her father’s costume and style of crime fighting, making it pretty easy to read this moment as Blake being redeemed by the love of two women he hurt. But love isn’t enough. You have to actually change yourself.

(Next Time: How the Hell Did Peter Parker Survive a Bullet to the Head?)

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[Photo: Supergod #1 by Warren Ellis and Garrie Gastonny]

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