Tuesday, May 28, 2013
More Moore part 17: Watchmen chapters 4-6
Even after the excellent first three chapters of Watchmen, chapters 4-6 prove to be a strong point, both in the novel and in Moore's oeuvre in general, with two incredible 'origin' chapters sandwiching a chapter that plays with the musical structure of the novel and provides us with a sudden...and suspicious...action sequence. The writing is top-notch, compelling and philosophical, and the characters waxing about the nature of time and evil will leave you thinking long after you close the pages. Like any novel, some parts of Watchmen are stronger than others, but when the word 'masterpiece' is thrown around like so much confetti, just thinking about chapters 4, 5, and 6 make me think that they're not too far off.
Things start off strong with chapter four, 'Watchmaker', the origin story of the atomic-powered Doctor Manhattan. The Doctor went into Martian self-exile the last chapter, and in 'Watchmaker' we experience his past, present, and future simultaneously, Manhattan's sense of time compressed to a quantum level where everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen occurs at once. From a narrative standpoint this is genius and in Moore's hands it works where a lesser writer might stumble, Dr. Manhattan alone in the Martian wasteland contemplating how it is he came to this point, experiencing the events for the first time even as he remembers them as distant memories, giving us contemplative, eloquent captions:
"The photograph is in my hand/It is the photograph of a man and a woman. They are at the amusement park, 1959./In twelve seconds time, I drop the photograph to the sand at my feet, walking away. It's already lying there, twelve seconds into the future."
To this reader, the main theme of Watchmen is one of powerlessness: all strata of the protagonists, from Rorschach breaking thug's fingers on the street to Ozymandias manipulating the world's events to force peace, are in the end totally unable to alter the flow of events (depending on your interpretation of the ending, at least. And that's mine). By having Doctor Manhattan experience time on a quantum level, Moore, in a very real, simple way completely depowers a seemingly godlike character; if he experiences all time simultaneously, Manhattan, for all his omnipotence, is unable to alter ANY events, as to him everything that will ever happened already has. Manhattan says as much to his girlfriend Janey Slater when confronted about not preventing the Kennedy assassination:
"I can't prevent the future. To me, it's already happening."
Around this time Moore showed his ability in humanizing omnipotent characters, both with Doctor Manhattan here and Superman in his "For the Man Who Has Everything", proving that you don't need to literally depower these characters to make them relatable, you just need to put them in situations where their powers are inconsequential, and that is precisely what Manhattan's situation does to him. When one knows the future to be unalterable, one really is trapped by the prison of fate, and for all of Doctor Manhattan's supreme powers, he's just as helpless as everybody else in Moore's world. The chapter ends with with the blue glowing Manhattan building a crystalline palace from the Martian sand, a scene which should bring waves of nostalgia to anyone who read through Swamp Thing's similar exile in Book V of that series.
After the quantum poetry of 'Watchmaker' comes chapter five, 'Fearful Symmetry', which is our 'plot-centric' chapter today. In it, Rorschach continues his investigation into The Comedian's death, Silk Spectre finds a temporary living situation with Night Owl, and Ozymandias is attacked by an assassin. The beauty of the chapter is in the titular symmetry: it's arranged like an artistic palindrome, with the panel layouts mirroring each other both in style and color, taking the alternatingly colored panels of the first few chapters to their natural, logical conclusion. The plot builds to the center of the chapter, where a gorgeous half-splash page takes up three panels on both pages depicting Ozymandias fighting back against his assailant. The fight scene feels like a release after four and a half chapters of buildup, and afterward it almost feels disconcerting: Watchmen deconstructs superhero tropes, it doesn't reenforce them, and a big flashy battle like this comes out of left field more than anything else so far. Compared to the grime and the grit surrounding it, a rich man beating off a thug in his glittering skyscraper feels so artificial, and in retrospect it's the first sign that something is rotten in the state of Mr. Veidt. The fight feels staged because, as we'll find out later, it is...nothing comes so easily in Moore's beaten-down world.
The other big scene in chapter five is Rorschach's bumbling attempt to flee the police after he's framed for the murder of small-time villain Moloch. Now this is more like a Watchmen action scene...despite his best efforts, Rorschach's attempt to flee the cops are doomed from the start, as unlike Ozy and his planted thug, Rorschach is just a man, and he's outnumbered and outgunned immediately. His fight is sloppy and flailing, the last ditch effort of a man who refuses to give in, a sentiment which will one day be taken up by Gail Simone in the wonderful ending of Secret Six as well. And like the doomed plans of Bane and Scandal Savage, Rorschach is quickly and handily taken into custody, his mask torn from his face, screaming like a madman, the panels mirror-images of the ones that began the chapter.
Rorschach's ordeal continues into the sixth chapter, 'The Abyss Gazes Also', his origin story with a framing story of a psychological examination. Rorschach is easily the most popular character in the series: as a moral absolutionist who refuses to give in, "even in the face of Armageddon", and it helps that his starring chapter is among the best in the whole novel. In it, we see the transformation from generic costumed crimefighter Walter Kovacs into the disturbed Rorschach. This has become a common trope since: The crimefighter witnesses a side of humanity so dark that s/he retreats into the costumed identity, supplanting the 'citizen' identity for the mask itself. I have no idea if Watchmen did it first, but it certainly perfected it; 'The Abyss Gazes Also' is a taut, enthralling chapter, the black heart of Watchmen, the center of the story that beats black blood into the veins of the other chapters. Rorschach's tale of the blackness in the human heart came out of nowhere in 1987, except maybe Marvelman, and even Marvelman dealt more with things beyond the sphere of humankind. 'The Abyss Gazes Also' is entirely about the human condition, and what happens when that condition goes down alleyways of darkness never thought possible, how damaged it comes out on the other side. Rorschach's psychologist doesn't make the trip either, and the chapter ends with him staring at a Rorschach blot in the darkness, unable to shake the black seed Rorshach's tale planted into him. Heavy stuff, indeed.
The backup to chapter six is the psychologist's file on Rorschach, and I bring it up just for a small mention at the end: in a paper entitled 'My Parents' from when Walter Kovacs was eleven, he mentions his respect for President Truman, because, "He dropped the atom bomb on Japan and saved millions of lives because if he hadn't, then there would of been a lot more war than there was and more people would of been killed." Seems that young Walter was more receptive to the idea of a few losses to save many, something that will turn out to not be the case with Rorschach later in the story.
Best quote: "Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later./Born from oblivion, bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion./There is nothing else./.../This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not god who kills children. Not fate that butchers them, or destiny that feeds them to the dogs./It's us./Only us."
Up next: "One-nothing. Your move."