Tuesday, June 11, 2013

More Moore part 18: Watchmen chapters 7-9

Watchmen chapters 7-9 (1987)

By Watchmen's second half, the structure of plot-centric odd chapters and worldbuilding even chapters runs out of steam. Briefly, Moore reverses the trend and has an odd-numbered flashback chapter or two, but even that doesn't last. I don't know if this is intentional or not, but it fits in well with the breakdown that's going on with the characters as well; things are becoming less structured, more haphazard and chaotic, from the plot down to the chapters themselves. What was once crystalline and structured is becoming more organic, more disheveled. Once we lose the 9-panel grid, that's when you really have to start worrying.

The one character who never gets a flashback chapter is Nite Owl. In a way, that's okay because it's doubtful he needs one; the man now known as Dan Dreiberg has fewer psychological problems than the rest of the cast, and his origin story is equally without flourish: Dan simply comes off as the superhero fan who went a step further, the boy who looked up to the costumed fighters of the '40s, and when they put their mantles down, he used his inheritance money to put his own mantle on. Despite the lack of backstory, chapter seven is Nite Owl's chapter, in which his formerly unrequited feelings for Laurie Juspeczyk, the Silk Spectre, are finally made manifest. Of course, Dreiberg can't escape from even his comparatively tame neuroses, and in chapter seven we see his fetishization for his superhero identity made manifest in his inability to perform sexually until both he and Laurie are be-costumed. Dan is sweet and kind, doughy and uncomfortable, and he has a strong sense of justice and the need to do the right thing, without being as deranged as Rorschach. I don't see many fans extolling the virtues of Nite Owl like they do the man with the ink-blot face, which is too bad because he seems the most relatable; in this cast of lunatic misfits, Dan is the comic book fan in all of us. And after his coupling with Laurie, floating through the clouds in his owl-craft Archie, his decision to spring Rorschach from prison is the first moment worthy of our cheers in the whole story, over halfway through. The band's getting back together after all.

Chapter eight, 'Old Ghosts', is a chaotic, dense mess of a work, most assuredly intentionally so. The plot bounces around between Hollis Mason in his junkyard, Dan and Laurie in Dan's basement, the (still-ineffective) 'Tales of the Black Freighter' comic, the offices of right-wing newspaper The New Frontiersman, a mysterious island art collective, and Rorschach is prison, as a riot foments, boils over, and explodes moments before Dan and Laurie arrive to spring him. The momentum is tangible, with the 9 panel grid ticking down the moments between all the plot threads, cutting back and forth from inmates threatening Rorschach to Nite Owl and Silk Spectre rushing to the scene to save him. Of course, Rorschach hardly needs saving himself, and on the outbreak of the riot he dispatches three of his attackers bloodily. As the novel becomes less about deconstructing superhero themes and more about an exciting superhero comic, a lot of Moore and Gibbons' literary tricks start to fade into the background, and this is the first chapter I really noticed a lack of that poetic meter so strong in the early chapters; the colors don't alternate panel to panel, the scenes don't tick bath and forth. Instead the transitions are haphazard and random, like the nature of the riot itself. If the early chapters were a structured, metered poem like, say, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, then 'Old Ghosts' is The Waste Land, and no weaker because of it. Eventually the power in the prison goes out and the panels are bathed in harsh reds and blacks, which only helps to disguise the blood left in Rorschach's wake.

After the prison break, Laurie is confronted by Dr. Manhattan, who spirits her off to Mars, and then Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, is beaten to death by gang members who mistake him for Dreiberg and assume his complicity in the prison riot. Here we do see some of that old poetry again, as the panels alternate between Hollis attacked n the present and sepia-toned flashbacks of Hollis' fights in the '40s and '50s, great pastiches of golden and silver age comics with typical '50s moon men and '40s Nazis, Hollis backed up by a canine companion (Owl Dog?) even as the thugs finally overtake him in the present. If there was only one problem with the movie version of Watchmen, more so than the removal of any psychic squid beings, it's that Hollis' death was left on the cutting-room floor. It's such a sad, touching scene, not to mention an important scene for Dan's character, as Hollis was indirectly killed because of something Dan did, and like any good classical tragedy, Dan never realizes that was the case. The scene is a perfect example of pathos in comic storytelling, and one of those moments that really made me realize for the first time that maybe these books have something more to tell. Finally, the backup is an article from The New Frontiersman, and makes a brief mention of missing artists, including pirate-comic scribe Max Shea. It's just a small thing now, but it will have greater significance in the future.

Lastly we have chapter nine, 'The Darkness of Mere Being'. If chapter seven explored the relationship between Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk, this chapter deals with the relationship between Laurie and Jon Osterman, the man who became Dr. Manhattan, as well as functioning as an origin story for Laurie. Laurie is unique in that, among the main characters, she's the only one who has no precedent in the old Charlton comics, but instead was invented just for the plot. She's the pageant daughter of the superhero community, forced into the life by her overbearing superhero mother, who Laurie now both cares for and resents in equal measure. In the '60s, Laurie, then 16, was swept up in awe for Dr. Manhattan and fell for him hard, causing a rift between Jon and his then-girlfriend Janey Slater, which helped make Slater lash out at him so bitterly in the present when Jon exiled himself to Mars. As always, Moore's pieces fall into place slowly but very, very perfectly.

But this chapter is troubling as well, for reasons I briefly mentioned back in chapter two: Jon and Laurie debate the point of going back to an Earth which Jon sees as not worth his attention anymore, despite his non-standard perception of time telling him that there will be a horrible catastrophe befalling the world soon. In trying to reason with him, Laurie triggers her own memories of her unhappy childhood, her mother and father fighting, and comes to realize that she is not her father's daughter, but in fact the daughter of The Comedian, Eddie Blake. Blake, you may recall, raped Laurie's mother back in chapter two, and apparently their relationship continued afterward and led to Laurie's conception.

I've mentioned it before, but Moore had a bad tendency, especially in the '80s, of using rape as a plot device (just off the top of my head, I think we've had 4 or 5 rapes so far, and we've only read 7 novels), but this is the most uncomfortable of them all because the plot dictates that Sally Juspeczyk fall in love with her rapist, and they have a child together. I still maintain that I don't feel Moore is misogynist, and others have claimed, and he's not just using rape as a cheap shock, as Laurie herself is sickened as much as the reader is by her revelation. That fact is that Sally is a complex character, and like everyone else in Watchmen, there's more to it than black and white, as she stated herself back in chapter two, long before we knew what she meant by it. Thankfully Moore gets all this rape out of his system soon enough, but it certainly does lend 'The Darkness of Mere Being' a more uncomfortable quality than expected. It's this revelation however, that despite all odds Sally Juspeczyk and a man she had every right to hate created life together, that convinced Jon that perhaps there are things worth saving in the land of the living, and the chapter ends with them heading home. But is it enough?


Best quote: "...And there was this toy, this snowstorm ball, with a tiny castle inside, except it was like a whole world, a world inside the ball/It was like a little glass bubble of somewhere else/I lifted it, starting a blizzard. I knew it wasn't real snow, but I couldn't understand how it fell so slowly/I figured the inside of the ball was some different sort of time/Slow time/...And inside there was only water."


Up next: It's not enough, in Watchmen chapters 10-12

1 comment:

  1. I assume that the reason people tend to champion Rorschach more than Nite Owl is because Nite Owl *is* more relatable. People tend to love fictional characters that are more extreme than everyman characters, no matter how likable the ordinary guy is. (That's how it seems to me, anyway.)