Wednesday, July 3, 2013
More Moore part 19: Watchmen chapters 10-12
"After so much music, love, and flowers, she felt benumbed/Thunder struck by this psychedelic Götterdämmerung." - M. Torgoff
By chapter ten, Watchmen is in a free-fall. The crystal that formed the first half of the book, that began to shatter in the early going of the second, has turned organic, a spectracolored mess of pulp and bone. The shifts and changes are still there, but they're frantic, schizophrenic, slipping from the muddy browns and reds of Rorschach and Nite Owl in Archie to the garish carnival colors of Ozymandias' Antarctic retreat. When Tales of the Black Freighter appears unannounced among the creeping paranoia, it takes a moment to register that we've gone into a different comic; the main character's ragged, hurried stares don't look much different than Rorschach's near-catatonia. Now instead of the meter ticking back and forth between scenes and colors like a metronome, each scene has its own individual palette, saturated in reds and browns, browns and purples, or blues and yellows. Thematically, chapter ten is the journey to finally discover who killed Edward Blake, and put to rest the mystery that had begun in the second panel of the first chapter. And that the reveal is so anti-climactic I have no doubt is part of Ozymandias' game: once Ozy is revealed to be the killer, he starts to talk...and talk...and talk... to anyone who will listen, and I have no doubt that he engineered Rorschach and Nite Owl to find the one thread in his plan just so he had someone to brag to. I'm almost surprised that he didn't leave the password already entered on the computer, just waiting for Daniel to hit enter.
Ozy's biggest speeches come in chapter eleven, 'Look on my Works, Ye Mighty' which mostly functions as his origin issue, and most certainly is the wordiest chapter of the entire novel. Ozymandias tells his story, first to his beloved pet Bubastis, then to his servants as he drugs their drinks to keep their spirits in his fortress forever, and finally to Rorschach and Nite Owl as they arrive and are quickly pacified by the Smartest Man in the World. Ozymandias' plot is simple: he removed Dr. Manhattan from the equation to ratchet up world tension, and then teleported a fake alien into New York as a sort of organic atomic bomb, as an invasion from outer space to deflate the tension, hopefully permanently. In the world of 'realistic' comic books this strikes one as absurd, but it's also a perfect comic book scheme, something a pulp villain would try to do to take over the world, but instead done by a delusional superhero to try and bully the world powers into peace. And because Ozymandias is a pulp villain planted into the real world, he doesn't blab his plan to the heroes, giving them time to stop it...he already carried it out before they even arrived (I always liked the fact that, if you pay attention, you can see him teleport the creature away at the very beginning of the chapter, no ceremony, not even any dialog...a finger on a button and it's done).
And of course the ridiculous part of all of this is the fact that it works. Rorschach and Nite Owl find themselves completely helpless at the end of chapter eleven, and chapter twelve opens with six beautiful full-page illustrations of New York in utter ruins, the creature's psychic shockwaves having killed millions. Among the wreckage you can see several minor characters we've grown to know, charred and lifeless, and if the pages don't quite reach the level of horror seen at the climax of Marvelman, it's that recognition that sets it apart: Marvelman is a story about gods, and Watchmen is a story about men. While Kid Marvelman's rampage was unspeakably vicious, it was against the faceless population of London. Here we can see the two Bernies, Rorschach's psychiatrist, knot-tops, a Gunga Diner waitress, the fighting lesbian couple...even as Ozymandias claims that killing millions will save billions, we see people we recognize among the throngs of dead, and we know that his methods are unforgivable. However, as news reports flood in, there's no question that Ozy's fix worked, if only temporarily...the nations are laying down their arms to defend against an attack from the unknown.The world was swindled into peace. Rorschach, absolutionist that he is, would never live such a lie of course, and so he's permanently removed from the equation. Everyone else assumes new identities and moves on with their lives.
But is it enough? One of my favorite scenes, and among the biggest disappointments that they cut it from the movie, was Ozymandias' final conversation with Dr. Manhattan. The World's Smartest Man asks the story's one true superhuman if he made the right choice, if the fighting is really over, and Dr. Manhattan, the being that experiences time fractally, intones that 'nothing ever ends'. It humanizes Adrian, strips him of his ego in the very last scene he's featured in, and shows us a man that, underneath the posturing and speeches and grand plans, really does want to help the world. That it was cut from the movie damaged Ozy's character irreparably, because it's the only time we see Adrian Veidt as he truly is. And of course Dr. Manhattan's final words set up the last panels of the novel, with one of the survivors of the attack about to put his hand on Rorschach's journal, which spells Ozy's whole scheme out page by page. But even if he picked it up, would anyone believe it? Or is all of Ozymandias' planning about to crumble before the dust has even settled?
We're nearly 30 years on since Watchmen was published, and countless numbers of clones have sprung up. Yet the story is still visceral and urgent. It still is all sharp edges and teeth. The dialog is still shocking, and the clones that have come since still pale in comparison to the one true king. Watchmen is a reflection of Marvelman, Moore's first foray into the graphic novel realm: each book is a treatise on what happens when the superhuman is out of control among the human, when Gods play sport with men. Marvelman sets its sights loftily, with the Gods in their palaces, looking on the men as playthings, whereas Watchmen is a view from the gutter, the men among the filth trying helplessly to stop the Gods. It may be that all these years later, to look at Watchmen with contempt is in vogue: no king can reign for so long without attracting those who claim he's been naked this entire time. The movie, all sound and fury signifying nothing, didn't help matters either (though there's little more enjoyable than the 3.5 hour long 'Ultimate Cut', a large bottle of something potent, and several friends who love the novel. A night well-had by all). But still to this day, when I crack open Watchmen, I am impressed by, even with all the 80s political caricature, its sense of timelessness. The king isn't dead yet, and may he live long.
Best quote: "But you'd regained interest in human life..."
"Yes I have. I think perhaps I'll create some."
Up next: Alan says good-bye to DC's first 50 years in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?