|“Watchmen” Chapter V: “Fearful Symmetry”|
I PALINDROME I
Each week until the March release of Warner Bros.’ film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen,” Eisner-Award winning retailers Carr D’Angelo (Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, CA) and Atom! Freeman (Brave New World in Newhall, CA) will review one chapter of the landmark DC Comics graphic novel with a new perspective.
Carr is reading from his “Absolute Watchmen” while Atom! is perusing his well-worn early edition trade paperback. There’s also a full set of original issues handy to settle the questions of what was in the first printing and what wasn’t.
Joining this week’s discussion is Gery Duggan, writer of the Eisner-nominated series “Infinite Horison,” illustrated by Phil Noto.
CHAPTER V: FEARFUL SYMMETRY
ATOM!: Okay, I’ll admit to being the dummy on this one. It wasn’t until very recently that someone pointed out the mirror imagery in this issue. It’s not blatant but the moment you see it, it gives you a whole new respect for both Moore and Gibbons.
GERRY: I too did not realize this issue was perfectly symmetrical my first or probably even my second time through. I think I noticed for the first time in the middle – the big double-pager with Veidt. It’s a very unusual spread in this book – totally breaking away from the established panel pattern. Off the top of my head, I don’t think there’s another two pages in the book like 14 and 15.
CARR: The power of art is that it can evoke a feeling that you don’t understand until much later. That’s how that double-page spread. It was such a break in the format of the book that it annoyed me. But I think that’s how Moore wanted you to feel. Something if wrong here. This is different. The rhythm of the issue is almost like a fugue. It’s symmetrical when you step back and look at it as a whole, but when you are reading it, you are coming in and out of certain repeated motifs.
ATOM!: So, for those of our audience who are reading this with a copy in front of them and have no idea what we’re talking about, open your copy of issue #5 to pages 14 and 15. See how they are laid out as mirror images of each other? Now, lift those two interior pages so that they are in the middle of field of view and you can see pages 12 and 17. Also a mirror image. You can kind of flip back and forth to see that the same is true for 13 and 16. Continue this way and you’ll see that the same is true for 11 and 18, 10 and 19 and so on through the rest of the issue.
1 – 28
2 – 27
3 – 26
4 – 25
5 – 24
6 – 23
7 – 22
8 – 21
9 – 20
12 – 17
13 – 16
GERRY: I’m glad you just explained that. One other thing that might be worth mentioning now is that not only is the panel layout perfectly symmetrical in issue #5 — but the scenes in the panels are a reflection of each other. For example, when Rorschach has the upper hand and he’s bracing Moloch at the top — it’s mirrored later in issue #5 when Rorschach is at a disadvantage: Moloch is dead, and Rorschach is surrounded. [The villain’s] trap is sprung.
One other thought – and I don’t mean to this as a criticism of the film that I haven’t seen: no matter how fine a movie this book will make, this is just one of the things that makes “Watchmen” important to read and examine — not just watch. I suspect the movie will be very good – but we’re discussing an aspect of the comic book that is simply un-adaptable and must be read to be enjoyed.
CARR: Moore clearly has an obsession with the letter V in all its permutations. There were a lot of plays on V in “V for Vendetta” of course and here V is symmetrical. It’s the Roman numeral 5, it’s the victory sign, and the peace sign that President Nixon was famous for making. The hands on the clock approaching midnight are a V, though not a symmetrical one. And a V is also a smile. Dashiell Hammett described Sam Spade’s face as a series of V’s in “The Maltese Falcon.”
ATOM!: It should also be said that for those of you who haven’t looked up Rorschach’s name, it was the name of an influential psychologist who achieved insight into his patient’s psyche by showing them random images and asking them to identify them. By understanding the patient’s image associations, he was able to charge them several hundred dollars (factored for inflation) an hour. He achieved these random images by squirting some ink on one side of a paper, folding it in half and blotting the other side so that both were a mirror image of each other but had no other significance other than their ability for him to charge several hundred dollars (factored for inflation) an hour. This test is now called the Rorschach test and has made many psychologists very, very rich.
CARR: I see a pretty butterfly.
GERRY: The issue’s first reflection is right on the cover. The RumRunner’s neon “double R-X” is reflected in a puddle on a New York City sidewalk.
Pages 1 – 6: Rorschach and Moloch make an omelette
CARR: Hopefully I won’t beat this mirrored point to death, but one easy way to absorb the level of craftsmanship is to look at the first and last pages of this issue. It starts and ends in the same puddle. Both pages are on a nine-panel grid and Rorschach is man that owns these streets at the top, but at the bottom he’s lying in the gutter with his face off. Simply brilliant work by Moore & Gibbons.
It’s almost easier to enjoy the detail in this issue with the trade or floppy, the absolute edition is a cumbersome to be flipping around like this.
Rorschach’s ambush of Moloch is reflection of the scene at the end of issue #2, when Rorschach hides in the fridge. At first, I thought Atom was right and the frozen pizza boxes were supposed to be the clue that the fridge was emptied. But the same pizza boxes are there in issue #2, so I don’t think Moloch went to Ralph’s between issues and re-stocked. Gibbons’s attention to detail is so great that the frozen pizza bothers me. Why? Because that would have been in the freezer, not the main refrigerator compartment.
Pages 7 – 9: Media Inspired, Charging Up, Building a Raft
ATOM!: Another image of happiness with a blood splatter.
CARR: The Buddha represents happiness conceptually but the image of the sun is a yellow circle.
GERRY: Page 7’s poster with a triangle is mirrored on page 21 by the lesbian at the newsstand with a poster of a pink triangle. Interestingly, the owner of the newsstand’s line in the last box on page 21 seems to reference the poster in the last panel of page 7. Up yours, space time continuum!
CARR: There’s also the driver who charges up his truck at the Newsstand. His truck has a purple triangle inside a circle on the side. We’ve seen this truck recharging before. I’m not sure but at this point, I’m inferring that’s the logo for the Institute for Extra-Spatial Studies, which the newsstand is right in front of. We saw the name more clearly in a previous issue. It’s obscured here by the word balloons.
ATOM!: I love the jive talkin’. Get’s me every time.
GERRY: The comic book reader is a young Clay Davis!
GERRY: Page 7 has Snoopy’s first and only appearance in the series on a little girl’s corpse.
CARR: This is where the pirate comic began to work for me. The chilling poetry of “East, borne on the naked backs of murdered men” is something you don’t forget. It’s like Moore was trying to craft the most horrible comic book story he could think of to prepare us for where this story was going. I do believe “Watchmen” pre-dates “Miracleman” #15 and the carnage therein. The last panel of the narrator feeding himself is a familiar design we see through the whole book, hands holding something up to a face: The Comedian’s beatings. Rorschach putting on his mask. It’s another pattern.
ATOM!: Mmmm-mmm gull meat.
Pages 10 – 12: Diner Date, Rorschach’s Neighborhood, Every Damned Link
GERRY: And a nice transition from the gull being eaten to Dan demolishing his delicious bird.
ATOM!: I’ve decided that what Dan is eating is not a drumstick, it’s a drumstick shaped soy product. Otherwise, where is the bone?
GERRY: Maybe Dan starts with the bones?
CARR: In terms of reflections, a lot of this scene–and the symmetrical scene in Dan’s apartment, plays out in the mirror. We get to see Dan’s face and Laurie’s exit at the same time.
ATOM!: Just to prove to Carr that I am paying attention, let me be the one who points out the Aragones-esque background drawings of Rorschach leaving the diner and then digging through the trash.
CARR: You beat me to it. But I will counter with the fact that on page 12, the yellow sail with a black dot and a red streak looks like the smiley button.
ATOM!: Can we start calling these top-knot kids the Banksy gang?
CARR: The image in the center of page 11, the silhouette of the lovers in the alley, always reminded me of the movie poster for “Sid and Nancy.” I think the movie could have been out in England while “Watchmen” was being drawn; it was in Asian film festivals in 1985. Or maybe the silhouettes were an actual fad in British alleyways?
GERRY: These pages are mirrored later with more from the coolest newsstand in NYC, and more from the worst raft ride ever.
Pages 13 – 16: Veidt goes heroic, Centerpoint
ATOM!: We’ve now reached the center of this “Fearful Symmetry.” “Symmetry Fearful” this of center the reached now we’ve.
CARR: The design of everything in Veidt’s building is angular. The elevators form a “V.” Did the secretary have to get shot? What purpose does that serve? And is that an ashtray he uses (notice the V design and the pharoah in the fountain)?
GERRY: The look on the face of the hired goon on page 16 is priceless. It’s more than just the shock of being whipped by a fella in a purple blazer. Gibbons really nails the eyes of a guy that is being murdered right in front of you. But of course, that isn’t apparent until at least your second read.
ATOM!: I’m a bit disturbed that you seem to know that look so well.
CARR: “I want to know who’s behind this” is one of those panels that shows off Moore’s flair for visual puns. Of course, it’s the center panel of the page. And this final moment is the weirdest part: is Veidt dictating a memo to his secretary as she lay bleeding?
ATOM!: I kind of wanted there to be a line from the poor security guard, “Ummm… okay.”
Pages 17 – 19: Here come the sharks, Rorschach goes to work, Dan does not
ATOM!: “I bet there’s all kinda stuff we never notice…until it’s too late.” Translation: Go back and look at that last bit again.
CARR: Crossbones and Xs are a V on top of an upside down V. Seagulls are Vs. Fins are Vs. Kill me now.
ATOM!: Rorschach really is a nutty nutball.
CARR: The Utopia Cinema seems to show science-fiction movies exclusively, like “This Island Earth” and “Things to Come,” neither of which is particularly utopian.
GERRY: Again, just as a point of reflecting here – we’re in the darker half of the issue now, or at least things get worse for everyone in back end – and on page 19, Dan goes to bed without the courage to go take Laurie, whereas on page 10 he had the courage to stand up in the diner and chase after her.
CARR: I want to believe the book next to the bed is “Under the Hood.” But I can’t read the spine.
ATOM!: Poor Dan. Looks like Dr. Manhattan’s not the only one with blue balls.
Pages 20 – 22: Gonna need a bigger flesh raft, GWAR, Raw Shark
ATOM!: With the gulls and now the shark, it’s getting harder to avoid the “Old Man In The Sea” comparison.
GERRY: I just noticed for the first time that the murder book for Edward Blake is symmetrical – it’s 801108!
ATOM!: I stared at that knowing that there was something there. I just didn’t see it.
CARR: These cops are very Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are the Greek chorus repeating, “thre’s a pattern, there’s a pattern”
Pages 23 – 28: Rorschach fell off a wall
GERRY: Unable to use the Charlton characters, Moore and Gibbons created new ones that were reminiscent of the ones they wanted to work with. Rorschach himself a reflection of The Question, a creation of Steve Ditko. Many of Ditko’s characters see the world in terms of black and white; no shades of grey. They’re uncompromising. Rorschach says before his capture that he’ll “Never surrender.” As I got to know more about Steve Ditko, I came to appreciate more details like this in the character of Kovacs/Rorschach.
ATOM!: Now that we’ve seen his face, I wanted to talk about how individual the “Watchmen” reading experience is for everyone who reads it. As I said earlier, this is the first reading where I was conscious of the symmetrical page layout and story points. I think it was on our last column that one of the comments from a reader obviously hadn’t realized that the red-headed sign carrier was Rorschach. And yet for both of us, I’d be willing to bet, the experience was still pretty full. There’s so much here, that even if you don’t pick up on all of it, you’re still getting more than your money’s worth.
GERRY: The unmasking of Rorschach was the first time I think my forward progress in the book was stopped cold. I had to go back and see where else I had seen him. Despite looking for him after the reveal – I’m sure that I missed him on the first page for many years. And the last line of this perfectly symmetrical composition is “Everything balances.” Indeed.
CARR: Atom! mentioned the trashcan mail drop earlier, and that was a key moment for me. You react by going, “No, it can’t be” and then you recognize the red hair and you prove it is Rorachach by backtracking every scene with the End-is-Nigh guy. He follows Moloch from the funeral and all the other background bits. It’s another example of the way the movie will be limited. There’s an actor cast as Rorschach so unless it’s an unrecognizable makeup job, some people will recognize the actor before the reveal.
Treasure Island Treasury of Comics Chapter 5
ATOM!: The goal here is pretty obvious: show a history of comics where “Seduction Of The Innocent” was just a blip because there were actual superheroes. Which, in turn, causes American comics to change obsessions to pirates. I’d love to read some of these fictional works of fiction.
GERRY: Love the bits of real history here. Joe Orlando, EC. By the way, the missing writer of “The Black Freighter” will turn up later – keep your eyes peeled.
CARR: Can I be continuity geek here? The excerpt indicates that “Tales of the Black Freighter” was finished way before October 1985, when the “Watchmen” story starts. The writer quit after issue #31, but “Marooned,” the story we are actually reading in the pages of “Watchmen,” was from issues #23 and #24. Maybe what the Kid is reading are reprint comics, like Marvel’s ’70s horror comics and DC’s “Strange Adventures.”
ATOM!: Sometimes you scare me a little.
GERRY: Well, thanks for the excuse to bump “Watchmen” back to the top of my reading pile. I had a lot of fun, thanks again – cheers
ATOM!: Thank you, Gerry. Don’t forget, folks, someday we’ll see another issue of “Infinite Horizon” and you’ll be able to buy yours at your local comics shop, or you could just sit at your local newsstand and read it. Who knows? You might even get a free hat out of the deal!
Gerry Duggan was born in New York City and raised in New Jersey. After graduating Emerson College he settled in Los Angeles and began writing comic books and television. Last year Gerry re-teamed with his “The Last Christmas” writing partner Brian Posehn for a tale in Bongo’s “Treehouse of Horror XIII.”
Carr D’Angelo is a member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. and co-owner of Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, California, the 2007 winner of the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award. Visit them online at: http://www.earth2comics.com.
Atom! Freeman co-owns Brave New World Comics (2008 winner of the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award) in Santa Clarita with his wife Portlyn. Since Watchmen came out the first time, he’s lived in 10 different houses, had 5 different jobs, got married, bought a business and had a son. Read it today and maybe you can, too.
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