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“God Exists and He’s American” — Thoughts Upon Re-Reading Watchmen

March 4th, 2009

I’ve been torn as to whether to recommend to my friends who aren’t already into comic books that they should go and read Watchmen.  On the one hand, it is unquestionably one of (if not the) greatest graphic novels of all time.  On the other hand, would someone who’s never seen a movie before really appreciate Citizen Kane?

I have read Watchmen scores of times.  Part of its brilliance is the incredible depth of its detail — upon each re-reading I always notice new things, new details, new connections.  If you are going to take the plunge and sample Watchmen for the first time (and, you know what, forget what I wrote in the first paragraph — if you haven’t read Watchmen you should go find a copy to read RIGHT NOW) or if, like me, you’re considering re-reading it in anticipation of the upcoming movie adaptation, then here are some things to watch out for while (re-)reading:

Mirroring and (fearful) Symmetry in WatchmenWatchmen is replete with the repetition of images.  This device is used to draw connections, visually, between otherwise disparate scenes and ideas.  Obviously, any fan can recognize the iconic image of the smiley face with the splotch of blood, but have you really noticed just how often that image repeats and repeats throughout the story?  Take a look at the owlship in the last panel of issue 2, page 17; the sun in the center of the Buddha poster in the last panel of issue 5, page 7; Laurie wiping a smudge in the window in panel 7 of issue 7, page 1; the electric socket at the bottom of issue 12, page 6; the covers of issues 7, 10, and 11… and so many more examples.  Slightly less iconic but no less striking is the repetition of the composition of the panel that shows the Comedian’s face, right before being thrown out the window, in panel 3 of issue 1, page 3.  Take a look of that image, and then check out panel 8 of issue 2, page 21, and panel 4 of issue 2, page 22.  Look familiar?

Repetition and symmetry figure heavily into the stories and backgrounds of many of the main characters.  Consider chapter V, titled “Fearful Symmetry,” that focuses on Rorschach.  Obviously, the chapter title is a clue, but look deeper.  The entire issue is symmetrical in its composition and color, with the first panel of the first page almost identical to the last panel of the last page, then working forwards/backwards, panel-by-panel, towards the middle of the issue.  Pretty cool, no?  Consider also the symmetrical nature of the many inkblots (rorschach tests) that the character is tested with in the following chapter.

Then there is Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan).  He has evolved beyond linear time, experiencing every moment of his life simultaneously.  Possibly my favorite chapter of Watchmen is chapter IV, titled “Watchmaker,” in which the reader is presented with Jon’s life the way he experiences it — circling from the past to the future to the present and back again, round and round.  The title Watchmen seems to be, on the surface, referring to the idea of superheroes — they are supposed to be our watchmen, but in this deconstructionist work their failings are laid bare.  But the title Watchmen can also be interpreted as drawing out attention to these ideas about symmetry and repetition in life and in this particular graphic novel.  This helps us explain the following notable example of repetition:

Clocks and Watches in Watchmen — Throughout the graphic novel, the visuals and the prose constantly draw our attention to images of timepieces.  The clock image that begins each chapter ticks one minute closer to midnight as the story progresses.  Jon’s father was a watchmaker (and as just mentioned, that is the title of chapter IV, which examines his life).  That issue also includes a significant reference to the famous Time magazine cover of the damaged pocket-watch that was stopped at the instant of the Hiroshima blast.  As the psychiatrist Dr. Long shares an awkward meal with his wife and friends, a ticking time-piece can be seen in the foreground (panels 7 and 8 of issue 6, page 27).  There is even the headline of the paper on Ozymandias’ desk in panel 4 of issue 1, page 18.  

What is the meaning on this focus on time, and on clocks and watches?  As I suggested above, it could be one way of emphasizing the story’s focus on symmetry and repetition.  But I think there’s a deeper question being raised.

God and Watchmen — In panel 7 of issue 4, page 2, Jon considers his life and the trajectories of the stars in the heavens, and states, “I am trying to give a name to the force that set them in motion.”  Later in that chapter (on pages 27 & 28), Jon wonders, “Who makes the world?”  Is it all “a clock without a craftsman?”  These questions of belief and faith are, I believe, at the heart of the story being told.

Throughout Watchmen, there are constant references to the changes that the existence of superheroes has wrought upon the world.  The U.S. used its super-powered heroes to help win the war in Vietnam and rescue the Iranian hostages, actions which then lead to an escalating Cold War with Russia and a developing nuclear showdown.  We see evidence of new technologies that appeared because of Dr. Manhattan — electric cars, the omnipresent blimps traveling across the skylines of the world’s cities, etc.  But far from feeling safer, the existence of superheroes has lead to a growing sense of fear and uncertainty in many.  The text piece after issue 4 discusses the unease that came with people’s acceptance of powerful superheroes such as Dr. Manhattan.  His existence “deformed the lives of every living creature on the face of the planet.”  Many people did not respond that well when learning that “everything [they’ve] ever known to be a fact is probably untrue.”  

Many people across the world today struggle with issues of faith and belief in God.  How would one’s faith be tested in a world where, as Dr. Milton Glass states in the issue 4 text-piece, “God Exists, and he’s American”? (By the way, I really hope that line makes it into the movie!!)  I think this is the central question to which all of this watch-imagery is trying to draw our attention.  Is Dr. Manhattan God?  How does a world that contains such miracles and such horrors affect one’s belief in God?  

Rorschach has his answer.  “God was not there,” he says, recalling the horrible moment that has defined his life, and his identity as Rorschach (issue 6, page 26).  Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan’s quest, with Laurie, to answer this question for himself leads directly into the climactic events of the graphic novel.  What is your answer, Watchmen asks of its readers?

Although I have gone on at great length about the above notions, these are just a FEW of the many layers found within this great work.  I could have also written many paragraphs on the questions raised by the way the heroic characters of Watchmen are constantly undermined, or whether text pieces such as the excerpts from Hollis Mason’s Under The Hood support or counterpoint what seems to be the main story’s thesis that anyone who’d dress up as a superhero must be either a fascist or a pervert.  I could have written about any one of a hundred other different themes/questions/ideas like those that can be found within this story.  There are a lot of layers to the onion that is Watchmen!  

But these are the ideas that I was thinking about on my latest read-though, and I wanted to share.  What issues within Watchmen most interest you?  Will any of these layers and sub-layers make it into the film that is coming our way in just a few more days?  I certainly hope so!  But whether they do or don’t, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ towering work will remain as one of the finest graphic novels of our time, an effort that shows us everything that the comic book form is capable of.  If you’ve never read it, I think now’s the time!

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