Watchmen #2: Absent Friends
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn and lettered by Dave Gibbons
Coloured by John Higgins
Ah, Watchmen. The comic book that defines all others, and if you’re a comic book reader has likely defined much of your fandom. If not, it’s at least been regularly recommended to you throughout your life as a “must read” book, one that can’t be missed, one that changed the face of comics forever. That latter statement is irrevocably true, though many of us would argue that it was not necessarily for the better. As a precocious preteen I read the book like a bible until it was dogeared, with its hallowed pages coming loose at the bindings. But as I grew older I began to question the place of Watchmen on its gilded pedestal, and much of that began with a reread of the second issue when I began to collect the floppies around seven years ago.
Where Watchmen #1 established the wider universe and major players of the comic, this entry begins by focusing on Laurie and her mother Sally Jupiter, who at different times both took on the superhero mantle of the Silk Spectre. At first it seems almost radical to have such a large part of a cape book focused on two women and their interior lives, one of whom is older so not deemed conventionally attractive. The reality, though, is it’s the weakest part of the 12 chapter series and highlights Moore’s well documented problems with writing women. Watchmen #2 manages to play into almost every problematic trope around female characters, whilst always being tantalisingly close to seeming profound or at least enlightening without ever actually achieving either.
Like every issue of Watchmen, John Higgins’ colors make everything more palatable, whether it’s the attempted rape of Sally or the horrific murder of a nameless pregnant Vietnamese woman at the hands of the rapist, The Comedian. When I read the issue I’ve always wandered over Higgins palettes and detail – seeing his original color pages in person at London’s cartooning museum was a formative moment for me – though as I read Watchmen now I find myself thinking that maybe I’d have preferred a less attractive and innovative visual landscape for unabashed displays of misogyny.
It’s not a fully formed thought, but for example there’s something about the rawness and even objective ugliness of Frank Miller’s more problematic work that seems to say: warning! This comic is exactly what it looks like, it’s upsetting and painful and jagged and confused. Lynn Varley’s astonishing colors are a compliment, bringing out that dynamism of Miller’s lines but never softening their blow. Higgins, on the other hand, is like the proverbial velvet glove making the violence that Blake doles out on the women beautiful and tragic, which elevates a common problem that Moore has often struggled with in his work.
Like anything, there’s a complexity and nuance here. I adore Moore despite his problems, but there’s a palpable misogyny that creeps through his work even if there’s a magic in the stories that he can tell, a density and wholeness to the characters and spaces which I’ve rarely found in his contemporaries. Yet for the women in his stories that very roundness often comes from trauma, and Watchmen, in particular issue #2, is a profound example of how for a period Moore could only conceive white women as powerful if they’d been horribly traumatized. And like so many of his peers, he would use women of color as fodder to prove a point – in this case how abjectly awful Edward Blake truly was.
Issue #2 centers around Edward Blake’s funeral after his murder in the first chapter. It’s a solemn affair, and Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins use the ceremony to juxtapose the heroes’ celebratory military send off with the often disgusting actions of his past. This immediately offers up a quandary about the value of the women who he brutalized. Though we get a look at their experiences through flashback, they’re for all intents and purposes only given that space so that the audience is sure of just how badly Edward has behaved.
Of course, that message is not necessarily one that will be taken on by the reader, and history has proven that as Watchmen is a notoriously misunderstood book with both Rorschach and the Comedian seen as anti-heroes rather than morally corrupt, power-mad men. It’s a problem that even the cast of the film adaptation had; I remember coming across a documentary on the DVD of Watchmen where the cast seemed to have a sympathetic view of the character. I couldn’t find it to source it, though I did find multiple quotes from the Comedian himself, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, professing kind thoughts about Edward Blake.
In a 2009 interview with Collider, Morgan said this about the controversial character:
“Even when he shoots the pregnant woman in Vietnam in the face, you might go ‘that’s a little bit too much Mr. Comedian,’ but at the same time you don’t ever end up hating the Comedian. It’s very interesting because like I said, first glance I was like, well this guy’s just, he’s just horrible, no morals whatsoever. But at the same time he’s a superhero, he’s out there trying to do good.”
This clear misunderstanding that has decades later become the culturally accepted reading seems to dispute the common idea that showing the misogynistic violence of a man will make the audience (other men) think that they’re corrupt or distinctly bad.
Personally, Blake’s characterization in the comic makes him unpalatable and vile, but even Moore seems to argue that he’s just a flawed man who has made mistakes. This issue features Sally and Laurie discussing Blake and his actions, with the former defending the man who beat and assaulted her, even claiming to love him. Moore seems to present this as proof of another side of Blake whereas to me it just seems like the Stockholm syndrome side of the cycle of domestic abuse that so many of us have suffered and survived.
It’s also vital to remember that Watchmen stems from the murder of Blake, the only man honest enough to be horrified by Adrian’s master plan – until Rorschach, the book’s other unintentional anti-hero – so despite what Moore might have wanted them to represent, he ended up making them the moral core of his book.
This was a lesson that Moore apparently learned later in life, though, saying this about Rorschach in a much cited (but now taken down) video interview with LeJorne Pindling of Street Law Productions in 2008:
“I wanted to kind of make this like, ‘Yeah, this is what Batman would be in the real world.’ But I had forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans that smelling, not having a girlfriend–these are actually kind of heroic. So actually, sort of, Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I meant him to be a bad example, but I have people come up to me in the street saying, ‘I am Rorschach! That is my story!’ And I’ll be thinking, ‘Yeah, great, can you just keep away from me and never come anywhere near me again for as long as I live?'”
I guess this whole piece is about intention and whether it matters or not. I do believe that Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins were attempting to subvert the conventions of comics and all the baggage that came with them. Issue #2 is proof to me that intention is never really enough, and the nuance that is lost when you don’t question the possible readings of your story can come with dangerous ramifications, like readers seeing a rapist and murderer as a hero, or idolizing the very person you wrote as a warning to them.
Seeing as I’m writing this piece, I’ll finish on this point that I don’t talk about enough. As much as I enjoy Moore’s work, including Watchmen, I’ve always resented how easily men will suggest I read a comic which features a violent rape and misogynistic murder, declaring it a work of genius without ever wondering how it feels to be told that the best works of art focus on our trauma.
It’s interesting to contrast Watchmen, which is often held up as the most radical of ’80s comics, with the more “standard” superhero offerings of the time. Years before Alan had Sally and Laurie sidelined in their own story, Storm was the leader of the X-Men, a black female superhero in a lead role in mainstream big two book – which also has many flaws – is something Watchmen never even thought to touch on or even try to subvert. So, really I suppose the question is: what is worth touching on, who is worth writing, and what is worth celebrating? Going from issue #2 alone, Watchmen is a book which showed the worst side of men and was lauded for it without critically thinking about how those actions would inform or impact readers.
Rosie Knight’s writing on comics has been seen absolutely everywhere! Nerdist, WomenWriteAboutComics, The MNT, Hollywood Reporter, IGN. You can find her website here, and her twitter account here.
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Really enjoyed reading your take on Watchmen and specifically #2.
I for one, never saw The Comedian as heroic. But, I think one of the best things about Moore’s work, is that his characters are complex. No one is 100% evil or 100% good. Obviously, The Comedian is more morally corrupt than good; but Moore is able to show both sides. As you clearly wrote (and I completely agree with you), that doesn’t make The Comedian someone to relate to or praise as a hero (or anti-hero).
Just wanted to let you know that there are white-men out there, who completely agree with your assessment of The Comedian as a character.