Watchmen #5: Fearful Symmetry
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn and lettered by Dave Gibbons with Joe Orlando
Coloured by John Higgins
Apart from superheroes existing, the world of Watchmen isn’t too different to ours. The government’s corrupt, everybody’s a cynic, the world is on the brink of destruction, and America has a fucked-up colonizer mindset. So what if Nixon stayed in office? It’s all the same. It’s a mirror to our world.
Mirrors are the central motif of issue 5, titled “Fearful Symmetry”. The entire issue reflects back on itself. The panel layouts of the first and last page mirror each other. The page layout of the last page is the same as the first page, but reversed. The same is true for the penultimate page and the second page. This carries through the issue culminating in the double page spread in the center.
The panel layouts turn on pages 14 and 15, where Veidt’s assistant is killed and he fights off an apparent attacker – maybe the same one who killed The Comedian. The panels are the same size and shape on pages 14 and 15, only reflected to opposite sides. This is even more apparent in the looming V of Veidt Industries in the background, another ominous mirrored symbol. For a series full of symbols and literary references, it’s funny that the middle of issue 5 turns on a big V (the Roman numeral for 5).
These two panels are the perfect center point of the issue, with a violent conflict taking place in a building full of water and glass, all reflecting on each other. This is even more stark because it’s a rare moment of outright violence in the present and the daytime. Almost all other instances of violence take place in the dark and the shadows, and often the reader only sees the aftermath of a conflict. Ironically here the reader and the onlookers are in the shadows. Veidt appears heroic because he owns and controls the mirrors. The water, the glass, the V, are all controlled by Veidt to distort our view, subverting the idea that usually daylight brings added transparency to a narrative.
Rorschach’s mask and the V of Veidt Industries are contrasting symbols and set them up to subtly show the characters as foils to each other. Both characters exert their will on the world through these symmetrical symbols, yet they couldn’t be more different. Rorschach’s mask is cloth, black and white, and made up of amorphous shapes. Veidt’s V is metal, gold, and hard-edged. Rorschach’s mask conceals his true identity while the V is a monument to Veidt’s name. Rorschach’s mask is home-made and one of a kind, Veidt’s V is corporate and likely mass-produced. These designs are so simple yet such perfect counterpoints. Compare these artificial symbols of human will to the will of Doctor Manhattan, a God. His body, his entire being, is both symmetrical and natural. (Although he doesn’t appear in this issue.)
Rorschach’s mask is also a source of control and deception as indicated by the way it constantly shifts and changes, and his downfall is telegraphed in it. For example Rorschach’s mask is symmetrical as he investigates Moloch and fights back against the police. However, as soon as Rorschach loses control, the blots of his mask are no longer symmetrical. The shift happens between panels three and four, as Rorschach struggles and fails to get up. As he is kicked, the blots of his mask spread and angle left almost in line with the boot to his face. This shows the reader his pain visually and marks a low point for Rorschach in the series.
The reader similarly feels a disconnect between symmetry and lack of symmetry earlier in the issue, during Dan and Laurel’s conversation. This scene foregrounds visual distortion and mirrors, to an uncomfortable point. The first panel opens with a view of Dan and Laurel and a disembodied voice talking, with the speech bubbles pointing up and away from the characters. They feel so cold and lifeless, like dolls in a diorama. The characters pull closer to each other as the focal point moves farther away from the mirror so that as soon as the reader can see them outside the mirror, they are already pulling apart. Their intimacy only exists through the distortion of the mirror.
As soon as the mirror is gone, we are left with just Dan, alone and tired. The perspective on Dan alone is straightforward and honest, and heartbreakingly sad. Dan is sad and angry at the mirror for lying to him. We look down on him from above as he simply mutters to himself, “Hell and damnation.” Unlike Rorschach, Dan’s downfall is quiet and alone, involving only emotional pain.
The prose piece completely disrupts the symmetry in the end of the issue. The article contains some of the biggest departures from both our reality and the text of Watchmen itself. This jarring metatext tells of the rise of pirate comics as the dominant genre after the government sponsorship of comics in the 1950s. Tellingly, it contains the one piece of sequential art in all of Watchmen not done by Dave Gibbons – a Black Freighter sequential page by Joe Orlando. This page stands out even more because the entire issue is full of excerpts of Black Freighter comics done by Gibbons (credited as the fictional Walt Feinberg), including other images in the prose piece. Even the page layout for this sample is radically different from anything in the rest of Watchmen, while the Black Freighter stories in the text share the layouts of the Watchmen story.
Still, there are more historical similarities than differences described in this history of comics. Despite the government sponsoring and favoring comics, DC still overshadows EC Comics at the end of the 50s. EC lays the groundwork for future great DC Comics, like Tales of the Black Freighter. Superhero comics exist as government imperialist propaganda, yet interesting experiments happen in other genres. The description of the Black Freighter stories contains what may be Moore’s mission statements for comics as a whole (including Watchmen).
The fictitious comics historian sampled writes on page 61 –
“The [Black Freighter] stories that came from his pen in this period are uniformly dark and sinister, balancing metaphysical terrors against an unnerving sense of reality, particularly when applied to matters of morality or sexuality. Readers who came to the series expecting a good rousing tale of swashbuckling were either repulsed or fascinated by what were often perverse and blackly lingering comments upon the human condition.”
Instead of swashbuckling, insert superheroes or Victorian pulp or Lovecraftian horror and you’ve got Alan Moore’s career in comics summed up in a couple sentences. The prose piece speaks to the power of comics, for propaganda and fine art in trash genres.
If anything, we can probably thank this issue for the careers of both Tom King and Grant Morrison. The obsession with symmetry and cold formalism echoes through all of King’s work and defines his Omega Men (probably his best book for my money); whilst the metatextual comics reading throughout the issue combined with comics history forms a huge thematic strain of Grant Morrison’s work – from his Animal Man to even his nonfiction prose work like Supergods. King and Morrison both consciously take up Moore’s ideas in mainstream DC superhero comics, but the ideas here echo through all American comics since 1985. It’s impossible to see a nine-panel grid or alternate takes on superheroes or comics history and not think of Watchmen.
Watchmen always feels relevant. Maybe our current historical moment is just similar to that of 1985. Maybe it’s particularly relevant in periods of bleak conservatism. Either way, “Fearful Symmetry” depicts characters trapped in a world of mirrors, with the biggest mirror being Watchmen itself. Hopefully someday it won’t be such a mirror… and not just because of a giant squid.
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