Watchmen #10: Two Riders Were Approaching
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn and lettered by Dave Gibbons
Coloured by John Higgins
“Outside in the distance a wild cat did growl, two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.”
– Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower”
Watchmen #10 ends as it begins, with two riders journeying to their fate. That the comic bookends itself is no surprise after the equilateral precision of issue #5, but “Two Riders Were Approaching…” has a particular, even Rorschach-ian fixation on doubles. As Watchmen’s very title suggests, this is a ticking clock of a book, and by now the numbers are rattling in our head. The Hiroshima Lovers, two black figures connecting on the brink of eternity, have haunted the comic for several issues (“Oh, how the ghost of you clings…”), and are now echoed in the recurring image of the “two riders.” The first riders we meet in this issue are President Nixon and Vice President Ford, shown landing in Air Force One and Two. The last riders are Nite Owl and Rorschach, and this issue is the last great hurrah for the faded heroes who think they are riding in to save the day.
Watchmen #10 gives us our fullest glimpse of the Nite Owl/Rorschach partnership, and it functions almost like the buddy cop movie that never was. Throughout the issue we see the effects they have on each other, including a scene that adds shade to the character who only wants to be seen in black and white. Rorschach returns to his apartment at night; Dave Gibbons deliberately mirrors his appearance in Blake’s window in issue #1. He encounters his landlady, Mrs. Shairp, who until now has been depicted as a Freudian caricature right out of The New Frontiersman. Rorschach confronts her for putting a “slur” on his name, but Mrs. Shairp’s instinct is to protect her children. Recognizing his younger self in her frightened son, he retreats. For this moment, at least, Rorschach yields.
The masked heroes in Watchmen are a solitary breed, with the failures of the Minutemen hanging over the generation that succeeded them. That Nite Owl and Rorschach should have been partners at all is as strange as it is special. In a normal world, they should never have met each other, but a world with a naked blue superman and Nixon in his fourth term is far from normal. In broad strokes, it’s the classic pairing of the idealist and the cynic, but here there is an intriguing undercurrent. We’ve seen the importance of the mask to the hidden, private places in Dan’s identity; what a thrill, then, to be close to someone whose entire personality had been subsumed by his mask? Their partnership has its own kind of fearful symmetry. In the Owlship at the bottom of the Hudson River, they discuss the mask killer theory. Rorschach’s belittling goes too far and Nite Owl finally snaps, his “fuck you” moment ending with, “You know how hard it is, being your friend?” After this, something inside Rorschach bends, opens. He offers an apology and his hand.
Rorschach is repellent, yet compelling because we sense the old wounds in him, oozing and infected. For someone who sees symmetry in everything, Rorschach is utterly isolated, alone. Unbalanced. But he and Nite Owl were a good team once. They shake hands, and Rorschach holds it too long. When was the last time he had human contact that wasn’t an act of violence? There’s a deeper affection here that neither man will acknowledge; consider that this is an echo of when Dan held Laurie’s hand too long in the Owlship in issue #7. When Rorschach turns away, the blots on his mask bloom into a smiley face, and it’s the most human his “face” has looked. We next see the Owlship dramatically flying out of the water – submerged things are rising to the surface. These are my favorite panels in Watchmen.
It’s time for some old-fashioned superhero detective work, meaning that Rorschach questions people and tortures them. The most surprising bit of violence in Watchmen #10, however, comes from the previously restrained and rational Nite Owl, who strangles a Knot Top in a rage after learning about Hollis’ murder. It’s Rorschach who has to pull him off and offer (disturbing) words of comfort; both men are acting in startling new ways, the renewal of their partnership feeding into different sides of their natures.
This issue also sees the return of Ozymandias to the main narrative; aside from flashbacks and a televised rerun, he’s been off the page since his assassination attempt. At his Antarctic retreat, Ozymandias dons his costume and absorbs the information projected by dozens of TV screens. He sees omens of war everywhere, but rather than share Nite Owl’s near-paralyzing dread, he begins planning for a future he’s confident will come. Ozymandias sitting in front of his wall of televisions has become one of the lasting images of Watchmen, frequently likened to David Bowie in 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (a film — and I’m sure this is this is inconsequential — about an alien arrival). It is also a substantial clue to his character: Ozymandias sees himself as watching over the world.
Together, Nite Owl and Rorschach make a discovery about Adrian, the first in a series of cascading revelations that are key to the remaining issues of Watchmen. In retrospect, the mystery of the “mask killer” is one of the weakest elements of Alan Moore’s plotting — Adrian is the literal golden boy supposedly free of the neuroses that have hobbled the rest of the cast, so of course he’s the killer. As I’ve only ever read Watchmen as a trade paperback, I can’t imagine what readers speculated when the comic was originally serialized, but the “Ramses II” password (the computer asks Dan if he would like to add a second rider, ha) feels far too easy. Did Ozymandias deliberately leave crumbs for Rorschach and Nite Owl to pick up, to get them out of New York? As we’ll see, he enjoys having an audience.
Watchmen #10 ends as it begins, with two riders journeying to their fate. Flying to the icy oblivion of Antarctica, Nite Owl and Rorschach have no illusions about their odds; in a grim joke, Rorschach’s explosive final testament is immediately tossed into The New Frontiersman’s crank file. This is their Butch and Sundance moment. They may die, but for a time as important as it was fleeting, they were partners. With Nite Owl in his wonderful, ridiculous snowy owl suit, and Rorschach facing freezing temperatures with typical taciturn fortitude, they take to their hoverbikes looking exactly like the action figures shilled out in the supplementary material (“Offers hours of exciting fun”). But the two riders don’t know that the game they’re playing is about to change—for them, for the readers, for the superhero genre itself.
After this issue, it’s two minutes to midnight.
Kayleigh Hearn is the comics reviews editor for WomenWriteAbout Comics, and has written for publications including The MNT and Deadshirt. You can drop some money in her Ko-Fi account right here, and follow her on Twitter here!
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