Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Chapter Four: Watchmen's Virtuosity

I’d like to think that if there’s any value in Watchmen, I don’t think the value’s in its radical look at superheroes...The thing that was interesting...for me was its structure.... It was an exercise in comic book structure and I think it would probably have been, at the time, quite an unusual reading experience because that hadn’t been done before.”- Alan Moore.[151]

The quote above states in no uncertain terms the intentions of both creators in this work. Although Watchmen is the product of intense collaboration between the two, it is evident that Moore was the driving creative force behind the project. Examination of Moore’s ideology suggests Watchmen is a direct outcome of his attitudes towards the form. He has gone on record many times delineating his beliefs concerning the comic industry and medium and his frustrations with both; his problems with the medium are derived mostly from the restrictive measures imposed upon it by the large publishers. Over the years, creativity and originality have been shunned in favor of profits and sales figures. The capital oriented policies of the publishers have, in turn, kept comics from critical reception and relegated them to the world of low-brow and children’s entertainment. Historically, creative breakthroughs have been exploited as new marketing opportunities, resulting in more stagnation. Moore addresses this issue through the example of “graphic novels”, the formal genre within which Watchmen’s trade paperback version is most often lumped:

Now we have “graphic novels” but the graphic novel might only be a 40-page Batman story instead of a 23-page Batman story. We have the She Hulk graphic novel, the Project Pegasus graphic novel, The Killing Joke graphic novel. They’re not graphic novels; it’s just a handy, convenient marketing term that can be used to sell an awful lot of the same old crap to a big new audience– until that audience gets sick of it. And hey, if they get sick of comics as well, that’s just too bad. The sales might drop for a few years and then we’ll have another gimmick to foist upon the public. It’s the comics industry versus the comics medium, really. I’m committed to the comics medium; I think the comics industry gets in the way.[152]

In his view comic art, which can be said to have existed in different forms for millennia, is in the modern version still in its infancy. The medium is “virgin territory” for any artists or writers who wish to mold it into an art form with the expressive qualities of film, literature or music. But only through serious effort and artistic integrity will comics be pulled from the mire in which they now languish. Moore sees comics as having a greater potential for conveying emotions and narratives than most, if not all, other art forms; only the limited, shallow visions of comic executives and their lackeys keep the medium from its place among respected arts. He challenges every comic artist and writer, including himself, to experiment and innovate the form. Only by expanding the vocabulary of comics in a precise, intelligent way can they gain respect and significance.

Watchmen represents Moore and Gibbons’ efforts towards this end. Fortunately, the two received complete creative control on the project from the executives at DC.[153] They were allowed the freedom necessary to present their narrative in a new and exciting way. The series differs from others in its striking utilization of comic form. Tools and techniques of the medium that had previously been either underused or neglected completely were, in Watchmen, applied liberally and to good effect. By taking advantage of the potential created by the combination of creative writing and art, Moore and Gibbons more successfully convey their intended messages.

In order to understand the unique nature of this text, we need to look closely at particular chapters. The first of these is Chapter Five, titled “Fearful Symmetry,” which was published in the early spring of 1986.[154] As in the case of the other chapters, the title here represents not only the theme but also the visual motifs that are explored throughout the subsequent pages. In this particular chapter, the exercise is taken to the extreme. The thematic and visual presentation of reflections and mirror images permeates every element of the chapter, especially the layout. From the start, the panels display a multitude of symmetrical images that include doubled, mirrored, or repeated objects, characters and designs. The first example appears on the cover of the Chapter Five in the logo for The RumRunner, a bar located next to Moloch’s apartment. The image is invoked later in the chapter in two ways. In the first, the double “R”’s of the RumRunner are replaced by the double “r”’s of Rorschach’s insignia; in the second, the skull and crossbones formation of the logo appears in its literal incarnation, the Jolly Rogers flag of pirate lore, and on the face of a rock poster.(See Figure 1) In the case of the rock poster, an additional level of significance is added. The poster is an artifact from the real world advertising a Grateful Dead album titled “Aoxomoxoa”. Not only is the title itself a palindrome, further supporting the theme of reflection, but the artwork of the poster is that of the late Rick Griffin; the San Francisco based graphic designer was best known for his perfectly symmetrical creations. Moore and Gibbons admit to being “obviously clever” and it shows throughout the chapter.[155] For example, a folder containing Blake’s homicide file is numbered “801108”– a numerical sequence that is both vertically and horizontally symmetrical.(See Fig.2) Other examples of self-reflection mostly concern items related to Rorschach himself. The importance of the ketchup blot formed by the question mark is discussed in the previous chapter and the stain on his dishes, in the top left frame of the same page, is an obvious reference to his own mask.(See Figs.3, 4) The mask, made from two layers of latex separated by a thin, viscous fluid which is “heat and pressure sensitive”, is itself a constantly shifting mirror image. In every single frame in which Rorschach appears, the mask takes on a different, yet constantly symmetrical, design.

Moore and Gibbons explore every possible representation of “reflection” and populate the chapter with images that are literally mirrored within a variety of reflective surfaces. For example, the scenes that take place inside Veidt’s building are full of shiny desks and floors and the characters are often doubled within their surfaces.[156](See Fig.5) In a similar fashion, some of the frames depicting the pirate narrative present their images twice; the original action is mimicked in the water below the marooned man’s raft.(See Fig.6) Images reflected in actual mirrors appear within the chapter in the two scenes involving Laurie and Dan. However, whereas Dan occupies the foreground of the first image, Laurie, in a symmetrical inversion, replaces him in the second.(See Figs.7, 8)

The other techniques employed in the chapter are much more complex and visually abstract in nature than those described above. One such method is found only within the scenes involving the newsvendor and the police officers. In these cases, the composition of the first and last frames of a single page are strikingly similar; for example, the boy reading the comic on page eight is sprayed by the Pyramid truck.(See Fig.9) While the images are certainly not identical, the presence of the triangle, the splash, the comic, as well as the boy himself, all indicate the intended effect.[157] Gibbons adds a level of complexity by repeating similar images in separate scenes involving different subjects. For example, in a scene beginning on page twenty-one Bernie the news vendor puts up an object with both hands in the first and last panels, a tarp and a poster, respectively.(See Figs.10, 11) His position is inverted between the two but his actions can still be recognized as reflective of one another. On the subsequent page, the posture of the two Detectives closing the door in the first and last frames bears an undeniable resemblance to that of Bernie’s.[158](See Figs.12, 13) In some scenes the last panel actually “leads” the reader visually into the first frame of the succeeding page. A clear example is the obvious repetition of the image of a man eating a poultry leg, found in the last panel of a pirate sequence and the first panel of one involving Laurie and Dan.(See Figs.14,15)

The visual theme that permeates the chapter is not restricted to specific images alone. In a technique that demonstrates his proficiency with comic form, Gibbons manipulates the coloring of his frames and achieves an effect that operates firmly within the thematic guidelines of the chapter. He separates some pages into what I will call a “five-by-four arrangement” of frames. The “five by four arrangement” is accomplished by alternating the color scheme of succeeding frames so that the second, fourth, sixth and eighth frames are in direct contrast to the rest of the page. In the first and last scenes of the chapter, the effect is explained by the flashing RumRunner sign; the colors represent the flash of light and moment of darkness that repeat endlessly within Moloch’s apartment.(See Fig.16) These pages, when observed merely in terms of their color schemes, are symmetrical both horizontally and vertically. Gibbons uses the “five by four arrangement” later in the chapter to achieve different goals. In addition to the two tiered color scheme, the artist also integrates two separate scenes of the pirate and the news vendor within the same pages.(See Fig.17) As these examples also exhibit the structure defined above, the reflective quality of the page is retained.

When all of these different methods of reflection are examined from an objective distance, an interesting pattern begins to emerge. Although Gibbons utilizes a variety of approaches, he applies the same technique to specific scenes, or sets of scenes. For example, the actual mirror image is found only within the pages that include Dan and Laurie’s interaction, whereas the matching first and last frame can be seen solely in the pages involving either the newsvendor or the policemen. At first the pattern seems random and coincidental but the center of the chapter sheds light on the mystery. The layout of the central pages depicts the assassination attempt of Adrian Veidt in a manner unique to the entire series. Nowhere else does Gibbons contain his action within the three horizontal and one vertical frames which appear on pages fourteen and fifteen.(See Fig.18) It is immediately noticeable that the pages directly mirror one another. The effect is in itself revolutionary, but Gibbons takes it many steps further. Inspection of the chapter as a whole reveals that the central frames function merely as an anchor; the layout of the first half of the chapter is completely symmetrical to that of the second.

Just as frames within pages fourteen and fifteen parallel each other, so do those of thirteen and sixteen, twelve and seventeen, et cetera, until the first and last page of the chapter. In addition to structural mirroring, the subjects of each opposing page are identical; this holds for every single character represented. For example, the two scenes involving the police officers appear the exact same distance from the central pages and employ the exact same layout.[159] In a more advanced fashion, Gibbons mirrors the action of his subjects on the opposite sides of the chapter. The clearest cases both involve Rorschach. In the first scenario, he leaves the apartment of Moloch. His movement begins within the second frame of the second row on page six.(See Fig.19) The matching frame of the opposing page, twenty three, depicts Rorschach reentering Moloch’s home later that night.(See Fig.20) The second application of this technique is even more sophisticated. The first scene of the chapter shows a frightened Moloch responding to a suspicious noise. Starting in his bedroom, he slowly makes his way down the stairs into the kitchen where he is confronted by Rorschach. In the opposing pages, Rorschach is confronted with a murdered Moloch and subsequently reverses the first man’s path of action all the way to the bedroom where he is eventually cornered by police. Chapter Five is highly complex both in structure and content, as evidenced by the examples above. Through his careful attention to detail and form, Gibbons successfully maintains the narrative of the series while simultaneously innovating the medium in a highly intricate and methodical way.

Chapter Five is not the only one in which Gibbons and Moore experiment with comic vocabulary. Almost every segment of Watchmen’s narrative is presented in a different manner, a condition that bolsters the depth of the piece itself. In Chapter Four, “Watchmaker,” accepted notions of narrative presentation are again challenged by innovative expansions of generic techniques. As in Chapter Five, the title of this section also bears great significance in regard to the subject matter. “Watchmaker” is an excerpt from a quote by Albert Einstein, in which he laments the great changes his discoveries had wrought on human existence. In light of the controversy surrounding atomic power, Einstein expresses the wish that he had become a watchmaker. The use of this quote has two functions. The first is to parallel the experiences of Osterman and Einstein, although the impact of Einstein’s discoveries in our real world are certainly surpassed by the changes brought by the existence of Doctor Manhattan to Watchmen’s. To strengthen the parallel between the two scientists, we are shown Jon’s childhood intentions of following his father into the watchmaking trade. Jon’s increasing emotional detachment throughout the story indicates that he, too, may have been better served in that now obsolete profession. On a more abstract level, the references to Einstein are used to introduce his theories of time as a subtext. In a flashback on page three, Jon’s father deliberately invokes Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: time is not absolute but relative to the position of the observer. The theory applies not only to our perception of time but also to the perception and representation of time within comics, all of which are examined in Chapter Four through Jon’s monologue and the images which accompany it.

The second panel of the first page establishes the pattern followed throughout the entire chapter. Here Jon, speaking in the present tense, refers to an action of the future. “In twelve seconds time, I drop the photograph...”[160] His speech is an action of the preceding frame, yet the image of the dropped photograph is placed over these words. It is the action described by his speech that is represented in the second frame.(See Fig.21) The reader begins here to understand the complex nature of Jon’s existence and of time itself. As he tells Laurie in Chapter Nine, “Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.”[161] This quote literally defines the way time is presented in comics. Any single panel the eye rests upon represents the present just as all preceding panels represent the past and the succeeding panels the future.[162]

The way in which temporality functions in comics is completely unique to the medium. Only in comic art is the past, present and future so easily observed simultaneously. In film, different moments of time are projected on the same space, making examination of those separate moments as individual units an impossibility. In literature, the non-graphical nature of the narrative prevents the reader from discerning between temporal moments. Comic art, with its full-page layouts of individual frames and captions, allows the reader to peruse at his or her leisure the actions of the characters at any specific instant within the narrative. When Jon holds Janey in the last frame of page eleven, he notes that he simultaneously hears her shouting at him four years later. The reader needs only turn a few pages, an insignificant effort, to experience the described event visually. Again Jon’s perception of and existence within time is paralleled to the unique nature of time in comics. Gibbons and Moore choose to exaggerate this function through Jon’s narrations. He speaks only in the present tense and yet exists simultaneously within different time frames. On the last frame of page sixteen, he is both comforting Jane and lying with her in bed hours later. The reader is not shown the second image until a few pages later, but it nonetheless exists temporally, if not visually, within the first.(See Fig.22) By presenting two or more moments within a single frame, Gibbons and Moore imply images; they deepen the narrative depth while simultaneously maintaining a streamlined visual space. They achieve this mostly through Jon’s words, which, like the closure created between two separate frames, introduce another aspect of time through “that which can only exist in time...sound.”[163] By introducing “sound”, Gibbons and Moore can represent different moments from frame to frame and within the frame, a highly unusual approach that even Scott McCloud and Will Eisner fail to address.(See Fig.22)

The unique structure of this chapter is used mainly to comment on the nature of time in comics, but it also embodies the philosophy of determinism. Jon perceives time as a string of events that have already been arranged chronologically by some unknown force. Jon differs from the rest of humanity through his consciousness of the structure of time; but despite his omnipresence, his actions are as fixed as any other’s. In a conversation with Laurie in which she frustratingly accuses Jon of being a “puppet following a script” he responds, “We’re all puppets...I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.”[164] Here, and throughout the chapter, Gibbons and Moore engage in a highly sophisticated discussion of human existence that includes concepts of time, morality and godliness. By presenting these dialogues in the form examined above, they not only elevate the intellectual level of their story but also employ a comic technique that has been historically underused. They creatively innovate the formal presentation of time in comics both through the metaphor of Jon’s worldview and the examination of the nature of the presentation itself.

An examination of Chapters Four and Five illuminates for the reader Moore and Gibbons’ highly intellectualized narrative approach. Chapter Five concerns itself with the structure, or form, of the narrative itself. The arrangement of panels within a page and pages within a chapter provides a simple grid upon which the creator of a comic may build his story. The layout of panels is the most basic unit of comic narrative; without the layout, there is literally no physical medium for the narrative to inhabit. After the layout has been designed, the story can be set in its intended order. The arrangement of the plot in a specific and deliberate chronological sequence results in the narrative itself. The narrative relates a set of conditions, characters and events that have been crafted especially for the consumption of the reader by the creators. Chapter Five explores the nature of the narrative by experimenting with the chronological ordering of the story; the “present” and “past” are made obsolete through the unique subjective authority of Dr. Manhattan. The third, and most complex, aspect of a story is the meta-narrative. Whereas the layout predicates the structure of the plot and the narrative provides the content, the meta-narrative of a comic book defines how the story is presented. The composition of a panel, the succession of images, the pacing of the narrative– all are governed by the meta-narrative. In Watchmen, Gibbons manipulates the content of his panels in a manner that is clearly cinematic. He challenges the standard comic meta-narratives which have, over time, become clichéd and uninteresting; in doing so, he raises Watchmen to the potential of the medium.

Comics and film generally operate under the same guidelines that govern any visual narratives; both media yield texts that are subject to examination through semiotic theory. Both also rely on the same modes of narration, presentation of image, and manipulation of time. Traditionally, these similarities have been based mostly in theory because many comics, especially hero titles, have underused the medium in regards to visual presentation. This is not to say that the tools have laid dormant since Action#1– quite to the contrary, artists like Will Eisner and Walt Simonson, to name only a few, have worked with framing and composition to achieve a “cinematic” effect. But they are the exceptions; the overwhelmingly majority of superhero comics published since the late thirties fail to exhibit the great range of narrative possibilities afforded by the form. As a result, the unique qualities that exist in both film and comics are attributed to the cinema, where experimentation and permutation of these techniques has been encouraged and achieved. Defining the term is obviously a problem of semantics, which cannot be solved here, and for the purpose of argument I will use the term “cinematic” in the following discussion to mean “having the quality of visual narrative usually associated with the cinema”.

Despite the desire of many comic artists to differentiate comic art from all other media, Moore and Gibbons have never denied the influence of film on their craft. In an interview in The Comic Book Rebels Moore speaks at length about the positive qualities of filmic narratives; he does, however, qualify his praise by asserting his allegiance to comics.

There is nothing that comics cannot do. There is nothing that has been attempted in any other artistic medium that comics could not, eventually, equal or better[165]...Here the reader has the ability to stop and linger over one particular “frame” and work out all of the meaning in that particular frame or panel, as opposed to having it flash by you at 24 frames per second in a cinema.[166]

The quote shows that although Moore obviously supports the unique advantages of comic storytelling, he and Gibbons are still clearly informed by the cinematic; this is evident from the very first page of Watchmen.

The cover of the first chapter is an image of a “smiley face” button, lying in a stream of blood. Every one of the seven frames on the first page present that image from a slightly more distant perspective, creating the impression of a “zoom out”.[167](See Fig.23) The sequence is narrated initially with a “voice over” from Rorschach’s journal. The zoom is especially successful because it draws the reader into the action by literally moving him/her within the visual space. Gibbons’ intention is clarified in the following quote: “The cover of Watchmen is in the real world and looks quite real, but it’s starting to turn into a comic book, a portal to another dimension.”[168] The new “dimension” begins to be defined in the first chapter, but the first page initiates the process.

The second sequence of this section shows the policemen at the (Blake) murder scene, discussing the crime. Their discussion serves both as the “sound” track of the scene and as a voice-over narration for a series of flashbacks that depict the crime itself. Stark red coloring highlights the use of flashback and differentiates these frames from those containing the “present”. The flashback frames invoke another technique usually associated, or least defined in terms of, film: the point of view “shot”. In some, but not all, of these frames, the action is depicted from the visual point of view of the attacker. The technique is used throughout the novel but to greatest effect in the first six pages of the final chapter. In these “splash” pages Gibbons offers the reader a depiction of the gore that results from the “alien attack”.

While these images may at first seem to be ordered randomly, in actuality they represent the sequence as Laurie observes it. During the entire story, enough scenes take place at this specific corner so that an intimate knowledge of the constructed space is available to the reader. The familiarity allows the reader to comprehend the ordering of the frames. The first page shows the front of Madison Square Garden, stained with the blood and corpses of hundreds. The second shows the same scene but from farther away. Only on the third page is any motion is indicated; it presents the Utopia Cinema to the right of the street leading to “the Garden”. The fourth and fifth pages reveal that the implied motion to the right is actual and the sixth and final splash page proves it. The following frame shows Laurie standing in a position that could only yield the view depicted on page six; the panel assigns the point of view of all the splash pages to Laurie.

Returning to the first chapter and the establishment of a “cinematic” vocabulary, attention must be paid to the sequence depicting the reader’s first visual encounter with Rorschach. Although comics traditionally rely heavily on the interplay between pictures and words, there is no narration or dialogue throughout this entire sequence. Gibbons is not the first artist to place the onus of narration solely on his images, but here he does so in a fashion that has been rarely achieved.

As in film, the scenes of Watchmen are often layered heavily from foreground to background. Not only can this lend or detract emphasis from specific images, but it also deepens the texture of the frame as a whole. Gibbons employs this effect often and, in the manner of Roy Thomas, populates his compositions with a variety of minor details. On page four, for example, the action of the scene involves Hollis and Dan, depicted in the shallow background of the frame.(See Fig.24) The foreground presents more than a few artifacts for reader’s examination: there is the Nite Owl trophy, awarded to Hollis upon retirement, a series of owl sculptures and a few books. These include Under the Hood, Hollis’ autobiography, Philip Wylie’s Gladiator, the significance of which is discussed above, and Mobile Maintenance. All of these objects enrich the characterization of Hollis without necessitating exposition.

Here the advantages of the medium should be evident; the foregrounded items may have been noticed in a film, but the action of Hollis and Dan could just as certainly detract the audiences’ attention from them. As noted by Moore above, the nature of comics allows the reader to peruse each frame for an indefinite amount of time. Gibbons’ approach takes this into account and often offers the reader a myriad of minutiae to investigate. In order to achieve the most depth in his panels, Gibbons must also use a coloring scheme that finds a precedent, at least partly, in film. The use of shadows, key and fill “lights” and an assortment of hues finds its origins in the lighting techniques of film. The similarity is only nominal, though, as Gibbons utilizes a significantly greater range of colors in his presentation than is found in most movies.[169]

The first chapter introduces a system of panel-to-panel transitions that Gibbons relies on intermittently during the rest of the series. The first of these transitions is a “match cut”. The “match cut”, as it is called in film, matches the composition of two successive panels of differing subjects so that the two bear a recognizable similarity to each other. The scene in which Jon teleports Rorschach out of the research facility provides the first clear example.(See Figs.25, 26) The second type of panel to panel transition is the “cross cut”, the alteration between two differing scenes. Although the flashback frames in Chapter One give an example of cross cutting, they do not represent the approach as well as the frames that introduce Chapter Two. The first two pages of Chapter Two are presented in the “four-by-five arrangement” and the layout produces a rhythmic, frame-by-frame cross cutting between scenes highlighted by contrasting color schemes. The funeral of Edward Blake in New York is cross cut with Laurie’s visit with her mother in California; the dramatic oppositions of climate and lighting emphasize the difference between the two scenes.[170] The third panel-to-panel transition type is the “montage”. A montage is a series of subject-to-subject transitions that take on a greater meaning combined as a whole sequence. The first example of montage does not appear until the end of Chapter Two; Gibbons assembles a variety of flashback panels involving Edward Blake into a string of images. Rorschach narrates the sequence in voice over and the general effect is to show the violent life Blake had lived and died.

All three of the transition types discussed above appear throughout the novel but their definition is problematic. While these techniques can be described in terms of the cinematic procedures that resemble them, they are also grounded in comic narrative theory. Scott McCloud describes match cuts, cross cuts and montages as subject-to-subject, scene-to-scene and aspect-to-aspect transitions, respectively.[171] McCloud’s definitions imply that the methods Gibbons utilizes are inherent to comic narrative; an argument could be made that his use of these techniques represents not innovation but merely good craft. This argument is supported by the fact that these same techniques have been used, however sparingly, by comic artists over the years. I maintain, however, that it is not Gibbons’ mere use of these narrative devices but his reliance upon them that draws Watchmen further away from what comics were and closer to the “cinematic” ideal that comics could be.

In most works of popular art, artists strive to unite well-conceived form with thought provoking content; Watchmen is no exception. Gibbons and Moore increase the depth of their narrative through a variety of means but notably through a plethora of subplots, most involving secondary characters. Chapter Three introduces two subplots in the same scene. The first is that of the news vendor, Bernie, and the comic-reading youngster, also named Bernie. Their relationship, and the corner the two inhabit, anchors the rest of the narrative: many of the main characters interact with the two Bernies in some way and the corner is also the location of Veidt’s alien attack. Young Bernie’s activity is of great importance because through him the reader is allowed access to the comic that he holds. The visual presentation of the comic, which contains in its pages the second subplot, suggests its significance. In a process similar, yet inverted, to that of the beginning of Chapter One, the reader is drawn into the comic from a considerable distance. The distance is reduced panel by panel until the text of the comic in Bernie’s hand assumes the frame of the comic in the reader’s hand; the succeeding panel retains the momentum of the magnification by presenting a portion of the same frame in closer, albeit cruder, detail. The comic appears intermittently throughout Watchmen, sometimes possessing the thematic qualities of the chapter in which it surfaces.[172] The comic’s title, Tales of the Black Freighter, is a name consciously taken from Brecht and Weill’s Three Penny Opera; Bernie reads a two issue series called “Marooned”. The textual supplement following Chapter Five offers a plot summary:

“Marooned” tells the story of a young mariner whose vessel is wrecked by the Black Freighter before it can return to its hometown and warn it of the hellship’s approach. Cast adrift on an uninhabited island with only his dead shipmates for company, we experience the frantic mariner’s torment at the knowledge that while he is trapped on his island, the bestial crew of the Freighter are surely bearing down upon his town, his home, and his children. Driven by his burning desire to avert this calamity, we see the mariner escape from the island by...digging up the recently buried and gas-bloated remains of his shipmates...[lashing] them together and [using] them as the floats of an improvised raft on which he hopes to reach mainland...On reaching the mainland safely upon his horrific craft we see the increasingly distraught and disheveled mariner trying desperately to reach his home, even resorting to murder to acquire a horse for himself. In the final scenes...we see that the mariner, though he has escaped from his island, is in the end marooned from the rest of humanity in a much more terrible fashion.[173]

The mariner’s alienation results primarily from the fact that the Freighter had not yet come to Davidstown and that he had mistakenly killed an innocent man and beaten his own wife bloody; awareness of his folly drives him away from civilization and back to the pirate ship that instigated his dilemma. The comic is narrated solely in captions but they are not always confined to respective panels. Many of the panel have been omitted and implied by the captions themselves; only specific excerpts are visually revealed to the reader. The technique plays upon the unique interplay between words and pictures in comic art to which Moore makes specific note:

[In comics] you have complete control of both the verbal and the image track...A picture can be set against a text ironically or it can be used to support the text or it can be completely disjointed from the text– which forces the reader into looking at the scene in a new way.[174]

The captions of the pirate tale function in exactly this manner. The pirate subplot is always found in conjunction with the scenes involving Bernard and Bernie; the connection is logical, as the boy serves as the reader’s portal to the pirate’s “dimension”. The panels depicting the two Bernies contain many of the pirate’s captions. As described in the quote above, the narrative panels are often set against action in an ironic or clever way, creating a notable effect. Not only does the method facilitate the pace of the narrative, carrying the action from one scene to another through words, but it also serves as a subtextual metaphor for any action it describes. The transition between pages three and four of Chapter Three provides an adequate example. Here the captions of the pirate tale bleed into a scene other than the street corner. The narration pertains to the mariner's interaction with the sunken ship’s figurehead, in which he claims, “I could not love her as she had loved me.”[175] The caption that contains this quote is found in the first panel of a scene involving Jon and Laurie. The juxtaposition doubles the meaning of the quote and applies it to their relationship. The ironic application implies that Jon’s romance with Laurie is one sided and that he will never be able to consummate it.

The metaphorical nature of the interaction of words and image operates on a frame-to-frame basis but serves a much larger function for the novel as a whole. For example, the opening panel of Chapter Three presents a pirate caption hanging over the symbol of nuclear power. “Delirious, I saw that hell-bound ship’s black sails against the yellow Indies sky, and knew again the stench of powder, and men’s brains, and war.”[176] The quote nominally makes reference to the Black Freighter from which the comic takes its name, but it also unmistakably assigns a relationship between that ship and the escalating tensions between the Soviets and Americans that form a backdrop to the events of the series. The parallel is maintained throughout; as the mariner contemplates the impending destruction of Davidstown, the nuclear standoff between the two superpowers grows increasingly uneasy.

The mariner himself serves as a metaphor but for whom remains a mystery for much of the novel. There are various implications but the specific character to whom the mariner relates is not revealed until Chapter Twelve, page twenty seven. Here Adrian and Jon discuss the outcome of Adrian’s plan and the responsibility he must bear for it. Adrian makes a side reference to one of his dreams wherein he is “swimming towards a hideous...”[177] He never completes the statement but the fragment implies that Adrian shares the same fate as the mariner, swimming towards the Black Freighter for crimes against humanity. Once Adrian and the mariner are equated, the pirate narrative assumes metaphoric status for all of Adrian’s actions and the plot of the story itself. For example, the shipwrecking of the mariner’s boat represents Adrian’s epiphany at the meeting of the Crimebusters. There he begins to understand the foreboding nature of an arms race and his fears for the safety of his home parallel those of the mariner. Both men expect their worlds to be destroyed and in a final, desperate attempt to save all that he loves, the mariner fashions a raft out of the bodies of his dead comrades. Veidt also uses, and in some cases kills, his peers to attain his goal.

In Chapter Five, the metaphor between the two men is supported in a few ways. As discussed above, each scene of Chapter Five conveys the reflective theme in its own unique fashion. Interestingly, the procedure found in the chapters involving Veidt and the pirate are the same; in both cases reflections are depicted in mirror-like surfaces such as a desk or seawater, respectively. The second way in which the metaphor is invoked involves Rorschach. Both Adrian and the mariner are pursued by enemies whose sole desire is to stop the protagonists’ quests. The mariner’s foe is a shark; for Adrian, it is the investigations of Rorschach that pose a considerable danger to his plan. The two adversaries are themselves linked when Detective Fine mistakenly refers to Rorschach as “raw shark”, a deliberate reference to the mariner’s tale. True to the metaphor, both the shark and Rorschach are neutralized soon after their threat is recognized.

After Chapter Five, the metaphor becomes less literal and more symbolic. Adrian’s plan to kill millions in sacrifice for peace resembles the mariner’s unwitting murder of the moneylender and his wife. Equating these actions serves two purposes. Initially, it establishes a dialogue concerning the nature of vigilantism. Both men take justice into their hands and break the law in order to uphold it. That Adrian is conscious of his actions, whereas the mariner is not, is insignificant. Both pursuits seem worthy of praise but their murderous nature prevents it. The relation of the mariner’s murders to Adrian’s also critically examines Adrian’s actions and eventually condemns them. The condemnation comes with Adrian’s description of his dream. Through both Jon’s assertion that “nothing ends” and the mariner’s acceptance into the crew of the Black Freighter, the actions of both Adrian and the mariner are invalidated as permanent solutions. Here Moore and Gibbons suggest that the ideal and the actuality of vigilantism are often opposed.

The significance of Tales of the Black Freighter lies not only in its metaphorical nature but also in its form. The images of the comic are often brought to the reader in a slow, six panel zoom. The process is especially notable on page nine of Chapter Five.(See Fig.27) Whereas in most cases Gibbons only presents the reader with individual frames, here he offers a full page; the comic in Bernie’s hand confirms this. It is evident from this example that Moore and Gibbons use the comic to engage the reader both mentally and physically within the world of Watchmen. Reading the real frames of a comic that actually exists within the fictive space places the reader corporally within that space; one not only reads through Bernie’s eyes but also holds the book with his hands. The mental aspect of the reader’s integration into the narrative is fulfilled through contemplation of the comic as it exists in that world. As discussed above, pirate, not superhero, comics dominate the market. Therefore, one must consider Tales of the Black Freighter through Bernie’s perspective of comic history; consequently, the reader becomes cerebrally involved with the story.

The supplemental texts that succeed each chapter also integrate the reader into the world of Watchmen. An examination of each chapter’s texts reveals their role not only as a portal to a different “dimension” but also as a formal component that differentiates Watchmen from all other superhero comics. Following the end Chapter One, the reader is presented with the first textual supplement, the opening chapter of Hollis Mason’s autobiography, Under the Hood. The introduction comes in the form of a tag that has been attached to the text by a paper clip. The tag and paper clip themselves are intended to be physical artifacts of the other world, as are the contents of the note itself. “We present here excerpts from...Under the Hood...Reprinted with permission of the author.”[178] The note creates an interesting scenario to the reader. First of all, the unidentified “we” can only be Moore and Gibbons. The note further suggests that the two actually received permission from Hollis Mason to reprint his book. These factors, coupled with the book-like appearance of the pages themselves, enmesh the reader within the fictive world.

The supplements of Chapters Two and Three also take this form and do not require individual attention. The three supplements as a group function in the manner described above but also as narrative tools. All three give important background information about the characters and the history of Watchmen’s world. Simultaneously, the excerpts offer the reader a deeper characterization of Hollis than any found in the visual text. Moore achieves this by intimating Hollis’ thoughts through a stylized first-person voice. The “subjective voice” approach is also applied to the supplement of Chapter Four, a treatise on Dr. Manhattan’s role in the Cold War by former associate Milton Glass. Here the additional material functions less as a tool of characterization and more as another “portal”; the reader of this essay becomes acquainted with the political situation of the fictive world and Dr. Manhattan’s position within it. Similarly, “A Man on Fifteen Dead Men’s Chests,” ending Chapter Five, treats the history of comics while rooting itself in the narrative through reference to specific characters. The discussion of Black Freighter in Chapter Five’s supplement obviously links it to the text and the mention of Max Shea and Walt Feinberg bolsters the connection.[179] This addendum is especially distinctive because it includes a photograph, the only non-illustration of the book; it pictures Joe Orlando, an editor at DC Comics and former employee of Gaines’ EC.[180] The photo is Moore and Gibbons’ most intentional effort to connect the real and fictive worlds.

Chapter Six ends with a substantially different text from those that precede it. Here the reader is given the police files of Walter Kovacs. Unlike Under the Hood, which is a reprint of original material, these pages constitute the actual documents as they exist in that world. As such, they integrate the reader into the narrative in a more sophisticated fashion than that found in the first five chapters. The application is even further refined in the addition to Chapter Eight. The rough assembly of New Frontiersman pages that appear here are the same as those depicted in the chapter. The reader is involved on a material level, greater even than “Marooned”, because an artifact grounded in the visual text is presented in its actual physical form. The two succeeding supplements repeat this formula, presenting Sally Jupiter’s scrapbook and Adrian’s desk blotter, respectively. All three examples, the police file, the scrapbook and the blotter, contain aspects of Watchmen’s reality: language, cultural artifacts, characterization, and history. The appendices of Chapters Seven and Eleven do not warrant much attention, as they function within the mold set by Dr. Glass’ essay; both provide narrative texture but are essentially devoid of the relevance evident in the other chapters.

As shown above, the manner with which Moore and Gibbons use these addenda is both provocative and interactive. However, their inclusion in the series is most striking when viewed in light of their form. These texts are just that: texts. Aside from a handful of illustrated photographs and a few seemingly real items, they are written pieces, fitting more appropriately in the medium of literature than of comic art. It is precisely this paradox that makes Moore and Gibbons’ utilization of them so revolutionary. Never before Watchmen had any superhero comics so thoroughly integrated other media into their pages. This unique attribute is testament to the creators’ fervent strides to create something new in the medium as well as the genre. Their goal is further achieved by the intentional exclusion of both advertisements and letters pages from the entire series. Although Watchmen is not the first comic to experiment with these restrictive measures, it is certainly one of the pioneers.

The examples discussed throughout this chapter delineate Moore and Gibbons’ critical reform of comic structure. They carefully construct the form, narrative and meta-narrative, providing the reader a rich text that both invokes and revolutionizes the superhero genre of comics. Gibbons and Moore establish Watchmen’s place within the genre by creating characters and scenarios that have strong historical antecedents. However, from the first panel of the novel, the reader also faces a challenging and thought provoking structure that utilizes obscure and underused strategies of comic vocabulary. Both creators enhance the visual presentation of their story through a deliberately rendered application of these processes. The narrative and structural techniques are embedded deeply in the text, necessitating an active reading on the part of the audience; many of the techniques discussed above are not initially apparent and become clear only after multiple readings.

Through such devices as the textual supplements, Moore and Gibbons engage the reader physically with the narrative and constantly blur the lines between the fictive and the actual. Watchmen differs from many comics in that it offers its audience a nearly endless supply of visual details, cross-references and hidden structural oddities; taken as a whole, the novel has the potential to provide a completely different cerebral experience with every reading. It is evident that Watchmen’s unique form involves the audience and draws them in to the story, but to what end? Gibbons and Moore do not expend so much creative energy to create “just another comic”. The highly complex structure of the series is intended not only to challenge the reader’s conception of comic form but also of its content. Moore and Gibbons present their characters in a generic light but the self-questioning nature of the structure instigates a critical investigation of those standards. The result is the culmination of a demythification process that began with Stan Lee’s Marvel Revolution.

Stan Lee initiated the demythification of the heroic standard originally established by Superman. Beginning with the Fantastic Four, he drew archetypical heroes away from the magical, irrational world that they inhabited during the Golden Age and back toward the probabilistic, historically centered world of the Western heroes. Comics of the sixties evidenced a “new conception of the relationship between individual and society.”[181] Despite the sophistication, superheroes still participated in activities that were fantastical and, ultimately, unreal. The advent of “relevance” in the early seventies continued the demythification process, grounding heroes more firmly in the realities of the present by inserting the concerns of everyday people. Soon after “relevance” came the revival of the X-Men, whose tales embodied an even higher level of characterization and a mature treatment of issues of race and “otherness”. But, as Jacobs notes, “The realism [Chris Claremont] brought to the characters, although very refreshing and welcome, was often at odds with their flamboyant powers and fantastic adventures.”[182] In this quote he sums up the genre’s inherent flaw. As the maturity, intellect, and cynicism of the comic reader becomes greater, so does the onus on creators to reach a “desired state of suspended disbelief.”[183]

Watchmen completes the demythification process by presenting its heroes first as people, then as costumed vigilantes. Consider the meeting between Hollis and Dan found in Chapter One. Not only are both men uncostumed, but their conversation is concerned with mundane items. Even Hollis’ encounter with an old foe is contextualized by the Screaming Skull’s reformation; Hollis refers to him as a “nice guy”, a description that has yet to fall out of Bruce Wayne’s mouth concerning the Joker. The supermarket anecdote also assigns Hollis with very “human” activities, in this case, shopping. Gibbons and Moore intentionally expose the weakness of the genre; they constantly challenge the established limits to see exactly how close to realism they can push the superheroes. The treatment of characters such as Rorschach reveals their effort. It is in Rorschach that Moore and Gibbons’ exploration of the concept of vigilantism is most pronounced. Rorschach is not like Bruce Wayne, who finds time in between crimefighting to attend cocktail parties:

If you’re a vigilante then this is what you’re going to be like: you’re not going to have any friends because you’re going to be crazy and obsessive and dangerous and frightening; you are probably going to be too obsessed with your vendetta to bother with things like eating or washing or tidying your room because what have they got to do with your War Against Crime? You’re probably going to be sexually lonely; you’re probably going to be mentally disturbed; you’re going to be a pariah.[184]

Watchmen concerns itself with taking superheroes to their logical extreme. In the case of Dr. Manhattan, Moore and Gibbons examine the effect a hero can really have on the world. Rather than scrapping with petty crooks and hooligans, a man of such considerable power should reorganize energy consumption or modernize transportation. Also, issues of sexuality, long denied openly by superhero comics, are in Watchmen entertained on many levels. Gibbons and Moore recognize the sexual connotations that can be read into costumed violence and approach them critically and maturely. Watchmen’s “realistic” treatment of the institution of costumed vigilantism joins its highly complex and innovative form to revitalize superhero genre. Whereas Dark Knight concerns itself with the modernist presentation of a specific hero, Watchmen succeeds in applying this approach to every aspect of the superhero vocabulary, from character to costume to form. Moore and Gibbons invent a completely new presentation of superheroes and change the way the genre is read and created.

Comic books are no longer restrained by any rules other than those generated by the medium. There are only the relationships between words and pictures and artists and audiences. The evolution of comic books from a stunted, retarded medium with only one genre, only one physical form and an audience of perpetual children to one in which a full range of readers from children to adults can enjoy graphic works which are both mature and intellectually satisfying has opened new directions for the comic books of the 1990’s and beyond.[185]

The present state of the comics industry owes much to Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons’ experiments with the standards of the superhero genre stretched its existing limits both formally and contextually. The sophistication of the piece also brought legitimacy to the graphic novel format. The “graphic novel” was one of the most exciting and controversial innovations the medium had witnessed in years; it was structurally unique, capable of a different type of storytelling than a monthly comic. Its unusual length allowed for more narrative development and closure as well as greater experimentation with image presentation. Watchmen was the first comic to take advantage of these attributes. Gibbons and Moore exploited the potential of the graphic novel and subsequently initiated the definition of its function.

Watchmen’s true impact on the comics medium and superhero genre is difficult to gauge. An analysis of the past ten years suggests that Watchmen’s virtuosity steered superhero comics in two drastically different directions. In the first case, Moore’s realistic treatment of costumed heroes inspired conscientious artists and writers to produce high-quality craft. The influence of Moore and Gibbons’ nostalgic but self-critical presentation of superhero genre is most readily seen in Rick Veitch’s disturbing Brat Pack mini-series. Here Veitch explores the many aspects of “the sidekick” with acerbic wit and graphic depictions of unsavory activities. He puts the generic unit, originally embodied in Robin, up to a harsh light and in doing so demythifies and mongrelizes it; the affection with which Moore and Gibbons treat their subject is notably absent from Veitch’s work.

Brat Pack is only one of many examples of the Watchmen’s more intellectual offspring. DC’s Vertigo Press, a line of comics devoted solely to “mature readers”, has published an impressive variety of thought provoking and visually stimulating comics in recent years; their Sandman titles are the most prominent. Sandman was a superhero of the Golden Age that Vertigo and new writer Neil Gaiman revived as the master of the Realm of Sleep. Sandman may have begun as a superhero but his new adventures center on mythology, history and mysticism and are all addressed to “mature readers only.” His revival and reinterpretation is characteristic of a number of titles currently published.

One of Watchmen’s most important functions is its challenge to standard comic form. Gibbons’ creative presentations engage the reader more highly than that of many superhero comics that preceded it. In Marvels, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Alex Ross continue to stretch the visual limits of the genre. Their tale, a nostalgic recapitulation of early Marvel history, is presented to the reader in a photo-realistic style; the effect virtually eliminates the dissonance usually associated with comic, or cartoon, art. By illustrating their characters as they would actually be perceived in reality, Ross heightens the plausibility of the narrative.[186]

The other offshoot of Watchmen’s influence took superheroes in a direction opposite works such as Marvels. The portrayal of the violent, and in some cases psychotic, vigilante figure in Watchmen was consumed by the mainstream and formulaically regurgitated. All of the cynicism in Moore’s characters was exploited, misinterpreted and exaggerated in monthly titles. The late eighties and early nineties saw the introduction of such revenge-crazed characters as Punisher and the “darkening” of inveterate heroes like Batman. Alan Moore recognizes and laments the effect he sees Watchmen had on the genre:

After Watchmen...I had become pretty thoroughly sick of superheroes. I had become particularly sick of the post-modern superheroes that followed in their wake. It seemed to me that post-modern comics were like viewing a distorted mirror at a fun fair, where you go in and see these grotesque looking things and you think, “My God, that’s me!”...But now everywhere I turn there’re [sic] these psychotic vigilantes dealing out death mercilessly. With none of the irony I hoped I brought to my characters.[187]

The process of “darkening” the genre was furthered by publishers’ progressive attempts to draw in new readers. In the last few years, for example, Superman, Green Lantern and the second Robin have all been killed and Batman’s back has been broken. Of course, Superman and Batman were rehabilitated but the revelation of these heroes’ mortality brought the credibility of the genre into question; the results of these specific experiments have yet to become clear.

The early nineties also witnessed the introduction of Image Graphics. A group of Marvel mutineers created this independent company and within a year established themselves as the first legitimate challenge to the sovereignty of the Big Two. Image’s amazing growth is a direct result of their new approaches to heroes. These approaches, both visual and literary, function within the hyper violent mold created by post-Watchmen comics but Image’s heroes may actually represent a completely new branch of superhero literature– almost all of their characters wield impossibly large weapons and even more ridiculous armor. Their titles are selling very well, though, and may foretell the future of heroes.

Watchmen’s self-criticism and reconstruction of the superhero genre has affected the industry irrevocably. Moore and Gibbons’ fresh, insightful narrative tested the genre’s boundaries and subsequently defined them. The logical and illogical attributes of superheroes and their worlds were brought to light and in the process, their creative limits were perceived. I think that these limits may eventually bring on the permanent stagnation of the genre. The creative and productive lives of all genres must come to an end and superheroes are no exception. The recently published series DC vs. Marvel points to this end. In the four-part adventure, the greatest heroes of both universes interact in the most colossal crossover of comic history. However, the majority of the writing is used (laboriously) to delineate all of the most significant generic units of every character. The outcome of the series was a one-week collaboration of the two companies called Amalgam. In the Amalgam books, characters like Wolverine and Batman are fused to become one hero with a shared past. The scripting and art of both series are atrocious but their real downfall is the transparent attempts of both companies to tout the virtues of their respective characters.

Has the language of superheroes been exhausted to the point that only childish and poorly conceived combinations of old characters constitute new art? Did Watchmen’s affectionate critique of the genre instigate its downfall? As of this printing the future of superhero comics is unclear, but the events of the following months may be critical to its outcome. In May, Alex Ross and DC Comics will publish Kingdom Come. The novel is expected to be a joining of the contextual innovations brought by Dark Knight and Watchmen with the formal challenges induced by the latter and Ross’ own Marvels. There is great anticipation on the part of comic book fans, executives, creators and storeowners and for many Kingdom Come represents the superheroes’ last chance. Perhaps it will fail and the genre will shrivel and fade like the Westerns of film. Or perhaps it will succeed in looking at heroes in a new way, as Watchmen did, and consequently spark a new era of superhero comics.


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[151] Groth, “Big Words,” p. 20.

[152] Groth, p.13. Ironically, Moore uses one of his own works, The Killing Joke, as an example.

[153] After the Charlton characters were suitably altered, Moore and Gibbons were essentially working with new personalities. In this case there were no continuities that could have been ruined; no editorial restrictions were warranted. Levitz, Interview.

[154] The title is taken from the William Blake poem Tyger, Tyger. All the chapter titles are excerpts from various literary and musical sources. The inclusion and integration of various other media within the text is yet another innovation which sets this series apart.

[155] Groth, p. 22.

[156] Good examples of this can be seen in frame 5:13:1-3 and 5:16:9.

[157] Another, perhaps more clear example is found on page 12.

[158] This observation is also supported in the first scenes involving these four characters. Note the triangle and the splash. [pages 7, 8]

[159] In this case a standard three rows by three columns structure.

[160] Moore and Gibbons, p. 4:1:2.

[161]Ibid., p. 9:6:6.

[162] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) p. 104.

[163] McCloud, p. 95.

[164] Moore and Gibbons, p. 9:5:4.

[165] Wiater and Bissette, p. 172.

[166] Ibid., p. 163.

[167] Defined this way because the perspective is not altered as it would be with a craning shot.

[168] McCue, p. 99.

[169] Only in experimental films, silents or individual scenes of great importance is extreme colored lighting ever used in a way even vaguely similar to Gibbons’.

[170] Another good example of crosscutting is the fight between Dan, Laurie and the street punks, which is crosscut with Dr. Manhattan’s inquisition. Here the technique is highlighted by ironic combination of text and image, a distinctly comic feature.

[171] McCloud, pp. 70-74.

[172] See discussion of Chapter Five earlier in this section.

[173] Moore and Gibbons, p. 5t:61.

[174] Wiater and Bissette, pp.162-3.

[175] Moore and Gibbons, p. 2:4:1.

[176] Moore and Gibbons, p. 3:1:1

[177] Ibid., p. 12:27:1

[178] Moore and Gibbons, p. 1t:1.

[179] Both these characters are secondary; Shea is the writer seen on the artist’s island and Feinberg is the cartoonist of New Frontier.

[180] Orlando was also the creator of the first advertisement free comic, Plop, which failed.

[181] Lang and Trimble, p. 165, from Asa Berger, “Comics and Culture, “ Journal of Popular Culture, Summer 1971, p. 173.

[182] Jacobs and Jones, p. 254.

[183] Lang and Trimble, p. 167.

[184] Groth, “Big Words,” p. 15.

[185] McCue, p. 66.

[186] Dissonance is also diminished through the humanity of their narrator.

[187] Wiater and Bissette, p. 170


stevieg said...

It is, I think, also interesting to note re: the symmetry discussion that 8118 is also the number of the worker the protagonist of "Metropolis" trades places with, to his peril.

Excellent essay!!!



stevieg said...

Sorry, the number from Metropolis really should be 801108.


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