We take it for granted that anyone reading this has read Watchmen and seen the film. So, SPOILERS ahead.
ZZ: “Old Ghosts” lives up to its name. Most of it takes place on Halloween, the most Watchmen day on the calendar, a day when the dead walk, everyone wears masks, and revelry slips easily into violence. As Dan’s calendar reminds us, we’re also on the cusp of something new.
Laurie turns the calendar page too soon–“Another hour, it’ll be November”–and, as if in a fairy tale, finds herself given the chance for both another ghost and another preview, with Jon turning up to let her know that November will begin with her talking to him on Mars, begging him to save the world. (His decision is maybe foreshadowed here by the fact that he calls it “the world” and not “Earth”: if there is a point of detachment at which he would start to see our world as just one planet among many, he hasn’t come to it.)
Appropriately for its season, this chapter is especially dark and doom-laden: it’s where the moral struggle of Watchmen is most apparent in the content itself. A world where Hollis Mason is brutally killed not even randomly but lazily, by someone who can’t bring himself to care that Mason isn’t even the man he’s looking for–that’s a well-timed gut punch. Reading that scene–looking at the shadow of the Mason-shaped sculpture poised to smash Mason’s terrified face–it’s hard for me not to see Adrian’s perspective. Flip the calendar page. Give us something new. At the same time, Moore further develops the necessity of the costumed heroes. If no part of the system is trustworthy, how can you agree to live inside it? If the world is full of chaos, is bureaucracy what’s going to cut through that? But, then again, there’s no clean and simple way to live in the world at all, as the New Frontiersman reminds us against its own intentions. The ghost who discovers Hollis’s body has a costume that does thematic and iconic double-duty. When you hide your face and enact your own justice, you’re putting yourself in some terrible company.
What did you think of this chapter?
DN: I’m glad you started off with Hollis’ murder, because I found myself surprised by my own reaction. Generally, I’m pretty detached when it comes to fiction, especially fiction that isn’t film or TV and thus can’t hit an emotional beat hard; I feel an emotion but it’s rarely something visceral unless it’s comedy, and that goes doubly so for a work as dry as Watchmen. So I was shocked this time through when I found myself brought to tears by Hollis’ murder in a way I never have been before.
Obviously, as you said, it’s enraging that someone I like is killed for a very stupid reason, and on a slightly broader dramatic level it’s upsetting to know that Dan’s actions were the cause of this. And hell, you can see it as the end of the tragedy, the very last action to come back on Hollis because he put on a costume and fought bad guys. But at the same time, Moore and Gibbon’s decision to intercut between the grim reality of the present and the romanticised image of the past is what really brings out my tears. I will admit to feeling pretty weary at the end of writing these up, feeling like we’ve picked the bones of each chapter, but the payoff is a total understanding of what these images mean; understanding all the hope that goes into the icon and all the grief of it not working, and knowing that it never could have worked.
I can see (and have seen) another work making this into smug browbeating – the world doesn’t work like comic books, you fool, you absolute idiot – and I can see another work using this as a setup for even more heroic heroics – it’s my understanding that mainstream superhero comics are making a big swing back to escapist fare, still actively responding to Watchmen but in the opposite way – but the comic has so convincingly argued for both halves of the equation that I’m left thinking “This shouldn’t have happened, but how else could it have?” and so I’m brought to tears.
And this is just one event in a chapter that’s full of them! What are your thoughts on Hollis’ murder?
ZZ: That hit me hard and in exactly the way you mention. I want to say that his death isn’t fair–he wasn’t bothering anyone, he was at peace, he had adjusted better than anyone else to a post-superhero life–but at the same time, fair or not, it’s the logical progression.
It’s also a nice reminder that Hollis’s accord with himself and the world still doesn’t take him out of it; coming to terms with the past doesn’t rid you of it. He knows this. He’s not free of nostalgia (by Veidt!) but he’s processed it more fully, and I think part of that is that he was able, through his memoir, to couple it to a narrative. Nostalgia is more categorical–that was then, this is now, that was good, this is bad–and narrative makes the relationship of the past and the present more seamless. It has fewer illusions. Hollis moves in one conversation between the days of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre to the days of Dan and Laurie and understands them both, even if he’s no longer participating.
And then, as you said, all that falls in. Maybe that means death is the collapsing of time; the moment where we all become Dr. Manhattan and can see our lives from the top-down, images rather than narrative.
DN: Following Watchmen‘s lead, let’s jump from effect to cause. Dan is living up to his transformation; he’s in full-on Batman mode, putting all the clues together and even factchecking on his bigass computer, and taking the lead in figuring out how to spring Rorschach. This is reflected in his appearance, with his black shirt not quite hiding his figure but definitely flattering it. His expression is no longer constantly weighed down, but filled with grim purpose.
Laurie, meanwhile, has shifted gears. Rescuing people from a fire was a lark; springing a convicted felon is something else, and now Dan is the one having to work to bring out her superhero side. I love her admitting she had a favourite route – it’s a brilliant way of showing that yes, a part of her did love the life, but I also love which part of it she loved. Dan’s a detective, he loves solving problems and putting two and two together; what Laurie loves is getting to see sights like the White House or the Lincoln Memorial every day, and in getting to do it with people she loves.
ZZ: I like where Laurie’s line of hesitation falls, because it’s revealing of her understanding of heroism. There is little to no arrogance to her–for better or worse, she doesn’t see the costume and her willingness to don it as license to make choices for other people. She gives herself resources but not moral authority. To rescue people from a burning building is helpful; to rescue Rorschach from prison–from a sentence that’s justified if not accurate–is to make a choice as an individual that deliberately goes against “society’s” choice.
To be a superhero, you have to be the kind of person who is prepared to confidently say that you know better. Laurie, I think, rejects that, but she participates anyway, out of love, and as you said, the joy she gets from it is mostly the joy of love. Doing this with Dan. Following in her mother’s footsteps. Forging a connection with Jon.
Rorschach, on the other hand, is totally prepared to make decisions other people can’t make–he’s as prepared for that as Adrian is, just in a different direction, and with a different line–and to some extent, he earns that arrogance by how relentlessly competent he is in his field of expertise. (“Your hands. My perspective.”) Caged and weaponless, he still manages to plausibly take out two gangsters before they can get to him. He earns that off-screen killing-a-guy-in-the-men’s-room joke, which is satisfyingly juvenile.
Speaking of connection, I have to admit I’m touched by the reunion we get here: “Incidentally, good seeing you in uniform, Daniel. Like old times. And Miss Juspeczyk. Although never liked your uniform. Nothing personal.”
DN: If there’s any one reason Rorschach is admired by the seedier sides of comic book fandom, it’s gotta be that relentless, unstoppable ownage of this chapter. And not even the violence, but the verbal ownage – the jokes about Big Figure’s height and Lawrence’s weight, the toilet gag, counting score. I love the way it intersects with Dan and Laurie’s plan to rescue him, not quite undermining or helping it, but bouncing off it. It’s simultaneously the weight of history on us, and a dramatic escalation – Dan and Laurie have to rescue Rorschach before he’s murdered, Rorschach has to stay alive long enough to be rescued, so it owns and owns hard when we watch him casually fuck up everybody’s day and stalks Big Figure like he’s the monster from It Follows (love Dan recognising him by his posture alone). He, Dan, and Laurie reuniting is adorable, but also understandably infuriating – as if we’re going straight from the awe-inspiring aspect of having no off switch to the mildly socially inconvenient side.
Meanwhile, Dan and Laurie’s rescue scheme has its own dramatic escalation; the detective (do we ever learn his name?) comes by and drops hints to the effect of “dude you are so obviously Nite Owl and I know it” – thinking about it, Moore is using that same ‘weave together disparate information to push a single particular image’ technique, but for a much smaller scale and a totally different genre, the everyday Columbo-style detective. As Dan points out, time is running out and they have a deadline, the most basic form of dramatic escalation there is (Michael Moorcock said the first thing to do when writing an adventure story is set a deadline for the characters). It’s a shift from the vague sense of doom to a very specific sense of doom, one that says the end is coming and it’s coming very quickly.
ZZ: The detective’s sugar-cube deduction is a perfect little bit of background plotting, admirably rooted in our cast’s characterization (the Dan/Rorschach friendship) and in their world (this is a universe always at least partly at odds with its costumed heroes and also one in which separate agendas thrive and don’t go away).
You have me thinking about nuclear war–what doesn’t, these days?–and how Watchmen plays with that looming dread. All relevance comes back around, so these concerns have gotten reintroduced into the cultural buzz lately, but there’s a very particular Cold War doomsday clock to Watchmen. You’re younger than I am, if I’m remembering right, so I’ll have to ask our comment section to chime in how this reads to someone who either read Watchmen at or near its publication date or who remembers firsthand what this period was like. As is, it reminds me of a great passage from Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, “We had more to eat than any nation in the history of the world, but there were traces of Strontium-90 in our milk from nuclear testing.”
That combination of prosperity and paranoia is in Watchmen, too, from the lush eighties opulence of Adrian’s headquarters to the New Frontiersman peddling rage.
What do you make of how Watchmen is shaped by its era’s politics and fears? You’re outside of the American bubble.
DN: Now that’s a big, interesting question (especially in light of the fact that the comic is written by an Englishman). Watchmen has always been its own little world to me, with the Russians, nuclear war, and Dr Manhattan standing in for the things I see in the news; if anything, Watchmen‘s wide narrative scope predicts the overwhelming amount of information we have access to in this internet era, and characters like Dan predict the bleakness that comes with trying to process it all.
Thinking of it in terms of the 80’s and America means backing way up into what I think the 80s were, speaking as an Australian born in 1990 (and, for full clarification, as the baby of an 80’s teenager, meaning I was inundated with 80’s media and 80’s attitudes – the 80’s didn’t end in Tasmania until 1996). The impression I always got was that the era was openly and joyfully crassly commercial; a lot of the mainstream works I’ve seen from that era seem to take great pleasure in looking and feeling as artificial as possible – everyone caked in makeup, clothes that look like they’re made of plastic no matter how expensive they are, unnaturally bright lighting – I went to a screening of The People Under The Stairs which ended with a Q&A with DOP Sandi Sissel, and she complained that executives at the time were always insisting on actors having a twinkle in their eyes. It’s something best summed up by the era’s infamous use of synthesisers in music: broad, simple emotions, as conveyed by an expensive soulless machine.
The flipside to that is I have a perception of independent 80’s stuff as consciously crude and consciously political and angry. I think of alternative comedies like The Young Ones or films like Escape From New York or bands like Social Distortion; dirty, angry, and breaking as many rules as possible, from moral to aesthetic. Watchmen, fittingly, straddles the line between these two extremes; the polish and optimism of Steven Spielberg right next to the ugliness and political rage of the Dead Kennedys; using the well-established rules of the genre and of writing to explore a strange new territory.
With all this, I realise I haven’t actually answered your question! The 80s are a bit of a blind spot for me, politically speaking.
ZZ: No, as far as I can tell, you’ve really caught the way the era’s aesthetics captured the general ethos–greed is good, to be normal is to be happy–and the mood that ethos inevitably led to–angry and wanting to smash things with a bat. So: Ozymandias action figures at the same time, and in the same space, as The New Frontiersman.
And what Moore gets is that those two things don’t always know to oppose each other. It takes Rorschach a long time to get around to realizing that Veidt is his enemy. Veidt really does qualify as the smartest man in the world because he knows right away that he doesn’t want to use a tool could blow up in his hand: most people never learn that. There’s a kind of compliment paid in deciding that someone is an enemy. Big Figure isn’t Rorschach’s enemy, he’s Rorschach’s punchline. Even if he killed Rorschach, that wouldn’t change; Rorschach still wouldn’t respect him. Though, perversely, that lack of respect degrades Rorschach’s own status a little, because you’re not a hero unless there’s significant opposition. You’re just pest control. Which means Veidt facilitates Rorschach’s transition to real heroism: he becomes the larger-than-life enemy just as he gives the world a different one.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Any other thoughts for this chapter?
DN: Let’s finish up with the chapter’s two in-universe documents: the next few pages of Black Freighter, and the sample from New Frontiersman. The former is the point where the sailor finally reaches his destination, having transformed into a ghoulish spectre; he’s become a monster and he’s ready to unleash that monstrosity onto his enemies. This is connected less to any particular character this chapter is simply adds another element of oncoming doom to the proceedings.
With the newspaper, I like that it isn’t even the final published paper, but the early draft (I don’t know the actual technical word for what we’re looking at), as if we get a sneak-peek into the process. After the careful, intelligent writing of the authors up until now, here is where Moore gleefully descends into schlocky, melodramatic right-wing BS, and it’s slightly comforting and extremely depressing to see how little that kind of thing has changed since 1985. We know that Rorschach is a fan of this paper, and it’s easy to see why; it’s the same emotional storm as his diary with the force of his everyday life, reacting to every insult and perceived insult with four times as much force and a breathless enthusiasm for iconography. Perhaps he sees the press’ role the same way he sees himself as a superhero, out there settling right and wrong. Does he read the Frontiersman because he thinks it’s right, or does he read it to learn what’s right?
And of course, the Frontiersman reports on the disappearance of Max Shea, making up an utterly ridiculous conspiracy theory tying it into other disappearances.
ZZ: The way the modern storyline’s dialogue blends into the Black Freighter’s illustrations are especially well-done here, giving us the sailor arriving at his opportunity for revenge just as the plan is made to storm Hollis’s place. It’s another one of Watchmen’s great uneasy, dislocating moments: my sympathy for the sailor given the overlaying cast of my horror of Hollis’s coming murder. The two reflect back on each other: they might not share a morality, but they absolutely share a dialogue and a logic.
It takes a deft hand to do pastiche of something as, shall we say, very much itself as fringe right-wing journalism without having it become parody, but Moore nails it. This is some precisely-handled schlock and melodrama, from the machine-gun fire of sneering labels fired at enemies (“pseudo-intellectual Marxist-brat rock-star monthly Nova Express, cocaine-advocating editor DOUGLAS ROTH” and “coked-out commie cowards,” in some Ellroy-style alliteration), the everything-you’re-afraid-of-in-one-image political cartoon (favorite detail: the cigarette girl selling “reefers”), the tepid sort-of acknowledgment of the existence of problems on their own side (“what some might view as [the] later excesses” of the KKK), and the spray of exclamation points and multiple question marks. For sheer literary brio, this is just terrific, and having it up against the completely different style of Tales of the Black Freighter emphasizes Moore’s awesome polyphony.
I think that Rorschach is self-governed enough that he at least initially picked up the paper because it mirrored how he saw the world. But it’s impossible to maintain a critical distance when you’re in that much sympathy with something, and I’m sure it ratcheted his disintegration along. He agrees with their take on something he understands, he reads them on something he doesn’t understand and then assumes he would agree with them on that, so eventually it becomes his source of guidance even if it wasn’t to start with. Per your earlier article, headcanon: Rorschach’s adherence to The New Frontiersman leveled up around the same time as his split from Dan and the outlawing of masked vengeance.
But in this case, the conspiracy theorizing and the focus on a handful of high-profile enemies rather than (or representative of) disembodied forces is actually correct. Baby, bathwater. I like the complexity of that.
- ZZ: You mentioned liking that we’re seeing an early draft of the news article, and I’d add that my favorite detail of it is the slightly cockeyed setting of the columns. Especially with how that contrasts with the careful technical notes on setup, trimming, etc. Breathless rage mediated by competence and efficacy: hurm.
- DN: On that note, the sheer dissonance between the babbling right-wing anger in the writing and the absolutely clear-eyed (though still rage-filled) professionalism of the editor in person is delightful to me. I’m intrigued by how different Rorschach’s outer life and inner life are, and it’s almost kind of a parody of that.
- ZZ: I also like that we’re making a falconry joke in the article title of our right-wing newspaper. Evidently these are people of varied interests!
- DN: Love that semi-montage kind of thing on pages ten through fifteen, showing silent panels of Dan and Laurie while things kick into motion around them in greater detail. It’s a very cinematic move that could never happen in cinema.
- ZZ: Someone should go through and note every time we see a Nostalgia by Veidt ad in the background. Here we get one while the gang is racing by on their way to kill Hollis. This revenge is the flipside of nostalgia, where you can’t let go and you think all your problems would be solved if only you could deal with “then.”
- DN: We only get one page of Shea and Manish, and I wish we could have so much more.
- ZZ: Love Dan and Laurie’s shoptalk on how to take a bathroom break in a superhero costume. “Oh, sure. Everybody’s done that.”