We take it for granted that anyone reading this has read Watchmen and seen the film. So, SPOILERS ahead.
DN: After the deep contemplation of the previous chapter, this one is much plottier and much breezier, with Laurie staying with Dan, the assassination attempt on Adrian, and Moloch’s murder and Rorschach’s capture (and within the Tales From The Black Freighter issue, the sailor builds a raft out of dead men and kills a goddamned shark). And yet, it still contains contemplative moments; we get more on Rorschach’s strange view on the world in a few lines. We’ll get more into this when we get to the very next chapter, but these are hints of Rorschach’s goal in life: to fashion himself into an icon.
“First, peeled off face, folded it, hid inside jacket. Without my face, nobody knows. Nobody knows who I am.”
“My things were where I’d left them. Waiting for me. Putting them on, I abandoned my disguise and became myself, free from fear or weakness or lust.”
This chapter has the boldest formalist experiment: perfect internal symmetry, with the first page mirroring the last page, the second page mirroring the second-last page, etc, most obvious at pages 14-15 showing the attempt on Adrian’s life. That moment really accentuates Adrian’s ownage, but sadly it doesn’t pay off in much actual meaning to my eyes; you could argue it’s conveying the absolute control Adrian maintains over his environment (because as we’ll discover he’s orchestrating about half these events) and occasionally you get a neat trick like the mirror pages of the newsvendor and comic fan alternating with Tales Of The Black Freighter in opposite ways, but otherwise it’s a party trick spicing up a transitional part of the book.
Do you see something in this structure that I’m missing?
ZZ: The only thing I can think of is that this is the chapter that is arguably the Adrian’s-eye view of the world, the way the last chapter gave us not just Jon’s perspective but his structural framework, and that while the perfect organization of it is a key bit of foreshadowing, the hidden point might be the way Rorschach is buried within it all. “Fearful Symmetry” takes us through his downfall, which, like the rest of Adrian’s plan, works–at least for the moment–seemingly perfectly.
But as far back as the first Rorschach/Adrian meeting, we talked about the way these two, both ideological extremists, were uniquely equipped to understand each other, even if Rorschach hasn’t yet gotten at the whole picture. And this chapter hints at that by giving us the repeated symmetry of Rorschach’s mask within its own symmetry. We get more close-ups on Rorschach’s “face” here than we had in the previous chapters and, more importantly, we get that great moment of a contemplative Rorschach pouring syrup onto the pages of his Gunga Diner menu and then closing and re-opening it, making a (symmetrical) mirror image of himself. I can see all that as subtle set-up for the idea of these two eventually being the true opponents of the novel–they both perceive, and are drawn to, order, but Rorschach exists in the muck of chaos and Adrian doesn’t, and that affects everything. Including whether or not you end this chapter with your face shoved in a puddle, your identity revealed, and your elevator shoes mocked.
As opposed–symmetrically opposed–to “saint” Adrian Veidt.
I think those last few pages, of Rorschach walking into the frame-up and ultimately failing to walk out of it, show some really great, complex character work. He’s extremely vulnerable here, and I feel for him the moment he starts muttering, “No, no, no,” to himself, as he knows he’s surrounded, but the fact that he also improvises a flamethrower to go after the cops is exactly why you can see them wanting to put this savage “raw shark” away. This is fair in a way that a lot of vigilante-centric art just isn’t. But if Rorschach deserves to get arrested, he doesn’t deserve the way in which it happens, and that sad panel with one of his shoes knocked off to reveal the holes in his sock is actually kind of hard for me to look at. It’s an extreme loss in a way that Dan and Laurie’s lower-keyed, more everyday sense of being passed over isn’t.
In that way, we may have our triptych of movers-and-shakers: Veidt, Rorschach, and Jon are all working–and suffering–at a grander level than Dan, Laurie, or Blake. Mythic archetypes with imbued novelistic depth on one hand and mimetic realist literary characters with mythic pretensions on the other. What do you think of where the novel has brought our characters so far?
DN: It’s a good point to ask that question, not despite but because of the plot-heavy nature of the chapter. I too found Rorschach’s capture sad, not just for the reasons you said but also because the sheer ownage of his escape not only horrifically hurts perfectly innocent people (depending on how you feel about cops), it amounts to nothing. It doesn’t matter that he improvised a fucking flamethrower and threw himself out a window, he gets caught, kicked in the face, and humiliated anyway. It’s almost as if each individual panel gets its own individual emotion; HELL YEAH and OH NO and aww in rapid succession. I chose the featured image in particular because it convey multiple emotions itself – it’s badass and desperate and a little comical (“RRAAAARL”). For all that Rorschach is smart and tough, he’s not smart and tough enough.
Adrian’s position in the chapter is more limited and to some extent relies on our second reaction, after we’ve already gone through the story. In fact, I barely remember my first reaction; most likely, I took the scene at face value. My reaction now is one of anger, at his casual disregard for human lives – not just the assassin, but his murdered assistant, and the innocent people around him; his pose as a hero (literally, and more generally) is enraging. I love his last line, so Mad Men in its layers, from its beautiful surface, to the superficial pose of reflection he’s striking, to the way it calls forward to the end of the story.
“Call the toy people and cancel the extension of the Ozymandius line. If they ask why, just tell them I don’t have any enemies.”
Finally, there’s the sailor in Tales From The Black Freighter, worth studying on his own. He commits his first crime against human nature, lashing together the dead bodies of his fellow sailors into a raft. I most associate the sailor with Adrian; where Adrian strikes a flawless pose as a good man, the sailor is completely unable to maintain any illusions. Connections between his story and Rorschach’s are harder to see – aside from the obvious Rorschach/raw shark joke (which is great), I don’t see how Rorschach’s journey matches the sailor’s. Do you?
ZZ: Before anything else, I have to note that if I’m ever called upon to jump out of a window, I’m absolutely yelling, “RRAAAARL!” as I do it.
I suppose you could take the sailor’s journey as mirroring not Rorschach’s actual life but the way he sees it: hyperbolically grotesque, violent, and full of both hard choices and clear moral imperatives. Rorschach is willing to hurt innocent people to ensure his escape, just as the sailor is willing to use the “innocent” bodies of his comrades, because he believes that he’s up against a world that is as endlessly dangerous and corrupt as The Black Freighter itself. Artistically, maybe the sailor being painted almost entirely in a tan reminiscent of Rorschach’s coat, at least for the duration of this chapter, is meant as a connection. (Some of the sharks that besiege him are Veidt-purple, too.)
Looking at it with full knowledge, I think another thing that bothers me about the assassination attempt on Adrian and how it plays out is the slimy hypocrisy of the righteousness he puts on there, not just “saving” his own life but getting all self-important about doing it: “Don’t bite down! Don’t bite down, you scum. I want to know who sent you!” The “scum” just feels, when you take everything into account, so needlessly belittling, and so very indicative of the way Adrian sees himself in relation to other people.
This chapter has some excellent transitions even in a novel full of excellent scene transitions, but my favorite might be going from the sailor with gull-blood streaked all over his chin to Dan Dreiberg holding a neat, cooked chicken leg with a perfectly-shaped bite taken out of it. It’s a great way to move into the “retirement” side of Watchmen, where, at least right now, all the blood is still cooked out of things, and all the sexual desire is still frustrated.
DN: Visually speaking, as well, the closeup on Rorschach right at the end does feel like a rare moment of the reality of the comic becoming as grotesque as The Black Freighter. On that note, perhaps we should talk about the reveal of Rorschach as the Sign Guy! It genuinely blew my mind when I first read the comic, and reading it now I’m shocked that it comes so early – less than halfway through the story! Even before flipping back through the comic to look for Sign Guy, it all falls into place – how else could Rorschach maintain his lifestyle, except through eliminating all but the most basic needs? How else could he absorb info on the city when not in the mask? Why would the Rorschach we’ve come to know and love, who we see in this very chapter just straight up eating Moloch’s raw eggs, be anything other than a semi-homeless man?
To an extent, Moore intended him as a joke on Batman (in checking up on his exact words, I discovered Rorschach’s speech pattern is based on Herbie The Fat Fury, bringing us back in a shocking way to Year Of The Month In Comics!), showing that a vengeance-fuelled vigilante would be a “nutcase” in real life. All of Rorschach’s headspace is given over to his ideology; I’m reminded of people saying “how can you hate capitalism and still choose to participate in it by buying an iPhone?”, with Rorschach actually rising to that level of committment and showing why it’s absurd to expect everyone to do so.
Perhaps, where Jon reflects the overall view of the comic, Adrian (perhaps even unintentionally) reflects the creation of it. Of all the characters, he’s the one working hardest to project an image – on the surface, as part of his business ventures, and in actuality as cover for his crimes. We’ve noted Gibbons’ artistry, and it’s always been assisted by Moore’s obsession with detail (more on this when we get to the extract at the end); if Jon is the creators letting loose on their view of the world, maybe Adrian is where they push it all towards a single purpose, that of conveying Adrian’s heroic image (and by extension that of the conspiracy Rorschach is chasing).
ZZ: My favorite early appearance of Sign Guy, knowing he’s Rorschach, is him outside the cemetery during the Comedian’s funeral. Like you said, he commits, and within that (insane) level of commitment, he has his own distinct nobility. You go to your fallen comrade’s funeral, even if you can’t go with your “face” on.
Another great detail, speaking of Rorschach’s speech patterns: he loses his customary dialogue style of largely-unemphasized italics once his mask is torn off, and it really does substantiate the feel of his identity being taken away from him.
In addition to being able to push the image, Adrian is also the one who can plan–Jon can see it from the top-down with a creator’s totality of view, but he’s not the one who pushes it into motion. Adrian is definitely the writer/artist in this scenario, the one who takes his perspective and shapes it into narrative. I’m wondering now if one of Adrian’s sins is an artist’s sin: that he doesn’t allow for interpretation or criticism. Everything he does is geared completely toward persuasion and advertising–like you said, he’s selling first the image of himself as a saint and hero and then, gradually, everything else–and where he can’t gull his audience or his potential critics, he has to plan on eliminating them. He’s almost the shadow form of Moore and Gibbons, the one who has all the same talent and genius but who chooses polemic over art.
That brings us pretty naturally into the other in-comic shadows of Moore and Gibbons, Max Shea and Joe Orlando/Walt Feinberg. What do we make of these particular cynics and the partnership and feuding that led to the greatness of The Black Freighter?
DN: Like all elements of Watchmen, what we have here are three ideas, interwoven. On one level, this is Moore openly writing about his own career – it’s not hard to guess that Shea’s ego and perfectionism are Moore acknowledging and apologising for his own past, with the writer-within-a-story loudly impressing us on (real artist) Joe Orlando’s skills. Within this story, like all good stories about artists, is contextualisation within both Shea’s development as a writer, and the industry as a whole.
I love that The Black Freighter was apparently the Velvet Underground of pirate comics, never getting to the top of the charts but influencing everyone who read it. The impression I get from the extract reminds me of conversations I’ve had with beloved commentor Ruck Cohlchez over The Simpsons: that the series begins delivering basic but competent genre elements, filtered through a new and interesting perspective, and once the groundwork has been laid it veers off into some wildly experimental directions. I genuinely wish I could read it based on what we get.
And, hidden right at the end, we get a massive clue: Shea has mysteriously vanished. Who on earth would possibly want to kidnap a comic writer with a bleak outlook on life?
ZZ: Who indeed?
Count me down as another person who wants to read The Black Freighter. If I were Moore, I’d have been seriously tempted to write it after Watchmen. It wouldn’t be the first–or last–metatextual work to become real. But this is all there is of it, and more’s the pity.
Your Velvet Underground comparison, extremely aptly, ties into what we were talking about in terms of Adrian being a kind of (unflattering) artistic stand-in for Moore and Gibbons, and here we see that he too was an admirer of Shea’s work.
- DN: We officially meet cab driver Joey this chapter – she appeared way back in chapter three, giving Laurie a lift to Dan’s. She’s something of a cliche of the butch lesbian, which in this case doesn’t mean ‘hateful stereotype’ or ‘badly written’, but rather ‘using a cultural shorthand to convey a larger character’. This will mean more in time, though, and for now it contextualises the homophobic insults thrown at Rorschach.
- ZZ: There’s a brutal, funny efficiency to Rorschach using the refrigerator as a tool to threaten Moloch, and the game of the lead-up–coat in the fridge, “behind you” note–is one of the more playful moments we’ve seen from him.
- DN: The shot of the sailor riding his raft with the shark tied to the front is, to put it in technical terms, totally boss. I also really am impressed with the “raw shark” pun, which required setting up like eight different things and weaves them all together into one joke elegantly, and in a way that conveys actual meaning (tying Rorschach into the shark’s role in the story).
- ZZ: Rorschach says his “face” frees him from fear, weakness, and lust, which is an unusual triptych that works as a great hint about his background even before we get into it. His unmasking involves those attributes being aggressively forced upon him, from his panic at his realization of the frame-up to the revealed weakness of his actual height. We just haven’t gotten to lust yet.
- DN: Neat trick to have the recurring closeups, including of Rorschach’s ‘face’ in his hands, building up to the double-whammy of both Moloch’s head and Walter’s face.
- ZZ: Truly a scattered thought, but I can’t pass up mentioning how much I love the idea of a greasy spoon called the Gunga Diner.