Monday, August 11, 2008

Watchmen Book Club: Chapter II

Chapter II: Absent Friends

The funeral of Edward Blake, The Comedian, affords a number of characters the chance to reflect on their experiences with him, turning the entire chapter into something of a eulogy for the man. Adrian Veidt, Dan Dreiberg, and Jon Osterman (in government-mandated clothing) attend the burial, while Sally Jupiter has her own trip down memory lane after her daughter Laurie pays her a visit in California. Jupiter flashes back to the days of the Minutemen, the first organized collaboration of masked adventurers which included, among others, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, the Silk Spectre (Jupiter), the original Nite Owl (Hollis Mason), and a teenaged Comedian. We see Blake's attempted rape of Sally Jupiter that Laurie alluded to in Chapter I, and it's brutal, if a bit cliched ("C'mon, baby, I know what you need...").

Veidt remembers the Comedian as a part of a second attempt at a superhero collective: the Crimebusters. This group included more familiar faces -- Laurie and Dan as second iterations of Silk Spectre and Nite Owl, respectively, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, and Veidt as Ozymandias -- but similar discord. Blake scoffs at the group's thinking they can make a bit of difference locking up criminals in the post-nuclear age, in particular demeaning Veidt's status as the world's smartest man. Osterman recalls his time spent with Blake in Vietnam -- we learn that Dr. Manhattan brought the U.S. victory in that war -- and alludes to Blake's sadism and cruelty in battle. We also see Blake end a violent encounter with a Vietnamese woman he's impregnated by shooting her dead. Osterman is repulsed, but Blake notes that he never moved to stop it. Drieberg recalls working with Blake to calm the anti-superhero riots back in the States that obviously led up to the passage of the Keene Act. He recalls Blake's unseemly zeal in beating back the masses.

Later, we follow a sickly old man home from Blake's funeral, only to see Rorschach get the jump on him (by...leaping from inside the fridge?). The old man is Moloch, a former arch-criminal who spent the '70s in jail for his crimes and who is now dying of cancer. He says Blake paid him a visit before he died, and his memories might be the most illuminating of all, as we see an uncharacteristically penitent (and, okay, drunk) Comedian, begging for forgiveness and blabbering on about an island, something that frightens him to his core. The ultimate joke.

Stuff to talk about...

-- I love the structure of this chapter -- like I said before, this is Blake's eulogy, from several different eulogizers. I also like how, in all the flashbacks, Blake was challenging his fellow superheroes at their most basic levels: the limits of Veidt's intelligence to solve the world's ills; Dr. Manhattan's inability to connect with humanity; Dan's utter uselessness. Even the attempted rape cuts to the core of Sally's ability to be both sex symbol and crusader.

-- The image of Blake as the "sad clown" isn't the most original idea (the Pagliacci joke had me rolling my eyes a bit), but the idea of the Comedian "laughing at the joke" of modern society -- laughing while it burns and lighting the torch besides -- is central to his character. Is he just s sociopath? Symptom of a violent and crumbling society?

-- You'll notice Rorschach's speech patterns in the flashbacks are more on par with the other characters. No monotone. No squiggly font.

-- Sally Jupiter's old-lady hair made me laugh a bit, being the exact same 'do as when she was in her prime, only white now. Reminded me of Vanessa Redgrave in that last scene in Atonement, with that sad little barrette in her hair for seventy years.

-- The Comedian's relationship to Vietnam is interesting, as narratively, the entire weight of American atrocity in Vietnam is put on his shoulders. And I don't think his line that if America had lost the war "...I think it might have driven us a little crazy" is insignificant.

-- Once again, Hollis Mason's excerpt at the end of the chapter is a highlight. I love the minutiae of a superhero designing his costume. Always. Loved it in Spider-Man, loved it in Batman Begins, love it here.

That's enough from me, though. Discuss!

The next post, on Chapter III, should go up on Thursday, August 14.


Tamara said...

I'm feeling a little confused by the timeline, but I'm okay with the way it's unfolding.

Joe, I agreee about how interesting the uniform design stuff is. I must confess it reminded me of The Incredibles, particularly Mason's debate with himself over whether or not to have a cloak!

Joe Reid said...

The Incredibles! That's another one. Good call.

I'll work on getting a little timeline established for what we've seen so far (or perhaps an industrious book-clubber can do it for me...).

Nicole Moore said...

I completely agree about being reminded of E from the Incredibles--"No capes!"

Thank you for pointing out the difference in Rorschach's speech patterns in the memories. As this is my first graphic novel, I'm not yet used to picking up all the visual information.

I think the evolution in appearance of the Comedian from the yellow suit to the black masked figure in the riots is interesting, if not significant, since Hollis refers to him as a "particularly vicious and brutal young man" in the autobiography. On the other hand, since the autobiography was written later, that opinion could have been colored by what Hollis knew at the time he wrote it and not representative of what he knew when the minutemen were formed. Then again, it's possible that they didn't mind viciousness and brutality...

I would also like to discuss (at some point) what we know about the politics of the minutemen (the charges of fascism, etc.) and to talk about the riots (which I don't feel like we know much about, but I'd like to make sure I haven't missed anything). (Who watches the watchmen?)

Nicole said...

I love how this chapter shows what being a superhero does to a person, and what kind of person would want to make a career out of it in the first place. I mean, you have someone who is willing to brutally beat up criminals in a costume as a full time job. Is it really that surprising that he ends up being a brutal person? That he won't be able to turn it off? In this context, the raping and murdering makes perfect sense (while still being reprehensible of course), and this outcome, of a horrible violent man with no place in society, feels a lot more realistic to me than Bruce Wayne does.

I also loved how useless and lame Night Owl II looked next to The Comedian in the riot scenes. He seemed waay over his head, and terrified of what was going on around him - which is definitely NOT the way I would imagine would be the best to approach an angry mob (not like the Comedian's was any better). Again, is it any surprise that someone who would voluntarily don a costume and beat people up for 40 years would love to fight angry mobs of regular people as much as criminals? I got the feeling that definitely by the 70's he just loved the violence - who he was fighting was inconsequential.

And as a first time reader I can't WAIT to see what is up with this island!

sb said...

I think my favorite part of the book is how it treats the superhero mythos. The idea that yes, logically, someone would have to be kind of cracked in the head to want to dress up and fight crime. The idea that superheroes can make mistakes, that they're not infallible, is interesting to me. The Comedian is a great example of this. He does things that are good and brings bad guys to justice (regardless of his motivations for doing so), but he also commits some heinous deeds. I don't think that Blake is a sociopath; his breakdown with Moloch seems to suggest he feels some remorse. I think he's just supremely jaded about life. He doesn't work within a moral code because he seems to view the world as an inherently immoral and corrupt place, like Rorschach does. The difference is that, while Rorschach rejects society for its ills (by adopting black-and-white morality), Blake embraces it. He has to embrace the pointlessness of life, or else he couldn't function. I'd be curious to know how exactly he got that way.

Joe Reid said...

It's interesting, nicole (no last name), because we see men like Blake and Rorschach who do seem to enjoy the brutality of it all. But then (particularly in the Crimebusters era), you have men like the comparatively neurotic Dreiberg, or Captain Metropolis, whose great passion seems to be making flow-charts. Adrian Veidt doesn't project weakness like those two, but he's also willing to take a deliberate and considered approach to crimefighting, rather than the battering ram approach that Blake and Rorschach favor.

So the motivation question is still pretty up in the air. Or at least it differs from hero to hero.

Mars said...

The Comedian may not just be a symbol of the crumbling society, but a product of what society drives (recruits?) some people to do. nicole touched on it asking "is it surprising he became a brutal person." We see that question come up in every war, with stories of soldiers that come back from battle with scars that lead to violence at home.

The Comedian seemed to have started as a nasty man (according to Hollis Masons excerpt) so perhaps his life of beating the crap out of people (and fighting wars) just pushed him to the extremes. In the same excerpt Mason describes Blake being stabbed so he changed his costume to the leathers, plus shows him in the South Pacific, a particularly brutal theater of war. He's been touched by the most violent aspects of "heroism" as both a mask and a soldier. And rather then shrink from it (like Nite Owl seems to have done) he's embracing it with both arms.

So maybe that's the point of Blake. He's part of the heroing gig but he sees it at the very basest level: Hit evil until it stops. And he likes it. Do unto others before they do unto you. best defense is a good offence, etc. etc.

His perspective seems to be the result of what he feels he's had to do to "get the job done." Though it's not clear if he's sure what that job is. His breakdown with Moloch points to a limit within Blake. Some line he doesn't want to cross.

Considering what we've seen of him so far, it's gotta be a big line...

aaron said...

I've always thought the inclusion of Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian in Vietnam was interesting in that both are supposed to be the face of America but to different audiences. I think the Comedian is a patriotic symbol for the American people while Dr. Manhattan is a symbol of American military might and dominance and hegemony designed to keep the rest of the world in check. Of course while that public face is being projected, there is a lot more going on under the surface or behind the mask, as the Comedian is a violent individual that relishes the brutality in his life.

With that in mind, this kind of plays into one of the major themes of the book, that is, showcasing one thing while a mountain of subtext lies beneath. Even the entire novel as a whole can be viewed in this light, as on it's face, it's just another murder mystery, while beneath the surface much more weightier themes and subjects are being explored.

Also, one stylistic note, the word balloons in this chapter and throughout the book, change depending on what era we are in. The word ballons for the original Minutemen meeting look like clouds as that was the style of comics during that era. The word balloons during Adrian's flashback are perfectly round. And the present day action has slightly angular word balloons. It's a subtle way of informing the reader of what the general timeframe is without resorting to a chyron.

jessica said...

Heh, my first thought was that Dollar Bill's demise could have been easily inserted into Edna Mode's cape diatribe. Even the name is cartoonish.

I find myself confused by the fact that all these masked avengers are regular people. I find it hard to comprehend the motivation to give up any sort of life and live this way. I imagine it takes a LOT out of a person and maybe that's why, as Rorschach pointed out, these people are doomed to strife, to never die in bed.

Of course, the fact that these superheroes are not at all "super" in their abilities makes me even more curious about Dr. Manhattan. Obviously, he is not a mere mortal. Who is he? What happened to him?

The attempted rape scene was very brutal indeed (and VERY cliched), but what struck me was the way Hooded Justice came to look for her (according to Hollis they were something of an item) and then sneered at her to cover up. It's unsettling, the way so many characters -- even Sally herself -- seem to have such misogynistic attitudes. So far Laurie seems to be the only one offended, and yet I have to admit I find her abrasive and someone unlikeable so far, even though I agree with her in principle.

The way these posts are going I kind of feel like I'm focusing on the wrong things, but I'm enjoying the book nonetheless.

Greg said...

I liked that both Veidt and Dr. Manhattan both had their own official cuff-links (seen when they shake hands). I would totally buy a pair of light blue hydrogen atom cufflinks even though they would make Alan Moore crazy. Speaking of Veidt I thought that it must make him super self-conscious to call himself "The World's Smartest Man" when Dr. Manhattan is nearly omniscient.

Also speaking of Doc Manhattan, the Crimebusters meeting totally reminded me of Jerry Seinfeld talking about the Justice League. His line was what do you need The Flash for when you have Superman. In this case it is even more prominent. What do you need a regular guy like Night Owl when Doctor Manhattan can alter the fabric of the universe?