Monday, August 25, 2008

Watchmen Book Club: Chapter V

Chapter V: Fearful Symmetry

Three storylines play out in this chapter: Rorschach, still on the trail of this killer of masked superheroes, calls upon Edgar Jacobi once again; he's connected the dots that we hopefully already did -- that Blake had ranted to Jacobi about a "list" with Jacobi and Janey Slater on it, and now the allegations that Dr. Manhattan had given, among others, Jacobi and Slater cancer have driven him off-world. One more superhero out of the mix. Unfortunately for Rorschach, he hits up Jacobi once too often and ends up getting framed for Jacobi's murder. And, insult to injury, he's unmasked.

Meanwhile, Dan invites Laurie to come bunk with him, the better to intensify his lifetime of blue balls. (Lucky for Dan, Laurie's totally used to being around blue balls.) And Adrian Veidt narrowly evades an assassination attempt, which appears to validate Rorschach's "mask killer" theory once and for all.

This is all combined with a whole lot of Tales of the Black Freighter, including an end-tag chapter from a comics anthology detailing the history of the title and its estranged author and artist.

I think this is another one where I'm going to let you guys lead the discussion, but a few things:

-- Loved Rorschach referring to his mask as his "skin." The artwork really conveys the trauma when it's ripped off of him.

-- Interesting to compare the hero of the Black Freighter story to Rorschach: they're both using the bloated corpses around them (the sailor literally, Rorschach metaphorically in his dealings with city dwellers) in order to, for lack of a better term, save the world.

-- Funny seeing all these characters talk about how nobody would be crazy enough to start WWIII, when just in the last chapter we got that inset talking about how the Russians just might be that crazy.

-- Maybe my favorite thing from this whole chapter, the line in the epilogue about Black Freighter writer Max Shea's controversial, "blatantly pornographic" renderings of classic literary tales is pretty much a blueprint for Moore's later work on the blatantly pornographic rendering of classic literary heroines in Lost Girls.


-- I almost forgot to mention, but props to Aaron in the comments section from Chapter IV for mentioning the symmetrical layout of this chapter, with Veidt's assassination attempt at the center and everything else bookending that.


Aaron said...

The thing that always impressed me so much about the symmetry in this chapter is how it is not just contained to the panel layout. Yes, that in and of itself is impressive, but there is so much more to it than just the panels being symmetrical in their layout.

If you notice, it's also how the narrative progresses, as it flows from Rorshach/Jacobi -> The Detectives -> Newsvendor/Tales of the Black Freighter -> Dan/Laurie -> Rorschach Journal -> Newsvendor/Tales of the Black Freighter -> Adrian Veidt -> Newsvendor/Tales of the Black Freighter -> Rorshach Journal -> Dan/Laurie -> Newsvendor/Tales of the Black Freighter -> The Detectives -> Rorshach/Jacobi.

Also, the artwork/color schemes match up between the corresponding pages. Especially the first and last couple of pages when Rorshach is near or in Jacobi's apartment and the drugstore light is blinking on and off. The panels alternate between a warm red/yellow/orange coloring and a cool blue/green/gray coloring, and it is all symmetrical.

Then there are the recurring images. For instance, on page 8, the truck in the background contains a triangle as it's logo. Then on page 21, the cabdriver unfurls her poster that contains a very similar pink triangle logo. The pages containing Rorshach's journal have nearly identical images from his POV as he holds up his mask and calls it his face.

Those are just a few quick examples, but the entire chapter is loaded with all sorts of symmetry, hell, even the coverpage is the symmetrical Rum Runner sign.

For me, it's this level of storytelling that elevates Watchmen into the rarified air with other great literature. It's show-offy without calling attention to itself. The depth and complexity is all there if you are paying attention and looking for it and yet it never detracts from the plot or the central narrative.

Moore and Gibbons have said that they designed a lot of Watchmen to showcase how different comics can be from other mediums and to show what comics can do. And for my money, it's nothing short of amazing. Everytime I reread this chapter, I notice something new. For instance, this was the first time, I caught the fact that Blake's homicide folder is numbered, 801108. Just another little detail.

I aplogize for going on far too long on this, but one other thought I wanted to share was that it is interesting that this chapter follows the chapter in which we learned how Dr. Manhattan experiences time. For him, time and events happen all at once and the past is echoed in the present and future and vice versa. I never noticed until this latest readthrough, that we the reader, are in some small way, thanks to the symmetrical nature of the chapter put into Dr. Manhattan's shoes a bit. As when you read the second half of the chapter, events and images and dialogue from the first half of the chapter is repeated and for lack of a better word, bleedsthrough, or are echoed in the second half. Just a thought.

jessica said...

So, is Rorschach this missing comics writer Shea? The timing might be off, but the transition from him being unmasked to the anthology exerpt about Shea disappearing made me think it. I keep assuming everything is connected to everything else.

Omar said...

I didn't remember the EC Comics essay at all from my previous readings and enjoyed this bit of alternate history quite a bit. Were pirate comics ever very popular compared to other EC genres?

It's been so long since my previous reading that I don't remember if I even caught the symmetrical panels bit before, but knowing of it this time has amplified my enjoyment of this issue immensely -- thanks, Aaron!

Joe Reid said...

I read somewhere recently -- and it's mentioned briefly at the beginning of the excerpt -- that with superheroes so common in the real world, pirate comics replaced comics as the popular artform in the Watchmen universe.

Greg said...

I loved reading the story about EC comics how the 50's was a real boom period for EC comics, when in reality thanks to Senate investigations EC comics died.

Also I mentioned in chapter 1 there was some foreshadowing. When the detective walks by the "The End is Nigh" guy he says he feels cold. This guy is of course Rorshach.

Also I think the mirror image thing is one of the coolest things I have ever seen in comics. Also on a side not "Fearful Symmetry" is also the title of a famous Spider-Man story also known as Kraven's Last Hunt.