You know that thing where you pursue every lead from the Watchmen annotations? This is that thing. So we’re once again entering spoiler-town for Watchmen. That’s my only alert this time, because I don’t believe in spoiler warnings for anything written over 1800 years ago.
We only get two panels further on page 9 past our last dive when the annotations throw another reference our way:
Panel 7: “Who Watches the Watchmen” was popular graffiti around the time of the Keene act. It comes from the Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” from Juvenal’s Satires and, of course, is the source of the title of the series. The phrase never appears in its entirety in the series; it is always cut off somehow.
I’d never heard of Juvenal or his Satires, so I had to start from scratch on this one. Turns out that there was a guy in late 1st/early 2nd century Rome by the name of Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, but because we give all the cool writers of antiquity just one name, we call him Juvenal. He wrote 16 satires, back when the term had a little different definition — not so much about comedy, but certainly still about social critique.
So I read these satires. This isn’t necessarily a straightforward task. Because I don’t read Latin, I had to read the Satires in translation, but there are boatloads of translations out there. I’m no classicist, so I know nothing about the relative merits of Juvenal’s translators, and researching them was beyond the scope of this project. So I picked the Peter Green translation because, hey, Fleetwood Mac! (Not the same guy, I hasten to add. I may not be a classicist, but I am a Macist.)
Lucky for me, I thought the translation was fabulous. I mean, I’m in no position to judge its accuracy (or else I wouldn’t need it), but Green’s introduction is wonderful, and his notes both erudite and entertaining. He explains the choices he’s made, like introducing modern diction in spots, and replacing Juvenal’s references to specific people with references to types, when it appears that Juvenal was naming the person to invoke the type anyway. The satires read very smoothly — his approach worked for me.
As for the Satires themselves, they change a bit as you go through them. The first several are just venomous, a torrent of shrill invective whose closest Watchmen analogue is Rorschach’s opening page jeremiad about the immoral dregs populating the city. They mellow out a bit after that, but still remain at heart a lamentation of how crappy things are now. (“Now” being around 110-130 CE.) Overall they resonate remarkably with the overriding sense of disappointment and degradation in Watchmen. Just as Nite Owl plaintively asks, “What happened to the American dream?”, Juvenal’s entire oeuvre seems to be asking the same question about Rome.
By the way, before we get much further I should address the fact that unlike many of the references in Watchmen, Moore claims to have made this one accidentally. Apparently he’d heard “Who watches the watchmen?” as an aphorism, and used it in the book, but was only later informed (by Harlan Ellison, apparently) of the phrase’s classical provenance. Still, there are some interesting connections between the two works.
For instance, there’s a social parallel between Watchmen‘s superheroes and Juvenal’s persona in the Satires. Green spends a large part of the introduction arguing that Juvenal was socially conservative to the point of being reactionary:
His most violent invective… is reserved for those who, in one way or another, threaten to disrupt the existing pattern of society, to inject some mobility and dynamism into the class structure. [...] His particular dilemma, like that of many another laudator temporis acti yearning for some mythical Golden Age, is that he is living by a set of moral and social assumptions that were obsolete before he was born.
Green makes a very convincing argument that Juvenal is all about preserving the status quo. The poet’s anger is towards forces of change, like the merchant classes, or aristocrats who cross class lines to have liaisons “beneath” them. (He’s also not fond of patrons who fail to support poets properly — the idea of doing something useful to earn his living never seems to occur to him.)
Superheroes, too, are reactive, and seek to preserve the current order. They patrol the city, looking for forces of disruption, and then neutralize those forces. Or perhaps they get wind of a person or group of people in distress, and they leap to the rescue. Before long, their stories come to be dominated by entities they’ve thwarted in the past, always back to seek revenge or plot a new disruption.
Rarely does a superhero take the initiative to try to prevent disruptions before they happen, or to reshape society into something different and better. In fact, when superheroes become proactive forces of change, they generally stop being superheroes and turn into supervillains, as Watchmen indelibly demonstrates. (This problem may map to superpower countries in our world — Moore says in the New Comics interview that part of his aim with Watchmen was to “try and scare a little bit so that people would just stop and think about their country and their politics.”)
Another connection is through the concept of lineage. Satire VIII tears into Romans who ride on the coattails of their noble forbears to claim superiority to others, even though they themselves are degenerates. Lineage takes on its own significance in superhero stories, especially in the DC Universe, as identities are passed from mentor to student, father to son, mother to daughter, and so forth. We see plenty of this in Watchmen, with both Nite Owl and Silk Spectre passing the baton to a younger generation, who inevitably embody the identities differently than their predecessors.
Juvenal’s point in Satire VIII is that deeds outshine names, and while the point applies to Watchmen, the more salient aspect is the notion of degeneration, which is one of Juvenal’s constant themes throughout all the satires. Nite Owl II isn’t the hero that Nite Owl I was, though he certainly marshals more power — he’s a more ambiguous figure with more dubious achievements, befitting his time. Similarly, Silk Spectre II doesn’t even like being a superhero, and has trouble living up to her mother’s expectations.
Even within one incarnation, degeneration can occur — Rorschach goes through a clear change to become a much darker figure than he once was. We see it on the larger scale as well — the disgust that Nite Owl I (representative of the earlier generation) expresses for The Comedian (the link to the next generation) illuminates the decline from the Minutemen to the Watchmen (or the Crimebusters, or the loosely associated main characters, or whoever they are.) As Juvenal writes:
But if ambition and lust dictate your headlong progress,
if you splinter the rods in blood across provincial backs, if
blunt axes and weary headsmen are your prime delight,
then you will find your noble background itself beginning
to turn against you, to hold a bright torch to your shamelessness.
Yet another tie worth noting is the portrayals of Alexander The Great in each work. The satires don’t dwell on him, but where they do mention him, Juvenal provides a great counter to Ozymandias’ fascination with Alexander and with antiquity in general. For instance, in Satire X, Juvenal holds forth on how our human desires often go horribly awry. He cites example after example of this, Alexander being one:
One globe seemed all too small for the youthful Alexander:
unhappily he chafed at this world’s narrow confines,
as though caged on some bare rocky Aegean islet. Yet
when he entered the city of brick-walled Babylon,
a coffin was to suffice him. Death alone reveals
our puny human dimensions.
Similarly, in Satire XIV, Juvenal depicts the meeting between Alexander and Diogenes, noting “how much happier was the man who desired / nothing than he whose ambitions encompassed the whole world, / yet would suffer perils as great as all he’d achieved.” As Green notes, for Juvenal it is Diogenes, not Alexander, who is “great.” Contrast this with Ozymandias’ rapturous description of Alexander in Chapter 11 of Watchmen. For Adrian, Alexander is one of the few role models history offers, though he eventually sees that “he’d not united all the world, nor built a unity that would survive him.” It’s an ironic echo of Dr. Manhattan’s words in chapter 12 — “Nothing ever ends.” Juvenal sees this too — Alexander’s quest for the wide world finally arrives in a narrow coffin, and while he takes over much land, he is not made happier for it.
All these connections are worth examining, but what really got me thinking was Satire VI. This satire, the longest and most complex in Juvenal’s quiver, is an epic diatribe against women. For 662 lines (almost 300 lines longer than its nearest competitor), Juvenal alleges one feminine flaw after another. Women are controlling, quarrelsome, conniving, superstitious, greedy, profligate, cruel to slaves and neighbors, consumed with lust, and prone to running off with gladiators and poisoning stepsons and husbands. On and on it goes. In fact, it is the source of the “who watches the watchmen” line, the context being a lamentation about the futility of controlling feminine lust. Here, Green’s translation:
Oh, I know
the advice my old friends would give, on every occasion –
“Lock her up and bar the doors.” But who is to stand guard
over the guards themselves? They get paid in common coin
to forget their mistress’s sex life: both hide the same offence.
Any shrewd wife, planning ahead, will first turn the heat on them.
This is one frightened man. We get glimpses of that same fear of women in Watchmen — Rorschach’s mother is horribly abusive, and leaves him so gynophobic that he’s repulsed by even handling “female clothing.” Also, the monster that Hira Manish designs for Ozymandias is pretty clearly a nightmare version of female genitalia, as underscored by some rather strong hints in Chapter 8.
There aren’t very many women in Watchmen, full stop. (In fact, the title Watchmen rather begs the question “What about women?”) What women we do see are not a tour of flaws a la Satire VI, but neither are they fully realized characters in themselves. For the most part, women in this book exist to demonstrate or change the way men feel about things.
We see this in small examples, such as the nameless pregnant Vietnamese woman gunned down by The Comedian in Chapter 2. She exists to show us what a despicable man he is, and to slash his face in a way that echoes Sally Jupiter’s fingernails and will later be echoed by Laurie Juspeczyk’s drink. Later in the story, Malcolm Long’s wife operates as a token to show us how his life is falling apart. She could just as easily be an unfed goldfish, or an unpaid electric bill, but making her a woman gives his descent a greater emotional impact. Chapter 11 gives us a scenario that almost seems like it might pass the Bechdel Test: two women talk to each other about their own relationship. However, only one of the women has a name, and as it turns out, the reason for their interaction, within the dazzlingly intricate structure of that chapter, is still to make a point about Malcolm: that he cannot turn away from the suffering in the world, even when it costs him his own marriage.
To a certain extent, Janey Slater is a token to demonstrate Dr. Manhattan’s feelings, or lack thereof. (The unnamed pregnant Vietnamese women also operates on this level, as The Comedian explicitly points out.) More than that, though, she is a token to manipulate his feelings. She’s used as a pawn by Nova Express (and a pawn in a far larger game by Ozymandias) to drive Dr. Manhattan off the planet. It will take another woman to change his feelings back.
Which brings us to Laurie. For a supposed superhero, she does very little heroing of any kind, with the exception of playing Robin to Nite Owl II’s Batman in the burning building. No, her main function is to change the state of male characters. It starts when she leaves Dr. Manhattan. As he tells us later, this severs his only link to Earth and humanity, and (simultaneously influenced by an embittered and cancerous Janey) he leaves the planet. Then she moves in with Dan Dreiberg, and transforms him from schlub to hero by spending some quality time with him, beating up thugs and then patrolling in full superhero gear. Each time, there is a clear (sometimes hilariously clear) sexual undercurrent. Finally, she has a long dialogue with Dr. Manhattan on Mars, which ends with him convinced to return to Earth.
In none of these cases does she form an intention and succeed with a plan. When she leaves Dr. Manhattan, she is driven purely by rage and frustration, reacting to his freakishly distant demeanor and his disconcertingly supernatural actions. Then her sexuality drives the story with Dreiberg, while her family tragedy causes Dr. Manhattan’s later reversal. (The locus of that tragedy is, unsurprisingly, a man.) Perhaps her best moment is when she shoots Adrian in chapter 12 — too bad she fails.
So what about the elder Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter? She’d certainly give Juvenal plenty of ammunition — she’s adulterous, controlling, passive-aggressive, and sometimes cruel. She also trades off her sexuality, and defines herself in sexual terms, as when Laurie overhears her joke from a room away, “As for me… what I achieved… sitting in it… and as… what I achieved it with… I’m sitting on it!” Early in the story, she occupies a typical marker function, like Watchmen‘s other women — her rape by The Comedian is the first in a series of Chapter 2 episodes designed to demonstrate his aggression, violence, and depravity.
However, the revelations of Chapter 9 put her in a different category. As Dr. Manhattan observes, she loves a man she has every reason to hate, and though that still defines her in terms of her relationship to a man, that encounter gives her a daughter — the “thermodynamic miracle” that brings Jon back to Earth.
I keep circling back to some effect on a male character, but I can’t help thinking that Sally at least comes the closest to breaking through the limits around Watchmen‘s other female characters. The fact that years after the rape, she had a willing liaison with Blake isn’t designed to show us something about him. It shows us something about her. In the book’s penultimate scene, it is her emotions on display. For that moment at least, we feel like we’re reading her story rather than some man’s story in which she plays a part. Her tear-stained face is more real, more human, than any of Juvenal’s caricatures, and the mysteries of her heart deeper by far than any other woman in Watchmen.