The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 12, part 1 – Ditko Fever

Greetings, fellow Watchmenites. I have not been derailed, merely distracted. It’s crazy how fast six months can go by. Doesn’t seem like it ever used to happen that way twenty years ago, but then again, it’s crazy how fast twenty years can go by. In any case, it’s been a while. Sorry about that, but I did have a lot of reading to do. Let me tell you why, and as usual, I warn that Watchmen spoilers are ahead.

For the first time since this project began, I’m jumping a considerable (well, comparatively so) gap in the Annotated Watchmen v2.0 While the last couple of references, which turned out to be more or less red herrings, were on pages 12 and 15 of Chapter 1, we now jump all the way to page 23, having completed Rorschach’s tour through the main cast:

Now that we have met the main characters, it’s useful to look at the characters that they are loosely based on.

Moore’s original plan for Watchmen was that it would involve the Charlton Comics heroes, whom DC had purchased from the defunct Charlton in the early 1980′s. DC eventually decided to insert these characters into its own super-hero universe, leaving Moore to rework the characters in Watchmen. The Charlton characters and their Watchmen analogues are as follows:

  • The Question: Rorschach
  • The Comedian: The Peacemaker, though the Comedian shares some attributes with Sarge Steel as well
  • Nite Owls I and II: Blue Beetles I and II
  • Silk Spectre: Nightshade
  • Dr. Manhattan: Captain Atom
  • Ozymandias: Pete Cannon, Thunderbolt

The annotations then go on to briefly describe each Charlton character, but I’m not quoting that part, because I’m going to cover the same ground, albeit with trademark superverbosity. But first, a little history.

Once upon a time, in a town called Derby, Connecticut, there was a publishing company. Founded by Italian immigrant John Santangelo in 1931, the company’s first business was publishing lyric books for current popular songs. Unfortunately for Santangelo, this business model was illegal, and he ended up with a year-long jail term in 1934 for copyright violations. In the pokey, he met an attorney named Ed Levy, and the two went into business together after paying their debt to society. They both had sons named Charles, which is how the name “Charlton” came to be. They got hold of an old cereal box printing press, and made it part of a publishing venture. Where other companies contracted out for printing and distribution, Charlton put everything under one roof. They published (legal) music magazines (including the long-lived Hit Parader), fiction magazines, crossword puzzles, and, yes, comics. They published all kinds of comics — science fiction, funny animals, licensed properties (e.g. The Flintstones), crime, romance, war, horror, and when the circumstances dictated, superheroes too.

They were never a prestigious comics company, and they paid some of the lowest page rates in the business. In fact, the main reason that they published comics at all was that it was cheaper to do so than to shut the presses down, or so the story goes. Consequently, they were never known for their quality — writers and artists pounded out work quickly in order to make a living at such low wages. Nevertheless, for a time Charlton was a place where talented creators could hone their craft at the beginnings of their careers. Because the audience was small and the work high-volume, beginners could acquire a great deal of practice with a low public profile, and earn a few bucks in the process.

One of these beginners was a gifted, serious artist named Steve Ditko. Ditko did his first Charlton story in 1954, and continued working for the company throughout the 1950s, illustrating eerie tales and science fiction stories with an unusual flair and distinctiveness. However, after enduring a bout of tuberculosis in the mid-50′s, Ditko began taking side work at another company: Atlas Comics, which was soon to become Marvel. Ditko turned out the same kind of stories for Atlas as he did for Charlton, though at the former he was partnered with a veteran comics writer named Stan Lee.

As the 1960s dawned, superheroes were starting to gather a bit of steam again, so Ditko collaborated with Charlton writer Joe Gill to create a new superhero for the atomic age: Captain Atom! More about him later. Over at the company now known as Marvel, Ditko and Lee also got together to create a quirky superhero, whose debut was exiled to the final issue of an ailing anthology series called Amazing Adult Fantasy.

This was the birth of Spider-Man, one of the most famous and successful superheroes of all time. Month after month, Ditko and Lee turned out compelling, surprising Spider-Man stories, in the process generating an enduring supporting cast and rogues gallery for the instantly popular hero. They also collaborated on an even weirder creation: Doctor Strange, Master of The Mystic Arts, whose journeys through surreal extradimensional landscapes had college kids convinced that Ditko must have been on drugs.

The joke was on them, though, because not only was Ditko sober, he was straight and rigid as a steel arrow, and an arch-conservative Ayn Rand follower to boot. Lee, on the other hand, was a classic New York liberal, and not only that, he adhered to the notion that credit for a character’s creation should go solely to the writer. So as Spider-Man’s popularity skyrocketed (along with the rest of the Marvel line), the die was cast for these two guys to come into conflict. In fact, they weren’t even on speaking terms for the last year or so of their Spider-Man run, meaning that Lee would provide a line or two of plot summary, then Ditko would turn in full pages of art, into which Lee had to figure out how to slot his captions and dialogue.

When Ditko finally left, after Spider-Man #38, he never publicly said why. Onlookers have speculated about political conflict, character ownership claims, royalty disputes, and even a disagreement over the true identity of the Green Goblin. We will likely never know, as Ditko became more or less a media recluse, refusing most interviews and most questions.

charlton crimebuster letterWhat we do know is that after leaving Marvel in 1966, he returned to Charlton. By this time, he’d secured his place in the pantheon of legendary superhero artists, and a new Charlton executive editor named Dick Giordano wanted to capitalize on the opportunity. Thus was born the Charlton “Action Hero” line, including four Ditko-drawn heroes: Captain Atom, The Blue Beetle, The Question, and (briefly) Nightshade. To these, Giordano added other creators’ characters, such as Joe Gill & Pat Boyette’s Peacemaker, Peter A. Morisi’s Thunderbolt, Gill & Frank McLaughlin’s Judomaster, and Pat Masulli’s Sarge Steel. Sadly, while the Action Heroes line had its fans, it couldn’t sustain itself, and by the end of 1967 the whole thing had been scrapped.

Fast forward to 1983. By this time, Giordano had left Charlton, and had in fact become editor-in-chief at DC Comics. Charlton itself had fallen on hard times, publishing only reprints of its old material year after year. DC Executive Vice President Paul Levitz bought the rights to the entire Action Hero line from Charlton, as a gift to Giordano, who was encouraged to use the characters however he pleased.

Meanwhile, Alan Moore was contemplating a superhero murder mystery with established characters, and mapped out a pitch based around the recently acquired Charlton heroes. Giordano, wanting to use the characters as a part of the mainstream DC universe, balked at the changes that Moore’s storyline would force upon them, and encouraged Moore to create new characters for his project. And so here we are, with a book full of characters who share DNA with their Charlton ancestors, but who have also mutated in important and interesting ways.

Let’s look at each Charlton action hero in turn, along with how they map to their Watchmen analogues. In this entry I’ll focus on the Ditko characters, and then next time around I’ll pick up the rest.

Captain Atom

Captain Atom premiered in March of 1960, as the heroic alter ego of… Captain Adam, an eye-roller of a “secret” identity name if there ever was one. Captain Allen Adam, at least as he’s described on the first page of his origin story, is pretty superlative even before he gets his powers: “the Air Force career man who knew more about rocketry, missiles, and the universe than any man alive… a specialist of the missile age, a trained, dedicated soldier who was a physics prodigy at eight, a chemist, a ballistics genius!” For some reason, this invaluable genius is inside an Atlas missile, making final adjustments with just three minutes until blast-off. Wouldn’t you know it, he drops the screwdriver and can’t extricate himself in time, so he is launched into the stratosphere alongside an atomic warhead, preset to explode in space.

And explode it does! Captain Adam is disintegrated, but… “at the instant of fission, Captain Adam was not flesh, bone and blood at all… the desiccated molecular skeleton was intact but a change, never known to man, had taken place!” In point of fact, he mysteriously reintegrates, but as a (literally) radioactive man. His first task is to find himself a suit that will protect others from his radioactivity, and so his military buddies fetch him something called “dilustel”, which “converts the escaping rays to another frequency in the light spectrum.”

charlton capt atom reintegrated

Captain Atom possesses a wide variety of powers, some of which seem to fluctuate at the writer’s whim. There are a few constants. He can fly and survive outer space like Superman. He can disintegrate and reintegrate to phase through solid matter. He can project heat from his body, and is strong and invulnerable. Otherwise, he can do whatever the plot needs him to do.

The main theme to Captain Atom stories is American superiority. Early on, these tended to take the form of short, fantastical red-baiters like “The Second Man In Space,” in which Captain Atom rescues a Russian astronaut who is dying in his capsule but ignored by Russian leaders on the ground, desperate to score a propaganda victory over the USA. (The astronaut lands safely and proclaims that an American saved him, meaning that the Russian was not the first man in space, hence the title.)

Later, the Captain turned his attention to marauding aliens, and finally, in the 1966 revival, to supervillains like Doctor Spectro, Thirteen, and The Ghost. Throughout all his stories, he remains a military officer whose loyalty is to the United States government. Even the supervillainy of his supervillains tended to be along the lines of “I stole some of the Air Force’s valuable equipment!” (In fact, his most frequent nemesis The Ghost was that worst of all blackguards, a former military adviser turned traitor.) All of CA’s victories, whether over Communists, aliens, supervillains, or rogue asteroids, were assertions of American invincibility1, and when they were complete he always returned to his life as Captain Adam, USAF.

Like Allen Adam, Jon Osterman has considerable scientific knowledge, and like Adam, he finds himself locked in an inescapable chamber upon which the power of Big Science is unleashed. Osterman is similarly disintegrated, and then reassembles himself again, albeit rather more gradually and gruesomely than does his predecessor. Finally, like Captain Atom, Dr. Manhattan can do pretty much anything he wants to, and for a time he even does it in the service of the United States government, lending it the same air of total indomitability.

Such are the similarities. But the differences mean more. Where Captain Atom is a military captain, representing armed aggression and might, Doctor Manhattan is an academic Doctor of Philosophy, representing intellectual inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Consequently, the Doctor soon loses interest in the kinds of hegemonic operations that occupy the Captain, moving his sphere of exploration to another sphere altogether. In any case, the Doctor’s government is a far cry from the unquestioned source of good that government represents in the Captain’s world.

Moreover, Dr. Manhattan’s persona takes Captain Atom’s godlike powers to their logical conclusion of godhood. For someone who travels among the stars and witnesses the wonders of the universe, the Captain seems content to keep his energies focused on the rather small beer of supervillain battles and national defense. The Doctor, on the other hand, comes to view such topics with utter indifference, finding fervency only in quantum miracles and the spontaneous creation of life. Reflecting this schism, the American people love the Captain2 but are utterly terrified of the Doctor, and perhaps rightly so. They realize that his loyalty is not to the United States nor even to humanity, and that therefore their own safety hangs always by the thread of his whims.

Nightshade

In issue #823 of the rebooted Captain Atom, the Captain picks up a partner. This is a heroine named Nightshade, “The Darling Of Darkness.” Nightshade is basically the punching kicking type, but she does have the superpower to change into a shadow (although she hates to do it), and also carries an arsenal of stuff like “ebony bombs” and a “black light gun.”

Of all the Charlton heroes, she bears the least resemblance to her Watchmen counterpart, and for good reason: Moore has said that he found her the least interesting, and that he patterned Silk Spectre II more after heroines like the Phantom Lady and the Black Canary. Stay with me though, because it’s still worth looking at how Nightshade herself made her way into the character of Laurie Juspeczyk.

Nightshade didn’t have too many Charlton appearances. She was created by Ditko and Joe Gill for Captain Atom, but she only showed up in a handful of issues before that series was canceled. However, she did have three solo stories as a CA backup feature, written by Dave Kaler and drawn by future Batman artist Jim Aparo. The predominant theme of these stories was childhood trauma, specifically centered around the character’s mother. Eve Eden is a senator’s daughter and jet-setting party girl, but this is merely a front for her deadly serious vigilante activities as Nightshade. She trains relentlessly on different fighting styles under the tutelage of Tanaka, also known as Tiger, the former sidekick of Judomaster4. (More on Judomaster next time.)

Why is she so driven, and why the deception? Well, it turns out that Nightshade has a nightmare in her past. One day when her father was away, her mother Magda brought Eve and her brother Larry into a room, drew the curtains and turned out the light. She explained that “once I was a princess in the land of the nightshades! And you’ve inherited the power of the royal nightshades from me!” She had fled this fairy/fantasy world because of a monster called The Incubus. So, for some reason, she decides to take her kids back to that land, and who should immediately show up but minions of The Incubus himself? They seize Magda, who yells at the children to run away and turn into shadows. Eve successfully does so, for the first time in her life, while the demons kill Magda in front of Larry.

charlton nightshade

Eve runs toward Magda, who grabs her hand and uses the last of her power to bring Eve back to our world, then dies, but not before extracting a promise from Eve that she will never tell her father, and will go back for Larry. Unfortunately for Nightshade, the Action Heroes line was cancelled before she could ever fulfill this promise. It wasn’t until years later, after the character had been well-integrated into the DC universe, that the story continued, albeit with slightly altered post-Crisis continuity.

So it’s true that Silk Spectre II does not have the power to turn into a shadow, or do anything supernatural at all. She is no princess from the land of the Nightshades. But what she does have is a mother who, recklessly and unwisely, drew her into a mysterious and shadowy world at a very young age. Sally Jupiter doesn’t bind her daughter with a dying wish, but she certainly makes it clear what she intends for Laurel to do, and the obedient girl tries her best to live up to that demand. Thus begins her life as an adjunct, first to an atomic-powered superhero and then to a millionaire gadget freak. Her powers and her look may have been based more on the Black Canaries of the world, but the legacy of Nightshade lives on in Silk Spectre II.

Blue Beetle

“Millionaire gadget freak” is a nice transition to Ditko’s Blue Beetle, but first we must once again hop into the wayback machine. Further back, I mean.

The Blue Beetle didn’t start out at Charlton. No, he was created in 1939 at a company called Fox Comics. Here, let’s ask Jim Steranko to slip into comic book historian mode and tell us about it:

Fox Publications was the poverty row of comic books and their superheroes were completely derivative. Their most important hero was the Blue Beetle. I remember one day I talked to Charlie Nicholas, the creator of the Blue Beetle, and I asked him what was it that inspired him to create this rather unusual character named after a bug. And he explained everything about the Fox mentality to me in two words: Green Hornet.

So Blue Beetle began as a pulpy masked detective, but very quickly morphed into an extremely generic Superman clone. His civilian identity was Dan Garret, rookie cop, who made sure to bumble through his job so that nobody would suspect his secret. He got pestered by a girl reporter, who was suspicious about all his disappearances. Sometimes he took something called “Vitamin 2X” to turn into the Blue Beetle, and sometimes he just changed without any help at all, with perhaps a handwave to radioactivity maybe being the source of his powers somehow. His stories were almost incoherent, at least to my modern eye — very stylized and elliptical. He’d acquire new superpowers every issue, whatever happened to fit the plot, but he was always your basic flying, invulnerable, super-strong guy with eye powers like x-ray and heat vision.

By 1950, Fox had crumbled, and its assets were put up for sale. Charlton picked up the rights to the Blue Beetle, and reprinted stories from Fox’s inventory. These didn’t catch on, though, and it wasn’t until 1964 that Blue Beetle saw the light of day again, this time in a reboot from Joe Gill and Tony Tallarico. In this second incarnation, Dan Garrett (who had somehow picked up an extra “t”) was no longer a rookie cop, but was instead one of those comic book science types who knows everything about everything. He’s ostensibly an archaeologist, but can produce knowledge of physics, chemistry, linguistics, or whatever as the plot demands it.

This time around there’s at least a clear explanation for his powers, which he acquires when investigating a pyramid. He opens a casket, which releases the kind of great evil for which pyramid caskets are famous worldwide. However, he also finds a scarab nearby. When he picks up the scarab, he has a vision of a mighty ancient pharaoh, who tells him it is now his duty to fight evil as the Blue Beetle.

He’s still no less derivative — his base powerset is flight, x-ray vision, strength, invulnerability, and heat vision. And again, he displays random new powers on cue from problems in the story: he can “transmit electrical energy” past a broken wire or use his “micro-vision” to analyze broken machinery. However, he’s not just derivative of Superman — he also gets a Captain Marvel code word (“Kaji Dha!”) to say whenever he wants to switch back and forth between identities. Or sometimes clasping the scarab itself gives him his powers. It varies.

This Blue Beetle ran out of steam in early 1966, and so the character was shelved for a while. But a few months later, in the back pages of Captain Atom #83, an entirely new Blue Beetle took the stage, created and drawn by Steve Ditko. This one wasn’t Dan Garret(t) at all, but was instead a (you guessed it) millionaire gadget freak by the name of Ted Kord. Kord had a more interesting costume than the previous Blue Beetles, and his fighting style was dynamic and acrobatic, in the vein of Spider-Man. However, Kord had no superpowers, relying instead on a bug-shaped airship which ferried him from one crime scene to the next, entering and exiting his secret lab via an underwater entrance. Along with his fists, he used a variety of high-tech gimmicks designed to protect himself and beat up the bad guys.

So where did this new Blue Beetle come from, and what happened to Dan Garret? That’s just what the police would like to know, in an ongoing subplot depicting dogged Irish cops from Central Casting, who hassle Kord and his lab assistant/paramour Tracey about Garret’s disappearance. Readers are kept in the dark too, at least until the new Blue Beetle gets his own series in the summer of 1967. Issue #2 of this series reveals all. It seems that back when Kord was a junior scientist, he fell in with his Uncle Jarvis, working as a lab assistant and doing mysterious tests. Jarvis is mum about the purpose of his work, but Kord’s genius helps him solve all his operational problems. Finally, the lab explodes, with Jarvis apparently inside, and Kord uncovers the true purpose of his work: to create unstoppable super-strong androids. He also finds a map, to the mysterious Pago Island.

Kord, conflicted and confused, turns to his mentor, a college professor by the name of… Dan Garret. (Who once again seems to have lost his extra “t”.) Kord strongly suspects that his uncle faked his death, and is completing his scheme on Pago Island. He and Garret agree to investigate, and indeed they find an army of androids on the island. Garret becomes the Blue Beetle to fight them, but is killed when Jarvis makes his robots self-destruct. As Garret is dying, he makes Kord promise to keep his secret and carry on the legacy of the Blue Beetle. Legacy is, in fact, the overriding theme of the Ditko Blue Beetle stories. Kord decides to use his genius to whip up a fancy ship and an arsenal of crimefighting tools, and a new superhero is born.

charlton blue beetle legacy

Moore mashes up various parts of this story to make Nite Owl. Like the early Blue Beetle, the first Nite Owl is also a cop, though there’s no mention of the incompetence ruse. Such a tactic probably wouldn’t last long in Watchmen’s more realistic milieu anyway. And like the latest Blue Beetle, Dan Dreiberg is a brilliant tinkerer whose closets are bursting with suits and gizmos with which to fight crime. Archie the owl-ship is pretty much a copy-and-paste of Blue Beetle’s bug-ship, right down to their propensity for dramatically emerging from beneath the waves.

As with the Blue Beetle stories, the idea of legacy permeates the Nite Owl stories. The first time we see Dreiberg, he’s reverently absorbing hero anecdotes from the first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason. There’s clearly a warmth to the relationship, and Dreiberg later tells Laurie Juspeczyk that he idolized Mason. As he says, “I guess that’s pretty obvious.” There’s no Pago Island and no heroic sacrifice — in fact, Dreiberg just approached him as a fan and asked for the use of the name Nite Owl. However, the elder Nite Owl does end up dying violently, and as with Ted Kord and Dan Garret, the mentor’s death is an indirect result of the protege’s actions, in this case freeing Rorschach from prison.

It’s not just Mason, though. Dan Dreiberg is a throwback in all kinds of ways. He doesn’t listen to Devo — he listens to Billie Holiday and Louis Jordan. He wishes the Crimebusters meeting would have worked out, because he wants to belong to a “fellowship of legendary beings” like the Minutemen, or the Knights of the Round Table. He wonders aloud what’s happened to the American Dream. He’s trying not only to carry on the name and legacy of Nite Owl, but to carry on the Golden Age ethos as a whole. Like Blue Beetle, he wants to extend a tradition, and as with Blue Beetle, it doesn’t always work out so well.

The Question

Just as the newest Blue Beetle began as a backup feature for Captain Atom, The Question began as a backup feature for Blue Beetle. The cover of Blue Beetle #1 (volume 4, that is) dramatically asks: “WHO IS THE QUESTION?” I’ll tell you: The Question is the most Ditko-esque Charlton hero of them all. Vic Sage is a “hard-hitting TV newscaster.” (Gosh, that sounds awfully dated now, doesn’t it?) He’s not afraid to ask the tough questions, not afraid to hold people strictly accountable for their actions. He alienates many of his co-workers by being so unflinchingly dedicated to the Truth, so unwilling to compromise his principles one iota. Moral weaklings are constantly trying to get him to avoid controversy, which he nobly refuses to do. Consequently, his enemies at the TV station (who fear the loss of revenue that controversy could bring) keep trying to get him fired, but his friends are completely loyal, as is the station owner. And yet, his excellence is all too often unfairly ignored by a docile and apathetic public.

When it appears that the relentless broadcast Honesty of Vic Sage isn’t enough to bring down the forces of corruption and venality, Sage slips into a secluded place and applies a latex mask to his face, which obscures his features. He then releases a special gas invented by a Professor Rodor. The gas binds the mask to his face and changes the appearance of his clothes to a pale blue. He beats up the bad guys, and freaks them out as the eerie gas flows from his hands, revealing hitherto unseen question marks on innocent objects. A precursor to clench-jawed vigilantes like The Punisher, he gleefully sends criminals to the electric chair, or kicks them into the sewer and lets them drown.

charlton question sewage

In case it’s not clear, the overriding theme of all The Question’s stories is Objectivism. Like Ayn Rand, Vic Sage (whose 3-letter/4-letter naming pattern is surely no accident) holds that morality is not relative but absolute. He adheres to a black-and-white set of principles that leaves no room for compassion (or as he would view it, coddling.) He ensures that his version of justice is always done, meaning that the criminals he has judged pay the maximum consequences for their actions. He also frequently asserts his right to control his own behavior, and of others to control theirs, as when he narrowly escapes an assassination attempt via bombing at the office. The station owner says, “I can’t expect anyone to face violence for me!”, to which Sage replies, “No one can force me to face violence! But neither can they stop me from facing it! That is my decision! What’s up to you is whether or not I’m allowed to continue broadcasting!”

Everybody talks like this in Question stories. It’s page after page of polemic, with Sage boldly declaiming Objectivist views on TV (“I repeat, rights can only belong to individuals! Groups, by themselves, have no rights! The rights belong to the individual within the group!”) while his enemies at the station say things like, “Why does he have to stir up so much trouble? With this many people against him, he must be wrong!” The criminals in his stories cry, “He deserves everything he gets! He didn’t have to pry into my affairs!”, and The Question laughs in their faces when they try to offer him a cut of their loot. Seriously, if he’d lasted long enough to establish an archenemy, it would totally have to be Strawman.

In Blue Beetle #5, the last published issue before the Action Heroes line was cancelled, Ditko lets loose completely. The villain of the Blue Beetle story is an art critic, Boris Ebar, who praises a depressing sculpture on the opening splash page, in a long speech peppered with references to “man’s inevitable weaknesses” and “man’s inability to solve or control the illusion we call existence.” Ted Kord (who, as the hero of the story, has suddenly become an Objectivist) is disgusted at this rejection of objective reality, and couldn’t be more pleased when Vic Sage (in a rare crossover appearance) tells the critic, “That thing and your views belong on a junk heap!” A depressed janitor adopts a costume to resemble the depressing statue, and goes around town trying to destroy more valiant-looking art, cheered on by a bunch of moral relativist hippies. Luckily, the Blue Beetle stops his downer rampage while an admiring Vic Sage looks on.

charlton vic sage junk heap

Then, in The Question backup story, that same Ebar tries to bring a depressing painting into Sage’s TV station (“It represents… the refusal of man to help his fellow man get out of the gutter!”), and as recompense for his gift asks for Sage’s termination. Then Sage’s loyal assistant Nora confronts the critic with a more noble and uplifting painting, which gets him so upset that he hires thugs to go into Nora’s apartment and destroy the painting. Luckily The Question is there to fight them off. In a final climactic scene, Nora again confronts Ebar with the bold painting, and he breaks down in tears, addressing the figure on the canvas: “Why won’t you let me lie to myself? Why do you keep making me see what I left myself become… stop it! I must destroy you… to destroy the proof of what I once wanted to be!” It’s the only superhero comic I’ve ever seen where heroic art defeats the villain, and it is just about as uptight and didactic as you could possibly imagine.

With Rorschach, Moore copies The Question’s absolutism and fierce sense of purpose, as well as his tendency to moralize, albeit to himself in a diary rather than to a city at large. (Well, perhaps that changes after the story’s final panel.) Like The Question, Rorschach sees the world in black and white (“…but not mixing. No gray. Very, very beautiful.”) Like The Question, Rorschach does not hesitate to maim or murder those he sees as scum — he’d just as soon drop a criminal down an elevator shaft as listen to him. And like The Question, he sees himself as a warrior for The Truth in a degraded and corrupt world.

The crucial difference is that Rorschach exists in a world of human beings rather than cardboard cutouts designed to represent caricatured worldviews. Those humans tend to view Rorschach as, well, insane. And with good reason. But Moore does not even let us off that easily.

Yes, Rorschach’s civilian “profession” of carrying a doomsday sign seems like a clear parody of Vic Sage’s televised proclamations. And yes, his tendency towards violence can seem extremely misplaced when applied to harmless cranks like Captain Carnage. And yes, his casual contempt for the majority of humanity is quite obviously at odds with his self-professed heroism. And yet.

And yet in the end Rorschach becomes arguably the most admirable figure in the story, as his refusal to sacrifice his principles in the face of Veidt’s monstrous deception gives him a level of heroism which none of the others can claim. Forget about the Keene Act — even in the face of Armageddon, Rorschach will never compromise.

Not only that, Chapter 6 lets us in on Rorschach’s own humanity, the horrors he has seen which make him the horror that he is. We see him as a child, weeping as abuse rains down upon him, furious as he strikes back at the cruelty around him. We see him shaped by a real incident (it’s vital that the incident be real) in which a docile and apathetic public is accessory to murder. We see the utter blackness of sadism and violent crime which brings out his absolute opposition.

In short, we see enough to understand Rorschach, and to have compassion for him. That compassion is the key to such a character is, perhaps, the final satirical twist on Ditko’s own stiff brand of storytelling, and on the Randian disdain for emotions.

There are more action heroes and more Watchmen counterparts to discuss, but this entry has certainly gone on long enough. Next time: Peacemaker, Thunderbolt, Judomaster, and Sarge Steel! I’ll try to take less than six months to write it this time.

Endnotes

1 The one exception to this is the couple of stories where Captain Atom takes a paternalistic role to a young boy in trouble. In particular, a story called “The Boy And The Stars”, originally from Space Adventures #40, has Captain Atom taking a sick child “to a star which does not appear on maps of the solar system… a lovely star which emanates a ray that I have found useful.” There’s a particularly touching panel in which CA holds the boy’s hand as they stand in a fantastic landscape of swirling Ditko smoke.
charlton capt atom boy[Back to post]

2 Though in one issue of the 1966-67 revival, Captain Atom suffers a public backlash highly reminiscent of Spider-Man. [Back to post]

3Charlton’s issue numbering is notoriously weird, presumably from their attempts to skirt postal fees for new publications by changing the names of existing ones instead. So issue #83 of the rebooted Captain Atom is really the 6th issue of the relaunch, since Strange Suspense Stories was renamed to Captain Atom with issue #78. [Back to post]

4Crossovers between the Charlton heroes are rare, and their letter columns at the time explained this policy as intentional, saying that they wanted to focus on establishing their line of heroes before they started mixing them up. However, Nightshade seems to have been the exception to this — between the fact that she’s partnered with Captain Atom and the fact that she trained with Judomaster’s sidekick, her stories probably have the most connective tissue of all the Charlton stable. The uncharitable interpretation of this might be that writers believed there would be no interest in a girl character unless there was an already popular man in her stories. Or, to put another spin on it, she’s a minor character who just coincidentally happens to be the only female of all the “Action Heroes.” [Back to post]

This Promise Of Paradise

Another year, another music mix. I’m a little later with the liner notes this year — sorry about that. For the past few months I’ve found myself with a whole bunch of short-term, unduckable, hard-deadline projects. (Christmas counts as one of these. :)) My time is opening up a bit more now, so I’m finally able to get to these notes! This year’s mix is heavy on the Neko Case, a singer/songwriter I’ve loved for a few years but really dug deeper into during 2013. It’s also got plenty of the usual suspects (Folds, Nicks, Beatles) and some other stuff that grabbed me this year for a variety of specific reasons.

1. Ben Folds FiveHouse
I got hold of Ben’s box set in 2012, but it didn’t reach the front of the queue until early 2013. The discs are themed — rarities, live stuff, and “greatest hits.” He also got back together for a few tracks with the other two guys in Ben Folds Five (the Five was always a trio), and the hits disc has a couple of new songs from the band, including this one. I loved this song almost immediately. It reminds me of people I’ve known who have been traumatized in a family setting and then left the house behind. Maya Angelou talks about leaving her childhood home of Stamps, Arkansas — not just the place but “the condition that was Stamps, Arkansas.” The places where you go through great pain live inside your head themselves, and even if you can’t burn the house down, you can certainly choose never to re-enter that condition again.

2. Neko CaseAt Last
Oh Neko. Her songs are mostly short but I find them so electrifying. First, there’s her lyrics, elliptical and evocative in that Stevie Nicks way, but with an earthy, bloody touch that gives them a different tang in the brain. Then there’s the music, spooky melodies on country instruments, folk rock with the occasional jagged edge. And finally, the voice oh my god the voice. Neko has one of my favorite voices of anyone, ever. It is almost literally intoxicating to me — I can feel my nervous system lighting up like fireworks when I hear it — my breath gets short and my pulse gets quick. This song has a Dickinsonian quality to it as well, contemplating death with equanimity even as it embraces and longs for life.

3. Neko CaseRed Tide
One reason I dove depeer into Neko’s work last year is that I bought a ticket to see her sing in September, and wanted to know her ouevre a little better before I saw the show. As it turned out, she was sick for the concert, so although she still sounded PERFECT her energy was muted. I think my favorite performance was of this song, which is from the first album of hers I really got to know, a record called Middle Cyclone. Like many of her songs, it is compelling, immediate, and vivid to me. She sings it with this incredible full-throated authority, and again, it makes my brain buzz and my whole body want to be alive.

4. Johnny CashFolsom Prison Blues
I keep falling farther and farther behind on current music, because I find myself fascinated by filling the gaps in the knowledge I grew up with. Johnny Cash was one of those gaps. I’m not usually a country guy, but Cash to me transcends genre. He’s another one with an unforgettable voice, though in a whole different way than Case. (Hm, one letter difference. How about that?) But I only ever knew the barest outline of his work, so I got hold of an “essential” collection for him and added to my repertoire. This song is one of his most iconic, and for good reason. It’s got the great storytelling of folk music, delivered in a way that’s solemn, knowing, and a bit playful all at once. And he performs it *at the prison*. It’s a stunt, but what a stunt. (Apparently the cheers for “I shot a man in Reno” were added in post-production. Cheating!)

5. Ben Folds FiveAway When You Were Here
The BFF experiment on the box set was so successful that the band decided to get together for a whole new album, released in fall of 2012. My musical shelf being what it is, I didn’t listen to it until 2013. It’s very typical of their work, which is to say it is part rockin’, part silly, part thrilling, and part heartbreaking. This song falls into that latter category. I just love his lyrics, the way he can capture the interior experience with an image — “Sometimes a phrase or a manner that’s you / Comes through me and goes in a flash” — and then enact that image by paralleling “You seemed lost in clouds” and “When I’m lost in clouds.” God, that’s good.

6. R.E.M.The One I Love
In February 2013 I went once again to Austin, Texas, to compete in a big trivia contest called the Geek Bowl. That was the second time I’d gone, and as we’d done the first time, some teammates and I went to a great record store there called Waterloo Records. There among the incoming used CDs was R.E.M.’s Document, an album I’d always had on cassette but never had a digital copy of. So I snagged it for some low low price and revisited it later that year. It’s funny to come back to albums that came out when I was in my teens. (Document came out in 1987, when I was 17 years old.) I remember at the time wondering what it would have been like to be alive and aware when something like Sgt. Pepper, or Pearl, or Surrealistic Pillow was released. Well, now I know, and it’s lovely to get the same pleasure now that I got from the album 25 years ago. It felt like a classic at the time, because it was.

7. Glen HansardLies
I saw the movie Once when it was in the theaters — in fact, I didn’t know this at the time but the showing I saw was the very last movie shown at the movie theater on 30th and Pearl in Boulder, before they tore it down to build a Barnes & Noble. (Boulder used to have at least 4 different movie theaters — now it has one. Apparently the town can’t support that many movies?) I really liked the movie at the time, especially the music, so I put the soundtrack on my wish list some time later, and finally got it in time to listen in 2013. It’s hard to pick a song from this album, but this one seemed quite emblematic of the angst, longing, and fierceness that runs through the film and its music.

8. Lindsey BuckinghamThis Nearly Was Mine (instrumental)
I get impatient with a lot of Lindsey’s solo work lately, all breathy vocals and superfast virtuoso picking. It’s fine, but it gets pretty samey, especially compared with the record I see as his masterpiece, 1992′s Out Of The Cradle. That collection had some of his picking and sing-talking, but it also had fantastic pop songs like “Countdown” and “Don’t Look Down”, lovely ballads like “Surrender The Rain” and “All My Sorrows”, and beautiful instrumental passages like this one. I got the mp3 album from Amazon, burned it to CD last year, and spent some time reacquainting myself with it. “This Nearly Was Mine” is actually a Rodgers & Hammerstein tune, from South Pacific — it was a favorite of Lindsey’s dad, so it got included here as a kind of tribute. Lindsey’s treatment of it is uncharacteristically gentle — even his softest songs tend to have an aggressive edge to them, but not here. (Though the only link I can find is to a live version where he can’t help himself from slipping into virtuoso mode at one point.) He brings out the poignancy of the melody so much that I had to look up the lyrics, and having done so I decided to quote them for the title of this collection, promises of paradise kept, broken, and found at last.

9. The BeatlesHow Do You Do It?
Most of my Beatles Anthology listening was in 2012, but a bit spilled over into 2013. This is from the first one, which had lots of very early stuff from their formative days. That has limited appeal for me, but this tune I found fascinating. I’m used to stories of Lennon-McCartney compositions not recorded by the Beatles but made famous by other artists (e.g. The Rolling Stones having one of their first hits with “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which the Beatles only recorded later.) This song, though, wasn’t by Lennon-McCartney, but fits that early Beatles sound nicely. They recorded it but didn’t release it, and then Gerry & The Pacemakers took it to a giant number one. Great going, Beatles. Of course, they had their revenge when “From Me To You” knocked it off the charts. :)

10. Steven WrightCross Country
For Christmas 2011 I made my sister some comedy mix CDs, which allowed me to go out and collect lots of comedy I didn’t have digital copies of before. Steven Wright’s I Have A Pony was one of these. Picking a favorite Steven Wright joke is like picking a favorite Far Side cartoon, but one I’ve always loved is: “Last summer I drove cross country with a friend of mine… The whole way across we only had one cassette tape to listen to. I can’t remember what it was.” Seems like a fine inclusion for a music mix.

11. Iggy PopLust For Life
I’ve been doing an independent learning/writing project revolving around Alan Moore’s Watchmen, pursuing all the cultural texts it references (or is said to reference by fans.) There’s a panel in Watchmen that quotes Iggy’s “Neighborhood Threat”, which led to me getting the Lust For Life album and reading a biography of him. (I wrote up the Iggy/Watchmen connection here.) There are plenty of great songs on that album, but this one is just so magnetic to me, even after it’s been worn smooth by Trainspotting and endlessly repeated cruise commercials. I learned that Iggy actually improvised all the lyrics to this on the first take. Wow! Though I suppose it does explain the “hypnotizing chickens” and “had it in the ear before” parts better than anything else can…

12. Greg WellsDisarm
Okay, so here’s an odd one. This guy Greg Wells? He played a big part in my life recently — he hired me into my current job. Though an IT guy by day, Greg’s true passions are music and photography. He’s a talented musician with a home studio, and during my first couple of years on the job he was developing his most recent album, which is mostly covers with a couple of originals thrown in. He plays all the instruments on all the songs. Greg knew I was a music guy, so he’d periodically bring in draft copies of the album for me to listen to and give feedback on, which was a lot of fun. I ended up really liking this Smashing Pumpkins cover. I think his phrasing is actually better than Billy Corgan’s. I owe Greg a lot — he helped me out of a really bad work situation into something much better — but I’d enjoy this even if I didn’t know him.

13. Ben Folds FiveThe Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
I couldn’t restrict myself to just one song from this album. Nick Hornby wrote the lyrics for this one, as he did for Ben’s previous album Lonely Avenue. I absolutely love the Taupin-John thing those two guys do, and this time Hornby’s lyrics seemed to tap into Folds iconography, recalling the bright but dissatisfied Sara (spelled without an h) from “Zak And Sara.” I have a special affection for people with noisy brains, and I just adore the portrait of how disconnecting it can be to live among people who engage life on a different level, as well as how profoundly satisfying it is to find the life of the mind at last. Plus, this song rocks like a mother.

14. Ben FoldsNot The Same (live)
One more tune from the box set. I got introduced to Ben’s music when I saw him open for Tori Amos at Red Rocks. He played this song at that show, and he did the thing you can hear on this recording, introducing the harmonies to the audience so that they could sing them when the time came. At the end of the song, he climbed on top of his piano and conducted 9,000 singers. Our voices rang off the rocks, in three-part harmony, and I knew I had to find out more about this guy.

15. Neko CaseThe Pharoahs
This is another song from Middle Cyclone. It came very close to being included in the mix from a few years ago, when I was listening heavily to that CD, but in the end it didn’t quite make the cut. I decided to resurrect it since I was doing so much Neko this year — I’d always regretted just a little bit my decision to leave it out. I find the melody so hypnotic and elevating, along with the fucking brilliant imagery — “I listened in when you thought you were alone / Calling the sphinx on a tornado’s phone.” It’s such a perfect vignette of a young crush, that moment of growing up when “the wanting in the movies and the hymns” crashes up against the facts of real life and real people. And my GOD, that voice.

16. Stevie NicksBattle Of The Dragon
This song and the next one are from the same source: a Christmas 2012 mix CD I made for my sister called “Good Songs Bad Movies.” This pensive Stevie rarity is from the perfectly awful movie American Anthem, a starring vehicle for Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord. Mitch plays a guy who, uh, wants to be a gymnast. Anyway, this is pure 80s Stevie, a picture of a complicated and vexing relationship, played over sparkling, chiming synths. It deserved a better fate than exile to the American Anthem soundtrack.

17. EvanescenceBring Me To Life
Then there’s this song, which appeared on the Daredevil soundtrack. I’m a big fan of the character and I really, really wanted to like the movie, but I just couldn’t, which should tell you something about how bad it is. The song, on the other hand, I absolutely love. Amy Lee is like a heavy-metal Stevie herself, and this is my favorite thing she ever did — I always have to turn it up loud whenever I hear it. I relate to the lyrics probably more than I should. What I mean by that is they tap into that part of me that wants to save the people I love from their misery and pain. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I always have to keep an eye on how much it drives me, because it can lead to distorted decision-making. It’s really the perfect song for superhero movie, as it addresses the part of the superhero metaphor that I’ve imprinted upon very deeply. Too bad it couldn’t have come with a better movie.

18. AdeleHe Won’t Go
Speaking of rescues, this song is very personal to me. A major feature of my 2013 was watching a close friend spin into an extended crisis, which actually just hit its peak (Jesus, I hope so anyway) a couple of weeks ago. As I watched him go through cycles of recovering and relapsing, I worked hard to blunt the edges coming at him, to ensure he wouldn’t lose everything to a force he couldn’t control. I don’t know how much of that was being a loving friend and how much was my rescuer complex, but I think I did some good things in the end. So when Adele says, “If this ain’t love, then what is? / I’m willing to take the risk,” I hear it right down to my core.

19. Thompson TwinsLay Your Hands On Me
One more song about love and healing. I always thought the Thompson Twins were underrated, and this song is probably tied with “Hold Me Now” for my favorite of theirs. I was listening to a greatest hits collection last year, and this one jumped out at me for reasons similar to the Adele song above.

20. Bob MarleyHigh Tide Or Low Tide
Okay, perhaps more than I realized, the theme of this past year for me has been loyalty and dedication in love. Funny how you don’t always know what something’s about until you make it. I saw the movie Marley in 2012, and listened to the soundtrack in 2013. Bob Marley has always been a greatest hits artist for me, and he still is, but I really enjoyed digging a little deeper into his catalog. This is a gem that was overlooked until the movie featured it prominently — I don’t think it was even on any of Bob’s albums, though as I said I’m not an expert. In any case, it fit perfectly into my year.

21. The BeatlesThe Long And Winding Road
Yes, this song continues the love and loyalty theme, but the reason it featured in 2013 for me was that I finally got around to acquiring Let It Be… Naked, the version of Let It Be without all the Phil Spector overdubs and instrumentation. The biggest difference was on this song, stripped of the choir and orchestra that Spector layered onto the original version. I loved the original, but I think I like this one a little more. It is more powerful in its simplicity.

22. Neko CaseI Wish I Was The Moon
I close with one more from Neko, a piercing melancholy ache. I think I want to let this song speak for itself. “How will you know when you’ve found me at last? / Cos I’ll be the one, be the one, be the one / With my heart in my lap / I’m so tired, I’m so tired / And I wish I was the moon tonight.”

Geek Bowl VIII answer recap

And now, the Geek Bowl VIII answers!

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Geek Bowl VIII question recap

Just to make sure I don’t bury the lede: my team, How I Met Your Mothra, won Geek Bowl VIII. It was unreal. 147 teams competed, and we came out on top. The second place team, I kid you not, was made up of Jeopardy! champions. That is some trivia firepower! Any quizzer will tell you, though, that you’re never going to get everything right, no matter how smart you are. The close wins come down to getting asked the right questions, and this time, we got asked enough of the right questions to edge the Jeopardites by one point. Considering it made the difference between a $3,000 team prize and a $6,666.66 team prize, that one point ended up being pretty important!

GeekBowl8-01

Our team this year had some shakeup in its makeup, which may have affected the outcome as well. A married couple (Dave and Lori) that has been part of our Geek Bowl team for the past 5 years dropped out this time for various reasons, and teammate Larry recruited a couple of new members (Don and Jonathan) who are very strong indeed. We hung out together in Austin the night before and day of the Geek Bowl, and as usual that was a lot of fun. Thanks to teammate Don’s organizing efforts, several of us had even brought practice rounds of trivia questions to quiz each other with. So we toddled around different Austin locations, warmup questions flying.

We also went to the Geeks Who Drink pre-party (the “Freak Bowl”) on Friday night, at a place called Recess Arcade Bar — the Geeks had rented the upstairs space, away from the arcade games. That kind of party is not really my scene — my introverted self would much rather hang out someplace quiet with a few people than someplace bludgeoningly loud with a boatload of people. They did have a good live band, though — Guilty Pleasures, an all-girl rock & roll cover band who did a fine job with Blondie, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Beastie Boys, Nazareth, and so forth. They also had these dancers called The Hell Katz, who slung fire, showered sparks, and so forth, which, wow. It was awesome to see, but I was kind of glad I was in the balcony.

As for the Bowl itself, it was held in easily the nicest venue it’s ever had, the Moody Theater in downtown Austin, where Austin City Limits is filmed. The place was gorgeous, roomy, and had absolutely top-notch sound and video, which is especially important in an event like this, where the ability to see and hear clearly can mean the difference between a right and wrong answer. A beautiful building won’t compensate for a poorly organized night, but lucky for us, Geek Bowl 8 was a beautifully organized night, even before it ended so well for us. The early Geek Bowls were pretty rough going, but at this point the organization seems to have solved whatever problems needed solving, allowing them to accomplish some pretty remarkable feats of logistics, like getting 8 different live acts on and off stage quickly enough that we never felt like we were waiting for anything, even though each act only played for 25 seconds. (Well, they each did their thing twice, so I guess 50 seconds.) I feel like GWD hit a peak last year in event management, and it was gratifying to see them not slip an inch, and even improve in some areas.

Then there were the questions. The GWD signature tone is one I often describe as “self-consciously edgy.” They go to great lengths to position themselves as “not your father’s trivia game,” which means you are pretty much guaranteed to hear some combination of f-bombs, sexual references, and scatological humor, along with general irreverence and attitude. This has tended to be my least favorite GWD quality, because it has often felt like a bunch of well-written questions interspersed with two scoops of lowest-common-denominator crap. Over time, though, at least in the Geek Bowl, I feel like they’ve figured out how to integrate those themes well enough that they end up with a bunch of well-written questions that just happen to have raunchy elements. The question-writing has hit a very strong, very consistent stride, and this year’s quiz was no exception.

As I’ve done in previous years, I’m going to recap the questions and answers here. A few caveats about this, though. First, the Geeks are pretty careful about their intellectual property, and the agreement we’ve worked out is that I won’t post these recaps until at least a week has elapsed since the Geek Bowl. (Though all things considered I’d have a hard time getting this together in less time anyway!) Second, I consider these recaps a tribute to the excellent question writers of the Geek Bowl, and an advertisement for a really fun event, but I am in no way officially associated with Geeks Who Drink, and I have not been supplied with question material. The recap below is not a verbatim representation of the Geek Bowl 8 questions. They are reconstructed from my notes and memories, which are very fallible. I am certain I have left out some of the cleverness, some of the humor, and some of the pinning precision. Anything in the questions and answers below that is wrong or crappy is my fault, not theirs.

Quoting myself from 2012, here’s the format: each team has its own small table, with 6 chairs. Quizmasters read questions from the stage, and the questions are also projected onto large screens throughout the venue. Once all the questions in a round have been asked, a two minute timer starts, by the end of which you must have turned in your answer sheet to one of the roaming quizmasters. The game consists of 8 rounds, each with its own theme. Each round contains 8 questions — usually, each question is worth one point, so there’s a maximum possible score of 8 points for each round. However, some rounds offer extra points — for instance, Round 2 is traditionally a music round, with 8 songs played, and one point each awarded for naming the title and artist of the song. In a regular GWD pub quiz, it’s only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the “Random Knowledge” round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year’s Geek Bowl, one other round was upgraded from 8 potential points to 16 — we could see from the pre-printed answer sheets that Round 5 would have 16 answers.

Finally, teams can choose one round to “joker”, meaning that it earns double points for that round. Obviously, you’d want that to be one of the 16-point rounds, unless you really believed you wouldn’t score above 8 in any of them, which is highly unlikely. We discussed our jokering strategy ahead of time, and decided on thresholds. The Round 2 threshold was 14 — in other words, if we felt very confident about 14 out of 16 answers in Round 2, we would joker it. The threshold for Round 5 would be 13, and of course for Round 8 there was no threshold — if we hadn’t jokered by then, we certainly would do so.

Now, for posterity and enjoyment, the questions of Geek Bowl 8. I’ll note our team’s experiences in [square brackets.] I’m also going to try something a little different this year and put the answers in a separate post, since this one gets long enough as it is.

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Round 1: These Team Names End Tonight
Remember how I said that the GWD tone is intentionally raunchy? Well, that carries over to some of the names people give their teams, and sometimes you see these names week after week, year after year. Often, they weren’t that funny to begin with, but even the ones that are funny tend to wear out their welcome after a while. So the Geeks, to their credit, mock them mercilessly, and in this round they announced (tongue in cheek, I assume) that the team names mentioned in these questions are herewith banned forever, and anyone with one of those team names will score 0 points for this round.

1. Banned team name: My Grandma Doesn’t Wrestle, But You Should See Her Box. If your boxing grandma were 124 pounds, she would be in what boxing weight class, in between bantamweight and lightweight? [We batted this one around for a while, and then Don nailed it.]
2. Banned team name: Cunning Linguists. Noam Chomsky was a very cunning linguist, who was born in the latter part of what decade? [Jonathan had an answer for this one, but alas, it was not correct.]
3. Banned team name: My Couch Pulls Out, But I Don’t. Even if you did pull out, your method of contraception would be rated very poorly on what scale, which shares its name with a pretty mineral ball?
4. Banned team name: Kitten Mittens. In the nursery rhyme where three little kittens lose their mittens, what food is withheld from them as punishment?
5. Banned team name: Turd Ferguson. In that SNL sketch which we have apparently all seen, Turd Ferguson is the alias used by what film star, being played by what SNL cast member? BOTH answers are required.
6. Banned team name: Ramrod. In the movie Super Troopers, which half of “RamRod” was also the director: Ram or Rod? [None of use knew this movie, so it was basically a coin flip. 50/50 was good to us that time.]
7. Banned team name: Hermaphrodite Barbie Comes In Her Own Box. The more widely accepted word for someone who cannot easily be categorized as male or female is what “I” word, which has its own advocacy group, the ISNA? [I was first out with this one, but I'm sure others at the table knew it.]
8. Banned team name: Just The Tip. Now that she’s split from Al, you could play “just the tip” with Tipper Gore, but her predecessor as second lady is still married. Give that predecessor’s first name.

[We ended up with 7 correct answers in this round.]
See the answers

Round 2: Sexy Songs Of SEX
Round 2 of the Geeks Who Drink pub quiz is always a music round, and in the bar that tends to mean mp3s played over speakers. At Geek Bowl, though, it’s live music all the way. Each year in Austin, they’ve actually brought in eight different live acts, each one of which plays for about 25 seconds, then repeats that same 25 seconds. Obviously there’s no way to present that here without giving away the answers, unless the Geeks choose to put up some video. So it’s all descriptions here — our one hint was that all the songs would be about sex in some way. (Ah, Geeks.) I will note that I am just awful at identifying songs when they’re played without lyrics and in a different style. Lucky for me, Brian, Jonathan, and especially Don are awesome at it.

1. A xylophone-and-drum group called The Djembabes played “Girls” by the Beastie Boys.
2. The best group name of the night was: Cello, Is It Me You’re Looking For? That was an ensemble of six cellists, but they seem to have no web presence, so no link on their name. (Maybe a pickup group of cellists? Can that happen?) Anyway, it was six cellos playing “Push It” by Salt-n-Pepa. [Don recognized this right away, and was kind of annoyed when the cellists went on to play a much more recognizable phrase from the song.]
3. Reggae band Tribal Nation played a rastafied version of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On.”
4. Then there were the bagpipes. A peck of pipers (and drums) called Silver Thistle played Monty Python’s loving anthem, “Sit On My Face”. [We were absolutely clueless on this one. We ended up guessing "I Want Your Sex" by George Michael.]
5. Afghani group Atash played a lovely and rather haunting bit of “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye.
6. At this point, the MC introduced something called The Gams. I can’t find anything on the web about them either, but maybe that’s not too surprising. Essentially, what happened was that a guy came on stage cradling what looked like a case of soda. “Hot Legs” by Rod Stewart started to play. Then, as the vocals began, a puppet popped out of the case to sing “Who’s that knockin’ on my door?” And that was it. This was probably the lamest part of the night.
7. The next act made up for it. This was a country outfit called Horse Opera, who played a perfectly country-fried version of “Too Drunk To Fuck” by the Dead Kennedys. [Don latched onto a lyric about getting into a fight at a party and was calling the answer as "Kiss Me Deadly" by Lita Ford. However, on the second listen, it became apparent that was wrong. Suddenly Jonathan jolted to life, grabbed a piece of paper, and scribbled down TOO DRUNK TO FUCK. At which point Brian said, "Yes! Dead Kennedys!" And we were off. Awesome.]
8. The final act was The Capital City Men’s Chorus. The amusing thing about this act was that a line of men walked up on the stage, and then behind them another line of men walked up on the stage. Then, behind them, another line of men walked up on stage. And AGAIN. They just kept coming. Very funny. Then they started into their number, but flubbed the beginning. Their conductor turned to the audience, flashed an imaginary Men In Black neuralyzer and said, “That didn’t happen.” Heh. Anyway, the second time the song came off fine, or at least as well as it could considering it was “I Wanna Sex You Up” by Color Me Badd. [Don ROCKED this one. He recognized it almost immediately. From the verse, mind you.]

[We felt very good about 14 of our 16 answers this round, and since that met our previously-agreed-upon threshold, we jokered the round. That gave us 28 points, to combine with our previous 7 for a total of 35.]

Round 3: Lather and Rinse, But No Repeats
Round 3 of Geeks Who Drink is typically some kind of a gimmick round. Sometimes that means a speed round (name everything in some category in 2 minutes), sometimes it’s a “stop” round (the quizmaster reads increasingly-obvious clues to an answer until somebody in the bar shouts “stop”, and then everybody has to answer — something that obviously wouldn’t work at Geek Bowl.) Most often, though, it’s some kind of 50/50 round — true or false; real or made-up; multiple-choice with two answers; or some mix of these. Sometimes it’s even something very specific like 8 South Park questions to which the answer is either Timmy or Jimmy. Round 3 at Geek Bowl 8 followed this trend: it was a 50/50 round about hygiene.

1. In those old toothpaste ads, who fought the Cavity Creeps: Colgate or Crest?
2. True or False: The average cellphone has more germs on it than the average toilet seat.
3. Which one was a real slogan for Irish Spring soap: “Smell like you’re worth exploring” or “Get a little Irish on you”?
4. When you go take a shit during the next scoring break, which toilet should you select if you want the lowest bacteria levels on it: the one closest to the bathroom door or the one farthest from the bathroom door?
5. According to the American Congress Of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which is better: to douche or not to douche?
6. True or False: A recent study by the FDA found that antibacterial soap gets your filthy self cleaner than regular soap.
7. Which has more blades: the manual Gilette Fusion or the Schick Quattro?
8. Who wrote an 1867 paper entitled “On The Antiseptic Principle of The Practice Of Surgery”: Oliver Wendell Holmes or Joseph Lister? [Larry knew this one before they even read the names.]

[We got #3 wrong, but all the rest of them right -- a 7-point round which brought our total to 42.]
See the answers

Round 4: I Went To Geek Bowl And All I Got Was This Lousy Anal Probe
This was a round about the paranormal (titled in classic GWD fashion), and lucky for us, George has a particular interest in the topic. He was very strong in this round, though everyone contributed.

1. Before being thoroughly debunked, what spoon-bending Israeli proto-douche insisted that his abilities were a gift from extraterrestrials?
2. 108 Ocean Avenue, formerly 112 Ocean Avenue, is an infamous house in what New York town of 10,000, located on an inlet of South Oyster Bay?
3. Shadow people keeping you from moving? Don’t worry, it’s probably just this phenomenon. [This was another question where Jonathan scribbled something down, and as soon as I saw it, I knew it was correct.]
4. The Zapruder film is to the JFK assassination as the Patterson-Gimlin film is to what? [George nailed this one.]
5. Peruvians may have been communicating with aliens, or maybe they were just high, when they created what UNESCO-recognized geoglyphs? [I had never heard of these at all, but George was all over it.]
6. The Jersey Devil is a legendary creature said to stalk what area of southern New Jersey, also the name of a classic Sopranos episode?
7. The Time/Life books series Mysteries of The Unknown had this many volumes, the same as one of the best episodes of Battlestar Galactica as well as a Smashing Pumpkins song. Coincidence? We think not.
8. This volunteer, nonprofit, paranormal-investigation organization is headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, has Dan Aykroyd as a Hollywood consultant, and has a 5-letter acronym for its name, the middle three letters of which are “UFO”. Name it. [Hilariously, George knew about two different such organizations with "UFO" in the middle, and decided to go for the better-known one. Good decision!]

[We nailed this one. 8 points, for a new total of 50.]
See the answers

Round 5: A Pervert’s History Of The United States
Round 5 of Geeks Who Drink is always a visual round. At a bar, that means half-sheets of paper, usually with some kind of photoshopped craziness on them. At Geek Bowl, it has tended to mean images displayed on large video screens. This year, though, they upped the ante with a full-blown video. Each clue was a still picture, but the camera panned over them in a lingering fashion. This is one of the ways Geek Bowl 8 improved upon its predecessors, especially last year. Geek Bowl 7 showed pictures into which famous faces had been photoshopped, but the pictures went by super fast, and depending on where you were sitting it could be hard to see enough detail in the images to have a reasonable shot at answering the question. By slowing it down and doing documentary-style pans, they solved both these problems and made the round way more fun.

As it turned out, this year was another version of “familiar faces in an unfamiliar context,” but this time the faces were pasted into vintage porn pictures — nothing super graphic, but plenty porny. (Boy, there really was a lot of sex stuff this year.) The idea was that each picture would show a couple, but the faces of the couple would be people who were somehow linked in American history, with the picture sometimes putting a funny gloss on the relationship. Each question was worth two points — one for each face.

Oh here, let me just show you, at least until YouTube gets wind of the content and takes it down. In case you hadn’t figured this out yet, you probably shouldn’t watch this one at work:

[We got everything but #6, wrongly guessing Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. So that was 14 points, for a total of 64.]
See the answers

Round 6: William Shakespeare, Product Support Specialist
This was my favorite round of the night. Eight different quizmasters walked onto the stage, along with one or two others whose job it was to explain the concept, which is as follows: each clue consists of support instructions for eight different modern products, but the clues are written in Elizabethan English, even iambic pentameter sometimes. In any case, the clues were very well-written and extremely clever, and each one was read by a separate quizmaster in fine Royal Shakespeare style. Sometimes the screen would show an additional hint to provide a little context, along the lines of “Name this product whose first model debuted in 2008.” Unfortunately, the style of the round makes it basically impossible to reproduce from memory. I tried scribbling down notes, but they are woefully insufficient.

However, lucky for me, when they showed the answers, they repeated a bit of the prose from each question, so I was able to snap pictures once I figured out that was the thing to do. (Cameras are allowed at Geek Bowl as long as they are not capable of receiving information.) So, because I’m unable to fully reproduce the questions, my recap of this round will display the answer along with just a snippet of the question. (I’m winging it on #1 because I only have notes.) Just take it from me that each one had quite a bit more amusing quasi-Shakespearean diction.

1. “In bouncing the coil just move thy wrist / For hours and hours of fun, what ho!” Slinky
2. “Cook the noodles, eight minutes or so / Stirring occasionally as they soft’n and swell…” Kraft Macaroni & Cheese [I recognized this one right away.]
3. “Grip thou the handle if thou wouldst transport / This technologic dream in Bondi blue…” iMac
4. “Eleven lets thee swap spots with thy foe / Unless he be inside the safety zone…” Sorry!
5. “Swipe the temple touchpad to and fro / And perhaps with thy mouth thou could go ‘whoosh’…” Google Glass
6. “Two hundred miles or farther may thou go, / Before thou must recharge the thing again…” Tesla Roadster
7. “Music, Podcasts, Photos, touch them all / Or ‘FM’ to the radio turn on…” Sony Walkman [We were tossing around things like the iPod touch or iPhone, but the screen indicated that the product's first version was released in 1979. I thought of the Walkman as the only thing that came out in 1979 and might have the listed capabilities today. I managed to talk my team into it, too -- I think this question is the contribution I'm happiest about for myself.]
8. “Should its magic work beyond four hours / Seek help, if thou wouldst not thy todger maim…” Viagra

[We got all 8 on this one, for a total of 72.]

Round 7: Even More Celebrities (We Could Get!)
In the bar version of Geeks Who Drink, round 7 tends to be a second audio round, usually of clips from movies, or tv shows, or commercials, or some such. (Though I hear that some lucky venues get video round 7s — sadly my home bar is not one of these!) In any case, the first several Geek Bowls I went to had movie clips for round 7, but last year they had a little breakthrough and managed to get 8 minor (but geekily beloved) celebrities to read questions, people like Wil Wheaton, Katee Sackhoff (from Battlestar Galactica), and Will Shortz. This year, they repeated the feat with 8 new celebs:

Just in case that video ever evaporates, here were the questions:
1. Levar Burton: In the Reading Rainbow theme song, following the words “I can” are a couple of two-word phrases. What are they? [We struggled on this one. Jonathan came up with "go twice as high", but that's not two two-word phrases. Still, nothing else we could come up with, so that's what we put.]
2. Steve Inskeep: The day before Morning Edition came on the air, the Iran hostage crisis began. The hostages were held for a multiple of 111 days. How many days were they held for? [This felt like a real softball. We would have known it even without the "111 multiple" thing.]
3. Mondo Guerra: Every Project Runway designer is familiar with Tim Gunn’s famous three-word catchphrase, when he’s less than impressed with a design’s progress. Hint: it shares one word with RuPaul’s. What is it? [Brian knew that RuPaul's catchphrase was, "You better work," but from there we didn't have much. I suggested "This doesn't work," and since nobody else had anything better, that was what we went with. Not big Project Runway watchers over here.]
4. Rich Sommer: The man who plays my boss is named Robert Morse. He first rose to fame in 1961, playing a window-washer who rises through the ranks to become a big business executive in what big Broadway musical? [Don knew this as soon as the guy said, "Robert Morse."]
5. Jim O’Heir: Historically, the Pawnee people lived mostly along the North Platte river, in the territory that became what great plains state?
6. David Koechner: You might know me as Champ Kind from Anchorman, or Todd Packer from The Office, but I was also Uncle Earl, from what? [We were again clueless on this one. I knew he was an SNL cast member for a year, and that is the only thing any of us knew, so we put down SNL]
7. Elijah Wood: Alfred Hitchock’s North By Northwest and my early film North are both rightly hailed as classics of American cinema. How many years elapsed between the films’ release dates: 25, 35, or 45? [Larry knew exactly when North By Northwest was released, and Don knew North, so there you go.]
8. Jim Parsons: You probably remember me as a Medieval Times knight in Garden State. A few years earlier, Janeane Garofalo played a Medieval Times waitress in what film that Ben Stiller directed between Reality Bites and Zoolander?

[This was the toughest round for us. We ended up getting 5 correct, for a total score of 77.]
See the answers

Round 8: Random Knowledge
Round 8 of Geeks Who Drink is always a “random knowledge” round, and always worth 16 points. It’s a last chance to joker if a team hasn’t already, and kind of an equalizer in that it is a total potpourri. In the bar version, the points are all over the map — a question can be worth anywhere between 1 and 4 points. In Geek Bowl, it’s a little more stable: each question was worth two points.

1. Giorgio Moroder worked on the soundtracks of two different movies with “Top” in the title, one in 1986 and one in 1987. Name them both.
2. Adam is the first prophet of Islam. What two famous dudes are the last prophets of Islam?
3. Louis Sullivan was an American architect known as the “father of the skyscraper.” First, with what alliterative three-word phrase is he most closely associated? Second, what devoutly midwestern guy was Sullivan’s most famous protege?
4. What child development word comes from the Latin for “speechless”? Before babies leave the hospital, they are usually vaccinated against what form of hepatitis? [We felt good about our second answer, but struggled on the first. We put "aphasia", since that does mean inability to speak, but had qualms about the fact that you couldn't really call it a "child development word."]
5. What subatomic particle was thought for a few months in 2011 to have been measured traveling faster than light? What is the name for the edge of the solar system, where the solar wind is stopped by the interstellar medium?
6. What monarch instituted the tradition of the white wedding dress by wearing a white lace dress at her 1840 wedding? What Romantic composer wrote the theme most of us know as “Here Comes The Bride”, or the “Wedding March”?
7. What old bearded man was the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Portrait Of A Man In Red Chalk”? Vincent Van Gogh’s “Man In A Red Beret” was a portrait of what other artist, who was involved in the ear-cutting incident? [Larry had a great pull on the Van Gogh question.]
8. Finally, here’s that Friends question you’ve all been wanting. Which two of the 6 central characters on Friends also worked as servers at Central Perk?

After those eight questions came probably the best innovation of Geek Bowl 8: the pre-emptive tiebreaker. In previous years, there would very frequently be a tie among some of the top-placing teams, and that was handled by giving them 5 additional questions, letting them huddle, and then breaking the tie based on who got more of them right. However, this method was logistically awkward, and involved a lot of sitting around waiting for everyone else in the audience. So this time, the Geeks asked this extremely convoluted question:

Pre-Emptive Tiebreaker: Take the number of years Facebook has been a company as of February, and add the number of years Hitler served as Fuehrer of Germany. Multiply the total by the year in which the Colosseum was built, and then subtract the resulting number from the actual population of Amityville, New York as of the 2010 census.

They simplified it a bit with this expression, projected onto the video screens:

Amityville 2010 – [(years of FB + Hitler as Fuehrer) x year of Colosseum] = ?

[We amazed me by getting 15 points in this round. The child development word was the only one we missed. So, combined with our 77 points so far, we had a final total of 92 points.]
See the answers

And there you have it, the questions of Geek Bowl VIII. Before we move on to the answers, let’s enjoy this awesome “In Memoriam” video which played at the Geek Bowl. WARNING: spoilers within for True Blood, Dexter, Downton Abbey, Sons Of Anarchy, The Walking Dead (so, so much), Game of Thrones, Homeland, Doctor Who, and especially Breaking Bad.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 11 – No Voice Is Eternal

Avertissement! As always, spoilers are ahead for Watchmen, and this time I’ll also be spoiling the 1981 Jean-Jacques Beineix movie Diva.

For you see, The Annotated Watchmen suggests that there is a connection between these two works. In their analysis of page 15, panel 1 of chapter 1, the annotations assert:

The character with a shaven head and dark glasses is a dead ringer for one of the villains in the popular French movie Diva, which came out in 1981, a few years before Moore and Gibbons were creating Watchmen. The character in the movie (played by Dominique Pinon) had an earphone, which he was constantly pressing to his ear, attached to a cord; the character here has a similar cord attached to his glasses (see page 16, panel 5).

watchmen-ch1-pg15

So I watched Diva, and I enjoyed it very much. I was particularly looking out for Pinon’s character, who is credited as “Le curé” (which the captions translated as “Priest”, and Roger Ebert glossed as “the treatment.”) Having seen quite a lot of him, I must take issue with the claim that the nameless Watchmen extra (let’s call him Fred) is somehow a “dead ringer” for Le curé. Here they are side by side:

side-by-side

Yes, there are certainly some similiarites. They’re both wearing sunglasses, albeit of a noticeably different style. They both have a somewhat broad nose. And they both have a trailing cord near their right ear. However, there are quite a number of key differences as well. Fred is entirely bald, while Le curé has a buzz cut. Pinon has a very distinctive look, with horizontally compressed features and a high forehead that seems to take up as much space as the rest of his face put together. Gibbons could easily have portrayed (or even caricatured) that, but Fred’s features are much more generic.

Importantly, Fred looks frightened in both panels in which he appears. He’s visibly sweating (an excessive amount, really) in the second panel. Le curé never looks nervous. He’s always grim, and most of his lines are just him expressing dislike for things. (“I don’t like parking garages.”, “I don’t like Beethoven.”, “I don’t like elevators.”, etc.) Even when he dies, it happens suddenly, with no time for him to get scared.

Finally, Le curé’s earpiece is a weird and specific character trait. The entire movie, we wonder what he’s listening to, and once he dies we get the payoff, which is that it seems to be jolly accordion music, as might have come from the comical street busker who appears midway through the film. Fred’s not listening to anything, and given that he only appears in two panels of the book, he isn’t enough of a character to be specific. Yes, his croakies are somewhat improbably emphasized in his second panel, but they don’t appear at all in his first. It’s quite a slender thread upon which to hang an annotation.

So once again, I think we have a blind alley here. But since I went to the trouble of screening Diva, let’s just suppose for a moment that there indeed is a connection between these two works. Upon what would such a connection hinge?

Well, they do both have a plot trope in common: the villain disguised as a hero. The villain behind the villains in Diva (and the employer of Le curé) is Saporta, the leader of a drug and prostitution ring. The twist is that Saporta also happens to be the chief of police. In fact, when we first see him, he’s directing the Paris police’s investigation into his own gang. Watchmen, of course, has a similar betrayal in that Ozymandias, one of the book’s fraternity of superheroes, is in fact the menace which they all face, and whose murder of a fellow superhero sets the plot in motion.

However, I believe this film’s connection to Ozymandias can be traced even deeper, to a theme that drives them both: questions of permanence. In order to illuminate that further, let’s review part of Diva‘s plot:

The movie’s main character is Jules, a young postman who’s also an opera buff. In particular, he’s a fan of American opera singer Cynthia Hawkins, who is the film’s titular diva. Hawkins has a phenomenal voice, but has idiosyncratically refused ever to release an album, or indeed to be recorded at all. She insists that a concert is a sacred moment between performer and audience, and that this unique moment should not be subject to repetition. Her manager argues with her about this, pointing out that her career cannot continue for many more years on this path. He reminds her that she is thirty-two years old, and even now is exhausted by the effort of giving two concerts a month. “No voice is eternal,” he chides, “except through recordings.” Nevertheless, the diva remains insistent.

Diva-small

Jules, however, has secretly recorded Hawkins’ Paris concert, simply for his own love of the music. His recording expertise is considerable, and the resulting tape is of such high quality that it catches the attention of Taiwanese gangsters, who wish to use it to blackmail Hawkins into signing a record deal with them. The gansters’ pursuit of Jules provides half of the movie’s narrative propulsion.

The other half arrives when Jules’ life becomes complicated by a different tape. A prostitute named Nadia, who was Saporta’s mistress and knows of his secret criminal identity, has decided to reveal Saporta’s perfidy. She knows she will be killed for this, possibly before she can testify, so she records her testimony onto a cassette. As she heads towards her meeting with the police, she realizes she is being tailed by Le curé and his partner (who is called L’ Antillais.) Eventually, it becomes clear that she will not make it to her rendezvous, so she surreptitously slips the cassette into the saddlebag of Jules’ moped, which is parked nearby while he makes a delivery. Almost immediately afterward, Le curé kills her with an icepick to the back. When Saporta finally realizes that Jules has the tape that could bring him down, he sends Le curé and L’ Antillais after the harried postman.

So the two MacGuffins that drive the plot are both markers of a struggle with permanence. Hawkins resists having her vocal performances preserved, insisting that her gifts must only be shared within an ephemeral moment. When she is confronted with the fact that a recording has been created without her permission, she is thrown into crisis.

Nadia, on the other hand, relies upon a recording to resolve her crisis. She’s been forced not into permanence but into transience, and hopes that even though she won’t survive her decision to testify, the cassette she created will succeed in destroying Saporta.

Of course, neither story is so simple. Jules (with considerable help) eventually retrieves the concert tape, and plays it for Hawkins. She seems entranced, saying, “But… I’ve never heard myself sing!”, and they dance slowly to the music. There seems to be an implication that she will reconcile with the concept of recording. As for Nadia’s tape, it turns out that she wasn’t as completely reliant on it as it appeared. At one point Saporta is able to get his hands on the cassette, but pulls the truly incriminating evidence out of its case: photos of himself and Nadia together. So in neither situation was the recording an end-all, but in both situations its immutable quality had a lasting effect on the main characters.

As I touched upon earlier, Ozymandias also wrestles with the nature of permanence. In his soliloquy to the dead men in chapter 11, Veidt frames Alexander’s failure as his inability to build “a unity that would survive him,” and extols the Egyptian pharaohs for “their wisdom, truly immortal.” With his mad alien squid plot, he sees himself as having transcended Alexander’s failure and assumed “the aspect of kingly Rameses, leaving Alexander the adventurer and his trappings to gather dust.” Ironically, he sees his slaughter as a way to preserve humanity. For him, the worst part of nuclear war would be its eradication of the human past, present, and future:

Save for Richard Nixon, whose name adorns a plaque on the moon, no human vestige would remain. Ruins become sand, sand blows away… all our richness and color and beauty would be lost… as if it had never been.

He calls the outcome of his scheme “an end to war… an end to fighting.” Somehow the world’s smartest man fails to see some obvious facts. He seeks to preserve humanity but end fighting? Humanity without fighting would have to be classified as a whole new species, something even the biggest scare couldn’t bring about. Fright may change behavior, but the change won’t be permanent, especially when you’re talking about an entire species over an eternity of time. As Jon must point out to Adrian, “nothing ever ends.”

Thus Ozymandias wrought amazing and monstrous works, but those works will never last forever, though their ruins may retain the power to terrify. Someone wrote a good poem along those lines, but that’s an article for another time.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 10 – The Comedians Of Tragedy

Obligatory spoiler warning in 3… 2… 1…

There are spoilers below for: Watchmen, both the graphic novel and the movie, and The Comedians, both the novel and the movie. End spoiler warning.

In the last installment, we were looking at chapter 1, page 11, panel 3 of Watchmen, in which Dan Dreiberg recounts a rumor about The Comedian’s covert government activities in South America. That in turn led the annotators to cite Alan Moore’s Shadowplay as another angle he’s taken on such activities.

However, what I didn’t mention in the last essay is that they don’t stop there. No, the annotations for that very panel continue with this speculation:

Moore may have named the Comedian in homage to Graham Greene. Greene’s novel The Comedians was about foreign interference in Haiti, and was made into a 1960′s movie with Richard Burton.

comediansSo I read the novel and saw the movie, and I have to say: annotators, this one’s a stretch. I mean, yes, I suppose you could assert that The Comedians is about “foreign interference” in Haiti, but it’s not the kind of interference that Eddie Blake or Shadowplay‘s eagle would recognize. The narrator, a Mr. Brown, is a cynical hotelier, originally hailing from Monaco, and much is made of how his Monaco origin is “almost the same as being a citizen of nowhere.” He’s inherited the hotel from his distant, adventurous, globe-trotting mother, and was hoping to make a go of it in Haiti. Unfortunately, his dream of a tourist paradise was shattered by the ascension of brutal dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. So he’s foreign (to Haiti), but not American, and I wouldn’t really call his presence “interference.”

There are a couple of Americans who do intend to interfere, but they’re far more innocent than sinister. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are evangelistic vegetarians, so much so that Mr. Smith ran for President against Harry Truman on “the vegetarian ticket.” (His status as an American Presidential Candidate gives him a comically disproportionate amount of political clout in the rather ignorant Duvalier regime.) They dream of building a grand “vegetarian center” in Haiti, complete with meals, speakers, movies, literature, and so forth, and they’ve got the financial backing to make it happen. They have no ulterior motive and represent no government. They just believe that meat causes acidity in the body, which leads to bad behavior. In the end, they become disillusioned with the Haitian government and leave the country, taking their money with them. Brown sees them as rather noble in their naivete, but Eddie Blake would find them ridiculous.

Finally, there’s a Brit, a Mr. Jones, who pretends through most of the story to be “Major Jones”, a hero of World War II. He’s got secrets, but they’re secrets of chicanery, not espionage, and the only “interference” he’s up to is a con of Duvalier’s government, a fake arms deal which falls through quite spectacularly. So there’s no CIA, no secret team, no assassins, no coup, no government-toppling agents, and certainly no “knocking over Marxist republics.” Greene has written plenty of books about secret agents, but The Comedians isn’t one of them. In fact, the thrust of the story is an indictment of America’s reluctance to interfere with Haiti — despite the barbarism of Papa Doc and his Tontons Macoutes, he is seen as “a bulwark against communism,” and therefore the United States is no threat to his government.

So as far as parallels to Watchmen, I don’t think there’s much to see here. I’m highly skeptical of the claim that Eddie Blake’s codename is somehow a reference to this story. [Although! In a bit of late-breaking news, I've come across an interview in which Moore says, "I believe I took the name from Graham Greene's book, The Comedians." So that's confirmation, but I still think the connection is weak.] That said, the experience of reading the book and then watching the movie brought to mind some Watchmen comparisons from a more unexpected angle.

Greene’s novel was commercially successful and well-regarded by the critics. The movie, on the other hand, was a vehicle for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to clutch meaningfully at each other against a tragic backdrop. Its supporting actors saw some award nominations, but the film itself has a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Several critics chided it for its overly faithful approach to Greene’s book, which led it to notch a whopping 156-minute running time. (Greene himself wrote the screenplay.) However, despite its dutiful recreation of many scenes from the book, its ending takes a radical, sudden turn away from the novel’s plot, altering the fate of its main characters and removing an entire layer of story.

Does this sound a little bit familiar? Watchmen the comic is widely regarded as one of the greatest works by one of the greatest comics writers. Its movie, on the other hand, was a bit more of a mixed bag. It has a 64% rating at Rotten Tomatoes — fresh, but just barely — and it is frequently criticized for its overly faithful approach to the graphic novel. It clocks in even longer than The Comedians, at 163 minutes, with the DVD director’s cut running 185 minutes, and an “ultimate cut” that lasts no less than 215 minutes. That’s over three and a half hours, for those of you playing at home. Some of the acting (particularly that of Malin Akerman and Matthew Goode, who look their parts but don’t seem to embody them) falls flat, and the movie sometimes feels like a vehicle for Zack Snyder to stage long fight sequences and film loving close-ups of compound fractures. Also, its ending strips out the whole “space squid” angle from the book, making Ozymandias’ plan center instead on fooling the superpowers into thinking that Dr. Manhattan has turned against humanity.

Watchmenmovie

There are good reasons and not-so-good reasons to depart from source material when making a film adaptation, and both of these films have their share of each. With any work of significant length (novels and graphic novels included), so much detail is present that filmmakers find it impractical to present all of it on screen. Consequently, the employ a number of tricks to compress the work while retaining its essence. Both movies employ some of the big ones:

Technique Comedians film Watchmen film
Removing story/plot sections Excised the first thirty or so pages of the book, in which Brown, Jones, and the Smiths are on a ship together, traveling to Haiti, and sizing each other up. Consequently, it also removes a later section in which Brown and Jones return to the ship. (Also, this isn’t story, but the book is entirely self-aware of its characters’ oddly common names, while the film displays no such awareness.) Most famously, deleted all the Tales Of The Black Freighter stuff, and the attendant recurring newsstand scenes.
Eliminating minor characters Among others, removed Fernandez, a rather mysterious character who shows up initially on the boat, then plays a crucial part in the book’s ending. Pretty much got rid of Captain Metropolis (aside from some very glancing references), which alters the reason why the Crimebusters were brought together. In the movie, it’s Ozymandias as the driving force in that meeting.
Streamlining context The visual elements help make the Tontons Macoutes and the Port-Au-Prince beggars actually more powerful than they are in the book, but the film elides the hotel’s history, and greatly downplays the fact that Brown’s recent absence is from a desperate attempt to dump it. There are so many background elements crammed into the comic, and you can give them all the time and attention you want to. The film can’t hope to match that, though it tries nobly. It also removes scenes like the one with Nixon and his cabinet in the command bunker.
Reducing character development The book has a lot of backstory on Brown’s mother and his education. The movie, not so much. It also leaves out some details about the frauds he’s pulled in his past, which are a key part of his character. Again, give the movie credit for trying, and it does follow the book’s template of going in-depth on one character at a time. However, some significant things are still missing, like Rorschach’s Kitty Genovese story.

All of these changes are fair enough. Compromises must be made, even when you’re making a 163-minute movie. However, some things do get injected that substantially change the artistic statement, often as a result of egos and market forces. For instance, The Comedians movie starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1967, a time when public interest in their marriage was very high, and when they were in the midst of making a string of movies together. This was their seventh co-starring picture in 5 years. Thus, Brown’s affair with Martha Pineda, wife of the Uruguayan ambassador, gets a magnified role in the movie. Not that it was insignificant in the book, but as Roger Ebert said at the time, “in the movie he (Burton, that is) sees a lot more of her because, baby, when you’re paying Liz Taylor’s salary you really use her in your movie.”

Watchmen, on the other hand, was a comic book superhero movie at a time when comic book superhero movies had become golden tickets for movie studios. Certainly it was a very different sort of superhero story, and its R rating meant that its audience was much more limited than that of, say, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Nevertheless, it was sure to rake in some cash, and thus Warner Brothers (the eventual owners of the rights after the project spent 2 decades in development hell) approached Zack Snyder, who had proven with 300 that he could adapt a comic book into a hit movie. Snyder brought several kinds of fetishism to the table. His fetishistic adoration of the source material mostly served the movie well. His fetishistic adoration of slow-motion fights, broken bones, and hyper-stylized violence, not so much. I remarked on this when I wrote about the movie for the first time, and in my research for this article I was gratified to find this excellent analysis by Tasha Robinson, who totally gets that point, and explains it much better than I did. Great minds, Tasha, great minds.

Finally, each movie significantly alters the ending of its source material. For Watchmen, this change also serves some of the simplification functions I mentioned above — no space squid means no Max Shea, no Robert Deschaines, no island of artists, no “psychic shockwave” that can somehow kill three million people. I think these changes are actually a win for the movie version — it’s always better when you can achieve the same effect without bringing in extraneous plot and characters. On the other hand, while the book’s carnage is focused solely in New York, the movie gets to blow up Moscow, Tokyo, Paris, etc. This is purely gratuitous. Not to mention, it reintroduces the economy of energy scarcity that Dr. Manhattan had banished, which to my mind would be more likely to cause international tension, not less.

The Comedians, too, achieves some simplification with its changes. In the book, Jones finally lives up to the lies he’s always told about himself, joining a disorganized Haitian rebel militia that is as just as ragtag as it can be. His brand of bullshit actually finds a noble use, inspiring this group in their attacks on Duvalier. Of course, they still fail spectacularly, and Jones dies in the mountains, distracting the enemy while the rest of the squad struggles across the border into the Dominican Republic. Brown, having brought Jones to his rendezvous with the militia, also escapes across the border. There he is confronted with the remains of the militia, and the body of his sole remaining employee, Joseph, who had joined the rebels. He scrounges for work in Santo Domingo, finally becoming an undertaker, apprenticed to Fernandez, that character who got streamlined away in the movie.

burton-taylor

The film still has Brown driving Jones to the rendezvous point, and as in the book, they are discovered by the hostile Tonton named Concasseur. However, in the movie, Concasseur kills Jones before himself being killed by Philipot, head of the rebels. Then, in a complete left turn, Brown decides to assume Jones’ identity and, as Jones, joins and leads the rebels. This gives Burton the chance to look heroic in a way that the novel character never really does, including a rousing speech he gives to the 17 completely uncomprehending French speakers who make up the “militia.”

The movie ends on (who else?) Elizabeth Taylor, getting the news that the rebels attacked a Tonton outpost, resulting in two deaths, Joseph and “one other.” We never know for sure who that other one is, but Taylor, gazing moodily out the airplane window on her flight back to Uruguay, seems to fear the worst. This ending tidies up the plot into a neater, more ironic bundle, and allows the film to continue forgetting Fernandez, but it also keeps the focus relentlessly on the Burton/Taylor romance. In the book, Martha arranges to meet Brown for a last tryst before she leaves for Peru, but she doesn’t show, and Brown is glad — he’s completely emotionally detached from her. The film gives the ending of their romance a noble and tragic note. Thus, if the Watchmen movie was warped to fit its director’s obsessions, so was the Comedians movie warped to stroke the egos of its stars, pulled by the gravity of their fascination with themselves and the public’s fascination with them.

And that’s as connected as these two works get. However, there were a few lines in the book that did help shed some light on the meaning of the Comedian’s name, which has been a recurring source of mystery to me. This book is called The Comedians, but it too lacks humor, and its main character is deeply cynical. The explanation for the title comes in a scene at the Uruguayan embassy, in which Brown, a former con man, wonders if Jones is one too. But the words he uses are, “I remember looking at him one night… and wondering, are you and I both comedians?” Then Philipot, a former poet, joins in, saying “Wasn’t I a comedian with my verses smelling of Les Fleurs Du Mal, published on handmade paper at my own expense?” The ambassador cops to being a bad comedian himself, and says, “Perhaps even Papa Doc is a comedian.” To which Philipot replies, “Oh, no. He is real. Horror is always real.” Then Brown and Martha, a page later and away from the party, call themselves comedians for the affair they’re carrying on.

In other words, the comedians of this book are not funnymen. They are comedians as the opposite of tragedians. They adopt personas, acting in their own private commedia dell’arte, to trick and beguile their audiences. In other words, they are charlatans. Liars. Only behind the curtain do they acknowledge the difference between the show they perform and the real truth. In a way, Eddie Blake might fit this mold, with his leather mask and his brave face. And yet, if horror is always real, then The Comedian is no comedian, for horror seems to be his stock in trade.

Brown is the jealous type, and he envies the easy rapport that Jones seems to have with others. Jones’ secret? Making people laugh. Brown calls himself a comedian, but he’s far from funny. When his favorite concubine says she liked Jones, Brown has to ask:

“What did you like so much?”
“He made me laugh,” she said. It was a sentence which was to be repeated to me disquietingly in other circumstances. I had learnt in a disorganized life many tricks, but not the trick of laughter.

In that, at least, Brown and Blake have something in common.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 9 – The Secret Team

As always, citizen, I warn you that Watchmen spoilers are ahead. There’s also some stuff about 30 years of CIA activity, but I think the point of that (at least for Alan Moore) is to not keep it a secret.

Today’s excursion into The Annotated Watchmen v2.0 finds Dan Dreiberg speculating about The Comedian’s shady political operations and how they might provide a motive for his murder.

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The annotators are reminded of a (roughly) contemporaneous Moore work:

The CIA is widely suspected to have been responsible (in the real world) for helping the military coup in Chile in the early 1970s that deposed and killed the left-wing President, Dr. Salvador Allende, and brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power. Moore explores some of these issues in his comic “Shadowplay”, illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, one of the two parts of the book Brought to Light. In Watchmen, it is Blake who is suspected of doing similar things.

Brought To Light came out in 1988, a year or so after the final issue of Watchmen emerged. It’s a peculiar artifact, in several ways. First of all, it’s one of those kooky reversible tête-bêche books, in which two texts are held in a single binding, rotated 180 degrees to each other. When you hit the upside-down pages, you flip the book over and start from the other end. “TWO BOOKS IN ONE,” as the cover proclaims. (Moore only worked on one of the included texts: Shadowplay: The Secret Team.) Second, it rather grandly announces itself as genre-defining: “Brought To Light fuses the intrigue of investigative reporting and the sophistication of the graphic novel package and invents a new form — the graphic docudrama.” It certainly owns the term — google “graphic docudrama” and every hit will be about Brought To Light. But is it really valid to claim that in 1988, nobody had ever dramatized nonfiction reporting in comic form? I wouldn’t say so.

Finally, there’s the fact that both sections of Brought To Light are based on Avirgan v. Hull, a lawsuit brought against the CIA under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. This lawsuit alleged that since the early Sixties, a “Secret Team” of CIA officials, U.S. military, and various associates had been conducting its own private wars in the name of anti-Communism: toppling governments, smuggling and selling drugs and weapons, arming terrorists, and doing it all behind the back of (or occasionally with the tacit approval of) the U.S. Congress. The suit used as its basis a bomb attack that occurred in the Nicaraguan town of La Penca, at a press conference with Contra leader Edén Pastora. Pastora was seriously wounded by the blast, and seven people were killed, including three journalists. A cameraman named Tony Avirgan was among the wounded, and with his wife Martha Honey, he investigated the bombing.

Avirgan and Honey became convinced that the CIA (and various associates, including businessman John Floyd Hull) was behind the attack. They joined forces with the Christic Institute, a public interest law firm which had also famously represented Karen Silkwood, to sue the Secret Team. The lawsuit named a wide variety of people, including several key figures in the Iran-Contra scandal. Going far, far beyond La Penca, the lawsuit attempted to establish the CIA’s guilt for a long history of alleged covert illegal activities.

Judge James L. King was not convinced. He not only dismissed the suit, he ordered Christic to pay over a million dollars in fees to the defendants, which essentially spelled the end of the firm. In the wake of this debacle, the various parties fell to arguing about what went wrong. Avirgan had apparently been inveighing against Christic founder and lead counsel Daniel Sheehan for years, protesting Sheehan’s indulgence in “wild allegations” about a 30-year conspiracy at the cost of paying attention to the legal fundamentals of the La Penca case. (Nowadays, Sheehan and his Open Skies Ministry would like to have a sincere conversation about how to spiritually, philosophically, and socially prepare for our first contact with extraterrestrials.)

What seems apparent now is that Christic and Avirgan did have some fairly damning evidence about some CIA activities, but the case overreached, trying to draw those activites into a larger and more complex web, some branches of which they simply could not substantiate. This overreach allowed an already hostile judge to not only torpedo the case, but to ensure that Christic was left a smoking hole in the ground.

Of course, a “graphic docudrama” needn’t concern itself with the niceties of evidence, and Shadowplay certainly doesn’t much bother. In it, Moore sets out to describe the breadth of Christic’s case, and he does so with gusto, employing devices like recurring images of red swimming pools representing deaths caused by CIA machinations. Each pool represents 20,000 dead — one gallon of blood per dead body.

shadowplay laos

These insanites are rendered brilliantly by the amazing Bill Sienkiewicz. I’ve been a huge Sienkiewicz fan ever since New Mutants #18 arrived in my mailbox and blew my 14-year-old mind. His run on New Mutants is still one of my all-time favorite runs of any comic. In this setting, he lets loose completely with some of his most grotesquely bonkers work ever.

The comic is written in the second person voice (e.g. “You don’t remember how you came to be here, putting in to this foul harbor where the dead cats bob upon the greycap waves amongst the oil drums and the excrement.”) Also, in case you can’t tell, it’s kinda dark. The second-person frame story quickly gives way to an extended monologue by an anthropomorphized bald eagle, who embodies the CIA. He sits alone at a bar until the narrator comes in, then starts declaiming the history of the Secret Team according to Christic. He gleefully describes all kinds of nefarious actions undertaken in the name of fighting communism: powermongering in Iran and Syria, organized crime collusion in Cuba, drug dealing in Laos, assassinating civilians in Vietnam, assassinating Allende in Chile, and so on and so forth.

shadowplay suitcaseAfter this narrative, he finally presents the narrator with a deal: “All we’re askin’ is your indifference. Just turn away. Pretend it ain’t happenin’. Ain’t like ya gotta give up part o’ y’self. No important part, anyway…” And he opens a suitcase, overflowing with gore.

The whole thing feels like a 30-page editorial cartoon, except the cartoonist has been listening to talk radio and scarfing powerful hallucinogens for a couple of decades. Readers of From Hell know that Moore loves a good conspiracy theory — in fact, the freemasons even get a shout-out at the beginning of Shadowplay. How much of it does he actually believe? How much of it is actually true? It’s hard to tell. I have no trouble believing that at least some of it is accurate, but it seems now like something from a long time ago. With its Iran-Contra references and its anti-Communist hysteria, this comic feels like just as much of a period piece as Watchmen. The difference, of course, is that Shadowplay lays claim to fact, with the narrator’s repeated phrase, bookending the eagle’s speech: “This is not a dream.”

It’s a stretch to call this comic “nonfiction,” but let’s just say it’s the first “graphic docudrama” Moore ever wrote. It is explicitly about the real world, and seems a natural next step from Watchmen, which was metaphorically about the real world. Both books are drenched in conspiracy, and both examine how immensely powerful entities affect the lives of ordinary people.

For Watchmen to explore “superheroes in the real world,” it must address how superheroes would interact with the most powerful entities in our world: governments and corporations. Corporations are represented by Ozymandias — in effect a super-capitalist, he has taken over commerce to such an extent that nearly all the advertising and branding we see throughout the story comes back to his holdings in some way. Governments, on the other hand have Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian as their superheroes.

Or rather, one government does. We never see evidence in Watchmen of non-American superheroes, and certainly the only truly superpowered being in the story’s universe is famously American. So the question is: what kind of government are they working for? Does the existence of superheroes obviate the need for anti-communist secret wars, or would it simply be another weapon in them? We don’t get a lot of direct evidence, but there’s plenty of suggestion that the U.S. government of Watchmen is no better than the government of Brought to Light. In the few pages we get of Nixon, Kissinger, Ford, and Liddy, we get a mention of Liddy’s CIA connections linked with anti-communist first-strike aggression. Then, of course, there’s the simple fact that this same cadre is still in power as of 1985 — surely a sign that some democratic fundamentals have slipped away. Not to mention the panel that started this discussion — suggesting that one of this world’s superheroes helps the U.S. government with “knocking over Marxist republics in South America.”

What does it do to a person, working for such an organization, carrying out its darkest urges? I think you would have to be blackhearted, naive, or utterly indifferent to last long in such an employ. Doctor Manhattan certainly has the latter covered, what with “life and death are unquantifiable abstracts,” and so forth. Blackheartedness, on the other hand, is the Comedian’s beat, or so it would seem. He is, as Manhattan describes him, “deliberately amoral” — a rapist, and a killer of women and children. I have no trouble imagining him neck-deep in any of the atrocities described in Brought To Light.

And yet, in the end he finds that there is still naïveté left in him after all. Weeping in Moloch’s apartment, he reaches the end of deliberate amorality: “I mean, this joke, I mean, I thought I was the Comedian, y’know? Oh, god, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe anybody would do that… I can’t… I can’t believe…” Confronted with the utter horror of Ozymandias’ plan, he learns that the corporation in his universe is capable of far worse than the government would ever dream. He learns that he has a moral center after all — it’s just a matter of how many swimming pools must be filled before he reaches it.

2012 XYZZY Best Writing reviews

I participated in the “Pseudo-Official XYZZY Awards Reviews” project this year, reviewing the writing of the games that were nominated for the Best Writing category. I was rather out of step with the XYZZY voters, it turns out.

The reviews are posted at the XYZZY awards site.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 8 – Fifteen Men On A Dead Man’s Chest

Yarrr! It be time for another voyage upon the seas of Watchmen analysis, and ’tis no place for a lubber who’s never clapped eyes on the book, for it’s spoilers ahoy, just off the port bow! Fairly warned be thee, says I.

Okay, enough pirate talk. It fits today’s discussion, for we’ve arrived at a piratey classic, a mere 1 panel past our last excursion. Take it away, Annotated Watchmen v2.0:

Also appearing for the first time is Treasure Island, a comics shop which reappears a few times. “Treasure Island” is named that probably because of the kinds of comics it stocks (the pirate comics popular in the Watchmen world). Its name is taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of the same name about pirate treasure.

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So I read Treasure Island. (And I’ll be spoiling it below, too.) I’d never read it before, and I quite enjoyed it. As expected, it suffers a bit from Raymond Chandler Syndrome, which is to say that its genre inventions were so successful and so widely imitated that now the original sounds like a cliche. For page after page of Treasure Island, you can watch Stevenson inventing our pirate iconography right before your eyes — wooden legs, talking parrots, buried treasure, and all.

In fact, on the very first page, an old salt named Billy Bones, with a “tarry pigtail” and a “livid white” scar breaks out in an “old sea-song” that’s very familiar to us now: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest — / Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” It’s not at all clear in the story what the lyric means, but it’s certainly evocative. Those words are original to Stevenson in 1883, but thanks to a host of adapters, including the likes of Broadway and Disney, they sound to us as if they’ve been around since the 16th century, and they are synonymous with the concept of pirates, as is much of Treasure Island.

Watchmen memorably leverages this familiarity with its inversion of the “fifteen men” image, as is made explicit in the supplemental material to Chapter 5 — an excerpt from (what else?) the “Treasure Island Treasury Of Comics.” As that text explains, instead of “fifteen men on the dead man’s chest”, the “Marooned” story from Tales Of The Black Freighter gives us a man on fifteen dead men’s chests — the sailor who lashes together a raft and uses the corpses of his former shipmates as floats for it.

This is a grim, gruesome image, and it only gets worse. The Tales material interspersed through the book performs many functions, a minor one of which is to do some meta-commentary on the medium of comics itself. In Watchmen‘s world, superhero comics faded in popularity as “real” superheroes appeared on the scene (and themselves became unpopular.) However, where there were no superheroes, there was also apparently no Fredric Wertham, and no subsequent Comics Code Authority. Consequently, EC Comics was never knocked from its perch, and became the ascendant comic book company. DC was the scrappy upstart, and there was no sign of Marvel at all. This may have been a bit of… I dunno, is there a publisher equivalent of fanservice? Bosservice? Whatever. Putting DC in Marvel’s 1960s position was no doubt partly driven by the fact that DC published Watchmen.

Anyway, no comics code also means that stories can be just as gory and disturbing as they want to be, and Tales Of The Black Freighter wanted plenty. Even aside from the horrifying twist of the story, and its allegorical relationship to the plot of Watchmen, just the details of “Marooned” are awful: a gull eating a dead man’s brains, a man eating a live gull raw, a man’s skull bashed open with a rock, and so on.

Treasure_Island-Scribner's-1911Treasure Island, on the other hand, is essentially a boy’s adventure story. Its hero, Jim Hawkins, is a lad in his early teens — clearly young, though his exact age isn’t specified. While Jim certainly sees his fair share of mayhem, Stevenson keeps the gore to a minimum. Most of the narrative conflicts play out either as intrigues or as long-distance violence like cannons or musket shots. Jim even kills a man late in the story, but it’s very clearly in self-defense, and again, is done from a distance and almost by accident. There is nothing of the eeriness of “Marooned”, nor certainly its horror. Everything is bright and burnished, a proper Victorian page-turner in which the virtuous emerge triumphant, and scoundrels pay for their crimes either with their lives or their exile.

In fact, its sensibility differs little from that of Golden Age superhero comics, which were also stories for young boys, featuring adventures that were colorful and exciting, but very rarely disturbing or upsetting. As I read through the novel, it occurred to me that Treasure Island is to Tales Of The Black Freighter what Golden Age superhero stories are to Watchmen itself. The anonymous “Treasure Island Treasury” commenter could have just as easily been talking about Watchmen with comments like this one:

Readers who came to the series expecting a good rousing tale of swashbuckling were either repulsed or fascinated by what were often perverse and blackly lingering comments upon the human condition.

Moore has said several times that part of his aim with Watchmen was to showcase the strengths of comics, and one of these is juxtaposition. I swear, if it hadn’t been called Watchmen, the book might as well be called Juxtaposition. From the very first pages, we get cop dialogue over fight flashback, set next to pictures of the cops investigating the scene of the crime. We get ironic overlays like the elevator operator’s dialogue “Ground floor, coming up”, pasted onto a shot of The Comedian being thrown through his window. Pretty much every scene transition involves some sort of ironic or thematically connected overlap, and as the book goes on we get panels reprised in new contexts, such as in Dr. Manhattan’s time-jumbled narrative of Chapter 4.

With the pirate story, this juxtaposition is relentless. Nearly every panel of it intersects with the main story world in some way, with either pirate narration laid over story-world panels or story-world dialogue over pirate panels. It becomes almost musical, a harmony and counterpoint to the main melody of the story. The juxtaposition happens within each panel, as well as from one panel to the next.

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Thus do Bernie’s comic books inform “real life,” and vice versa. To Bernie (the younger), the stories “don’t make sense”, but we can see exactly how much sense they make, and know from the commentary that they are in fact reprints of comics from the early 1960s. In our world, the Comics Code Authority had long since banished such stories by then. The CCA loosened up a bit in the 1970s, and thanks to the rise of the direct market in the 1980s, Watchmen itself could forgo the CCA seal altogether. (Indeed, if it had had to submit to the Comics Code, Watchmen as we know it today wouldn’t exist.)

Even then, the fear that had engendered the CCA drove out transgression and homogenized expression, in the name of protecting children. (Also, every loosening of the Code prompted an artificial spurt of production, such as the glut of monster comics that appeared when the Code decided that vampires and werewolves were okay again.) Decades of mainstream comics went by under this oppressive curtain, until it was finally cast aside in the early 21st century.

Watchmen‘s world is bleak indeed, but it has no Comics Code, and the unfettered stories that resulted are its buried gold:

…like so many of the fascinating sunken treasures lurking just beneath the surface of this fabulous and compelling genre.

Their existence is a clear rebuke to the Comics Code Authority and all it wrought in our own world. And all it took to get there was to eradicate superheroes from comic books.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 7 – There’s Nothing To Get

It’s Watchmen analysis time again, which means it’s Watchmen spoiler time again. You’ve been warned.

Gosh, there are a lot of references in this first issue, at least according to The Annotated Watchmen v2.0. Just two panels past the mention of Juvenal, the book pulls from a whole different corner of culture:
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Quoth the annotations:

The lyrics on page [sic] are from the song “Neighborhood Threat”, written by Iggy Pop and David Bowie. The original appears on “Lust for Life” by Iggy, and is sung by Iggy. A weaker cover is available on Tonight by David Bowie. Iggy Pop and the Stooges are a band who would fit well into the apparent anarchy and nihilism of the “Pale Horse” rock band.

Here’s the song, at least as long as YouTube lets it stay posted:

I won’t bother with the Bowie cover — the annotations are quite right that it’s weaker — but they do include a bit of interesting free-association about the Bowie/Iggy connection:

“I can think of no other link or importance, save that Pop and Bowie are far more important in the UK in terms of cultural credibility, and thus would be natural icons for Moore to draw inspiration from. Interestingly, the relationship between Pop and Bowie seems to be similar to the one between Rorschach and Dreiberg… where Rorschach is a mask, and Dreiberg pretends to be a mask. In the lates [sic] 70s Bowie and Pop hung out a lot together, but Pop was always far more ‘on the edge, and possibly over it’ than Bowie, who could always tell that his Rock and Roll persona was just that, a persona (mask).” (Steven Pirie-Shepherd, pirie@auriga.rose.brandeis.edu)

Unlike Mr. Pirie-Shepherd, I can think of some other links and importance for the song, but I agree that there’s an interesting biographical parallel to Watchmen. The Bowie part may be a bit of a reach, but maybe not. Tonight came out in September 1984, so could conceivably have been current as Watchmen was being drafted. In any case, Lust For Life was very much a joint Bowie/Pop production, so one could argue that the relationship is present as a subtext on any of its songs. The lyrics appear in the foreground of a panel with Dreiberg in the background, and by the end of the page, Rorschach has made his way up Dreiberg’s back stairs to break into his apartment.

Having recently read Paul Trynka’s Pop biography Open Up And Bleed, I learned that at first, Iggy Stooge was just as much of a put-on as Ziggy Stardust. He grew up in Michigan as Jim Osterberg, the boy Most Likely To Succeed, and gradually drifted into music, until it became his passion. He was a singing drummer in an Ann Arbor band called the Iguanas, and was derided by later bandmates as “Iggy.” Gradually, he pieced together a persona and a musical style, choosing his iconography quite deliberately. For instance, he decided to always perform shirtless after reading that the Egyptian pharaohs never wore shirts. (Shades of Ozymandias!)

In short, Osterberg crafted a new identity, into which he would disappear on stage. While Jim Osterberg was, well, mild-mannered, Iggy Pop was superhuman — lean, muscular, commanding, and impervious to harm, as he proved by rolling in broken glass or otherwise self-mutilating. The superhero parallels are obvious, so much so that Trynka explicitly refers to Iggy as a superhero and his stage outfit (or lack thereof) as a costume. He also points out that for a long time, Iggy and Jim coexisted peacefully, but as drug abuse and general 1970′s rock and roll craziness set in, the alter ego began driving more and more, until he virtually took over for long stretches. It’s a bit reminiscent of Rorschach, except that the personality shift wasn’t so sudden or so final. It’s even more reminiscent of a certain Green Goliath, and in fact the book acknowledges that too, in a story about photographer Art Gruen. Gruen was backstage at a 1996 show (after Osterberg had gotten his demons more in control):

…a couple of minutes before Jim was due to go onstage, Gruen saw him walk over to a quiet corner. The photographer was about to go up and offer some encouragement when [manager] Art Collins motioned him aside and warned him, “I wouldn’t do that now.” As Gruen looked on, he saw Jim immersed in some kind of deep-breathing exercise, “and then, suddenly, it was like watching the Hulk, when some normal person, the secret identity, turns into this incredible creature.” Gruen watched wave after wave of an almost inhuman energy surge through him: “You could almost see him become larger and more powerful; Jim had become Iggy and taken on all this mass, this power. And you just knew it was time to stay out of the way and not get anywhere near where he’d be.”

Quite the appropriate artist to select for a quick reference in the definitive superhero deconstruction, eh?

As for the lyrics themselves, on the most obvious level they’re a gloss on the source of the sound. Tattooed, smoking, leather-clad punks blasting loud rock and roll from a boom box hoisted on one shoulder — it’s a rather quaintly 80s image of menace now, but there’s no doubt these hoodlums are indeed a threat in Hollis Mason’s neighborhood. The one with the radio is Derf, who later ends up bludgeoning Mason to death. The panel with the lyrics foreshadows their deadly approach up his back stairs, wired on Katies and feeling no pain.

There’s another reading available, though, because certain lyrics in that song are quite directly applicable to Rorschach. Have a look:

Down where your paint is cracking
Look down your back stairs, buddy
Somebody’s living there and
He don’t really feel the weatherwatchmen-ch10-pg27
And he don’t share your pleasures
No, he don’t share your pleasures
Did you see his eyes?
Did you see his crazy eyes?watchmen-ch5-pg28
And you’re so surprised he doesn’t run to catch your ash
Everybody always wants to kiss your trash
And you can’t help him, no one can
And now that he knows
There’s nothing to get
Will you still place your bet
Against the neighborhood threat?

Somewhere a baby’s feeding
Somewhere a mother’s needing
Outside her boy is trying
But mostly he is cryingwatchmen-ch6-pg4
Did you see his eyes?
Did you see his crazy eyes?watchmen-ch6-pg7
And you’re so surprised he doesn’t run to catch your ash
Everybody always wants to kiss your trash
But you can’t help him, no one can
And now that he knows
There’s nothing to get
Not in this place
Not in your face
Will you still place your bet
Against the neighborhood threat?

One more thought about this song. From the first few pages of chapter 1, Rorschach perceives a danger to the superhero community. Various theories come up as to the nature of this danger. Political assassins? An old enemy on a revenge spree? A serial murderer targeting “masks”? In the end, it turns out that the danger comes from within the community itself — a neighborhood threat of an altogether different sort.