Before you read any further, please heed this warning: Watchmen spoilers ahead!

As I mentioned in my notes on method, I had originally decided to leave out any works I’d seen/read/heard/whatever before, but as the project has expanded, I’ve decided to throw those back in. At the time, I believed that meant that to finish with Chapter One, I’d need to write a post on Dylan and another on Taxi Driver.

However, in rereading the v2.0 Watchmen annotations for that chapter, I realized I’d missed something. Though it’s flying well under the radar, there is in fact a cultural reference in this panel, or at least the beginnings of one:

Panel from Watchmen. Close-up on Rorschach shaking sugar cubes from a can onto the counter. Each cube is individually wrapped, with an S stamped on it. Dreiberg is visible behind Rorschach. Rorschach: That's right. Human bean juice. Ha ha. Badge belonged to the Comedian. Blood too. He's dead.

The annotations tell us that this panel is in fact:

The first appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes. (I don’t know if these are a Veidt product; the “Chariot” reference is his style, but the name refers to a Gospel song, which isn’t.)

Now, it isn’t at all evident from the panel itself that the sugar cubes have any particular brand name. All we see is a can labeled “Sugar”, and cubes individually wrapped with an “S” stamped on them. The cubes reappear, again anonymously, in Chapter 3, when Dreiberg seeks to sweeten Laurie’s coffee. (“Hell, I thought I had more sugar than that.”) It isn’t until Chapter 6 that we learn the brand name, from their description in Rorschach’s arrest paperwork, which includes among his possessions “5 individually wrapped cubes ‘Sweet Chariot’ chewing sugar.”

Nevertheless, the annotations are quite right that this is their first appearance, so let’s deal with them here. I don’t think there’s evidence in the text either way for whether those sugar cubes are a Veidt product, and I don’t think it much matters. The reference, however, to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, matters a lot, on a few different levels.

First, even before touching the referent, I would argue that the cubes and their name operate as a symbol for the relationship between Dreiberg and Rorschach. Dan carries Rorschach in several ways, the first of which is evident on this very page of Chapter 1. Rorschach is destitute, and seems to live mostly off scraps provided by others, through their generosity, fear, or ignorance. Today he takes his meal from Dreiberg’s beans and sugar, a metaphorical ride which is literally sweet.

Dan also provides resources to Rorschach. They were initially partners, back in the pre-Keene days, but even now Rorschach benefits from the products of Dreiberg’s genius, such as the grappling hook gun he uses when we first see him in Chapter 1, and again when trying to evade capture in Chapter 5. Even closer to a literal sweet chariot is Dan’s owlship Archie, which swings low to rescue Rorschach from prison, and later carries him all the way to what will be his final resting place.

There’s a sweetness to that relationship, seen most clearly in the awkward handshake between them in Chapter 10. A sugar cube makes a fine symbol for their friendship, rigid but soluble. For Detective Fine, the sugar cubes crystallize the connection between Dreiberg and Rorschach — he knows that Rorschach had those sugar cubes on him at his arrest, and comments when he visits Dreiberg, “Hey, ‘Sweet Chariot’ sugar cubes! Only come in catering packs, right?”

Just as the words “sweet chariot” reflect on Rorschach’s relationship with Nite Owl, so does the song itself reflect on his story. It’s a song, first and foremost, about death.

When I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Comin’ for to carry me home
A band of angels comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home

According to scholar Christa K. Dixon, “in the spirituals ‘Jordan’ refers mostly to the dividing line between wilderness-like earthly life and promised heavenly life.”1 A great many spirituals call upon some notion of transformation — that’s why so many of them center on the Book of Revelation — and in many of them, death is that transformation, a deliverance from the misery of slave life, and the promise of a heavenly reward. In “Swing Low,” that band of angels comes to retrieve the departed, to take him across the Jordan from this world into the next. The repeated refrain, “comin’ for to carry me home”, emphasizes the fact that the slave’s true home is not on Earth, but in heaven.

Rorschach also feels out of place in this world — for him it’s rudderless, morally blank. The only sane responses to it, as he sees it, are his own, and the Comedian’s. Something else binds those two characters together as well — though there’s an awful lot of death in Watchmen, only two of the main characters die: Rorschach and The Comedian. And since The Comedian’s death occurs before the story begins, only Rorschach can be said to die in the course of the plot. So naturally it’s with Rorschach that the Sweet Chariot cubes are associated — they foreshadow his death, and as he rides to meet it in Antarctica, he drops his final wrapper, which looms up huge in the camera’s eye.

Panel from Watchmen, chapter 11, page 3. A bleak Antarctic landscape, with two riders in the very far distance. A fierce wind blows an empty sugar cube wrapper, stamped with an S, into the foreground.

However, while “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is most clearly about death, it has another layer of meaning. Historical evidence suggests that, among other songs, it was sometimes sung as a part of a slave code, signaling that an opportunity for escape was coming. In this context, “home” isn’t heaven but the free states of the North, and the angels aren’t supernatural guardians, but rather Underground Railroad “conductors” like Harriet Tubman. In fact, when Tubman died, the local newspaper reported that “she led those at her bedside in singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with her final breath.”2

Escape and rescue are recurring themes in superhero fiction, and Watchmen interrogates them, just as it does most other superhero tropes. With the Sweet Chariot sugar cubes, though, that interrogation begins only gradually. Rorschach first shakes them out of their container as he pursues what appears to be a traditional heroic trajectory: saving those in danger, in this case by warning them that the danger is coming. They appear again when Dan is taking care of Laurie, or trying to. This is a slightly more problematic idea of rescue, as he’s clearly attracted to her, and therefore has a bit of an ulterior motive. Also, she arguably she doesn’t need saving, having made her own sort of escape from a life she had begun to see as servitude. Nevertheless, Dan’s approach at this point mostly conforms to a typical heroic code of conduct, with him as the rescuer and Laurie as the damsel in distress, albeit in a considerably less dramatic idiom than superheroes normally occupy.

However, we learn that the sugar cubes are in fact called “Sweet Chariot” through an inversion of superheroic rescue — they’re listed in Rorshach’s arrest report, as part of the inventory of taken of his pockets when he was captured. Now he is the prisoner rather than the rescuer, and has to wait for Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II to be his conductors from bondage. In fact, the sugar cubes appear again in chapter 7, as Dan is sweetening Laurie’s coffee (this time successfully), just before they listen to news reports about Rorschach and Dan frets about how Rorshach will fare in jail.3 Then, when Fine visits in the next chapter, the sugar cubes provide evidence of Dan’s connection with Rorschach, and spurs the rescue effort: “Springing Rorschach any later than tomorrow isn’t safe.”

The final appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes in chapter 11, that wrapper blowing in the Antarctic wind, brings together the ideas of death and rescue. Rorschach is (somewhat unknowingly) heading towards his own death, but the mission that brings him there with Nite Owl is a heroic one: stopping Veidt’s destructive actions. Watchmen won’t let us have this rescue. Not only has the destruction happened well before the pair can intervene, but Veidt believes that the death is the rescue. In his “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” mentality, Veidt horribly brings together the two meanings of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, sending death raining down and believing that he’s ushering in “an age of illumination” by doing so.

There’s one final aspect of this allusion to consider, and it’s a big one. By invoking a song directly connected with American slavery, Moore’s use of “Sweet Chariot” invites us to consider race, specifically the past and present of African-Americans. What can we say about African-Americans in Watchmen?

A number of incidental characters are black — the postal carrier who picks up Rorschach’s journal, the watch seller up the street from the newsstand, some victims of the tenement fire rescue by Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, some patrons at Happy Harry’s, the prisoner Rorschach burns with cooking fat, the maid at Sally Jupiter’s retirement community. There are also three named African-American characters in the book: Bernie the younger (who reads the pirate comics), Malcolm Long (Rorschach’s psychiatrist), and Gloria Long, Malcolm’s wife.

This collection of characters neither adheres to stereotypes nor studiously avoids them. Bernie hangs out on the corner all day while his mom works, and speaks in street slang — “suit y’self, jive-ass”, or “shee-it.” Malcolm and Gloria, on the other hand, are consummate white-collar professionals, with educated diction and middle-class dinner parties in their bourgeois apartment. Likewise, the unnamed characters run a gamut, from criminals up to ordinary workers. There’s nothing in particular binding them together outside of race. Gloria underscores this point with her indignant response to Bernie the elder’s suggestion that maybe the watch seller knows Malcolm: “What? You think we’re all in some Negro club; that we all know each other?”

Panel from Watchmen, chapter 2, page 11. The Comedian's gloved hand holds a lighter, burning Nelson's display of the United States, with labels affixed reading Promiscuity, Drugs, Anti-War Demos, and Black Unrest.

By making sure his African-American characters are neither demonized nor sanctified, Moore makes a point about race, albeit not a particularly deep one. A little more subversive is his suggestion that superheroes might serve a racist agenda. When Captain Metropolis tries to organize the Crimebusters, his display includes his labels for the types of “crime” to be fought: promiscuity, drugs, anti-war demonstrations, and… “black unrest.” Given that this meeting took place in 1966, and given the placement of the tag over Southern states, this “unrest” was almost certainly the Civil Rights Movement. Gardner is obviously a conservative, but it’s a little startling to think that he would want to employ operatives like Dr. Manhattan or The Comedian against peace protests and civil rights marches.

The New Frontiersman lives much further out on the right wing, and is even more shocking, in its favorable comparison between superheroes and the KKK:

Nova Express makes many sneering references to costumed heroes as direct descendents of the Ku Klux Klan, but might I point out that despite what some might view as their later excesses, the Klan originally came into being because decent people had perfectly reasonable fears for the safety of their persons and belongings when forced into proximity with people from a culture far less morally advanced.

It’s already stunning to read an argument defending the KKK, but the comparison between that group and superheroes is chilling indeed. And yet, we’re forced to admit that the comparison isn’t entirely off-base. Klan members dress themselves in distinctive costumes and ride into the night to defend their status quo. I’ve written before about how superheroes also defend the status quo, fighting against the forces of change.

In a typical superhero comic, those forces of change are obviously negative, but Watchmen challenges the genre fan’s assumption that this would always be so. Sometimes even the most progressive change is disruptive, and sometimes it deeply frightens people attached to the old order. When those people put on masks and terrorize the change agents, we find their actions despicable. Yet what is so different about superheroes themselves, besides the nature of the status quo they defend? And if they were defending a repugnant philosophy, by use of violence, wouldn’t we want a law preventing that?

There’s one more overt reference to race in Watchmen. It comes towards the end of Chapter 6, after Long’s last session with Rorschach, the one in which Rorschach tells the story of Gerald Grice and his dogs. In the journal entry that follows, Long’s diction has acquired the clipped patterns of Rorschach:

Walked home along 40th street. A black man tried to sell me a Rolex watch. When I kept walking he started shouting “Nigger! Hey nigger!” Ignored him. Bought paper.

This narration happens at the top left panel of a page. The previous panel was Long, palm to face, overwhelmed by the darkness of Rorschach’s experiences. Rorschach has told him that existence has “no meaning, save what we choose to impose,” and that it is only humans who create the brutality and evil of this world. Immediately afterward, the world seems determined to prove Rorschach right. On the next page, Long stares at an ink blot, and realizes: “In the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness.” And the final panel before the quote is just that: pure blackness.

Let me suggest that this ending has a metaphysical level, yes, but on another level it is also about, well, blackness. In the end, skin color, nose shape, hair curliness, and the rest have no meaning, save what we choose to impose. To understand the meanings we have chosen around race is to understand the horror of our history. The captivity and slavery that made people long for death, the bloody war we fought to vanquish it, the hooded men searing the night with beatings, burnings, and lynchings… it’s us. Only us.

Next Entry: Absent Friends
Previous Entry: A Real Rain

Endnotes

1 Negro Spirituals: From Bible To Folk Song, pg. 29. [Back to post]

2 Robert Darden, Nothing but Love in God’s Water, pg. 28. [Back to post]

3 There’s something a bit odd about this scene. On page 11, panel 2, we see the full bag of sugar cubes, and can read part of the “Sweet Chariot” label. On the next page, Dan asks Laurie, “Did I put enough sugar in the coffee? I went out to the store specially…” The issue had already made the point he was at the store — he cites that as the reason Laurie was able to activate the flamethrower: “I was down here checking out the systems earlier. I left everything switched on when I went out to the store.” So we know he was at the store, and that his main purpose was to get sugar.

But if “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes only come in catering packs, how did Dan pop over to the store to buy some? In the scene with Detective Fine in the next chapter, the fact that those cubes aren’t available at the store is why Fine cites them — if they only come in catering packs, Rorschach couldn’t have bought them, and therefore was much more likely to have been supplied by Dreiberg. This strikes me as an idea Moore had when writing chapter 8, and liked enough that he decided to overlook the contradictory evidence in chapter 7. [Back to post]

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2 responses »

  1. dougorleans says:

    Also presumably a reference to Sweet’n Low? Which has its own interesting referent:

    “The name “Sweet’n Low” derives from an 1863 song by Sir Joseph Barnby, which took both its title and lyrics from an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, entitled The Princess: Sweet and Low.”

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