Who watches the Watchmen?

Fiction is a dictatorship. Don’t think it’s not. It’s watching you, even right now. Full stops check your pace as you shuffle along its lines – an en-dash prodding you along when you’re losing interest; sometimes a semi-colon, the Gestapo of punctuation, arrives to quietly order things, make detailed lists, bump off a wayward interpretation. Think that lines of text are gateways to another world? They’re work-queues, patrolled by gas-masked commas, to the mill of forced comprehension.

But we love it so it’s fine. This is the key to a successful dictatorship: it keeps us safe from our own thoughts. We’re given everything we need. We can see it all, it says, this whole little universe, so it’s hard for us to know that fiction, taking us along line by line and word by word, only permits us one path along which to look. Real life isn’t like this. We can look in all sorts of directions and perceive and miss all sorts of things. Surely fiction which is in some way able to address this formal absence in novels would be of unique value…

I used to call them ‘graphic novels’ but I realised that this was just me being unable to face reality. They’re comics. I read comics. A less accurate name this may be, because often they’re not at all funny, but it does speak to how long they’ve been around as a medium, since everyone grew up with the term ‘comic’, even if they had no direct experience of Dennis the Menace’s psychopath dog or, for the nerd/  aspiring military dictator, General Jumbo and his army of remote control toys which fought crime. That one was my favourite, but while imagining the bloody miniaturised coup I was one day to stage I never thought about how I was imbibing these stories.

As I’ve suggested, generally fiction must take us through a linear set of details, but in a narrative of pictures our eye is free negotiate different sets. Why is this significant? In cinema it’s been described as a historical moment when, in Mizoguchi’s 1936 Osaka Elegy, a deep-focus lens was for the first time used to present the viewer with a range of things to look at in one shot, and the power of this technique was later brought to larger audiences through Citizen Cain. It seems so normal to us now as to be difficult to understand how radical it was; it was radical because it in a sense turned the viewer into the editor, switching our role from simply passive absorbers to thinking parties to the piece, participants who can be detectives, voyeurs, anything.

Comics bring this idea of viewer-as-editor to a very different sphere: reading. They remain within the literary domain because, crucially, just like books they require effort on the part of a reader in order to happen at all. A film will keep playing with or without your attention but literature is hand-cranked, and this act of work gives the imagining necessary to read something quite literally a different sort of power.

So, occupying a middle ground between film and novels means that comics have always offered something different, but it wasn’t until the ’80s that loose-cannon minds were given the space to do something innovative with this, in particular a man from sunny Northampton (it isn’t sunny) called Alan Moore. He wasn’t alone, but if you have to single someone out then it’s the cuddly, Rasputinish man-giant of comics and his dauntingly clever series Watchmen.

Looking like a roadie who also does magic, Moore turned both the superhero paradigm inside out and – the subject of discussion here – he made pictures and words together do things which awoke entirely dormant parts of my literary brain. Generally they are variations on one approach: two things happening at once. Some examples…

What’s important about this is that, where to read is in some degree to be told, Moore’s use of visual clues working in parallel to the text does not simply illustrate the words but changes and builds on their meaning. ‘Reading’ in this way uses faculties largely untouched by straight fiction or film and we are at this point moving into a symbolic perception of what’s before us. A seemingly inconsequential but meaning-laden detail can here stow away from us more deftly than it can through text alone, and in turn it steals up the shores of our consciousness in a stranger way.

Moore (and ‘Moore’ is of course here surrogate for both Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons) knows his symbolism and scatters little semantic triggers everywhere. Watchmen’s main visual motif, a smiley-face badge marked by a distinctive smear of blood, pops up relentlessly, occurring variously as a smudge across a rainy window, a blip across a radar screen, debris across Mars’s Galle crater, ketchup across a T-shirt design, and in at least twenty-five other ways.

He traces his inspiration for this to a perhaps unlikely source: beat nutcase William Burroughs. As the character Ozymandias says over an unabashedly thoughtful page:

Multi-screen viewing is seemingly anticipated by Burroughs’s cut-up technique. He suggested re-arranging words and images to evade rational analysis, allowing subliminal hints of the future to leak through… An impending world of erotica, glimpsed only peripherally. Perceptually, this simultaneous input engages me like the kinetic equivalent of an abstract or impressionist painting… Transient and elusive, these must be grasped quickly…

In conjunction with massive forecasted technological acceleration approaching the millennium, this oblique and shifting cathode mosaic uncovers the blueprint for an era of new sensibilities and possibilities. And era of the conceivable made concrete… and of the casually miraculous.

Illustration from Ah Pook is Here, Malcolm McNeill, c1970

Burroughs’s affiliation with comics is not well known but he did write a short-lived strip called The Unspeakable Mr Hart (later becoming the novella Ah Pook Is Here, later still the incredible, hellish vistas  – see illustration on the right – of a comic of the same name, sadly unfinished). Moore was strongly influenced by it and, as he says, ‘the way that the word and image are used to control, and their possible more subversive effect’ – through symbolism and codes which our eye picks up on even if our conscious mind doesn’t. The freedom in comics to negotiate different sets of details when reading is what creates the space within which the symbols can sneak.

The constant echoes conjured by Moore – the ‘animal urge’ and the ape-mask, as above, the ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’ and the staring owl calendar in the background – are not mere coincidence  (one of the lower-rent narrative tactics, although I won’t be burning my bridges to it any time soon); Moore might instead call them synchronicity, and this points to another influence, one which takes Burroughs’s subliminal symbology and gives it a more studied, more scientific edge, sort of: psychoanalyst nutcase Carl Jung.

Synchronicity is to attest that causally unrelated things can be related in meaning, and this meaningfulness hails from an underlying framework of existence of which incidents of synchronicity are little ruptures perceivable to us. Jung discussed this at length with physicist Wolfgang Pauli, a central figure in the development of quantum physics, and together they saw parallels between synchronicity and the experimental physics of the time, broadly in the sense that, as a synchronous connection needs the context of a given perceiver in order to be meaningful, so too physical phenomena can be altered through the fact of their being observed, as described by quantum theory.

Beyond Pauli, synchronicity has never been taken seriously by scientists, but it certainly found its place in art, as did a great deal of Jung’s ideas on dreams and symbolism. Moore talks about Jung as an influence and to my mind there are parallels in the ways they explain their ideas. Both are articulate, calm, have an excellent turn of phrase that’s without bombast, are self-critical to a degree that’s unusual and reassuring, and they will expound in this sort of way for a while and all is well – and then they’ll say something utterly, utterly mad.

But sometimes one’s visceral reaction needs to be stayed. Moore, for instance, says he’s a magician. He makes magic. This is off-putting until you see that he’s using quite a specific definition of the word ‘magic’ which really refers to art and the effect it has on us. This is not necessarily a scientifically definable effect but we all know it, and so Moore calls this magic, and therefore he is a magician.

Robert Anton Wilson, another big fan of Jung and High Magus of Synchronicity, also speaks in this way, and again the nuttiness can yield some treats: hear him using synchronicity to talk about Finnegans Wake… Rereading some of the transcript from that interview just now I see Wilson saying that Joyce saw himself as an ‘alchemist, taking all the gross matter of the world and turning it into sublime, eternal art’. Perhaps Moore’s art-magic is not so unusual and perhaps, since more broadly we’re talking about synchronicity (and its informing the stylistic method behind Watchmen), my just happening to read that Joyce viewed his artistry in strikingly similar terms, of all the sentences I could have scanned over in that very long transcript – well, some have a word for that.

Moore noted that even in the process of making Watchmen occurrences like this were constant. For instance, there are more examples of the hidden smiley-face motif than were intentionally put in. ‘The little plugs on the spark hydrants,’ says Moore, ‘if you turn them upside down you get a smiley’. Innocuous enough on its own but as the examples build up it can, from my own experience of it in writing, get a bit odd, even to the point that you can rely on it happening and pointing you to connections to develop and accentuate.

So Burroughs’s symbolism and Jung’s synchronicity are realised by Moore in his formal approach to Watchmen, I believe, and he achieves this using the space provided by comics’ having both film’s scattering of visual detail and fiction’s demand for imaginative effort. We don’t simply read Watchmen, we ‘watch’ it too. But can the way that I’ve described this process be used to understand techniques used in other forms? Can two separate and parallel narrative lines be made to happen at the same time in something purely text-based, percolating through each other to get those hidden nether-gears going, firing connections?

IN September of 1880, a few months after the demise of my
AND the things she reads, a clumsy novel, in a cheap edition
father, I decided to give up my business activities, transferring
besides, but you wonder how she can get interested in things
them to another house in Jerez whose standing was as solvent
like this. To think that she’s spent hours and hours reading tasteless
as that of my own; I liquidated all the credits I could, rented out
stuff like this and plenty of other incredible things…

This passage, beginning a chapter in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch which proceeds in the same way, at first seemed like gibberish to me. I then saw that they are two passages in alternating lines (the above quote won’t render properly if your window is small), and thinking myself clever I read through every odd line then every even line to comprehend the two different passages. Later I realised how profoundly I’d missed the point. I tried, slowly, to read it properly, switching my mental picture back and forth at the end of each line.

The ‘clumsy novel’ of the odd lines and the thoughts of the man reading it in the even lines came to occur together in real-time, like the boy reading The Black Freighter as the street continues around him in Watchmen. I saw that the man’s thoughts were shaped as he read each line of the novel – these connections had completely eluded me when I read the two passages separately. Reading it got less difficult as I went on: I was learning to read in a new way.

Put in a perhaps reductive but altogether fleshier manner, it seem that a lot of this comes down to the strips of muscle around the eyeball, how they twitch and judder the pupil and how we’re able, or not, to organise the information springing inwards.

‘Cotton in your Ears’ by Guillaume Apollinaire

People have been toying with this process for a long time. In poetry, Apollinaire, the zaniest wordsmith in the trenches, created his calligram poems in which the words and lines are reshaped to form pictures or strange scatterings, encouraging the reader to dart around and make decisions as to the order of reading (see the beginning of ‘Cotton in your Ears’, right). An example in cinema could be Mike Figgis’s 2000 film Timecode, which divides the screen into four with events overlapping and characters switching between, the viewer largely directed between them by the soundtrack but free to look anywhere.

So parallel stories, stories which are in a sense created through the arc of the viewer’s attention, are not new, and in a sense much of art could be seen like this, but what Moore’s approach to Watchmen tells me is that the connections between the parallel elements and the interplay these encourage in the reader/viewer’s mind are a gateway to something more. Burroughs’s popularisation of the cut-up technique is arguably an early sign of this, a first blip on the smiley-face radar. His weapon (aside from his arsenal of actual guns) was chance: shuffling lines around to create new landscapes of meaning. But Moore doesn’t play semantic bingo in the same way; his method in the frames is to engineer the environment in which the connections can be fired.

The ‘megasavant’ Kim Peek, on whom Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man was based, could read two pages of a book at the same time, one with each eye. One wonders what kind of art-perceptive gears could be put into motion by writing specifically tailored to abilities like that, what form the writing would take and the sensorial complexity of the connections that could be made. Peek’s abilities were innate, yes, and arguably his feeling for poetic thought was greatly reduced or at the very least different, but there’s no reason why new modes of reading – and watching – can’t be learned.