What Watchmen Is About

For reasons too silly to go into here, I couldn’t post my reply to Tom’s question on The Comics Reporter (no link needed, I trust?), so I’ll post it here.

Watchmen is about what many good stories are about, especially many good noirish murder mysteries:  the struggle between free will and determinism.  Its innovation is to site this struggle in a world of “realistic” superheroes — that is, superheroes who are bound by pretty much the same limits of human reason and action that obtain in this, our very own real world.  Why or how would anyone become a “superhero” in a world like our own, Moore and Gibbons ask…and then they find an answer to that question.  How would the superhero function under the constraints we live under every day, they further ask…and then they answer that one too.  It’s actually very clever;  after all, every popular narrative depends on its larger-than-life characters to make it go…and this is just like that.  Only, it’s ridiculously like that.  So Watchmen’s about the collision of narratives, likened to the collision of particles, likened to the collision between dream and reality, likened to the collision between optimism and pessimism, likened to the collision between freedom and fate.

In other words, Watchmen’s about Time.

Hey, it’s right there in the title!

Anyway that’s what I think, right this minute.


35 responses to “What Watchmen Is About

  1. I think everything in your post is true, but:
    – I’m not sure I’d want to simplify it down that far, and
    – I don’t see the connection between your second and third paragraphs.

  2. No, simplification isn’t worth much. But I’m glad you mentioned that, because in a way it connects to your second remark. Time, the ultimate subject of our greatest novels, isn’t so interesting in a simplified description either…and it takes some coming to. Heck, they say if you read Proust before you’re into your fifties that you’ll miss most of it! And Ulysses is still being pored over. But all that stuff largely goes right by us in the (fascinating) four-colour world of pure episode. Watchmen is all about it, though! Just like the most realistic of realistic novels (Ulysses?) there is never enough time for the characters to fix themselves up, fix their hair or mask or costume, before eventuation rushes in. And Moore deserves some kind of medal for using the SF components of comic-book superheroes as a bridge to the real feelings us real people experience when we contemplate the attempts to describe our own universe: supersymmetry and memory get paired, as accident and fate do as well…the Sufis say that many a task has been failed because it was too ingenious, and many a novel has failed to just quite grab onto the matter of physics — of “physics trauma”? — and tie it convincingly to character or milieu. Crap, English theatre of the last twenty-five years is lousy with failed attempts such as these. Jesus, even Tama Janowitz tried messing with this stuff in the Eighties! And did no worse than most. It’s real hard to get a grip on quantum mechanics as a motif, when you’re telling a story. Even Einstein defeats most authors. Newton is about all anyone can manage. But, let’s hand it to Alan and Dave: they figured out how to work that stuff in comics, and I am not aware of any other literary effort doing any better…

    Oops, pardon me, Matthew! Need more beer! Back in a tick.

  3. Realistic. Man beats woman up. Rapes her. Then later she starts an affair with him. She’s fallen in love with her rapist! A modern sheen on that hideous old phrase: ‘I bet she enjoyed it really’.

    A shit stain miles wide runs through the Watchmen and comic book readers don’t want to admit it.

  4. Clone- I’m afraid that situations where people trapped in abusive relationships where they end up defending thir abusers, believing they themselves contributed or even initiated the abuse are horrifically commonplace. Cycles of violence and abuse that individuals are unable to extricate themselves from can be found throughout Watchmen.

    Whether it’s appropriate for such a scene to be used in the story, or whether it was handled correctly or not, are different matters, but I don’t think “she enjoyed it really” was Moore’s intention.

  5. Oh, and Plok, I think I’d say that Watchmen is about the terror of annihilation. The work is saturated with Moore’s fear of global nuclear annihilation. When you say:

    “So Watchmen’s about the collision of narratives, likened to the collision of particles, likened to the collision between dream and reality, likened to the collision between optimism and pessimism, likened to the collision between freedom and fate.”

    I can’t help but think of those things in terms of particle/anti-particle collisions, the result of which: annihilation, inevitable consequence of symmetry.

  6. Clone, oddly enough that’s an interpretation that I’ve always managed to miss! Christ, how strange; and yet I think it’s because I read it just as Madeley did, somewhat blended with the way it emphasizes predestination’s crueller inward-turning tendencies, and the way all individual identity gets erased (perhaps!) by the processes of generation. That’s annihilation, of course: human perspective and value are evanescent things, that get steamrolled by statistics, fate, the implacability of eventuation. There’s Dr. Manhattan as symbol of just this kind of annihilation-by-symmetry Madeley points out, and naturally the Bomb lurking behind him. I’m not quite sure whether or not to assign “realistic” qualities to Sally and Eddie’s fucked-up relationship/entanglement, though: on one hand, as Madeley points out, it happens. But on the other hand, like I said, inciting incidents in fiction usually spring out of characters that are at least in part more fancifully-made than the people we encounter in genuine-no-kidding real life — more arbitrary characters, you could call them. The protagonist in the modern novel may resemble us, but the people he reacts most to usually have something “wrong” with them that’s authorially-controlled. In Watchmen, our main characters are all little universes of their own, not good at communicating with the other little universes around them, but Sally and Eddie aren’t main characters: only the stellar remnants (if you will) of Laurie’s improbable creation — of her Creation? So I don’t know, I’m not sure…

  7. Most abusive relationships go like this: boy meets girl, they get on well at first, things deteriorate, she doesn’t leave him, he then starts kicking seven shades out of her.

    The relationship in the Watchmen goes like this. Girl knows boy. They’re not in relationship. He beats the crap out of her, then he rapes her. Only then do they enter into a relationship. The sexual assault is the very first significant event of their lives together. What did he do to win the girl over after he’d put her in hospital? Ten roses and a box of Dairy Milk?

    I think Moore gets a free pass from most people because the Watchmen’s importance as a comic. It’s so well-written that I don’t want it to be the way it is, but it is.

    As to Moore’s intent, well, I don’t know. Maybe he thought he was giving some vital new insight into the vagaries of the female mind, but it certainly reads like a new spin on old garbage to me.

  8. Clone, I’ve got to turn this thread over to you, to explore this matter. Seriously, get inside and outside of it, do some justice to it and don’t flinch. Be fair, I advise…

    But I am not seeing anyplace in this blogosphere where anybody else is giving any realistic harsh criticism to Watchmen, and maybe we need that, I mean heck I’ve never even seen that. So, time to see. I declare this comment thread a place for Watchmen heretics to live without fear, and be engaged with responsibly!

    Let the criticisms of our favourite sacred cow flow!

    Maybe I should make a post that points to here.

  9. Pingback: What Watchmen Is Not About « A Trout In The Milk·

  10. Okay, I I want to hear smart and/or heartfelt criticism, here. No bullshit. There’s a lot of nasty tinfoil to cram in Alan’s mouth, that most of his detractors have missed through not being clever enough to see the fucking point. But now what might the clever people say? If you wanna unleash, here’s the place to do it. Let’s put my favourite comics genius in the dunk tank. Talk about what he doesn’t do well. Talk about places where his obsession obscures his skill, where his skill obscures his obsession. I’ll volunteer, like Jog or Marc Singer, my most horribly hated Alan Moore story. God it makes me sick. There is no excuse for it, except perhaps — and this is at a stretch — YOUTH.

    Although Alan did great things as a youth.

    But this one’s fucked.

    I won’t give you the link to it: “FUTURE SPIRIT”. God, I think I may barf. It’s fucking awful. Search for it if you want, but man be careful what you wish for. You actually don’t want to see that shit. Turn away.

  11. It’s like killing bambi, though, isn’t it? The Watchmen is an important comic. You could argue that it’s the most important one of all, the one that gets mentioned in NYT 100 best books of the century. The one that gets taken seriously. You can give it to friends, no matter how literate they are, and say, ‘now tell me this stuff can’t be good.’

    So it feels like coming out and say, ‘actually, there’s a serious problem with this book and here’s the evidence’ is letting the side down. I have the idea that you, Plok, don’t want all this to be true, but it is. Let’s not start a witch-hunt against Alan Moore: the man’s an important figure in comics and he deserves his due. But on this occasion, the evidence is that he got a character horribly wrong.

    So about Sally Jupiter. Firstly, even without the rape, she’s the worst developed character in the Watchmen. When younger, she’d had respect, been powerful and fought villains. Logic might suggest that as her life had developed she’d have gone on to be a formidable figure, but, under Moore’s hand, she’s become a pathetic figure, a stereotype of the past-it wrinkly, maundering through her days remembering the good times while her daughter, the one we’re supposed to feel empathy for, gets exasperated by her. For a long time, I had no time for Sally Jupiter and I didn’t think much about her, and that’s the problem with her. She’s not meant to be important. You’re not supposed to have to think about her.

    Anyway, eight or tens years after I’d first read the Watchmen, I was re-reading it, and I came upon a conversation (I don’t have the Watchmen to hand, so forgive me if I get the dialogue wrong) which went something like this:

    Daughter (forgotten her name): How could you love him, Mum? He raped you.

    Sally: Yes he did. The first time.

    It was the phrase ‘the first time’ that got me thinking. First time for what? First time they had met? No, because Eddie(?) and Sally were already acquaintances before the rape. The ‘first time’ that Sally was referring to was the first time Eddie’s penis had been inside her vagina. She was bracketing her rape with all the other penis-in-vagina episodes, as though it was a first-date-gone-wrong. There’s your first ghastly stereotype. Rape is not about sex. The victim does not consider it to be sex. It’s violence. It’s violation. It’s highly unlikely that a normal woman would be violently assaulted, raped and then later bracket the experience with normal consensual sex. If Moore’s rape victim is doing this bracketing, it’s because Moore doesn’t understand the subject.

    As I said, we can discount abused-spouse syndrome because Sally was not Eddie’s spouse at this time. Spouses let themselves be abused because they entertain delusions about the nature of their partner. They fall in love, then get abused. Sally does not follow this pattern at all.

    Now, as far as I remember Moore doesn’t cover Sally and Eddie’s subsequent meeting. How is that scene going to be be portrayed? If Sally reacts as a normal human being, she’s not going to allow herself to be anywhere near the man ever again. So she has to be attracted to him, right? How else could this relationship have come about? If she wasn’t attracted to him before her rape, but is afterwards, what else can we conclude other than that at some level she’s enjoyed the experience? It might have been a bit rough, but they’ve had their ‘first time’.

    Incidentally, Moore could have easily avoid this problem. Have Sally start going out with Eddie, then have him rape her. She ends up just as raped with a far greater likelihood of mixed feelings about the man. Moore didn’t think it through, and he should have.

    My belief about Sally’s characterisation is that Moore needed a witness for the defence of Eddie. The man was so obviously a monster that he needed someone to argue for his human side. Who better than his old girlfriend and mother of one of the major characters? Then Moore has the idea that Sally could be a rape victim and gets the characterisation hideously wrong. There were plenty of complaints about the fact of the rape, as I recall, but nobody’s too bothered about Sally Jupiter. Like I said, she’s not supposed to be important. We’re not supposed to be analysing her character. But nevertheless, there’s some horribly dated and offensive caricaturing going on here, and it’s better to admit your heroes have feet of clay than deny the obvious. And in the case of Sally Jupiter, it is obvious that Moore made a terrible and disgusting foul-up.

  12. What I think about Sally Jupiter is that the ’40s and ’50s were a different time for women. I don’t claim any kind of understanding of this, but it doesn’t strain my credulity at all to imagine that a woman might end up doing what Sally did. I don’t know how or why; what I think is, “there must be some kind of a story there”. Which is a perfectly legitimate kind of thing to have in a complex work like Watchmen.

    As to whether I like it as a story development… no, not particularly. But then that’s Watchmen again. Were there any admirable characters in the story? Were there any characters whose decisions we could support?

  13. I agree with Matthew E. My biggest criticism of “Watchmen” is that it seems like a technical exercise. The characters just act out mechanical roles–within a Swiss-watch machanism of precision and complexity, certainly–but it still comes off as cold and mechanical.

    You could say that it seems written specifically as a text for English class discussion, with its layers of symbolism and meaning set up like an exercise for students to deconstruct.

    I contrast Watchmen with Halo Jones; the former was a brilliant technical exercise, but lacking any real sympathetic characters. The latter was much more an “early effort” but full of heart.

  14. Matthew

    — what I think is, “there must be some kind of a story there”

    That’s a cop-out. There is a story here, and it’s a clear one. Women is violently assaulted and raped by man, then later (in scenes we don’t see, despite The Watchmen’s extensive use of flashbacks) enters into a relationship and falls in love her assailant.

    I think you’re confusing how women were treated in the 50s with the emotions women experienced when it happened. If Sally Jupiter had committed suicide out of shame that would have been a plausible reaction. But 1950s, or 1920s or 1830s or 1270s women enduring this and then liking the perpetrator? If you rang up a rape crisis line and asked them if Sally Jupiter’s reaction was a common one, they’d laugh at you. Didn’t happen. Couldn’t happen.

    Look, you’re walking down the street. A man assaults you. Maybe he pulls a gun on you. He cracks a couple of your ribs. Messes your face up. Mocks you while he does it. Then he pulls down your pants and anally rapes you. Is it likely that one day you’re going to become good friends with him? And if you’re thinking, “no, no, male rape and female rape are different”, no they’re not. They’re exactly the same. Not about sex. About power and humiliation.

  15. I think you’re confusing how women were treated in the 50s with the emotions women experienced when it happened. If Sally Jupiter had committed suicide out of shame that would have been a plausible reaction. But 1950s, or 1920s or 1830s or 1270s women enduring this and then liking the perpetrator? If you rang up a rape crisis line and asked them if Sally Jupiter’s reaction was a common one, they’d laugh at you. Didn’t happen. Couldn’t happen.

    And yet, in this story, it did happen. Why? How? I don’t know. There must be some kind of a story there.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong. It may indeed be a copout. But it’s not my copout; it’s Moore’s. He could have given us some kind of explanation instead of leaving us this wild card.

    You’re right that I wouldn’t become good friends with my theoretical rapist. But I’m not Sally Jupiter. Sally Jupiter is a superhero and therefore a) absurdly self-confident in some ridiculous ways, and b) (since this is the world of Watchmen) kinda messed up herself in some ways we haven’t seen before. One idea I just had: maybe starting a relationship with Blake is her way of coping with the rape. Bizarre, ill-advised and unhealthy, perhaps, but if I was writing about a messed-up superhero I might come up with it.

    I’m not trying to defend this whole business, you understand; I’m just trying to find a way to process it on a narrative level. To find something to say about it other than, “it’s not realistic”.

  16. Matthew

    You don’t hear this attitude much these days, but back in the 1980s there was a line of thought that said women were responsible for being raped. Responsible by what they wore, by the leading the man on. Beyond that, there was an even more unacceptable attitude towards rape. It said that women enjoyed being raped. Sure, they might have been roughed up a little, but deep down that’s what they wanted.

    So what I’m saying is not that Moore’s motivations for writing were opaque. On the contrary, there’s an obvious explanation for Sally Jupiter’s actions. She’s a woman who enjoyed being raped, got turned on by it and entered into an affair with her rapist. Plenty of men (I have my doubts women would have agreed) in the 1980s would have had thought that a believable scenario. That’s the realism. Maybe it’s possible to imagine other explanations – Moore certainly didn’t cover Sally Jupiter’s story in the depth it merited – but the trout in the milk is that Moore thought it was a credible idea that a woman might enjoy being raped.

  17. Clone, I don’t think Moore said or suggested a woman might enjoy being raped. I don’t have the book in front of me, but I remember Sally looked shocked and humiliated. In fact, Hooded Justice’s cold response struck me as the most memorable part of the scene. That said, I do think you’re right that the aftermath of the rape is not handled well. Maybe Moore left the details out on purpose, maybe not. I think the only thing Sally says about the incident is, “It’s complicated,” which, after reading your thoughts, strikes me as a copout.

    While I don’t think it’s a realistic explanation, I think nostalgia plays a part in Sally’s later relationship with the Comedian. She lives in the past, and even the terrible parts don’t seem so horrible after ten years of loneliness and a bad relationship or three… Again, I’m not saying it would or could happen in real life, but Moore left a hell of a hole to fill, and that’s my best guess.

    As to sympathetic characters in Watchmen, the 2 Nite Owls come off as traditional super-heroes- noble, altruistic, nice- in a bleak post-modern world. They are less memorable than Rorschach or the Comedian or Dr. Manhattan, but at least they are “good guys.”

    Laurie is the humanizing force in Watchmen. She repesents the miracle of life to Dr. Manhattan, brings out true emotion from the Comedian, brings sex to Dan and Dr. M., brings forgiveness to Sally… As Wraith stated, Watchmen is very much about the technical, and Laurie is helpless when the plot overtakes the characters. I think Dan & Laurie give the reader a bit of a happy ending, which worked for me after the “bad guy” sort-of wins.

  18. Maybe Moore left the details out on purpose, maybe not. I think the only thing Sally says about the incident is, “It’s complicated,” which, after reading your thoughts, strikes me as a copout.

    Aren’t the details in issue #12, on page 29? Sally says “it was just an afternoon in summer. He stopped by…” She goes on to say “I tried to be angry” and “I just felt ashamed, I felt stupid.”

    At first I thought there was some suggestion that Sally was a masochist, thanks to the write-up of “Silk Swingers of Suburbia” as a (not entirely) glorified fetish film, but re-reading that it seems like all the bondage/whipping scenes were performed by the other actress.

    Anyway, I find myself getting tired of Watchmen‘s narrative tricks towards the middle of issue #3, when Doug Roth browbeats Doctor Manhattan into leaving Earth. That seems pretty shameless to me, compared with the book so far, but then issue #3 goes right into comparing Dr. M. on Mars with nuclear-war simulations.

    Actually, maybe those comparisons are too subtle for me. To this day I’m not sure how I should read the “total devastation” panel, which shows a huge dust cloud generated in Dr. M.’s wake. Is it Cheerful Doc vs. Implacable Death? Is Doc somehow “totally devastating” the already barren landscape? I dunno — but then, I was never particularly moved one way or another by the “Ride of the Valkyries” story in Under the Hood.

    Still, from previous experiences I think #3 may be the series’ most precious installment. Now that I’m past it (once again), I can continue without too much trouble.

    P.S. Man, Doug Roth is a one-note character, though! He strikes me as the kind of know-nothing liberal strawman you’d see on “South Park,” or maybe Fox News. He exists totally as a plot device, unlike just about every other major character. Wait ’til the Wall Street Journal editorial board gets a load of him–!

  19. Whoof, finally recovered from Saturday’s festivities, and looky here! I’m quite enjoying this discussion, maybe particularly so since as you all no doubt have figured out by now I’m a shameless Moore fanboy.

    So, it’s interesting for me to consider Clone’s very good point: Sally’s rationales about Eddie are instructive, but misapplied, because she is not the abused spouse trapped in the deadly relationship, he seemed so nice at first but then things went bad etc. etc…even if we refuse to leave all the compression aside that’s enabled by the superheroic reality-prophylaxis/Cold War nuke-fear undertones — all the symbolic stuff that makes what happens to Sally evocative of Watchmen’s larger themes and their twining-together — the drastic inversion of probability makes a muddle of it anyway. Eddie only rapes her “once”, that thought keeps going around in my head…you mean, he’s tolerably non-abusive afterwards? He’s sorry? It’s plain to me that Moore is toying with the “she enjoyed it really” thing, but the inversion is so profound that, just as Clone says, it simply could not have happened that way. We see it: when Eddie rapes Sally, it is not fun for her. She does not “enjoy it really”. And yet somehow it’s normalized. Wha…? Something falls between two stools, here, for sure — what really happens, it appears on closer examination, is that Sally excuses the rape, without having enjoyed it, and that’s even more mystifying a thing to have happened. Isn’t it? But I don’t see any other possibilities: either she liked it, or she excused it, or it was some combination of the two…at any rate she ends by leaving a big lipstick imprint on his picture, as tears fill her eyes. She feels shame, perhaps we’re meant to think her weak, at any rate she is flawed…but what, exactly, is the flaw? By narrative’s end, we’re meant to forgive her, because we understand her, because we understand how everything connects…but Clone is also right about this, that is we aren’t really supposed to think about her all that carefully. So much about Sally I (for one) found quite believable and well-drawn…but there’s a vacuous jump somewhere in there.

    So, Matthew might be on to something: why does Sally gravitate to Eddie? Not that I’m suggesting we should be at pains to normalize their relationship, but if the weirdness of the superhero stuff doesn’t get in there somewhere, it may be that Sally’s love for Eddie is…not inexplicable, not unmeaningful, but unavoidably incoherent in a strict sense. Although I’ve done a pretty good job avoiding that implication up ’til now! Does Moore pick a message and then bungle its delivery, in an error either forced or unforced? Or does he merely leave important shit out, because he needs the pieces on the chessboard to be placed just so?

    Damn, I really need to pack right now, unfortunately. More later.

  20. Oh! And yeah, is Doug Roth hard to like or what? I swear that’s deliberate, though — his interview with Adrian so spectacularly sums up everything that’s wrong with celebrity interviews that I consider it straight-up satire…

    Right: packing!

  21. Mike – Thanks for reminding me of that ‘It’s complicated’ line. I haven’t read the Watchmen in years and don’t have a copy to hand, and normally I wouldn’t even dream of critiquing something under those conditions. But Plok asked so nicely. I’m happy no-one’s thrown the old ‘you’re just a revisionist arsehole’ line, because, let’s face it, you’ll find at least one person on the internet to take any line you could think of, and a comics fan who dislikes the Watchmen is, well, unorthodox at least.

    Anyway, I see ‘it’s complicated’ as the point Moore realises just how poor his characterisation is. A woman who falls in love with her rapist. I can’t think of any serious work – I’m sure there might be a few in pornography – where that plot’s been tried. Moore can’t write that scene, no-one can, so he applies a sprinkle of handwavium and moves on. Moore’s saying Sally Jupiter’s mindset is complicated, but in fact it’s Moore’s characterisation that’s up the shitter.

    Tom – you’re right. I think Moore does think Sally’s a masochist, and that reinforces my point that Moore doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Masochist women may fantastise about rape, they may have sex, under certain conditions they’ve initially decided on, where they are forced to comply in sex acts. That’s a long way from wanting to be violently assaulted by acquaintances. If rape was so appealing, masochist women would be putting on revealing clothing and hanging around the shady ends of every town hoping strangers will leap from the shadows and violate them. Rape is not a sado-masochistic act.

    Plok – ‘at any rate she ends by leaving a big lipstick imprint on his picture, as tears fill her eyes.’ That sums up why I can’t read the Watchmen any more. It’s nauseating. This is the first comic I ever came across with a rape scene. I don’t know whether it was the first ever written, but it was the first prominent one. If you, as an artist, take the step to broach such a dangerous subject, then it’s contingent that you do your homework and be careful about how you characterise the victim. Because what you say about the victim will affect how your readers think about real life victims. Moore’s taken on a huge responsibility here, he takes a line which is (to my mind deliberately) obfuscative and flirts with the idea that the victim enjoyed it. He has an opportunity to challenge a stereotype (and, like I say, at the time the stereotype was that rape wasn’t all that bad because the victim probably enjoyed it) but he flunks it and comes damn close to pandering to it. Comics readers have been happy to take the Moore line – it’s complicated – on this one, and search for excuses. Maybe Sally was like this because she was traumatised, or she was a masochist, or she was a superhero. Maybe. And maybe Moore made a stinking mess of a significant part of his greatest epic and people need to look at it and say, ‘that’s just plain wrong.’

  22. If you, as an artist, take the step to broach such a dangerous subject, then it’s contingent that you do your homework and be careful about how you characterise the victim. Because what you say about the victim will affect how your readers think about real life victims.

    One thing I notice about Sally is this (and I’m not sure what kind of weight to put on it): at the end of the series, she’s still alive, and has a relatively nice life. (Unless there’s something I’m not remembering.) She is, in short, one of the winners of Watchmen, ahead of her daughter and Dreiberg, well ahead of the New Frontiersman guys and behind only Veidt and Dr. Manhattan, probably.

  23. There are a few misunderstandings here. First of all, Sally wasn’t raped. Hollis in Under the Hood refers to it as an attempted rape, and in the flashback there’s no evidence that Eddie actually raped her.

    Second, Sally didn’t fall in love with Eddie, although the evidence is a bit more ambiguous here. They only had sex once, as the passage Tom Bondurant quoted from makes clear. And if she ever did love Eddie, she grew out of it later: when she sees him talking to Laurie, she yells at him to stay away from her daughter). IMO her kissing Eddie’s photo at the end is not a sign of love, but a farewell kiss.

    Third, on the occasion that they had sex, it was Eddie that took the initiative, not Sally. And Sally did initially react by shouting at him. Sally’s words on p. 7 of issue nine (iirc) make this clear. And on this page Sally also explains why she wound up sleeping with him: it’s too long a passage to quote, but it seems plausible to me (and has nothing to do with her being a masochist).

    There’s also a passage in the Probe interview at the end of that issue which helps explain why she was psychologically vulnerable to Eddie’s approaches. Speaking of the aftermath of the rape, she says she felt “somehow as much to blame for… for letting myself be the victim not in a physical sense but… but, it’s like what if, y’know? What if, just for a moment, maybe I really did want… [ellipses Moore’s]” Her feelings don’t reflect reality, but they’re realistic feelings for a victim of attempted rape to have even now, and all the more in the late 1940s. And they served to psychologically disarm her against Eddie.

    A minor point, but it’s Eddie, not Sally, who tells Laurie that he had to force Sally “only once.”

    On Sally in general, I can’t agree that “she’s the worst developed character in the Watchmen.” It’s true that superficially she seems to be a stereotype, but when you look closely at the scenes when she appears, she’s one of the more complex characters in the book. She’s certainly more complex than Hollis Mason, whose present-day situation is basically the same as Sally’s, except that he has his auto shop to keep him busy. Nor is it true that “She’s not meant to be important. You’re not supposed to have to think about her.” On the contrary, she’s very important. It’s the fact that she slept with Eddie and Laurie was the product of that union that gets Dr. Manhattan to return to Earth. (Now that I find implausible.) “Logic might suggest that as [Sally’s] life had developed she’d have gone on to be a formidable figure”? Not necessarily. Somebody once said that “there are no second acts in American life”; be that as it may, plenty of people have had great achievements when young and faded into obscurity in middle age. Besides, like I said Hollis Mason basically winds up (before he’s killed) in the same situation as Sally.

    Finally, a historical note. Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will, which was widely read and played a major role in bringing rape to the forefront as a major issue, was published in 1975. Women Against Pornography, which charged that pornography promoted rape (among other things), was founded in 1979 and attracted a good deal of support among feminists. Obviously the eighties were a bad decade for progressives in both the U.S. and Great Britain, but they weren’t a pre-feminist Dark Age. There were undoubtedly some people in the eighties who believed that women incited rape or that they enjoyed it, just as there are undoubtedly some today. But it wasn’t the prevailing view. Nor, almost certainly, was it Moore’s view. (He’d written a feminist story — clumsily, IMO — in “The Curse,” in Swamp Thing #40, and a scene from that story even takes place in a porn shop.)

  24. I think we can take it as read that it wasn’t, and isn’t, Moore’s view. Just as it goes without saying that no one here is defending that view.

    Just thought I’d pop that in, though needlessly since I think it truly does go without saying.

    To the rest of it, Adam…I have to go to dinner right now, but these seem good points to me, and I hope to weigh in on them later this evening.

  25. Interesting points, Adam.

    Attempted rape. Actually rape. You’re contradicting yourself. There are boundaries set in what can be depicted, so you’re never going to see the actual deed. It was a strongly implied rape. If Hollis says one thing, that’s one piece of evidence, but then you say

    — it’s Eddie, not Sally, who tells Laurie that he
    — had to force Sally “only once.”

    So he’s saying he raped her as well, right? Rape is forcing a woman to have sex. These are primary sources. Hollis was hardly even born. I won’t concede this one.

    I’m not accusing Moore of having certain attitudes towards rape. Until a Vulcan mind-meld device becomes available to buy at Sainsbury’s, we’re never going to know anyway. My feeling – I’ve gone into it at length so I’m going to shut up after this post – is that he screwed up his characterisation. He didn’t follow the logic of his character through, and ended up with an offensive stereotype. Woman is raped, then later falls in love with her rapist. Whether she falls out again later is moot.

    Having a rape victim question whether they were culpable is realistic, yes, but that’s not my objection. It’s falling in love with someone who’s raped you.

    I never said eighties Britain was a pre-feminist dark age. I said there was an offensive widespread (not universal) attitude about rape victims. You can trust me on this; I was there.

  26. For the benefit of those who don’t have the book at hand, I’ll describe the panels depicting the assault as objectively as I can. The scene begins on p. 6 of Chap. 2. The first seven panels of this page show Sally repulsing Eddie’s advances and Eddie overpowering Sally.

    Panel 8: Eddie is sitting on top of Sally, who is prone on her stomach. One of Eddie’s hands is on her neck or the small of her back, and the other is in the process of removing his belt. Sally is pleading with him, and quite a bit of blood is coming from her mouth.

    Panel 9: All we see of Eddie and Sally is his right hand pinning down hers. Sally (presumably) is saying “Ghuuchh.” We hear Hooded Justice’s voice from off-panel.

    P. 7, panel 1: We see Eddie and Sally from behind. Eddie is sitting on Sally as in p. 6, panel 8. His pants are lowered in the back, exposing part of his butt. His left hand is hidden by his body, but it is around his midriff. Hooded Justice’s legs are in the foreground of the panel.

    Panel 2: What appears to be the same scene seen from the front. Eddie’s left hand is holding his belt.

    Panel 3: Hooded Justice grabs Eddie by his shirt and pulls him up. The scene continues with Hooded Justice beating Eddie.

    Now it’s possible that Eddie raped Sally between panels 8 and 9 of p. 6, and in panel 1 of p. 7 Eddie is in the midst of pulling up his pants. But a more natural way to read this sequence is that only a few seconds elapse between panels 8 and 9, and Eddie is still in the process of lowering his pants when Hooded Justice comes in — particularly since at no time during or after the assault are Sally’s tight shorts shown pulled down, displaced or torn. In any case, it’s not “a strongly implied rape.” And had Moore and Gibbons wanted to, there are ways the could have clearly implied that Sally was raped without depicting intercourse.

    “– it’s Eddie, not Sally, who tells Laurie that he
    “– had to force Sally “only once.”

    “So he’s saying he raped her as well, right?”

    I should have been clearer here. It is Laurie who uses the language about Eddie forcing Sally; all Eddie says is “only once.” And in earlier dialogue, Laurie says that Eddie “tried to rape” Sally. (She only knows what she’s read in Hollis’s book, so she’s not an independent source.) Here are the relevant parts of the exchange:

    Laurie: Is that what you told her before you tried to rape her?… I mean, what kind of man are you, you have to take some woman, you have to force her into having sex against her will… [2nd ellipsis Moore’s]

    Eddie: Only once.

    “Hollis was hardly even born.” You may be confusing Hollis with Dan. Hollis was the original Nite-Owl, and Sally’s colleague.

    “Woman is raped, then later falls in love with her rapist.” Leaving the rape issue aside for the moment, apart from the ambiguous kiss of the photograph there’s no evidence whatever that Sally fell in love with Eddie, as I argued in my first post.

    “I never said eighties Britain was a pre-feminist dark age.” You’re right. I jumped to conclusions.

  27. Hmmm…

    I’m glad I waited, because I was all about to say “yes, the ‘only once’ thing, that clearly shows he raped her…”

    However, now that Adam goes over it panel by panel, I must say it rings a bell. And if I can go off at something of a tangent for a moment…in terms of symbolic dynamics, as I recall Eddie’s subsequent exchange with HJ, it seems in this sense to further isolate Sally — reduce her options, if you will, from what “would have happened” in a conventional treatment of such a scene. Because in that conventional treatment, not only don’t we have the blood, the brutality, and the heartrending “Ghuuchh”, but HJ is straight, and Eddie doesn’t demolish him with the truth (of course Eddie destroys every person he meets in Watchmen in just this way). I think it’s safe to say that part of Watchmen’s interest is in the way these people manage their wish-fulfillments, which they can’t know, but we can’t not know, are initially set up according to an arbitrary formula…which Moore and Gibbons then screw up for our pleasure by exposing what’s underneath it. So any wish-fulfillment-based outcome of this scenario for Sally — that belongs to the formula, that is — is blown to smithereens: first attractive Eddie is a rapist, and then heroic HJ is a “pervert”. Well, it’s not like the script plays fair anyway: in the superheroic fishbowl, if there were to be a conventional “happy-ever-after” for Sally, she could only get it with Eddie. But then of course she can’t, because he’s a pretty vile character anyway.

    That was the tangent, though, and obviously I don’t mean to say it excuses anything, merely that yes, I recall that — and I think it may have been intended to subliminally reinforce the plausibility of Eddie and Sally getting together afterwards. In purely symbolic terms.


    I think you will probably have to concede the rape, Clone. And yet Moore still has to put quite a bit of english on the ball to get Sally and Eddie together, regardless. Because the problem’s surely the same: a violent rape only frustrated at the last instant still hands us the same set of problems as far as WTF-ness goes. And we still don’t see Sally and Eddie, um, reconcile. Now, Moore doesn’t often make loose stitches in his stories, and certainly Watchmen’s formal exactitude especially argues against him making a “mistake”…but Adam, as much as I agree with your analysis of Sally’s character overall…

    I dunno. Sally’s self-doubting dialogue makes sense as dialogue, is realistic, affecting, all that stuff. But Clone’s got me thinking: if you put it together with the severity of the almost-rape, once the convincing dialogue isn’t standing alone…I’m not sure if these things are in the same weight class, after all.

    Must think on’t! Notice me taking such extreme care not to simply go leaping to Moore’s defence on the grounds that I totally bought this Eddie-Sally thing 100% the first thousand times I read Watchmen, and that unlike Clone I will probably never tire of reading it. But! It’s not all taking care: Clone’s made me nervous about it, too.

    Although, about Sally’s final smacker on the picture…I think I may have spoke too soon or too casually on that one, because there’s brilliant ambiguity (or perhaps I should say multivalence) there — even if the rest of the Sally/Eddie thing had gone as Clone maintains it should have, I would still be in awe of that moment, it’s a gorgeous summation. If Sally had been attracted to Eddie but then he had raped her, and then Laurie had been the issue of that rape, and Sally had never felt anything more for Eddie ever than “you rabid animal, somebody oughtta shoot you”…then that scene would still work perfectly. Would not trade on all the same meanings, but would still make great, touching sense. In fact! It would’ve been just as good. Possibly even better, because (certainly!) more shocking and stunning, in the same stroke more ambiguous, and therefore more thought- and opinion-provoking.

    And, finally. It would be interesting to analyze, in a responsible way (I’m sure there are enough less-than-responsible analyses out there), exactly how speech about rape has been inflected over time by large cultural shifts in the Western world. To say “I bet she enjoyed it really” is so obviously a retort, isn’t it? Rape has been a criminal act for a VERY long time, but I’d guess the widespread tendency for third parties to assert that it wasn’t really rape because the bitch probably wanted it has a slightly newer minting. Not that the sentiment probably isn’t an ancient one. But in the duelling days, for example — wow, you would have to be pretty confident in your marksmanship to express such a sentiment even semi-publicly.

    Aaaah, I know you guys are coming from the same place on the subject anyway. Just thought I’d toss that in, to show that I know that you know that I know…

    And now for my next trick I am going to do something absolutely flat-out insane: google “The Flaxton Boys”.

    Shit. I just don’t know why I thought of that just now.

  28. Is it possible — without denying the horror and the violence of Eddie’s actions, or their effects on Sally and those who loved her — to characterize their relationship as yet another mirror of Veidt’s ultimate plan, simply because it eventually produces Laurie, the “thermodynamic miracle?”

    Veidt’s plan involves a violent assault on a much more massive scale, but of course Veidt’s intent is worlds away from Eddie’s. Veidt’s comes out of the kind of altruism that can look fake because it is couched so much in the “giver’s” own ego; and Eddie’s assault comes straight from his own dark urges. However — and I think this may be the book’s larger point — they both appear to have been beneficial on the whole. Again, no one denies the horrors (in the book or otherwise) in the genesis of either Laurie or the “strong and loving world,” so I would say that’s part and parcel of the book’s philosophy.

    Or it could be my half-formed lazy-Saturday thinking….

    Anyway, another question, somewhat related: who is the real prime mover of events in Watchmen? At first glance you’d think it would be Dr. Manhattan, who himself was created out of tragedy. However, there were masked adventurers before him, whose exploits (via Laurie if nothing else) clearly influenced his career. No, I think you have to go back to Hooded Justice as the “primal spark” of Watchmen‘s world, and nobody really knows what made him put on the hood, do they? “Who makes the world,” indeed?

  29. Anyway, another question, somewhat related: who is the real prime mover of events in Watchmen?

    Recently in his column on CBR, Tim Callahan made an interesting case for Captain Metropolis.

  30. Hmm, not sure I agree with the Captain Metropolis bit, sight unseen…or, you know, with the idea that there’s any such thing as “cause” in Watchmen’s universe (I’m somewhat more sanguine about our own), but Hooded Justice is not just a man, but a motif — somewhere there’s an alternate universe in which Geoff Johns wrote Watchmen, and HJ is really the Comedian of the future, sent back in time by Dr. Manhattan…yiccch…

    But HJ, right. “Justice Is Like The Hawk, Sometimes It Must Go Hooded”, a line whose unconscious irony’s no doubt lost on the New Frontiersmen — naturally, the hooded hawk is blind. And therefore quiescent. We get quite a bit of “hawk” stuff in Watchmen, actually. Well, bird stuff in general, really.

    And HJ’s a bit of an odd duck, isn’t he? What a fascinating sublimation-suit he’s got on, there. Without his example, Hollis stays a cop, but of course Hollis is too much of a boy scout ever to realize just what that example really is

    Easy stuff, I guess. But there’s something else about HJ that sticks in my craw, too. The utterly unknown origin, the “firstness” of him, the all-covering mask…

    It’ll probably come to me.

    And Tom: funny, when I’m thinking about mirrors for the Comedian I go immediately to the big blue guy.

  31. I just happened to check in here again. Not sure if anyone’s going to read this, but…

    And Tom: funny, when I’m thinking about mirrors for the Comedian I go immediately to the big blue guy.

    There’s a much better character we can compare the Comedian to. I mean, other than the Peacemaker, who’s the obvious one. But who gave a toss about the Peacemaker before Rogers and Giffen started using him in Blue Beetle?

    No, the Comedian’s natural counterpart is the Joker. And we might recall that Moore has some experience writing the Joker too…

  32. Matthew, you’re like the connection-making guy today!

    Strangely, the Joker-Comedian thing is something I have never thought about before, how weird.

    Could be a post!

    But I have to differ with you on the Peacemaker — I just re-read some original Peacemaker today, as it happens, and I figure it’s pretty good.

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