You Can’t Judge a Book by It’s Cover – But You Can Judge a Comic Book by a Page
I’ve just this week completed an online course from the University of Boulder, Colorado on comic books and graphic novels. People are often really ‘judgey’ about reading comics, and about the sort of people that do (I still can’t get my book club of two years to pick one up). It seems to me, they are missing out on a real joy and one of the most prolific art genres of our time. So I thought maybe I’d share some of a short essay I wrote as part of the assessment, to illustrate the depth of meaning we can find in a single comic page – if we only look.
I doubt anyone’s going to read it, but if one person does and it makes them rethink comics, I’ll be a happy camper!
The essay is based on the following page from the best known comic in the world, Watchmen:
Cracks and Lines – The Use of Parody as the Window by Which We are Forced to ‘Watch the Watchmen’
This essay discusses Alan Moore (words) and Dave Gibbons (illustrations), Watchmen, Chapter 2: Absent Friends (DC Comics, 1986), page 27.
On the surface parody is simply the imitation of the style of a particular artist, writer, persons, group or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. But in reality historically, and on the page of Watchmen that we are viewing here today, it is so much more than that. Here in Ireland – where I am writing from – ‘scifaithris’ is the Irish word for parody. It is derived from the word ‘scig’ meaning to mock and “aithris” meaning performance. I believe there is is a multi-layered performance of parody going on within page 27 of Watchmen. One the one hand we have the Watchmen themselves (in this instance Blake, and narrating, Rorschach) who are essentially, parodies of the traditional superhero. Then we have the parody of the Comedian himself – a parody within the parody of superheroes. Finally, we have the medium of the comic itself. I would like to examine this page in its singularity under these three points and illustrate that by using them, the writer and artist actually equip the reader with the fractured lense of parody, by which to read the rest of the story unfolds on the pages that follow.
The Parody of the Superhero
As a group, even from this page alone, we can see that the Watchmen are parodies of the traditional superhero. Unlike earlier iterations of historical comic heroes such as superman, the Watchmen are inextricably flawed. Although he doesn’t Rorschach’s narration of this page is one sided, and has a superior tone regarding the mere mortals that pollute his city. He believes he holds himself to a different – a better – belief system, than others. This is true of all typical traditional comic book superheroes. However, Rorschach’s lense on the world is so extreme and – at times – violent, in its hatred towards those that don’t see his truth, he dances over the line from hero to psychopath. On the one hand he is a protector of this society against itself, on the other, he condemns it. This parody of superhero makes us think deeply about what a ‘hero’ means to society. His enemy and ‘damsel in distress’ are one and the same – society.
Through the Rorschach parody of the superhero, we are asked to question the role of the ‘hero’ in society – and specifically, what it takes for them to exist. Ultimately, I believe it reveals a truth that a hero is someone who is both upheld and condemned by the very society he protects, and in turn, that society is upheld and condemned by him. The superhero story is one of a balancing on this tight rope. Alan Moore’s take on Batman deals with this theme also – where Batman is condemned to uphold the far more ‘digestible’ hero of Harvey Dent. The parody of Rorschach as a superhero, rips apart our black and white image of the hero versus the villain and throws us into the grey.
The Comedian – A Parody within a Parody
More direct that Rorschach as a narrator on this page, there is The Comedian himself. The Comedian is a man whom (as Rorschach tells us directly) has actively chosen to be a parody. “Blake understood it“, he tells us, “Treated it like a joke, but he understood.” Rorschach is telling us that the joker – the person who partakes in parody – is the select one who truly observes and understands. He indicates that those who see the joke are few and far between – “No one else saw the joke, that’s way he was lonely“. He goes on to tell us that The Comedian “saw the true face of the twentieth century and chose to become a reflection, a parody of it“. This is a very interesting statement. On the one hand, Rorschach is telling us to view parody and reflection as one and the same thing. The purpose of The Comedian is to be a reflection of this society – a mirror by which it can see itself in its true, ugly form. However, just as with a parody, a reflection is not a ‘full truth’ – it is a mirror image, and therefore the same, but opposite.
Beyond the narration, the parody of the Comedian as a superhero is carried further. The frames alternate from The Comedian in his ‘glory days’ uniformed superhero form, to a weakened and bloody man. We are taken on this alternating view of the hero within the first five frames – broken man, brave hero, broken man, brave hero, broken man… until the sixth frame where the two merge and we see a broken hero in his uniform, in a domestic and somewhat seedy scene, crying over a bottle of alcohol. Another important piece of symbolism within the illustration is the smiling face badge. As Rorschach narrates the ‘joke’, I believe this badge serves as a powerful symbol for the parody of the comedian. It begins shiny and intact but ends up – as we move through the frames – smeared and damaged. Finally, with the words, “I am Pagliacci“, we understand the awful tragedy of the joke… and the badge is released from the dressing gown of the now completely exposed comedian, as he crashes through the window.
The Parody of the Comic Format
Finally, we could argue that there is a play of parody on the comic book format. The page begins with the usual three panel/frame per row structure but with some key ‘flaws’. At first we are introduced to The Comedian when Rorschach says “He saw the cracks in society, saw the little men in masks trying to hold it together“. Within this frame we see The Comedian with his back against the cracks and lines of the breaking window, almost holding it together – a metaphor for the cracks and lines within society, a metaphor, for the ‘cracks and lines’ in the comic book format. Eventually, just as The Comedian is smashed and broken and tossed out through the window to the harsh world below, so too are the once restricted panels in the final row.
Summation – The Purpose of the Parody
It is through this breaking of our image of the hero through parody, the breaking of our image of our society through the parody that is The Comedian and finally, the breaking of the comic book format, that the writer and artist disarm us from our beliefs and reveal a truth. The smiling badge floats away from The Comedian. It is now up to us as readers, to remember the ‘truth’ – it is ours to uphold. It is the new lens by which we read the pages to follow, indeed the world we live in. As Alan Moore’s put’s it:
That is the power of Watchmen, the power of comics and the power of art as a whole.