Understanding Horror Through the Lens of Watchmen

Whether you love the idea or hate the idea, a lot of people are talking about the return of the Watchmen in Doomsday Clock. With this return, I have been thinking about the original story’s relevance and the way in which we can examine our cultural anxieties through popular media. Previous examples of this include the resurgence of the Flash’s popularity during the Cold War, which could be seen as a response to popular hopes and fears, as well as when Spider-Man experienced a resurgence in popularity after 9/11. Watchmen’s resurgence may point to other responses. Just as hopes and fears rise, there can also be a rise cultural fatigue and cynicism and this is something Watchmen strongly connected to. There seems to be more to this though. One page that keeps coming back to my mind  is found within the mind blowing fifth issue titled “Fearful Symmetry ” 

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Like much of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, this page has a classic nine-panel grid, although every other panel on the page shifts back and forth between a one sided conversation set in present time and a story found within the comic one of the two men on the page is reading within that present time. The page is set up in a radiating pattern around the center panel. This works because of the comic reader Bernie’s statement, “Hey, man, I’m reading” in that the panels that share a full border with the one in the center are those that contain the comic that he is reading and the ones in the four corners of the page, the farthest away they can be, contain Bernard, the news vendor, who is trying to have a conversation with the him. This is also the only time that Bernie stops reading his comic and engages with Bernard on this page. Going from panel to panel, the images, at first, seem completely unrelated. But while the images appear to be non-sequitur, what is actually going on is two essentially action-to-action storylines that are intertwined with one another in a back and forth pattern that pulls the reader forward across the page.

The first panel introduces the first storyline. The main focus is on a newspaper with the headline of “Afghanistan: is Pakistan Next?” which is being held up with two hands. The panel is drawn with a slightly unstable line and fair amounts of shading with muted yet classic comic colors to create a very sun bleached urban feel. The next panel shows the second storyline. Even though the overall line style is the same, there are more shadow lines overall making them look more ragged and dark whereas the color is much more striking showing a dramatic contrast between the two. The change in the overall color to a bright and dingy orange, green, and yellow palate also emphasizes a particularly nauseating mood and environment. This is a twisted mirror image of the former panel in that here again is the motif of the two hands holding on to something on each side that is taking up almost the same amount of space in the panels, but instead of a newspaper, here it is the bloody mast of the man’s makeshift ship. We cannot see who is holding either item as we are placed in the position of the characters thus allowing the reader to assume the position of each character. 

It is the shockingly similar outlook between the storylines and the images that make this seemingly disjointed page work. In the first panel, the vendor talks about “a funny feeling inside” along with there being a raw seagull in the stomach of the castaway. This moves onto the vendor stating, “It’s like, I dunno how long we can hold on,” and the illustration of the castaway growing faint. We then start with the castaway remarking, “I’d swallowed too much horror,” in conjunction with the first full view of both men on the street corner reading their own versions of horror. This pattern of back and forth parallel storytelling continues through every panel firmly establishing that, even though they are very different storylines, the men’s horrific viewpoints are the same. It is also the reader’s viewpoint. This page is even more resonating in 2017 with these types of statements being shared across various mediums. 

The final two panels make the meaning of the page clear. The first panel in this two panel sequences shows an image of the castaway looking at his inverted reflection in the ocean below him. The reflection of him is green with yellow eyes that strongly contrast against the blue water. In this moment, the castaway’s eyes look straight out of the panel to meet our own as if it is our mirror as well as his. Along with this image, is the news vender’s ever present voice reaffirming, “See, news vendors understand. They get to see the whole picture.” The final panel shows Bernard’s perspective, just the same as the first panel of the sequence, with the two hands holding a newspaper. Only now the lively group of people is gone leaving small groups along with a sign reading “The End is Nigh.” The cumulative effect of this manifold conjunction shows us that while popular media can shed some light on issues, it is not fully elucidative. Whereas, Bernard has the ability to see a bigger picture because of his wider consumption habits. It should be noted that the word balloons are often not connected to the person speaking them and instead have a connection to the panel borders. This makes the words bleed into the gutter which gives them a sense of timelessness and wider application. It encourages us to see the similarities between the story of the Tales of the Black Freighter, the realistic world of Watchmen, and our own lives. This page reveals that as terrible as the horror based pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter is, being in the real world is much worse.

Both Watchmen and Tales of the Black Freighter provide a touchstone through which the reader may find catharsis and commonality. That said, it is important to stay informed and do what we can to avert our potentially impending crisis. Unlike other midnight releases, Doomsday Clock was released three minutes early as a reminder of how close we are to end times.  This was sadly optimistic as we are currently at two and a half minutes to midnight. With the real-life Doomsday Clock looming in the back of our minds after the 2016 election, which was the inspiration for the new series, maybe we need this kind of reminder. It shouldn’t take a global catastrophe to bring us all together, but maybe by providing popular media to start the discussion, it will remind us of the stakes and encourage us to do what we can to help out. Just maybe we need the sequel after all.

Works Cited:

Moore, Alan. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1986. Print.


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