Watching Watchmen: A Riposte to Stuart Moulthrop

Watching Watchmen: A Riposte to Stuart Moulthrop


Is ‘media specific’ e-lit criticism nothing but the last gasp of New Criticism and Deconstruction? Lee Konstantinou seems to think so, in this appreciation of the ‘astute micro-analyses’ (but critique of the theoretical basis) of Moulthrop’s close reading/observation of Watchmen.

Halfway through “Fearful Symmetry,” the fifth issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s classic graphic narrative Watchmen, an assassin tries to kill the world’s smartest man. Adrian Veidt, the Watchman formerly known as Ozymandias, is walking through the lobby of the headquarters of Veidt Enterprises with his assistant, discussing Egyptian views of death. On the thirteenth page of the issue, in the seventh panel, a man in a green trench coat appears. In the last panel, he draws a gun. “Oh, God!” Veidt’s assistant screams. “Oh, God. Look out, he’s …” (V.13.9). We anxiously flip the page and confront a dramatic scene: one of the few double-page spreads in Watchmen. On these two pages, there are seven panels: a huge vertical panel that crosses the crease and a series of three roughly square panels on each side of the central tableau. In a violent, wordless sequence, the assassin kills the assistant and is finally subdued by Veidt; the Veidt Method of body training, it turns out, works remarkably well. At the center of the composition of the two-page spread, Veidt strikes his assailant with a kitschy bronze ashtray made to resemble an Egyptian urn. Behind the figures fighting in the foreground, a giant V-logo symmetrically marks the center of the page; Veidt’s right leg and the assassin’s falling body visually extend the V, marking the center of the page with an giant X. The alert reader will notice that the crease symmetrically bisects not only the page-crossing central panel and the two-page spread that panel is part of, but also the issue as a whole. This central panel crosses over pages fourteen and fifteen of a twenty-eight-page comic; it is at the exact center of the book. Once we become aware of this symmetry - and recall not only that this issue is called “Fearful Symmetry” but also that the number five is represented by the Roman numeral V - the whole issue starts to look very different. The central crease is a mirror; panel arrangements on pages equidistant from the crease are more or less identical. Issue V, we discover, is an ingenious compositional palindrome. Even more dramatically, each mirrored page also features mirrored subject matter. Pages one and twenty-eight both show Rorschach; pages seven and twenty-two show Watchmen’s detective characters; pages ten and nineteen show Dan (the second Nite Owl) and Laurie (the second Silk Specter) talking, reflected in mirrors (speech bubbles pointed not toward their mirrored mouths but off-panel toward their “real” mouths); and so on.

The careful rereader of Watchmen - already aware that Veidt is faking his own assassination attempt and that he is planning to murder three million New Yorkers in order to secure world peace - should be especially sensitive to the compositional power of this moment. To be honest, I didn’t spot the ingenious palindromic structure of “Fearful Symmetry” when I first read (or even when I reread) Watchmen. I have Stuart Moulthrop to thank for alerting me to this pattern. In “See the Strings: Watchmen and the Under-Language of Media,” his stimulating contribution to Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, Moulthrop analyzes the way Watchmen explores what Moore calls the “under-language” of comics. In Moulthrop’s view, Moore and Gibbons’s innovative graphic narrative teaches us something important about new media. In an era dominated by what Lev Manovich calls the “logic of industrial production,” comics - an art form dedicated to spatial storytelling - was a necessarily “minor form.” But “‘[m]inor forms,’” Moulthrop avers, “hold the seeds of major critique.” Even more importantly, if we are today transitioning from the epoch of linear narrative (characteristic of industrial society) to a brave new epoch of database or spatialized narrative (characteristic of postindustrial or highly networked societies), as Manovich claims in The Language of New Media, it makes sense to expect formerly minor spatial forms to become major or at least less marginal than they were before. In making this argument, Moulthrop - like Manovich before him - operates within the bounds of a media theory framework in order to explicate the place of Watchmen in cultural history. While acknowledging the valuable interpretive insights of Moulthrop’s reading of Watchmen, I want to point to some limitations of media studies, or media theory (I’ll use the terms interchangeably), as a framework for analyzing not only comics but also all media products. Given the limitations of the genre of the riposte, my grandiose claims will necessarily exceed the capacity of my evidence to justify those claims. In my deductive approach to defending these arguments, through my reading of Moulthrop, I can only hope to be suggestive.


Let me first offer a strategic oversimplification of the modus operandi of media theory and media studies as a way of shedding light on the lacuna in Moulthrop’s otherwise ingenious reading of Watchmen. In practice, textual interpretations grounded in media theory fuse two tendencies in the history of cultural criticism. First, they posit that the meaning of an individual work of art, or any media object, is to be found in its structure or formal properties. The New Critics, who looked for the meaning of the poem in its structural ironies and paradoxes, inaugurated this approach to textual analysis, hoping to avoid what Cleanth Brooks called “the heresy of paraphrase.” Early media theorists, such as Marshall McLuhan, formalized this view with slogans like “the medium is the message” in order to emphasize that we never simply receive unmediated “content” during communicative acts. Every medium transforms meaning, even or especially artistic meanings. Clement Greenburg’s “medium-specificity” might serve as another slogan of this tendency of critical thought. The theory of medium-specificity posits that the work of art, and especially the work of advanced art, is always actually about itself. Medium-specificity is both what all art already has and what great art ought to aspire towards. As a theory, medium-specificity is, troublingly, both descriptive and normative. Working in this tradition, whether by accident or design, Moulthrop begins his essay by defining the form of comics. Comics is an “interstitial form, occupying a privileged place between the dominant media of word and image.” Moulthrop is concerned, especially with what he calls, borrowing this term from Moore, the “under-language” of comics. This under-language emerges from the artist’s strict control of the interplay of words and images in composing the page. For example, in the opening page of the first issue of Watchmen, Rorschach’s claim to have seen the “true face” of the city ironically draws attention to, and builds a complex set of relations with, the image of the Comedian’s bloody smiley button in the gutter (I.1.1). From the fact that comics is an interstitial form whose medium-specificity emerges from the tight interweaving of word and image, Moulthrop’s interpretation of Watchmen almost writes itself: “By manipulating the interstices and invisible art of a medium that comes from the gutter, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons have produced a work that reflects profoundly on space and sequence.” As Moulthrop applies this insight to particular scenes, we come to learn that “Doctor Manhattan’s jewellike conception of time also describes the architecture of Watchmen … The under-language of comics thus works to simulate Doctor Manhattan’s unique awareness, his post-Newtonian, relativistic being in time.” Analyzing a scene set near the Martian Galle crater, which resembles a giant smiley face, Moulthrop notes that Watchmen “set[s] up a resonant, self-referential sign system, a kind of standing wave or feedback loop.” With an almost New Critical flourish, then, Moulthrop discovers the meaning of Watchmen by interpreting its form. Like abstract expressionist painting for Greenberg or television for McLuhan, Watchmen is about itself: about the very under-language that defines comics as a medium, a “self-referential sign system.” To be sure, this is a powerful and persuasive reading of Watchmen. As should be clear, Moore defines his own project in terms very much in harmony with Moulthrop. And yet if Moore already provides the key to understanding Watchmen, what is left for the critic to say?

Moulthrop suggests two startling answers, which bring us to the second great tendency of recent critical history: the post-deconstructive project of finding politics in form. Call this the method of showing that Cultural Object X subverts Dominant Paradigm Y by means of Formal Experiment Z. Noting the existence of Web communities that have formed to interpret Moore and Gibbons’s graphic novel, Moulthrop argues that Watchmen anticipates the spatial or database forms of new media and, from its culturally “minor” position, critiques forms of thinking associated with the age of linear, industrial, or cause-and-effect narrative. Moulthrop makes this point in several ways. We learn that Watchmen’s “peculiar way of storytelling gives access to a simultaneous, parallelistic conception that would be much harder to express in conventionally sequential media; but radical moves always imply skepticism, if not resistance” (my emphasis). On the last page of the last issue, as Seymour, a journalist at the right-wing New Frontiersman, reaches into the crank pile, possibly about to pick up Rorschach’s journal and thereby begin unraveling Ozymandias’s plot, Watchmen “gives a symbolic signature for a liminal or interstitial relationship to objects of communication, a way of seeing and reading that does not hide the strings.” Being able to see strings (the strings that hold together the narrative, if not reality itself) is “[m]ore than the relic of an older, spatial way of seeing, it prefigures and perhaps inaugurates the next thing in sign systems.” Thus, moving beyond the parameters of a typical New Critical reading into an argument inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Moulthrop argues that the form of Watchmen ends up having pragmatic or political effects, in this case helping us overcome cause-and-effect thinking and illuminating certain aspects of new media: “We must see the strings in many senses: as patterns of association, multilinear paths, and the under-language of database structures, lines of code, and visual presentations. This is by no means easy work, and the magnitude of the change is so great that we tend to engage it only at the limits of awareness” (emphasis in original). The implications of this capacity to reach the limits of our awareness turn out to be profound: “In an important sense, we must make our world, and reading Watchmen may help us live up to the task.” Moulthrop begins by arguing that comics is an interstitial spatialized form, and that Watchmen, it turns out, is about its own interstitial spatiality. His chain of reasoning concludes: because spatiality is a property of - or at least related to - electronic media, Watchmen both anticipates new media and critiques oppressive systems of linear narrative consciousness.


The limitations of Moulthrop’s approach become apparent if we make a simple observation: nowhere in his astute micro-level analyses does he mention that Watchmen is a metafictional work about superheroes. In order to be able to state this fundamental fact, I would suggest, we need to develop a critical conception of comics and the graphic novel that breaks out of the orthodoxies of media theory and media studies. The reason is straightforward. The category of metafiction only becomes salient in relation to the category of the fictional or the non-metafictional Not to be confused with meta-nonfiction!-that is, in relation to a category of works that merely make use of the conventions metafiction subverts or ironizes. And yet if the non-metafictional exists, then it becomes harder to sustain the notion that all work within a medium is in some sense “about” the medium through which it is communicated. Works of art - and acts of communication more generally - differ. In acts of metafictional communication, the medium may in fact be the message or part of the message. In acts of ordinary or nonmetafictional communication, the message turns out to be … the message. If the medium is necessarily always the message, the category of metafiction vanishes as a possibility and the specificity of what Fredric Jameson once called, following Louis Hjelmslev, “the content of the content” becomes obscure (xiv). Even recognizing that Watchmen is a work of metafiction, we should be careful not to overlook the transmedia dimensions of Moore and Gibbons’s metafictional project. “Fearful Symmetry,” for example, quotes Blake’s “The Tyger,” invokes Thomas Pynchon’s V., and experiments with William S. Burroughs’s cut-up techniques. Though Moulthrop mentions Pynchon, he treats him as a cultural theorist rather than an artist. None of these intertexts are clearly visible if we consider Watchmen only as a reflection of the under-language of comics; medium-specificity leads us quickly to reify media in terms of their differences, to ignore or underplay zones of intense contact among them.

Moreover, even for works of metafiction, the message is often also the message. After all, the conventions metafiction subverts or ironizes are not only formal or medium-specific; Watchmen also metafictionally ironizes the stale and familiar tropes of superhero storytelling as such, which recent filmic adaptations demonstrate might have developed in any medium, but for historically contingent reasons developed first in comics. Moulthrop could easily guard against the risk of overlooking Watchmen’s content or hypostasizing its form by emphasizing that a focus on the under-language of comics is non-exclusive. Not only is “Fearful Symmetry” about the under-language of comics, Moulthrop might counter, but it is also of course about various intertexts and the medium-nonspecific contents those intertexts all address. However, this response would miss a deeper point. The term “medium,” even as a metaphor, doesn’t serve us well in the analysis of cultural objects. Another way of putting this is that we need to attend not only to media but also to the mediation of media. What this would entail is a thickening of the sociological, technological, and historical models we use when describing specific media. In this view, the under-language of comics would have subversive potential not relative to broad sociohistorical typologies of communication (comics as a mode of database) or properties of media (comics as an interstitial form), but rather in more localized terms: relative to reader expectations, the history of comics, its cultural capital within the system of the arts, the critical discourses (popular and academic) that framed Moore and Gibbons’s understanding of comics in the first place. This is what a critic could add that would complement Moore’s own description of Watchmen.

What would this sociological thickening entail in the case of “Fearful Symmetry”? We might note, quite simply, that the nine-panel grid, in particular, is the condition of possibility for the effect of massive symmetry in Issue V. The authority and semiotic power of this 3x3 grid emerged not from necessary properties of comics - or in relation to spatial form as such - but rather from the contingent material history of the development of comics as a format. Max Gaines, the founder of EC, often receives credit for pioneering in the 1930s the format and distribution networks that would liberate comics from their origin in the broadsheets. Though early comics varied in the number of panels they used on each page, the basic format of the modern comic book - a format Watchmen was published within - was established at this historical moment. After the implementation of the Comics Code in 1954, EC was marginalized and superhero narrative became the dominant genre of the industry, both because of cultural taboos that had developed against comics and because the initial advantage superhero publishers enjoyed in the post-Code environment translated into a near-monopoly in terms of narrative content (Dell Comics and Archie Comics notwithstanding). This background is important to understanding the significance of Tales of the Black Freighter, the imaginary pirate comic that is popular in the alternate reality of WatchmenHere, it is important to mention that Watchmen occurs in an alternate version of the 1980s, where Richard Nixon has been continually reelected to the presidency and where Doctor Manhattan helped the U.S. “win” the Vietnam War. The prose supplement to “Fearful Symmetry” makes it clear that Tales of the Black Freighter emerged from a very different comics history than the one we lived through. “The brief surge of anti-comic book sentiment in the mid-fifties, while it could conceivably have damaged E.C. as a company, had instead come to nothing and left them stronger as a result … Unsurprisingly, as one of the few companies to anticipate the coming massive boom in pirate-related material, E.C. flourished and their hold upon the field remained unchallenged” (V.29). What this passage strikingly foregrounds is that Moore and Gibbons have crafted a metafictional superhero story designed to make readers aware that the superhero genre was never the necessary product of the spatialized form of comics but rather was the contingent outcome of a range of institutional, social, historical, and transmedia processes. It is the job of the critic, I would suggest, to tell the story of those processes.

Let me conclude by conceding that contemporary media theory has in many ways moved beyond a simpleminded obeisance to medium-specificity as a doctrine. Any number of innovations - from Friedrich Kittler’s update of McLuhan in terms of the notion of a media-technological a priori to Henry Jenkins’s emphasis on transmedia storytelling - belie my reductive account of the field. And yet it is striking that we still have trouble jettisoning the notion of medium-specificity in its entirety. As Moulthrop’s analysis of Watchmen suggests, we seem to need some version of the concept when analyzing particular texts. We crave methods for connecting part to whole - for connecting any particular communicative act to its medium of transmission - but we need to find a way of making this connection without turning the former into a mere fractal copy or homology of the latter. Though an alternative to medium-specificity has yet to be fully developed, I would suggest that Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort, authors of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, have begun to forge a new path with their development of “platform studies,” an intellectual framework that retains what is valuable in the concept of medium-specificity without falling into the hermeneutic circularity of its specific implementations. Properly conceived - bearing Marc Andreeseen’s distaste for the hyperextension of the term “platform” in mind, but rejecting the claim that only computer software and hardware are covered by the term - platform studies might show us a new way of engaging in the dense analysis that gives us everything media studies once gave us (that is, retaining Moulthrop’s many insights) but within a richer framework. One challenge facing the new approach is that the metaphor of a “platform” has already accumulated multiple valences that are, as Tarleton Gillespie has shown, quite complex, but still primarily associated with hardware and software systems. But a platform studies perspective on Watchmen and its many fearful symmetries would account for (i) the limits (types of paper, formats, coloring techniques) Moore and Gibbons operated within by conceiving of comics as a specific, material-technological system developed over many decades; (ii) the history of superhero comics, which served as what we could call a “genre constraint,” something analogous to the limits imposed by software systems; and (iii) the economic, corporate, and intellectual property horizons - the whole machinery of DC Comics - that shaped what Moore and Gibbons were able to achieve within their chosen format, genre, and storyworld. Such a perspective might help us not only to see, in much the manner of Doctor Manhattan, the strings holding Watchmen together but also to see what those strings are made of, their thickness, their density, and their length.

Works Cited

Andreessen, Marc. “Three Kinds of Platforms You Meet on the Internet.” pmarca. 13 Oct. 2009. 31 Oct. 2011. Web.

Bogost, Ian, and Nick Montfort. Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Gillespie, Tarleton. “The Politics of ‘Platforms.’” New Media and Society 12.3 (2010): 347-364. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. The Modernist Papers. New York: Verso, 2007. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: When Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press, 2008. Print.

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Writing Science). Trans. and Intro. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of the New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002. Print.

Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1987. Print.

Moulthrop, Stewart. “See the Strings: Watchmen and the Under-Language of Media.” In Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Eds. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009. 287-382. Print.