Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Monday, July 11, 2005

When Theory Meets Blood

Since I’m still having scanner trouble, the Jimmy Corrigan technique analysis will have to wait a bit longer. Dadgum software.


Comics are laden with symbols. Superman’s fish-shaped “S.” The Bat Signal. The fishnet stockings worn by many superheroines.* Most of the symbols are either crude (the Superman “S”) or semi-conscious (the fishnets). One of the best and most famous symbols in comics was neither.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is regarded as one of the great comicbook works published.** It begins with the murder of a superhero of sorts known as the Comedian, and spins out rapidly into a story about history, vigilantism, utopianism, and the ludicrousness of donning a set of tights to punch out muggers.

Conceived as a closed story, Moore and Gibbons were able to work in coherent themes and symbols throughout the work. The most famous of the symbols was the smiley-face badge of the Comedian with a smear of blood dotting its upper left. The very beginning of the story focuses on this smeared button, the blood coming from the murdered superhero. Throughout the story, the shape of the smear recurred.

Given that the story begins with the image, as well as its frequent recurrence, the smear must signify something important. But what?

The characters in Watchmen who drive the plot are all driven by ideology. The vigilante Rorschach dedicates himself to a brutal black-and-white morality of retribution and punishment. The villain of the piece, Ozymandias, slaughters millions of innocents in the utopian belief that the mass murders will prevent the Third World War. The Comedian was a nihilist, happily killing. His belief system was symbolized by his smiley face badge.

Start with the happy face itself: a circle, two oval dots, and a curve. Simple and direct, reflecting the Comedian’s simple idea that Nothing Matters.

The smear of his own blood compromises the simplicity and injects something else into the symbol. The blood smear across the badge represents the intrusion of humanity onto simple ideology.

As evidence for this theory, look at where the smear appears:

--The very beginning of the story, the Comedian’s murder. Late in the story, Moore and Gibbons reveal that the Comedian’s nihilism had broken down when confronted with the horrific plan of Ozymandias. His simplistic philosophy was overwhelmed by his long-denied humanity. The result? A bloody smear across the plain symbol of his ideology.

--When the Comedian’s face is scarred in Vietnam. Just before leaving Vietnam, the Comedian was confronted by a woman he’d impregnated. Fulfilling his simplistic ethos, he told her he didn’t care and that she should get lost. Her reaction was to slice open his face with a broken bottle. When she did so, a spot of blood appeared on his badge. The spot, hard to see in the panel, is the same shape as the recurring smear. His “pure” way of thinking collided with her messy humanity.

--Across the happy-face crater on Mars, the remains of Dr. Manhattan’s shattered glass construct. As he lectured his girlfriend on the irrelevance of humanity and she herself came to realize truths about her past, she broke down and shattered the glassworks. This act touched the Doctor, giving him a brief reconnection with his lost humanity. We see the glass form a smear-shape as we hear the impassive positivist Dr. Manhattan decide to help.

--The splash page of chapter eleven, where Ozymandias explains his whole history and scheme. The page shows the outside of Ozymandias’s Antarctic greenhouse from close up. The image is all white, except for a smear-shaped opening revealing flowers and butterflies within. In this chapter, Ozymandias lays out his utopian ideology, then punctuates it with mass murder. The neat and clean ideals he employs are shown to have enormous human costs.

--The final page of chapter eleven, as Ozymandias’s master plan annihilates most of New York City. A pair of figures, a newsstand owner and a young man, who have appeared throughout the story as a minor dickering Greek chorus, are swallowed by a white light. The last we can see of them is a shadow in the shape of the smear.

I’m probably missing a few smears, but Dorian over at just put up a post about the blood smear on the cover of the Watchmen volumes, and so I gotta throw this thing up now while it might give the illusion of being slightly relevant. Hopefully it’s at least semi-coherent.

Thoughts from you folks in internet-land? Other interpretations of the smear? Other locations it turns up?


*They’re a symbol. Yep. There for a reason.

**I can’t call it a graphic novel. I just can’t.


  • It wasn't so much the use of the smear on the cover that I was pointing out as it was that the image, divorced of it's context, doesn't make any sense. And that this is especially the case in the extreme close-up that DC is currently using as the cover art on Watchmen. It also implies to me that DC is presuming that any potential buyers of the book are already aware of the significance of the image.

    By Blogger Dorian, at 12:10 PM  

  • Yeah, I agree. I'm on a wicked caffeine jag right now, so my reading comprehension skills are at a low level. If you can, please go and erase my comment from your blog, 'cause I missed the point pretty hard, and it's kinda embarrassing.

    Though the cover does work as an attention-grabber. Two contrasting primary colors? That'll catch a reader's attention better than most covers. It'd make me curious to open the book. My edition's cover, showing the shattered window through which Ozzy hucked the Comedian, is much less striking.

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 12:38 PM  

  • It's on a lot of the covers. Some people try to make a case for all of them, but it's at least fairly evident on most of them.

    Don't feel bad about having the edition with the broken window on the front cover. I have it too, and that just means you're OLD SCHOOL!

    By Blogger Greg, at 10:06 AM  

  • Two appearances of the smear/smilie:

    Chapter Eight - we see a "smear" across the left eye of Archie, Nite Owl's airship. This is the chapter where Laurie and Dan connect, fail to do so, and then embark in a costumed mission, and consummate their attraction. (Aka, the "coming out of the costume" issue). It's showing their inability to relate as Dan and Laurie, but connect as Nite Owl/Sally Jupiter - in other words, the costumes allow them to be "more human".

    Second appearance (and you have to flip the page) - in chapter 9, Laurie is relating the story of an argument between her mother and stepfather (presumably after her "liaison" with Comedian). Laurie sneaks into a room, picks up a snow globe, and breaks it when her parents yell at her. If you look at one of her slippers, it is a bunny with a smear of liquid across the left eye. Laurie learns about the tension in her so-called "happy" family (and is one of the clues that tips her off about her parentage).

    And hey, the whole ideology/humanity thing works for me...

    By Blogger Gordon, at 12:00 AM  

  • Harvey, you should know: the smiley-face is everywhere. I couldn't even begin to list the places it appears, for fear I'd never be able to stop. You just caught a few of them here. Good ones, of course; but there's lots more. Lots.

    Totally agree with you one hundred percent about the significance of the button and the blood, nice catch!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:34 AM  

  • i like ur take on the whole smiley face blood smear...but i dont undeerstand why u cant call it a graphic novel...because of a few symbols? as an artist i must say placement of symbols in a drawing is a delicate process because u want people 2 see them but also it cannot be obvious or it will take viewer from the drawing.should we look down on the sistine chapel for all of the hiden symbols of it should be embraced even more.

    By Anonymous brianq, at 12:13 PM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:19 PM  

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