When Theory Meets Blood
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 postmodernbarney.com 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.