Prose Wednesday: Montage in Watchmen


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Junior year, I spent a semester at University College Dublin, where I took a class on how film has affected literature, making it more visual, less descriptive of ideas, such that a character who might once have been described as “a voluminous woman of unimpeachable will” is now “the woman was big, maybe 200 pounds, with fiery eyes that spoke of her hard nature.”

Although actually, the class was about books set in/written by authors from The Caribbean, as that was where the professor was from. It was weird. Not as weird as Beckett’s Quad (yeah, I get it. It’s visual symmetry. And there are patterns within patterns. Really. I get it. It’s technically brilliant. It doesn’t make it watchable), which she had us view, but still weird.

All in all, it was a neat class, and she was a sharp tack. Her favorite thing of all was montage in Eisenstein, the juxtaposition of ideas to convey information as much in the space between them as among the elements in the frame. If I show you a baby, you probably think “cute” or some other reaction to babies. If I show you a hand swinging a hammer through the air, you think of utility, productivity. If I show you the same shots, but jump from one to the other, you get dread or shock, because what is that baby doing near a swinging hammer? Association of ideas, you see.

Anyway, since nothing in the class had to do with itself, I decided to write my term paper on montage in Watchmen, which you’ll note is neither movies nor prose, and yet somehow I got an A, or its Irish equivalent, and she bought a copy of Watchmen to give to her daughter for Christmas.

This, then, is that paper. It’s a little rough. I remember hammering most of it out in one sitting and being rather proud at deciphering the leitmotif of the splotch over one eye. Anyway, it was college, and I was malnourished. Be kind.


“Existence is random,” says the vigilante called Rorschach in Watchmen, by
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. “Has no pattern save what we imagine after
staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose.”
But in a sense, Rorschach is wrong. Existence is not random in Watchmen,
nor is it meaningless or subjective. It is marked by several layers of
symbolism that the characters themselves are in fact quite incapable of
recognising, let alone imposing. This is accomplished through visual and
textual imagery. The correlation between — and juxtaposition of — the
two creates a rare montage specific to comic books (although similar to
movies with an audio-visual equivalent). Watchmen is one of the first
comic book works to consciously and cannily make use of montage techniques
previously utilised by cinema. The work is so good, in fact, as to defy
the connotations of the term “comic book” and is more commonly referred by
the term “graphic novel,” reserved for works that transcend the serial
funny-strip.

Where does Watchmen get these techniques? They appear to be drawn from
Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, Russian film directors whose
mastery of their own craft defied the term “movie” with a quality that
seemed to demand the terms “film” or “cinema.”

To continue: Rorschach is also wrong in saying, “Looked at the sky and God
was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are
alone.” God, within the confines of Watchmen and not the reality it
presumes to represent, is most assuredly there. We have our choice of
Gods, in fact. There is the omnipotent, nearly omniscient Dr. Manhattan
within the work itself; Moore goes out of his way to equate Manhattan with
God at several points in the text (the chapter dedicated to his first-
person narration is entitled “The Judge of All the Earth”). At a higher,
more Godly level there are, of course, Moore and Gibbons themselves. Any
one of these three figures, the two real and the one fictional, has the
power to shape the world of Watchmen to whatever reality they want it to
be.

That Rorschach would say what he does is particularly ironic, is the
character himself — and by extension the world around him — are sources
for some of the most patterned storytelling and complex symbolism in the
book. Nothing that happens to Rorschach is without meaning and/or a
reflected image or event later in the book. His existence is a continuous
pattern of underlying meaning perpetuated at the hands of an all-powerful
creator working towards an ontological theme. Even the seemingly random
patterns on his mask recur throughout the book in accordance with the face
he must be making beneath it.

The repetition of imagery is the most consistent — arguably, if one
employs a broad enough definition, the single — technique used by
Watchmen. Some of these images continue throughout the book: the smiley
face, a smear of blood or some other liquid across an eye, the two
together, the clock on the brink of midnight are some examples, and each
carries its own meaning. The smear, for instance, implies obscured vision
or perception, and is usually applied to someone who thinks they have a
total understanding of the world as it truly is, but doesn’t, in
actuality. Others occur once or twice: fog/smoke/or steam used in
conjunction with a figurative remark about fog (meaning confusion), the
blood spattered on Rorschach’s chest that remark his departure to and
return from a more emotional, human manner.

Other recurring images are largely chapter-specific: the fluid in a
container of chapter nine, the silhouette figures or reflections of
chapter five . . . these appear to be thematic rather than ideally
symbolic, but they still unify each chapter.

Before going any further and delving into the application of these images,
as well as the more immediate montages that relates only to the pages in
which they are found, it is appropriate to explain the theories of
Pudovkin and Eisenstein.

Pudovkin’s theories of montage are very simple. He was a student of the
“linkage” school of cinematic thought that believed montage the concept
arose from the placement of images in a structure that together, they
formed. That structure is the montage, and it fulfils its function by
appropriately conveying the idea. It is self-sufficient and independent.
To create effects with montage, he cites the techniques of symbolism,
contrast, parallelism, simultaneity and the leit-motif. Symbolism, of
course, is letting one element represent a larger set of subsurface
meanings; contrast is juxtaposing images and ideas at odds with each
other; parallelism is the repetition of images, symbols and themes;
simultaneity is the development of two actions, in which the outcome of
one action determines the outcome of the other; a leit-motif is the
reiteration of the theme about a character, plot detail, chapter, plot
itself, or any other element of the piece over and over and over, through
symbolism of apprehendable sensate images (here we include the leit- motif
technique common to film and opera of sound and music signifiers). The
understanding and utilisation of these techniques is essential to quality
film. Or as Pudvokin says: “This is a means and method inevitable in any
cinematographic exposition. And, in a condensed and purified form, the
starting point for the ‘intellectual cinema.’ ” (Pudvokin, p. 87)
It was his belief that these techniques operated on a “bit by bit”
principal to construct the final work, which we will be examining in the
various relationships of the words, the pictures, the panels, the pages
and the chapters, to themselves, and to all of the others.
Watchmen is rich with all of Pudovkin’s elements, particularly parallelism
and contrast, especially between the text and the drawings within a panel
(although there are also connections between those same elements in
adjacent panels). The first page alone offers us these examples which are
not even a quarter of what is to be found herein:

(NOTE: #.#.#. = Chapter/Page/Panel )
1.1.1. Rorschach’s journal comments on the city’s “true face,” and here we
see a smiley face, the true face of nearly everyone and everything within
the comic at some point: a smear across the eye, or more symbolically,
obscured perception. Ironically, Rorschach does not see the true face of
the city or the world, he merely thinks he does, along with everyone else
in the series. In reality, the face is like his own, but he does not
recognise it as such; if he actually knew as much as he thought he did, he
wouldn’t think he knew much at all. Instead, he professes disdain for the
false “true face,” not recognising the smiley-face as the true “true face”
of both the city, the world and himself.

1.1.2. Rorschach, commenting poetically on the covered-up sin of the city
is correct: the gutters are filled with blood.

1.1.4. He says “followed in the footsteps,” and the bloody (and thus, easy
to follow) footprints appear.

The page itself maintains a single, overhead perspective drawing back, an
unusual way to start a work, which usually zooms into a city. The entire
time this “bird’s eye zoom out” is taking place Rorschach’s journal uses
phrases like “looking down,” “precipice,” “stands on the brink,” and
“staring down.” The view draws back until it shifts from Rorschach’s focus
to Detective Joe Bourquin’s, where the bleakness “all of a sudden, nobody can think
of anything to say,” contrasts with a droll answer: “Hmm. That’s quite a
drop.” Just as the tone has lifted from the grave and figurative to the
mundane and literal, we too have lifted from the street to the apartment.
Ironically, down on the street is where the brutal poetry is, and at the
elevated level, speech has become more commonplace. Appropriately, though,
the tone has elevated with the perspective, although the common subject —
Edward Blake’s murder — unites both Rorschach and the detectives; indeed,
Rorschach hands over the perspective to Bourquin.

We see more of these parallel and contrasting relationships in the first
few pages:

1.2.3. “The occupant was home” in a flashback panel where he is, in fact,
home: parallelism

1.2.5. “He would have put up some kinda fight, I’m certain.” He never gets
a punch in: contrast

1.2.7. “Maybe he just got soft,” as Blake is shoved, hard, into a very
solid surface: contrast

The same is true of the parallelism in statements like “Ground floor
comin’ up” (1.3.7.), “let this one drop out of sight” (1.4.4.), “fell
outta grace” (1.4.6.) and “curtains” (2.28.3.) as Blake goes out the
window, falls almost off-panel, and hits the pavement (twice),
respectively.

The examples of 1.2.5. and 1.2.7. are brilliant. In panel five, Blake is
not putting up a fight; he’s not even given the chance. In panel seven the
word “soft” is notably bold but the image is a very solid, painful slam.
The next page also gives us a doubly-repeated image in panel 3: the
Comedian, beaten, being held up by his collar. Not only is this image
itself repeated throughout the book, but the idea of anyone being held up
like this by an oppressor recurs. See 2.21.8 for Rorschach holding Moloch
in the same shot, and 2.23.8. and 2.23.9. for a triple-layered connection
of Blake holding Moloch as he was held, followed by Rorschach holding
Moloch, shot from the same perspective. 2.23.8. echoes 1.4.3., with Blake
in control, and 2.23.8. resounds in the immediate panel, with Rorschach in
control. All of these represent, obviously, someone with power over
someone else, but it’s interesting to note that whenever this image
appears, it’s someone who is not only at the mercy of their aggressor, but
so outmatched that the situation couldn’t be reversed.

Simultaneity also presents itself in the form of the criss-crossing times.
Several times a flashback will be intercalated with the present to show
the connections between the two, other times the attention will shuttle
back and forth between two actually simultaneous events that, for all
their contemporary chronology, are no less the one dependent on the other
than the flashback/present sequences. In the Antarctic scene at the end,
we see events from three different, simultaneous perspectives that
eventually reunite. Moore plays with this synchronicity by having Dr.
Manhattan, for whom all time is unified, say the same thing twice, ninety
seconds apart, as his path crosses through both Silk Spectre’s presence
and Rorschach’s.

Eisenstein disagrees with Pudovkin, going so far as to criticise him by
name for his theories. Students of modern cinema tend to agree with
Eisenstein, so while there will never be a factual distinction as to who
is (more) correct, Eisenstein does have the popular support. He contends
that montage combines “depictive [images], single in meaning, neutral in
content — into intellectual contexts and series” (Eisenstein, p. 92)
It achieves these contexts and series by operating on a system of
collision — the very opposite of Pudvokin’s linkage. Linkage would have
film (and comics) operate on the principle that shot + shot = idea. Not
so, according to Eisenstein. The shot is not an element, particle or link
of montage. The shot is a cell of Montage. To put it better, the organism
created by shot is the result of cells reproducing through meiosis, not
mitosis. Like music, it is not a laying side by side of its elements, but
the interplay caused by their simultaneity and overlap. While a shot
cannot, of course, be simultaneous or overlapped with another, its effects
— that is to say its impacts, intellectually, emotionally, aesthetically —
can bleed into one another, and very easily at that. Each part has a
specific function, and its placing is what does it for you. In further
comparison to music, Pudovkin’s theories come off as someone hammering out
one note at a time, never daring to play chords, combine a bass and a
treble or overlap the elements; it may be music, but it is limited music.
For Eisenstein, the shot is not the smallest possible unit of the montage.
The montage itself is.

What then gives us collision? Dialectic. Eisenstein lists it as
“denotation by depiction” (Eisenstein, p. 96) with the purpose of A)
“creating literary imagery” –denotation and B) “striking methods of
expressiveness” –depiction (Eisenstein, p. 96). Watchmen, as a comic book,
is singularly capable of doing both tasks with both tools; it is the plane
on which movies and books have their meeting-grounds.

Eisenstein cites his own movie, Battleship Potemkin, in which three shots
of lion statues (one sleeping, one rising and one leaping) symbolise the
rise of the Russian people in the face of tyranny. A brilliant example of
this kind of execution of Eisenstein’s theory is on page 21 of chapter
six, panels two, through five. Let us describe what we see, first panel by panel, then panel to panel.

We see Rorschach holding a meat cleaver, walking to the dogs. We see Rorschach’s hand holding the
cleaver. We see the dogs, looking happy, as if they were greeting their
master. We see Rorschach’s arm raised, with the cleaver in hand.
The mind apprehends that Rorschach used the cleaver on the dogs. But the
mind is never aware of its perception of each panel on its own, if such
perceptions did, in fact, exist. Instantly, each panel is connected to the
others. Now we will describe panel to panel, for the understanding that an
actual reading would immediately take from this page: we see Rorschach and
the dogs near each other. We focus on Rorschach’s hand holding the
cleaver. We see the dogs, ignorant and happy, as if they were greeting
their master. We see Rorschach’s arm raised to kill the dogs, with the
cleaver in hand, ready to strike.

Finally, we will analyse how a contextual reading of the panels within
panels changes our reading from the panels unto themselves. We see
Rorschach and the dogs near each other. This part remains the same, as it
is the first image we have.

We focus on Rorschach’s hand holding the cleaver. We already knew that
Rorschach had a cleaver. Now our attention is pinned on it, which tells us
that the cleaver has some significance. The description changes from see
to focus.

We see the dogs, ignorant and happy, as if they were greeting their
master. This is a key panel. Our attention goes from the cleaver to the
dogs, or “instrument for cutting meat” to “live meat.” The focus of the
cleaver is on the dogs. Even if we fail to pick up on this, Moore and
Gibbons direct us further: the dogs’ happy look implies that they do not
conceive any possible threat in a man with a cleaver. They are ignorant.
The dogs’ inability to perceive meaning is a signal to the reader that we,
as cognisant human beings, should. Moore and Gibbons do not just give us a
montage, they tell us that they are! It is also interesting that by
leaving out the sense of conflict on the dogs’ part, the authors make it
much more acute.

We see Rorschach’s arm raised to kill the dogs, with the cleaver in hand,
ready to strike. By now the meaning of the scene is apparent. Rorschach is
threatening the dogs, and in the fourth panel he does the deed. This
series of images conveys, with much more depth and no less impact, what a
single panel of Rorschach splitting a dog’s head in two could only half
achieve. Without the grand guignon, the squeamish horror is avoided, but
the true terror, that of the scene’s revelation, remains undiminished.
In his essay, “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram,” Eisenstein
describes paintings and statues arranged such that body part A will be in
one position, body part B in a position immediately following, and so on,
to create the effect of movement. As the eye is drawn to each new body
part, a new step in the total movement of the figure is represented.
Similarly, in 1.22.4. though 1.22.6. we see another perfect example of
Watchmen’s cinematography as an execution of Eisenstein’s theories. Our
first shot is looking at Rorschach over Dr. Manhattan’s shoulder. Our
second shot is the same, but without Rorschach. Our third shot is
Rorschach outside in the same position as he was inside. The reader does
not draw an idea from any one of these panels, but from the three together
and how they interact. Shot one simply gives us a picture. Shot two gives
us the same picture altered, and we append that Dr. Manhattan had
something to do with Rorschach’s disappearance. Shot three tells us what
happened to Rorschach: he was teleported outside in mid-speech. But what
is interesting is that none of these ideas is formed before the other;
only on viewing all three shots do we see that they happen instantaneously
(in terms of shots two and three, simultaneously). Rather, like watching a
montage in the cinema, we understand them as part of a larger idea: Dr.
Manhattan teleports Rorschach outside instantaneously. One plus two plus
three equals One. Even a glance at this section or the dog killings gives
one an instant idea of what is happening without the need for either
textual or graphic explanation. The deaths of the German shepherds does
not even involve any dialogue.

Eisenstein is a fan of distortion, as well he should be, for it is an
excellent source of collision and conflict. Watchmen not only uses some of
his favourite techniques, such as the close-up, it zooms in panel by panel
to achieve it. Again, on page 21, panels eight and nine move in close on
the rorschach blot, which is coloured more darkly in panel nine to
correspond to Rorschach’s comment, “Dark by then. Dark as it gets.” In two
panels, Moore and Gibbons utilise techniques of both Eisenstein’s and
Pudovkin’s!

There are also distortions of time and place: frequently, Watchmen uses
one image or scene to shuttle between the past and the future. In chapter
two, the image of the group photo acts as the launchpad between 1985 and
1940, and the Crimebusters scene of 1966 is the common flashback that
links the funeral-goers of 1985.

A single-panel version of comic books’ ability to make use of montage is
found on 1.18.4. Adrian Veidt (the real name of Ozymandias) stands humbly
at the window following Rorschach’s egress, with his hands behind his
back, staring out at New York City. On the desk behind him are the
Ozymandias action figures in three different positions. The one nearest to
him is wracked and twisted, on its belly with its limbs sprawled and head
turned. The second stands, grand and powerful, raising a hand as if to
give its blessing to a throng of subjects. The fourth sits, regal and
kingly, but slightly patronising, with an inclined head that implies
looking down from a great height. With this figure, a raised hand seems
intended more for condescendingly shushing any complaints or objections.
What is being presented in this panel are two sides to two stories; we
have good and bad versions of Veidt at both ends of power.

The real Veidt stands quiet, dignified, unassuming, unthreatening. The second
non-threatening Veidt, the first action figure, looks tortured. Unlike its
real-life counterpart, this figure is not intimidating and can never be as
such, even to its plastic brethren. The first Veidt is unintimidating in a
good way, the second lacks the dignity of such a state, and of course, we
question whether a man in such a position would be dangerous if he were
not compelled to be otherwise. The third Veidt looks powerful, but just. His clenched fist is noticeable,
but moreso is the benevolent raised hand. This Veidt is straight and tall,
well proportioned, ready to take action, the very ideal of a human being,
unlike the second Veidt. The final Veidt seems more ready to abuse power
than use it. His sitting position is languid, waiting for the world to
come to him. If the two kingly Veidts had swords, the sitting Veidt would
hold it in his raised hand over the heads of his followers, while the
standing one kept it at his side until needed. Thus we see the potential
within Veidt for good and bad, action and passivity, power and inertness.
One is reminded of Eisenstein’s lions.

Obviously, this kind of quality storytelling and the techniques it employs
was deliberate. But was it aware of the cinematic features of its work,
other than a nodding recognition of the “zoom” that any child would think
to use? The answer is yes, as found in this interview with Alan Moore. In
it, he discusses comic books’ (or graphic novels’ if you prefers)
potential for storytelling and the features of the cinematic format:
“A picture can be set against text ironically, or it can be used to
support the text, or it can be completely disjointed from the text – which
forces the reader into looking at the scene in a new way. You can do this
to some extent in film, in terms of striking interesting juxtapositions
between the imagery and what the intent of the characters may be, but you
cannot do it anywhere near as precisely as you can in comics. Here the
reader has the ability to stop and linger over one particular ‘frame’ and
work out all of the meaning in that frame or panel, as opposed to having
it flash by you at twenty-four frames per second in a cinema.” (Wiater, p.
162.)

It is obvious that Moore considered which techniques, which angles, what
distance and most importantly, what action to put into each panel. It has
been noted that Moore writes very explicitly detailed scripts, well beyond
that of even the normal “full script” method. Comic books use one of two
methods: short script and full script. Short script (or “Marvel version”
as it’s commonly called) gives simple directions to the artist, detailing
the basic plot, what should happen and little else. Details — character
and scene appearances, shot angles, even the number of panels per page —
are left to the artist’s storytelling ability. Only after the art has been
returned to the editor is the dialogue written. Full script, in contrast,
is much closer to that of a screenplay; it specifies the number of panels,
some details, what each character is saying (and thus, indicating how
their facial expressions should look), and sometimes camera angle. Moore’s
scripts, however, go beyond even most working- camera scripts used in
cinema, by indicating the most specific details to the artist. Moore is
renowned for not only directing the precise action of the shot, the
dialogue, the camera angle, the size of the panel and so on, but subtle
details about how each character should look, their exact positions within
the scene, and so on. This tendency on Moore’s part makes the selection of
Gibbons, a former draftsman and — because of his technical skilfulness and
carefulness — one of the most prized comic illustrators in the industry,
all the more logical.

From the citations above, it is clear that Alan Moore’s script and Dave
Gibbons’ art derive from storytelling principles pioneered and categorised
by Russian film directors Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. Even if
Moore and Gibbons were not aware of their sources for the techniques they
used, they clearly derived their story from a careful study of those
techniques in films — if not the works of those Russian masters, then
those of directors who did. That they succeeded in telling their story so
eloquently, efficiently and influentially is a testament to their first
success: studying and understanding the function and execution of the
great masters and philosophers of film.

WORKS CITED

Wiater, Stanley and Bissette, Stephen R. Comic Book Rebels: Conversations
with the Creators of the New Comics. New York, 1993.

Eisenstein, Sergei. “Film Form: The Cinematographic Principle and the
Ideogram.” Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen.
Oxford, 1985. 90-123

Pudovkin, Vsevolod. “Film Technique.” Film Theory and Criticism. Ed.
Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. Oxford, 1985. 83-89

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