It was perhaps slightly ill judged of me to choose Watchmen #12 (words by Alan Moore, art and letters by Dave Gibbons and colours by John Higgins) for this weeks Opening Contract. There’s been so much analysis of the work already that it’s hard not to get lost in the shuffle. That said, I’m only looking at one page so this is fairly unique in that regard.
The page we’re looking at comes from the series final issue. Ozymandias’ plan has come to fruition and his squid monster of doom has been unleashed on an unwitting populace.
This last issue ended on a flash of white light that gradually enveloped the page. It seems only right then that this issue opens with a page crammed full of lurid colour. Higgins uses hues of pink, orange and yellow juxtaposed against harsh, solid blacks and reds. Red here is reserved solely for blood, a reoccurring visual motif throughout the series as a whole.
We get blood on the face of the clock in the centre of the panel which, thanks to the yellow and black, immediately evokes connotations of the infamous smiley face. Not only that but we get the exact same blood spatter that’s used on the smiley dace on the door in the lower left of the panel (just above the Pale Horse poster).
Visually the page shares a few similarities with a previous Opening Contract, the opening page of Jack Kirby’s New Gods #1. The same lurid, gaudy colour scheme is in effect and the page is effectively split horizontally in the middle, this time by a clock and mezzanine— the hordes above and the hordes below.
Doomsday Clock. Clocks, watches and the very notion of time itself are obviously all important elements in the story too. Additionally, by having the hands turned to midnight not only do we get a visual connotation of Dr Manhattan’s atom symbol, but it also serves to split the page into a vertical axis too. The clock is the nexus the page works around.
This vertical axis can be seen in the way one body is strewn downwards on the left and another is facing upwards on the right. Even the bar/frames of the broken window serve to further this vertical split. This is symmetry in action, another important and reoccurring element.
Moving on to some of the other visuals at play we see a large number of knot-tops in the panel. Some are dead, others are dying and others even seem to be rioting and sowing destruction. We’ve seen members of this gang in the book before, both in the gang that attack Dan and Laurie and the character of Derf who ends up murdering Hollis Mason.
Knot-tops are passionate followers of the band Pale Horse that are playing Madison Square Garden when the attack hits. Their lead singer is called Red D’Eath, which is perhaps a reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque Of The Red Death. Pale Horse of course is an obvious biblical reference, specifically this passage from Revelations:
“When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come and see!” I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”In addition to this we also see, on the same poster, that the support band on the bill are called Kristallnacht. This of course is a reference to The Night of Broken Glass in Berlin in November 1938. This involved the Nazis perpetrating a co-ordinated attack on Jews and Jewish businesses that left the streets covered in the aforementioned glass. As well as this there’s also the call back to the snow-globe smashing to the floor in Issue #9.
Another interesting visual detail on the page is a loose ticket towards the bottom of the page that floats in the breeze with the letters G–3265 on it. A theory spelled out here posits that it’s a reference to Operation Rolling Thunder, which marked the unofficial entry of American forces into Vietnam. This operation ended on November 1st 1968 which certainly fits with the November 2nd date on the Pale Horse poster. I’m not sure if this reference is intended or a happy coincidence but it’s worth thinking about.
This of course is one of the things about Moore’s work— the details and the minutia. It’s almost a sub-culture in itself with such works as The Annotated Watchmen and the recently released From Hell Companion. Given this, it makes sense that the tiniest of details could in fact be a reference to one of the most important military events in modern American history. Or it could just be nothing, a string of random numbers preceded by a letter. You can get lost in the theories almost as much as the details themselves.
That’s what this page has in spades and it’s why I chose it. There’s no captions here, no thought balloons or speech. It’s just a beautifully constructed and crafted image (a continuation of the issues cover too, as was the tradition). But, within this simple, stark and horrific image lies a secret language, ley-lines of structure and hidden lines embedded in the architecture of the buildings and the panel itself. There are coded references to texts, historical events and even reoccurring visual and textual elements.
All of these parts move and work as one, in beautiful precision. Like cogs in a watch. It’s up to us to reassemble the components in the correct sequence.