Who Watches Thy Fearful Symmetry

In Watchmen, Alan Moore creates a nuanced visual representation of symmetry, hearkening back to concepts seen in William Blake’s “The Tyger,” highlighting potential strengths in storytelling, at least aesthetically, that the graphic novel medium has to offer.

Symmetry | yrtemmyS

Perhaps the best place to start at when looking at Moore’s use of symmetry is in Chapter 5, titled “Thy Fearful Symmetry.” This chapter title is a reference to William Blake’s poem  “The Tyger,” in which the first stanza begins:

Tyger, Tyger

burning bright,

In the forests

of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry? (William Blake, qtd. in Watchmen 5:28:10)

As you can probably also note by my citation, this stanza of the poem is quoted at the end of Chapter 5. The title at the beginning of the chapter referencing this poem, and poem itself at the end serve as reflections of each other, already creating a sense of symmetry in this chapter.

We can also look at how the message of Blake’s poem is reflected in the chapter, creating another level of symmetry between Blake’s work and Moore’s work. In an essay titled “The Art and Argument of ‘The Tyger,'” John E. Grant states:

Very relevant to the question of the ethical status of the Tyger is the intimate relationship indicated between creator and creature. Several critics have observed that in the heat of creation the creator is scarcely distinguished from his creature and therefore the ethical implications of either affect the other. (Grant, 40)

Figure 1; Rorschach and "The Tyger" (5:28:8-10)

Keeping in mind this idea of distinguishing creator from creature, let’s look at the final panels in Chapter 5, where Rorschach’s face is finally revealed as a consequence of his framed murder and incarceration (Moore, 5:28:7-9). We learn in the following chapter that Rorschach does not identify with the person that is under the mask, he only identifies himself as Rorschach and calls the mask his “face” (5:28:7). Here, we are seeing a similar blurring of distinction between creator and creature, like in Blake’s poem. Rorschach is Walter Kovac’s (the man under the mask) creation, but he no longer sees it that way–creator and creature have become the same. Rorschach and “The Tyger” are reflections of each other and it is through this reflection that more symmetry is achieved.

Figure 2; Rorschach is unmasked (5:28:7)

These reflections do not just occur between Rorschach and the poem, nor just at the beginning and the end of Chapter 5–each page in the book in the first half has a mirror image in the second half. For instance, in an essay titled “Panelling Parallax: The Fearful Symmetry of William Blake and Alan Moore” by Roger Whitson, he addresses the symmetry seen specifically throughout this chapter. Whitson quotes Doug Atkinson from the Annotated Watchmenwho states “The entire issue’s story pages are a mirror image. Page 1 reflects page 28, page 2 reflects page 27, and so forth; the two-page spread on pages 14-15 is where the ‘mirror’ lies. Each page is a reflection both of layout and content.” This two-page spread can be viewed here.

Red and Blue | eulB dna deR

There is one more example of symmetry in Chapter 5 that occurs panel-to-panel, best seen in 5:1 and 5:28 (refer to figures 1, 2, and 3), which deals with the balance of red and blue lightning on these pages.

Figure 3; The red and blue "balance" (5:1:1-6)

If we keep in mind some of what’s going on currently in Watchmen’s plot, we know the United States is afraid of a Communist invasion (something that is red).  We also know that prior to this the U.S. was being protected by their weapon, Dr. Manhattan, a blue nuclear being, who has recently left Earth no longer feeling an attachment to it.  America, being protected by the blue Dr. Manhattan previously, could be thought of as a blue country, while a Communist Russia is the red country. Taking all this into account, this specific artwork and panel play helps us see two realities going on here, the current one (a blue country, though unprotected, that is still not invaded) and the one seeming more possible each and every day (a red, Communist America).

These two worlds, or two countries, serve as a way to balance each other out, creating this idea of symmetry.  Each country may have opposing philosophies (this opposition can be seen as the red/blue flashing alternates a panel at a time), but in Figure 3 they are being represented equally as each color gets a total of three panels.  The worlds are colliding, but one has yet to dominate the other.

Our world reflected in Watchmen, ideas for future research

Symmetry does not exist solely within the universe of Watchmen.  As its universe is a parallel to our own, we can also see symmetry between the two, allowing Moore to create a balance between the current reality and a plausible reality. This symmetry or balance is best seen in the characters of the book whom Moore had adapted from the previous Golden Age heroes, which Samuel Asher Effron discusses in a popular essay “Taking Off the Mask” floating around fan pages of Watchmen:

For example, Edward Blake, otherwise known as the Comedian, is based upon the Charlton hero the Peacemaker.[123] Ironically, this old character was a pacifist (a trait assigned to Veidt) whereas the Comedian cannot act without violence. The similarity between the two is based mostly in their positions as government operatives. Blake is also “groomed into some sort of patriotic symbol” in the same manner as such heroes as the Shield, Uncle Sam and Captain America. (Effron)

With this case, we get a violent character in Watchmen, the Comedian, and the peaceful character he was adapted from in our own history of comics, the Peacemaker.  The Comedian serves as a foil to the Peacemaker, and knowing this, even if we had never heard of the Peacemaker before this time, we can infer a lot about the him knowing that he is the opposite of the Comedian.  In a similar way, we can treat Watchmen’s universe as a foil to our own universe.  While Moore makes the events in Watchmen seem realistic (for the most part), some of the events have not occurred in our own timeline, allowing Moore flexibility in his commentary on a society seen in Watchmen.  

For example, my absolute favorite version of this commentary comes into play when Moore writes a book within Watchmen titled Under the Hood by a former hero from the 40’s, Hollis Mason or “Nite-Owl” (this particular material is seen at the end of Chapters 1, 2, and 3).  Through Mason, we learn that superheroes died out as subject matter in comic books along time ago due to their no longer fictional existence.  Although this is an idea distinctly separate from what has occurred in our own reality, we still see similarities between our fictional heroes and his real ones as he chronicles their evolution throughout history; as a result, someone reading Watchmen is allowed the opportunity to learn the history of the superhero genre in a less direct, alternate form.

Why all of this matters

Comic books and superheroes have been around since at least the 1940’s, and some were around as early as the late 1910’s (A Brief History of Comics).  In English 338, we have read American Literature with the general understanding that the first bits of official American Literature began around 1865.  If this is the case, then comic books as a medium of storytelling have been around at least half as long as America has had its own literary identity. I think this long cultural history of comic books is important in determining whether or not comic books, or more specifically, Watchmen, indeed have a place in the canons of American Literature.

It is also important to take into account whether or not the form of a comic (art, panel work, colors, etc.) can provide storytelling in a nuanced, effective manner not necessarily accessible by a regular novel. In this light, I tried to show Moore’s effective use of visual and conceptual symmetry in the graphic novel medium.

Symmetry is a very visual concept.  In this way, it seems fitting that it is expressed properly in a visual medium like a graphic novel.  This is not to say that a regular novel could not achieve similar success in representing the concept of symmetry, visually or otherwise, rather that there is an intrinsic advantage in the characteristics of a comic book that allow it to show symmetry intuitively, though not necessarily more effectively.

I think it is both too soon, and too much of an over-generalization, to say that all comics have a place in anthologies or canons of American literature, but I do think there is room for some. Moore’s use of the graphic novel medium, allowing for the book’s form to meet function, wielding its symmetry, while at the same time chronicling the history of a genre that’s been around more than half of American literature’s lifetime, earns him a place in American literature.

6 thoughts on “Who Watches Thy Fearful Symmetry

  1. Strong work brother man! I wanted to know if the colors added any extra layers. We kind of gravitated from words, to words with pictures, and then words with colored pictures. All the different layers and chances to add symbols or more meaning into the work just seem to increase with the extra aesthetics.

    • Thanks Chris! And the different meanings definitely do start to seem more complex as more layers are added. As for what the colors do specifically vs. other parts of the artwork the most I can take from it is what I was able to discuss with the red and blue accents throughout–how each scheme never quite dominates the other until the very end when the “alien” “attacks” and the two forces are united, leaving more vibrant color scheme (see the full page artwork at the beginning of Chapter 12). The color work isn’t exactly my strong suit though. I tend to focus on the words more than everything else.

  2. Ethan,

    Good work with laying out an interesting analysis of “Watchmen.” It seems to me that you have three main arguments:

    “While Moore makes the events in Watchmen seem realistic (for the most part), some of the events have not occurred in our own timeline, allowing Moore flexibility in his commentary on a society seen in Watchmen.”

    The idea of “alterity,” which Blake discusses in relation to science fiction in his project, might be a key idea for you to think about, in relation to fiction generally and to the work of Moore specifically. This might then connect with the point you make here subtly, but discussed in depth in your presentation: “Watchmen” as an alternate history of comics and superheroes as a genre:

    “as a result, someone reading Watchmen is allowed the opportunity to learn the history of the superhero genre in a less direct, alternate form.”

    It may be that “Watchmen” provides an alternate, post-modern history of the role of superheroes and their tales in American culture. You may want to include your presentation Powerpoint, or some of the information, in the presentation to make this point more directly.

    Finally, the question of genre–both of comics and superheroes–raises further questions about what makes up “literature.” You argue that: “It is also important to take into account whether or not the form of a comic (art, panel work, colors, etc.) can provide storytelling in a nuanced, effective manner not necessarily accessible by a regular novel.” I think you can make a stronger argument about the central importance of visual storytelling in 20th century American literature.



    • Thank you for your comments Tracy. I agree that it would probably be a good idea to include more info from my presentation about Watchmen being an alternate history to the superhero genre. When I had made that presentation, that was definitely the point I had anticipated making in the bulk of this project, but wound up getting caught up on interpretation of symmetry throughout the book. As I did this, I found that this symmetry could be used to justify the symmetry between superheroes in Watchmen with our own history of superheroes, but didn’t touch on that with the same amount of detail as in my presentation, which is something that should probably be more present if I want Watchmen’s importance to American Literature to seem more obvious. Thanks again!

  3. I liked your argument at the end of this page for the inclusion of Moore in the canon. I also really enjoyed reading how you interpreted the details of the work. Since I am not well read in graphic novels I was really interested in the more serious, symbolic nature of the works instead of merely just the story line. Good explanation!

    • Thank you for your comment Emily. I have read plenty of graphic novels and still find interpreting them quite challenging, especially since I tend to gravitate to what the words mean, focussing less on the artwork. Watchmen has a very simple storyline that often is not present throughout the book in certain chapters, as some are merely side-story and character development. The symbolic side of this work definitely does seem to be more important if you wish to take more away from the book as a whole.

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