Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Call Me Ishmael: Watching the Watchmen

"The Outcast" by Attilio Piccirilli
"There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own." ~Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

"Once you realize everything is a joke, being a Comedian is the only thing that makes sense."~Alan Moore, The Watchman

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, opens with the words: "Call me Ishmael".  In this narrative, Ishmael is both the narrator and a sailor on the Pequod.  Through his vantage point, we watch Captain Ahab battle with his Great White Whale and destroy his crew.  As we journey along with Ishmael, our narrator remains rather mysterious.  The odyssey begins with Ishmael wandering through Manhattan, pausing before coffin houses and following funerals.  Soon after, he travels to Nantucket and enlists as whaler.   Considering his knowledge on subjects such as art, anatomy, and geology, we might assume Ishmael is well educated, but, he also refers to the Pequod as his Yale and his Harvard.  Perhaps most importantly, Ishmael is the only character to survive Ahab's quest.  This final element speaks to the biblical connotations behind the narrator's name.  In Genesis, Ishmael is the eldest son of Abraham, banished after the birth of his younger brother Isaac, left to die with his mother in the wilderness.  Despite the dire circumstances, God protects Ishmael and makes him a great nation.  Like his namesake, Melville's Ishmael seems banished in the wildness, no home to speak of, surviving by sheer luck. Echoing Genesis, our narrator overcomes the odds and lives to relay his tale. 

No one wants to be an Ahab
So where are we going with this?  Well, in my opinion, people are often divided into Ishmaels, Abrahams, and Ahabs.  Abrahams are the progenitors of Ishmaels, whether by ejaculation or environment.  They father a child, a career, or a friendship only to abandon their Ishmael to the wilderness.  For example, in Alan Moore's Watchmen, our Abraham is Doctor Manhattan, a character who eventually abandons earth itself.  Manhattan is rather selfish and egocentric, not an awful person, but kind of an asshole all the same.  Ahabs, on the other hand, are individuals who fixate on the White Whales of their own destruction.  Though often well-intentioned, once they begin screaming: "To the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath on thee" its all over. (Admit it. You're itching to watch Khan's last breathe, aren't you?  Click here)  Unbalanced and sad there is no saving them.  In the Watchmen, Rorschach is obviously our Ahab:

The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown . The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "Save us!" and I'll look down and whisper "no".

Castle Gray Skull: It has a TRAP DOOR!
While its a great speech, and one I like to repeat, old Rorschach is obviously fit for straight jacket at this point.  There is no going back to civilian life or even having a nice dinner followed by a little romance for him.  No sirree.  Rorschach, like any Ahab worth his salt, is pursuing his White Whale with undivided purpose.  Perhaps, an Abraham left him in the wildness years ago, but an Ahab has no time to ponder that hurt.  He's busy chasing down his own death.  Finally, there are the Ishmaels.  These are the people for whom existence seems to be mistake and their life a cruel joke.  For me, out of all the characters in Watchmen, I identify most with Laurie, not because she is a female (when I was a kid, I was perpetually upset my parents would not entertain ideas of buying me a Castle Grayskull and I played with cousins Cobra Commandos on a regular basis) but because she is an Ishmael.  

Becoming Ishmael

"They pulled a gag on me is what the did!  My whole life's one big, stupid, meaningless..."~Laurie

"Until your mother love a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you that emerged."~Doctor Manhattan

In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is simply the narrator.  We do not see his dreams, desires, and only glimpse his demons, a brooding nature and bouts of depression.  With Laurie, we see an Ishmael who finds herself lost in mother's shadow, unhappy in her relationship, and attempting to accept the knowledge that she is the Comedian's child. For her, everything seems like a "gag" played at her expense and such is case for all Ishmaels.  Their existences are not a list of triumphs, not linear progressions leading toward obvious goals, but rather for them, life is represented by random events and indifferent reactions combining to drive the Ishmaels into the wilderness.  Asking an Ishmael to accept his or her creation is of divine Providence often seems cruel.  Yet the Watchman's Abraham, Doctor Manhattan, suggests Laurie's birth was as miraculous as turning "air into gold". 

My Ishmaels, we are left with the question: Random mistake or divine creation?  Well, in my opinion, if at all possible, try believe the latter, if for no other reason than the idea of the former is rather crippling.  Alright, Harsh Reality Check: You're the consequence of a broken condom but someone else could have been born.  You lucked out.  Here you are.  Huzzah (insert sarcasm)  Ishmaels if you're waiting for me to assure you everything is about to come up roses, well, I can't.  I'm sorry.  In my experience, nothing ever turns out the way you'd hoped and it all hurts like hell.  But listen: You can't dwell on that right now.  Whether you're cast into the wilderness or not, eventually every Ishmael will face his own White Whale.  To be completely honest, you haven't time to sit and ponder Abraham's brutality or indifference. You have got a fucking Orca on your ass and its about to eat you for dinner.*

Hast Thou Seen a White Whale?

"Look here, my life, my mom's life, There nothing there worth avoiding, it all just meaningless."~Laurie

"Laurie, wh-what do you want me to do?"~Dan

"Great White Whale" by Christopher Cuseo
For an Ishmael, a Great White Whale, often takes the form of an inability to gain the intangibles.  For Laurie, it means accepting her parentage, making peace with her crime fighting past, and discovering a lover in an old friend.  I sympathize with the Silk Spectre. In my case, most assume my Whale involves standing on the precipice of graduate school just about to fall into the job market, teetering between a successful existence and abject failure.  In reality, that particular cliff does not scare me.  Like Laurie, my Moby Dick involves the intangibles.  Parts of life that have always eluded me.  Pieces of my heart I can't take back.  Suffocating fears of waking up and finding myself on the floor unable to put things right. 

So, Ishmaels, what do you do when the White Whale starts chomping down your ass?  Because if it hasn't happened yet, its coming.  There's no doubt about that.  No stopping it.  No hiding.  My suggestion: Muster the Rohirrim, choose a battle cry, and ride out to meet your whale.  Personally, when battling my own Moby-Dick I cry: "Spears shall be shaken, swords shall be splintered, a sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises."  Listen, when that wild eyed Whale rams into the side of your boat, in all honesty, you'll probably die just like old Theoden crushed under his own horse or if we stick with the sea metaphor then expect drowning cause its painful as all hell.  But you're Ishmael so what did you expect really?  Pleasant just isn't in the cards.  My frightened Ishmaels: "Ride now.  Ride to ruin and the world's ending."  Just think, we're all gonna die and there's a bit of comfort in that.

Dressing Orphaned Souls: "And just look at the confidence as he leaps up and grabs the bar, beginning his maneuver."

"Hey, these are terrific.  It's like when I was small, mom got me this G.I. Joe with all these neat little spare uniforms...You were really into all that knights-armor fantasy stuff as a kid?" ~Laurie

"Yeah, I guess it figures...y'know, being a crimefighter and everything it was just this adolescent romantic thing...as I remember they [the goggles] work pretty good.  No matter how black it got, when
I looked through those goggles...everything was as clear as day."~Dan

When I was a little girl, I owned a Rainbow Brite belt.  I loved that little accessory.  When I needed to be brave, needed to hold my own, or needed to be fabulous, I'd strap it on and face the world, a chubby cheeked, curly haired brat.  To this day, for some reason, I miss that belt.  The way it felt in my hands, the sound of the metal magnets clicking together, and staring at myself in the mirror sure no obstacle was too big for me.  Now the belt is long gone and so is the little girl who wore it.  Gawd she was fearless.  Little Me who fought for the whomever she adored and expressed her affection with wide eyes and no tears.  What was there to fear?  I rather miss her.  She's not coming back.  But sometimes I think if I could only find that old belt and put it on all those intangibles would return as well.

Considering my childhood fantasies, it should come as no surprise that I'm a Nite Owl, not a Doctor Manhattan, girl.  The little insecurities that characterize Dan, not only make him sexy, they make him human.  (He's an Ishmael as well.)  What exactly do I love about Dan?: He's sweet, uncertain, and he needs his Nite Owl costume. (And he makes cool gadgets)  Most everyone, whether they admit or not, needs a disguise, but Ishmaels need them most especially.  Life in the wilderness is tough so we strap on belts, slip on boots, and tie on capes to survive.  Intuition suggests that with the people who care about us, it ought to be easier to let go of our masks and goggles.  But in reality, love makes removing the mask all the more difficult.  In the end, I suppose we each need the hear the assurance: "We've got as long as it takes.  And don't worry, you're doing fine."  Because how do we know?  How can we possibly know we're doing fine?  Isn't there clock?  Aren't we failing yet again?  But don't get me wrong here.  Ishmaels keep in mind that costumes are beneficial.   They serve a purpose. Sure, at some point you'll need to strip down and let another person in but once you do don't toss your disguise aside.  Costumes "make it good", help us "smolder", and realize our "passion"  Sometimes it just takes "coming out of the closet" to discover a person who is "confident" and on "fire".

In sum, my exhausted Ishmaels, we must remember to "let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory," and "look deep down and do believe".  Those Great White Whales which embody our hopes, our hearts, and our fears feel insurmountable.  But, when our circumstances seem the most bleak, when our fears overtake us, and when our hearts are the most confused that is the moment we need need costumes and understanding.  So strap on your Rainbow Brite belts, grab your goggles, pull on your plastic shorts, and repeat your battle cries.  Finally, always remember behind a quiet exterior is someone waiting to smolder.

While the film, Watchmen, sucked, for me, it did forever change Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.  In case you're wondering, the Nite Owl's and Silk Spectre's orgasm comes at 3 minutes and 40 seconds into the song.  Just so you know.

*Fun Fact: In Latin, Orca means "demon from hell".  Oh, so, you think the Romans were being melodramatic?  Here is video of an orca eating a man.  Shamoo doesn't seem so friendly now, does he?  For the record, I've no idea why people dress up like seals and jump in with killer whales or why the general public is shocked when one of these Suicidal Seal Impersonators becomes lunch.  The lady on the left is begging to be  eaten.

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