Heroes Never Rust #84 by Sean Ironman
Flashbacks are tricky. A story needs to move forward, not backward. But. Sometimes to move forward we have to move backward. Readers need information for certain scenes and characters to have resonance. At times, events that occurred before the story’s present are necessary. They may be necessary for a reader to understand current relationships, the world, or character motivation, among other reasons. The second issue of Watchmen makes very little forward progress in terms of the story’s present day storyline. Rorschach is not any closer to solving The Comedian’s murder. The issue is necessary, however. In the first issue, we were introduced to the world, but so much of the world’s history was not revealed. Giving the reader so much right off the bat would have risked overloading the reader. It was best to focus on Rorschach beginning his investigation. We got an overview of the characters and the world, but so much of where Watchmen goes is dependent on the history of the world, not just the murder investigation. Now that the story has a focus, the history needs to be unveiled.
There are five flashbacks in the second issue, not counting the end montage of The Comedian in all of the flashbacks and his death scene from the first issue. During The Comedian’s funeral, the Silk Spectre (not in attendance), Ozymandias, Doctor Manhattan, and Nite Owl II have flashbacks to a time when they interacted with The Comedian. Later, after the funeral, when Rorschach visits Moloch, one of his suspects because Moloch used to be a supervillain, Moloch shares a flashback of The Comedian visiting shortly before his death. With so many flashback scenes, as well as the present-day story, the reader could become lost, not understanding when the events happened in relation to each other. But Alan Moore structures the issue so that even though readers are given past scenes, those scenes are told in chronological order. The first flashback (Silk Spectre’s) is the earliest, and as we get more past scenes, the history moves forward, getting closer to the present-day story, with Moloch’s flashback being only a short time before the first issue begins. The flashbacks take place over many decades. If they were not given the reader in chronological order, the reader may become confused. One thing to keep in mind with Watchmen is that The Comedian is dead at the beginning of the comic. Every scene he appears in is a flashback. His character, though, needs to be developed and strongly characterized just like the other characters. Not only are the scenes furthering the main storyline, they also provide character development for The Comedian. Readers do not as much follow the present day narrative as they follow the life and times of The Comedian.
Beyond the characters of Watchmen, the comic is primarily about the idea of the superhero. Characters such as Doctor Manhattan and Rorschach are interesting. (Actually, every character is well-defined and interesting.) But the comic has more to do with complicating the superhero construct. Watchmen is one of the greatest comics because the world is so vivid. Superheroes do not just live in the world, they have affected the world greatly, even bringing the United States closer to war with the Soviet Union. The flashbacks are a fundamental part to building the world and explaining the situation in the present-day storyline.
The first flashback is a meeting of the Minutemen, a group of masked vigilantes in the 1940s. Team members come together for a group meeting. It quickly turns dark when The Comedian attempts to rape Silk Spectre I. Hooded Justice beats the crap out of The Comedian. The second flashback is The Comedian at the meeting of the Crimebusters in the 1960s. This time, The Comedian doesn’t join the team. He burns up a map of the group’s plans and tells them nothing they do will matter. In the next two flashbacks, The Comedian is in Vietnam and in New York during the police riots as vigilantism becomes illegal. He’s continued his descent into darkness, far away from the superhero ideal, and injures and kills innocent people who are in his way. But, in the final flashback, the one shortly before his death, The Comedian is drunk and rambling about how nothing matters. He’s seen real evil. “I mean, I done some bad things. I did bad thinks to women. I shot kids! In ‘Nam I shot kids…But I never did anything like, like…oh, mother. Oh, forgive me. Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me.” Readers get the whole arc for the character. The flashbacks are specific enough and detailed enough that readers can plug in the years not presented. In a few pages, The Comedian’s life unfolds. We see him go from cocky, young superhero to lose himself in the darkness of the world to realizing his wrongs.
But, and this is important, the flashbacks are not just about The Comedian. I don’t have the room here to discuss each one (the column would just be too long), but it is important to note the point of view in which the flashbacks occur. All of the flashbacks occur from the point of view of different characters. For example, Doctor Manhattan flashes back to The Comedian in Vietnam. The Comedian, tired of the war and ready to go home, kills a woman who he got pregnant. Doctor Manhattan stands there and watches the woman be gunned down, even though he has the power to stop The Comedian. And The Comedian points that fact out to the superhero god before walking away. The moment is not just important because it builds the world or that it characterizes The Comedian, the moment is important because it is a turning point for Doctor Manhattan. He has the ability to do anything he wants, yet he no longer cares about humanity. With a thought, he could have teleported the woman away or turned the bullet into steam, yet he just watched. That is crucial to the present-day story of Doctor Manhattan.
And I think that’s ultimately why the flashbacks in issue two work so well. Not because they characterize the point of view characters like Doctor Manhattan. Not because they characterize the deceased Comedian. Not because they help build the history of the world. The flashbacks work because they do all three, and they make that information seem interesting. When I am discussing writing with undergraduate students, many of them will make comments that a scene, or even a paragraph, is in there because they help characterize the protagonist, or the love interest, or the antagonist, or anyone else in the story. But, really, scenes and paragraphs and sentences and dialogue and really just about everything in a story needs to be doing multiple things at once. That’s why writing is so damn hard. Writers aren’t trying to add one piece at a time to go down a checklist. Writers are balancing language, characterization, pacing, structure, theme, plot, and everything else at once.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.