Heroes Never Rust #87: Subconscious vs. Conscious in Watchmen

Heroes Never Rust #87 by Sean Ironman

Subconscious vs. Conscious in Watchmen

A few weeks ago, my Forms of Illustrated Narrative class discussed Watchmen, and when I asked my students what they thought of the symmetrical structure in issue five, they look looked confused and began flipping through the book. Rorschach is the focal character of issue five. The comic itself features a symmetrical panel layout. The first page matches the layout and coloring of page twenty-eight. The second page matches with page twenty-seven. And so on. At mid-point, the story moves away from Rorschach and features a scene that is an assassination attempt on Ozymandias’ life. At the exact middle, Ozymandias strikes his would be assassin, with Ozymandias featured on the left page and the assassin on the right, with those two pages acting as the mirror for the comic. The issue is all about duel identities, so it’s a fitting choice, the symmetrical layout. Rorschach is finally unmasked. Ozymandias acts as the mirror for the layout because he is the comic’s true villain, not yet revealed. Once I pointed all of this out to my class, the students seemed to understand and were somewhat amazed at the craftsmanship on display. Yet, the students did not notice when they first read the issue (for some students, this was not their first time reading Watchmen). What’s the purpose of a craft decision that the reader will not notice, or at least many readers will not notice? This is a lot of work to do for the writer and artist. Should readers understand the ways craft elements are used while reading?

watchmen chapter five

This is not just an issue for comics, either. The other day, a short story writer spoke to me about how her workshop failed to notice that the ending to one of her short stories mirrored the opening. She thought it obvious, but the approach seemed to go over everyone’s head, even the professor’s. It comes to me now that there may not be an answer to my questions. Whether a story or an essay or a comic is successful or not depends on the goals of the writer. If one’s goal is to show off a certain technique or structure—for example, if the goal of issue five of Watchmen was to show off the symmetrical structure—then the creator(s) may feel that the work failed because readers did not understand. But, if the goal is to the story and to the characters, then the reader not consciously understanding a certain technique may not be a problem. My goals as a writer have little to do with showing off or feeling intelligent, so for me, story and characters come first. A reader not realizing some intricate subtlety is of little concern for me.

How many times does it take to read a piece of writing for you to understand it? When I read poetry, I read a poem three times, each time slower than the last. A poetry professor during my MFA taught me that approach. Reading a poem three times allows me to understand it. I feel the same with other works. My first time seeing a film is not the best time. Once I understand what will happen, I can study each scene. With essays and short stories, I prefer the second or third reading. When I teach a work, I mostly prepare by reading the work again and again. I may read an essay four or five times before teaching it (and that is not counting the times I read it before I put it on the syllabus). The first time through, I understand the plot (hopefully), but not until a few times through am I able to really see the craftsmanship on display. Now, I confess, I may just not be as smart as other readers, and I am sure there are stronger readers than I myself, but I have three college degrees and will begin work on my PhD this fall, so I am not an idiot and I feel on the scale of reading and analysis strength I am on the stronger end. There is only so much a person can keep track of at one time. Having to read a work multiple times to understand craft is not a terrible thing.

watchmen five middle

To me, most work a writer does a reader feels subconsciously. This may be why it is so difficult for students to analyze work. My students may not have consciously noticed the symmetrical structure of the fifth issue of Watchmen, but they felt it. They felt secure in the storytelling. They understood the themes and plot and character arcs of the issue. Understanding how the writer and artist did their job will take multiple reads and intense study. That is why writing professors have jobs. To show students to slow down and really study a piece of writing.

In a creative nonfiction workshop last semester, I told students to study the beginning and the ending of essays and they will notice that the ending of a personal essay typically refers to the opening either by reusing certain language, imagery, or plot details. Once students began paying attention, they could pick it out quickly. They were then able to use the same approach in their own essays. Writing, to me, is not much different than crafting anything else. You can build me a house and I will not be able to walk through it once and understand how everything was constructed. I will only see a house, at first. But, if I carefully study each room, each window, each door, each separate element of construction, I will be able to understand the craftsmanship on display. The same goes for music, movies, paintings, etc. Artists work in the subconscious. That is why it is difficult to make art. A reader does not need to understand everything you have done as a writer. A reader only needs to understand the literal events of a piece of writing and get something out of the time he or she spent reading it. Accept that most of what you do as a writer will only be noticed by other writers, and feel content in knowing that if other writers stop to study intently your work, then you have crafted something worth understanding fully.


Photo by John King
Photo by John King

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 ChronicleRedivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.

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