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Framing Super-Vision: Panoptic Vision and Controlling Frames in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen

By Matthew Schmalzer

In Understanding Comics Scott McCloud makes a distinction: “To define comics, we must first do a little aesthetic surgery and separate form from content” (5). He goes on to claim that “the artform–the medium–known as comics is a vessel which can hold any number of ideas and images. The ‘content’ of those ideas is, of course, up to creators, and we all have different tastes…The trick is to never mistake the message for the messenger” (6). McCloud’s, in Henry Jenkins’s words (4), “unabashedly formalist” approach is understandable given his ambitious goal of demonstrating that comics are an important and complex art form, not just “crude, poorly-drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable, kiddie fare” (McCloud, 3). To achieve this goal, the typical content of comics (i.e. superheroes) needed to be separated from its formal qualities to highlight the form’s capabilities.

However, while McCloud warns us to “never mistake the message for the messenger,” he does just that time and again. For example, an entire chapter of Understanding Comics is dedicated to the ways in which lines convey meaning. The line is, in my estimation, one of the most fundamental building blocks of comics. It is the raw material that is molded and pieced together to create a comics’ visuals. On a very basic level, the line is the medium and is nothing if not the messenger. If, as McCloud argues, even the line (form) can be used to convey meaning (content) then McCloud’s aim actually seems much closer to Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that the “medium is the message” (7). Despite what he may imply in Understanding Comics, he does not really separate comics’ form from comics’ content. He actually makes a distinction between the content of the comics’ story and the content of the comics’ form. This is a subtle but important distinction because it allows us to see McCloud’s primary goal to demonstrate how the comics’ form (messenger) is the content (message).

If we accept that comics’ form is content, then comics as a technology and form of communication conveys specific information by virtue of its formal properties. By extension, the content of stories presented in comics tends to reflect the messages the form already has inscribed in its structure. This observation is not necessarily radical and can be seen in other mediums. For instance, Jason Jacobs claims that the early British television, by virtue of its small size and location in the home, naturally provided “intimacy” (6). Because of the intimacy inherent to the television’s technology, the programming often mirrored that intimacy both in the stories presented (e.g. domestic dramas) and in the way they were presented (e.g. frequent close up shots of faces). Scholars have noted meanings inscribed in the comics form, too. For example, Hillary Chute claims that the panel structure of comics, which visually locates events and bodies in space, mirrors a topographical map. This makes comics an excellent medium for “map[ping] a life” (109) in the form of biographical and autobiographical narratives (112). This is but one of a handful of messages Chute claims are inherent to the comics form and are also reflected in a comics’ narrative content.

I argue that the frame, specifically, imparts meanings, which are then reflected in comics’ stories. To illustrate this I will be analyzing a comic in the genre McCloud so desperately tries to distance comics from: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s groundbreaking 1986-1987 Watchmen.Watchmen depicts Cold War America in an alternate-history 1985. Masked crime fighting vigilantes have recently been deemed illegal (although some defy the law) and the seemingly omnipotent superhuman Dr. Manhattan serves as a walking nuclear deterrent. The main action of the story revolves around uncovering the mystery behind Edward Blake’s (aka the Comedian’s) murder.

As the title suggests, vision is a central theme in Watchmen. From the first page the reader is made acutely aware of vision: the Comedian’s bloodstained smiley face button peers out at the reader, the text of Rorschach’s journal emphasizes the horrors he has seen, and the point of view gradually zooms out overlooking the city below emphasizing the reader’s vantage point (I.1). Watchmen’s thematic obsession with vision is shared by its powerful characters, government agencies, and corrupt companies, which all use it as a means of panoptic control.

Dan Hassler-Forest claims that panopticism is a common theme in superhero comics, citing as examples superheroes’ “(super)natural…panoptic abilities” such as “Superman’s X-ray vision, Spider-Man’s ‘Spidey-sense,’ and Daredevil’s acute hearing,” along with the “technological enhancements of Batman and Iron Man” (186). According to Hassler-Forest, these superheroes’ representations of panopticism often legitimize panoptic society because of the “unquestioned heroic status” of the superheroes (186). However, Watchmen marks a departure from the status quo. Hassler-Forest argues that Watchmen and other 1980s works by Moore, such as V for Vendetta, were the first mainstream comics to explicitly deal with “the moral, ethical, and ideological implications” of superheroes’ panoptic powers (188). I argue that Watchmen goes beyond simply questioning the implications of panopticism: it also suggests strategies for resisting panopticism’s seemingly pervasive control. In this paper, I will show how Watchmen employs, both formally and narratively, the “panoptic meaning” that is already embedded within the comics form to demonstrate strategies of resistance to panoptic society through its physical, visual, and symbolic “frame breakings” and “re-framings.”

Panopticism and its Use of Frames

The panoptic prison, as Michel Foucault envisions Jeremy Bentham’s “architectural figure” (200), is more than a meticulously designed prison structure; the structure itself becomes a strategy of power that extends out from the prison into all areas of society, becoming more than its physical manifestation. Everywhere a controlling gaze can be employed to discipline, and, with its pervasiveness, and thus normalization, the gaze is internalized leading to self-discipline. Internalization abstracts the concept of the panoptic prison. We lose sight of the fact that, according to Foucault, “power has its principle…in a certain concentrated distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes” (202). It is important to remember that disciplinary forces have their roots in a physical exertion of power over physical bodies. Despite panopticism extending outside the prison into society at large, any strategy of resistance to these disciplinary forces must focus on physical manifestations of power.

Foucault goes to great lengths describing the particulars of panopticism’s physical strategies of controlling bodies, but he never explicitly names one of panopticism’s most effective means of control: physically placing subjects into frames. Describing the structure of the panoptic prison, Foucault illustrates this framing: “By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cell of the periphery” (200). This framing is the driving force behind panopticism. By understanding how frames work we can see why the frame is so central to panopticism. The frame serves four main functions, which taken together also serve as a definition of the frame:

  1. Frames as Separation One of the frame’s most basic functions is to separate. According to Georg Simmel discussing the picture frame, the frame’s purpose is as a division between the artistic and the real. On one side of the frame there is reality in all of its completeness and on the other a partial artistic representation. However, without the frame it would not be clear where one ends and the other begins, or, more simply, in Jurij Lotman’s words: “the frame…consists of two elements: the beginning and the end” (212). It is this demarcation that defines the artistic from the real in the same way that a fence establishes one property from the next; punctuation one clause from another; or the walls of a cell the incarcerated from the free, one inmate from another, and the watcher from the watched.
  2. Frames as Definition and Creation The act of framing also defines the framed. In the case of art it is the frame that gives the piece meaning. Boris Uspensky maintains that “a landscape without a frame means almost nothing…[I]t only requires the addition of some border (a frame, a window, an arch) to be perceived as representation…[I]t is precisely these borders which create the representation” (140). So, by separating the framed it is defined, and, in doing so, the frame also creates something new altogether. In Uspensky’s example the frame of a window re-defines a view of scenery as art. This is done in the same way framing a manuscript with the subtitle “a novel” defines our interpretations of the manuscript as a work of fiction and changes how we perceive the text; arranging furniture around a fireplace defines the room as a den and shapes our interactions with it; or, in the case of the prison, the framing walls of the cell define the individual within as an inmate which affects the watcher’s (and the watched’s) perceptions of the person.
  3. Frames as Focus The act of framing something calls our attention to the framed. It demonstrates that the framed is significant in some way and should be looked at. The frame draws the eye away from the peripheries, away from the frame itself, and channels our attention to the object at its center. As Mary Ann Caws puts it, “to frame is to privilege what is contained within the borders of the picture” (21). A dead insect is normally uninteresting, but if it is framed by pinning it to a board with a scientific name beneath it, it demands scientific analysis. A porcelain urinal is usually unremarkable, but by framing it in a museum with the title Fountain it has garnered the attention of countless art scholars. And, because we know that frames command attention, those within frames are acutely aware of their own framing. An actor knows the frame of the stage attracts the attention of the audience; the police officer knows the badge frames our perceptions and commands our gaze; and the inmate in the panoptic prison is acutely aware of the disciplinary gaze because of the frame that surrounds them.
  4. Frames as Means of Analysis The separating and defining functions of the frame individualize the subject within, and through that individualization the framed can be analyzed. Without the limits frames impose we would not be able to make sense of our world, or, as Caws claims: “frames are…provisional representations we are given or give of ourselves for dealing with situations” (19). History, for example, is framed as distinct periods (the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, etc.). These somewhat arbitrary frames are an attempt to comprehend the enormity of history by segmenting it and framing it in comprehensible chunks. In terms of panopticism, the frame allows the framed subject to be analyzed and understood fully, which leads to an even more effective exercise of power over the subject. According to Foucault, panopticism turns the individual into a “describable, analyzable object” (190) that can be turned into a “case, which at one and the same time constitutes an object for a branch of knowledge and a hold for a branch of power” (191). This transformation into an object of knowledge would not be possible without the framing of the individual. Thus, individuals must be separated (framed) in order to understand them individually and, subsequently, control them.

Frames in Watchmen

Frames are essential to the comics form. Panels are enclosed in a frame, and these frames perform all the functions outlined above. Of course, aside from the panel-frames, there are many other ways frames are employed in comics, most of which can be found in other mediums: frame narratives, visual framings of characters, flashbacks, pictures presented in frames, etc. The important thing to note here is that unlike other mediums, the frame is an essential component to comics’ storytelling because of the panel structure. The frame is fore-fronted in comics, and, because the frame is also an essential technology of panopticism, this prevalence of frames makes the medium uniquely capable of grappling with issues involving panoptic control. With this in mind, the prevalence of panoptic superheroes in comics is no surprise. Here, we will investigate some of the ways Watchmen employs frames as controlling devices and how those frames are often complicated leading to their control being undermined.

The Panel-Frame. The most basic frame in comics is the one that surrounds individual panels, which initially appear to be unremarkable in WatchmenWatchmen’s panel-frames appear fairly straightforward. Each frame is rectangular and exclusively made of a solid black line that encloses the panel. Each panel is neatly arranged on the page, often, but not exclusively, in the standard 9-panel construction. Other popular comics of the time, such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, use complicated panel structures that depict, for instance, photographs lying across panel-frames, characters breaking out of panel-frames, or small panels layered on top of larger ones (see Figure 1). Watchmen’s frames use none of these devices, instead opting for frames that emphasize the frame’s ability to separate, and thus control, the framed content.

Figure 1

However, Watchmen finds many ways to undermine the integrity of panel-frames while still keeping the physical panel-frame intact. In doing so, frames lose their ability to separate, weakening the frame’s, and thus panopticism’s, control. From Watchmen’s first page (see Figure 2), we see this in Rorschach’s journal which overlays the scene of Edward Blake’s murder. The journal is framed by a title and date, “Rorschach’s Journal. October 12th, 1985” (I. 1), signaling that it will be using the conventions of a journal, which is a foreign medium intruding onto the visuals of the frame. Because this retrospective journal was written by Walter Kovacs (aka Rorschach) who is walking through the visual scene, we also know the text was written at a different time than what is visually depicted. Therefore, a different medium-frame and time-frame break into the panel-frames of this scene without ever physically breaking the frame that surrounds the images.

Figure 2

By placing the journal within the panel, the meanings of the visuals are changed or re-framed. Take, for instance, the opening lines of the journal: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face” (I. 1). While the entry ostensibly describes what Rorschach has seen during one of his crime fighting prowls, placing the line “I have seen its true face” beside the Comedian’s smiley face button forces the line to take on an ironic tone. A few panels later the journal envisions the people Rorschach despises, “all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers,” asking for help, which he dramatically denies, followed with “…and all of a sudden no one can think of anything to say” (I. 1). The entry itself recounts Rorschach’s political views and fantasies. However, its juxtaposition beside Detective Fine leaning out the shattered window saying, “Hmm…That’s quite a drop” (I. 1) makes Rorschach’s dramatic and serious journal monologue take on a humorous, ironic tone. “No one can think of anything to say” highlights the banality in Detective Fine’s comment.

The technique of placing unconnected dialogue and visuals together, called “braiding,” is repeated often throughout Watchmen. The opening chapter’s frame breaking is generally done for either ironic or comedic purposes. Braiding is also used in more serious contexts, particularly with the most often used iteration of the technique: the overlapping of text from the young boy’s, Bernie’s, pirate comic, Tales of the Black Freighter, with scenes from the main narrative that are seemingly unrelated. For instance, in chapter V, “Fearful Symmetry,” the shipwrecked character in Tales of the Black Freighter contemplates how to get off the desert island: “It was then I conceived of building a raft…Although inwardly I doubted it would float” (VI. 8). This is laid over a discussion between the magazine street vendor, Bernard, and the deliveryman regarding the possibility of an imminent World War III. Bernard suggests that he will be able to escape the upcoming war just like his father did: “I mean, my father, when things deteriorated in ‘thirties Germany, he split” (V. 8). Despite Bernard’s cautious optimism that he will be able to avoid conflict, the fictional comics’ text, which breaks into the frame, implies that Bernard actually doubts his, or anyone’s, ability to escape nuclear annihilation: “Although inwardly I doubted it would float” (V. 8). This frame breaking completely shifts the tone of the conversation and gives insight into Bernard’s real doubts. All of this happens while maintaining the appearance of solid panel frames with very few exceptions.

One notable exception is when dialogue is spoken by a character who is outside the panel. When this happens the panel frame juts into the central image of the panel to form a word bubble. Although appearing within the space normally designated to the panel’s visuals, this dialogue is actually outside of the black line that denotes the panel’s frame (see Figure 3). It is easy to miss this detail at a glance as the gap in the panel’s frame is small and the suggestion of a solid rectangular frame is still there. But the gutter seeps into the panel, mingling with the visuals, and, because it contains the action of somebody speaking, the gutter becomes another panel. This creates an interesting phenomenon that forces the reader to question which side of the frame is the panel and which the gutter.

While the two areas mingle, the frame holds: the black line is solid and the panel appears to be rectangular as if there were no gaps whatsoever, but we are still left with a glimpse (or more accurately an unseen utterance) of what is outside of the panel-frame. The mere suggestion of the presence of a liminal space that is outside of the panoptic vision is enough to undermine panoptic society. The frame has failed to entirely separate from the gutter and the frame’s integrity, and thus the power of panopticism’s control is weakened by this simple detail.

Figure 3

Physical/Visual Frames. The solid black lines surrounding the panels are far from the only frames present in Watchmen. Virtually every panel uses a framing device within it. In the opening overleaf of chapter I (see figure 2), which is also the original cover Watchmen’s first issue, we see the red smear of blood framed against the yellow of the smiley face, which is in turn framed against the blood on the sidewalk. As our point of incrementally expands in subsequent panels, we see Kovacs and the man washing the street framed both by the bloodstain and by the sidewalk. The progression continues, and now we take in the buildings that frame the sidewalks, which in turn frame the street and the vehicles on it. Finally, Blake’s apartment window frames Detective Fine looking at the scene below.

All of this appears tidy. At each stage we are privy to more frames, and each frame clearly defines the framed. The sidewalk is a frame that defines the framed subjects as pedestrians. The street frames the vehicles that travel on it, which are further framed by the controlling rules of the road. The window frames the detective, who is defined by the window as the watcher. This would seem to indicate panoptic vision is all encompassing; everything is neatly framed (separated) so as to individualize, analyze, and control the subjects within the frames. However, despite how these frames appear, many are complicated in some way.

To begin, the smiley face is not fully framed. Roughly half of it fits in the panel-frame giving a partial image. The blood splattered across the right eye of the smiley face defies conventional framing. The blood splatter, having been removed from the framing blood puddle, is part of the device that frames the entirety of the smiley. The frame then has become a part of the framed, and its positioning over the eye is significant because the eye is a device that naturally forms frames, which will be discussed more fully later. We next see that the smiley face is lying in the gutter. The gutter is a frame; it is the divide between the street and the sidewalk, defining the boundaries and laws of each area, but since the gutter contains the smiley face within itself, the street and sidewalk reverse their role and become frames. We see Rorschach walk through the large puddle of blood, which is not so neatly framed by the sidewalk as it spills into the gutter. In his wake he leaves bloody footprints that break out of the framing of the puddle. Indeed, the blood itself could be said to have broken out of the framing device of the body. Finally, the detective is not only looking out of the broken window, he is leaning through it too. He is occupying a space he should not be able to by passing through the frame, disrupting the separating function of frames, and confusing who is the watched and who is the watcher by breaking that boundary. What seemed at first to be a neat nesting of solid frames, when analyzed more fully, becomes a dizzying mess of partial frames, each overlapping and spilling into the next, stacked precariously one upon another. This is the most notable characteristic of frames of any kind in Watchmen: they have the appearance of fulfilling their functions, but they actually fail in some way.

Frames appear in nearly every panel of Watchmen, and it would be difficult to chronicle every instance. Some framed images create very striking and memorable scenes: Rorschach framed against the evening city skyline (I. 14); the Comedian framed by the “eye” of Nite Owl’s ship (II. 16); Jon Osterman (aka Dr. Manhattan) framed against his palace on Mars (IV. 27); Adrian Veidt, arms raised in celebration, framed by the painting of Alexander the Great (XII. 19). Compared to these images, many other framings are quite mundane: Nite Owl’s costume framed by its locker (I. 13); Silk Spectre I (aka Sally Juspeczyk) framed by her bedroom window (II. 2); the aged villain Moloch framed by the light of an open door (II. 24); the list goes on. Panels that do not contain a visual framing are the exception in Watchmen, and the complicated frames on the first page are repeated throughout the story.

Rorschach most prominently demonstrates this complication of frames, which is unsurprising given his opposition to any controlling (framing) influence, particularly the Keene Act, which prohibits masked vigilantes. Time and again, Rorschach is seen breaking or physically passing through frames that are meant to separate. He enters Blake’s apartment through a broken window (I. 6); breaks through Nite Owl’s front door (I, 10); enters and leaves through Veidt’s office window multiple times (I, 18. X, 19); infiltrates the Rockefeller Military Research Base by first cutting through a fence and then breaking the window on a door (I, 19); uses Moloch’s refrigerator as a trap he springs out of (II, 20) and later uses it as a cell which he puts Moloch into (V, 5); jumps from Moloch’s window in an attempt to escape arrest (V, 27); throws two dogs through windows to surprise the child abductor he is confronting (VI, 23); escapes his prison cell due to the locks being physically cut off (VIII, 18); and enters an apartment window to retrieve his costume (X, 5). To Rorschach, frames lose their separating function. He is capable of traveling between frames with ease, and, consequently, he is very adept at eluding the control of the panoptic.

However, just because frames fail to separate doesn’t mean they lose all control. John Frow claims, “the frame does not simply separate an outside from an inside but mediates between the two” (336), which makes the frame “the conventionally regulated index of demarcation” (337). A frame then, while it separates, also allows for mediation between the two sides of the border. Georg Simmel claims that this mediation actually emphasizes separation. He explains this phenomenon while discussing the door:

By virtue of the fact that the door forms, as it were, a linkage between the space of human beings and everything that remains outside it, it transcends the separation between the inner and the outer. Precisely because it can also be opened, its closure provides the feeling of a stronger isolation against everything outside this space than the mere unstructured wall. (7)

So doors (and to an extent any other framing device) are more effective at separating and controlling because they allow for “conventionally regulated” mediation, but when Rorschach covertly or violently passes through them they no longer are conventionally regulated. His act of simply passing through these frames is not what undermines their control. It is because he passes through them in unintended ways that defy their conventionally regulated mediation that actually threatens control.

Visual Frames. Rorschach is effective at evading control until he is unwittingly “framed.” Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias) frames Rorschach for the murder of Moloch, which allows the police to arrest him and put him under the care of the psychoanalyst Dr. Malcolm Long. In order to be controlled, Rorschach has to be framed, but Rorschach is able to resist control by looking through frames he is not supposed to look through, as opposed to physically passing through them.

The police, the prison system, and the psychoanalyst are all, according to Foucault, “state-controlled mechanisms of discipline” (213) and are all employed by panopticism to extend its control. Punishment’s classic role is as a deterrent, but deterring crime is now, according to Foucault, a secondary concern; “curing” the criminal is now the main goal. A component in this curing is the psychiatrist who, as is always the case in panopticism, must observe the patient to cure (control) them. Psychiatric observation’s goal is to intimately understand the inner workings of the patient’s mind, and by gaining knowledge the psychiatrist gains power over the patient as, in Foucault’s words, “power and knowledge directly imply one another” (27). Thus, by observing, which is made possible through frames, and gaining knowledge, the psychiatrist is able to diagnose and cure (control) the patient.

Figure 4

Dr. Long expresses his desire to cure Rorschach: “I care about you, and…I want to make you well” (VI. 11). He asks Rorschach probing questions about his past, employs psychological tests like the Rorschach inkblots, and attempts to frame his observations in diagnoses: “Of course what we have here is a classic case of misdirected aggression” (VI. 11). However, despite Dr. Long’s attempts to observe Rorschach, place him into frames of diagnosis, and cure (control) him, there is a complication. Rorschach breaks the controlling observational frames by staring back and confusing the watcher/watched dichotomy. Dr. Long writes in his journal: “I could stare at him for hours…Except that he stares back…I just wish he wouldn’t stare at me like that” (VI. 1-2). During Dr. Long and Rorschach’s meetings, close up images of Rorschach’s face staring directly out of the panel at Dr. Long (and the reader) are consistently shown to emphasize that, while Dr. Long is attempting to frame Rorschach, Rorschach instead frames Dr. Long (see Figure 4).

Through his observations, Rorschach accurately diagnoses Dr. Long and eventually controls him, while Dr. Long has no such success with Rorschach. Rorschach is able to peer into Dr. Long’s psyche and diagnose his real motives for trying to “cure” him: “You just(…)think you’re ‘good people’(…)Other people down in cells. Behavior more extreme than mine. You don’t spend time with them…But then they’re not famous. Won’t get your name in journals” (VI. 11). However, diagnosing Dr. Long is only the beginning, as the diagnosis is just a means to frame, which leads to control.

By the end of chapter VI, “The Abyss Gazes Back,” Rorschach is able to completely change (cure, control) Dr. Long. The entire chapter is framed by the image of the inkblot (see Figure 5). Dr. Long urges Rorschach to look at the inkblots in the opening pages of the chapter. Rorschach sees gruesome moments from his past but tells Dr. Long that he sees clichéd happy images: “a pretty butterfly” (VI. 1), “Some nice flowers” (VI. 5). Dr. Long is encouraged by these answers initially: “His responses to the Rorschach Blot Test were surprisingly positive and healthy. I really think he might be getting better” (VI. 1). Dr. Long has faith in the tests he gives Rorschach, faith in his profession, faith in himself, and faith in humanity. He optimistically tells Rorschach: “I think you’ve been conditioned with a negative world view. There are good people too” (VI. 11).

But, in the end, Rorschach is able to shake Dr. Long’s faith, thereby showing his control over him. Through simply watching, Rorschach re-frames Dr. Long as the patient (the watched) and changes (cures, controls) his world view. Rorschach gives Dr. Long his own brand of treatment by allowing Dr. Long to glimpse the dark past that led to Rorschach’s violent tendencies, which included his slaughter of a sexual predator who murdered young victims and fed their remains to dogs.

The final scene of the chapter shows Dr. Long staring into an inkblot (in the role of the patient) as we originally saw Rorschach doing. This time, after being shown the world through Rorschach’s perspective, having the traumatic, horrid killing that lead to Walter Kovacs transformation into Rorschach revealed to him, Dr. Long sees the terror Rorschach sees and his initial optimism and faith crumbles. While the panels progressively zoom in on the blackness of the inkblot, the once confident and positive Dr. Long miserably admits: “The horror is this: in the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else” (VI. 28). This change is made possible by Rorschach’s re-framing of Dr. Long as the patient and subjecting him to all of the visual observational framings that the panoptic psychiatrist usually employs.

Figure 5

More Framings and Re-framings. Unsurprisingly, because of his adeptness at avoiding and co-opting panopticism’s strategies, Rorschach is able to escape from the controlling frames of Dr. Long’s observation, the prison cell, and finally the prison itself. Rorschach’s character is defined (framed) by his ability to both break frames and re-frame. He re-frames the inmates of the prison by saying: “I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re locked up in here with me” (VI. 13). He re-frames Dr. Long’s perceptions of him by subtly convincing Dr. Long to call him Rorschach, not Walter Kovacs, as Dr. Long initially insists (VI. 26). The noir detective, usually embodying moral ambiguity, is re-framed with a binary morality in Rorschach. There is only right and wrong for him, his straightforward code being: “Evil must be punished” (XII. 23). Further emphasizing his binary nature, the Rorschach inkblots, typically a metaphor for subjectivity and uncertainty, are re-framed as black and white certainty as opposed to ambiguous images; the blots may shift but the colors never blur, just as Rorschach’s principles “never compromise” (XII. 20). This list of framings and re-framings could continue, but what is most important to be aware of is how many different frames are present in Watchmen, how they appear to control but ultimately fail, and how frames (the technology of the panoptic) can be broken or reversed (re-framed) and used as a means of resistance.

The Occluded Eye

A major recurring motif throughout Watchmen is the occluded eye; the entire text is framed by it (see Figure 6). The first panel in Watchmen is the Comedian’s smiley face button with blood splattered across its right eye (I. overleaf) and the final panel of the series depicts the smiley face on Seymour the newspaper worker’s t-shirt, with the right eye covered by a ketchup stain (XII. 32). In between those two frames the reader is incessantly reminded of that image through symbolic recreations: the closed, winking right eye of the Mason’s Auto Repair mascot (I. 9); Drieberg peering into his kitchen, right eye covered by the door (I. 10); Nite Owl’s ship, Archie, right “eye” covered by a tarp (I. 11); two gang members sitting in Happy Harry’s Bar, one with a cut over his right eye, the other man wearing an eye patch (I. 14); the beauty mark below Laurie’s right eye (I. 20); a tattoo covering the right eye of a woman dining at the restaurant Rafael’s (I. 25), the moon, partially covered by a cloud mimicking the location of the bloody stain on the smiley face (I. 25). These are examples from the first chapter only; the frequency of this image increases in subsequent chapters. It is sufficient to say that the occluded eye is inescapable throughout the text. Bryan D. Dietrich suggests that, taken together, all of the recurring permutations of the image “address the notion that to be human is to be visually impaired” (124).

Figure 6

The Eye as Framing Device. On a very basic level, our eyes frame our world. Foucault’s extended explanation of Bataille’s description of the eye demonstrates this well:

The eye, a small white globe that encloses its darkness, traces a limiting circle that only sight can cross. And the darkness within, the somber core of the eye, pours out into the world like a fountain which sees, that is, which lights up the world; but the eye also gathers up all the light of the world in its iris, that small black spot, where it is transformed into the bright night of an image. (Language, 45)

In this description, we see how the eye frames itself with concentric circles; separates our person from the outside world; and how it gazes out and transforms the world into a comprehensible image: our vision then becomes a natural frame. The limiting, separating nature of eyes allows us to make sense of the enormity of the world. Eyes enable us to focus, analyze, and control. Eyes, thus, perform all the functions of a frame and also enable all other frames to function, as it is our gaze that gives the frame its controlling power. Therefore, the eye’s vision is absolutely essential to panopticism. This is not revolutionary; Foucault makes this point very clearly, but, as demonstrated through the symbolism of Watchmen, the framing vision that many take for granted may not be as effective of a framing device as we may think. After all, Foucault describes what we see as the “bright night of an image.” We see, but, even with “all the light of the world,” our vision is still dark like the night. This implies that, while the eye has a very real power to frame and thus control, it is still flawed in some way.

Imperfect Vision in Watchmen. The heroes of Watchmen have complicated relationships with vision. Many of the characters’ vision is limited in some way: the Comedian’s right eye is slashed in Vietnam; Nite Owl II must augment his vision with glasses or vision enhancing goggles; Silk Spectre II, the only hero to forgo a mask, has difficulty “seeing” her past, only confronting her memories when Dr. Manhattan forces her, saying, “Let yourself see it” (IX. 6); Rorschach is only complete when his “face” (mask) is on, which has no eyes (V. 28). All of these characters demonstrate a partial blindness. Their eyes are injured; their eyes are weak and need to be enhanced; they do not want to see; they cover their eyes and limit their view.

Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Veidt do not seem to have these visual limitations. The super-human Dr. Manhattan has super-vision to match. He can view subatomic processes — “I read atoms” (IX. 17) — and can see the past, present, and future simultaneously. His symbol, the Hydrogen atom, engraved on his forehead further hints at his clairvoyance by mimicking the third-eye found in many Eastern Religions. Veidt, although merely human, also seems to have transcendent vision. The enormity of Veidt’s plot takes an incredible amount of foresight. The faux company, Pyramid, which he establishes to carry out his scheme, involves a web of murders to keep secrecy, culminating with Veidt personally poisoning the only people who are left aware of the conspiracy. This places Veidt alone at the top of the “pyramid”; the eye on his costume’s chest then becomes the eye of providence. He positions himself as the eye of God, an all seeing figure that shines light into the world; his mass murder that brings peace becomes divine providence. Also, his vast array of surveillance televisions and his company’s ubiquitous products give him insight into the lives of people the world over, granting him seemingly omniscient vision. In comparison to the rest of the heroes, Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Veidt seem to have no limitations on their sight, perfectly embodying panoptic vision. However, like the other characters, their seemingly perfect vision is complicated, too.

Over the course of Dr. Manhattan and Laurie’s discussion on Mars, Dr. Manhattan comes to recognize the limitations of his sight: “We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away” (IX. 27). He recognizes the limited perspective (frame) his vision gives. While he can see much of the world (and time), he can only see it through his own eyes. He still relies on vision, as, when Veidt clouds Dr. Manhattan’s sight with “tachyon interference,” he remarks: “Working blind we can’t usefully prepare ourselves” (XII. 8). However, Dr. Manhattan has come to recognize that his vision, no matter how widespread, is not truly panoptic; it is but one possible (if very large) frame.

Veidt, on the other hand, attempts to expand his limited vision, extending his frame to encompass the entire earth. He claims he is “usher[ing] in an age of illumination so dazzling that humanity will reject the darkness in its heart” (XII. 17). Through his plan, he aims to pacify and unite the world by implying there is an alien power that is watching, ready to strike. This forces everyone to constantly endure an illuminating gaze that must be taken into consideration at all times. With a common threat that is ever-present and watching, America and Russia can no longer war. As long as this threat is imminent the world must self-monitor and self-discipline. The “alien” gaze Veidt establishes frames the world, controlling its behavior and perfectly embodying the unseen panoptic eye that leads to self-discipline.

However, Dr. Manhattan suggests that Veidt’s perfect panoptic vision is not possible. In a final conversation between the two, Veidt asks Dr. Manhattan, “I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end” (XII. 27). Dr. Manhattan responds: “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends” (XII. 27). Recalling Lotman’s definition of “frame,” the only two requirements for a frame are a beginning and an end. Because of his realization about his own vision, Dr. Manhattan recognizes that beginnings and endings are arbitrary; they are only one limited frame. Veidt’s plan to enframe the entirety of the world and bring about a lasting peace is flawed because both vision and frames are arbitrary and limited. The failure of his plan is emphasized by the panel-frame that surrounds Veidt’s mutant abomination (XII. 6, see Figure 7). That panel, along with the first five pages of Chapter XII, are the first panels in the series to take up the entire page — almost. The panels are very large, which is emphasized by being the only splash pages in the series, but they do not extend to the edge of the page. There is a white border and black frame around the panel. The prominently displayed eye of the “alien” extends Veidt’s panoptic vision, but the frame still restrains it, shielding the gutter from its view. Perfect, all-encompassing vision is not possible; there will always be something that escapes the gaze. Our eyes necessarily limit our view creating a frame that cannot take in the unframeable immensity of reality, which points to the conclusion the blood stained smiley face suggests: “to be human is to be visually impaired.” This visual impairment also suggests Veidt’s Utopia, founded on panopticism, is imperfect and, thus, fleeting.

Figure 7

Resisting the Panopticon/The Panopticon Evolves

The imperfections of frames and vision come together to suggest strategies of resisting panoptic control. Despite the faults of frames and vision, they still have a very real controlling power, or in Jacques Derrida’s words: “There is a frame, but the frame does not exist” (363). However, resistance to control comes from being aware of panoptic technologies and their shortcomings. In a comic, action happens in the gutter. While there are strategies to convey motion within the panel, such as what Scott McCloud dubs “motion lines” (110), they are extremely rarely used in Watchmen (I. 11, VIII. 27, & XI. 17). Nearly everything that happens in Watchmen actually happens outside of a frame in the gutter. Just as the story opens in the street gutter, the action of the story takes place in the comic gutter, in the liminal space between frames. Rorschach is adept at occupying this liminal space, traveling in the area between frames where vision is impossible, and, thus, he is able to resist control. Analysis of Dr. Manhattan and Veidt shows that these spaces will always be present because vision is never perfect. Frames are essential to our understanding of the world; we cannot get rid of them, but we may be able to wrest some control of them by breaking the frames that control us or by re-framing. However, to do any of this we must first be aware of frames.

The final page leaves the reader with a command. The editor of The New Frontiersman gives responsibility for choosing what story to run to his bumbling employee: “Seymour, for God’s sake! I’m asking you to take responsibility for once in your miserable life(…)I leave it entirely in your hands” (XII. 32). This is spoken as Seymour reaches for Rorschach’s journal, the contents of which can expose Veidt’s false framing of the world and undo the peace it has established. The dialogue is directed at the reader too, however. It tells us to “see more,” to be aware of the controlling frames that are around us, to exploit the imperfections of frames and vision, to re-frame our world to be “a stronger loving world” (XII. 32).

But Watchmen warns us too. While we develop ways to resist control, power also evolves. Veidt in particular develops ways to integrate our means of resistance into his attempts at panoptic vision. Veidt compares his multi-screen viewing to Burroughs’ cut-up technique: “Re-arranging words and images to evade rational analysis, allowing subliminal hints of the future to leak through…an impending world of exotica glimpsed only peripherally” (XI. 1). By watching dozens of television screens playing broadcasts from around the world and assembling messages piecemeal subliminally, he suggests that he can see the peripheries just outside the frame (see Figure 8). Combining the disparate images, Veidt can obtain what McCloud calls “closure:” “Closure allows us to connect…moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality” (67). Closure allows us to “see” into the gutter. Veidt then has closure, or an end, reframing the world by looking to the peripheries, which are the locations we identified as places of resistance. As Veidt describes, perfect vision is not required; there must be “specific areas necessarily obscured by indeterminacy” (XI. 1). In effect, he looks without looking. So, while we may be able to resist control in the short term, we must also be aware that power evolves and continue to develop resistant strategies.

Figure 8

Final Reflections

Scott McCloud calls comics a “vessel which can hold any number of ideas and images” (6). We have explored how what the vessel holds can be a reflection of the shape of the vessel. In the case of Watchmen it is the formal structure of the frame that is reflected narratively, structurally, and symbolically.

Reflections themselves are another major motif woven throughout Watchmen: both sides of Rorschach’s mask are a mirror of the other; the panel structure of chapter V, “Fearful Symmetry,” is reflected around the central image of Veidt violently attacking his assailant; the opening panels of chapter VII, “A Brother to Dragons,” focuses on the reflection of Night Owl’s ship in his goggles; the actual events and personages of 1985 are reflected in Watchmen’s pages; and the superhero characters from Charlton Comics that Moore based the Watchmen cast on are reflected in Watchmen’s pages, to name a few examples. The frame, and its connection to panopticism, is one more reflection. The smear of blood covering the right eye of the smiley face is an extended metaphor for imperfect vision, but it also suggests that any reflection is imperfect as the blood ruins the perfect symmetry of the smiley.

One definition of “reflection” from the Oxford English Dictionary is to “bend back” or “bounce back light,” which accounts for the visual mirroring that we see in Watchmen, but there are other definitions. “Reflection” may also mean: “A considered remark made after devoting careful thought to a subject” or “intelligent self-awareness.” By focusing on frames, Watchmen makes the reader hyper-aware of the medium. In doing so, it becomes an intelligently self-aware remark (a reflection) on the implications of how comics formally tell stories. Through the inadequate framings and imperfect reflections, Watchmen says that comics are an imperfect medium and we, with our imperfect sight, will always be imperfect readers. However, there is some optimism in this reflection. It is the imperfections in the medium, in the frames, that allow us to have agency. It is up to us to understand the power the frame holds and be wary of the ways power shifts to accommodate our strategies of resistance. The frame is there, separating us, defining us, focusing on us, and turning us into analyzable subjects, but it is imperfect. We can break those frames or use them to our own ends to become the answer to Watchmen’s epigram: “Who watches the watchmen?” Through our understanding of panopticism’s frames: We do.

Works Cited

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Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Vintage-Random House, 1977.

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Lotman, Jurij. The Structure of the Artistic Text. Trans. Ronald Vroom. University of Michigan Slavic Contributions, 1977.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Harper, 1993.

Mcluhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw-Hill, 1964.

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