Today, Drew and Michael are discussing Comedian 4, originally released December 5th, 2012. Comedian is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).
Drew: Comedian 4 begins with the opening lyric from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.” This isn’t in itself remarkable — Watchmen itself drew many of its chapter titles from lyrics, and many entries in Before Watchmen have prominently featured lyrics in a similar way. What is unusual about it is that it is immediately followed by a lyric from The Who’s “I Can See for Miles,” with the excerpted lyrics forming a brief thesis on Eddie Blake’s nihilism: “Hello darkness…Here’s the surprise. Come to talk with you again. I can see for miles…Miles and miles and miles and miles…”
The issue finds Eddlie back in Vietnam. He’s frustrated at the hypocrisy of his presence there, and his utter powerlessness over what he thought would be a short visit. That sense of powerlessness is only exacerbated when Eddie can’t get in touch with Bobby Kennedy to congratulate him on his candidacy for the Presidency (which places the events of this issue sometime on or shortly after March 16, 1968). That night, Eddie and his platoon drop LSD while on patrol, and proceed to level an entire village. When Eddie is recovered the next morning, his COs are pissed, to say the least. They give him a lecture on diplomacy, but Eddie is still tripping balls, and tackles one of them out of a flying helicopter.
As the issue concludes (the chronology is sliced up such that it closes at the start of the massacre), “The Sounds of Silence” and “I Can See for Miles” return, but now spliced with lyrics from a third song, Procol Harum’s “Conquistador” — a song which gives this issue its title. There are a number of fascinating things going on with the interaction between these songs, which are spliced together to form a literal meta-text, but the aspect I want to focus on here is the seeming anachronism of including the lyrics of a song released in 1972 in a story set in 1968.
Obviously, the simplest explanation for this is that the lyrics — which all appear in voiceover boxes — were not applied at the time of the story, but several years later. Of course, that only begs the question of who is telling this story, and I believe the best explanation is Eddie himself. Interestingly, there isn’t any evidence to suggest that this is a journal or a story he’s retelling. In fact, the achronological telling of the story seems to reflect Eddie’s own drug-enduced haze surrounding the events of that night, suggesting that this is a representation of how Eddie himself remembers these events.
That reading is borne out by the closeness we have to Eddie’s subjectivity while he’s hallucinating.
J.G. Jones frames this brilliantly, keeping the gunner on the right in frame to make the hallucinatory nature of this cut entirely clear. Tellingly, we no longer see Eddie’s head in the second frame, making it clear that we’ve taken on his point of view.
Hallucinations like this are easy to come off as heavy-handed journeys into the character’s psyche, but Azzarello plays it very light — only changing what Eddie sees, and only for a few panels. The football talk is enough to recall Eddie’s game with the Kennedys back in issue 1. Eddie was pretty jaded even then, but compared to his situation now, times were much simpler. He had friends. Now the best he can muster are a pair of local kids he keeps around as a joke.
Michael, the last time we spoke about Eddie (in our write-up of Minutemen 4, we discussed when and where Eddie’s nihilism comes from. You mentioned that Eddie has always been pretty hardened, but Azzarello seems to be positing that, while Eddie was always tough (and an asshole), his coal-black outlook was hardened in the fires of war. He didn’t blink at committing a political assassination in issue 1, but he was genuinely shocked that anyone would kill JFK. Now he slaughters entire villages out of apparent boredom. A tough, mean man learning that the world is much tougher and meaner than he ever thought is a strong, compelling take on this character, and I’m curious how you feel about it, Michael.
Michael: Drew, I am very satisfied with this issue precisely because it clarifies the Comedian’s philosophical/nihilistic timeline we discussed earlier. Moreover, The Watchman is at its best when it fuses personal narrative with events of cultural significance. Blake’s close connection with the Kennedys and the Vietnam War – he is the war – explains a lot about his decent into nihilism and reinforces Blake as a twisted, fatalistic Captain America, embodying and internalizing the nation’s shame.
The last time we discussed this, we talked about how a young man who sexually assaults a colleague could get any more who-gives-a-fuck when it comes to humanity. This issue crystalizes – and perhaps spells out – the difference between these two Comedians. When a young Blake loses his friend and the country’s president, JFK, he barks at his old acquaintance/petty enemy for some liquor to numb the pain. This is the same Blake who murders Marilyn Monroe a year earlier, so it isn’t as if he’s incapable of questionable or downright despicable actions. However, the LSD scenario gives us a cheat — a quick dirty look into Blake’s subconscious.
We’re told that whatever happens next, is a perverted zen-like extension of the world and its chaos. It’s difficult to portray a character’s transformation from jokester asshole with no morals to centered nihilist with dark morals (cosmic at best, sociopathic at worst). I think the drug device helps make this tricky distinction. The last few issues, and especially this one, have addressed a lot of bothersome character issues I had and invigorated me for the rest of the series.
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Mike, I never thought of Eddie as kind of warped Captain America, but it’s interesting to think of him as representative of the American psyche surrounding Vietnam as opposed to the American psyche surrounding WWII. One of the things this mini (and that bit in Minutemen) is bringing Vietnam to the forefront of the storytelling. Which is totally fair – that’s one of the more stark alternate-history-things from this universe.
“He’s frustrated at the hypocrisy of his presence there, and his utter powerlessness over what he thought would be a short visit.”
It’s weird that, even as I was writing those words, I failed to grasp how Eddie’s experience represents the war as a whole. Forest for the trees and all that, I guess.
That’s interesting, right? The Cold War looms large over the original series – and it’s publishing – but most readers don’t really know about that fear of immanent nuclear war. So that conflict loses some of its immediacy, and becomes a weird little time capsule. Which makes this sort of zeitgeist-capturing look at Vietnam MORE relevant. God damn it all, when Before Watchmen is working, it fucking WORKS.
Do I still know anybody taking music history courses? All of their papers should be about music in the Watchmen. I would read the hell out of a thorough analysis of the three songs quoted in this issue, but the thought of doing it myself is kind of daunting.
Does the fact that “Sound of Silence” is used in the Watchmen movie affect Azz’s use of it in this issue?
You know, “The Music of Watchmen” — as it refers to all the prequel minis, the series proper and the movie — could be a fucking book. It’d be an exhausting book to write, and probably mostly boring to read. Still, I’d be interested in it.
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