Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

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It seems worth noting, in the vein of our recent Coraline post, some of the Romantic ties to Watchmen, the superhero movie that has been quite visible since its debut earlier this month. The film is based on the 1986 comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Its trailer is below:

Though familiar with the work in its comic book form, this blogger has not yet seen the film. Reviews are mixed. Roger Ebert spoke well of it, while The New York Times' A.O. Scott is somewhat more nonplussed. Alan Moore, the writer of the source comic book, has disowned the film sight unseen.

One of the story's central characters in both media is Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias. In his superhero incarnation, Ozymandias is a superior physical and mental specimen, having traced the path of Alexander the Great's conquest and learned the spiritual and physical disciplines native to those areas. After a law passed banning superheroes in the 1970s, Veidt publicly revealed his secret identity, and turned his alter ego into a successful line of products and services. As the murder mystery that launches the film unfolds (from here there are spoilers, for those so concerned), Veidt is exposed by the film's other heroes as the mastermind behind a vast conspiracy to simultaneously undermine the former superhero community and to unite a world on the brink of nuclear war around a common -- though manufactured -- enemy for the good of mankind.

In the comic book, Moore makes little reference to Shelley's eponymous poem until the end of the penultimate issue (titled "Look On My Works, Ye Mighty...") when Veidt's plot is revealed. In the final panel, the epigraph is a slightly longer quotation from Shelley that includes this post's title, with proper attribution. Much of the rest of the time, Ozymandias's Egyptian connections are given the spotlight, rather than Shelley, perhaps hoping to keep association with works that would cause despair latent in the reader's mind rather than explicit.

Tales of the Black Freighter

Elsewhere in the comic (and absent from the movie in its theatrical form, by all accounts) is the metatextual and fictional Tales of the Black Freighter comic book, which seems to be influenced by Coleridge's Ancient Mariner as much as by its acknowledged sources, 1950s EC comics and Brecht's pirate ship from Threepenny Opera. The panels of the comic-within-a-comic are interpolated such that the twin tragic endings come at much the same time. In the story, (much of which is told in the sixth issue, "Fearful Symmetry," which ends with a longer Blake epigraph) a sailor whose shipmates have been slaughtered by the pirate crew of the Black Freighter makes a raft of their bodies to try to get back to his hometown to warn them of the coming pirate plague. His time on the sea is punctuated by the killing and eating of a seagull, his hallucinated conversations with his dead crewmembers, and an encounter with a giant shark reminiscent of John Singleton Copley's Romantic-era Watson and the Shark. When he arrives, he finds to his horror that he's misunderstood; there has been no pirate invasion of his hometown, and he himself is the real monster.

Moore's work beyond Watchmen is no stranger to Romantic figures either: Blake is referenced in Moore's V for Vendetta, and appears as a character in his From Hell. Moore also wrote and performed a full length spoken-word piece about Blake at the Tate Gallery in 2001 called Angel Passage (it was released on CD in 2002, but is now out of print). Another spoken word piece, Highbury Working, features a mediation on a late-in-life Coleridge's opium dream of Sara Hutchinson (which is also on CD, and out of print).

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1 Comment

I thought I'd take this

I thought I'd take this opportunity to plug my article on William Blake, Alan Moore and Watchmen.

You can find it in a special issue of ImageTexT devoted to William Blake and Visual Culture here: http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v3_2

I also believe that the character Rorschach in the comic embodies the dissymetry between the ferocity of the tiger in Blake's poem and the "Hobbes-like" cartoony tiger appearing in his illumination of the work. Rorschach is, likewise, ferocious and terriably violent -- yet -- once his mask, or face, is removed he looks a lot like Alfred E. Neuman from Mad Magazine.