All good artists are trying to tell the truth about the world. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons on Page 27 of Watchmen, Chapter 2: Absent Friends (DC Comics, 1986) weave multiple narratives into an illusion-shattering whole that lays bare the fractured world they see around them. They create a super hero story that is honest to the truth of human nature in the world they see around them. They use multiple overlapping stories told through completely interdependent panels to show us the fragmentation of ourselves and our reality. This page shatters the illusion of our gridded reality and forces us to face the world without a mask.
This page is made up of three overlapping narratives. The first narrative we see is the context story; Rorschach is talking to Moloch about Blake, the Comedian. Within that context Rorschach tells a joke, or secondary story about Pagliacci the Clown. As this story is unfolding we see a visual story made up of scenes from Blake’s life and death. The comic book form allows Moore to tell several stories at once and to show us the connection between seemingly disparate elements. In this way comics reflect our own identity. We may present the world with a complete mask, a grid, but we are at war within ourselves. Our life is made up of a myriad of stories and events that assault us simultaneously. Our worldview is like a grid trying to hold these distinct images in their respective panels, but experiences are like shards that overlap and cut into each other through the rational structure we have created.
These shards of experience may seem trite when seen alone, but when they are layered upon each other they gain significance. By creating totally interdependent panels Moore presents a page with exponentially increasing impact. The visual and textual narratives inform each other and when we reach the final tier and see the image of Blake being thrown through the window and the text “I am Pagliacci,” we are hit with the emotional weight of three stories worth of meaning in one blow.
Despite the complex layering of the stories it is interesting to note that Moore uses the 3×3 grid in his systematic destruction of the illusion of a rational universe. The simple grid is the most innocuous of comic book forms. It is so simple and common that it tends to become invisible to the reader as they flow smoothly through its rhythm. In a sense the 3×3 grid is the mask that comic book stories hide behind. This page is about the shattering of illusion and tradition. A lessor creator might have tried to do that through destroying the grid, but Moore does something deeper than that. His originality lies not in the form of the page, but in the structure of the story. By leaving the grid in its simple form he creates a narrative with an immediate and powerful emotional impact that a more experimental visual style would not have communicated as clearly. In a similar way, we are fragmented within ourselves but we process that fragmentation through a rational exterior. Our mask contains the conflicting aspects of our identity and presents it in a clean orderly pattern.
Not only is our self fragmented, but our reality is a joke that is cracked like we are. In the first tier, first panel we see Blake’s face against a cracked surface and are told that he “understood. He saw the cracks in society…” In this entire page Blake is battered by forces outside of his control: a woman slashes his face with a bottle, an unseen man pummels him, he stands fully armored and defensive before a cloud obscuring the unknown of his environment, an unseen man pummels him, he weeps before the feet of a man he formerly defeated, and he is finally thrown through the shattered glass of a window. Just like that window, the illusion of reality shatters around us and we are left wondering how to deal the brokenness. If both we and our world are fragmented, how then do we face life?
This page shows us two “masks” that attempt to deal with reality. One is the mask of Pagliacci’s clown makeup. Deny the pain, deny the “joke,” and become a solution by being an opposite image of reality. The other is the mask of the Comedian. Embrace reality and become a parody, a mirror, for the world. However, in the end both masks are stripped away, leaving their wearers lonely and destroyed. In the final tier, a hopeless Pagliacci is figuratively hurled through the window alongside Blake. Neither mask is a solution, and there is no escape for any of us.
We are left helpless at the end of this page. Our illusion, our grid on reality is shattered as Blake and Pagliacci crash through it, and we are forced to face the world without a mask. This page is not a poem that leaves us with hope or with a solution. It leaves us suspended helpless on the other side of our broken illusion. It shows us two different paths that don’t work. Watchmen as a whole, and this page specifically, is not about solving a problem. The story is like a slap in the face to wake the sleeper up. On as side note, Watchmen is also a slap in the face to the generic super hero story, declaring that those stories do not depict what the world looks like, are not what super powers beings would be, and are not honest about human nature. We are faced with a super hero story that has refused to be like Pagliacci, a denial of reality, and has instead asked us to wake up to reality, to perish without our lie. In a sense Moore is the Comedian. He is wearing the grid as a mask and becoming a parody of the world to show us the joke.