Jimmy Gibson

Songwriter / Filmmaker / Journalist

Some Scattered Musings on Intertextuality in Watchmen

The following is both a playlist and series of mildly connected thoughts about Alan Moore’s use of songs and pop culture references throughout Watchmen.

“At midnight, all the agents / And the superhuman crew / Go out and round up everyone / Who knows more than they do”

It all comes back to Bob Dylan. Why did that one line stick with Alan Moore?

It’s an unassuming part of the eighth verse of an 11 minute Bob Dylan tune. I’ve heard that song dozens of times and I’ve never written Watchmen. And to think if Moore had chosen a line from a few verses prior we could be obsessing over some Einstein x Robin Hood fan-fiction right now instead of superheroes.

Beyond thinking about what inspired Moore, I want to delve into why using music enhances credibility and understanding of the graphic novel.

“A rumination in my mind / Winding like the ramp at the Guggenheim”

Intertextuality is such an underrated, yet integral part of literature and art.

Personally, my life has been refracted through so many layers of pop culture and art that describing any event or emotion I experience is impossible without a soundtrack behind it.

Every song is reminiscent of a painting and every painting looks like a book that was read a while back, it would usually be disingenuous not to wear one’s influences on one’s sleeve. Right?

“Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang sword style / If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous / Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me? / En garde, I’ll let you try my Wu-Tang style”

It was a long road to legitimize a medium of art.

Moore himself addresses this in his introduction as he explains: “Way, way back in the sixties, however, comics still lay on the dim margins of culture.”

I’m fascinated by the use of established poems and lyrics scattered throughout the novel. I would argue that using beloved pop cultural artifacts helps to give a sense of gravitas to a burgeoning art form or genre.

Hip hop broke through to critical admiration with clever flips of obscure records and movie lines, so why shouldn’t comics sample literature and music?

“Everybody is going through the motions… / Lip service is all you’ll ever get from me”

As much as I admire what Moore does with his injections of rock and roll and poetic verse throughout Watchmen, I would be remiss not to mention that some of his references fall a bit flat.

Choosing the chorus from Elvis Costello’s “The Comedians” to end the chapter focused on the Comedian’s funeral (Moore, II:28) was a little on the nose.

For every brilliantly simple and stunningly fitting quote like “two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl” (Dylan, as qtd. by Moore, X:28), you’re going to get a few duds.

You don’t get “Check the Rhime”’s brilliance without the occasional clunky and heavy-handed “I’ll Be Missing You.”

“Your lips ain’t movin’ / Your body’s still / But voices are talkin’ somewhere / I hear the jukebox”

Graphic novels are a purely visual medium. You read the words and look at the pretty pictures. The challenge then becomes how to invoke the other senses without being able to actually place them in front of your reader.

In the Walking Dead comics, for example, a strong sense of smell is evoked through images of flies swarming rotten flesh. The comic itself smells like paper, but the artist makes sure the images allow the mind to fill in the senses (Kirkman). It’s gross. I love it.

Watchmen by contrast is a very auditory novel to me despite not using cliché onomatopoeia like “Blam” and “Thwap” that one might find in a classic superhero comic. The sound of this text comes from the soundtrack that is implied at the beginning and the end of most chapters.

If they follow you / Don’t look back / Like Dylan in the movies

First of all, I know that this song is about the Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back. Don’t come at me in the comment sections with that bullshit. It was just too perfect of a reference to pass up

But, more to the point, Alan Moore made job of picking needle drops for the film adaptation of Watchmen real, real easy. 

The vivid implied soundtrack is what made the comic books feel so cinematic to me and part of what, in return, made the film so colourful and comic-like.

A good soundtrack does that. It bridges and blurs the gap between genres.

Fuck rigid artistic mediums, just put everything in everything. Anarchy art.

“Can the circle be unbroken / By and by, Lord, by and by?”

The ending of Watchmen is so provocative because it seems to imply a never-ending cycle of violence and fragile peace. 

As the world settles down from Ozymandias’ faux alien scare, the intern at a newspaper stumbles upon Rorschach’s journal which tells the truth about Ozymandias’ insidious plan (Moore, XII:32). If the journal were to be published it is all but guaranteed that complete chaos would ensue and the world would re-enter a tense, cold war state.

One of my favourite musical parallels with the graphic novel is that the song that plays as Rorschach and Nite Owl approach Ozymandias’ lair is “All Along the Watchtower,” a song that is heavily implied to also be circular in structure, the song begins with the dialogue of two riders (the joker and the thief) and ends with a return right back to them “two riders were approaching / And the wind began to howl.” 

Not only are there two riders approaching in the novel as well as the song, but both stories theoretically repeat forever.

It all comes back to Bob Dylan