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THE HONORS COLLEGE
Taking Off the Mask:
Invocation and Formal Presentation of the Superhero Comic in Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen
Samuel Asher Effron Class of 1996
A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Wesleyan University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts with Departmental Honors from the department of American Studies MIDDLETOWN, CT APRIL,1996
This thesis is dedicated to the memory of You gave me the love of knowledge.
I’d like to thank the following people for their support, assistance and input over the last year: Amy Donenfield, Paul Levitz at DC Comics, Gary Groth at Fantagraphics, Doug Atkinson, Phil Straub at the Museum of Words and Pictures, Steve Flower, Bill at Earth Prime Comics, Joseph Reed, Andre Dogan, and Justin Caplicki. Special Thanks: To Remy-Luc Auberjonois, Michael Roberts, Benjamin Stout and Damian Hess for keeping me sane on a daily basis. To John Johnson at Knight’s Quest Comics for all of his time and patience… and his comics. Especially to Professor Richard Slotkin: for having confidence in my work, and for being a mentor, a colleague and a friend. Without your tutelage this project would never have existed. And, of course, to both the Mintz and Effron Families: Bob, Marilyn, Linda, David, Randi, Jon, Sydney, Will, Curtis, Maret, Adele, Neil, Alan, Doug, Liz, Cherie, Bruce, Erica, Lisa, Jack, Rita, Steven, Mike, Neil, Rachel, Grandpa and Grandma Effron, and Grandma Mintz. Dad, Mom and Jon. I love you. Thanks for believing in me. Finally, to Grandpa Sidney Mintz, for giving me my first comic.
I was first introduced to Watchmen three years ago by a friend. He was surprised that I’d never heard of it, as it had been immensely popular among superhero fans. But instead of Batman and Superman, my childhood for the most part was spent with Archie, Richie Rich, and Elfquest. So, when I sat down with the dauntingly large tome, it was with some hesitation. Five hours and hundreds of pages later, I was anxious to read it all over again. Watchmen turned me back on to comics and soon I developed a voracious appetite for trade paperbacks and “graphic novels”. These compilations offered me longer stories and I didn’t have to wait a month to read the next chapter. I picked up anything I could get my hands on and eventually some friends and I decided that these works of art needed some scholarly attention. We organized a tutorial and spent an entire semester reading and analyzing a variety of comics from a wide range of genres. We spent two whole weeks on Watchmen, and during that time I began to comprehend the magnitude of its complexity. Appropriately, I spent the following summer working in a comic book store. For hours I would peruse the stands looking for reading material and after thumbing through countless titles, a pattern began to emerge. Many of the superhero titles told stories and portrayed characters that were much darker, more violent and more self-conscious than I remembered them in the Saturday morning cartoons or the random issues of Batman I had occasionally picked up as a child. It occurred to me that there must have been some catalyst for the new mood but when did these changes take place and how were they affected? My initial inquiries revealed that comic books had enjoyed a surge in popularity during the mid to late eighties. The increases in sales were accompanied by a dark overtone that seemed to settle into most superhero titles. The trend was easily traced to 1986, the year
Art Speigleman’s Maus, Frank Miller’s Batman: the Dark Knight Returns and Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen were all published. These three comics were incredibly popular and their phenomenal reception drew quite a bit of attention from the media; comic books began to be legitimated as a developed “adult” art. Maus received the most respect of the three for its sensitive portrayal of a Holocaust survivor’s tale. It was even nominated for National Book Critics Award. Miller, already in the spotlight for his work on Daredevil and Ronin, was lauded further for his modern rendering of the Batman myth. Watchmen, while it garnered some praise, was shadowed by the accolades showered upon these other books. It is generally respected by the comics industry, but the impact of Watchmen on the superhero genre has never been measured. In this paper, I will attempt to take that measure. I intend to illustrate the extent to which Gibbons and Moore invoke the superhero genre of comics and subsequently improve and expand its vocabulary. They simultaneously summarize, celebrate and criticize the genre and in doing so extend both its narrative and formal capabilities. Moore and Gibbons achieve these ends by presenting the generic units in fresh, innovative ways; their narrative’s intricate structure, with its multitude of cross-references and subtextual details, assigns the novel an esthetic complexity rarely seen in any comics, let alone those of the superhero genre. Chapters One and Two delineate the origins and development of both the form of superhero comic books and their content. Both chapters outline the genre’s growth and highlight key innovations of the two comic eras, the Golden and Silver Ages, respectively. Chapter One’s history begins with the inception of comic art and leads up to the release in 1938 of Action Comics#1, the birth of Superman. The Chapter highlights the creative inventions that now constitute the basic language of the genre through such examples as the first sidekick (1940) and the first superheroine (1939). Chapter One follows the genre all the way to 1954, when the
anti-comic crusade of Dr. Frederic Wertham culminated in the creation of the Comics Code which spelled the superheroes’ temporary downfall. Chapter Two resumes the narrative and continues the exploration of generic expansion from the birth of the Silver Age in 1956 through the early nineteeneighties. The second era of the superheroes was marked by the heavy influence of Science Fiction, the revival of old characters and the creation of Marvel Comics. Marvel and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four ushered in a new style of characterization that would revolutionize the way heroes were presented. Consequently, Marvel became the first company to challenge DC’s primacy since the introduction of Superman. The two companies spent the rest of the nineteen sixties trying to outdo one another. Their efforts resulted in both positive and negative creations and the further elaboration of the genre’s units. The nineteen seventies were not as generous to superheroes and the decade witnessed a steady decline of the quality of the comics. Chapter Three will first briefly outline the efforts of comic publishers to revitalize the genre through the creation of “graphic novels”. These hardcover compilations were seen by some as a divisive marketing tool and by others as an effective way to lure more adults into the comics market. This chapter will also illustrate Watchmen’s generic foundations by comparing its characters, locales and scenarios to archetypes grounded in comic history. Many of the novel’s narrative elements have very specific antecedents. I hope to show how Moore and Gibbons’ intense research and deliberate utilization of these superhero “units” draw the reader into a seemingly familiar world. The nostalgic presentation simultaneously lauds those generic units and opens them up to criticism and change. Chapter Three will begin to illuminate how Watchmen effects this change through examples such as its narrative recapitulation of comic history.
In the final chapter, I will use a variety of examples from the book to demonstrate how Moore and Gibbons’ formal presentation exceeds and
revolutionizes the standards of the genre. The discussion centers on examples ranging from the thematic qualities of specific chapters to the non-comic texts that end them. By examining these and other instances of Watchmen’s creative revision, I hope to elucidate the intricacy and complexity with which Moore and Gibbons visually present their narrative – the compositional and subtextual detail of Watchmen necessitates not only active but also multiple readings. Watchmen’s exploitation of the potentialities of the medium elevates it to a level deserving of critical study. But comic scholarship in general, until very recently, has been notably absent from academia. The problem is rooted in America’s perception of comic art. Since their inception, comic books have been regarded as literature for children or as lowbrow entertainment. Unlike our European and Japanese contemporaries, who respect comic art as a vehicle for adult fiction, Americans have assigned the entire medium a juvenile connotation; the superhero genre is stigmatized even more harshly. Consequently, scholarly articles and books devoted to comics have only begun to emerge, as the study of popular culture has gained academic credibility. Most of the works published limit their scope to specific heroes or titles, often Superman or Batman. Even comic histories are difficult to acquire because many of the primary sources are held in personal collections. The Golden Age has been documented fairly well in comic encyclopedias but compiled information on the Silver Age (1956-c.1980) is extremely rare. Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones’ Comic Book Heroes represents a notable exception but the scarcity of other texts impelled me to rely heavily on their research. Besides its lack of comic history or scholarship, the academy has virtually ignored comic criticism and esthetic theory. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential
Art and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics are the only published books that treat narrative theory and formal presentation as it pertains to comics. Both are thorough but neither fully captures the entire subject in all its intricacies. The most difficult factor in my dilemma with reliable sources is Watchmen’s relatively recent publication. There are no recognized publications at this time that encapsulate or discuss the last ten years of comic history. In this project I hope to achieve two goals. The first is to highlight the contributions of Alan Moore and David Gibbons to the comics medium and the superhero genre. The second is to engage myself in a scholarly quest with a subject that has received little academic attention and to excite a debate over Watchmen and comic art. Both my pursuits will be fulfilled if this project induces an increased respect for comic books – both culturally and academically. I will cite visual and textual passages from Watchmen in two ways. All illustrations will be found following the conclusion in the “Illustrations Appendix.” The citation for illustrations will appear in the form “See Figure X.” Textual citations will appear in the following format Chapter: Page: Frame number. For example, 5:12:4 directs the reader to Chapter Five, Page Twelve, Frame Four. The frames are numbered according to row: one, two, three in the first; four, five, six, in the second, et seq. The non-comic textual supplements which end each chapter of Watchmen are indicated by a “t” and page numbers correspond to those found in the specific supplement. For example, page thirteen of Chapter Three in Under the Hood will be referred to as 3t:13.
Chapter One: Origins of the Medium
Sequential art has been with mankind for centuries. Long before the advent of Sunday Funnies or Superman, civilizations from all corners of the world depicted their narratives in a visual sequence. From the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt to the Bayeux Tapestry, examples of early sequential art prove that comics, normally thought of as a modern art form, are actually part of a tradition that is almost as old as storytelling itself. The direct predecessor of the comic book was the comic strip. The birth of comic art in the modern context resulted from the ever-increasing competition between the newspapers of William Randolf Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Both publishers used various gimmicks to increase circulation and in the latter part of the eighteen-eighties illustrations were introduced in an appeal to the semi-literate segment of the newspaper buying public. These black and white illustrations began as single frame anecdotes; a contemporary newsworthy or cultural situation would be treated, usually in a satiric way. The dialogue of these illustrations would be typed underneath the pictures. By 1896, political and cultural “funnies” had existed long enough for people to become acquainted with them and also for a new artist to change them. On February 16, 1896 New York Sunday World, a Pulitzer paper, included a section devoted entirely to “funnies”. While this in itself was not new, there was one panel that drew the attention of readers. Drawn by R.F. Outcault and titled “The Great Dog Show in M’Googan’s Avenue”, the scene depicted a group of slum children in the center of which stood an androgynous, bald child wearing a yellow smock. Color printing had never been used before and the reaction to the “Yellow Kid”, as “he” became known, was astounding. The popularity of Outcault’s first installment encouraged publishers to utilize color more frequently and soon the majority of “funnies” did. Pulitzer and Outcault were ahead of the game though, and
in “his” second appearance, the Yellow Kid introduced yet another innovation which would change comic art forever. Instead of just plain yellow, this time the smock had printed on it the word “Artillery”. The word was a function of the political satire of the panel but, more importantly, it was the funny drawing’s first interaction of words and pictures.1 Pulitzer recognized the potential of Outcault’s creation and had his artist draw the character several more times, always with a new slogan printed on his shirt. As a result of the repetition of this one character, people began to recognize and expect “The Yellow Kid”. Not only had Outcault introduced color and the use of words within images to the funnies, but he also created the first recurring character.2 In response to the overwhelming popularity of the Yellow Kid, both Hearst and Pulitzer emphasized the development of new characters and concepts. Every day new artists would try to create a panel that would not only entertain but also guarantee them more work. The artists who were most successful, like Outcault, usually introduced some character or convention to the funnies that made them stand out. The first artist to achieve recognition comparable to Outcault’s was Rudolph Dirks. Dirks penned a funny that initially gained attention as a result of his characters’ wild language and practical jokes; it was soon titled “The Katzenjammer Kids” after the two main characters. What differentiated this funny from all the others was that instead of free floating words, Dirks enclosed his dialogue with a line that indicated the speaker. “Katzenjammer Kids” used the word balloon for the first time in a non-political, recurring illustration. Since then,
Greg McCue, Dark Knights: The New Comics in Context (Boulder: Pluto Press, 1993) p.9. The panel was addressed to the issue of Great Britain’s militaristic motives in the global arena. 2 Ibid. Outcault’s character was so popular he changed employers three times.
virtually every comic strip and book illustrator has utilized the word balloon to identify a speaker (or thinker).3 By 1907, the funnies had achieved nationwide popularity and a relatively standard form, but they were still missing the one element that essentially defines sequential art: the sequence. Up until that year, funnies appeared in one-panel drawings or rectangular groupings. On November fifteenth of that year, The San Francisco Chronicle presented the first installment of the adventures of Mr. Augustus Mutt by Bud Fisher.4 “Mutt” was unique because it was presented in a “strip” of sequential images which, when read from right to left, created a continuous narrative. Fisher’s design was soon imitated by other artists and the form of the comic strip has remained the same ever since. The origin of comic books themselves is harder to trace. The first compilations of comic strips appeared around 1911; reprints of “Mutt and Jeff” were the first books to circulate with any sort of frequency or volume. The “Mutt and Jeff” volumes had very little resemblance to modern comics. They were eighteen inches high and six inches wide, but these dimensions were not standard by any means. The size and format of most reprinted volumes differed from one another; some were in color while others were in black in white and the individual dimensions of the volumes were rarely equivalent. 5 Books were also bound in different ways – some in hardcover, other in cardboard. Companies devoted specifically to the publication of reprints evolved during the second decade of the century; the first and most prominent of these outfits was Cupples and Leon, based in New York City. Cupples and Leon had begun reprinting comic strips early on
McCue, p.10. An exception to this can be found in the more avant garde, underground and experimental comics. These books do not always contain their dialogue in balloons. Some of this is also crossing over to mainstream comics but not in great quantity. 4 Ibid. Jeff, the second half of this now famous duo, would not be added till some time later. 5 Ibid., p. 12.
and were firmly entrenched in the market during the twenties. In order to solidify their commanding position, they developed a marketing strategy that
simultaneously improved sales and simplified record keeping: they numbered their books.6 The technique was quickly adopted by competing publishers and continues today. By 1922, the Embee Distribution Company had developed a standard dimension for comic books – eight and a half by ten inches – with their magazine Comics Monthly. Not all magazines followed this format initially. Among the reluctant was George Delacourte whose Dell Publishing Company printed the first comic to use original material, The Funnies. The size of The Funnies was equal to the tabloid spreads of the Sunday funnies but went under after only thirty-six issues. An overwhelming majority of books continued to reprint old strips in the new format and those that didn’t, like The Funnies, folded almost as soon as they began. None of the standard format comic books could claim steady success until 1934.7 In a twist on conventional distribution of comic books, the Eastman Color Printing Company began to use their comic, Famous Funnies, as a promotional gift and sales premium. This proved to be very lucrative and Eastman counted among its customers Gulf Oil, Proctor and Gamble and Canada Dry. A few individuals at Eastman recognized the potential for comics, which now included games as well as reprints, and approached Dell Publishing for assistance. Although the collaboration was nominally successful, both companies were reluctant to devote all of their resources to publish original comic books. The project would be undertaken by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in the form of New Fun. This magazine, which has been called “the first proper American comic book”, appeared on newsstands by 1935 and
McCue, p. 13. Ibid.
included not only funnies but “...a two page Western yarn, a sports page, radio news...instructions for building a model airplane, foreign legionnaire stories, hardboiled detectives... futuristic police...puzzles, games [and] adventure stories...”8 Over the following three years, New Fun and Famous Funnies were the only legitimate “comic books” and even they were struggling. Not only was the audience for these books unstable and unreliable, but also the newsvendors were wary of devoting shelf space to such uncertain products. Despite these difficulties, Nicholson continued to publish New Fun, renaming it More Fun and including another title in his stable: New Comics. By the end of 1935 a third title had been added to his publishing list; Detective Comics would prove to be Nicholson’s greatest contribution to the industry. Detective Comics was unique because it was the first comic book to have an actual editorial policy; it contained only adventure stories and nothing else. 9 Nicholson also decided to use Detective Comics as the cornerstone of his new company. In the process of creating National Comics, Nicholson took on as a partner Harry Donenfield, who he had been involved with as a partner in a distributing firm, Independent News Company.10 Over the following three years Donenfield and Nicholson continued to produce original material, mostly adventure and detective stories. Before his death in 1938, Major Nicholson had arranged for the creation of a new title, Action Comics.11 When Nicholson passed away, only forty-two years passed since the introduction of the Yellow Kid. Over that period of time, the experiments involving the presentation of sequential art yielded a new, highly sophisticated form that conveyed simple narratives much more succinctly and deliberately than its less modern predecessors had. The innovations of such artists as Outcault and Dirks
McCue, p. 14. Ibid., p. 15. 10 National Comics did not become known as D.C. until the late-fifties. 11 Ibid.
helped to establish the basic visual language of comic storytelling while the efforts of businessmen like Major Nicholson and Donenfield produced a package for those stories that was both easily consumed and sold. Despite these developments, the content of comic strips and books was, in 1938, mediocre and childish. Most of the characters were abstract or comical and very few story lines ran beyond the confines of the single strip or comic book page. The subject matter itself was often whimsical and pleasant. The quality and content of comics was a consequence of the infantile status of the art form itself; comics of the period were primarily concerned with the development of narrative devices and so the narratives themselves suffered. Comics were merely a new way to tell a story and the comics began to look to other media for subject matter. During this period other, more established popular arts were turning out new fiction. In the 1930’s radio, film and especially the cheap “pulp” literature available at the time were beginning to explore plots that centered on “mystery men”, some of whom were costumed. In radio, there were, among others, the Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet. While the Lone Ranger fit more appropriately in the Western genre, Green Hornet’s formula was a detective adventure that would eventually be copied outright by a number of superheroes.12 In film, characters like Lone Wolf and Zorro began to whet the appetites of American youths for more masked vigilantes; in fact, Zorro and his alter ego Don Diego, a “wealthy, disaffected effete” would serve as inspiration for a slew of heroes, including Batman.13 Probably the art form with most influence on the development of superhero comics was the lowbrow adventure literature whose cheap, pulpy pages gave it its name. Pulp literature had been relatively popular before the 1930’s but nothing
Ron Goulart, ed. The Encyclopedia of American Comics (New York: Promise Land Productions, 1990) p. 157. 13 McCue, p. 22.
compared to the growth it found during that decade. The pulp’s new found vigor was a result of a number of factors. The growing tensions in Europe spawned not only a cadre of sleuths and spy smashers but also a never-ending legion of villains, many of them Nazis and Asians. Another factor that can’t be ignored is the influence of other art forms on the pulps themselves. The emergence of costumed heroes in film and radio, as well as such comic strip heroes as the Phantom, probably had a reciprocal effect on new heroes in the pulps. The Shadow (1931) was one of the first costumed heroes to fight crime in the pulps. He was soon followed by Doc Savage, The Spider and The Phantom Detective in 1933. Such heroes as The Whisper and The Avenger, first published in 1936 and 1939 respectively, came later but were nonetheless part of the same movement towards the development of a new archetype of American hero. We see here a new type of hero emerging in popular culture but what were the causes of this trend? Before the nineteen thirties, the archetype for “the” American hero was based partly on concepts of the Puritan work ethic and partly on what Teddy Roosevelt called “rugged individualism”. The hero was either a real man or, if fictitious, probabilistic and usually grounded in some historic event (e.g. Jesse James). These factors established heroes of the time in an unmagical, actually “rational”, frame of reference. Consider Jewett and Lawrence’s description of the scenario: A community in harmonious paradise is threatened by evil. Normal institutions fail to contend with this threat. A selfless hero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task, and, aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisal condition.14 When the Great Depression struck America in 1929, a disillusioned American public rejected or blamed real life leaders, and perhaps the fictitious ones, too, for
Robert Jewett and John Lawrence, The American Monomyth, in Jeffrey Lang and Patrick Trimble, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Journal of Popular Culture 22, (1988) p. 159.
their predicament. As established notions of heroism were proving too “fragile” to meet the demands of a real American hero, a new archetype began to develop. This new hero was neither probabilistic nor grounded in history. In fact, the new archetype found the hero in the realm of myth and magic; the world of the new hero, like the island of The Phantom, was nowhere near our world. This new hero’s world was one in which the insurmountable grievances which faced the average American during the Depression could only be conquered by beings more powerful than ourselves. This is not to say the old archetype disappeared or was consumed by the new; the new hero merely adds another level of comprehension to a heroic scenario. Compare the above description with Jewett and Lawrence’s conception of the “superhero”: ...distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers. He originates outside the community he is called to save, and in those exceptional instances when he is a resident therein, the superhero plays the role of the idealistic loner. His identity is secret, either by virtue of his unknown origin or his alter ego, his motivations a selfless zeal for justice.15 This is the archetype of the hero that began to emerge in the 1930’s. The formulas were initially explored and refined in the pulps and movies but it was in comics that this new type of American hero would find the perfect medium in which to grow. In Action Comics #1, published June 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster introduced the world to its first comic book superhero, Superman. He only received a one-page introduction in the first issue and he did not even appear on the covers of the next few, but a newsstand survey ordered by a nervous Donenfield soon revealed Superman’s appeal. “Children were clamoring not for Action Comics but ‘that magazine with Superman in it.’”16 Superman’s popularity sparked a deluge of new characters who would appear consistently for the following ten years. It cannot be
Jewett and Lawrence, in Lang and Trimble p. 160. Ron Goulart, Ron Goulart’s Great History of Comic Books in McCue, p.19.
emphasized enough that Superman was the original comic book superhero and it is in his stories, found in Action Comics and eventually Superman, that the basic units of the genre can be and were found by authors whose subsequent creations helped to perpetuate and refine the myth. Superman was not the first character to disguise himself with a costume but his brightly colored tight suit and cape were unlike anything seen before. The Man of Steel’s outfit is recognizable by sight; its simplicity and unique appearance result in an iconic representation of the hero. In general, once the loud, often contrasting, primary colors of a superhero’s costume have been established, the costume can be used to invoke that hero. In Superman’s case the chest insignia and the red cape identify him as well as the colors do; these attributes of his costume became oftused generic units. And as the costume is the only specific physical component of the hero, many different artists can interpret the hero without betraying one universal concept of his or her appearance. The costume is also of extreme importance because for most heroes it is used to mask a secret identity. In Superman’s case that secret identity was Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter for the Daily Planet and son of the farmland. As the reader observes Clark’s interactions with others as a normal person, the character of Superman is brought down from deity to mortal. In this way Kent and secret identities in general are used to narrow the ideological gap between the superheroes and the readers. Alter egos allow authors to explore the more human sides of their characters and subsequently create a greater combination of potential narratives. One such narrative, which is common to almost all superheroes, is the origin story, a scenario that also finds its inception in the pages of Superman comics. The origin story relates the events that actually brought the hero from a state of normal existence (if any) to the superhuman position he or she now occupies.
Inside everyone is a feeling of ineffectuality and weakness. It is this deep-rooted desire to shed weakness and to control destiny that Clark Kent touches... This is why the secret identity has become a necessary part of every superhero. Without it, he is a distant inaccessible god on Olympus.17 Superman himself was heavily inspired by Philip Wylie’s Gladiator (1930), which recounts the tale of a man who received superpowers and near invulnerability from an experimental in-utero injection. The Man of Steel also owes debts to John W. Campbell and Edgar Rice Borroughs, both of whom wrote about characters who existed on planets with heavier gravity. Perhaps the most interesting of Superman’s borrowed attributes is his name. The origin of “superman” is found in Neitzche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. In it he discusses the ubermensch, or “overman”, the perfection of human form. The less-literal translation of “superman” comes from Shaw’s Man and Superman. And from film, Schuster and Siegel borrowed Metropolis, a thinly veiled metaphor for New York City, from the dystopian film of the same name, directed by Fritz Lang. Superman set the standard for costumed heroes and considering his initial success it is not surprising that two other costumed heroes would appear that same year: The Arrow and D.C.’s Crimson Avenger. The Arrow had no superpowers but was extremely efficient with a bow and The Crimson Avenger was basically a clone of radio’s Green Hornet. Neither hero could rival Superman in popularity, but The Arrow is significant because it was published by a different company and therefore represents the beginning of DC’s competition in the genre. The battle for control over the market that arose between publishing companies spurred the creation of new (and hopefully better selling) characters and scenarios. One of the victims of the commercial war was Wonder Man, a character created by Timely Comics in May
McCue, p. 20.
1939. Timely, which would later become Marvel, was forced to discontinue Wonder Man after Donenfield proved in court that he was merely a copy of Superman.18 The outcome of the case created an interesting dynamic within the comic industry; fear over lawsuits provided comic publishers with ample incentive to be as original as possible when developing new characters. The desire to create a costumed hero who was not Superman carried over to DC as well. Instead of cashing all their chips in on the success of the Man of Steel, DC introduced in 1939 yet another character who would not only help define the genre but who is also one of three characters to be published without break from the date of his inception to the present: Batman. Batman first appeared in Detective Comics#27, the same month Wonder Man hit the stands. Although Batman fit the description of a costumed hero, he was noticeably different from the few characters who came before him. Unlike Superman, Bruce Wayne is a mortal human. And instead of a childhood of harmony and righteous upbringing, Bruce witnessed his parent’s brutal murder. As a result of this traumatic experience, Wayne took an oath “by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on criminals.”19 Batman was a unique character and went on to innovate in the genre; initially, however there were aspects of his character and his world that were consistent with some of the conventions already established by Superman. These obviously include his costume and his origin story but there are other, more subtle conventions that “the Batman”, as he was originally called, works within. For example, New York is again, like the heroes themselves, masked in a pseudonym; in this case it is Gotham City, a name that invokes the austere darkness found in Batman. The inspiration for Batman’s character was, like many of the first wave of heroes, grounded in other
McCue, p. 21. Bob Kane, “The Legend of Batman”, in McCue, p. 24.
art forms, although it is arguable whether or not this is an aspect of the genre. As mentioned above, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s performance as Don Diego in The Mark of Zorro was a major influence on the Batman character. In the film, Don Diego is a wealthy playboy who uses the time afforded by his position to fight crime in the guise of a swordsman named Zorro. In addition, he uses a secret door behind a grandfather clock to store his costume and escape his house unnoticed. The Batman myth reinterprets Zorro’s hidden exit as the Batcave; the secret hideout, while certainly not unique to comics, was in Batman adapted and consequently integrated as an essential unit of the genre. Although Mark of the Zorro formed the basis of the Batman character, it was the pulp adventures of the decade that truly inspired Batman’s style. The dark, seedy locales, the gruff villains, and even the tone of the writing were taken directly from the pulps. Bill Finger, Batman’s original writer and partner of Batman creator Bob Kane, has freely admitted his debt and homage to pulp writers and characters; he has even gone as far as saying that his writing style for Batman was patterned directly after that of The Shadow.20 The influence of the pulps extends all the way through Batman’s name: The Bat and the Black Bat were popular pulp characters that inspired the film The Bat Whispers (1931). In this movie the detective/murderer (clearly not Bruce Wayne) announces the impending doom of his victims by shining a light on the wall, in the middle of which is the silhouette of a bat.21 The technique would be repeated by Batman’s police commissioner Jim Gordon in the form of a distress beam, only one of the many “Bat-gadgets”, including his utility belt and Batcar, that would help to make the Dark Knight so famous. Gordon also represents the host of recurring characters that inhabit Batman’s world over the years. In general, secondary characters help to establish a living atmosphere for the hero and
Goulart, Encyclopedia, p. 24. McCue, p. 23.
expand narrative possibilities. Detective’s Batman stories investigated different types of secondary characters, a process that resulted in the two most important contributions to the genre: the sidekick and the supervillain. Perhaps as a response to allegations that Batman was too dark for children, Detective Comics#38 introduced the superheroes’ first sidekick, Robin, the Boy Wonder.22 Although nominally written into the Batman stories as a way to lighten the mood established in the first eleven issues, Robin was more likely the product of a creative team eager to sell more comics. The kid sidekick functions similarly to the alter ego, helping the young readers to identify with the heroes; even if you couldn’t be Batman, at least you could fight crime beside him. Robin’s instant popularity, the successful results of the sidekick experiment, guaranteed a permanent place for the sidekick in the genre’s developing vocabulary. 23 Only a few months later, in Batman#1, Kane and Finger yet again developed a device that would earn a permanent place in superhero narratives. In this issue Batman faces the Joker, a murderous villain who would become the Dark Knight’s “greatest perennial challenge”. In the Joker, Kane and Finger introduce the antithesis to the superhero, the supervillain. The supervillain is, like the protagonist, usually gifted with super powers or super intelligence; s/he differs by using these gifts not to save society but to destroy it. Although the Joker did not reappear until a few years later (again innovating within the genre by becoming the first recurring villain) his introduction instigated the creation of countless other costumed evildoers and, consequently, a new narrative tool.24 With these basic elements in place the genre was truly ready to take off. The number of new characters between 1938 and 1939 grew from three to fourteen; this seems paltry compared to the forty-six new characters appearing in 1940 and the
McCue, p. 24. Ibid., p. 25. 24 Ibid.
overwhelming one hundred and sixty eight new superheroes to hit the newsstands in 1941. Over the course of those four years the creative output of the comic writers was astounding. This was due in part to the virtually undefined state of the medium; characters could be or do anything simply because no one had done it before. Strict deadlines forced artists to come up with something new every week or two. It was a period of “firsts” and also of imitators; after the introduction of a new concept artists had to expect their inventions to be rehashed and revised in any number of ways, sometimes for the better. An example of this can be seen in the case of the Black Widow. She appeared in August 1940 as the comics’ first superheroine. 25 Unfortunately for her publishers, Black Widow (and subsequent female crimefighters, Black Cat and Phantom Lady) was overshadowed by Wonder Woman. Originally published in September 1941, Wonder Woman incorporated “mythology, superpowers and a bit of bondage imagery” and has been one of only three characters to be continuously published since her inception, the other two being Batman and Superman. Just as a woman hero proved a successful inversion of the standard set by Superman, so did a child. Although Robin was unquestionably the first sidekick, he had no real powers. The first true “superkid” was Wonder Boy, but even he wasn’t as popular as Captain Marvel.26 Published by Fawcett Comics starting in the early forties, Captain Marvel was actually Billy Batson, average kid. By uttering the word Shazam! (short for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury) Billy transformed into Captain Marvel. Billy Batson’s powers allowed kids the opportunity to forgo being a sidekick and become the hero himself. But, like Wonder Man before him, Captain Marvel’s book was forced off the shelves in the mid-fifties by a lawsuit filed by DC.27
Goulart, Encyclopedia, p. 36. Ibid., p. 391. 27 McCue, p. 27.
Above all of the other new characters, gadgets and innovative scenarios that came out of this initial period, Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide cites the invention of the superteam as the second most important contribution to the genre, the first being the creation of the superhero.28 The concept of a superteam was developed and introduced in All-Star Comics#3 (Fall, 1940). All-Star brought together some of DC’s most popular heroes to form the Justice Society of America. The superteam allowed characters from different titles to finally interact and fight crime with one another. A common universe is implied through their interaction and the crossover of villains and other, more minor characters is made feasible. The potential of crossovers was not fully realized at the time, though. While the JSA and other superteams pleased the young readers, the concept of company “universes” remained undeveloped until the Silver Age.29 By 1941, the basic elements of the genre had been laid down. The character types, scenarios and gadgetry that had so recently been invented were by this point repeated and regurgitated on a weekly basis. The stories and the feats of strength may have differed, but comic writers of the time had found a formula and were exhausting it. At the same time the American economy was taking a turn for the better, a result of increased munitions production for our European allies; the country was less preoccupied with its economic woes and more concerned with the war. Comic editors began focusing their energies on ways to incorporate world politics into their titles and the demand for escapist literature decreased. The outcome of the situation was a new type of superhero, one who was more than patriotic – he was a soldier. The first of these super-patriots was The Shield, originally published in 1939. 30 He was soon followed by such characters as Fighting American, The Eagle, V-Man, The Star-Spangled Kid and, of course,
McCue, p. 26. Ibid. 30 Goulart, Encyclopedia, p. 330.
Uncle Sam.31 Perhaps the most well-known of these heroes was Captain America; the guinea pig of an Army experiment intended to create a cadre of supersoldiers, Steve Rogers was chemically enhanced and given an indestructible shield. He, like many of the other heroes of his type, was clad in the “stars and stripes” and deployed against German “ratzis” and “Japanazis” long before official U.S. involvement in the war.32 The coming of World War II was extremely fortuitous for comic book publishers. Writers finding their creative potential exhausted were suddenly overwhelmed with the possible plots a war and a superhero could inspire. The war not only provided new subject matter but it also increased comics sales by offering publishers a completely new audience. During the war, hundreds of thousands of comic books were shipped to U.S. troops in Europe and Japan.33 The books raised the morale of the troops and demonstrated the support of those back home. Many publishers plastered their books with patriotic slogans and advertisements for bond and paper drives. And while only a chosen number of heroes ever joined the fray, all were involved in churning support; even Bruce Wayne puts off his nightly escapades in order to sell war bonds.34 During the war years, superhero comics became the site for undenied and unmistakable propaganda; often the villains were grotesque caricatures of Japanese or Germans. The war affected the appearance of comics, as well. In consideration of their new audience, comic book covers steadily acquired more and more graphic sexual imagery; a typical wartime cover pictured a scantily clad or nude woman bound in rope by some Axis villain, the superhero struggling in the background to come to her aid.35
McCue, p. 27. William Savage, Comic Books and America: 1945- 1954. (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1990) p. 8. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was prophesied on the cover of National Comics#18 (Nov. ‘41), home of Uncle Sam. 33 Ibid., p. 11. 34 McCue, p. 27. 35 Savage, p. 12.
While the war breathed new life into the genre, it may have also spelled its temporary doom. Although it ended in 1945, World War II continued to be fought inside the pages of many comic books that had not yet published all of their backlogged stories. Some titles featured war stories for up to two years after the peace and by the time all of the heroes had returned to America, superhero comics were faced with another dilemma. Whereas the prewar writers were grasping for new scenarios, the post-war period found them in even deeper straits: Small wonder that by the time the war ended many superheroes found it hard to go back to busting bank robbers after the intensity of fighting Axis aims of world conquest. The war in comic books despite its early promise, its compulsive flag waving, and its incessant admonitions to keep ‘em flying was, in the end, lost...36
The proof of the war’s effect came in 1948 when superhero titles suffered an unprecedented decline in sales. Many hero titles began to fold during the few years following the war and some began turning to new genres. Among these was AllAmerican Comics, home of the Green Lantern, which became All-American Western with issue #103 in 1948.37 While some superheroes survived the loss of interest, Superman and Batman among the few, their adventures were lackluster and cliché. In the place of Superheroes, America turned to Western, Science Fiction and Horror comics. Over the following five years these alternative genres gained a sizable audience, and with that audience came critical observation. As early as 1940 comics had come under the scrutiny of parents and psychologists who were suspicious of the effects the books had on children. The controversy surrounding them gained more attention beginning around 1948 when children across the country were called upon to burn their comic books. That same year the Association for the
McCue, p. 28. Ibid.
Advancement of Psychotherapy held a symposium on comics; it was there that Dr. Frederic Wertham, senior psychiatrist for the New York Department of Hospitals, first gained public spotlight in his campaign against the medium.38 Wertham headed a crusade against comics that gained sizable public support and attention over the next few years. Some publishers were frightened out of the business entirely, while others attempted to assuage the concerns of parents by switching their focus from crime and horror stories (the most popular genres of the time) to teen love stories; plummeting sales indicated that the change was not a wise business decision. The situation came to a head in 1954, the year Wertham published his three hundred and ninety-seven page diatribe Seduction of the Innocent. The book condemned what Wertham defined as “crime comic books” a title which included any comic books “depict[ing] crime, whether the setting is urban, western, science fiction, jungle adventure or the realm of supermen, ‘horror’, or supernatural beings.”39 Associations are made throughout the book between comics and juvenile delinquency, sadism, theft, murder and rape, among other lurid allegations. And although his main focus centers on horror comics, Wertham attacks the superheroes, rather than the comics in which they appear: What is the social meaning of these supermen, superwomen, superlovers, superboys, supergirls, super-ducks, super-mice, supermagicians, super-safe crackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery? [...] Superheroes undermine respect for the law and hardworking decent citizens.40 Seduction of the Innocent, in combination with a general public outcry, led the Senate Subcommittee on the Judiciary to call Wertham and a host of comic writers and publishers to testify on the relationship between juvenile delinquency and comic
McCue. Dr. Frederic Wertham, M.D., Seduction of the Innocent, in McCue, p. 30. 40 Wertham, p. 15, from McCue, p. 31.
books. Among those who testified was William Gaines, son of M.C. and publisher of EC Comics. EC was at the time the most successful and infamous publishing company; it was responsible for such horror titles as Tales from the Crypt and Weird Science. Gaines made an impassioned appeal on behalf of the medium but in the end his efforts were for naught. A group of publishers took the liberty of creating two entities for self-regulation: the Comic Code Authority and the Comic Magazine Association of America. The creation of these organizations was ostensibly to beat the government to the punch and keep regulation inside the industry; it is widely believed, however, that the true purpose of these agencies was to ostracize Gaines and EC. Not only was EC the most successful company at the time, but Gaines was also bringing unwanted attention to the medium with his bold and biting editorial remarks. The Comic Code itself established strict guidelines for comics and their content and any publishing company that refused to join the CCA or the CMAA was blackballed by distributors. This is exactly what happened to EC and Gaines was forced to drop every title from his stable with the exception of the comedy magazine Mad. 41 The institution of the Comics Code was seen as the final blow to the beleaguered medium. Comics published after 1954 were bland and boring and many publishers left the industry. To make matters worse, the advent of television had a devastating effect on sales and the numbers of titles appearing on newsstands between 1954 and 1956 dropped from 650 to 250.42 The aftermath of the Wertham attacks is seen as the true end of the Golden Age of comics. The challenge of the few remaining publishers was to keep the medium afloat until a new wave of comic enthusiasm returned. Abandoning their horror, crime and, eventually, western titles, publishers fell back on the superheroes whose black and white morality was all that seemed acceptable to post-Wertham
Savage, p. 100. Ibid.
audiences. For a few years Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the only heroes to survive Wertham’s comic inquisition, merely relived and repeated the same old adventures. But the dawn of the next Age was right over the horizon.
Chapter Two: The Silver Age
The comic book landscape of the mid-fifties looked bleak. The Wertham scourges had had the most deleterious effect on the medium but other factors also influenced the superheroes’ decline. Television, although still in its infancy, diverted significant attention away from comics. Children of the day were more interested in Superman’s show than they were in his comic; the drudgery that program imposed on the Superman canon affected all remaining titles similarly, furthering the decay of artistic and narrative quality. Sales figures from this period also suggest that readers were simply not interested in the exploits of the superheroes anymore. After a brief decline, Western and Science Fiction titles enjoyed a surge in readership and the few surviving publishers responded by focusing their energies towards those genres. The shift in focus from superhero to Science Fiction and from comics to television left the hero market nearly devoid of innovation – but not completely. During this otherwise depressing period readers were introduced to Krypto, the Superdog pal of Superboy, and Ace the Bat-Hound, “a generic looking dog who battled criminals wearing a black mask over his eyes, presumably to prevent thugs from recognizing him and striking at him through his loved ones.” 43 The two were only the first in a long line of superpets, but the novelty of costumed animals wasn’t strong enough to reverse the slump. Ironically, the redemption of superhero comics arose from an attempt to please science fiction fans and nostalgic adults. The Silver Age of comics was born in DC’s Showcase#4 (Oct. 1956).44 This particular issue introduced a strategy, and subsequently a character, that would
Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones, The Comic Book Heroes (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1985) p. 31. 44 Showcase was a title that featured new concepts in one-issue appearances.
form the cornerstone of DC’s efforts to resuscitate the dying genre. Despite superheroes waning popularity, Showcase#4 brought back the Flash, a Golden Age hero whose power was superspeed – but there was a twist. Instead of presenting the adventures of Jay Garrick, the original Flash, DC updated the character and gave him a new alter ego. In the new version, police scientist Barry Allen is reading a comic book containing the adventures of the old Flash when he is caught in a freak accident involving lightning and a cabinet full of chemicals. As a result, he acquires superhuman speed and, appropriately, takes as his moniker the name Flash. “Here, then, was a hero who seemed to bespeak a return to the Golden Age, but who also, with a streamlined style and science-fictional milieu, was purely of the new decade.”45 The mere fact that an old character was revived and remolded suggests that by this point in comic history enough self-knowledge and nostalgia had developed around superheroes that an introspective creation like the new Flash could exist. Showcase#4 generated quite a bit of attention for DC and superheroes in general, but the time was still not quite right for them to make their comeback. The launching of Sputnik in October 1957 seemed to spur what had been a mild interest in Science Fiction into a full-blown craze. The nation’s fascination with science and space was reflected in comics, not only in the titles devoted to SciFi but in Superman’s and Batman’s books as well. The cancellation of the Superman television show in 1957, in combination with a concerted effort to inject Superman’s canon with a healthy dose of Sci-Fi, resulted in a revitalization of the character through creative expansion of his myth.46 Over the following three years a number of new elements would be added to the Man of Steel’s world. In order to accomplish the revamping of comic’s first costumed hero, Superman’s editor, Mort Weisinger, hired Captain Marvel writer and Sci-Fi aficionado Otto Binder; under
Jacobs and Jones, p. 5. Ibid., p. 22.
Binder’s influence Superman stories began to include such items as the City of Kandor and red kryptonite. The City of Kandor, first discovered in Action Comics #242, is actually a shrunken city of Krypton that escaped the planet’s destruction.47 The existence of this miniaturized Kryptonian city, complete with Kryptonian citizens and lore, gave Superman the opportunity to escape the pressures of Earth and behave like an average person.4848 Another new element in the Superman canon that, rather than personalize the hero, molded him to the Sci-Fi craze of the period, was red kryptonite. A variation on Superman’s one weakness, red kryptonite could change a Kryptonian into anything from a fire-breathing dragon to two different people. All of these new features of Superman’s myth helped break the character away from the tired traditions of the Golden Age and presented writers with a host of new possible story lines. DC expanded the potential of the character by publishing Imaginary Stories, a title that allowed writers the freedom of altering the canon without permanent results. The science fiction fad of the late fifties became a driving force in DC’s editorial policy. Aside from the influence seen in comics like Superman and Showcase, DC also released a handful of new titles, all of them devoted to space adventures and science fiction. Although these titles were successful, as was the editorial policy in regards to Superman and Flash, the Batman titles of the period suffered terribly. The shadowy, mysterious atmosphere of the Batman stories of the forties was replaced in the late fifties by an ill-suited air of Science Fiction. Under the influence of Sci-Fi, Batman underwent ridiculous mutations (e.g. the Bizarre Batman Genie), met alien enemies, participated in temporal and dimensional travel, and even acquired a “Bat family”. Besides Ace the Bat Hound, Batman was
Jacobs and Jones. This is also the issue in which Superman fights his first extraterrestrial foe, Braniac. Ibid. The individualization of Superman was bolstered in that same issue by the introduction of the Fortress of Solitude, an Antarctic retreat where Kal-El (Superman’s given name) could relax and be himself.
accompanied in his adventures by Bat-Woman (1956), Bat-Girl (1961) and, in an interesting twist, the Bat-Ape (1958).49 While such additions may seem frivolous, they are significant to an extent; the development of variations on a heroic model by gender, age or species, while experimented with somewhat in the Golden Age, became a natural aspect of the genre throughout the following decade. Despite some innovations, the Science Fiction policy that worked so well and was so well received with Superman and Flash functioned as a detriment to the Batman character. By the end of this period in the hero’s development, he had been reduced to such exclamations as “Great Scott! Another bizarre creature with a fantastic weapon!”50 The return of the Flash and the changes in Superman revived the flagging interest in superhero titles and in 1959 the Flash was granted his own title. With the success of this revived character editor Julius Schwartz was prompted, in classic generic style, to repeat the formula in the hope that another revived hero would fare as well as the Scarlet Speedster. The character he chose was the Green Lantern, a Golden Age hero originally powered by a ring that could perform miracles; the ring itself acquired power from an ancient lantern. The new Green Lantern, premiering in Showcase#22 (Oct. 1959), was an intergalactic police officer and his ring this time was powered by a race of telepaths known as the Guardians of the Universe.51 By attaching his origins to space, Green Lantern’s writers could fashion his adventures in the Sci-Fi mold of the day without creating the dissonance that such techniques evoked when applied to such earthly characters as Batman. As a result, Green Lantern represents not only the first successful crossover between the two genres but is also exemplary of the complete infusion of Sci-Fi themes into the comic industry at
Jacobs and Jones, p. 30. Ibid. from Detective Comics #287 (Jan. 1960), in Jacobs and Jones, p. 38. 51 McCue, p. 38.
this point. The results of a poll published in Green Lantern#3 (Feb. 1961) revealed that Green Lantern’s popularity had eclipsed that of the Flash, Batman and Superman.52 By 1960, it seemed clear that the comeback of superheroes was underway. Julius Schwartz underlined this phenomenon by reviving one of the most popular titles of the Golden Age. The Justice League of America appeared in The Brave and the Bold#28 (Mar. 1960) as an incarnation of the Justice Society, the first, and similarly named, superteam. Although most of the members of the Justice League differed from the original, it was basically the same team and the writing chores were appropriately assigned to the man who had created and written The Justice Society of America, Gardner Fox. Along with the other revivals, the Justice League was a great success and was awarded its own title in December of that year. Interestingly, nostalgic readers of the original comic, not children, comprised the JLA’s main readership; proof of this came in a flood of letters to Fox and Schwartz, praising the return of the greatest team-up yet known. 53 A year after the reappearance of the Justice League, Schwartz assigned Fox to revive yet another of his own creations; this time it was Hawkman, who, in his new guise, was a police officer from the planet Thanagar visiting earth to observe police techniques. Hawkman was differentiated from the other, Science Fiction oriented, Golden Age revivals by his wife and equal partner in crime fighting, Hawkgirl. The premiere of this couple in The Brave and the Bold#34 (Mar. 1961) marked the first appearance of married superheroes. Despite this innovation, as well as popular support from older readers, Hawkman and Hawkgirl failed to capture the imaginations of the
Jacobs and Jones, p. 41. Ibid., p. 42.
younger readers who represented the great majority of DC’s sales base; they were canceled after three issues.54 Six months after the debut of Hawkman, DC published a comic that would alter the perception of the new pantheon of heroes completely. In Flash#123 (Sept. 1961), Barry Allen accidentally stumbles into another world, a world which is parallel to ours but which “vibrates at a different speed”. On this second earth, Allen encounters Jay Garrick, the original Flash. It is explained that the most significant difference between the two Earths is the year in which costumed heroes first appeared; to this end, Garrick is older and graying about the temples, although still crimefighting. 55 In this one story, DC effectively restored the existence of all their old heroes; by inventing the Earth-1/Earth-2 theory, the company acknowledged the old heroes and created the possibility of their return. In the summer of 1961, DC was riding the new wave for all it was worth. Not only were the new heroes successful, but DC had no competition in the genre whatsoever; most of the remaining publishing houses were still milking the Sci-Fi fad and printing some Romance and Monster titles on the side. The return of the heroes did not go unnoticed, however. During a golf match between DC publisher Jack Liebowitz and Timely Publishing owner Martin Goodman, the success of Liebowitz’s Justice League was discussed. Evidently Goodman, whose company published a few floundering Monster and Romance titles, was intrigued by the comeback of costumed heroes and assigned the head writer and editor of his comics line, Stan Lee, to imitate the JLA and create a superteam of their own. The result came in November that fall when Fantastic Four#1 hit the newsstands. At first glance this comic did not seem
McCue, p. 39. Hawkman was given another, equally abortive, shot a year later. It was not until 1963, in his third attempt, did the character catch on. 55 Ibid.
extraordinary. Visually, the book was substandard, suffering from rushed drawing, poor inking, and coloring that was muddled by the overuse of grays. The material itself seemed like a rehashing of old formulas; superhero teams were certainly not a new concept. The team was led by Richard Reed, a character whose superpower, stretchability, had already been ascribed to two other heroes, the Golden Age Elongated Man, and the very recent Plastic Man. Ben Grimm, also known as the Thing, resembled any one of the myriad of monsters populating comics of the day and the Human Torch seemed like a revived, albeit human, version of Timely’s Golden Age android of the same name.56 There was, however, something very unique about these characters. Unlike most costumed heroes, the Fantastic Four had no desire or need to live under alter egos and initially appeared in their street clothes; rather than alienating the readers, these techniques actually humanized the characters. This humanization was achieved in other ways, as well. Previously, heroes had been good natured and friendly people, especially when they appeared in superteams where cooperation and camaraderie were the two most important qualities one could have. The Fantastic Four challenged that convention by portraying a team in which group harmony was seldom, if ever achieved; bickering constantly erupted between the adolescent Torch and the horribly disfigured Thing. In fact, in the character of the Thing, Lee explores for the first time in comics what effect superpowers could have on a person. Until 1961, no comic writer would have suggested that acquiring strange powers might drive a wedge between a man and his society, bringing him more misery than contentment. But...the Thing had paid for his powers with an unalterably monstrous appearance; his enormous strength could not console him for the loss of his humanity.
Resenting the world as strongly as he felt bound to protect it, he had to struggle as fiercely against his own bitterness and self-pity as against any villain. 57 The attempt to show the less romantic side of superheroism was to be the first example of real characterization in comics and the greatest contribution of Lee and Marvel Comics to the genre.58 The new approach Lee took in regard to the actual crafting of his books was less significant than his characterization, but innovative nonetheless. Generally, a writer would submit a finished script to the penciler, who would then draw the comic accordingly. In Lee’s method, he and his penciler, Jack Kirby, would plan the plot together and only when the entire story had been conceived would Kirby then draw the action; when the entire comic had been drawn, Lee would write in the dialogue and captions. Not only did this new strategy free Lee from the usually onerous task of preplotting, allowing him to explore his characterization more fully, but it also took advantage of the interplay between text and image; never before had the verbal and visual components of the comics been so artfully utilized.59 The response to Fantastic Four was, if not overwhelming, very enthusiastic. Lee’s new approach to costumed heroes seemed to attract the attention of some older readers and, most importantly, adolescents. Bored with a DC style they felt was childish and cliché, teenagers began writing unsolicited letters of support to Lee. The letters pages of comics were a convention introduced by Mort Weisinger in 1958 with his Superman titles.60 Up until this point, DC’s letter pages had not been used nor taken very seriously. Lee, on the other hand, quickly instituted a letters page that was both intimate (Dear Stan and Jack began all the letters) and responsive. By issue number four, Lee and Kirby had bent to the desires of their fans; the Four now had skintight costumes and a “scientific” headquarters. In
Jacobs and Jones, p. 50. Timely would change its name to Marvel in 1962. 59 McCue, p.42. 60 Jacobs and Jones, p. 25.
addition, issue four saw the return of Prince Namor of Atlantis, otherwise known as the Sub-Mariner. His appearance is especially important because Namor was not a reinterpretation of the original character – he was the same Golden Age seafarer whose ambiguous morality and questionable motives had awarded him the distinction of being the comics’ first anti-hero.61 As defined by Jacobs, the comics’ anti-hero was “a character unaware of his heroic role, not caring much for human society, but nonetheless sympathetic to the reader.”62 Lee and Kirby, heartened by the success of the Fantastic Four and Prince Namor, decided to introduce yet another antihero to their comics line. In May, 1962, The Hulk, a green skinned, dim-witted rampaging monster, debuted. Here was yet another scientist, mild-mannered Bruce Banner, who was afflicted with
superpowers as a result of an accident in the lab. The Hulk was set apart from all the others by powers that dulled his mind and filled it with constant thoughts of destruction.63 Although The Hulk looked even deeper into the chasm that physical superiority creates between “hero and humanity”, the character was handled unwisely and sales of the title remained mediocre.64 It is important to note that the seeds of the following decades lie here in Marvel’s first titles, despite their poor production quality, overwrought scripts and shabby art. Whereas the Golden Age heroes, as well as DC’s Silver Age lines, depicted characters who were of noble virtue and unquestionable morals, the new Marvel approach humanized the characters and, consequently, began a demythification process; no longer would heroes be as unapproachable ideologically as gods, at least in the Marvel titles. DC,
Jacobs and Jones, p. 52. Ibid., p. 95. 63 McCue, p. 44. 64 Jacobs and Jones, p. 54. In three of the Hulk’s first six issues he was pitted against Communist stereotypes.
on the other hand, shunned this new characterization and continued to focus its energy on tight scripting, concise art and solid storytelling. Between 1962 and 1963, Marvel Comics released eleven new titles, all of them introducing some new character type or approach. With the teenaged character Spiderman, Marvel not only strengthened its adolescent fan base, but also continued its foray into the realm of the reluctant hero. In his origin story, Peter Parker is a nerdy science student who gains superpowers from the bite of a radioactive spider. Instead of pledging himself to battling evil everywhere, as some heroes were prone to do, he decides instead to use his powers to gain wealth and fame. Waiting for his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, Spidey watches as a thug runs by and flippantly refuses to help the pursuing guard; when Peter’s Uncle Ben is later killed by that same thug, Spiderman finally understands the responsibility that comes with his powers and assumes them reluctantly.65 Spiderman spends his first eight issues grappling with his dilemma; not only does he battle his own ambivalence, a fight that would continue for many years, but he also acts “unheroically” when he beats up citizens who “look” suspicious and considers joining the side of evil, embodied in Dr. Doom. Even the supporting characters of Spiderman act in a manner at that point unknown. J. Jonah Jameson, the editor of the newspaper for whom Peter Parker works as a photographer, is most likely the first comic character to be opposed to superheroes he sees as law breaking vigilantes. All of these factors, including the fact that Spidey was the first real teenaged hero who wasn’t a sidekick, solidified Spiderman’s popularity among Marvel fans. Marvel finished off the year 1962 with a new character who was more than a hero – he was a god. When lame physician Don Blake finds and handles Mjolinir,
Amazing Adult Fantasy #15 (1962), in Jacobs and Jones, p. 62.
Thor, the son of Odin and thunder god of Norse myth, is reincarnated. 66 The concept of a god-hero was certainly new to comics, but Lee and Kirby may have bitten of more than they could chew. Thor was an intriguing character but his godliness, the most unique aspect of his persona, was relatively unexplored and mishandled in the first few years of publication.67 These drawbacks would have doomed a title any other time but in those “hero-hungry” days, Thor sold moderately well. Although the new success of superheroes encouraged the return of publishers like Charlton, Dell, Harvey and the Mighty Comics Group, all the great developments of the Silver Age were products of the Big Two. By 1963, the Silver Age battle between DC and Marvel was fully engaged. DC’s strategy for the early part of the decade was comprised mainly of further investigations into the possibilities created by its multiple Earths theory. One of the more popular results of this formula was the yearly team up, beginning in 1963, of the Justice League and a revived Justice Society. DC also appeased older fans by releasing, for a short time, new adventures from Golden Age favorites. Conversely, Marvel boasted a limited stable of heroes and had only recently solidified their “flawed character” formula; Stan Lee compensated for Marvel’s late start in the industry by launching a marketing campaign based on self-aggrandizement and fan participation. Nineteen sixty-three also saw Marvel introduce a host of new characters afflicted with a variety of handicaps. 68 In Tales of Suspense#39 (Mar. 1963), munitions dealer Tony Stark visits Vietnam to observe his products in action. Besides presenting the earliest portrayal of the conflict in Vietnam (the Gulf of Tonkin incident hadn’t even occurred yet) this issue also shows Stark critically
Jacobs and Jones, p. 88, Mjolinir is Thor’s hammer. Ibid. 68 Ibid., p. 70.
wounded by a land mine. All that saves him is an iron body suit that sustains his weakened heart and gives him superstrength; ironically, Stark needs the suit to survive and is confined in it forever. Iron Man is a hero that is not only flawed, but also crippled.69 The formula was applied again shortly after with Daredevil. Matt Murdock is a costumed adventurer that takes to the rooftops at night and battles criminals with one interesting handicap; he’s blind. The innovative quality of characters such as Iron Man and Daredevil lies less in their handicap and more in the treatment of that handicap. Crippled heroes were not a new concept. For example, the original Daredevil was mute, and the blind Dr. Midnight overcame his weakness with the help of infrared goggles.70 However, the handicaps of Golden Age heroes were merely gimmicks used by their writers to differentiate them from other heroes; only in the Marvel titles were those physical obstacles presented as the central aspect of the character. Single character titles weren’t the only new creations of 1963. Marvel joined the “superteam” market with their version of the Justice League, The Avengers (Sep. 1963), a standard teaming up of familiar heroes.71 Undoubtedly more intriguing were DC’s and Marvel’s parallel attempts to innovate the superhero team itself. In a strange coincidence that most agree cannot be ascribed to plagiarism, both DC and Marvel, within three months of one another, introduced new hero teams that were strikingly similar. DC’s Doom Patrol, labeled “The World’s Strangest Superheroes”, was comprised of heroes who, as a result of various accidents, were freakish in appearance and power; they were led by a wheelchair bound genius named the Chief. Marvel’s X-Men, “The Strangest Superheroes of All”, were a group of young adventurers who, as a result of genetic abnormality, were superpowered mutants;
Jacobs and Jones, p. 89. Goulart, Encyclopedia, p. 89. 71 Jacobs and Jones, p. 108.
they were led by a wheelchair bound psychic genius named Professor X. 72 The nominal similarities between these two titles was heightened when, in the same month, DC and Marvel introduced their teams’ arch foes, The Brotherhood of Evil and The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, respectively.73 These two titles are useful in comparing the different approaches to comics by the two most powerful companies in the medium. DC’s Doom Patrol represented a departure from the norm, taking the company deeper into the realm of the alienated hero than ever before; however, the focus was still more squarely centered on presentation and polish. Marvel’s approach emphasized characterization and the interplay between team members, to the detriment of art, writing, and, in this case, theme; the alienation of the mutant X-Men from a fearful society is not examined in much depth until the mid-seventies. Taking cues from DC’s success with revived heroes, Marvel revived Timely’s Captain America in the spring of 1964. Like Namor, Steve Rogers was the original character, but unlike the Atlantean, he was human. This created a challenge for Stan Lee: how to revive an aged hero and incorporate him into the slowly growing universe of Marvel Comics. The answer was found in an ice block. Frozen for twenty years, Captain America is revived by the Avengers in the same state in which he was trapped.74 The return of the hero was obviously a DC inspired nod to Golden Age fans but the fashion in which Lee accomplished the revival was exemplary of the growing effort to construct one unified Marvel “universe”. Whereas DC characters were separated by different “Earths” and countless centuries, the Marvel characters all existed in the same place, often the same city, New York. Marvel characters frequently crossed over to other characters’ titles; the result of these crossovers, regardless of their participants, was often a battle.75
Jacobs and Jones, p. 100. Ibid., p. 109. 74 Ibid., p. 94. 75 Jacobs and Jones, p. 107.
DC had their share of innovation in 1964, especially in the Aquaman stories. The first wedding between heroes bound Aquaman to his bride, Mera; shortly afterwards Mera’s delivery of Aquababy became comics’ first birth.76 The Batman titles of that year finally broke out of the dying Sci-Fi mold and returned the Dark Knight to his pugilist detective mode for what proved to be a short time. Perhaps the most interesting new DC concept of nineteen sixty-four was the new supergroup The Teen Titans; the team consisted only of sidekicks, including Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad and Wonder Girl.77 Despite these fresh contributions to the genre, DC was still hampered by an editorial policy that forbade any story from running over one issue. The restriction limited the writer’s and artist’s ability to convey character and depth in their plots. Marvel followed this policy as well, until The Hulk (in Tales to Astonish) broke the standard and ushered in a new style. Each Hulk adventure would end with another cliffhanger, whetting the appetite of the readers in the fashion of old movie serials. Initially not all Marvel titles would incorporate this technique but as continuity became more important to fans, so did the continuing storyline.78 The role of fans in the development of the genre cannot be overlooked. Ever since the first letters page in 1958, comic fans have had the opportunity to criticize, compliment and, ultimately, shape their favorite titles. While DC’s readership was usually more interested in nit picking about continuity and art flaws, Lee built an intimate and fiercely loyal following. Marvel letters were loaded with inside references and character nicknames (“Webhead”: Spidey, “Stretcho”: Richard Reed) that solidified the fan base and lent credit to reader’s voices. Marvel acknowledged the importance of their fans in 1965 when Roy Thomas, a loyal and long-time comic
Ibid., p. 100. Ibid., p. 105. 78 Ibid., p. 95.
reader and letter writer, was hired as their second writer.79 The implications of Thomas’ employment are greater when examined in combination with the publication Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. Published that same year, Feiffer’s book was the first thorough history of Golden Age comic books. The occurrence of these two events indicates the institutionalization of superhero comics; the art form was now old enough to be historically critiqued and directed by its own students. Marvel acknowledged this self-awareness in The Fantastic Four’s Third Giant Sized Annual (1965). In this issue the wedding of Sue and Richard Reed attracted a gathering of forty-two of Marvel’s heroes and villains; the event was billed as “The world’s most colossal collection of costumed characters, crazily cavorting and capering in continual combat.”80 During the sixties superhero comics continually received attention, especially in the popular media. The Batman television show premiered in 1966 and was an instant hit. Batman wasn’t the first superhero to make the crossover into television, but the show’s impact was astounding. Comic book characters became the focus of “magazine articles, the stars of Saturday morning cartoons, and a fixture of Wednesday and Thursday night television.” Comic sales skyrocketed not only for DC and Marvel but also for all the companies. The self-parodying, exaggerated humor of the show had its effect on the face of comics and a new style known as “camp” began.81 Besides the changes in the Batman titles themselves, the first recognized result of the camp phase came with the introduction of Metamorpho, the Element Man; the character’s writers purposefully injected his adventures with corny dialogue and “tongue-in-cheek grotesqueness”. Element Man was followed by the
Jacobs and Jones, p. 72. Up until that point Lee wrote everything himself. Ibid., p. 113. 81 Ibid., p. 115.
“Inferior Five”, a more blatantly self-parodying superhero team that included such members as Awkwardman and Dumb Bunny.82 The camp phase would not really affect Marvel’s comics, as they chugged ahead on the steady course set by Lee. There would be little innovation for the company in the latter part of the decade, with one notable exception. During a Fantastic Four saga involving the Inhumans in 1966, comics were introduced to their first black superhero, Black Panther.83 This seemingly innocuous innovation was actually a revolution of sorts; the curious and almost absolute absence of African-Americans in comic book America is noted by comic book scholar William Savage: “...there seemed to be no Blacks in comic-book America: no Black heroes, super or otherwise; no Black citizens living in Gotham or Metropolis; no Blacks out west; no blacks anywhere in the United States...”84 The creation of Black Panther began to correct this failing; more heroes of color would follow and Black Panther himself would later go on to become a member of the Avengers.85 The only other major contribution from Marvel Comics during the end of the decade would come from artist Jim Steranko. Steranko’s approaches to layouts were the first to take in the whole page. His art, which first appeared in Marvel comics in the mid-sixties, would pave the way for more exciting experimentation in the use of panels and whole pages to convey greater meaning.86 Although DC Comics was fully submerged in the camp craze for most of 1967, they somehow managed to create “the grittiest costumed hero yet conceived.” The story of acrobat Boston Brand appeared in Strange Adventures#205 (Oct. 1967).
Jacobs and Jones, p. 105. Fantastic Four 52 (1966), in Jacobs and Jones, p. 124. 84 Savage, p. 75. 85 Milestone Comics, a subsidiary of DC, is a new company dedicated to the publication of adventures centered on superheroes of color. 86 Jacobs and Jones, p. 145. Comic scholar, writer and artist Will Eisner used full-page layouts but not in panel style.
Brand is murdered in the first issue but his soul lives on; he is granted the power of possession and his adventures center on the mystery surrounding his death. The “highly realistic” manner in which Deadman’s material was presented made the title especially unique. Aside from the hero himself, there were no aliens, mutants or superpowered beings in Deadman’s world. Instead his adventures were populated with such real people as drug dealers, immigrant smugglers and various other criminals. Deadman was further detached from normal superheroes in his motives. Most superheroes were pledged to defeat crime and protect society, regardless of their enthusiasm. This hero, on the other hand, was dedicated solely to vengeance, a more morbid yet realistic calling. The mature nature of the work was complimented by the art of Neal Adams, whose detailed penciling helped Deadman gain the moniker “the first truly adult comic book in the costumed hero genre.”87 The cancellation of the Batman show in 1968 augured the end of the prosperous Silver Age. The overall sales of comics dropped for the first time since the fifties, despite a few desperate innovations on the part of DC and Marvel to reinvigorate the genre. In 1968, DC killed its Doom Patrol, presenting the first death of a hero (Deadman was never actually “dead”).88 Marvel inaugurated a few new concepts as well, including the first villain to have his own comic (Dr. Doom) and the first Asian superhero (Sunfire), but neither helped flagging sales.89 The woes of the comic industry in the late sixties were the result of myriad factors. Marvel and DC had both increased the price of their comics from 12 to 15 cents, moving them slightly farther out of the reach of some children. Both companies suffered from weaknesses in their respective editorial policies; while DC
McCue, p. 50. Jacobs and Jones, p. 105. 89 Joseph Tirella, ‘Toon Black, Toon Strong.’ Vibe Magazine n.d., p. 102.
struggled to make up for their lack of characterization, Marvel fell into a malaise initiated by their phenomenal success. Marvel’s problem can be traced to the moment Marvel surpassed DC’s sales in 1967. After this point Marvel rested its laurels on the strongest innovation it had brought to comics – characterization. Where once their approach had been unique, they now fell into cliché: [Marvel’s] characters had to be either [sic] hotheaded, alienated, bitter, frivolous, hard as nails (if female), or slow and genial. Between any two heroes, a conflict had to be contrived where there had formerly been no reason for one to exist...character nuance was achieved through forced thought bubbles or overwrought captions.90 DC’s problems were aggravated by an organized breakdown of their editorial stable system. Before the reshuffling, artists and writers were set in editorial teams; the reorganization resulted in irregular and ill matched pairings that produced disastrous results.91 Perhaps the most damaging development of the late sixties in the sales of superhero comics was the rise of alternative, independent comics and direct market sales. Before 1969, one could only purchase comics in pharmacies or on newsstands. The efforts of a few determined fans encouraged comic publishers to sell comics directly to small, fan-owned stores, cutting out the distributor. The introduction of these shops had a revolutionary effect on comics. Most locations that had previously carried comics usually stocked the most popular DC and Marvel titles. Occasionally titles from the smaller companies appeared but many newsstand owners were unwilling to risk shelf space with products that might not sell. With the introduction of direct market sales, not only did the smaller companies have an outlet for their titles but the experimental and psychedelic comics of such artists as R. Crumb and
Jacobs and Jones, p. 209. Ibid., p. 153.
Denis Kitchen did also. Many of these “underground comix”, as they were known, did not comply with the Comics Code and often contained explicit sexual and drug related references that were intended only for adults. The “comix” were the first American comics directed specifically at older audiences and the effects were deleterious to superhero titles.92 One of the more immediate effects the independent comics had on the Big Two was the luring away of their most promising craftsmen. Artists and writers had no ownership rights at either of the two giants. Ownership of one’s creations proved to be an attractive proposition and a wave of DC’s old guard left in a battle over privileges.93 As a result of the serious decline in superhero sales, most companies began exploring other genres, as they had in the fifties. DC reduced its overall number of titles and a few companies folded altogether. Marvel canceled The X-Men in 1970 and began a long, fruitless battle to reinvigorate their other titles. According to some comic scholars, 1970 marked the end of the Silver Age and the beginning of a Dark Age of comics. In the words of Will Jacobs: Gone were the ingeniously plotted short stories, the unified editorial visions, the colorful and decorative art, and most of all the sense of fun 94 ...Thus from 1970 to 1973, the doors were thrown open to vigilantes and barbarians, gods and jungle lords, monsters and pulp heroes, every stripe of hero and antihero, both original and adapted, in a mad scramble to find something that would keep comics alive.95 One outcome of this “mad scramble” was DC’s experiment with social relevance. Comics were tied to social realities of the time beginning in Green Lantern/Green Arrow#76 (May, 1970). In this issue the intergalactic Green Lantern
Gary Groth and Robert Fiore, eds. The New Comics. (New York: Berkley Books, 1988). p. 5. Jacobs and Jones, p. 151. 94 Ibid., p. 154. 95 Ibid., p. 168.
is confronted by an elderly African-American man with the accusation that he had helped various alien races of different skin tones but never once had he helped any Black people. This acknowledgement of the general failing of comics to deal with such everyday topics as racism led the title to explore a variety of such concerns over the course of its fourteen issue run. In each episode, a different contemporary topic was explored; the two sides were represented by the conservative Lantern and the radical Arrow. The success of the philosophical move spurred Marvel to alter their Captain America. Not only does he take on a Black partner, the Falcon, but in a conspiracy story reminiscent of Watergate, Captain America also loses his faith and retires.96 Marvel also applied “relevance” to Spiderman with more interesting results. In Spiderman#95-#97 the topic of drug abuse is discussed and portrayed. Those issues broke the rules of the Comic Code and were the first from the major companies to run without the Code’s approval since its inception in 1954. Realizing that some of its regulations were outdated, the CCA loosened its restrictions to “allow more freedom to the industry.” Among the changes to the Code, the injunctions against “walking dead, ...vampires and vampirism, ghouls,... and werewolfism” were lifted.97 By 1972 the relevance fad had begun to wane but its effects were lasting. Not only did they result in a relaxation of the Comics Code, but more power was granted to writers and artists, further broadening characterization and directing comics into a more somber, serious direction. On the part of DC the more adult approach took form in the Batman titles. Finally free of the camp and Sci-Fi trappings, Deadman artist Neal Adams returned the character to his psychotic, night stalking origins. Robin is sent away to college and the detective and vigilante aspects of the hero are highlighted more than ever
Jacobs and Jones, p. 157. His retirement as Captain America is temporary. Ibid., p.161,198. Torture and cannibalism were still taboo.
before. 98 Unfortunately, the book suffered from the same decline in quality of writing, art, cover design, coloring, packaging, and printing that plagued the rest of the comic industry during the seventies. The only exception to the general blandness that besieged comics was the introduction in 1975 of a new Marvel superteam. Reviving the five years defunct XMen, Marvel introduced a new team led by Professor X. In Giant Sized X-Men#1 (Summer 1975), Professor X recruits a new group of mutants to save the old team; most of the old members leave by the end of the issue. The persecution the new XMen suffered as a result of their otherness set them apart from standard heroes. This “otherness”, embodied in their mutantism and foreignness of birth, was the comics’ way of addressing the more sensitive issue of racism. In a variation on a standard comic theme, the new X-Men rarely go fight crime – they are usually the object of an attack themselves. In addition, writer Chris Claremont’s female characters are unapologetically stronger than his males, another first in comics. Aside from these strengths, the new X-Men fared so well because it was not subject to the constant mix-up of artist/ writer teams that afflicted so many other titles.99 The new X-Men continued to be one of the only bright lights of the late seventies and its success would eventually help to bring superhero comics out of their slump. As the decade dragged on, the downward spiral in which hero titles had been caught became more severe. In an attempt to boost sales, Marvel and DC flooded the market with a slew of new titles from a range of genres. Between 1975 and 1978 the Big Two turned out at least eighty-five new comic titles in addition to at least fifteen reprints and magazine format titles (one hundred combined) in varying genres: Costumed Hero, Science Fiction, Sword and Sorcery, Kung Fu, War, Horror, Humor, movie and TV tie-ins. Of all one hundred, more than half were canceled within the
Jacobs and Jones, p. 169. Ibid, p. 248. Artist John Byrne replaces Dave Cockrum from 1977 -81.
first ten issues, over two thirds within fifteen issues and only seven survived until 1985. 100 The two companies felt that by saturating the readers with new titles, lagging sales could be reversed. The strategy backfired mainly because the books were ill conceived, poorly realized and rushed; creators rarely stayed on their creations and good writers were rarely paired with good artists and vice versa. Realizing that drastic measures had to be taken, both DC and Marvel hired new personnel for their front offices. DC hired Jenette Kahn as publisher in 1976 and Marvel brought on new editor-in-chief Jim Shooter in 1978.101 When Shooter and Kahn took the respective helms of the two biggest companies in the comic industry, the superhero genre was over forty years old. Ever since its birth in Action Comics #1, the genre has continued to grow and change, constantly refining its vocabulary of characters, scenarios, locales, et cetera. Superhero characters were initially borrowed from other media, such as film and radio. They displayed a one-dimensional perception of the world around them most evident in their black-and-white morality. Heroes could be men or women but the heroines were always subservient to their male counterparts; heroine comics were also the site of veiled sexuality. All heroes had secret origins and alter egos to protect their identity from their enemies. Many characters operated in teams or with sidekicks and sometimes the sidekicks themselves were the heroes. The first superheroes possessed a wide array of powers that set them apart from other humans. These basic units continued to evolve undisturbed until the early 1950s when they were interrupted by the investigations of Frederic Wertham and the House Committee on UnAmerican activities. The self-imposed Comic Code restricted the
Jacobs and Jones, p. 242. Ibid., p. 244. Shooter had begun his association with Marvel as a writer when he was thirteen years old.
industry’s creative possibilities and many companies went out of business. The companies that survived turned to other genres but all titles suffered from poor sales. The Silver Age of comics ushered in many changes to the status quo of the genre. Older characters were revived and reinterpreted while others were molded to the space and Science Fiction crazes of the time. Stan Lee reinvigorated the archetypical hero by instituting a second level of characterization. His two dimensional heroes were able to act more like real humans; some even began perceiving their powers as a nuisance. The allegiances of the characters were more difficult to decipher because their moral schema were clouded with ambiguity by heightened humanity. The world of the heroes was practically devoid of persons of color until 1967 when Black Panther began adventuring. Women evolved in this period and became more independent and freethinking. Some heroes got married; others had children. In the late sixties and early seventies, heroes were written for adult audiences and contemporary issues were finally discussed with candor. The dimensions of the comic books had remained constant but their content had become more sophisticated. The quality of both writing and art had been raised from the rudimentary level established in the Golden Age. Although full panel layouts were experimented with, many creators chose to relay their narratives in standard three row by three column structure. Shooter and Kahn both assumed their responsibilities in the late seventies, a period in which “mainstream comics reached their nadir.” 102 Unskilled writing, sloppy art, and poor printing processes all contributed to their downfall. Inflation increased prices and continued to drive comics out of the range of young children.103 The early 1980’s brought reform in the area of artist/writer benefits, including
Jacobs and Jones, p. 248. Jacobs and Jones, p. 248.
royalties; creator rights helped retain talent at the big companies but direct ownership was still not offered, as it was by the new independent companies. Unlike the “underground comix” of the late 1960s, these new independent companies were reaching a larger and continually growing audience, a result of developed direct market procedures.104 By the end of the seventies, the economic crises of comic publishing companies began to reach critical proportions. If comics, and especially superhero comics, were to survive into the next decade, publishers would have to effect drastic and radical changes in the form and content of both the medium and the genre.
Ibid., p. 261.
Chapter Three: The Genesis of Watchmen and the Revival /Revision of the Genre
Just as things looked worse for DC and Marvel, a glimmer of hope was born. In 1979, Shooter assigned newcomer Frank Miller to the penciling chores of Daredevil; he brought with him a gritty style and a realistic presentation that had never before been employed with superheroes. His artistic work on the title was so impressive that after two years Miller was given the writing tasks as well. Miller took advantage of the rare opportunity and began to produce high quality work in a style that was completely fresh. His dialogue was crisp and his captions were smaller than normal; the effect was drastically different from the typically verbose writing in many other Marvel titles. In addition, Miller created a world for Daredevil that was full of real people and real crime. He portrayed this world in a frank and often brutal way, working within the tradition of realistic violence which began with Deadman, and was carried through the seventies first by a revamped Batman, then by a vicious Wolverine.105 Miller’s work on Daredevil, proved to have lasting effects on the genre and is viewed by some as the beginning of a new age of comics. This “new age” was mainly concerned with reaching a more sophisticated, intelligent audience. However, the content of the majority of superhero titles was mired in a period of stagnation. The publishers ignored the problem and instead focused their creative efforts in adjusting the format of comic books to allow for the more explicit and adult oriented subject matter that had sprung from Miller’s work. Shooter attempted to rectify the industry’s dilemma by introducing the “graphic novel” in 1982.106 “Graphic novels” were set apart from regular comics by
Jacobs and Jones, p. 267. McCue, p. 61. “The Death of Captain Marvel” is the first.
their magazine format, glossy paper, hard covers, compiled reprints and higher prices. Not everyone in the business appreciated the new format, though: A graphic novel is a long comic book. The term is essentially a reflection of the industry’s yearning for unearned status. Rather than improving the image of comics by improving comics themselves, it tries to enhance its status through semantic jiggery-pokery[sic]. Throughout most of the world, a comics story or collection of stories in book form is referred to as an album.107 DC’s original versions of the graphic novel were the mini- and maxi-series. They were still considered “graphic novels” but more often contained original material. In comparison to regular comics the mini- and maxi-series’ longer, self-enclosed narratives allowed writers some freedom and gave the stories themselves a beginning, middle and end – narrative closure that was missing from continuous plot lines. The first of DC’s maxi-series, which are twelve issues long, was Camelot 3000 (1982). This book had the distinction of being one of the first DC titles to be available only in comic shops.108 Although “graphic novels” were not always very different from regular books, publishers played up the novelty of the form and raised their prices accordingly. The subsequent shift towards older consumers compelled editors to request more intelligent, modern and, ultimately, more realistic plots and characters. Because many “graphic novels” contained reprints of old stories, their narrative capabilities remained virtually unexplored. Publishers combed monthly titles for material that might take advantage of the unique structure of the new format. One of the more innovative new titles of the early eighties was Love and Rockets, written by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez and published by Fantagraphics
Groth and Fiore, p. 5. McCue, p. 61. The reliance on these specialty shops increased every year as comics began to disappear from drugstores, supermarkets and newsstands.
Comics. The comic, which premiered in 1981 and ends its run this year, centers on the lives of two Mexican-American sisters. The writing and art of the title are well done but the world in which these sisters are set makes this comic especially intriguing; although the stories are ostensibly about the sisters’ everyday lives, superheroes inhabit the deep background.109 Many other hero comics of the early eighties also employed this approach. Instead of focusing on the actions of the superheroes, stories began to foreground the lives of ordinary people and spectators; subsequently, a new level of characterization was achieved. Not all hero titles made the foray into secondary characterization, though. Some, like Daredevil, began to explore the concept of vigilantism and to depict violence more realistically. By 1984 superhero comics, and comics in general, had returned to prosperity, even though there had been relatively little innovation to affect the change. That year Alan Moore, one of the many British comic writers who had come seeking fortune in the American markets, became the writer of a DC horror comic called Swamp Thing. Moore continued the tradition begun by Miller, tightening his scripting and writing his comics for a more mature comic reader. His stint on Swamp Thing is viewed by some as the “finest” scripting to appear in comics since the early seventies.110 Moore’s work on Swamp Thing also launched him into the comic spotlight but the glory did not last long. In the early months of 1986, DC released Frank Miller’s miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and compiled it in “graphic novel” format immediately. If there had been any doubt about the resurgence of hero comics, this book squelched them with a vengeance. Miller’s superb scripting and penciling were present again but what set this book apart was its subject. The story takes place ten years after the last appearance of Batman; Bruce Wayne has retired after the death of Robin II
McCue, p. 61. Jacobs and Jones, p. 288.
and taken up the playboy lifestyle that he had long shunned.111 Crime is rampant in Gotham, though, and a new gang of super violent teenagers is roaming the streets. Initially, Wayne fights the urge to return to vigilantism but he eventually gives in and, true to the title, the Dark Knight returns. The book is a forum for a number of themes. At its base, the story is a tribute to, as well as an examination of, the Batman myth. Many of the elements of the Batman world are present here including characters such as Gordon and the Joker, and units like the Batcave. Miller ages the characters and in doing so places Batman in a very different world than the one in which he originated. In this new world, as in ours, vigilantism is a crime and the new Police Commissioner hunts Batman actively. Gotham is also a more graphically violent place than Batman has known; Miller unflinchingly portrays bloody battles that result in very real wounds. Miller’s Gotham is both a comment on the state of American society and a comment on the diminished state of comic heroes at the time. Thus he simultaneously reflects the traditions of the genre, challenges generic standards and creates a new set of formulas and expectations for the future of the genre. Dark Knight Returns, and its subsequent compilation, was amazingly successful and brought an incredible amount of attention to comics. Its publication also marked the beginning of a new approach to superheroes, one that was somewhat more critical and, in a way, much more cynical than any that had been taken before. Graphic novels were finally prepared to support a type of comic narrative. The stage was set for the arrival of Watchmen. Released as a twelve issue maxi-series, Watchmen’s plot takes the reader all over the world and to the darkest corners of the soul. Through his inventive
Interestingly, the murder of Tim Drake (Robin II) had not yet occurred in the regular Batman continuity when Dark Knight was published. DC’s official policy is that Dark Knight is an “Elseworlds” tale and does not represent the future of Batman; therefore, synchronicity is purely coincidental.
storytelling, Moore’s narrative spawns a plethora of subplots and secondary characters whose exploits span fifty years. The main narrative begins with the murder of Edward Blake, also known as the Comedian. Prior to his death, Blake acted as one of the only “government sponsored” vigilantes in a world where costumed crime fighting had been outlawed for seven years; of all the costumed heroes only one renegade, Rorschach, is still on the loose. Rorschach himself investigates the seemingly routine murder and discovers Blake’s alter ego. Fearing a possible conspiracy against his former contemporaries, Rorschach tracks down and warns all of New York's remaining heroes. Moore uses Rorschach’s search to introduce the main characters. Among them are Dan Dreiberg and Hollis Mason. Hollis is a retired crime fighter who used to operate under the alias Nite Owl until Dreiberg assumed the moniker in the early sixties; since the Keene Act of 1977, Dan has also been in (forced) retirement, but is not happy about it. Rorschach visits Dreiberg after Dan’s weekly meeting with Hollis and warns him of the potential danger. Rorschach then infiltrates the corporate headquarters of Veidt Industries where he confronts Adrian Veidt, a former vigilante named Ozymandias. Veidt retired two years before the Keene Act made it necessary and began consolidating his fortunes. He doesn’t seem very concerned and Rorschach leaves him to warn the only other known vigilantes, Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan. Also known as Laurie Juspeczyk and Jon Osterman, these two characters are housed at Rockefeller Military Base because, although Laurie is retired, Jon is the government’s other active vigilante and the only paranormal human in the entire story. In an origin story that is revealed later in the book, Jon gains a host of godlike powers during an accident at a nuclear research facility. Rorschach’s visit is not appreciated by Laurie, and Jon promptly teleports him back outside. The first chapter ends with a dinner date between Laurie and Dan during which they lament the death of Blake.
This chapter, as with all twelve, is completed with a text-only supplement; it gives additional information that is secondary to the plot but crucial in the portrayal of the characters as well as the alternate reality Moore sets out to create. The second chapter is set at Blake’s funeral. Dan Dreiberg, Adrian Veidt and Dr. Manhattan all attend. The funeral scene is crosscut with Laurie’s visit to her mother, Sally Jupiter, and a series of flashbacks centered on Blake. The flashbacks establish a series of subplots that are maintained without hampering the main narrative. The first flashback of the chapter depicts Sally’s recollection of a meeting of the vigilante team known as the Minutemen; the group formed in 1939 and Mason, Jupiter and Blake all claimed membership. The succeeding flashbacks belong to Adrian, Jon and Dan, respectively. At the end of the funeral, Rorschach follows an unidentified man back to his home. The man turns out to be Edgar Jacobi, otherwise known as Moloch, a former villain and enemy of the Comedian. Jacobi reveals that Blake visited him right before his death. During the visit, Blake incoherently spoke of a list, upon which Jacobi’s name appeared, and some strange island inhabited by artists and writers. Rorschach pays his last respects to Blake as he contemplates this information and the second chapter comes to a close. In this chapter, Moore establishes the main characters and conflict and proceeds in the subsequent chapters to introduce a variety of secondary characters whose interactions parallel those of the heroes. Moore focuses some attention on the lives of the lesser characters and digresses from his main plot to relate the origins and histories of his superheroes. The main narrative truly begins to unfold in the third chapter. Laurie becomes frustrated with Jon’s increasing emotional distance and walks out on him hours before he is to appear on television. Jon teleports himself to the television studio and begins his interview. During the audience question period, he is
confronted with the information that former colleagues, including Jacobi and Jon’s ex-girlfriend, had been diagnosed with cancer. Jon is implicated in their sickness. Shocked and upset, he leaves Earth and teleports himself to Mars. His disappearance results in a general panic – he had functioned as the United States’ key strategic weapon in the Cold War. Soon after his departure, Russia invades Afghanistan and America braces itself for nuclear war. Chapter Four is wholly devoted to Dr. Manhattan’s origins and worldview and the main narrative does not proceed again until Chapter Five, in which Rorschach continues his investigation. The disappearance of Dr. Manhattan validates Rorschach’s conspiracy theory and the (thwarted) assassination attempt on the life of Adrian supports it even further. Before Rorschach can follow up the lead, however, he is framed with the murder of Jacobi and captured by police. Rorschach’s real identity, Walter Kovacs, is revealed to the reader for the first time. The following chapter (Six) centers on Rorschach’s interviews with his prison psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Long, through which his origin and history are conveyed. Outside of his sessions, Rorschach is threatened and harassed by fellow inmates; he is even attacked during a meal. He defends himself by throwing a container of boiling cooking oil on his attacker. The instigating inmate is critically burned and tensions in the prison mount. Chapter Seven explores the relationship between Laurie and Dan; she is expelled from her living quarters after Jon’s departure and Dreiberg takes her in. Poking around his apartment, she discovers the entrance to Dan’s secret headquarters. Amidst the dusty gadgets and vehicles which once aided his crusade against crime, Dan expresses his fears concerning the recent incidents and the frustrations associated with his retirement. The two attempt to make love but Dan is unable. Restless and impotent, Dan returns to the basement and decides to go out, in costume. Laurie
accompanies him and at the end of the chapter the two of them successfully rescue the residents of a burning tenement. The tenement incident restores Dan’s virility and in the beginning of Chapter Eight he decides to investigate the conspiracy himself. Finding their leads limited, Dan and Laurie plan to break Rorschach out of jail. Meanwhile, Rorschach’s attacker dies from his wounds and a riot breaks out. During the chaos the jailbreak is successfully completed. When the three return to Dreiberg’s apartment, they find Jon waiting for them and the police on their tails. Dan and Rorschach escape police capture but Laurie is taken to Mars to “debate Earth’s destiny” with Jon.112 The chapter ends with the misguided murder of Hollis Mason by a street gang. Chapter Nine takes place on the surface of Mars as Jon and Laurie discuss the worth of human existence. This chapter presents Laurie’s past in the same fashion as those revealed Chapters Two, Four and Six. A series of flashbacks inform her that she is the daughter of Edward Blake. The “miracle” of her birth convinces Jon to save humanity, although he is initially prepared to let the citizens of the Earth destroy themselves. While Laurie and Jon tour the surface of Mars, the events of Chapter Ten simultaneously unfold. The tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union rise to a boiling point and five-term President Richard Nixon retreats to the NORAD complex to prepare for war. Adrian Veidt leaves New York for his Antarctic retreat, Karnak, where he redons his costume and sits mysteriously in front of a wall of televisions absorbing information. Meanwhile, Dan and Rorschach combine their leads and still come up empty handed. They scour the underworld for some information concerning the Veidt assassination attempt and eventually uncover the trail. When they go to Veidt with the information, they find his office empty and Dan’s suspicions are raised. By a whim and some blind luck, he discovers that the conspirator is none other than Adrian.
Alan Moore and David Gibbons, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 1986) p. 9:5:1.
Before leaving for Antarctica to confront Veidt, Rorschach mails his journal to a right-wing newspaper. The journal implicates Adrian in the scheme but it is thrown in the paper’s crank file without even being read. The climax of the story begins in Chapter Eleven. Dan and Rorschach reach Antarctica but they must complete the journey to Karnak on hover bikes because of equipment malfunction in Dan’s Owlship. As they approach, Veidt carries out the masterstroke of his plan and celebrates by revealing his origins to his servants, whom he simultaneously poisons to death. When Rorschach and Dan arrive, Veidt is expecting them. He relates to them the remainder of his origin narrative, including Blake’s murder, and then explains his plan. As the world faced nuclear Armageddon, Veidt decided to do something that would initiate world peace. His plan involved the faking of an alien attack that would, hopefully, create a coalition between the world’s superpowers against the extraterrestrial foe. In order to accomplish his goal, Veidt needed to drive Dr. Manhattan away from Earth; in addition, the faked attack would result in the deaths of three million New Yorkers. Blake’s murder was incidental, as the Comedian had stumbled upon Veidt’s plan in its early stages. Rorschach and Dan express their disbelief in Veidt’s story, until Adrian informs them that the attack has already happened. The Twelfth Chapter opens with a display of the carnage that the “attack” has caused. Laurie and Jon have just returned from Mars and are dumbstruck. Jon traces the source of the creature to Karnak and he and Laurie teleport there. Upon their arrival, Adrian attempts to kill Jon using the same machine that created him, but fails. Before Jon can exact revenge upon him, Adrian’s televisions report the news of the attack and the Soviet response: immediate peace. Jon realizes that the sacrifice of the three million (which included most of the secondary characters) would be for naught if the conspiracy were revealed. He decides to let Adrian be and is forced to kill Rorschach, who refuses to cooperate with Veidt’s scheme. In the
denouement, Veidt is left to ponder the morality of his actions and Dan and Laurie return to crime fighting under new names. Jon leaves Earth to “create” his own humans. The new world order seems to be hopeful but in the last scene, Rorschach’s journal is either read or destroyed leaving the future uncertain. As Jon says to Veidt, “Nothing ever ends.”113 Abstracted to this degree, the plot of Watchmen does not seem different from many other superhero tales. Closer inspection of Moore and Gibbons’ intentions reveals their efforts to create something more than “just another comic”. Questioned about Watchmen, Moore asserts his responsibility to the medium. He hopes that by utilizing such “radical” techniques as those used on Swamp Thing, he could “have a greater chance of substantially changing the way that comics were seen and perceived by the readers, the critics and by the creative people working in them.”114 Moore and Gibbons were also challenged simply by working with superheroes: how does one create a serious, intelligent, innovative piece of work in a genre that has been virtually stripped of its artistic potential? The usual approach [was] to introduce elements from outside the genre. Alan Moore works differently. He will examine a genre and try to bring its best elements out of it, while staying, for the most part, within its conventions.115 Just as he did in his time at Swamp Thing, Moore invokes basic elements of the superhero genre throughout Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons are only freed to move beyond the genre by establishing a firm grounding within it. As Moore reflects in an interview with Gary Groth, publisher of Fantagraphics Comics:
Moore and Gibbons, p. 12:27:5. Stanley Wiater and Stephen Bissette, Comic Book Rebels (New York: Donald Fine Pub., 1993) p.164. 115 Groth and Fiore, p. 94.
Watchmen couldn’t have existed without a lot of prior knowledge on the reader’s part of what the superhero genre was all about. It was making reference to and playing off of a lot of previously existing stuff. It was trying to do something new with it.116 Watchmen was originally planned as a simple murder mystery involving a group of Charlton Comic heroes acquired by DC in the mid-seventies. DC editor Dick Giordano opposed the idea, however, as he had worked with those heroes while employed at Charlton; DC also planned to include some of the characters in the Crisis on Infinite Earths series later that year.117 Gibbons and Moore were forced to alter the characters, but still used the Charlton “universe” as a model.118 After DC bought Charlton, this “universe” was incorporated into the continuity scheme through the creation of “Earth-C”.119 Only ex-Charlton heroes inhabited “Earth-C”, a situation paralleled in Watchmen; only Charlton-based characters exist in Watchmen’s New York.120 Tribute is paid to Charlton more specifically in the textual supplement of Chapter Seven; there young Walter Kovacs is sent to the Lillian Charlton Home for Problem Children.121 Gibbons and Moore invoke the superhero genre most deliberately in their adapted heroes. The costumes, gadgetry and motivations of all the characters were used in preceding comics. “[Watchmen] was looking at a lot of fairly stereotyped superheroes – archetypal [sic] superheroes – and looking at them in a cold light, but not without affection.”122 Gibbons and Moore try to present their characters
Gary Groth, “Big Words,” Comics Journal 138 (Oct. 1990) p. 19. Paul Levitz, Exec, Vice President DC Comics, New York: Interview, October, 1995. 118 Moore: “America was like a huge playground- full of all these great, quaint old characters that were left around by the publishers.” Wiater and Bissette, p. 164. 119 The multiple Earths theory was invented for the Flash revival. Since then, DC has created another “Earth” for the old characters of companies they take over. For example, while the Golden Age heroes inhabit “Earth-2”, the characters of the old Fawcett Comic company populate “Earth-S”. John Johnson, Knight’s Quest Comic Shop, Middletown, Connecticut: Interview, 24 January, 1996. 120 Moore and Gibbons pay homage to Marvel by setting their story in New York, rather than creating a metaphorical double in the DC mold. 121 Moore and Gibbons, p. 7t:2. 122 Groth, “Big Words,” p. 20.
as “generic” by combining qualities from many different sources but the Charlton origins are most recognizable. For example, Edward Blake, otherwise known as the Comedian, is based upon the Charlton hero the Peacemaker. 123 Ironically, this old character was a pacifist (a trait assigned to Veidt) whereas the Comedian cannot act without violence. The similarity between the two is based mostly in their positions as government operatives. Blake is also “groomed into some sort of patriotic symbol” in the same manner as such heroes as the Shield, Uncle Sam and Captain America; Blake’s costume seems to be a cross between the Captain’s and Dr. Doom’s.124 In terms of behavior, the violent, world bounding adventurer finds his antecedent in the adventures of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., just as his antagonistic interactions with other heroes, within and outside of the groups, function within the paradigm set by the Thing. Superteams are one of the oldest conventions in superhero comics. The Crimebusters and the Minutemen are not discernibly different from such other teams as the Justice Society and the Avengers. And, like many other heroes, the Watchmen vigilantes interact with each other outside the teams; not all of these match ups are as cooperative as Rorschach and Nite Owl’s efforts to bring down the Big Figure. 125 Moore and Gibbons work within Marvel tradition by pitting their heroes against one another in battle (e.g. Ozymandias and Comedian). Ozymandias is based on the Charlton hero Peter Cannon Thunderbolt. Both characters wear purple and yellow costumes, just as both trained their minds and bodies to perfection in the Far East. Some have described Cannon as “morally ambivalent” which is an intriguing description when applied to Veidt, especially in light of his actions throughout the book.126 The origins of Veidt and Cannon are parallel to an
Johnson, Interview. Moore and Gibbons, p. 3t:1. 125 Ibid., p. 6:15:3. 126 McCue, p.131
extent. The telling of Veidt’s past itself is a basic element of the genre; the first narrative in the history of superhero comics was Superman’s origin story. Veidt and Superman also have in common a secret Antarctic retreat. While characters like the Comedian resemble only slightly the heroes who supposedly inspired them, Walter Kovacs, also known as Rorschach, comes closer than most to his predecessor. Rorschach takes his name from Dr. Hermann Rorschach, inventor of the psychological inkblot test, but he is based on a Charlton hero named the Question. The Question was tough, violent, and “morally zealous”. Charlton portrayed the character as a vigilante – an unusually sophisticated approach for a company that was typically mediocre. The two heroes share basically the same costume, although Rorschach has inkblot shapes where the Question has a blank mask.127127 Also, in Chapter Five, Rorschach makes an ink blot out of a question mark. Despite the similarities, Moore amplifies whatever qualities he found in the original to create in Rorschach one of the most brutal, terrifying “heroes” to ever grace the comic pages. In addition to his Charlton basis, Rorschach works within the generic dilemma first posed by Batman: the schizoid split between real and alternate identities. Like Batman, who alternately operates as Bruce Wayne, Walter sees Rorschach as something more than an identity he takes on and even comes to regard his Rorschach mask as his “face”.128 Just as Moore invokes the vigilante/antihero in Rorschach, he recalls in the Minutemen the more naïve heroes of the forties. Hollis Mason, also known as the Nite Owl, is the site of an especially layered tribute to superhero comics. Reared in an era when good and evil were easily definable and even more easily separated, Mason represents the quintessential Golden Age hero. The character upon whom
Johnson, Interview. For more on the schizoid split in superheroes see Asa Berger’s The Comic Stripped American (New York: Walker and Co., 1973).
he is based, the Blue Beetle, was a Golden Age hero published by Fox. Like Mason, Dan Garrett is a frustrated policeman who looks beyond the system for his version of justice. The policeman-turned-vigilante archetype was the model for many heroes of the first wave.129 Hollis borrows a number of other elements from the Blue Beetle pages, including his name (Garrett’s girlfriend was Joan Mason) and his costume made of chain mail.130 There are also a number of items in Mason’s apartment that have been seen in comics of the past. Most important is his dog, Phantom, whose masked antics recall those of the Bathound, Krypto and other costumed animals.131 The other items in Mason’s living room are more obscure. For example, the object on his mantle bears a striking resemblance to the lantern of the Golden Age Green Lantern; the object is in the background, though, and can be easily missed. Easier to spot is the copy of Phillip Wylie’s Gladiator which rests on the bookshelf next to a manual on auto repair and Mason’s autobiography. Gladiator was written in 1930 and is a recognized source of inspiration for Schuster and Siegel’s Superman.132 Hollis Mason’s most significant link to comic genre is his relationship with Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl. Dan’s childhood knowledge of Hollis’ exploits, in combination with their personal interactions, connects this pair directly to the Golden and Silver Age Flashes. The two Flashes were the instigators of the trend of revival that spawned such characters as the second Green Lantern and the second Blue Beetle; the Blue Beetle parallel is, of course, intentional on the part of Moore. Interestingly, the second Blue Beetle, and subsequently the second Nite Owl, does not correspond to the Barry Allen Flash but rather to the archetypical playboyturned-crime fighter exemplified by Batman; the hero, bored with the Earthly
Goulart, Encyclopedia, p. 82. The first of these heroes was Black Hood, also known as Kip Burland. Ibid., p. 39. Mason’s name may also have been inspired by Clark Mason, a hero of cold war comic books. 131 McCue, p. 31. 132 Ibid., p.19.
pleasures afforded him by wealth, turns his energies and resources towards eradicating crime. Such characters as the Green Lantern and Watchmen’s Mothman function within this paradigm. But Dreiberg’s Nite Owl and the second Blue Beetle go beyond the archetype in their similarity to the Silver Aged Batman. All three heroes use science in their detective work and have flying machines modeled after their identities.133 Although influenced by both Batman and Blue Beetle, Dreiberg is directly connected to the two heroes in separate ways. Physically, he is almost a duplicate of Blue Beetle II, especially in the goggles both heroes wear. Generically, Dreiberg borrows heavily from Batman.134 Just like Bruce Wayne, Dreiberg is left a fortune by his father, which he uses to construct an underground headquarters for his nocturnal activities. In this secret “cave” he houses all of the vehicles, computers, gadgets and items of memorabilia that could just as easily have been found in the Batcave. The hero’s utility belt, a generic unit also established by the Batman, is referred to affectionately in a scene between Laurie and Dan, which takes place in the cave. In response to a sarcastic remark about the contents of his belt, Dan asserts, “No, [they’re] mostly pretty boring... Respirator masks, smoke bombs, fingerprint kit, pocket laser...the usual stuff.”135 By describing these items as “the usual stuff”, Moore blatantly identifies them as units of the superhero genre. A close inspection of the sources Moore used to create his characters reveals an intricate structure that undoubtedly necessitated a great deal of research. Each character is linked to the others in a variety of ways, some of them extremely obscure. Dreiberg’s relationship with Laurie is a prime example of this. Dreiberg can be said to parallel Green Arrow through the archetype that both heroes function within (the playboy). Within comic history Green Arrow maintains a
Batman’s Batplane, Blue Beetle’s Beetle Ship and Nite Owl’s Owl ship alias: Archie. Blue Beetle II was a Batman imitation, too. 135 Moore and Gibbons, p. 7:9:3.
relationship with a heroine named Black Canary. Black Canary, in turn, is the most obvious influence on Laurie’s character. Both women fought crime in skimpy outfits with fishnet stockings and, more importantly, both are the daughters of Golden Age heroines of the same name. The two younger heroines differ in their relationships their mothers, however. While the original Black Canary strongly objected to her daughter’s interest in crime fighting, Moore’s Silk Spectre II is forced into vigilantism by her mother.136 Aside from her role as Laurie’s mother, Sally Jupiter is also Watchmen’s version of the Golden Age heroine, all of whom were so similar that only one archetype was developed. The typical heroine was subservient to all male characters, whether superpowered or not, and her comics were usually the site of thinly veiled “fetishistic and sexual” themes.137 The appearance in Chapter Two of a “Tijuana bible” alludes to the sexual nature of heroine comics. These mini-comics, also known as “eight pagers”, became popular in the late nineteen thirties but always remained an item of the black market. Often crude and explicitly sexual, the wallet sized comics portrayed American historical figures or Hollywood thespians involved in lewd acts. When heroine comics hit the stands, the anonymous creators recognized the sexual imagery and innuendo present in each issue; soon afterwards heroines like the Black Cat and, evidently, Silk Spectre, made their appearances in the “bibles”. 138 In Watchmen, such characters as Silhouette, who is a lesbian, and Twilight Lady, whose fetishism is not so thinly veiled, also invoke the sexual atmosphere of Golden Age heroine comics. Laurie is more independent, in the fashion of Silver Age heroines, but she is still overshadowed by her ultra-powerful male counterpart; her relationship to Dr.
Johnson, Interview. McCue, p. 56. 138 Mark James Estren, A History of Underground Comics (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1974) p. 25.
Manhattan is the greatest similarity she has to Nightshade, the Charlton heroine whom she is supposedly modeled after. Dr. Manhattan’s Charlton counterpart is Captain Atom, first published in his own title in 1959.139 Like Captain Atom, Jon Osterman is a government employee who gains “god-like” molecular powers in a nuclear accident. The similarity between the two is limited to their origins; other models inform the remainder of Osterman’s character.140 Specifically, Dr. Manhattan borrows heavily from Superman, to whom there are only two direct references. The first is the insignia of the Rockefeller Military Research Center where Osterman and Laurie are housed at the beginning of the tale; it has a strong resemblance to Superman’s chest symbol.141 The second overt allusion occurs in Chapter Three when Doug Roth of Nova Express refers to Wally Weaver as “Dr. Manhattan’s Buddy.”142 The appellation is a slight alteration of Jimmy Olsen’s nickname and comic title: Superman’s Pal. Dr. Manhattan is also reminiscent of Superman in more subtle yet intentional ways. Like the Golden Age Man of Steel, he is the most powerful entity of his universe and virtually, if not actually, indestructible. Osterman resembles the Silver Age Kal-El in his extraplanetary travel and the creation of his own private fortress; unlike the Fortress of Solitude Jon’s sanctum is on Mars. And although it is difficult ascertain whether Moore and Miller discussed their respective projects with one another, the political function of Miller’s Superman in Dark Knight is strikingly similar to that of Osterman’s in Watchmen. Both heroes serve as the strategic backbone of the United States’ military policy, especially in regards to the nuclear deadlock with the Russians.
McCue, p. 62. Captain Atom is visually invoked through the costume of Captain Metropolis, whose name also recalls the city of Superman’s world. 141 Moore and Gibbons, p. 1:19:1. 142 Ibid., p. 3:13:4/5.
Superman is a significant referent of Dr. Manhattan but Osterman’s influences go far beyond Clark Kent. Jon is only one of a host of scientists whose superpowers are granted through mishap. Barry Allen’s Flash gained his powers this way, as did Peter Parker and Bruce Banner; Banner and Parker share with Osterman accidents involving radioactivity. The Hulk parallels Dr. Manhattan further through their respective mental states; both Osterman and Banner are alienated from a society to which they can no longer relate. Osterman’s alienation, superpower, and implied creation of another Earth also qualify him as a god-hero. There are numerous inferences throughout the book to this effect. The most obvious is Osterman’s desire to “create” human life.143 As a god, Manhattan works within the structures created by the god-heroes who preceded him. Thor explored the scenario originally, although it took his writers a few years to recognize his potential. In terms of god-heroes, Manhattan most strongly resembles a “scientifically synthesized messiah known only as Him”, a character native to the Fantastic Four adventures. Ironically, “Him” gains cosmic significance in a Thor title and takes the name Adam Warlock. Warlock is, like Jon, a Christ figure on an alternate Earth created by the godlike scientist known as the High Evolutionary. The parallel of Osterman to the myriad of heroes mentioned above suggests that, of all the characters in this book, Jon is imbued with the richest subtext.144 There are a few other heroes in Watchmen but none of them have as clearly defined antecedents as those mentioned above. Hooded Justice, also known as Rolf Muller, is obviously intended to represent the vigilantism associated with the Ku Klux Klan; his hood, noose and name are all indications of this. Characters like Captain Metropolis and Dollar Bill are most likely amalgams of a number of characters. It is interesting to note that while Moore makes a concerted effort to
Moore and Gibbons, 12:27:4. McCue, p. 125.
invoke as many elements of the genre as possible, his narrative is suspiciously absent of supervillains and sidekicks. Costumed villains are mentioned, but in the present tense of the narrative, none remain.145 Hollis Mason does flash back to a fight with some of his enemies but the only character who has an obvious source is Captain Axis; he is based on the Fawcett villain, Captain Nazi. Watchmen operates formally within the superhero genre as well – to an extent. Gibbon’s penciling is intentionally reminiscent of Silver Age art; it closely resembles the solid, dynamic work of Carmine Infantino on the late 1950s’ Sci-Fi title Adam Strange. By imitating the style of established artists, Gibbons places the reader visually within a familiar comic landscape. He also uses full-page layouts, a technique perfected by Jim Steranko in the late sixties. Steranko’s manipulation of panel shape and size revolutionized depictions of time and images of emphasized importance. His attention to whole pages, rather than to single frames, reinvigorated the form and opened up a host of possibilities for artists who succeeded him. 146 Gibbons utilizes the potential of page layouts, but also pays close attention to the composition of single frames. The emphasis of background detail is a main component of the comic school of “completism”, founded by artist/ writer Roy Thomas. Springing from the careful, almost archival study of comic books, [Thomas’ completism] had the effect of making Marvel stories seem not just like entertainment but like the historical documents of some other world.147
The only existing villains are Screaming Skull, Moloch, and Big Figure. The first two are retired and Big Figure is in prison. 146 McCue, p.48. 147 Jacobs and Jones, p. 140.
The two artists contrast one another in their relationship to dialogue – while Thomas’ loquacious writing style often cramped the action within his frames, Gibbons is freed by Moore’s tight, and sometimes nonexistent, scripting. Moore and Gibbons intentionally work within the superhero genre and make it clear through deliberate references and invocations of various generic units and formal presentations. However, the creators of Watchmen employ an even more sophisticated strategy that links the narrative directly to the genre. At first glance, the subtextual presentation of comic history within the story seems to provide this connective function; Watchmen’s first comic is Action#1, as in real comic history. But closer scrutiny reveals that after the appearance of costumed heroes in the real world of Watchmen, the comics themselves fell from favor and were replaced with pirate tales. Only by studying the fabula of Watchmen can one see how strongly it offers a parallel to comic history; the fabula is the chronological alignment of the narrative and does not always correspond to the plot. The reader is presented with the earliest chronological events in excerpts from Hollis Mason’s autobiography, Under the Hood. Here Hollis relates his early fascination with the pulp literature of the 1930s and their influence on his decision to fight crime. In our reality, characters like Doc Savage and The Shadow were direct antecedents of comics. Action Comics#1 is published on the same date in both realities but the appearance of Hooded Justice and the other vigilantes can be said to represent the wave of heroes who followed Superman. The parallels between the two histories is not precise but the exact date of the formation of the first superteam is moot; it is more significant that the Justice Society and the Minutemen were both created approximately the same time after the appearance of Superman and Hooded Justice, respectively. World War Two affected both the world of comics and the world of Watchmen; titles like Captain America brought costumed heroes to the front line while Edward
Blake fought his own Axis enemies. After the war the parallel diverges again, slightly. Comics heroes of our post-war years faced dull adventures following the excitement of the war; petty thugs weren’t as interesting to fight as megalomaniacs. For the first time since Superman’s debut, superhero sales dropped and a number of titles disappeared. In Watchmen, the war has nothing to do with the disappearance of heroes, yet their popularity declines nonetheless. The villains were becoming boring, many of them shedding their costumes and entering less personal crimes like racketeering. By 1949, two of the Minutemen had been killed, one rejected and one retired. The despair of the remaining heroes mirrors directly the decrepit state of superhero comics of the early 1950s. The fifties brought the anti-comic attacks of Frederic Wertham to both worlds. In ours, the creators of superheroes were investigated by the Senate Subcommittee on UnAmerican Activities; in theirs, the heroes themselves were put on the stand and forced to reveal their identities. Here the “revelation” of identity could be a metaphor for the anti-comics crusaders’ demand that comics reveal their hidden sexual agendas. The heroes, and pirate comics, of Watchmen proved luckier than the superhero and horror comics of our reality.148 Even though heroes escape persecution, the atmosphere of the late fifties is not a pleasant one for Watchmen’s old guard. New blood is injected in the form of Ozymandias; his appearance in 1958 reflects the rebirth of comics spurred by the introduction of Flash II. Although Barry Allen debuts in 1956, both he and Veidt represent the new wave of adventurers that dominate the succeeding decades. The Silver Age is also invoked by the creation of Dr. Manhattan. Like many heroes of the early sixties, Dr. Manhattan gains his powers through accidents involving radioactivity. The popularity of the origin is rooted in the post-War period, when the image of “the
In an ironic twist, Moore has EC Comics, the worst victim of the Wertham attacks, become the most successful publisher of pirate comics.
Bomb” was co-opted in comics as a source of great power for do-gooders.149 Jon also represents the trend of Silver Age characters to be graced with cosmic knowledge and the power to travel in space. The Silver Age revival of old heroes in new forms finds parallel in Watchmen. We see it in the case of Silk Spectre and her daughter and, even more importantly, in that of the first and second Nite Owls. The meeting of the original and revived Flash preceded Dan and Hollis’ by mere months. The meeting of the Crimebusters, which is alluded to throughout the book in flashback, comes closest to a Marvel model of characterization – a superteam whose members bicker and fight one another. The Marvel innovations of the early nineteen sixties initially rocked the comic world but a relative blandness eventually returned to comics. The stagnation would cause another decline in superhero comics’ popularity and a turn to other genres in the late seventies. In Watchmen this process is symbolized first in the retirement of Ozymandias in 1975 and then in the police strikes, riots and Keene Act of 1977. The anti-vigilante sentiment of the late seventies is so great that an Act of Congress revokes the special privileges once afforded to costumed heroes. The retirement of the remaining heroes, with notable exceptions, represents the mass cancellations of hero titles of the era. But what about the present? Moore’s fabula reaches through the present state of comics; does he try to make a statement about the medium’s condition in his introductory chapter? Consider the entry of Rorschach’s journal dated “October 13th, 1985.”: Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders? The first Nite Owl runs an auto-repair shop. The first Silk Spectre is a bloated aging whore, dying in a Californian resort. Captain Metropolis was decapitated in car crash back in ‘74. The Mothman’s in an asylum up in Maine. The Silhouette retired in
Savage, p. 17.
disgrace, murdered six weeks later by a minor adversary seeking revenge. Dollar Bill got shot. Hooded Justice went missing in ‘55. The Comedian is dead.150 The cynicism with which Rorschach speaks is Moore’s cynicism; the depressed state of Watchmen’s heroes equals that of superhero comics of the early eighties. Moore and Gibbons’ allegiance to the medium is obviously at odds with this condition. They ground their tale within the genre to familiarize the reader with the subject, but only through reinterpretation and revolution of the form can these artists reinvigorate what they perceive as a diseased medium.
Moore and Gibbons, p. 1:19:3-6.
Chapter Four: Watchmen’s Virtuosity
“I’d like to think that if there’s any value in Watchmen, I don’t think the value’s in its radical look at superheroes...The thing that was interesting... for me was its structure.... It was an exercise in comic book structure and I think it would probably have been, at the time, quite an unusual reading experience because that hadn’t been done before.” - Alan Moore.151 The quote above states in no uncertain terms the intentions of both creators in this work. Although Watchmen is the product of intense collaboration between the two, it is evident that Moore was the driving creative force behind the project. Examination of Moore’s ideology suggests Watchmen is a direct outcome of his attitudes towards the form. He has gone on record many times delineating his beliefs concerning the comic industry and medium and his frustrations with both; his problems with the medium are derived mostly from the restrictive measures imposed upon it by the large publishers. Over the years, creativity and originality have been shunned in favor of profits and sales figures. The capital oriented policies of the publishers have, in turn, kept comics from critical reception and relegated them to the world of low-brow and children’s entertainment. Historically, creative breakthroughs have been exploited as new marketing opportunities, resulting in more stagnation. Moore addresses this issue through the example of “graphic novels”, the formal genre within which Watchmen’s trade paperback version is most often lumped: Now we have “graphic novels” but the graphic novel might only be a 40page Batman story instead of a 23-page Batman story. We have the She Hulk graphic novel, the Project Pegasus graphic novel, The Killing Joke graphic novel. They’re not graphic novels; it’s just a handy, convenient marketing term that can be used to sell an awful lot of the same old crap to a big new audience – until that audience gets sick of it.
Groth, “Big Words,” p. 20.
And hey, if they get sick of comics as well, that’s just too bad. The sales might drop for a few years and then we’ll have another gimmick to foist upon the public. It’s the comics industry versus the comics medium, really. I’m committed to the comics medium; I think the comics industry gets in the way.152 In his view comic art, which can be said to have existed in different forms for millennia, is in the modern version still in its infancy. The medium is “virgin territory” for any artists or writers who wish to mold it into an art form with the expressive qualities of film, literature or music. But only through serious effort and artistic integrity will comics be pulled from the mire in which they now languish. Moore sees comics as having a greater potential for conveying emotions and narratives than most, if not all, other art forms; only the limited, shallow visions of comic executives and their lackeys keep the medium from its place among respected arts. He challenges every comic artist and writer, including himself, to experiment and innovate the form. Only by expanding the vocabulary of comics in a precise, intelligent way can they gain respect and significance. Watchmen represents Moore and Gibbons’ efforts towards this end. Fortunately, the two received complete creative control on the project from the executives at DC. 153 They were allowed the freedom necessary to present their narrative in a new and exciting way. The series differs from others in its striking utilization of comic form. Tools and techniques of the medium that had previously been either underused or neglected completely were, in Watchmen, applied liberally and to good effect. By taking advantage of the potential created by the combination of creative writing and art, Moore and Gibbons more successfully convey their intended messages.
Groth, p.13. Ironically, Moore uses one of his own works, The Killing Joke, as an example. After the Charlton characters were suitably altered, Moore and Gibbons were essentially working with new personalities. In this case there were no continuities that could have been ruined; no editorial restrictions were warranted. Levitz, Interview.
In order to understand the unique nature of this text, we need to look closely at particular chapters. The first of these is Chapter Five, titled “Fearful Symmetry,” which was published in the early spring of 1986.154 As in the case of the other chapters, the title here represents not only the theme but also the visual motifs that are explored throughout the subsequent pages. In this particular chapter, the exercise is taken to the extreme. The thematic and visual presentation of reflections and mirror images permeates every element of the chapter, especially the layout. From the start, the panels display a multitude of symmetrical images that include doubled, mirrored, or repeated objects, characters and designs. The first example appears on the cover of the Chapter Five in the logo for The RumRunner, a bar located next to Moloch’s apartment. The image is invoked later in the chapter in two ways. In the first, the double “R”’s of the RumRunner are replaced by the double “r”’s of Rorschach’s insignia; in the second, the skull and crossbones formation of the logo appears in its literal incarnation, the Jolly Rogers flag of pirate lore, and on the face of a rock poster.(See Figure 1) In the case of the rock poster, an additional level of significance is added. The poster is an artifact from the real world advertising a Grateful Dead album titled “Aoxomoxoa”. Not only is the title itself a palindrome, further supporting the theme of reflection, but the artwork of the poster is that of the late Rick Griffin; the San Francisco based graphic designer was best known for his perfectly symmetrical creations. Moore and Gibbons admit to being “obviously clever” and it shows throughout the chapter. 155 For example, a folder containing Blake’s homicide file is numbered “801108” – a numerical sequence that is both vertically and horizontally symmetrical.(See Fig.2) Other examples of self-reflection mostly concern items
The title is taken from the William Blake poem Tyger, Tyger. All the chapter titles are excerpts from various literary and musical sources. The inclusion and integration of various other media within the text is yet another innovation which sets this series apart. 155 Groth, p. 22.
related to Rorschach himself. The importance of the ketchup blot formed by the question mark is discussed in the previous chapter and the stain on his dishes, in the top left frame of the same page, is an obvious reference to his own mask.(See Figs.3, 4) The mask, made from two layers of latex separated by a thin, viscous fluid which is “heat and pressure sensitive”, is itself a constantly shifting mirror image. In every single frame in which Rorschach appears, the mask takes on a different, yet constantly symmetrical, design. Moore and Gibbons explore every possible representation of “reflection” and populate the chapter with images that are literally mirrored within a variety of reflective surfaces. For example, the scenes that take place inside Veidt’s building are full of shiny desks and floors and the characters are often doubled within their surfaces.156 (See Fig.5) In a similar fashion, some of the frames depicting the pirate narrative present their images twice; the original action is mimicked in the water below the marooned man’s raft.(See Fig.6) Images reflected in actual mirrors appear within the chapter in the two scenes involving Laurie and Dan. However, whereas Dan occupies the foreground of the first image, Laurie, in a symmetrical inversion, replaces him in the second.(See Figs.7, 8) The other techniques employed in the chapter are much more complex and visually abstract in nature than those described above. One such method is found only within the scenes involving the newsvendor and the police officers. In these cases, the composition of the first and last frames of a single page are strikingly similar; for example, the boy reading the comic on page eight is sprayed by the Pyramid truck.(See Fig.9) While the images are certainly not identical, the presence of the triangle, the splash, the comic, as well as the boy himself, all indicate the intended effect. 157 Gibbons adds a level of complexity by repeating
Good examples of this can be seen in frame 5:13:1-3 and 5:16:9. Another, perhaps more clear example is found on page 12.
similar images in separate scenes involving different subjects. For example, in a scene beginning on page twenty-one Bernie the news vendor puts up an object with both hands in the first and last panels, a tarp and a poster, respectively.(See Figs.10, 11) His position is inverted between the two but his actions can still be recognized as reflective of one another. On the subsequent page, the posture of the two Detectives closing the door in the first and last frames bears an undeniable resemblance to that of Bernie’s.158 (See Figs.12, 13) In some scenes the last panel actually “leads” the reader visually into the first frame of the succeeding page. A clear example is the obvious repetition of the image of a man eating a poultry leg, found in the last panel of a pirate sequence and the first panel of one involving Laurie and Dan.(See Figs.14,15) The visual theme that permeates the chapter is not restricted to specific images alone. In a technique that demonstrates his proficiency with comic form, Gibbons manipulates the coloring of his frames and achieves an effect that operates firmly within the thematic guidelines of the chapter. He separates some pages into what I will call a “five-by-four arrangement” of frames. The “five by four arrangement” is accomplished by alternating the color scheme of succeeding frames so that the second, fourth, sixth and eighth frames are in direct contrast to the rest of the page. In the first and last scenes of the chapter, the effect is explained by the flashing RumRunner sign; the colors represent the flash of light and moment of darkness that repeat endlessly within Moloch’s apartment.(See Fig.16) These pages, when observed merely in terms of their color schemes, are symmetrical both horizontally and vertically. Gibbons uses the “five by four arrangement” later in the chapter to achieve different goals. In addition to the two tiered color scheme, the artist also integrates two separate scenes of the pirate and the news vendor within
This observation is also supported in the first scenes involving these four characters. Note the triangle and the splash. [pages 7, 8]
the same pages.(See Fig.17) As these examples also exhibit the structure defined above, the reflective quality of the page is retained. When all of these different methods of reflection are examined from an objective distance, an interesting pattern begins to emerge. Although Gibbons utilizes a variety of approaches, he applies the same technique to specific scenes, or sets of scenes. For example, the actual mirror image is found only within the pages that include Dan and Laurie’s interaction, whereas the matching first and last frame can be seen solely in the pages involving either the newsvendor or the policemen. At first the pattern seems random and coincidental but the center of the chapter sheds light on the mystery. The layout of the central pages depicts the assassination attempt of Adrian Veidt in a manner unique to the entire series. Nowhere else does Gibbons contain his action within the three horizontal and one vertical frames which appear on pages fourteen and fifteen.(See Fig.18) It is immediately noticeable that the pages directly mirror one another. The effect is in itself revolutionary, but Gibbons takes it many steps further. Inspection of the chapter as a whole reveals that the central frames function merely as an anchor; the layout of the first half of the chapter is completely symmetrical to that of the second. Just as frames within pages fourteen and fifteen parallel each other, so do those of thirteen and sixteen, twelve and seventeen, et cetera, until the first and last page of the chapter. In addition to structural mirroring, the subjects of each opposing page are identical; this holds for every single character represented. For example, the two scenes involving the police officers appear the exact same distance from the central pages and employ the exact same layout.159 In a more advanced fashion, Gibbons mirrors the action of his subjects on the opposite sides of the chapter. The clearest cases both involve Rorschach. In the first scenario, he leaves the apartment
In this case a standard three rows by three columns structure.
of Moloch. His movement begins within the second frame of the second row on page six.(See Fig.19) The matching frame of the opposing page, twenty three, depicts Rorschach reentering Moloch’s home later that night.(See Fig.20) The second application of this technique is even more sophisticated. The first scene of the chapter shows a frightened Moloch responding to a suspicious noise. Starting in his bedroom, he slowly makes his way down the stairs into the kitchen where he is confronted by Rorschach. In the opposing pages, Rorschach is confronted with a murdered Moloch and subsequently reverses the first man’s path of action all the way to the bedroom where he is eventually cornered by police. Chapter Five is highly complex both in structure and content, as evidenced by the examples above. Through his careful attention to detail and form, Gibbons successfully maintains the narrative of the series while simultaneously innovating the medium in a highly intricate and methodical way. Chapter Five is not the only one in which Gibbons and Moore experiment with comic vocabulary. Almost every segment of Watchmen’s narrative is presented in a different manner, a condition that bolsters the depth of the piece itself. In Chapter Four, “Watchmaker,” accepted notions of narrative presentation are again challenged by innovative expansions of generic techniques. As in Chapter Five, the title of this section also bears great significance in regard to the subject matter. “Watchmaker” is an excerpt from a quote by Albert Einstein, in which he laments the great changes his discoveries had wrought on human existence. In light of the controversy surrounding atomic power, Einstein expresses the wish that he had become a watchmaker. The use of this quote has two functions. The first is to parallel the experiences of Osterman and Einstein, although the impact of Einstein’s discoveries in our real world are certainly surpassed by the changes brought by the existence of Doctor Manhattan to Watchmen’s. To strengthen the parallel between the two scientists, we are shown Jon’s childhood intentions of
following his father into the watchmaking trade. Jon’s increasing emotional detachment throughout the story indicates that he, too, may have been better served in that now obsolete profession. On a more abstract level, the references to Einstein are used to introduce his theories of time as a subtext. In a flashback on page three, Jon’s father deliberately invokes Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: time is not absolute but relative to the position of the observer. The theory applies not only to our perception of time but also to the perception and representation of time within comics, all of which are examined in Chapter Four through Jon’s monologue and the images which accompany it. The second panel of the first page establishes the pattern followed throughout the entire chapter. Here Jon, speaking in the present tense, refers to an action of the future. “In twelve seconds time, I drop the photograph...”160 His speech is an action of the preceding frame, yet the image of the dropped photograph is placed over these words. It is the action described by his speech that is represented in the second frame.(See Fig.21) The reader begins here to understand the complex nature of Jon’s existence and of time itself. As he tells Laurie in Chapter Nine, “Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.” 161 This quote literally defines the way time is presented in comics. Any single panel the eye rests upon represents the present just as all preceding panels represent the past and the succeeding panels the future.162 The way in which temporality functions in comics is completely unique to the medium. Only in comic art is the past, present and future so easily observed simultaneously. In film, different moments of time are projected on the same space, making examination of those separate moments as individual units an
Moore and Gibbons, p. 4:1:2. Ibid., p. 9:6:6. 162 Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) p. 104.
impossibility. In literature, the non-graphical nature of the narrative prevents the reader from discerning between temporal moments. Comic art, with its full-page layouts of individual frames and captions, allows the reader to peruse at his or her leisure the actions of the characters at any specific instant within the narrative. When Jon holds Janey in the last frame of page eleven, he notes that he simultaneously hears her shouting at him four years later. The reader needs only turn a few pages, an insignificant effort, to experience the described event visually. Again Jon’s perception of and existence within time is paralleled to the unique nature of time in comics. Gibbons and Moore choose to exaggerate this function through Jon’s narrations. He speaks only in the present tense and yet exists simultaneously within different time frames. On the last frame of page sixteen, he is both comforting Jane and lying with her in bed hours later. The reader is not shown the second image until a few pages later, but it nonetheless exists temporally, if not visually, within the first.(See Fig.22) By presenting two or more moments within a single frame, Gibbons and Moore imply images; they deepen the narrative depth while simultaneously maintaining a streamlined visual space. They achieve this mostly through Jon’s words, which, like the closure created between two separate frames, introduce another aspect of time through “that which can only exist in time...sound.” 163 By introducing “sound”, Gibbons and Moore can represent different moments from frame to frame and within the frame, a highly unusual approach that even Scott McCloud and Will Eisner fail to address.(See Fig.22)
McCloud, p. 95.
The unique structure of this chapter is used mainly to comment on the nature of time in comics, but it also embodies the philosophy of determinism. Jon perceives time as a string of events that have already been arranged chronologically by some unknown force. Jon differs from the rest of humanity through his consciousness of the structure of time; but despite his omnipresence, his actions are as fixed as any other’s. In a conversation with Laurie in which she frustratingly accuses Jon of being a “puppet following a script” he responds, “We’re all puppets...I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.”164 Here, and throughout the chapter, Gibbons and Moore engage in a highly sophisticated discussion of human existence that includes concepts of time, morality and godliness. By presenting these dialogues in the form examined above, they not only elevate the intellectual level of their story but also employ a comic technique that has been historically underused. They creatively innovate the formal presentation of time in comics both through the metaphor of Jon’s worldview and the examination of the nature of the presentation itself. An examination of Chapters Four and Five illuminates for the reader Moore and Gibbons’ highly intellectualized narrative approach. Chapter Five concerns itself with the structure, or form, of the narrative itself. The arrangement of panels within a page and pages within a chapter provides a simple grid upon which the creator of a comic may build his story. The layout of panels is the most basic unit of comic narrative; without the layout, there is literally no physical medium for the narrative to inhabit. After the layout has been designed, the story can be set in its intended order. The arrangement of the plot in a specific and deliberate chronological sequence results in the narrative itself. The narrative relates a set of
Moore and Gibbons, p. 9:5:4.
conditions, characters and events that have been crafted especially for the consumption of the reader by the creators. Chapter Five explores the nature of the narrative by experimenting with the chronological ordering of the story; the “present” and “past” are made obsolete through the unique subjective authority of Dr. Manhattan. The third, and most complex, aspect of a story is the metanarrative. Whereas the layout predicates the structure of the plot and the narrative provides the content, the meta-narrative of a comic book defines how the story is presented. The composition of a panel, the succession of images, the pacing of the narrative – all are governed by the meta-narrative. In Watchmen, Gibbons manipulates the content of his panels in a manner that is clearly cinematic. He challenges the standard comic meta-narratives which have, over time, become clichéd and uninteresting; in doing so, he raises Watchmen to the potential of the medium. Comics and film generally operate under the same guidelines that govern any visual narratives; both media yield texts that are subject to examination through semiotic theory. Both also rely on the same modes of narration, presentation of image, and manipulation of time. Traditionally, these similarities have been based mostly in theory because many comics, especially hero titles, have underused the medium in regards to visual presentation. This is not to say that the tools have laid dormant since Action#1 – quite to the contrary, artists like Will Eisner and Walt Simonson, to name only a few, have worked with framing and composition to achieve a “cinematic” effect. But they are the exceptions; the overwhelmingly majority of superhero comics published since the late thirties fail to exhibit the great range of narrative possibilities afforded by the form. As a result, the unique qualities that exist in both film and comics are attributed to the cinema, where experimentation and permutation of these techniques has been encouraged and achieved. Defining
the term is obviously a problem of semantics, which cannot be solved here, and for the purpose of argument I will use the term “cinematic” in the following discussion to mean “having the quality of visual narrative usually associated with the cinema”. Despite the desire of many comic artists to differentiate comic art from all other media, Moore and Gibbons have never denied the influence of film on their craft. In an interview in The Comic Book Rebels Moore speaks at length about the positive qualities of filmic narratives; he does, however, qualify his praise by asserting his allegiance to comics. There is nothing that comics cannot do. There is nothing that has been attempted in any other artistic medium that comics could not, eventually, equal or better165...Here the reader has the ability to stop and linger over one particular “frame” and work out all of the meaning in that particular frame or panel, as opposed to having it flash by you at 24 frames per second in a cinema.166 The quote shows that although Moore obviously supports the unique advantages of comic storytelling, he and Gibbons are still clearly informed by the cinematic; this is evident from the very first page of Watchmen. The cover of the first chapter is an image of a “smiley face” button, lying in a stream of blood. Every one of the seven frames on the first page present that image from a slightly more distant perspective, creating the impression of a “zoom out”.167 (See Fig.23) The sequence is narrated initially with a “voice over” from Rorschach’s journal. The zoom is especially successful because it draws the reader into the action by literally moving him/her within the visual space. Gibbons’ intention is clarified in the following quote: “The cover of Watchmen is in the real world and looks quite real, but it’s starting to turn into a comic book, a portal to another
Wiater and Bissette, p. 172. Ibid., p. 163. 167 Defined this way because the perspective is not altered as it would be with a craning shot.
dimension.”168 The new “dimension” begins to be defined in the first chapter, but the first page initiates the process. The second sequence of this section shows the policemen at the (Blake) murder scene, discussing the crime. Their discussion serves both as the “sound” track of the scene and as a voice-over narration for a series of flashbacks that depict the crime itself. Stark red coloring highlights the use of flashback and differentiates these frames from those containing the “present”. The flashback frames invoke another technique usually associated, or least defined in terms of, film: the point of view “shot”. In some, but not all, of these frames, the action is depicted from the visual point of view of the attacker. The technique is used throughout the novel but to greatest effect in the first six pages of the final chapter. In these “splash” pages Gibbons offers the reader a depiction of the gore that results from the “alien attack”. While these images may at first seem to be ordered randomly, in actuality they represent the sequence as Laurie observes it. During the entire story, enough scenes take place at this specific corner so that an intimate knowledge of the constructed space is available to the reader. The familiarity allows the reader to comprehend the ordering of the frames. The first page shows the front of Madison Square Garden, stained with the blood and corpses of hundreds. The second shows the same scene but from farther away. Only on the third page is any motion is indicated; it presents the Utopia Cinema to the right of the street leading to “the Garden”. The fourth and fifth pages reveal that the implied motion to the right is actual and the sixth and final splash page proves it. The following frame shows Laurie standing in a position that could only yield the view depicted on page six; the panel assigns the point of view of all the splash pages to Laurie.
McCue, p. 99.
Returning to the first chapter and the establishment of a “cinematic” vocabulary, attention must be paid to the sequence depicting the reader’s first visual encounter with Rorschach. Although comics traditionally rely heavily on the interplay between pictures and words, there is no narration or dialogue throughout this entire sequence. Gibbons is not the first artist to place the onus of narration solely on his images, but here he does so in a fashion that has been rarely achieved. As in film, the scenes of Watchmen are often layered heavily from foreground to background. Not only can this lend or detract emphasis from specific images, but it also deepens the texture of the frame as a whole. Gibbons employs this effect often and, in the manner of Roy Thomas, populates his compositions with a variety of minor details. On page four, for example, the action of the scene involves Hollis and Dan, depicted in the shallow background of the frame.(See Fig.24) The foreground presents more than a few artifacts for reader’s examination: there is the Nite Owl trophy, awarded to Hollis upon retirement, a series of owl sculptures and a few books. These include Under the Hood, Hollis’ autobiography, Philip Wylie’s Gladiator, the significance of which is discussed above, and Mobile Maintenance. All of these objects enrich the characterization of Hollis without necessitating exposition. Here the advantages of the medium should be evident; the foregrounded items may have been noticed in a film, but the action of Hollis and Dan could just as certainly detract the audiences’ attention from them. As noted by Moore above, the nature of comics allows the reader to peruse each frame for an indefinite amount of time. Gibbons’ approach takes this into account and often offers the reader a myriad of minutiae to investigate. In order to achieve the most depth in his panels, Gibbons must also use a coloring scheme that finds a precedent, at least partly, in film. The use of shadows, key and fill “lights” and an assortment of hues finds its origins in the
lighting techniques of film. The similarity is only nominal, though, as Gibbons utilizes a significantly greater range of colors in his presentation than is found in most movies.169 The first chapter introduces a system of panel-to-panel transitions that Gibbons relies on intermittently during the rest of the series. The first of these transitions is a “match cut”. The “match cut”, as it is called in film, matches the composition of two successive panels of differing subjects so that the two bear a recognizable similarity to each other. The scene in which Jon teleports Rorschach out of the research facility provides the first clear example.(See Figs.25, 26) The second type of panel to panel transition is the “cross cut”, the alteration between two differing scenes. Although the flashback frames in Chapter One give an example of cross cutting, they do not represent the approach as well as the frames that introduce Chapter Two. The first two pages of Chapter Two are presented in the “four-by-five arrangement” and the layout produces a rhythmic, frame-by-frame cross cutting between scenes highlighted by contrasting color schemes. The funeral of Edward Blake in New York is cross cut with Laurie’s visit with her mother in California; the dramatic oppositions of climate and lighting emphasize the difference between the two scenes.170 The third panel-to-panel transition type is the “montage”. A montage is a series of subject-to-subject transitions that take on a greater meaning combined as a whole sequence. The first example of montage does not appear until the end of Chapter Two; Gibbons assembles a variety of flashback panels involving Edward Blake into a string of images. Rorschach narrates the
Only in experimental films, silent films or individual scenes of great importance is extreme colored lighting ever used in a way even vaguely similar to Gibbons’. 170 Another good example of crosscutting is the fight between Dan, Laurie and the street punks, which is crosscut with Dr. Manhattan’s inquisition. Here the technique is highlighted by ironic combination of text and image, a distinctly comic feature.
sequence in voice over and the general effect is to show the violent life Blake had lived and died. All three of the transition types discussed above appear throughout the novel but their definition is problematic. While these techniques can be described in terms of the cinematic procedures that resemble them, they are also grounded in comic narrative theory. Scott McCloud describes match cuts, cross cuts and montages as subject-to-subject, scene-to-scene and aspect-to-aspect transitions, respectively.171 McCloud’s definitions imply that the methods Gibbons utilizes are inherent to comic narrative; an argument could be made that his use of these techniques represents not innovation but merely good craft. This argument is supported by the fact that these same techniques have been used, however sparingly, by comic artists over the years. I maintain, however, that it is not Gibbons’ mere use of these narrative devices but his reliance upon them that draws Watchmen further away from what comics were and closer to the “cinematic” ideal that comics could be. In most works of popular art, artists strive to unite well-conceived form with thought provoking content; Watchmen is no exception. Gibbons and Moore increase the depth of their narrative through a variety of means but notably through a plethora of subplots, most involving secondary characters. Chapter Three introduces two subplots in the same scene. The first is that of the news vendor, Bernie, and the comic-reading youngster, also named Bernie. Their relationship, and the corner the two inhabit, anchors the rest of the narrative: many of the main characters interact with the two Bernies in some way and the corner is also the location of Veidt’s alien attack. Young Bernie’s activity is of great importance because through him the reader is allowed access to the comic that he holds. The
McCloud, pp. 70-74.
visual presentation of the comic, which contains in its pages the second subplot, suggests its significance. In a process similar, yet inverted, to that of the beginning of Chapter One, the reader is drawn into the comic from a considerable distance. The distance is reduced panel by panel until the text of the comic in Bernie’s hand assumes the frame of the comic in the reader’s hand; the succeeding panel retains the momentum of the magnification by presenting a portion of the same frame in closer, albeit cruder, detail. The comic appears intermittently throughout Watchmen, sometimes possessing the thematic qualities of the chapter in which it surfaces.172 The comic’s title, Tales of the Black Freighter, is a name consciously taken from Brecht and Weill’s Three Penny Opera; Bernie reads a two issue series called “Marooned”. The textual supplement following Chapter Five offers a plot summary: “Marooned” tells the story of a young mariner whose vessel is wrecked by the Black Freighter before it can return to its hometown and warn it of the hellship’s approach. Cast adrift on an uninhabited island with only his dead shipmates for company, we experience the frantic mariner’s torment at the knowledge that while he is trapped on his island, the bestial crew of the Freighter are surely bearing down upon his town, his home, and his children. Driven by his burning desire to avert this calamity, we see the mariner escape from the island by...digging up the recently buried and gas-bloated remains of his shipmates...[lashing] them together and [using] them as the floats of an improvised raft on which he hopes to reach mainland...On reaching the mainland safely upon his horrific craft we see the increasingly distraught and disheveled mariner trying desperately to reach his home, even resorting to murder to acquire a horse for himself. In the final scenes...we see that the mariner, though he has escaped from his island, is in the end marooned from the rest of humanity in a much more terrible fashion.173
See discussion of Chapter Five earlier in this section. Moore and Gibbons, p. 5t:61.
The mariner’s alienation results primarily from the fact that the Freighter had not yet come to Davidstown and that he had mistakenly killed an innocent man and beaten his own wife bloody; awareness of his folly drives him away from civilization and back to the pirate ship that instigated his dilemma. The comic is narrated solely in captions but they are not always confined to respective panels. Many of the panel have been omitted and implied by the captions themselves; only specific excerpts are visually revealed to the reader. The technique plays upon the unique interplay between words and pictures in comic art to which Moore makes specific note: [In comics] you have complete control of both the verbal and the image track...A picture can be set against a text ironically or it can be used to support the text or it can be completely disjointed from the text – which forces the reader into looking at the scene in a new way.174 The captions of the pirate tale function in exactly this manner. The pirate subplot is always found in conjunction with the scenes involving Bernard and Bernie; the connection is logical, as the boy serves as the reader’s portal to the pirate’s “dimension”. The panels depicting the two Bernies contain many of the pirate’s captions. As described in the quote above, the narrative panels are often set against action in an ironic or clever way, creating a notable effect. Not only does the method facilitate the pace of the narrative, carrying the action from one scene to another through words, but it also serves as a subtextual metaphor for any action it describes. The transition between pages three and four of Chapter Three provides an adequate example. Here the captions of the pirate tale bleed into a scene other than the street corner. The narration pertains to the mariner's interaction with the
Wiater and Bissette, pp.162-3.
sunken ship’s figurehead, in which he claims, “I could not love her as she had loved me.”175 The caption that contains this quote is found in the first panel of a scene involving Jon and Laurie. The juxtaposition doubles the meaning of the quote and applies it to their relationship. The ironic application implies that Jon’s romance with Laurie is one sided and that he will never be able to consummate it. The metaphorical nature of the interaction of words and image operates on a frame-to-frame basis but serves a much larger function for the novel as a whole. For example, the opening panel of Chapter Three presents a pirate caption hanging over the symbol of nuclear power. “Delirious, I saw that hell-bound ship’s black sails against the yellow Indies sky, and knew again the stench of powder, and men’s brains, and war.”176 The quote nominally makes reference to the Black Freighter from which the comic takes its name, but it also unmistakably assigns a relationship between that ship and the escalating tensions between the Soviets and Americans that form a backdrop to the events of the series. The parallel is maintained throughout; as the mariner contemplates the impending destruction of Davidstown, the nuclear standoff between the two superpowers grows increasingly uneasy. The mariner himself serves as a metaphor but for whom remains a mystery for much of the novel. There are various implications but the specific character to whom the mariner relates is not revealed until Chapter Twelve, page twenty seven. Here Adrian and Jon discuss the outcome of Adrian’s plan and the responsibility he must bear for it. Adrian makes a side reference to one of his dreams wherein he is “swimming towards a hideous...” 177 He never completes the statement but the
Moore and Gibbons, p. 2:4:1. Ibid., p. 3:1:1 177 Ibid., p. 12:27:1.
fragment implies that Adrian shares the same fate as the mariner, swimming towards the Black Freighter for crimes against humanity. Once Adrian and the mariner are equated, the pirate narrative assumes metaphoric status for all of Adrian’s actions and the plot of the story itself. For example, the shipwrecking of the mariner’s boat represents Adrian’s epiphany at the meeting of the Crimebusters. There he begins to understand the foreboding nature of an arms race and his fears for the safety of his home parallel those of the mariner. Both men expect their worlds to be destroyed and in a final, desperate attempt to save all that he loves, the mariner fashions a raft out of the bodies of his dead comrades. Veidt also uses, and in some cases kills, his peers to attain his goal. In Chapter Five, the metaphor between the two men is supported in a few ways. As discussed above, each scene of Chapter Five conveys the reflective theme in its own unique fashion. Interestingly, the procedure found in the chapters involving Veidt and the pirate are the same; in both cases reflections are depicted in mirror-like surfaces such as a desk or seawater, respectively. The second way in which the metaphor is invoked involves Rorschach. Both Adrian and the mariner are pursued by enemies whose sole desire is to stop the protagonists’ quests. The mariner’s foe is a shark; for Adrian, it is the investigations of Rorschach that pose a considerable danger to his plan. The two adversaries are themselves linked when Detective Fine mistakenly refers to Rorschach as “raw shark”, a deliberate reference to the mariner’s tale. True to the metaphor, both the shark and Rorschach are neutralized soon after their threat is recognized. After Chapter Five, the metaphor becomes less literal and more symbolic. Adrian’s plan to kill millions in sacrifice for peace resembles the mariner’s unwitting murder of the moneylender and his wife. Equating these actions serves
two purposes. Initially, it establishes a dialogue concerning the nature of vigilantism. Both men take justice into their hands and break the law in order to uphold it. That Adrian is conscious of his actions, whereas the mariner is not, is insignificant. Both pursuits seem worthy of praise but their murderous nature prevents it. The relation of the mariner’s murders to Adrian’s also critically examines Adrian’s actions and eventually condemns them. The condemnation comes with Adrian’s description of his dream. Through both Jon’s assertion that “nothing ends” and the mariner’s acceptance into the crew of the Black Freighter, the actions of both Adrian and the mariner are invalidated as permanent solutions. Here Moore and Gibbons suggest that the ideal and the actuality of vigilantism are often opposed. The significance of Tales of the Black Freighter lies not only in its metaphorical nature but also in its form. The images of the comic are often brought to the reader in a slow, six panel zoom. The process is especially notable on page nine of Chapter Five.(See Fig.27) Whereas in most cases Gibbons only presents the reader with individual frames, here he offers a full page; the comic in Bernie’s hand confirms this. It is evident from this example that Moore and Gibbons use the comic to engage the reader both mentally and physically within the world of Watchmen. Reading the real frames of a comic that actually exists within the fictive space places the reader corporally within that space; one not only reads through Bernie’s eyes but also holds the book with his hands. The mental aspect of the reader’s integration into the narrative is fulfilled through contemplation of the comic as it exists in that world. As discussed above, pirate, not superhero, comics dominate the market. Therefore, one must consider Tales of
the Black Freighter through Bernie’s perspective of comic history; consequently, the reader becomes cerebrally involved with the story. The supplemental texts that succeed each chapter also integrate the reader into the world of Watchmen. An examination of each chapter’s texts reveals their role not only as a portal to a different “dimension” but also as a formal component that differentiates Watchmen from all other superhero comics. Following the end Chapter One, the reader is presented with the first textual supplement, the opening chapter of Hollis Mason’s autobiography, Under the Hood. The introduction comes in the form of a tag that has been attached to the text by a paper clip. The tag and paper clip themselves are intended to be physical artifacts of the other world, as are the contents of the note itself. “We present here excerpts from...Under the Hood...Reprinted with permission of the author.”178 The note creates an interesting scenario to the reader. First of all, the unidentified “we” can only be Moore and Gibbons. The note further suggests that the two actually received permission from Hollis Mason to reprint his book. These factors, coupled with the book-like appearance of the pages themselves, enmesh the reader within the fictive world. The supplements of Chapters Two and Three also take this form and do not require individual attention. The three supplements as a group function in the manner described above but also as narrative tools. All three give important background information about the characters and the history of Watchmen’s world. Simultaneously, the excerpts offer the reader a deeper characterization of Hollis than any found in the visual text. Moore achieves this by intimating Hollis’ thoughts through a stylized first-person voice. The “subjective voice” approach is also applied to the supplement of Chapter Four, a treatise on Dr. Manhattan’s role
Moore and Gibbons, p. 1t:1.
in the Cold War by former associate Milton Glass. Here the additional material functions less as a tool of characterization and more as another “portal”; the reader of this essay becomes acquainted with the political situation of the fictive world and Dr. Manhattan’s position within it. Similarly, “A Man on Fifteen Dead Men’s Chests,” ending Chapter Five, treats the history of comics while rooting itself in the narrative through reference to specific characters. The discussion of Black Freighter in Chapter Five’s supplement obviously links it to the text and the mention of Max Shea and Walt Feinberg bolsters the connection.179 This addendum is especially distinctive because it includes a photograph, the only non-illustration of the book; it pictures Joe Orlando, an editor at DC Comics and former employee of Gaines’ EC.180 The photo is Moore and Gibbons’ most intentional effort to connect the real and fictive worlds. Chapter Six ends with a substantially different text from those that precede it. Here the reader is given the police files of Walter Kovacs. Unlike Under the Hood, which is a reprint of original material, these pages constitute the actual documents as they exist in that world. As such, they integrate the reader into the narrative in a more sophisticated fashion than that found in the first five chapters. The application is even further refined in the addition to Chapter Eight. The rough assembly of New Frontiersman pages that appear here are the same as those depicted in the chapter. The reader is involved on a material level, greater even than “Marooned”, because an artifact grounded in the visual text is presented in its actual physical form. The two succeeding supplements repeat this formula, presenting Sally Jupiter’s scrapbook and Adrian’s desk blotter, respectively. All
Both of these characters are secondary; Shea is the writer seen on the artist’s island and Feinberg is the cartoonist of New Frontier. 180 Orlando was also the creator of the first advertisement free comic, Plop, which failed.
three examples, the police file, the scrapbook and the blotter, contain aspects of Watchmen’s reality: language, cultural artifacts, characterization, and history. The appendices of Chapters Seven and Eleven do not warrant much attention, as they function within the mold set by Dr. Glass’ essay; both provide narrative texture but are essentially devoid of the relevance evident in the other chapters. As shown above, the manner with which Moore and Gibbons use these addenda is both provocative and interactive. However, their inclusion in the series is most striking when viewed in light of their form. These texts are just that: texts. Aside from a handful of illustrated photographs and a few seemingly real items, they are written pieces, fitting more appropriately in the medium of literature than of comic art. It is precisely this paradox that makes Moore and Gibbons’ utilization of them so revolutionary. Never before Watchmen had any superhero comics so thoroughly integrated other media into their pages. This unique attribute is testament to the creators’ fervent strides to create something new in the medium as well as the genre. Their goal is further achieved by the intentional exclusion of both advertisements and letters pages from the entire series. Although Watchmen is not the first comic to experiment with these restrictive measures, it is certainly one of the pioneers. The examples discussed throughout this chapter delineate Moore and Gibbons’ critical reform of comic structure. They carefully construct the form, narrative and meta-narrative, providing the reader a rich text that both invokes and revolutionizes the superhero genre of comics. Gibbons and Moore establish Watchmen’s place within the genre by creating characters and scenarios that have strong historical antecedents. However, from the first panel of the novel, the reader also faces a challenging and thought provoking structure that utilizes obscure and
underused strategies of comic vocabulary. Both creators enhance the visual presentation of their story through a deliberately rendered application of these processes. The narrative and structural techniques are embedded deeply in the text, necessitating an active reading on the part of the audience; many of the techniques discussed above are not initially apparent and become clear only after multiple readings. Through such devices as the textual supplements, Moore and Gibbons engage the reader physically with the narrative and constantly blur the lines between the fictive and the actual. Watchmen differs from many comics in that it offers its audience a nearly endless supply of visual details, cross-references and hidden structural oddities; taken as a whole, the novel has the potential to provide a completely different cerebral experience with every reading. It is evident that Watchmen’s unique form involves the audience and draws them in to the story, but to what end? Gibbons and Moore do not expend so much creative energy to create “just another comic”. The highly complex structure of the series is intended not only to challenge the reader’s conception of comic form but also of its content. Moore and Gibbons present their characters in a generic light but the self-questioning nature of the structure instigates a critical investigation of those standards. The result is the culmination of a demythification process that began with Stan Lee’s Marvel Revolution. Stan Lee initiated the demythification of the heroic standard originally established by Superman. Beginning with the Fantastic Four, he drew archetypical heroes away from the magical, irrational world that they inhabited during the Golden Age and back toward the probabilistic, historically centered world of the Western heroes. Comics of the sixties evidenced a “new conception of the relationship
between individual and society.” 181 Despite the sophistication, superheroes still participated in activities that were fantastical and, ultimately, unreal. The advent of “relevance” in the early seventies continued the demythification process, grounding heroes more firmly in the realities of the present by inserting the concerns of everyday people. Soon after “relevance” came the revival of the X-Men, whose tales embodied an even higher level of characterization and a mature treatment of issues of race and “otherness”. But, as Jacobs notes, “The realism [Chris Claremont] brought to the characters, although very refreshing and welcome, was often at odds with their flamboyant powers and fantastic adventures.”182 In this quote he sums up the genre’s inherent flaw. As the maturity, intellect, and cynicism of the comic reader becomes greater, so does the onus on creators to reach a “desired state of suspended disbelief.”183 Watchmen completes the demythification process by presenting its heroes first as people, then as costumed vigilantes. Consider the meeting between Hollis and Dan found in Chapter One. Not only are both men uncostumed, but their conversation is concerned with mundane items. Even Hollis’ encounter with an old foe is contextualized by the Screaming Skull’s reformation; Hollis refers to him as a “nice guy”, a description that has yet to fall out of Bruce Wayne’s mouth concerning the Joker. The supermarket anecdote also assigns Hollis with very “human” activities, in this case, shopping. Gibbons and Moore intentionally expose the weakness of the genre; they constantly challenge the established limits to see exactly how close to realism they can push the superheroes. The treatment of characters such as Rorschach reveals their effort. It is in Rorschach that Moore and
Lang and Trimble, p. 165, from Asa Berger, “Comics and Culture,” Journal of Popular Culture, Summer 1971, p. 173. 182 Jacobs and Jones, p. 254. 183 Lang and Trimble, p. 167.
Gibbons’ exploration of the concept of vigilantism is most pronounced. Rorschach is not like Bruce Wayne, who finds time in between crimefighting to attend cocktail parties: If you’re a vigilante then this is what you’re going to be like: you’re not going to have any friends because you’re going to be crazy and obsessive and dangerous and frightening; you are probably going to be too obsessed with your vendetta to bother with things like eating or washing or tidying your room because what have they got to do with your War Against Crime? You’re probably going to be sexually lonely; you’re probably going to be mentally disturbed; you’re going to be a pariah.184
Watchmen concerns itself with taking superheroes to their logical extreme. In the case of Dr. Manhattan, Moore and Gibbons examine the effect a hero can really have on the world. Rather than scrapping with petty crooks and hooligans, a man of such considerable power should reorganize energy consumption or modernize transportation. Also, issues of sexuality, long denied openly by superhero comics, are in Watchmen entertained on many levels. Gibbons and Moore recognize the sexual connotations that can be read into costumed violence and approach them critically and maturely. Watchmen’s “realistic” treatment of the institution of costumed vigilantism joins its highly complex and innovative form to revitalize superhero genre. Whereas Dark Knight concerns itself with the modernist presentation of a specific hero, Watchmen succeeds in applying this approach to every aspect of the superhero vocabulary, from character to costume to form. Moore and Gibbons invent a completely new presentation of superheroes and change the way the genre is read and created.
Groth, “Big Words,” p. 15.
Comic books are no longer restrained by any rules other than those generated by the medium. There are only the relationships between words and pictures and artists and audiences. The evolution of comic books from a stunted, retarded medium with only one genre, only one physical form and an audience of perpetual children to one in which a full range of readers from children to adults can enjoy graphic works which are both mature and intellectually satisfying has opened new directions for the comic books of the 1990s and beyond.185
The present state of the comics industry owes much to Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons’ experiments with the standards of the superhero genre stretched its existing limits both formally and contextually. The sophistication of the piece also brought legitimacy to the graphic novel format. The “graphic novel” was one of the most exciting and controversial innovations the medium had witnessed in years; it was structurally unique, capable of a different type of storytelling than a monthly comic. Its unusual length allowed for more narrative development and closure as well as greater experimentation with image presentation. Watchmen was the first comic to take advantage of these attributes. Gibbons and Moore exploited the potential of the graphic novel and subsequently initiated the definition of its function. Watchmen’s true impact on the comics medium and superhero genre is difficult to gauge. An analysis of the past ten years suggests that Watchmen’s virtuosity steered superhero comics in two drastically different directions. In the first case, Moore’s realistic treatment of costumed heroes inspired conscientious artists and writers to produce high-quality craft. The influence of Moore and Gibbons’ nostalgic but self-critical presentation of superhero genre is most readily seen in Rick Veitch’s disturbing Brat Pack mini-series. Here Veitch explores the
McCue, p. 66.
many aspects of “the sidekick” with acerbic wit and graphic depictions of unsavory activities. He puts the generic unit, originally embodied in Robin, up to a harsh light and in doing so demythifies and mongrelizes it; the affection with which Moore and Gibbons treat their subject is notably absent from Veitch’s work. Brat Pack is only one of many examples of the Watchmen’s more intellectual offspring. DC’s Vertigo Press, a line of comics devoted solely to “mature readers”, has published an impressive variety of thought provoking and visually stimulating comics in recent years; their Sandman titles are the most prominent. Sandman was a superhero of the Golden Age that Vertigo and new writer Neil Gaiman revived as the master of the Realm of Sleep. Sandman may have begun as a superhero but his new adventures center on mythology, history and mysticism and are all addressed to “mature readers only.” His revival and reinterpretation is characteristic of a number of titles currently published. One of Watchmen’s most important functions is its challenge to standard comic form. Gibbons’ creative presentations engage the reader more highly than that of many superhero comics that preceded it. In Marvels, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Alex Ross continue to stretch the visual limits of the genre. Their tale, a nostalgic recapitulation of early Marvel history, is presented to the reader in a photo-realistic style; the effect virtually eliminates the dissonance usually associated with comic, or cartoon, art. By illustrating their characters as they would actually be perceived in reality, Ross heightens the plausibility of the narrative.186 The other offshoot of Watchmen’s influence took superheroes in a direction opposite works such as Marvels. The portrayal of the violent, and in some cases psychotic, vigilante figure in Watchmen was consumed by the mainstream and formulaically regurgitated. All of the cynicism in Moore’s characters was exploited,
Dissonance is also diminished through the humanity of their narrator.
misinterpreted and exaggerated in monthly titles. The late eighties and early nineties saw the introduction of such revenge-crazed characters as Punisher and the “darkening” of inveterate heroes like Batman. Alan Moore recognizes and laments the effect he sees Watchmen had on the genre: After Watchmen...I had become pretty thoroughly sick of superheroes. I had become particularly sick of the post-modern superheroes that followed in their wake. It seemed to me that post-modern comics were like viewing a distorted mirror at a fun fair, where you go in and see these grotesque looking things and you think, “My God, that’s me!”...But now everywhere I turn there’re [sic] these psychotic vigilantes dealing out death mercilessly. With none of the irony I hoped I brought to my characters.187 The process of “darkening” the genre was furthered by publishers’ progressive attempts to draw in new readers. In the last few years, for example, Superman, Green Lantern and the second Robin have all been killed and Batman’s back has been broken. Of course, Superman and Batman were rehabilitated but the revelation of these heroes’ mortality brought the credibility of the genre into question; the results of these specific experiments have yet to become clear. The early nineties also witnessed the introduction of Image Graphics. A group of Marvel mutineers created this independent company and within a year established themselves as the first legitimate challenge to the sovereignty of the Big Two. Image’s amazing growth is a direct result of their new approaches to heroes. These approaches, both visual and literary, function within the hyper violent mold created by post-Watchmen comics but Image’s heroes may actually represent a completely new branch of superhero literature – almost all of their characters wield impossibly large weapons and even more ridiculous armor. Their titles are selling very well, though, and may foretell the future of heroes.
Wiater and Bissette, p. 170
Watchmen’s self-criticism and reconstruction of the superhero genre has affected the industry irrevocably. Moore and Gibbons’ fresh, insightful narrative tested the genre’s boundaries and subsequently defined them. The logical and illogical attributes of superheroes and their worlds were brought to light and in the process, their creative limits were perceived. I think that these limits may eventually bring on the permanent stagnation of the genre. The creative and productive lives of all genres must come to an end and superheroes are no exception. The recently published series DC vs. Marvel points to this end. In the four-part adventure, the greatest heroes of both universes interact in the most colossal crossover of comic history. However, the majority of the writing is used (laboriously) to delineate all of the most significant generic units of every character. The outcome of the series was a one-week collaboration of the two companies called Amalgam. In the Amalgam books, characters like Wolverine and Batman are fused to become one hero with a shared past. The scripting and art of both series are atrocious but their real downfall is the transparent attempts of both companies to tout the virtues of their respective characters. Has the language of superheroes been exhausted to the point that only childish and poorly conceived combinations of old characters constitute new art? Did Watchmen’s affectionate critique of the genre instigate its downfall? As of this printing the future of superhero comics is unclear, but the events of the following months may be critical to its outcome. In May, Alex Ross and DC Comics will publish Kingdom Come. The novel is expected to be a joining of the contextual innovations brought by Dark Knight and Watchmen with the formal challenges induced by the latter and Ross’ own Marvels. There is great anticipation on the
part of comic book fans, executives, creators and storeowners and for many Kingdom Come represents the superheroes’ last chance. Perhaps it will fail and the genre will shrivel and fade like the Westerns of film. Or perhaps it will succeed in looking at heroes in a new way, as Watchmen did, and consequently spark a new era of superhero comics.
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