Anyone who’s grown up with DC Comics will feel as though their characters are their old friends from school. Particularly during the Silver Age, when the Comics Code prevented anything dark from being published. It was as though the Justice League were our best mates. But then the Comics Code was repealed, and things became darker.
The Bronze Age dawned. We graduated school and went to college, where we discovered sex, drugs and joined a rock band. And this was never more apparent than in the comic that changed everything for the medium.
From 1986 to 1987, DC Comics published Alan Moore’s deconstructionist comic book Watchmen, a depiction of superheroes in the real world. After Superman debuted in Action Comics in 1938, the superhero became a reality following copycats. During the Nixon administration, masked vigilantes were outlawed in order to prevent the Watergate scandal from leaking, and the only superheroes left were sponsored by the government – including Doctor Manhattan, the only actual superhero in this world. With the power of God, Doctor Manhattan is indestructible and was conceived by Moore as being Superman’s logical endpoint of a man becoming a God. This allowed Moore to use Doctor Manhattan as meta-commentary for the superhero, in-which they become a complicated political issue, used to end wars like Vietnam immediately, but also creating paranoia amongst America’s enemies that they can be used against them. As such, President Nixon is, in his third term, leading America closer to a nuclear war with Russia.
The overarching theme of Watchmen is whether or not the concept of a hero is good for society; that if society allows for the existence of masked vigilantes, they are submitting their freedom to somebody who operates outside of the law, and that a superhero’s very status makes them a dictator. Moore was using the hero concept as a warning of what will happen if nobody questions their leaders. That’s what made Watchmen the first post-modern superhero comic, as it established the hero as a grand narrative in order to reject it, and in the process reject the belief that a society is invulnerable simply because its leaders say it is. At the same time, Watchmen asks either: whether or not the kind of fictional heroes its using to express these anxieties are relevant in a post-Watergate age, when government corruption had been exposed into mainstream politics and the line between truth and lie was no longer simple enough to distil in a superhero strip; or whether or not the superhero was still relevant because of that social development, but would only maintain that relevance by developing in the same self-aware, self-critical way. If fantasy heroes were still relevant at the time of Watchmen‘s writing, then it was because they were more relevant than ever, and needed to be applied in more literary, considerate ways in order to remain relevant. If Watchmen‘s superheroes are inspired by the same superheroes that inspired Watchmen‘s very conception, then this was Moore exploring the effects on society that the superhero has had by making them real people, who are addressing changes within their own ranks that have happened which must be confronted. Watchmen was Moore using the superhero genre in a way that would help it understand itself.
Watchmen‘s villain is Adrian Veidt, A.K.A. Ozymandias. The murder mystery taking place within the Watchmen is coordinated by Veidt as a means to rid society of its ineffective protection in order to launch an attack which would expose how vulnerable society is, thereby committing the ultimate heroic act of empowering society by enabling it to create the means it would need to survive his existence. In the same way, Moore’s deconstructionist approach of the superhero genre was merely a means to address its inherent problems in order to then rebuild it in a new way that would allow it to survive the ways in-which society has changed since its inception.
Watchmen‘s artist, Dave Gibbons, used the symbol of a yellow-black smiley face stained with blood as a recurring visual motif, which became so noted for its resemblance of the Doomsday Clock ticking toward midnight, and for encompassing the contrapuntal imagery that has made Watchmen such a significant innovation in comic book art; it has come to represent the entire series and its universe – which was created separately from the DC universe that inspired it, as that’s the thing that Watchmen is parodying.
Because Watchmen remained an isolated continuity, its characters could never meet their inspirations: Doctor Manhattan is Captain Atom; Rorschach is The Question; Ozymandias is Thunderbolt; Nite Owl II is Blue Beetle; The Comedian is Peacemaker; Silk Spectre II is Nightshade. Our relationship as readers with characters is comparable to the relationships we have with our friends, especially in an ongoing series where that relationship develops as we learn more about those characters. Similarly, the characters of Watchmen and the DC Universe were separate parts of our lives, be that friends from school or from college. I for one have often wondered what would happen if my friends from school and college met each other through their mutual connection to me, though I also know that it’s not even possible because of how much my college friends will have changed and effectively become different people – a new identity behind an old mask, with new friends of its own. If this real-life crossover ever happened, it would likely go that way, and would end with me now wondering something new: should I have ever been reunited with them, these familiar looking strangers, and do they even need me anymore?
Since Watchmen, comics have tried to replicate its success. Though Moore’s intention was to prove what could be done with the comic strip medium and to open it up to new ideas, instead Watchmen created the opposite effect, as everything which followed it wanted to be like it.
DC Comics even tried Before Watchmen, a prequel telling the Watchmen’s origin stories and the events that lead-up to the beginning of Watchmen. But when Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns decided that things needed to be lightened-up, he decided that this would be explained as Doctor Manhattan having manipulated the mainstream DC Universe in order to make it more cynical, for some reason.
The story-line was introduced with a single image: Batman finding the blooded smiley face badge. Batman, the personification of the Detective Comics Universe, combined with the image which singularly represents the entire Watchmen universe. It needed no explanation. And it all lead to Doomsday Clock, one-part Watchmen sequel, one-part Watchmen/DC Universe crossover. And the gimmick? Superman was going to meet Doctor Manhattan.
Immediately, this is interesting in one particular way: the Justice League is fiction in Watchmen, appearing in comics in the same way as in reality. While this was originally a meta-textual device that Moore used to personify the concept of superheroes in society from copycats inspired by those comics, this now becomes a story in-which the Watchmen can come face-to-face with the characters that inspired them, which has the potential to be just a meta-textual as being inspired by them to be a commentary on them in the first place. There’s already precedent for this – in the DC Multi-Multiverse, comics are the way in-which different universes communicate with each other; events happening in one universe may be fiction in another. Doctor Manhattan will already be aware of Superman, knowing of his adventures in comics. While Moore created Doctor Manhattan as Supeman’s logical endpoint, Johns considers there to be a dramatic dichotomy between them: an alien trying to be like Humanity in order to inspire them, and a human who has become like an alien and abandoned his humanity. If Superman is an ideal hero, then Doctor Manhattan is the truth to it. And Doomsday Clock is an opportunity for the idealistic and realistic version of the same thing to come together. Perhaps the Justice League and Watchmen will clash in this way, reinforcing their characters as we learn from their opposites what they could be but are not. If this is Johns’ reason for putting Superman with Doctor Manhattan, then it’s missing the point that this comparison was already there when Doctor Manhattan was created for that purpose. The Watchmen don’t need to meet the Justice League, because any insight that could be gained from it was the whole point of Watchmen in the first place. This way of doing it is just less subtle, and misses the obvious: it’s supposed to be separate to work, because Watchmen was about DC Comics, and could therefore only exist on its fringes in order to justify itself. The only difference that will be gained from doing it this literally is that Watchmen will no longer be a complete story with a beginning, middle and end; instead, it will become another subplot in an expansive, complicated, perpetual and unending soap opera that asks its readers to come aboard with no knowledge of what the intention or final destination is (the opposite of which is what makes Watchmen so easily readable and re-readable). Watchmen was so successful because it attracted readers who wouldn’t otherwise read comics, because they didn’t need to have read anything else to understand it. But Doomsday Clock ties-in to so many previous DC story-lines that it’s not one beautiful thing like Watchmen, but one of many. In the storytelling economy, Watchmen just fell in value.
Since Watchmen, Veidt’s role in the attack on New York has been exposed. The peace building projects that it lead to have broken down. The European Union has disintegrated. Russia has ceased negotiation with America and has invaded Poland. President Robert Redford has ordered the firing of nuclear missiles. World War III is here. And in three hours, the rockets launch. Rorschach has realised that Earth’s only salvation is in the one man who has the power to interfere: Doctor Manhattan. But Doctor Manhattan has abandoned the world for one less complicated. Meanwhile, in the DC Universe, Superman has had his first nightmare.
But Rorschach is different. The original man behind the mask, Walter Kovacs, was killed at the end of Watchmen. The new Rorschach wears the same mask but has a different skin colour. He’s recognisable, but fundamentally different. He’s not “my” Rorschach, that I knew from long ago. And even if he were, he has new friends now: Erika Manson, and her partner, Marcos Maez, who communicates through movement only (which is difficult to understand when he’s just an image). The so desired Watchmen reunion can never happen, because things will have unexpectedly developed beyond what they were, so the reader’s place in it is questionable now.
From the beginning, the political references are so blatantly apparent that it’s obvious how deceptively simple it all is. Rorschach accuses society of having divided into the polarised far left/far right divide with no room for moderate centrism that it’s destroying itself. It’s fair to say that society has definitely become inward-accusing, with politics now being a game of cults using us-against-them tactics to make us think that everyone else is against them and that only they have the answer to all of society’s problems. Watchmen‘s equivalent of 9/11 – the most significant political event since Watchmen – has been exposed as an inside job, and the predicted ramifications of Brexit are happening earlier in this world. The people of Watchmen no longer believe in great systems and have lost faith in society as a construct. If Watchmen was an exposure of how uncertain the world is, Doomsday Clock is the logical follow-up to that as the story of what happens when people discover that nothing in the world is simple. Subsequently, the Watchmen are reinvented, as new characters filling preexisting moulds to fulfil the same function as their predecessors. Society’s paranoia never disappeared, it changed. It’s time for the Watchmen to change, too.