Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Author's Note

I wrote this thesis for the American Studies Department at Wesleyan University in 1996.

I have posted the entire thesis here, but for a better reading experience, you can also access the thesis on Scribd at this link.  

I recommend the PDF version at Scribd, as the footnotes have been corrupted in the version posted here at Blogger, and it is easier to read in a printable PDF.

I hope you find it as interesting to read as it was to write.

- Samuel Asher Effron

Chapter Three: The Genesis of Watchmen and the Revival /Revision of the [Superhero] 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 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 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 nineteen eighty-four 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 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 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 god-like 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. 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:

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 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 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.[127] 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 na├»ve 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 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 playboy-turned-crime fighter exemplified by Batman; the hero, bored with the Earthly 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 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. 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.

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 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 fifties’ 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 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 thirties 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 fifties.

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 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 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.

[105] Jacobs and Jones, p. 267.

[106] McCue, p. 61. “The Death of Captain Marvel” is the first.

[107] Groth and Fiore, p. 5.

[108] McCue, p. 61. The reliance on these specialty shops increased every year as comics began to disappear from drugstores, supermarkets and newsstands.

[109] McCue, p. 61.

[110] Jacobs and Jones, p. 288.

[111] 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.

[112] Alan Moore and David Gibbons, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 1986) p. 9:5:1.

[113] Moore and Gibbons, p. 12:27:5.

[114] Stanley Wiater and Stephen Bissette, Comic Book Rebels (New York: Donald

Fine Pub., 1993) p.164.

[115] Groth and Fiore, p. 94.

[116] Gary Groth, “Big Words,” Comics Journal 138 (Oct. 1990) p. 19.

[117] 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.

[123] Johnson, Interview.

[124] Moore and Gibbons, p. 3t:1.

[125] Ibid., p. 6:15:3.

[126] McCue, p.131

[127] Johnson, Interview.

[128]For more on the schizoid split in superheroes see Asa Berger’s The Comic Stripped American (New York: Walker and Co., 1973).

[129] Goulart, Encyclopedia, p. 82 The first of these heroes was Black Hood, also known as Kip Burland.

[130] 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.

[133] Batman’s Batplane, Blue Beetle’s Beetle Ship and Nite Owl’s Owl ship alias: Archie.

[134] Blue Beetle II was a Batman imitation, too.

[135] Moore and Gibbons, p. 7:9:3.

[136] Johnson, Interview.

[137] McCue, p. 56.

[138] Mark James Estren, A History of Underground Comics (San Fransisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1974) p. 25.

[139] McCue, p. 62.

[140] 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.

[143] Moore and Gibbons, 12:27:4.

[144] McCue, p. 125.

[145] 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.

[148] In an ironic twist, Moore has EC Comics, the worst victim of the Wertham attacks, become the most successful publisher of pirate comics.

[149] Savage, p. 17.

[150] Moore and Gibbons, p. 1:19:3-6.