Atom Bomb Blues – The Birth of the Watchmen (2009)

(Originally published in an SFX Special in 2009)

Remember ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ Remember how it was a gritty and realistic saga of superheroes in a world on the verge of nuclear apocalypse? Remember how the story started off with the murder of government-sponsored superhero the Peacemaker? Remember how it put a new spin on comic-book characters like the Blue Beetle, the Question, Thunderbolt, Captain Atom and Nightshade?

Of course, you don’t remember that. Like the alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is still President, the classic comic miniseries Watchmen never actually happened that way – but it could have, very easily. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking saga has been a landmark of quality for so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t around, but Watchmen had humble beginnings, and there were many ways this influential classic could have gone in a very different direction.

In fact, it started life in the mid-Eighties simply as a way for legendarily hairy comics mastermind Moore to continue exploring his daring ideas for a different kind of superhero story. His incredible work on horror comic Swamp Thing had netted him awards and acclaim, but what he planned next was to team up with artist Dave Gibbons for a potentially challenging take on the classic superhero.

The basic starting point for Watchmen was the thought of playing with an entire superhero world – ideally using characters no longer being published – and treating them in a different and much more realistic way; subverting rather than following the usual rigid superhero continuity imposed by the big comics publishers. It was an idea that meshed with what Moore had already achieved with radical Brit superhero saga Marvelman (first published in 1982, and also known (for very complicated copyright-related reasons) as Miracleman), where he’d taken a familiar character and pushed it in a new and often shocking direction.

Soon, Moore had a loose concept for his story: one member of a superhero team would die, and the whodunnit mystery would allow him to explore interesting aspects of the superhero equation. And what was best was that it didn’t matter exactly which characters they used, as long as they were familiar. Instead of the usual super-powered action, this would be a tale *about* superheroes, and the emotional resonance and nostalgia of familiar characters would give the story a sense of shock and surprise when the reality of their world became clear.

At least, that was the theory – and after initially considering a team of heroes called the Mighty Crusaders (first published by MLJ / Archie comics), Moore eventually found a firmer structure when DC offered him the chance to use characters originally published by Charlton Comics – the rights were now owned by DC, they weren’t being published and were potentially ripe for reinvention. Moore and Gibbons leapt into action, and it’s here that the Watchmen alternate version ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ came together.

Thanks to most of the proposal being printed in the 1988 Graphitti Hardback edition of Watchmen (and reprinted in 2005’s Absolute Edition), we can get an idea of how ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ would have looked – and at first glance, the two projects are pretty similar in both plot and characterisation.

Each Watchmen cast member has their predecessor in the Charlton Comics heroes, and out of all of them, it’s the Question (who’d eventually become Rorschach) and the Blue Beetle (Nite Owl) who are closest to their Watchmen counterparts. The Blue Beetle is actually the oldest of all the characters, first seeing publication in 1939, and was always planned to be the most empathetic and human of Moore’s group, a Batman-style inventor and crime-fighter who’s sometimes aided by the powers of a mystic scarab.

Moore even worked the fact that there had been a previous Blue Beetle into the story (leading to the creation of Hollis Mason, the 1940s-era Nite Owl), while he also stayed close to the source material when dealing with the Question. One of the more distinctive characters created by famed comics artist Steve Dikto, he was a frequently ruthless crime-fighter who used an artificial skin known as ‘psuedoderm’ to render himself literally faceless.

Despite being a toned-down version of a previous Dikto character, the independently published Mr A, the Question is still a much darker, more extreme superhero, and Dikto’s right-wing beliefs in moral absolutes often came across very strongly in his Question stories. Moore’s own outlook was very different, but the uncompromising portrayal of the ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ version of the Question (and eventually Rorschach) owed just as much to Steve Dikto’s politics as it did to his characters.

Another cast member superficially close to his counterpart was Thunderbolt, who’d soon become Watchmen’s Ozymandias. Orphaned and raised in a Himalayan lamasery, Thunderbolt was both physically and mentally powerful, able to access the unused portions of his brain – but while Moore finally cast him as the ultimate villain of the piece, things got sketchier when it came to some of the other characters.

Destined to die at the story’s opening, the Peacemaker was a pacifist diplomat so committed to peace that he decided to fight corrupt warlords and dictators as a costumed superhero (with the splendidly ridiculous tagline – “A man who loves peace so much that he is willing TO FIGHT FOR IT!!”). Moore’s plans didn’t go much further than him being a patriotic superhero who stumbled across a shocking secret that led to his death, and this version was a long way from his Watchmen replacement, the Comedian.

Things were even looser when it came to Nightshade (soon to be Silk Spectre) – Moore basically admits in the proposal that “she’s the one I know least about and have least ideas on”, and the only firm detail set down was that the US Senator’s daughter with mysterious, shadow-based superpowers would be Captain Atom’s only emotional link to the world.

However, it was with Captain Atom, the direct predecessor of Doctor Manhattan, that the project’s real potential became clear. The original Captain Atom was a fairly clichéd nuclear-powered hero, a military official transformed by an accident that gave him a selection of nuclear-related powers – but Moore’s idea was to tackle what being an immensely powerful superhero would do to a person, and to the world around him. A distant and emotionally isolated character, the Captain Atom of ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ pointed to the depths the project would reach, as well as being definitively unlike any superhero who’d come before.

If ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ had been given the go-ahead at this point, it would have been an interesting, gritty bit of superhero intrigue. However, so much of what made Watchmen unique was the detail around the characters, the way they transcended their origins and went in unexpected directions – developments that might not have happened if Moore and Gibbons had stuck with their ‘remixes’ of the Charlton characters.

As it turned out, though, things went very differently. The proposal was submitted, but DC’s reaction was a polite “No”. They liked the idea, but didn’t want to leave the Charlton characters in a state where they were either dead, or so psychologically messed-up that they wouldn’t be usable.

This could have been the moment where everything came to a screaming halt – but instead it became the turning point for the Project Soon To Be Known As Watchmen. Intially unsure that brand new characters could achieve the same emotional effect as established ones, Moore finally realised if he used the Charlton characters as a loose basis, he could still tap into the sense of familiarity and nostalgia he was aiming to both use and subvert.

On top of that, severing the links with the Charlton originals meant the story was now completely self-contained – and one of Watchmen’s ultimate strengths is that unlike many ferociously complex superhero mythologies, it doesn’t require any outside knowledge.

The proposal was reworked from the ground up, with the Charlton characters morphing into their new versions – and as they did so, the breadth and scale of the project started to increase. Captain Atom became Dr Manhattan, and his quantum-related powers became even stranger, leading to the ambitiously structured time-hopping chapter “Watchmaker”. The Peacemaker transformed into the brutal, morally ambiguous Comedian, while the world of the story started getting more complex, and the characters became deeper.

Bolder experiments started to happen – like the Tales of the Black Freighter pirate storyline that mirrored the main plot, and the symmetrical design of issue 5’s chapter ‘Fearful Symmetry’. It was all adventurous, groundbreaking stuff, but at best, Moore and Gibbons were hoping to carry off a daring piece of storytelling. What they weren’t expecting was to transform the comic book industry forever…

Over twenty years on, and Watchmen has had a truly gigantic effect. Even more than Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it’s the title that kicked off the ‘graphic novel’ revolution – it proved comics could be just as legitimate and adult an art form as any other, and its intelligent, multi-layered approach to characterisation and storytelling has been felt in countless titles ever since.

Unfortunately, it also unleashed a torrent of two-dimensional copycats, with every other superhero title embracing ‘grim and gritty’ for over a decade, and comics suddenly being crammed full of shocking violence and near-psychotic costumed avengers. Even today, despite occasional stone-cold classics like The Ultimates and All-Star Superman, there’s the sense that superheroes are still trapped in the shadow of what Moore and Gibbons achieved.

Maybe it’s not beyond belief that some enterprising writer-artist team will one day achieve a superhero tale that goes way beyond Watchmen – but Moore and Gibbons have certainly given them a hell of an act to follow…



Comic Review: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century 1969

Writer: Alan Moore ~ Artist: Kevin O’Neill ~ Colours: Ben Dimagmaliw ~ Publisher: Top Shelf/Knockabout ~ Year: 2011

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1969 Cover Art Alan Moore Kevin O'Neill[xrr rating=3.5/5]

Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

The Low-Down: The long-awaited latest volume of Comics Mastermind Alan Moore’s exploration of pulp fiction continues the eccentric course begun with the first instalment of the Century trilogy back in 2009. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century 1969 is a trippy, explict and disturbing trip through the dark side of the Sixties that’s full of amazing moments, even if it never quite reaches the heights of previous volumes.

What’s it About?: Eleven years after recovering the Black Dossier, the remaining members of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – the immortal trio Wilhemina Murray, Allan Quartermain and Orlando – return to the now Swinging London of 1969. There’s evidence that the satanic cult they tracked in 1910 is once again active, and dark forces are linking the worlds of hedonistic pop stars and criminal gangsters. But as one particular rock star aims for a spectacular live performance in Hyde Park, our immortal heroes find themselves in darker danger than they suspected…

The Story: Patience. That’s the main ingredient for being a fan of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series that’s been published on an increasingly irregular schedule for the last eleven years (a fact that hasn’t been helped by author Alan Moore’s regular run-ins with major comics publishers, resulting in the series being moved from DC imprint Wildstorm to indie publishers Top Shelf and Knockabout). Even with the current trilogy of volumes, what was originally scheduled to be published from 2008-2009 might finally be finished in 2012 if we’re incredibly lucky (although 2013 is probably a safer estimate), but with the infamously outspoken Moore finally stepping away from all mainstream comics work, the LOEG is a project that looks to always follow its own bizarre pace. Moore and O’Neill are going to go at the speed they’re comfortable with, no matter how frustrating it might be.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1969 Panel Art Alan Moore Kevin O'NeillIt probably helps that the LOEG saga has, since the climax of the HG Wells-influenced Volume 2, been gradually stepping away from its Victorian pulp origins, embracing the ludicrous ambition of Volume 2’s head-spinning ‘New Traveller’s Almanac’ text portions, which mapped out an entire world and history based entirely on myth, legend and fiction of all shapes and sizes. Since 2007’s The Black Dossier, the League’s story has been a much stranger one – there’s still the sense of subversive adventure and the overturning of pulp archetypes, but the quest to push into ever weirder and wilder worlds of fiction has given the book a much riskier feel. It’s part romp, part twisted satire, part intellectual treasure-hunt, part spot-the-reference (with every single named character (and plenty of the background extras in certain panels) being a reference to another work of fiction), and since the start of the Century trilogy, things have only got weirder, wilder and more obscure.

This brings us to Century 1969, a volume that gives us the most modern version of the League world yet, crashing us into a brightly coloured and vividly trippy version of Sixties London that melds fiction, music and history into a pretty damn heady brew. While Century 1910 felt closer in tone to Moore’s Martian-centric second volume, this is much closer to The Black Dossier in both style and execution, with Moore taking on a whole series of Sixties-related characters, as well as having to do a lot of careful tiptoeing around certain names in order to avoid major copyright trouble. Featuring a cast of gangsters and drugged-out pop stars, there’s no surprise that there’s a hefty dose of controversial 1970 cult movie Performance and 1971 gangster classic Get Carter in the mix, with Moore’s story build a genuinely unsettling atmosphere as it builds to its mind-bending Hyde Park climax.

There’s all the wit, intelligence and playfulness that you’d expect, along with a predictably bleak and downbeat ending that sets things up for the trilogy’s final volume in a memorable way – and Moore also builds on the seeds laid down in Century 1910, with Mina’s perception of her own immortality once again changing, eventually pushing her in some surprising directions. Underneath the colourful gags, the savage violence and the head-spinning references, there’s a very pointed examination of the Sixties going on here, as well as a look at the way fiction evolves with the times (embodied in Mina’s determinedly ‘groovy’ behaviour). Along with this, there’s a sense of cynical despair at the passage of time and the development of fiction that’s hard not to read as partly thanks to Moore’s disillusionment with most mainstream entertainment (and especially comics and movies).

Thanks to this, Century 1969 may be never less than a fascinating read, but it’s not always a fun one either. A lot of this is simply the level of references – it helps to know a lot about Sixties pop culture (I was especially pleased to see the title character from Adam Adamant Lives! making an appearence), but even then there’s a tremendous amount in Century 1969 that’s pitched at a level you’re never going to appreciate without doing research (or consulting Jess Nevins’ excellent online footnotes, which helped me out with a number of references I’d never have spotted without help). There are points where the story feels in danger of disappearing into the realms of literary/pop culture game, with the danger that it’s very easy for a reader to feel excluded from the moments where they don’t get the joke. Moore doesn’t feel as interested in carrying the reader along for the ride here as he did earlier in the LOEG saga, and there are certain sequences that simply end up perplexing and confusing rather than adventurous and satirical (especially the bizarre scene involving a certain ‘Jack C’ and a moustachioed midget).

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1969 Panel Art Alan Moore Kevin O'NeillIt’s partly down to being the flipside of the increasingly offbeat identity of the League saga – no matter how much fun the original two volumes were with their energetic pulp adventure, Moore could easily have run that concept into the ground. Instead, in the exact opposite stance of most mainstream comics (at which Moore aims a couple of subtle barbs during Century 1969), he’s opened it out and changed it so that every single League story is different in style and approach. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is still one of the most distinctive, daring and demented cult comic experiences currently available, but Century 1969 has a few too many points where the joke is starting to wear thin, and the chase to keep up with the trail of references and in-jokes gets a little wearing here. Moore is still ploughing his own individualistic furrow, and should be applauded for that – it’s just a pity that he’s not always bringing his audience along for the ride…

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1969 Panel Art Alan Moore Kevin O'NeillThe Art: One area where the League is still as strong as ever, however, is in its visuals. The only artist to ever have his entire artistic style declared ‘objectionable’ by the Comics Code Authority (back in 1986), Kevin O’Neill has a massively distinctive and individual look to his work that’s only gotten crazier over the years. Angular and detailed, his art is closer to the grotesque of old-school English illustrators like Hogarth than traditional superhero comics, and the League has suited him down to the ground from day one, matching Moore’s creativity and imagination note for note. Century 1969 sees him shifting gears again, and from the dour atmospherics of the gangland sequences to the hilariously extreme and imaginative acid trip, it’s breathtaking work that’s strongly backed up with Ben Dimagmaliw’s eye-popping colours. An extra note of applause has to go to Todd Klein, one of the best letterers in the business, who goes to even more imaginative extremes, making this a visually stunning and arresting experience.

The Verdict: Any new readers shouldn’t even consider starting here – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century 1969 is a distinctive and often extreme tale that won’t be for everyone, and doesn’t quite live up to previous volumes in the series. However, if the mix of pulp adventure, off-beat satire and literary game-play is up your street, then this volume will still give you plenty to chew on – just don’t hold your breath for volume 3, as we may be in for a long wait…

[amtap book:isbn=0861661621]