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…



Comics Primer: What is a Graphic Novel?

500 Essential Graphic Novels coverGraphic Novel. I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before, haven’t I?

It’s a phrase that says, very clearly, “These aren’t just comics. They’re for ADULTS too!” It’s a phrase that’s been used with increasing frequency over the last thirty years. But what the hell does it actually mean?

Good question. And aren’t we just talking about comic books, anyway?

If you believe your local bookshop section, then the answer is yes. After all, most Graphic Novel sections in bookstores are full of books that can safely be described as comic books – but there’s an insane variety. Unless the section has been shelved by someone who knows their stuff, it’ll probably be shelved in alphabetical order. Which is an understandable way of doing things… but is also completely and utterly crazy.

Why crazy?

Well, just imagine a bookstore where all the books are shelved alphabetically. All of them, regardless of subject matter, tone, whether they’re for younger readers or adults only. Manga will usually be shelved separately, but as far as divisions go, that’s usually it, and while the experienced comics reader will know where to look, for newcomers it can be downright bewildering. Added to that, not everything that’s in the Graphic Novel section is technically a graphic novel.

Alright then – stop beating about the bush. What is a Graphic Novel?

Okay – technically speaking, a Graphic Novel is a work of sequential art (i.e. comics) that’s self-contained (or which consists of several self-contained stories) and which is published all in one go. Technically speaking, anything which was originally published in a monthly/bi-monthly/quarterly issue format and was then collected together into a paperback/hardback edition should be referred to as a Trade Edition. (That’s where the now rather common phrase “Waiting for Trade” comes from, in comic circles – people who forgo the monthly wait, and want to get the story in the nicely bound collected edition).

So – my copies of Superman: They Saved Luthor’s Brain and Spider-Man: The Clone Saga V1 aren’t actually graphic novels?

Technically, no. If it was published first in issue format, then it technically doesn’t count. They’re trade editions all the way.

It’s really that simple?

Watchmen coverWell… actually, no it isn’t. If you make the distinction precise, then you know what isn’t a graphic novel? Watchmen. The most graphic novel of all graphic novels wouldn’t count, simply because it was originally published as twelve (semi-monthly) issues. Same with works like From Hell, and especially The Sandman – its status as a 75 issue story means it’s incredibly difficult to make strict definitions stick, especially when it’s very much a self-contained work that, for the most part, showcases the kind of structure, planning and execution you’d find in a Literary Novel.

‘Graphic Novel’ is, more than anything, a marketing tool. It’s been used since the mid seventies as a way of trying to prove that comics can stand on their own as a genuine art form, rather than simply being regarded as something rather juvenile. And, especially over the last fifteen years, there has finally arisen a market for genuine, artistic and risk-taking graphic novels that step outside the barriers set by mainstream perceptions (i.e. “All comics must feature men in spandex fighting”) and head in remarkable directions all of their own.

Care to name some titles?

Certainly. Alice in Sunderland. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth. Asterios Polyp. Persepolis. Ghost World. Palestine. Parker: The Hunter. And many, many more.

So, where did the name ‘graphic novel’ come from?

A Contract with God coverThere are actually examples of graphic novel-like editions going back to the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that things really started happening, with both Marvel and DC experimenting with different formats, and adult comic books flourishing in mainland Europe alongside the collected editions of strips like Asterix and Tintin. Then there’s Blackmark, by Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin, which has been retro-actively called the first graphic novel, although it wasn’t referred to at the time. There’s a handful of other works which could technically fall under the banner (including Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman and Father Christmas), but the first genuine graphic novels are usually looked upon as three books published in 1976 – Bloodstar by Richard Corben,  Beyond Time and Again by George Metzger (even though it was a collection of serialized strips) and Chandler: Red Tide by Jim Steranko. However, the first self-proclaimed graphic novel, and the first work which truly defined what a graphic novel could be, was A Contract with God by the famed comics artist Will Eisner in 1978 (Eisner often gets described as the ‘inventor’ of the graphic novel, despite the fact that he never claimed to be, and simply didn’t realise the term hadn’t been used before). It wasn’t until the mid-Eighties, however, and the arrival of both Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns that the term really caught on. But of course, not everyone likes using it…

Really? Doesn’t it mean that comics are all grown up and adult now?

Yes, but some writers feel that ‘graphic novel’ is trying too hard for prestige and seriousness, when there isn’t anything wrong with works being described as ‘comics’. The best quote to go to is probably from Neil Gaiman, who was once informed that he didn’t write comics, he wrote ‘graphic novels’ – according to Gaiman, “all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”

Anyhow, so how do you tell if something is or isn’t a graphic novel?

Length is a good guide to go with. If it’s a work of artistic intent and a story with a beginning, middle and end that can be bound in one edition, then you can pretty much view it as a graphic novel (the wonderful Bone by Jeff Smith, for example, is just over 1400 pages long in its one-volume-edition, and collects over ten years worth of comics, but is still one continuous and contained story). Once you get beyond one volume, it gets tricky (and once you get to manga, the whole thing gets really complicated), but honestly, the best guide is artistic intent. There are plenty of grey areas, but most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell. For example – the Jack the Ripper saga From Hell is a dark and disturbing tale of murder that also acts as a chillingly intelligent dissection of the Victorian era, while the superhero event comic Blackest Night is (no offence, DC fans) a bunch of people in spandex vs Space Zombies.

Could you recommend some places where I can learn more?

Certainly. There’s 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide by Gene Kannenberg Jr, Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life by Paul Gravett, Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk, and the absolutely peerless Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, all of which will give you a brilliant grounding in the kind of remarkable comics that are out there, and exactly how they do what they do.

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