Almost all night watchmen proved that comics could be worthy of literary consideration, opening the doors to new kinds of stories. Some have been great. Others? Questionable. Since 1986, watchmen changed superhero comics forever, for better and for worse.
In the years that followed, many comedians tried to ape watchmen without understanding what made him great. How did a medium known for light fare aimed at younger audiences suddenly turn into an outlet for darker mature content? Can superhero comics ever return to their roots? To post-watchmen, many comics have ceased to be fun to read. The worst offenders were pretentious. To truly understand the transformative effect that watchmen had on the comic book industry, we must go back to the origin of the history of the beginnings of the superhero: the 20th century.
At first, superhero comics lacked literary sophistication. And they did not claim to have such ambitions. The stories of Superman, Batman, Captain America and Archie Andrews have always been aimed at younger audiences. They were simple, entertaining and affordable. The potential of comics only grew between the 1950s and 1970s when writers and artists such as Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Denny O’Neal and Neal Adams entered the field.
But trouble soon arose. In 1953, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency asserted that comic books were causing minors to engage in illegal behavior. To prevent the government from censoring them, the Association of Comic Book Magazine Publishers created the Comics Code Authority. Like the Hays Code, they would dictate which stories could be told. As a result, the comics rarely touched on serious issues. Even Marvel Comics, which has become a sensation for its flawed heroes and sophisticated storytelling, hasn’t dwelt on these issues beyond a cursory glance. While superhero stories have become popular, especially with a new audience of young adults, their stories have remained simplistic. Very few would class these comics with literary alumni like Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or John Steinbeck.
However, the 1970s brought a change. The comics soon began to reflect the dark mood that had gripped America after the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War. Writers like Neal Adams used heroes like Green Lantern to explore issues of poverty. Roy Harper, Green Arrow’s sidekick, turned to heroin. Spider-Man – awkwardly – made a story out of drugs. But the Comics Code Authority was relaxing the rules on what stories could be told.
So the 1980s brought a change. Art Spiegelman wrote Maus; Frank Miller wrote Return of the Dark Knight. But it was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons who capped it off with watchmen. Although Moore was a superhero fan growing up, he was critical as a writer. In watchmen, he found the opportunity to share his ideas. Rather than reinvigorate the genre, he wanted to enlighten readers on the limits of the superhero genre. What he didn’t expect was for the industry to embrace the gloom of watchmen and continue this trend for decades. They completely missed his point.
watchmen is a satire. This must be due to the players participating in it being less than friendly. Adrian Veidt has a messianic complex. Doctor Manhattan doesn’t care about humanity. The comedian is a right-wing patriotic combination of Captain America and the Peacemaker. And Rorschach? Rorschach is a far-right sociopath; it’s Travis Bickle with a mask and a trench coat. Moore was hoping to take stock of what could be accomplished with the superhero genre. “It was originally intended as an indication of what people could do again,” Moore told Inverse in an interview. “I originally thought that with works like Watchmen and Marvelman, I would be able to say, ‘Look, this is what you can do with these old, outdated concepts. You can knock them over. You can really wake them up. Don’t be so limited in your thinking. Use your imagination. And, I naively hoped there would be a rush of fresh, original work by people creating their own.
“…Instead, it became this huge stumbling block that the comics don’t even seem to really overcome to this day.” They have lost much of their original innocence, and they cannot recover it. And, they are stuck, it seems, in this kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis.
Hyperbole or fair assessment? Let’s look at the overall picture. The commercial success of watchmen made publishers aware that large audiences would pay for mature comic book stories. Without watchmen, DC’s Vertigo line might not have been so successful. Image Comics may not have become a major alternative to Marvel and DC. And writers like Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Brian K. Vaughan, Neil Gaiman or Scott Snyder may not have found success.
Besides, watchmenThe impact of on the superhero genre has had some positive effects. Marvel storylines such as Kraven’s Last Hunt and Civil warand even their early 2000s modernized version of Marvel characters in the Ultimate Universe, are indebted to Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. Likewise, in DC, the stories have become darker and more psychologically complex. However, it also led to a slew of poor imitators. Suddenly, all superheroes have been struggling with gloomy or psychological issues.
Done poorly, many of them have become less fun and enjoyable in the process. As Moore summed it up in another interview: “…There seemed to be a rash of pretty hefty, frankly depressing and overtly pretentious superhero comics that came out in the wake of watchmen, and I felt to some extent responsible for introducing a rather morbid Dark Age. Maybe I overloaded the superhero, gave it a lot more meaning than the shape was designed for.
A thought experiment: If a comic book reader from the 1940s to 1960s traveled to the present day, they would be shocked at the superhero comics available today. They might also wonder where all the fun went. After all, famous people have only received psychological complexities from other writers. Sometimes it works but rarely it doesn’t. Indeed, the 2016 D.C. Rebirth event was a rejection of the long shadow cast by watchmen and an effort to return to its lighter roots.
watchmenThe legacy of getting complicated. Moore’s message was a critique against vigilantism and the glorification of violence. An intelligent reader would see this on a surface-level reading. However, the satire flew over some people’s heads and was embraced by an increasingly aggressive, male and right-wing community. While it’s easy to see why empowered young men would identify with Rorschach — a character bullied as a child, an outcast who turned to vigilantism to achieve his goals — it’s appalling to see the comic book tarnish as a result.
For nearly forty years, American superhero stories have lived in the shadow of watchmen. Will the next forty years continue this trend, or will there be a new revival? No matter which side of the debate you are on, watchmenThe impact of on superhero comics is undeniable. It’s a story for the ages. If another comic will come to challenge him? This is an exciting possibility.
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