The Making and Unmaking of Watchmen


Above: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II wears the blue for HBO’s Watchmen.

I wrote this consideration of the messy history of Watchmen, created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, soon after viewing the HBO Miniseries in its entirety. It didn’t seem right to drop it during Carnival. Then Covid-19 came along. A window of relevance has opened with the series, which examines institutional racism, now available on DVD.

Watchmen (1986)

In 1986, DC comics began publishing a limited series by British writer Alan Moore.
It wasn’t the company’s first project in the form and the new book followed a successful reimagining of the legend of King Arthur, Camelot 3000.

Written by journeyman comics writer Mike W Barr and drawn by UK favorite Brian Bolland it was a triumph of clarity and razor sharp storytelling at a time when the art in comics had become heavily stylized, writing in the books doubled down on proven formulas and everyone was getting the same drivel repackaged with stylistic tics in place of substance.

Like Camelot 3000, Watchmen was scheduled to run 12 issues and like its predecessor, it was delayed toward the end of its run.
The idea of packaging comics into self-contained volumes was a novel and untested notion, so nobody really had any sense of where all these stories would end up beyond the comics rack.

The original iconic cover art for Watchmen is now relegated to opening the book’s first chapter.

US rockstar writer-artist Frank Miller had kicked open the doors for the graphic novel format two years earlier with Ronin, a sci-fi samurai epic.
His first high profile work for DC, Miller’s Ronin broke from the hard-edged style he rode to fame on Marvel’s Daredevil and the project enjoyed huge collector-driven first-issue sales then crashed ignominiously.

The book hasn’t aged well either, neither experimental art nor muddled story holding up to serious scrutiny today.
Miller would do well in the wake of Watchmen’s publication.

His The Dark Knight Returns, a story about an ageing Batman told through gritted, blood-soaked teeth would become a rallying point for a reconsideration of the character, its influence reaching from 1986 all the way to the 2016 release of Batman v Superman.

All this backstory is meant to offer some context for the lousy deal that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons struck with DC for Watchmen.
In 1985, it would have made sense for Moore and Gibbons to expect the publisher to milk the book for a couple of years and then return ownership to its creators.

A comic going out of print was the norm if the story was told in the manner of most fiction, an arc that had a beginning, middle and end.
The superhero books that were the mainstays of Marvel and DC reset the tableware, as it were, once the stories were done for the next guest creators to use.

So Moore and Gibbons signed a contract that guaranteed that the finished Watchmen would become their property again after the work ceased to be published.
That never happened. And the pair must have felt like modern-day American Indians with a handful of beads when the reality became clear.

Moore’s  exasperation with the company has only become more rancorous over the decades since he completed his work on the project.
He now refuses to allow his name to be used in conjunction with any expansions and derivatives of the original work.

Moore was sensible, in 1985, to expect commercial interest in the work to dwindle after initial publication.
The direct market for comics was just starting to gather force and relevance. There were few comics products in mainstream bookstores and he had written a challenging, complicated work that burrowed deep into the facile posturings of traditional superheroics.

“Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world.” – Rorschach

Moore wanted to use the stable of heroes that DC had acquired when it bought the assets of the publisher Charlton.

Charlton’s books has been scrappy and determinedly D-list, but even so, DC balked at a storyline that would render the properties useless in the future.
Moore would base the Watchmen characters on the Charlton pantheon of heroes. Captain Atom became Dr Manhattan. The Question was reshaped into Rorschach.

With the new characters came a new freedom to be just that much bleaker and darker and to build his own foundations into the the tropes of comics’ origin stories to explain colorful vigilante justice.

Much of Moore’s best work on the project was the background material he created for each issue. Pages from an imaginary biography. An entire pirate story that acted as a combination of Greek chorus and meta narrative, a comic that explained the comic from within the comic.

If Moore sometimes overwrote the book, belabouring in words what Gibbons’ spectacularly clean line art so ably delineated, it is ultimately forgivable.

Writers were still largely unsung as contributors to comics, Stan Lee’s considerable theatrics notwithstanding, and Moore’s most verbose passages, most notably his complete lack of restraint in writing Rorschach’s journal entries are about par for the excesses of that era.

Those flaws seem even more outrageous today because of how utterly beautiful Dave Gibbons’ art is throughout the series.
Across hundreds of pages, there’s hardly a misplaced line in artwork that ignored the stylistic excesses of the day in favour of a rigidly enforced nine panel grid in which the story unfolded.

It was, at the time, a masterwork of both excess and restraint, the work rippling and pulsing with an enthusiastic invention that hadn’t been seen since Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were in their prime.

The Prequels: Before Watchmen

DC must have felt that they had shown appropriate restraint after years of largely leaving the Watchmen property alone.

In the wake of Zack Snyder’s note-for-note 2009 film of the Watchmen graphic novel, the company decided it was time to expand the canon of Watchmen and enlisted a who’s who of comics creators for a prequel series.

The company would produce eight limited series and a one-shot issue for a total of 37 comics set prior the world defined in Moore and Gibbons’ work.
Before Watchmen was published in 2012 earning the scorn of Moore, who told the Fast Company blog, “I just want them to not do something.”

Despite the mixed reception to the planned publication DC produced the project, now available in an omnibus edition that’s three times the size of the original work.
I returned to read these books with some reluctance. I’d read them all once on publication and never felt an urge to revisit the stories.

None of these works, hundreds of pages of art and text by powerful, capable creators, answers the central creative question – “Why are you doing this?” – with any degree of satisfaction.

The answer of course, is money. In the face of Moore’s objection to any expansion of his work and no clear need to override those objections, Before Watchmen never could be be explained as anything more than a money grab.

But that unsavory situation pervades modern comics. Anyone working on Superman must at some level acknowledge the treatment of its creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.
And DC is hardly alone in such infamy.

Almost all of Marvel Comics’ most notable characters were deep collaborations with artists whose contributions have been systematically suppressed.

It’s likely that only an infinitesimally small number of the billions of people who bought tickets to see Marvel Universe films have any idea who Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko might be.

As for Rocket Raccoon? I’ll leave you with the name Bill Mantlo to search for that sad story on Google.

J Michael Strazynscki wrestles in Before Watchmen with a reason for the laissez-faire inaction of Dr Manhattan, but is undercut by the pin-up art of Adam Hughes in a catastrophic mismatch of conceptual intent and executed art.
Strazyncscki has much better luck offering a back story for Moloch, ably abetted by the moody, unsettling noir art by Eduardo Risso.

Darwyn Cooke serves up a stylish story exploring the darker side of The Minutemen but has better luck contributing story co-authorship with artist Colleen Doran, whose exploration of a teen Silk Spectre in rebellion is a surprisingly effective reprise of Dave Gibbons’ style, paying homage without being slavish in its line-work approach.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian in Zack Snyder’s film Watchmen

The Sequels: Doomsday Clock

In November 2017, DC comics published the first issue of Doomsday Clock, a revisiting of the story told in Watchmen which brought the characters created by Moore and Gibbons into contact with traditional DC superheroes, beginning with The Flash and Batman, who encounter the bloodied button that was the motif of the original series.

Written by popular DC writer, editor and movie producer Geoff Johns and featuring art by the equally popular Gary Frank, the new 12-issue series followed the original book in at least one respect, it took two years to tell a story that should have been finished in one.

Was it worth the wait?
No. It was not.

Doomsday Clock will stand the test of time for one distinguishing characteristic.
Doomsday Clock is what happens when a book is created by a company and not artists exercising their creative capacity.

At the heart of Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen is a stunning single issue, Watchmaker. Even today it remains a remarkable cornerstone in the delicate architecture of the story’s structure.

“All we ever see of stars are their old photographs.” – Dr Manhattan

There is nothing like that in Doomsday Clock because the original work aspired to be a story of value, a creation. This new work is intended to bring value to ongoing stories in the DC line-up.

The book is meant to be a creative rationale for the wrong turns the company took over the last two decades as they tried desperately to make aging characters relevant to a 21st century audience.
So Dr Manhattan takes the fall for playing blue God and messing with the DC universe.

The book actually gets that part right, after a fashion.
A lot of the more stupid things DC did as a publisher after the publication of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns was to try to build the tone and mood of those stand-alone successes into its line of regular comics.

The company simply could not understand that the qualities that made a finite story work don’t fit well into the continuity of continuously published comics and their regular reset buttons.

The most notable recent retconning of the DC Universe was The New 52 in August 2011, which saw the company publish 52 newly renumbered issues of its flagship titles and a handful of new books and characters.
By 2015, the whole enterprise had run out of steam and a retreat to more familiar, more recyclable ground began.

Between April and May 2015, DC published Convergence, intended as a celebration of its joyously muddled history of continuity chaos, outright conflicts and forgotten supporting characters.

It was a glorious mess for the long-term DC reader, spread across an eight-issue main title and dozens of duologies and trilogies with some well-intentioned efforts at era specific art homages.

Convergence followed Flashpoint and preceded New 52-Future’s End, event books that marked time on bookshelves before 2016’s Rebirth and the eventual introduction of Doomsday Clock.

DC may not get the irony of this cover, but they should.

Unfortunately, by the time Johns and Frank had worked their way rather laboriously to the end of their twelfth issue and glaringly pointless meeting of Superman and Dr Manhattan, all the Rebirth action was already done in the regular books, leaving the storyline beached and gasping.

Of the book it can be said that Johns overwrites Rorschach only slightly less than Moore did (yes, there’s a Rorschach, though not THE Rorschach) Adrian Veidt seems to have become completely stupid and Johns doesn’t understand Dr Manhattan as anything other than a literal God in the storytelling machinery.

The craft of the journeyman writer flattens this work. Blocks of plot, the thinnest hints of character and a shameless play for nostalgia all vie for attention before making their plodding way offstage.

Frank’s artwork is gorgeously derivative of OG Gibbons, hewing mostly to the nine panel grid and paying more attention to backgrounds than Gibbons tends to.

Frank came to fame drawing Superman in a well-regarded run on books featuring the Man of Steel rendered in the style and likeness of actor Christopher Reeve.
That’s always a joy and when he does it here, it’s a light-hearted turn in a book that takes itself far too seriously for its inconsequential plot.

DC did Doomsday Clock to make some pocket change off the Watchmen characters and correct its approach to its mainstream characters without admitting to its gross editorial errors over the last 15 years or acknowledging the many times it’s hard-stepped on creators who took their property into risky, creatively uncharted territory.

Johns manages to make a persuasive case across hundreds of pages why Superman meeting Dr Manhattan should never have been elevated above a Reddit thread.

In the end, the project accomplished nothing, advanced no useful creative ideas and the only solace to be had is that the source work is strong enough to shrug off this truckload of corporate manure.

The Sequels: Watchmen (HBO, 2019)

Which brings us finally to the most recent Watchmen, a nine-part series on HBO by Damon Lindelof, none of whose popular prior works I’ve seen.
A sense of completion in viewing Watchmen and its derivatives drew me to this new work, the feeling that you can’t properly and effectively lament and dismiss another transgression of a work that was designed to have a beginning, middle and end without viewing the offending material at least once.

Even if you’re absolutely certain that the property is once again being stretched and wrung out to realise new profits.
Lindelof did a surprising thing. He didn’t do Watchmen, he did his own story using characters and narrative from the source work as his springboard without ever retelling the original work.

In retrospect, that’s pretty much what Moore did when he strip-mined the Charlton characters for their storytelling potential before being commanded to create his own stuff.

Then Lindelof did something else that is both surprising and engaging. He added to the mythos, placing Moore and Gibbons’ work in a larger and more relevant mosaic of social concern.

The original book engaged head-on the absurdity of a god-like being walking – well, mostly floating – above our firmament with a casual insouciance and anchored it’s story in nuclear terror.

Moore crippled his blue superman with the kryptonite of endless introspection and a scientist’s burrowing curiosity.
Watchmen 1986 also considered the absurd and embarrassing portrayal of women in comics, offering girlfriend Janey Slater as mortal arm candy and tossing in two generations of porn-inspired Silk Spectres.

It is, in retrospect, a rather thin charade, using the clichés of the damsel in distress and impossibly attired superheroine for their visual appeal while dramatically shortchanging any potential for irony in their narrative as sexual wallpaper.

Lindelof’s work brackets the source material with a consideration of the almost total absence of black people in comics.
There were exactly two black people of note in the original work, psychologist Malcolm Long and a young boy reading pirate comics.

Their tokenism seemed at the time both normal and perhaps even deliberate and engineered, a reflection of the presence of people of colour in mainstream comics.

In Lindelof’s Watchmen, the story puts people of colour at the centre of the story with the very real destruction of the Black Wall Street of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.

From there, this new work goes on to not just add colored folk to the adamantly white world of Watchmen, it stirs them in boldly and without apology.

Damon Lindelof wrote or co-wrote all but one of the nine episodes and under his guidance we revisit the Watchmen universe 34 years later. Some characters return.

There is a Dr Manhattan, adapted and reimagined with stunning bravura as actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, an older and considerably less innocent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) and Adrian Veidt, played with devilish glee by Jeremy Irons.

Regina King in HBO’s Watchmen

Anchoring the narrative is a transcendent Regina King whose performance ranges from motherly to expository to rampaging badassery with effortless grace.
The only parallel to it I can offer in modern action cinema is Helen Mirren in Red.

Lindelof even manages to squeeze in an homage, of sorts, to Watchmaker in the sixth episode, This Extraordinary Being, in which King relives her grandfather’s life from his childhood under the influence of a memory stimulation drug, Nostalgia.

King flashes into and out of a vivid recollection of the life of her hitherto unknown grandfather, Will Reeves, from escaping the Tulsa Massacre to becoming Hooded Justice and into the current storyline.

In that episode, the young Reeves (Jovan Adepo) applies white makeup around his eyes, the only parts of his skin visible in the Hooded Justice costume.

It’s a startling visual, a quiet inversion of the casual insolence of blackface makeup and one of the more potent reversals of the expectations of superhero films that Lindelof offers up in the series.

Most of the people who saw Lindehof’s Watchmen weren’t around when Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen was released in the mid-1980’s.
The impact of the story then was significant, casting the prevailing mood of paranoia in world politics in a deeply unsettling four-colour adventure that conjured a parallel universe woven from threads of nightmare.

Nobody reading the book today would get the horror of that time, but Lindelhof manages to conjure in his television series a fretful notion of world that continues to run in disturbing parallel with out own.

Three and a half decades later, his Watchmen is less about an atomic man than it is about the legacy of institutionalized racism steered in a wholly unsettling direction by a history of vigilantism and muddied ideas of justice.

In the new Watchmen, much like the original, nobody really understands what’s going on until it’s far too late.

And at the heart of it all is, once again, the most powerful man in the world, not at all sure what he’s supposed to be doing and, in fact, sleepwalking through the construction of methodical racial division.

Something like that couldn’t possibly happen in America in real life, could it?

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