Part 1 here
Part 2 here
Part 4 here
Thirdly, we have a letter I wrote last year to Foundation, and which appeared in issue 101, pp. 5-9. My thanks to current editor Graham Sleight for permission to reproduce it here. Looking back at this letter, I now think it’s rather grumpy, but never mind.
I read with interest Elizabeth Rosen’s article on Watchmen in Foundation 98 (“‘What’s that you smell of?’ – Twenty years of Watchmen nostalgia”, pp. 85-98). Whilst I have always been less convinced than most that Watchmen is an unalloyed triumph, it is not on these grounds that I wish to comment on Rosen’s piece. And I find her reading of Watchmen as both a critique and an example of nostalgia for the superhero comic, and her view that the development of superhero comics since Watchmen brings a new resonance to that nostalgia, interesting, and I don’t disagree with either point. However, a number of observations occur to me.
If Watchmen is all about nostalgia, then one of the most important aspects of the comic is its origins in a commission to rework the Charlton heroes, characters from the late 1960s, fondly-remembered by many comics fans. Yet Rose delays mention of this until p. 93, three-quarters of the way through the article. This seems odd, given that the original Charlton characters dictated the characteristics, to one degree or another, of the leading players in Watchmen, especially Rorschach.
This seems symptomatic of a lack of context provided in Rosen’s paper. Watchmen did not spring out of nothing. Alan Moore had already been deconstructing the notion of the superhero for some years, most notably in Marvelman (later retitled Miracleman) from 1982, and then in some of his earlier work for DC, especially ‘Roots’, the story in Saga of the Swamp Thing #24 (1984) that guest-starred the Justice League of America. Of these Rosen only mentions Miracleman, and then only very briefly. More time is given to a comic contemporary with Watchmen, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight, as the other foundation stone of revisionist superhero comics (though for all its revisionist gloss, Dark Knight is fundamentally true to the character as established by Bob Kane and Bill Finger). Again, context would help. Though Moore would not have read Dark Knight before starting on Watchmen, Miller was working with themes he had first drawn out in his work on Daredevil (1979-1983).
In general, the atmosphere in superhero comics in the early 1980s was conducive to the development of more ‘relevant’ and ‘realistic’ stories. This was especially true at DC, who had a taken a creative lead by building upon the sort of sophisticated storylines that Chris Claremont had developed in his popular run on X-Men over at Marvel (beginning in 1975). Stories like Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s two-part ‘Runaways’ (The New Teen Titans # 26-27, 1982-1983) and their later stories dealing with drug abuse may seem naïve now, but at the time they were groundbreaking and hard-hitting. Of DC’s output in these years, Rosen only mentions (in a footnote) Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985-1986), without giving a date, and in such a way that an unwary reader might not realize that it preceded Watchmen and Dark Knight.
One could further suggest that the notion of the ‘realistic’ superhero comic actually goes back to Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories from 1970-1972. Or it could be traced back further to birth of the ‘Marvel Age’ in the 1960s, driven by Stan Lee and his collaborators, in particular Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four (1961 onwards), which Rosen mentions in a footnote, and Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man (1962 onwards). These would be comics that Moore and Dave Gibbons would have read as youngsters, but though Rosen comments in a general way about their nostalgia for old superhero comics, she doesn’t mention them, leading me to wonder if she has read much of 1960s superhero comics herself. Many of these are now, through Marvel’s Essentials and DC’s Showcase lines, more easily available than they’ve ever been since first publication, allowing the reader to see the influence of, for instance, John Broome and Gil Kane’s Green Lantern (1959 onwards) upon Gibbons’ art and
This lack of context means that when Rosen talks of the ‘Golden Age’ and ‘Silver Age’, a reader ignorant of comics might come away unsure of what the terms actually mean. I’m sure Rosen knows. But I think that the terms need explaining for the non-expert, with clear discussion of the collapse of the market for superheroes at the end of the 1940s, that ended the Golden Age, and the revival of that market in the late 1950s that began the Silver. (And surely the start of the Silver Age is more clearly datable than the ‘roughly’ 1959 she suggests – the first appearance of the second Flash in Showcase #4 in 1956 is usually, and I feel rightly, held as the first Silver Age superhero.)
A similar lack of context appears when discussing what came after Watchmen.
There are also two points at which I think Rosen misreads the characters. It is true that Rorschach’s world view and rigid morality is often undercut by
In the first issue of Watchmen we see one 1940s hero, the first Silk Spectre, being sexually assaulted by another, the Comedian. As the story develops, it transpires that the two subsequently developed a relationship, and that the Comedian is the father of the Silk Spectre's daughter. For Rosen, this is problematic, and she says in a note that ‘[f]or a writer who has, in the main, been sensitive and outspoken in his work in his support of women, gay rights and other minority issues, [Moore’s] depiction of Sally [the Silk Spectre] falling in love with her rapist seems an incredible misstep.’ This appears dogmatic to me, as if a feminist writer cannot depict attempted rape (and, whilst not wishing to excuse the Comedian, his assault is interrupted before it becomes actual rape) and its consequences in any but the most black-and-white condemnatory terms.
One aspect of nostalgia that Rosen overlooks is the political nostalgia of Watchmen. In this world, Richard Nixon is still President in 1985. Gerald Ford is still Vice-President. Henry Kissinger is still Secretary of State. G. Gordon Liddy is still a presidential aide. The implication is that the entire 1973 Nixon administration is still in place.
Rosen’s piece seems insufficiently grounded in the history of superhero comics as a genre. I wonder if this might be because she has largely experienced superheroes through collections. One might deduce this from the title she uses for Miller’s Batman work – The Dark Knight Returns was originally the title of the first issue alone, though it has since been canonised as the title of the whole work. She certainly has only read Watchmen in the later collection. This is shown by her comment that
As I said, Rosen makes interesting points – but they would be so much better if they were grounded in a broader knowledge than the few creators she addresses.