"I'd have liked to have seen more people trying to do something that was as technically complex as 'Watchmen', or as ambitious,
but which wasn't strumming the same chords that 'Watchmen' had strummed so repetitively." – Alan Moore
So says the great "Sir" Alan Moore in a recent interview. The man was never knighted, but I like to refer to him as "Sir". He's certainly earned it. I'd prefer to think that I would call him by that dignified title if I were ever fortunate enough to be in the presence of my reclusive idol. But heck, who am I kidding? I know for a fact that I'd stand there blubbering like an idiot and barely get out a generic "I love your work...", all the while sweating bullets and clutching my precious Miracleman and Watchmen issues with clammy, trembling hands. Hoping for an autograph; praying for a few words of wisdom; longing for a bit of advice from this master storyteller about the heart of character, the development of plot, and the magic of creating fictional worlds.
Indeed, the elements of Watchmen have been recycled, replayed and retold numerous times ever since the landmark story was released roughly eighteen years ago. Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created something special; an experiment on the superhero genre. Even though "serious" experiments were tried and tested a decade earlier -- drug abuse and death were important topics then and still are today – what Moore and Gibbons achieved was a testament to the flexibility of the medium. Anything goes, and the only limits are your imagination. Things don't HAVE to be bright and colorful and kiddy-fare. Things can be darker and depressing and REAL. Watchmen was an experiment, only so far as it was new and different. A "realistic" take on spandex heroes and villains, the book has since become the standard by which all "mature" comics are judged.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created an experiment way back when. They created a "Superman"; they challenged the norm and tried something new. The publishers didn't like it. It was too weird, too fantastical, too DIFFERENT. But the public grew to love it and the course of history was changed forever. Comic books would never be the same.
Just as Superman (and Action Comics) changed the climate of comic books in the 1930s, so did Watchmen in the 1980s. Many people see this as a bad thing. As a result of Moore's work, everything's gotten so dreary and angst-ridden, our heroes have become villains, and our villains have become useless. Who needs the Red Skull and Doctor Doom when Captain America is a "bully", Ant Man is a wife-beating drunkard and Thor is a narcissistic madman? These "Ultimates" will surely destroy themselves before they ever confront the real bad guys.
Moore himself is as baffled as anyone as to why Watchmen has inspired such strong imitators, rather than unique innovators. But again, going back to Siegel and Shuster, they too inspired a generation of copycats, several of them good, many of them bad. There is little doubt that, eventually, a story will come along that will blow Watchmen out of the water. We'll look back on Moore and Gibbons' work with fondness, but in the end it will be just another story. An important story, yes. A special story, absolutely. A brilliant story, you better believe it. But just another story.
An interesting fact to examine is that most of the Watchmen imitators seem to spring forth from the minds of non-American writers. Alan Moore himself is British. Writers Paul Jenkins, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison all hail from abroad, and a large number of these questionable characters are American. The comic industry changed post-Watchmen, we've already examined that. But the industry has changed even further post-9/11. America was attacked on that day, but it was not only Americans who lost their lives, nor was it only Americans who were threatened. Many of our allies around the globe shared in the grief, and the anger. Perhaps what's happening is these writers are crafting stories about American superheroes acting in ways that they think most Americans should be feeling. They think Americans should be angry. As an American I can tell you, we ARE angry. But where does the anti-social behavior come from? Captain America kicks Bruce Banner in the teeth rather than extending a hand of forgiveness. Did Banner deserve forgiveness? The Hulk caused all that destruction in The Ultimates #5. The monster took hundreds of lives, not Banner. Or did he? Banner and Hulk are one in the same, right? Banner willingly unleashed the beast that day, his control, or lack thereof over the creature is inconsequential. If you give a monkey a gun and the monkey kills someone, you don't blame the monkey.
(Scene from Ultimates #5)
CAP: "I'm just here to make sure those cuts and bruises of yours get the proper attention, pal. C'mere, let me get a closer look at that big gash on your cheek..."
BANNER: "But I haven't got a gash on my cheek."
CAP: "You do now, son."
What The Ultimates is doing is taking the "Avengers" characters, with their positive and negative personality traits, and cranking it up to "11". If there is any optimistic message to be learned from books like The Authority and The Ultimates, it is the reassurance that despite their flaws, the world still has heroes. They may not be perfect, but they're better than nothing. And they're all we've got.
Americans and the British have always had different views on war, and different responses to wartime. 2002's Reign of Fire illustrated these opposing methods beautifully. The film's American and British protagonists were very different men, but both had their own strengths and weaknesses.
The American soldier Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey); aggressive, greasy, his tattooed muscles rippling. A vengeful he-man, snorting and grunting with his "kill 'em all" attitude. He had looked death in the eye and it made him fearful, but angry. His motto: your enemy can't fight back if you wipe him off the face of the Earth. Victory by means of annihilation.
The British community leader (Christian Bale); peace-loving, fighting for the survival of himself and his people, his "family". He too had looked death in the eye and it made him fearful, but determined. He had a strategy that kept him alive. It worked. It was slow, but it worked. Victory by means of perseverance.
Reign of Fire is a terrific story and a wonderful examination of two very different heroes from opposite sides of the Earth, neither man "better" than the other, but both fighting for what they believe in.
"Envy the country that has heroes, huh?! I say pity the country that needs 'em." - Van Zan
Americans have always been viewed as aggressors by outsiders, and rightly so. This was especially evident going back to Patton in World War II. Patton was a great General and he kicked butt because of his aggressiveness and his anger. Much of the uninitiated world sees Americans as gung-ho "Rambo/Dirty Harry" types; shoot first, ask questions later; kill them all, let God sort them out. This is a stereotype, much like the stereotype that all Italian-Americans are gangsters. Reign of Fire featured an ensemble collection of apocalyptic stereotypes. But it worked, so it was good.
Why this particular generation of British writers shares such a dim view of American superheroes is a mystery. It's certainly one I'm neither qualified nor prepared to dissect at this point in my life. It's merely food for thought served up by yours truly.
There have been many arguments saying that what Watchmen has done with it's legion of imitators is paint an incorrect picture of what comic books, and "superheroes", are supposed to be about. Some would say that this overly cynical way of thinking, even if it's only fiction, is unhealthy. Critics of books like The Ultimates will tell you that the notion of greedy, power hungry heroes has no place in comic books. The all-too-important message of "power corrupts" has no pertinence. "Comics are supposed to be fun, man! They're not supposed to be about anything!" Oh really? The concept of the corruption through power is one of the most perfect struggles for comic books and superheroes to deal with.
But before we get into that, I ask you this: Have we ever seen the perfect example of what a comic book -- in this case a "superhero" comic book -- is supposed to be like?
Good comics, like all good stories, provide us with an escape from our modern lives. Who has the right to decide what form of escapism is "correct" for comics to embody? Who is to say The Ultimates is not a valid example of superhero comics done right simply because that title is a "grim 'n gritty" take on the superhero genre? Supreme Power is not a "good" superhero comic because it features a few less-than-noble characters? And Cartoon Network's Justice League IS a worthy example because, however flawed the show's production is, the good guys are "good guys" and the bad guys are "bad guys", so everyone's happy? Pardon my language, but I say that's bull****. That's just like the dunderheads who think all science fiction stories must have space ships and aliens. About twenty years ago a bunch of Hollywood executives told Director James Cameron that his Terminator film wasn't science fiction. Can you believe that? They said Star Trek was science fiction. Star WARS was science fiction. Not this crazy Terminator flick. Idiots.
Science Fiction, or Speculative Fiction as it is more aptly known, existed long before aliens and otherworldly beings came onto the scene. The sci-fi genre was born with tales about robots, time-travel, future wars, and bizarre happenings taking place in time-periods past, present and future. Sure sounds like Terminator, doesn't it? As any Trek fan will tell you, Star Trek, and sci-fi, is about IDEAS, not space ships, ray guns and bug-eyed aliens.
And comic books are about IDEAS. They're about "escapism". Anything that transports us to a fictional world is escapism. I watch NYPD Blue each and every week. Why do I watch it? Escapism. I also watch The Sopranos, King of the Hill and The Simpsons. I go to the movies. I collect DVDs. I play video games. I read novels. I illustrate in my spare time. I write fictional stories. I write these freakin' columns! Why? I'll tell you why. Escapism. Entertainment. These things transport me to another place, they teach me a little about myself, and the bottom line: they're fun. PERIOD.
Comics existed well before "superheroes" were ever conceived. And the very definition of what a "superhero" comic is supposed to be is spotty at best. I don't believe there IS a true definition. There are no guidelines for what this medium is supposed to be doing. Maus isn't a good comic because there are no superheroes in it? Just because Siegel and Shuster did it first, that means they were the only ones who knew how to do it at all? Sorry, but this fish ain't biting.
If you go through life thinking things will never get better that they once were; if you think a sequel can never improve on the original; that's a pretty shallow way to live. Just look at The Empire Strikes Back. Sequels CAN be better.
I'm aware that I may sound like a hypocrite given my recent rants about Cartoon Network's Justice League. But if you know me and know how I truly feel, I think JL could be better than Batman/Superman: The Animated Series ever were. I believe that's possible. I HAVE to believe that's possible. Things CAN get better. Stories can get better. I honestly think that we have not yet seen what this medium truly has to offer.
The fact that there are too many Watchmen lookalikes out there: I agree with that argument. But saying Watchmen and all of it's followers are "wrong" for superhero comics just because they're "grim 'n gritty", well that's idiotic. This fear of spandex that exists nowadays is not something to be frowned upon, nor should it be embraced. It should be studied and an attempt should be made to understand the WHY of the argument. The WB's Smallville is not a "bad" Superman product simply because the show's creators refuse to put Clark in his classic costume, or because they've written Clark in such a way that he shows no desire or inclination to ever accept his destiny. The lack of spandex and absence of tongue-in-cheek fantasy is not what makes Smallville bad. What makes Smallville bad is spotty writing and wooden acting. Smallville is bad, but not "wrong", and the lack of spandex and absence of PG-rated fare in comics is not "wrong" either. In this industry, no type of story is "wrong". The entire medium was built, and still exists today on the concept of artistic experimentation. What Siegel and Shuster did in the 1930s was "right". What Lee and Kirby did in the 1960s was "right". What Miller and Moore did in the 1980s was "right". And today, well...
Would I like to see a more expansive selection of comics out there, superhero and otherwise? You bet. In a perfect world there would be something for all ages; an equal number of mature titles, books for the kids, books for the girls and books for the boys. An equal share of superhero fantasy, both the light-hearted and the grim stuff. In a perfect world we'd see a greater respect for independent creators, many of whom could teach a thing or two to several mainstream creators out there, to be perfectly blunt.
But ask yourself this: In a perfect world, would we really need to "escape" into books and movies?
- (Cap) Marc
March 3rd, 2004
The preceding article was the subject of one man's opinion, and should be regarded as nothing more.
Captain's Log Archive:
- "A (Dare)Devil's Faith, A Writer's Journey..." (02/04)
- "To Daredevil, with love..." (01/04)