Before Charlton

Every comics fan knows that Watchmen started out using a set of superheroes originally published by Charlton Comics. That company had gone bankrupt, DC had bought the rights.

The Charlton connection to Watchmen has been mentioned a lot this week. A Watchmen prequel series has been announced and it’s not going to have any involvement from Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons, writer and artist (and co-creators) of the original. Alan Moore is not happy about this. I posted my thoughts about this yesterday. So did many thousands of other people.

There are wider arguments, but that’s not what this post is about. I want to concentrate on just the way the Charlton issue has been invoked and the mindset it points to. Various comic book creators and commentators, involved with Before Watchmen or not, have referred to the Charlton heroes (there are some examples here) and expressed a sentiment that can be paraphrased as ‘Alan Moore shouldn’t get all huffy, he basically did the same thing’.

An Op/Ed on Newsarama talked about “the Charlton characters that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ story borrowed and altered slightly”. Dan Slott, said on Twitter, “The REAL “Before Watchmen” comic would show pages of Alan Moore reading stacks of Charlton Comics”.

We should not use our fanboy knowledge to fall into same trap as the film buffs who assert that Star Wars is ‘just’ Hidden Fortress or that Reservoir Dogs is ‘just’ City on Fire. There’s no argument, least of all from the original creators, that those earlier works are influences. The creators all acknowledged publicly, at the time of original release, that was the case. They weren’t shamed into a confession after they’d been caught out pilfering – they told us that was what they were doing. This is not passing off the work of others as their own, it’s certainly not them just remaking one story. In every case, it is a creator who knows his medium and the history of his medium inside out and who, explicitly and openly, draws on any number of earlier works to create theirs.

There’s a characteristic mix of fanboy encyclopedic knowledge and defensive posturing that leads to the same person hailing Alan Moore as a genius while saying he’s over-rated because he nicked everything.

I’m guessing that far more current comics fans came to the Charlton characters via Watchmen than came to Watchmen via the original Charlton comics. I’d go further: I doubt most of the people who mention the Charlton characters have ever read one of the original comics featuring them. And the reason I think this is because the idea that Watchmen is, at heart, the original Charlton comics ‘slightly altered’ is absurd.

First, let me wave my fanboy pedantry around. Watchmen did not ‘start off’ using the Charlton characters. Moore was interested in a self-contained, dark superhero series set in its own world with a small cast of superheroes (as opposed to the vast DC universe, which has thousands of them). He looked around for a generic, existing, currently unused superteam and alighted on the Mighty Crusaders. Quickly, though, he learned that DC had the rights to the Charlton characters and drew up an outline using those.

His original proposal was called Who Killed the Peacemaker? DC referred to it as the Charlton Project. There are character notes that use the Charlton characters. Just before any of this, completely unconnected to it, Dave Gibbons had drawn a piece of sample art featuring the Charlton characters with (DC stalwart) Superman.

Moore and Gibbons’ story would kill off some of the characters, though, and DC planned to integrate them all into the main DC universe (Blue Beetle and Captain Atom have monthly titles there to this day). The editors at DC persuaded Moore to come up with his own characters instead.

OK. So, before there were any contracts signed, before anything had been commissioned or any scripts had been written or pages drawn, the project changed so that Moore and Gibbons created a new set of characters. Once this happened, the shape of the project changed, it went from being a six part series to a twelve part one, it freed Moore and Gibbons up to create and change all sorts of things about the story and the world it was set in.

There’s no doubt that the characters in Watchmen map closely onto the Charlton originals: Peacemaker became the Comedian; Captain Atom/Dr Manhattan; Blue Beetle/Nite Owl; Nightshade/Silk Spectre; Thunderbolt/Ozymandias; The Question/Rorschach. No one has ever suggested otherwise. In interviews before Watchmen had been released, Moore had spelled out what the original plan had been. The notes reprinted in the original hardback (and current Absolute) editions make the connection.

Here’s the thing: the Charlton heroes were only ever part of the equation because they were so generic. Superheroes fall into a relatively small set of types – types of powers, types of personality. Yes, Nite Owl is very like Blue Beetle. He’s also very like Batman, Green Arrow, Daredevil and Moon Knight. If Moore had used the Mighty Crusaders, he would have told the same story and the Shield would have been the Peacemaker/Comedian. If he’d been writing a Marvel story, it would have been Captain America. Moore originally picked the Charlton heroes precisely because they didn’t really have much identity of their own, they didn’t come with the same baggage, associations and level of public affection that it would if it was a story about Superman and Batman.

No one who has read the original Charlton comics could possibly suggest that Watchmen is the Aldi own brand version. Here’s the original for Dr Manhattan, Captain Atom, in action, from an actual Charlton comic:

And here’s Dr Manhattan in Watchmen:

Not the same.

What’s telling, I think, is that most of the commentators who have invoked the Charlton connection talk about ‘the Charlton characters’. I think this is really interesting, perhaps the central issue.

Moore doesn’t talk about characters. He says that DC are “apparently dependent on ideas that I had twenty five years ago”. Likewise, Gibbons talks about Watchmen as being “the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell”. What does the statement from Dan Didio and Jim Lee at DC say? “It’s our responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant … after 25 years, the Watchmen are classic characters”.

Is this splitting hairs? What’s the difference? The implication from the DC side of things is that you can somehow detach the characters, that they exist independently of the narratives they appear in.

This, of course, is precisely what you can do with most characters DC publish. Batman, say, appears in movies, TV shows, video games, toy lines. There are seminal Batman stories, ‘must reads’ and so on, but … no, actually you don’t have to read them. You can immerse yourself in Batman stuff without ever reading Year One, The Killing Joke, Son of the Demon, Dark Knight Returns, The Long Halloween or whatever. Batman exists as a character quite separate from the comics. You could be an avid Batman fan who’s never read a comic. You could be a Batman fan, I imagine, who hates the comics version but digs the one in the Nolan movies.

It’s the old comic company logic: it doesn’t matter who writes or draws a comic – it’s the characters that people want to read about. It is, of course, much better for the publishers if the creators of a comic are interchangeable and replaceable. It is not better for readers, though, and it’s certainly not better for creators, whether they created the characters they work on or not.

As I said last time, Watchmen is not about the individual characters. Yes, you get people who really seem to identify with Rorschach (that’s a subject for a whole other essay, one by a psychiatrist), and Dr Manhattan is quite an extraordinary creation, but the point of Watchmen, really, what makes it stand out, is the structure. The different viewpoints of the narrative, the use of flashback, symmetry, motifs and so on. The characters’ lives are all interlocked like cogs in a watch. Even if you’ve only seen the film, that’s still the case.

Take a look at the Captain Atom and Dr Manhattan pages again. The entire method of storytelling is different. The subject matter, the level of the writing and art, the sophistication of the structure of the page and use of the medium. Alan Moore is not simply updating, rethinking or upgrading Captain Atom. Yes, he’s taking the Captain Atom premise – a being capable of perceiving things at an atomic level – but that’s it. It’s the story and how it’s told that are important, not the characters.

When – no one, surely, can doubt any longer that it’s ‘when’, not ‘if’ – DC plop Rorschach down in the mainstream DC universe, he’ll be just another superhero in the subset ‘borderline psychotic loner’. What’s his unique selling point? Oh yes … he’s the one from Watchmen.

I’ve not read the Before Watchmen Rorschach series, obviously. I like the writer and artist. They may have made it work. I can see ways to make it work. Go back to what Moore did, and think about Rorschach in terms of themes, politics and what it says about us. Make him sad and pathetic, show us what he isn’t. This should be a lot easier in 2012, now Rorschach’s Ayn Rand mad stare is the entire platform of more than one mainstream politician. Challenge that. Make the comic about that. Engage with current affairs and the way things are heading. Explain it.

Or, you know, you could just have six issues of him being a bit smelly but a total badass who goes into different bars and beats people up until they bleed a lot. Hurm.

Watchmen is not about ‘characters’. It’s about ideas. There’s a book called Watchmen and Philosophy and it’s incredibly wide ranging – the ethics of rape, of vigilantism, of nuclear deterrence, of free will, of fate. How long would the book The Philosophy of Before Watchmen be? Will it look at the original and see the role of cosmic irony at every level and build on that to talk about the logical limits of omniscience, or will it go ‘isn’t it odd Osterman left his watch in the particle accelerator? Let’s spell out an explanation for that.’ 

So, yeah, Dr Manhattan was ‘originally’ Captain Atom. It’s not big or clever to know that, it does not score any debating points. DC are not producing an eight book Watchmen prequel series because of the intrinsic awesomeness of the Charlton characters. If that were the case, then here’s a thought: ‘slightly alter’ them back. Abandon the Watchmen branding entirely. Revert to the originals. Launch a linked weekly event about Peacemaker, Nightshade, Thunderbolt and their pals. See if that prospect entices the same creators, then give them those ‘stacks of Charlton comics’ to work from and licence to ‘slightly alter’ what they read there, see what the result is, see what the sales look like and how much media attention is generated.

It wouldn’t really be the same, would it?

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