Watchmen: Rebirth, Reboot, Reycle

Curator's Note

The true origin of Watchmen’s heroes (and anti-heroes) doesn’t stem from the pages of DC Comics but rather one of their competitors – Charlton Comics, which went bust in 1986 after forty years, selling character rights to DC in 1983 as the end was nigh. Alan Moore initially planned to tell his story using Captain Atom, The Question, Blue Beetle, Nightshade, Thunderbolt and The Peacemaker, but DC decided that Watchmen’s moral ambiguity and dark themes might complicate plans to fold them into their roster of more traditional superheroes. Instead, Moore created new characters loosely based on Charlton’s – Doctor Manhattan, Rorschach, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias and The Comedian.

Several of these Charlton characters were subsequently brought into DC’s regular continuity, enduring major changes along the way. Blue Beetle (AKA Ted Kord) died in 2006, replaced by a younger hero with a high-tech beetle-suit, Jaime Reyes. The Question (AKA Vic Sage) also died and was replaced by Gotham detective Renee Montoya.

The Charlton heroes were used in fits and starts over the years, with DC hitting the reset button on their narrative continuity in 2011 (New 52), rebooting many characters and their back-stories. Montoya was no longer The Question, while new versions of Kord and Sage emerged. Another reboot came in 2016’s Rebirth event, which revealed DC universe as apparently created by Doctor Manhattan (in the character’s 2012 Before Watchmen prequel series).

In turn, Watchmen’s characters are expected to soon infiltrate the DC universe, and the different permutations of Charlton’s heroes will surely meet. Moore, of course, would be appalled: “if you are a reader that just wanted your favorite characters on tap forever, and never cared about the creators, then actually you’re probably not the kind of reader that I was looking for” when he first wrote Watchmen, he said of the prequels. The comics industry has changed since 1986, with DC and Marvel now part of larger media conglomerates in which complex narrative continuities help sell transmedia storytelling efforts across multiple platforms, and infinite versions of the same character help sell more toys and t-shirts. Should this latest reboot fail and DC shout for Moore to save them, he will surely “look down, and whisper ‘No.’”

Comments

Felix Brinker's picture

serial production of comics vs. the single author

Thanks for the great post which, I think, usefully points us the significant fact that superhero comics not only tell their stories serially, but are (and typically always have been) the result of serial production—in the sense that they are commodities produced by a number of different people in a complex division of labor that might change over time, under market conditions that might also change.

Your post also points me to something that has always bothered me about Moore’s complaints about the comics industry. From his earlier work at DC to Watchmen and LXG, Moore has build his career to a significant extent on his ability to re-invent, modernize, and deconstruct figures and plots invented by other authors. For decades, he has done so within the heart of a comics industry that has a.) always tried to aggressively market its properties across various media platforms b.) periodically revived and rebooted older or ‘classic’ characters when it seemed opportune to do so. DC has been part of the Warner conglomerate since the 60s; Marvel has licensed all kinds of superhero properties for other media, not to mention merchandising, at least since the 70s as well. Along the same lines, the constant drive to reboot and reinvent superhero characters in comics, as well as attempts to make them profitable in other media are a thing that dates back to the Superman craze of the late 1930s and early 40s. And, arguably, much of Moore’s most celebrated work is a direct product of this serial logic of superhero comics, in which incoming authors present a new twist on decades-old materials that were originally invented by someone else. Because of this I can’t really take Moore’s complaints about the commercialization of the format (which has always been blatantly commercial, including Watchmen) seriously. The quote by Moore you selected also seems to champion an idea of authorship that isn’t really appropriate for a multi-authored, commercial and serial product like superhero comics. I would argue that DC’s attempts to tell new stories about the Watchmen characters aren’t categorically different from what Moore did when he still worked for DC—Moore might just be a better author who has more interesting stories to tell. As much as I like his work, he some times just seems like a cranky old man. What do you think?

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