It is often said that Watchmen is the most influential comic ever to be released. That comics wouldn’t be where they are without it, for good and for ill. But how did we get here, exactly? More to the point, just what influence did Watchmen provide to the larger world of comics? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Watchmen? Who watched the Watchmen?
Marvel Comics certainly didn’t seem to be watching the Watchmen. Despite the massive critical and commercial success of DC Comics’ twelve issue Watchmen, creators at Marvel largely let the series go by without comment, at least in terms of trying to imitate it directly. While the tradition of the two companies riffing on a successful idea started by the other (such as DC launching the maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths in the wake of the success of Marvel’s Secret Wars) is a longstanding one, no “Watchmen-esque” series appeared at Marvel in the late 80s or early 90s. Some of that is likely due to the different way the companies are structured. Watchmen was born at least in part out of DC’s acquisition of the Charlton Comics characters, continuing another longstanding DC Comics tradition.
However, Marvel had never really engaged in that practice. All of its biggest characters were homegrown. And while Marvel had its Epic imprint as a place to tell out-of-continuity stories free of the restraints of the comics code limitations on content, those series tended to be like Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar or English-language reprints of Akira: driven by specific creators and/or focused on something other than superheroes. Yet despite the lack of a specific story-arc or series that can be pointed to as “Marvel’s Watchmen”, the outsized influence of that series would still find a way to be reflected in Marvel Comics, albeit in a roundabout way.
Watchmen is known for many things, amongst them the way it pushes the boundaries of comic book violence while presenting traditional comic book tropes in a theoretically more “realistic” manner – often in a way that seems derisive of those tropes. Certainly, mainstream American comics in the late 80s were no stranger to violence, given the entire genre is built around conflicts that more often than not are resolved with one character punching another. But Watchmen brought an edge to that violence, applying a more realistic depiction of it and its consequences to the fantastical trappings of a superhero world. Readers loved it.
Furthermore, by presenting its superhero characters in a setting more akin to the real world, it also pokes fun at those trappings: the Batman-esque Nite Owl is over-the-hill and barely fits into his superhero garb; the villain mocks the conventions of the genre when revealing his master plan (and the fact that he executed it well before he started monologuing about it). Comics of the early 90s are often described as being “grim ‘n’ gritty”; Watchmen is by no means the sole cause for the rise of that aesthetic, but the way it pushes the boundaries of superhero violence and sends up the tropes of the genre with a knowing wink helped proliferate and popularize it. One important group of creators in particular came to embrace that “grim ‘n’ gritty” aesthetic pushed by Watchmen. They would, in turn, be responsible for reflecting it at Marvel.
The comic book market of the late 80s and early 90s was a booming one. Driven by the rise of comic book speciality shops enabled by the expansion of the comic book direct market – in which retailers were able to purchase comics directly from publishers at a discounted rate in exchange for not being able to return any unsold product – existing comic book publishers were willing to take more chances, and new publishers saw opportunities to launch their own line of comic books. Watchmen itself – a series only available in the direct market specialty shops and not via the wider newsstand distribution methods that predates the direct market – is an example of the former. The creation of Image Comics is an example of the latter.
DC may have had Watchmen, but by 1990, Marvel had Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee. With Marvel leading in market share on the backs of hot young superstar talents, those creators and others like them proved so popular they were given complete control of brand new series meant to showcase their talents. Over the span of fourteen months, Marvel published Spider-Man #1, X-Force #1, and X-Men #1: each one setting a new record for single-issue sales, a record that stood until the next came along, with X-Men #1 by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee topping them all at over seven million copies sold. While these artists were fans of the traditional Marvel characters over which they now found themselves with unprecedented creative control, they were also young and familiar with the more recent trends within the industry.
The comics industry had always attracted its fair share of young talent, but at Marvel by the mid 80s, the vast majority of their top artistic talent had been with the company for over a decade. The majority of these new creators, including McFarlane, Liefeld, and Lee, were young, all under 30. They were drawn to the kind of edgier, violent and pseudo-realistic fare that typified the “grim ‘n’ gritty” stylings Watchmen helped popularize. They were also restless – and wanted larger shares of revenue being generated from the licensing of their artwork for things like t-shirts and trading cards. For all the creative control Marvel gave them, they still wanted more. In 1992, McFarlane, Liefeld, and Lee, along with four more of their superstar artist peers, left Marvel to found Image Comics.
It is at Image that the “grim ‘n’ gritty” aesthetic really took off, as the creators – newly liberated from corporate oversight – were able to tell the kinds of stories they wanted to tell exactly as they wanted to tell them. Marvel, desperate to maintain their sales lead in a booming market that demanded ever more titles despite the loss of their top artistic talent, sought and promoted artists who could ape the styles of the departed Image founders. As a result, they published stories with bigger and more outlandish art in the “Image” style, embracing more and more the “grim ‘n’ gritty” trappings of the Image founders’ work. But the booming market was also a bubble, and by 1995, that bubble was bursting.
Driven harder than ever by corporate masters who didn’t fully understand the comic book business to keep pushing sales higher and higher, Marvel’s efforts to flood the market with books began to fail as the quality of the stories and the talent involved were watered down. Combined with a variety of poor corporate decisions, the company found itself longing for the glory days of the early 90s, when creators like Lee and Liefeld were headlining books selling millions of copies each. The titles in the X-Men universe they had helped create were still selling acceptable numbers (as well the Spider-Man titles, one-time haunt of Image founder Todd McFarlane). But the stalwarts of the Marvel Universe – characters like Captain America and the Fantastic Four, who had launched the modern Marvel Universe – were struggling. So Marvel reached out to the creators who had burned them only a few years earlier, the creators who nevertheless represented some of Marvel’s best commercial times, to see if they’d be interested in taking over those core Marvel characters. McFarlane scoffed at the idea; Lee and Liefeld were intrigued.
The result of that intrigue was “Heroes Reborn.” In the fall of 1996, four of Marvel’s long standing titles, books that had run uninterrupted since the 1960s, were canceled. One month later, they were relaunched with new #1 issues. Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld were each responsible for the creative direction of two books apiece, with Lee penciling Fantastic Four and bringing in his former inker and fellow Image founder Whilce Portacio to draw Iron Man, while Rob Liefeld drew and oversaw Captain America and The Avengers. In the lead up to it, Marvel pressed “Onslaught”, the annual X-Men crossover event for 1996, into service as the vehicle to “end” the original iterations of the characters and create, within the continuity of the Marvel Universe, the “Heroes Reborn” reality.
If the Image founders, upon leaving Marvel, had embraced the “grim ‘n’ gritty” stylings and quasi-realism of Watchmen in their work, in returning to Marvel for “Heroes Reborn”, they finally offered a response of sorts to Watchmen at the company. In addition to generating fan interest and chasing the sales highs from earlier in the decades, “Heroes Reborn” was an attempt to reinvent Marvel’s classic characters for a modern audience. In doing so, Marvel executives hoped to make the characters more attractive to potential Hollywood producers who were less knowledgeable of or invested in the Silver Age trappings at the center of the characters. Watchmen, of course, had already done something similar, deconstructing traditional comic book tropes by presenting them in a context more akin to the “real” world. There is a direct line from a triumphant Ozymandias’ scoffing dismissal of “Republic serial villains” to something like the Captain America of “Heroes Reborn” being transported into the modern world not via a block of ice floating in the ocean for decades, but via a series of memory implants and fake identities maintained by the government. The latter, it was believed, would be more palpable to younger modern audiences (and movie producers) than the hoaky and kitschy “block of ice” routine.
Similarly, in much the same way Watchmen presents the effects of superhero violence in a more extreme and quasi-realistic way, the comic book action of “Heroes Reborn” fits the “grim ‘n’ gritty” aesthetic that was embraced by its creators. In the original Fantastic Four origin, super scientist Reed Richards brings his girlfriend Sue Storm and her kid brother Johnny along on an experimental rocket flight mostly because writer Stan Lee needed all four characters to go into space in order to become a foursome mutated by cosmic rays. In the mid 90s, the notion of bringing your girlfriend and her brother on a clandestine space trip “just cuz” was considered entirely too quaint and silly. So in the new origin, Sue and Johnny are established as financial backers of the project with a vested interest in seeing it succeed. In the 1961 original, the transformation of the titular heroes into their superpowered forms is presented in the context of the sci-fi monster books that Marvel had been publishing at the time; upon transforming into his rock-like form, Thing looks like he could have been lifted from an earlier issue of Amazing Fantasy or Journey into Mystery. In 1996, Jim Lee leans more into the body horror aspect of the Fantastic Four’s transformation: the Human Torch is introduced first as simply a man on fire, screaming in agony that he’s burning alive.
Similarly, in the 1960s, the agents of supervillain organization Hydra wore bright green uniforms and fired high-tech ray guns at the heroes; in the relaunched Iron Man #1, the issue opens as an undercover Hydra agent executes a group of security guards in cold blood through precise gunshots to the head. In Captain America #4, Cap’s would-be partner Sam Wilson (who, as Falcon, was introduced in the 1960s with the “superpower” of really liking birds) is gunned down point blank by the Nazi terrorist Master Man; he is revived an issue later when Captain America shares some of his super-powered blood with him. Cap accesses his blood for the transfusion by slicing open his hand on the edge of his shield. Captain America’s shield, a symbol of his deference to defensive rather than offensive action, literally became edgier.
To be clear, very little of the action and violence on display in “Heroes Reborn” is all that shocking, especially in today’s post-Authority, post-Ultimates world. It’s not even on the level of some of the violence in Watchmen itself. Marvel Comics, pre-”Heroes Reborn”, certainly weren’t afraid to push boundaries or flirt with the “grim ‘n’ gritty” aesthetic, either: characters like the Punisher, Wolverine, and Ghost Rider were standard bearers of the style at Marvel and some of the company’s most popular characters in the early 90s. But they also weren’t representative of the classic core of the Marvel Universe. The Punisher is not Captain America; the supernatural Midnight Sons led by Ghost Rider are not the Fantastic Four. What makes the edginess and self-conscious realism of “Heroes Reborn” all the more striking is that it’s being depicted in the pages of comic books starring stalwart Marvel characters with roots going back to the more classic and quaint time of the Silver Age. The notable takeaway isn’t a shield with a sharpened edge; it’s that the shield in question is Captain America’s shield. The Watchmen characters are, pointedly, not the Charlton characters who inspired them; when Alan Moore pitched DC the idea of a murder mystery in which Peacemaker is killed by Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, DC made him create the Comedian and Ozymandias in their stead in order to tell his story. When Marvel, desperately chasing sales and hoping to “modernize” their classic characters, handed them over to Image Comics for reimagining, they put no such limitations in place, and the aesthetic stylings inspired, in part, by Watchmen took over.
Ultimately, it’s hard to consider “Heroes Reborn” a success. Sales for the four titles did increase slightly, relative to their pre-relaunch iterations. But, according to Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics The Untold Story, the increase was not enough to justify the expense of what Marvel paid Lee and Liefeld to take on the project. Liefeld was even axed six months into “Heroes Reborn,” as Marvel became fed up with his constant deadline issues; Lee was given complete control over all four books for the duration of the contract. But when it became time to re-up Jim Lee’s involvement, Marvel was dealing with its own bankruptcy, and the executives who had pursued the Lee/Liefeld/Marvel reunion in the first place were long gone. Just over thirteen months after it launched, “Heroes Reborn” came to an end, the characters returned to the “original” Marvel Universe, and the various titles relaunched once more to mark the new (old) beginning.
But the thirteen months of “Heroes Reborn” – fifty-two issues in total – stand as a relic of the time when the “Image-ification” of Marvel reached its zenith, when the edgier, more overtly-violent and self-consciously “realistic” trappings of the “grim ‘n’ gritty” aesthetic unleashed by Watchmen spread from the darker corners of anti-heroes and lethal protectors to claim, at least in part, the Silver Age stalwart, idealistic icons of the Marvel Universe.