There is a great lie about Watchmen.
They repeat the lie over and over again, pretending it says a lot, when it says very little. It is not a lie of malice, but a lie of ignorance. It is a lie predicated on omission of truth. It is a lie that only emerges when one understands history. It is a meaningless statement presented as meaningful to those who don’t know better.
It is the first lie of American comics that every new reader is confronted with, when surveying the scene of the superhero.
And it is a lie that holds, despite everything else.
The lie is this:
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Watchmen made the superhero dark and messed-up. It debased the innocent icons of youth, and brought about an age of ruinous darkness- a Dark Age as it’s called. It sapped the color and joy out of the bright and poppy supergods, and it’s the tiresome tome we all have to eternally deal with. It is the anti-christ to the divine ideal of the superhero, and Alan Moore its ultimate symbol; the bitter, distant dad who’ll never be happy, who’ll never be satisfied, and will forever spit venom against all that is holy and good and decent. Moore is the father of darkness, the dread and despair that haunts the superhero like a ghost, a horror, something to be exorcised and ‘purified’ while at the same time tapping into and absorbing his primal power.
None of this is true, but the industry bends over backwards to try and make it true, to make it seem as such. If they believe in it hard enough, it has to be true, right? It is the lie much of modern American superhero comics and the ‘industry’ around it is built upon.
And the lie works, and is predicated upon one simple principle:
The (Imagined) Innocent Past. The Ideal Age Of Purity, Nobility, and All-Ages Decency. The Great Time Before – when things were made up of sugar and spice and everything nice. After all, there must be an era of light for the light to vanish, no? A ‘darkening’ and a ‘dark age’ can only be contextualized and made sense of with the presence of a prior ‘brighter’ and ‘better’ era. It’s what you need to sell the narrative. It’s the period you need to make it work. And that period?
It’s The Silver Age Of Comics.
This is the second lie of American comics that all are presented with, like gospel.
That the ‘Silver Age’ as it is called (a period beginning in the mid 1950’s to the 1970’s) was ever innocent and decent and nice. That it was all beautiful wonders and imaginative delights, and all was as it should be. A time of super-dogs, super-families, and great, big, imaginative ideas. A golden age, beyond the actual era dubbed The Golden Age which preceded it.
People talk of mini-supermen being shot out of Superman’s hands, they talk of Krypto The Super-Dog and Supergirl, but they have no context for them. They do not understand, for instance, that none of these things were particularly novel and were originally done in The Golden Age era comics of Captain Marvel in the 1940s. That before there ever was a Supergirl, there was Mary Marvel, that before Krypto The Super-Dog, there was Hoppy The Marvel Bunny. They don’t realize that the very same man that made Supergirl and Krypto was also the defining Captain Marvel, and they don’t even know to ask why he was even working at DC.
They do not know that Captain Marvel and its publisher Fawcett were deliberately sued into oblivion by National Comics Publications, the company that would become DC Comics, because Captain Marvel was just too damn popular and sold too well and that bothered the IP owners of Superman. If you can’t surpass the competition, destroy it, this was the animating motto. And so Otto Binder, the man who made Mary Marvel, who wrote ‘The Marvel Family’, the first superhero family of comics, who was a key figure in the first proper ‘superhero shared universe’ of comics (that was destroyed and torn down because it was too damn popular in the eyes of DC’s predatory owners), would eventually end up working at DC.
Even Superman, the golden boy and icon of DC, who’d initially started out as a hot-blooded champion of the oppressed changed. The process of ‘softening’ had long begun, as Superman went from a pulpy Doc Savage-inspired figure killing wife-beaters and other bastards without hesitation to the Binder-era version far more akin to Captain Marvel than ever before. Superman’s biggest and brightest ideas would be cover songs of the once-richer Captain Marvel concepts, except most would barely realize it. Fawcett would become something to be stripped for parts to be devoured by DC, for that is what DC is wont to do. Their greatest failure being perhaps that they couldn’t do it to Marvel.
That is comics. For that is how it all began. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson or The Major as he’s often called, was the man who would bridge the pulps and comic strips that had long existed into the form that had yet to exist. He’d give birth to what we now consider ‘comic books’ through his venture National Allied Publications in 1934-1935. He was the publisher’s founder, but not for long, as he’d be deep in debt to Harry Donnenfeld, another pulp publisher and powerful entrepreneur. By 1937, he’d be forced out and would lose it all to Harry Donnenfeld, who along with his lawyer Jack Liebowitz would become the owner of the now Detective Comics Inc. And then in 1938 the people at this new company would meet with two kids named Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. And they’d trick these two kids into giving up this hot new idea called Superman, which then they would forever own, with the two kids getting little to nothing for decades.
That is comics history. That is DC’s history. Its very founder, the father of the comic book and this entire landscape, expelled out. The very fathers of Superman and the superhero given bare scraps and little else. This is the true darkness that haunts the whole terrain, now and forever, the original sin of comic books and superheroes – exploitation and the mistreatment of the very real people. It is indivisibly linked to the work on page and cannot be separated, for that work has a price, and a cost, and few seem to understand its immensity.
And that is what brings us to The Silver Age, the imagined and constructed ‘golden age’ in cultural consciousness, when it was anything but. People pretend what is on page is ‘as it should have been’, like these stories just magically pour out with no context or material realities informing them. The Silver Age, in truth, was far darker, bleaker, and horrible than any ‘Dark Age’ that followed. For it was the age of the Comics Code Authority, formed in 1954 after the vile conservative fervor built up by Frederick Wertham in the 1950’s about how your child might *gasp* become gay by reading an issue of Batman. It was an era of intense suppression, born out of catering to blatant right-wing White Supremacist ideology, wherein the conservatives tried to choke the damn life out of comics as an art-form and control it intensely.
The code had something of a precedent and predecessor in the form of the 1948’s ACMP Code (drawing upon the Hays Code of the era), but it was one that was frequently and largely ignored by many and meant little, particularly by 1954, which is why you had the stronger CCA formed and established. Look at the above and see how oppressive it is. What people forget when they naively celebrate the Silver Age as a wonderland of fantasy and imagination is just how much of the material and the ideas and the general landscape had to cater to and fit with the Code. It’s why you get a plethora of Cop Heroes, which just neatly fit into the framework the code likes. It’s why true radical politics or critique of systems also became difficult. It’s a rule system designed for dull propagandist fare. That there were creators who were talented, brilliant and skilled enough to operate within the confines of this hellish system to create powerful work? That’s the magic, that’s the miracle.
Counter to popular presentation, this wasn’t the era where imaginative ideas ran free. It was one where imagination itself was confined and constrained, as American Comics lost its entire future. Every genre except ‘superhero’ was choked to death, and those who dared depict Black people as Astronauts? Why, they had to go.
It was an age of bigoted, regressive values and horrible censorship. People talk about the brilliant ideas and work that got made amidst it. They are in awe of the creators and their incredible talents. But they act as if this history is absolute, that this is how it always would have been, like there were no possibilities. They do not wonder – what if all these brilliant, legendary creators at the absolute height of their powers, in their absolute prime, weren’t constrained and limited and could truly make anything? What if they didn’t have their hands tied? What if we never got them limited to just 40% of 50% of their true potential and locked into a narrow hallway of the kinds of comics they could make in the mainstream space?
They don’t ask:
What could have been?
How much better and different could it all have been?
They don’t ask what we lost. The gravity has not dawned on them to really consider: How much did we lose? All those years, all those possibilities, just stamped out, never even allowed into being. So much damage, at such a crucial point for the medium and form, that can never be undone. They never dream of the world where comics weren’t choked to homogenized white boy superhero fare under Marvel/DC and could’ve been so much more. Diversity was stolen from us, not just racial diversity, but also genre diversity and the diversity of the actual stories possible.
There was a time when Romance Comics were at the top of the world, but that world is now long gone, as everything got flattened out into superhero fare, as everything was rolled into the priorities of crafting together a Superhero Shared Universe in the ’60s. There was a world of weird EC comics, wild war comics, hysterical comedies, all of which did well, but it’s all long gone now. The ways in which those genres could have developed on their own or been effective? We’ll never know, because it all died out to prop up the good ol’ CCA-abiding superhero.
The Silver Age isn’t to be celebrated as a naive wonderland of whimsy and imagination. It is to be celebrated only for the resilience of its creatives who worked under hellish censorship and circumstances and still made worthwhile work that still speaks to us now, despite endless constraints and nonsense eternally limiting them. It is the true dark age of comics, for underneath all the bright colors and big smiles and Americana imagery lies the dark reality of conservative machinations. It’s the image of nuclear family every conservative ad is selling you, which is meant to be happy, but is in truth full of darkness and sinister horrors lurking beneath.
It’s why there is a sinister or disturbing quality to many a silver age story or character or certain moments, even if they aren’t played obviously as such. The glossy censored presentation of America makes some of them, if anything, arguably much more disturbing or distressing at times. That is the truth. As many neuroses and notions were put into the works in more ‘sublimated’ fashion or in a more abstract manner. All that occurred in the periods afterwards was that the creators didn’t have to do resort to that, and could just openly show or do certain things that they previously might have shied away from. It’s what makes all the rose-tinted views of The Silver Age frustrating, given its material realities. It is not a past to mourn the loss and death of nostalgically, as though it were an age of innocence. It is all the union-busting and mistreatment of the ordinary man to fill the pockets of a richer one, whilst publishing books about heroism.
Here’s a sampling of truth:
Mark Evanier: Towards the end of your career at DC, there was an attempt to form a writer’s union…
John Broome: Oh, yeah. I developed a fixed idea that DC should pay us for reprint material. When they reprinted a whole story without paying us, that was a stealing of our abilities. It was stealing something away from us. I knew that, in movies and television and ASCAP [the composers’ union], they paid royalties…so I thought comics should pay royalties and I talked to the other writers. I didn’t talk to the artists…they were above me, anyway.
There were five or six writers — Eddie Herron, Bob Haney, Otto Binder, Gardner Fox, a few others. I think it took six or eight months but one day, I got them all together — all in the same room, ready to do what we had to do, which was to march into Liebowitz’s office. Liebowitz was the millionaire boss. We marched in and demanded reprint rights. And Liebowitz, who I understand is still alive…he’s about 95 or something.
Julius Schwartz: Or more!
Broome: He didn’t waste any time. He said, “Boys, I’ll give you a two dollar raise,” and immediately, my union collapsed! (Audience laughs) That was the end of the first union at DC.
Evanier: Can you give us a year on that? About ’68 or so?
Broome: By ’68, I was already cashing out of the picture. It would be earlier. Maybe ’65 would be about right.
Evanier: Now were there other grievances besides the reprints? Didn’t some of the guys want health insurance?
Broome: Maybe. I think maybe they had other demands, but that’s the only part I recall. Liebowitz was afraid of me. He knew I was a danger to him. I was going to cost him money! (Audience laughs). So he didn’t like me but he really couldn’t get rid of me too easily.
That’s the reality of the Silver Age, where much of the horrific exploitation was, if anything, firmly cemented, while companies collected ideas at an even more rapid pace and built out their super-shared universes, as the darkness only grew, whilst a sinister shiny sheen of innocence and smiles adorned the pages.
Perhaps this is best expressed by the tale of Jim Shooter as a literal child at the age of 14, who was horrifically mistreated in nigh supervillainous fashion by Mort Weisinger, the very man behind overseeing Superman in that period, and who also co-created Aquaman and Green Arrow:
First of all, my family needed the money. Badly. Second, my editor, Mort Weisinger, mean as a snake at his nicest, would have screamed at me more than usual if I was ever late.
Mort would call me every Thursday night, right after the Batman TV show to go over whatever I’d delivered that week. […] The calls mostly consisted of him bellowing at me. “You fucking moron! Learn to spell! What the hell is this character holding? Is that supposed to be a gun? It looks like a carrot! These layouts have to be clear, retard!” When you’re 14 and the big, important man upon whom your family’s survival depends calls you up to tell you you’re an imbecile, it makes an impression…
It got to the point where any time I’d hear a phone ring I’d clench up, white knuckled. Very Pavlovian. Even in school, or some other place that was ostensibly safe, a ringing phone jolted me.
Mort used to tell me I was his “charity case.” He said that the only reason he kept me on was because my family would starve otherwise.
The net effect of Mort’s honking at me was slowing me down. I’d sit there for hours, immobilized, useless, unproductive, because I was sure that anything I put on the paper would be wrong and therefore, Mort would scream at me. My mother would occasionally plead with me. She’d say, “We really need a check.” I started working in my room, sitting on my bed to keep my lack of production more private. Every once in a while she’d come upstairs, look at the blank page on my lap board and start crying. That was tough. She meant no harm. But that was tough.
At some point, my fear of delivering work that Mort would rip me to shreds over was eclipsed by the fear of failing to deliver, or delivering late, which would be worse.
So no, there was no ideal era of wonder and magic, no imagined golden age of the past from which things dilapidated. There was only censorship, union-busting, exploitation, and we’d only manage to escape the shackles of one of those things once the Silver Age was done. The rest? We’re still dealing with them, even to this day.
So no, Watchmen did not make superhero comics darker, much like Harry Osborn or Roy Harper being a junkie didn’t make them ‘darker’. The fact is, these things happened when people in the 1970’s firmly got beyond the shadow of the CCA and said ‘Screw it’. These were people no longer bothering with the Code and just doing as they liked. And that led to the 1970’s wherein you saw some really fun experimentation and weird, interesting comics pop up, and the slow march of progress shirking off the Code began, and it is in that tradition that Watchmen belongs. It is part of that long, hard, difficult march forward. It is part of a specific history.
Comics, freed from the shackles of the CCA, were always going to get ‘darker’ when compared to the era of rigid censorship. That was inevitable. Whatever works managed to successfully leap free from the tendrils of that censory past to truly be bold and worthwhile on a big scale? Folks were always going to try to shallowly imitate them to try and recreate their monumental success. If it wasn’t Watchmen (or Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), it would’ve been something else. That too was inevitable. And besides, what makes Watchmen remarkable isn’t its ‘dark’ or ‘darker’ superheroes, for Alan Moore had already done Miracleman by the time of its publication. No, what made it remarkable was how well-crafted it was, its formal boldness, and how it exploded the cold war zeitgeist and politics of its era for powerful genre fiction that had as much to say on American Imperialism as it did power fantasies of masked vigilantes. It was drawn and lettered impeccably by Dave Gibbons, a master of the ‘British Clean’ school of comics art, his artistic forefathers traceable to the likes of the incredible Don Lawrence, and colored evocatively by John Higgins. It was a tome of masterful ambition and ‘Comics as a Novel’ and it was unlike anything that had been done as a pure display of craft to tell a genre story, and one with that much ambition.
Watchmen didn’t make comics darker.
Watchmen made comics better.
For every million shitty frauds who tried to copy it and made shallow rubbish, it gave us legions of Neil Gaimans, Grant Morrisons, Garth Ennises, Kieron Gillens, Jonathan Hickmans, and many, many more. Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins gave a gift to the form. They made an ultimate showcase for the form and its power and potential, and displayed the allure of comics as an artform to a wider cultural audience. They brought in a plethora of people who may not have otherwise gotten into comics, and showed them the magic. And even those brilliant creators who didn’t care for it had to respond or come up with approaches for themselves in a post-Watchmen world, and that led to a fascinating world. It’s why and how we have Keith Giffen’s plethora of Post-Watchmen comics from JLI to his Five Years Later run on Legion.
But also, on a fundamental material level, it changed things. When Alan Moore fell out with DC on the matter of principle and split with them over the issue of Creator Rights, his strong stance is what led to better contracts and terms for those that would come after him. For if nobody ever makes noise or stands up to the powers that be, how would things get better? Moore happily did the job, for which many benefited, including the likes of Gaimans and Morrisons. Moore’s work and its success is what gave us The British Invasion and led us to Vertigo Comics, and everything since. It is, after all, in Vertigo Comics that we’d see the restoration of so many genres and varied approaches in mainstream comics that had long been buried away. From Sandman to Kill Your Boyfriend to Preacher and plenty more, a whole world of possibilities opened up for people. Moore inspired millions to pick up a pen and get writing and drawing. He inspired both professionals and amateurs. He inspired people, and those that he helped inspire inspired legions more. And ultimately, Moore’s values and his conviction to his principles helped and aided those that followed him.
Moore didn’t unleash darkness upon comics. Moore unleashed a challenge. And like any challenge, legions failed at it, for such is the nature of any challenge. One cannot blame Moore or his work any more than one can blame a classic band whose great original songs have had endless rubbish cover songs and riffs. The failings of the lesser artists are not the failings of the greater artist who asked the legions to rise up to their challenge.
Moore is not the bitter father, but the gentle, humorous giant from Northampton. A guy you could grab a lovely drink with at the pub, a man who reads stories to his grandkids, who puts on elaborate make-up and performs delightful roles, and just loves to chat about art and culture and people. Alan Moore is the man who mentors and teaches Neil Gaiman how to write comics, who has a laugh with Michael Moorcock and Eddie Campbell, and gives lectures at universities and tries to care for his hometown of Northampton with a fierce love.
When people talk of Alan Moore, they hardly talk of Alan Moore The Person or even Alan Moore The Artist, instead they talk of Alan Moore The Idea. And this is not Alan Moore, not in any real material sense. That’s a Ghost of a Dark God that has been conjured up by the collective of comics nerds and companies who wish to not face the real darkness and rot at the root of American comics. They’d rather construct an easy narrative of The Bitter Old Man than accept the realities of the status quo. It’s easy to deride a man as ‘crazy’ for having spirituality or faith in magic, for not bowing down to corporate overlords and being their lapdog, and for speaking bluntly, truthfully, with class consciousness and critical awareness of fan-culture and how that’s exploited in comics. But it’s harder to acknowledge all the realities he’s speaking to, and the difficult truths he’s imparting and symbolizes.
It’s why he matters, it’s why Watchmen matters.
And they always will.
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