Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? It’s a fair question. It seems easily answered at first: well, nothing, really. He’s still around, and alive and well. But think about it. When did Superman seem to stop being a completely relevant media figure, and become something of a nostalgic cultural icon? It was probably around the late 1980’s, although I can’t say with any certainty. I think portrayals of Superman in stories like Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s achingly beautiful Superman for All Seasons and Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman are reactionary against something called the Watchmen Effect (which is a term I just made up).
So let me explain the Watchmen Effect. When Watchmen originally came out, no one had ever seen anything like it in comics. It was unprecedented in terms of depth, artistry, and darkness. No one had ever taken superheroes where Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons took them; Moore’s morally ambiguous characters with disturbing motives and backgrounds created an entirely new discourse in comics. Which brings me to the Watchmen Effect: writers started trying to emulate Moore’s work, but the ones who didn’t understand why Watchmen is so effective emulated the darkness, the violence, and the skulking antiheroes, but without bothering to offer a commentary or context. In other words, many comics in the ’90’s ended up exactly like Zak Snyder’s 2009 film adaption of Watchmen; it looked like Watchmen, and seemed like it, too, but it wasn’t really Watchmen, because it expunged everything but the plot (which really isn’t even the most important thing in Watchmen).
Remember the first time you read Watchmen, and you didn’t know what the hell you’d just read when you finished? When I finished Watchmen for the first time, I couldn’t help but ask myself David Letterman’s wonderfully existential question, “is this anything?” Initially, I wasn’t sure it was anything; it was so dense and multi-layered that I’m not sure I even knew what it was about the first time I read it.
Several years later, I’ve decided Watchmen is something. It’s not only the greatest piece of graphic literature ever created (find someone who doesn’t agree, I dare you), it’s a master-class in intertextual collage. In fact, I would argue it’s one of the most salient and accessible pieces of post-modern literature.
Watchmen is about so much more than the plot; over the course of its twelve issues, it becomes not just a comment on the state of superheroes and their motives, but also a comment on the nature of narrative itself. Take the inclusion of epistolary documents (the case files and excerpts at the end of each of the first eleven issues). The suggestion that the entire story isn’t being told, can’t be told, is brilliant; as the story progresses, you begin to try to fill in the gaps, and think about what’s happening between the panels.
Since Watchmen, there have been a lot of intelligent comics written, even some brilliant ones, but there have also been a lot of crappy, hyper-violent comics about antiheroes running around doing terrible things in the name of shock value. So the Watchmen Effect has been both positive and negative, spawning both great and awful comics that were inspired or influenced by Alan Moore’s magnum opus. A postmodern masterpiece that is at turns both beautiful and terrifying, Watchmen remains the greatest comic book ever. And I can’t imagine that changing.
Picks for the week:
America’s Got Powers #1, Jonathan Ross & Bryan Hitch: This is a fun take on reality television and superpowers. Look for fantastic art by Bryan Hitch, who gave the Avengers a fascinating make-over in Marvel’s The Ultimates. Also, one of the characters looks just a little like Barry Switzer, so there’s that.
Thief of Thieves #3, Robert Kirkman, Nick Spencer, & Shawn Martinbrough: My comic book guy Dan Nash at Speeding Bullet Comics in Norman recommended Thief of Thieves to me when issue #1 came out, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite non-superhero comics. Between the action, the heists, and the snappy wit, Thief of Thieves is a book you should be reading.