Is Watchmen the greatest comic ever written? A lot of people adamantly say so. Myself, I have some reservations about such an accolade, since I’m still partial to Jeff Smith’s Bone, enjoying it almost as much now as I did when I was 12, and I absolutely love Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman epic. Recently, I’ve been pretty enamored with Starman and Astro City. Alan Moore himself has said that Watchmen isn’t even his best book, and it seems like he has grown weary of having the book mentioned. Having read a lot of Alan Moore’s work, I’d agree that Watchmen isn’t the most representative of his style, and from what I’ve read, his series Promethea might very well be a better book. Still, I think one thing most of us can agree on is that Watchmen is a great comic, but as with all great works of art, it has inspired many other pieces of art, some good, and some bad.
I would say the more immediate influence was bad. Watchmen came out in 1986, the same year as Frank Miller‘s great book The Dark Knight Returns. Together, those books ushered in a very dark era for DC, which was further blackened out when Alan Moore released the violent, nightmarish comic Batman The Killing Joke and Miller released the gritty comic Batman Year One. Those four are fine books in their own right, but they inspired numerous low-grade knock-offs. Suddenly so many comics became dark and gruesome, moody and turbulent, many of which didn’t seem sensible. This effect lasted throughout much of the early 90s.
Aquaman, the much-teased novelty hero, became this spiteful Captain Nemo type who grew a hermit’s beard and for some reason got a hook hand. It seems after all the anger injected into him, the only way to save him as a character was to kill him and bring him back years younger. Much the same happened with Green Arrow. After Watchmen and Co. made it profitable to be bleak, Green Arrow was changed from a bleeding heart liberal to a right-wing extremist, given a mature title, and started regularly killing his villains. All of the murder and madness served to more or less ruin his character until Kevin Smith brought him back to life in Quiver, missing the memories of his murderous years. I think the worst metamorphosis of all happened to Batman, who was no longer the crafty and courageous Bruce Wayne, but instead this brooding, gross looking gargoyle who didn’t appear to even have a human physiognomy under the cloak. If you look at many of the Batman comics from the early 90s, Batman is drawn with a long nose like a vulture’s beak and pointy ears that stuck up for 2 feet. How would such a costume even help him with crime-fighting? You’d think if anything such an outfit would slow him down. Now if he was jabbing people with his long ears I’d understand…
Aping the realism of Moore and Miller, comic villains too became more “realistic” or at least what Reagan-Thatcher era writers thought of as threats. No longer did it seem like Batman was facing his rogue gallery of villains like Mr. Freeze or The Riddler; instead, he seemed to be always grappling with drug addicts with meat cleavers. Now, today, I would say a lot of the current comics out have a decent crossover appeal for kids and adults, but back in the late 80s and early 90s, DC was about as kid-friendly as the orphanage in Oliver Twist.
Marvel too became considerably darker, but at least they had the foresight to place much of their darkness in other dimensions or timelines or galaxies, like with Claremont and Byrne’s appropriately titled “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” Spiderman too became a pretty grim title, especially when Todd MacFarlane was drawing the series (he’s the guy who later created Spawn). These years for Spidey were a bit preposterous if you ask me. For instance, Harry Osborne dies of a drug overdose around this time–doesn’t that seem like a bit much? In Stan Lee‘s hands, Peter Parker was a guy teens could relate to, but in the post-Watchmen years, it was like he was stuck in this protracted Jacobean revenge drama.
Interestingly, some of the best comics of the last 25 years started out not as imitations but as responses to the dark Watchmen legacy. An early example would be Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis‘ classic work with the Justice League. Instead of turning the Justice League into pseudo-Watchmen, they purposefully went in the opposite direction, giving us bright, colorful pages full of wisecracking heroes who used punchlines in the literal sense, as in joking while punching. Kurt Busiek would later take the Watchmen formula but turn it into something more positive with his wonderful Astro City series. In that comic, it shows a semi-realistic world with superheroes in it, but doesn’t insist on pulling the rug from under the entire superhero tradition. This might come as a surprise: Alan Moore himself created a series titled Tom Strong that wasn’t only a response to Watchmen but, as he has suggested, an act of atonement. In the Tom Strong series, he returns comics to a place of Golden Age/Flash Gordon style whimsy.
So while Watchmen may have inspired a lot of hackjob imitations (including the Watchmen movie) let’s keep in mind it had a positive influence too. Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman have both cited Moore’s work as a big influence. If not for Watchmen, would we have great comics like Brian Michael Bendis‘ Powers or James Robinson‘s JLA: Cry For Justice? Watchmen has been around long enough; we’ve come to terms with its legacy; let’s move on.
If you liked this article, check out my thoughts on the upcoming Watchmen prequels.