5. Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates the desire for emulation. (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part Nineteen: Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan)


Previously in The Last War in Albion: Following the tempest in a teapot that was the DC ratings system controversy, Moore and DC parted ways with acrimony on both sides, and more to the point with a near complete failure to understand each other, with Moore taking what he viewed as a principled stand and DC making a business decision.

Figure 908: Mike Grell's Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters was DC's attempted follow-up to Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

So from DC’s perspective, the loss of Moore was largely not a big deal. He had played his role in the process, identifying both the serious-minded take on superheroes and a fresh style of horror comics that proved to sell well. These, combined with ideas like the prestige format used for The Dark Knight Returns and the permanently-in-print trade paperback collection used for Watchmen, were more than enough for them to do what they wanted without any need to deal with the eccentrically principled. And for the most part they did. Moore’s run on Swamp Thing was followed smoothly by Rich Veitch taking over the writing while continuing on art, creating an easy transition and remaining in the same basic style. Jamie Delano, a close friend of Moore’s who had previously followed him on both Captain Britain and D.R. & Quinch, started up Hellblazer, featuring John Constantine, giving DC a second book in the Swamp Thing mould. Plus there were plenty of writers who came up through the same publications that Moore had who could be hired to do similar work. And DC continued with the grim realism introduced by Moore and Miller, putting out Mike Grell’s enormously successful prestige format Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, which reworked the title character to no longer use silly trick arrows, and with a plot that included the brutal torture of Black Canary followed by Green Arrow killing her torturer. And all of this was on top of things like John Byrne’s massively successful take on Superman, Marv Wolfman’s perennially popular Teen Titans comics, Dennis O’Neil’s acclaimed run on The Question, and former Dick Tracy scribe Max Allan Collins’s doing a brief stint on Batman. It was, in other words, still an extraordinarily good period for DC.

But there is a visible absence in all of this. The Veitch Swamp Thing and Delano Hellblazer runs were excellent books, and will come into focus within the War in good time, but their success in reprints has been a fraction of what Moore’s run has done. The Longbow Hunters sold well and remains in print, but is nothing compared to The Dark Knight Returns, and back issues go for roughly cover price, as opposed to the massive valuation of its predecessor. And as for Watchmen, well, there’s not even an obvious choice to compare it to. In the thirty years since its debut, DC has simply never come close to replicating its success. That they never matched the success of what is arguably the single most successful superhero graphic novel in the history of the genre is, of course, baked into the premise of Watchmen being the most successful, but to have the only other book to challenge it for the title, The Dark Knight Returns, be from the same year is, by any standard, a shocking failure at DC’s primary goal of replicating its own successful formula.

And while it can’t be blamed in any straightforwardly causal way on Moore’s departure, it is worth noting that DC’s position of strength was fleeting. The American comics industry expanded in the wake of Watchmen, fueled both by the burst of energy provided by more serious takes on superheroes and by a series of further innovations in formats and marketing, but this expansion would prove to be a disastrous bubble that nearly wiped the industry out, and from which the industry has not and may never entirely recover. The new dawn for the comics industry that so many articles about Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns excitedly predicted did not arrive.

The question of what went wrong is legitimately complex, and involved a number of factors that had nothing to do with DC, little yet with Moore. And yet it’s hard not to imagine that Moore’s proposals from a 1985 interview - dumping the glut of “mass-produced rubbish” suitable only for “a junkie” in favor of getting high quality writers, specifically suggesting looking outside the medium to writers like Ramsey Campbell - wouldn’t have produced a much healthier industry than trying to find like-for-like replacements for creators whose defining skill was their capacity for innovation. But that was exactly the sort of thing DC, with their heavy-handed and disingenuous attempt at a ratings policy and creator-hostile contracts, were determinedly ruling out.

And so for all that DC, in the wake of Moore’s departure, was in a position of apparent strength, it was undoubtedly a high risk move to alienate the most successful and vibrant new voice in American comics, especially given that the industry as a whole was in a decade-on-decade decline. The core of DC’s strategy - getting as much money as possible from the dedicated fans that the shift to the direct market helped identify - was strong in the short term, but depended on being able to continually generate new dedicated fans to replace ones who wandered away from comics. And there is little doubt that Moore, between his groundbreaking Swamp Thing run and the astonishing success of Watchmen, was one of the best tools they had for doing that. They spurned him, and faced an uncertain and dangerous future as a result.

And as for Moore, he was free. An essentially peerless genius in his field, in a position of more or less complete financial stability on the back of the Watchmen royalties, and beholden to no one, Alan Moore was in a position to do whatever he wanted. All he had to do was decide what that was.

“1. Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.

2. No comics shall explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime.

3. Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.

4. If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.

5. Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates the desire for emulation.

6. In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.

7. Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.” - The Comics Code

{The worst of the three main Before Watchmen writers, meanwhile, was by some margin J. Michael Straczynski, who tackled Before Watchmen: Night Owl and Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan, as well as the late addition two-issue Before Watchmen: Moloch title. Like Azzarello, Straczynski is not particularly concerned with fealty to the spirit of the source material. This is perhaps most evident in Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan, in which Straczynski makes drastic alterations to the overall lore of Watchmen by giving Dr. Manhattan an entirely new power explained in terms of Schrödinger’s Cat whereby he can manipulate the outcome of an unobserved event. This is not, it should be stressed, objectionable on its own. Were the Before Watchmen project ever to have actually worked, it would have had to be brave enough to do something significantly different from Watchmen; indeed, doing so was what elevated Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre over the others. And there is certainly nothing like a moral case to be made against it. While many of the attempts to compare Before Watchmen to Moore’s own work on characters other people created are exercises in completely missing the point, the observation that his standard approach to taking on a character is to make dramatic changes to them is a fair one. Moreover, it’s an approach that generally works.

Figure 909: J. Michael Straczynski explains Schrödinger's Cat badly. (Art by Adam Hughes, from Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan #1, 2012)

The problem is that it requires actually having a good idea, and Straczynski’s new powers for Dr. Manhattan aren’t. Within Watchmen, Moore’s depiction of Dr. Manhattan is based on a fanciful but ultimately grounded understanding of quantum physics and the philosophical implications thereof. Nobody would seriously argue that Dr. Manhattan is a realistic scientific possibility, but he is written with a clear sense of attention to the scientific ideas he’s nominally based on. But Straczynski’s extrapolation of Schrödinger’s Cat is based on bad pop culture misunderstandings of it, ignoring the fact that the ambiguity as to whether the cat is alive or dead is specifically because of an elaborate hypothetical setup involving radioactive decay, and moreover, that Schrödinger proposed the experiment specifically to demonstrate the absurdity of the simultaneously alive and dead cat. The entire point of the thought experiment, in other words, is that the ambiguity that exists for quantum particles doesn’t exist for everyday objects. Straczynski, on the other hand, simply proclaims that any unobserved event could be anything, and that Dr. Manhattan’s powers thus let him arbitrarily change history.

This could just about be made to work with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and indeed that’s presumably what Straczynski was drawing on with the idea, but that, in turn, fails to fit with the larger presentation of Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, which depends on a fixed timeline that Dr. Manhattan can see the whole of. Indeed, Straczynski’s plot depends on the idea that the many-worlds interpretation is wrong, and that Dr. Manhattan’s reality-bending does damage to the universe and must be stopped. This is of course necessary, given that the work is a prequel and has to eventually arrive at the state of affairs for Watchmen. But it results in a fundamentally unsatisfying story that is by and large about why its premise doesn’t work.

Figure 910: Dr. Manhattan uses his newly invented powers of reality manipulation. (Written by J. Michael Straczynski, art by Adam Hughes, from Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan #1, 2012)

But even within the story’s own rules it does not cohere. By the end, Dr. Manhattan has concluded that his alterations to history are dangerous and destructive to the world, specifically relating this to the first time he used this power, which was at the failed Crimebusters meeting where he manipulates an exercise involving pairing up to get to know each other, making it so that he’s paired with Silk Spectre instead of Rorschach, presented as a key step in his falling in love with her. This is bizarre for several reasons. For one thing, it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to square away with the Crimebusters meeting as depicted in Watchmen, where it’s essentially impossible to imagine the Comedian sitting through a tedious team-building exercise, and where the matter of Dr. Manhattan’s attraction to Laurie is already dealt with. (Indeed, it appears that Stracyznski simply misunderstood the plot of Watchmen #4, conflating two events from 1966 that are in fact clearly distinct.) For another, the explanation of this contradicts itself. Dr. Manhattan, as he figures out the problems he’s been causing, says, “every time I made a choice it fractured reality, over and over, so the only way to reunite the timelines is by erasing all those choices.” This would clearly seem to include the choice to pair himself with Silk Spectre and not Rorschach at the Crimebusters meeting. And yet the apparent consequence of that - Dr. Manhattan falling in love with Laurie - is still in place. Indeed, Straczynski depicts the incident, complete with the slip of paper blurring and changing from Rorschach to the Silk Spectre, in Before Watchmen: Night Owl, further cementing that the time change that Dr. Manhattan apparently had to erase didn’t get erased.

Astonishingly, this isn’t even the worst of it. Straczynski has it so that an after-effect of Dr. Manhattan’s changes is the static that he can’t see past in Watchmen #12, which he talks to Ozymandias about, thus (unbeknownst to him) inspiring his plan. Except that all of Dr. Manhattan’s agonizing over these changes is set within the events of Watchmen #4, after he’s left Earth following being confronted with the accusations that he causes cancer. And those accusations are, within Watchmen, an aspect of Ozymandias’s conspiracy - a fact reiterated in Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan. The result is a paradox: the timeline in which Dr. Manhattan would flee the Earth only comes into being after he’s already done so. And this is not, to be clear, some clever causality loop acknowledged within the story - indeed, inasmuch as Straczynski’s theory of how time works is a coherent one, such a paradox doesn’t seem possible within it. The question of how Dr. Manhattan created the conditions that led to him being on Mars to create them is simply ignored by the story, despite spending four issues building to that exact point. [continued]


Timber-Munki 1 year, 3 months ago

Straczynski not getting the point of characters and plots is pretty much his defining trait as a comics writer - Spider-man Sins Past, Doom crying in Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2, #36, One More Day, Superman Grounded, Superman: Earth One etc. That and an overwhelming self-regard - walking away from his Superman & Wonderwoman re-boots because he found out DC would be relaunching with the New52 initiative so he couldn't be bothered, walking away from Marvel's The Twelve for over a year because he got better paid screen-writing work & shifting the blame for delays to the artist, Chris Weston picking up some film work (Including the currently moth-balled [thankfully] live-action Western version of Akira, but he's gotta work some where after been left in the lurch), criticising Marvel for their desire to use Thor in an Avengers cross-over event after the previously agreed length of time that Straczynski would have him exclusively had elapsed but Straczynski hadn't been able to finish the story he'd wanted to tell. Cherry picking sales stats of his successors on Amazing Spider-Man to criticize them.

I could go on, but essentially Straczynski working on Before Watchmen is exactly what I would expect of him, and what he actually did on the work appears to be precisely par for the course.

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spoilersbelow 1 year, 3 months ago

As I recall, one of Straczynski's major criticisms of Watchmen is that a smart person like Dr. Manhattan would never forget his jacket in the particle accelerator, and therefore the whole character doesn't work. Because very smart people never make mistakes, you see. And what happens as soon as he gets his hands on the character? *sigh*

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Daru 1 year, 2 months ago

Great article. Had not read Straczynski's Manhattan issues, but they sound pretty awful to me - especially the way he explains Schrödinger's Cat so terribly.

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