Last War in Albion Book Two, Chapter One: A Machine That Kills (At Midnight All The Agents)

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Figure 832: The cover of Watchmen #1,
depicting the iconic badge.

In anticipation of the forthcoming new chapter of Last War in Albion, I thought I'd re-run the first seven chapters of Book Two, in part to make chapters 1-5 organized in single post omnibus form like latter chapters.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: In 1979, two men got their starts in the British comics industry. One, a young Scotsman named Grant Morrison, largely sunk without a trace, writing only a few short stories for a failed magazine called Near Myths, a local newspaper strip, and a couple of sci-fi adventurers for DC Thomson’s Starblazer, a magazine renowned for only ever giving the editorial note “more space combat.”

The other, a decade older man from Northampton named Alan Moore, steadily worked his way from some low rent gigs writing and drawing his own strips to a career in the mainstream British industry, pulling together a living writing disposable short stories for 2000 AD, superheroes for Marvel UK, and low-selling but critically acclaimed work like V for Vendetta for Dez Skinn’s Warrior, before making the jump to American comics to try to salvage the failing title Swamp Thing, which he did in spades, taking it from a book on the brink of cancellation to one of DC Comics’s crown jewels.
Meanwhile, Morrison, having largely failed in his goal of being a rock star, and inspired by Moore’s work, particularly his postmodernist superhero tale Marvelman in Warrior, got back into comics, following the trajectory of Moore’s early career by securing a strip in Warrior (unfortunately for Morrison, his first appearance was Warrior’s last issue) and beginning to write short stories for 2000 AD.

In 1986, DC Comics published the first issue of Watchmen, a new superhero series from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
The result was the outbreak of the last great magical war in Albion.

Yellow smile in bloodpool as panel one, single stain on right eye. An image and synecdoche, it is Watchmen’s true face. Marketing and trade dress have made it a precisely defined sigil of Watchmen, just as the Guy Fawkes mask is the sigil of V for Vendetta and the serpent of Alan Moore. It is a Harvey Ball style smiley, a type first drawn in 1963, linked with a host of 1970s culture both kitsch and psychedelic. The bloodstain is four-pronged splash in the upper left, three droplets petering out before the eye, a fourth traversing the eye at a sharp angle like a pair of clock hands converging on midnight. In some renditions there are six precisely placed patches of white, as on the cover, but in the first panel the badge is already in the midground, framed by a monotone slate of red upon purple-grey bricks. There is a gutter in the lower left which the blood flows into. It is an iconic opening panel of comics as an artform, setting up the book’s aesthetic approach from the beginning. The War begins thusly, in the middle of a cataclysmic battle the history of which will serve as its own battleground.
 
Figure 833: The first page of Watchmen. (Written by
Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins,
from Watchmen  #1, 1986)
The close-up, a cover-to-panel transition, defines a mystery even before the comic’s six-panel pan up from the street to a man staring out a broken window many stories up. A red-haired man carrying a “The End is Nigh” sign walks down the street, yelled at by a man hosing down the bloodstain. In four pages the red-heard man will tacitly be revealed as Walter Kovacs, the civilian identity of Rorschach, whose journal provides these panels’ narration, written in a slightly blobby typeface upon caption boxes like torn notepaper, with splatters of ink on every scrap, never in the same arrangement twice. The monologue is as famous as the image: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “save us!”… and I’ll look down and whisper “no.” 
 
These first six panels are arranged in two rows of three, occupying the upper two-thirds of the page. The bottom third is a single panel, precisely three times wider than each of the six. These demonstrate the first narrative conceit of Watchmen, the juxtaposition of text and images from different parts of the narrative. The reader does not yet know that Rorschach is visually present in the second through fifth of these panels. The journal, dated October 12, 1985 (eleven months earlier than the release of Watchmen #1), occupies a different place - he is not writing it concurrently with these panels. But the two run in odd synchronization, the blood running into the gutter exactly as “the gutters are full of blood” in Rorschach’s narration. In the sixth panel, Kovacs disappears into the crowd of people on the street as his journal trails off with the phrase “and all of a sudden nobody can think of anything to say.” The page’s seventh panel, the full-width one, tacitly responds to Rorschach’s narration as the man staring out the window speaks the most banal of observations.
 
The next three pages further develop this structure of juxtaposition, alternating between two timeframes - the narrative’s present day, in which two cops are investigating a murder, and the events of that murder, shown from the murderer’s perspective, the panels tinged red by John Higgins to distinguish them. The detectives’ dialogue continues throughout the scene, appearing in square caption boxes over the red frames, which show a middle-aged man being savagely beaten, blood dripping from his face onto the yellow smiley badge he’s wearing on his bathrobe, and thrown out a window, the murder at the heart of the mystery that Watchmen initially pretends to be.
 
As above; so below. For all that it existed as a serialized object unearthed meticulously page by page and month by month, the Watchmen that is by far best known is the static object, a graphic novel in twelve chapters that came out long ago, and whose historical consequences have echoed out across a shockingly vast amount of history. Its most fundamental nature - its base state - is as a thing that has happened. This essential nature of Watchmen is key to its own function; in a key sense it is this aspect of it that made DC’s eventual Before Watchmen project such an egregious slight against Moore and Gibbons’s original work and, by extension, to Moore and Gibbons themselves; it contaminated the crime scene. 
 
The facts of the case, then: Watchmen was a twelve issue series written by Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons and color from John Higgins, released by DC Comics between May 13th, 1986 and June 23rd, 1987, and a three months thereafter collected as a graphic novel that has remained in print since. The comic is a postmodern take on superhero stories that picks at the desires and contradictions that animate the genre. In it, Moore and Gibbons design an intricate and bespoke superhero continuity, and then unleash into it an apocalypse firmly rooted in cold war paranoias of an altogether more realist sort. The result was a critical and commercial success beyond the expectations of anyone involved, but in its aftermath Moore had a sizeable falling out with the management at DC and terminated his relationship with the company. This decision, in a very real sense, marked the end of the career he had built up to that point, and, as an almost incidental side effect, the end of both the British and American comics industries in which he had built that career. 
 
These facts, at least, are easily established. But a mystery is not the crime scene; rather it is the act of navigating a path through the scene’s implications. A mystery is, in the end, nothing without a detective. In Watchmen’s case, the detective is Rorschach, whose journal opens the first chapter, and whose investigation drives its structure and, ultimately, the structure of the entire book. It is safe to say that Rorschach is central both to the book’s appeal; he is one of the great literary characters of the twentieth century. Like any such character, there is something off-putting about him. His opening narration is indicative - the fixation on the seemingly random brutality of a run over dog, and the seething, contemptuous hatred he displays. It is no surprise that, towards the end of Watchmen, when Rorschach sends his journal to the right-wing newspaper the New Frontiersman, the editor responds to the first line by asking, “Jesus, who’s it from? Son of Sam,” not least because Moore has openly admitted that his “main inspiration for that character’s voice was the notes Son of Sam gave to the police.” For every instance of Rorschach offering a chillingly brilliant moment like “and I’ll look down and whisper ‘no.’” there’s another that’s openly ridiculous, such as his declaration later in the first issue, “beneath me, this awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children. New York.” 
 
 
Figure 834: One of David Berkowitz's "Son
of Sam" letters, which were a major source
of inspiration for Rorschach's psyche
And yet for all of this, indeed, because of all this, Rorschach’s opening monologue is one of the most famous passages in comics. Part of this is simply Moore’s typical skill at language - the heavily iambic meter he adopts for many of the monologue’s great moments: this CIty IS afRAID of ME; and I’LL look DOWN and WHISper NO. But this is, unusually for Moore’s classic monologues, not actually quite so iambically driven as some. Stretches instead slip into a paranoid, staccato meter dominated by dactyls and trochees - DOG CARcass in ALLey this MORning, TIre TREAD on BURST STOmach - and by the use of sentence fragments. The result is to both communicate unambiguously that Rorschach’s journal is the product of a disturbed mind and to sell the reader on the grandeur of Rorschach’s vision. He is at once seductive and repugnant, fascinating the reader while remaining at a worrisome and unsettling distance.
 
What is crucial about Rorschach, and what makes him the ideal detective through which to wind through the fractal mystery of Watchmen, is the depth of his obsessiveness. This is hinted at as the two detectives depart the scene of Edward Blake’s murder, musing on the possible dangers of investigating this case too openly. “Rorschach never retired,” says one, “even after him and his buddies fell outta grace. Rorschach’s still out there somewhere,” a strange and haunted reaction to a mysterious murder that hints at a larger, more unsettling aspect of this world. And it is seen in particular in his final monologue in the first issue, the speech that Kieron Gillen observes serves as the moment where his tragic fate is sealed. “Soon there will be war,” he says, as he contemplates the Comedian’s death. “Millions will perish in sickness and misery. Why does one death matter against so many? Because there is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of armageddon I shall not compromise in this. But there are so many deserving of retribution… and there is so little time.” 
 
This cracked yet acute sense of vision is ultimately that of Watchmen itself. The book is densely structured, but it is more to the point imperfectly and erratically structured. Just as Rorschach’s monologues make use of the effects of poetic meter without slipping into the actual precision of any given meter, the book’s structure is, for all its visual rhymes and repeated images, in no way the comics equivalent of a rigid form like a sonnet or a sestina. Its structure is one of near-precision. Its twelve chapters can be sensibly divided into two types; the first spanning the scope of the book’s world, the second tightly focused on the origins and motivations of specific characters. For the most part these alternate, save for issues six and seven, which are character-specific chapters on Rorschach and Night Owl respectively, thus giving the book an overall symmetry. But for all that this is clearly a structure that defines the comic, it is nevertheless not strictly adhered to - “Look On My Works, Ye Mighty…,” for instance, serves the purpose of explicating Ozymandias’s character, but lacks the sort of bespoke formal structure that characterizes chapters like “Watchmaker” or “The Abyss Gazes Also.” And the most formally baroque chapter, “Fearful Symmetry,” is not one of the character-specific chapters. It is not merely densely structured, ultimately, but obsessively structured, reflecting the fundamentally obsessive nature of its creator.
 
Figure 835: The Comedian's empty
costume, literally defining the character
as an empty space in the narrative. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and
John Higgins, from Watchmen #1, 1986)
More broadly, the six characters who get issues focusing on them - the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Night Owl, Silk Spectre, and Ozymandias - imperfectly correspond to the characters focused on by the first issue, which is structured around a series of four panels, each occupying six of the nine frames comprising a Watchmen page, which introduce major characters. These panels establish Rorschach, Night Owl, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan as major characters, but the Comedian is absent, while Silk Specter appears in the background of Dr. Manhattan’s panel instead of getting her own. In both cases, of course, this is in its own way revealing: the Comedian is introduced only in negative space, and Silk Specter is literally marginalized.
 
Ultimately there is no formal rule within Watchmen that can truly be called absolute. Even the nine-panel grid, the most basic formal unit of the comic, is violated at the end of every chapter to accommodate a small panel featuring the full quote from which the issue’s title is extracted. More (or perhaps less) substantively, there are several instances in the first two issues where a row of panels is divided into four, although this, like the indulgence in narration early in V for Vendetta, can probably be chalked up as an artifact of Watchmen’s serial nature, amounting to nothing more than an early indiscipline 
of the sort that would be revised out if a graphic novel such as Watchmen could have its beginning edited to better match its end like a traditional prose novel would be. 
Figure 836: One of the few breaks in Watchmen's nine-panel
grid, a row of four panels. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave
Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #1, 1986)
 
Figure 837: The experimental panel layouts of Swamp Thing are a marked contrast
to the rigidity of Watchmen and its nine-panel grid. (From Saga of the Swamp Thing
#30, 1984)
But momentary lapses aside, the nine panel grid really is the beating, or perhaps more accurately ticking heart of Watchmen. As a page layout, it is an unusual one, especially for American comics. For one thing, the standard approach in American comics since the emergence of Neal Adams has been to break the strict grid with irregularly shaped panels that allow for dramatic emphasis. On Swamp Thing, for instance, Bissette and Totleben constantly create new layouts that blend trapazoidal panels, panels splayed diagonally across the page, and panels that cut into each other’s space. It’s as basic a technique for Swamp Thing as the nine-panel grid is for Watchmen. Gibbons completely foregoes this, consciously denying himself a tremendous swath of techniques typically used to draw emphasis to specific beats of the story.
 
Figure 838: Even when not working in a nine-panel
grid, Dave Gibbons's style is tidy and straightforward.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and Tom
Ziuko, from Superman Annual 1985)
For another, the nine-panel grid means that there are a staggering number of panels per page. The first issue of Watchmen averages 7.5 panels per page. In contrast, Moore and Gibbons’s story for the 1985 Superman Annual, “For The Man Who Has Everything,” averages 5.7 panels, nearly two panels per page fewer. Similarly, in Swamp Thing #52, which came out the same month as Watchmen #1, Moore gives Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala an average of 4.7 panels per page. But in some ways the more revealing fact is that the highest panel count for a page of “For The Man Who Has Everything” is seven, and the highest for Swamp Thing #52 is six. An average page of Watchmen, in other words, has more panels than the most crowded page of most American comics. Of his past work, only V for Vendetta averages anything close to Watchmen’s dizzying panel count, and this can be explained at least in part by the fact that Warrior had a considerably larger page size than US comics. But even in British comics Moore’s panel count generally remained well below Watchmen’s level: Marvelman tended to be somewhere between six and seven panels per page on average, whereas Moore and Gibbons’s most beloved British collaboration, “Chrono-Cops,” averages six. But mere panel count is in many ways misleading. Out of the first issue’s twenty-six pages, nine are true nine-panel grids. More to the point, out of its 196 panels, 177 are 1/9th of a page or smaller. The standard unit of storytelling in Watchmen, in other words, is in effect the comics equivalent of a miniature - a two inch by three inch rectangle.
 
Figure 839: The one time in "For The Man Who Has Everything"
that Gibbons violates a panel border. (Written by Alan Moore, art
by Dave Gibbons and Tom Ziuko, from Superman Annual 1985)
Gibbons, of course, is well-suited to these particular challenges. His style is defined by a precise and detailed line, but its cleanliness comes at the expense of a certain degree of dynamism. It’s not just the nine-panel grid that keeps Gibbons from using Adams-esque layouts: it’s simply not a technique Gibbons is terribly invested in. “For The Man Who Has Everything,” for instance, is comprised entirely of rectangular panels, with only one moment in the entire story where an object breaks the border of its panel (an otherwise uninteresting panel of Jor-El brandishing a stick). Similarly, while Gibbons is more than capable of drawing effective action sequences, their strength is generally in their clarity, as opposed to their sense of frenetic motion. Which makes his style a strong fit for the self-consciously dense symbolism of Watchmen, where panel transitions are regularly based around symbolic shifts, such as the myriad of moments in the second issue in which a panel transition covers several years while leaving the characters in essentially the same poses. These transitions require a sense of detail and stillness that Gibbons is perfectly suited to.
 
And while action sequences are not necessarily Gibbons’s forte, Moore approaches violence in Watchmen so as to further play to Gibbons’s strengths. Where most superhero art focuses on the dynamism of the characters, heavily stylizing their physiques and poses to give them a sense of magnitude and grandeur, Moore and Gibbons make violence in Watchmen a particularly visceral thing. On a basic level, this can often mean little more than Gibbons drawing characters in somewhat static poses as they are punched and kicked, and then simply adding enthusiastic quantities of blood. But it also means taking a smaller scale view of violence, moving it away from laser beams and explosions and towards a more materialist sort of violence, which includes looking at superhero standards from new angles, such as the mention at one point of a police officer shot by Rorschach’s “gas-powered grappling gun” who suffered “a shattered sternum and is still on the hospital’s critical list.” But the most iconic instance of this consciously low-scale violence comes in the first issue, and indeed, in the story’s first act of violence not to be shown in flashback. In the scene, Rorschach walks into a bar full of low level criminals seeking information about Edward Blake’s murder. When none is forthcoming, he walks up to a patron, grabs his wrist and hand, and calmly bends one of his fingers back, breaking it. 
 
Figure 840: Violence made all the more disturbing by its
understated nature. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons
and John Higgins, from Watchmen #1, 1986)
The act of violence is confined to two panels, framed almost identically, so that the focus is on the small movement of Rorschach’s hand as he bends the man’s finger back, and the look of pain on the criminal’s face. Its impact comes precisely from the complete lack of any exaggeration or stylization. There’s not even a sound effect (another comic book standard forgone by Gibbons), with the weight of the nameless criminal’s agony being conveyed only through his face and Gibbons’s oversized and chaotic lettering of his reaction, a simple “AAAAAA.” The effect is not only to immediately render Rorschach a genuinely intimidating figure, but to fundamentally shift the grammar of violence in superhero comics to focus on brutal impact instead of kinesthetic beauty. But what the overwhelming majority of Moore and Gibbons’s imitators ended up missing was that the scene’s effectiveness depended on the staid, methodical tick of the nine-panel grid.
 
The nine-panel grid, however, is far from Watchmen’s only defining structural element. The first eleven issues all culminate in short and lightly-illustrated text pieces - six pages in issue #1, four in subsequent issues - that flesh out the comic’s world. These pieces are all presented as artifacts from within Watchmen - internal memos from within Adrian Veidt’s company, documents from Rorschach’s case file, or, as in the first three issues, chapters from Hollis Mason’s autobiography Under the Hood. These text pieces are rarely highlights of Watchmen - indeed, one suspects no shortage of readers have traversed the graphic novel multiple times without actually reading them all. Put simply, most of the pieces’ ostensible authors are not particularly good writers, and Moore captures them, perhaps, a bit too well. Moore is a capable prosesmith, but the pieces status as artifacts of the fictional world means that he is generally writing from the perspectives of people for whom his baroquely imagistic style would be inappropriate. He generally makes a good show of writing slightly unreliable narrators who inadvertently reveal more than they intend, especially when their words are taken against events elsewhere in the comic, but the fact remains that the text pieces are among the weaker links in Watchmen.
 
Still, they fulfill their purpose, which is to let Moore flesh out the elaborate backstory he invented for the world of Watchmen. The nature and scale of this backstory forms another key element of Watchmen’s overall success and brilliance. It is not just that Watchmen takes place in a bespoke superhero universe, but that it takes place nearly fifty years into the history of that universe. The apocalyptic bent of Watchmen, represented very literally on the book’s back covers, which, over twelve issues, depict a clock ticking ever closer to midnight as blood starts to run down from the top of the page, is not merely the endpoint of the story featuring the core of six characters but the endpoint of an ongoing superhero narrative with, if not as much history as the DC Universe itself, at least a sense of scale equivalent to the DC Universe. Indeed (and unsurprisingly given the publisher) the emergence of costumed heroes within Watchmen’s timeline is explicitly tied to the 1938 release of Action Comics #1, and the Tales of the Black Freighter comic that appears several times within the narrative is revealed to be a DC comic. For all that the consequences of Watchmen were unexpected (if not, strictly speaking, unintended), this, at least, must be acknowledged: its apocalypse was always meant to play out over larger symbolic territory.
 
Indeed, for all that the work is a product of Moore and Gibbons’s genius and for all the role it played in Moore’s eventual falling out with DC, the truth is that Watchmen needed to come out from DC in order to have anything like the impact it had. This isn’t true merely on the level of sales, although it’s true that there were no other comics publishers in 1986 who might both plausibly publish a book like Watchmen and who could give it anything like the distribution and promotion that DC gave it, but on an altogether more symbolic level. Put simply, it mattered that Moore and Gibbons were conducting an apocalypse of superheroes at the company that had invented the genre, and their apocalypse was deliberately designed to engage with the history of that company. The historical timeline of Watchmen is deliberately set to track with the broad history of superhero comics in America: an initial burst of heroes following the 1938 release of Action Comics, a decline at the end of the 1940s, a moral panic and Congressional hearings in the 1950s, and a second generation of heroes that emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s. (Moore even develops a history of how the comics industry itself is changed by the existence of actual superheroes, with pirate comics emerging as popular alternatives to superhero books.)
 
More than that, the history of superheroes within Watchmen is consciously intertwined with the history of the world, so that the Cold War paranoia that animates its apocalypse is made to extend intrinsically and inevitably from the existence of superheroes. For instance, the emergence of Doctor Manhattan in the 1960s leads to his deployment in the Vietnam War, which in turn leads to the United States winning that war. His existence is also inexorably tied to the rapidly deteriorating international situation, with the power imbalance he introduces to US/Soviet relations having led to comparatively unchecked US expansionism and an angrier and more resentful USSR that reacts decisively upon Doctor Manhattan’s departure by invading Afghanistan and, subsequently, Pakistan. Beyond that, it’s strongly implied that the Comedian murders Woodward and Bernstein before they can report on Watergate, resulting in Richard Nixon managing to pass a Constitutional amendment allowing him to serve more than two terms, winning reelection in 1976, 80, and 84. 
 
Figure 841: The Charlton characters as drawn by
Dave Gibbons for an abandoned project.
There is also the non-trivial matter of the specific historical antecedents of the Watchmen characters. Obviously, much has been made of the specific similarities between Watchmen and the superheroes created by Charlton Comics, a line acquired by DC in 1983. But while it is true that Watchmen originates in a pitch Moore and Gibbons made for the Charlton characters, and that, once one knows this, it is a fairly easy exercise to match the six main characters of Watchmen to specific characters created by Charlton, this is at best only a partial account. In many regards what matters more is the fact that Watchmen’s world is comprised of fairly generic heroes. With the exception of Doctor Manhattan, all are without superpowers, and are instead ordinary (except perhaps in the psychological sense) people who wear costumes and fight crime. In this regard Batman, obviously, hangs over them all as both the most commercially successful character in this vein and the historical archetype, especially within DC Comics. But this in turn points at a variety of other heroes: the Punisher and Green Arrow, for instance, or pre-comics pulp heroes like Doc Savage and Green Hornet. More broadly, there are few substantive differences between these sorts of characters and characters where the only fantastical element of their premise is a MacGuffin explaining their extreme physical prowess such as Captain America, or ones like the Sandman who make use of specialist technology. And while Doctor Manhattan does have outright superpowers, his character is in many ways stitched together from bits of other superheroes: the alienness of Superman, the powers of Firestorm, the science-trauma origin of the Hulk, the higher consciousness of Swamp Thing, et cetera. In other words, the cast of Watchmen is like any other aspect of the book: a dense but fundamentally imprecise set of symbols. 
 
And so the world that is brought to an apocalypse within Watchmen is, in multiple regards, particularly well-suited to the task of serving as an apocalypse for the superhero as a whole. But for all that Moore and Gibbons created an elaborate superhero universe based on the principle of taking a more materially realistic view of the impact superheroes would have on the world, going so far as to think through the comics industry of his fictional world, there is a crucial tangible oversight within Watchmen: it almost completely ignores the way in which superheroes are, historically, generally corporate owned franchises. There are occasional nods towards it - the tragicomic fate of Dollar Bill, Ozymandias’s business empire, and the relationship between the first Silk Spectre and her agent all gesture at the commercial dimensions of costumed heroes. But it is a minor theme within the book, despite ultimately serving as a major one outside of it. Moore might fairly have asked himself, after all, how it was that the Charlton characters, created by Steve Ditko, Joe Gill, Pete Morisi, Charles Nicholas, and Pat Boyette, were initially available for his use at a completely different company from either of the two they had originated at, with none of their creators even remotely involved. Had he done so, the ways in which writing Watchmen would eventually turn sour for him might have come as somewhat less of a surprise than they in practice did. 
 
The truth, however, is that Moore’s alienation from this aspect of superheroes was always fairly fundamental. For all the money that Watchmen made him (and it was considerable), there were always numerous ways in which Moore left money on the table, and not just from himself. He adamantly refused to write a sequel to the book, and the only prequel he ever seriously considered was a series focusing on the Minutemen which, in any event, he never wrote. And when Barbara Randall (now Kesel), his editor on the series, leaked to him plans that had been cooked up at a DC editorial retreat shortly after the book’s completion for a trio of prequel series (one focusing on the Minutemen, one on the Comedian, and one on Rorschach), he acted swiftly to derail the plans. Indeed, this is a position he has never wavered on in the thirty years since the book’s release, declaring, upon the announcement of the Before Watchmen project in 2012, that “if people do want to go out and buy these Watchmen prequels, they would be doing me an enormous favor if they would just stop buying my other books,” and declaring that he had “complete contempt” for anyone who did buy them. Moore was, simply put, not terribly interested in serving as a productive member of the DC Comics stable of creative personnel.
 
Figure 842: Even when Moore took jobs on
high-profile titles like Batman, he was more inclined
to write stories focusing on semi-obscure villains
like Clayface than to focus on the iconic characters.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by George Freeman,
from "Mortal Clay" in Batman Annual #11, 1987)
This had, in some ways, always been the case. A perusal of his work for DC Comics quickly reveals that Moore was on the whole more interested in playing with the margins of the DC Universe than in working with the iconic characters. Although he wrote a pair of stories each featuring Superman and Batman, the stories were one-offs that seem in many ways to be more about checking the characters off of Moore’s bucket list than in substantial exploration of the characters. Indeed, one of his Batman stories is focused more on Clayface, a c-list member of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, than on Batman himself. The majority of Moore’s DC Universe work instead features more marginal characters such as Green Arrow, the Green Lantern Corps, the Omega Men, Vigilante, the Phantom Stranger, and, of course, Swamp Thing. And a perusal of the things Moore considered writing for DC but never got beyond writing a pitch for is similarly obscure, including the Challengers of the Unknown, Martian Manhunter, Tommy Tomorrow, the Demon, the Metal Men, a Bizarro series, and Lois Lane. This is all the more telling given the period during which Moore was working for DC, which included the immediate aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, a period where DC was eager to engage in high profile relaunches of major titles such as the John Byrne’s The Man of Steel, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, and the George Pérez revamp of Wonder Woman. Had their much acclaimed British wunderkind been interested in any sort of extended work on a high profile character, or even in another extended run on a second tier character in the vein of his Swamp Thing work, it is almost unthinkable that he would not have done so.
 
It is also this fact, in the end, that led to Moore’s falling out with DC. In the end, Moore and DC viewed the success of Watchmen as being their doing, and viewed the other as being eminently replaceable. To Moore, the book succeeded because it was a particularly well-made comic. To DC, it succeeded because it was a major prestige project from DC. Moore firmly believed that he could find similar success at other publishers on the basis of his talent, and DC firmly believed that they could produce similarly successful comics from other creative teams. And while neither, in the ensuing three decades, has managed anything quite like Watchmen, there was always only ever going to be one Watchmen. The reality is that, for the most part, both Moore and DC were right. Moore was more than capable of maintaining a critically acclaimed, creatively satisfying, and financially lucrative career separate from DC, and DC was more than capable of using Watchmen as a template to be followed.
 
Doing so, it should be stressed, was largely second nature to DC. Indeed, it’s largely what the company, and more broadly the American comics industry (and for that matter the British comics industry) were based on. The entire superhero genre, after all, owes its existence to a rush of attempts to duplicate the success DC had with Superman following Action Comics #1. The emergence of Marvel Comics in the 1960s owes its existence to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby turning Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky’s work creating the Justice League of America into a template, and subsequently to both Marvel and DC imitating the Lee/Kirby formula. And the same pattern continues throughout the history of the industry, including the 1970s surge of horror books that led to things like Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night at Marvel and to House of Secrets and House of Mystery being revamped by Joe Orlando at DC, leading in turn to the creation of Swamp Thing. In American comics, success exists to be imitated. 
 
Figure 843: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight
Returns
 was DC's other main prestige book of
the period.
In this regard, Watchmen cannot be taken as an entirely discrete object, given that DC was having massive success with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns at virtually the same time. Certainly one conclusion an imitation-minded comics company could draw from this is that there was demand for darker, more violent superhero comics, and to be sure, plenty of those were produced. But a second, equally valid conclusion, and one that DC also reached, was that comics readers of the 1980s, in the wake of the industry’s reconfiguration around the direct market, were hungry for prestige projects featuring high-profile and acclaimed creators. There is an obvious dissonance between treating this as a formula to imitate and DC’s unwillingness to accommodate Moore. But what DC needed to imitate this aspect of Watchmen’s success wasn’t Alan Moore, a creator with increasingly grandiose literary ambitions; it was creators who were interested in being big fish in a specific small pond, namely the American direct market comics industry. And so DC set about looking for one, approaching the task of finding potential Alan Moore replacements with blunt literalness by flying Karen Berger to the UK in early 1988 to conduct a talent search.
 
Grant Morrison was not the first British writer brought to DC in order to replicate Alan Moore’s success; that was Jamie Delano, who Moore personally recommended as the writer of the John Constantine solo series DC launched alongside the start of Rick Veitch’s Swamp Thing run. Nor is it fair to call him the most successful of DC’s prospective Moore imitators; that is, by any reasonable measure, Neil Gaiman, whose success with The Sandman is the only one of DC’s attempts to use Moore as a template to have come close to matching the success of the original, and whose subsequent career beyond comics brought him the most commercial success of any of the War’s major combatants. And yet for all of this, he is perhaps the most important. 
 
Certainly he is the writer who most fully embodied DC’s goals. Morrison has always been open about the specific influence of Moore on his decision to return to comics in 1985, following several years spent failing to be a rock star, citing Moore’s work on Marvelman in Warrior as the only comic he really read during the years he was absent from the industry, and as the thing that brought him back, saying that “for me, Marvelman was the next stage beyond the kitchen sink naturalism of Captain Clyde, and I couldn’t wait to explore the new frontiers that were opening ahead.” And upon returning, he followed closely in Moore’s footsteps. Where Moore wrote Marvelman and V for Vendetta at Warrior, Morrison wrote The Liberators. Where Moore wrote Captain Britain at Marvel UK, Morrison wrote Zoids. And where Moore wrote a series of forty-three twist-ending shorts for IPC’s 2000 AD, Morrison wrote a series of fifteen twist-ending shorts for IPC’s 2000 AD
 
Figure 844: One of Morrison's earliest jobs in comics
was the robot-fighting series Zoids for Marvel UK.
(Written by Grant Morrison, art by Kev Hopgood,
from Spider-Man and Zoids #40, 1987)
Some of this, certainly, was an inevitable reaction to the realities of the British comics industry in which both men got their starts. There were only so many publishers and titles one could work on. But Morrison’s imitation of Moore went beyond mere job selection. This is not so much a matter of raw textual similarities; these exist, but ultimately no more than one would expect given the number of shared influences they have. Rather, it is that Morrison understood the method by which Moore had achieved critical and commercial success. He grasped the way in which Moore would pick apart a premise, exploring the creative possibilities of its unexamined assumptions, and the way in which Moore was unafraid of broad ambition. With Zoids, for instance, as Morrison tells it, “I took the job seriously and set about transforming the undemanding source material - a group of astronauts stranded on a planet of warring alien robots - into a showcase for my peculiar talents in an action-and-angst-fueled take on East-West politics and how it felt to be part of a group of ordinary people trapped between the titanic struggles of very large opponents who couldn’t care less about your hobbies or your favorite books.” And this, it must be said, is distinct from anything Moore would actually do, even as it shares the broad strokes of his approach. From the start, Morrison was very much his own man. Indeed, even the sense of wily ambition that he displayed has its roots as much in his early professional work in Near Myths and on Captain Clyde. But all the same, it’s clear that Morrison, having failed at being a rock star, tried his hand instead at being a comics star, using Alan Moore as his model. Which was, of course, exactly what DC wanted.
 
It is this that forms the cruel tension that would go on to define Grant Morrison’s career. His ambition was, in the end, the same as it had been in his rock star days. This was not mere fame, nor commercial success, although both would necessarily occur in the course of realizing his will. What Morrison sought was instead the root from which these things sprung: Greatness. And yet within his chosen field he was cursed to the role of eternal successor. No matter what he did, however sweeping his vision and towering his genius, the crown he wished to wear would always be defined by the fact that it had been abdicated by another man. He would be denied even the opportunity to play the upstart devil seeking to overthrow the tyrant father, no matter how hard, at various points in his career, he tried to do just that. And for a man who wants to conquer the world, there is nothing quite so cruel as inheriting the throne. 
 
But this is, in the end, Moore’s nature; the magic trick he’s always been better at than anyone else in the War. He is Eternal. Whatever changes he may bring down upon the world, Moore himself does not change. This may seem a strange claim - he exists in linear time, after all, and there is self-evidently such a thing as a narrative of his career such that one can track an artistic and intellectual evolution between, for instance, V for Vendetta and Providence. But this objection misses the point of the observation. Of course an Eternal entity appears to change when situated in a changing world. But it’s just an illusion; a trick of psychic light. Moore’s entire career has, in practice, been a singular and unwavering action, a masterfully executed con whereby, instead of working a real job, he makes things up. He has never aspired to more. That he, in the process of doing so, became one of the great magi of his age and a primary figure in a history-defining War is something he largely stumbled upon by accident, and it is something he has alternately accepted with grace and good humor and violently and angrily reacted against, depending on the circumstances.
 
The nature of Moore’s Eternity has precedent, both within his work and without. Indeed, Watchmen itself has such a precedent in the form of Doctor Manhattan, a character who, it is revealed in later chapters, experiences every moment of his life simultaneously. In this regard, Doctor Manhattan approaches his own life through the lens of history, getting to see actions in terms of all their causes and consequences. Such a perspective is obviously denied to Moore, whose vision of his own Eternity eventually coalesced around the less personally ambitious metaphysical view of eternalism, which holds that all moments, past and future, are simultaneously and equally real, with, in Moore’s particular flavor of eternalism, a single human life simply playing on loop. The result is a cosmos that is much like that which Doctor Manhattan experiences, but, crucially, not one that is directly experienced from such an omniscient view.
 
Figure 845: Doctor Manhattan is often
withdrawn and unconcerned with human
emotion. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from
Watchmen #1, 1986)
And yet Doctor Manhattan’s defining character flaw is one that Moore can fairly be accused of as well. It is not quite that Moore, like Manhattan, is deficient in empathy and ability to understand people. Quite the contrary, one of Moore’s great strengths as a writer has always been his ability to depict rich psychological nuance for his characters. Rather, it is that Moore and Manhattan both have a strangely fatalist lack of belief in their own agency. For Doctor Manhattan, this is a metaphysical condition; because he knows what actions he will eventually take, he maintains a dissociation from his own motivation. For Moore, however, the problem is subtler. A mind as accustomed to meticulously breaking down the workings of things as his is not immune to its own gaze. Moore is not omniscient, it is true, but he has a keen awareness of his own mind. But the result of this is that he is deeply, at times almost catastrophically unable to be anything other than completely true to his own nature. 
 
Figure 846: Moore and Davis's Captain Britain run eventually
was reprinted. (From "Graveyard Shift" in Marvel Super Heroes
#388, 1982, color by Helen Nally, 1995)
Moore’s ruthless fidelity to his own nature is not quite the same as saying that Moore has a coherent and completely self-consistent set of principles and ethics. As many have observed, Moore’s actions in the course of his many feuds are at times erratic, and finding instances in which he espouses a hardline ethical principle in one feud while, if not violating it elsewhere, at least proving to be somewhat less than hardline about it is not a particularly strenuous task. To pick just one instance, as Alan Davis is quick to point out the disparity between Moore’s holding up delivery of his first Miracleman scripts out of concern that Alan Davis might be unhappy with the reprints and Moore’s prior unilateral decision to block reprints of their Captain Britain run, which denied Davis both income and publicity. Certainly the positions can be reconciled, given that one concerns a decision to reprint material and one concerns a decision against reprinting, but Davis’s real point - that Moore’s level of concern for the happiness of his collaborators is variable - is nevertheless an entirely accurate one. Moore is an intelligent and principled man, but he is in the end just as full of contradictions and flaws as any other man. Rather, it is that Moore is aware of his flaws and contradictions, and that his faithfulness to his own nature extends to them. Often, Moore demonstrates this with a sort of wry self-deprecation - the sort of attitude visible when he quips that, following his admission to grammar school and the fact that it meant he was no longer top of his class, “I decided, pretty typically for me, that if I couldn’t win then I wasn’t going to play. I was always one of those sulky children, who couldn’t stand to lose at Monopoly, Cluedo, anything.”
 
Put another way, Alan Moore is incapable of even the slightest bit of restraint. This is at the heart of his appeal. Throughout his career, his best work is marked by his ability to follow aesthetic premises to their endpoints, delivering unyielding visions of things that lesser writers and lesser men would flinch long before seeing. People capable of stopping themselves don’t write Watchmen. The very pleasure of the book is its lack of aesthetic compromise - the way it tests superheroes by having them stare into the face of armageddon and finds them wholly and completely wanting. The book is not merely densely designed - it is densely designed for this precise purpose. It is a perfectly crafted piece of entirely deserved retribution against decades of superhero narratives, a punishment for all the genre’s many failures. 
 
Figure 847: Far from appearing in every
panel, Doctor Manhattan's blue cock does
not appear until Watchmen #3, and appears
in only a handful of panels across the entire
series. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave
Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen 
#4, 1986)
It is this sense of overwhelming intention that led Grant Morrison to sneer that “the God of Watchmen was far from shy. He liked to muscle his way into every panel, every line. He strutted into view with his blue cock on proud display, and everywhere you looked, the Watchmaker was on hand to present his glittering structure for our approval and awe, just as Manhattan erected his own flawless crystal logic machine to lay out the law to a distraught Laurie in this maddeningly intricate engine of a story. The God of Watchmen could not hide and begged for our attention at every page turn. He was a jealous Maker who refused to allow any of his creations to be smarter than he was, so the pacifist genius became a genocidal idiot, the confident trained psychiatrist was reduced to a gibbering wreck by the darkness in the soul of his patient; the detectives stumbled through the plot to their doom; and even the more or less divine superman was shown to be emotionally retarded and ineffectual. It was as if God had little more than contempt for his creations and gave them no opportunity to transcend the limits he’d set for them.” As criticisms go, this is mainly a sound one - an entirely accurate assessment of the weight of intention and symbolism that permeates every aspect of Watchmen. And yet Morrison’s curious failure to name this jealous, preening God in the quoted paragraph is strangely apropos. It’s certainly not subtle who he’s talking about - the preceding one ends by declaring that ”Moore’s self-awareness was all over every page like fingerprints,” and the subsequent one opens, “Moore’s love of obvious structure never left his work.” And yet he cannot quite bring himself to name the mad God plaguing Watchmen.
 
But this is no surprise. There’s a crucial disparity between the ever-present God of Watchmen and its creator. Moore, for his part, is adamant that the book was never designed to create any sort of inescapable trap for readers. As he put it in a later interview, “it was only a bloody comic. It wasn’t a jail sentence.” Moore never wrote Watchmen as some attempt to get the world to stare eternally at his genius. That is not to say that he didn’t have clear ambitions for greatness. But his ambitions were curiously naive, fundamentally disconnected from any question of what creating a work such as Watchmen might mean. At the beginning of 1988, just three months after the first trade paperback printing of Watchmen, Moore admitted that “it’s been four years since I started it, a year since I actually finished writing it, and only now am I starting to get any sort of perspective upon what it was we actually did.” Up to that point, all Moore and Gibbons were mindful of trying to do was create “a novel and unusual super-hero comic that allowed us the opportunity to try out a few new storytelling ideas along the way.” 
 
Which is to say that Moore was not trying to create a conceptual atom bomb to permanently scar a swath of psychic landscape. He was not trying to create a labyrinthine and crystalline structure of symbolism and technique through which almost all thought about superheroes would spend decades stumbling. Nor was he trying not to do these things. They were questions that simply did not occur to him. After all, why would they? The only reason Moore would have to ask the question “what are the possible consequences of following this aesthetic vision to its endpoint” would, after all, be if he was considering restraining himself in some fashion. He wasn’t. He wouldn’t. Indeed, Moore was as surprised as anybody to discover the effect of Watchmen, reporting the irony that “it has satisfied my appetite for super-heroes. Like the bottle of perfume in the story, my nostalgia for the genre cracked and shattered somewhere along the way and al the sweet old musk inside just leaked out and evaporated. For better or worse, the ordinary non-telepathic, unmutated and sightless humanoids hanging out on their anonymous street corner of Watchmen have come to seem more precious and interesting than the movers of rivers and shakers of planets. I wish the superhero well in whatever capable hands guide his flight in the future, but for my part I’m eager to get back to earth.” The quote is staggering: the man who crafted the most devastating dismantling of superheroes as a genre being taken by surprise when the work has its most obvious and inevitable result for him.
 
Figure 848: The first panel of Watchmen as executed
by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins from Moore's
voluminous description. (1986)
And so arises the central paradox of Watchmen: that a book whose sense of intent and authorship is so intensely present in every moment should also be one with so many visibly unintended consequences. There is a fundamental and irreducible disjunct between the ever-present authorial voice of Watchmen and the idiosyncratically groomed British man who sat down at his typewriter and wrote “ALL RIGHT. I’M PSYCHED UP, I’VE GOT BLOOD UP TO MY ELBOWS, VEINS IN MY TEETH AND MY HELMET AND KNEEPADS SECURELY FASTENED. LET’S GET OUT THERE AND MAKE TROUBLE! THIS FIRST PAGE IS A SERIES OF VERTICAL JUMPS THAT TAKES US UP IN A STRAIGHT PROGRESSION FROM A MINUTE AND MICROSCOPIC VIEW OF THE GUTTERS OF NEW YORK UP TO A PANORAMIC SHOT LOOKING DOWN UPON THE ROOFTOPS OF THIS FAMILIAR AND YET CURIOUSLY ALTERED CITYSCAPE. IN THIS FIRST PANEL WE ARE LOOKING STRAIGHT DOWN AT A DRAIN OPENING IN A PERFECTLY ORDINARY GUTTER. TO THE RIGHT OF THE PICTURE THE ACTUAL OUTER WALL OF THE CURB DROPS DOWN AWAY FROM US LIKE A MINIATURE CLIFF. OVER MORE TOWARDS THE LEFT, DOWN AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PICTURE, WE CAN SEE THE OLD AND WORN METAL OF THE DRAIN COVER WITH SOLID DARKNESS VISIBLE BETWEEN ITS SLATS. UP AT THE TOP OF THE PICTURE WE CAN JUST SEE THE DIRTY GUTTER RUNNING DOWN TOWARDS THE MOUTH OF THE DRAIN AT THE BOTTOM. THERE ARE ONLY TWO ELEMENTS THAT SEPARATE THIS IMAGE FROM A STANDARD EVERYDAY CLOSE-UP OF A DRAIN, AND THE FIRST OF THESE IS THE UNUSUAL AMOUNT OF BLOOD WHICH IS GUSHING DOWN THE AFOREMENTIONED APERTURE IN THE FIRST PICTURE. LIQUID FINGERS OF BLOOD, THICK AND BRILLIANT SCARLET, DRIBBLE DOWN THE WALL OF THE CURB OVER TO THE RIGHT.. GARISH STREAKS OF BRILLIANT RED AGAINST THE MUTED CONCRETE-GRAY OF THE STONE THAT THEY TRICKLE DOWN ACROSS. THE GUTTER IS SIMILARLY FULL OF BLOOD, GURGLING HAPPILY TOWARDS THE DRAIN WHERE IT SPILLS OUT OVER THE METAL DRAIN COVERING AND DRIPS DOWN AS TINY GLINTING BEADS INTO THE DARKNESS BENEATH. 
Figure 849: The ending of Watchmen is foreshadowed
by its first panel. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave
Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #12, 1987)
THE SECOND ITEM OF REMARK IS A 1” DIAMETER SMILEY BADGE, COLORED A VIVID SUNSHINE YELLOW AS IT LAYS THERE IN THE GUTTER SMILING UP AT US AGAINST A BACKGROUND OF LURID BLOOD RED. IT HAS SOMEHOW LODGED IN THE GUTTER SO THAT IT WON’T GO DOWN THE DRAIN, AND SIMPLY REMAINS STUCK THERE, STARING UP AT US WITH ITS JARRINGLY INANE EXPRESSION. A SMALL SPLASH OF CRIMSON STAINS THE FRONT OF THE BADGE. A SINGLE TINY SPATTER ACROSS ONE BLACK CARTOON EYE ON THE FACE OF THE BADGE. THAT’S BASICALLY THE WHOLE OPENING IMAGE, UNLESS YOU WANT TO STICK A CANDY WRAPPER THAT’S ABOUT TO FLOAT DOWN THE DRAIN, IN WHICH CASE WE HAVE A PACKET OF MELTDOWNS, WHICH ARE LIKE TREETS (ENGLISH) OR M&M’S (AMERICAN) ONLY WITH LITTLE BRIGHTLY COLORED ATOMIC SYMBOLS ON THE WRAPPING. ONLY INCLUDE CANDY WRAPPING IF IT DOESN’T DETRACT FROM THE SIMPLICITY OF THE IMAGE WITH THE GUTTER, THE BLOOD AND THE BADGE, THOUGH, BECAUSE THIS IMAGE IS PRETTY IMPORTANT. IT GIVES US THE BLOOD SPATTERED SMILEY-BADGE, WHICH IS A PRETTY WORKABLE SYMBOL OF THE COMEDIAN’S MURDER, WHICH RUNS THROUGH THE ENTIRE SERIES, AND IT ALSO GIVES US A FAINT SUBLIMINAL PREDICTION OF THE ENDING WITH ITS IMAGE OF THE GUTTERS OF NEW YORK AWASH WITH BLOOD. ANYWAY, SEE WHAT YOU THINK AND LEAVE OUT THINGS LIKE THE SWEET WRAPPER IF YOU THINK THEY’RE EVEN SLIGHTLY DISTRACTING. WE’LL HAVE PLENTY OF TIME TO GET ALL OUR CUTE BRAND NAMES IN LATER ON IN THE SERIES. THE ACTUAL TEXT UPON THIS FIRST PAGE IS ALL TAKEN FROM RORSCHACH’S JOURNAL, WHICH WILL BE A MORE-OR-LESS CONTINUING FEATURE OF THE NARRATIVE THROUGHOUT THE SERIES. I MENTION THIS IN CASE YOU THINK IT MIGHT BE NICE TO VISUALLY DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN RORSCHACH’S JOURNAL AND ANY OTHER CAPTION BOXES THAT MIGHT OCCUR BY GIVING IT A SPECIFIC COLOR A SPECIFIC SHAPE OR LETTERING STYLE OR SOMETHING. I SUPPOSE IT’D BE NICE IF WE COULD ACTUALLY GET SOME OF THE CHARACTER OF RORSCHACH HIMSELF BY THE WAY HIS JOURNAL IS WRITTEN, ALTHOUGH I SUPPOSE A SUITABLY WARPED-LOOKING STYLE OF HAND WRITING MIGHT BE OFF-PUTTINGLY DIFFICULT TO READ OR TIME CONSUMING AND DIFFICULT TO MAINTAIN. MAYBE YOU COULD SUGGEST A SORT OF SCRUFFINESS WITHOUT GETTING TOO ELABORATE, THOUGH. PERHAPS A MORE RAGGED EDGE OR A FAINT SPATTERING OF MESSY INK BLOTS INT HE BOXES HERE AND THERE AS IF THEY’D BEEN LETTERED BY A PEN WITH A SPLIT NIB OR SOMETHING. ANYWAY. THE OPTIONS ARE THERE, SO JUST DO WHAT YUOU WANT. IN FACT, IF YOU’RE ANXIOUS TO SEE ANYTHING THAT EVEN SMACKS OF VISUAL FLUMMERY THAN PLEASE FEEL FREE TO MAKE RORSCHACH’S BOXES THE SAME AS EVERYONE ELSES AND RELY UPON THE TEXT IN THEM TO SET THEM APART FROM OTHER NARRATIVE WITHOUT IMPOSING ANY VISUAL GIMMICKS NEEDLESSLY. OKAY. THAT’S THE PRE-AMBLE OUT OF THE WAY. SO GIVE IT ALL YOU’VE GOT AND LET’S SEE SOME GOOD DRAIN ART HERE” in 1985.
 
Indeed, that’s the crowning irony of Watchmen: that the work that established Moore as the most important voice in American superhero comics was also the work that predicated his furious departure from that industry, and one that Moore has backed away from in so many regards. The result is that the insistently visible authorial presence becomes defined as much by Moore’s retrospective absence from the text as it is by Moore himself. There is, as Morrison observes, a conspicuous god of Watchmen, but what is most conspicuous about him (and one can, at least, be confident about his gender) is a god comprised of negative space. The god of Watchmen is a tangible lack within it - a gap that demands to be filled in on the map of its psychic territory, to be named and outlined, as though doing so will finally, at last, serve to snap all the pieces into place and explain everything.
"Art that cannot move people effectively loses the war. Take the techniques that make it a masterwork and use them for changing the world. Your purity only hurts the reason you’re doing it. Do you want to feel self-righteous or do you want to win? I like to win. The point is to change the world.  A story is a machine that kills fascists. A story is a machine that kills whatever you want it to. Be afraid of stories, be afraid of storytellers. They are only trying to lie to you." - Kieron Gillen, Kieron Gillen Talks Watchmen
{Of the four main writers to work on Before Watchmen, it is clear that Darwyn Cooke did the best work. This is perhaps unsurprising given that, in his telling, DC originally tried to get him to write and draw the entire Before Watchmen line, with him negotiating down to the Minutemen and Silk Spectre series instead. He’s in several regards the one person you would think might do something unexpected with the concept. And it must be admitted, before any serious discussion of Before Watchmen can even occur, that “the best work on Before Watchmen” is very much a “least worst” sort of concept. Before Watchmen: Minutemen is a flawed but basically pretty good comic. Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre is an actually good and interesting comic that manages the genuinely impressive feat of mildly enriching Watchmen, but hardly an all-time classic of the form. That this is a genuinely impressive feat within the context of Before Watchme is, of course, is the problem underlying the line. And it is a fundamental problem to anyone who spends a bit of time thinking about it: “what is missing or lacking in Watchmen” is simply not a question with a ton of compelling answers. Every single one of these projects sets itself up to fail from the outset, simply because they invite comparison to a comic that only a handful of superhero creators have ever come close to matching. Indeed, arguably even Alan Moore, the one writer who can definitively and unambiguously be said to be capable of writing something as good as Watchmen only ever did so the once. The project is a self-evident folly. Which is likely why it generally failed commercially: the overwhelming majority of people who would buy this did so in order to find out whether it was going to be the disaster it looked like, and the number of people who are genuinely curious what a four-issue miniseries by J. Michael Straczynski about the exploits of Dan Dreiberg and a prostitute is going to be like is, in the end, fairly limited.
 
Figure 850: The Minutemen, as drawn by Dave Gibbons for the
1987 Who's Who update.
In this regard, then, Cooke got lucky: one of his two series was the Minutemen series, the one for which the problem of comparison is by far the slightest, and which thus always sounded like a perfectly reasonable idea for a comic. It is, after all, the one that Moore actually seriously considered doing himself at one point. As Gibbons noted in 1988, when the book was still under consideration as a future project (Moore, in the same interview, cagily suggested the book might be “in four or five years time, ownership position permitting”), “Minutemen appeals because it’s a different era and a different story.” Which is to say, it’s naturally insulated from at least some of the intrinsic problems of Before Watchmen. Only three of its main characters have any significant presence in Watchmen, which means that Cooke has a relative blank slate with his other leads. (And while he ultimately uses one of the three characters who have a significant presence in Watchmen as his narrator, Mason is ultimately still a much smaller character within Watchmen than either Jupiter or Blake.) 
 
Figure 851: The New Frontier ends with an
homage to the first appearance of the Justice
League. (By Darwyn Cooke, from The New
Frontier
 #6, 2004)
Cooke also has some advantages he brings to the table. He was best known for a tremendously acclaimed miniseries entitled DC: The New Frontier, which took place in the historical gap between the Golden and Silver Age eras of DC history, traversing from 1945 to 1960 (a similar stretch of time to that covered by Before Watchmen: Minutemen, which runs from 1939-62). It was very much a descendent of Moore’s work on superheroes, sharing Watchmen and Swamp Thing’s inclination to integrate the material history of superhero comics into their narratives: characters generally make their debuts within the story the same year that their comics first appeared, with Barry Allen becoming the Flash in 1956 and Hal Jordan the Green Lantern in 1959, for instance. More broadly, the endpoint in 1960 is not only the year that the Justice League of America made its first appearance (the event that serves as the book’s climax), but the year of John F. Kennedy’s election. The title The New Frontier comes from Kennedy’s speech accepting the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, a speech quoted at length over nine pages in the book’s epilogue, which builds to an homage to Mike Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson’s iconic cover to The Brave and the Bold #28, in which the Justice League first appeared. 
 
The term “new frontier,” which became a metonym for Kennedy’s vision of liberal American politics in general, is a fundamentally optimistic vision defined by a focus on improving American living standards and on the space race, and Cooke presents it as such - a fundamentally optimistic endpoint to the narrative. This is not to say that the story is uncritical - Kennedy/the Justice League provide an optimistic endpoint to a story that engages sharply with the problems of the era it depicts, most obviously in an absolutely chilling sequence about southern American race relations. Rather, it’s that The New Frontier, despite taking a sober-minded look at the culture of its time, remains basically positive about superheroes. In this regard, it is among the few obvious descendants of Watchmen to actually engage with superheroes in the way Moore has subsequently advocated - as he puts it, “there’s plenty of fun to be had with superheroes that aren’t grim. Even without psychosis or ulterior motives and all the rest of it. Superheroes are still an excellent vehicle for the imagination. You can play in this wonderful funhouse of ideas with superheroes. And that’s great… it doesn’t have to be depressing, miserable grimness from now until the end of time.” (And indeed, there’s an urban legend that Moore, who was in the midst of his second acrimonious departure from DC when The New Frontier was being released, asked DC to stop sending him complimentary monthly packages of their releases with the specific exception of The New Frontier.) 
 
Figure 852: The stacked three-panel layout
of The New Frontier, with an homage to
Watchmen in the last panel. (By Darwyn
Cooke, from The New Frontier #6, 2004)
The New Frontier also shares Watchmen’s interest in comics as a form. Where Watchmen is based on the nine panel grid, The New Frontier’s default page layout is a three-tier stack of page-width panels; of the fifty-nine story pages in the first issue, forty-six are three-panel pages. This is a simpler layout, to be sure, and The New Frontier does not engage in Watchmen’s complex play of paralleled narratives and object-to-object transitions. But it is a layout that tacitly evokes Watchmen’s nine panel grid, even as no actual pages of The New Frontier use the grid. More to the point, however, the wide panel layout is entirely appropriate for what The New Frontier is doing. The expansive panel size allows Cooke leeway to explore the bright spectacle of superhero comics as a genre, which in turn fuels the underlying optimism of the story. Cooke’s style is rooted in the cartooning tradition (he moved into the industry via animation), which means that his work evokes the lurid beauty of the best Silver Age artists (most particularly Jack Kirby), but is considerably more detailed and ornate than most of his inspirations (occasionally rivaling Gibbons in terms of the detail he works into panels). Aided by Dave Stewart’s frankly brilliant coloring, which has a positively painterly depth of palate to it, the result is a comic that is at one exquisitely beautiful and carefully thought through in terms of its visual grammar and form. 
 

 

Figure 853: The opening to Before
Watchmen: Minutemen
, which draws
both from Cooke's The New Frontier
and from Watchmen. (By Darwyn Cooke,
from Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1, 2012)
And Before Watchmen: Minutemen shares much of that formal thoughtfulness, taking an often playful angle on Watchmen’s style. The comic opens with two pages of four stacked page-width panels that evoke the lush visions of The New Frontier while also utilizing the object-to-object transitions that define Watchmen. The first page, for instance, jumps from a first person perspective of an infant Hollis Mason staring out of his bassinet, defined by an arc traversing the panel, to a skyscape of New York City from within a tunnel, also providing a central arc, to a Kirby Krackle-filled panel of the Solar System, the sun providing a third central arc, and finally to a panel of Doctor Manhattan’s forehead. Over these panels is a portentous monologue, in caption boxes that wind down the page in a backwards S: “You come into this world, and your point of view is narrow. If you’re lucky, it’s a safe and loving place. As you grow, your view of the world broadens and you struggle to find your place within it. If you’re strong, you learn to survive it.
Figure 854: The portentous opening monologue
resolves into a gag about writing styles. (By Darwyn
Cooke, from Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1, 2012)
Over time you may not decipher the mysteries of the universe, but you can make your peace with that and find strength in what you know to be true. If you’re wise enough to approach this seeming impasse with humility, you may even find a sustained happiness. Then one day you meet a guy, and he throws a wrench in the gears. He takes away your understanding of the world you live in.”  The approach continues on the second page, only with the object-to-object transitions slowly zooming out to represent the whole of the circle until, in the third panel, the entirety of a clockface, the time still hours before midnight, is visible. The text here stutters - the caption box reads “you hope that over time…” while a dialogue box, the speaker off-panel, repeats “over time…” The fourth panel simply zooms out further from this scene, the clock moved to the midground, while in the foreground, at the right of the panel, a typewriter containing the first page of the epilogue to Under the Hood is visible. The off-panel dialogue continues with a punchline rivaling “that’s quite a drop” from the seventh panel of Watchmen: “this is terrible.”
 
Figure 855: Cooke subverts the nine-panel grid.
(By Darwyn Cooke, from Before Watchmen:
Minutemen
 #3, 2012)
But Cooke’s moves following this punchline pull in two different ways. On the one hand, the opening panel of the third page features Hollis Mason staring out at the reader as he says (ostensibly to his dog), “I’ll just have to face facts, girl. I’m no Tolstoy. Going for a deep, philosophical ending here isn’t going to work. I guess we’ll just have to stick to being ourselves, huh?” But even as Cooke abandons the Moore pastiche narrative he alters his panel structure to a three-layer stack that, while not a strict nine panel grid due to the fact that Cooke cuts panels within the tiers idiosyncratically, nevertheless clearly echoes the form. Cooke does this throughout Before Watchmen: Minutemen, with numerous sections that play with and around the nine-panel grid while distorting it in various ways. For instance, in the two page section in the first issue where Cooke introduces Byron Lewis, the Mothman, Cooke uses a nine panel grid that elongates the middle tier to take up half of the page height, subtly giving the pages a sense of expanse that suits the introduction of the flying man. And in the third issue, during the sequence in which the vote is taken to expel the Comedian from the Minutemen for his rape of Silk Spectre Cooke uses a nine panel grid that is frequently interrupted by panels from a Minutemen-licensed comic (cover modeled off of the iconic Everett E. Hibbard cover to All-Star Comics #3, which introduced the Justice Society of America, DC Comics’s Golden Age superhero team), which depict the team as kitschy and over-the-top paragons of virtue, in marked contrast to their behavior in the scene. Cleverly, these inserted panels, each taking up two slots of the nine-panel grid and thus the largest panels on their page, all feature a circular panel that extends slightly past the edges of its tier, slightly cutting into the panels around them.
 
Around these bits of formal cleverness is a story very much in the same vein as The New Frontier - a superhero story tied tightly to the material history of the time. But where The New Frontier offered a fundamentally optimistic vision of superheroes based on a utopian vision of American progressivism, Before Watchmen: Minutemen is, in the end, a story tied to Watchmen and its deeply pessimistic take on the genre. The 1960s emerge not as a hopeful teleology to the Silver Age but as a generational transition from an era of heroes tragically unable to meet the problems of their age to an era of heroes tragically able to do just that, a point emphasized in a pair of twin cameos in the final issue, the first a wide panel of Ozymandias as part of another monologue, the second a page later in a splash of Doctor Manhattan casually dismantling a gun into component parts that’s been divided, arbitrarily, into a nine-panel grid. The book’s central dynamic is the “unexpurgated” version of Mason’s autobiography, which reveals numerous details about the Minutemen that are ultimately cut from the “published” version used as the endmatter for the first three issues of Watchmen after, in the story’s climactic moment, the Comedian shows up to reveal that Mason was wrong about a key aspect of what had happened, causing him to rewrite the book into the version from Watchmen.
 
Figure 856: Cooke expands upon the brief explanation of
Silhouette's origin provided by Moore. (By Darwyn Cooke,
from Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1, 2012)
In and of itself, of course, this is hardly an objectionable move on Cooke’s part. Given the importance of individual subjectivity to the narrative of Watchmen it seems almost certain that Moore, had he gone back and told the story of the Minutemen himself, would have undermined the narrative presented within Under the Hood (as, indeed, he subtly does at various points within Watchmen). And this revision forms the book’s primary narrative - a story built largely out of the throwaway line in Watchmen #2 that “a young woman who called herself The Silhouette broke into the headlines by exposing the activities of a crooked publisher trafficking in child pornography, delivering a punitive beating to the entrepreneur and his two chief cameramen in the process,” and that culminates in the firm clarification of the deliberately ambiguous final fate of Hooded Justice within Watchmen. The problem comes in what the changes actually are, and particularly how they relate (or rather fail to relate) to race and gender.
 
Figure 857: The death of Hooded Justice. (By Darwyn Cooke, from Before
Watchmen: Minutemen
 #6, 2012)
The problems with race hinge on an accidental parallel within Cooke’s career. Before Watchmen: Minutemen ends with Night Owl having killed Hooded Justice by grabbing the stretch of rope around his neck, effectively pulling a noose around him and killing him. This is ultimately revealed to have been because of a ruse on the Comedian’s part to frame Hooded Justice for a series of child murders investigated by Silhouette and subsequently Night Owl throughout the book, a series of murders the Comedian had in fact solved (they were committed by the strongman Mason speculates might have been Hooded Justice in Under the Hood), meaning that Night Owl killed an innocent man, and leading him to rewrite the book “for the sake of my old friends.” But in featuring the unjust death of a character whose costume consists of a black executioners hood with a decorative noose around the neck is, perhaps surprisingly, not a first for Darwyn Cooke, who used a similar event in The New Frontier for the death of John Henry.
 
Figure 858: The tragic downfall of John Henry, one
of The New Frontier's most powerful moments. (By
Darwyn Cooke, from DC: The New Frontier #4, 2004)
John Henry is an interesting character within The New Frontier; he’s the one character of the period that Cooke invents entirely, creating him as an antecedent to the 90s character John Henry Irons, one of the replacement Supermen offered following the infamous Death of Superman storyline. More to the point, his origin is framed entirely in the racial politics of the late 1950s: he is a black man who becomes a superhero after his family is murdered by the KKK. His death in the fourth issue of The New Frontier is the book’s most shockingly effective moment: injured in a fight with the Klan, he stumbles into a back yard and collapses, where he’s found by a young white girl. Rolling up his mask so he can look the girl in the eyes, he begs her to help him. Cooke draws a single panel of the girl looking down at him, the very picture of innocence, and then ends the page with a brutal wide shot of the young girl shouting, “he’s here! He’s here! The n****r’s over here!” The reality, of course, is that any intentional similarity came when Cooke, creating John Henry, decided to draw on Hooded Justice’s costume from Watchmen for him as a metatextual joke, never imagining that he would eventually end up writing Hooded Justice himself a few years later. Nevertheless, the two scenes are impossible not to compare in hindsight, and the comparison does Before Watchmen: Minutemen no favors. It is not merely that Hooded Justice’s killing lacks the animating fire of historical engagement that made John Henry’s death so stunning. It’s that the comparatively damp squib of Hooded Justice’s death ends up highlighting that fact that Before Watchmen: Minutemen covers the same period that Cooke covered in The New Frontier without meaningfully engaging with race at all. There are no significant black characters anywhere in the book, and the only two significant people of color are a pair of Japanese characters who show up for a single and largely awkward plotline in the fifth issue that’s disconnected from almost everything else in the book, unhinted at in Watchmen itself (it’s apparently one of the bits Mason excises), and who, in a painful stereotype of Japanese culture, heroically sacrifice themselves. 
 
The book’s treatment of gender in its central plotline is, unfortunately, similarly dismal. It’s true that Cooke makes a huge amount of the story hinge on Silhouette, a character who gets exactly one line in the entirety of Watchmen, thus providing it with a major female character. And again, this is probably consistent with what Moore would have done had he ever written the Minutemen-centered series he was contemplating; given his explicit interest in gay rights, it’s all but certain that he would have done quite a bit with the explicitly lesbian Silhouette, as well as the relationship between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis. The problem comes in how Cooke goes about it. Silhouette is a major character, but she’s viewed entirely through Hollis Mason’s description of her, and Cooke writes Mason as explicitly in love with her, even after she’s revealed as a lesbian. When the narrative gets to Silhouette’s murder (she and her partner are, as explained in Watchmen, murdered in their bed after she is outed and dismissed from the Minutemen), Mason reflects that “horribly… terribly… they died. Together. Leaving me alone.” 
 
Figure 859: Cooke made the largely needless choice
to have Silhouette and Silk Spectre's relationship be
antagonistic. (By Darwyn Cooke, from Before
Watchmen: Minuteme
 #3, 2012)
It is not that Mason’s perspective on Silhouette is particularly crass or lecherous, at least as heterosexual men lusting after lesbians go. But it does serve to simply put the character on a pedestal. Mason refers to her as an “angel” several times throughout the narrative, and she’s treated as the most straightforwardly and purely moral voice within the narrative. But she’s also put at a remove from the rest of it; that she dies in the fourth issue is essentially inevitable given Watchmen, but the decision to make her relationship with Silk Spectre an entirely antagonistic one is a profound missed opportunity that keeps the book’s two significant female voices isolated from each other, in effect a divide and conquer strategy for the purposes of having a female perspective within the book. Worse, for all that Silhouette is positioned as the book’s moral center, she’s entirely absent at a key moment. When the vote is taken to expel the Comedian from the Minutemen for raping Silk Spectre, it’s explicitly taken at “a special men-only meeting.” This, in and of itself, is fine; it’s a perfectly serviceable commentary on the widespread and patronizing sexism of the time the book is set (and indeed, of the present day). The problem is that Silhouette is never even given an opportunity to comment on this. The men-only meeting happens, the Comedian is kicked out, and Silhouette, the moral voice of the entire series, is just completely and utterly absent from the plot. Making it even worse, the book goes out of its way to give her an opportunity to defend Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis from Night Owl’s accusation of hypocrisy when they subsequently vote to expel her for her sexuality, telling Night Owl that “you cannot know what living such a life is like. The fear of exposure. It is not for you to judge.” 
 
As with race, the real problem here is a lack within the book; it is, in the end, pretty much only interested in white men. And, of course, this is a complaint that can readily be leveled at Watchmen as well: essentially all of its non-white characters are supporting characters who are killed in the book’s climax, and women are thoroughly marginalized within its plot, which also focuses almost exclusively on white men. These are well-trod and valid criticisms of Watchmen.
And, of course, this is a complaint that can readily be leveled What is baffling and disappointing, however, is that Cooke, a writer who got the job largely on the back of his historically-grounded previous take on the time period in which it’s set, repeated the errors. Especially given the extent to which Cooke retcons out large swaths of Under the Hood. To go to great lengths to revise Watchmen only to, in the end, uncritically reiterate its flaws is, to say the least, a disappointment.
 
Figure 860: Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre
also featured the worst of Jim Lee's generally
execrable variant covers for the series.
At least some of these problems are addressed by Cooke’s other Before Watchmen series, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre. The book’s racial politics are still deeply imperfect, with the overwhelming majority of non-white characters being villains, as are its gender politics. But there’s at least an evident investment in the latter, and one that came into the book’s conception quite early. Cooke made the presence of artist and co-writer Amanda Conner a precondition for taking on the book, on the grounds that, as he puts it, “I didn’t feel like I could convincingly write a young girl at that point in her life.” The breakdown of work appears to be that Cooke came up with the basic plot, and that Conner did actual page breakdowns (Cooke explicitly credits her with the decision - unique among the Before Watchmen artists - to work entirely within the nine-panel grid) and a lot of the nuance. 
 
Figure 861: The final page of Before
Watchmen: Silk Spectre
 tacitly positions
Laurie as an object traded among the male
characters (and tacitly emphasizes the creepy
age gap between her and Doctor Manhattan
that the comic elides. (Written by Darwyn Cooke
and Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner,
from Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #4, 2012)
For the most part, this breakdown of duties favors Conner. The overall plot, after all, is where much of the weakness comes in. The premise - a sixteen year old Laurie Juspeczyk runs away from home in frustration at her mother’s demands on her and lives amongst hippies in 1966 San Francisco for a bit - is a solid idea. But the execution, which ultimately hinges on her two father figures, Eddie Blake and Hollis Mason, going to San Francisco to, in their own ways, rescue her. It’s certainly a story with a female lead character, but it’s a story that’s ultimately about the way in which Laurie is a possession traded among men, focusing heavily on her obsession with boys and closing with the abortive Crimebusters meeting depicted in Watchmen #2 with her giving her (ironic given Watchmen) assessments of the characters, before a final splash page of Laurie sitting between Night Owl and Doctor Manhattan, her two romantic interests in Watchmen, making eyes at Doctor Manhattan and thinking, “get a load of this guy. He looks like one of those classical greek statues! But with no hair. Kinda like an Oscar. He’s so big. And beautiful. And blue. I wonder what it would be like to take him home. I bet that would really, really piss off my mom.” Making this finish all the more unsettling is the angle chosen, which frames Laurie and Doctor Manhattan in the midground, with the foreground occupied by the Comedian’s legs, symbolically placing Laurie on “daddy’s” lap and continuing the tacit theme of paternal forces controlling Laurie.
 
Within the confines of these problems, however, is Amanda Conner, who is perfectly suited to rescue the project from its own worst impulses. Conner is a longtime industry veteran who broke into comics in the late 80s and worked on a variety of titles for Marvel, DC, and other companies before, in the early 21st century, finally emerging as a major talent. Her style is firmly rooted in the comics tradition of good girl/cheesecake art, and her books are full of sexy women with ample curves, which she draws in an appealing and light-heartedly cartoonish style. But her real specialty is in facial expressions, through which she gives her characters a wealth of humanity and depth that female characters in American superhero comics all too often lack. Simply put, Amanda Conners is adept at having her characters go through a range of emotions within a scene.
 
Figure 862: Amanda Conner is particularly adept at storytelling
through facial expressions. (Written by Darwyn Cooke and
Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner, from Before Watchmen:
Silk Spectre
 #1, 2012)
This is evident from the start of Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, in the opening scene, an expansion of the snowglobe flashback from Watchmen #9, continuing to a discussion between a five year old Laurie and her mother over the fact that her nominal father (and Sally’s agent), Laurence Schexnayder has left them, this time for good. The dialogue within the scene is perfectly capable, but what makes it sparkle is Conner’s handling of the characters’ faces: Laurie’s angry scowl as she declares that she hates him, her wide-eyed expression as her mother tries to comfort her, her subsequent look of real concern as she asks her mother if she’s all right, and finally the look of weariness as she starts to comfort her mother, grasping one of her curls in her own little hand, just as she’d been comforted three panels earlier. A tremendous share of the emotional weight of the storytelling here is down entirely to Conner’s choices, which elevate a relatively cliche scene to something subtle and revealing that, through little details like the tired, resigned look as Laurie tells her mother it’ll be OK, sets up the contours of the pair’s fraught relationship.
 
Figure 863: Conner riffs not only on Watchmen's
nine panel grid, but on its use of juxtaposition.
(Written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner,
art by Amanda Conner, from Before Watchmen:
SIlk Spectre
 #2, 2012)
This sort of thing continues throughout the book, giving Laurie a depth of characterization that goes well beyond the script, and amply illustrates what Cooke meant when he said that “Amanda is the heart” of the book. But Conner’s skill in Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre goes well beyond the facial expressions. As mentioned, Conner consciously took on the challenge of working within Watchmen’s formal structures. This doesn’t just mean the nine-panel grid either. For instance, the second issue opens with a sequence that makes clever use of Moore and Gibbons’s technique of juxtaposition, combining the text of a letter Laurie writes Hollis to try to reassure him and her mother that she’s OK with a fight scene. The result is a set of wry parallels not entirely unlike the combined interview/fight scene from Watchmen #3, such as a page-width panel of Laurie taking cover from a knife-wielding gang with the caption “please let Mom know that I’m in a safe place,” the panel of a man getting hit in the face with a bucket of paint alongside the caption “Mom taught me so much about handling the stuff life throws at me,” or the transition within a panel from the caption “I want her to stop treating me like” to the dialogue, as the gang holds Laurie down and taunts her, “quite the little princess, aren’t you?” It’s genuinely funny and clever, though perhaps not quite as funny or clever as the disdainful expression on Laurie’s face two panels later taunts, “I don’t think mommy spanked you nearly enough,” a panel before she overpowers him by punching him in the balls. Elsewhere, Conner makes shrewd use of Watchmen’s reiterating symbolism, using the famed snow globe not just as an opening image in the first issue, but repeating the image of a castle in a circle on the side of the psychedelic VW Bus that picks Laurie and her boyfriend up at the end of the first issue.
 
Figure 864: The nine panel grid breaks up into
a psychedelic haze. (Written by Darwyn Cooke
and Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner, from
Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #3, 2012)
More substantive is the sequence in the third issue in which Laurie drops acid, a blur of psychedelic colors that steadily breaks down the nine-panel grid, at first via pages that still consist of three stacked tiers of rectangular panels, but eventually starting to bend and twist as the imagery gets increasingly surreal. Around the time Laurie is visited by the skeleton of her pet bird (as she’s abruptly seized with paranoia that her mother might be underfeeding him) the comic becomes a weird and satisfying hybrid of Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen style (which Conner’s cartooning-influenced style is in the same general tradition as) and the abstract and psychedelic style that Steve Bissette and John Totleben brought to Moore’s Swamp Thing run, until the page finally becomes a spiral over which a hippy explains how, if she learns to train her mind, she can “really live in reality. Y’know… in the now. Heck, you might even be able to see all facets of reality and time at once,” a line that does not merely cast a glance at Laurie’s future boyfriend, but which, especially when overtly situated in the 60s psychedelic aesthetic, reads as a broader homage to Moore’s work and vision. 
 
Figure 865: Amanda Conner visually quotes a panel from Watchmen.
(Left: Written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner, art by Amanda
Conner, from Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #12, 2012. Right: Written
by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen
#4, 1986)
Perhaps the book’s most inspired riff on Watchmen, however, comes in its final issue, as Laurie confronts the book’s main villain. The fight ends in macabre fashion, with Laurie kicking the bad guy in the throat, at which point her thigh-high heels get stuck in his throat. As he staggers off making a variety of sounds of the general form of “guhhrrrghkk,” Laurie grabs his gun and pursues him into the street. Conner inserts a red-tinged close-up panel of Laurie’s face as he holds the gun, a maniacal grin on her face - a panel that’s a clear riff on a panel of the Comedian in Vietnam from Watchmen #4. At which point Cooke and Conner double down on the macabre humor as the villain is unexpectedly hit by a bus. After a series of suitably gruesome panels that include a femur sticking out of the front grille of the bus, Conner returns to Laurie, who looks absolutely bewildered by events and then leans over and vomits in horror and disgust. 
 
Figure 866: Another deft bit of facial characterization
from Amanda Conner. (Written by Darwyn Cooke and
Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner, from Before
Watchmen: Silk Spectre
 #4, 2012)
Aside from being a bleak bit of humor in the vein of the deaths of Dollar Bill and Captain Carnage, this is an effective commentary on the relationship between Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre and the parent text. It is not the only point in the comic where a panel from Watchmen is referenced in the course of Laurie fighting people, and generally these panels specifically reference panels depicting her biological father, the Comedian. The effect is to depict the violent world of superheroes as something that exerts an inevitable and dangerous gravity on Laurie’s life - a fact that quietly forces a reevaluation of the paternalistic role that Hollis Mason and the Comedian have within the narrative. Similarly, Laurie’s complete revulsion when her Watchmen-referencing bloodlust is confronted with the gruesome reality of severe bodily harm is a prime example of the way in which Conner’s skill at facial expressions add nuance to the narrative by giving Laurie opportunities to implicitly respond to the absurdity of her world.
 
Which is, in the context of Before Watchmen, important. Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre is unique among the Before Watchmen books in that it actually finds space within the methodology and iconography of Watchmen for a critique of the book. Conner is alone among the creators in being willing to use the opportunity to add to Watchmen to affectionately deface the original work. And it’s a solid criticism - the fact of the matter is that Watchmen does a deeply imperfect job of capturing the interiority of its female characters (it’s notable that Laurie’s focus issue is mostly about her trying to persuade Dr. Manhattan to return to Earth, such that the climax of her history is not her own), and that Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre does a better job with Laurie than Watchmen does.
 
All the same, it’s tough not to grant Moore’s central criticism of the entire project. Conner’s loving critique of Watchmen is good, but in the end, it’s still a book whose feminist sensibilities are hemmed in by the fact that it’s designed as a prequel to another work. It’s difficult not to feel that Amanda Conner writing a bespoke mother/daughter pair of superheroes in the 1960s that didn’t have to resolve by leading into a comic about men. The resulting comic could still have quoted Watchmen in a variety of ways - working within a nine panel grid, using juxtaposition and repeated symbols, and even visually quoting individual iconic Watchmen panels, but would have been able to express a vision of what comics about women should be, as opposed to being a mere footnote to another work. And Moore’s indictment of a comics industry that would rather employ Conner to do Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre than that is entirely on point.
 
All the same, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre manages the genuinely impressive feat of marginally improving Watchmen. And, given the book’s quality and impact, that’s no small feat. Certainly it’s not something any of the other writers on Before Watchmen managed or, in most cases, even bothered to attempt.}

Several observations in the backmatter section of this essay (which predates the TV show) were inspired by William Leung's "Who Whitewashes the Watchmen."

Comments

lodger 5 months ago

Cooke and Conner certainly turned in the strongest of the BW books, but Cooke's strange admiration for The Comedian always struck me as odd. The Eddie Blake of BW isn't just more ruthless than the other core characters, but also consistently smarter and more capable than anyone else. I've never fully understood that character choice.

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lodger 5 months ago

Having now followed the links, I see that my line of thought in the previous comment has been expressed much more fully and persuasively in Leung's essay.

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Health Care Diploma 5 months ago

After a long time I have found a post which really gives me some fabulous knowledge as per my requirement.

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LovecraftInBrooklyn 5 months ago

“ These text pieces are rarely highlights of Watchmen - indeed, one suspects no shortage of readers have traversed the graphic novel multiple times without actually reading them all. ”

Franz Nicolay wrote a folk punk song, the Ballad of Hollis Wadsworth Mason Jr, which quotes Under the Hood in the lyrics. Jeffry Lewis, other folk punk singer, travels around the world lecturing on Watchmen.

Then there’s Gerard Way. I saw him interview Grant Morrison at the Sydney Opera House and he utterly deferred to Morrison. The comic writer who wanted to be a rockstar being treated with reverence by one of the few genuine rockstars left, who did the reverse of Morrison and quit comics for rock, then returned. He put Morrison in his videos, but he also covered Bob Dylan for the Watchmen movie...

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Aaron Grunfeld 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Hi, I enjoy your concept of the duel between Moore & Morrison, but I've got a question: why aren't some of their peers also mages in the Last War? I'm thinking specifically of Neil Gaiman, who would seem to be a candidate & who would also seem to be more successful (as a commercial artist, a storytelling influence, & a popular figure) than these two titans of comics. Is there an introduction to the series that you could point me to, where you spell out the fundamentals of the Last War?

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Eric 2 months, 3 weeks ago

Maybe the answer to this turned up elsewhere; but I'm pretty sure the main reason is because Gaiman and the other major creators have not declared themselves to be magicians. Both Moore and Morrison have repeatedly declared that they are, in fact, magicians.

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Daru 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Cool! Excited personally that you are refocusing on LWIA again - sorry to hear that the Dalek Eruditorum has been a slog - but looking forwards to what is going to come out of The War and I'll definitely keep supporting on Patreon!

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Daru 3 months, 2 weeks ago

I was struck by the first paragraph, with the description of the smiley badge and your last sentence there -

"The War begins thusly, in the middle of a cataclysmic battle the history of which will serve as its own battleground."

It came to me that the badge also was a symbol used in Britain by the dance movement that came off the back of Thatcher's crushing of the free festivals (The Battle of the Beanfield, etc) - underground raves, acid house, etc that the state placed massive resources to attempting to put down. So, yeah, having that symbol and its use in mind, the story at this point certainly is occurring within "a cataclysmic battle".

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