2 years, 3 months ago
Previously in The Last War in Albion: In its earliest development at DC, Watchmen was based around a set of fairly generic superheroes DC had acquired from the defunct Charlton Comics, leading many people to suggest that Moore's claims to the book's originality are overstated. But this accusation misses the ways in which Moore transformed and commented on the Charlton characters, most obviously the Steve Ditko-created character the Question and, indirectly, Ditko's Mr. A, whose ruthlessly Manichean worldview is echoed by Rorschach in lines such as “there is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of armageddon I shall not compromise in this.”
|Figure 872: A 1972 color page of Mr. A, with Mr. A himself remaining, inevitably,
in black and white.
But there is more to this than might be immediately apparent. Mr. A, as a character, reflects Ditko’s larger investment in the work of Ayn Rand; his name, for instance, is a reference to her emphasis on Aristotle’s maxim “A is A.” Rand was a novelist and popular philosopher whose overt and insistent pro-capitalist position (forged when her wealthy Russian family lost their businesses during the October Revolution prior to her emigration to America) gave her considerable success among the political right; a New York Times article the same month that the first collected edition of Watchmen was released, for instance, talked about how the incoming Secretary of Commerce was an admirer of Rand’s work, as was newly installed chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, calling her the “novelist laureate” of the Reagan administration. (Rand, the article notes, was not a fan of Reagan, saying that “since he has no program and no ideology to offer, his likeliest motive for entering a Presidential race is power-lust.”)
|Figure 873: Two differing visions of humanity. (By Steve Ditko, from Blue
Beetle #5, 1968; panels not consecutive in original)
Rand’s influence plays a significant part in Ditko’s work on both Mr. A and The Question - the second Mr. A strip, for instance, opens with a monologue about the absoluteness of good and evil before segueing into a lengthy discussion of how “only fools will tell you that money is the root of all evil” because “money is the tool of exchange” and how “for people who can exchange their abilities for an equal value - money and that money is exchanged for an equal value in products and services provided by other men’s abilities,” a viewpoint with clear roots in Rand’s vehement pro-capitalism. And the Question story in Blue Beetle #5 focuses on two paintings one described as representing “man’s inhumanity to man” by showing a man sitting in a gutter next to a used cigarette butt, and the other showing a strapping laborer standing near some jutting rocks. The plot tells of an art critic who hates the second picture for the way it “keeps accusing” him and reminding him of some unpleasant past experience, and of the criminal lengths to which the critic goes to try to destroy the painting (which Vic Sage has bought, in spite of the critic’s denunciation), a plot that has clear roots in Ayn Rand’s sense of aesthetics and the nature of man.
Unsurprisingly, given his own politics, Moore has significant reservations about this aspect of Ditko’s work, saying in the Charlton pitch that he has “always found Steve Ditko’s expressed political opinions to be strange and possibly dangerous,” a hedge that can only be explained as either a moment of polite discretion or as a lack of actual familiarity with Rand’s work. On the other hand, he admits “a huge amount of admiration for anybody who is prepared to take an unpopular position simply because they happen to believe it’s morally right,” and “the greatest possible regard for Steve Ditko as an artist and creator,” and stresses that he “wouldn’t want to portray his characters falsely or inaccurately” and that he wants to avoid making the character “a parody of right-wing attitudes as seen by a left-winger.” It is here, then, that the transition away from the Charlton characters is perhaps most liberating, in that it frees Moore from his sense of regard for Ditko, allowing him, instead of being ruthlessly faithful to Ditko, to engage in something that, while still not a parody, is more grounded in his sense of horror at Ditko’s conservatism. And so Rorschach becomes a character that follows the idea of the Question and Mr. A to their logical conclusions, becoming a character who is entirely alienated from society, and whose connection to journalism is not that of a crusading truth-teller, but rather as someone that even the fringe right-wing paper he admires considers to be a raving loony. The result ends up not being a riff on the peculiar beliefs of one of American comics’ most talented creators, but a disturbing and compelling commentary on the basic fantasy of superhero comics.
This, in many ways, exemplifies the relationship between the Charlton comics and Watchmen: it’s indisputably the case that its brief time being developed for the Charlton characters had a significant impact on Watchmen’s development, in almost every significant instance the places where the Charlton material was a clear influence, the influence was that Moore moved away from what the original comics were doing and towards something more interesting. Yes, the role of the one actually superpowered character in the story would have been dramatically different if Dr. Manhattan had inherited his nuclear-themed powers from Captain Atom, but what’s most interesting about Dr. Manhattan came from Moore’s observations about what the Captain Atom stories didn’t do. Yes, Rorschach is obviously inspired by Steve Ditko’s work, but what’s compelling about his character came specifically from the fact that Moore wasn’t shackled by his regard for Ditko anymore. And, in the case of the Comedian, the influence of the Peacemaker is that Moore took the key aspects of the Charlton character and went in the exact opposite direction. Inasmuch as the Charlton comics were influences, they were examples of what Moore wanted to avoid.
|Figure 874: Grant Morrison as he appeared
in the image accompanying his Drivel column
There are, of course, other works that have been identified as influences of Watchmen and used to try to diminish Moore’s contribution to the work. Len Wein, for instance, differed sharply with Moore over similarities between Veidt’s scheme at the end of Watchmen and an episode of The Outer Limits, an axe he has continued to grind for some years. But perhaps the one that has gotten the most traction is the suggestion that the comic is derivative of a 1977 novel by Robert Mayer called Superfolks. Much of the significance of this accusation comes from who made it, namely Grant Morrison, who included an item on it in a 1990 installment of what he describes as his “scurrilous, humour, gossip, and opinion column” Drivel in the British comics magazine Speakeasy. Indeed, Morrison does more than just suggest that Watchmen is derivative of Superfolks - he implicates Moore’s Miracleman run and his Superman story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” as well.
|Figure 875: The cover to the current edition
of Superfolks, featuring an introduction by
Unlike the accusation that Watchmen is derivative of the Charlton line, the accusation that Moore ripped off Mayer is based on actual plot details, as opposed to on characters that Moore was in practice clearly reacting against. As Morrison describes the plot, “It’s all about this middle-aged man who used to be a superhero like Superman. There’s a weird conspiracy involving various oddly-named corporate subsidies. There’s a simmering plot to murder the Superman guy and unleash unknown horrors on the world. There’s another middle-aged character in a rest home, who’s vowed never again to say the magic word that transforms him into Captain Mantra. There’s a corrupted and demonic Captain Mantra Junior and loads of other stuff about what it would be like if superheroes were actually real. In the end, the villain turns out to be a fifth-dimensional imp called Pxyzsyzgy, who has decided to be totally evil instead of mischievous.” For the most part, it is Miracleman and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” that are implicated by this - only the bit about corporate subsidies really points to Watchmen in particular. But Morrison made his view clearer in 2005 when he penned an introduction to a new edition of Mayer’s book and proclaimed that “Mayer had prefigured the era of so-called ‘deconstructionist’ superheroes” and called the book one “of the aboriginal roots nourishing the ‘80s ‘adult’ superhero comic boom,” both lines that blatantly implicate Moore’s superhero work from the 1980s in general.
For all that Morrison credits its influence, it should be stressed that Superfolks is not a very good book. It is at its heart a comedy, which is of course not a problem, but more often than not, its sense of humor consists of barely contextualized popular culture references. The main character, for instance, is named David Brinkley, a name taken from the late American newscaster who was, at the time of Mayer’s book, co-anchoring the NBC Nightly News. His origin, clearly based on Superman’s, has him as an alien from the planet Cronk, which meant that his equivalent of Kryptonite was called Cronkite, Walter Cronkite being the host of the CBS Evening News. This is essentially par for the course - later in the book a character complains about having drinks with her friends, complaining about “Abby! And Ann Landers! You’d think nobody in the world had problems but them,” Dear Abby and Ask Ann Landers being two of the most prominent advice columns of the time. Similar examples abound, all approximately as funny, and many outright tasteless - a list of alien planets, for instance, comprised largely of racist slurs.
More to the point, there’s a strange tone deafness to the book - for instance, there’s a section in which Brinkley reflects on his courtship of his wife. They met at a party and hit it off, but she then disappeared, and he found her “lying on the bed, her face smothered in the pillow, sobbing.” It’s then explained that, in high school, her brother, “the best athlete in Fairville High,” had been “clowning with friends” and had dove into a swimming pool without water, leaving him paralyzed for life, and that she, as a result, was racked with guilt whenever she had a good time. In the context of a book that elsewhere proclaims that “Batman and Robin were dead, killed when the Batmobile slammed into a bus carrying black children to school in the suburbs” and “The Lone Ranger was dead; found with an arrow in his back after Tonto returned from a Red Power conference at Wounded Knee,” it’s difficult to read this as anything other than a bit of black comedy. And yet the passage ends with Brinkley reflecting, in all apparent seriousness, that “he had seen a part of her soul, before he had seen her body. That was a reversal of the modern way - and there was power in it.”
Put another way, Superfolks is not a book with a clear idea of what it wants to be; sometimes it wants to be a light comedy of pop culture references, other times it wants to be a somewhat serious attempt to look at superheroes from a more real-world perspective. In this regard, at least, it couldn’t be further from the vast and deliberate structuralism of Watchmen. Indeed, it’s a far cry from Miracleman or Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow as well. All the same the similarities between the plots of Moore’s three works and that of Superfolks are real. And more to the point, Moore is open about the fact that he’d read Superfolks, although he downplays its influence, saying in 2001 that it was “influential on [Miracleman] and the idea of placing superheroes in hard times and in a browbeaten real world,” which means that it was on his mind in 1981, but that “by the time I did the last Superman stories” in 1986, he’d forgotten it. Certainly that was an eventful five years for him, and it’s easy to believe that a book he’d presumably read some years earlier might have slipped from his mind. A decade later he was more reticent, noting that “it was by no means the only influence, or even a major influence.” Indeed, Moore cites another influence, a 1967 poem by Brian Patten (which he wryly notes was “probably a bit early for Grant Morrison to have spotted it”) called “Where Are You Now, Batman?” The poem is an elegy for childhood heroes in general - it opens by asking “Where are you now, Batman? Now that Aunt Heriot has reported Robin missing / And Superman’s fallen asleep in the sixpenny childhood seats,” going on to muse on Captain Marvel, Sir Galahad, Zorro, Rocketman, and Flash Gordon, among others, concluding that “something in us has faded. / Has the Terrible Fiend, That Ghastly Adversary, / Mr Old Age, Caught you in his deadly trap, / And come finally to polish you off, / his machinegun dripping with years.” But its overall point is the same: the idea of looking at superheroes from a mournful and adult perspective.
This gestures towards a larger issue with treating Superfolks as a major antecedent to Watchmen, which is that very little of what Moore allegedly drew from it is actually all that innovative. Indeed, Pádraig Ó Méalóid, in a thorough analysis of Morrison’s claims, found that in almost every case either the similarities were overstated or an earlier antecedent could be found. (The sole exception was the use of Pxyzsyzgy, Mayer’s analogue for Mr. Mxyzptlk, as the ultimate villain behind everything, a plot point shared with the resolution of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.) But in many ways it’s more helpful to take a step backwards and look at what both Superfolks and Moore’s work are attempting, and situating it in a larger context. [continued]
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