She wasn't anyone special. She wasn't that brave, or that clever, or that strong. (The Last War in Albion Book Two, Part Eight: The Charlton Characters)

(13 comments)

The omnibus version of this chapter will be sent to backers in the next week or two.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: The god of Watchmen was revealed to be comprised of negative space; 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.

This is, perhaps, why so much ink has been spilled within the War on attempts to argue that this gap, in effect, does not exist - that Watchmen can be understood purely, or at least primarily, in terms of its influences, thus allowing those living in its wake to exist as though they are free from its vast and monolithic splendor. It is, after all, the easier option; it does not require staring too long at the cavernous depths within. It gives the comforting illusion that Watchmen is, at its heart, an easily solved mystery - a question with a definite answer. Nothing could be further from the truth, but for those who would otherwise find themselves caught in its blast, reduced to mere shadows cast by its incinerating radiance the idea that the book is simply some inevitable consequence of what came before is a useful delusion.

There are, of course, other factors involved in the particular obsession with Watchmen’s influences, most notably the fact that Moore and Gibbons have both asserted consistently that Watchmen was envisioned as a creator-owned book, a claim that makes the degree to which its ideas originated with Moore and Gibbons relevant. More broadly, the fact that Moore has made a number of provocative statements about the ways in which DC Comics and, more specifically, Grant Morrison have profited off of the recycling of his ideas has led to a small cottage industry in attempting to demonstrate Moore’s hypocrisy. And since Watchmen is both Moore’s most prestigious work and one with several well-documented influences, it has long been Exhibit A for these attempts.

Most attempts to argue that Watchmen can be explained primarily in terms of its influences have focused on its relationship with characters DC acquired from the failing Charlton Comics. As a company, Charlton was formed in 1944, and published comics in a number of genres. But for the purposes of Watchmen, only six of Charlton’s characters are actually relevant: Captain Atom, Thunderbolt, the Blue Beetle, the Question, the Peacemaker, and Nightshade. These characters come from a fairly narrow set of sources. Three of them - the Peacemaker, Nightshade, and Captain Atom were created by the astonishingly prolific Joe Gill, the latter two alongside Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, who also created the Question. They also generally originated in a fairly narrow band of time - Thunderbolt, Nightshade, and the Peacemaker all debuted in 1966, while the Question debuted in 1967 and Captain Atom in 1960. Only the Blue Beetle forms something of an exception, having existed in two forms - a Golden Age version that predated Charlton, created by Charles Nicholas Wojtkoski in 1939 for Fox Comics, and the Silver Age version created for Charlton in 1966 by Steve Ditko. 

Figure 867: The Shield, who was the original
character Moore intended to use for the role
that eventually became the Comedian, first
appeared in Pep Comics in 1939.
The relationship between Watchmen and these six characters is both well-documented and oft-misrepresented. In the eyes of his detractors, Moore’s contribution to Watchmen amounted to little more than changing the names of some obscure 60s superheroes, as in Dan Slott’s suggestion that “the real Before Watchmen comic would show Alan Moore reading stacks of Charlton comics.” Put bluntly, this is ridiculous. It is true that Moore’s first proposal to DC for what became Watchmen was titled Who Killed the Peacemaker, and made use of the Charlton characters. This was not, however, the earliest iteration of the story in the general case. As Moore puts it, he’d had “a vague story idea” along the lines of Watchmen in mind for years, based on the idea “that it would be quite interesting to take a group of innocent, happy-go-lucky superheroes like, say, the Archie Comics super-heroes, and suddenly drop them into a realistic and credible world,” noting that his “original idea had started off with the dead body of the Shield being pulled out of a river somewhere.” Then, while batting around ideas for a mooted DC project with Dave Gibbons, with whom he’d worked numerous times on 2000 AD, Moore found out that the Charlton characters had been recently acquired by DC and began developing the idea in detail with them, only to have DC ask him to rework it with original characters when it became obvious that Moore’s take was going to render the Charlton characters unsuitable for further use within DC. 

But, crucially, the entire reason for using the Charlton characters was that they, like the suite of Archie Comics superheroes he’d originally had in mind, were, in Moore’s words, “third-string heroes,” as opposed to “iconic figures like Superman, Batman, and Captain America.” In other words, the entire point of the exercise was that it would make use of characters who were effectively blank slates onto whom Moore could project whatever he wanted. The Charlton characters’ influence was, in practice, the complete and utter absence of any high quality, classic stories that might require any sort of substantive or direct engagement. Their influence is in many crucial regards almost an anti-influence, based primarily on the fact that the heroes are so anodyne as to impart little to a story save for the basic fact that they are historically existent superheroes.

Figure 868: The origin of Captain Atom. (Written by Joe Gill and Steve Ditko,
art by Steve Ditko, from, Space Adventures #33, 1960)
That said, there are numerous plot points within Watchmen that clearly exist because the project was developed with the Charlton characters in mind. The fact that Doctor Manhattan’s powers are based in imagery of nuclear power, for instance, is clearly a legacy of Captain Atom, whose origin also involved being disintegrated and reincorporated. Similarly, the idea of there being two versions of Night Owl, the first a cop, the second a brilliant inventor, clearly originates in the publication history of the Blue Beetle, whose two incarnations have similar origins. Other small plot details such as the relationship between Doctor Manhattan and Silk Spectre also clearly originate in the details of the Charlton characters. In other words, even though Moore’s initial idea for Watchmen predated the idea of doing it with the Charlton characters, it’s undeniably the case that Watchmen, in its finished form, was influenced by the fact that it spent a period being developed as a revamp of six characters previously owned by Charlton Comics.

Figure 869: The uncomplicated patriotism of Captain Atom. (Written by Joe
Gill, art by Steve Ditko, from Space Adventures #38, 1960)
Equally, however, it’s clear that Moore was always interested in what Charlton didn’t do. His oft-reprinted pitch using the Charlton characters, for instance, focuses heavily on the psychology of the character, musing, “try to imagine what it would be like to be Captain America. The desk you’re sitting at and the chair you’re sitting on give less of an impression of reality and solidity to you if you know that you can walk through them as if they weren’t there at all. Everything around you is somehow more insubstantial and ghostly, including the people that you know and love.” This, it should be stressed, is not a theme that is substantively explored in Joe Gill’s original Captain Atom stories in Space Adventures, which are entirely unconcerned with the character’s interiority. More importantly, Moore highlights his unfamiliarity with the character when discussing this theme, noting that he “can’t remember if the Captain had a human love-interest back in those early days before Nightshade, but let’s say that he had, for the sake of argument. She is now forty-four, and she looks and feels forty-four as well. The young man that once she loved and possibly slept with is still as youthful and virile as ever, and it’s she who has aged and started past her prime. How would she feel about that? How would Captain Atom feel watching her grow old and eventually die while he remained the same constantly?” (Indeed, in a fact never remarked upon when Moore’s detractors bring up the Charlton characters, Moore openly admits in the Charlton pitch that “there are large amounts of the details concerning the Charlton characters that I’m simply unfamiliar with,” explaining that “there were hardly any comic shops over here in the Sixties, and I had to rely entirely upon the incredibly spotty newsstand distribution. On top of this, I had foolishly bound all of my beloved Charlton material into a book and then lent it to someone who I never saw again. As a result, most of the character details that I have built upon below are based upon my unreliable memory.”) Moore’s discussion of how Captain Atom would alter the geopolitical scene is similarly based in an active reaction against the actual Charlton material, in which Captain Atom is an uncomplicatedly jingoistic figure, generally suggesting that the best solution to the nuclear arm’s race would be if the United States won it, a situation that, in Joe Gill’s world, would be an unalloyed good. 

Figure 870: The Peacemaker is defined
largely by his reluctance to engage in
violence. (Written by Joe Gill, art by Pat
Boyette, from Fightin' 5 #40, 1966)
More to the point, however, it’s clear that the decision to abandon the Charlton characters gave the project a significant creative jolt, especially with regards to the Comedian and Silk Spectre, who Moore evolves considerably from their original inspirations. When writing about Nightshade in the Charlton pitch, for example, Moore openly admits that “she’s the one I know the least about and have the least ideas on,” save for a vague desire to explore the idea of superhero sexuality in terms of her. It’s not until he creates Silk Spectre that the character begins to have any significant distinguishing characteristics, as she becomes “another second-generation super-hero similar to the new Nite-Owl,” a concept with no antecedent in Nightshade, and which forms the core of the actual Watchmen character. Similarly, Moore notes that the Comedian is “the most radically different of all our new characters to the original,” which is a considerable understatement. Joe Gill and Pat Boyette’s Peacemaker is an avowed pacifist defined by his use of non-lethal weaponry. The Comedian, on the other hand, is an openly nihilistic figure who clearly enjoys violence, a concept that is not so much based on the Peacemaker as it is the outright opposite.

Figure 871: The uncompromisingly moralistic philosophic monologue is a
key part of Mr. A. (By Steve Ditko, from witzend #4, 1968)
But there is one area in which the relationship between the Charlton material and Watchmen is more complex and worth delving into, which is the evolution of Rorschach from Steve Ditko’s The Question. In the Charlton pitch, Moore talks about how the Question “is concerned with Truth and Morality, and if that means breaking corrupt laws that only exist because of the actions of dissident pressure groups and minorities, then he will break them without thinking about it.” This, at least, is well-grounded in the original comics, where the Question’s alter-ego was the crusading journalist Vic Sage, who repeatedly refuses to back down from investigating corruption no matter how much pressure is put on him and the station he works for. But in citing the strict line between good and evil, Moore is drawing as much from another Ditko-created character of the period, namely Mr. A, who Ditko created for Wally Wood’s underground book witzend, and who the Question was designed as a Comics Code-acceptable version of. Like the Question, Mr. A is a journalist/vigilante hero, but where the Question is generally written as a example of moral rightness, Mr. A stories are long on explicit lectures about the nature of good and evil. The first Mr. A comic, for instance, opens with Mr. A proclaiming, “fools will tell you that there can be no honest person! That there are no blacks or whites… that everyone is gray! But if there are no blacks or whites, there cannot even be a gray… since grayness is just a mixture of black and white! So when one knows what is black, evil, and what is white, good, there can be no justification for choosing any part of evil! Those who do so choose are not gray but black and evil… and they will be treated accordingly,” an opening that’s clearly what Moore is riffing on when, in “At Midnight All The Agents,” he has Rorschach declare that “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 is more to this than might be immediately apparent. [continued]

Comments

Daibhid C 1 year, 8 months ago

only to have DC ask him to rework it with original characters when it became obvious that Moore’s take was going to render the Charlton characters unsuitable for further use within DC.

I've never really got this. I mean, it's 1986. Crisis on Infinite Earths has already happened, but there are still some books set in the Before. Why not put Watchmen on Earth-Four? It's not like you're planning on using those versions of the characters again anyway. I know Peacemaker appeared in Crisis, which is a problem, but not an insurmountable one, given the nature of the Crisis - this is set "after" the Crisis in local universe terms but "before" it in terms of the Crisis itself. (Like all Earth-One Legion of Super-Heroes stories.)

try to imagine what it would be like to be Captain America.

Atom?

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Spoilers Below 1 year, 8 months ago

Joe McCullough wrote a lovely (and very exhaustive) piece on Steve Ditko for ComicsComics about 5 years ago, comparing his latest published comics to his older material (including Mr. A) that's well worth your time if you're interested in the man and his history. I've always found him a fascinating figure.

http://comicscomicsmag.com/?p=8320

The Watchmen relevant section:

"Only through an intense examination of Ditko’s work is it possible to appreciate exactly how thoroughly he was parodied by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in their seminal Watchmen, through the Question analogue character of Rorschach. For one thing, Moore takes the clipped manner of Ditko’s ‘abridged’ style of dialogue and hardens it a little into fuller sentences to make it sound like the rantings of a mentally ill person. Instead of proudly embodying the best in humanity as a crusading reporter, Rorschach parades around in his civilian guise declaring the end of the world, eventually submitting his work to a fringe right-wing magazine. His noir uniform is stained and filthy in a mockery of Mr. A’s clean white gear, so essential to embodying the white (good) vs. the black (bad).

"Moreover, in visual terms, the name Rorschach signifies a blend of white and black into a blot that can only be subjectively read – there is no place for Reason in that, much like how Rorschach’s mask constantly, inexplicably shifts in its blend of white and black, an unsteadiness more becoming of a Ditko villain, especially the new ones we’ve seen here.

Granted, Rorschach is right about a lot of things going on in Watchmen, and he’s eventually dignified with a climactic glittering death, wiped from existence by Dr. Manhattan, the analogue to Captain Atom, Ditko’s very first superhero – the metaphor needs no major unpacking. Ditko, who contributed greatly to four of six primary Watchmen characters, would sink into the background as the superhero concepts he worked on adopted lives reactive to their societal context – ongoing adventures, which do tend to supplicate the Individual before the Collective that is continuity. How then, could a compassionate fellow like Moore not feel a little for Ditko? How could a now-decried iconoclast not admire that stick-to-your-guns steel that Ditko has lived, and that Rorschach/the Question/Mr. A embodies?"

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Spoilers Below 1 year, 8 months ago

Whoops, that should be "Joe McCulloch" not "McCullough"!

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timber-munki 1 year, 8 months ago

The idea behind Crisis on Infinite Earths was to streamline their operations by getting rid of the multiple earths concept that had accumulated through the prior 50 years of DC/National Publications and acquisition history so having a story set on one of the alternate realities their marquee title had just spent a year destroying/assimilating would muddy the water creatively.

Whilst they're super heros so would have eventually come back from the dead, the Watchmen storyline executed with the Charlton characters would have created an indelible mark on them, akin to Henry Pym's domestic violence, effectively ruining (From a marketing perspective) them potentially for decades, as it is Watchmen can serve as a continuity--free introduction to the ideas & themes of the characters as well as providing new readers an excuse to avoid the execrably lettered Charlton material.

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timber-munki 1 year, 8 months ago

The thing is, with Ditko's world view from his comics (As with any derived from Ayn Rand's ideas IMO) is that it comes across as an attempt to make sociopathy socially acceptable, a perspective that I feel Moore would have no issue with ridiculing.

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Ice 1 year, 8 months ago

“original idea had started off with the dead body of the Shield being pulled out of a river somewhere.”

I did not know this. The only thing I've ever really known about The Shield is the similarities to Captain America. This, coupled with this quote:

“iconic figures like Superman, Batman, and Captain America.”

I wonder if The Comedian might have drawn some inspiration from Captain America.

Millar's Ultimate Cap from the 90's kind of reminds me of The Comedian, now that I think about it...

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Ice 1 year, 8 months ago

A post on the Alan Moore sub-reddit this week has a letter from Steve Ditko. (Here's the link: http://imgur.com/gallery/fE67BG2)

Ditko replies to a writer's questions about Watchmen and Pax Americana, saying he's "not familiar with the WATCHMEN".

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Daibhid C 1 year, 8 months ago

Yeah, that makes sense.I was considering the fact that there were still Earth-One titles being published, as DC worked out what Post-Crisis Earth was actually like, but I suppose they saw that as a problem, and one they were disinclined to make worse.

Likewise, when you've got a multiverse in place, you can do Pax Americana and everyone understands that this Captain Atom isn't that Captain Atom, but if you're also saying "No more parallel universes", and the "alternate" versions of the characters are the most visible ones, then yeah, that becomes "how the characters are".

Objection withdrawn.

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Neo Tuxedo 1 year, 8 months ago

On the subject of "attempt[s] to make sociopathy socially acceptable," I just want to mention that, scrolling past the Mr. A panel just now, despite having seen it on previous viewings of this entry, I read "Mr. A" as "MRA". (And I don't know about anyone else, but Objectivists and MGTOW sound a lot alike to me.)

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Matthew Blanchette 1 year, 8 months ago

I read it as "MRA", too. Not surprising.

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Spoilers Below 1 year, 8 months ago

The thing about Ditko is that he takes objectivism more seriously than 99% of its followers do, including Leonard Peikoff, Nathaniel Branden, and probably even Rand herself. Dude does not compromise under any circumstances, does not take short cuts, does not do any work not for himself or accept charity or ask to be let out of contracts that he signed, and the result is he lives in a crappy apartment in NYC drawing weird comics he sells for a pittance to hardcore fans who mostly don't care for his philosophy and are only buying them on the strength of work he did 40+ years ago. He uses old Spider-Man pencils for cutting boards because he feels it would be immoral to sell work that he drew under contract for another company, and anyways the finished product is what matters, not the drawings themselves, which are trash -- despite being worth a fortune to collectors. He could breathe at Disney and they'd throw millions at him to prevent a very justifiable lawsuit, but he's never so much as lifted a finger -- because he didn't work on the movies, action figures, lunch boxes, etc. he doesn't feel entitled to money from them.

If he'd written The Fountainhead, it would end with Roark in jail, not applauded by the masses. Ditko was completely aware of how unpopular his philosophies made him, and a great deal of his stories end with the hero alone, or actively being trashed by his compatriots for being a jerk or a hard-ass. Many of The Question stories leave it open as to whether the hero's actions have actually done anything at all to improve the world at large.

He's the kind of guy MRA types wish they could be, but, you know, without the whole living as a recluse in poverty with no wife or children thing. They want to ignore the almost Catholic guilt that Ditko's work carries with it, the level of responsibility that one has when one has the power to help others, and the lack of absolution possible for crimes one commits against one's own moral code. (Think of Spider-Man's constant guilt over Uncle Ben's death, a death that occurred because Spider-Man didn't stop the robbery.)

I'm definitely not an objectivist -- Rand's philosophy itself has plenty of holes, to be sure, and the rigid inflexibility of character's like Mr. A I find appalling -- but I do find Ditko fascinating, and maintain a great deal of respect for the man for keeping to his moral code despite hardship -- even if others who follow said code tend to be huge jerks. Plus, there is a lot to like in his comics. He's a lovely artist with a great imagination.

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Philip Sandifer 1 year, 8 months ago

Yeah, the thing about Rorschach is really that he's so ruthless a Steve Ditko parody that it's hard to imagine Ditko doing much more than shrugging and saying "yeah fair enough" and getting on with being Steve Ditko.

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Daru 1 year, 8 months ago

Loving this section on the Charlton characters. Not much more to say just now except that it's great reading about a background to the Watchmen characters that I had only vaguely read and heard about.

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