Previously in The Last War in Albion:The intricate fictional history of Watchmen is based closely on the history of DC Comics, and the characters served as analogues (albeit imprecise ones) for the archetypal heroes of DC.
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
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. [continued]