Watchmen’s fans are legion; though, so are some of its critics. What is agreed, however, is the effect the book had on comic books as a genre and an art form. It turned them upside down and shook them around for good measure. The reason is simple enough: Watchmen questioned superheroes; it made them flawed and eerily human.
And Watchmen’s heroes are flawed: a killer and likely rapist (the only rape attempted is blocked, but one guesses he’s done this before, particularly given his behaviour in Vietnam); a megalomaniac with delusions of eloquence and a near-unmatched superiority complex; a god on earth who has distanced himself completely from the man he once was; a young woman pushed too far by an overbearing mother; an aging, overweight tech nerd who can’t seem to get an erection unless he’s in his super-suit; and then there’s the sociopath. This brief description doesn’t even speak to the strange characters comprising The Minutemen.
It’s a world where heroes are real. They interact with the people and places around them – they breathe the air; they taste the food; they step in the shit. It’s a brilliant idea, and Moore and Gibbons brought it to what they felt was a logical conclusion. I’m less than convinced by the book’s climax, but its echoes twenty years on, minus the tentacles, are disturbing.
No one had really thought to do this in any major way before Watchmen. There were blips here and there – Iron Man’s alcoholism, Batman’s pathos, etc. – but nothing of the same size or scope. These flawed, humane stories were generally limited to an issue here or there – “Demon in a Bottle”, for example. Interestingly enough, though, around the same time as Watchmen came a little-known title with similar themes by Epic, Marvel’s mature line in the 80s, by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill called Marshal Law.
I’m paraphrasing Garth Ennis here, but where he thinks superheroes are just silly, Pat Mills hates them. A quick flip through Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing drives the point home. The book’s about a small secret police force that polices superheroes. Superheroes in Mills’s world are veterans from a war who were all bred to be Nietzchian ubermensch, and when they came back, well, some of them didn’t adjust so well. They were used to tearing people apart, and they kept doing it. Throw the following into the mix: rape (again), drug addiction and steroid abuse, and a fellow with a tail.
The backdrop of war, or at least shadows of violent conflict, seems key to questioning superheroes: Watchmen, Marshal Law, Black Summer, The Boys, No Hero. It makes sense; in these worlds where heroes are questioned and made “real”, they’re almost all put to the most logical use: violence. Both Watchmen and Marshal Law echo the horrors and subsequent fallout of Vietnam. Governments and shadow governments also permeate these books. These heroes need to be kept in line somehow, whether that be government employees like The Comedian or Dr Manhattan, the police forces of The Boys and Marshal Law, or the covert organizations that infest Warren Ellis’s titles, there’s someone watching the heroes.
The funniest are by far Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys – a title that owes more than a passing nod to both Watchmen and Marshal Law. The Boys are a group of government employees who keep superheroes in line – and give them the odd slap when it’s needed. Where Mills’s heroes are frustrated supersoldiers prone to addiction, abuse, and violence, Ennis’s heroes, while occasionally partaking of the above, are simple and incompetent. However, their incompetence has disastrous consequences, including this world’s analogy to the September 11 attacks (the towers still stand in The Boys’ New York, but the Brooklyn Bridge is no more).
Violence is their outlet and their purpose. Heroes in these worlds exist as battle-lords and executioners. Their power is rarely contained, however, and requires stern policing. Some heroes carry this to very dark places and quite horrible atrocities, while others distance themselves from humanity like gods. The common thread, beyond flawed characterization and violence, is that heroes are incapable of remaining human; they exist outside our world, even when they’ve been sandwiched into it through critical eyes and narratives. No writer or artist can blend the worlds; if heroes exist, they need, by their very nature, to be apart from us.