Friday, December 30, 2011

Proto-Watchmen

Watchmen has become one the seminal comic book stories of the past several decades. It's probably been read and discussed and poured over more than just about any other single work that's come out, certainly since 1970. So it's also fairly common knowledge that Alan Moore's original idea pitch was largely based around the Charlton characters that DC had then-recently acquired, but wasn't doing anything with. DC editor Dick Giordano liked the general story, but didn't want to use the Charlton heroes. Allegedly because it killed them many of them off, preventing their future use. But since everybody knew, even back in the 1980s, that death wasn't permanent in comic books, I suspect Giordano's decision also had something to do with the fact that he helped create many of those very same characters when he was an editor at Charlton.
"Helped create" is probably a bit strong. I gather that he said something more like, "We need some superheroes like Marvel, but only with less powers to make them more mortal." And Steve Ditko came back with a de-powered Captain Atom, a new Blue Beetle and the Question. But since Giordano was heralding this new "Action Heroes" line, it's hard to imagine that he didn't hold some emotional ties to the characters.

In any event, I've been reading the copy of Action Heroes Archives volume 2 that I received for Christmas. It reprints a lot of those old Charlton stories. And you know what? It's all there.

Everything that Moore did in Watchmen? All the elements for it were there in those Charlton books. I mean, obviously, there's no rape scene with Peacemaker and Nightshade, and the Question isn't shown watching his mother whore herself out on a nightly basis, but drawing those types of elements out of what Charlton did publish is not that much of a stretch. There's a seemingly congenial relationship between Captain Atom and Nightshade, but he's still a very cold character. They're also the only government-sanctioned heroes of the bunch. Blue Beetle shows a fair amount of insecurity and isn't actually all that effective as a hero. There's even an insult hurled towards the Question about how he doesn't "smell so pure."

I say that intending absolutely no disservice to Moore; what he wrote with Watchmen is exceptionally well-done on all counts. He doesn't steal or swipe from Charlton; it's just a larger springboard than I assumed. I had always figured that Moore was largely working with character archetypes and could have just as easily been referring to Superman, Batman, etc. No, he was clearly and definitively starting from the Charlton pool.

I'd always heard of the Charlton basis for Watchmen, but never really understood just how deep that connection was, and just how much of Ditko's work consequently shows up in Moore's. I wanted to see the Action Heroes Archives just to see what Ditko did, but it's making for a surprisingly much deeper understanding of what Moore did as well.

2 comments:

Matt K said...

Huh. This is very interesting.

Honestly, given DC's apparent determination to "extend the Watchmen brand" with more material, it seems like there would be real potential for packaging up some of this material as a kind of "co-branded" tie-in volume.

Though maybe this would seem just too "legitimate" a project and not nearly offensive enough to join Watchmen2 on the schedule. ;-)

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