Superheroes in Flux–Watchmen Part 2

No Truths, Only Truths

Authorship in comics is a tricky business. Superheroes and the trajectory of their identities, more often than not, take on lives of their own. The legendary ones are written by slews of authors and drawn by dozens of different artists. At peak popularity, they go on to live in video games, movies, TV shows, and even the covers of lunchboxes. This is both the modern norm and this is how it has been for decades; it is the art and business of comic books as we know them. But what happens when the author fights this process tooth and nail, and what does that indicate for the meaning of his work? This is exactly the case for Alan Moore over his long career.


Alan Moore made no secret of his distaste for others expanding upon his work in movies, prequels, or any other derivative material. In his interview with Susan Karlin, he states, 

“It seems a bit desperate to go after a book famous for its artistic integrity. It’s a finite series … Watchmen was said to actually provide an alternative to the superhero story as an endless soap opera. To turn that into just another superhero comic that goes on forever demonstrates exactly why I feel the way I do about the comics industry. It’s mostly about franchises.” [ 1 ]

Unfortunately for Moore, his sentiments haven’t stopped the industry from making movies of several of his books (including V for Vendetta and Watchmen), and franchised they certainly are, down to vinyl toys, Silk Spectre Halloween costumes, and Guy Fawkes masks. The conflict of interest here raises several questions: What is the importance of the author’s intent after that work is released into the wild of public readership? How does expansion and derivation from the original work (especially one as well-regarded and thoroughly praised as Watchmen) affect the meaning of the original text?

These are philosophical questions, and in order to play ball with them, we must move to the tennis court of literary theory. When it comes to this subject, Roland Barthes is the man to see with questions regarding the tumultuous love triangle of author, text, and reader. In his essay The Death of the Author he states, “… it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality … that point where language alone acts …” [ 2 ]. This means that, according to this theory, the text and all its meanings and intentions must stand on their own ability to communicate the idea. The author is not involved with the reader’s interpretation in this philosophy. Ideally, the text should not need a supplement of the author’s extraneous input and the reader must consider the author’s intent inaccessible and divorced from the material (just as if the author were truly dead).

Although it seems counter-intuitive, the concept makes sense. Barthes insists that we evaluate text on its own merit rather than the legacy, reputation, or intentions of the author. If critics evaluated books by the name and reputation of the person who wrote them rather than the quality of the work itself why would the book matter at all? If authors don’t communicate intent and ideas to readers by means of the work itself, they have failed in their craft. If the reader can’t see it in the text, the author’s opportunity has passed to make his or her message known. What all of this headache-inducing theory talk means for our purposes is that, according to Barthes’ theory, Watchmen (the work itself) should make it clear from its very content, that it should remain hermetically sealed as a complete, masterful, bulletproof work of art, invincible to derivative attempts.

The Inevitable Derivative Attempt

Outside the scope of this writing, the 2019 HBO series of the same name takes place after the classic narrative, and promised to be truer to the spirit and intent of Moore’s writing. How successfully it did so, is a debate for a different thesis.

Does Watchmen achieve this independence of meaning in spite of attempts to recreate it? Does it shake off being defined by spin-off material? The best way to explore this is to look at the spin off itself. Before Watchmen: Minutemen is a prequel account of the original Minutemen told from (the original Night Owl) Hollis Mason’s perspective as he tries to write a brutally honest memoir in atonement for his shortcomings as a vigilante. He faces resistance from fellow heroes, friends, and enemies alike as they are less willing than Hollis to show the skeletons in their closets. The scope of this story fills in many gaps in the original Watchmen graphic novel and this act is problematic for the meaning of the original. The spaces in plot and explanation within the original are intentionally ambiguous. 

For example, in the original Watchmen, the details of how Sally (The Silk Spectre) eventually forgave the Comedian (Edward Blake) for his rape attempt and then had consensual sex with him are left intentionally unknown; an absence that carries important weight for the story. The new comic attempts to resolve what was meant to be unresolvable, as Sarah Donovan and Nick Richardson state in their essay “Watchwomen

“Rather than offer a feminist justification or condemnation of Sally’s actions, it is actually in line with the graphic novel itself not to resolve this question. The whole point of that storyline is that it resists interpretation according to any theory—it is utterly too messy and complex. The attempted rape, the subsequent consensual relationship, and Laurie as the end product of it are meant to sit side by side in the graphic novel in an unresolved fashion” [ 3 ].

In the fourth chapter of Minutemen, called “War Stories,” the Comedian encounters Sally for the first time after the rape attempt. They meet at Ursula’s funeral and Blake tells Sally about his time at war. Blake says, “Sally. I just came to pay my respects, same as you. I’ll go if you want, but it would be nice to talk. It’s been a long time, Sal” [ 4 ]. This, combined with his following account gives the impression of a softened Edward Blake, at odds with his younger, more unscrupulous self. He tells Sally how a local woman saved his life during an attack. He sought to save the woman and her son from an incoming round of artillery, but to no avail. The captain was apathetic towards their lives and Blake’s protests. Blake tries to save them, but can ultimately only avenge their deaths by killing the captain. 

He explains the motivation of his actions, saying, “Six o’ my men were dead and I hardly felt it. But the thought of the woman and the kid … y’know? They’d saved my life, I guess. I figured I owed them” [ 5 ]. Only the prequel paints Blake in this light. In the original Watchmen, he remains consistently amoral, before, during and after war time, and this is reinforced by Dr. Manhattan saying of Blake (in the original Watchmen), “I have never met anyone so deliberately amoral” [ 6 ]. Coming from a being who knows the past, present, and future of the entire universe, this carries considerable importance. It implies that there’s no moment of even faint morality in the scope of Blake’s life for Dr. Manhattan to observe. This version is clearly at odds with Minutemen’s Comedian. It shows a gentler Blake, who behaves like a human rather than a psychopathic monster.

Another complication is the expansion of The Silhouette’s character. Minutemen paints Ursula as a survivor from Nazi subjugation and a pure heroine determined to save children from the abuse and terror which she had survived. Minutemen’s Silhouette ends up with Mothman and Night Owl as they work together in a more altruistic subset of the Minutemen, set on finding an unknown predator who kidnaps and abuses children [ 7 ]. Ursula is focused on her work, not on marketing herself or her sex appeal, which contrasts sharply to Sally’s shameless self-promotion. As Hollis says in Minutemen, “Now Sally Jupiter was a whole different story. Not so much fearsome justice as unbridled capitalism” [ 8 ]. In contrast, the Silhouette is not for sale. Watchmen and Minutemen show that Ursula dresses modestly, in smartly cut black outfits, like a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Sam Spade, hinting at both class and incisive intelligence. Even in the original, where she hardly says anything, she quips sharply towards Sally about the war [ 6 ]. Both stories contain the following plot points: she was one of the original Minutemen, she was voted out because of her homosexuality, and her life ends due to a brutal hate crime in which she and her lover are gruesomely murdered in bed.

Though her prequel character has depth and development, her brief presence in the original is deliberate. The fact that she is originally silenced and relegated to the background (both literally in the visual representation, and figuratively) speaks volumes about the culture of the so-called Golden Age. She is erased by being voted out of the Minutemen because she is a lesbian. She is erased by being murdered in a hate crime. More subtly, however, she is erased from memory. This implies that, in the Golden Age, there is only room for one kind of feminine agency. Sally is successful because she adheres to the rule of the day that she be sexy, heterosexual, and managed by a man (her husband). Sally’s toughness and real strength is permissible within the era only because it can be shrugged off by an adoring public as the sexy gimmick of a pin-up girl [ 6 ]. Ursula refuses this framework, so she is whitewashed out of the nostalgia. 

We begin to see a parallel to this in the modern incarnation of Batwoman, now a lesbian in the DC continuity. No stranger to a disappearance herself, the character was killed off in 1979, and subsequently absent from the DC lineup for some time [ 9 ]. Since her resurrection, her more clearly defined sexuality has garnered no end of criticism. Her creator has staunchly defended her against a tide of fans that would see her the way fictional bigots saw Silhouette. Greg Rucka went on to say: “It is an element of her character. It is not her character. If people are going to have problems with it, that’s their issue. That’s certainly not mine” [ 10 ]. The framework of this new scenario and its setting are effectively different—a struggle in the modern day, not the 1940s; pitted against toxic fandom, not lynch mobs. Switch these around, and each story might play out very differently.

In light of these differences between the original and the new Minutemen prequel, I argue that the original remains intact and its meaning remains. This has nothing to do with the fact that Alan Moore (in the capacity of the person rather than the author) has feelings and wants opposed to it, but because Watchmen itself retains an airtight quality that resists watering down, in spite of intense and lucrative attempts. I argue this because of how the characters are altered throughout the spin off, in ways which are inherently and logically incongruous with the original work. It can be reasonably said that Cooke’s softened Edward Blake could not possibly be Moore’s Edward Blake. Nor could the Silhouette as she exists in Cooke’s story be the same Silhouette of Moore’s Watchmen, just by the virtue of her amplified visibility. In other words, the original work holds up. It has earned its own pedestal and has yet to be nudged off. The reader, of course, has every right to interpret the original and the derivative matter as combined cannon, regardless of the original author’s desires. However, an analytical reader must admit the inconsistent execution makes them two very different works, with two very different interpretations, and with two very different truths to tell.

Alan Moore was rather vocal about his concerns and grievances with adaptation of this story into other media. Nevertheless, the cinematic release was as inevitable as the tides.

Images

  1. “Outside the scope of this writing, the 2019 HBO series of the same name takes place after the classic narrative, and promised to be truer to the spirit and intent of Moore’s writing. How successfully it did so, is a debate for a different thesis.” Source: https://www.menshealth.com/entertainment/a29814793/hbo-watchmen-giant-squid/ Watchmen: An HBO Limited Series. Created by Damon Lindelof, White Rabbit, Paramount Television and DC Entertainment, 2019.
  2. “Alan Moore was rather vocal about his concerns and grievances with adaptation of this story into other media. Nevertheless, the cinematic release was as inevitable as the tides.” Source:https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0409459/. Snyder, Zack. Watchmen. Warner Bros., 2009.

A true Renaissance woman, Katherine’s a studious nerd across a wealth of disciplines. When not inhabiting her bellydance persona, she loves to wash off the lipstick, throw on her glasses, and inhale a new subject or technique. From dance, literature, art, neurobiology, or linguistics, she’s invested and taking notes. Her passions are constructive something— whether it’s new choreography or various written forms. Recruited out of TempleCon, she’s been a staunch contributor. Her series “Chasing At Shadows” analyzes comic adaptations and other fiction through the lens of film Noir.

Resources

  1. Karlin, Susan. “Alan Moore On Watchmen’s ‘Toxic Cloud’ And Creativity V. Big Business” Fast Company, Fast Company, Inc., 14 Feb 2014. fastcompany.com/1679856/alan-moore-on-watchmen-s-toxic-cloud-and-creativity-v-big-business.
  2. Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Collected in Barthes, Image, Music, Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. Hill and Wang, 1988, pp. 142–147.
  3. Donovan, Sarah and Nick Richardson. “Watchwomen.” in Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test. John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  4. Cooke, Darwyn. Before Watchmen: Minutemen. DC Comics, 2012, p. 87
  5. Cooke, Darwyn. Before Watchmen: Minutemen. DC Comics, 2012, p. 93
  6. Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. DC Comics, 1986.
  7. Cooke, Darwyn. Before Watchmen: Minutemen. DC Comics, 2012, p. 50
  8. Cooke, Darwyn. Before Watchmen: Minutemen. DC Comics, 2012, p. 15
  9. Ciampaglia, Dante A. “Fear of a Gay Batman Brought Batwoman to Life.” History, A&E TV, 16 Aug 2018 (updated 12 Jan 2021). history.com/news/gay-batman-fears-batwoman.
  10. Renaud, Jeffrey. “Greg Rucka Talks ‘Detective Comics.’” Comic Book Resources, Valnet, Inc., 9 Feb 2009. cbr.com/greg-rucka-talks-detective-comics.