Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986)

Watchmen was initially published as a limited series of 12 comic books in 1986. It was subsequently packaged up into an omnibus paperback volume, which I bought for my son’s birthday a few years ago.

The pictures are by Dave Gibbons, but it is the complex, multi-layered narrative written by Alan Moore which critics instantly realised as something new and epoch-making in comic books. Watchmen won hosts of prizes and has come to be seen as a founding masterpiece of the (then new) genre of graphic novels, and one of the most influential comic stories ever written.

Its importance stems from:

  • the complexity of the narrative with its numerous intertextual elements
  • the cynical, jaded attitude shown by all the characters throughout
  • and the downbeat ending where the ‘goodies’ (if that’s what they are) do not defeat the baddie

The plot

1. Background

The story is set in a parallel universe in the 1980s. It is essentially the real world but with some key changes. (The story is, naturally enough, set in New York, home of most superhero narratives.)

In this alternative universe, back in the 1930s, various guys and women took up the new fad for caped law enforcers, with the result that there was a rash, an outburst, of masked vigilantes.

Some of them genuinely excelled at what they did –

  • Adrian Veidt who named himself ‘Ozymandias’, was the cleverest man in the world, who developed a corporate empire based on merchandising his own character
  • the ‘Night Owl’ was a technical genius who built gadgets and a flying ship to help him fight crime

Others were more run-of-the-mill, ordinary guys and gals, who liked dressing up and a good fight, examples being the self-named ‘Dollar Bill’, ‘the Mothman’, ‘Hooded Justice’ or ‘the Comedian’.

At the end of the decade these self-declared heroes came together to form a crime-busting association called the Minutemen in 1940. The narrative jumps back and forth between this founding meeting, and later meetings, up to and including a decisive one in the 1960s.

So many masked vigilantes came on the scene during these decades that the U.S. government eventually passed a law in 1977, the Keene Act, banning them. At that point – seven or eight years before our narrative begins – most of them hung up their masks and capes, and settled into comfortable, or less comfortable, middle-aged retirement.

2. The story

The ‘now’ of the narrative, is October 1985.

What triggers the story is the murder of one of the old vigilantes, the so-called ‘Comedian’. He is beaten up and thrown out of a window.

A member of the old gang team, Rorschach (so-named because mysterious constantly changing black and white patterns move across his mask), investigates the murder. We are privy to his thoughts which are written in exactly the tough guy style of Raymond Chandler, describing the city as a sewer and its inhabitants as vermin.

Rorschach starts at the scene of the crime, where the Comedian landed – splat – on the pavement. He goes on to visit Dan Dreiberg – once the so-called ‘Night Owl’ – as well as ‘Dr Manhattan’, to ask them what they knew about the Comedian in his retirement.

The narrative then leaves Rorschach to show us the backstory of the Night Owl, but especially of Dr Manhattan, arguably the most interesting character in the book.

Whereas most of the other Minutemen are just strong, athletic men and women with a fondness for dressing up in tight outfits and punching muggers, Dr. Manhattan is a genuinely genetically-altered superhero. Originally he was Dr Jonathan Osterman, a nuclear physicist who, in 1959, got trapped inside an ‘Intrinsic Field Subtractor’, was obliterated down to his constituent sub-atomic particles, before managing – nobody knows how – to reconstruct himself.

This rebuilt, molecularly perfect Osterman is now tall, statuesque, and a vibrating blue colour.

When he went along to meet the other Minutemen he took the moniker ‘Dr Manhattan’. He has a winningly Zen approach to life, the universe and everything, seeing that he can not only manipulate all metal substances, but can also foresees the future. Humans bore him.

The movie makes clearer what, for me, was rather obscure in the book, which is that it was with this apparently random incident – the creation of Dr Manhattan – that the alternative universe of the comic book diverges from history as we know it.

The divergences become quite drastic because, once he was fully reconstituted, Dr Manhattan put himself at the disposal of the U.S. government who immediately drafted him into their war machine and Cold War strategy.

He was sent to Vietnam, where he appears as an indestructible blue giant capable of destroying all the North Vietnamese weaponry (tanks and machine guns). Thus the North surrender within weeks, and Richard Nixon becomes a hero for winning the war. (In a throwaway line, typical of the density of the references and ideas in the text, we learn that the investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein were bumped off in a multi-storey car park and so never got to report the Watergate scandal, with the result that President Nixon – in this universe – was been elected for an unprecedented third term. In fact, Nixon is on his fifth term when the book is set.)

Dr Manhattan lives with the former ‘Silk Spectre II’, real name Laurie Juspeczyk, daughter of the original ‘Silk Spectre’ superheroine from the 1940s.

(In a digression which is typical both for its complex filling-in of the back story, and for its brutality, we are shown the scene where, after one of the 1940s meetings, the Comedian badly beats up and begins to rape the Silk Spectre before being interrupted by some of the other superheroes who then beat him up. This incident, disturbing in itself – and obviously quite a jarring ‘subversion’ of the superhero mythos – echoes and re-echoes, like so many other incidents, throughout the text).

But Laurie is getting fed up with Dr Manhattan’s lack of emotion (in a great scene she discovers that while he is ‘making love’ to her, his true self is carrying on conducting experiments in his laboratory – the love-maker is merely a clone: he can clone himself at will, in real time).

After a big row, Laurie leaves him and turns up on the doorstep of Dan Dreiberg, ‘Night Owl II’ who, she wanly confesses, is now more or less her only friend from ‘the old times’. After some chat, they have sex – as Laurie’s full-busted figure all along suggests she will – and then don the old costumes and go out in Night Owl’s impressive flying machine to fight crime.

Meanwhile, Dr Manhattan has been persuaded against his better judgement to do a TV interview – but instead of being praised for being a key element in America’s Cold War protective armoury, he is surprised by an investigative reporter who bombards him with accusations that everyone he’s worked with has got sick from radiation poisoning.

Dr Manhattan is hounded off the set and out of the studio doors by the audience and a baying crowd, crystallising his feeling that he’s had it with puny mortals and their silly concerns. In front of this live audience, Manhattan teleports himself to Mars. Here, in complete peace and quiet, he creates a palace from his thoughts alone.

This very public disappearance of America’s most important military asset badly affects the balance of power in the ongoing Cold War, and is a key moment in the plot – for the Russians decide to test the resolve of the West, now that their key weapon has so publicly and spectacularly resigned.

Multi-leveled text

The text is complex and multi-leveled. Here are some of the other elements:

1. Newsvendor We keep being taken back to a newsvendor on a street corner in New York, who reads out the day’s news headlines, news which is echoed on the TV sets which various characters watch or have on in the background of conversations.

The reappearance of the newsvendor in each of the twelve instalments is a device for showing how, over the 12 days of the narrative, the U.S.S.R. invades Afghanistan and then threatens to push on into Pakistan. They have been emboldened to do this by Dr Manhattan’s disappearance. Thus the papers and TV are full of speculation about whether the West will respond to Russian aggression thus sparking a nuclear war.

2. Countdown clock This sense of mounting tension is emphasised by the way that each of the twelve editions of the magazine opens with a big image of a clock whose hands start at twelve to midnight, and move forward one minute with each episode. As if counting down towards disaster…

3. The Black Freighter Throughout all the instalments, what you could call the Main Narrative is punctuated by an apparently unrelated story about a doomed pirate, set in the 18th century and written in 18th century prose. This is a story which appears in daily instalments in a newspaper which is being read by a black kid who buys it from the newsvendor who I mentioned above.

While the newsvendor chats with his adult customers about the impending war, the kid sits propped against a fire hydrant, his mind totally absorbed by the grim tale of a pirate set adrift in a doomed boat full of corpses, and his various ill-fated attempts to escape.

At regular intervals the pictures and text of this Gothic tale ‘take over’ the main narrative set in 1985; sometimes the monologue of the damned pirate jostle alongside dialogue of the ‘contemporary’ characters; sometimes the entire Watchmen strip disappears for a page or so, replaced by detailed drawings of the pirates’ adventures.

The pictures of the pirate narrative are done in a deliberately different style from the main illustrations, using a pastiche of the highly-visible dots you used to see in really old comic books. Not only does this so-called ‘Black Freighter’ narrative routinely invade the ‘main text’, but its words often cleverly counterpoint the thoughts or dialogue of the main characters. For example the ghoulish pirate survivor might be thinking about death on the high sea, while the newsvendor and his customers are worrying about the risk of thermonuclear war and mass death. It’s all dark stuff.

4. Scrapbook This ‘intertextuality’ is also exemplified in the way that each of the twelve instalments ends with four pages of prose which are kind of scrapbooks of texts relevant to the main narrative. For example, the first couple of instalments end with excerpts from the tell-all book supposedly written by one of the Minutemen, Hollis Mason, an account of the early days of the group which he titled Under the Hood. These lengthy prose extracts expand our understanding of various plotlines referred to in the comic book sections.

Later on, the prose sections become more varied, but always shed new light on aspects of the main story. For example, the end of chapter nine features several ‘texts’ relating to the original Silk Spectre I, Sally Jupiter, namely an interview with her in an old newspaper from 1939, correspondence with a film studio interested in making a movie of her life, a fan letter from a would-be crime fighter, and then a magazine interview with an older, alcoholic Sally Jupiter from 1976.

Critique of Watchmen’s multitextuality

Some readers and critics think these multiple levels give the book greater ‘depth’. I disagree. I think it makes it a lot more complex but complexity and depth are not the same thing.

When I was a kid in the 1970s there were any number of magazines about pop music or teen heart-throbs which used the same approach of coming up with imaginative and diverse visual ideas to vary their appearance and format. These could include letters from the stars, or their horoscopes, or recipes for their favourite meals, or their top fashion tips, or mocked-up pages from their diary, each in the appropriate visual style, using different page layouts, letter heads, maybe notes with mocked-up handwriting of the hearth-throb in question – and so on and so on.

This didn’t make magazines like Jackie any more profound – it just made them more visually imaginative and interesting. Now I really think about it, I remember any number of ‘annuals’ of my favourite TV shows such as Dr Who or Blue Peter, which came up with all kinds of visually inventive ways of presenting tit-bits of information about the stars of the show, or features about keeping a rabbit or the solar system or instructions on how to build your own dalek – and so on and so on.

It never struck me that the proliferation of visually novel ways of presenting all this turned my Dr Who annual into War and Peace. It was just par for the course; they were all like that.

Thus the inclusion of extraneous mocked-up texts onto the end of each instalment of Watchmen didn’t strike me as some radical new innovation, but as an editorial ploy I was used to ever since I started reading comics and annuals.

Thus the clutch of texts tacked onto the end of instalment 10 of Watchmen – in this case all relating to ‘Ozymandias’, the superhero alias of go-getting entrepreneur Adrian Veidt and which include a letter to a toy manufacturer about a new range of Ozymandias merchandise, and the Welcome letter to anyone who’s sent away for a pack of his Veidt Method of Physical Fitness and Self Improvement – these are fun, and they add to the visual and factual complexity a bit – but they don’t add any real depth to the book.

The crime trope

Watchmen mashes up tropes from numerous sources. One of the most obvious is pulp crime novels, the king of which was Raymond Chandler. There are plenty of Chandleresque pictures of Rorschach, in particular, walking down mean streets in the dark with his collar pulled up muttering murderous thoughts about the scum of the streets.

And the fundamental motor of the narrative is a whodunnit – ostensibly to find out who killed the Comedian, whether there really is a conspiracy to kill off the other retired old Minutemen, and why.

Clever and novel many elements of the book may be – such as the idea that superheroes can grow old and vulnerable and themselves be victims of a serial killer. And yet this whodunnit thread of the book is strangely uncompelling – and when the denouement is reached I found it more strange and inexplicable than a dazzling and satisfying revelation.

Maybe it was Moore’s aim to ‘subvert’ the thriller genre – or by mashing up elements from pulp crime thrillers with the superhero genre with quite a bit of pulp science fiction thrown in, to create something bold and new.

Whatever the motivation, this central thread of the plot just didn’t do it for me. I found it a) difficult to wade through the welter of distracting detail to even understand that it was a crime thriller and b) was so thrown by the spectacular side-plot about Dr Manhattan that I stopped caring about the whodunnit element and became intrigued solely by his actions.

As to the denouement, suffice to say that it turns out (as so often) to be one of the gang themselves who is knocking off their own members.

And he’s doing it because (like so many mad fanatics before him) he has become deluded into thinking that the only way to bring true peace to the world is by committing a really awesome atrocity (in this case, wiping out the population of New York – as usual), showing humanity what they are capable of – and thus shaming them into peace.

Sound likely to you?

And so the climax of the book turns out to be nothing to do with the mounting paranoia about a nuclear war between America and Russia which has been steadily promoted by the narrative, and reinforced by the ominous full-page picture of a clock ticking towards midnight! Turns out that that whole threat, much discussed by all the characters from the newsvendor and his customers to all the superheroes, was a red herring.

Instead, the climax of the story is the unleashing of a secret weapon which destroys half of New York (and, in the movie, just to universalise things a bit, also wrecks Los Angeles, Moscow and Hong Kong).

Conclusion

I didn’t feel engaged with any of the characters. I didn’t really believe in them, and I found it impossible to believe in the idea of ordinary men and women just putting on masks, adopting silly pseudonyms and then magically being able to ‘fight crime’.

Either the idea of masked crime fighters is risible or it isn’t – but it is a difficult balance to make it both sad and silly (as it seems to be in the opening pages depicting the Comedian as a raddled drunk and Rorschach as a maniac) and then in the next few pages ask us to believe that Night Owl and Silk Spectre actually can fly round the city in their cool flying machine, rescuing kids from burning buildings.

Once undermined in the early pages, I found the notion of crime-busting superheroes stayed undermined.

The only character I liked was Dr Manhattan because the purity of his conception and his indifference to the human trivia who surround him lifted him far above the crime-busting silliness of much of the rest of the plot. I immediately sympathised with his wish to get away from silly humans, and found that identifying with this essentially science-fiction character made me more or less indifferent to the Chandleresque whodunnit plot.

Within the world of comic books, Watchmen had a powerful impact because of its complexity: because it created new heroes while at the same time undermining the entire superhero ethos, because of its stylish mix of sci-fi, noir and superhero tropes, because of its downbeat vibe and its very downbeat ending – because this pessimistic mood caught the vibe of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, because of the cleverness of adding in the intertextual elements of letters, quotes from fictional books, magazine articles, added extra complexity and resonance.

But from outside the world of comic books, it still looks as if Watchmen adopts almost all the familiar tropes of the superhero comic book, and subverts few if any of them. And even these ‘subversions’ I found a) difficult to actually understand b) had no impact on me.

Watchmen administered a seismic shock to the comic book genre which influenced a whole generation to write more ‘realistic’ and ‘gritty’ stories. To outsiders like me, it looks like a very clever play on existing tropes which doesn’t, ultimately, change any of them at all.

Art work

I couldn’t understand why the book is meant to mark a great departure in comic book style. The page is still made up of cartoons. All the ‘good’ guys are tall, muscular and handsome.

And all the women are long-legged, slender-waisted and big busted i.e. look like the same idealised, soft porn figures that have been half the point of comic books right back to their origins in the 1930s.

Although there are several women among the original Minutemen, we only really get to know one – Silk Spectre – and her role is to wear a tight outfit and be made love to first my Dr Manhattan then (several times) by the Night owl. But all the women seem to be variations on the same sex goddess trope. I was amused to discover that a number of manufacturers make a ‘Silk Spectre’ costume. Can you see why?

The movie

It took Hollywood  20 years to sort out the rights, the script and to settle on a visual strategy for turning such a complex and multi-layered comic strip text into a movie. The result is that rare thing, an attempt at a really faithful, accurate rendition of the original book.

Watchmen the movie uses all the characters and tells the exact same story, in the same order, as the source book. It even shoots scenes from the same angles shown in the comic strips. With the result that:

1. It is very long – two and a half hours long.

2. This is without the inclusion of the pirate story, the so-called Black Freighter plotline. This was originally going to be included as live-action footage interspersed among the main narrative, as happens in the book, but it turned out that it would have cost too much (some $20 million extra), so someone had the bright idea of making it as an animation. In the event even this animated version of the sub-plot was cut because it would have made the final version of the film well over three hours long. However, the Tale of the Black Freighter is available as a standalone DVD and has been reincorporated into the movie in a Directors’ Cut version.

3. More interestingly, director Zack Snyder’s choice to follow the comic book narrative so closely means that the movie does not follow the familiar three-act movie structure. Instead it follows closely the rather meandering, and sometimes distracted, narrative of the book. Many movie fans complained about this because it didn’t produce the usual feast of fights and fireworks every fifteen minutes – the amount of time a bored teenager can sit through ‘character’ stuff’ before he needs another fix of CGI and explosions.

But I liked the film for precisely that reason. Following ‘book logic’ and not movie screenplay rules, results in a very different feel to the movie. It feels much slower and often rather confusing. I liked that.

The movie was also criticised for the quality of the acting. If we were talking about the real world, I’d agree that the acting was wooden, as was the direction. But I found the Watchmen book itself oddly wooden, opaque, emotionless and flat, and so I thought the movie captured that quality really well.

Since I didn’t believe in any of the characters from the book, finding them all just cyphers drifting through a weird mash-up of science fiction, noir and comic book clichés without any discernible purpose or end, I thought the movie faithfully captured that odd sense of anomie – and that is rare and interesting in a Hollywood film.

Seen from this point of view, i.e. the hope that the film would not follow superhero movie convention, it was disappointing that so much did still fall into superhero cliché – namely the familiar stylised fights, for example where Night Owl and Silk Spectre II defeat a whole gang of muggers with superhuman speed and slow-motion violence; or where flying machines swoop around the New York skyline; or where Night Owl and Silk Spectre have sex in his flying machine, she wearing only her knee-length PVC boots, both of them revealed to have the air-brushed-to-perfection bodies of porn stars.

This didn’t feel like it was subverting very much.

In other words, the film of Watchmen successfully captures the complex storylines and odd mood of the book, and so both audiences and critics – who essentially want the same meal dished up with slight variations – didn’t like it.

The film didn’t make much return on investment with a box office of $185.3 million on a budget of $138 million. After twenty years, a prequel comic was published chronicling the adventures of the Comedian and Rorschach in the earlier days. There’s talk that the Watchmen characters will be adapted for an HBO TV series. Everything is swallowed by the machine. Nothing subverts anything. In time, everything is turned into product.


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A Brief History of Superheroes by Brian J. Robb (2014)

Robb has previously written biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. This volume is one of a series titled ‘A brief guide to [or A history of] …’ which includes guides to Stephen King, ghost-hunting, the Roman Empire, Star Wars and any other topics they thought would sell. Written for a popular audience, then.

No illustrations

At 340 pages, including notes and index, it’s quite a long book, but its most obvious feature is that there are no illustrations, none, nada, zip – which is a big drawback seeing as comic books are a largely visual medium. When it gives descriptions of the early artwork for Superman, or how Batman’s look was refined over time, or the visual makeover of many comic book heroes in the 1960s, the reader is crying out for illustrations to show what he’s talking about. But you have to turn to the internet to do your own research…

So the book is solely prose, made up of thumbnail profiles of the writers, artists and publishers who created comic book superheroes, along with a dense account of how they developed and evolved over time.

Superman 1938

Comic Superhero history starts in May 1938 when Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1. In other words, Superman is 80 years old this year, in fact this month!

He was the creation of two schoolfriends from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Everything before this date is the pre-history of superhero comics; everything afterwards is the complex unfolding of superhero comic history.

Cultural forebears of superheroes

The prehistory is entertaining because Robb (like many others writing on the subject) feels compelled to give a brisk popular history of the wide-ranging role of ‘the hero’ in myth, legend, history and folklore (the word ‘hero’ is itself of Greek derivation).

Thus a man gifted with magic powers to protect his people can be made to include Moses and Aaron and the Biblical hero Samson. It can include the pantheon of Greek gods and mortal heroes like Heracles, Perseus and Theseus. Robb quotes Joseph Campbell on the importance of ‘the Journey’ in numerous ancient stories about heroes, and references the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and the Mahabharata as cultural forebears of Batman and Robin. This is both fun and a little pompous.

Folklore forebears of superheroes

More persuasive is the notion of a lineage from more folklore elements of ‘the hero’ through to the popular fictions of the late 19th century. Robin Hood and Dick Turpin are two prime examples. Robin Hood is not only an epitome of schoolboy morality (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) but he wears an early version of the superhero costume: tights and a distinctive cap, all in bright primary colours (Lincoln green with some red thrown in). Dick Turpin concealed his face behind a neckerchief and a pulled-down hat, and wore a cloak or cape.

Pop culture forebears of superheroes

But in fact, historians have no idea what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin wore. The images I’ve described above derive from movies, and it is Hollywood which is probably the prime factor in the origin of the superhero look.

Superheroes didn’t derive from scholarly study of ancient mythology and folklore: they came out of the extraordinary rich, bubbling swamp of popular and pulp culture of the 1920s. If Jerry and Joe knew about Sherlock Holmes or the Scarlet Pimpernel it wasn’t from reading the books about them (Sherlock had debuted in 1887, the Pimpernel in 1905). It was from paying a few cents to sit in the cheap seats of the local movie house, chomping on popcorn and watching the adventure films of a movie star like Douglas Fairbanks, who starred in a movie about Zorro (created 1919, turned into a movie in 1920), Robin Hood (1922) or the Black Pirate (1926).

In a sense superheroes began in the movies before, in our time, returning to the movies.

Like other historians of the subject, Robb pays special attention to characters with dual identities, a standard feature of most comic book superheroes – the classic example being Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(Although if you stop and think about it for a moment, a dual identity is a basic element of almost all detective, spy and crime fiction of the kind that was growing more and more popular at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Many thousands of detective stories take their time working up to the grand ‘reveal’ of the ‘true identity’ of the criminal, of the dope dealer or jewel thief or murderer etc caught by Sherlock Holmes or any one of the hundreds of copycat detectives invented in the 1890s and 1900s. (See my review of The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes a collection of stories about fictional detectives inspired by Holmes.) Spy stories, are by their very nature, about people concealing their true task and intentions.

Anyway, Robb’s book becomes really interesting when it gets to the extraordinarily dense jungle of popular culture which flowered in the 1890s and then just got denser and denser in the decades that followed, proliferating in penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, pulp magazines, newspaper supplements and then in the new format of moving pictures and related magazines and merchandising.

Robb dwells on two Edwardian doers of good deeds who hid their true identity:

  • the Scarlet Pimpernel (real name Sir Percy Blakeney) who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine, leaving a calling card with a picture of the pimpernel flower
  • Zorro, who wears a black face mask and cape, protects the poor of California, and leaves a distinctive ‘Z’ carved into various objects with his stylish swordplay

Just as important for a superhero is the fiendish villain, and these were prefigured by – among many – Holmes’s opponent, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, Professor Moriarty, or the diabolical criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (1913).

British hero fiction included John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay who debuted in 1915, followed by the more thuggish Bulldog Drummond, who appeared in 1920. Lesley Charteris’s crime-fighting hero, the Saint, first appeared in 1928. Biggles the heroic fighter pilot first appeared in 1932. All these heroes were morally unambiguous fighters against Crime and Fiendish Plots.

In America the spread of radio gave rise to a florid variety of heroic fighters against crime: the Shadow, a masked crime-fighting vigilante (1930), the Spider (1933) and Doc Savage (1933), a kind of ‘peak human’, reared to have perfect abilities, who had a base in mid-town Manhattan and a rich armoury of state-of-the-art gadgets, funded by money from a secret Mayan goldmine, to help him fight crime.

In 1936 the Green Hornet, another crime-fighting, masked vigilante was created specially for radio. Also in 1936 appeared The Phantom, who wore a skin-tight bodysuit and a ‘domino’ eye-mask to fight crime.

Off in another part of the rich jungle of popular and pulp culture which exploded around the time of the Great War, was the more unrestrained world of science fiction and fantasy. Important forebears were John Carter of Mars (1912) and Tarzan (1912), both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Francis Nowlan’s hero Buck Rogers (1928) and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (1932), soon joined by Alex Raymond’s newspaper strip hero Flash Gordon (1934).

What these numerous figures have in common is that they are modern, pulp versions of ‘the hero’, who always outwit their fiendish opponents after a string of exciting adventures, and that they appear in series or serials: once invented they can appear in almost limitless numbers of adventures (as Conan Doyle, who came to hate his invention, Sherlock Holmes, knew all too well).

By now you might share the feeling I had that the first appearance of Superman in 1938 was maybe not quite the dazzling innovation I thought it was; in fact reading about this proliferation of heroes might make you wonder why it took quite so long to come up with what seems to be the logical conclusion of all these trends.

Robb tells the story of how two teenagers from Cleveland conceived the idea, developed it over many years, were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and comic publishers, and were forced to work on other characters and projects, until finally given their big break in 1938.

I found the two most interesting things about Superman were:

1. His descent not so much from all these detectives and crime fighters, but from the Victorian circus strongman. These popular performers generally wore tights and pants, a figure-hugging suit to highlight their musculature which was strapped in with an impressive belt, and often stylised boots.

Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the 'superhero look'

A Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the ‘superhero look’

2. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the exclusive rights to their then-new character, Superman to DC (short for Detective Comics) Publishing for just $130 (split between the two of them). Superman was an instant hit and not only went on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the publisher and the film company that eventually bought it, but to inspire an entire genre of superhero fiction across all media.

As they watched this happen Siegel and Shuster continued to work as a comic book writer and illustrator, respectively, but made repeated attempts to sue for a share of the vast revenue generated by their invention. In fact their heirs are still locked in litigation with DC’s parent company, Time Warner, to this day.

The development of the comic strip

Robb gives a brief and fascinating recap of how the comic strip itself evolved. As far back as the record stretches, human beings have always told stories. Bas-relief carvings on Greek and Indian temples capture moments from religious or legendary narratives. (Robb doesn’t mention it but I’d have thought the 12 Stations of the Cross which appear in tens of thousands of Catholic churches are an early example of a story told through snapshots of key moments.) He does mention the use of ‘scroll speech’ in medieval and Renaissance art work, where a scroll unfolds from a figure’s mouth, containing their speech (something I’m familiar with from my readings of the British Civil Wars).

17th century cartoon with speech scroll

17th century Civil War cartoon with speech scroll

Robb says the next step forward was marked by the popular engravings of the 18th century artist William Hogarth, famous for the series of pictures which depict The Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. These popular engravings showed the decline of the eponymous rake and harlot with plenty of humorous detail. They gave rise to similar pictorial sequences by Rodolphe Töpfler later in the century, and by the Victorian artist Gustave Doré, among others. Throughout the 19th century Punch in Britain and similar magazines across the Continent used cartoons, often with speech captions, to convey narratives with punch lines.

Capitalist competition creates comics

But all these sometimes dubious historical antecedents are there simply to pave the way for the real start of popular comic books which, as with most things American, came out of ferocious competition to make money.

Starting in 1887 a newspaper war was waged between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empires. One among many fronts in this war was the innovation of cartoon strips with catchy titles and populist characters. In 1892 The Little Bears was created by Jimmy Swinnerton for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, probably the first cartoon strip anywhere which featured regularly recurring characters.

In 1895 Pulitzer debuted a strip titled The Yellow Kid for his paper The New York World, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault, which pioneered the use of speech text to indicate dialogue. In 1897 the paper added a supplement featuring just Outcault’s strips and expanding it to describe an array of characters from the yellow kid’s neighbourhood – titled McFadden’s Row of Flats – and a new term, ‘comic book’, was invented to describe it.

As a direct response to all this, Hearst’s New York Journal commissioned their own strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks. Dirks developed Outcault’s device of speech balloons and invented the ‘thought balloon’, indicated by a series of bubbles leading up to the text balloon itself. The same year saw the first use of colour printing (as the name, The Yellow Kid, indicates).

These kind of narrative cartoons featuring recurring characters proved tremendously popular (nicer, after all, than reading the depressing news) and spread like wildfire to every other newspaper which could find a decent illustrator. By 1912 Hearst was devoting an entire page of the New York Daily Journal to comic strips, a feature which became known as the ‘funny pages’, the ‘funny papers’, or simply ‘the funnies’.

It was quickly realised that the strips which appeared during the week could be repackaged into a bumper weekend supplement. Rather than broadsheet size, it made financial and practical sense to publish them in magazine format, which was easier for readers to handle and read. The comic book was born.

Superhero history

So much for the multi-stranded prehistory of the comic superhero.

The publication of Superman in 1938 transformed the landscape, inventing a whole new genre of superhero. From this point onwards Robb’s book becomes a dense and fascinating account of how numerous newspapers and publishers sought to cash in on the fad by creating their own superheroes. He describes the complicated evolution of the two publishing houses which would eventually become known as Marvel and DC, and reading his book gives you a good sense of the difference between them.

Basically, DC owned Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) who spawned hundreds of imitators but managed to remain ahead of the pack. Through the war years the superheroes performed their patriotic duty with a strong sideline in film noir-style violence against all manner of crime or fantasy baddies.

In the 1950s there was a moral backlash against comics, with a nationwide panic in America that they were one of many influences turning teenagers into ‘juvenile delinquents’. This resulted in 1954 in the establishment of The Comics Code Authority (CCA) which forced comic books to abandon much violence and all references to drugs and sex, tending to replace hard 1940s stories with softer, romance elements.

Marvel began existence in 1939 as ‘Timely Publications’, and by the early 1950s was generally known as Atlas Comics. The Marvel branding began 1961 with a rack of superhero titles created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. Robb describes the period 1961-62 as a kind of annus mirabilis, during which Lee oversaw the creation of The Fantastic Four and their nemesis Dr Doom (November 1961), Ant-Man (January 1962), the Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Spider-Man (August 1962), the Mighty Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963), the Avengers (September 1963) and the X-men (1963).

Even if you think comic books are rubbish, this is by any measure still an incredible outpouring of creativity, the creation of characters which would go on to have multi-billion dollar futures in popular culture.

Although other artists and writers were involved, Stan Lee is commonly associated with this outburst of imagination and the key element of it seems to have been his conviction that superheroes must be flawed – realistic characters who often struggle with their own superpowers. Thus Spider-Man is deeply confused about how to use his skills, the X-Men bicker amongst themselves, the Fantastic Four are riven by rivalries, and the Hulk considers committing suicide he is so upset by the scientific accident which has turned him into a monster.

It was this troubled psychology which set them completely apart from DC’s untroubled hero Superman and made them feel more contemporary than their older cousins (although, admittedly, DC’s Batman is a much darker creation).

In a second nod to contemporary concerns, Lee’s Marvel creations were nearly all connected to contemporary paranoia about the atom bomb and atomic energy. It is radioactivity which messes up the DNA of almost all these superheroes, a paranoia about the potentially damaging impact of modern science which remains relevant right down to the present day.

It is this more ‘modern’ way of conceiving superhero psychology, as well as the more modern concerns about science, which possibly account for the relative success of the Marvel characters in the movies, and the rather staid, static quality of the DC movies.

The difference between the Superman era and the Fantastic Four era is recognised by comic book historians who have divided the past eighty years into a series of ‘ages’.

The golden age of comic books was from 1938 to about 1950, when waning interest in superheroes was capped by the baleful influence of the Comics Code Authority.

The silver age of comic books is dated from DC Comics’ new character Flash, introduced in Showcase #4 in October 1956. This led up to the Marvel outburst in the early 1960s which spawned a great sprawling cast not only of heroes but of baddies and enemies. This era also another important Marvel innovation, which was introducing one set of heroes into the adventures or ‘universe’ of another set. As the 1960s progressed, the interactions of heroes from different narratives became not only more complex in itself, but led to the notion of parallel worlds in which the various characters might have different superpowers, fight each other and even die.

The bronze age of comic books runs from about 1970 to 1985. The bright, Pop optimism of the 1960s turned into a nitty-gritty concern with social ‘issues’, such as the environment, feminism, racism and drugs, along with more realistic depictions of alcoholism, addiction, urban decay and so on.

Alongside the two giants of Marvel and DC there arose a new wave of independent comic book publishers who took a whole new approach to the superhero genre. This was crystallised in the epoch-making Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which set out to deconstruct the entire mythos of superheroes.

Superheroes in movies

Although Robb doesn’t quite make this point, his book ends where it began, with the movies. Not with the distant antecedents of Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, but with the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster loved the movies and were influenced by what they saw, by the sight of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way across the screen and that now, we in our time, queue up to watch the Amazing Spiderman, Thor and Iron Man swing across our multiplex 3D screens.

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Radio Robb’s last few chapters give a bewilderingly dense account of the way superheroes were adapted to other media beyond comic books. Radio was the first, and it’s interesting to learn that radio developed catchphrases, plot lines and even new characters, which hadn’t existed in the original comics but which the comics then co-opted.

Television From the 1950s various television series portrayed superheroes, probably the most memorable being the camp classic Batman of the 1960s.

Animations Movies were slower to adapt superheroes because of the technical challenges of portraying superhero action. It was easier to do this in animations, so there have been scores of animated TV shows and movies about superheroes.

The Modern Age of Superhero Movies starts with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman in the film of the same name, directed by Richard Donner in 1978. Although the special effects look creaky to the modern eye, they were a quantum step up from all previous attempts and made superhero film-making a real possibility. Three sequels were released, in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

The next benchmark was the pair of Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. Robb is great on the showbusiness gossip and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring which accompanied these films, for example the way that Keaton, previously known mainly for light comic roles, was widely opposed by comicbook fans, who mounted a campaign to prevent him taking the role. In the event, Burton’s two Batman movies (Batman, 1989 and Batman Returns 1992) were widely seen as a triumph, and made stacks of money ($411 million and $266 million, respectively).

Robb details the ongoing attempts to stage other superhero movies during the 1980s and 90s, which met with mixed success, and a fair share of dazzling flops. Along with most fans he considers the last two Reeve Superman movies (Superman III, 1983 and Superman IV, 1987) and the Val Kilmer and George Clooney Batmen (Batman Forever, 1995, and Batman and Robin, 1997) to be disasters.

The modern age of superhero movies

The Current Age of Superhero Movies was launched with the X-Men directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000. With an intelligent script, the steadying presence of two top-class British actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) and state-of-the-art, computer-generated graphics, X-Men inaugurated the modern age.

It cost a lot to make, but it:

a) made a fortune ($296 million)
b) spawned a host of sequels (there are now no fewer than 10 films in the X-Men series)
c) and led to a number of successful television spin-off series

The X-Men movies played an important role in creating the superhero cultural, film and TV universe that we now inhabit.

This is a list of the main superhero movies of the last 18 years, excluding various flops and failures, with an indication of their costs and revenues.

2000 X-Men ($296 million gross on $75 million budget)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million on $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million on $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million on $125 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million on $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million on $200 million)
2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)
2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Ant-Man and the Wasp
2018 Avengers: Infinity War
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Deadpool 2

Quite a few, aren’t there?

The first superhero movie to gross over a billion dollars was Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight, and six other superhero movies have grossed over a billion since then.

The X-Men movies between them have generated $5 billion.

In 2010 Marvel produced the first in a carefully planned sequence of movies designed to maximise revenue from their stable of characters, and which has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. This is divided into ‘phases’ of six movies each, the first five of each phase devoted to individual Marvel heroes, the sixth bringing the previous five altogether into a grand finale which ties together plotlines from the previous movies.

As I write we are approaching the end of Phase Three, which has just seen the phenomenal success of Black Panther (phase 3, movie 5) which grossed over $1.3 billion, and paved the way for the sixth in this phase, Avengers: Infinity War which has just opened in the States to the usual mass marketing and hype.

Summary

Despite having no illustrations at all, Robb’s book is an eminently readable and very enjoyable overview of the entire history of the superhero comic book phenomenon, which puts it in the context of expanding popular culture, twentieth century history, and the evolving media of radio, TV and film – all told in a light, accessible prose style with a sure sense of the interesting anecdote and fascinating fact.

Great fun, and a very useful introduction to a cultural phenomenon which is bigger than ever, and set to dominate our movie and TV screens for the foreseeable future.


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