Watchmen: Out of the phonebox and into real life

The expertly managed hullabaloo around Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of the Watchmen comic series (it opens in cinemas today), sees superheroes move ever closer to the centre of our shared culture.
Just as readers of Shakespeare, Byron or P.G. Wodehouse swam in a rich soup of biblical and classical references that informed their understanding of every sentence, so modern readers and moviegoers have unconsciously assimilated a common vocabulary of superheroics. If T.S. Eliot were writing today, he would pepper his poems not with allusions to the heroes of Greek myth but to the adventures of the Justice League of America. These gaudily dressed commercial demigods may be the closest thing we have to a pantheon.
Once confined to the “funny papers”, costumed adventurers broke through into the adult world in 1986 with the publication of Frank Miller’s iconoclastic The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s daring Watchmen. Before those two series there had been attempts to bring the masked vigilantes from their fantasy milieu into a world a little more like our own. But it wasn’t until Watchmen, set in a parallel mid-Eighties America on the brink of nuclear war, that the effect of costumed adventurers on the society they inhabit was considered.
Comics publishers were overjoyed that a new, older, wealthier demographic was buying comic books and responded by publishing bound collections of story arcs from their monthly comics and branding them “graphic novels”. A few genuine long-form comics expressly written for the format were also attempted, but only a few came close to achieving the commercial and critical impact of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. Too many writers thought that the “darkness” was the selling point, and produced comic books not much different from the Silver Age comics of the 1960s and 70s but with added violence.
To achieve much more is difficult: the relentless momentum of the graphic format leaves little time left for characterisation or introspection. By slowing the action down, inserting additional material such as mock autobiographies by the characters, Moore was the first comics writer to create rounded, flawed, believable supermen. It was that, more than the artwork, that propelled Watchmen onto Time magazine’s 100 greatest novels list.
The mixture of introspection, political subversion and old-fashioned derring-do established by Moore is still, a quarter of a century later, the template for most modern comics writers. If you are looking for the most interesting of the new superhero comics today, try The Authority, a superhero team story where, rather than just scrapping with mad scientists and purse-snatchers, the heroes try to use their powers to change the world. In Ex Machina, the technologically enhanced hero settles for running New York and almost averts 9/11 but spends as much time defusing controversy over public art funding as chasing supervillains.
Perhaps the most interesting fruit of Watchmen – and a sign of how mainstream superheroes have become – came in a pair of books that dispensed with illustrations altogether. Although Batman-themed young-adult easy readers and the film spin-off “novelisations” had appeared before, Tom DeHaven’s It’s Superman was something entirely different. Set in the 1930s, it retells the story of the origins of Superman. Although still a pacy read, it has a rich sense of period that invites comparison with Steinbeck. For pop-culture students there are little nods to the Max Fleischer Superman animations and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
Austin Grossman’s 2007 novel Soon I will be Invincible was an even more knowing and playful examination of superhero archetypes played out through a pair of beautifully crafted internal monologues. Like many of today’s writers, Grossman has a native fluency in classic superhero lore, resulting in a book studded with pop-culture detail. The humour of films such as The Incredibles and Mystery Men rely on audiences being steeped in superhero culture. Watchmen too is dependent on cinemagoers understanding exactly which conventions are being subverted. And of course nowadays most moviegoers do: the mythic history of superheroes pervades our culture in the same way that the tales of Asgard or Olympus once did. We are all, wittingly or unwittingly, aware of the mechanics of secret identities, hidden lairs, radiation accidents that empower rather than disable and miraculous flying machines that are the staples of the genre, whether we are talking about classic heroes like The Fantastic Four or Moore’s dysfunctional superteam.
Superheroes are big business: Dark Knight raked in a billion dollars at the box office, Iron Man took more than $500 million in 2008 and the third instalment in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman franchise netted an impressive $890 million.
It is no surprise then that publishers are keen to find new superhero properties. DC Comics’ big hitters, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, all appeared first before the end of the Second World War. Marvel’s heroes are a little younger, but their biggest-earning heroes all still date from the early 1960s. There are dozens, perhaps scores, of new superhero-themed movies in the works: of all of them Mark Millar’s Kick Ass is the one most likely to offer something genuinely novel and exciting.
Superheroes have conquered more than the entertainment media. Two or three nights a week Citizen Prime patrols the streets of Salt Lake City in his mask and cape armed with stun guns and a police baton. He is not the only one. There are at least 30 real-life “superheroes”, of varying levels of effectiveness and seriousness, scattered across America, with odd examples popping up as far afield as Tunbridge Wells. With no powers other than idealism, and with no supercriminals to battle, they are something between a fancy dress party and the Neighbourhood Watch.
That may not always be the case, though: the technology to create armoured exoskeletons like that of Marvel’s Iron Man is under development by the US military and may only be a decade away from coming to fruition. Implantable enhancements will probably come a generation later. Assuming that they do deliver the promised combat advantage, the enhanced strength and senses of military supersoldier programmes will find their way into the hands of the criminal element – and, of course, once we have supervillains then superheroes, or at least superpolice, won’t be far behind. You will need to be ready. Better buy some comics.
Michael Moran writes the Times Blockbuster Buzz blog