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A Lifetime of Superhero Comics — 1987 — Watchmen 11
In which I discuss the impossible delight of a great plot twist, a lack of Wham! influence and what Alan Moore did 35 years ago.
Written by Alan Moore
Pencils by Dave Gibbons
Cover date: August 1987
Warning: spoilers for the issue follow
“Dan, I’m not a Republic Serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”
In just 32 words, Alan Moore had dismantled every expectation I had of what superhero comics could do. The concluding cliffhanger of Watchmen 11 was a stunning repudiation of one of the elementary tropes of supervillainy. You know the one: A villain monologues about the details of their evil plan, as a last piece of plot exposition. Then the heroes inevitably concoct an escape from the trap in which they are held, before triumphantly undoing the villain’s schemes.
Moore had spent most of issue 11 of Watchmen expertly leading me down the path of this trope. The purported ‘smartest man in the world’ — Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt — had monologued like nobody’s business from his Antarctic headquarters, telling his loyal henchmen his origin story and how he became so terribly clever (turns out he was just born smart. Stay in school, kids!). He revealed how, as a young man, he’d smartly given away his inherited fortune in favour of backpacking through Turkey, before shrewdly getting sufficiently high on the giggle weed to decide he should become a superhero.
It was standard exposition stuff, feeding the readers some of the last remaining character gaps of the series.
Veidt next murdered his henchmen, to both a) tie up the last of the loose ends of his nefarious scheme and b) further establish his villainy. A short time afterward, our ostensible heroes — Rorschach and Nite Owl — show up to rudely interrupt his dinner. So Veidt beat the snot out of the pair of them, before unleashing yet further exposition.
Veidt recounted how his dooby-induced foray into superherodom met with instant success, before he ultimately realised he’d have to do more if he didn’t want a nuclear conflagration to inevitably destroy the world.
He explained further that, because of his intelligence, he could skip all the futile ‘ban the nukes’ schemes that a protestor of lesser intellect might contemplate. Why, at no point, had Veidt even considered wearing a ‘Choose Life’ T-shirt. He didn’t care how toe-tappingly upbeat the ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ music video was. (In retrospect, an obvious clue to his sociopathic nature.)
Veidt had instead come up with the galaxy brain solution to ending the Cold War of, uh, teleporting a giant psychic space squid into the middle of New York to kill all the supporting characters of the book.
None of this surprised me on my original reading. (Well, not in big picture terms, anyway. The nitty-gritty of the extrasensory, cephalopod-centric scheme was certainly startling.) The general approach was all quite familiar, in fact (albeit sufficiently expertly written that one could forgive in the moment the use of the ‘villain reveals his scheme’ trope).
Regardless of how well-written it was, though, and how much fun we’d had over the preceding ten issues, every single reader of superhero comic books had seen variants of this climactic behaviour before. Perhaps Veidt’s motives were purer than those of most of his cackling predecessors. The result remained, however, the same.
Outlandish scheme. Villainous headquarters. Expository gloating. All seems doomed for our heroes.
Supervillainy 101, the lot of it.
Even in the moment, Dan Dreiberg — the Nite Owl — acknowledges the trope. He laughs at the ludicrousness of Veidt’s scheme, asking him when this bonkers psychic-exploding-squid-monster-teleporting-into-New-York-to-wreak-havoc plan was supposed to unfold.
‘I did it thirty-five minutes ago.’
Veidt had outsmarted Nite Owl and Rorschach.
And Moore had outsmarted me.
He had obliterated the trope as surely as if he’d dropped a fake alien psychic-monster on top of it.
It was one of the most thrilling panels I’d ever read in a comic book. Made more so, because taken in isolation and focusing on the use of the name ‘Dan’, I could interpret it as Moore speaking directly to me.
I didn’t read Watchmen in real time. Not issue by issue. I think if I’d got to the end of this issue and the cliffhanger twist, I would have worn through the panels on the book rereading and rereading it as I strained to piece together what might happen next. (I’ll return later to how I mentally survived a similar serialised twist where I did have to wait.)
I didn’t have to wait impatiently for the next issue of Watchmen — the final issue — to discover how Moore’s rug-pulling twist played out.
For I first read Watchmen in a collected trade paperback form. (In fact, I’ve never read it in any other form.) I could simply turn the page and see what happened. Which, I obviously did, devouring the last chapter of this legendary run of superhero comic books in one sitting.
Watchmen had been on my comic book radar, along with The Dark Knight Returns, as superhero comics to look out for. In 1986 or 1987, however, I lacked any way of looking out for them. (Curse those cheap, flimsy comic book radars that broke down at the first sign of living in a tiny country town!)
By 1989, though, I was in university, in Brisbane, Australia. An actual city (of sorts). And, in between lectures, I’d occasionally wander into the centre of town and, in particular, one of the comic book stores I discovered there. It was the first time I could regularly visit a comic book store in person. This was not the mail order of my latter high school years. I could flip through books on the shelves before deciding whether to buy them.
Two years after Watchmen had ended in monthly comic book form, I found the collected trade paperback edition of the book. Some savvy budgeting soon ensured that I could buy a copy and investigate what all the hype was about.
Turned out the hype was well-earned. Hell, just the ‘thirty-five minutes ago’ twist would have satisfied me. But Moore’s determination to subvert comic book tropes was not limited to that spectacular monologue. In a world where just one character had actual superpowers (and, as it turned out, so many superpowers it rendered him paradoxically useless), the rest of the cast subverted like nobody’s business.
The superheroes were mentally disturbed weirdos, one and all. The viewpoint character of Rorschach, for example, saw everything in overly simplistic binary terms of good and evil, to the extent he would rather sacrifice his life than compromise in any way his sharply delineated view of what is right and wrong. (So unfailingly black and white was Rorschach’s perspective that rumour has it he’s ‘never understood the big deal’ about the scene where Dorothy crash-lands her tornado-powered farmhouse into Oz.)
To Moore’s great horror, Rorschach soon became a fan-favourite. It was perhaps unsurprising. The particular brand of justice purveyed by the man with the splotches on his face was a natural extrapolation of some of superhero comics’ most popular masked vigilantes. The Punisher. Wolverine. Heck, Batman himself. Rorschach was what happened when you took those characters to the extreme.
But Moore didn’t just give us glimpses into Rorschach’s disturbed state of mind. He likewise let us into the absurdist philosophies of The Comedian, the murder of whom kicked off the entire story. (It is considered the height of wit in the Watchmen universe to be thrown from a great height to one’s death.)
There was again the previously discussed utilitarianism of Ozymandias, a man who never met a trolley problem to which he wasn’t willing to introduce a giant exploding psychic squid. We also have Dreiberg — the Nite Owl — fighting against his own impotence. Also, Silk Spectre — who is labouring under the equally tough challenge of, uh, being a girl. (Moore’s characterisation of the women in Watchmen is perhaps not one of its strong points — a problem I respect more these days than I did as an eighteen-year-old.)
Then, of course, there was Dr Manhattan. The sole superpowered being in the story. In the fourth issue of the book, Moore shows us the good doctor’s origin, mind and current dilemma, all filtered through his unique non-chronological viewpoint. (“It is the middle of this look at Watchmen 11 and I’m talking about Moore’s ability to create compelling (male) characters.” “It is the beginning of this look at Watchmen 11 and I’m talking about how Moore’s ‘thirty-five minutes ago’ trope-destroying panel completely and utterly thrilled me.” “It is the end of this look at Watchmen 11 and I’m using a parody of the Spider-Man theme song to hint at the superhero comic I’ll be covering next.”)
The characters were like no superheroes you’d seen before.
The plot was superficially less innovative. A noir-like murder mystery full of all kinds of comic book tropes. A hidden killer, a mysterious conspiracy, a global threat. A foiled assassination and a self-inflicted fridging. A rescue from a burning building, a jailbreak and an interrogation of criminal lowlifes. All leading to that remarkable final confrontation with the villain of the piece.
The familiarity of the plot beats was partially disguised by being set against the realistic superhero world that Moore and artist Dave Gibbons had expertly constructed. A world that dared to take seriously the question of what it would be like if superheroes really existed. Central to this reality was Gibbons’ precise and understated art.
The costumed superheroes of Watchmen weren’t the musclebound behemoths or buxom beauties (or even the musclebound beauties and buxom behemoths) typically seen in superhero comics. No, these were realistically rendered people in a realistic world. Not our world, but a realistic extrapolation of how our world might have changed if a single omnipotent superhero had come into existence in the 1950s.
But as perfect as Gibbons’ art was for the story, with fun sugar cube wrapperesque details hidden away in unflashy fashion in the background of panels, it was only later that I came to appreciate the art. On initial reading, it was Moore’s writing that earned my immediate appreciation.
Moore’s use of transitions, in particular, delighted me. Later, in his small instruction manual ‘Writing for Comics’, Moore wrote about transitions and how they are the ‘weak point in the spell you are trying to cast over them [the reader]’. (Given Moore’s later insistence that he is a magician, he may be talking about a literal spell here. ‘Panello transitium’)
Moore’s solution was to use ‘overlapping or coincidental dialogue’ to transition from one scene to the next. It was a solution that he conceded in that same book he might have used to excess in his career.
It obviously didn’t feel like it had been used to excess when I first read Watchmen. Quite the reverse. This technique of transitioning scenes felt like the freshest and smartest thing in the world.
That was just one tiny detail among many. Watchmen was filled with such dazzling writing.
It was clever. It was smart. It was grown-up. The hype wasn’t wrong. This was not just a great superhero comic book, it was a great book. (So much so that TIME magazine later put it in its list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. (Although, y’know, ‘time’ magazine, ‘watch’-men, ‘since 1923’, which is infamously a year. I smell a conspiracy worthy of… The Clock King!))
Heck, Watchmen was so clever that there were details that took multiple readings to spot. Such as the fifth issue, the symmetry issue, whose panel layout and key story points mirror around the centre spread of the comic. Once somebody points it out to you, you can’t unsee it.
But at the pinnacle of the cleverness was the stunning ‘thirty-five minutes ago’ reveal.
There is only one other time in the history of my media-consuming history that I’ve been so simultaneously stunned and thrilled by a plot twist.
That was in 2007 when the television show Lost pulled a similar trick with its classic third season finale ‘we have to go back’ twist — the television equivalent of Moore’s ‘thirty-five minutes ago’. On that occasion, I shared my feelings for what I’d just experienced by joining the thousands of people online who were similarly excited and baffled and speculative about what on Earth could happen next. When I read Watchmen, there was no such option. I had to savour the moment alone. (And, y’know, then turn the page.)
It’s also no coincidence that a writer on that episode of Lost was Damon Lindelof, a man who loved Watchmen so much that he would later create a critically acclaimed remix sequel of the story for the one season run of HBO’s Watchmen TV show, complete with its own delightful Emmy-award winning mix of twists and turns.
Moore, of course, never saw Lindelof’s Watchmen. He was, by the time of the TV Watchmen, completely fed up with how DC had treated his story over the ensuing decades.
Moore’s frustration stemmed initially from DC’s exploitation of a contractual loophole that denied him the rights to the characters. DC had promised Moore and Gibbons that the rights to the Watchmen characters would revert to them as soon as the book went out of print.
It turned out the book was too good to ever go out of print. Every time DC printed a new version of the book, new (and old) comic book fans all around the world would tread the same path as I did in 1989, buying Watchmen to discover (or relive) Moore’s genius and, in the process, denying Moore the rights to that very genius.
It was a plot twist worthy of Moore himself, but one that he didn’t appreciate. He swore off working for DC.
Moore did not just fall out with DC. He also fell out with Marvel. And, over the years, Moore quarrelled, one by one, with his various individual artistic collaborators. When it came to falling out, Moore rivalled Silver Age Lois Lane’s relationship with tall buildings.
On each occasion, Moore would justify his rationale for his position on the matter. And on each occasion, you could convince yourself that perhaps Moore’s position was just. But as the termination of relationships accumulated over the decades, one not unreasonably wondered if the problem might be the man who was the common factor in all the breakdowns.
From a distance, it looked very much as if, despite Moore’s decrying of Rorschach as a character, he was not entirely dissimilar to the Watchmen breakout star — at least in terms of seeing things in black and white. One wrongdoing would be enough for Moore to write the collaborator off forever. Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon.
Fortunately, despite all this, he remained Alan Moore. And when you’re Alan Moore, it doesn’t matter how many collaborators you ostracise. There will always be new ones willing to work with you, and it’s perhaps no spoiler to reveal that some of those future collaborations will show up later in this series.
That’s the future, however. Back in 1989, having read Watchmen, I wanted more.
I wanted Moore.
Luckily, there was more Moore already available for me to read.
I found random trade paperbacks of Miracleman, a cursed comic book that predated Watchmen. A story that similarly deconstructed the fundamental tropes I’d taken in over the years. Most comic books returned to the status quo at the end of the story. If the previously mentioned Lois Lane, for example, learned that Clark Kent was Superman, a super-kiss or a magic spell or just some world-class Kryptonian gaslighting would ensure she’d forget it by the end of the issue, just in time for the inevitable hijinks of next month’s tale.
Miracleman didn’t behave that way. In Miracleman, there was no status quo — just a steady escalation of stakes. As with Watchmen, a single inciting superhero-originating event logically developed into outcomes of dark irreversibility. All-powerful superbeings become gods who eventually lay waste to the all-too mortal ‘realistic’ world in which they were born.
Nor was Moore limited to creating dark foreign universes that challenged the preconceptions of superhero comics. For now, at least, I could find him working within my beloved DC Universe.
Why, smiling out from the comic book shelves in 1989 was Batman: The Killing Joke, a beautiful book drawn by Brian Bolland — the artist whose detail so entranced me all the way back in Justice League of America 200.
In the back issue bins, I also searched for and found two Moore stories about Superman — For The Man Who Has Everything, in which Supes gets a shitty birthday present — a psychically parasitic plant that gives him the dreadful gift of his heart’s deepest desire, and the ‘imaginary’ story Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow, which laid out a satisfying conclusion to the story of the Superman whose history had ended with John Byrne’s post-Crisis reboot.
Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow, in particular, enchanted me. That version of Superman had been the one who’d hooked me back as a small child. The removal of him from official DC continuity had been an early sign that maybe superhero comics might no longer be for me.
To have a proper farewell to him — by Alan Moore, no less — was therefore a treat. Sure, it was just an imaginary story (an ‘imaginary story’, in DC terms, was one that did not stick to established continuity. For example, what if Superman split into two versions of himself, named Superman-Red and Superman-Blue? Or what if Ma and Pa Kent adopted recently orphaned Bruce Wayne? Or what if Superman died? Ha ha ha! You know. Crazy stuff they’d never do in the real continuity of the DC universe.)
Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow wrapped up my Superman’s story. It was not part of DC’s official continuity, but I didn’t care. (In fact, it was not part of continuity twice over. First, because Byrne had since rebooted Superman, wiping out this entire history that Moore was celebrating. Second, because of, y’know, the imaginary story thing. But, as Moore himself pointed out in the opening captions, it may have been an imaginary story, but then again, aren’t they all?)
Later, I would even brave Swamp Thing — a book whose title character was so offputtingly ridiculous that even the lure of Moore was not enough to get me to sample, until I felt I had no other option. And, of course, even silly old Swamp Thing was great.
Alan Moore, I became swiftly convinced, was the greatest writer in the history of superhero comic books.
And the purest evidence of this remains the Ozymandias speech bubble that closed out Watchmen issue 11. The single greatest plot twist I’ve ever seen, as dazzling today as it was when Moore first did it thirty-five years ago.
Next month: Animal Man, Animal Man. Does whatever an animal can. Spins a web? Any size? Of course he can, spiders are animals.