The comic, sequential art or the graphic novel has been around since the time of the egyptians, in that time its stories have not changed that much. They are still about heroes and villains, good versus evil, but something has happened in the last 30 years, something you could almost call sinister. The heroes began changing, becoming as gritty and grim as the villains they fought. Why were they colourful and filled with concern for their fellow man to begin with? More importantly, why have they become darker? These are the questions that I found myself asking after I saw the film version of Watchmen. In this essay I will attempt to answer those questions by exploring the history of the comic superhero, a genre that is close to my heart.
Watchmen by Warren Ellis and David Gibbons (recently made into a feature film) marks the appearance of the post-modern super hero. Ellis' bleak world set in 1985 where Richard Nixon is still President and Vietnam is the 51st state of the United States of America, shows us a group of heroes who have had the world pass them by. They are no longer wanted by their nation in a time where the world is on the verge of mutually assured destruction. If there is a time for a hero to save this world from itself the time is now, but the heroes have their own problems. One of their own (The Comedian) has been murdered and they are all in a malaise of personal problems which are getting in the way. Eventually, they pick each other up and work out that it is a fellow hero who is behind the murder. They also discover that he has a plan to save the world by, creating a series of disasters killing millions of people to unify the world against a fake extra-terrestrial threat. It is this “ends justifying the means” answer to saving the world that announces these heroes as post modern. They accept, all but one (Rorschach) that it is better to kill many to bring about world unity and peace. They are able to hold the conflicting interests of saving the world and mass murder to bring unity to the nations.
I had read the graphic novel Watchmen a few times before seeing the film version and, it was during the screening of the film that I came to the realisation that the heroes I was watching were not the heroes that I had grown up with. The heroes I have read over the last 30 years of my life would not have acted in the way Ozymandis, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre and Dr Manhattan did. Their moral catch phrases or mission statements would not have allowed them to. Spiderman's “With great power comes great responsibility” and Superman's “Truth Justice and the (sigh!) American way” does not lead to the death of even one person being an acceptable means to any end, no matter how good that end may be. I left the theatre confused as to why I was not able to accept the heroes of Watchmen and struggled about this for a time. It has only been recently that I have come to the realisation that Watchmen is a significant landmark in comic history because of its depiction of the post-modern super-hero.
To be able to understand Watchmen be it the movie or the graphic novel you need to understand some of the history of the super-hero. Characters such as Superman, Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel, and The Flash were gaudy bright characters who championed justice with a smile and with right on their side. With the possible exception of Batman (there were other non-powered crusaders in the Batman mould yet none of them are iconic enough to include here) they all had miraculous powers and abilities aiding them in their crusades against evil. This benevolent and altruistic response to the gift of amazing abilities is somewhat contrary to early greek thinking on the subject of the super-hero. This thinking about the hero is described in the tale or fable known as The Ring of Gyges. In the Ring of Gyges the story goes that a shepherd finds a ring that gives him the ability to become invisible. The shepherd's response to this newfound power is to seduce the queen, kill the king and take over the kingdom. Superman could quite easily take over the world, and in many alternate stories he has but, the characters altruistic beliefs are set in stone by the company that owns him.Yet, it is not just the corporate interests that have kept characters like Superman the way they have.
The early comic creators had a few things in common imagination, creativity and Judaism. Many of the creators of the heroes that are still around today were immigrant European Jews or children of Jewish immigrants. Will Eisner (The Sprit), Siegel and Schuster (Superman), Bob Kane (Batman), Jack “the King” Kirby (Captain America, X-Men, Mister Miracle and the Entire 4th World, and Kamandi), Chris Claremont, and Joe Kubert. These were men who possibly had a foundation in justice and the rule of law through their Jewish heritage. They also understood rejection and racism which is the reason why some of these creative people writers and artists ended up writing and drawing children's comics. The Jewish backgrounds of the comic greats could be a reason for the altruistic motives of the super hero, but there are other reasons.
There is a political and commercial reason for the heroes of what is known as the Silver age being so altruistic and moral in their use of the gifts and abilities given to them. In the 1950's in the U.S.A a series of Congressional hearings were held in response to the horror comics that were being printed at the time. The results of the hearings were the establishment of a comics code that insisted a long list (see appendix) that included -
“In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal [shall be] punished for his misdeeds.” (194:Morris and Morris)
These days the comics code is a forgotten relic of the past and if you pick a comic it no longer bears the “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” logo no matter if it is Archie or Vampirella. The comics code may have been a political tool but this tool made sure the bad guys lost and the good guys saved the girl, country, world, universe. These tales of heroes battling against odds to eventually win struck a chord and outsold the horror comics.*
*There is more I could write about the the place of the hero in global culture and its almost universal appeal but that is for another time. More can be found in works such as Joseph Campbell's “The Hero with a thousand faces”.
There are three ages to the history of American comics, Golden, Silver and Bronze. The changes are marked by certain stories that show a gradual decline in the rule of the comics code. The Golden age where Captain America and Superman are the ideal hero who battle arch-enemies and Nazi's during WWII. The Silver age began late 1940's to early 1950's around the time of the Congressional hearings that brought about the comics code. The heroes were bright as before but by the comics code, yet this was popular and profitable. The Silver age is said to have ended around the death of Gwen Stacy the girlfriend of Spiderman at the hands of The Green Goblin (The Amazing Spider-Man #121 June 1973) announcing the darker Bronze age. As the Bronze age continued stories became filled with real world issues like drugs and racism, they become regular themes. The heroes became less bright and often killed (Wolverine, Punisher) with some remorse but it was okay because “they were all bad”. Recently there has been floated a fourth age with Watchmen being cited as the beginning of the Modern age.
It is this gradual decline in the morality of the super hero over the last 40 years that has lead to the post-modern heroes of Watchmen. As the real world issues were further introduced the real worlds anger, frustration and despair came along for the ride. The hero had to become darker “with great power comes great responsibility” became “eye for an eye” as the rise of the Vigilante hero dawned. The heroes became darker and more violent but the code was still in effect even then because the hero was still winning and the bad guys were getting their punishment. Punishment that was now dealt out at the hands of vigilante heroes like The Punisher or Wolverine with the body count rising every year. Wolverines catch phrase is “I'm the best at what I do and what I do ain't pretty” With his indestructible adamantium (fictional indestructible metal) claws he was made to be the perfect killing machine by the Canadian government. Often drunk and smoking a cigar even when in costume he is the antithesis of Superman and Captain America from the 1950's, yet he is on par with Spiderman when is comes to popularity. From an “eye for an eye” it is not as far a leap to “the ends justifying the means” characters such as Deadpool a mercenary who kills for money, and Lobo an alien punk riding a space faring chopper. Their books are played as black comedy where death is merely the exclamation point of a punchline. As reality has seeped into the world of the superheroes the colour and sheen has washed off and the strict moral comics code has been abandoned.
You could say that I am being a sad fan-boy mourning a supposed loss of innocence that was fabricated by puritanic right wingers of the 1950's, and you would be right. These days comics are made to be cool, not good and right. They mirror society instead of holding up an ideal for us to live up to. This descent has happened within my life time and the manipulations of the comics code have finally been washed away. The American superhero has succumbed along with the rest of society to what Francis Schaeffer called “The Line of Despair”. Schaeffer's line of despair charts the progress of change in the concept of truth through western culture beginning with the philosopher Hegel to the present day. According to Schaeffer truth has changed from “antithesis” where Good is Good and the opposite of Good is Evil to a “synthesis” where ultimately anything Good is what you want it to be. This line is described by Schaeffer as a series of steps that descend through society from Philosophy to Theology. It is this change from antithesis to synthesis that has affected the western world and superheroes. If good is relative then how the hero saves the world is merely up to the hero. By the end of the Bronze age we can see this synthesis writ large in Ellis' Watchmen. Ozymandis can save the world he just needs to kill a few million to convince them to unify against a fake external planetary threat.
In Superheroes and Philosophy Dennis O'Neil describes the changes that have taken place in superheroes that have lead to Watchmen. O'Neil explains that the superhero is merely a meme : an element of culture that is passed on from one generation to another. These meme's “change as they pass from generation to generation” taking different meanings when it “changes under new pressures”. The superheroes that I grew up with in the 1970's and 1980's are no longer what they were, they have changed and evolved with the times. The synthesis that Schaeffer has described in his line of despair has altered the superhero meme and will continue to do so. Watchmen is merely the beginning and this christian fan laments.