Stories like Watchmen work thanks to original characters
Ever since Alan Moore redefined superhero deconstruction in the 1980s with Swamp Thing and watchmen, it has become a popular tool for many modern writers. DC in particular has seen the growth of deconstructionist stories, especially over the last ten years. Since watchmenthere has been no shortage of writers who want to duplicate the storytelling style.
Many of the industry’s top talents have made their own attempts to make their own mark on the comics with an Alan Moore-style story that goes down in legend. However, these efforts met with mixed receptions. A big reason for the many controversies has been the modern use of established superheroes to tell these stories, which contrasts with Moore’s propensity for creating his own copies of existing characters. There are many ways to tell dark stories that editors need to be careful of.
In his book watchmen (by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins), Alan Moore originally wanted to use DC’s newly acquired Charlton characters. These included Blue Beetle, Peacemaker, Captain Atom and The Question. However, the publisher had plans for these characters, all of which got titles in the years that followed, including a legendary series on Dennis O’Neil’s Question. As a result, Moore was forced to create his own cast of characters, which formed the main ensemble of Watchmen. The story remains one of the most influential comics in the history of the industry and of storytelling itself.
In stories like heroes in crisis (by Tom King and Clay Mann) and strange adventures (by Tom King, Mitch Geradas and Evan Shaner), Tom King, a writer known for his deconstruction, has drawn the ire of many comic book fans – and for understandable reasons. These stories revealed the failure to use established heroes as the focal point of a deconstructionist story. Beloved characters such as Mr. Terrific and Guy Gardener have had their characters twisted in the name of dark storytelling. The murky status of these stories in comic book continuity only compounds this problem, with them seemingly drifting in and out of canon.
While the stories themselves can be good in a vacuum, using many fan-favorite heroes to tell them can negatively impact both IP and fan interest. Whether the stories are in continuity or not, the new interpretation of characters is often what fans think about, and a poorly timed deconstruction story can turn away new fans. One of the advantages of Alan Moore’s strategy with watchmen His fans knew who each new character represented, but those original IP addresses were protected. At Denny O’Neil’s Question would have been a very different book had he published it after Watchmen.
Some deconstructionist stories that used established heroes fared better. Proper of the King Mister Miracle (by Tom King, Mitch Gerards and VC’s Clayton Cowles) was well received, with many considering it a modern classic. Frank Miller’s dark and gritty twist on Batman in his Return of the Dark Knight (by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, John Constanza and Lynn Varley) the miniseries explored an elderly Batman and a Superman who acted as a puppet of the US government. However, Miller was careful not to fundamentally alter the hero cores. Batman was still a vigilante who loved his town and hated guns and Superman was still the archetypal law-abiding boy scout.
But, on the whole, deconstructionist comics that use an original list of identities tend to fare better and be better received. books like The boys (created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson) are certainly proof of that, with success in both comics and television. by Jeff Lemire black hammer (created by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston) and Robert Kirkman Invincible (by Robert Kirkman, Corey Walker, Ryan Ottley, Russ Wooton and Bill Crabtree) are other excellent examples. Defining a new world from the get-go with these tropes makes it easier for new fans to accept twists and turns than using existing heroes in a much darker way. Publishers need to consider how quickly certain news can travel with new stories, and how a hero doing something awful in a comic can make it less palatable on the road.
It should be noted, however, that deconstruction exists on a spectrum, and some writers manage to balance the device with established heroes. Both Christopher Priest and Moore himself have shown an ability to analyze heroes and villains on a darker, more human level. Moore used storytelling strategy to great effect in his masterpiece Swamp Thing run, where he gave the hero a complete reinvention. Priest is currently writing an excellent black adam limited series where the anti-hero comes to face his own mortality. Delivering darker stories with old heroes is entirely possible, but writers and editors have to watch the line.
If a character is defined that way from the start, fans will be less surprised when it gets even darker, as can be seen in a character like Rorschach. By letting fans know what to expect early on, there’s less disappointment and longer interest in these characters. This is probably the reason why the recent Rorschach the limited series was better received than Strange Adventures. Fans, while open to new ideas, want to preserve much of what makes their favorite heroes great.
The deconstruction trope of a hero, or a universe, can be good with a strong fan following. But while many writers want to tell these stories, there’s also a need to better consider the long-term value of the characters’ IP, cultivate fans, and do justice to the work of past creators. It is unlikely that John Ostrander imagined Mr. Terrific as secretly happy about the death of his wife and child, just as it is unlikely that Guy Gardener was envisioned as a dangerous stalker.
Many of these heroes have strong and dedicated cult followings, and it’s those followings that keep the character valuable as a brand. The risk of alienating these customers and fans should give publishers pause before radically redefining heroes in a negative light, especially if they hope to incorporate them into a film.