When Words Collide

Wed, August 13th, 2008 at 2:12pm PDT | Updated: August 13th, 2008 at 2:20pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

"Watchmen" #1 - You may have heard of this...

Are you reading/rereading "Watchmen" this week? Or did you finish it up last week?

It seems like everyone I know is dipping back into "Watchmen" this month, re-engaging with the comic because of all the post-"Dark Knight" movie, I-just-saw-the-trailer, Comic-Con excitement. Either that, or people are reading it for the first time, trying to find out what this "Watchmen" thing is all about. I'm sure you all know about the 300,000 extra copies rushing to the printer - and the shortage of the book in San Diego last month. You've probably thought about selling your extra copies on ebay, especially if you're one of those freaks who owns all the original issues, the trade paperback, and the absolute edition (count me in on that list).

So I'm guessing "Watchmen" is on your mind. It's been on my mind too, but I don't want to tread the ground that's been covered by so many other critics. You all know about the Charlton characters and the nine-panel grid and Rorschach's influence on contemporary comics and all the reasons why the book is so important. That's old news.

I want to talk about a different aspect of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's landmark series. I want to talk about a time when it wasn't a holy text, unassailable and hermetically sealed. I want to talk about the days when it was just another DC comic. The days when it was fodder for role-playing games.

And I want to talk about Captain Metropolis.

Captain Metropolis doesn't even seem to have a role in the movie. He will apparently show up as a member of the Minutemen - we've seen a still photo from the film which confirms that - but there's no actor listed in the role on the Internet Movie Database. Obviously SOMEbody plays the role, but since he's not listed, it probably won't be much of one. Clearly a lesser role than he has in the comic book, because in the comic book, he's one of the most essential supporting characters in the story. He's a pretty big deal, with his pudgy figure and fancy jodhpurs.

I'll go out on a limb and say that Captain Metropolis is the glue that holds "Watchmen" together.

And he's also the star of his very own role-playing module, circa 1987, from Mayfair Games.

Captain Metropolis - frustrated and sad

But let me back up and talk about what makes Captain Metropolis such an integral part of "Watchmen." Even if you just finished reading the book, you might not recall exactly how often he appears, but Nelson Gardner (a.k.a. Captain Metropolis) pops up in almost every chapter (eight out of twelve, to be precise). His presence lingers, not because he is enigmatic like Adrian Veidt, or omnipotent like Dr. Manhattan, or scary crazy like Rorschach, but because he is so relentlessly eager. He's an explicit link between the Minutemen of the past and whatever remains of the heroes of the present. He's the flip side of the Comedian - soft and earnest where Edward Blake is hard and cynical.

The first time he appears in "Watchmen," Captain Metropolis is just another member of the Minutemen. He doesn't even have any dialogue in the first flashback from issue #2, and he's relatively non-descript. He looks like a generically handsome old-fashioned superhero - kind of a young William Holden in crimefighting drag. His blonde hair makes him stand out a bit, and the only other male superhero of that era with exposed hair (though much darker) is the Comedian - a visual cue that links them together, and shows the contrast between them.

The second flashback in issue #2 is the more important one, at least where Captain Metropolis is concerned, because we get to see him in action. Sort of. He has gathered the main characters together, in what we later find out is a flashback to 1964, for the "first ever meeting of the Crimebusters." Thicker at the waist, this older Captain Metropolis doesn't get very far into the meeting before being undermined by the Comedian, who mocks him by calling him "Nelly," accusing him of "playin' cowboys and Indians." The scene ends with Captain Metropolis's plans literally going up in flames, after the Comedian sets fire to his Crimebuster's chart (featuring labels for all of the social ills of the time, like "promiscuity," "drugs," and "black unrest"). As the meeting falls apart and the "heroes" leave, poor Nelson Gardner frantically calls out, "Please! Don't all leave... Somebody has to do it, don't you see? Somebody has to save the world..."

Nelson Gardner's inept attempted leadership of the never-quite-Crimebusters offers more than just a chance to show the main characters in their younger days. That single failed Crimebusters meeting is the lynchpin for the Watchmen story. It quickly establishes the different philosophies of each character - the Comedian is aggressive and belligerent, Nite Owl is sincere, Rorschach (still sane) is skeptical of a large organization, Ozymandias is idealistic, Silk Spectre is passive and unsure, and Dr. Manhattan is a dispassionate observer. All of these aspects of their personalities will be enhanced as the story moves on, but the Crimebusters scene shows them in relation to one another - and shows the characters interacting as a group, for the one and only time.

Captain Metropolis is the hub around which the whole story revolves. His one starring scene appears again and again in Watchmen as the failed Crimebusters meeting is revisited - retold - from multiple points of view. For Rorschach it was the meeting at which he adopted the Comedian's uncompromising attitude. For Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan it was where they first met, and fell in love (such as it was). For Ozymandias it was the spark that would lead to the entire conspiracy hidden within the book. "Somebody has to save the world," said Captain Metropolis, and Ozymandias, the other blonde costumed character in the book, took on the challenge in his own morally-suspect way.

The first - and only - meeting of the Crimebusters

Captain Metropolis appears at other times in "Watchmen," mentioned in Hollis Mason's memoir, popping up in framed photos on dressers, showing up at the Minutemen "reunion" at Sally Jupiter's house - out of costume, eager yet awkward, embarrassed by Sally's ribald stories. A relic from an out-dated era.

But Captain Metropolis also serves as a link between comic book fantasy and comic book reality. Superman exists in the "Watchmen" universe, but only in four-color form. Superman's comic book exploits inspired the first generation of "real-life" superheroes, and while Captain Metropolis might have taken his name from a Fritz Lang film, it's more likely that his name is an allusion to the fictional city from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's "Action Comics" #16.

Yet he's CAPTAIN Metropolis, the sickly child who would join the marines and apply military tactics to the war on crime. His name may allude to Superman, in part, but his origin alludes to Captain America. He was also involved in a long-running homosexual relationship with the first costumed hero of the "Watchmen" world, the Hooded Justice. Although Sally Jupiter indirectly refers to two gay members of the Minutemen in her interview in the back of issue #8, and talks about "Nelly" and "H.J." acting like "an old married couple," none of that information - his origin, or his sexual orientation - is directly stated in the text of "Watchmen."

Instead, it was mentioned in role-playing game supplements produced by Mayfair games. Role-playing game supplements that were created in cooperation with Alan Moore.

It seems a bit silly now, but in 1987 you could crack open role-playing game modules and act out the exploits of Wonder Woman, Firestorm, Metamorpho, or Ozymandias. You could kick ass with Batman, or you could play Rorschach instead. "Watchmen" was not on such a high pedestal back in those days. It was a DC comic - better than the others, perhaps, but still a DC comic. And it had merch.

And in its first role-playing game supplement - "Who Watches the Watchmen," by Dan Greenberg - Captain Metropolis was the star. Greenberg apparently wrote the adventure before "Watchmen" had been completed, although he may have had information about the plans for the finale. (Later "Watchmen" role-playing game writer Ray Winninger, who would go on to write the module "Taking out the Trash" and "The Watchmen Sourcebook" either had access to Alan Moore or Moore's notes, because Moore is credited as co-writer on certain sections.)

How could the "Watchmen" characters be role-played? The characters are so specific, and the comic book series so tightly structured - there hardly seems room for improvisation or choice. It's certainly much different than the JLA going on a mission against Brainiac and Gorilla Grodd.

Who Roleplays The Watchmen?

What Greenberg did, wisely, was set "Who Watches the Watchmen" in 1966, thus avoiding any overlap with Moore's series. The role-playing adventure has striking parallels to the "Watchmen" series, though. Parallels that Greenberg may or may not have been aware of, depending on his level of access to the not-quite-completed story.

In his adventure, Captain Metropolis "broods on his failure" - the failure to get the Crimebusters off the ground - and comes up with a plan to unite the heroes and punch evil in its sorry face. Knowing the heroes won't join forces willingly, he hires underworld thugs to kidnap the heroes' loved-ones. Then he leaves clues that indicate the hand of the crime-lord Moloch, leading the heroes to him, and, thinking that Moloch is behind the kidnappings, the heroes will bust up the crime ring and make the world a better place.

It's clearly a small-scale version of the kind of conspiracy Ozymandias pulls off in "Watchmen." But with Captain Metropolis as the schemer.

The adventure ends with Captain Metropolis gathering the assembled heroes together - for in the role-playing universe, the good guys always win - and saying, "since we did so well as a group, I'd like to propose that we continue working together - as the Crimebusters!" "Captain Metropolis turns to the group hopefully," says the game directions.

Then it's up to the players. Do they play Nite Owl and Ozymandias and the Comedian as members of the crimebusting superteam and go off into more adventures concocted by the gamemaster? Do they enter a magical rift and end up fighting alongside the Justice Society?

Or do they turn on Captain Metropolis, suspecting that he's the mastermind behind the kidnapping plots - the pathetic has-been who risked the lives of their family members just so he could keep playing "cowboys and Indians"?

Oh, Captain Metropolis. How far you've fallen.

Is any of this part of the official "Watchmen" continuity? Clearly not. But what's interesting is that Alan Moore was actually involved with the game supplements - if not this one, then the Ray Winninger-written one at least.

Minutemen Assembled

That's the one that reveals the Captain America-like origin and describes more information about "The World of Watchmen," as co-written (at least, according to the credits) by Alan Moore. It not only explicitly identifies Captain Metropolis and Hooded Justice as gay, but it also provides other information that isn't directly mentioned in "Watchmen" itself. In the supplement, we learn that Hooded Justice's "membership in the Ku Klux Klan of the American south is testimony to the fact that [Rolf] Muller was a staunch anti-communist." We also learn of tension between the Jewish Silhouette and the racist Hooded Justice. The supplement also states that the Comedian secretly murdered Hooded Justice in 1955 out of revenge for the beating he received after raping Sally Jupiter.

Such knowledge adds subtext to the Comedian's hostility toward Captain Metropolis in the 1964 Crimebusters meeting. And it comes straight from Alan Moore, apparently.

Wikipedia uses information from the role-playing game and treats it as part of the "Watchmen" canon. Take that as you will.

But somewhere along the way, sometime between the release of the "Watchmen Sourcebook" in 1990 and today, "Watchmen" became something that seemed too pure to touch. Fans would scoff at the idea of a "Watchmen" role-playing game today - it would be as silly as a "Citizen Kane" role playing game, or a "King Lear" one.

Yet with the movie coming out, a video game "prequel" has been announced. Will it take place in that nebulous time between the failed Crimebusters meeting and the advent of the anti-superhero Keene Act? Will it feature the most important character cut from the story? Will you get to play the gay, probably racist, Captain America-meets-Superman-without-the powers analogue?

Will you get to be Captain Metropolis?

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the writer of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the upcoming "Teenagers from the Future" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  watchmen, alan moore, dave gibbons, captain manhattan

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