When Words Collide

Wed, March 4th, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: March 4th, 2009 at 6:57pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

FOLLOWING WATCHMEN

Who reads stuff after the Watchmen?

As I'm sure you've heard, DC has launched an "After Watchmen, What's Next?" program in the anticipation that the millions of moviegoers who stream out of Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" will stagger into the nearest comic shops looking for something -- anything -- to give them the next injection of Alan Moore-style superhero deconstruction.

Really, though -- and I haven't seen the movie yet, so I don't if it's going to have any impact on the comic book marketplace at all -- the DC promotion is geared toward the direct market. Toward the people who already read comics. The people who already, you know, actually go to comic shops.

The average moviegoer can just buy their copy of "Watchmen" at their local Barnes and Noble (I'm pretty sure there might be a "Watchmen" display or seventeen in those kinds of stores this week). But are they likely to look for a follow-up on the shelves of that same brightly-lit store, or are they more likely to go to the slightly grungier, smaller local comic shop?

As comic book readers, we sometimes assume that people will flock to comic shops just because a superhero movie comes out, maybe because we remember it happening almost twenty years ago with the Bat-mania surrounding Tim Burton's film. But back then, there were a lot more comic shops inside shopper-friendly malls. Back then, graphic novels weren't heavily stocked in bookstores. Back then, there was no internet.

Think about it, when was the last time a movie made you go to a specialty store? Maybe you liked "The Prestige," but did that film compel you to stop in the local magic shop and/or electronics store? Did "Pirates of the Caribbean" make you rush to the eye-patch and hook store? Did "Oldboy" send you to the hardware store?

Just because someone likes a movie, that doesn't mean they want to go buy stuff that has something to do with it.

But let's say, let's go ahead bravely and say that "Watchmen" is such a stunning cinematic achievement that it makes viewers rush out into the world, clamoring for more. More Alan Moore. More superhero deconstruction. More comics.

It has kind of happened before -- I remember a lot more of my friends wearing sunglasses after "The Matrix."

Then, seriously, after "Watchmen," what's next?

And it's not that we expect these people to rush into comic shops looking for what's next. They're going to ask you -- they know you read CBR, they know you have good taste --and they're going to want to know what they should check out. They might, if they also have good taste, end up reading this very column instead of bothering you (because you're obviously busy tracking down copies of "The Drifting Classroom" and rereading your Morrison Superman comics).

So this is for them, maybe through you, and it's based on the belief that they've read "Watchmen" after being excited by the movie, and I've divided my recommended reading list into easy to follow sections for easy reference:

IF YOU LIKED THE STREET-LEVEL GRIT OF "WATCHMEN"…

The Question rocks the Shoulder Pads of Justice
"Daredevil: Born Again," by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

Arguably the best Marvel comic of all time, Miller and Mazzucchelli's exploration of Matt Mudock's fall from grace combines urban violence with themes of redemption and forgiveness. It's a Frank Miller story, so it's not exactly subtle, but it's more graceful than much of his other work, and with "Born Again," Mazzucchelli transforms from a quite good superhero artist into a top-notch visual stylist. If you longed to see a more pious Nite Owl or Rorschach, then this one's for you.

"The Question," by Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan

The Rorschach of "Watchmen" is a reimagined version of Steve Ditko's Question character, as seen in Charlton comics and later purchased by DC. Although a version of Ditko's Question appeared in the non-Ditko "Blue Beetle" series in the 1980s, this O'Neil/Cowan comic book series is often seen as one of the essential, "realistic" works in the superhero genre. O'Neil "kills off" his main character in the first issue and brings him back, physically and spiritually, to defend a corrupt Hub City. If you longed to see Rorschach learn the ways of a Zen master and make a more noble effort to keep the streets safe from crime, then this one's for you.

IF YOU LIKED THE POETIC IMAGERY OF "WATCHMEN"…

"Saga of the Swamp Thing," by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben

This is actually one of DC's official "What's Next?" recommendations, and a new printing of issue #21 is hitting comic shops soon. But the hardcover collection (or any of the early trade paperbacks) gives you a massive influx of Alan Moore in his poetic horror mode. In "Saga of the Swamp Thing," he recasts the muck monster as a plant elemental stuck in a gothic love story. It works brilliantly as both horror and melodrama, and though it may not look anything like "Watchmen," it shares both a writer and a sense of supernatural splendor. If you wished that Dr. Manhattan spent more time in the Bayou, then this one's for you.

"All-Star Superman," by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

I've written plenty about "All-Star Superman" for CBR, but it's certainly a work that belongs in a "poetic imagery" list. Quitely's art, enhanced by Jamie Grant's digital coloring, captures the weighty humanity of the characters and rejoices in their god-like splendor. Some critics dismiss this series as a Silver Age pastiche, but it's far more than that. It's a celebration of life, of imagination, wrapped up in the trappings of the Superman mythos. It's about as good as Superman gets, and that's very good indeed. If you wanted to see superhero action, beautifully illustrated, starring a dying Dr. Manhattan, than this one's for you.

Iron Fist sneaks before kicking.
"Immortal Iron Fist," by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, David Aja, and various

The first three collected editions of "Immortal Iron Fist" straddle the line between street-level action and mystical kung-fu hijinx. But what makes it all work is the extension of the Iron Fist legacy. Not concerned merely with one man's efforts to kick and magically-punch his way past a never-ending stream of villains, Brubaker and Fraction add pulpy flashbacks and mythical grandeur to the series, and when David Aja draws characters in action, it's a delight for all. The end of their run climaxes with a kung-fu tournament that never reaches a satisfying conclusion -- other, more important concerns get in the way -- but that simply makes the finale slightly less pleasing than the first ten issues or so. Still, it straddles the line between Miller-esque "Daredevil" grit and Morrisonian transcendent wonder, even if it's really only about a line of guys who can punch harder than anyone else in the dojo. If you wanted Ozymandias to enter a martial arts tournament in Shangri-La, then this one's for you.

IF YOU LIKED THE EXPLORATION OF THE FANTASTIC IN "WATCHMEN"…

"Planetary," by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

DC is also reprinting the first issue of this comic as part of their "What's Next?" promotion, and though it looks almost nothing like "Watchmen" and features a globe-hopping plot that's far more expansive than the tightly constructed confines of the "Watchmen" universe (even with Dr. Manhattan in space and Ozymandias's fortress of solitude, "Watchmen" feels closed-in by its structure and themes), "Planetary" takes the tired old clichés of comics, films, and pulp novels and recombines them into a single grand narrative. Some issues read almost like parodies, while others are emotionally weighty, and they all add up to something much, much larger than it seems at first. This series is scheduled to reach its end with a final issue in 2009, so everything might finally fit into place once and for all. If you wanted Ozymandias's sinister plot to reach further through time and metafictional space, this one's for you.

"The Invisibles," by Grant Morrison and various

Supposedly, Morrison pitched this series -- or conceived of it -- as a comic about psychic assassins, but as any reading of the first four issues will indicate, it never hit the shelves with such a simplistic concept. Morrison downloaded his brain into the three volumes of this series, and although the inconsistency of the art doesn't always match the dizzying heights of the complex story, "The Invisibles" is either one of the great ambitious failures in modern comics, or it's a masterpiece of transcendental metafiction. Or maybe it's both. It's the ultimate conspiracy thriller, with divergences galore, and it's as much a work of personal philosophy as it is a sci-fi action comic. If you wanted the Comedian and Rorschach to become seedy interdimensional, time-travelling super-spies who love the Beatles, this one's for you.

IF YOU LIKED THE RECOMBINATION OF FAMILIAR ARCHETYPES IN "WATCHMEN"…

Archetypes in action.
"Fables," by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham

Though sharing none of the superhero trappings of "Watchmen," Bill Willingham's "Fables" takes classic, archetypal characters and recasts them in a postmodern setting. "Fables" has an inherent sweetness (even at its most sinister) that's completely lacking from Alan Moore's work. By taking the characters from fairy tales and thrusting them into the 21st century, Willingham opens up possibilities and relationships that could never occurred in the original tales. But because he uses such familiar characters -- Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, etc. -- his stories gain the advantage of allusion and the thrill of seeing these characters in unfamiliar situations. It's sometimes darkly horrific, and sometimes lightly enchanting, but it's always interesting. If you wanted "Watchmen" to spend more time exploring the notion of superheroes in the "real" world, this one's for you.

"League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

If you only saw the movie version of this, then you don't know what you're missing. And if you didn't see the movie version, don't bother. Moore and O'Neill's graphic narrative smashes together a batch of literary public domain characters -- the Invisible Man, Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo, and more -- and pits them against conspiratorial villains and Martian Invasions ("War of the World," style). The fun is in seeing these characters deftly woven together, and Moore's measured tone contrasts sharply with O'Neill's chiseled and manic style. It's very good. If you wanted "Watchmen" to take place in the late-Victorian era, this one's for you.

IF YOU LIKED THE SUPERHERO DECONSTRUCTION OF "WATCHMEN"…

"Stormwatch" and "The Authority," by Warren Ellis and various

What began as a cliché-ridden, hollow 1990s superhero action comic turned into something much, much more in the hands of Warren Ellis. As "Stormwatch" concluded its original run, relaunched with new numbering, and then led directly into the "Authority" series, Ellis and company (most notably, Bryan Hitch) took the implications of "Watchmen" and built upon them, adding in "widescreen" superheroics and a stronger sci-fi context. What if superheroes decided to start taking control of the world situation? Ellis raises this question, and then shows the dysfunction surrounding it. If you wanted more action and more glossy, but flawed, costumed characters from "Watchmen," this one's for you.

"The Filth," by Grant Morrison and Chris Weston

If "The Invisibles" is Morrison's brain, downloaded into not-really-a-psychic-assassin series, then "The Filth" is the foul underbelly of that world. This series has a relatively simple premise: what if a sad, lonely man was actually part of an ultra-secret transdimensional organization and didn't even know it? Around that apparent simplicity, Morrison raises questions of identity, pop culture, the detritus of our world, and the relationship between reality and fiction. Weston's highly detailed art emphasizes the sweaty physicality of "The Filth" universe, and creates a beautiful sense of overwhelming anxiety. If you wanted deeper metafictional layers from "Watchmen," and a creepier exploration of a fictional world, this one's for you.

Kid Miracleman gone wild.
"Miracleman," by Alan Moore and various

As great as "Watchmen" is, as a work of superhero deconstruction, it doesn't get much better than "Miracleman" (originally published in "Warrior" magazine as "Marvelman"). Unfortunately, "Miracleman," particularly the later issues, are extremely difficult to find and complex legal wrangling has kept it from being reprinted in full. Even the few trade paperbacks that do exist often sell for well above cover price when they surface on ebay. "Miracleman" takes the British Marvelman character -- already a pastiche of Captain Marvel and the Marvel family -- and updates it for the 1980s by tearing it apart and rebuilding it. When Kid Marvelman turns on his former mentor, things literally become explosive, and the viciousness of issue #15 is the pinnacle of ultra-violent superhero comics, for good or bad. If you wanted "Watchmen" to show a Dr. Manhattan unleashed in full fury, this one's for you.

IF YOU LIKED THE HARSH CYNICISM OF "WATCHMEN"…

"Preacher," by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon

Another "official" DC recommendation, with a $1.00 reprint of the first issue coming soon, "Preacher" is a mythic contemporary supernatural road Western, starring a reverend with a super power, a belligerent blood-sucker, and the women who loves them (at times). That description doesn't do justice to the shockingly offensive levels to which this series rises (or sinks) under the auspices of Ennis and Dillon, and you really have to see it to believe the kinds of deranged horror the creators inflict on the readers. But that's only part of the comic, as there's plenty of pathos, and humor, and thematic resonance within its pages. If you wanted Nite Owl to swear at everyone and become sheriff of a small town before fighting in a war between angels and demon, this one's for you.

"The One," by Rick Veitch

Veitch's pseudo-pornographic "Brat Pack" and the Superman deconstruction of "The Maximortal" might be too much for a nascent reader -- they might be too much for anyone -- but "The One," originally published as part of Marvel's aborted Epic line, delivers Cold War-era superhero escalation in the tradition of "Watchmen," but with a decidedly different slant. This is a "Mad Magazine" style of exaggeration, but the humor is dark, dark, dark. "The One" is a grotesque mockery of a superhero comic, complete with all the tropes and symbols of four-color fantasy. But, boy, is it cynical. If you thought Rorschach didn't go far enough with his vigilantism, and if you thought "Watchmen" had too much of a happy ending, this one's for you.

IF YOU LIKED THE MAXIMALISM OF "WATCHMEN"…

Chaykind does maximalism.
"American Flagg!" by Howard Chaykin

Chaykin, the dean of hyper-sexualized, square-jawed comics, created his masterpiece in "American Flagg!" Recently reprinted in a nice-looking hardcover volume, Chakin's first dozen issues (or so) present a not-too distant future in which sex and death reign supreme, and the populace is pacified with a mall-based culture and the multi-media onslaught. Originally published in the 1980s, it presents anti-Soviet anxiety and fascist overtones with a liberal underbelly, reflecting Chaykin's own iconoclastic values. It's fun, incredibly dense, and looks like no other comic you've ever seen. Even today, it seems shockingly fresh and visually unique. If you liked the deep-focus attention to detail and the densely-packed visuals about good guys being bad in "Watchmen," this one's for you

"Kingdom Come," by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

Some readers think "Kingdom Come" relates to "Watchmen" because they both deal with end-of-the-world, apocalyptic scenarios, or because they present a dark "reality" for superheroes. Neither of these comparisons is valid, as "Kingdom Come" is a celebration of the mythic iconography of the DC Universe. It satirizes the 1990s shoulder-pads-and-heavy-weaponry trends in order to provide a crucible from which the classic heroes can re-emerge into the light. It's a love letter to the DCU, but it does relate to "Watchmen" in a different way: both are jam-packed with visual detail. "Kingdom Come," painted by Alex Ross, features a maximalistic approach to graphic narrative and every page is filled with information. Some might call it cluttered, but it's oppressive detail is the essence of its charm. If you wanted "Watchmen" to be completely different, and fully-painted, but still packed with enough visual information to make your eyes bleed with love, this one's for you

IF YOU DIDN'T LIKE "WATCHMEN"…

Well, maybe should write a whole different column about that some day. Because there's a lot more to comics than might be dreamt of in your philosophy. (That "Watchmen" comic is pretty great, though. Right?)

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

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  when words collide, watchmen, watchmen movie, fables, miracleman

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