Watchmen and the Never Ending Nature of Superhero Stories

A reason that superhero comics stories can be hard to get into are their long running nature. For example, if you’re a Superman fan and want to get into his comics, where do you start? Do you begin with Action Comics #1 from DC Comics’ recent New 52 reboot or Superman #1 or Superman Unchained from the same reboot? Or do you go further back and start with Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman or John Byrne’s Man of Steel, or even all the way back to the first Action Comics #1 in 1938. If this series of sentences is confusing, that’s the point. Without help from the Internet, a friend, or nice comics store worker, it can be hard to get into DC and Marvel superhero comics. In Watchmen #12, Alan Moore plays on the seemingly eternal nature of superhero comics with some clever, metafictional dialogue from Dr. Manhattan, the ending of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s story arcs, and the famous ambiguous ending of the entire series.

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Throughout Watchmen, it can be argued that Dr. Manhattan plays the role of both the comics reader and creator. For example, in issue 4, he plays the role of reader by seeing the world in “snapshots”, which literally act as panels in the story. He acts as creator by building the tower on Mars and later on in Watchmen #12 when he says he’ll create new life. This could be like Alan Moore leaving DC Comics in 1988 and doing independent, non-superhero work for his own company, Mad Love. But Manhattan also plays the role of reader in Watchmen #12 when he tells Ozymandias, “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” For some reason (most likely financial), superhero comics starring characters who have been having adventures for 50 (or 75) plus years keeping getting made. Even after a character dies, there is only a matter of time before he or she is brought back and gets a spanking new number one issue with dozens of variant covers.

The never ending nature of superhero narratives is alluded to in the ending of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s story when they visit Sally Jupiter in their new civilian identities of Sam and Sandra Hollis. Throughout this visit, it seems like they are content to do “normal” things like visit the in-laws and maybe have a few kids. But at the end, Sandra talks about “a better costume that protects me” and carrying a gun. So there could still be adventures in store for Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. This is similar to one of Moore’s other classic stories, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow”, the “last” Superman story where after the deaths of supporting characters, like Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang, and Krypto, Superman decides to bathe in gold kryptonite losing his powers permanently so he can live a normal life as the mechanic Jordan Elliot. But the final page includes a classic Superman wink, and his son Jonathan turning coal into a diamond showing that the Superman legacy will continue because this is just an “imaginary story” as Moore tells readers on the first page. There are a variety of “last” stories for various superheroes, but they will never be official canon because of the potential for new adventures, like Sam and Sandra putting on the mantles of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre again, or Superman’s origin being rebooted the year after “Whatever Happened” in John Byrne’s Man of Steel.

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Watchmen is one of the most accessible superhero comics because it has a beginning, middle, and end. Or does it? The comic ends with Seymour, a dimwitted employee at the New Frontiersman, about to possibly run excerpts from Rorschach’s Journal in the paper. This could possibly lead to people learning the truth about the “alien invasion” and adrian Veidt, or it could be rejected because Rorschach was seen as a mentally unstable sociopath. There is also the smiley face button found on the first page, which returns as the logo on Seymour’s t-shirt with a ketchup smear. In the last page of Watchmen, Moore and Dave Gibbons seed possibilities for future storylines, which could still happen because the Watchmen rights belong to DC Comics. Ambiguous endings are a big part of superhero comics, which have “final issues” sometimes, but then the character is brought back with a new creative team and/or a new volume/title. (E.g. X-Men became New X-Men in 2001.)  In the ending of Watchmen, Moore pays homage to this part of superhero comics, and how creators continue to build and craft a characters decades after their first appearance.

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