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The Business of Comics: Doctor Strange – It Sounded Good

I thought I would shake things a bit this month and focus a bit more on the business decisions made in the comics industry rather than the usual focus of reviewing comic series, looking at overlap of comics with other media, or on the construction of the stories themselves.   The case study will be the Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme series that ran from November 1988 to June 1996.

The impetus of this idea is threefold.  First, as usual readers might note, I have a fondness for Doctor Strange.  While not the flashiest of characters, Doctor Strange has, when handled correctly, present an opportunity for metaphysical exploration that is difficult to find in other venues.  Second, this an almost ideal case demonstrating the risk associated with trying to emulate a competitor (in this case Vertigo comics).  Third, I had some personal involvement on the far fringes of this story when I engaged in a long and somewhat acrimonious argument with the writer who was at the helm of the book’s demise.

Now an obvious question is why bother talking about an old series now.  The simple answer is that the success of the MCU’s Doctor Strange movie did a lot to rehabilitate that character in my mind and it returned my enthusiasm for all things Strange.  In turn, that enthusiasm prompted me to give a second look at the series, now with the perspective of time.

Before reviewing the fall of this series, let me set the stage.  Marvel was the leader in comics from about 1966 to the start of Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme series.  A very helpful chart of the sale figures of both companies has been compiled over at, which clearly shows Marvel sales climbing in the mid-80s while DC’s stayed relatively flat at half the level.  Marvel had the upper hand in most things except for adult horror.

The success of the Swamp Thing under the guidance of Alan Moore in the mid-80s was capped by the popularity of and critical attention paid to the Sandman series, helmed by Neil Gaiman, towards the end of that decade. The Vertigo line that spun off from these two books became one of the one shining spot in DC’s offerings.  No doubt, Marvel looked at that and thought there is a market share that they couldn’t or shouldn’t overlook and that whatever Vertigo was doing they could do just as well or better.  The following letter and response are from issue #74.

They had a stable of horror-related characters that had served them well in the seventies (Morbius, Hannibal Drake, Blade, etc.) and the relaunch of Ghost Rider in March 1990 proved so successful that a strong competitor line to Vertigo looked in their grasp.  Looking for additional characters to join the stable, they decided to reinvent Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme, then a reasonably successful second-tier comic that sold between 70 and 100 thousand issues a month.

That success was large due to the writing of Roy Thomas, who set the stage for the subsequent transformation with his story device of the War of the Seven Spheres introduced in issue #48.   Whether intended to be a plot device for the ongoing story or a strategic move for a planned transformation, the War of the Seven Spheres is a conflict between many (if not all) the extra-dimensional entities – Vishanti, Ikonn, Cytorrak, Watoomb, Seraphim, etc. – upon whom he had often called.

As they fight over who ‘owns’ him, Strange rejects their millennia-long conflict and severs his ties to them, leaving him significantly underpowered and ready for change.  That change comes in the form of the of crossover event called The Siege of Darkness.

With its roots deeply entwined with the Ghost Rider title, The Siege of Darkness storyline provides a mechanism for rebooting most of the seventies horror characters and pitting them against a host of new villains.  The primary one for the purposes of Doctor Strange is an earlier Sorceress Supreme by the name of Salome (a deus ex machina character introduced in Marvel Comics Presents #146)

who not only defeats Strange but also ‘infects’ him with her elemental magic.  With no extra-dimensional beings to call upon, Strange implements a desperate plan.  He first destroys his mansion, then replaces himself in the real world by two magical automatons: a being simply called Strange and Doctor Eric Stevens.

each carrying some of his magical might and a specific facet of his personality (issues #60-61).  All that is left is a mere shell of the once great magician

plotting a scheme to defeat Salome with his new Gaian Magic.  This sundering persists until issue #75, when the good doctor becomes essentially whole again and much younger in look and manner.

David Quinn, who wrote the series from issue #60, would depart four issues later, his swan song coming in issue #79.  By then the damage had been done and no reversal would fix it as series came to an end less than a year later.  The following table shows the average and latest circulation numbers by issue from the Statement of Ownership declaration.

Issue # 12-Month Average Latest
51 110,238 132,500
62 105,087 67,285
75 52,083 40,300
85 35,133 31,000


Marvel tried to brand the whole family of darker/horror/magic themed comics as Marvel Edge (see letter page figure above) but that branding never seemed to land and hold the way Vertigo did for DC.  As the Doctor Strange transformation played out, Marvel editorial staff switched from being generally supportive (mostly positive letters on the letters page in issues #68-74) to frankly critical (no letters pages or strongly negative and critical ones in issues #77-79).  This was an unusual move for a company with a history of putting the best face on flagging sales and seems to indicate their vote of no-confidence in Quinn’s method of making the middle-aged doctor appeal to the Vertigo crowd without alienating the pre-existing base.

In a move to restore Doctor Strange to a pre-Quinn state, Marvel hurriedly had him regain support from the extra-dimensional entities by serving in the millennia-long War of the Seven Spheres over a month’s worth of Earth-time along with his middle-aged look and sensibilities; all of this happens between issues, indicating a ‘quick let’s try to fix this’ attitude in the marketing or sales department.  J. M. DeMatteis, who became the writer in issue #84, managed to neatly tie up many loose plot threads while also telling a touching story about the final resolution of the relationship between Doctor Strange and Baron Mordo.

And so ended a bold, misplaced experiment by an industry leader trying to emulate a niche-market product by a trendier competitor.  There is a certain irony in the demise of Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme.  I met David Quinn at the Philadelphia Comic Fest in 1993, just around the time Marvel was building up his forth-coming tenure and the new era it would usher in.  Quinn explained his ‘geomancy’ ideas to me and I argued vehemently with him that it wouldn’t work.  We stood outside the Marvel booth and argued for over a half an hour before we finally went our separate ways.  I was one of those who quickly dropped the book as he transformed the everything in sight.  Just recently, I bought the missing issues and read the whole run from his takeover in issue #60 to the end.  Taken in totality and read in quick succession, it turns out that the story wasn’t bad and even had interesting and charming parts.  But it was a story that refused to honor the past Doctor Strange stories and so alienated the old fans and yet was not edgy enough to attract the Vertigo fans (of which I was one).  Sadly, it ended up simply being a dark moment in the business of comics.

The Black Monday Murders

On the surface of it there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of comic book fare in the stock market crash on October 24, 1929.  Certainly, there is ample material for textbooks on economics and governmental policy willing and eager to discuss, argue about, and pontificate over Black Thursday, but surely there is nothing for comics.

Well, the creative team of Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tomm Coker (artist), Michael Garland (colorist), and Rus Wooton (letterist) clearly don’t agree with that sentiment.  Their new series The Black Monday Murders, which is published by Image and is currently up to issue #5, centers in on the oft misquoted adage that money is the root of all evil.

In short, the plot deals with three entities:  the satanic power that underlies banking and finance, the influential human elite who’ve made a deal with the devil for power and money, and the police who are called in to investigate the ritualistic murder of one of these elites on October 31, 2016 (the Black Monday from which the series derives its name).

The satantic power is mostly present by way of its absence; it is never directly seen, only occasionally discussed and then always obliquely, but is always lurking behind each move and decision of the power-elite.  The latter are organized into various financial institutions called schools (Western, Eastern, Middle-Eastern, Asian, etc.), each vying for wealth and control while trying to circumvent what the devil is due.  The police are mostly a non-factor background element except for the lone detective charged with getting to the bottom of who killed the victim and why.

The bulk of the action centers on the co-joined Western and Eastern school called the Caina-Kankrin Investment Bank.  Originally Caina side was comprised of 4 ruling families:  The Ackermans, The Rothschilds, The Dominics, and The Bischoffs.  When the series opens we see the crash of 1929 just starting, complete with magical transformations on the trading floor.

The initial panic and mayhem are shortly followed by a far more sinister outcome.  It seems that when the crash comes (i.e., the devil is getting his due), the person left holding the ‘Stone Chair’ must be sacrificed by the other families.  The reader is then treated to a ritualistic murder of Charles Ackerman at the hands of Milton Rothschild while Raymond Dominic and J.W. Bischoff watch.

Hickman employs his usual non-sequential storytelling technique to gradually reveal that the Caina investment house, seeking a way to free itself of the Stone Chair sacrifice, coerces a merger with the Eastern School, the Russian Kankrin financial institution, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  This merger forces the Stone Chair into Kankrin’s control but sets the two halves into conflict (their wheels turn in opposite ways – see the following figure).

Years later, some, as yet, unrevealed hostility arising from the merger leads to the murder of Daniel Rothschild, grandson of Milton Rothschild, and holder of the Ascendant Seat, which affords the holder control of Caina-Kankrin.  His murderer, a member of the original Russian Kankrin cadre and a current holder of the Stone Chair, not only takes no steps in covering his tracks but he also positions the dead body as a clue for the police.

It so happens that the officer assigned to the case, one Detective Dumas, is intuitive, clever, and possibly psychically enabled.  He quickly realizes not only that the body has been positioned like the arms of the clock but also the significance of the time indicated.

This set of events positions Dumas to begin to investigate Caina-Kankrin, a task he is aided in by the assistance and consultation of Dr. Gaddis, Professor of Economics at Fordham.  Like an episode of Colombo, the identity of the murderer is not really in question.  The real trick is the motive for the crime and whether or not Dumas will be able to extract justice.

The drama and tension of The Black Monday Murders derives mostly from the internal family dynamic in Caina-Kankrin.  In particular, old grudges between the various original families and between the Caina and Kankrin pieces, and conflict of values between the old ways of evil and an emerging sentiment to do good with all that money form the dynamic interplay.

Visually, the use of color and line style sets an oppressive mood well suited to the conspiratorial framework of the tale.  Design elements common to Hickman tales also tend to show up, including stylistic alphabets and languages, presumably of his own making,

and a presentation of magical beings in monochromatic ways.  Consider, for example, the many faces of the Rothschild familiar, Abbadon (‘affectionately’ called Abby), through the various epochs visited in the story.

Abby seems quite comfortable transitioning from a 1920s flapper style, thru a 1950s harridan ensemble and 1980s new wave look, to a 2010s ‘lesbian chic’ (starting on the left and moving counterclockwise), allowing her to always work her evil while looking her best.

Hickman’s dialog is also on point.  Consider this exchange between Professor Gaddis and Detective Dumas as the former tries to explain to the latter why ‘money’ is so bad

Additional touches add to the verisimilitude, including historic recounts that lend an archaeological  background to the mysterious language so integral to the satanic influence of Mammon in the story,

and narrative support devices, like the written transcript of a meeting between the Caina-Kankrin member Victor Eresko and his corporate lawyer, Andrew Wright, where redaction leads to revelation.

I’ll close with some personal observations.  First, this work seems strongly inspired in its narrative construction by the Watchmen, specifically because of the presence of many pages of ‘textual’ material (transcripts, police reports, excerpts from diaries, etc.).  Second, there is a distinct overlap with earlier conspiratorial works, primarily the Illuminatus Trilogy, although this work treats the subject matter of a vast conspiracy with a lot more reverence and seriousness.  Finally, whether The Black Monday Murders turn out to be a financial success or not, it is an excellent example of how putting story first makes for an entertaining product.

Mantis Retrospective

Well Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, has proven itself to be the first big blockbuster of the summer season.  The entire gang are there, Starlord, Rocket, Drax, Gamora, and Groot (assuming that you count Baby Groot as the same as Groot in the first movie).  In addition, we are introduced to some new characters, including Ego the Living Planet and Mantis, his empathic companion.  But a relatively small percentage of the movie-going public likely know the publication history of Mantis in the comics.  This post attempts to fill in this gap for those who are being introduced to Mantis for the time.

Pound-for-pound, Mantis may have had the greatest impact on Marvel comics of any character.  Her initial tales cover only about 2 years, starting in Avengers #112 and ending with Giant-Sized Avengers #4, at total of 27 comic books.

The brain child of Steve Engelhart, the Mantis, when she first appears in Avengers #112, is relegated to a mere 3 panels where she is in the company of a mystery man, whose identity is later revealed to the be former super-villain Swordsman – now reformed and seeking entrance into the Avengers.

Her initial appearance is rather modest and she is missing her characteristic antennae.

Her subsequent storyline through the Avengers over the next 2 years can only be described as ‘Flat out weird’, using Engelhart’s own introduction to the book.

Her next appearance in Avengers #113 is also limited to 3 panels in her modest garb but by the time she appears on the cover of Avengers #114, she has now been transformed into a sensuous femme fatale whose is one part martial artist, one part empath, and one part sex-symbol.

Demonstrating an unparalleled ability to control her own body, Mantis is able to even lay Thor low with her martial arts techniques (as she often says ‘strength is nothing compared with skill’).

Her empathic abilities provide here with some rudimentary command of the mystic arts

And clearly Englehart and his various artists delight in depicting her in sensuous and slinky positions

Her situation quickly complicates.  Her background story as a gutter snipe raised on the streets of Saigon is soon challenged when the Libra, one of the 12 super-villains in the Zodiac, confesses to being her father.

Libra relates quite a different story.  He was a German mercenary working for the French in Viet Nam.  He meets a girl called Lua (took her back to his place, feeling guilt, feeling scared), fell in love,  and eventually married her.  Unfortunately, her brother, Monsieur Khruul, is an infamous Vietnamese crime lord and he doesn’t take kindly to his sister marrying outside her race.  Finally catching up with the married couple, now raising a baby daughter, the maniac orders his men to burn all them alive.  Lua is killed, but Libra, now horribly disfigured, escapes with Mantis into the jungle.

Libra discovers the temple manned by the Priests of Pama, who train both him and his daughter in the martial arts.  The priests take a special interest in the girl, helping her to unlock vast untapped aspects of human existence

Unfortunately, the Priests keep Libra apart from his child

and he returns to the outside world, to take up a mantel of crime lord.

Mantis is quick to dismiss Libra’s story as a complicated pack of lies and that may have settled it, except for a set of actions her fickle nature sets in motion.  Her innate attraction to powerful men causes her to start flirting with the Vision.  Mad with jealously, the Swordsman, deciding to prove himself worthy of her love, rushes to Saigon to exact revenge on Monsieur Khruul.

Instead, the Swordsman is bested by Khruul’s men.  Tortured, he relates Libra’s story to Khruul, who then orders all the Priests of Pama killed.  The Avengers and Libra, following hot on the Swordsman’s heels, arrive at the temple where they bring Khruul’s men to justice.  However, Khruul escapes.

They later find him dead, ripped to shreds by an extraterrestrial entity called the Star Stalker that absorbs most forms of energy.  The Star Stalker reveals that the Priests of Pama were in fact Kree Pacifists and that they alone knew how to defeat him.  With them gone, he threatens to consume the Earth in revenge.  With the priests dead, all hope seems gone.  Insisting his story is true, Libra turns to Mantis, insisting that the priests would have taught her the secret as well and that all she needs to do is recover her memories.

Much to her surprise, Mantis realizes that she does know the Star Stalkers weakness and she soon directs the Vision in destroying him.  Her conflict over her past further alienates her from the Swordsman

and when pressed she spurns him and turns all her affection to the Vision.

This burgeoning love triangle is soon interrupted with the arrival of Kang the Conqueror from the future announcing that his goal is to find and wed the Celestial Madonna.

Kang makes short work of most of the Avengers, capturing them so that he may determine who is the Celestial Madonna.  Considering him beneath contempt, Kang leaves the Swordsman behind.  This proves to be a serious mistake, as the Swordsman is able to recruit other versions of Kang from other times to stop him.  Unfortunately, the Swordsman is killed in the process.

Mantis insists that the Swordsman be buried in Saigon.  After the ceremony, she begins to examine her life and finds herself in no way worthy of being a possible Celestial Madonna.

In the meantime, Kang beaten but not driven back, remounts his attack to claim the Celestial Madonna.  Again his alternative selfs assist in his defeat and one of them, Immortus, provides the Avengers with the means to untangle Mantis’s past once-and-for-all.

As the story comes, together, the Avengers discover that Mantis’s origin is inextricably tied to the Kree, Skrulls, and a new race the Cotati

who also began their existence on the Kree Home world.  Eons ago, the Skrulls were more technologically advanced than either the Kree or the Cotati.  They gave the Kree and Cotati a chance to share in their technology – it was to be the prize for winning a competition as to which race could best use the Skrull technology.

The competition was held on the Earth’s moon and, at the end of the year allotted, the Kree had built the Blue City, the future home to the Watcher.  In contrast, the Cotati had built a park.  The Skrulls, impressed by the work of the Cotati, are poised to pick them winners when the Kree slaughter all the plant people.   They then kill the Skrulls, coopt their technology, and start the eternal Kree-Skrull war.

But not all Kree turn out to be militant.  The pacifists among them choose a different path.  Shunned by their society, they train in defense and spirituality.  One day they discover that the Cotati were not all wiped out by the initial genocidal rage of their ancestors.  It is hard to kill a race that produces seeds.  But these Cotati are no longer mobile, having chosen to give up action, instead focusing on their refinement of their mental abilities.  They form an alliance with the pacifist Kree.  Their partnership is cut short when the Kree imprison the pacifists on a prison planer.  The Cotati are able to engineer their freedom in exile by attracting the Star Stalker and them helping them realize how to defeat his menace.  By doing so, the pacifists are able to appeal to the Kree Supreme Intelligence, who agrees to allow  them to journey in exile to many worlds.  Unbeknownst to the Supreme Intelligence, the exiles take the Cotati with them.  The pair that heads to Earth found the Priests of Pama and plant their Cotati companions in the garden in Saigon where Swordsman is buried.

Swordsman’s body is now animated by the Cotati

and after some adventures too long to relate, Mantis agrees to marry him, thus facilitating the first animal-plant mating from which will come the most powerful being on Earth.

The rest on Mantis’s story is not very interesting.  After he left Marvel, Engelhart was able to introduce a Mantis-like character in both DC and Eclipse comics.  Mantis eventually resurfaces in Marvel comics as both a mother to Sequoia (her celestial offspring), a lover to the Silver Surfer, and a murderous freak seeking revenge for the ‘lies’ visited upon her by Libra, the Cotati, and the Avengers.  Unfortunately, she never again inspired the interest she had under Steve Englehart in the initial 2-year run of flat out weird stuff indeed.  Hopefully her MCU trajectory will be a lot more interesting.


Styles and Moods and the Comics Zeitgeist

Over the past several decades, I’ve pondered what is the equivalent of the chicken-and-the egg question in comics: how much does the art drive the writing versus the other way around and how does the tension between these different creative outlets shape the final story.  In a previous column, I looked at this from the point of view of a specific pairing of writer and artist.  Last month, I looked at the statistics associated with the mechanical aspects of making a page.  This month I thought I would conduct a survey of styles and moods across comics history, starting with the beginning of the Golden Age in the late 1930s.  The samples presented here are part of the larger set I used last month.

I am a sucker for the old school, Golden Age comics (at least most of them).  They seem to have a certain charm in the art style and the choice of word and phrase.  Consider the following page from Marvel Comics #1 (technically the reprint version made freely available as part of Halloween ComicFest in 2014).

If you didn’t know where the above snippet was from, there is still a good chance, even if you aren’t a comics aficionado, that you would be able to predict is was ‘old timey’ (1939 being the year that this was first published).

What makes it so distinctive?  Clearly it is one part art style, one part panel layout, one part subject matter, and one part word choice and location.  There is a certain zeitgeist that comics of this era have – a collective way of thinking about and presenting the story that makes it distinctive – much like the movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  Even more distinctive than the art, the attitude of the main characters signal the period in U.S. history when this was produced.  The Human Torch seems completely unconcerned about the havoc he is wreaking and the firefighters act completely unconcerned about their own safety.  There is a certain carefree quality that typically marks the stories from this time span.  Even when the characters display serious emotion, there is very little in the way of equivocation or self-doubt and debate.

As time progressed, this Golden Age Zeitgeist stayed remarkably unchanged during the lead up to World War II.  It was as if the industry thought there was only one way to please the audience and, as with other popular arts of its time, rock steady was the watch word.  Bright optimistic colors and stories were the mainstay.

In the aftermath of the war, the superhero genre just about died, being replaced with ‘more sophisticated’ fare.  The horror comics from EC set the standard and were the best reflections of this new zeitgeist.  A page, taken from the Vault of Horror #14, shows the characteristic tone and mode.  The panel layout doesn’t differ much from the previous era, but the art is darker and more angular.  This change in look-and-feel reflects the change in content.  Upbeat optimism is replaced by cynical and cautionary tales that are much closer in content to a cross between the morality play and the Greek tragedy, with a heavy dose of irony thrown in for good measure.

Characters ponder and debate with themselves.  They dabble in shady and morally ambiguous behaviors.  Lies and subterfuge are common motifs that add to the suspense of the tale.  This mood persisted, even after the Seduction of the Innocent events in the mid-1950s.  Explicit displays of horror and terror within the tales may have been blunted but the content continued to focus on the bizarre and fantastic (monsters, magic, or science fiction), the cautionary and the twist, as evidenced by this page from Amazing Adventures #1 showing what happens when science runs amok.

The bright colors had returned but not the bright attitude.

Perhaps ironically, the force of censorship that Wertham championed married the two earlier styles and made the fertile ground that gave birth to the revival of the superhero comic in the mid-1960s.  Thus bringing back in popularity the wish-fulfillment he warned so vehemently against.

The next change in mood accompanied the social upheaval of the 1960s and brought along in its wake a fresh approach to page layout and content.  Panels were no longer as clearly delineated as they had been before but became more ‘organic’.  Artistic freedom matched a more liberal range in subject matter, covering institutional of societal woes like racism, drug use, and social unrest.  Perhaps no single series made as big an impact as the Green Lantern/Green Arrow Tales.  Consider the following page from Green Lantern #78 dealing with cults.

Mood, character tone, and dialog are an amalgam from the earlier eras.  Bright costumed adventurers are found side-by-side with creepy elements and moody images.  The dialog is also ambiguous, harkening in style to the horror comics of the 1950s but with a far more moral outlook.   This deeper dialog was often wordier as well; action took a back seat to more in depth and drama and cerebral activity were more important that throwing punches and causing mayhem.

The 1980s saw a regression-to-the-mean as many comics backed away from the social issues and cerebral tales and returned to more action.  But the nature of the action was different; super hero comics became grittier (e.g. the rise of the Punisher) even while the overall page look-and-feel became more traditional and the subject matter less controversial.

Still, not all creators were willing to let go of the freedom and flexibility to explore alternative subject matter.  New genres and sub-cultures started springing up (Vertigo leading the forefront) and the 80s epoch would mark the last time that a common zeitgeist would exist across most of comics.

As an example, consider the stark difference between this page from The Legion of Super-heroes #291 (1982)

and this one from Sandman #3 (1988)

Both are from DC. The Legion story deals with end of the galaxy under the subjugation of Darkseid while the Sandman story deals with the torment of one person and degradation of a single person and yet the former is far lighter in color, line, mood and dialog than the latter.

This continuous fracturing only accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s.  The primary difference in artistic mood being driven by technical matters rather than by a collective aim to provide uplifting messages or societal examination or the like.  The rise of digital arts and new composing and printing processes was accompanied by the loss of gutters and panels.  Images superimposed on images were the norm, regardless of subject matter and story mood.  An excellent example of this is from Darkseid versus Galactus: The Hunger (1995)

The only ‘zeitgeist’ that seemed to exist was one associated with technique and not content.  This love affair with digital effects and eye candy has yet to subside, but there has been a movement back to a more traditional page layout and simpler art even as the number of genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres have increased.  That said, any visual similarities in page layout are drowned amidst the vast variety of art styles and moods.  In terms of art, the industry has essentially splintered into ever smaller niches, much in the way cable television and the music industry has.

One common theme seems to exist in terms of content.  Driven perhaps by political correctness and a sense of social justice, the content has become increasingly homogeneous, not in plot or subject matter, but in sensibility.  This is a remarkably sad thing to note.  After all, this very same industry, which struggled so-hard to free itself from the censorship and rigidly-defined topic areas imposed on it during the 1950s, is now rigidly self-policing any voices that differ from the accepted standard.  Hopefully, this zeitgeist will soon pass into history.

Words and Comics

Last month’s exploration of the triumphs, trials, tribulations, and tensions between the creative work of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko got me terribly nostalgic for a time.  Looking at all those works from the 1960s and 70s brought out the old feeling that the new stuff isn’t as good as the old stuff.

There are certainly many ways to criticize that feeling and I have engaged in them all.  I tell myself that many of the comics I read as a child formed my expectations, particularly where the art style and subject matter are concerned.  My emotional and mental maturity wasn’t as great then as it is now.  I’m out of touch with modern approaches.  And so on.

While I’ve considered each and every one of those possible objections, none of them explain my admiration and enjoyment of the old Golden and Silver Age books.  After all, I wasn’t exposed to the Golden Age material until I was well into my third decade and my appreciation the Silver Age material came even later.

To be more concrete, let’s take the following page from Avengers #134 from 1975:

This is one of the scenes from the Steve Engelhart’s Celestial Madonna storyline in the Avengers.  The art is from Sal Buscema (illustrator) and Joe Staton (inker).  The content is pure, trippy, new age cosmic metaphysics – a blend of science fiction and mysticism.  To give a flavor of just how trippy, the storyline centers around Mantis, a character created by Engelhart, who is a combination priestess, martial artist, whore, and celestial savior.  The storyline culminates with her marriage to a dead lover who, after his demise, had become reanimated by an intelligent plant species.

Consider now this page from the Golden Age appearance of the Sub-Mariner from Marvel Comics #1 from 1939.

The brainchild of Bill Everett, this version of the Sub-Mariner is quite different in visual style, content, and mood from the Bronze Age version.  No cosmic opera, no galactic scope, no celestial superpowers.  The entire story has quite a different look-and-feel in all aspects, and yet there is a charm in these pages that captures my interest.

Likewise, the following page from Crypt of Terror #19 (1950) from the short story entitled Ghost Ship with story and art by Al Feldstein.

This is a traditional ghost story about a couple who ‘find’ a derelict pirate ship and slowly unravel a tale of violence and betrayal from centuries earlier.  The style and mood are clearly the gritty 1950s and they are a far cry from either the light-hearted adventure of the Sub-Mariner or the cosmic opera in the Avengers.

I find all these styles enjoyable and satisfying; both the styles from my youth and the styles I encountered as a result.

Now let’s look at a more modern offering.  For this case, I offer one of the more egregious examples I’ve found from Iron Man #77 (2004).

I tried to put into words just what was wrong.  At first, I thought it was simply a matter of style.  The art, while technically competent, is uninspiring and fairly monochromatic.  There isn’t much in the way of movement or action or dynamism nor is the dialog interesting and or engaging.

Later, I decided that none of these critiques quite captured the essence of my distaste.  A counterexample to most of these critiques is the following page from the Thanos Imperative #4 from 2010.

The art is of a higher quality than the Iron Man example above.  The dialog is better as well, even if it is a bit long-winded and ponderous.  There are traditional panels and gutters compared to the panel-on-top-of-panel style in the previous page and the color scheme has a lot more variation.  So technically, this page was better in most aspects than the Iron Man example and yet there I was still unsatisfied.  Somehow, the thing that was bothering me was escaping my ability to articulate.

The only place left to turn, now that subjective art critiques had failed, was to collect some objective data.  To this end, I semi-randomly chose 32 different pages spanning the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Ages.  My only criterion was to find pages from material I liked and disliked that had roughly the same structure – a page with a mix of dialog and action.  Once selected, I simply counted the words on the page and how they were distributed by panel to produce 3 statistics:  total words per page, the number of panels per page, and the average words per panel.

The following graph, which shows the total number of words per page as a function of year shows that there is only a slightly discernable trend over the time span that tends to suggest that the number of words per page has dropped modestly in the Modern Age.

The variation in the number of words per page by year is mostly a function of the author rather than the style of any of the ages.

The graph of words per panel shows no trend whatsoever.

Apparently, the same amount of verbal information, to within variations due to story demands and author, is being conveyed.

However, when the panels per page is graphed, a fairly discernable trend appears.

Over the time span from 1940 to 2000, there is a continuous drop in the number of panels presented on the page.  When I went back and looked at the Golden Age stories, the style was to push a large number of small panels onto every page.  This made the page look rather busy.  This practice was eventually dropped and, over the course of years, the number has slowly declined until it hit a minimum around 2004/2005.

After I found this result, I reexamined the Thanos Imperative series.  Most pages have only 3 or 4 panels and the example I provided above was a rare case with 5.  As the number of panels has been dropping, the industry had been cutting back in storytelling content in way that was far from obvious by examining art style or dialog content.

So, there you have it.  My distaste with the Modern Age style (at least in the mid-2000s) was due to the fact that I was aware on a subconscious level that the industry was gipping me out of a bunch of storytelling.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a drop in the average number of panels per page from the value of 8 in 1938 to 4 in 2005 is literally a drop of 4000 words per page.  Given that there are roughly 20 pages per comic book, that amounts to 80,000 word per book.  We all have paid for millions fewer words than we would have gotten decades earlier.  Fortunately, that trend seems to have reversed a little and that’s all to the good.

Writers and Artists

A few short weeks ago, while roaming through the local comic book store, I happened on a reprint volume published by Dark Horse comics entitled Creepy Presents Steve Ditko.  As is obvious from my previous columns, I have a general fondness for the old Doctor Strange stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.  I also have an affection for stories of the macabre – not horror stories per se, but rather weird stories of the bizarre; stories that try to stretch the concepts of reality and reset the boundaries of perception.  So, I figured, why not give it a chance.

Once home, I settled into a comfortable spot and looked forward to an hour or two of thought-provoking tales of the twisted and strange.  What I got instead was far more food for thought than I bargained for, and none of it from the stories presented in the volume.

In the book’s foreword, Mark Evanier launches into his history of Ditko, essentially in the middle of the tale, by starting with one of the most publicly acrimonious events in comics history:  the departure of Ditko from Marvel Comics.  As Evanier puts it

Just before Thanksgiving of 1965 – some accounts say February of ’66 – Steve Ditko turned in his last Spider-Man story for Marvel Comics.  Anyone interested enough in Ditko to purchase this book knows the grandeur of that work and the major jolt in comic book history that occurred when it ended.

His resignation was not wholly unexpected.  He and editor-scripter Stan Lee had not been getting along for quite a while, disagreeing as they did about the direction of the series, the underlying philosophy of it and its world, and the division of their labor.

Whether Evanier meant his words to be a distraction or not, I found myself quite unable to concentrate on the stories themselves.  Instead, I kept returning to the reoccurring debate as to who is more important: the writer or the artist.

The tension between artist and writer is a reoccurring theme in the comics industry.  I was present at the Great Debate between Peter David and Todd McFarlane at the ’93 Comic Con in Philadelphia.  For those who don’t know, David (writer) and McFarlane (artist) had a fine run on The Incredible Hulk before they had some sort of falling out.  The debate, which was an aftershock of that split, was handily won by David.  And considering that the book barely lost a step with the departure of McFarlane, one might be inclined to say, at least in this case, the artist was not as important as the writer.  This is a well-supported conclusion given the paucity of storytelling demonstrated by McFarlane in his book Spawn.

On the other hand, John Byrne demonstrated that an artist can be quite a great storyteller, in fact better than the writer he was originally paired with, when he moved off of The X-Men and out from the shadow of Chris Claremont.

The situation is far more complex and nuanced in the case of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.  Together, this pair created two of the most enduring comics characters in Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.

Exactly how should the credit be apportioned between the two of them for the creation of Spider-Man has been the source of much debate.  Was Lee the driving force behind the idea while Ditko merely set the visuals?  Or was Ditko’s costume design and moody panels the key with Lee’s writing taking a back seat?

I think the answer lies not in one pole or the other but in the tension that resulted from their opposition.  In his article on Ditko (The Creator of Doctor Strange Will Not See You Now), Abraham Riesman says

Even as they were crafting these early adventures of Spider-Man and Peter Parker, there was friction between Lee and Ditko. At first, it was productive: Lee loved poppy, witty, ingratiating verbiage, but the characters Ditko put into the stories often looked unnerving and anguished; Lee liked high-flying action, Ditko wanted pathos.

The resulting character was unlike any other in the superhero corpus: an awkward, despairing, and oft seething teenager who struggled through life both in and out of costume, but managed to banter his way through the darkness and always triumphed in the end. He was a kid who saw his powers as a burden and only assumed a heroic mantle after tragedy forced him to reevaluate his life choices, but who leapt and swung along the rooftops with acrobatic aplomb. It’s hard to imagine either Lee or Ditko coming up with such a contradictory and revolutionary character on their own.

And contradictory it certainly was. Consider this panel from The Amazing Spider-Man #27. Ditko’s art is wonderfully expressive while also being minimalist. Just Spider-Man and the chains. Is this panel really helped by the campy dialog that informs the reader that Peter has flexing chest muscles that make him feel like a bodybuilder in a b-movie?

On the other hand are the following panels extracted from Amazing Fantasy #15.

It’s hard to say that Ditko’s art is inspiring but the dialog and captions are top notch, including that well-worn quotation about great power and great responsibility.

Of course, there is a lot of speculation as to what made Spider-Man so successful. Certainly, his costume is visually appealing and the overwhelming consensus is that Ditko is responsible for the look and feel. But the main aspect that makes it all so compelling is the tragic back-story, which seems to be due to Lee. It is always harder to clearly apportion credit for plot points.

During their collaboration, Lee and Ditko produced memorable moments that neither achieved afterwards, including the iconic ‘Spider-Man coming between’ Betty Brant’s and Peter Parker’s burgeoning romance (The Amazing Spider-Man #30)

or the famous sequence where Peter is trapped by Doctor Octopus under tons of wreckage (The Amazing Spider-Man 33)

where he refuses to give up until he is free.

Lee’s words and Ditko’s art perfectly complement each other and the reader is left with a story that is a profound blend of courage, sadness, hope and despair.

The Amazing Spider-Man continued to do well after their split and one might argue that the later arcs involving the Kingpin and the death of Gwen Stacy surpassed the work by Lee and Ditko. But in the case of Doctor Strange, their pairing produced a set of stories involving the famous sorcerer that have never been equaled since.

Ditko’s surrealistic images created a new standard in comic book visuals for magical storylines. Lee, drawing on his background writing ‘weird’ stories, created imagination-stirring concepts that blended horror, the macabre, and mysticism without feeling trippy or forced. The pinnacle of their collaboration can be summarized with one image: the encounter between Strange and Infinity, the living embodiment of the universe.

This encounter would not be the awe-inspiring event it was without the Ditko’s visuals to set the mood and without Lee’s storytelling, which built up suspense over the previous 7 stories/84 pages in which Strange raced against time to find a way to defeat the alliance between Baron Mordo and Dormammu.

Neither creator was ever as successful in capturing comic book magic again. Clearly, despite whatever emotional animosity lay between them, their whole was greater than the sum of their parts. Without Ditko’s imagery to inspire, Lee’s subsequent stories began to age, to became tired, repetitive and dated. Without Lee’s plots and words, Ditko’s visuals seemed disassociated and unmotivated.

They had captured lightning in a bottle when they teamed up; too bad it couldn’t last.

A Forgotten Classic

The year was 1989.  The comic book industry was in the midst of the expansion bubble that would eventually burst in 1993 (a story for another day).  Comic books were now not just items in the collectibles market, whose value was based on past performance, but items in a speculative futures market, where value was guessed based with Ponzi-like logic.

In response, publishers pushed better paper and printing processes that littered the landscape with all sorts of novelties guaranteed to turn any issue into an instant classic:  multiple covers, embossed covers, holograms, and foil inserts.  The big two (DC and Marvel) pushed out large arcs, mega arcs, crossovers, and huge interlocking storylines with regular titles supplemented with special issues.  Thousands of pages drenched the reader in color and pageantry and melodrama.

What chance could an independent comic possibly have in competing with all this eye candy?  A learned observer may be inclined to say little or none, especially if the comic was in black and white, dealt with previously unknown characters that find themselves placed in the far more humble circumstances of the urban jungle rather than a world-spanning alien invasion or the cosmic end of the universe.

But, as it turns out, such a learned observer would have been wrong.  James O’Barr’s The Crow showed how a touching, human-focused story coupled with evocative art can more than overcome the lack of the backing of an industry giant.

Crow - Cover Picture

The Crow was so successful that it spawned numerous sequels and a movie and television franchise that persisted for decades after its publication.  What’s most telling is the fact that the original series is as moving and compelling today as it was nearly 30 years ago.

How did this veritable David outpace the mainstream Goliaths?  In a sentence, The Crow was both a labor of love and moving love story.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a short synopsis is useful and spoils nothing; the reason being that, in a real sense, there is nothing to spoil.  There are no plot twists or surprises – simply a story of love, loss, pain, and coping.  The core of the story centers on the tragedy of Eric, a young man who was cruelly and wantonly murdered along with his fiancée Shelly when they have the misfortune to breakdown in a lonely spot where they are found by a gang of street thugs.  About a year later, Eric is granted a chance to come back and set things right.  His soul is transported to the land of the living by a crow, who is both the source of his strength as well as his spirit guide and advisor.

Crow - The Crow Talks

Gifted with invulnerability and superhuman reflexes and strength, Eric begins hunting down the scum who killed him and his fiancée, extracting brutal revenge in a variety methods. His abilities are not exactly classic super powers and it is probably fairer to say that his invulnerability doesn’t protect him from harm so much as it keeps him unharmed even while he is ‘harmed’.  For example, when stabbed with a knife, the blade bites deep, severing flesh and causing blood to flow, but the wounds cause neither pain nor lasting damage.

Crow - Invincible

There is little to no suspense as he achieves his revenge.  The story starts with Eric already resurrected, already empowered, and already seeking revenge.  O’Barr makes it clear that Eric will have his revenge and he will make the punks pay dearly.  The only questions of where, when, and how are minor considerations. The story gets its drive and interest from poetry of love and pain that comes to the reader as he learns more about the love and joy Eric and Shelly shared before the fateful day where they encountered the punks, the pain and suffering of that encounter, and the aftermath of the tragedy.

The story of The Crow is so compelling that it could have succeeded with mediocre art and routine writing.  Fortunately, O’Barr’s art is first rate and his writing above average, turning the tale into a classic.

His visual stylings are basically divided into two parts:  clean lines and well-constructed panels for real-world sequences, and ‘hazy-focused’, softened images for the more emotional or tender sequences.  He is great in using character expressions to enhance the evocative nature of the story, especially around the gut-wrenching events when Eric and Shelly are killed.  Consider the following panel progression just after their car has broken down and the punks have arrived to help.

Crow - It All Started Here

The narrative portion of the writing is solid and, while not often moving, does not detract from the story in any substantial way.  The dialog is where O’Barr shines creating some of the most haunting phrases including ‘Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of all children.’ and ‘Amazing God would waste skin on trash like that…’.

One of the best comes in the following exchange between the Crow and Funboy:

Crow - Great Dialog

From top to bottom, The Crow delivers; delivers on art, on dialog, and, most of all, on story.  All this from a small, independent creator working on a shoe-string budget to create something really meaningful.  If only the big guys would learn the lesson.

Watching the Watchmen – Part 2

Last month I reviewed the compositional elements of Watchmen that made the book a genuine work of comic book art.  Moore and Gibbons primarily used 5 different and complementary compositional elements (page layout, panel detail, background material, repeated visual elements, and repeated narrative elements) in a consistent but unobtrusive way during the 12-issue run and, in doing so, created a critical and commercial success.

This month I want to examine the underlying philosophical themes and messages that the story conveys.  The central point with which Watchmen wrestles is one of existential nihilism; the notion that human life is meaningless, banal, without purpose and that morality, as a result, is a convention or societal trapping at best.

While Gibbons claims that Watchmen ultimately celebrates the superhero genre and, therefore, rejects existential nihilism, there is little in their work that actually supports this assertion.  It is true that at ‘the end’ of the series, a sort of equilibrium is achieved wherein the surviving main characters have found that the human race has value (no individual member per se; simply the race as a whole), but the justifications rest on weak first principles about the nature of man.  Throughout the series, it is easy to find Thomas Hobbes’s famous characterization of human life as being ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ being expressed by almost every character, large or small, each in his own distinct way.

The Comedian (aka Edward Blake) is by far Watchmen’s poster boy of existential nihilism.  His code name derives from the cynicism he has about the value of human existence and the fact that he sees into ‘the joke.’  As a result, he doesn’t put a lot of stock in humans or their institutions and Moore and Gibbons afford us many opportunities to see inside of his philosophy.  The most telling are his interactions with Doctor Manhattan (aka Jon Osterman) in the Viet Nam war.  At Blake’s funeral, Manhattan reminisces about their time in Viet Nam.



The time they spend together seems to have a profound effect on Doctor Manhattan, driving his already detached attitude even further away from compassionate sensibilities and into cynicism of his own.


The Comedian’s own attitude seems to shift as he gets older and his cynicism, it seems, has limits.  Moloch, once one of the most feared crime lords in the Watchmen universe, becomes an unexpected confidant of the Comedian’s.  Blake breaks into his apartment for a little heart-to-heart.  Having discovered Ozymandias’s (aka Adrian Veidt’s) plot to sacrifice millions to save billions, Blake is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and openly weeps in front of Moloch as he opens his soul about his past sins and how disturbed he is over Ozymandias’s plan.


It isn’t explicitly stated but I am left with the impression that this change in Blake’s attitude is the result of his realization that his own daughter could be one of the victims of Veidt’s plan.  In other words, that Blake finds some limit to his nihilism seems to result from the biological fact that he has a child.

By the start of Watchmen, it is uncertain how much of Doctor Manhattan’s attitude is shaped by his interactions with the Comedian and how much is the result of his ‘other-worldliness’.   What is certain is that he claims to no longer find value in human life,


despite the fact that he has a human lover in the form of Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre II). Regardless of what he says, Jon still possesses enough human emotion to be easily manipulated into leaving the Earth for Mars.  His absence is engineered by Veidt/Ozymandias precisely so that the latter will have no impediments for his great plan of salvation (essentially the same reason that Veidt kills the Comedian).   However, Jon’s emotional attachment to Laurie Juspeczyk leads him to bring her to Mars, where she tries to convince him that human life has meaning.

Each of her arguments fails utterly and it looks like there is no possible way for her to convince Jon to return to save the world.  It is only in the last minutes of their dialog that the situation changes.  Jon unwittingly enables her to correlate all her memories and to realize that Edward Blake – the man who once tried to rape her mother – is her father.  This sudden realization changes Jon’s perspective on the human race and allows him to see people as a thermodynamic miracle.


The most curious attitudes about the human race come from Walter Kovacs (a.k.a. Rorschach).  Outwitted and framed by Veidt for Moloch’s murder, Kovacs is captured by the police, held at Sing Sing penitentiary, and forced to undergo mandatory psychological counselling by Malcom Long.

After days of evasion, Kovacs explains to Long how he got his unique ‘face’


and the connection between this ever shifting viewpoint on black and white and how he decided to adopt Rorshach as his superhero persona.


It should be noted that the modern viewpoint of the Kitty Genovese story is that the New York Times exaggerated the indifference of the neighbors, neglected to mention that the cops were called twice, and failed to state that no one could clearly see or hear what was happening in that alleyway.  Nonetheless, Moore makes a lot out of this story and how it influences Kovacs into becoming Rorshach.

The last evolution for Kovacs occurs when he takes on the case of the kidnapping and butchering of a little girl.  The particular brutality of the monsters who killed this little girl when they realized that she wasn’t the daughter of a rich man but simply shared the name drive Rorschach into becoming a monster himself.  After that pivotal event, Rorschach is the prime personality and Kovacs is the mask.

The title of issue #6, in which Long discovers the truth, is The Abyss Gazes Also, a clear reference to the famous quote

Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. –

Friedrich Nietzsche


And true to this sentiment, by the end of the session where Malcolm Long discovers the truth behind Rorschach, he too is embracing nihilism.


Perhaps the most interesting of all the Watchmen characters is the one who, through the bulk of the series, gets the least attention – Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias.  Dubbed the most intelligent man on the Earth, Veidt is fascinated with the ancients and their approach to life.  In particular, he admires the campaign and conquering of Alexander the Great, even though he has taken as his superhero name the Greek name of the great Pharaoh Ramses II.

Originally planning to make a difference as a costumed adventurer, Veidt’s perspective changes abruptly under the influence of the Comedian, who argues that no amount of small scale crime fighting will change the basic equation of the Cold War.


Soon after, Veidt gives up his masked persona and seemingly retires to become a highly successful captain of industry 2 years before the government eventually declares all masked adventurers outlaws.  In actuality, Veidt is merely the mask that Ozymandias wears as he engineers his world-saving solution.  As he explains to Rorschach and Nite Owl, the Cold War was a modern Gordian Knot; something that needed to be solved by out-of-the-box thinking.


Thus Ozymandias engineers the plan for a mock alien invasion that will unite, at least briefly, the entire Earth as one brotherhood.


The fact that millions die so that billions live is something that Ozymandias seems to be able to live with and justify.  Nonetheless, Moore and Gibbons suggest, though their Tales of the Black Freighter comic-within-a-comic, that Ozymandias through his struggle to stop the monsters of the human condition has become one himself.

The Tales of the Black Freighter is introduced and presented to the reader through a young boy who hangs around a newsstand to read the reprinted editions of this classic horror comic written years before.  This comic-within-a-comic is visually distinct from everything else in the Watchmen and is given out in installments.  As a compositional element, it is interesting in that it serves at least three distinct functions: it gives homage to the old EC comics of the 1950s; it represents one of the few attempts at a frame tale in comics; and it serves as a vital element to explain Ozymandias’s psychology.

The two-part story focuses on an unnamed man who is marooned on an island after his ship has been attacked by the ship from hell called the Black Freighter.  Initially dismayed by the threat the damned pirate ship represents to his home town, the man fashions a raft from the dead bodies of his compatriots.  The horrors he endures and embraces eventually take him from genuine concern for this family, through the hunger for vengeance, and finally to a willingness to sacrifice innocent lives to see his loved ones protected.  This final action results in his ultimate damnation aboard the very ship he loathes.


This narrative metaphor is meant to emphasize the sentiment of Nietzsche who warns of the cost when battling monsters – a theme that Moore attaches to the actions of the superheroes of the Watchmen.

Of course, not all characters embrace nihilism.  There seem to be three or four genuinely ‘nice’ characters:  Nite Owl I (Hollis Mason) and II (Dan Dreiberg), and Silk Spectre I (Sally Jupiter) and II (her daughter Laurie Juspeczyk).  The positions and arguments against existential nihilism from these characters are not mounted in any serious way.  Both Mason and Dreiberg are portrayed as powerless characters.  Mason dies at the hands of a gang of hoodlums, and Dreiberg (who is the ‘knight’ of the story – see the additional material at the end of issue #7) is shown to be both sexually and strategically impotent.  Sally Jupiter is shown to be in it for the money and to be materialistic and shallow.  Laurie is first introduced as the sex kitten used to keep Doctor Manhattan happy and, when introduced later as a costumed adventurer, she, of all the main characters, is not provided a dramatic pose that features her alone (see the team image from last month’s post).

So, what to make of existential nihilism in Moore’s story?  Well, it seems that Moore pulls from Nietzsche here as well, when the latter states “If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence.”  But the affirmations provided in Watchmen are weakly supported and full of strong metaphysical contradictions.  For example, the Comedian’s point about seeing the joke implies the existence of a jokester to tell it, in turn implying purpose to human life; a point further emphasized by Blake’s ‘biological repentance’ once he knows he is a father.  Doctor Manhattan’s grasp of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, the structure of spacetime, and quantum mechanics should afford him a better grasp on metaphysics so that the human mating revelation he has on Mars should have never needed to be.  This is especially troubling given the notion of predetermination that comes from Doctor Manhattan’s ability to see past, present, and future simultaneously.


Rorschach finds only value in abstract things like Justice and Truth but finds no motivation in Love or Beauty, so how does he truly know Justice?  So he hates the human race, for whom he fights, but continues on fighting.


Ozymandias sees only value in control, so the thing that is worth controlling (here the human race in total) has value, but it isn’t clear why he values the race while valuing no single member within.  In addition, the world’s smartest man, who is capable of engineering this alien invasion plan, is not smart enough to have standard password protection.


The superhero genre, like the classic epics and mythology on which it is built, always has nobility and baseness side-by-side.  Characters of profound capabilities put their gifts to use, both good and bad, even if they themselves are not necessarily good or evil.  The classic superhero story doesn’t deny the existence of horror or evil, but rather celebrates those individuals who can look into the abyss without becoming monsters.  In the Watchmen one finds only the baseness, only the abyss, and only the monsters.

So if the compositional elements of Watchmen can be regarded as the wrapping paper on the outside of a gift box and the themes of existential nihilism can be regarded as the gift inside, then the Watchmen is one gift best admired for how it looks unopened.

Watching the Watchmen – Part 1

I’ve had something of a love-hate relationship with the Watchmen comic series since it first premiered in September 1986.


This admission may seem something of a surprise given that the Wikipedia article on the Watchmen notes that “several critics and reviewers [consider it] to be one of the most significant works of 20th-century literature”, that “Watchmen was recognized in Time’s List of the 100 Best Novels as one of the best English language novels published since 1923”, and that “[t]he BBC described it as ‘The moment comic books grew up.’”.

I’ve heard things like this since Watchmen hit the stands in 1986 and I scraped enough money to buy it in its original serialized form (a huge task given that I was in college at the time with very little money).  But I have never been able to fully embrace it nor to clearly explain why.  That’s 30 years of pondering what is it about this particular comic series that attracts me and what pushes me away.  It’s 30 years of wrestling with how to clearly articulate the reasons why.  Finally, I think that after all that time I can, at least, put down the basic structure behind my ambivalence towards Watchmen.

In a nutshell, I think the physical composition and narrative structure are among the best I’ve ever seen while the underlying message and philosophy are empty and nihilistic and vapid.

I’m going to spend this column and the next expanding on particular points that support this assertion starting with the parts of Watchmen that I like – its physical composition and the narrative structure.  In the next column, I’ll discuss the underlying themes and messages that produce a philosophy that is both nihilistic and intellectually vapid.

But before launching into the review, a quick synopsis of the plot is in order.  For those unfamiliar, Watchmen is set in an alternative timeline where some ‘normal people’, inspired by the pulp novels of the 1930s and 1940s, have become masked adventurers for a whole host of reasons, which, according the psychoanalysis featured in the story, include a desire to address societal woes and do good, the need to get their kicks (physically or sexually), or because they are seeking their fame and fortune.  Being a bit of a fad, these normal folk in extraordinary costumes see their popularity rise and fall just as any fad does.  Things change about a decade later when the physicist Jon Osterman, through fate or blind randomness, becomes the superman of his world.  Dubbed Doctor Manhattan, Osterman is able to manipulate matter at the atomic/sub-atomic level, teleport, bi-locate, and ‘see’ the past, future, and present all at once. His presence re-energizes the superhero movement, causing a new generation to don masks and tights and fight for justice.  However, this new influx is ultimately viewed as a destabilizing influence on society and ‘masks’ are outlawed by the Federal government in 1977.  The Watchmen is set in 1985, when the only legally operating superheroes are Doctor Manhattan and the brutal, cynical holdover from the earlier days called the Comedian.

The Watchmen starts proper with the death of the Comedian at hands unknown.  The story features the ramifications that result as the other masks – Rorschach, Nite Owl, and Silk Spectre – investigate the Comedian’s murder.  As the various threads are put together they slowly realize that the Comedian’s death was engineered to hide the scheme of Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, a former compatriot, who has taken on the responsibility to save the world from itself.  Ozymandias‘s plan is simple; fool the people of Earth into thinking that there is a cosmic threat waiting to invade and they will unite against a common enemy.  Ozymandias/Veidt is willing to kill millions in New York with a simulated invasion by a monstrous alien in order to drive the threat of invasion home.  At series end he is both condemning and congratulating himself for having pulled off what he, no doubt, would term a Platonic noble lie that brings peace to the whole world.


Written predominantly as a psychological exploration, the action in Watchmen is fairly limited but the moral and existential horrors drip from every page.  Part social commentary, part critique of comics, part moral play, the 12-issue series was different from much (but not all as many critics believe) that was on the market at the time (the Squadron Supreme 12-issue series from 1985 has nearly identical themes – albeit dealt with differently – and premiered about a year and a half earlier, but that is a post for another day).

To emphasize that the Watchmen was something other than the run-of-the-mill comic, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, tried to design a look-and-feel quite different from anything that was currently in vogue.  They did this in a number of interesting and successful ways:

  • Page layout
  • Panel detail
  • Background material
  • Repeated visual elements
  • Repeated narrative elements

Page Layout

Throughout almost every page of the visual material, Dave Gibbons uses a 3×3 grid with the smallest panels measuring about 2 inches wide by about 3 inches high.  The main variation in this layout is to combine these atomic panels into composites that span more than one column and/or row.  Despite Moore’s protests to the contrary, this gives the entire series a movie storyboard feel, as seen in this ‘silent sequence’ showing how Rorschach gets into the Comedian’s apartment at the start of his investigation.


This is why so little of the core plot needed to be cut from the comic for the successful adaptation of the Watchmen into the movie (and in fact some new material was added).  Gibbons does depart from the strict 3×3 grid in a few places (pages 6, 12, 16-17 & 27, and 28 of issues #1, #2, #7, and #11, respectively) but these are places where time is meant to move more slowly than in the normal pacing of the book.

Perhaps the most interesting experiment and one that I missed until it was pointed out to me, is that issue #5, entitled Fearful Symmetry, is completely symmetric front to back (a comic book palindrome).  For example, the first three pages are in a 3×3 grid with Rorschach at the apartment of an old supervillain named Moloch.  Likewise, the last 3 pages (26-28) are a 3×3 grid showing Rorschach at Moloch’s apartment.  Page 9 is a mirror image of page 20, both having 3 panels per row (one spanning two columns in each) and both dealing with the comic-within-a-comic story about the Black Freighter.   The central opposing pages (14 and 15) have one continuous fight sequence rendered in ‘fearful symmetry’.


Panel Detail

Besides the overall panel placement within the page, Dave Gibbons put a great deal of effort into the contents of each panel as well.  As can be seen at a glance, the detail in each panel is top notch, but attention to detail for art’s sake alone is not nearly as impactful as is detail that advances the story for the careful reader.

Below is a panel from one of the many street scenes in New York.  The first things that grab one’s attention in the background are the advertisements for the ’86 Buicks and the Nostalgia perfume – both serve a purpose.  While the Buick ad helps to remind the reader (especially the new ones) when this piece is set, it is the Nostalgia ad that actually provides important clues linking Veidt with the plot to hoax the world.  The newspaper in the foreground gives the reason for Veidt’s intervention – the nuclear war that is about to break out between the USA and the USSR.


Scores of panels all throughout the series provide similar clues linking the World War III events with Veidt’s scheme to bring the world kicking and screaming back from the brink.

Background material

Since psychology plays a crucial part in the Watchmen storyline, Moore provides extra, non-comic material, usually spanning the last 4 pages.  These materials include: excerpts from books and articles written by the main characters, which enable us to get inside their heads; dossiers and internal memos from the various institutions associated with other main characters; and news and magazine articles that reveal the public mood and discourse to the reader.  One cannot fully appreciate what is happening in the gutters and why it is happening without taking the effort to ‘research’ the Watchmen world.

Repeated visual elements

Similar to the panel detail discussed above, Moore and Gibbons link various events together with repeated visual elements.  The most well-known one is the smiley face motif that links the Comedian with cataclysmic events that started the whole chain of events that ends with the mock alien invasion.


A less obvious visual motif is the reoccurring imagery of the Nostalgia perfume.  Not only does it link Veidt to the desire to change, it provides a vital link to Ozymandias in that the perfume bottle, when turned on its side, looks like a letter Z contained within the letter O.  This visual linkage appears at least 7 times in issue #9 when Laurie (Silk Spectre) and Jon (Doctor Manhattan) debate whether life has any meaning while they travel across the face of Mars.


The most disturbing repeated element concerns the behavior of the Comedian, aka Eddie Blake, around women.  It seems that Blake believes that women are there for his gratification and he easily brutalizes them when they don’t “behave.”  It is interesting to note that in the two cases shown in the book, when Blake begins to ill-use a woman, her response is to attack by scratching/slicing the right side of his face.


These scars remain with him until he dies – an outward symbol of his inward sins perhaps.

Repeated narrative elements

The final method used by Moore and Gibbons is the linkage between disparate sub-storylines by using the kinds of transitions that Moore discusses in his book on writing comics (see Story Construction – Part 7: Just One Bit Moore).

The first panel below shows how, with some dark humor, Moore is able to transition from Rorschach’s monologue that begins issue #1 to the detectives investigating the death of the Comedian.


This next example is a classic movie transition that signals a flashback to earlier times and happier events (ah, Nostalgia).


All told, these five elements make the form of the Watchmen a pleasure to see, to read, and to ponder.  They go a long way in explaining the enduring success of the series and they certainly are the best part.

Next month, I’ll analyze the content of the Watchmen messages and not just the beautiful package in which they are wrapped.

New Universe – Part 3: The Long Runs and the Pitt/Draft/War

In this piece, the 3-month-long look at the Marvel experiment called the New Universe comes to a close.  The previous two articles discussed the overall original concept and the short-lived series that were repurposed halfway through their run to provide the supporting material for the series that survived.  This article will examine the series that made it to the end (D.P. 7, Jvstice, Psi Force, and Star Brand) and the corresponding limited series (The Pitt, The Draft, and The War) that were used to create the backdrop of world war and paranormal involvement in the conflict.

As a result of the ‘editorial renavigation’ at the end of year one, what were once loosely-connected titles transformed into a set of commonly-themed tales all branching off of a main trunk.  This new approach apparently worked, as sales of these remaining titles increased and, according to Fabian Nicieza – who got his industry start as a writer on Psi-Force, the four remaining NU titles were profitable up to the end of year three when Marvel pulled the plug.

Why, exactly, Marvel ended the imprint isn’t clear; Nicieze simply says that Marvel wanted to go in a new direction.  The likely explanation is that, while profitable, the New Universe tied up resources that could have been used elsewhere for an even larger return on investment.  Whatever the reasons, as the New Universe drew to an end, Marvel did two things that are quite interesting.  First, it promised and actually followed through on a limited series, The War, that tied up most of the loose ends associated with the World War III overarching storyline.  Second, each of the remaining titles bore an inscription above their titles for the final issue declaring that that issue was ‘#19 in a Nineteen-Issue Limited Series’.


Whether this latter move was to save face by implying the NU was never meant to last or whether it was acknowledgment that all of the NU titles had transformed from their original intention, the implication was quite clear.  The writing and editorial staff recognized that what had started as an open organic universe had, by the action of many outside forces, become one of the largest architecturally-structured crossover events attempted.  As a result, the New Universe ended up having a sprawling internal consistency absent from the larger universes of DC and Marvel.  This consistency gave it a feeling more like a set of vignettes in a larger novel rather than a set of titles set in a shared universe.  It is not hard to see similarities to the structure, size, mood, and feel found in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira,  which is a huge graphic novel (over 2000 pages) of how metahuman presence in the world triggers global war and subsequent disasters.  (Note that this was a common theme of the 1980s and it formed the backbone for another sprawling graphic novel of that time, The Watchmen.)

D.P. 7 (32 Issues & 1 Annual)

Certainly the most stable of the long series runs was D.P.7, which was an abbreviation for Displaced Paranormals 7.  The brainchild of Mark Gruenwald, who wrote every issue, the series followed the fate of various individuals who were one day normal humans and the next day transformed by the White Event into paranormals.

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Much of the initial story centers around an institution set in the back woods of Wisconsin with the name of Clinic for Paranormal Research, or the Clinic for short.  Each of the original D.P.7 team members has come to the clinic to get ‘treatment’ for their unique paranormal ability.  Unbeknownst to them, the Clinic is run by an incredibly powerful paranormal, Philip Nolan Voigt, who had used his equally powerful wealth to assemble a staff of like-minded paranormals to help him develop, mold, and eventually control his own private army of super-powered humans.

Becoming aware of Voigt’s intent, seven of The Clinic’s patients band together and flee.  Hounded by the Clinic’s paranormal hunters, the group has many adventures as they try to figure out how they fit together with each other and society as a whole.  Eventually, they are recaptured by the Clinic, but manage to seemingly defeat Voigt (issue #12).

Now free of the main villain that kept both the team (and the plot) united, the D.P. 7 team begins to fracture.  The Clinic becomes a self-governing paranormal institution and it doesn’t take long before internal politics turns the situation into something more befitting The Lord of the Flies, as various loyalties begin to split along demographic lines (African-American paranormals versus teenage paranormals versus…).  Before long it is paranormal against paranormal in full-scale donnybrooks.

The situation changes when the destruction of Pittsburgh happens (see Star Brand & The Pitt below) and the government begins to recruit paranormals while global tensions rise and war with the Soviet Union seems certain.  Once again finding themselves united against a common foe, the paranormals battle official forces

NU_DP7_Paranormals and Police Clash

in a desperate attempt to remain on their own.  Despite these efforts, many of the women are pressed into service with the CIA and many of the men are conscripted for the Army’s paranormal division.

The series enters into its third and final arc, which shows the consequences of military/government service and the aftermath.  In the final couple of issues, a unique paranormal, called the Cure, becomes the focal point.  True to his name, the Cure is able to undo the paranormal transformation in anyone who wants to be ‘normal’ again, and the series ends with a bit of closure as many of the most tragic figures go back to being human.

Overall, the series tried from the onset to be ‘real-world’, although it often failed to match Shooter’s original vision of a muted approach to the fantasy/science fiction and the hope that passage of time in the title would match that of our world.  The themes explored were mature, with religion, racial tensions, and overall alienation central to the plots.

Jvstice (32 Issues)

Jvstice is the one outsider from the set of NU long-running books.  In the beginning, the lead character was a Justice Warrior called Tensen who came from a magical other dimension.  Tensen had been exiled to Earth and was seeking an evil wizard by the name of Darquill, who was using the drug trade in our dimension to build up power in order to destroy Tensen’s people.

NU_Jvstice_Cover 1

Tensen was very much visualized as a product of the 1980s with balloon pants, futuristic shades, and a Flock of Seagulls haircut.

NU_Jvstice_Tensen is the Eighties

Not only did his clothes seem over the top, the fantasy-based magic theme was completely at odds with the core NU concept.  Matters were made worse by the fact that no stable creative staff materialized – 6 writers and 6 artists in the first 14 issues – and by the wandering storyline that continuously waffled in its portrayal of Tensen as victim, sinner, or hero.

Fortunately, the last change happened when Peter David took over the writing chores on issue #15.  He retconned the entire series motif in one fell swoop by transforming Tensen Justice Warrior into John Tensen, undercover officer in the Department of Justice.  He explained away the magical aspects of the first year by making them a by-product of a psychic struggle between officer Tensen and the drug kingpin Daedalus Darquill, both of whom acquired psionic powers after the White Event.

From this point on, David’s clever plots and skillful dialog changed the entire tenor of Jvstice, placing it firmly as the best offering from the NU.  A brilliant sample of his approach is captured in the following exchange between Tensen and another character about comic books

NU_Jvstice_Tensen Reflects on Comics

Mindful of his audience, David provides a nice closure for the series in issue #32 with Tensen becoming a just ruler of a paranormal community located on Coney Island, of all places.

Psi-Force (32 Issues & 1 Annual)

The least interesting of the bigger titles, Psi-Force follows the ups and downs of a team of paranormal teenagers from different countries and walks of life.

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Aside from their paranormal abilities, the only other commonality was that the core team was limited to 5 individuals.  The reason for this is that federal agent Emmett Proudhawk, himself a paranormal, brought the team together because of a dream he had,

NU_PsiForce_1_Rabbits of the World Unite

in which he foresaw that the powers of each team member could be merged into an immensely powerful entity called Psi-Hawk.

NU_Psi-Force_Psihawk Emerges

Fewer than 5 members caused Psi-Hawk to be too weak and greater than 5 drove it mad with power.  In this way, the Psi-Force writer could regulate membership in the team and, presumably, simplify story creation.

The entire run is generally unremarkable from a narrative point of view, with the team implausibly transitioning from scared teenagers to secret agents in a matter of a couple of years.  Nonetheless, it has some of the best art of any of the NU titles


and some of the more interesting, if horrific, deaths for some of its characters.

At the end of its run, the core 5 members have joined into a loose alliance with the Medusa Web, a paranormal mercenary group, before riding into the sunset for some R&R.

Star Brand (19 Issues & 1 Annual) & The Pitt/Draft/War

The final entry into the NU titles that made it through the whole duration of the imprint is Star Brand,

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which follows what happens to Ken Connell, a Pittsburgh auto mechanic, when he receives a weapon of surpassing power called the Star Brand from a mysterious old man.

NU_Starbrand_Connell Meets the Old Man

With the Star Brand, Connell is essentially unstoppable, as long as he concentrates and keeps his emotions in check.  He soon realizes that having this much power isn’t as easy as it seems and that real world problems can rarely be solved by bludgeoning something or somebody.  He begins trying to think rather than punch through the challenges that face him.  This theme, which lasts mostly for the first 6-10 issues, is truest to the original NU concept of real-world consequences of having super powers and for good reason – Jim Shooter was the writer for the first 6 issues.

Shooter’s influence is abruptly erased when John Byrne takes over the chief creative role on Star Brand.  Byrne’s first action is to have Connell become dejected with the Star Brand and attempt to transfer the brand to a dumbbell.  The result is the immediate destruction of the city of Pittsburgh in a ball of light reminiscent to the destruction of Tokyo in Akira

NU_Pitt 2nd White (or Black or Akira) Event

The destruction of Pittsburgh, which is mostly the subject of The Pitt one-shot, is the trigger event for the World War III scenario that tied the NU titles together from that point onward.  Thinking the destruction had been caused by a nuclear explosion, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union come to a fever pitch.  Both sides recruit and train paranormals for the eventual conflict as covered in The Draft one-shot and ongoing issues of D.P.7 and Psi-Force.

The remains of Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, now known as the Pitt,

NU_Pitt Devastation Schematic

become capable of mutating anyone exposed to the materials and energies at play.  The Pitt becomes an additional source of paranormal manifestations, including the transformation of Jenny Swensen into an organic metal woman.

Overcome by guilt, Connell retreats from the world in depression and insanity.  His son, who received the power of the Star Brand at his conception, grows at a rapid rate, becoming an adult known as the Star Child (with no apologies or credit given to 2001) within a year of his birth.

The Star Child intervenes, in a messianic fashion, and stops the war between the US and the USSR (as chronicled in The War limited series)

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before going on to try to clean up the real source of damage and danger, the Star Brand.

It seems that the White Event, which brought paranormal powers world-wide, was caused when the mysterious old man, now simply called the Old Man, tried to transfer the brand to an asteroid.  Inanimate objects are ill-suited for the power of the brand and they detonate with a burst of energy that can mutate and transform every living creature caught in their path.  The Star Child also realizes that the Old Man, and Ken, and himself are all three aspects of the same man.

NU_Starbrand_They Are All the Same Man

In order to save the universe, the Star Child insists that Ken needs to go back in time to become the Old Man, he needs to go back in time to become Ken, and, presumably, the Old Man also goes back in time to become the infant Star Child.  Of course, this makes absolutely no sense, and Byrne’s job of explaining this is badly flawed as almost all time-travel stories are.

It is ironic that the one title in the New Universe imprint which started out most faithfully following the NU concept that paranormal abilities come with real-world consequences should end with, arguably, one of the biggest deus ex machina moments in all of comics history.