In 1986, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons published what was–without a doubt–one of the most transformative series in all of comics. Their twisted take on iconic Charlton Comic characters was mature, in both story and content, and it reflected the place modern America and western culture had found itself.
Just a decade from Watergate, America was in a place where it still distrusted authority and power. The Watchmen served as a sounding board for those concerns; broken, flawed, and even sometimes evil acting heroes have their story told over the course of 12 issues. Even today, 30 years later, the collected edition is thought to be a major revenue source for DC Comics annually.
And large corporations follow the money.
For years, The Watchmen was left alone. It was a stand-alone, epic story with a beginning, a middle and an end. While the film rights were solid nearly immediately after the series was done publishing, it wasn’t until March 2009 when the series was brought to film. Zack Snyder, coming off the successful adaptation of the graphic novel 300, made a nearly panel for shot adaptation of the comic for the silver screen. It was met with mixed reviews with most people announcing the fim as mediocre and too slavishly committed to the original work.
In 2012, the comic book world shuddered. Because The Watchmen had been nearly revered as a holy text: untouchable and immutable. But someone in editorial or a boardroom decided to make prequels to the Watchmen story. Various titles were met with various degrees of acclaim, though none rose to the level of the original masterpiece.
That connection has even recently been tried even more. For years, DC asserted that The Watchmen had nothing to do with the DC universe proper; right now, everything seems to be pointing to DC saying the current DC Rebirth line wide reboot is tied to the character of Doctor Manhattan at least and potentially the whole Watchmen universe.
Simply put, The Watchmen are killing DC comics and films.
Lest you think I don’t appreciate the original series, let me state unequivocally: it is one of the best series of all time. It deserves the accolades that it has collected. But that success has made DC chase three things that are hurting them.
First, DC is chasing the darkness that is present in The Watchmen. Once DC made the decision it did to embrace the tone of The Watchmen and 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, it has wrecked its superhero universe.
They have tried to reboot Superman, the archetype of virtue several times and can’t seem to make him work in their new tonal universe, which has been “new” in some form or fashion going all the way back to Crisis on Infinite Earths, a title that came out in the same time frame as The Watchmen. Wonder Woman has been relaunched and reimagined 3 or 4 times in the last 10 years. The only icon of theirs that has survived is Batman and that is because they have pushed him darker and darker.
And while this has been true of the comics, the movies have chased it even more. Obviously, they have allowed Snyder’s voice to be the loudest on the DC movies and they are much, much closer to those comics than any stories and iconography that existed before it. Someone at some point is going to give it a shot and do something that isn’t so dark in the DC universe but right now, they seem to be chasing it.
Second, they are unwilling (or able) to do anything new. At this point, rather than give their universe some expansive new properties, they just are circling back. And at faster and faster frequencies. At some point, we are headed for a Watchmen announcement that is happening before the rebirthed titles have even shipped.
Sales charts probably do make people think “Man, these Watchmen titles really sell” but they don’t realize that it is because it is a standalone, stellar piece of art; you cannot simply cannibalize the art, rub some Doctor Manhattan on everything, and have people suddenly embrace the newly infected material. DC used to have the Vertigo line that would serve as a place for creators to do new things but they closed that imprint in the last several years.
Finally, the world needs a different tone of comic book. I understand the appeal of The Watchmen in 1986 America. Do some research on what the New York City that the DC editors and staff lived in during that time and see why they would embrace a story about the trappings and failings of government. It made sense to them in what they were living through and what they saw in the years before in the 1970s and 1980s.
Today is a different time. At the frequency and use that DC is giving Watchmen, it is going to quickly be the equivalent of the early 1990s “grunge” bands that now make a living with one original member touring around and playing state fairs. They aren’t honoring what they have and that, in turn, is making them fail to make a new story, tone and heroes for this age.