This article contains spoilers.
DC’s “Rebirth” event is about to reveal some big changes to the comic book universe. Dr. Manhattan and Watchmen – including at least The Comedian – are going to be somehow involved in all the crazy retcons and story changes going forward. Geoff Johns, Rebirth’s author, confirmed with Inverse that Dr. Manhattan will be the primary villain in future DC comics.
While we don’t know for sure how the Watchmen universe will interact with DC heroes like Batman and Wonder Woman, we know that they are going to be set-up as the big question mark before the Rebirth event. Johns describes Watchmen’s legacy in DC comics having warped the vitality of its core characters, and Rebirth is his way of deconstructing and combating that legacy.
DC and Watchmen have always had a strange, parasitic relationship, one which began when DC purchased the character rights to a different comic book publisher, Charlton Comics, in 1983.
An American comic book publisher, Charlton Comics’s superheroes were bought out by DC in 1983. Some of these characters you’ll recognize today: heroes like Blue Beetle, Captain Adam, and The Question.
DC had big plans for the characters, and Alan Moore planned to use these new characters to form the group in his now-classic graphic novel, Watchmen. DC, however, realized that by allowing Moore to use the Charlton characters, they would lock those personalities out from the larger DC continuity.
With his access to the heroes revoked, Moore went on to use the Charlton superheroes as “loose inspirations” for his original superhero creations, all leading up to…
Moore’s most popular contribution to the medium of comics, Watchmen had a profound impact on comic books published after its release. The books it inspired were darker, violent, and more cynical. These terms encapsulated Watchmen in popular imagination, and its success inspired many creators follow in its footsteps. With the release of both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, the two comics ushered in what is known as The Dark Age of Comics.
Essentially, Watchmen changed both the tone of comics, and the tone of DC’s own heroes. The effects reverberate all the way to today’s Batman v Superman. It’s clearly no coincidence that DC tapped Zack Snyder, the man who previously directed Watchmen, to helm their DC Cinematic Universe. For DC, there is no modern Justice League without Watchmen, or at least there wasn’t, until Johns stepped in.
So what was the DC hero basis for each of the Watchmen in the first place, if Moore was denied use of the Charlton heroes?
Captain Atom/Doctor Manhattan
Post-WWII American pop culture had a real fascination with all things atomic (a very questionable offshoot of America’s use of the Atom Bomb). No doubt Captain Atom, born Capt. Allen Adam, is a byproduct of his era. Capt. Adam survives a tragic rocket accident that atomizes the man, but not his mind. Rebuilding himself with his new atom powers, he becomes the hero that is the basis for Dr. Manhattan who gains similar abilities under near identical circumstance.
Vic Sage is a television journalist who decided that fighting crime at night was the best way to investigate corruption and seedy dealings. Without powers and only a mind for deduction, The Question is the obvious basis for Moore’s paranoid P.I. Rorschach. While Rorschach is famous across comics as the brutal vigilante who doles out justice without sympathy, The Question was made as a lighter counterpart later in DC Comics, especially in his animated incarnation in WB’s Justice League.
Thunderbolt is another one of those “white kid get taken in by Asian monks to become the best Asian monk” kind of Orientalism. Gifted with top physical and mental capabilities, Thunderbolt would become the loose basis for super-genius turned self-made messiah, Ozymandias.
Nightshade is the daughter of a woman from another dimension, which allowed Nightshade togain magical, shadow powers. She also trained in martial arts under another hero named Tiger. Moore’s Silk Spectre would adapt most of Nightshade’s family drama (though not necessarily the character herself) as well as gain a similar costume design to her predecessor.
Blue Beetle/Nite Owl
A cop turned superhero, the original Blue Beetle is a boring character. It wasn’t until DC rebooted the Blue Beetle as an explorer who gains magical armor from one of his expeditions did he become interesting. Still, Moore chose to make one of his Watchmen an animal themed human hero after the original Beetle incarnation, taking Nite-Owl to depressing depths.
“Peacemaker” is one of those ironic heroes who despite his name, and chosen symbol of a dove, decided to go out with a gun to kill evil warlords and corrupt officials. The irony of his character was not lost on Moore who turned the hero into his infamous Comedian. Like the inherent irony of a hero like Peacemaker, the Comedian’s main punchline is that his means really don’t justify the means, but he’ll go on killing everyone in his way anyways.
Watchmen and DC
Obviously the popularity of The Watchmen had an affect on the wider DC publication. People, DC figured, wanted dark and cynical – and in turn, gave many of their famous heroes certain, Watchmen-like attributes. The genesis of a brooding, paranoid Batman, or detached alien savior Superman all have roots in the Watchmen’s Rorschach, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan.
“Rebirth” is looking to right this, what Johns refers to as, misinterpretation of the Watchmen legacy. That instead of morphing DC heroes into characters like the Watchmen, they should stand opposed to the cynicism, and counter with hope and optimism. We’ll have to wait until this summer to see this ideological battle between the DC universe and the Watchmen universe take shape.