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27 April 2017

Batman Watches the Watchmen?

By // Books

*This article contains full spoilers for recent DC Comics – most notably Batman #21 and the recent Superman arc*

On paper, what I’m about to pitch is going sound like one of the worst ideas in comics history…but there’s a mad, meta-brilliance to it that might make it out to be one of the best.

What if Doctor Manhattan of Alan Moore and David Gibbons seminal Watchmen was the bad guy of the DC Universe. And Batman and the Flash need to figure it out?

I love Watchmen. I think it is and will always be one of the greatest comic stories ever told and has well earned it’s spot as one of Time Magazine’s all-time best books. Including the characters from this self-contained universe in the DC Universe sounds like a desecration of a classic work. A stunt to elevate a brand that has been flailing the past few years under the horribly uneven ‘New 52’ re-launch of 2011.

But instead, it might be an absolutely brilliant act of self-awareness and in-continuity retconing that, by appropriating these classic characters and inserting them into the DC Universe proper, may save it (though possibly at the cost of these characters themselves).

Still with me? Okay, here’s what’s happening at DC right now and why on newsstands you can buy an issue of Batman where he and the Flash are holding the Comedian’s famous button.

BEFORE-BEFORE WATCHMEN: A recent history of a literary classic and the film that launched a thousand scowls

The comic series came out way back in 1986, the year I was born, incidentally, but I only came to it in university. This was a couple years before the movie announcement that led to the now-infamous Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, Justice League, Sucker Punch, and the excellent Dawn of the Dead remake) film. I fell in love with the story and am in the minority that thinks the movie – for the post part – was a solid adaptation, some incredibly poor casting decisions and characterizations aside. The film was a commercial failure and set the R-rated superhero film back by several years, until Deadpool and subsequently Logan both proved the contrary. Nevertheless, the folks at Warner Brothers and DC decided they liked Snyder’s style enough to grant him a Joss Whedon-level of vision and control over the DC Cinematic Universe (which was in dire-straits following the failure of the horrendous Green Lantern film to launch the DC Cinematic Universe. If you can believe it, that film was positioned to be DC’s Iron Man. Woof.) Snyder, then, brought the grim-dark aesthetic that he’d used in Watchmen and had proved popular in Christopher Nolan’s more capable hands to Superman and subsequently Batman. The scowl-fest is apparently set to end with Justice League, which according to many actors in it is a lot of fun, but we’ll see.

In any case, Watchmen was back in the public mind. And so, DC decided to do something crazy: they decided to create new Watchmen content – in the form of Before Watchmen.

BEFORE WATCHMEN: Or, how DC broke the seal

The outcry was immediate and vitriolic: why, why, WHY would DC mess with such a great, self-contained story? The answer was clever, to a degree: by telling prequel stories, the main narrative would remain untouched and thus DC could have its fun but not taint the original. Now, if you’ve seen The Phantom Menace, you know this is flawed logic; that in fact you run a huge risk of tainting the original work by poking around in its past (Anakin built C-3P0? The hell?!). To mitigate this, DC brought in its top talents, which actually gave me some hope: the late, great Darwyn Cooke seemed a perfect choice to tell the Golden Age stories of the Minutemen (the original super hero team that preceded the heroes of the main story); Amanda Connor’s bright, cartoony style seemed a fun, interesting choice for Silk Spectre (and frankly, having a female voice explore a female character in the Watchmen Universe sounded like a welcome change); we even got a weird, reality altering story about Doctor Manhattan that was a neat exploration of the infinitely interesting character. Definitely smart choices to write and illustrate the works, but still not a great argument for their existence.

Ultimately, the stories were all fine, but none of them really added anything of value or – often – interest to the characters. We just got a weird oddity: today’s writers writing classic characters.

And we were done.

Or so we thought.

THE NEW 52: Or, how to annoy old fans and alienate new fans without really trying

In 2011, DC comics – not for the first time – made the bold decision to reboot their entire continuity. Marvel has steadfastly refused to do this over the years (though they’ve secretly done it a bunch of times, most recently with the surprisingly excellent Secret Wars). The reason for this is two-fold: 1) By rebooting continuity, the main barrier to enjoying comics – being too far behind – is removed. Rather than needing to know the last five years of Batman stories to understand who everyone is, you can come in fresh at issue #1. This also allows you to retell key moments and stories; with the New 52, they specifically de-aged all their characters to put them earlier in their careers with…mixed results (it is actually impossible to do the math on Damien Wayne’s age now, for example). 2) It spikes sales. Everyone is interested to see what the new take on the character is going to be. Sometimes, it’s for the better – like Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman or my personal favourite Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s seminal Batman – sometimes, for the worse – the weird over-sexualisation of Harley Quinn that bled so heavily into the Suicide Squad film, or the completely off-tone Superman that drove the character into the ground for several years.

They launched this through an event called Flashpoint, where the Flash accidentally broke the space-time continuum and ended up in a much changed DC world (home to many fun stories, such as a Batman who is Thomas Wayne – Bruce’s father – who has become the Dark Knight after the death of his wife and son in Crime Alley and now murders his enemies to avenge them, and a completely nuts ‘Aquaman-Wonder Woman marriage/war’ that resulted in the sinking of London. Good stuff.) At the end, Flash managed to return the world to the way it used to be…mostly. DC used this as an excuse to alter the world to suit the new mandate, while attempting to appease long-time fans by claiming many of their stories still happened.

The mandate for The New 52 was: everyone is younger, no marriages, and generally everything is grittier. The tone was closer to that of Snyder’s vision for the DC Universe: things are grim, bleak, and challenging.   In a lot of ways, this tone matched the times; the more sarcastic, cynical, post-modern snark of the mid-teens.

But then something shifted. We started to turn away from films like Man of Steel, the gritty Superman-as-angsty-loner-who-kills, toward films with a smile and spring in their step like Guardians of the Galaxy. The muted tone of X3: The Last Stand gave way to the colourful, fun X-Men: First Class. And suddenly, DC comics found themselves with a problem, yet again: though the idea of exploring a broke, dis-enfranchised Superman seemed neat, it grew tired and we kinda hated the character.

Then there was an unexpected ray of light: DC moved its offices from the East Coast to the West Coast and in doing so needed to fill it’s production schedule to cover the move. So, they ran a series called Convergence. Convergence itself was a bit of a mess, but its idea and what it allowed was great: a being had saved pockets of time from throughout DC history and as a result we’d get little stories checking in with them. Most notably, we got to see our old Superman and Lois Lane again, now with a son, Jonathan. It was hopeful, smart, and presented the characters the way we wanted.

And happily, DC realized that. So they brought the Super-family into their mainstream continuity.

Here’s where things get wild.

DC Rebirth: Or, when the super heroes started smiling again

The first promotional image for DC’s Rebirth event was surprising for one simple reason: all the heroes were smiling again (well, Batman was smirking…but he’s Batman). This wouldn’t be a reboot like The New 52, but rather a return to form: more super heroics, less cynicism. In fact, creator Geoff Johns promised an unexpected new villain who would help explain what had been happening.

And, at the end of the first issue, we found out who:

Doctor-fucking-Manhattan.

The issue begins with beloved pre-New 52 character Wally West finding his way into the current universe and other characters beginning to remember their pre-Flashpoint lives. It ends with Batman finding the Comedian’s pin in the Batcave.

And we are told that a being has been messing with the lives of our heroes, altering their memories and histories in strange ways, to nefarious ends. Wally is the first sign that that is going to change. Hell, DC even goes so far as to kill off Pandora, the mysterious character who had previously linked all the New 52 titles, in a clear statement of intent: we screwed up. We’re going to fix it.

Within months, the grim, dull Superman is dead, leaving our original Superman to take up the mantle. As recently as a couple weeks ago, the Supermen and Lois Lanes merged, bringing old and new continuity together into one: and it seems this is only the beginning.

The mysterious Mr. Oz (like Ozymandias, but at this point who knows) has been collecting heroes to unknown purpose, warning about Manhattan’s intent.

Which leads us to the first major series to start providing answers: Batman/Flash The Button, which began in Batman #21 by Tom King, Jason Fabok, and Geoff Johns yesterday.

I’ll get to my review of that issue in a moment, but first, let’s look at the meta-argument being made and how it might actually be brilliant, if they can stick the landing.

The Birth of Grim: Watchmen and Batman Year One

There was a huge seismic shift in the comics industry following two seminal works: Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman Year One (the main inspiration for Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy). These works proved that serious, adult stories could be told in the comics medium, even when exploring an existing character and mythology as long and storied as Batman’s. Over the years we’ve seen all sorts of shifts in tone, from the brightly-coloured, pouch covered X-Men of the 90s, to the post-modern exploration of the X-Men legacy in Grant Morrison’s work, to the two different coloured and powered Supermen (it was terrible); but it all really started at Watchmen.

So, when looking at something like The New 52 that had taken that grim, cynical tone too far and applied it inappropriately, it makes a degree of sense to make Watchmen itself the villain that has been messing with the DC Universe (when the true culprit is, of course, the editorial boards and owners, but still…). This serves the dual purpose of giving the DC Universe a new big bad to rally against, as well as creating an in-continuity face of a tremendous editorial misfire. It also provides a handy way to reconcile the previously un-reconcilable mess of continuity that The New 52 brought with it (by selectively keeping original continuity while drastically altering others at each writers’ whim).

Ultimately, we don’t really care that much if it’s messy, we haven’t forgotten the stories we’ve read, so fuck it: why not just merge them? The new Superman takes for his history mostly pre-New 52 stuff, but includes memory of the New 52 stories so newer readers aren’t left with nothing to show for their readership. It’s messy but already it’s led to great, great Superman stories. A tremendous, hopeful, fun return to form.

Which brings us to The Button: how will the Watchmen be integrated? And will it taint what came before? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that after one issue: but if the first issue is any indication, it’ll be a ride worth taking.

The Button: Part One

Our story begins with a hint of things to come: there have been hints that the Legion of Superheroes (a much beloved, absent-from-the-New 52 team will be returning and knows about the meddling of Doctor Manhattan. The issue reminds of this out of the gate, then gets to the meat: a one-minute fight between Batman and the previously dead, pre-New 52 Reverse Flash (that’s quite a mouthful).

The issue does a great job of catching us up (Reverse Flash was killed at the end of Flashpoint by Thomas Wayne/Batman, but has been delivered to our timeline by…someone for unknown reasons. Likely Mr Oz, but having not read the Flash issues leading into this, I couldn’t tell you.) Essentially, the Button has sprung to life, causing Batman to see a vision of Flashpoint’s Thomas Wayne, so Batman calls the Flash, the only other detective-type character who knows about it and Flashpoint, for assistance (they’re keeping it secret from the Justice League for now because…Batman.)

In a simple, brilliant plot device, Flash tells Batman he’ll be there in a minute…only for Batman to be attacked by Reverse Flash, which leads to the entire issue being separated into 3×3 panels – in an homage to Watchman’s composition – each of which represents one second. It’s an awesome fight, fun even without much knowledge of Reverse Flash. Well scripted, well drawn, well inked, and well coloured it’s a damn fun issue that culminates in Reverse Flash grabbing the button – and thus being teleported somewhere. Upon his return, he melts Raiders of the Lost Ark style, claiming to have seen God…leaving Flash to find him and a beaten Batman in a cliff-hanger final page.

Here’s what we know, then:

-The Legion of Superheroes is aware of the meddling of Manhattan, but so far the only active member is locked in Arkham and is predicting events

-The Button has some kind of radioactivity that has reacted to Psycho Pirate (I love that name SO MUCH)’s mask. He was a key part of King’s recent Bane arc, but unfortunately I don’t know much more than that.

-Reverse Flash was plucked from death by someone (likely Mr. Oz, given his recent tendency to do that) and has arrived in our timeline seeking revenge on Thomas Wayne, only to find Bruce and decide to take revenge on him instead

-By touching the Button, Reverse Flash was teleported somewhere – seemingly to Doctor Manhattan. This begs the question, how else has met him and how did affect them? Reverse Flash melts in classic Doctor Manhattan blue…

And that’s where we stand after the first issue. Next up: The Flash and an update next week.

Recommendation: Tom King’s Batman run is excellent and happily this issue, despite being a tie-in the The Button storyline, is actually a pretty great little Batman issue. It’s a fast, fun read, and despite the literal deus ex of the Button, it’s neat watching Batman fight a villain he seldom if ever encounters and struggle so much as a result (whilst still getting in some great moments).

Whether the Button plot (and the inclusion of Watchmen elements in general) is a good idea remains to be seen, but either way, we get a fun, stylish, inventive issue. And that’s good news, no matter what.

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