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Who charts the Charltons?

by  in Comic News Comment

You know, I understand why DC — and specifically Dan DiDio, if the rumors are true — wants to do Watchmen spinoffs. It’s not an especially appealing idea, but other classics have been similarly exploited, mostly with forgettable results.

The thing which gets me, though, is the fact that DC could do Watchmen 2 pretty much however it wanted, simply by setting it on the current Earth-4.  (There are apparently plans for Earth-4, but we’ll deal with them eventually.)  In fact, I’d have thought DC would prefer using the Earth-4 versions of the original Charlton characters, because then it could have more direct comparisons with the main-line Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Question, Nightshade, Peacemaker, and Peter Cannon. We all know that Watchmen was developed for those characters until DC realized that the story would kill two of them and exile a third; so why not use the characters you’d rather leave inviolate?

Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself. A brief review, just to get everyone on the same page.

First there were the aforementioned Charlton characters, bought by DC after Charlton Comics went out of business. They were incorporated into the original DC Multiverse via its previously-unseen Earth-Four, and made their first DC appearances in the pages of Crisis On Infinite Earths. Before too long they were getting their own regular series, joining the Justice League and Suicide Squad, and generally becoming fixtures of post-Crisis DC. More importantly, they were clearly distinct from Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, Rorschach, Silk Spectre, the Comedian, and Ozymandias, who at about the same time were busy elevating the medium’s standards.

Ironically, while Watchmen has remained untouched for almost twenty-five years, the Charlton characters have not. Captain Atom flirted with becoming the villain Monarch, Blue Beetle was murdered, the Question succumbed to cancer, at least one Peacemaker died in action, and Peter Cannon has been in limbo for quite a while. Indeed, when the current Earth-4 debuted at the end of 52, it seemed to be something of a bone thrown to fans of the old Charlton. Still, Watchmen was a noticeable influence on the current Earth-4; and when its “Captain Adam” appeared in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond, he was very Dr.-Manhattan-esque.

So why not go more in that direction, and use Earth-4’s Watchmen-ized Charlton characters to do an unofficial sequel? Well, put simply, Watchmen has a heck of a lot more cachet than the Charlton characters do.  Would you rather read a Neil Gaiman-written miniseries about Dr. Manhattan or Captain Atom?

The thing is, though, DC took a chance with Watchmen originally. Here was a superhero miniseries which came out the same DC Universe-heavy summer as John Byrne’s Superman relaunch, the Crisis follow-up Legends, and the last two issues of The Dark Knight (speaking of badly-received sequels…); and it stood completely on its own without even being billed as a “lost tale” from the pre-Crisis days. That sounds like a narrow, fanboyish perspective, but it was a pretty fanboyish period. A lot of Watchmen’s out-of-continuity and/or non-superhero contemporaries survive today only in back-issue boxes.

I also don’t think DC will take an Earth-4 version of Watchmen as an excuse to leave Watchmen alone. At worst, such a project would reduce both sets of characters to a group of common attributes. If the point of Earth-4 is to preserve the original Charlton versions as much as possible, maybe it’s better for any Earth-4 project to avoid unfair comparisons (too late for Captain Adam, I know).

An unfair comparison with Watchmen isn’t the only problem with Earth-4. The whole discussion highlights a key difference between DC’s current Multiverse (a/k/a “the 52″) and its original one: namely, whether the alternate Earths represent going concerns. Back in the day, Earth-Two, Earth-C, Earth-Three, etc., each had its own distinct history; but each was developing just as the main-line Earth-One was. With the current Multiverse, these ideas of distinct history and continuous development have been replaced — out of perceived necessity, no doubt — by the notion that each of the 52 is a “pruned” variant of the main-line “Universe Designate Zero.” It makes everything Superman-centric (and Batman- and Wonder-Woman-centric too, but let’s keep this simple), even if the particular alt-Superman is something of a stretch.  Thus, Captain Adam becomes Earth-4’s “Superman” and Captain Marvel becomes Earth-5’s, despite their differences with the main-line version.

Again, instead of the alternate Earths having their own identities — as the original “Fawcett” and “Charlton” Earths did, because they came from different publishers — they are reduced to being commentaries on the main DC-Earth. Maybe Grant Morrison’s Multiversity project will address this; but I think it’s more likely to be an outlier. DC just doesn’t seem to have much interest in developing any of the 52 beyond what it requires for such commentaries. Circumstances rendered the original Earth-Two subordinate to Earth-One, but from the All Star Comics and Adventure Comics revivals of the ‘70s to All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc. in the ‘80s, Earth-Two had pretty steady exposure at least for a while. Unless Multiversity is a monster hit, I doubt we’ll see anything similar anytime soon.

And yet …

DC may still use Earth-4 to thread its way through the potential pitfalls of Watchmen Part Deux and test the waters for interest in the Multiverse all at the same time. Last May, Morrison told CBR that “the Charlton [issue of Multiversity] is done in this really kind of eye-level ‘Watchmen’ style. It’s all connections and self-referential.”  Sure, it’s not Watchmen, but the fun of such a nerd-appeal project is in comparing and contrasting. I bet there are more than a few of you who’ve mapped Star Trek onto Forbidden Planet or Star Wars onto The Hidden Fortress. Certainly if Earth-4 is going to be reminiscent of anything, it could do worse than Watchmen.

I say that if Earth-4 goes any deeper into Watchmen territory, it should hit the obvious notes, make the most of them, and move on quickly. Don’t worry about being called exploitative or mercenary, because those criticisms were coming regardless. (Especially don’t worry about who’s the “Batman” or the “Wonder Woman.”) In the above-linked interview, Morrison himself said he “could[n’t] sustain” the “type of writing” necessary for “a Charlton ‘Watchmen’ style of book.”  Last year Morrison described scenes from the Charlton issue to Wizard (excerpts here) — things like a murder mystery which “can be read backwards, forwards, and sideways” and the Question expanding his black-and-white worldview into “multicolored” Spiral Dynamics.

Regardless of who writes it, doing right by Watchmen is more than having Dave Gibbons draw The Further Adventures Of Nite Owl And Comedian (or, come to think of it, that Multiversity issue…). The series was designed not just to be complete unto itself, but to be … well, balanced and calibrated in such a way that any augmentation would throw everything off. It’s about looking deeply into the very mechanism of a comic book and appreciating how all the elements work and move; but it’s also about not losing sight of the beauty those elements produce. We can know what can be known, but we can also admire what is mysterious. That’s a lot for any comic book to live up to, whether it stars Rorschach or the Question.

Still, there is no denying the curiosity factor, especially with an enticing creative team (or teams). I’m not sure if Morrison’s Multiversity plans would have to change, but it would probably be worth it to DC to not have competing Watchmen sequels. While the publisher has had mixed results with such “reunion” projects — not just The Dark Knight Strikes Again but also things like Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ Dark Detective and Jim Shooter’s Legion — this promises tremendous risk but may end up very rewarding.  I’d rather see Morrison’s Earth-4 faux-Watchmen than an actual sequel, both so that Watchmen can remain pristine and because I think DC overestimates the demand for Watchmen 2.

At this point, though, it seems like DC wants to take that chance.