The recent Flash and Batman multi-title storyline "The Button" is one of the best crossovers to come out of DC Comics in recent years. Writers Tom King and Joshua Williamson, along with artists Jason Fabok and Howard Porter, crafted an incredibly well put together time-traveling, reality-hopping story, one that balances the strengths of the two lead heroes. I’m curious of where they’re going to go from here. Will Batman honor his father and hang up the cowl? What happened to Jay Garrick? And if Flash wasn’t Jay’s lightning rod, then who is?
There’s only one thing about it that truly bothered me about the series, and that's whether there's a truly legitimate reason to reference anything from Watchmen that doesn't merely build down to a dismissive "Because They Can."
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen casts a long shadow over comics. When it arrived in 1986, the series changed how people looked and thought about superhero comics, and–for better or worse–how they were made. Its existence is a turning point, bringing a legitimacy and maturity to the general public’s perception of comics; comics aren't just for kids anymore, guys! People who don’t read comics know about Watchmen. It’s one of the most influential comics of all time, the graphic novels everyone recommends to first-time readers; the only comic to appear on Time’s “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels” list. It’s a big deal, is what I’m getting at here.
Alas, for as good of a story as "The Button" is, the Watchmen references within it come across as completely unnecessary and irrelevant. If you stripped everything Watchmen related from this story, it wouldn’t change anything. The Comedian’s button could be any other McGuffin (maybe Psycho Pirate's mask reacted to Thomas Wayne’s letter?), and the being Reverse-Flash meets could be any one of DC’s cosmic entities, be it a long-forgotten one like The Presence, or maybe something completely new. In short, it doesn’t feel genuine, like there’s a real concrete reason for these characters and items to be there. Rather, it feels like brand recognition designed to help move more copies. People recognize how important Watchmen is, so if a book is using Watchmen characters and iconography, then it must be important, too -- right?
Tom King has made no effort to hide how influential Watchmen is on his writing. The acclaimed Omega Men series borrows Moore and Gibbons' masterpiece' nine-panel grid layout, right down to ending every issue with a quote inside a blackened panel. King references this layout again in Batman #21, with Fabok laying out most of the issue with a nine-panel grid.
Here’s the thing though: You don’t need any prior knowledge of Watchmen to understand these pages. If you’ve never read Watchmen, you can still appreciate Fabok’s page layouts and art. If you have read Watchmen, the only thing you’re really getting out of it is a knowing wink, a sly nudge in your side from the book’s elbow. It’s a shallow homage to Watchmen, never going any deeper than, "Hey, do you remember the nine-panel grid?"
If there’s no reason for something to be there outside of the reader going, “Hey, it’s that thing I know!” then why is it there in the first place? It’s not like it’s a non-consequential reference like an Easter egg -- it’s used as a key plot point. The story was not actually engaging with the original text so much as it was using it in a superficial way.
Early this week CBR contributor Kieran Shiach put forward the theory that the events of Rebirth/The Button/Doomsday Clock may not be being orchestrated by Dr. Manhattan, but by Superboy Prime. If this Superboy Prime theory proves to be correct, that would mean everything Watchmen related has been a red herring. If that’s the case, then everything in Rebirth tied to Watchmen has been a waste of time. Teasing Dr. Manhattan for a year and then pulling a bait-and-switch would be very disingenuous. It’d be admitting that the only reason DC have been referencing Watchmen for the past year was because, well, why not?
Does crossing over Watchmen with the main DC universe devalue Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons original work? No. It’s not like the existence of The Button changes anything or erases Watchmen from existence. The series is still there at the end of the day, and both you and I are free to choose whether or not we read those comics. Does using Watchmen characters feel exploitive and continue DC's streak of actively disrespecting Alan Moore, though? Absolutely.
Moore has made his feelings about DC doing anything with Watchmen and his distaste with how the publisher has treated him perfectly clear. “What the comics industry has effectively said is, ‘Yes, this was the only book that made us briefly special and that was because it wasn't like all the other books.’ Watchmen was something that stood on its own and it had the integrity of a literary work,” said Moore when interviewed about Before Watchmen, “What they've decided now is, ‘So, let's change it to a regular comic that can run indefinitely and have spin-offs.’ and ‘Let's make it as unexceptional as possible.’”
Maybe Doomsday Clock will be different. Maybe Geoff Johns and Gary Frank won’t merely engage with Watchmen on a surface level and will, rather, create a self-referential meta-narrative that could be, as put by Shiach, “a knowing nod to the criticisms of bringing up the Watchmen characters again against the creators’ wishes.” But if we’re being honest, it probably won’t. Chances are, it'll be another example of DC using Moore and Gibbons’ creation for all it’s worth, exploiting the characters and iconography of the series to move copies and make a quick dollar.
When it comes to DC Comics and Watchmen, nothing ever ends.