So Sayeth the Odinson: Did The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen Break Comics?

Greetings from the Odinson,


Exactly thirty years ago comic books were changed forever. The way they are created, the way they are marketed, the way they are taken in, thought about, and judged, it all changed thanks to two seminal stories – Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. 1986 was the year, and these two original graphic novels changed everything. They showed the world that comics were not just for kids. In fact, the kids that used to read comics were now adults that collected them, and these two stories were aimed at them, the adults. They legitimized the medium in the entertainment market, they broke the mold of creative execution, and the rest of the industry has been playing catch-up ever since. But, as seminal as these two tales are, is what they’ve meant to the growth of the industry a good thing? Or…


Did The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen Break Comics?


Whenever you want to get a lapsed fan back into comics or you want to show an example to a non-comics fan why our beloved medium is so good, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are the graphic novels you pull out of your back pocket. For thirty years now, these two tales have been the benchmark by which all others strive for. Think about that for a minute. Thirty years, that’s three decades, have gone by, and still to this day Dark Knight and Watchmen are the benchmark.


Over the last three decades have there been contenders? Sure. Has there been other good, great, and even outstanding works in the medium? Of course. However, has anything matched the success or been a harbinger of change on the level of these two influential pieces?


In the 1990s, there was an explosion of adult oriented comics and TDKR and Watchmen provided the doorway in for DC’s Vertigo line. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman followed the after-hours exploits of the Lord of Dreams as he wandered through a world of shadows and unending questions on the meaning of life. Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher pushed the boundaries of good taste with a compelling supernatural drama of one man’s literal search for God. The 90s was the decade of the rise of the anti-hero. Cable, a no nonsense soldier from the future that shoots first and asks questions later, Deadpool, a stone cold killer with an infectious sense of humor, Lobo, a bastich without a conscience, and John Constantine, a no good bastard with a knack for getting on the wrong side of heaven and hell. To say that Frank Miller’s Dirty Harry style Batman and Alan Moore’s masked crusaders of ambiguous morality did not influence the decade that followed them would be irresponsible at best.


The influence Miller’s DK had on the Batman mythos was instant and palpable. His next three tales of note were a descending path into a darker and more decidedly aggressive style of storytelling for the Dark Knight. It started with The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. Here the Joker takes his rivalry with the Caped Crusader to new heights and makes things personal when he brutally attacks Commissioner Gordon and cripples his daughter, Barbara, a.k.a. Batgirl. This was followed by The Cult by Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson. This dark tale saw the physical limits and sanity of the Dark Knight pushed to the edge and beyond. Finishing out this yearlong descent into decidedly darker fair for Batman was A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo which saw the brutal murder of the Boy Wonder at the hands of the Clown Prince of Crime.


In the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, Batman was perhaps the most affected character in all of comics. The 90s launched with Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s haunting depiction of Batman’s updated Rogues Gallery in the halls of Arkham Asylum. Over the course of the next ten years, the Batman stories were a succession of dramas and disasters each trying to one up the one that came before. These included, but were not limited to Knightfall, Contagion, Cataclysm, and No Man’s Land. Plus with Dark Knight Returns, creator Frank Miller so joyfully destroyed the World’s Finest. The friendship and partnership between Superman and Batman has not been the same to this day.


TDKR and Watchmen influenced the creative process as well. For the next fifteen to twenty years after their release, every single time a new limited series was released it was instantly slapped with the Albatross of “…is this the next Watchmen?” or “…in the same vein as The Dark Knight Returns.” Some of these were unfairly labeled and are seminal pieces of art all their own. But, as great as Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross and Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross are, whether just or unjust, they will forever live in the shadow of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.


Now, have there been great stories in the thirty years since the release of TDKR and Watchmen, memorable, seminal, resonating stories? You bet. Infinite Crisis lovingly closed the door on and bookended the Post-Crisis DCU. Identity Crisis shook the super hero community to its core and once again demonstrated that comics were not just for kids. Planet Hulk is one of the most original and outstanding pieces of comics’ lore told since the dawn of the medium. And, Civil War took the topic of a politically charged drama and told an important tale that rocked a universe to its knees. Avengers Disassembled, Green Lantern Rebirth, House of M, The Sinestro Corps War, all of these stories and many more are clearly comic tales of note and significance, but none of them have moved that benchmark beyond the one established back in 1986.


So, did The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen break the comic book industry? I say thee nay!


These are two seminal pieces of art that are to be treasured and their very existence pushes others to strive and be better than they can be and push the envelope of the medium further and further.


For the stagnate state of the industry The Powers that Be at Marvel and DC have no one to blame except themselves. There was a time when aspiring young talented writers and artists could submit and tryout for the Big Two and some would even turn into legends themselves. Unfortunately, since the Big Two no long acquire talent that way, all those doors have been shut. Marvel and DC would rather pilfer talent that has established itself and then *my tongue firmly in cheek* not listen to their ideas. Before this sounds like a rant against Marvel and DC, let me explain.


We’ll start at the Dawn of the Marvel Age and take a quick look at the period between 1961’s Fantastic Four #1 and the release of Watchmen in 1986. At Marvel there were fresh new and original faces like Spider-Man, the Avengers, Daredevil, Doctor Doom, X-Men, Punisher, Wolverine, and countless more. At DC there was mind-blowing concepts like the discovery of the Multiverse and the New Gods. Over the course of that twenty-five-year span, the most original, influential, and fantastic concepts that built the comic book empire were created. Unfortunately, except for a very few, these poor creators did not own the rights to their creations, and in some cases, they did not even own the rights to their original artwork. So, it should come as no surprise that the creative bubble for the Big Two all but burst right around this time, and, thanks to the immergence of a new challenger, Marvel and DC’s stranglehold on creativity would be lost, perhaps forever.


In 1992, a maverick group of the industry’s best and brightest artists founded Image Comics. Image became a playground of creativity and most importantly, creators owned the rights to their creations. At this point, sure an artist or writer will always want to work within the toy boxes Marvel and DC provide, but why would the best and brightest drop their best ideas there where the corporation can swoop in and claim work-for-hire rights and take creative control of someone else’s intellectual property? How is an editor going to dictate to a creator how his creation will act or talk?


So, when the well of creativity dries up, how does the House of Ideas and the First Universe fill that void? By spinning their tires and repeat, repeat, repeat…. Derivative creations and desperate grasps at the glory days have been the M.O. of the Big Two for quite a while now. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look.


What have been arguably the most original, successful, and enduring creations of the last thirty years? Just off the top of my head I would say Spawn, Hellboy, Sin City, The Goon, Saga, and The Walking Dead, all creator owned properties published by companies that aren’t Marvel or DC. What have been the most popular creations to come out of the House of Ideas in the last thirty years – Carnage, Spider-Girl, Nova (Sam Alexander), Miles Morales: Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), Red Hulk, Thor (Jane Foster), Spider-Gwen, X-23? All of these are or were immensely popular yet all of these are derivatives of something that has already come before. The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Before Watchmen, Dark Knight III: The Master Race – are these brave new avenues of adventure, or are they DC’s desperate attempt to relive glories of the past, and how fitting it is the connection these have to the benchmark set back in 1986. The two Big Events for DC and Marvel in 2015 were Secret Wars and Convergence. Both tales were nostalgic reaches back into the past success of both companies.


NOTE: It should be noted that in recent years, both Marvel and DC have made great strides in rectifying the mistakes made with creators in the past. However, I’m sure guys like Bill Finger would have loved a little more love sooner, but I digress.


Let me make one thing perfectly clear – the Odinson loves comics! I love Marvel and DC Comics! I have been a lifelong reader and collector, and will be to the day I die. However, the decadent state of creativity over the last several years does have the Odinson concerned for the future of his beloved medium. Will comics simply become the breeding ground for Hollywood fair? Or, can the fires of new ideas and mind-blowing concepts still be explored in the four color medium?


Did The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen break the comics industry? No. But, the comics industry is in danger of breaking the comics industry.


This is Odinson bidding thee farewell


About Odinson

I am a lifelong comics fan and pop culture enthusiast. Comic books, novels, games, television, movies, I love it all. From fantasy to science fiction, drama to comedy, as long as the writing and execution are interesting, I love it, and I want to talk about it.

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