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Before Watchmen…There Was Charlton

By Glenn Walker

DC Comics advertisement for Before Watchmen

Before Watchmen. Want to see a roomful of comics fanboys and fangirls erupt into heated discussion leaning toward possible violence? Just say those words. There's been so much fuss over this on the interwebs, I'm just not going to touch it, or at least not touch it in the way you think. I'm going to approach those two words with a whole new bent: Before Watchmen, there was Charlton.

Today it's hard to believe there was never really a major independent comics market. With stuff like Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead ruling comics racks, bookshelves, and television ratings, it almost seems impossible, right? There was a time, the old man and Vast Storehouse of Useless Comics Knowledge said, when everything comics was Marvel, DC, and in a distant third, Archie – nobody else. It was like VHF and UHF, no cable. And then there was Charlton.

Now Charlton Comics had been around since the Golden Age, notably publishing the adventures of the original Yellowjacket, Mr. Muscles, Nature Boy, Zaza the Mystic, and briefly some guy called Blue Beetle, among others. They also did a whole lot of war stories, westerns, and romances, but they got their claim to fame in the 1960s doing superheroes, what they called 'action heroes.' They were the original versions of folks you might know like Captain Atom, the Blue Beetle, and The Question, as well as lesser-knowns like Judomaster, Son of Vulcan, Nightshade, and Thunderbolt.

The Charlton Comics action heroes flourished for a time in the mid-sixties, under the amazing editorial skills of the late Dick Giordano who would later go on to make his serious mark at DC Comics as an inker, artist, editor and also just plain running the company for over a decade. At Charlton he also employed such greats as Jim Aparo, Steve Skeates, and the legendary Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko. Unfortunately, when the sixties ended, so did the run of action heroes. Charlton hung on for a few more years, gaining a resurgence with E-Man in the early seventies but eventually fading away, and closing their doors for good in 1985.

Writer Alan Moore

DC Comics has had a record of buying up defunct comic book company characters. They did it with Quality (Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Freedom Fighters), and with Fawcett (the Marvel Family, Spy Smasher, Bulletman). These characters they placed on parallel Earths, and just before they stopped all that multiverse stuff with Crisis on Infinite Earths, they bought the Charlton characters and placed them on Earth-4. When the smoke cleared from Crisis, the big three – Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and The Question – were given their own titles and new starts as DC Universe characters.

But that wasn't always the plan.

The man's name was Alan Moore, one of the British wunderkind Giordano had brought over from the UK. He was a bit of a mad genius. He had written some brilliant stuff over there like Marvelman and V for Vendetta, and here in the States, he had revitalized Swamp Thing and written what many consider one of the best Superman stories ever, "For the Man Who Has Everything."

Cover to Carlton Comics' "Americomics Special" #1 (1983), art by Greg Guler and John Beatty

Moore had a concept for the Charlton Comics action heroes who lived the as-yet-unseen Earth-4. It was called "Who Killed the Peacemaker?" and put bluntly, while being one hell of a story, possibly epic in the history of comics, it would destroy the characters utterly, leaving them unusable afterward. It would be the Charlton heroes' final adventure. Editor Dick Giordano, whose heart was close to those characters, and foresaw their future use in the new DC Universe post-Crisis, nixed the idea.

Alan Moore refused to let go of the concept, and reworked it to use new characters loosely based on the originals. The atomic-powered Captain Atom became the god-like Doctor Manhattan. Blue Beetle, already one of the first legacy heroes, became both Nite Owls. The Question, a creation of Ayn Rand philosophy, became the deranged Rorshach. Peter Cannon as Thunderbolt, the epitome of mental and physical prowess became Ozymandias. The Peacemaker, the hero who loved peace so much he fought for it, became the equally ironic Comedian. Moore was a bit fancier with Silk Spectre, making her a combination of Nightshade, and non-Charlton characters Black Canary and Phantom Lady. On this last one, Moore removed her powers but kept the relationship with Atom/Manhattan. And like the Watchmen, these Charlton heroes even teamed up one time as the Sentinels of Justice, but never again.

The new "Before Watchmen" series begins July 4.

Watchmen was born, and went on the make comics history. And now we have Before Watchmen coming in just a few weeks. Alan Moore, who for various reasons feels he was harmed by DC Comics, is not involved. Some folks think these characters should not be touched or used. I just don't get it. The characters were not all that original to begin with. Like so many Moore ideas – Marvelman, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tom Strong, Supreme, Top 10, Lost Girls – Watchmen is highly derivative of other material, notably other people's material.

Oh well, I'd better get out of here. I've just angered all the Alan Moore terrorists out there. Sorry, folks, it's how I feel. And, like it or not, I'm looking forward to Before Watchmen. Bring it on!


Last 5 posts by Glenn Walker

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I mostly agree with you here, Glenn. Given how almost all of Moore’s greatest work has been using other people’s characters or derivatives thereof, it feels extremely hypocritical of him to demand no one ever touch his.

    That said, I won’t be getting Before Watchmen, but it’s no moral stance on my part. I’ve just decided I’d prefer to wait and read them in TPB format.

  2. “By not get it” I assume you mean you don’t agree with the argument, and not that you don’t understand the argument?

    Is it worth pointing out that the arugment is hardly unique to comics – don’t remakes and extrapolations of “classic” movies and books without the blessing of the original creator regularly tick off lots of fans? (I’m trying to remember the reaction when Scarlett [Gone with the Wind Sequel] came out… and I can just imagine the Tolkein purists reaction if Jackson wanted to make a middle earth movie not directly adapting Tolkien’s writings).

    I’d also argue that the analogy of Charlton -> Watchmen and Watchmen -> Before Watchmen is a bit disingenous. Of course the characters in Watchmen are derivative… has there been anything entirely non-derivative in the past two millenia? Of course these are much more direct derivations than say the Big Red Cheese from Supes. But the heart of Watchmen is an exiquisitely crafted story using a set of characters that didn’t have to be exactly the ones from Charlton — that they are based on the Charlton one was probably originally unknown by the vast majority of its readers, and doesn’t seem vital knowledge for the reader to get almost everything from the story that’s there. That seems to be something very different than the standard multi-authored, company owned, shared universe fiction of Marvel and DCU. There, those particular characters with their collaborative histories are vital for telling the stories. Before Watchmen isn’t derivative in the sense of Moore’s works you mentioned… it’s taking his story and using it to launch a multi-authored, company owned, shared universe. It’s doing so against the express intent of the original autho. And I can’t imagine it will be as good.

    Of course, everyone who created the foundations of the Marvel and DCU that we read were perfectly happy with what happened with their characters and were justly compensated ;-)

    [In spite of my loathing of the basic idea, I will be eagerly reading yours and other reviews to see if I should start saving my change to pick up the TPBs when they're eventually released...]

  3. Glenn, I learn so much from reading your posts. Thank you for sharing this.

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