'How's the hip?'
September 2011 is a huge month in the world of comics as DC launches the ‘New 52’. With traditional print media numbers falling the comics giant has taken the boldest step possible by re-launching its entire universe and embracing a digital readership. The Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman known and loved by so many remain intact, but every character across DC’s publications begins again with new ‘issue one’ comics.
Most aren’t having their origins retold but all have either been subtly or radically overhauled to reflect a changing world. Free of the bonds of years and years of continuity, hopes are high that new readers will come onboard and embrace a world that in the past has been seen as unwelcoming and complicated to break into.
For instance people who watched ‘The Dark Knight” at the cinema and wanted to begin reading the comics were faced with a run by Grant Morrison in which Batman was entrenched in a saga three years in the making. This complicated arc punished those that hadn’t been reading since day one, involving amongst other things ‘Doctor Hurt’ as the lead villain having last been seen in the 60s, Bruce Wayne’s test tube birthed son and attempts to tie in over fifty years of continuity into one ‘definitive’ story.
Along with this and a multitude of economic reasons they’ve also been lagging behind main rival Marvel in sales, a company who’ve successfully tapered their printed output to run in line with a series of films featuring their biggest names. This ‘New 52’ is by no means a last roll of the dice, but it does represent a step away from their traditional audience and a move to a world without their own self-imposed conventions.
It’s also an acknowledgement that DC are willing to take big decisions regarding ‘their’ world having missed huge opportunities in the past. A case in point for one of the biggest was a loss of nerve to run with an idea that would have reshaped the fabric of not just their own output, but potentially set a new benchmark for the whole industry. Back in the late 80s DC managed to reject the greatest comic book event never written - Alan Moore’s ‘Twilight of the Superheroes’.
Free of the bonds of years and years of continuity, hopes are high that new readers will come onboard and embrace a world that in the past has been seen as unwelcoming and complicated to break into.
Moore is a complicated character who has undoubtedly produced some of the medium’s finest work. By 1987 he’d long outgrown the British comics industry and was working with DC but showing signs of a different approach to the long established ‘hero vrs villain’ format. His take on Swamp Thing had been a complicated and Meta look at a character once considered throw away, while his wrapping of Superman’s silver age story line in ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow’ was considered seminal.
And of course there was Watchmen. An epic tale of a dystopian but real world America where superheroes had been marginalised into working for government or giving up all together, despite delays and a punishing story that required the reader to work harder than ever before it was considered an instant classic.
Watchmen had originally been conceived by Moore to use a line of characters recently bought by DC from Charlton Comics. After the pitch DC loved the story but with half of their recently acquired line either dying or showing truer colours than they were comfortable with, all parties agreed it was best to use a new line of heroes conceived by Moore himself to carry the story.
Using this remit many of Watchmen’s players became ciphers for collected traits in characters far more recognisable. Dr Manhattan’s omnipotence, power and even blue appearance echoed Superman while officially he was a direct replacement for Charlton’s Captain Atom. Nite Owl was a thinly veiled mixture of the characters Blue Beetle and Batman. The similarities continued throughout but the theme was what Moore would return to directly with DC – what happens in at the end of the age of the superheroes?
Both DC and Moore talked about a huge crossover event that straddled the breadth of the comic company’s universe. Moore wanted to look at an ‘ending’ to DC’s world, a future set similar in scale to Watchmen’s ‘earth’. What he came up with was the rejected proposal that marked the beginning of Moore’s disenchantment with the industry, and the start of the fall out with DC that see him part ways with the comic giant in 1989 despite some breathtaking work.
Both DC and Moore talked about a huge crossover event that straddled the breadth of the comic company’s universe. Moore wanted to look at an ‘ending’ to DC’s world, a future set similar in scale to Watchmen’s ‘earth’.
The ‘Twilight of the Superheroes’ was set in a future where the familiar DC cast had formed ‘houses’ and dynasties from which they ruled the world. The House of Steel combined Superman and Wonder Woman’s lineage, The House of Thunder the Marvel family; even DC’s aging super villains had formed a coalition (the House of Secrets). To frame the story the Moore created character John Constantine and time traveller Rip Hunter would journey back from the future to prevent a marriage between two representatives of these houses that threatened an monopolistic future, the idea being that the world was held in place by these ruling houses and any upsetting of the status-quo could lead to World War.
The whole saga ended with a huge battle between the heroes we all know resulting in wholesale death and destruction of the fabric of the DC universe. The final twist in the tale would be the revelation that Constantine and Hunter had travelled back to make sure the union happened rather than break it apart, the idea being power fell back into human hands from the superheroes.
Moore’s detailed proposal (available online here) took the familiar DC superheroes and tuned them into darker future versions, drunk on power and engaging in everything from dictatorship to sadomasochistic sex. While the established universe would have remained the same, this was a distant but universally dark future that provided an ‘end’ to several characters and the age of superheroes - something Moore was said to have been very interested in at one point. It was dark and brooding and magnificent, a Watchmen-esque world using the cornerstones of the DC universe and changing everything we had come to assume about the future of their world.
Needless to say, DC considered but rejected the series through the fear of the damage this take on their world could bring. Moore was disappointed but the entire proposal appeared online in the 90s and elements have since cropped up in DC events and many character’s stories. If DC had trusted in Moore and their readers to take to this dark but potentially magnificent story, the future for the company could’ve been a very different place. Considered the greatest story in comics never told, it is also the single greatest missed opportunity in the history of one of the industry’s giants.
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