Lawman. That’s a curious term. It’s one that comes loaded with implications. Here, in this series, we’ll be taking a good, long look at the very idea of this figure of law and how it ties in with the nature of the modern hero. Where does the lawman stand in the nexus of superhero mythology as we know it?
Moving through various ages, movements, influences, and works, the series will eventually culminate at the current state of The Green Lantern, as molded by Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp, which serves as the focal point for a lot of the ideas that’ll be explored here. We’ll be diving into everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and sci-fi television to Grant Morrison and the overall macro-narrative of modern superhero stories, sparing no medium. Even if you have absolutely no interest in a property like Green Lantern, there’s likely gonna be enough of superheroic history here to keep you reading.
It’s gonna be a long ride. But stick around for the whole thing if you’re into Borges, religious ideas, chivalric romance, Don Quixote and wanna know what any of them have to do with a space cop in superhero comics.
I think there will be post-Watchmen comics, probably some good ones…I will say this: I’ll bet my arse that within 6 months or a year, everyone will be sick to the back teeth of realistic superheroes. – Alan Moore
II- The New World
The gates had been opened. Freedom was the name of the game. The ride to liberation of the artform had taken quite a while. Many were unsure about the trek past a certain point. But once Moore and Miller rode out and did so with great triumph, things changed. Comics could be anything now. Everyone can cross these gates and do anything, be anyone they wanted. They could critique anything and engage with whatever they sought to.
But at the same time, what that freedom meant was that the ideal held by those breaking open the gates would never be fulfilled. The best case scenario you have in your mind for what the artform and industry can be won’t really materialize, at least certainly not the way you want it to. Signifying that people could do anything doesn’t mean they’ll do what you hope or even that they’ll do the best things they possibly could. They’ll do what they so choose and need to, for their own goals and pursuits. That means there’ll be mistakes, setbacks, regressions, reductions, alongside all the genuine achievements and progressions. People may pursue and do that which is crass or cheap or in poor taste, while inspired gems get forgotten in all the noise. Such is the nature of progress, as it takes time and effort and is never easy.
Now, with that bit of nuance clearly established, with both Moore and Miller situated in the larger tradition, let’s dig into their two texts. Both Watchmen and TDKR, obviously, depicted superheroic figures as agents of the government, as all those that didn’t comply and get with the program were now hunted vigilantes and outlaws (see: The Keane Act). The ones that still persisted got to more or less keep their secret identities and lives, but served a system and regime, like weapons to be deployed when conflict and war needed to be handled. Perhaps best expressed in Watchmen, where in the superheroes are deployed out into Vietnam, in order to win the war for America. TDKR‘s Superman had even become the government’s tool, thrown into situations the President needed resolved.
Kicking off on the murder of The Comedian, the ultimate symbol of its ‘lawman’ hero, a militaristic soldier, Watchmen played as a mystery. It was Moore/Gibbons/Higgins doing a sci-fi book with superheroes. And The Comedian’s smiley pin would become the iconography of the text. The simple, innocent, cartoony smile, seemingly benevolent, with a stain of real blood on it, like a clock ticking to doomsday. That was Watchmen. The artifice of the old with the harsh, dreadful truth of the now. Its Captain America was no hero, but more akin to the horror stories we hear about people in real life. He was an absolute militaristic monster, who exercised needless brutality, got paid handsomely for it and hid happily in his secret identity, facing no consequences whatsoever. A man accountable to no one, a loathsome monster, one who literally kills pregnant women, who he swore responsibility to. And this awful man’s heroic peer just watches said event and does nothing. This was the new reality and the new type of ‘hero’ Watchmen displayed. The death of this dreadful figure is what haunts and drives the book.
The big revelation, of course, was that the hero could be the villain. Watchmen placed a sharp critique on the nature of superhero fiction and its iconic tropes and tales, where in the world tended to unite in the face of alien invasion and things were okay. In Watchmen, you saw the harshest, most harrowing version of that, as masters Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons/John Higgins made that narrative just that: a narrative. Something made up and deliberately forced, in an attempt to ‘save’ the world. The horror and brilliance is perhaps best summed up in this simple revelation: The Squid at the end? It’s Moore riffing on Starro The Conqueror, but by way of his more Lovecraftian tendencies, so it’s truly horrifying, in classic Moore fashion. Watchmen took that which was familiar and exposed the problems and frailties within, unveiling horror and surprise at that which was taken for granted. (Its spiritual predecessor being very much the Alan Moore/John Totleben Miracleman/Marvelman.)
TDKR, meanwhile, was Miller doing Batman as operatic drama. It worked off the premise of an old, retired Adam West-esque Batman, who had to, as the title implies, return into the fray and be this more battle-worn ‘warrior’ figure for the ’80s. Much more bulky, beefier, in Miller fashion, he drove an almost tank-like Batmobile and really was fighting a ‘war’ on crime, with soldiers and armies, all culminating in an operatic conclusion where in Miller’s symbolic Man (Batman), confronts his symbolic God (Superman). TDKR envisioned a world that did not want and almost loathed its towering, mythically large heroic figures, positioning the people as largely ignorant bickering small heads on screens, while giant images of heroes overwhelmed the page. Its hero was on a crusade and this super-soldier, who loved to fight, who loved the thrill of action, with the work’s spiritual predecessor being very much Miller’s work on Daredevil. Alongside Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson, Miller, unlike Moore who was working with original characters drawn from niche Charlton figures, took a pop culture icon and reshaped his entire image as not the silly superhero many saw as Adam West (thus the transition from man West to this super-warrior), but as almost a general with a legion, drawing up the latest plans of attack in his never ending war.
Both books were a reflection of the period they were made in, the ’80s, with the threat of nuclear armageddon, and an impotent government and society in the face of that. Things seemed to constantly be ticking away to further and further devastation. Both books were, of course, massive.
From the ashes of their explosive ends, an industry lay changed. Forever grasping for the acclaim, acknowledgement and appraisal those books seemed to achieve, you had a whole armada of artists try to follow suit, in their own ways. The term ‘Graphic Novel’ was coined. And out came a number of comics, where in violence, sex, shock were the new name of the game. A whole industry was attempting to respond to the massive success of these works. What would follow would be dubbed ‘The Modern Age‘ or alternatively ‘The Dark Age‘ by many. This is worth noting, even though we won’t be using either title in this series, given ‘Modern’ never sounds right and ‘Dark Age’ is reductive and a pejorative that is demeaning and unhelpful in discussing the period.
At this point, everyone and their mother was at it. DC’s Crisis On Infinite Earths had just wrapped and with their newly minted universe, they took their shot with Legends. And so you get some truly, almost parody-tier responses to Watchmen here, of brushing away any real critiques or thoughtful assessments, to show how all criticism against superheroes is unambiguously bad or motivated out of jealousy and pure hate and that if you present a critique, you’re the one with the blackened heart, so that there can be an assurance of how completely great superheroes are (insert lines about HOPE™), without actually engaging with or addressing the things with which it clearly feels a need to respond.
And this conservative response, of being unwilling to engage with the questions raised and posed, just plainly not thinking about these things or handwaving away the holes pointed out, while also wanting to still ‘respond’ and ‘defend’ a thing, keep this in mind. We’ll be touching on this throughout the series and it’s an element that will reoccur.
However, while you have muck like the above, there were also some quite excellent responses coming out, too. Ones that did, actually, live up to the promises of a bold new era that the seminal texts prophecized. The crown jewel, the best example of that, being Animal Man.
Grant Morrison and Chaz Troug’s Animal Man was a seminal text that took on Watchmen and all the popular trends of this period head on. Buddy Baker was no militaristic warrior, but a small C-List hero, a simple family man, who was passionate about environmental activism. He was an ordinary dude, with a jacket, in which he’d put his home-packed lunch from his lovely partner, Ellen and he’d sit and eat on a roof, after a long day of superheroing. This was the small-time guy trying to make it into a team and help people and support his family. This was the ultimate blue collar superhero.
Buddy Baker was explicitly a passionate activist hero, a man with causes and strong beliefs, the kind that would be part of protests, as authorities and law enforcement would arrive. He was the hero who’s criticize the status quo, the authorities, the powers they wield, the laws they enforce freely, not realizing the damage they do. He was the hero who’d critique the military industrial complex and their harmful experimentation. Indeed, the primary motive and goal for the big, shadowy villains in Animal Man was the creation of Super-Soldiers, as is to be expected.
Ultimately, this was a new hero, not the mythic outsider of Miller or the systemic problem of Moore, but a small man in a big world, who spoke loudly and proudly. It was a worthy response and a and fresh one. And in Buddy’s book, ideas of ‘reality’ and obsessions with violence were skewered by Morrison and Troug, as both the audience
Other comics, while not directly responding to Watchmen and its ilk, took full advantage of the new environment and trends and brought their own bold storytelling to the table. Tim Truman’s Hawkworld and Mike Grell’s Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters (both revivals of their respective properties) are explicitly works that push the hero into more brutal, more harsh spaces, as they’re willing to go further, do worse and are operating in settings where that norm is the case as well. Hawkworld in particular, starring a cop, becomes the biggest display of this, as it unloads a scathing commentary on an empire that is deeply broken, filled with corruption, propaganda, lies and police brutality, disguised as law, as killers are honored as heroes. It’s flawed, messy militaristic hero, essentially ‘Judge Dredd Hawkman’, boasted a far more militaristic outfit, more guns and was a new man for a new age.
Some others on the other hand were being a bit more sneaky in their approach, while also picking up on some of the craft aspects of texts like Watchmen. Keith Giffen is probably THE example here. Justice League International (by Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire) is, of course, hugely popular, well-known for its sitcom approach to superheroics and its great many gags. But that it’s not as known for, but should be looked at more for, is as an explicit Post-Watchmen book. It picks up some ideas and thematics and does its own spin on them, as a team is put together in the backdrop of a nuclear threat. Maxwell Lord, too, is an explicit response to Ozymandias. Issue #12 (hah) in particular, with its use of the 9-panel grid and these very blatantly clear beats lays it all out for the reader.
Saving the earth’s population from themselves. Sound familiar?
But Giffen would apply that more than once, going much further with the idea of picking up techniques and lessons from Watchmen to do the Legion status quo of 5 Years Later, a time-skip set after a great war. Here, The Legion Of Super-Heroes, an idea from the late ’50s and the ’60s wave of utopian future fiction, could finally be properly examined.
In the Silver Age, the Legion boasted a future of unity, but at the same time, that future was one serving only those who were straight, cis white men. It’s a future of aesthetic shifts rather than appropriate social and cultural shifts. The patriarchal problems were all there, sexism still ran rampant a millennium later, the systemic struggles were intact, even in far frontiers of space you found more white people who were straight like the values of this age, one run by the CCA, dictated. It’s a fairly exclusionary future and its a ‘utopia’ that is rooted in colonialist ideas, which by then hadn’t appropriately unpacked. Sure there was a ‘United Planets’, but it was all largely centered around Earth and America. It was the idea of the American empire’s never-ending success, even through the cosmos. All of this could, to some degree, be critiqued more openly and harshly in the Post-Watchmen age and so a lot of the problems of the premise were pointed out, like the fragile economy of this supposed utopia, the numerous poor choices made by its government that led to suffering and more. In the context of all that, the idea of the shattered utopia, the 9-panel grid comes in. That vital symbol of Watchmen was being used in full force here.
But amidst all the exceptional gems, the larger trend seemed to be, either respond reactionarily (ala Legends) or lean the other route of extremity. Violence and pushing the envelop on what you could show and more messed up heroes seemed to be the new hot thing.
However, as all this unfolded, something else was happening. By the early ’90s, the roots of Vertigo were firmly in place. Its seed being the now-classic Saga Of The Swamp Thing, but its face being Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol would add to, fashioning its spirit, despite not being actually Vertigo. They were the face of experimental storytelling, building off the success editor extraordinaire Karen Berger had had with her recruitment of talent from Britain, dubbed The British Invasion. The horror comics that were so shunned during the CCA-power period of The Silver Age, made a massive, loud comeback at Vertigo.
This was also the period where Milestone Comics, a company and line focused on black characters, with them as the leads, would be born. It was a group of black creators, with the legendary Dwayne McDuffie at the helm, forging a whole new universe, one that wasn’t as exclusionary as all the others upto that point, reflecting the reality and diversity of the world that had always been there, but ignored by the many white men that made these books. It was, everything the CCA of the 50’s would’ve adamantly been against. This was a period where ventures like this and Vertigo could come to be, art could express itself freely, grow and change appropriately.
But the new big thing beyond those was also here now. The 90s hero. This new approach to the superhero played on the super-extreme soldier aspect of the Post-Watchmen/TDKR age. You saw the debut of Cable and the very next year, the arrival of Deadpool. Even the new X-team that Cable led, X-Force, which replaced The New Mutants title, was a much more militaristic force, for a new age of superheroics. And there was a crucial difference between these heroes and the heroes of the past, particularly the militaristic heroes depicted in the two Moore/Miller books.
This new brand of hero, while pulling from more the Miller school of operatic exaggeration than Moore’s, had no secret identity. This was not Miller’s Batman, who prized his identity in TDKR. This was not The Comedian from Watchmen, who loved his secrecy. Here was no Bruce Wayne. Here was no Clark Kent. This new hero had no real need or want to pretend or put on some persona. Cable was simply just…Cable. He wasn’t out to pretend to be someone or something else. Deadpool was, again, just Deadpool. These weren’t people with more human identities they had to hide. They had no such things. They just were who they were. And that’s, obviously, not a deliberately thought through breakthrough of careful subversion on part of Rob Liefeld, but a curious element that changed the game in the long run nonetheless. That was the first step, as the echoes of this would be massive, in due time.
This was the blueprint by which a whole new storm of things would emerge.
From there on, the very next year saw the launch of Image Comics, who hit the market with the likes of Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, a book starring a cop hero and Jim Lee’s WILDC.A.T.S, which, the COVERT ACTION TEAMS bit really tells you everything. It was the superhero as an assembled task force. Two years later, While Portacio’s Wetworks would arrive, again, with a team of superheroes who were black ops agents. The idea of the cop hero, the idea of superheroes as a task force, a military squadron was on the rise. That wasn’t the only sort of book or approach that was being done, of course, but it’s a growing trend that you really see. In any case, the 90s, in all their over-the-top excess, pouches, impossible musculature and all, were fully and properly here, as guns, crazy massive guns seemed to be the new craze. It was a strange time, a wild time, wherein Superman died, Batman was broken and Hal Jordan became a supervillain.
Meanwhile, as Vertigo was blossoming, with The Sandman as its unquestionable flagship success, Grant Morrison conjured up The Invisibles. A book about a rebellious terrorist cell of psuedo-heroic figures operating in maximum secrecry, a great secret society guarding the world from shadows, fighting a shadow war against forces of order and conformity. But the key revelation? Their mission was not a war. It was a rescue mission. It was an attempt to heal and save, a characteristically Morrison idea. It was a book that was basically built off the the iconic 1984 quote, ‘The Big Brother is watching. Learn to become invisible’.
But as all this was happening, there were also works advocating for a more classical approach to superheroes amidst all this, offering an alternative. You had Mark Waid’s The Flash, James Robinson’s Starman, but also Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s Astro City, a whole new rebooted Legion, from the ashes of the above discussed 5 Years Later. This was the time where in Alan Moore, who completely regretted and felt damn near guilty for the effects of Watchmen, was trying to make up for things. He was working with and for the Image crew in this period, having sworn off Big Two and digging creator freedom and rights. So he took Liefeld’s Superman expy, Supreme, and re-invented him as basically the iconic hero Post-Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? which marked the end of The Silver Age Superman.
Supreme became, in essence, a complete love letter to the Silver Age Superman era of comics, with Moore building even more off them, with a Not-Superman, Not-Krypto and plenty more wild ideas. It was Moore deadset on proving to people that there was another way beyond the popular trends. And that his intent wasn’t to crush the old, that he did not hate what had come before. He’d loved it. It was sincere. So he set out to pursue the ideal of his own heart, what he hoped to see. ‘If no one will pursue what I hoped many might, I’ll do it myself!‘. To this day, it’s one of the best Superman runs.
All of this is why monikers such as ‘Dark Age’ don’t do this period justice. Much like ‘Dark Age’ and ‘Renaissance’ are terms that reduce and damage the nature of real historic achievements and times, they don’t do any good in comics history, either. It was a period of extremity, of pouches and insane muscles and all sorts of other stuff, sure. But it was also a period of Vertigo, Milestone, Astro City, Supreme, Hellboy and more. Even the most criticized works and trends of this period and the adolescent spirit they seem imbued with are a product of experimentation, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ aside. It was people finally saying ‘Well, why not?’ and taking a leap of faith, whatever the hell their faith was at that point. It was a moment of hedonistic excess, perhaps, but it was also a necessary one to move us forward.
Clearly, as the industry was loving Image, more seemed to also be underway. A variety of stuff was being produced, spotlighting new flavors and approaches to this whole enterprise. But amidst all that boiling, the time for a cool-down was coming. Things had to settle and evolve from this transitional period, to reach some place new. But that wouldn’t truly happen with any of the works or writers we’ve discussed above. The path to truly arriving there would begin with another writer, one we haven’t discussed here yet: Warren Ellis.
Here was a man of legitimate change and the whirlwind he’d bring would, for once, would truly re-shape the comic landscape. The superhero was destined for different things and that’s what Warren Ellis represented.
Next: Who watches The Weatherman?
Part III arrives Thursday!