Will there ever be another ‘Watchmen’ or ‘Dark Knight’? (No)

watchmen_smiley.gifIt was asked on the most recent podcast whether there would ever be another Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns. I’ve been thinking about it a bit more, and while I agree that if it ever happens, it will be something completely unexpected, I’m leaning more and more towards the idea that it just won’t.

Maybe those two books are like the Sgt. Peppers of comic books.

Other than the first appearances of characters, I don’t think there are any more important works than Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns. Now, I’m not talking about quality, because that is a discussion that’s been had, and will be had for a long time. But really, there aren’t any other works that are both significant, widely known, and also relevant to mainstream comic books, from a craft perspective. There will be those who cry “overrated,” but unfortunately in this case, I think those people are just wrong. Whether you enjoyed the books or not, you can’t deny their impact over 20 years down the road.

After these books, everything changed. These were, and still are, the books you refer to people as the best of what comics have to offer.

In 1967, there was Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, and from everything I’ve ever read, that was it. It changed the idea of what could be accomplished on a rock record, and broke down doors for everything that followed it. It raised the bar. Sure there were great songs and albums before and after it, but nothing that hit in the same way, or affected history like that did. Furthermore, just like Moore and Miller’s seminal works, many tried to copy, but no one came close.

Will there be another book like that ever? I’m not sure. There hasn’t been a seminal moment in rock music that held the power of Sgt. Peppers. There have been lots of great albums since then, and of course many albums that were better, but none of them would have happened without The Beatles doing it first. I wonder if there would be an Ed Brubaker or Brian K. Vaughan today, if not for Alan Moore and Frank Miller. I seriously don’t think so. Sure, there would be comics, but I think the landscape would be drastically different. Had there been no Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, would there have been the rush of the early 90’s? Would Image Comics still have formed? It’s impossible to say, but I think we can safely speculate that these 2 works shaped those events at the very least.

I’m thinking it’s not going to happen. I’m thinking every great book that follows in mainstream comics will be, in some way, the child of these two masterpieces. On the other hand, I’d like nothing more than to be surprised by something none of us ever expected.


  1. I always thought it was The White Album that blew everyone away.

    I do think it’s safe to say that there will never be another Watchmen or Dark Knight [I]for me.[/I] Because I was 14 years old when they came out and the affect they had on me was incredible. It was the first time I realized that comics could be something more than just for fun. The first time I wanted to tell people (besides just my friends) how great this comic book was that I was reading. It eventually led to me to stop reading comics for a time b/c I realized that nothing else was even coming close to those works. And as much as I’ve fallen back in love with the medium, I’m not sure anything will hit that high mark again.

    But I think the relative greatness of these peaks in history depends on where the observer is standing. As great as any of The Beatles albums are, where would they be if Chuck Berry hadn’t blown people’s minds 10 years earlier. Or Leadbelly before that. And there are plenty of people who couldn’t care less about The Beatles and think that there was no music better than The Clash, or Nirvana. So I think the next Watchmen/Dark Knight has already happened for some people. And is still to come for others.

    Personally, Magical Mystery Tour was my favorite as a kid, but my tastes do tend toward the broad side.

  2. Thinking about this, you really do need to put it into context, particularly the context of when the books came out. Both DKR and Watchmen were products of the 80s, and both authors reflected back that anxiety people weren’t supposed to be feeling in Reagan’s “Morning in America,” and in a comic book, where hereos were always bright and good and simple as pie, saved the day, and there was always a happy end. This was Moore and Miller’s break from what came from before, and I think what makes these books still remembered. Even though many who read them are too young to remember life during the 80s, both books are also about so much more, but the 80s were a pretty big turning point in America, felt well into the 90s, perhaps more than people want to admit. The fact that both books reach both backwards and forwards in time for inspiration also ensures a certain timelessness.

    Also at the time, such stories had to be told in a limited number of issues — you could not even hope to publish like Preacher and keep selling after the 6th issue much less the 60th. So yeah, Watchman and DKN did make much possible… but there were pretty severe limitations on what poeple considered to be “a proper comic book story” in the 1980s, no wonder Watchman and DKR busted those right open.

    These days, if someone tried to define what a comic should be based on pre-Watchman or DKN returns criteria, in terms of what came before that, then people look at them like they’re morons. There is so much more possible now, even within the limits of mainstream hero comics, so conversely, it is much more difficult for a single title to stand out as DKN or Watchman did.

    So, I think the context and time of when they came out plays a big role. If you wanted to really indentify a milestone for today, you would have to identify some idea or notion that has not been challenged, or a stereotype that repeats everywhere you look in comics — and these days, that’s really hard. Variety is everywhere.

  3. I thought about this as well and also don’t believe it will happen again. This is because everyone is looking for it now and are trying to create the next Watchmen or Dark Knight. When these two titles came out no one saw it coming and that helped to create the effect. The whole shock and awe factor.

    If it does happen again it will be completed unexpected. Also I don’t think it will happen again because of how many hold those two books in such high reguard and don’t want to let anything else come close to them.

  4. Glad you’re having fun with the question. 🙂

    This whole thing fascinates me. It’s interesting because these two books have transcended craft. Yes, the mechanics of these books are continually discussed, but the big factor seems to be the mystique surrounding them. The sheer fact that they are innovative. Perhaps a bit more than the methods of their innovation. If that makes sense.

    The cultural impact cannot be denied, but this wasn’t what I was thinking about when I posed the question. Really, I was just wondering what creator had a really big story in them. In post-modernism it seems like gravitas is gets second billing after things like “being relatable” or, say, intimate character development on the smaller scale.

    Take the most popular writer in comics right now. Bendis. Does he have a DKR in him?

  5. Know why there wont be? Because folks will never let go of these two or of the 1985-1986 time period. I would never be so bold to say that they don’t deserve their place in history or that they didn’t do everything you said. But, in the 20+ years since they both appeared, there have been plenty of books that have surpassed what they did then (Fun Home, New Frontier come to mind immediately) and no one ever mentions them in the same sentence. And there’s just one reason for that: Comic fans aren’t being born anymore. The industry is losing readers to old age; kids want video games or cartoons/anime. There is a smaller audience of 12-24 year old readers than there are of 24-36 year olds (and the 36-48 year olds? Forget it…astronomical). Why do you think these books are so important? Because they are handed down, or recommended from generation to generation. The fact that these two books have never gone out of print is also important. If they went out of print in, say 1987, would they have the same impact? Don’t you think something else would have taken it’s place?

  6. I always thought it was The White Album that blew everyone away.

    So many questions I’d have to think about. And so many thoughtful responses…

    But I can speak to this one, as an amateur Beatlesologist. The White Album is generally considered to be a split decision. There are some amazing songs, but there are some clunkers. Many think it’s too long and undisciplined, and finally, they all pretty much hated each other when they did it, so it’s a collection of solo efforts from the Beatles, rather than a group album.

    Also, you can point out a billion things that lead to the culmination of Sgt. Peppers, just like Watchmen and DKR. Of course, they have precedents, and things that came before them. Not a one of them are wholly original works. They are comprised of vast influences all. But from that, something was new. As I said, other albums and books are great, maybe even better, but not as culturally impactful.

    As far as Vito’s examples, I would say this. New Frontier was great. No question, but it isn’t commenting on the current time as much as commenting on a time gone by, so in that way, it’s somewhat less relevant at the time of its release. Also, since 1986, many books have commented on the political climate, so it’s not as unique either way.

    Then with Fun Home, while a great work, isn’t really going to have an effect on the greater comic book market, which is, we must admit, made up of 90% superhero books from Marvel and DC, so a book about a lesbian’s relationship with her closeted father might impact the creators in some way, it’s far too niche to be widespread at this time. This is the same reason I’m not talking about Maus right now, because it doesn’t affect superhero books directly.

    And no, I don’t think Bendis has it in him. At least not now. There’s something lighter in his work than Moore and Miller’s work. Maybe that will change, but while he’s doing all sorts of amazing work, and may be the most prolific writer of our era, I think his greatness will be spread out over a bunch of projects.

    And Wally, I agree with a lot of what you said. And again, that’s why I’m not talking about Preacher or Sandman. You can’t hand that in one volume to someone as easily as my two examples, which is obviously a factor in their success, and, as Vito says, the fact that they’re still in print.

  7. I think you could make a case to include the Death of Gwen Stacy story as a comic as important as Watchman and Dark Knight Returns. Certainly to fans of Spider-man, but beyond that it marked the death of a popular character in a popular book, which wasn’t as common a story device then as it is now. It is a milestone moment for Marvel’s flagship character. A moment that has yet to be rectonned. Lastly, a change of tone from was typical in Silver Age comics to what was used in the Bronze Age and is still used in the Modern Age.

    Then again The Death of Gwen Stacy doesn’t have anything particularly dynamic in the area of graphic story telling.

  8. I agree with most of you guys but for a slightly different reason. Back when these two books came out (and lets not forget they also came out as monthly’s first) there was no internet where everything is criticised and reviewed on the day of release. The fact that we all came to these two books through word of mouth or on our own is a big thing for its popularity, something which rarely happens today.
    The point wally makes about the context is very true too. Miller saw how TV news would form opinion back then and now we just take the big news corporations bias for granted.

  9. There’s an interesting story about how The Beach Boys and The Beatles had been in an unspoken competition with each other. Each was intentionally trying to bring a new sound; the next big thing to rock and roll. If you know anything about The Beach Boys, Smile was to be the album that followed Pet Sounds and do just that, but Smile never came out until 2004.

    The real interesting part is hearing Brian Wilson in the documentary “Smile” when he says he had to pull over on the side of the road when Strawberry Fields Forever first came on the radio, because it floored him, and The Beatles had won that unspoken competition before Smile was ever completed. That’s how important Sgt. Peppers was to rock, it blew away even the best of musicians, not just listeners.

    Knowing that all 4 issues of The Dark Knight Returns had been done for about three months before Watchmen ever hit the shelves, I wonder if Miller’s work had any influence on Moore?

  10. Moore probably had the whole thing intricately mapped out and done before Dark Knight ever hit the shelves. That wasn’t really enough time to make a difference.

  11. This is why I love this website.

    The Beatles readily admit that “Sgt. Pepper” was a direct response to “Pet Sounds” and then were blown away when 3 nights after the release Jimi Hendrix did the title track SP and took it to another level.

    I think there is both/and going on. You have great works that spawn great works that spawn great works, but you do have to realize that there are some works that mean more. DKR and Watchmen are those works for comics.

    Yet just like I don’t think music won’t have another Sgt. Pep, I also think that comics will have another–I think Alias was close in the superhero realm.

    It’ll happen…at least I hope it will happen.

  12. I think when we look at the current structure of comics, in regards to the ages, many consider these two books the defining moment of what we now consider the Modern Age. I think what’s hard for us to look at is the fact that we are all living the Modern Age now. Twenty years from now, is it possible that someone looking back on now might christen a different age. Possibly.

    What is great about Watchmen and Dark Knight is that these two stories grabbed comic book reader’s eyes and said, “Look, damn you, look. These things can convey complex amazing stories that rival any other form of media. Superheroes can do more than avert crisis after crisis!”

    Because of this, much of the stories we read today reflect this concept of comics as a higher art form. I would like to think that Alex Robinson captured the idea of the old school comic versus the modern comic in Box Office Poison with his relationship between Ed and…the comic book guy whose name escapes me.

    I don’t think we’ll ever really see a true milestone in our lifetime only because these two works opened the flood gates for what has now become the modern era. I think what these two works did is say to creators, “Don’t be afraid to innovate. Dare to tell that story you never thought would work.” In the end, I just want to continue to see new stories that continue to push the envelope of what a comic book can really do. And like Josh said, maybe we’ll all be surprised by something.

  13. Did any of you read Spider-Man: Reign? It floors me how powerful an impact DKR has on our current writers and artists. But then, that would make sense wouldn’t it? Some kids from 20 years ago are in position to express their love for DKR within this industry. It could be said that Marvel’s “End” books are all inspired from this one story. Funny what a mid-life crisis can to you. As in Miller’s case, the thought of being older than Batman. It made him a very wealthy man from that thought onwards.

  14. I think an important thing to note in Watchmen and DKR is that they were finite series of limited issues. So while there is great stuff in the terms of Powers or Preacher or what not, they’re ongoing and while there may be a great arc, the series will get bogged down by the ongoing stories and some arcs missing while others hit.

    I think if there were any candidates from the 90s, it would be Marvels and Kingdom Come.

    I don’t see any have come through yet in the 2000s in terms of the short (no more than 12 issues) contained story that knocks your socks off and shakes you the way look at comics. Maybe Identity Crisis?

  15. “Knowing that all 4 issues of The Dark Knight Returns had been done for about three months before Watchmen ever hit the shelves, I wonder if Miller’s work had any influence on Moore?”

    Oh, at that time, there were many of us feeling what those books channeled. Moore and Miller just tapped right in to what many had on their minds — hence the breakout success of both books.

    Make a list of what DKR and Watchman have in common, and were entirely innovative then but common now, and it’s quite interesting –

    1) Both books specifically feature a real historical person as President (Nixon in Watchman, Reagan in DKR) who are “overstaying” their term in the White House. This was a first. Unless I’m wrong, FDR was the last President as comic book character, when FDR was still alive. In neither book is the characterization of Nixon or Reagan overtly partisan – rather, it seems to stand for the corruption of politics in general.

    2) Both books feature enormously powerful heroes (Superman and Dr. Manhattan) that are officially affliated with the government – other costumed vigilantes are declared illegal.

    3) The officially sanctioned heroes, despite their omnipotence, are portrayed as being rather naive yes men, both feeling rather disconnected with what they are asked to do. Their ambivalence is much more nuanced than simply being robots for “the man.”

    4) The sympathetic heroes are the outcast vigilantes. The more grim and gritty, the more slightly insane, the more intelligent, the more compelling, the ones that seem to know most about what’s really going on.

    5) The spectre of nuclear war hangs over both books, in a very large way, and plays a major part in the way the plot turns.

    That’s just off the top of my head. It’s really hard to say CW, The Ultimates or similar storylines are innovative when you read just these few points. “Just catching up” is more accurate.

    Post modernism was mentioned. I won’t argue what that means, but I will say DKR and Watchman didn’t so much usher in “po-mo” in comics: rather they ripped out the throat of Modernism in comics with a very jagged and bloody knife.

    I wouldn’t rule out New Frontier just yet for major milestone status. If DKR and Watchman were dark visions in a world hiding behind a bright facade, then New Frontier is a message of hope in a world where everyone is pretty gloomy about the present, having gone a fairly bad patch, still not sure what to think. That JFK quotation is a pretty bold stroke, and look when it came out. But it will take a few years before we can really measure the weight of anything that has come out in the past 4 years…

    Well, as for being lost in the 80s, I just got hold of Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Cambell, “The Power of Myth” (PBS). Who knows when I’ll surface again…

  16. No wonder I love Kingdom Come so much. Older superhero, comes out of retirement. hurmmmm.

  17. I think it’s going to take some great experiment to create something like DKR or Watchmen again. Something in the vein of Nightly News or something like that – a work that takes the medium and just turns it on its head, twists it, dips it in gasoline, wrings it out, sets it on fire, stomps it out, then poops on it.

    Another thing to consider is that readers are much more jaded these days mostly due to outside influences. Back in the mid-80s, there weren’t 3D rendered video games in every home, and did you see that Spider-man TV show from the late 70s? There are kids with a video camera and a computer doing much better than that these days. When DKR and Watchmen came out, they were something new and unique – today, new and unique is almost never applied to something on the printed page.

    I think the closet thing to these two today is Pride of Baghdad – it’s the most original piece of work to come out in a good number of years and can easily be understood by someone who has never read a comic before.

    Bendis can do a work like this. So can Vaughn (he’s coming very close), Brubaker, Ennis – guys who don’t dabble in just super heroes. And all these guys, and the Brits, owe their careers to DKR and Watchmen, and I’m sure all of them would agree with that.

  18. I realize I answered form a personal perspective (how these books affected me) rather than so much the broader cultural impact. But Watchmen and DKR wouldn’t have had such a broad impact if they hadn’t also been so personally mind-blowing. As many people have said, we’re all looking for that now, whereas no one was looking for it in 1986.

    So are we ready for another paradigm shift? I don’t think so. But then again, I wouldn’t would I? Because I’m immersed in the current paradigm. I can’t see the change coming or its not really a shift. Whatever it is, it’s not going to come from a work that’s more grim, gritty, or realistic. That’s still being done. If there’s going to be something on par with Watchmen/DKR, it has to come from its own direction.

  19. Again, people are mentioning all these great works, but not a one is so ubiquitous that it’s the work of note we refer to as the gold standard. As I said, there are other great works, but they just don’t matter as much, for whatever reason.

  20. I agree, Josh, – Pride of Baghdad and Box Office Poison and New Frontier aren’t Watchmen and DKR. But to discount the possibility that any or all of these creators could create something as seminal as those two books does a disservice to those creators.

    When a creator goes in saying they are going to make the next DKR, they shoot themselves in the foot and usually turn out a POS. We won’t know the next DKR or Watchmen until we read it (or Wizard and the internets tells us about it*), but the closest I’ve come to that “Watchmen feeling” in the last however many years was the first time I read Pride, and New Frontier for that matter. In my opinion, and that’s all it is, these books (and others I’m forgetting) deserve to be reveared about as much as Watchmen and DKR.

    Of course today’s creators are the “sons and daughters” of Watchmen and DKR – the whole damn industry is. There would be no Image, no “dark” stories, no creator owned books in the top 20, no backlash against “dark” stories, no backlash against the backlash of “dark” stories, no embracing the Silver Age. The industry and every move it’s made in the last 20 years has either been a direct result of DKR and Watchmen, or a result of those direct results.

    But to say whatever the new DKR or Watchmen may be isn’t as good because those books came first is unfair. Because Citizen Kane came first doesn’t mean Schindler’s List isn’t as good or better a movie – and the two have absolutely nothing in common. With the crop of talent in comics today, it’s only a matter of time that a book is going to come along that, 20 years from now, we’ll be sitting in the old folks home arguing and bitching about and revearing like DKR and Watchmen**, so don’t discount the possibility. That glass is half-full, my friend.

    * IMO, From Hell and Year One are better books yet don’t get the reverance they deserve.
    ** I have never in my life typed the word Watchmen so much in one day. I think I’m owed a royality at this point.

  21. Not to derail, but I’m interested to know why both of these comic books are always mentioned together; what makes the two different enough that they are both recognized as kicking off the post-modernist movement in comics? Why isn’t just Watchmen or just DKR mentioned?

    I’m guessing part of it has to do with DKR directly using pre-established characters vs. Watchmen using “surrogate” characters, in a sense.

  22. I think that’s a really good question. If only one or the other had come out, would it be as important as the 1-2 punch that they landed? Maybe that’s the kismet of it. It speaks to how much this is out of the hands of not just the creators, but also the readers. Sometimes you just have to be at the right place at the right time.

  23. Ahh, I think you mean the Electric Ladyland of comics… ;-p And don’t forget about the Dark Pheonix Saga. Opinions are like a$$ h0les. You just got a gander of my big green one.

  24. I’d settle for comics’ Pet Sounds.

    As fate would have it, I was just this moment listening to the Word Balloon podcast about convention stories, one of which was about the infamous ’86 con which was Alan Moore’s first and only appearance. Apparently, at the time, there were a lot of people looking at previews of Watchmen and talking s*** about it. “Oh, it’s an obvious Charlton rip-off, gimme a break, what a piece of crap.” That sort of thing. It made me think: for all I know, I’m sitting on my own generation’s Watchmen right now and completely failing to appreciate it in the moment. I read Dark Knight in sixth grade when it was contemporary, and I needed to finish it with binoculars, so far was it above my head.

  25. I think what a lot of milestones require is perspective. Someone brought up the point that at one of the cons in ’86 people were bashing Watchmen. But hardly anyone bashes it now.

    For those of us in the modern age, it’s hard to have perspective as to what will define this era of comics. I guess my thought is: what is the next step for comics? Where do they go from here to move to that next milestone?

    It might be a long way away, and most of us won’t know until our comic reading grandchildren come around and ask if we have ever heard of “place mind bending comic goodness here.”

    Personally, what I’d like to think is happening in comics is the spawning of many different takes on genres. Marvel Zombies is one that comes to mind: take a simple superhero universe and destroy it with zombies.

    And what about titles like Ex Machina. When we look back retrospectively, I think we’ll see a lot of different policitcal messages in our comics that were before only seen in Denny O’Neil’s Green Arrow/Green Lantern works. Maybe our next milestone will be something politically related.

    Either way this conversation has got me thinking about the future of comics, and in a way, has made me more excited. How cool is it to be reading the things now that may define the future of the medium? Imagine someone asking you about what it was like to read the first run. The iFanboy guys can think about how cool it is that they may have interacted with a creator that some day may write the next milestone. And they’ll have proof!

  26. i am gonna go out on a limb and say….

    THE CLONE SAGA (ducks)

    Actually, I beleive in the years to come that Kingdom Come will be regarded as the missing part of the “you have to read this”, the fourth ghostbuster if you will.

    Not because the story was great, but it was.
    Not because the art was awesome (i dare to you to challenge Ross), but it complements the other two in a mulitude of ways, and gives us a third way.
    DKR r rated adult, outside the norm of the medium, art wise, and story wise told us our heroes were flawed, and we as society made them, and made them that way.
    Watchmen told us our heroes were flawed, and better and worse than us. Hard to beleive in them as an adult, because they acted like the asshole in line at the coffee shop, or the guy who slams his shopping cart around, the older woman who seduces everyone, trying to stop time. Real people, part of the world worth esacping.

    Kingdom Come tells me that there is a place for that. But it also tells me that there is a vivid world, a vibrant spot. THe child in me is gone. But the adult in me remembers pure undiluted heroes. There are not any of those in KC. But it is not a cracked mirror i see in KC, that fractured splintered dystopic world fortold in watchmen or DKR. It is a world seen through the eyes of a child. But i have my adult glasses on.

    TO me it rounds out that trilogy, and the one that reminds me that capes don’t have to be bloody, or sugar coated. They just have to be.


  27. DKR and Watchmen are absolutely groundbreaking.

    But Daredevil’s “Born Again” and X-Men’s “Dark Phoenix Saga” are much, *much* better stories. At least in my opinion.

  28. Sure there will be new milestone books/stories. Aside from being milestone stories, both Watchmen and DKR were standard setters. They raised the bar, showing readers, writers & artists what the medium could be harnessed to convey. This goes standard raising goes beyond even the story. One of the qualities that stands out in my mind about both series is the graphic design and lettering choices for the covers and pages within. The marketing decisions behind these limited series cover designs made both of these books stand out on the comic book shelves and helped them out in making an impression on the comic reading masses.

    I’m positive there have been better stories written since these two were published. But few if any have had the combination of environmental factors, standout design, raw talent and paradigm shifting content. We also have the luxury of look at both of these works with a couple decades of industry history established after their publication.

    Other series like New Frontier, which has been mentioned a few times by previous posters could be another standard setter/milestone sort of book. It definitely has the combination of factors to do so. The only thing left to see is how far reaching the ripples are through comicdom since its publication.

    As for future milestones, they maybe milestones for completely different reasons. It might be a use of technology to tell a comic book story in a way that no one had thought of, similar to the way Pixar set a milestone with Toy Story. However it occurs, new milestones will be set and the paradigm will shift again. I hope I’m still around when it occurs, should be fun.

  29. I haven’t read New Frontier, yet, but the comments above make me optimistic that there will be another groundbreaking work. Simply put, the era of grim and gritty realism (a phrase that needs to be retired soon) has created an opportunity to pull hope out of despair for storytellers. Although it can’t be a silly one dimensional approach, there is no doubt a writer somewhere with a vision that can embrace the reality and tragedy of our world, while still capturing our human ability to dream and create a better day.

    As far as the Sgt. Peppers and Pet Sounds…ehh. Not a big fan, but I respect the artistry and risk taking of those albums. One note to make about music, however, is the fact that the “album” is pretty much dead, or at least rare. It’s difficult to find “the next one” when the industry killed the idea of an entire collection of songs representing a larger idea.