By Charles EP Murphy
You’re Alan Moore, you’ve just finished Watchmen, you’ve just shattered the entire superhero genre. What do you do next?
Pitch DC on letting you write a crossover about the Justice League facing a superhero Ragnarok, of course!
“Which May Never Happen, But Then Again May”
Twilight of the Superheroes was a proposal Moore made in 1987, shortly before his relationship with DC Comics was sundered, and shortly after Wolfman & Perez rebooted the universe in Crisis On Infinite Earths, and which leaked onto the internet in the 1990s. (While you can easily find it, we’re not going to link to it so that Messrs Sue, Grabbit, and Runne don’t show up). Both Crisis and the following Legends had made money, and Secret Wars had made it for Marvel; fatigue had not yet set in for readers and these were still exciting, if expensive, concepts.
Moore’s idea was that DC Comics wanted its heroes to be ‘legends’ and legends had endings. He cited The Dark Knight Returns in how this could be done: You just say it’s a possible future, and nobody’s too bothered about continuity as long as it’s a really good story. The concept of Ragnarok - the last battle and twilight of the gods - was picked as the sort of simple, powerful idea that you could frame a crossover around.
While working this out, he kept the other DC creators in mind. He proposed they could use this to give weight to their upcoming plans. One example was a proposal for a female Flash by Barbara Randall, and how if this Flash appeared first in Twilight of the Superheroes, her debut in the present day would leave readers wondering if Twilight was coming true. He also suggested not forcing other creators to be part of the crossover if they didn’t want to, which is a strange and alien thing to read about a crossover!
He also went into great detail about the merchandising – toys, posters, T-shirts, and even how to ensure the concept could translate well to film adaptations – which is quite strange to read coming from Alan Moore, but it was a smart angle to take with the company. At the time, DC had made quite a bit from Watchmen merch. (The fact Moore didn’t get a cut of the profits was part of what drove him from DC)
In 1995, society’s institutions crumbled as the world transitions into a new form for the 21st century. The supervillains tried to seize control and were wiped out by a unified superhero force – but, accidentally, this left superhumans looking like the only people who can keep ‘order’ and hold back the change. This went to their heads…
It is the year 2000, and feudal Powers now control the land: Superman & Wonder Woman’s House of Steel and Captain Marvel’s House of Thunder are the two great Powers on opposite coasts, with the rivals in the literal middle.
Chief among the rivals is the House of Titans, run by a bitter Nightwing trying to live up to Batman, but without his compassion. The space aliens have been forced off Earth and the Green Lanterns, Thangarians, and other space powers view Earth with envious eyes. Batman is… gone.
The unaffiliated superbeings live out their twilight years in a vast barrio; many drink at Sandy’s Place, a bar owned by the former Phantom Lady where everyone knows your name. An older John Constantine is in a long-term relationship with Fever, a one-off quasi-criminal from a Moore Vigilante story, and the two are the wheeler-dealing players of the barrio.
In a framing story, the time traveller Rip Hunter reaches 1987’s John Constantine and warns him of the dark future, and tells him that John’s older self has sent him back to try and avert it. Hunter and Constantine begin warning superheroes of what’s coming, so they can change something in their lives. (Some ignore the warning or never receive it at all, which was how Moore left an ‘out’ for creators who didn’t want to crossover)
In the main story, the Houses of Steel and Thunder are planning a dynastic marriage between Mary Marvel Junior and Superman’s sociopathic son. Everyone other House is bricking it, and so is the barrio, and so are the aliens who fear this will result in a unified, powerful Earth. In the background, seemingly unrelated, the Question investigates a locked room mystery: a little person went upstairs in a rough trade brothel with a call girl nobody had seen before and was found dead, the girl missing, and no murder weapon.
As the various factions feud, Constantine is up to something, weaving in and out and telling everyone that he’s on their side. One faction he’s made contact with is Batman’s – he and the Shadow (then having comics published by DC) are working on a plan to permanently remove all the superhumans. But is he with them, or is he with the aliens, or who?
In the end, the House of Titan and its allies launch an attack at the Superboy/Marvel wedding, and only Superman and Captain Marvel survive this Red Wedding. But this isn’t Captain Marvel – it’s the Martian Manhunter in disguise. He’d been the call girl (able to walk through walls after the murder) and the dead ‘little person’ was Marvel’s alter ego Billy Batson. The aliens invade and Superman dies.
But Constantine and Batman play a trump card at this point: they’ve been in contact with the anti-matter universe Q'ward, and while the aliens are all here, Q’ward is invading their homeworlds. Everyone departs in a hurry, leaving every active superhero dead. America is completely free of superhumans or government power, and free to form an anarchic small-community utopia. Constantine has won.
Back in 1987, the younger Constantine receives a final letter from his older self and learns nothing he has done has averted the future. He has, instead, been ensuring the future happens. In consolation, the old Constantine tells his humiliated, beaten younger self that he’ll meet Mercy today and it’ll all be worth it.
So the younger Constantine does the only thing he knows for sure will change the timeline, and, more importantly, a thing that will allow him to spite the man who’s played him: when he meets Mercy, he lets her get away.
DC passed on this, but elements of his pitch would appear in later Moore comics. He wanted to write Uncle Sam as drunkenly spewing out America’s crimes – he’d do this in Brought To Light with a coke-snorting eagle. Blackhawk’s plan to do a bombing run in the barrio would be used in Top Ten: The Forty Niners, and it’s possibly the concept of the barrio would be reused in Top Ten’s city where everyone is a superhero. (And quite suspiciously, DC Comics did do a crossover in 1991 called Armageddon 2001 where a time traveller tries to prevent the dark future by warning superheroes to do things differently. We don’t know if one led to the other.)
Could this have ever happened? It’s entirely likely: crossovers were making DC money, Alan Moore made them money, and this one came loaded with merch pitches for even more money.
Twilight happening as Alan Moore planned is not likely. A key plot point involves Billy Batson having an adult brain in a child body and being involved in BDSM, being killed in a brothel. This is not material DC’s going to want to touch with a ten-foot pole! It’s similarly unlikely that DC of the late 80s would want to go quite that far with other elements – not just things like Plastic Man as a gigolo, but all the superheroes as feuding flawed people who kill each other over power and who need to be removed. A few of their later Elseworlds stories would allow writers to do plots that bent things to breaking point – Superman: Distant Fire even has feuding superhero clans and deliberate murders – but this was a possible future drafted early into the new continuity, and Twilight would have people saying, “so will the Teen Titans try to kill Superman for power?”
So, changes would be imposed to make the superheroes have some dignity and to make the machinations more the work of evil people, rather than Batman. Captain Marvel’s death could remain, but the circumstances changed. If there’s a utopia, the new world after Ragnarok, it’s likely because Superman did something rather than because Constantine heroically killed him.
Once Twilight’s out, it will sell and will be a big influence on later comics. Much like how Dark Knight Returns’ future Batman influenced some writers for present-day Batman, you could expect to see an angrier Nightwing trying and failing to be like his mentor, as Moore plotted; you could see implications that the Green Lanterns are up to iffy things; you would see Superman and Wonder Woman being paired up, or implied to be, earlier than it was tried in our time.
And just as DC has tried to redo Crisis on Infinite Earths, expect a few redo’s of Twilight. Definitely expect some creators to do ‘nice’ versions of Twilight if they were disgruntled with Moore’s implications, showing better versions of the future.
Almost certainly, Twilight is getting attempts at a film adaptation. Whether it ever happens, who can tell? We can expect that instead of a parallel universe Justice Lords who’ve taken over Earth in the Justice League cartoon, the show instead uses the Houses.
Working on Twilight would delay Moore’s departure from DC Comics – only delay, as there was bad blood already – and that delay could mean his and Bill Sienkiewicz’s infamously unfinished Big Numbers is published through DC. Being published through DC means it will be published, as they’ll be paying for it, and so this other lost work of Moore’s is completed. Having completed a kitchen-sink graphic novel instead of a sci-fi/superhero one could change Moore’s career in the rest of the 90s, leaving him uninterested in doing monthlies for Image or Wildstorm but instead focusing more on literary works.
If the Shadow remains in the pitch, that means DC Comics can’t lose the rights to the Shadow even as Conde Nast ups the licensing fee or they can’t reprint Twilight. That’s a perpetually good deal for Conde Nast! It also means DC Comics will always want to find extra comics for the Shadow to be in, and he’ll likely be greater imbedded in the DC Universe (making it ever harder to cut him out).
And then there’s John Constantine. In our timeline, his title Hellblazer was an adults-only horror comic dealing with grim themes and helped start Vertigo. When DC brought him into the DC Universe and had him palling with superheroes, this was seen as the character being wrecked. He even met He-Man and fought Skeletor, for god’s sake! But Twilight would mean he was forever bonded to the DC Universe, the same way the Punisher is always bonded to Marvel’s, and that will greatly affect the stories men like Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis can get away with.
Last but not least, every other comic company in America will see Twilight making money and they’ll want some too. Marvel will be ordered to come up with their own version, which we would expect to see in the early 90s – the time-travellers Cable and Bishop will probably be used for an X-Men equivalent. Other comics will do pastiches as they do with Crisis. Ragnarok stories with aging clans of superheroes will just be one of those things the genre does.
And having created it, you can expect Alan Moore will one day do a story that viciously lampoons it.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.