Ten Thoughts on Before Watchmen

So, DC Comics announced today what we have known for a little while: a set of prequel miniseries to Watchmen. The internet has reacted in a range between guarded optimism and anger. My feelings as a fan (and I suppose, scholar) of the book are mixed. So here are the thoughts I have been jotting down today.

  1. Watchmen is a sacred cow in a meat grinder of an industry. But even a sacred cow can be revisited with respect. Bobby London did it with E.C. Segar’s Popeye. Darwyn Cooke has done it in practically every project he is known for, from the Richard Stark’s Parker adaptations to The New Frontier to Will Eisner’s The Spirit (which Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons also once adapted, by the way). Moore reimagined Len Wein’s Swamp Thing, Lee and Kirby for 1963, a host of public domain pulp heroes for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and comics archetypes for his Wildstorm comics. Moore has profited handsomely from the history of comics, thank you very much.
  2. Re: people calling it a slap in the face to Alan Moore, Watchmen did not come like a lightning bolt from the sky; it was a pearl from the depths of Alan Moore’s brain, formed in a soup of that brilliant man’s knowledge of politics, pop culture, comics history, and so on. He plants some of the influences in the script itself, like the Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear”; others are better known to hardcore comics fans, like Steve Ditko’s Mr. A or the novel “Superfolks” by Robert Mayer. It’s not a matter of being derivative; everything we create in the 21st century is derivative (and sometimes an outright copy) of something else. What makes a Watchmen prequel unappealing to me is that no matter how good the attached talent is, it seems like it can only be really good fan fiction at best. Which is fine, I just don’t want to pay that much money and spend that much time reading fan fiction.
  3. Watchmen is a book whose antihero says “no compromise”, created in an industry that is completely compromised. That’s why we like it, for the same reason we like all superhero comics; the fantasy of having the power and wisdom to say no, and damn the consequences. Unfortunately, on one level due to the necessities of trademark renewal, the Watchmen characters are just properties to DC. Len Wein might have liked a shot at revitalizing Swamp Thing, but he didn’t get it. Maybe Kirby would have liked another crack at Sandman. The Watchmen characters are properties just like the Charlton characters they are based on, and just as many of those properties got their own titles after Crisis on Infinite Earths, I wouldn’t be surprised if Before Watchmen is a stepping stone for individual ongoing titles for Rorschach, Nite Owl, Ozymandias etc. after the next earth-shattering, universe-bending, trademark-ownership-buttressing “event”. So it goes.
  4. I have always tried to be the kind of comics fan who keeps things in perspective, who doesn’t develop an unhealthy attachment to a particular character or company or creator. I love comics and I want them to prosper and become as diverse and normalized as an entertainment option in our culture as they are in Japan, France, and other areas of the world. I am not convinced that prequels to Watchmen are going to contribute to that goal so much as contribute to DC’s bottom line and pay some talented creators who could be doing something else. If DC is going to do this kind of looking back, I wish they would do another series of Wednesday Comics.
  5. One of the reasons people are butthurt on Moore’s behalf is the issue of creator ownership, which was a hot topic in the 80s when Watchmen was created. Moore got a deal for himself and Gibbons that must have sounded good at the time: that the ownership of the characters would revert to them once the book was out of print. They wound up being victims of their own success, if you call getting royalties from one of the best selling comics of all time being a victim. Still, Moore felt ripped off, and made sure that he had a better deal when he created his Wildstorm books (which, ironically, got sold to DC). Even creator ownership doesn’t last forever; as hard as Disney and other companies are trying to claw back the time required, works do eventually fall into the public domain. One of my favourite comics of the 80s was Michael T. Gilbert’s Mr. Monster, in which he reimagined a minor Canadian superhero to very comic effect. The problem with owning a bunch of properties is that you have to maintain them. Dust them off, show them to buyers, see if you can get a return on your investment.
  6. When I wrote my MA thesis on comics, I used Watchmen as a case study, breaking it down into a narrative blueprint based on Noam Chomsky’s system for analyzing language which creates formulas out of sentences. But a comic is not just a formula, or a tribute to what is past; its value lies in what it means to the reader. One of my all-time favourite books is the underappreciated 80s DC title Thriller, whose plot bears some resemblance to Watchmen. Thriller missed with most comics fans in the 80s, despite its many virtues, and so it is largely forgotten. Watchmen not only hit with comics fans, it went well beyond to reach the consciousness of the general public and lead the charge for the acceptance of graphic novels in libraries and bookstores and book clubs. Any follow-up (and there already have been follow-ups) is bound to pale in comparison, especially now, when the book is still beloved by many and the recent string of decent comic book movies has brought a whole new generation of readers. Watchmen is the gateway drug of comics for many.
  7. I don’t envy the task of those who want to create a sequel, or prequel, or whatever. George Lucas couldn’t do it with Star Wars. Frank Miller couldn’t do it with The Dark Knight Returns. To do it with Watchmen will be like making a prequel to Citizen Kane: when the original already shows the best distillation of those characters imaginable, why show anything else? And so that is the challenge. Until Neil Gaiman came along, the best distillation we had of The Sandman was Simon and Kirby. Many have tried to match Kirby’s energy with The New Gods but even he could not while he was alive. This is a business where the two companies that publish the most material are obsessed with reintroducing the same characters over and over again; many of which were of marginal interest in the first place (Deadman with his own book in The New 52? Mister Terriffic? Come on.) Their low success rate in this regard is cause for pessimism.
  8. Superhero publishers used to generate new heroes and villains at an astounding rate, with a handful resonating well enough to last for decades and the others consigned to history, resurrected only perhaps by Grant Morrison. It’s why I don’t read that many superhero comics, this feeling that I have seen it all before. Every so often there is a wonderful exception, like Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways; but for the most part superheroes and villains are interchangeable. A Green Arrow story could just as easily be an Iron Man story. The costumes are different containers for the same dull material. But not Watchmen; those characters are essential to that story, and because of their provenance (forced reimaginations of less powerful Charlton characters), they serve as avatars for comics history itself.
  9. Another potential barrier that the new creative teams will face is the art style. Dave Gibbons’ style and Higgins’ colours combined to create a linework that looks more at home in a French comics anthology alongside Moebius than a US publisher. Comics are drawn and coloured differently now, with a lot more digital tooling (Gibbons himself is a proponent of Manga Studio). The creative lineup, especially Cooke, Wein, and Hughes seem pretty well suited to their assignments. I wish them luck.
  10. What is ultimately disappointing to me is that for all the lip service DC pays to respecting the creator, and however much the new creative teams want to do right by Moore and Gibbons despite fan skepticism, this project takes away from the reader what was given to them in the very last line of the book: “I leave it entirely in your hands.”

[Update! Alan Moore was interviewed here about Before Watchmen and addressed some of the points raised above. Well worth reading.]