The Wisdom and Impact of Before Watchmen

There was a time when I would have been genuinely offended that DC is publishing new Watchmen comics. Watchmen is one of the greatest comics ever published, a masterpiece of cohesive writing and art, and an massive influence on superhero comics. Publishing prequels or sequels seems inherently wrong, a line that everyone knows you shouldn’t cross lest you risk being struck down by the vengeful gods Alan Moore might talk to.

But the more I think about it, the less it bothers me.

Don McPherson makes the point that this is nothing new: The entire superhero comics industry is built on reusing old creations. Why should Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ creations  – which were themselves based on the Charlton line of superheroes – be considered sacred when Superman and Spider-Man have been passed around from one creative team to another for decades?

It’s different, of course, because it’s been treated differently. We have 50 years of Superman comics, many of them terrible, that have diluted any notion of artistic purity when it comes to the character. Everyone knows Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, but few people think of Superman as belonging to any one character.

If DC had launched Before Watchmen in 1988, and followed it up with even more spinoffs, sequels, and prequels, the notion of “ruining” the original would be old news. Watchmen would be just another thing that used to be awesome, but was subsequently driven into the ground through overuse and careless brand management.

But DC knew Watchmen was something different, and DC managed to leave it alone for twenty years, though the temptation to publish more material with the characters must have been overwhelming. At a certain point, Watchmen became a monolithic achievement that demanded reverence, and while it has been imitated many times, no one has ever attempted to expand its canon. To do so would be to invite almost automatic scorn and comparisons to the original that would be impossible to escape.

Darwyn Cooke, who’s a pretty smart and talented guy, originally declined to participate in the Before Watchmen books, before agreeing to write two and draw one:

I said no out of hand because I couldn’t think of a story that would measure up to the original — and let’s face it, this material is going to be measured that way — and the other thing is, I frankly didn’t want the attention. This is going to generate a lot of a particular type of attention that’s really not my bag.

But then he changed his mind, and maybe it’s not so bad. Minutemen suggests obvious comparisons to his retro-JLA of The New Frontier, and his collaboration with Amanda Conner on Silk Spectre also seems like a perfect match.

Brian Azzarello seems like a similarly perfect fit for The Comedian and Rorschach. And while I’m not a fan of J. Michael Straczynski, at least he’s a big name with some heavy street cred. (Len Wein does seem out of place here; as much as he’s an influential veteran of the comics industry, I don’t know of any significant contributions he’s made in the past decade.)

On the other hand, do any of these stories need to be told? Is there anything you can say about Rorschach or Dr. Manhattan that Moore and Gibbons didn’t already do better? Cooke’s Minutemen, and to a lesser degree Silk Spectre,  has more flexibility, since those characters weren’t fully explored in the original. But Rorschach and Manhattan are such icons of the medium that even if the new stories are good, they’ll surely feel unnecessary.

But then, DC isn’t really in the business of necessary. Publishing 52 comics a month surely isn’t necessary, nor half a dozen slightly different takes on Batman. They’re in the business of making money, with a minor in looking cool.

Before Watchmen will likely succeed on both of those fronts. The books should be successful on the basis of audience curiousity at the very least, with the high profile team of creators ensuring that DC looks like they’re taking the Watchmen legacy seriously.

Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson frames it as a creators’ rights issues:

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, meanwhile, created Watchmen under the impression that the rights would be returned them eventually. Within a year after it was concluded, in fact. …  Due to the nature of the deal that had been agreed upon by Moore, Gibbons and DC Comics, it was widely discussed. It was a genuine victory for creators’ rights.

But then the book was kept in print forever, and the rights to Watchmen never reverted back to Moore and Gibbons.

So Watchmen isn’t just a case of a work-for-hire creator being neglected like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, but creators being specifically screwed over. I’m not sure I agree – DC certainly benefited from a contract that failed to anticipate the idea of a comic being kept in print for more than a few months, but if there were an actual violation of the contract, Moore and Gibbons surely would have had their lawyers on it by now. While I agree with Stephenson when he says he’d rather see new projects by the Before Watchmen creators, that seems to be beside the point – neither DC nor the creators involved seem particularly interested in originalwork.

Alan Moore was predictably annoyed by the whole thing:

I tend to take this latest development as a kind of eager confirmation that they are still apparently dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago.

But as much as I agree with Moore’s assertion that DC is fairly unoriginal, it’s hard to get to excited about it. Moore’s hardly been interested in creating anything new for at least a decade, devoting himself to either public domain characters like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or retro-homages like Tom Strong. It’s hard to take his complaints about originality and creativity seriously when a large portion of his recent work has been devoted to literary crossover sex.

What happens next? If these Watchmen spinoffs are successful, surely there will be more. Perhaps next time the creative lineup won’t be quite so good, and the one after that will slip even more. Before you know it, there’s an ongoing Watchmen series, then a Watchmen-JLA crossover, then they’re rebooting Watchmen to clean up continuity issues…

But ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, will remain a great book. It was still a great book after someone made a pretty bad film adaptation of it, and it’ll be a great book regardless of how good or bad any subsequent prequels, sequels, and spinoffs may be. If you hold Watchmen up as some sort of sacred cow, or expect corporate superhero publishers to value originality or creativity over profits, you’re doomed to disappointment. Before Watchmen will likely be just like everything else DC does: Some of it will be good, some of it will be bad; the good will be worth recognizing, and the bad will be easily ignored.

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  • Don MacPherson

    Wein is the original editor of the series, thus bringing a presence from the original creation into the mix.

    • Anonymous

      Oh, I knew that. But he still seems out of place in the creative lineup, alongside the much bigger, more current names. I’m not sure having the editor of the original as a writer on the new series means a whole lot.