Comics I’m Not Reading: “Before Watchmen”, the Most-Debated Prequels Since “The Phantom Menace”

I’d like to think it’s possible to hold and express an opinion on this subject without hyperbolic vitriol. The situation, as I understand it, is superficially summarized as follows:

For a quarter of a century, DC has refrained from cranking out excess Watchmen merchandise because Paul Levitz, Action Publisher, allegedly nixed any and all such ideas. Levitz is now retired. Coincidentally, DC just so happens to be cranking out excess Watchmen merchandise, including but not limited to 35 issues’ worth of prequels labeled Before Watchmen, each written and drawn by talented people with whom DC has favorable business relationships. Co-creator Alan Moore has voiced his helpless displeasure publicly, as is de rigueur for him whenever anyone so much as flips through a used copy of one of his past projects, let alone threatens to adapt, reboot, or synthesize new works directly from one. Co-creator Dave Gibbons has given the project a boilerplate blessing, but is neither writing nor drawing any of the 35 issues.

Watchmen was a milestone publication, a seminal work in a medium that’s produced very few positively seminal works in the last ten years. It was a self-contained, self-sufficient work with a beginning, a middle, an end, and all the necessary parts to connect those three sections in a functional, entertaining, thought-provoking, sophisticated, even literary fashion. It neither promised nor required any serialized continuation, any additional volumes in a planned trilogy, or any superfluous world-building for fans who don’t know the meaning of the word “enough”. As with many non-comic books, you didn’t have to read dozens of other books first in order to understand it. In that quality alone it’s become retroactively unique in comparison to today’s average DC comic. Some would prefer the story be allowed to stand as-is, no extensions or rehashes needed.

(Even though last DC’s New 52 relaunch last year was ostensibly in the name of simplifying its shared universe, over half the 52 have now undergone, or are in the middle of, advertised crossover events with each other. The novelty of a self-contained story seems to displease the marketing department and is therefore being left to creator-owned comics that don’t have as much ancillary merchandise to move, or to mass-market novels that outsell comics by a wide margin. For value-added scorecard consternation, their old multiple-Earth concept, previously junked for a new generation when it was determined to be too confusing, is now being unearthed from its mothballed storage and trotted out for an even newer generation, to reuse and reset the stage for new forms of market complication and saturation. “Simple” and “unique” are watchwords no more, if in fact they every sincerely were.)

Others are upset on Alan Moore’s behalf and shun DC for perpetuating his creations without his permission. Setting aside the Charlton Heroes that were the initial, baseline impetus for each of the Watchmen characters (who, once fully realized, became clearly distinguished unto themselves), I’ve found it a curious reaction nonetheless. Of all Marvel’s and DC’s respective dozens of ongoing series of the moment, I’d be surprised if even 1% were written and drawn by any of the characters’ original creators. This has failed to bother the majority of the comics-buying public for decades, unless all those millions of former readers really were that upset when they realized Jack Kirby was never returning to Marvel. Watchmen had a good run when it came to retaining an artistic purity in lieu of being passed on to other hired hands. It kept that status much longer than other intellectual properties generally do.

(Frankly, I won’t be surprised if the Before Watchmen event is followed up with an ongoing Watchmen series that reinterprets the entire milieu as an new alternate Earth in the DC multiverse. I can imagine a DC corporate sect that would really, truly love to replace the iconicity of Watchmen with the interchangeability of any other super-hero comic. Somewhere out there is a fan base that would hand over fistfuls of dough to see pointless fistfights between Batman and Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan and the Spectre, or the original Silk Spectre and Ma Hunkel. And elsewhere out there is a DC exec who’d love to give it to them. Well, maybe not that last match. I’m sure they’d substitute Wonder Woman and Silk Spectre, and probably add a kiddie pool filled with Jell-O Pudding.)

Still others have rolled their eyes simply at the overwhelming publicity that DC has whipped up to justify the occasion. We have tons of in-house ads, more merchandise coming down the pipeline than ever before, and even a TV commercial. Worst of all, I think, are the discomfiting interviews, such as those cited in Tuesday’s USA Today puff piece. Memorable quotes include:

“The strength of what comics are is building on other people’s legacies and enhancing them and making them even stronger properties in their own right…”

Read: “Sooner or later, everyone has to give up the toys they built and let someone else play with them.” This reminds me of when my cousins would come over to my house, play with my Legos when I wasn’t home, and wreck my hard-constructed houses and vehicles so they could use the pieces to make something much crappier. This situation did not somehow make Legos better, nor would it have helped if someone else had broken their crappy constructs and helped perpetuate a never-ending cycle of toy abuse.

“I’ve written Superman and Batman and the Fantastic Four and the Hulk. Where do I get off saying, ‘You can’t use my characters!’ when I made much of my career using other people’s characters?”

Read: “I’ve broken plenty of other people’s toys before. Why stop now?” If one draws the line here, then one is a hypocrite. No one wants to be called a hypocrite. That’s worse than being called a conservative. Therefore, helping Before Watchmen succeed is a moral imperative! Brilliant!

“Watchmen’s probably the most brilliant mainstream comic-book script ever written, but I think Dave gets way less credit and his voice doesn’t seem to matter in this argument…The artist is the guy whose vision puts that book in your hands. Without the artist, it’s just the script.”

This is similar to the argument used to devalue the contributions of Hollywood screenwriters. I recall an article in the fanzine Amazing Heroes from back in the day that stated Moore’s script for Watchmen #1 was over 100 pages. That’s a little large to be minimized as “just” a script. Gibbons drew it exceptionally well and obviously has a say, but it seems odd that his opinion should weigh more than Moore’s just because he’s avoided any signs of overt negativity about it. Just think, if he had shown the slightest reservation, we’d instead be seeing twice as many interviews with the original colorist and editor, who incidentally are participating in this. If all of them had both bowed out acrimoniously, I imagine DC would’ve hunted down anyone who did art corrections or handled color plates, until sooner or later Before Watchmen would receive a public thumbs-up and some street cred from any live creature they could legally proclaim as “one of the original creators”. As opposed to batty ol’ whatshisname across the pond who just did some light typing and thought the Question should have a different mask.

“While Watchmen has made a bunch of ‘best of’ lists in the mainstream, the book itself is mostly iconic only in comic-book circles…I don’t believe these characters mean much to the ‘normal’ people who recognize Spider-Man or Batman or the Hulk. But the 30-somethings who have left the hobby behind? They’ll be intrigued enough to possibly hit the local comic store.”

If they still have a comic shop in their area. And if today’s cover prices don’t induce sticker shock compared to Watchmen‘s original $1.50 per issue. And if no one tells them that their former hero Alan Moore (“Ohhh, yeah, the Swamp Thing and Miracleman guy! Dude, he was GREAT!”) had nothing to do with this.

“There are some people who are drawing a line in the sand saying, ‘I’m not going to buy any sort of Watchmen prequel, especially since Alan Moore is disapproving of it…But it will be very difficult for some of these hard-line purists to ignore a new Darwyn Cooke book on the shelf they don’t have. While they’re saying one thing, these books are going to be going home with people.”

I don’t hate Darwyn Cooke, but I’m not a hardcore fan, either. The New Frontier didn’t do much for me as a non-fan of DC’s Silver Age, and I found his take on Will Eisner’s The Spirit irritating in its reliance on PG profanities that the original stories never needed. Regardless of my minority opinion, if those prodigal thirtysomethings have been AWOL for that long, then they probably have no idea who he is and won’t care about his name on the covers.

In general, I’m not furious that Before Watchmen exists. I’m just not in a position to care for it.

The writers and artists involved each range from pretty talented to extremely talented, but none of them are on my ever-dwindling buy-on-sight mental list. I’m no longer the kind of reader who follows favorite characters regardless of whether they’re in the hands of geniuses or hacks. And despite whatever unanswered questions Watchmen might have held or inspired, none of them pique my curiosity. But for me, Watchmen is over and done.

Even more importantly, even if I wanted to succumb to the temptation of Lee Bermejo drawing a mean Rorschach, at this point in my life a 35-comic event is beyond my budget and interest level. I’m not exactly running out of comics to collect right now. My new-comics list this week is eight strong. Of those, two are Marvel, one is DC, and five are neither. That’s how my tastes are running these days. With one exception, I’m not reading any crossovers this year, indulging in any line-wide events, or actively acquiring any new encyclopedic knowledge about what passes for continuity in the Marvel or DC universes. I stopped following all the X-books and most Avengers titles years ago, and in recent months I’ve dropped many New 52 titles as a result of unwanted crossovers. I still have plenty of smaller, self-contained monthly works from Image and other publishers to keep me going (in addition to a scant handful of Big Two), to say nothing of the shameful backlog of unread books and graphic novels I keep amassing and slowly whittling down as free time permits. I’m not interested in cutting other titles or ignoring other purchases to make room for something as mammoth as Before Watchmen. Partial participation is no good, either — every issue will contain part of a serial that only makes sense if you buy into the whole shebang. Those pages will be wasted on me, as will whatever other sneaky connections the books will have between them to ensure their readers are overcome with the urge for completism. Such is the DC way.

It’s not like I’m renouncing Watchmen forever. My Absolute Watchmen oversized hardcover super-special edition remains on the shelf for the occasional revisit. If someone wants to play in that same playground, that’s up to them, but I’m not required by law to watch.

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