Friday, February 3, 2012

The five stages of Before Watchmen

 originally presented on


It's the announcement that has been dreaded by fans for decades, the official notification that, indeed, DC is producing new comics based in the "Watchmen Universe".  Dreaded, and yet expected.  Although rumours have cropped up time and time again over the past 25 years, nothing had come of them, but fans and purists have never rested easy.

That dreaded day has come (and gone), "Before Watchmen" is official, it's happening, and all that built up anxiety over the mere idea has come pouring out across the internet with all the subtlety of Kool-Ade Man smashing through a brick wall.  These books have been in the works for at least two years now, with various members of the creative teams hinting that they were working on something super-secret and mind blowing, but who wants to believe old rumour monger Rich Johnston?  When it's still rumour, it's easy enough to ignore or to deny.  Now that it's real, it's almost impossible to deny any longer, although some may try to stay willfully ignorant.  Others just get angry.


Watchmen is a brilliant comic.  Flat out brilliant.  It is a self-contained masterpiece that revolutionized the industry.  In it, the promise of what the medium could be as both mass entertainment and cultural resonator was fulfilled.  The map was drawn, the road was paved, we were shown the way.  And we folded and refolded that map and abused that road something fierce.  Watchmen has been tread and retread upon so many times over the past quarter-century that the only abuse it hadn't yet faced was resurfacing, stripping away so much of what once made it great but paving it over again with something that looks crisp and new, but is probably of poorer quality, and won't last nearly as long.  Not to mention that the map has been changed altogether and that the road itself, while still a major artery, is just one of hundreds, if not thousands of equal and lesser roads busying the landscape around it.

With so many affronts to the Watchmen legacy over the years, the main feature of the book that kept it relevant was its status as a stand-alone work of art, that it remained its own self-contained world, had its own start-to-finish without any need for supplements.  The story was told.  That one of its creators had walked away from the publisher and copyright holder forever over, essentially, a moral dispute, lent it an air of both uniqueness and,in a sense, honor.  That DC is now diluting Watchmen with these "Before Watchmen" prequels and "dishonoring" Alan Moore by not adhering to his wishes is to some degree tarnishing the small bits of the original work that had continued to gleam all these years.  And there's really nothing the righteous fan, nor its creators can do to stop it... is there?


You can implore DC not to print these abominations against the holy text.
You can beg the creators involved -- from J. Michael Straczynski to Darwyn Cooke to Adam Hughes to Brian Azzarello --  to not do the work, to not taint one of the greatest works in the medium's history.
You can try to convince your retailer not to carry the books.
You can boycott all of the above.
You can do all of these things, but it won't make a difference.  There's money to be made, as is in every affront to nature and art and the general well being of global civilization... there's money to be made.
That's fucking depressing.


Knowing no matter what you do, how much you complain, or even if you vote with your dollars, that DC is going to make new Watchmen comics because they have every right to do so, is an exhausting thought.  They own those characters, and they own them squarely and fairly, at least fair and square for the time at which they were created.  Sure, in today's perspective Alan Moore may have got a raw shake, and although he also has had plenty of opportunity to capitalize upon his creative works and chosen not to, it's because what he's interested in is not the money, he's interested in preserving his creative output.  Like a far less litigious Harlan Ellison, he doesn't fight the system with lawyers but instead by depriving the system of himself, which, itself, is bloody depressing.

As well, DC has made a shit-ton of money off of the Watchmen in the past few years, particularly in leading up to the film when Watchmen trade paperbacks were like proverbial hotcakes, continually on the bestseller list for graphic novels year after year.  But that's not the depressing part.  No, the depressing part was the number of people who bought the book, having never read it before, who simply said "yeah, it was good, but I felt like I'd read it before".  Derivative works had surpassed the masterpiece, to a degree, to the point that aspects of its storytelling not only didn't feel original or groundbreaking to new readers, but didn't even resonate.

It started to become clear that the Watchmen was only meaningful to those who understood it in context, and who care about that context.  As an object of both study and worship for the converted, it's priceless, but for the uninitiated, the layman, the average Joe, it's just an above average comic book.  And that's who "Before Watchmen" is for.


From a personal standpoint, I have very little issue with "Before Watchmen" as a project.  Alan Moore left his toys in DC's sandbox and if he didn't think they were going to play with them he was fooling himself (or rather, to extend the metaphor, Alan Moore took some of DC's toys from their sandbox, repainted them, and then put them back).   The biggest surprise is that it's taken this long for DC to get around to playing with those toys again.  But it makes sense.

Is the demand there?  Not necessarily demand, but the market is.  There is a community of geeks and nerds (myself included) for whom the Wednesday pick-up is ritual -- most for 15 years or more -- that are now, unfortunately, the backbone of the industry.  We, generally speaking, don't want these comics to happen .  But for those comics-loving kids who have come after us, rolling around in the playground that Alan and Dave built with Frank and Neil and Grant, amongst others, this ain't no big deal to them.

They don't care for Watchmen like you or I do.  They may respect it, they may like it, but it doesn't have the same weight for them.  And certainly it holds next to no weight for the average public consumer who maybe dabbles in comics from time to time, or who saw the movie and then bought the comic.  With only one Watchmen trade paperback for them to consume, there has long been an absent opportunity to sell them another.  For many the one Watchmen book would be enough, but some people just want more of a good thing, even if it's not as good.  Look at it this way... there are still adults watching the Clone Wars cartoon and reading novels and comics based off of prequels to movies that they argue raped their childhood (Stockholm syndrome?).  Point is there's a market, even amongst those that rally against it (to paraphrase David Cross, America has a long and rich history of voting against its own self interest, and nerds do too) and that market will eat almost anything that feeds it.  Just remember that sometimes the market chooses to spit it out again.

"Before Watchmen" doesn't need to exist, but its going to.  There will be the devout who refuse to touch it, who will blindly defame and denounce it, slander it to degrees previously unknown, and to them I say more power to ya.  But is it really worth the effort?  I agree though, shitting on things can be fun, but perhaps building up something else might be worth your efforts more.  At least balance it out, for every negative comment about "Before Watchmen" try saying something nice about another comic project....

There are no Holy Grails in modern culture.  Nothing is sacred anymore, and there are very few works out there that haven't been tainted by some commercialization.  Of modern works, Calvin and Hobbes is about as pristine as it gets (and they even have those bootleg "pissing on FORD" stickers that equally piss on its reputation) because Bill Watterson had full creative control and ownership, something Moore has never had, and thus shouldn't expect.  We don't need other people making new Peanuts comics, we don't need a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, but we've got them all the same.  Do these derivative works truly damage the original, or do they just pale in comparison (or conversely does their lesser quality make the originals shine brighter)?   Shakespeare is butchered time and time again in retelling and adapting his play, often for profit and just as often by well-meaning individuals, he's just fortunate enough to not be alive to see it.  But on the flipside, Shakespeare is just as routinely paid tribute to and honored by derivatives and variations to his work.  It doesn't all have to be bad.

Let's face it, most of us nerds are going to, at least out of sheer curiosity, take a look at what's being done, and there's little to no doubt in anyone's mind that these books, like a comic book prequel or sequel to a major motion picture, aren't going to live up to the source.  If you don't want them, don't buy them, but don't let it ruin your day.  If you do get them, and derive some enjoyment from them, well, then they've done their job.

The creators who are attaching their names to these projects realize that they're in for probably the roughest gig of their lives, and that the work they do is going to be scrutinized to the level of Star Wars Prequels (and perhaps beyond).  At the same time, this is going to be one of the biggest projects of their careers, and if they can make it successful, if they can turn a cold shoulder into a warm reception, they're going to be heroes, and they're going to strive for that.  I could be wrong.  There could be anarchists in the mix who just want to fuck with history, and capitalists who just want to get paid, and fame whores who will take derision and adulation as their fix in equal measure, but I sincerely believe that anyone doing these books is not treating it as just another assignment but a highlight.  I don't think they're ever going to be essential (but who knows), but there may be something of value (entertainment, or artistic, or otherwise) to what they're doing, not just defacing the Mona Lisa with a Joker smile.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pre Post Mortem

The news is about a month old at this point, and I'm certain the failure of these six titles of "The New 52" has been assessed far more thoroughly elsewhere, but I have my own thoughts, and I have a public forum to express those thoughts, so like chocolate and peanut butter, let's make some mouth magic (what?!).

If you will recall (and even if you don't, I shall remind you) a few months back I made some guesses as to when certain titles would be cancelled. I will note below with each title what my original prognostication on cancellation was.

So enough preamble babbling, let's talk failure.

Static Shock 

I guess I gave Static more benefit of doubt than DC did, predicting a 16 issue run before cancellation, double that of what he'll actually get.  Original co-writer John Rozum recently spoke out on why he left the title, and it's a truly illuminating read about exactly everything that was wrong with the book, from too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen syndrome, to a lack of clear vision for (and understanding of) the character by DC, it was wracked with problems from the onset.

I love the Milestone books (not unanimously, but generally speaking) and I was psyched to see them brought back in any capacity, but over the past two years, it's really only been Rozum's Xombi series, not McDuffie's JLA, not Static in Teen Titans, that felt true to the character and atmosphere that the Milestone books had. I had hoped his involvement with Static's launch in the new DCU would mean honoring what came before while moving forward (and it certainly sounds like his intent), but I also wasn't sure whether he was the right man for the job. I knew that Scott McDaniel wasn't the right man to illustrate the character immediately upon announcement, but that's because I've never been fond of his style.

The first issue was a mess, and things never got better. With a prime opportunity to reintroduce Static and Virgil Hawkins to the world at large, the first issue was sloppy, distracted, and at times unintelligible.  IT certainly didn't convey to any new reader what was so special about Static, and even more certainly not Virgil. It was obvious from page one that this title wasn't going to make it unless something drastic happened quick. Rozum leaving the title wasn't it. The wrong creator left. McDaniel's ugly, sloppy art, ugly character designs, and malformed ideas have made Static painful reading month after month, and yes, I have stuck with it because I'm that big of a Milestone fanboy.

I'm hoping that Static is just being hidden away for a year while he's retooled and DC get their shit together and find a vision for the character and a writer they can trust to achieve that vision, because Static is a major league player that deserves far better than what he's gotten over the past 7 or 8 years.

Men of War
If there was one mistake made with Men of War it was tagging a crappy 8-page back-up feature onto an exceptional main book, puffing the price up a buck on a cost-conscious public.  Marvel has the idea right, you make people pay a premium for the books they will pay a premium for, your top tier stuff.  The second and third tier books, your quality books you have to keep the price point at an acceptable level to keep cost:value ratio at the right level.  Men Of War had no star character, but instead an all new cast (with the lead being a descendant of Sgt. Rock, but he himself his own man), so expectations and anticipation for this book were already low.  The first issue made a pretty huge impression.  The quality of writer Ivan Brandon`s main feature, and the pitch-perfect examining the grunts-eye-view in a blossoming superhero world sold me on the story for at least the first arc.  But the back-up feature was a patronizing military tale, one lasting three issues, each worse than the last.  I was grateful when it was over.  Subsequent back-ups in issue 4 and 5 have been decent but, again, unnecessary.  If DC want to make an old-school war anthology then they should just up and do so... and if that was the intent of Men of War all along (which I doubt it was since it was originally tagged with a "Sgt. Rock & The.." in many pre-release notifications) they never made it very clear.  With Brandon's departure at issue 6, I knew the end was near, and having already predicted, bang on, an 8-issue run back in October.

There is, however, the new G.I. Combat series in the works, which I think will be the war anthology DC wanted to start with, and it doesn't look to shabby either, so consolation prize?


I predicted Blackhawks would have a generous 9 issue run, 1 more than it actually got.  I dropped the book after the first issue, sourly underwhelmed by the content, and moreover the art.  Despite knowing the art team would be changing (and changing, and changing), the first issue didn't have anything to draw me in for a second.  Unlike Men of War, the ideas running around Blackhawks weren't very stimulating, and the characters didn't entice.  I've heard actually some good things about the series, that it's actually a lot of fun, but it seemed to me from the onset a rushed title, one that DC couldn't figure out and was hoping that it would find its way as it went along (there are a lot of those in the new 52).  While it sounds like it's started to find its path, the audience hasn't followed.  Without any recognizable characters, like Men of War, and no big draw, it was always fodder for cancellation.


The first OMAC series ran 8 issues, and if Jack Kirby couldn't make it work for longer, I knew for certain Dan Didio and Keith Giffen couldn't make it work longer than that either, not without Didio throwing his weight around anyway.  Didio is not a great writer, and Giffen, while an old-timey favourite artist, is an acquired taste.  The OMAC concept, as presented in this series, is a mess of ideas from the old DCU, and very little of it had any purpose or made any sense.  If there was any draw, it was Giffen's art, which was channelling as much of the King as he possibly could, and that kind of thing, without a solid story to support it, really only works as a lure in today's comics market for a couple of issues.  I actually kind of wish it was cancelled with issue #4 so we wouldn't have had to suffer through OMAC dragging down Jeff Lemire's rather excellent Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. series.

Hawk and Dove

Somehow in the early 1990's Hawk and Dove had a series that lasted for, like, 25 issues.  The characters are interesting in concept but they really aren't solid enough to support anything more than an occasional mini-seriesThey're 8th-string superheroes, the kind that are attractive as an idea only.  I honestly thought that Rob Liefeld would still have been enough of a draw to keep this running for 15 issues, for as much as he is maligned, he is also beloved, devotedly, by some people.  Instead, the title's getting cancelled, and Liefeld is being given the reigns to a couple of other series, so I guess he still is seen as a huge draw, and that Hawk and Dove, really, just kind of suck. 

Mister Terrific 

This was in my top 5 of anticipated books for the New 52 and within two pages of the first issue I was let down.  I was so hopeful for super-science crimefighter, the world's 3rd smartest man Mr Terrific to come out of the gates like a new wave Morrison-esque mind-bending creation, and instead we got a mess of bad jokes, terrible characterization, a bevvy of poorly thought out high-concepts, and panel after panel after eye-bleedingly ugly art. The covers by J.G. Jones were gorgeous and filled each issue with promise which it quickly let down.  Like Static, the character deserved a lot better, he deserved a spotlight, rather than a "let's see what sticks" mentality.  There was an obvious lack of vision behind the series, and a creative team not ready for the task.