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.

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