The Case For and Against ‘Before Watchmen’

Why is exploring a particular comic book universe so controversial in this day and age?  Let's take a look at both sides.

Andy Hunsakerby Andy Hunsaker

Before Watchmen Alan Moore

It's long been rumored and groused about, and now it's public knowledge and groused about – DC Comics is returning to the world created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in Watchmen, with a series of prequel stories from all-star creators like Darwyn Cooke, Brian Azzarello, Amanda Conner, Lee Bermejo, Len Wein and more.  The Before Watchmen project is now official, and entirely controversial due to the fact that Moore has nothing to do with it and is vocally opposed to it

So is this a good idea that's a long time in coming to fruition?  Or is this bad news for artistic integrity everywhere?  Let's examine this a little closer and see if we can't come to some sort of conclusion about it.

 

THE PROSECUTION

This is the one easiest to understand, as it has been the social norm throughtout the medium that You Do Not Touch Watchmen.  It came out in 1986 as one of two landmark series that changed the entire face of the comic book industry, and we saw what happened to the other one, when Frank Miller decided to do The Dark Knight Strikes Again, a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns and everyone saw how crazy he's gone.  There are classics that do not need to be touched, because when people try, it's never anywhere near as good as the original.  There are a few movie sequels that are exceptions to this rule, but you have to think that even the creators involved with Before Watchmen have no aspiration to actually try and top the original work.  They're just doing these little ancillary companion pieces, and the only real difference between 'fan fiction' and what these folks are doing is corporate backing. 

For 25 years, nobody touched Watchmen, and most folks agreed that it was for the best.  Sure, the natural temptation in this medium is that everybody's characters are fair game for everybody else, given the serial nature of comic stories and overwhelming love for the iconic heroes and villains that people have.  However, the 'does Moore think his characters are better than Superman?' argument doesn't hold water, because Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel didn't create the story of Superman as a closed story with a distinct beginning, middle and end, while Watchmen most certainly was.  In fact, DC Comics' treatment of Shuster and Siegel as artists would be the more salient point in Moore's view, since despite creating the most famous superhero of all time, the absolute flagship character of DC Comics no matter what any Batman fans will tell you, they died broke and fighting a never-ending legal battle for their own rights to the character they invented. 

Similarly, Moore wanted to control the rights to Watchmen, and was thwarted.  His relationship with DC has continually soured over the years over issues such as artistic control and resulting legal battles, but it's not just personal spite that puts him against developments like this.  He famously values artistic integrity over exploitation, refusing the money he would make from all the film adaptations that have been made from his works, including V for Vendetta, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and even the Watchmen film itself.  He doesn't even want the credit for the original story – he wants absolutely no part of these things, as he considers the completed work of art to be the finished graphic novel, and anything else is entirely unnecessary, and more often than not, "completely shameless," which are his words for the Before Watchmen project.

Zack Snyder's Watchmen film is also worth examining.  One thing that had been kicked around for much of the time that Watchmen wasn't being touched by other comic creators was the possibility of a film adaptation.  Famously, Terry Gilliam was interested in doing it at first, but eventually believed the story to be unfilmable.  Most fans believed the only way it could be done would be as an HBO miniseries with no time constraints, and Snyder himself passed on the project initially, believing the same thing.  The only reason he came back to it was to save it from Warner Bros. dogged attempts to exploit the property, which they where threatening to modernize without reverence to the original story.  However well-intentioned and respectable, though, Snyder's adaptation came with some glaring problems, depressing omissions and drastic changes, and is generally viewed as a nobly ambitious failure.

 

 

The economics of film are such that a completely faithful adaptation of Watchmen wouldn't be possible.  That's pretty much why Watchmen is considered to have redefined the graphic sequential art medium as a whole – it showed us how much depth and breadth could be imbued into a story if only the time and effort were brought to each project.  Perhaps that's why DC might think letting other comic creators take a whack at fleshing out the history of the Watchmen world might make more sense.  But here's the thing – why exactly is Watchmen unfilmable?  Because it's pretty goddamned fleshed out already.

Most of the 400+ pages of the graphic novel have nine panels per page of dialogue and action, and each chapter of the 12 issues it was originally released as have in-depth prose pieces delving into the history of this world where Richard Nixon remained president until the 1980s from varying perspectives, be they Hollis Mason's "Under The Hood" memoir or the history of the fictional Tales of the Black Freighter comic book that runs throughout the story as an allegory (and incidentally removed from the film version and released as a separate animated companion piece – one more reason one film was not enough to do this book justice).  This is a world well and truly built with strong foundations and it stands strong on its own.  This thing is dense.

The first part of Brian Azzarello's quote in the New York Times today is spot on.  "The gut reaction is going to be 'why?'"  There's just no need for this to be done, beyond DC honcho Dan DiDio's quest for controversy worthy of mainstream media attention and relevance.  This is evidenced by his New 52 initiative, which proves he does not respect nor perhaps even comprehend the concept of a sacred cow.

Moore has taken a long and lonely stand against the strip-mining and exploitation of his artistic creations in the face of this culture which beats absolutely everything into the ground until it has been bled dry of money-making potential.  In the fast-food, instant gratification culture we've all created, no one does that anymore.  No one takes that stand, and it's unassailably admirable that he does.  No one is content with letting a graphic novel be a graphic novel and nothing else but a graphic novel.  A comic book is not a success until someone thinks to make a movie out of it, and thus it can't be accepted, respected and revered as a work of art in and of itself.  But it is.  Watchmen in particular most certainly is, and farming it out to other creators against the expressed wishes of the artist is completely rude and selfish.  Moore might be the last man in the world who refuses to sell out – or perhaps even understands why being a sell-out is a bad thing in this, the Era of the Fame Whore.

To Moore and to many of us who cherish the Watchmen as an amazing piece of work, all talk of spin-offs of any kind takes our minds to places where nightmares like this are inevitable, and thankfully there's a satire which makes the Prosecution's point perfectly:

 

 

As novelist Jonathan Lethem says of his "instinctive, protective scorn" of the idea in the NYT piece, “That story was absolutely consummate and an enunciation as complete as any artwork in any realm, and it’s just inviting a disgrace, basically, to try to extend any aspect of it.”

And, as Moore himself says, “As far as I know, there weren’t that many prequels or sequels to Moby-Dick.”

 

THE DEFENSE

Someone would argue that Moore has gone just as crazy as Miller has in his old age, but in a much different way that doesn't involve "the goddamned Batman."  Moore's lone-wolf stance against the cheapening of art by franchising it is not without its holes.  For one, he apparently actually did contribute to a Watchmen translation into a role-playing game – although admittedly that was during the actual creation of the project, before the DC contractual stuff begain to truly irk him.

Writer J. Michael Straczynski (no stranger to controversy himself) makes an interesting point regarding Moore's apparent double standard.  "Leaving aside the fact that the Watchmen characters were variations on pre-existing characters created for the Charlton Comics universe," he notes, "it should be pointed out that Alan has spent most of the last decade writing very good stories about characters created by other writers, including Alice (from Alice in Wonderland), Dorothy (from Wizard of Oz), Wendy (from Peter Pan), as well as Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Jeyll and Hyde, and Professor Moriarty (used in the successful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). I think one loses a little of the moral high ground to say, 'I can write characters created by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Frank Baum, but it’s wrong for anyone else to write my characters.'"

 

Charlton Comics

Pictured: The original Charlton Comics heroes upon which the main Watchmen characters were based.  Can you tell who's who?

 

Also, it's important to note that while Moore wrote Watchmen, he wasn't the sole creator, and artist Dave Gibbons does not share Moore's antipathy towards adaptation and re-interpretation.  He gave his blessing to the film adaptation, and he's completely fine with this as well.  "The original series of Watchmen is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell. However, I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire," Gibbons said.  Is it really "paying tribute" to the work of the artists if one of those artists you're trying to honor is insulted by the notion of what you're doing?  Not really, but like it or not, Gibbons has a say.

Then there's the nature of the medium of sequential art, and how it's survived for the last 100 years – by consistently letting new artists run with established characters in a serialized form and tell wonderful stories with them – and the fact that the industry is not doing very well at all in the internet era.  The slow transition to digital comics may preserve the art form, but likely not the industry in the face of the aforementioned fast-food, instant gratification culture that barely reads anymore.  DiDio may be completely tone-deaf about some things, but these supremely brash moves he's making are at least getting some attention in the short-term. The joint statement from DiDio and Jim Lee about it being "our responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant" is transparent hogwash, sure.  It's their responsibility to find new revenue streams to keep their business alive, and here's one tailor-made for DiDio's style of generating controversy.  Hell, the fact that Moore publicly spits on them for doing this is probably a boon as much as a burden for this undertaking.  No such thing as bad publicity, they say.

The smart thing DiDio and Lee did was to convince top-notch creators to take their dare – creators who are going to make this project hard to ignore for longtime comic fans. There's no one better than Darwyn Cooke for illustrating throwback stories to the World War II era.  There's no one better than Amanda Conner for illustrating women that can run the gamut from gorgeous to gritty, with true emotion and very expressive faces.  Len Wein and John Higgins were involved in the creation original Watchmen series as editor and colorist, respectively.  Brian Azzarello cut his teeth on characters with street-level sensibilities and twisted moralities, and the second half of his NYT quote seen above in the Prosecution bears mentioning.  “I think the gut reaction is going to be, ‘Why?’" he said, understanding the opposition.  "But then when the actual books come out, the answer will be, ‘Oh, that’s why.’”

It also bears mentioning that Watchmen is very much a Cold War era piece, and it feels a little dated to some.  Cooke in particular was reverent of Watchmen as "note perfect" for its time when he was collecting the original series as it came out, but as he's gotten older, he's become disenchanted with the "pervasive darkness," as he calls it.  "I’d consider it a masterpiece if it had been able to have found what I would refer to as a hopeful note. … Again, it’s not hard to understand [where Alan was coming from], and that sort of storytelling does have an allure for young people. [But] I think the older you get, the more you look for hope or positive things."

Even if Cooke doesn't think it's a masterpiece, he still understands the trouble here.  “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 what happened is, months after I said no, the story elements all just came into my head one day; it was so exciting to me that, at that exact moment, I started seriously thinking about doing the book.”

Len Wein, the original editor on the Moore/Gibbons series, is contributing stories as well, and he claims there's plenty of room for making the Watchmen mythos even more dense.  “What we’re doing is filling in a lot of the blank spaces in a story that has already, to some degree, been told. There were still a lot of gaps in the histories of Watchmen‘s characters, and events only mentioned in passing or touched on briefly in the original story. We’re filling in those gaps in the most creative and inventive ways we can.”

At least they're not trying to do a sequel.  Trying to actually offer an answer to the question of what happens when that fat guy from the New Frontiersman picks up Rorschach's journal would be a supremely bad idea and completely neuter that Twilight Zone ending the original series has.

There's also something to be said for the fact that it's actually rare that sequels and spin-offs truly are able to ruin the original, and that generally takes concerted effort to do so, like George Lucas managing to systematically attack and dismantle everything people liked about the original Star Wars trilogy – and that's the original creator revisiting the previous work anyway.  In fact, when other creators wrest some creative control of the Star Wars mythology from Lucas, it tends to get exponentially more awesome.  That's a very isolated case, and comparing Star Wars to Watchmen is like comparing Flash Gordon to Citizen Kane.  The point is that three sequels to Die Hard doesn't make the original any less Die HardDK2 may have sucked, but The Dark Knight Returns is still The Dark Knight Returns.  DC made their money, and no one bothers remembering that crap sequel anymore. 

Classics are classics for a reason.

 

***

The worst case scenario is that the stories all suck, and Alan Moore is proven right, everyone agrees and nobody tries it again.  The best case scenario is that the stories are all amazing, everyone remembers why they love Watchmen, and Moore continues to be surly anyway because it means they're just going to keep mining and mining and mining it for more, and eventually, those stories will start to suck by the sheer law of averages.

The bottom line to all this reaction is best summed up by comic book professor Jonathan Gray of City University of New York, who contributed to the Entertainment Weekly article on this story.  He is fiercely protective of Watchmen's artistic integrity, as a professor of comic books should be, but he's completely torn because of his reverence for the new creators as well.

“The problem is that there are hundreds of thousands of people my age who are going to bitch about this because it does seem somewhat sacrilegious,” Gray says. “I think twentysomthings might go: ‘Cool! New stories!’ But is the cost going to be worth it? It’s a can’t lose in the short term, but I worry about the long term.”

However, Gray is feeling every fanboy's lament.  “They’re going to make it really hard for people to say no. Those creative teams? I would buy, sight unseen, whatever they’re doing. But it’s terrible! The feeling I have in my body right now is the feeling DC wants. They’re like: ‘Yeah, you say you don’t want to buy it, but you totally want to know what Brian Azzarello is going to do with the Comedian.’ And that’s what’s blowing my mind right now. Dammit!”

 

Dammit, indeed.  We hate the idea of Watchmen prequels, partially because we fear we might love it.  Good luck figuring out how to deal with that nugget of angst.