Friday, 17 February 2012

Objects of (No) Desire: Before Watchmen

Last week, DC announced that they are going to be releasing a bunch of prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, called, rather unimaginatively, Before Watchmen.  My first reaction to this news was: Is this a joke?  My second reaction was: I can’t believe it’s taken them so long to get around to doing something like this.  And my third reaction was: 35 frigging comics?!?  Good grief!  (Note: My actual reactions may not have taken place in this order.)

Morally, I’m not really sure how I feel about this project.  I know that Alan Moore does not approve and feels that he has been treated unfairly by DC over the years, although I don’t know all the details.  I do know that Moore and Gibbons were promised that the rights to Watchmen would be returned to them after the series had been out of print for at least a year, and obviously that has never happened because the book was much more successful than anyone could have imagined and, rather depressingly, is still the number one selling graphic novel today, about 25 years after its initial release.  On its own, this doesn’t seem like the worst thing to ever happen to a creator.  I mean, if Watchmen had gone out of print, I guess it would mean that Moore and Gibbons would now own the rights to a flop, and as it stands, Moore and Gibbons have done pretty well out of the deal (I think / hope).  Certainly, compared to the likes of Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kirby, etc., Moore doesn’t seem to have been treated that badly at all.  But just because he wasn’t shafted quite as badly as some other guys, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t shafted and that the shafting was enjoyable.  I also suspect there is much more to all this than I am aware of, so I don’t really feel qualified to talk about the contractual side of the argument in much more detail (although, interestingly, Dave Gibbons seems to be happy with the deal, and even with Before Watchmen).  I have a certain amount of sympathy with the people who have been saying that it is somewhat hypocritical of Moore to complain about other people producing works using characters he created (or co-created) when a large chunk of his career has been spent writing stories about characters that other people created – Captain Britain, Marvelman, Swamp Thing, even Superman – and it is something he has continued to do, with Lost Girls and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Admittedly, most of the people who created these characters aren’t running around saying that they disapprove of their characters being used by Moore – and if they did, I’m sure that Moore would respect their wishes – but I think some of them probably would disapprove if they weren’t, err, dead.

My main objection to Before Watchmen, then, is not really a moral one (I do tend to side with Alan Moore when he says that he has been treated unfairly by DC, and I do tend to think that Alan Moore writing comics using other people's characters – particularly when the original creators are dead and the characters are in the public domain – isn't quite the same as DC farming out his characters to other creators, I just haven't quite worked out why I feel this way yet).  What I mainly object to is the sheer pointlessness of the project, the creative bankruptcy that it points to, and the idiotic way in which DC intend to publish it.  As I said, I am very surprised that DC haven’t tried something like this before, but I guess that at least one person working for the company – Paul Levitz? – realised that Watchmen was something that didn’t need a sequel or a prequel or anything like it, and is perfect as it is.

Before I go any further, I am going to be slightly controversial and say that I do not actually think that Watchmen is perfect.  It is a very good book, a very important book, and I loved when it first came out, but the last time I read it, which was a good few years ago now, I thought that a lot of the dialogue seemed quite forced and the whole thing seemed like a technical exercise more than anything.  Perhaps because so many modern creators have stolen so much from it, it even seemed a bit dated – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I still have a great deal of affection for it, but as fond of it as I am, the fact that this book is still the best selling graphic novel around, that most people’s first point of contact with ‘grown up’ comics is a (admittedly very good) DC superhero book from the 1980s, rather than, say, Love and Rockets, or something published more recently, is something that I find rather depressing – and I’m pretty sure that Alan Moore feels similarly.  However, although I do not think that Watchmen is a perfect comic, it is perfectly self-contained, it can be picked up and read without any prior knowledge of the ‘Watchmen Universe’, and that, I think, is one reason that it has been so successful.

The people currently in charge at DC just don’t get the notion of a self-contained unit, though.  They also don’t seem to understand restraint.  These are the same people who recently re-launched their entire line of super-hero comics with 52 new titles in the space of a single month!  And very few of the ‘New 52’ comics that I sampled seemed fresh and new at all.  In fact, most of them appeared to be set in the same old DC Universe, and even referred to past events, so really they’d just done what comic companies have been doing for decades now – re-numbered some titles to boost sales in the short-term – but on a grand scale.  This move seemed to boost DC’s sales figures and profile for a while, and no-doubt made their shareholders very happy, but the success of the ‘New 52’ and the same short-term thinking that led to it has now led us to Before Watchmen, quite a few years after any kind of Watchmen prequel / sequel would have made sense.  I mean, although I never wanted to see any more Watchmen comics – certainly not ones that weren’t by Moore and Gibbons – I would have understood if DC had done something like this shortly after the release of the original, or even a few years ago, to cash in on the Watchmen movie publicity, but doing it now seems like an act of extreme desperation.  And not only are they doing it, they are doing it big time, with 35 comics – six mini-series and an epilogue – released over a period of just 35 weeks.  Even if all of these comics turn out to be brilliant, releasing 35 of them seems like overkill, to put it mildly.  I mean, there are currently only 12 Watchmen comics available, and they have been conveniently reprinted in one book.  Now, DC are preparing to nearly quadruple the number of Watchmen comics available.  And no doubt the reprint programme they have in mind for these comics is just as stupid as the decision to produce the comics in the first place.

Paul (Rainey) has often said to me that, if Watchmen were being published for the first time today, DC would not collect the series in one large paperback.  First, they would release it spread over two slim hardcovers, then two slim trade paperbacks, and then, a few years later, they would release the Absolute Edition, and it just wouldn’t get a chance to become the success it has been, released as a single, self-contained collection.  And I think he’s right.  There is no chance at all that Before Watchmen will be released in one paperback volume, because there will be too many comics to collect in one paperback volume, so no doubt it will be released as six slim (but expensive) hardcovers, followed by six slim trade paperbacks, and then somewhere down the line it will probably get released as an Absolute Edition.  In the short-term, the comics will sell very well, even if they are terrible, and the collections will probably do reasonable business, too, but the sheer number of books that will be available and the formats they will available in guarantee that Before Watchmen will NEVER be anywhere near as successful as the original, and in the long-term it will probably put people off of reading the original, because it will no longer be a self-contained story.  Rather than being a £12.99 (approx.) investment, becoming familiar with the ‘Watchmen Universe’ will soon be a somewhat confusing £100+ investment.  I usually try and avoid swearing on this blog, but the people in charge at DC (and Marvel) really are fucking morons.

I will not be buying or reading any of the Before Watchmen comics, of course.  I just don’t have any interest – not even in the Darwyn Cooke comics – and I now think a little bit less of all the creators involved.  I don’t really blame any of them for taking the money, and I’d understand even more if these were people who didn’t particularly like the original, I just don’t understand why any of them think that this project (DC seem to be calling it an ‘initiative’, even though it is the opposite of an initiative) is a good idea.  And I think most of them do actually think this is a good idea.  Looking around online the other day, I saw this quote from J. Michael Straczynski, one of the writers involved, who unintentionally summed up everything that is wrong with the project, and modern DC (and Marvel) comics in general:  ‘Every writer and editor on this project is a massive fan of the original book, and of Alan's work. As the months passed, we e-mailed each other with the smallest question of continuity, determined to be excruciatingly faithful to the original book because we know what's at stake. We want to add to, not subtract from, the quality of what Alan and Dave created. We know we have a hell of a legacy to live up to, and we're determined to achieve that.’ 

It’s the bit about ‘continuity’ that really bothers me, because continuity is the problem.  Continuity is the reason that I, a 42-year-old man who has been reading comics his entire life, don’t understand what the hell is going on in most comics I pick up these days, and I’m sure it’s a big part of why most kids are not buying DC comics anymore (but are buying Manga!).  Also, I’m pretty sure that Alan Moore couldn’t give a shit about how faithful these comics are to the continuity of the original.  Right up until the inexplicably changed ending, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie was faithful to the continuity of the original work – the one time I saw it, I was surprised just how closely it did follow the book – but thanks mainly to the sexed-up fight sequences, it still managed to completely miss the point of the original, and I’m pretty sure that Before Watchmen will, too. 


  1. Great piece, Rob.

    Firstly, I don't think comparing Moore's treatment by DC re Watchmen should be compared to older comic creators because he has an agreement with DC that, at least spiritually, they've broken. Spiritually, they intended to had the rights over but practically, they intend never to do that.

    Like you, I think it's a creatively redundant thing for DC to do. Wouldn't it be amusing if by glutting the market with Watchmen knock-offs, the original ends up selling badly, going out of print and reverting to the creators.

  2. Up until the announcement of Before Watchmen, I would say that the treatment of Alan Moore by DC and their treatment of older creators was quite comparable. Legally, if not morally, in both cases, DC hadn't done anything wrong, but the older creators got a much worse deal, as at least Moore receives (or received) royalties from sales of Watchmen and was well compensated (financially) for his work. However, by announcing that they are going to be producing (at least) 35 more Watchmen comics, DC have made it pretty clear that they have no intention of ever letting the book go out of print and letting the rights revert to Moore and Gibbons. Although I suppose they made that clear when they sold the rights to the Watchmen movie, released a range of action figures, etc.

    Hey, I've had an idea for my own version of Before Watchmen. Basically, it's a range of fairly juvenile super-hero comics, written and drawn by reliable-but-dull older creators, that really aren't very good but are on sale in newsagents, not just in specialist shops, and somehow sell much better than any DC comics produced today. You know, like things were 'before Watchmen'.