Monday, 20 February 2012

During Watchmen: Some Thoughts on DC's Latest Venture

First published in 1985 and 1986, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' twelve issue limited series (or twelve chapters long graphic novel, if you willWatchmen (see my review) has established itself as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. Drawing upon existing characters from the Charlton comics universe that DC had appropriated the rights to, but modifying them into closely resembling yet different characters in their own right (primarily because of editorial demands, but to the benefit of the finished product, I would postulate), the series presented a bleak vision of masked vigilantes and superpowers in an alternate history where the US won the Vietnam war, but where the threat of nuclear annihilation echoes that of the comic's own historical context. Many have labelled Moore's approach a realistic take on superheroes, other have disagreed. Personally, I agree with the former, although I would simultaneously stress its cynical and pessimistic undertones that are certainly not in and of themselves signs of realism.

Ever since its initial success there has been talk about sequels, or rather the possibility of prequels and the like. Yet over the years, none have materialised, and the relationship between Moore and DC (as well as most of comicdom) has obviously soured to a point where any involvement from Moore has been a long dead dream for most fans who may have wished for this to materialise.

Still, money is obviously money in the world of business, and on February 1, DC Comics officially announced their plans for Before Watchmen, which can only be described as a major attempt to cash in on this particular cash cow. The idea is setting up no less than seven titles with esteemed comics writers and artists at the helm:
Rorschach (4 issues) written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Lee Bermejo.
Minutemen (6 issues) written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke.
Comedian (6 issues) also written by Azzarello and drawn by J.G. Jones.
Dr. Manhattan (4 issues) written by J. Michael Straczynski and drawn by Adam Hughes.
Nite Owl (4 issues) also written by Straczynski and drawn by Andy and Joe Kubert.
Ozymandias (6 issues) written by Len Wein and drawn by Jae Lee.
Silk Spectre (4 issues) also written by Cooke but drawn by Amanda Conner.

Not unexpectedly, the internet awakened at this particular piece of news, with The Beat covering both the announcement and the industry reaction quite well: including Moore's opinions on the matter.

On the whole, there seem to be two major camps: those in favour of this project and those in opposition to it.

My own response would situate itself in the latter category. Why? Well, certainly not because of Moore's inalienable rights as creator extraordinaire. Following Moore's response to the announcement many have rightly pointed out that he might not be the person to talk about what others choose to do with "your" character, given how not only the heroes in Watchmen are derivatives from Charlton Comics characters, but in fact most of Moore's substantial ouevre has been about reinventing existing characters one way or another (from Marvel Man/Miracle Man via Swamp Thing to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls). If anything, Moore's outrage shows a certain kind of hypocrisy, which incidentally is made worse when seen in the light of how he has treated some of his past co-creators, like Stephen Bissette (who provides some interesting commentary on the idea that creator-owned work by default beats working on company-owned property in terms of money).

However, the fact that Moore's response comes across as hypocritical, does not negate the possibility that the project is a bad idea. I can honestly say that I do not grieve the fact that Moore and Gibbons never made any se-, pre-, or other-quels for that matter. On the contrary, I think it is a bad idea regardless of who is at the helm. Why? Because Watchmen as a narrative unit is very precise in its details, each component carrying meaning for the overall story, and as such, the expanded universe is by default, at least to a very large degree, the universe of that specific story. What we need to know is all there. Anything else is superfluous, and in my humble opinion not particularly interesting.

The fact that DC has opted to call the project Before Watchmen to my mind only proves the point that the company has not understood the property particularly well. Watchmen is not merely a few days in the early '80s of that particular universe; it is a web woven through years upon years of history. We already know the history of it all.

We know the story of Rorschach and Walter Joseph Kovacs' development from a somewhat naive vigilante to a full-blown psychotic.

We know the story of the Minutemen and how their glory days ended.

We know the story of the Comedian and Edward Blake's flawed cynical nature, which eventually did not allow him to live with the concept of utopia actualised.

We know the story of Dr. Manhattan and Dr. Jon Osterman's transformation from human into the truly superhuman.

We know the story of Nite Owl and Daniel Dreiberg following in the masked footsteps of Hollis Mason, in order to do something meaningful and adventurous with his life.

We know the story of Ozymandias and Adrian Veidt's uncanny journey to discover the greatest secret of all time.

We know the story of Silk Spectre and the interwoven layers of raped Sally Jupiter and her daughter Laurie Juspeczyk.

We know all these stories already. In detail.

In fact, DC's project does not constitute a prequel so much as an interquel (to coin a term). This is not the story, or even a set of stories, before Watchmen. It will be a set of stories filling out gaps in the story. There is a fundamental difference.

Furthermore, Straczynski's saying that it's all "about the points and shadings between what we think we know about these characters, and the truth — what that says about them, and what it says about us," to me seems utterly uninteresting. Sure, there are good stories to be told on the idea of showing the reader how everything they knew was not what they thought it was. And sure enough, it is an approach that Moore cannot fault anyone for using per se. But, and that is an important but, the devil, as they say, is always in the details, and Moore and Gibbons' narrative is nothing if not detailed. To assume that we can be shown a different truth would require undermining enough of the original to render it more or less unrecognisable. And is that really what the fans of the series are yearning for, I wonder? It is certainly no yearning of mine.

Some have voiced opinions online to the effect that there is top level artists and writers attached to this, and I do not contest this. I would love seeing a collaboration between Andy and his father Joe Kubert, and I would love reading more qualitative stories written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke. Only, I would love for it to be comics I would actually want to read. Top level artists and writers doing stuff that does not interest me just does not interest me (if you'll pardon the obvious tautology there).

Still, I do not doubt that DC will make a bundle of cash on the whole project. They just won't make any of it from my pocket.

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