V for Vacation: Thoughts on Before Watchmen
Earlier this month, as I was playing through Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII-2, the appropriately named sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, I began to think about what makes a good sequel. When is a sequel justified? What does it need to bring to the table, in terms of innovation and new ideas? How much of the original needs to be preserved in order to stay true, and how much is just derivative? As these questions swirled through my head, I decided that my next post for UysFaber would be dedicated to the do's and don't's of making a sequel (from an artistic point of view, that is. From a commercial point of view it's all one big DO).
And then DC announced Before Watchmen.
Now, as much as I'd love to go with my original article, I feel that this needs addressing first, as Before Watchmen certainly occupied much of my thoughts since its announcement (likely much more than it ought to). It's a bit of a shame, since an article about sequels could certainly do a good job on informing my stance on Before Watchmen, but whattaya gonna do? Sequel article later. Watchmen now.
Unless you've spent the last few days wandering Mars, you've no doubt heard the news: DC will be releasing a series of prequels to their 1986 masterpiece Watchmen, which is often regarded as the best comic book ever made. The prequels, unsurprisingly, won't be handled by original creators Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons, but rather by a lineup of creators of various talent and consistency, but who are all relatively seen as “good.” Gibbons, though he's stated he doesn't feel there is a need to tell these stories, supports the decision and wishes the endeavour luck. Moore, a long time enemy of DC, does not.
As with any audacious announcement in the comic book industry, this one has generated a lot of controversy. Many fans are outraged at the decision, some going as far as to threaten a DC boycott. Some lament that it's unfortunate to release a book without the support of the original creator, but acknowledge that the comics industry is a business first and foremost. Others still have adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude, opting not to judge until the prequels are actually released. Some fully support the decision, and have called Alan Moore a hypocrite for not supporting the decision when he himself uses pre-existing characters books such as Lost Girls and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen without their creators' consent.
Dov Smiley, UysFabers' first reporter to the scene, has already shared his thoughts on the matter, though they can be pretty accurately summed up with the first three words of his article: “Balls, man. Balls.”
A lot of valid points have been made so far in the overall discussion of whether Before Watchmen is a good idea or not (though what “good” means is also open to interpretation, whether from an artistic, commercial, or ethical standpoint), as well as some not-so-great points (naturally). I'd like to thank those who have discussed the matter with me over Facebook and e-mail (you may find some parts of this article to bear striking similarities to our conversations), as well as those who have spent the last few days posting various articles on the subject on their profiles, affording me access to a wealth of opinions.
1. Alan Moore: Hypocrite?
Okay, first thing first, I'd like to discuss the point of contention that I've probably spent the most time arguing about since this story broke: is Alan Moore a hypocrite?
This argument isn't often used in order to assert Before Watchmen's artistic greatness, but it does allow the move to evade some morality issues. After all, how can you fault DC for doing to Alan Moore what he himself has done to the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and L. Frank Baum?
The reason behind this line of thinking is fairly simple: Alan Moore rails against the use of his characters without his permission with one hand, while with the other he borrows a plethora of pre-existing characters, often having them behave incongruously with how we'd expect them to, to say the least. Or, as @BizarroStanLee put it on his Twitter page... well, I'll let you see for yourself. Crude? Yes. Wrong characters? Well, yes. But he does have a point.
But does that make Alan Moore a hypocrite? In order to be a hypocrite, one has to not follow their own convictions, and yet pretend to. Moore's conviction, however, isn't that one can't use characters that don't belong to them. It's that one should respect the wishes of a living creator. Is it fair that he makes a distinction between living and dead? Maybe, maybe not (although the answer is yes). What's important is that Moore believes in it, and he holds to it.
People have asked “well, what would L. Frank Baum think about Lost Girls, where Dorothy has sex with a guy while she's wearing only her ruby slippers?” Well, the simple answer is that L. Frank Baum doesn't think anything about it, because he no longer exists. Unless you believe in ghosts, he has exactly zero opinion on the matter. You can't consider a dead person's feelings because those feelings don't exist, hypothetical or otherwise. But what about if L. Frank Baum were alive, hypothetically? Well okay, if he were alive, it's very likely that Moore simply wouldn't have included Dorothy in Lost Girls.
Do I know this for a fact? No, but there has been historical precedent of Moore potentially coming into conflict with the wishes of a living writer, and deferring to the writer. When working on Marvelman, Alan Moore stopped writing until he had been assured that original series artist Alan Davis was happy with certain decisions. It wasn't until he was misled by Eclipse Comics that he continued working on the series, and this is one of the factors that tarnished his relationship with Eclipse Comics (and served perhaps as a precursor for things to come).
What's important about that story is it establishes that Moore does in fact care about the wishes of living creators, and acts in accordance with his convictions. Now, there's perhaps a horrifying story about him using a living creator's character despite their earnest pleas to the contrary, and if that were the case I'd have to rethink my argument, but I haven't heard of it and to be honest it would have definitely come up by now in the ongoing Before Watchmen discussion.
And Living vs. Dead is just one distinction between what Alan Moore has done and what DC is doing. No less important is the fact that Alan Moore uses characters to tell his own stories that exist in their own world. DC's Before Watchmen is to be the canonical prequel to the series.
This may seem like a trivial distinction, but I think it's a noteworthy one. Let's say I was to write some Rorschach/Dr. Manhattan slash fiction (The snow mingled with the tears rolling down Rorschach's cheeks. “Do it!” he yelled, as Dr. Manhattan gathered his strength...). No matter how popular it gets, even if for some inane reason it surpasses the popularity and fame of Watchmen itself, that's all it will ever be. Fan fiction. It exists, sure, but it has nothing to do with the Watchmen universe. If people love it, great. If they hate it, no big deal. Read something else. This is similar to the effect that Lost Girls has on, for example, Alice in Wonderland. But if DC, say, bought the rights to my story (entitled It's Us. Only Us, in case you were wondering) then that would be another matter entirely. It would suddenly be just as real and canonical as Watchmen. As much as you'd want to ignore it, it would be just as official. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan would officially be lovers, nothing we can do about that.
But let's move on. Let's talk about Before Watchmen from an artistic standpoint.
2. Will it be any good?
Now, I'm always hesitant to speculate on the artistic potential of a piece of fiction before the final product is released, as the final product is the be-all-and-end-all deciding factor, and nothing before it matters. Still, one can always look for cues that generally allow us to make such well-informed predictions as, say, “Prometheus will be better than The Three Stooges.”
In terms of Before Watchmen, the first place to look would be the talent involved, which certainly isn't lacking in potential. In terms of writers, while I wouldn't put any of them in the same league as Alan Moore, there's unquestionable talent involved. Brian Azzarello (writing Rorschach and Comedian) has crafted some great stories in the past, and though maybe not at Moore-levels just yet, his dialogue is second to none in the comics industry.
J. Michael Straczynski (Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl) I'm a bit more nervous about. He's responsible for some truly amazing comics series (Supreme Power being my favourite of his, and his Brave and the Bold issue 33 was probably my favourite stand-alone issue of 2010), but recently he's had a string of flops, particularly when trying to reinvent classic characters. I often cite One More Day as a storytelling low-point in Spider-Man's shaky history (though to be fair, he has disowned that story), and his recent runs on Wonder Woman and Superman both failed to take off. With Straczynski, though, you always get a bold story, for better or for worse. He's not afraid to take chances, which I think may be the right way to approach this story.
As for Len Wein (Ozymandias and The Curse of the Crimson Corsair back-ups), I frankly don't know enough. He's a legend, responsible for many classic comic book characters (Wolverine and Swamp Thing, most memorably) and was the editor for the original Watchmen series. But to be honest, I don't think I've read anything he's written in the past 20 years. I really can't say whether or not he's still “got it,” but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Finally, there's Darwyn Cooke (Minutemen and Silk Spectre). He has a fairly solid track record, and furthermore, he's the only writer on this list who I've seen experiment with the comics medium in ways comparable to Alan Moore in the original Watchmen. Maybe this is because he's the only writer-artist on the list. Personally, I feel that if Before Watchmen hopes to achieve the same level of critical success as Watchmen (a goal that I don't think anyone is expecting), then we need visionaries like Darwyn Cooke.
As for the artists, I'm on the whole much more excited. Lee Bermejo (Rorschach) is a really dynamic artist, and his stories with Brian Azzarello in particular have been fun and interesting. J. G. Jones (Comedian) is one of my favourite artists working in comics, as long as he's not rushed (and I'm optimistic that DC wants to do this right). Adam Hughes (Dr. Manhattan) and Jae Lee (Ozymandias) are likewise capable of absolutely gorgeous art. I'm less excited for Amanda Conner (Silk Spectre) and the Kuberts (Nite Owl), but they're still pretty great artists. To be honest, each of these artists excite me more than I would have been had they announced that Dave Gibbons would be handling the art himself. I think it's safe to say that, no matter how good or bad the books are, they're going to look beautiful.
Beyond that, it's hard to judge the potential of the comics. We know that the characters are fantastic, so the artists certainly have a lot to work with in that respect. Slightly less encouraging is the fact that these are prequels, and I'm not sure that this is exactly fertile ground.
To begin with, we've already been treated to several “prequels” within Watchmen itself. Issues 4, 6, and 11 gave us the backstories into the lives of Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, and Ozymandias, respectively. And these weren't just glimpses. These were in-depth, exhaustive looks at what made these characters who they were. It strikes me that any “untold” Rorschach story could be very cool, sure, but ultimately inconsequential. It's not impossible for Azzarello, Straczynski, et al to come up with meaningful stories of these characters' past, but it really does feel like an uphill battle.
The second hesitation I have with Watchmen prequels, though, has a bit to do with how the original story worked. Watchmen was meant to be a deconstruction of the superhero genre. Moore created original characters based on well-known superhero tropes (or more specifically, actual Charlton superheroes who exhibited those tropes), and then took those characters outside their comfort zones, namely the uncertain future of weapons of mass destruction and futility (among other things). The flashbacks, based on what we've learned from Watchmen, would likely feature those heroes in said comfort zones, which means they'd be like every superhero story we've read. What was Nite Owl doing before Watchmen? Well, he was basically Batman (Blue Beetle, to be exact). What were the Minutemen doing? Well, they were essentially the Justice Society. We know these stories. Moore and Gibbons focused on what happened next for a reason.
Still, though my initial prognosis could be accurately summed up with a disheartening scrunching of the face, I'd love to be proven wrong. I want good stories, and as I said before, a story's merits can't be judged before the story is released. These comics have the potential to be great, and if they're not, it's not like it will be a catastrophe, right?
3. What's the worst that could happen?
Some protestors of Before Watchmen have argued that if they're bad, the prequels will forever tarnish the series. Others have argued that it won't affect it in the least. Oddly enough, they're both right.
Those who argue that Before Watchmen will have no bearing on the original series have a point. After all, they say, Alien: Resurrection doesn't make the original Alien any worse. The Dark Knight Strikes Again doesn't make us think less of The Dark Knight Returns. And so on and so forth. Following that logic, we can assume that, short of introducing Midichlorians, Before Watchmen will in no way tarnish Watchmen.
And it won't tarnish Watchmen. But it will tarnish Watchmen.
Allow me to explain.
I love the first seven or so seasons of The Simpsons. It's some of the best television comedy of all time. And no amount of “Bad Simpsons” seasons will change that. But for every crappy season of Simpsons, the overall esteem of the show lowers ever so slightly.
Or what about The Godfather movies? The third one, just by being merely okay, has tarnished the prestige of the series. Does it make the original movies any worse? Of course not. But how many conversations about the series have you had where the third film doesn't come up, at least tangentially? Unless you're Leonard Shelby and only believe in the realities you want, if someone mentions The Godfather your brain will automatically think something like “The Godfather: two good movies and one not-so-great one.” It's part of the series, and it's not great, and it won't ever go away. Alien: Resurrection didn't ruin Alien the film, but it did damage Alien the franchise.
Before Watchmen could be terrible. If so, it will hurt the Watchmen franchise. Maybe Before Watchmen will only damage Watchmen a bit, and maybe it's worth the risk. But the potential is there.
What's more, even if it only damages the franchise a bit, it still sets an uncomfortable precedent. DC's stance on Before Watchmen has been somewhat conservative (the idea of telling prequels instead of sequels, for example, seems a bit less audacious than the alternative), but if they're positively rewarded from the experience (ie, they make money), the gates have been opened for future instalments, now that fandom has realized that it's not the end of the world. They waited 25 years to do these prequels. I doubt they're going to wait nearly as long before visiting the franchise a third time. Maybe I should get started on that Rorschach/Manhattan slash after all.
With all this in mind, where do I stand?
Well, I'm against the book morally, but not to the degree that I'd boycott the series. It's a little late for me to start getting high-and-righteous. I'm against Moore and Gibbons not getting the rights to Watchmen, as they had originally intended, but that didn't stop me from buying my original Watchmen trade from DC. I'm against the way Siegel and Shuster were treated, but it never stopped me from buying Superman comics. Hell, I'm against the genocide of Native Americans in order to found North America, but I've never considered moving.
Artistically, I don't think the book is off to a great start, but I'd love to see my fears proven unfounded.
Finally, I think the book could do some minor short-term harm, and be an unsavoury precedent of things to come, but I say that about pretty much everything DC and Marvel do these days.