Chat Cave: Before Watchmen

This summer, DC Comics is going to offer seven mini-series featuring characters from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen.  The announcement has the comic book community up-in-arms.  As part of that community, the Retcon Punch staff has weighed in with their opinions. Welcome to the Chat Cave.

Patrick: I understand that the prospect of “More Watchmen” is getting everyone’s ire up. Don’t we all wish we had a machine that let was travel back in time to get the Simpsons cancelled in 1999? Don’t we wish George Lucas stopped producing movies after Last Crusade? Legacies tarnish so easily, why subject the idealized form of graphic novel to that same treatment?

Because it might be good. DC knows what they’re dealing with – they have to. If you’re ever looking for a new way to praise something, do a Google search for “Watchmen review” and see what pops up. Praise has been heaped so high upon Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece that “Watchmen” is essentially synonymous with perfection. It is well respected in all circles, and is frequently read by people who “don’t normally read these things.” Watchmen has never been out of print over the last 27 years. And that Watchmen movie that came out a few years ago was huge. DC is placing their A team on these titles and they seem to understand exactly what’s at stake.

The titles are going to hit the shelves this summer, which is usually prime cross-over-event season in the comic book world. I know most of the Batman titles will be knee-deep in the Night of Owls, but I haven’t heard of any line-wide crossovers in the near future. That makes Before Watchmen this summer’s event. But unlike Flash Point or Blackest Night, this event is restricted to 7 mini-series that will be 4 to 6 issues in length. The only cost of entry is having read the most widely-read comic in history. This is poised to be the most accessible DC event I’ve ever encountered.

Shelby: Oh boy. I honestly don’t know how to feel about this. On the one hand, I’ve got the same elitist, knee-jerk reaction everyone else out there has: How dare DC even thinks to touch this perfect comic book specimen?!??!? Alan Moore is not happy about it, and Neil Gaiman, a writer I greatly respect, said on his website he was “happy we had 25 Watchman prequel-free years.” And honestly, I don’t know if I need to know more about this universe. Moore’s opus is perfectly encapsulated; there isn’t anything I need to know about those characters that I can’t get from The Watchmen.

On the other hand, maybe I want to know more. I love these characters, I love their strengths and their weaknesses. Like so many people, The Watchmen were what made me start reading graphic novels and comics, and I would love to spend more time with them. And, come on, Azzarello writing Rorshach and The Comdeian? Who wouldn’t want to read that?!

I guess I’ve landed in the “cautiously optimistic” zone, like so many other readers. Let’s be realistic, there’s no way these new titles can in any way diminish The Watchmen and what Moore and Gibbons did for the story-telling industry; I don’t know if there’s anything that could knock that book off its pedestal. What I *hope* will happen is Moore’s universe will be enriched and somewhat rejuvenated by these new titles.

Peter: In short, I’m pissed. When Watchman was first published between September of 1986 and October of 1987 it was groundbreaking. It was both commercially successful for DC, as well as critically successful, receiving praise for both Alan Moore’s writing and Dave Gibbons’ art. It has since gone onto spawn a live action feature length movie, and has become the most read, and popular comic of all time. Now here we are 25 years later, and DC wants to open it back up again. I just can’t see it. Not after all this time anyway. Watchmen has been a powerhouse for the last 25 years. That much is certain. I just cannot see this turning out well at all. Even Alan Moore doesn’t want this to happen. Alan-Friggin-Moore. The man has delivered some of the best comics of all time, and if he says that a comic shouldn’t be written, then he knows best.

I can see where DC is coming from. Jim Lee is correct is say that it his job to keep old characters relevant in todays comic market. That makes perfect sense. But why Watchmen? Why? Next thing you know, there will be a prequel or a sequel to V for Vendetta. Also, regardless of anything, DC Comics know that this will be a HUGE cash cow. Moooore money. If that is really the main reason behind this, than shame on DC. That being said, yes i will probably read these books. While, at this juncture I am not happy that these are being written, I will not completely condemn them now. If DC is putting so much stock in these books, I will give them an honest shot. But color me skeptical.

Drew: Like all nerds, the Star Wars prequels have left me deeply skeptical of sequels, prequels, or spin-offs initiated decades after the original, a description which Before Watchmen woefully fits. Except for where it doesn’t. At least the Star Wars prequels had the blessing and input of George Lucas. Some might say that allowing him sole creative control was what caused the prequels to suck so much, but at least they were his to ruin. More importantly, I never thought of Star Wars as a perfectly contained, self-sufficient work of art the way I see Watchmen.

I suppose my biggest objection is that this is entirely unnecessary. To me, Watchmen isn’t just a story featuring interesting characters, it’s the story those characters were designed to fit into. We’ve seen all the back-story we need for those characters, and to suggest otherwise is to suggest that Watchmen is somehow incomplete. Moreover, treating them as characters kind of ignores their allegorical significance in the story — sometimes (to piggy-back on Alan Moore’s line about Moby Dick) a white whale is more than a white whale.

Actually, that thought has inspired a new biggest objection: if even the greatest, most sacred works of art in the comics cannon can be cannibalized, how can we ever hope to elevate the art form to the level of literature and film? Sure, the film industry seems close to releasing Apocalypse Now 2: Apacalypsier, but at least in literature, prequels like The Young Man and the Sea or Catch-21 are thankfully still unthinkable, or at least relegated to the world of fan fiction. That fan-fic line is a little blurrier in the world of comics, where writers are traded on a regular basis, but Watchmen always played (and should play) by a different set of rules.

14 comments on “Chat Cave: Before Watchmen

  1. Drew, I don’t buy the “elevating art form to the level of literature or film” argument. Does Frank Miller’s Dark Night Returns have any less of a literary impact because the Batman character is used in hundreds of entertainments? I’m also not convinced that comics don’t already occupy this space – seeing super hero comics as art is probably a long time off, save the occasional out-liers.

    Now, I hated the Watchmen movie. I know Drew also found it unnecessary, and Shelby sort of liked it, but I have no idea what Peter thought of it. But I feel like the pristine Watchmen experience has already been sullied by that flick, so why not let the series return to its roots and explore its characters and setting in comic-form?

    Also, Alan Moore’s objection doesn’t mean all that much. He’s a cantankerous old man. A cantankerous old genius, but the dude notoriously doesn’t play ball.

    One last point from me – just think of all the horrible shit they’re not doing in reviving Watchmen. We’re not watching a Saturday morning cartoon or sitting through 2 sequels to the movie. But most importantly, they’re not just throwing the characters into the DC Universe proper. They could do that, mind you. And that, I’d be pissed off about. But using Moore’s world as a new sandbox to explore seems just fine to me. And I’ll be honest, the more we fight, the more excited I am for the books to actually come out.

    • I definitely believe that The Dark Knight Returns has ascended to the ranks of literature (in some circles, anyway) in spite of its use of familiar comics properties, not because of it. I think it benefits from all of the general familiarity people have with Batman, often in really cool ways, but Watchmen’s universe wasn’t conceived in that way.

      Could you conceivably write a compelling story focusing on the Artful Dodger? Probably, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be wholly unnecessary. We understand and accept novels as self-contained little universes that don’t need to be expanded on even when they could be. To me, Watchmen is as sacred a cow as any work by Dickens, so it bothers me when it’s seen less as a standalone work of art and more as a platform for telling stories (or worse yet, for making money).

      The worst part is, I know I’m going to buy all of these anyway, which only serves to anger me more. I don’t want DC to do this, but I’m still going to reward them with my money because I want to be part of the discussion (or because I just love a train wreck). I don’t anticipate liking them — even if they were fantastic, I would find them disrespectful to the memory of my favorite comic — but I’m gonna read them all the same.

      Also, Patrick, if we’re going to call out each other’s arguments, I’ve got to point out that “it could be worse” is no case to hang your hat on. The Star Wars prequels could have been 100% Gungan (or some kind of less-figurative Lucas masturbation), but that hardly excuses them for being terrible. Failing to manifest the absolute worst case is far from a positive, and we honestly don’t know exactly how disrespectful of the source these are going to be.

      Good call on Moore’s opinion not really mattering, though. Even if I thought an artist’s opinion of their work meant anything (I don’t), Moore’s opinion here isn’t exactly earth-shattering. Dude disapproves of everything. DC doesn’t need his approval to do anything, though in this case, I wish they felt the did.

      • I will concede that “it could be worse” is a poor defense for anything – suggesting that all art should aim for the middle and that’s good enough. Even still, I am so grateful that we don’t have to endure a Watchmen/Justice League cross over event.

        It’s super interesting – the question you pose about the Artful Dodger. I couldn’t really see writing a novel about him, but I could see a comic book that explores that character further. Dickens is a good analogue for Moore, in that they both deal in serialized pop mediums, but have succeeded in producing high art. If Moore were to write a graphic about Bill Sykes (also from Oliver Twist), would we be having this conversation at all? It might be a trite point to make, but both The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls recontextualized characters created by other authors to serve other purposes entirely.

        I also don’t totally get ragging on DC for money grubbing. They’re in publishing, it’s their job to make money selling books. Successfully marketing and monetizing their product is what allows us to read anything they put out. If Aquaman and Justice League weren’t huge sellers, maybe we wouldn’t have the more fringe titles like Batwoman or Animal Man.

        Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sorta playing devil’s advocate here. But just like you, I’m going to read Before Watchmen pretty much no matter what, and I’d like to have a positive experience in so doing. And that will be partially determined by my expectations going in. If I expect it to ruin Watchmen, then I’ll find any and all opportunities to blame the prequels for fucking up the franchise. I don’t want that experience. Granted, it may just happen – the books could suck (or even bee pretty good and just lack the magic), but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

        • Maybe I’m madder at the tenor of the comics industry in general than DC specifically, but you don’t see Penguin squeezing out guest-authored sequels to long-standing best-sellers. Part of the difference has something to do with how ownership of IP works in comics, which I can’t claim to fully understand, but part of it also has to do with the respect society holds for literature.

          Between Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Mark Twain developed a rich universe, but I don’t think we’d want to see other authors’ takes on that universe. I think this is because we understand Twain’s vision and voice to be so central to why we enjoy those stories. It isn’t just a universe, it’s his take on that universe that makes it compelling. I don’t see Watchmen as any different.

          The medium of comics does tend to trade and share and borrow characters and universes more freely, but they don’t have to. I guess this returns to my objection of “unnecessary,” which is kind of benign, but the thought that the universe could somehow benefit from being fleshed-out is a slap in the face to the achievement that is Watchmen. The book doesn’t need it, the fans don’t need it, so the only people that will benefit from Before Watchmen are the ones that stand to cash in by ramming it down our throats. I think it’s okay to hold that kind of cynicism against DC.

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  9. That’s a little harsh comparing the last decade of the Simpsons to the unwatchable crap George Lucas did to us. A bad episode of the Simpsons still has more laughs than a whole season of the shit that gets to be a number one show.. Like Two and a half men or so many other things that deserve to be called out. The Simpsons is still a smart funny show. Everybody I know that likes to bitch about the Simpsons used to be cool but now it sucks usually haven’t seen an episode in about a decade. And personally I can’t sit through the first couple of seasons anymore because they can feel kind of weird and with fewer laughs.

    • I’ve been watching the Simpsons literally since the premiere and still watch every single episode (if not the night they air, then later that week on Hulu). I’ll agree that the series has righted itself somewhat since the movie, but it’s still a far cry from what it once was. I do genuinely think that seasons 3-8 are just hands-down more funny than current episodes, but my bigger complaints about modern Simpsons has to do with the attitude toward the characters and the reality they present. The emotional reality isn’t quite there anymore – if that makes sense. (And yeah, 2.5 Men or Big Bang Theory or 2 Broke Girls are much much much much worse at this than even modern Simpsons, but there are also tons of shows doing right by their characters, so holding up the lowest bar as a standard doesn’t do it for me.)

      And fuck Episodes I, II and III. They’re obviously terrible movies.

      • Marge and Homer still get at least one episode per season where I feel they have a real love that never fails to move me

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