Comics

'Before Watchmen,' Apocalyptic Tales, And Leaving Well Enough Alone

The cover of Watchmen.

The cover of Watchmen. hide caption

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Comic-book nerds are outraged today. In fairness, comic-book nerds are outraged much of the time — it's part of their charm. But today, there's a unifying focus to their teeth-gnashing, as DC Comics has announced plans for seven limited-run titles focusing on characters from its venerated Watchmen series, which ran for 12 issues in 1986 and 1987.

The comics, which will follow the adventures of the central costumed heroes in the years before the events of Watchmen take place, will be published under the unifying brand "Before Watchmen." Since DC has already used "After Watchmen" as the brand for a series of reissues of titles that followed in that landmark story's wake, the first safe conclusion is that DC likes slapping the word "Watchmen" on stuff.

The Internet, as you could imagine, hit Defcon 2. People who are not comic-book fans might well wonder why this is any different from, say, the latest in a long line of Batman reboots that doesn't inspire outrage. People who are blog editors, for instance. [Hey! That naive question was between you and me. — Ed.]

I am here to help! Of course, I can't compete with the apoplectic howlings of the unhappiest of the comics bloggers, so I won't try. But I've talked about Watchmen before. I return to it every couple of years. And I am not here to tell you that "Before Watchmen" makes me, like so many others, angry at DC.

No, I am just here to tell you that "Before Watchmen" makes me think that DC is stupid, or at least it's acting stupid. Here are two — but not the only two — reasons why:

It shows that DC doesn't really understand Watchmen. The story of Watchmen goes back to when DC acquired a stable of heroes from Charlton Comics in the 1980s. They were handed over to writer Alan Moore to introduce them to a readership that might not have known who they were. The idea that Moore came up with for the characters was brilliant ... and so apocalyptic that it would have pretty much rendered them unusable afterwards. Since that's not really what DC had in mind when it shelled out good money for the Charlton stable, Moore reimagined the existing heroes as new standalone characters, while DC relaunched the likes of Charlton's Blue Beetle and the Question into its continuity.

In other words, not only was Watchmen never intended to be an ongoing series, that's precisely why the story was done as Watchmen and not just the Charlton heroes in the first place. It was produced as a single-shot, twelve-issue story using characters that had never existed prior to its publication and were never supposed to be used after. It was a self-contained novel with a beginning, a middle and an end, written with exactly that structure in mind. While Moore kicked around the idea of a prequel series around the same time, he ultimately rejected it as a dead end.

There's simply nothing in Watchmen that demands or even encourages the sort of infusion of new blood that ongoing series require every so often to remain relevant. Both its genesis and its final form explicitly argue against further elaboration. There are no other tales to be told in that world — none. That's the entire point. And mining it for material for what is essentially The Further Adventures Of The Minutemen (the Minutemen being the actual name of the superhero squad in the book) shows a stunning lack of comprehension by DC about one of their flagship literary properties. Speaking of which...

It risks devaluing Watchmen outside of comics fandom. Watchmen is very unusual in the world of comics, in that it's one of the few graphic novels known, read and loved by people who believe that comics are still just for kids, pow, zap, etc. And it's arguably the only work of graphic fiction in that lofty category, which, as the redoubtable Glen Weldon has mentioned in this space on multiple occasions, is primarily populated by nonfiction such as Maus and Persepolis.

So there are plenty of people who can't tell their Green Arrows from their Green Hornets who know that Watchmen is one of the landmark comic books. Maybe they even know that it was the only comic Time listed on its 2005 greatest-novels list.

To those somewhat comics-averse readers, "Before Watchmen" can serve only to dilute Watchmen's power as an ideal point of entry. It introduces market confusion where there was none before, dramatically increasing the chances that comics novices will pick up one of the new series without knowing the difference, be distinctly underwhelmed (even if the series themselves are done well, they are vanishingly unlikely to be as layered, intricate and powerful as the original) and dismiss as overrated the actual book that received all the accolades in the first place.

That doesn't just hurt Watchmen; that hurts comics. That's a new customer lost, having sought out something superlative and latched onto something inferior without realizing it and deciding that kids can keep their comics, thank you very much, blam, kablooey. And by marketing the titles under the "Before Watchmen" banner, DC is encouraging exactly that confusion, when it could really use the clarity of someone saying "You need to read Watchmen" without having to narrow it down to which Watchmen is which.

Look, there are plenty of reasons why today's announcement doesn't inspire confidence. (I'll start you off: Neither Moore nor Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons are to be found on the list of creative teams for any of the new "Before Watchmen" titles. You take it from there.) Raising most of them is tantamount to objecting to commerce being more highly valued than art, which is fair but, as always, futile. I'm less taken aback by the fact that DC is potentially screwing up Watchmen than by the fact that they apparently don't understand it or its value in the first place.

Also, if you think that there aren't howls of outrage every time Batman gets rebooted, you are adorable.

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