Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill #1
“I Want to be in Pictures”
Writer: Len Wein
Artist/Letterer: Steve Rude
So much is being made of branding in today’s comic book marketplace. The most valuable commodity a company can have is a successful brand. A brand transcends the world of comics and can be exploited on countless multi-media platforms. In the recent past, we’ve seen Iron Man go from a mid-level seller for Marvel’s publishing division to a word-wide corporate brand. The desire to create brand recognition is strong in all major comic companies because it really does amount to a license to print money. The worst thing a creative endeavor can do these days is dilute a brand.
Take Green Lantern for example. Geoff Johns brought the perennial low/mid-range seller to new heights of modern success. Warner tried to expand the brand with a feature film, the film bombed and the brand was diluted by the stigma of the cinematic misstep. To his credit, Johns maintained the quality of his comic to keep it a viable publishing brand, but brand expansion was capsized by a subpar film, as proven by the mainstream disinterest that led to the cancelation of the very cool Cartoon Network animated series. With its Before Watchmen initiative, DC attempted to expand the Watchmen brand by cooking up new stories in the cauldron created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in 1986. DC saw each Watchmen character as its own brand. A successful Comedian or Dr. Manhattan story would serve as R&D for future projects, whether it be film, a DVD release through Warners home animation platform, or new merchandising initiatives. Each Watchmen character was visually compelling enough to attract attention, and Watchmen has the rare distinction of having the classic book as the beginning of the characters’ lineage. It was a gamble, as DC risked alienating the loyal fans of the original work while further risking a greater rift with the creators. Let’s face it though, nothing would mend the fence with Alan Moore, so DC went with the potential billions an expanded brand would bring them
Each Before Watchmen book must be reviewed with an eye towards the actual product, but they also have to be reviewed as an extension of the original classic, arguably the perfect comic book, as well as if the book successfully extended the brand. Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill is an ironic project because it is not only about the pitfalls of unsuccessful branding but it may well be the book that diluted the real Watchmen brand to the point of worthlessness.
Len Wein and Steve Rude do not craft a poor comic. Not by any means. Rude’s art is always a delight: a Silver Age throwback with modern panel layouts and bleeds that underscore a meta-narrative about greed and a desire for celebrity. Wein’s script seems dated, but his writing underscores the idea that Dollar Bill is a relic, a man taken from a more innocent time who is ultimately destroyed by a world that he has no place in anymore. With any other name on the cover, Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill would be an entertaining but disposable read with above average art and an effective sense of nostalgia. But the cover of the book says Watchmen, and whether DC realizes it or not, that means something.
The book is akin to the hypothetical projects To Kill a Mockingbird: Origin of the Foot Washing Baptists or Catcher in the Rye: The Further Adventures of Old Stadlater, even if they were well crafted, they would not be, in any way, necessary. Silk Spectre and Minutemen weren’t needed, but seeing Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner at the height of their game gives the stories a vitality that make them, if not worthy, then at least well-executed. Dollar Bill is a cash grab; an attempt to squeeze every last drop from the Watchmen name. Maybe it was supposed to be, some sort of mad genius meta-fictional experiment in trying to market the marketing tool of Watchmen. But think about it, when Before Watchmen is said and done DC will go for the real cash grab in the book market. These books are made for the collected edition, to exist side by side with Moore and Gibbons’ perennial best seller. Far in the future, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen will still exist and still sell, just like any literary classic. Now when this hypothetical future consumer purchases Watchmen, the book will share shelf space with collections containing books like Dollar Bill. When people buy Watchmen on Amazon, whatever collection contains this lesser attempt will be recommended to them. They may read it, and they will judge it to be wanting when compared to the original, lessening their personal relationship with the text. Thus, the original Watchmen becomes a watered down experience because of the unneeded additions tacked unto the fictional world.
Think of all that Watchmen is: it’s the complex look at real life super-heroes through the lines of Reagan-era nationalistic apathy. It’s a living piece of history that defines the era in which it was published. Dollar Bill is a Silver Age pastiche featuring characters named Dewey, Cheatum, and Howe. Yes, in addition to Moore’s saga of entropy and destiny, there is now an ill-advised and dated Three Stooges joke. Wein can’t even be blamed as DC editorial let it fly. Wein is a product of his time, and crafted a worthy attempt at a well done comic, but the artistic sensibilities that craft it are mired in a time that predates Watchmen. The mission statement Before Watchmen was to add modern storytelling perspectives to the original. How can Wein’s voice be considered fresh when the bulk of his creative output came, say it with me, before Watchmen? Wein’s writing will always be worth a look, because he’s a living treasure that helped develop the world of modern comics, and he gave it his best shot with Dollar Bill, but it ain’t Watchmen. And if it ain’t Watchmen, it can’t be marketed as Watchmen. Dollar Bill is a punch line stretched into a well-drawn narrative. Yet, it will, now and forever, be marketed with Watchmen. Dollar Bill, and a number of the other Before Watchmen launches, have been product suicide for DC. It is not indicative of what Watchmen is, was, and will be.
In the end, DC succeeded in making some interesting and well-crafted comics, but their goal was to create new brands. Like Dollar Bill, DC got their proverbial cape caught in a door and instead of being riddled with bullets, they will be riddled with consumer apathy. Watchmen should evoke many responses in a reader; apathy should never be one of them.