Before Watchmen: why comics are different

In the proudest tradition of comics, DC cracked the internet with Before Watchmen. CJ discusses why the UK could learn from the US when it comes to collaboration...

Comics are different


There are very few moments in the history of a medium when everyone, from its staunchest advocates to those with only a passing familiarity, simultaneously respond to a sudden development. 

Yesterday’s announcement fom DC Comics’ of their Before Watchmen prequel miniseries was one of those rare, egalitarian moments.

In the much beloved Internet tradition of the reaction shot, it was extremely interesting to scroll through the many, many responses to try and glean some insight into perceptions of comics. With the Before Watchmen news, now is a great time to talk about some things that wider society doesn’t really understand when it comes to dealing with those lads and lasses who know who Chris Claremont is, and who remember that Iron Man once had retractable rollerskates and a metal nose.

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To borrow an appropriately grandstanding phrase from Marvel: Before Watchmen broke the Internet in half.

The announcement parted the sea of ignorance that drowns comics and dumped people on two opposing shores. On one sat the movie-goers and graphic-novel-perusers with their cries of outrage; on the opposite shore were the stunned comics-readers who were kind of oddly stoked about the whole miracle. That’s a lot of metaphor to manage, but Dan DiDio and Jim Lee – DC’s co-publishers – summed up the comics idiom best on DC’s The Source blog.

“Comic books are perhaps the largest and longest running form of collaborative fiction,” said Dan and Jim. “Collaborative storytelling is what keeps these fictional universes current and relevant.”

Now if you’re thinking ‘Wow – they had to clarify that?’ then you must be a comics-reader. The majority of comics-readers wouldn’t even see what DC said as something that needed stating. Apologies for going back to the horrendous Moses analogy, but ‘thou shalt build on each other’s ideas’ is one of the industry’s commandments. Acknowledging that comics are a longform-storytelling medium that many people contribute to is like sticking a ‘do not tumble dry’ label on a baby.

Yet there were far more ‘£&%$ing hell no!’ reactions from the general public than you might’ve expected. Why? What do non-comics-readers care about a 12-issue limited series from 26 years ago written by a beardy English nerd who grew up to build an elaborate fan-fiction world based on the Charlton Comics of his youth, when most non-comics-readers don’t even know what Crisis or Secret Wars were? They’re the same people who happily await new Doctor Who and Sherlock, so why do they care about Alan Moore’s writing credits being compromised?

These questions got me thinking, and I may have found an answer. Watchmen is the bah-weep-grah-nah-weep-nini-bon of comics – its the universal greeting of people who think comics-readers will spontaneously combust unless they constantly hear the phrase ‘graphic novel’ when referring to a trade paperback collection. To the non-comics-reader, ‘comics’ are for kids and ‘graphic novels’ are for serious fans. 

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This attitude is hugely pervasive in the UK – in Britain comics are either The Beano or they’re dissecting laughable superheroes to compromise the American Dream. It’s got kind of boring and it’s the reason why, right now, Jonathan Ross is our best comics writer (no offence intended, either). You have to show American sensibilities to appreciate mainstream comics, and we’re just far too up our own collective backside to lower ourselves. This precious, literary attitude to comics has helped ruin them more than a smidgen over the last few decades while the Americans bravely trundle on with their crossovers and continuity. They’re world-builders and world-sharers – have we lost that?

Admit that you like comics to a layman and the immediate response would be either “Ohmigod, that’s so gay!” or “Oh, then you must like Watchmen“. It’s the ’66 World Cup final of the four-colour medium. 

By creating Before Watchmen, DC are unwittingly undermining the lingua franca. How are the hipsters going to show their street cred if they have to form their own opinion about a scene they want to expend as little effort as possible buying into? It’s not the first time though, as The Dark Knight Strikes Again was almost as puzzling to many people – the only difference is that Frank Miller will cheerfully return to Batman because Frank Miller is the goddamn Batman.

All the advice I can give to non-comics-readers who make first contact with nerds in the future is this: don’t panic. Your new greeting phrase will be “So what did you think of Before Watchmen?” As for comics readers – well, dudes, roll on the New Testament. We’ve got a little bit of comics back.

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