Major spoilers for 1986’s Watchmen, the 2009 movie adaptation and the recently released comic book prequels follow…
Where do the years go? It certainly doesn’t feel like it was that long gone but six years or so ago I attended a special IMAX screening of Watchmen. I am referring of course to the 2009 movie directed by Zack Snyder that was so unashamedly derivative of the source material that entire panels of the comic were painstakingly recreated for its long-awaited silver screen metamorphosis.
Also present at that screening was the man who was largely responsible for those iconic visuals – the artist and co-creator of the legendary 1986 comic book saga, Dave Gibbons. While not being a particular fan of Gibbons’ art myself in any of his other ventures, his realistic, drama-laden style proved to be the perfect foil to anchor the dazzling bravura of Alan Moore’s incredible writing.
Let’s face it: those visuals had to be special to allow the outlandish climax (where a fake alien, created at the behest of Adrian Veidt, is dropped into Times Square to kill millions in order to end the global nuclear threat and save billions) to remain firmly grounded within the moral panic of the era. Put simply, his art (along of course with Moore’s writing) sells the climax in a way that the reader can buy into without the feeling that the shark has been jumped.
For when the Watchmen jump the shark, they really jump the shark.
Don’t forget that Snyder wasn’t able to find a way to make the same climax work on screen, despite his desire to accurately recreate the comic book, resulting in him ultimately choosing to take the movie’s conclusion in a different, more contemporary direction… something about an energy project gone wrong that in truth, added little to the tale.
But I digress. Before the screening began, Gibbons answered a few questions and told a few stories about co-creating the most critically lauded comic book of all time. Amidst a whole slew of interesting anecdotes and golden geek nuggets he explained why DC had stopped publishing the graphic novel of Watchmen with the now-iconic smiley face cover, instead replacing it with an ensemble shot of the eponymous Watchmen. (Avid fans will also know that the original cover also serves as the very first panel of the story making it a doubly-mystifying decision to remove it.)
Covers old and new: Note that the smiley badge has even disappeared from The Comedian’s uniform.
Gibbons went on to bemusedly explain that somehow, a gentleman in France had managed to prove that he had created the smiley face and had subsequently trademarked it – therefore meaning that DC were no longer able to adorn the cover of the millions (just in time for the movie!) of graphic novels they were about to print with the classic Watchmen logo.
I suppose that the point that I’m trying to make here is that if something as ubiquitous as the smiley face can be commoditized – converted into intellectual property to turn a profit for somebody, somewhere- then it really was only a matter of time before DC’s gaze (or that of their dark, corporate overlords) was cast upon their sacred cow; the one property that had always been deemed inviolable. Untouchable. Sacrosanct.
Which leads us neatly onto Before Watchmen. Despite fervent protestations by co-publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee that DC would handle the source material with reverential care, the announcement of the prequel books blew up a storm back in 2012 as comic fandom’s collective knees spasmodically jerked as one, instantly declaring them to be an abomination, possibly even the rankling, midnight shadow of the Antichrist itself.
Me? I waited a while, let all the fuss die down, (a year or so) internalised whether I really wanted to go through with this (another year or so) and then thought “why not?”
Please understand, I get that everyone has different relationships to touchstone material: my connection with the Star Wars movies for instance is long, complex and riddled with difficulties. Something akin I imagine, to the relationship between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton: We marry, (Episodes IV-VI) we divorce (Episodes I-III), we re-marry (Expanded Universe and video games), we divorce (WTF Yuuzhan Vong!?).
For a long time we’ve stayed together for the sake of the kids, and although things are looking up I accepted a long time ago that they’ll never be like they were. Of course, then along came that shot of the Millennium Falcon blazing through a gaggle of pursuing TIE fighters in The Force Awakens teaser and I’m head over heels again.
My relationship with Watchmen is equally complex.
It was the book that got me back into comic books in my late teens, and as such has continued to serve as the fulcrum for all of the thrills and disappointments that have followed since. Like the first hit on some Heisenberg Blue Crystal, nothing in the fifteen years hence has been able to match the way Watchmen bubbled through my veins, and despite stumbling across the odd good batch (Batman: Year One; Punisher MAX; The Walking Dead) I’ve been chasing the dragon ever since.
To put it another way, Watchmen managed to achieve the extraordinary feat of inducting me into a lifelong love of comics whilst simultaneously ruining them forever for me. Which is precisely the effect I think Alan Moore was going for when he sat in his evil magician genius lair and musingly stroked his evil magician genius beard in lieu of an evil magician genius cat. Maybe.
I’m digressing again but I hope you get my point. I’m trying to make you understand that my connection to the universe of Watchmen is as real and complicated and valid as the next person’s connection. It’s just different.
So where do I begin? Having allowed a couple of years for all of the hullabaloo to die down about whether the Before Watchmen prequel line was a blatant cash grab or an inspired attempt to creatively expand the universe allowed me to approach the books from a fairly objective direction. Also, coming at the maxi-series a couple of years removed gave me the luxury of avoiding the delays the series suffered, which inevitably added to the lukewarm critical reception.
So what did I think?
Well, they gave it their best shot at least. There are clearly good intentions at work here, although the road to comic book mediocrity is paved with them. DC pulled in a wishlist of superstar talent to try and give the series a fighting chance – who better than 100 Bullets’ Brian Azzarello to capture the gritty Mean Streets feel of Rorschach’s brutal war on hoods, pimps and pushers? J.Michael Strazynski’s sci-fi and superhero credentials (Babylon 5 through to a legendary run with Romita Jr. in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man) promised to be an inspired choice to chronicle the story of Dr. Manhattan – by far the least human of the Watchmen and prone to the odd caper out in the realms of space.
It didn’t stop there. Darwyn Cooke, the legendary Len Wein and a whole raft of genuinely exciting talent was brought in to ensure that DC weren’t simply paying lip service to their assurances of quality control. And that was just the writers. Those charged with drawing the books were equally talented: Eduardo Risso, Lee Bermejo – even the celebrated Jim Lee got in on the act with a series of alternative covers although surprisingly, his Silk Spectre somehow didn’t become an iconic image and go on to break the internet.
So they gave it their best shot. They brought in all the big guns. But, listen to popular opinion and you’ll be told that it didn’t quite work. Why not? The obvious answer is prequel fatigue, although perhaps this is too easy a target. It makes sense though; much like the maligned newer trilogy of Star Wars movies, you face a creative cul-de-sac when writing a prequel – not only does the audience know how it’s going to end but on top of that the writer is further constrained by having to leave everything just so, in place for the main event. It’s a creative straitjacket.
On top of that, it isn’t like Moore neglected to deal with his character’s histories in the original story… he did, and it was that systematic deconstruction of his characters that made the original Watchmen so great. We already know that Rorschach does what he does because of mommy issues; that Sally Jupiter’s Silk Spectre II does what she does because of mommy issues… Moore dealt with this superbly in the original material. Did it really need revisiting? Perhaps the most uninspired addition to a character’s backstory in the new books comes in the form of Nite Owl, who we find out has… wait for it… daddy issues. If any part of the books felt like they were piggybacking on the greatness of others – that was certainly one.
Whilst the issue of prequelitis is certainly relevant, Before Watchmen ultimately disappointed because it wasn’t consistently good enough. Azzerello’s two stories in particular are hugely underwhelming, despite boasting excellent art. His Rorschach tale feels rote and devoid of inspiration whereas his Comedian story is ambitious but muddled and bloated.
Nite Owl’s story is meh too – it makes you wonder why they didn’t tackle the Nite Owl/Rorschach dynamic duo that’s hinted at in Moore’s work instead; the two characters are clearly more effective when they’re riffing off that odd-couple dynamic they share and it makes the choice to not combine the two and weave a tale during this era all the odder. Perhaps something to do with making more dollar bills? I’m referring here to the currency, not the character – although even Dollar Bill himself gets a one-shot issue – despite never appearing in the original book and only being mentioned briefly.
It’s creative choices like that mean you can’t but help think of the whole venture as a bit of a cash grab, despite all the promises of reverence for the source material. The less said about Len Wein’s pirate story, the better. A backup feature that runs throughout each and every issue in the Before Watchmen series, this purports to be a companion piece to the meta-textual Tales Of The Black Freighter, the comic-within-a-comic that so brilliantly subverts the main thrust of Watchmen’s plot while simultaneously adding layers and texture to the world that Moore and Gibbons were crafting. Wein’s effort makes no such effort at adding to the universe’s meta-narrative, his effort as it is, spreads across too many issues and struggles to retain the reader’s interest.
On the plus side though, Wein’s Ozymandias series isn’t a bad read. It’s by no means the best of the collection but it’s worth a look. Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen is easily the best book in the series, perhaps because the Minutemen group were left less explored by Moore in the original series than the titular Watchmen. Perhaps the less-encumbered nature of the creative process along with some gorgeous, gorgeous visuals (also by Cooke who both wrote and drew the book) are the winning ticket here – of all of the titles in the series, this is the only one that really feels like it adds something of worth to the Watchmen universe. The ending in particular is excellent; of all the titles only this one seems to be able to replicate a spark of the deconstructive genius that makes the original story a stone-cold classic.
Told from the perspective of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, Minutemen attempts to add finer detail to the broader strokes left by Moore and Gibbons in the source material. Minor characters such as Silhouette, Dollar Bill and Mothman are fleshed out in greater detail here and form a solid supporting cast that really add something to the story as it moves through the Minutemen’s chequered existence. Events, both historical and quasi-historical (from the Watchmen universe) occur in the background or foreground of the story, firmly grounding it within Moore’s universe and Cooke’s art doesn’t hurt either; its golden-age style drips with nostalgia (not the Viedt perfume) and looks like it could have leapt straight from Action Comics #1. Straight after flooring Captain Axis with a left hook, presumably.
I can’t decide whether the quality of this particular book was down to superior writing by Cook or the fact that he had greater scope with which to realise his ideas – a bigger sandbox to play in, if you like. Having said that, there are other books that are worth reading.
As mentioned previously, Strazynski’s Dr. Manhattan is worth a read; it doesn’t deviate excitingly from the source material but it is well written. Cooke scores again with a decent Silk Spectre story set against the flower-power backdrop of 1960s San Francisco but on the whole, the Before Watchmen series is a disappointment. Nite Owl, The Comedian and Rorschach are short-changed here in the storytelling stakes and the minor character features such as Moloch and Dollar Bill along with the Black Freighter-esque back-up feature simply smacks of padding out the issues to cash in.
‘Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.’ That’s superior blue deity-speak for “you’re an idiot.”
So. To read or not to read? That is the question. Well, we’re in 2015 now – a year and a bit since the series’ completion – and if you’ve got this far without reading the prequel books then I imagine that you can probably live without needing to know why Moloch’s ears are so messed up. But if you are still curious? I’d advise picking up a couple of the Minutemen books and giving them a try but if they don’t float your boat, there’s little chance of the rest of the series doing so.
And what about the future of the Watchmen franchise in print (that’s right, it’s a franchise now kids!)? Who knows? Perhaps DC will launch After Watchmen one day and we’ll get to experience The Further Adventures of Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre; Dr. Manhattan pondered the possibilities of creating new life in a galaxy that was “less complicated.” Maybe we could follow him there? Who knows, but as Dr Manhattan himself says to Ozymandias in the wake of the latter’s murder of millions, all in the name of saving the world: ‘Nothing ends Adrian, Nothing ever ends.’
Quite right Doctor. At least not where there’s a buck or two involved.