Before Watchmen/ After Watchmen

by clementinepumpernickel

 […] a prerequisite for understanding the present disordered state of the imaginary world was to understand its history […]  the inhabitants of the imaginary world reached a point where they no longer realized the nature of the catastrophe which they had suffered” (Alaisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue)

Art by Frank Quitely

So, just to make sure everyone is up to speed, Alan Moore created Watchmen expecting the rights to return to him (he details this in his most recent comments on the subject, which can be found here), DC have apparently been just a little underhand in their dealings with him, and now they’re publishing some prequels to Watchmen, which have generated more than a little buzz online, including some exasperated/bemused comments by the man himself in a video interview:

Despite the recently announced Before Watchmen being a dreaded ‘prequel’ (and we can thank George Lucas for really hammering home how difficult prequels are to pull off — we’ll see if Ridley Scott manages it with Prometheus), the new Watchmen is ~inevitably~ all about aftermath: it’s occurring a very long time after Watchmen (and it follows the whole Kingpin/Daredevil vibe of Levitz versus Moore, if you’ll excuse the mixed-company metaphors); it’s happened after DC have treated Alan Moore shoddily both with the Watchmen rights and their subsequent ham-fisted approaches to Moore; it’s about the fan reaction to the announcement and the debates that have erupted online; it’s about how feasible it is to do a straight sequel (even if it is a prequel) to a book that was meant to change the way we thought about superhero comics. And whether Watchmen had the effects on the creation of comicbooks that Moore originally intended (that is, as permission to push the boundaries of the medium as opposed to obsess over how ‘grim n’ gritty’ vigilantes ain’t just for kids anymore), it did open a pandora’s box, fracturing the conceptual landscape of the superhero mythos.

After Moore and Miller tried to tear up the rulebook about what we can and cannot do with superheroes, we’ve had superheroes being hunted by a militaristic lawman in S&M gear (Marshall Law); we’ve had comicbooks written from the perspectives of the layman/woman bystander who lives alongside the gods that walk amongst us (Marvels, Astro City); we’ve had Watchmen for supervillains (Wanted); we’ve had sexually abused sidekicks (Bratpack); we’ve had books about the people who have to clean the city up after superheroes fight (Damage Control); we’ve had books that have looked at the perspective of the police who have to work in the city where superheroes live (Powers, Gotham Central); we’ve had books that have looked at reformed supervillains trying to clean up their act (Incognito); we’ve had superheroes being unmasked to the public and having to live with the ramifications of their actions of being vigilantes (Bendis on Daredevil, ‘Civil War’-era Spider-Man); we’ve had books where governments have forced superheroes to go on a ‘register’ and become official agents of the law (Civil War); we’ve had superheroes as prostitutes (The Pro), and celebrities (Youngblood, X-Statix), and comicbook fans (Kick Ass); we’ve had superheroes as dictators (The Authority), and as pulp explorers and hard sci-fi cyphers (Planetary).

When Moore looks at the comicbooks that have been released in the last couple of decades, he seems to perceive only stagnation and inbreeding, but then he’s on record as saying that he doesn’t read superhero comicbooks any-more, and hasn’t for some time, and so his impressions are probably skewed in the way that your Dad is when he tells you that the bands you’re listening to are really just ripping off the vinyl he listened to back in the day.

But even though I think Moore is being overly harsh in his judgement on modern superhero comics, the point remains that your options for doing a sequel to Watchmen are pretty limited: you can’t really deconstruct the genre any further, because loads of great (and not so great) creators have been chipping away at that particular angle for decades, and have created some pretty great books (even if Moore wouldn’t approve, and even if they haven’t had the same cultural impact). The problem is that Watchmen has become a sign that signifies a change in the cultural thinking about superheroes, and one that finds its uniqueness in its playing with the tropes of how we read comicbooks (hence all that clever structural and stylistic choices that give the book its unique feel): DC are trying to create a sequel to both a toolbox and a cultural zeitgeist.

If were a creator being asked to contribute to this, I would have real reservations because this is a poisoned chalice, and not in the sense that a vocal minority of fans will be outraged. It might be fun daydream about how Hooded Justice got his hood, or how the original Night Owl met the Night Owl mark II, but that’s fan-fiction, it’s filling in the blanks that are best left to badly written slash fiction on the net, and Alex Ross. I’m not an overly-massive fan of Moore, but I cannot deny that the man has blown my mind on many occasions with his books (I just revisited Tom Strong and probably enjoyed the first volume of this more than Watchmen).

artwork by Alex Ross

One thing that Watchmen was very good at was being very judicious about what back-story it chose to fill us in on, what it chose to imply, and what was unnecessary. (This reminds me, in a way, of the unnecessary scenes of the colonists going about their daily lives on LV 426 in James Cameron’s Aliens: The Special Edition, whereas the first cut of the movie implied so much more with the scenes of destruction that the colonial marines walked into in the derelict colony.)  The creators who are stepping up to the plate to fill the blanks in are, in a way, saying that they have identified chinks in Moore and Gibbon’s original narrative, places where the story is incomplete and could be fleshed out (or they just fancy a great big fat fucking paycheck), and that either shows that they are extremely confident in their own abilities, and/or, they’re ignoramuses who somehow haven’t bothered to look at the technicalities of what Moore and Gibbon managed to achieve and quake with terror at the thought of somehow trying to compete with that. For that’s the benchmark that they’re going to be measured against, and what makes Watchmen unique is not the story, or the characters, or even the plot, but the exquisite attention to detail, the fetishistic adherence to structure, and Moore’s almost inhuman grasp of what makes comicbook story-telling unique, and the potential that panel-to-panel sequential narratives have in playing with time, and memory, and revelations. I’m not a professional comicbook creator, and so perhaps I’m not judging the situation with the same informed eye as JMS or Cooke, but the mere thought of somehow trying to add something to Watchmen, of trying to swim alongside this cultural leviathan in all its technical splendour and magnificence, would honestly make my bowels quiver.

We can say Watchmen may be over-rated; we can shake our heads at the negative influence it’s had on superhero comic-books, but even Moore’s most ardent critic must admit that Moore has a great grasp of the unique properties of telling stories in comicbook form, and all that other shit that Scott McCloud has made a career out of talking about. And one of the creators who thinks he can compete with Moore, and has felt the need to explain why Moore is wrong to be upset about this, is the same guy that thought that Superman walking across America was a great idea for a story (I almost fell asleep just typing that).

Art by Josh Gowdry

I guess one approach could be to go deliberately ‘anti-deconstruction’ with the prequels and celebrate the kookiness of superhero comicbooks and their tropes (intsead of deconstructing them), a la Tom Strong, Supreme, or All Star Superman, but that seems to go against the grain of the purpose of the Watchmen characters in the first place .I’m sure Darwyn Cooke will do a bang up job with his prequel, but if I’m being honest, I’m looking forward to Morrison and Quitely’s Pax Americana much more, because it seems like Morrison is being a little bit irreverent, naughty, and playful with the Watchmen mythos, instead of working on a sequel/prequel that has a whiff of the stillborn about it.

Anyway, there’s been a lot of great commentary about this online, far more eloquent than my ramblings. One of my favourite articles on this (which I’ve linked to before) is by Lance Parkin, who does a great job of dissecting the commodification of Watchmen (and, to top it off, he writes beautifully):

“Watchmen 2 won’t ‘weaken’ the original Watchmen artistically. It does, though, chop away perhaps its main marketing advantage. Here’s my key objection to Watchmen 2 in purely money-generating terms: they’ve made the wrong corporate decision. They’ve miscounted the beans. This is the wrong way to go about selling more slabs of whatever.”

Tom Spurgeon has a very interesting post on his thoughts on Watchmen II, and whilst I don’t agree with everything he has to say, it’s very thought-provoking:

I might call DC foolish if they were touting these sequel books as a match for Watchmen‘s artistic achievement, but that this idea isn’t even on the table may be scarier. This is a toy line. This is a happy meal. This is “based on.” This is product.

Moviebob takes the side of those critiquing Moore, arguing that he’s appropriation of PD characters for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen means he can’t take the moral high ground on the sequels to Watchmen which can be viewed here.

Finally, a creator details his pitch for the Watchmen sequels, as reblogged by Warren Ellis (and which isn’t completely about Dr Manhattan’s anus):