DC Comics recently officially announced that it would be reviving the characters from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s revered graphic novel, Watchmen, for a slew of prequel spin-off comics. In my opinion, these prequels are wholly unnecessary, as the original series didn’t merit any other story to be told besides the one it was already telling, and they will only serve to further line the pockets of Time Warner. However, it might comfort Moore to consider that the over-commercialization of a story that satirized commercial superheroes only serves to make his original graphic novel even more poignant and alive than before.
In their announcement of “Before Watchmen,” DC Entertainment Co-Publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio said that it’s their responsibility “as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant.” In that respect they should be happy, as their efforts only add to the credibility of Moore’s observation of the bloated, incestuous state of superhero comics in America. Do you remember those fake ads for Minutemen toys that popped up throughout the comic in the original series? Well, the “Before Watchmen” spin-offs belong in those ads. They echo the ‘80s corporate excess that Moore and Gibbons were trying to spoof. They can almost be considered real life artifacts from that comic book world, complete with a “Veidt Industries” logo on the cover.
This irony seems to allude the new series’ proponents. The excuse that I see many creators resort to most when attempting to justify this new “Before Watchmen” (a questionable title, as nothing in the actual story was named Watchmen, so why would anything in the story be “before” it?) line of comics is that of “well, Moore used re-purposed Charlton characters to create Watchmen, so why is okay for him to use other people’s characters but not okay for us to use his?” I find this argument to be deeply flawed. Why did Moore re-purpose those old characters? Because he was trying to tell a story that satirized those characters.
To be sure, Watchmen was not a satire in the sense that Moore was poking fun at the source material necessarily, but a satire in the sense that he was paying homage to it while also turning it on its head. An example of this was the narrative device of Rorschach’s journal in the early issues, which served to spoof Frank Miller-esque noir stories with it’s over-the-top cynicism and gritty metaphors, but was simultaneously one of the strongest entries into that genre.
Moore was trying to tell, in 12 issues (not 50), a story that would tear down everything about American superhero comic books up until that point. He wanted to do this by using pre-existing characters, but couldn’t get the clearance and instead used archetypes based on those characters. But it was never an attempt to create a new X-Men. He wasn’t trying to spearhead a new franchise or sell t-shirts or movie tickets, he was trying to make a point about the state of the comics industry, as well as the state of America and the world. The characters were essentially devices of that story, of that particular satirical event.
They represented archetypes such as the superman, the patriot, the femme fatale, the dark knight, the grim detective, and so on. He then took those archetypes and made them more realistic, with more “shades of gray” in terms of morality, to reflect the politics and culture of that time. This is why, in my opinion, no one needs to know what Ozymandias was doing before Watchmen #1, any more than we needed to know what Quentin Tarantino’s character, Vincent Vega, was doing before the events of Pulp Fiction.
The sad thing is that while Watchmen was essentially Moore and Gibbons holding a mirror up to mainstream comics, pointing out its tropes and pushing them to their limits with the hope of tearing them down so that something better might come out of it, DC was, and still is, apparently not in on that joke. The truth is, by taking these characters out of Moore’s hands and deciding to make spin-offs with them (a decision that seemed to be made out of desperation first and creative inspiration last), it only further re-enforces everything that Moore was trying to say is wrong about the comics industry with Watchmen.
This continued relevance is in keeping with how Moore’s bibliography consistently finds new meaning in contemporary culture. Recently we’ve seen the Occupy movement adopt the mask of his and David Lloyd’s hero, V, for its protests against corporate tyranny, a cause that the hero himself would surely be a part of. Unfortunately, whereas that idea has found new legs in our world as part of the revolution against corporate greed, Watchmen is finding its foothold as an instrument of such greed. It’s not a pleasant thing to think about, but at the end of the day, it’s what will preserve the satirical sting of the original work and make it relevant for a new generation. Are you pissed off that DC is so starved of original ideas that they’ll bastardize Watchmen by creating scores of unwarranted prequels? Cool. Well, you know what book comes in handy for expressing this frustration toward this dinosaur of a company? Watchmen.
And yet, as with the Keane Act in the graphic novel, there are those who will publicly defend this odious decision. Looking over a discussion thread on Facebook for Newsarama’s story “BEFORE WATCHMEN Creators Part With ALAN MOORE On Project,” I see a few comments defending DC’s actions. They say that not only is DC justified in doing whatever they feel like doing with these characters in the name of making money, they applaud them for sticking up to “whiny fanboys” who bitch and moan while defending “sacred cows.” What these people seem to forget is that with Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were making a statement. A statement doesn’t need a spin-off, and it doesn’t need a prequel. Any artist will tell you that. Does Picasso’s Guernica need a spin-off? Does Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” need a prequel?
One comment on the discussion thread even tries to compare the use of Watchmen characters for the spin-offs to how Shakespeare purportedly borrowed his ideas from Plautus. Imagine that. Time Warner, the company that wanted to lobotomize the Internet a few weeks back, being compared to Shakespeare. By a consumer. I think it may be time for me to go on my own Dr. Manhattan-esque quest for intelligent life elsewhere among the stars. I am having very bad luck finding it down here among my peers.
(I should mention here, for the record, that I don’t hold anything against the amazing talent who are involved in producing these spin-offs. It seems like a dream job, and probably the kind of situation where, if someone has to make these stories, at least it’s the group of people who are currently signed on to do it. For all I know these stories might turn out to be pretty damn good, and I sincerely hope that they are, but I will not be reading them. Instead, I will be looking into reading more independent comics with the hope that some day original comic work will be more important than rehashed commercial gibberish.)