Three Visions of Watchmen 2A column article, Z.E.I.T.G.E.I.S.T. by: Danny Djeljosevic
Danny Djeljosevic doesn't stop thinking about comics. All comics: crackling cosmic punches, subdued glances from art-school girls, high-concept pop, intricate European breasts, Japanese speedlined inner monologue, cartoon teenagers eating hamburgers. He loves them all.
He writes them. He draws them. He writes about them. He talks about them.
This is what his brain sounds like.
Rumors have swirled and memes have been made about a follow-up to Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal superhero comic -- a book so beloved that the very idea of someone else who isn't Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons trying to touch the material is the most vicious of blasphemies.
I don't do a whole lot of drugs, but I get visions sometimes. Visions of an Earth where Z.E.I.T.G.E.I.S.T. is the most popular column on Comics Bulletin, sure, but also less egotistical visions; visions of worlds and futures where Watchmen 2 is a thing that really exists for one reason or another.
If you'll allow me to be your regular-headed Watcher, I'll share with you a few of these visions...
EARTH 342-001: RUBBER SOUL
In this world, Rich Johnston's rumors were spot-on and some of the artists he reported were working on the four Watchmen prequel miniseries were actually working on the Watchmen prequel miniseries. As for the writers...
Before Watchmen: Nite Owl
(Geoff Johns/Andy Kubert)
The team that created Flashpoint reunites for the straight superhero portion of the Before Watchmen series, following Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl, during those halcycon days when he was a superhero without any sexual hangups, fighting crime with gimmicks and a smile.
I don't think it will surprise any readers familiar with Johns' penchant for what is generously termed "continuity porn" to know that Nite Owl is written entirely to fit in with the events of the original sequence -- hence all the long, plodding sequences of Dreiberg talking to the original Nite Owl late into the night. Just examining those panels, you can kind of feel Kubert's pencils get antsy as he draws them.
The book isn't great -- in fact, it's passable at best, holding together better than Flashpoint did, at least -- but you gotta love how Andy Kubert draws Archie shooting off into the sky.
Before Watchmen: The Comedian
Easily the fan-favorite of the Before Watchmen minis, Darwyn Cooke seemed to get free reign with the structure of his miniseries. As such, each of the mini's four standalone issues captures the Comedian in different era from the '40s to the '70s in the lead-up to the opening of Watchmen. Cooke doesn't bother trying to craft a story that ties into the Watchmen world, but instead goes for telling entertaining stories about the Comedian that fit in well enough.
The art, to say the least, is gorgeous, but one gets the feeling that Cooke's talents would be better spent on a more personal project. In the end, The Comedian is something like a Darwyn Cooke retrospective -- the '40s chapter is an admirable bit of superhero noir akin to The Spirit, the '50s delivered the requisite cold war paranoia we saw in Cooke's The New Frontier and the '60s chapter resembled his Parker adaptations (save the Vietnam scenes). The final issue's 1970s setting, however, is a blatant caricature of the period, even though Cooke's scripting is relatively sound.
Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan
(Grant Morrison/J.G. Jones)
Because both Dr. Manhattan and Grant Morrison see all events in time as happening simultaneously, Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan is the only prequel miniseries that takes place after the events of the original series.
Morrison plays off of Moore's story much like how Johns does, but his script feels more freewheelin' than Nite Owl. Maybe it's because, instead of treating the book like cell bars, Morrison uses it as a springboard, latching onto the Dr. Manhattan's self-imposed exile from Earth at the end of Watchmen to create a story about an all-powerful being trying to create his own universe, watching experiments go wrong, wiping the thing with a catastrophe and starting over.
J.G. Jones returns from comics jail (after quitting Final Crisis due to scheduling issues) to draw all four issues of Dr. Manhattan. Of all of Morrison's frequent collaborators, Jones gets short shrift (have you read Marvel Boy lately?), even though here he does justice to the script by drawing some incredible images, but I kind of understand the marginalization. The sequence of Manhattan removing and then manipulating his own central nervous system to illustrate the creation myth to the questing Metron-like character is instant classic material on its own, but then you kind of wonder how much better this would be if Frank Quitely drew it.
The one bit that jams in my craw, though, is that editorial mandate kept Jones from showing Manhattan's penis. As a result, Morrison decided to have Manhattan transform to develop the lower anatomy of a Ken doll with a glib "Can't imagine I'll be using this." Funny, but it kind of takes me out of the story.
Before Watchmen: Rorschach
(Dave Gibbons/Gary Frank)
As the film adaptation showed, having Dave Gibbons around to give his blessing certainly quells reservations about Watchmen-related projects. Curiously, Gibbons opted to simply script one of the prequels -- the one centered around the fan-favorite character Rorschach.
Before Watchmen: Rorschach follows Walter Kovacs through his early years as a costumed vigilante, chronicling his gradual descent into conservative objectivist madness. Politically, Gibbons proves he's read Atlas Shrugged (or at least Mr. A), but his dialogue feels like he's trying too hard to emulate hard-boiled nastiness Moore infused into the character's narration. Nobody's surprised when we find out that Kovacs has killed his share of small animals as a kid. Gary Frank mostly excuses himself as an artist, proving a fine collaborator with Gibbons.
This should shock no one, but the four miniseries turned out to be a resounding success for DC Comics, showing that putting talented superstar creators on high-profile projects means nothing but huge bags of cash. As a result, DC couldn't help but come out with a followup.
(Geoff Johns/Rags Morales)
What a waste.
Rich's report that Johns took the job of writing the 14-issue Watchmen 2 only due to Identity Crisis writer Brad Meltzer's pitch for the series (the now infamous "Don't fucking do it" letter) seems totally substantiated by the writer's own script, which is exchanges the artistic ambition of Alan Moore's original series for a crippling fear of fucking up in the spotlight. You will believe a writer can have stage fright in his own office!
Part of the problem is that much of the success of Johns' work depends on how much the reader can share in the writer's love of the superheroes, and Moore's work isn't exactly pro-superhero by any stretch of the imagination. Moore wanted to use the superheroes to tell a story of great artistic value while Johns just really, really likes to write about people in capes punching one another. Which is fine, but hiring the guy to write Watchmen 2 is at best a case of cognitive dissonance, and at worst a trainwreck.
To make matters worse, Johns' dedication to telling a story that ties into the original Watchmen is slavish to a self-flagellating degree. Johns takes cues from every notable event in the series -- even using ideas and events from the RPG modules that Moore wrote material for in the '80s -- to create a story that involves the hunt for Rorschach's journal, kept safe by the New Frontiersman slob from the end of the original series and the aging Dan Dreiberg's comforting Silk Spectre as she slowly dies of cancer while the days count down to the end of the world.
The modern-day setting of the series and the calendar motif (in lieu of clocks) is inspired, even if the December 21, 2012 doomsday fear is not, and the heavy-handed attempts to incorporate real-world events like Occupy Wall Street show that Johns is way out of his element. Gone are the gray areas of the original series, too, as Ozymandias has somehow evolved into a legit supervillain instead of the pragmatic orchestrator of forced world peace. By the time Dr. Manhattan shows up to pass judgment on humanity, it hard to muster any enthusiasm for the Weekend at Berniesification of Watchmen.
EARTH 4945: MYLO XYLOTO
When DC Comics announced their Watchmen Legends prequels, the comics internet balked at the caliber of creative teams the publisher put on the books. What should have been a project with high-profile names turned out to have seemingly whoever happened to be available slotted on the books.
Watchmen Legends: The Nite Owl
(Jeff Lemire/Amanda Conner)
Of all the Watchmen Legends titles, this was the mini that had me most excited, thanks to the creative team of Jeff Lemire and Amanda Conner. The result is a very readable if by-the-numbers superhero comic, bolstered by Lemire's attempts to explore the idea of legacy heroes and taking on -- an extension of the parent/children issues that show up in much of his work. For a proactive superhero and technological genius, Dan Dreiberg is surprisingly subservient to the word of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, but Lemire thankfully addresses this to some degree. You can tell he's kind of trying, but he's limited to not screwing the pooch on a major project like Watchmen Legends.
Curiously, I find myself liking Conner's art more than Lemire's script, possibly because her bright, animated story is miles away from the mood of the original series, but totally fits the early idealistic era of the young superhero. Appropriateness over fidelity -- that's how you do it.
Watchmen Legends: The Comedian
(Peter Milligan/Cliff Chiang)
Wonder Woman fans were bummed when Cliff Chiang departed from his penciling duties on the Brian Azzarello-penned title, but for Chiang it must have been worth departing a quality title for a high-paying, high-profile gig like Watchmen Legends.
This was another attractive book in the initiative -- Chiang's preview pages looked gorgeous, and I'll buy pretty much anything with Peter Milligan's name on it provided it doesn't smack of "for hire" work, which is why The Comedian is such a disappointment. It's like he knew he should take the job, but didn't have anything to say about this character. As someone familiar with Milligan I try to look for satire in the book, but it all seems so straight-faced that I'm reminded of his Army of Two comic. And a comic based on Watchmen shouldn't remind me of a video game tie-in. I'm starting to suspect some strict editorial interference happening behind the scenes of these books.
Watchmen Legends: Dr. Manhattan
(Dan DiDio/Keith Giffen/Tom Scioli)
After the cancellation of O.M.A.C. (one of the earliest casualties of New 52 cancellations) creative team DiDio and Giffen re-teamed for a Watchmen Legends miniseries focused on the big blue naked demigod of the story. Despite the similar skin colors, it's not all that much like O.M.A.C., unfortunately, but there's a certain straight-faced strangeness similar to that series. I'm not sure what Giffen's feelings are about the original comic, but it turns out that Dr. Manhattan blowing up bad guys left and right just by pointing at them is a laugh riot.
Giffen drew the first issue in his trademark Kirby cover band style, but DC brought on Tom Scioli once Giffen was feeling stretched too thin with some other comic duties. Scioli, of such books as Godland, is a worthy replacement, thought you kind of have to wonder how many less-than-observant readers even noticed a difference.
Watchmen Legends: Rorschach
(Fabian Nicieza/Frazier Irving)
The rumors pegged ex-Nightwing writer Chuck Dixon to be the guy to revisit Rorschach's early years in this Watchmen Legends mini, but who knows what happened behind the scenes. As such, we have Fabian Nicieza tasked with Rorschach, and the results are aggressively mediocre.
As someone who grew up reading X-Men in the '90s, it's nice to see creators on those books are still around, and as such, Nicieza has got to be used to working with tight editorial situations. Nicieza's script is a suitable imitation of the material, but I kind of feel like it's an issue of Spawn without the demons -- dark and shooting for cool but just kind of depressing and ugly.
Despite that, Frazier Irving is a fucking beast on this book. In addition to bringing the dark, almost supernatural atmosphere necessary for the book , Irving manages to make the swirling ink on Rorschach's mask look fluid and animated in a given panel, not just between them. Lots of readers joke that the purples and blues made it seem like Rorschach spent every scene outside the neon-lit Gunga Diner set from the film, but those people are stupid.
Watchmen Legends: Silk Spectre
(Marjorie Liu/Ron Marz/Phil Noto)
Silk Spectre was a reunion of sorts for writer Marjorie Liu and artist Phil Noto, the two having worked together on Marvel's X-23. The first issue proved a welcome surprise, as Liu's script helped to flesh out the series' most marginalized character and give the material a sense of fun one might expect from a comic about a young female superhero.
However, word got out that Liu quit as writer before the book even came out. Reasons for her departure are unknown, but rumors circulated that Liu walked due to editorial demands that Silk Spectre go through a sexual abuse experience similar to the Comedian's attempted rape of her mother in the original series. When the Ron Marz-penned Watchmen Legends: Silk Spectre #2, such a scene was nowhere to be found. If true, it was probably online reaction that killed that idea, thankfully.
Despite the perfunctory execution of the project, the books sold about as well as the Watchmen brand would allow, proving a successful testing of the waters for DC to release the main event.
(Damon Lindelof/Dave Gibbons/Phil Jimenez)
Given his penchant for supercomplicated narratives on TV's Lost, Damon Lindelof was a natural choice for creating a narrative as ambitious as Moore's dense, layered work. The presence of Dave Gibbons, to whom Watchmen isn't a sore spot like Moore, certainly added a touch of credibility to the project.
Despite all the self-deprecating jokes/threats of self-fulfilling prophecies he made that the last issue was going to suck, Lindelof managed to craft a pretty compelling story about the deteriorating of the world peace that Ozymandias engineered without dipping too much into retread territory. And, my god, actual surprises! All the marketing promised that the New Frontiersman guy would take the mantle of Rorschach, but Lindelof wisely made that a red herring, killing him off in the first issue.
Unfortunately, while the early issues outsold even the early issues of DC's New 52 relaunch, scheduling proved the book's downfall. Lidelof was able to get his scripts in on time for the first five issues, but soon Hollywood commitments resulted in several month delays between issues, the worst of which being the nearly seven-month gap between #6 and #7 that caused Gibbons to walk away from the project out of frustration. What started out as a legitimate hit had turned into a fiasco.
As a result, Watchmen Two was truncated to a nine-issue series, but with a double-sized finale. Phil Jimenez, known for his highly detailed art style, came in to draw the last of the issues, but by then sales had plummeted to the depressingly low numbers of the average comic. The hardcover sold really well, though, so there's that.
Lindelof's script shows off some serious comic writing chops -- a definite level-up from his work on Ultimate Hulk vs. Wolverine. Must have hit up Brian K. Vaughan for some pointers.
UNIVERSE 777777771: ALL THOSE BANDS THAT FORMED WHEN THE LIBERTINES BROKE UP
Armed with a team of rabid lawyers, Alan Moore wrested the rights to Watchmen from DC Comics' hands and did the unspeakable: he made it public domain.
Then the feeding frenzy began.
I'm not going to list every single sequel, remake, remix, cover version or mashup that ensued as the market flooded and the name Watchmen lost all meaning. We have a pretty decent guide to that already.
It's pretty well known at this point that Johnny Ryan never read the original Watchmen. In his now-classic Newsarama interview, the only question that he didn't answer dismissively with a "Fuck that shit" was his explanation that he watched the Zack Snyder adaptation until the part where the Nite Owl's owl-shaped conveyance ejaculated fire during the big sex scene. He turned it off, deciding that he had seen all he needed to in order to make his comic.
As such, Nite Owl is all about Dan Dreiberg's weird fetish for technology, particularly for Archie, his owl-shaped flying vehicle. Dreiberg built the thing to assist him with his never-ending battle against crime, but soon fell in love with his own creation.
I guess what I'm getting at is that Nite Owl fucks a plane.
Due to the somewhat obscure title, many fans of the Alan Moore original never read Dash Shaw's infinite canvas take on not only Rorschach, but the inspiration for the character -- Steve Ditko's insane objectivist investigator, Mr. A. Thankfully, Shaw's efforts aren't just a pastiche of Ditko as some critics feared. Instead, he uses the ideas to play with the webcomic form -- whenever someone falls off the weird metaphysical black and white bar, readers could scroll down for hours, following the hapless wrongdoer as he or she fell down the abyss of metaphysical space below. I once spent an afternoon just following the poor mother who stole baby formula and listening to podcasts. It was like Marc Maron was down there with me, plummeting into sequential nothingness.
Dash Shaw has mentioned plans for a physical release of the comic, but I haven't a fucking clue how he's going to pull it off.
Watchmen XOXO Gaiden
This hyperkinetic (to put it lightly) manga-style one-shot by the creator of Sharknife was one of the first major Watchmen releases to come out, and easily the most divisive. While many open-minded readers appreciated the wild take on Alan Moore's characters and ideas, the hardcore fans raised such a stink about the work on the Internet (often directly to Lewis) that the writer-artist was forced to delete his Twitter account and cut off a majority of his accessibility to fans. It is unknown if he grew a beard and started to worship a snake god. I really liked it, for what it's worth.
(Robert Kirkman/Ryan Ottley)
Once the property went public domain, a lot of creators rushed to have their take on Watchmen be the first one that people saw, causing a flooding of the market that didn't help any of them. Kirkman, however, took his time and included them in his ongoing superhero epic Invincible when he was good and ready, introducing the various Watchmen characters at the end of Invincible #126 only to have most of them get killed off in the first pages of #127.
It was a really funny joke, but then Dr. Manhattan spent four pages explaining in a countless number of word balloons just why he refused to resurrect his old friends, even though he possessed the power. Tedious!
The manga-ka who adapted the bright-eyed Astro Boy into the Watchmen-like Pluto: Tezuka x Urasawa tried to do the opposite with Moore's material, taking a gritty comic and turning it into a goofy '60s manga, in line with, say, Speed Racer or Cyborg 009. Suddenly, instead of a murder mystery about dead superheroes, Ozymandias: Watchmen ÷ Urasawa, as it's "cleverly" (?) known in the US, was about a supervillain who constantly plots tremendous disasters in order to create world peace, but something always goes wrong due to Ozymandias' own hubris.
The affair was mostly a stylistic experiment, though Urasawa claimed that Tezuka's ghost haunted him at night after Pluto, so Ozymandias was his way to to ward away the spirit of the God of Manga, but he may have meant this as a joke -- the translation isn't clear. Either way, soon Urasawa lost interest in the concept and published one final story arc where Ozymandias gets what he wants (but at what cost!?) and called it quits. Viz Media opted to publish both volumes of Ozymandias as one complete book, knowing the work would be of interest mostly to completists and really, really hardcore manga fans.
Fans of C.F.'s Power Mastrs were reasonably annoyed that the creator decided to stall his idiosyncratic fantasy epic to work on an idiosyncratic take on Alan Moore's superhero opus.
Instead of addressing the events of the original comic, C.F. opted to set his story in the distant future and make it a bit more indulgently superheroic than Moore and Gibbons' work, at least on the surface. In the eons (?) since, the Earth had become one sprawling supercity and the prime deity of worship is now the destructive Squid and its prophet, Ozzymandus (sic). But the story is secondary to C.F.'s obsession with the grid of the thing. The pages of Watchmn 2 pulse as panel grids grow and shrink gradually with the intensity of the story. It's the effect that Gaspar Noe used in putting a low-frequency sound in Irreversible that caused unease in viewers.
It's easily the most artistically accomplished take on the material, even though fans of his work deemed it a sort of "sellout" maneuver, even though C.F.'s comics aren't something mainstream comics fans have even heard of, much less read.
In what Comics Alliance called "a dick move," Marvel got in on the Watchmen sequel game the moment it went public domain, announcing (and then quickly publishing) a series of Watchmen Return one-shots:
- Tales of the Black Freighter anthology by Howard Chaykin, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Juan Doe, Brian Clevinger and Chuck BB and Kieron Gillen and Carmine DiGiandomenico
- Rorschach by Rick Remender and Nathan Fox
- Dr. Manhattan by Jonathan Hickman
- The Comedian and Nite Owl by Jeff Parker and Dale Eaglesham
- The Silk Spectre by G. Willow Wilson and Kano
Each team was allowed to interpret the material at their own discretion, so as a result there's not a lot of overlap among the series. The Black Freighter anthology was surprisingly hit-or-miss, the Rorschach one-shot had some insane artwork and Dr. Manhattan special, with Hickman's trademark high-minded sci-fi and design-conscious artwork, left a lot of fans scratching their heads as to its meaning.
There was also a year-long Watchmen Return maxiseries with the Marvel Architects (Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman) sharing writing duties a la 52 (makes sense, as the project was also edited by Steve Wacker) and illustrated by a bevy of artists including Leinil Francis Yu, David Aja, Alex Maleev and Ed McGuinness. It's an okay series -- nothing world-changing, and you can tell who wrote what portion (especially Bendis), but it definitely feels like all the Architects were politely avoiding stepping on one another's artistic toes.
The Last Watchmen
(J. Michael Straczynski/Doug Mahnke)
DC Comics losing the rights to one of their most profitable works didn't mean that they themselves weren't allowed to try to cash in on what had now been un-cash-in-able. As a result, DC put out The Last Watchmen, an 8-issue series by their biggest writer, J. Michael Straczynski and drawn by (surprisingly) Green Lantern's Doug Mahnke.
Mahnke's art is, as usual, to die for (even if the use of way-too-many inkers required to keep the book running on time almost sinks everything), but the script is self-important nonsense that tests society's tolerance for literary quotes in comic books. Once again you can tell the editor's only duty in dealing with a JMS comic is having an email address for Straczynski to send his scripts to.
Still, it somehow managed to get nominated for an Eisner.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery.