They've only bloody gone and done it.
Not quite in the way I was expecting them to, but DC are going ahead with a new Watchmen based project. Even if you're reading this on the day this column is posted, I doubt you're surprised by this – it's been all over the internet all week. I mentioned the possibility of some Watchmen related action back in the New Year's Eve column, when I said this:
"I'm not sure that I'd want to read a Watchmen comic that wasn't by Moore and Gibbons. The rumours are always intriguing, but my hope for 2012 would be that they remain just that – unsubstantiated rumours. My subsidiary hope would be that if the rumours turn out to be true, that they make a bloody good job of it!"
Well. As I said, they're not doing what I thought they'd do – we're not getting a sequel, which makes sense because frankly, whether we're talking about the comic or the movie, it's a hard ending to follow.
What we're getting is a set of prequels. As the official DC press release would have it:
"…the seven inter-connected prequel mini-series will build on the foundation of the original WATCHMEN, the bestselling graphic novel of all time. BEFORE WATCHMEN will be the collective banner for all seven titles."
Well, OK then.
The creative line-up does not, as I predicted* include the names of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, although in the press release, after a lot of guff about having a "responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant" the release does quote Gibbons as saying:
"The original series of WATCHMEN is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell. However, I appreciate DC's reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire."
Which is nice of him – but then Gibbons is a very practical and level headed bloke. He understands that the creation of more comics won't have any real effect on the original. I confess I'm a little surprised by the strength of some of the other reaction I've seen. I mean, there was always going to be a reaction to an announcement like this. Watchmen was a truly groundbreaking comic in its day after all, and it holds a place in the hearts of many. It's a milestone, an icon, a landmark along the road of comics history, and while I'd contend that its influence might have been overstated a little, it is still MASSIVELY influential and important book. And my goodness but aren't a lot of fanboys cross?
Naturally as a fanboy myself I understand that it's easy for fans to get proprietorial about books like this of course. Indeed, it would be strange if we didn't. After all, we're geeks, which means that by nature we're obsessive. When we take a shine to something we give it our all, We invest our time, our money, our passion. It becomes part of our lives – of course it belongs to us. And morally at least, I reckon it really does.
Legally of course that's just bollocks. The ugly bottom line is simply this. Watchmen was a work for hire job. That doesn't mean it was hack work, it wasn't, but it does mean that the story, the characters, the art, everything belongs to DC Comics. Not Alan Moore. Not Dave Gibbons, and certainly not us. You or I might have an opinion about whether that state of affairs does or does not suck, or whether Moore and Gibbons would sign such a contract today, or whether such contracts should ever have been signed, but our opinion frankly amounts to rather less than a row of beans, and the wishes of the creators are at the end of the day not really any more important. We might wish it otherwise, but in the immortal words of Jayne Cobb "If wishes were horses, we'd all be eating steak". DC own the characters and they can do what they like with them. I'm sure if Moore and Gibbons had wanted to be involved DC would have bitten their hands off. They weren't interested, so the comics get done without them. Fair enough.
Because, let's be honest, it's not as though they've just gone and got random people in off the street – there is some serious talent attached to this project. Just step back for a second and gaxe at the line up: Brian Azzarello. Lee Bermejo. Darwyn Cooke. J.G. Jones. J.Michael Straczynski. Adam Hughes. Andy and Joe Kubert. Len Wein. Jae Lee. Amanda Conner. This is not exactly the "B" team. Throw in the "Crimson Corsair" back up strip that will be running through each of the mini-series** and you've got a very interesting proposition. A very interesting proposition indeed.
I'm still quite unlikely to read the prequels mind you. Not because Alan Moore is against the idea – he's entitled to his opinion, and I completely understand his position – if I'd written Watchmen I'd probably feel the same way, but they're simply not his toys and he can't stop the other kids playing with them if they want. No, I'm unlikely to read them because I'm not interested in the characters. I actively don't want to know more about them than I already do.
You see, the thing about Alan Moore, batshit crazy bearded loon that he is, gods love him, is that he is very, very very good at telling stories. Watchmen is a story about characters who, frankly, are either not very nice, or not very inspiring. They're a bunch of deeply flawed and inadequate losers. Real people, in other words. That was the genius Moore brought to the comic. He made their collective story gripping – in spite of the fact that it was about people with powers and costumes, they were human. Just people, dealing with insane events beyond their control trying to understand what the hell was going on. Reacting to events, having the rug pulled from under them at the very moment of their victory. "Heroes" unloved by the public failing. That was what made the book groundbreaking!
In the telling of that story, Moore revealed just enough back story for each of the characters for the reader to understand their motivations and their weaknesses – enough for us to comprehend the tragedy of their situation. Why the hell would I want to know more? Why would anyone? To my mind producing prequels or sequels to Watchmen is like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It adds to the original, but even if it's a very good one it's hardly making a positive contribution to the sum of art and beauty in the world.
But it's more than that, even. Even if I was agog to know more about the early lives of the characters, I still wouldn't be all that keen to read the prequels. The plot of Watchmen is like a bottle garden, or, as a comics artist acquaintance noted, the movement of a Swiss Watch. It's finely balanced, meticulously detailed, beautifully crafted. There is simply no structural reason to add to it – it's like explaining a joke that everybody got in the first place.
So no. I won't be reading them. But would I suggest that other people shouldn't? Hell no! I can't imagine why you'd want to, but I don't get why people put ketchup on chips either – that doesn't mean I'd stop you if you wanted to. Alan Moore has been widely quoted as saying " I don’t want money. What I want is for this not to happen" but given the treatment he's given to other people's characters*** he's on a pretty sticky wicket in my view.
If you want to know more about the history of the likes of the Comedian or the Silk Spectre, knock yourself out. If like me, you're happy with the original in all its unsullied glory, just ignore them and move on. Spend your har
d earned comics budget on something else. Go and buy a comic featuring a new character. Perhaps something that the creator still owns – perhaps something that the creator published themselves. Because you while you don't actually own any of the characters you read about you do have a voice in what comics get made.
In comics, as in all things in the media, you vote with your bucks and we come back to the basic maxim – buy what's good and comics will get better. Buy creator owned, and you strike a blow for creator rights. You know it makes sense!
*Back in the New Year's Eve column. Because I have the gift of prophecy. And because it was mind meltingly obvious.
**Either as a rather sweet homage to the "Tales of the Black Freighter" that ran through Watchmen, or as a cynical marketing ploy that makes you buy everything. Take your pick.
***He wrote a porno comic**** about Dorothy of Oz, Alice from Wonderland and Wendy from Peter Pan FFS! Whatever you think of Lost Girls (I hated it, for the record) there's no argument for saying that Baum, Carroll or Barrie would have been comfortable with his treatment of their characters. I don't know all that much about Baum, but both Carroll and Barrie would have been horrified, disgusted and utterly uncomprehending. Or is Moore suggesting that respect for creators is important, but only when they're alive?
****Yes, it is.