Final Words, Before “Before Watchmen”

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A critical piece published on Slate this morning, written by Noah Berlatsky, got me thinking about “Before Watchmen,” the prequel project to Alan Moore’s classic miniseries that will expand upon what I guess is now a “mythos” with seven related limited series penned and illustrated by some of the more recognizable talents in the comic book industry. There’s been venomous criticism of this idea from the moments it was announced, and it’s been given more weight due in large part to Moore’s own harsh words for the concept and the company that birthed it.

And certainly, “Before Watchmen” deserves to be criticized, though I’m not so sure Moore ought to be lionized to quite the extent he is as a result. In the Slate piece linked above, commenter Jordan Lund helpfully (though somewhat problematically) points out the following:

Moore didn’t create the Watchmen characters. His original pitch to DC was to use the Charlton heroes that DC had then just bought the rights to. When he was told they had other plans for Captain Atom (Doctor Manhattan), Blue Beetle (Nite Owl) and The Question (Rorscharch), Moore then created thinly veiled variations on the characters he wasn’t allowed to use.

It’s ridiculous to ask the rhetorical question “After the third or fourth Before Watchmen movie, which iteration of the characters will be most familiar to the public?” when most folks have already forgotten or never knew that Moore’s characters are already a 2nd or 3rd iteration to begin with.

Moore built his career writing other peoples characters and in the case of Terra Obscura he even did so without any kind of attribution or acknowledgement of the original creators. It’s disingenuous to take the argument Watchmen is somehow above the same sort of creative additions that Moore spent decades benefiting from.

The problem is that these characters really are, strictly speaking, Moore’s, even if they were largely inspired by the Charlton characters. But the point should be taken all the same: Moore’s reputation (and whatever wealth he has) has largely been built on the backs of other creators. He didn’t invent Swamp Thing, though he is very famous for reinventing him. He didn’t invent Superman, though he put him to great use in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is basically a literary Justice League. While he’s a vastly talented, innovative writer, he simply did not set the world ablaze with his 1996 novel “Voice of the Fire,” say, or the recent “Neonomicon.” He owes a great debt to the creators of characters that he later put to great use in groundbreaking, powerful stories like the above. And while the whole “Before Watchmen” exercise is by leaps and bounds more crass and cynical than those examples, it isn’t so far divorced on paper: over 20 years after their invention, creators are attempting new stories with comic book characters that still belong to DC Comics.

As an incidental point to what I’m ultimately getting at here, I’m tempted to say that I’m a little surprised at how aghast the community of Internet comic critics seems to be at Moore’s treatment by DC. It’s tied into some harsh contractual stuff spotlighted by the great David Brothers over at Comics Alliance, and while I would 100%, totally disagree with Brothers that the business side of things can be really, truly “gross” … I just can’t quite get behind the core of the argument. Things become murky, I suppose, in a creative business where fictions are being churned out and characters birthed, but as someone who makes a living editing and writing, I can’t pretend to have any disillusions about who my work ultimately belongs to no matter where it’s been published over the years.

Regardless, “Before Watchmen” still makes my stomach churn – I just don’t have too much personal sympathy for Alan Moore. I do, however, have a whole lot of respect for “Watchmen.”

The main objection I have – and it’s a major one – is to the process of harvesting characters, plot points, and ideas from a wholly complete, perhaps masterful artistic work with the singular intent to stitch them together as a Frankenstein monster with seven heads – a monster that will stumble around, stuffed to its eyeballs with advertisements, in a vain attempt to capture the grace of its originator, now practically worshipped by generations of fanboys and hipsters. It’s a cash-grab in the way the “Watchmen” movie was. That movie and these comics diminish the relevance (and appeal) of the original work simply by existing as inferior products and being impossible to ignore. Just as you can no longer have a conversation about “The Dark Knight Returns” without eventually turning to its not-so-acclaimed sequel, “The Dark Knight Strikes Again,” you can’t really sit down and chat about “Watchmen” now without at least glancing at the elephant in the room (and the Watchmen-branded toaster sitting on the counter next to it).

How can anyone judge seven distinct “Before Watchmen” miniseries that haven’t come out yet? It’s simple: these series cannot, will not be as good as “Watchmen.” Cultural circumstances decide that. These things are being born into a market that’s already saturated with serious, intellectual comic work and substantial super hero films like “The Dark Knight.” The zeitgeist was altogether different back in 1986, when “Watchmen” was published. It’s not just that there isn’t a void to fill in 2012, it’s that the thinking people of our cultural sphere already know to reject this series just as the leading thinkers of the Renaissance panned Botticelli’s “BEFORE SISTINE,” which Michelangelo himself condemned.

“Before Watchmen” will almost certainly be a tremendous commercial success, and many, if not all, of the comics might even be pretty good. Still, the damage is already done. There will be inevitable deluxe “COMPLETE WATCHMEN” box sets. The classic will be shelved with the prequels and director’s cut Blu-rays at Barnes and Noble. And new readers won’t be able to avoid back-of-book ads for “BEFORE WATCHMEN: SILK SPECTRE,” etcetera, following Moore’s masterwork, nor getting way more than they want or bargained for in Google searches for “Nite Owl.” That’s the shame of the whole thing: that one perfect, or near perfect, or even “very good,” single book couldn’t be left alone – a book that continues to be a cash cow for DC Comics without all of these nasty appendages grafted on. Do these times prevent us from letting art be art any longer?

Say what you will about fans being able to avoid “Before Watchmen” if they want to: Our culture makes any sort of ignorance as to its existence (or motives) all but impossible. “Watchmen” is now irreparably changed. And maybe you’re someone who likes all of these new products, who relishes the very idea of them: I’m not out to yuck any yums, here, but the discourse sure feels different when “J. Michael Straczynski,” “Zack Snyder,” and “Patrick Wilson’s humping ass” are uttered in the same breath as “Alan Moore,” doesn’t it? A little cheaper, maybe?

I have no illusions about the nature of comic books. My all-time favorite writer Grant Morrison has done staggering work for DC Comics with old characters and repurposed ideas – that’s essentially all there is to the (dare I say) miraculous “Seven Soldiers of Victory” series. But there is a reverence in his words and actions, a delicate touch, that is not to be found here. Plus, Morrison’s characters and plots almost always come from what are very distinctly shared (corporate) universes. “Watchmen” was tight, complete, alone. A true graphic novel despite its original serialized form.

Make no mistake: We’re all losing something here as fans. So why all the worry over Alan Moore?

(Note: This piece is also available on Tumblr!)

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3 Responses to “Final Words, Before “Before Watchmen””

  1. I don’t know Alan Moore personally, obviously. But it’s not really solely about him anyway. It’s about a business model that repeatedly and deliberately screws creators over, whether it’s Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, or whoever. It’s bad for creators, it’s bad for creativity. But creators are actual people, which brings up ethical issues. Insisting that our ethical response to the characters we love is more important than our ethical response to actual people is the sort of deeply confused thinking that allows this sort of nonsense to be perpetuated in the first place.

    • Hi Noah,
      Thanks for the response. I think the main difficulty I have with your piece – which I enjoyed, and certainly am appreciative of in a venue like Slate – and articles like David Brothers’ on Comics Alliance is that I fail to see why a company’s use of characters it legally owns is “unethical.” Frustrating, cynical (depending on the circumstances): sure. But there’s nothing wrong with it, strictly speaking.

      I’d like to make it clear that I’m not someone who thinks DC Comics should do whatever it damn well pleases simply because it has the rights to, and this post is ultimately meant to illustrate that. But the bottom line with these very difficult arguments over creator rights is essentially this for me: if I sell you a nugget of gold for $5 today, do I have any right to raise a stink ten years down the line when that gold is worth $50,000? I would completely, totally advocate a situation that allows for better contracts for creators (and better behavior from their corporate bosses), and I certainly don’t enjoy reading about these unfortunate situations that illustrate how cruel the business side of things can be, but… It is business, no?

      And I don’t know that I was pushing for an “ethical response to the characters we love.” I don’t know that I really do view this issue as particularly ethical. But shouldn’t there be some artistic responsibility to “classic works”? There certainly isn’t a “Lolita 2,” for example.

  2. I believe that when people are using the word “unethical,” what they mean is that it is immoral. I do not doubt that DC Comics have the *legal* right to publish Before Watchmen. Really, what I think is that they are violating is the ethical spirit of the original contract, in that at the time it was first drafted DC promoted it as this huge advancement in creators’ rights. Unfortunately, Moore & Gibbons apparently failed to read the fine print, and were perhaps naive enough to take DC at their word. But that does not make the company’s actions any less onerous and unfair.

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