Watchmen II

So, it’s official: Watchmen II is finally happening. DC have announced seven – seven! – prequel series.

Instinctively, I don’t think it’s the right decision. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why, and I think I’ve got there.

It is not, much as it pains me to say it, because it against Alan Moore’s express wishes. It’s not even that it’s contrary to explicit assurances DC management made to Moore that they would never produce Watchmen material without his involvement. This is a complex, touchy area, something that needs more room than an article like this can give it. The bottom line, though, is that everyone involved agrees that DC have the contractual rights to do it. Corporations which produce entertainment products routinely stretch and exploit existing work for more profit. The most unusual thing about Watchmen is not that DC are doing this now, it’s that they’ve held off from doing it for so long, when it’s what they’ve done systematically and routinely with pretty much every other property, great and small, whoever created it, for the whole time they’ve existed. Is this good, right and proper? No, almost certainly not, not from any perspective. It is, though, the way things have always been with superhero comics.

(And I would also note that Dave Gibbons seems to be somewhat happier with the idea of a Watchmen prequel. It’s not a wild coincidence that most artists’ best work is the stuff they did with Alan Moore, but they are often a full partner in the process. Gibbons and Moore created Watchmen together, thrashed it out between them. It was a partnership. If Alan Moore’s opinion counts, Gibbons’ should, too.)

As for Alan Moore’s position … I think it’s pretty simple: if Alan Moore says it’s a bad idea, it almost certainly is. Not legally, financially or morally, but simply artistically. Alan Moore is not a legal expert, he’s certainly not a business expert. He does, though, know how to write a comic.

My main objection is not because I think a Watchmen prequel is an inherently terrible idea. Back in the day, Moore and Gibbons both talked about possibly working on a prequel featuring the Minutemen, the 1940s generation of superheroes. They said it so often that we can infer they thought about it quite seriously, bounced a few ideas off each other at least. That’s hardly the same as having a viable series, but they clearly didn’t think such a thing was impossible.

Am I interested in reading about the Watchmen characters per se? About as much as I am in watching a prequel to Citizen Kane that’s about the sledge. I think Watchmen is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, and I think that’s because I’ve read a lot of twentieth century novels, not because I haven’t. But the weakest links in there are the characters. The New York Times may have hailed the series for its ‘staggeringly complex psychological profiles’, but this is not a claim that survives contact with the book for long. As Grant Morrison noted in Supergods, the book deals in stock action-narrative types:

‘Dazzled by its technical excellence, Watchmen’s readership was willing to overlook a cast of surprisingly conventional Hollywood stereotypes: the inhibited guy who had to get his mojo back; the boffin losing touch with his humanity; the overbearing showbiz mom who drove her daughter to excel while hiding from her the secret of her dubious parentage; the prison psychiatrist so drawn into the dark inner life of his patient that his own life cracked under the weight. The Watchmen characters were drawn from a repertoire of central casting ciphers’

Personally, I think that Alan Moore’s right when he says that Rorschach, Nite Owl and friends are an ensemble, that there is nothing particularly fascinating about them. Every article about Watchmen will point out that they were originally knock offs of the Charlton characters – Nite Owl was Blue Beetle, Dr Manhattan was Captain Atom blah blah. The thing is … the Charlton characters were themselves fairly generic superhero types. Watchmen could just as easily featured Firestorm, Black Canary and Green Arrow. For that matter, it’s the work of moments to slot X-Men or Avengers into those story slots.

So Watchmen works not because of the characters, but because of what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did with them. It’s how the comic was structured and crafted, how it used and subverted the medium. Simple as that.

I’d have no qualms about reading a Moore and Gibbons sequel. I’d have only slightly more than no qualms about a Gibbons-only one.

But let’s be logical about this – if Alan Moore didn’t give his blessing to another team, that wouldn’t mean the words and pictures are cursed. The right team could, in theory, pull it off.

However, lest we get carried away, let’s explain the problem with this in five words: apparently, Kevin Smith was approached.

This is not some creator-led project, this is DC aware that they’ve got to farm it out to a ‘big name’ writer and artist. Grant Morrison turned it down, we know that. I’d bet good money DC had Neil Gaiman’s name on a list at some point. I bet in some crazy brainstorming session, they looked at each other and went ‘Frank Miller?’.

Yes, the creators lined up for Before Watchmen are exciting names. I know I’m not the only person who rolled their eyes when they heard Watchmen 2 was coming, but paused for thought when it turned out that Darwyn Cooke would be involved. Joe and Andy Kubert working on some multigenerational story? Ooh, yes, please.

I do have to say that I do look at what Brian Azzarello – writing a ‘visceral’ Rorschach series – says and roll my eyes a little:

‘It’s 25 years later. Let’s make them vital again.’

Let’s not kid ourselves here, let’s just look at some numbers. The bestselling individual comic of the last ten years, by miles, is the Obama inauguration issue of Spider-Man, which sold about half a million copies in early 2009. The same year as that, twice as many copies of Watchmen were sold. It had a cover price five times higher.

So don’t anyone delude themselves that this is DC taking moribund smelly clapped out old Watchmen and pouring in energy and lifeforce, hoping a bit of magic will rub off. It’s exactly the opposite.

So … here’s the question: why would creators as good as Cooke and Azzarello use the Watchmen characters to tell a new story? They could just use the Charlton characters. They could use any number of the characters DC own, from the big names to the completely obscure. Here’s a crazy idea: they could make up some new characters. Here’s an even crazier idea: start with a blank page and come up with a completely new idea for a comic that’s nothing like Watchmen.

I don’t think less of Darwyn Cooke or whoever else is working on this. I don’t see it as crossing a picket line or arch treason. I’m sure it’s an artistic challenge, a huge profile project and a guaranteed big payday, and in the end is that not what we freelancers dream of? But I’d think more of them if … well, they’d come up with their own thing. Even their own thing that was almost exactly Watchmen. They have done their own things in the past, obviously. Why not continue to do that? I think, genuinely, I’d be more likely to pick up a random Darwyn Cooke project than his Watchmen one.

I was lucky enough recently to read a great article about Moore by the comics scholar Maggie Gray. She quoted quite a famous article from a 1976 edition of NME, ‘The Titanic Sails at Dawn’, by Mick Farren, a call to arms in the face of the widely-touted ‘death of rock and roll’:

‘Putting the Beatles back together isn’t going to be the salvation of rock and roll. Four kids playing to their contemporaries in a dirty cellar club might. And that, gentle reader, is where you come in’.

And that’s it in a nutshell. That’s how you ‘save’ something like this. You don’t put the Beatles back together. You don’t set up a Beatles cover band, even an all-star, supergroup cover band. You find the people who can write this generation’s version of She Loves You.

So why do Watchmen? There’s an obvious answer: brand value. Some of this, admittedly, is artistic: Watchmen is ‘realistic’. There is a distinct ‘Watchmen universe’ with rules and a history that make it a different playground from the regular DC universe. But, just like the characters, it’s, by now, a pretty generic one.

No one is fooling anyone here: this is a purely commercial decision, made because it will shift units.

I don’t object to that. I don’t have a problem with ‘corporate art’ per se – that is, something created under the aegis of a corporation to make money. I’d have a problem if that was the only way art was produced, or the only art I was allowed access to, but it’s plainly not.

DC is a corporation which makes hundreds of millions franchising popular, long-lived characters. What we now have to start referring to as ‘the original Watchmen series’ was not swallowed whole when some corporate entity bought up a mom and pop operation (ironically, that’s kind of what happened with the Charlton characters). It’s not even a situation like V for Vendetta, which was started elsewhere, finished at DC. Watchmen was created – could only have been created – in a corporate environment that allowed Moore and Gibbons complete carte blanche with format and content, could let them take a year to work on the first script and guarantee it would be published and publicised. Watchmen represents – we now have to start using ‘represented’, I guess – a perfect combination of a corporation using its resources to allow artists to create exact what they wanted to create and get it to an audience hungry for it.

We’re getting to the problem, though. Inevitably, once the precedent has been set, now that ‘difficult’ commercial decision has been made, there will be a Watchmen III, and a Watchmen IV. Every few years, from now on, enough material to collect into a new Watchmen book will come out. And DC will be working down their list of creators, and in a few years they’ll be assigning people who managed to boost sales of Hawkman by 15% the previous year.

There are artistic objections to this, obviously. But that rubicon has been crossed. We have to forget about the artistic reasons.

I’m going to try to explain this purely in bean counting terms. Think about Watchmen as units shifted, think of it solely as product. Ignore everything about it except commercial potential. Strip away all the Watchmenness, and treat it as a little slab of something people can buy.

Back in the late eighties, if you wanted to read a Batman graphic novel, there were a handful – Dark Knight, The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, Son of the Demon. When The Killing Joke or Arkham Asylum came out, they were massive events, huge sellers.

Now, if you want to buy a Batman graphic novel … there are dozens of them. Hundreds. And it means that when a billion dollar Batman movie comes along, and some of its audience go looking for the comics, the great wave dissipates, is spread over those hundred titles. In the end … OK, you still sell a lot of units. But there’s no focus, no common experience, no one gateway.

Worse still, there’s a substantial group of potential readers who will look at the mass of Batman product and go ‘whoa … way too much’. We’ve all done this – seen a great episode of TV and realised it’s from season four, picked up a novel that looks interesting, then put it back when it’s book seven of some series or other. There’s a hell of a difference between ‘read this book’ and ‘commit to reading this series’.

The unique selling point of Watchmen is that it’s one of the very few comics where you can hand it to someone and say ‘this is it’. You don’t need to collect, you don’t need to worry about what order to read things. You don’t need a Powerpoint presentation from a guy in a comic shop explaining how you also need to buy Thor Annual 5 and don’t forget they renumbered around issue 600 and don’t forget the miniseries that ran alongside the main one. One volume.

It meant that when the movie came out, there was one decision: read this or don’t. And they’ve sold a lot of slabs with that business model.

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.

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13 responses to “Watchmen II

  1. “The unique selling point of Watchmen is that it’s one of the very few comics where you can hand it to someone and say ‘this is it’. You don’t need to collect, you don’t need to worry about what order to read things.”

    Right, exactly! It’s one of the reasons why I (who am not really a comics fan) love Watchmen. And I had exactly the experience you allude to when I finished reading The Dark Knight Returns, i.e. “Well, that was good! What’s next? Oh, I see … all these. Well, maybe another time.”

  2. This sums up the whole situation with amazing clarity. I can’t find anything to add to the above!

    On a note of pure comics geekery, we can see a hint of what approach the proposed Minutemen series by Moore and Gibbons might have taken by looking at Moore and Gene Ha’s miniseries Top 10 and its graphic novel prequel Top 10: The Forty-Niners, set fifty years earlier. Not in any plot details, of course, but structurally — knowing how the lead characters end up adds poignance to the story, but it’s not necessary to read either one before the other.

    In addition, the Watchmen Sourcebook role playing supplement of 1990, written with a great deal of input from Moore, included a lot of backstory for minor characters. (For instance, we learn Mothman was a wealthy civil rights activist who brawled in Harlem with Captain Metropolis in 1948.) It seems entirely possible that such tidbits were generated out of early planning sessions for a Minutemen story.

  3. Best comment on Comics Should Be Good about this:
    “With Watchmen, Moore attempted to elevate the medium to something approaching actual art.

    With these prequels, DC says, no, they’re just dumb superhero comics after all.”

  4. In light of the corporate selling philosophy as outlined above, it’s interesting to note that DC apparently offered the rights back to Moore last year in return for his blessing on these prequel books. Where’s the upside for them in that? They make a boat-load, short-term, on these projects, and give up the best-selling graphic novel of all time? How does THAT work? Was that offer really a 20-years-too-late pang of conscience, wrapped in a quick-profit corporate money grab? The mind reels…

  5. Big picture, doing a prequel is intellectual cowardice, especially on Azarello’s part. We know how these characters will react in the future (we read it already), we know a lot of their formative memories, etc. The best Brian et al. can do is try to set up a clever set of dominoes, where we already know what the end result will be. It didn’t work with Star Wars, it won’t work here.

    Doing a real sequel would take some skill. Moore’s naive ending of Rorschach’s diary about to expose the truth, but in a scandal rag that no-one reads, left it all wide open. There’s tons more scope for uncovering conspiracy, ragging on honesty in media, etc. Hell, who said Rorschach’s dead? Dr Manhattan just pushed him a decade into the future for all we know.

    There is a lot more mileage to be had in those characters. Doing a prequel is saying “we want to write a story that you already know the end to”.

    Pathetic.

    • Hmmm … agree with some of that.

      I think even wronglings who think the Star Wars prequels ‘didn’t work’ have to concede that the end result of the original trilogy wasn’t really up in the air, either. We knew Luke would beat the Death Star. We knew that, eventually, the Rebels would prevail and there would be a happy ending. I think in the vast majority of cases, we know how the story ends to decimal places. We can be pretty confident that the detective will solve the case, that the players we’re following will win that crucial game and that the guy will end up with the right girl. It’s how they do it and the knocks they take getting there that we’re watching for. Titanic didn’t do badly, and we all knew where that was going (actually, I tell I lie: when that came out, someone I was working with breathlessly described how shocked she was at the twist of having the boat hit an iceberg) … but, to the honest, wasn’t the end of Avatar even more predictable than the end of Titanic?

      What I do think is that a Watchmen sequel needs to carve its own space. It needs to be different. Ironically, I think that was the problem fans had with The Phantom Menace – it wasn’t what they were expecting. They wanted something grim and gritty and Matrix-y and, above all, familiar as a comfy old pair of slippers. ‘A serious film for adults, just like the one I loved when I was nine’, as Steven Moffat put it. They wanted a rerun, but with a nasty, cynical Luke. Which is basically an argument for not letting fans dictate these things, because they will kind of miss every point going.

      I think there are ways to do this. To be honest, a Darwyn Cooke self-contained Minuteman 12 part thing … I think that would be OK if that was the only one. A Silk Spectre book that took on sexism in comics and deconstructed Alan Moore’s work in the same way that Moore took on libertarianism and Ditko with Rorschach … well, turnabout is fair play. With Lethem, Chabon and Liss all keen comics fans, if one of them wanted to do a Watchmen story … well, yes please. The linking thing here is, I guess, ‘artistic transformation’. Take the old thing and make a new thing from it. Take the spirit and intelligence of the original and apply it to issues affecting 2012. One of the issues of 2012 is, looking at Occupy, looking at the Eurozone Crisis, looking at the Arab Spring, that there’s a real sense that something needs to change, but just no sense of what would happen next. And, that, I think, is a recurring theme in Moore’s work, it’s certainly the hanging question at the end of Watchmen. A book that *answered* that question would be incredibly timely and powerful.

      This looks more like a cash grab than art. It looks like it was instigated by editors, not creators, and has been written and drawn by the first people who didn’t say ‘no’, rather than someone with a burning, personal vision and story to tell. I may, of course, be wrong. All the series may be the best comics ever. Time will tell.

      I do think it’s telling that while Watchmen was the one comic book that millions of adult norms who’ve never stepped into a comic shop have read, Before Watchmen requires readers to go into a comic shop for forty consecutive weeks and keep a checklist. That does suggest to me that it’s designed to harvest cash ($140, if you get them all) from existing fans, rather than win the hearts and minds of the general public.

  6. I think you’re correct in everything except your analysis of why it’s a bad business decision.

    There isn’t going to be another Watchmen film. That multi-million-dollar, million-copy-shifting publicity event is gone and it isn’t coming back. Sale of the original Watchmen novel are going to very quickly drop back to the trickle that they were in 2006 — in fact I’d be surprised if they haven’t already. Watchmen is right back in the long tail, where it has been for most of the last couple of decades. I’d guess it’s a reliable seller, but not a huge one. In the hundreds of copies per year, perhaps? Maybe breaking a thousand?

    I can see two reasons for offering the rights back to Moore. One, you can be pretty sure he won’t take them. He’s Alan Moore. So you get the publicity of making the offer with little danger of having to follow through.

    But two, even if it does take them, it’s a ticket to a ship which has sailed. The original Watchmen, I would hazard, isn’t, as a business property in its own right, that valuable any more.

    But.

    The brand.

    Now, that does possibly have value. Because think of the markets. Where is the market for the original Watchmen novel? It’s gone. Saturated. Basically every comics fan in the world has a copy of Watchmen and because they are sad mooks who live in their parents’ basements, they keep them in vacuum-sealed polyurethane bags and read them wearing white cotton gloves, so they will never need to buy a new copy. And just about every non-comics fan who might have bought a copy over their lifetime will have done it, or had it done for them, during the Year Of The Movie.

    But, every one of those people who has bought the original novel is a potential customer for the new books in the brand. I mean, hardly any of them will actually buy it. But there are millions of them, so even if a tiny percentage of that potential market turns into sales, it’ll probably still turn a profit.

    So if you look at it in business terms, what are DC losing? They are losing the uniqueness of Watchmen as the superhero (to distinguish it from Maus) comic to recommend to non-comics-fans who don’t want to get overwhelmed with a huge series, and therefore losing that potential market. but if I’m right that market is gone now for the foreseeable anyway: the movie has hoovered it up, and barring another movie to expand the market with another multi-million-dollar marketing push, that is it for the original novel.

    But what are they gaining? They are gaining access to a new market just ready for them to sell into, a market that has just been massively expanded by that multi-million-dollar marketing exercise. And if even a tiny fraction of the market responds positively — and the proportion who do is probably completely independant of the actual quality of the work, so there’s no real way for them to lose — they make money.

    As gain/loss calculations go, I think this business decision — divorced of any legal, moral or artistic considerations — makes clear sense.

  7. I agree that the movie must be a factor in working out where Watchmen is in its life cycle – there’s no big movie deal to be had. I’ve seen people talk about Before Watchmen as a gateway to more movies, but … no, the first one bombed, there’s just no appetite.

    Watchmen has clearly just had a sales spike. A million plus more people have a copy, and you’re right that means that demand has been sated for a few years.

    As I say in the article, I think this is the *easy* route for DC. Milk it, sell the milk in comic shops. Getting a product that sells because it’s *literature* is harder. It’s not *that* hard, it is what most publishers do most of the time. But DC have gone for the captive audience, the loyal one, the one that would shell out the $140 regardless.

    I think the reason this is disappointing with Watchmen is that it demonstrated – continues to – that there was another way: sell it on the actual contents, word of mouth. Carve out new territory.

    When Moore looked at the comics scene in the early 80s, he said ‘most of these imitators [of Stan Lee’s style] seem unable to recognise the single most important quality he brought to the comic medium. Stan Lee, in his heyday, did something wildly and radically *different*’.

    And that’s it, for me. I think ‘people want more of the same’ is the mistake here. I don’t think people want ‘more Watchmen’, particularly. They want something that does what Watchmen did. Which was to make people realise that comics were splashing around the shallow end.

    And, in the end, that is still a business calculation. And there’s a vast audience, vaster even than Watchmen found, there to be tapped. You can talk about appealing to that, but things like the New 52 and Before Watchmen energise the base, they don’t go very far beyond that.

  8. Pingback: Rich Johnson was right: Watchmen 2 is a GO « Buying Drinks For The Poets Upstate

  9. This is probably the best analysis of the Watchmen II I have read, and I don’t have anything really to add to your piece, save for the following ramblings. I do agree with you that this series of prequels ‘doesn’t feel right’, and you’ve done a great job articulating the inadequacies of these books both from an aesthetic and ‘bean-counter’ sense.

    I think, though, that Alan Moore’s reaction to this also leaves me feeling a little uneasy, and I’m not entirely sure I buy his distinction between his “stealing” of long dead characters, and DC’s “adaptation” of his work, especially given that his initial plan for Watchmen involved the Charlton characters. He seems to view creative success as inversely related to corporate interests — which he may or may not have a legitimate point on — but there’s also a streak of nostalgia running through many of his recent comments and musings where it seems that no one has had an original idea since he stopped writing superhero comicbooks (Geoff Johns came in for a bit of abuse from Mr Moore). Perhaps I’m being overly harsh here, and I’m having trouble articulating precisely what it is about Moore that I find disquieting (apart from the glove puppet worshipping and living on Middle Earth bit, of course).

    Anyway, a very thought provoking article — great stuff.

    • “I’m not entirely sure I buy his distinction between his “stealing” of long dead characters, and DC’s “adaptation” of his work”

      … whereas for me, I find it hard *not* to see the distinction. I’m pretty sure I’ll be writing a full post about this, if only to get my own thoughts in order. I don’t think it’s as simple (or nebulous) as ‘artistic intent’, either.

      “Geoff Johns came in for a bit of abuse from Mr Moore”

      Obviously the DC Universe is a big toybox. The deal is that you can use the old toys in that box and in return anyone that comes along later can use any toys you add to the box. I don’t think anyone’s really complaining because Johns’ Green Lantern run uses a lot of old toys, that’s sort of what you’re meant to do, just as Moore did with Batman, Superman and Swamp Thing. I think the complaint is more that a *disproportionate* number of the GL toys Johns uses were put there by Moore. I’m sure that Johns’ GL run is a synthesis of things from dozens of creators. I’m sure Johns has added many, many things of his own. I think what makes Moore stand out on that list is that Moore only wrote three GL short strips (24 pages in total? Something like that). It does look like they’ve been systematically mined. Exhibit A: *The Black Mercy* is now a Green Lantern.

      I’ve read a few issues of Johns’ GL run, but I’m not qualified to comment on what’s been added. When I’ve seen, say, Sodom Yat (tee hee, can’t believe no one at DC have noticed the joke name) flying around being nothing but a cross between Superman and Green Lantern, I just think ‘well, yes … this was implied far more forcefully and efficiently by Moore in that one panel’. It’s a cool idea, but it was Moore’s idea. Nothing’s added by seeing the character in action. If anything, it takes away some of the ‘specialness’.

      I mean, at one level Sodom Yat is two ‘old ideas’ thrown together. Moore did not create Daxamites, he did not create Green Lanterns. He didn’t even invent sodomy. But I don’t find it at all hard to distinguish between the process of going ‘ooh, a Daxamite GL would be hard to beat’ and ‘I’ll put Sodom Yat in my story’.

  10. Pingback: Before Watchmen/ After Watchmen « Buying Drinks For The Poets Upstate

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