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.