Posted on Saturday, February 4, 2012
by Paul in Uncategorized
Since it’s going to be woefully stale news by the time we reach the next podcast, I’ll throw out a few thoughts on this one now.
If you haven’t seen the official announcement, a brief summary: DC has announced a line of seven interconnected Watchmen prequel miniseries to ship this summer. There are some pretty respectable creators on there – Darwyn Cooke, Brian Azzarello, Adam Hughes, JG Jones. Some would argue that J Michael Straczynski still counts, though I find most of his recent comics work toxically smug.
Needless to say, fandom is incensed.
There are broadly two strands to that reaction. The first is to do with the widely-held view that DC has generally screwed Alan Moore in relation to Watchmen, which is old territory, and not something I’m inclined to go over here. And the other aspect can best be summarised as “For god’s sake, why?”
Even assuming Moore had no objections to the project – and let it be noted, Dave Gibbons was presumably happy to have his endorsement in the press release – the whole enterprise would still beg the question: who on earth wants to read prequels to Watchmen? Has anyone been demanding to see this?
It ought to go without saying, but Watchmen is not like other superhero comics. It has attained a sanctified status as the classic example of the potential of the comics medium. It’s part of the canon that anyone seriously interested in comics is supposed to read. For years it was regularly trotted out as the Best Comic Ever. That’s the reason why it’s kept selling all these years. Personally, I’ve always felt that its role as a gateway for new readers is massively overstated – you can’t truly appreciate Watchmen without prior knowledge of the genre conventions that it’s playing with – but there’s surely no doubt that, from a purely commercial standpoint, it is unlike other superhero properties.
Quite simply, the selling point of Watchmen is not the plot or the characters or the premise, but the perception that Watchmen is an Important Work of Art.
As such, it is uniquely unsuited for franchising. People care about Watchmen as a self-contained work, not about the Watchmen as characters. And if you approach a story in that way, you don’t put it down thinking to yourself “Wow, what a great setting. I hope they get somebody else entirely to do a prequel.”
DC’s official press release, and the initial interviews, are quite telling. The company obviously knows there’s going to be a backlash – they describe the books as “[a]s highly anticipated as they are controversial”, which isn’t true, but at least acknowledges that there’s going to be some resistance. The spin that follows generally tries to play up the proud tradition of characters being passed to other creative teams. “Comic books are perhaps the largest and longest running form of collaborative fiction,” says a quote attributed to Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, presumably speaking to DC’s PR department in blank-eyed unison. “Collaborative storytelling is what keeps these fictional universes current and relevant.” The veiled implication that Before Watchmen is in some way a collaboration with Alan Moore will no doubt be viewed with wry amusement.
Of course, it’s true that superhero comics have a long tradition of this sort of thing. And most superheroes were created with that sort of open-ended existence in mind, including the Charlton properties on whom the Watchmen characters were based. But the audience doesn’t perceive the Watchmen characters in that way. More to the point, that difference is directly tied to what makes Watchmen seem special in the first place – namely, the perception that it’s a self-contained work. The point here is not whether it’s wrong to use Moore’s characters without his approval – and the whole issue of unauthorised sequels strikes me as both legally and morally far more complex than is widely acknowledged – but rather whether there’s any real value in doing so, creatively or commercially.
Straczynski’s interview at CBR spends most of its time trying to convince us that this whole thing is a good idea. He makes a passable argument that creators shouldn’t have the right to veto the re-use of their characters, but gets into trickier territory when he tries to argue that there’s a positive reason for the new project to exist. “The whole point of having great characters,” he says, “is the opportunity to explore them more deeply with time, re-interpreting them for each new age.”
But outside the oddball world of comics, that “re-interpretation” consists, at best, of fresh re-tellings of the same story. You can make a new film version of Pride & Prejudice, or even steal the plot for a modern-day version, but what you can’t do is write a fanfic sequel and expect to be taken seriously as anything more than a novelty act. Outside the realm of comics, the number of “great characters” who have drifted loose of their moorings in this way, and who are regularly reused in new stories, is really quite small. Dracula, perhaps. Sherlock Holmes. Robin Hood. Doctor Who is a fascinating case study of how the same concept has been interpreted by different people in different decades. But the claim that this sort of use is the “whole point of having great characters” is palpably ridiculous.
The tension inherent in this whole project is that, in order to make an argument for the legitimacy of Before Watchmen, DC have to argue that Watchmen is in this respect basically like other superhero comics, so that sequels should be judged by the same standards that apply to, say, a revival of X-O Manowar or Cloak & Dagger. But Watchmen‘s reputation rests on precisely the opposite belief – that the book is exceptional and unique and even important, and most certainly not like other superhero comics. And that reputation is the whole reason why we’re meant to care about Before Watchmen in the first place.
DC don’t really seem to have an answer to that paradox. Yes, they’re hiring critic-friendly creators, which is an attempt to send the message that “See, a bunch of respected creators think this is fine!” But they’re also hiring the likes of Len Wein, seemingly because he was the original editor – which is all a bit “From the location caterer of Armageddon and the boom mike operator of When Harry Met Sally…” It’s a line of seven minis openly acknowledged to be a personal project of Dan DiDio; it’s always going to look editorially driven.
Perhaps the most worrying interpretation of DC’s thinking, though, is the possibility that they genuinely don’t grasp the full extent of the problem; that they can only understand Watchmen in terms of it being an unusually successful miniseries that should be revived because, well, because that’s what they do with everything. DC’s business model (like Marvel’s) is based mainly on maximum exploitation of a back catalogue of existing concepts created by prior generations, rather than the creation of new ideas – even though you might have thought that both publishers would have a useful role to play as an inexpensive concept farm for new properties. Self-contained stories don’t really fit into that business model; and perhaps DC are so caught up in that strategy that they no longer really understand the strengths of the Watchmen brand at all.
That aside, I suspect that a big part of DC’s calculation is that Watchmen is a perennial seller and there are tons of copies out there. If the collections of Before Watchmen sell even a fraction of the original, there will still be a healthy profit on the whole exercise. In that sense, the downside is quite minimal. What’s the worst that can happen? If it’s a complete disaster, it never gets mentioned again, and Watchmen carries on selling just like before. It’s not the end of the world. And on that point, I suppose I have to agree with them, though there’s also a risk of reputational damage if the company ends up being perceived by core audiences as delusional philistines.
The best case scenario for DC is that some of the books actually turn out to be good in their own right. But that will be a tricky challenge. These books will not be judged in isolation. The shadow of the original story is going to hang over all of them, and unless the creators can find a way to turn that to advantage, it’s going to be very difficult to make the new books work on their own terms. If you try to treat it like any other superhero revival, it’s not going to work. But if you acknowledge the status of the original head on, how do you play that into a story without disappearing down the sort of metatextual rabbit hole that immediately consigns you to a niche audience?
People will buy Before Watchmen. They’ll buy it out of curiosity to see what Cooke or Azzarello can do with this poisoned chalice of an assignment. And they’ll buy it because they feel they ought to have an opinion on it, just as they buy summer crossovers that they don’t expect to like. But whether there are very many people who are going to read it because they think it’s an intrinsically good idea – that, I doubt. Perhaps the most interesting question about this whole thing is whether DC think differently, and why.