Before Watchmen: My Reaction

Promotional image for The Comedian's spinoff

As I’m sure you’ve heard, DC Comics announced this morning that they’ll be releasing prequels to Watchmen. Generally regarded as the pinnacle of superhero comics, it’s long been accepted that the work stands alone and should be untouched. In fact, author Alan Moore has been publicly feuding with DC for years, and has made it clear that he is against any use of Watchmen beyond his original story.

So is this where I join in the general outrage and explain why I think this is a stupid idea at best, if not indicative of deep moral and creative bankruptcy in the comics industry? On the contrary, I’m in favor of it.

Now, I don’t necessarily expect Before Watchmen to be very good. Winking nods to the characters’ eventual fate would be insulting, ignoring that future in favor of straight action would probably be pointless, and the middle ground was already covered by flashbacks in the original Watchmen. But it’s normal for the comic industry to try everything possible just to see what works. We remember the successes, such as 52, Spiderman: Brand New Day, and Marvel’s Ultimate Universe (not to mention classic works like Sandman and Watchmen), and forget about the myriad failures. Why shouldn’t a Watchmen prequel get the same chance as any other idea?

One argument against it is that a bad spin-off would ruin the original, and I understand that concern. In my mind, though, giving it twenty-five years to stand on its own inoculated it from anyone’s influence. I’d be much more concerned about a sudden change disrupting a currently ongoing story, but at this point, these prequels will only be able to enter Watchmen continuity if they deserve it.

In short, the results could be good or bad. I’m happy about the creative teams, but put off by the idea that these spin-offs will total three times as many comic issues as the original series. Regardless, I’m fine with DC trying it out.

"Watchmen Babies": The Simpsons' parody of DC's M.O.

So what about the claim that this is disrespectful to Alan Moore? His response to this news was that “there weren’t that many prequels or sequels to Moby Dick“. I find that to be a stunningly wrong-headed attitude on many levels:

  1. First of all, there have been sequels to Moby Dick, not to mention numerous adaptations. Moore may be technically correct that “there weren’t that many”, but at this point, there aren’t “that many” prequels to Watchmen either. Besides, if you look at the way Moby Dick has been used in other works (including notable comics, like Bone and The Unwritten), the direct references are very common.
  2. If Moore is implying that it would be wrong to write a sequel to Moby Dick, then he and I find ourselves on the opposite sides of an important moral issue. I’m a strong believer in the public domain, even if most re-uses are not as good as the original work. We’re richer as a society thanks to the potential to write new Moby Dicks.
  3. Besides, if Moore is against the use of the public domain, then he’s a huge hypocrite. He’s extensively used characters from other stories for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls. I imagine he had to pick his example carefully, since he couldn’t get away with saying “there haven’t been many sequels to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea or Peter Pan“.

A great anti-spin-off joke from The Gutters

The only defensible argument against this is that Watchmen still occupies a legal status outside of the public domain. I don’t think that that is too important – I wish that a work would become open to everyone a quarter century after redefining public discourse – but if anyone makes this argument, then they are just emphasizing DC’s ownership of Watchmen. Of course DC can do this if they want, and their own work can at least offer some of the value that public domain reinterpretations would.

I respect Moore’s current decision to only do work that he can retain ownership of, but he didn’t always make that choice. He certainly didn’t get taken advantage of like Jack Kirby or Joe Siegel did, as Moore still gets the credit and royalties he deserves. He just traded control over the properties’ future in return for a reliable paycheck and a marketing force that helped to make him famous.

Moore was a full participant in the “remix culture” of superheroes at the time. I’ve never heard anyone say that he stopped to consider Siegel and Shuster’s feelings before killing off Superman’s supporting cast in Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?, or (to use an example involving his contemporaries) consulted Wein and Wrightson before retconning the Swamp Thing. Even Watchmen was based on thinly-disguised Charlton Comics characters, and the creators may not have found Moore’s interpretation of their work flattering.

Simply put, Moore’s own history with comics offers one of the best examples for the power of a system in which everyone uses and reinvents the creations of others.

My favorite Twitter reaction

I have another fundamental reason for accepting this Watchmen prequel. Even if I were concerned that new works could ruin the original, I think that it’s simply too late for that. Every superhero comic of the past twenty-five years has been heavily influenced by Watchmen, to the point where many of them basically are spin-offs as thinly disguised as Watchmen’s own Charlton origins. Dumpy, human heroes who trip themselves up and break down crying are now the norm, as are the accusations about heroes “going too far” and questions about their motivation in wearing the mask. By today’s standards, Watchmen is still set apart by the excellent craft and writing that went into it, but its deconstructionist ideas are second-nature to us. In a sense, we’re surrounded by crappy Watchmen sequels.

If I were the sort of person to be disheartened by a bad Watchmen story, I would have had to leave comics long ago. My love for the original would have been destroyed by the idiotic ways people have echoed Moore’s questions about superheroes. But if I can still love Watchmen after knowing that it opened the door to Identity Crisis and Civil War, then there’s nothing that a new Nite Owl story could do to make me change my mind.

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