Infinite Monkeys: Before Watchmen

At some point over the last 48 hours watching the unfolding story and response to Before Watchmen – the long anticipated DC exploitation of their ownership of the classic and revered Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons series – it became painfully apparent that if any one of the MOMB crew wrote a position piece on the subject, it would probably be unrepresentative of the rest of us.

While we’re grown up enough to accept that people don’t have to have the same opinions, this story was just too apparently controversial for each of us to risk letting one of those other three idiots take a stance that might god forbid turn us all into comic geekdom pariahs – or even worse! – that we’d then have to feel sullen and angry about having our name put to.

So we decided, like we always do, to let ourselves be carried on the shoulders of people that are both smarter than us, and big enough that we can hide behind them. Exactly… we asked our friends on the internet!

You are, as always, welcome to comment after the post. Please keep it civil, though. This isn’t YouTube or one of those other,  popular comic sites.

Kicking off, we’ll start with one of us.

JonMOMB is a founding member of MOMB, and regular contributor to this site, as well as the MOMBcast. He had this to say:

Ok, so Watchmen means a lot to me. I Guess it means a lot to a lot of people given the reaction to the prequels. But for me, Watchmen is the reason I read comics now, it’s the reason I write about comics now and it was the spark in a conversation with a person who would become a best friend of 10 years. It’s the one book I never get bored of discussing. Do I want the prequels to happen? Not really, if I’m honest, but they’re going to happen & I’m going to buy them because I want to go into this with an open mind. Will the prequels existence devalue the original & tarnish the memories I have because of it? For me, no, not even slightly. If the prequels suck, I’ll still have the original, and if they don’t then I’ll have some good comics – and if it works out, more fans to discuss it with.

Matt Farr (aka @thegrampus) of Dissecting Worlds had already written about this on his website, but spared us a few words:

Personally I think they’re unnecessary - Watchmen stands rather wonderfully as a complete story and the ambiguity in its backstory and its ending are both integral parts of it doing what it does. But that said, I don’t really see a reason you can’t go back to that universe and characters if you have a good enough idea for more stories to tell. Which of course we don’t know – there’s undoubtedly some talent on the project, they’re talking a good game in many ways, although I suspect some characters have more chance of doing something interesting than others. I respect Watchmen (and Alan Moore) enormously, but that work isn’t going anywhere, and even a terrible prequel series won’t diminish its achievement. So overall I’m curious to see it, and think it deserves a shot.

James Hewlett, the MOMB’s local comic-shop guy shared his knee-jerk reactions with us:

  • Cautious optimism.
  • Before Watchmen is completely and utterly unnecessary and shouldn’t happen… on a creative standpoint. I am amazed it has taken 25+ years for it to happen and it makes perfect sense to do the book, though, on a business level. You just need to check twitter from Wednesday to see how much talk it drummed up. If that translates to people in comic shops then it is brilliant and I have the utmost respect for DC for doing things to get people buying comics.
  • I hope the stories will be good, they’ve got some very talented writers (and JMS) scripting the books so there is potential. But if they suck, I won’t be too disappointed because at least we’re going to get some gorgeous art from Darwyn Cooke, Amanda Conner, JG Jones and Adam Hughes. I was sold after Darwyn was announced on Minutemen. We can always just pretend these guys decided to draw lots of fan art and forget the stories.
  • What’s the over/under on the JMS/Adam Hughes book ever being finished?
  • While the original is a masterpiece the only way this will dilute it is if you let it. The Kingdom didn’t ruin Kingdom Come. DKSA didn’t ruin DKR. The prequels DID NOT ruin the original trilogy.
  • Alan Moore signed a contract. He has done well from Watchmen and will forever be known as one of if not THE best comic book writer of all time. This will not change anything.

Science-fiction author Tim Maughan says it’s wrong, and these are the reasons why:

It’s wrong because Watchmen is about the US’s role in the world written by a foreigner, and this is being written by a bunch of Americans. (And a Canadian.) It’s wrong because it turns something that’s perfectly standalone and can be picked up by anyone into a sprawling confusing mess. It’s wrong because most non-comic fans think comic books ARE a sprawling confusing mess. It’s wrong because the guy that wrote Babylon Cocking 5 says he’s abandoned the 9 panel format because he knows rhythm better. It’s wrong because it’s lazy. It’s wrong because the Canadian says he doesn’t consider the original masterpiece because it has ‘no hope in it’. It’s wrong because it’s not the 1980s anymore. It’s wrong because Watchmen isn’t actually about superheroes, or the “Watchmen Universe”, or guest artists, or spin-offs, or “collaborative writing”, or opportunism. It’s wrong because those involved don’t seem to understand that. It’s wrong because it is unnecessary. And it’s wrong because they are turning a thing that made me love comic books into yet another thing that reminds me why I’m starting to hate them.

JamesMOMB, resident MOMBcast idiot, hedged his bets:

It’s an idea with little artistic merit but plenty of creative potential. I don’t personally consider the book a sacred text, but I’m not convinced that any more need be said. For a generation who’ve had their hands burned before with prequels of much loved stories its going to be a bitter pill to swallow, and for many it’s still the book that gave the medium credibility, and forced a non comic book reading audience to take it seriously… but on the other hand there are some exciting creative teams, who I suspect are highly motivated to prove a doubting public wrong. I don’t think it NEEDS to be done, but it is, and I’m sure I’ll end up reading.

An industry pro who would rather remain nameless due to personal connections with creators on both sides, had this to say:

Between us, I don’t see what the big fucking deal is. Never seen Watchman as any type of Bible, and DC should be able to do whatever the hell they want with it. Though I don’t think it’ll bring in new readers , and will eventually be seen as just “filler” material with no real impact.

Indie comic publisher Ian Sharman said:

I think there’s a point to be made that there’s a certain level of creative bankruptcy in a writer simply reusing an existing set of characters to tell new stories, rather than creating their own, unique characters… but we’re not talking about League of Extraordinary Gentlemen here, we’re talking about Before Watchmen. I’m honestly baffled as to why DC telling new stories with pre-existing characters with new creative teams is so controversial – that’s been their business model since, well, since forever. Should only Siegel and Shuster have told stories about Superman? Or Bob Kane told stories about Batman? And when you consider that Watchmen was originally conceived as a vehicle for the old Charlton characters, criticising Before Watchmen for reusing existing characters and ideas seems not only absurd but hypocritical.

Teesh, ex (and current?) comic shop person, said this on Twitter:

Was told about the watchmen relaunch in comics today. At first I was like FUCK OFF but when I got told the line up I think I jizzed a little

Stacey Taylor, podcasting legend, tweeted this:

I’mma read it with an open mind; if it’s awesome then YAY and if it sucks then I’ll sell it on :P
Also, I can be quoted on it. Don’t fully understand the pre-emptive hatred, really.

Writer and comic journalist Ryan K Lindsay is Australian:

Before Watchmen. Makes me wonder if working before the story is any better than working after the story. Perhaps small Easter eggs can be planted that will drastically change the analysis and understanding of the original text. Wouldn’t that be bloody hilarious?

Anyway, I don’t have a major problem with this news. DC was always going to do this, we had to be realistic. At least it looks like they’ve gone for some of the best possible creative teams they could muster. This may or may not be as good as the original and time will only tell on that one. For now, you’ve got the original and you’ve got your choice – buy in or ignore it. It might not be 100% fair but neither is life – it’s how we react to these situations that defines us as people and so I say “Good luck!” I know I’m eyeing off 2-3 of the titles and am happy to leave the others on the racks. If these turn out to be good comics then isn’t this better for the medium? Watchmen sold gangbusters  and so the more of these people we can lure into the monthly experience, the better. I’m certain that’s not how the chips should fall but surely this attempt should be thanked to some degree, no?

Kehaar of Dissecting Worlds had a bluntly pragmatic view on the subject of contractual obligation:

Alan Moore engaged in a contract where he exchanged the fruit of his labour – namely intellectual property in form of the story and background to Watchmen for remuneration & future (royalty) income.

He has been offered opportunities to play with the Watchmen universe for further remuneration at various points over the last 25 years. He has refused.

His moral position is shaky given the use of other peoples characters he has made over the years (Marvelman, LoXG, Lost Girls for instance.) The Watchmen characters themselves owe much to the Charlton comics characters DC originally proposed he use.

Therefore Mr Moore’s position seems untenable to me. In a nutshell it seems to be ‘but I’m a GENIUS & no one should play with my toys.’ Baum, Conan Doyle or H.Rider Haggard may have had the same opinion. It would not make it right.

Grow up Alan, and move on (to something original.)

Comic creator and writer Andrew Cheverton felt passionately about the subject of narrative integrity:

Before Watchmen? I’d like to say that I’m not bothered because I won’t buy it and I won’t read it. However, that won’t prevent me from being affected by it. Simply by being a comic fan on the net, I will hear what happens in these prequel stories, and if an aspect of that impacts on elements of Watchmen, I’ll know of them. And simply knowing of them means that they’re in my brain as I read Watchmen, inserting themselves into the story, affecting the story I’m reading. I read J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Amazing Spider-Man where Gwen Stacy had sex with Norman Osborn – that now directly insinuates itself into the relevant issues of the time when I reread them. It’s an unpleasant association – and one that is cognitively unavoidable, as the brain processes the reading and the memories together – and one I think should only be done carefully and with a tempered attitude. Likewise, Kevin Smith’s insertion that Batman wet himself during a key scene of Year One. Frank Miller, no matter how he conducts himself today, was at the top of his game during Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again, and the crassness that someone like Smith displays, interfering directly with another’s story, is regrettable (and the key point here is that I have not read Smith’s offending Batman comic, yet I’m still polluted by it). These Watchmen prequels are acts of creative hubris and cultural vandalism, motivated solely by DC’s business interests and current talents eager not to be left out. None of them can or will add anything to Moore’s or Gibbon’s original; it told a story, self-contained and ranging back and forth in time, that is a masterwork of comic literature. There’s nothing more to add, no nuance or revelation that can make Watchmen any better; only irrelevant adventures of characters whose greatest story has already been told.

And this case is quite separate and different (yes, I’m taking two paragraphs) to work-for-hire on the continuing pot-boiler adventures of Spider-Man or Batman; I may not like what Straczynski and Smith did to previous stories, so I voted with my wallet and walked away. There are, after all, countless crappy comics over the years that we can all ignore. But in Watchmen Alan Moore took disposable Charlton characters DC didn’t even have a use for and made something remarkable with them – a finite and adult look at superhero characters that lived and breathed, and died and ended their tale quite definitively. Before Watchmen is like setting the Hope Diamond in a tiara of cubic zirconium. The diamond will still shine, but the gaudy glitter of cheap gems will always be in the way.

Maxy Barnard of Tim And Max Solve All The Problems With Popular Culture said:

Before Watchmen is important(ish) for comics. Mainstream Comics (a thoroughly stupid use of the term mainstream when you consider how comparatively unpopular comics are when compared to anything else) is all superheroics through a lens of stagnation and repetition, with little wiggle room or appeal to a larger mass with small exception, the greatest of those being Watchmen. It transcended what it was to be an art piece, owned by non-comic readers and hardcore fans alike. Finally pulling the trigger on this line, some decades after the point they really *would* have done it, is inspired, in a sort of backwards way. This could only be topped by DC putting out a range of all-ages titles to capitalise on those non-comics readers who are in fact comic-reading children (if a picture book isn’t a comic to you then frankly I have no words for you). And morals aside it’s their big chance, albeit a limited and possibly one-time only chance, to make the most of that REAL buying public, the one they can never quite touch. The talent’s (mostly, maybe) there, and they could end up getting that second bolt of lightning that they really, as a business, should be looking for. Be nice if it were something new and magical, but who the effing heck’d buy that?

George Beedham, creator of The Mighty Jambo, said:

As usual I’m pretty apathetic to the Watchmen prequels. People are whining that these stories don’t “need to be told” and it’s just cashing in on a franchise. Both good points and probably true to an extent but here’s the thing: you don’t have to buy them, the original book will remain brilliant and inspirational with all the implied backstory that’s “needed”. So someone thought they’d let some industry darlings play around with these characters; who cares? It’s no different to another Batman or Spider-man miniseries. If you need to send a message then don’t buy them… If your argument is that the emphasis should be on new stuff then buy that instead. Simple as Roy Orbison in clingfilm!

And finally, Nick Papaconstantinou, another MOMBcast idiot, and your host this evening, tried to restrain himself – and failed. A longer version of this is now live on his site:

If I was going to allow myself to be drawn out on this, I’d say that there’s absolutely no reason why DC shouldn’t do this. I’d say there’s something particularly self-righteous about anyone judging any freelancer who takes this job. I’d say that though I have loved most things about Alan Moore, people defending his corner have had far more to do with my diminished view of Watchmen than any should-have-gone-straight-to-DVD novelty movie ever could have, and that I would hope that he would feel embarrassed, rather than vindicated, by the recasting of him as one of the comic medium’s great martyrs.

I’d also say that while I don’t think that narratively there’s anywhere to go with Watchmen, I responded to the news of Before Watchmen with something like existential relief that before long we won’t have to have this particular version of this repeated conversation any more. I really think the big problem here is that Watchmen is even still relevant to this extent. It speaks to the lie that that was when the medium peaked, & it’s been downhill since. Less than six months ago, DC proved the strength of the lie by trying to grab backwards for some imagined zenith, throwing a lot of great work and a lot of great creators under the bus in the process. A lot of the people cheerleading DC then, and the people cheerleading Moore now, are tapping into that same vein – Moore himself has thrown those same things under the same bus. And don’t get me started on the retailers. There’s a tepid undercurrent of conservatism in how everybody is treating comics, Watchmen prequels being only a symptom, and now again, everyone is arguing about what they don’t want, and creators with vision at DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse and any number of other indie and small-press publishers can’t get their books in front of readers. Can’t even get them to torrent their work except by accident.

We have to be better than this. That’s what I want to say, if I can avoid being drawn on the other Before Watchmen nonsense. We can’t keep blaming DC for doing whatever it takes to stay afloat, when we could just let them sink and conserve our energy to help build whatever comes next.

So ultimately, that’s not the mixed bag that we were maybe hoping for. One thing that does seem apparent from this, though, is that despite either side getting increasingly passionate or objectionable about these books, there actually seem to be two or three distinct conversations going on, each about significantly different subjects. This isn’t that unusual in internet discussion, but it’s more clear than usual in the broader discussion going on about Before Watchmen, even though sadly that isn’t stopping the normal confused back-and-forth of confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, non-sequitir responses, switching paradigms and false equivalencies.

The only thing that seems certain is that for at least a couple more months, comic fandom is going to be all about mainstream publishers again, and we’re going to keep, y’know, acting like they, the civilians, think we act for a bit longer.

If you’ve got any thoughts, or want to respond to any of the comments above, please leave a comment below. As mentioned earlier, do keep it civil, though. Otherwise what’s the point, eh?

[edited to add Teesh & Ryan K Lindsay's comments.]