On the Continued Watching of the Watchmen

Let’s all give a big round of applause to DC for resisting the urge to do a Watchmen prequel for a good 25 years. Unfortunately, they’ve inevitably succumbed to the obvious financial incentives of such a project, and so Before Watchmen is slated to hit shelves later this year.

I’ll start with the good, because there are some genuinely promising things about the prequel. Basically, the talent lined up is suitably impressive. Not “Alan Moore” impressive, obviously, but as inherently wrong an idea as it is to tell more stories in such a perfectly constructed, over-and-done-with world, the very idea of Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo handling the Rorschach miniseries is painfully enticing. These are the guys who did JOKER, a graphic novel that I have no trouble whatsoever putting alongside The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight as the greatest Joker story ever told. It’s the only thing that’s ever made me afraid of my favorite villain, so I grant those two a lot of leeway. Azzarello is also doing the Comedian issues with J.G. Jones, and a bunch of other talented people (who’s things I haven’t read) are handling the other stuff. It’s pretty clear the project line is “We know how good Watchmen is. We’re treating this whole thing with the utmost reverence, we promise.” And I believe everyone involved understands that if they fuck this up they’ll be crucified.

Yet the very idea is flawed. I don’t think anyone has ever read Watchmen and come away wanting more. No matter how good any of these prequels are, none of them have the potential to tell us anything we don’t already know about the characters. Hey, Dr. Manhattan was just a normal guy, but now he can’t relate to humans because he’s a god! The Comedian is a nihilist! Rorschach is uncompromising! There is literally nothing left to be said, because Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons said it all in one of the greatest literary works ever produced. The story is entirely self-contained. Anything a prequel can show us would be either redundant or (far worse) contradictory to what those twelve issues already contained.

I’ll be reading it, of course. So will everyone. But no matter how impressed I am, I doubt I’ll come away from the prequel glad that it was made. Other comic book series are mythologies, meant to be explored and endlessly retooled. Not Watchmen. DC understands that, or it wouldn’t have taken twenty-five years for this project to come together.

But as unnecessary as it may be, it’s also obvious that this might be the biggest thing to happen to comics in a hell of a long time, with potential shock waves far beyond the usual comic industry crowd (with which I’m little more than tangentially associated). So get ready for a lot of Watchmen talk over the next few years, because this is only the beginning. However this all turns out, Before Watchmen is now one of the most significant releases on the entertainment calendar. There’s always been talk of this happening, but it’s finally real. For those who’ve stepped up to write it and the fans anticipating it, it’s now five minutes to midnight.

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