Botching the Watchmen

I attended the LA Times Festival of Books over the weekend (well not so much “attended” as “groggily awoke to find myself surrounded by,” thank you University of Southern California) and, while I missed out on the likes of Michael Ian Black, John Cusack, Betty White, and Julie Andrews, I managed to catch the panel on the upcoming Before Watchmen prequel comics with DC higher-ups Jim Lee and Dan Didio. It was a fun little discussion during which I was able to decide once and for all that I’m completely against the project on every conceivable level.

Lee and Didio were fairly upfront about their motivations for moving forward on creating new Watchmen-related content for the first time in twenty-five years. The comics industry isn’t doing well. Watchmen is a massive seller. People will buy a Watchmen prequel.

They assured the audience time and again that only the best of the best are working on these stories, and that’s entirely true. But it wasn’t as if they were saying “We’re really excited about the great material these writers and artists are going to produce” quite as much as “This sounds like a terrible idea, but with the caliber of talent we’ve got handling it, we have a far smaller chance of ruining things.” That’s what irks. They know it’s a bad move, but their attitude is that they can no longer avoid it. For a quarter century the fact that Watchmen should stand on its own has outweighed the fact that there’s some money to be made by exploiting it. It comes across like DC is so creatively bereft of options that they no longer have any choice in the matter. This is their last resort.

The fact that the people involved are being as diplomatic with the fans as possible doesn’t erase the fact that it’s simply wrong, for so many reasons, to produce more Watchmen content.

The obvious one: Alan Moore is against it. DC really fucked him over on the rights to Watchmen, and during the panel it was hugely upsetting to see Lee and Didio talk about how they legally had the rights to the story, so really it was all good. No one is questioning the legality of the situation; it’s the morality that’s obviously at issue.

But let’s look past that. Plenty has been said on the severing of creators from the things they’ve made and how terrible the comics industry is in particular when it comes to that practice (most pointedly by Moore himself). But even if the rights to the story were a non-issue, even if Moore approved or was long-dead, this is still an astonishingly bad move for the simple reason that Watchmen is not a mythology, no matter how one looks at it.

Jim Lee equated comic book properties with toys in a toybox and for ongoing series, he’s right. He mentioned how he created the character of Hush in a (pretty damn good) Batman storyline, and then allowed other writers to revisit the character in stories he hasn’t even read. He knew this would happen, because the world of Batman constantly evolves.

Watchmen doesn’t evolve. It’s an entirely self-contained story. There is no difference between exploring the Comedian’s origins and writing a prequel novella about how Jay Gatsby got rich. We can’t learn anything from seeing how it happens, because the original story tells us literally everything we need to know.

I, for one, think it’s absolutely crucial to the story of Watchmen to understand what has happened to the characters in the decades of alternate history before the Comedian’s murder. So did Alan Moore, which is why he showed us through extensive flashbacks.

If you intend to stay true to the characters, which Before Watchmen will do according to Lee and Didio, there’s nothing left to say. So while I think Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo could create the best possible Rorschach story, I’m also confident that the best possible Rorschach story would be an unnecessary retread of the character and themes associated with him that Watchmen explored in full.

Watchmen shows how all of the pertinent characters became who they were, and then the main narrative definitively ends all of their stories. So unless anyone thinks J. Michael Straczynski’s Dr. Manhattan prequel has a chance of exploring that character in a more effective manner than the fourth issue of Watchmen, what, honestly, is the point?

Watchmen isn’t a big, vibrant Universe with all these stories left to be told. It’s the simple, densely packed account of how a handful of would-be superheroes changed the world.

That’s the greatest flaw in Lee and Didio’s thinking. I asked the last question at the panel, but I was far too polite to get my point across. I started off by observing that the reason Watchmen is so successful is precisely because there aren’t all these Watchmen stories that a series of writers have penned over decades that readers have to find some kind of entry point for. It’s a novel. You hand it to someone, they start on page one, they read till it’s over, and then that’s it. It’s an easy sell.

I asked if the goal, then, was to turn Watchmen into another one of these comic book mythologies. They took that to mean that I was hoping for more Watchmen stories.

Not quite.

The implicit part of my question was that treating Watchmen like another one of their properties is an idiotic idea. Maybe these Before Watchmen stories will be a huge success. What then? Find a way to further expand Watchmen? Eventually the comics just wouldn’t be as good, and fewer and fewer people would buy them, until only a small, dedicated following remains. If that sounds familiar, it’s the business model that Lee and Didio started off the panel by very flatly stating isn’t working at all. The entire industry is stagnant right now, and instead of finding a way to attract talent on Moore’s level to produce stories that might connect with a readership beyond their usual audience (an option they themselves have sabotaged with their shoddy treatment of creators) they’ve decided that, instead of trying to be new or daring, they’ll simply apply their proven-to-fail methods to the bottled lightning on their shelf and hope for the best.

If that’s not a stop gap measure, I don’t know what is.

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