Before Watchmen: Minutemen, DC Comics.
Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, DC Comics.
By Sam Hurwitt
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s 12-issue series Watchmen was a self-contained work when DC Comics published it in 1986-87, and for a long time it stayed that way. By the time the movie came along three years ago, it seemed unlikely that DC wouldn’t try to capitalize on it with prequels, sequels, and spinoffs, but there remained some small hope that the company wouldn’t, because it was well known that writer Moore at least was dead set against it, and in fact had sworn never to work with DC again because he felt he’d been swindled. (Artist Gibbons is reportedly more cooperative.) Now whatever dam of courtesy was holding DC back has broken wide open, and comic shops are now filling up with seven separate series of Before Watchmen prequels.
Well, you may say, doesn’t DC own the characters and have the right to do whatever it wants with them? Well, yeah, but that’s actually part of the problem. Moore and Gibbons initially struck a deal with DC that the creators would own the rights to the work and its characters a year after the trade paperback of Watchmen went out of print—and then the book never went out of print. Part of that was due to its ongoing popularity as a masterpiece of deconstructed superhero storytelling, but much of it was also a sly bit of legal maneuvering on DC’s part to hold onto the property in perpetuity. (Moore talks about that at length in this interview.)
Still, for 25 years, DC let it stand on its own. Well, there was that business of the major motion picture that came out a couple years back, and certainly DC made a pretty penny off that. But the characters didn’t pop up again in other comics, and the DC multiverse has always lent itself to bringing in characters from other story realities and letting them cross over with Superman and pals, or just bringing the whole gang onto the main DC earth to stay. That’s what happened to the characters the Watchmen were loosely based on, the heroes DC inherited from Charlton Comics: Captain Atom and Blue Beetle were soon members of the Justice League, and the Question was skulking in the same back alleys as Batman. That’s what had happened to the characters from Fawcett Comics (Captain Marvel, Shazam), Quality Comics (Plastic Man, Phantom Lady), Milestone (Static, Xombi), Wildstorm (Stormwatch, Grifter) and even Archie Comics (the Shield, the Web).
There was no reason to believe DC wouldn’t do that with the Watchmen gang as well, except that it was in poor taste and ethically dubious, especially because Moore was so bitterly against it—but if you’ve read any DC Comics in the last few years, you’ll know that “poor taste” isn’t something they worry about anymore.
Some years back, Rorschach showed up in some promo art for Countdown: Arena, a truly horrible miniseries by Keith Champagne with art by Scott McDaniel that was a spinoff of an almost equally wretched crossover series, Countdown to Final Crisis. The idea behind Arena was that heroes from 52 parallel earths were assembled to fight to the death, which gave DC a chance to pit characters from all its popular Elseworlds graphic novels against each other: Gotham by Gaslight’s 1880s Batman, Batman & Dracula: Red Rain’s vampire Batman, Red Son’s Soviet Superman, Dark Knight Returns Superman, Wild West sheriff Wonder Woman of Justice Riders, 1960s Wonder Woman of The New Frontier, et al. It was a dumb idea poorly executed, but in any case Rorschach was prominently featured in the promo poster by Art Adams, being backhanded by Dark Knight Returns Batman. I don’t know if the poster was a deliberate fakeout or DC pulled the plug on any Watchmen involvement at the last minute, but there were no Watchmen characters in the completed series at all; one of a large army of Captain Atom clones bore a resemblance to Doctor Manhattan, but not enough to get anyone in trouble even if the copyright had been held by a direct competitor.
Now DC is going all in with Before Watchmen, seven different miniseries focusing on each of the major characters from Watchmen, with a one-shot epilogue to wrap it all up. All the covers imitate the distinctive cover format of Watchmen, lest you miss the connection. If you were to buy every issue of each one, it would run you about $140. A full-price copy of Watchmen will run you twenty bucks, which isn’t bad for 400-odd pages of a self-contained literary work that still stands up tremendously a quarter-century later, dated political references and all. That’s especially impressive considering that Watchmen was a biting commentary on the whole idea of superheroes that has been so much imitated ever since that the original superheroes it looked askance at have been reshaped by it ever since. One thing that reads very differently now is the brutal violence depicted in Watchmen, which was shocking in 1986 but has become run-of-the-mill in mainstream superhero comics largely because of Watchmen‘s influence.
One important thing to note about Watchmen is that it tells one epic story, and everything in it—yes, even the weird pirate comic that one kid is reading—serves that story. That makes the idea of treating its characters as if they were any other superheroes especially problematic, and not just because we already knows what happens to them in the end. Other superheroes weren’t created for any one story; they were created to go on and on in serial entertainment, battling new menaces and getting out of new scrapes every issue—or the same old scrapes with the same old villains if you thought you could get away with it. In that respect, Before Watchmen is like doing a series about the military exploits of Macbeth. You could do that, I suppose, but it doesn’t have anything to do with what makes him interesting.
One popular misconception that has been expressed often by fans hostile to the idea of creators’ rights—the same ones who express the wish that any Siegel or Shuster heirs would crawl away and die in a gutter so that nothing complicates a steady stream of mediocre Superboy comics—is that Moore has no right complaining because he’s used other people’s literary creations before, most notably in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls, and that the Watchmen characters themselves are based on the Charlton heroes that DC already owns. It’s true that Moore used the Charlton characters as templates (Rorschach after the Question, Nite Owl after Blue Beetle, Doctor Manhattan after Captain Atom, and so on), but the story wasn’t suggested by the Charlton characters. He had a story he wanted to tell, and liked the idea of using a long-discarded group of superheroes to do it. At first he was interested in using the Archie heroes, but they weren’t available, and DC had recently obtained the Charlton roster. But the story Moore wanted to tell would have rendered them unusable, so he was asked to use original creations loosely based on them instead. In fact, some of the characters are clearly still based on some of the Archie/MLJ characters, especially in the 1940s superhero team, the Minutemen. It was never a case of a simple work-for-hire project based on the Charlton heroes. If you want to see what something like that would look like, track down the mediocre 1999 miniseries The L.A.W. Living Assault Weapons; it’ll have to be in back issues, though, because there was never any point to reprinting or collecting it.
Leaving aside any creators’ rights issues, from a fan standpoint the problem with bringing back the Watchmen characters is the apparent lack of any quality control or editorial judgment at DC Comics. Sure, right now it’s 35 cumulative issues of several miniseries that at least keep the cast in the same self-contained world (or a bowdlerized facsimile thereof), but once DC goes back to that well there’s no way that’ll be the end of it. Soon enough you’ll have a Batman/Rorschach/Midnighter teamup series, Watchmen Zombies, Silk Spectre & Phantom Lady’s Swimsuit Spectacular and Joker/Comedian: Last Laugh, and the Minutemen will be absorbed into the All-Star Squadron in the inevitable next retro-minded reboot.
The one saving grace is that at least DC has tried to give the project a bit of prestige by assembling some of its A-talent. Before Watchmen: Minutemen and Silk Spectre are written by retro-flaired Darwyn Cooke, acclaimed author of The New Frontier. The Comedian and Rorschach series are penned by hard-boiled specialist Brian Azzarello, of 100 Bullets and now the horror-tinged Wonder Womanreboot. Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan are written by Babylon 5 showrunner J. Michael Straczinski, whose comics work is notorious for Spider-Man’s deal with the devil to erase his marriage, turning Wonder Woman into an amnesiac street vigilante, and having Superman give up crimefighting to go for a long walk. The Ozymandias series is the odd one out, written by old-school, ultra-mainstream superhero scribe Len Wein, cocreator of Swamp Thing and Wolverine. The artists—Cooke, Amanda Conner, J.G. Jones, Andy and Joe Kubert, Lee Bermejo, Adam Hughes and Jae Lee—are a similarly hotshot bunch. In terms of the personnel anyway, DC is giving some appearance of trying to do this right as more than just a transparent cash grab, though of course it’s that as well.
So the question becomes, do these series really add anything to the original? Loath as I am to support such tomfoolery with my scant and hard-earned coin (and each issue of these puppies will run you four bucks plus tax, so it’s not a small consideration), I checked out the first couple of issues, more for the creative teams than anything else. Minutemen #1 came out two weeks ago, written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, and Silk Spectre #1 hit the stands last Wednesday, written by Cooke and Amanda Conner and drawn by Conner. I’m awfully fond of Cooke and Conner’s work in general, so I was curious to see what they’d do in this particular sandbox.
The first issue of Minutemen starts the story of how the first few superheroes that cropped up in the 1940s came together as a team. Its 26 pages of story are entirely devoted to quick introductions to each of the heroes, narrated by Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl.
Mason’s tell-all book Under the Hood is a major part of the back story in Watchmen, and Moore wrote some touching excerpts from that memoir as part of that series’ back pages. So far, at least, there’s not much new here. We get a good look at some things we only heard about in Watchmen, like the debut of the first costumed vigilante, Hooded Justice. The Minutemen in general were people we heard about more than really saw in the original series, but we heard enough about them that everything in this first issue seems like an expansion and illustration of the story Moore already told us about them rather than the start of anything new and exciting unto itself. It’s a deleted-scenes DVD extra in comic book form.
Cooke’s art, as ever, is delightful, and he does some charming homages to Dave Gibbons’s groundbreaking use of symmetry in the real Watchmen while abandoning entirely the tight panel grid that Gibbons based his structure around. On the first page, the curve of a bassinet becomes the mouth of a tunnel, then the outline of the sun. His retro cartoony style is beautifully suited to the 1940s setting, so the merits of the comic so far seem to be almost entirely visual.
A pirate backup story, “Curse of the Crimson Corsair,” takes up two issues at the back of Minutemen and is continued in Silk Spectre, to be continued in Comedian #1 this Wednesday. In the original Watchmen, of course, the pirate comic-within-a-comic is not relegated to the back pages but is woven in and out of the action, and having it be just a serialized backup is inherently less interesting. Written by Len Wein, the story effectively mimics the melodramatic tone of Moore’s horrific nautical yarn, and original Watchmen colorist John Higgins’s art all in grays with muted touches of red creates an effectively creepy atmosphere, but too little happens in these first four pages (the captain is a tyrant, the junior officer is aghast) to generate much interest so far.
Silk Spectre is an odd comic so far, set in 1966, when teenage Laurie Juspeczyk is still in training to take up her mom’s mantle as the Silk Spectre. Mind you, that’s the same year in Watchmen that she’s shown in costume meeting the rest of the next generation of heroes, but in this comic that still seems a long way off. Here it’s all high school romance and chafing at her mom’s constant training and scandalous reputation.
If we forget for a moment who these character are supposed to be, it’s a charming tale of a spunky gal who just wants to write her own destiny for once. Cooke and Conner make Laurie adorable even when she’s lashing out unkindly at her mother.
Conner does work with and around a nine-panel grid like Gibbons used in Watchmen, which helps provide a visual connection to the original despite the two artists’ dissimilar styles. Conner’s is more playful, with a bit of an Archie influence appropriate—so far at least—to its teen heroine, with super-cartoony fantasy sequences where young Laurie imagines her mom as a devil, or herself jumping into space.
Unlike Minutemen, this does seem a very different story than the one told in Watchmen, and in fact its light and fluffy tone is a bit jarring when you consider the source material. It’s as if you decided to do a teen humor comic about, say, the life and loves of Desdemona, or Chris Sims’s idea about doing a Richie Rich-style comic about little Bruce Wayne. So far at least, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre could almost as easily be an all-ages comic about young Black Canary, and maybe it should be.
Of the series released to far, this one comes the closest to piquing my interest, but it also makes me a little queasy, because this Before Watchmen Laurie really needs to move to Riverdale quick and steer well clear of Watchmen. Trust me, kid, it’s not for you.
Hitting stores today is Before Watchmen: Comedian #1, focusing on the sadistic mercenary who spans both generations of costumed vigilantes, and whose murder sets off the events of Watchmen. I go back and forth about writer Brian Azzarello’s work. He has a knack for hard-boiled crime fiction, but in a Mickey Spillane-influenced way that feels like a copy of a copy of a copy. My favorite work of his is the metafictional Dr. 13 romp “Architecture and Mortality” that focuses on long-forgotten DC characters that seemed unlikely for revival, and I’m cautiously interested in his Wonder Woman revamp, but other work such as his Doc Savage/the Spirit/Batman teamup First Wave leaves me cold despite (or perhaps because of) my love for the source material.
So what will I think of Comedian? Well, I may find out later, but probably not anytime soon, because I’m leery of encouraging this whole enterprise with my wallet any more than I already have. I love Watchmen as much as the next comics fan, but I’m not sure that love is an argument for rushing down the rabbit hole of all these derivative works. In fact, it feels like an awfully good reason not to.