2 Feb 2012

Thought Balloon: Before Watchmen - Nothing Ever Ends

By James R

All this is pretty much the fault of Watchmen anyway.

When I was away at university as a fresh-faced 19 year-old, I had pretty much given up on comics - in the mid ‘90s the mainstream seemed horribly dull to me, caught up in a wave of foil cover, collector's editions and the speculator fad. The medium that I'd loved as a kid had become pretty moribund. Then someone said to me "Have you ever read Watchmen?” I said that I hadn't, and of course in those crazy pre-internet days it was really hard to find anything out about it. The collected editions, with their stark bright yellow covers, were always sealed up in shops, so it was impossible to casually flick through it. Watchmen was a thing of legend, and when I bought myself a copy for my 19th birthday, I fell into its pages - and I still haven't really emerged yet!

I would have to classify myself as both a Watchmen and an Alan Moore superfan - I think I can die happy knowing I've had the honour of telling Moore and Gibbons in person just how much I love it, and how much it means to me. It’s a work which has been equalled in my eyes (the idiosyncratic genius of Chris Ware is as thoughtful and pushes back the boundaries of the medium in the same way) but Watchmen has never been bettered. Consequently, a few of my friends have stood well back when asking me in hushed tones, '"What do you think about this 'New Watchmen stuff?” I think most of them have been surprised when I've said that without a doubt, I'm on board.

So what gives? Why am I going against my comics hero and endorsing these prequels? Well, before we go any further, I think we need to understand and agree on what we think a comic is. I totally understand and agree that comics can be a work of art. Of course they are. If you study aesthetics, you get told that a work of art is "something that provokes an emotional response." If you create something that people respond to - it's art. Simple as that. Using this definition, comics are art. TV is art. Sport, to a lesser degree, is art. I for one like this definition as I feel that sometimes people expect art to be a singular, individual creation that must be revered and unsullied. We rightfully baulk at the idea of their being a Catcher in the Rye 2 for example, and this is definitely the case with Watchmen - people see it as a complete and untouchable work.

When it comes to comics, it’s my belief that people mentally conceive of great comics like they do great novels. Indeed, to quote Alan himself: "There's not been a sequel to Moby Dick." That's because often in literature the work is designed to be singular, a self contained world. And that's what Watchmen is too for Alan Moore. You don't need to prequel or sequel it - it is what it is and requires no auxiliary tales. I absolutely respect that opinion (after all, he wrote the damn thing) but I would have to disagree. If we accept that art is an emotional response, then why not find it in a spin-off? How many people go, "Ah, Godfather Part II - that's rubbish - why do we need to carry on the story and find out how Vito Corleone ascended to power? Everything we need to know is there in the first movie!" There may be a few people, but most people consider Godfather Part II to be brilliant because it was created by talented people with superb focus and a good story to tell. I think it's the same for the Watchmen prequels; if the stories to be told are good, why not tell them?

I have read some views online in the past couple of days saying that the prequels will damage the originals. I for one can't see how this is the case. Recently, the magnificent comedian Stewart Lee spoke of how people expressing their offence at things in the media feel that it is their right not to be offended, when actually the exact opposite is true. A rich culture is one that's going to feature a myriad of voices and opinions, and you are not going to like them all! If there is a voice that you don't like, the response is not to go into a rage-fuelled outrage, the simplest thing to do is not to watch it, not to buy it and not to endorse it. If you don't like the idea of the prequels, then - hey! - just don't read them. In the same way that the movie has not damaged the original - if anything it's an interesting companion piece to it - I think the same will be true of the prequel series. I'll be amazed if DC manage to come up with a way to beam them into your mind against your will.

The second reason why I believe people are angry is because people don't like the 'Big Business' element of it; in the same way that Hollywood is derided for just churning out mindless sequels, people hate the fact that DC are doing the same thing with what is held as a 'perfect' comic. I'm slightly surprised at the naivety here. The bottom line is this: DC is a business. It is there to make AOL/TimeWarner money. Obviously it's in their best interest to make the highest quality product - that's what keeps us coming back for more - but stop and think for a minute. Imagine if a business made the best-selling product in a field... and then chose to not build on the strength of that product! The CEO's would be derided as myopic and narrow-minded. Because we have an emotional attachment to comics and the characters therein, I think sometimes we forget that these characters are moneymakers as much as they are cultural touchstones.

Looking at the reaction to DC’s announcement, I'm also reminded of the work of the philosopher AJ Ayer. Ayer was a proponent of the ethical theory of Emotivism, in which he argues that when discussing ethics, it’s impossible to make a truthful statement. All we have is our own perspectives on an issue, and so all we can say is 'Yay for X!' or 'Boo to X!' - there is no ethical debate taking place, just people expressing their emotions. The same is true here - everything I've read thus far seems to boil down to an emotional call of 'Yay, I'm on board!' or 'Boo, this is an outrage!' The amazing thing about the internet is that it allows you to see what people around the world think about an event, but I still can't shake the feeling that we are now part of a culture where every event is greeted with howls of derision or boss-eyed enthusiasm - there seems to be very little reflection or consideration around, and I think we shouldn't rush to judge these titles before we've seen a single panel.

One person who I am in total agreement with is Alan's daughter, the comics writer Leah Moore. Earlier Leah asked why DC wouldn't use the money for these prequels and get the same creators to make new books instead of riffing on Watchmen. I think she's right, but I also think that DC's parent company AOL/TimeWarner have the funds to push through the prequels AND the creator-owned books. I think it's a discussion for another time, but I think it would have been a savvy move to announce that the prequels were the next step in DC's relaunch and evolution, and said '”Just wait until what's coming after these series... we're just warming up.” (However, I'll be the first to note that I'm in teaching and not PR for a very good reason!)

I also found myself agreeing largely with the views of J. Michael Straczynski. As the author of the Dr. Manhattan book, he was asked about what Alan Moore (and some fans) might think about this series, and he said the following:

"The perception that these characters shouldn’t be touched by anyone other than Alan is both absolutely understandable and deeply flawed. As good as these characters are – and they are very good indeed – one could make the argument, based on durability and recognition, that Superman is the greatest comics character ever created. But I don’t hear Alan or anyone else suggesting that no one other than Shuster and Siegel should have been allowed to write Superman. Certainly Alan himself did this when he was brought on to write Swamp Thing, a seminal comics character created by Len Wein."

As far as I'm concerned, he's hit the nail on the head - at the start I said how art should be something that moves us, and it's tempting to see comics as books: complete works that must be left untouched. But if we were to stand back from our emotional responses to the big Before Watchmen announcement, I think we can see that DC have assembled a very strong team of creators - I'd read anything Darwyn Cooke does, and I don't doubt for a moment that his Minutemen series will be anything less than superb. He will, as JMS alludes to, be able to do something cool and worthwhile with these characters. As I've said, I don't think that these series are going to damage the original at all, or take a cheap shot at a sequel, and when you consider the talent involved then I think it would be unwise to damn this project before it's begun. I hope I don't write again in a year's time saying "Well, I called that wrong!" but I'm going to side with AJ Ayer and say it comes down to an emotional call for me. Tonight I'm thrilled that I'll get a chance to see Moore and Gibbon's incredible universe once again.


Matt Clark said...

Great stuff, James - I agree with most of what you say, but I think Leah Moore is off base with her assertion that DC aren't allowing creators to produce new material. Has she not heard of Vertigo?

I'm pleased that my wish that Darwyn Cooke put out a Minutemen book in my piece on the Watchmen 2 rumours (two years ago!) has actually come true! Get in!

I'm naturally sceptical about Before Watchmen but you can bet that I'll be checking most of the titles out!

Tom P said...

I must admit DC do like to give things a good shake up with the new 52 and now this. It looks very strong so far and I'm keen to read them, more than X-Men Vs. Avengers anyway...

Rob N said...

I'm afraid I won't be reading any of these Watchmen titles, much less buying them. And I confess I have very little respect for the writers and artists who will be producing the books against Alan Moore's express wishes. That won't stop me buying other things those writers and artists produce in the future (though I'll still have very little respect for them on a personal basis outside of their work) and I don't have a problem with people other than myself buying the Watchmen spin-offs, but I won't be on board with the project in any way whatsoever. Just my personal stand point.

- Rob N

Andy C said...

I loved Watchmen - it was the first graphic novel I read, before I had even picked up 'mature' comics. I literally had the T-shirt!

BUT my personal opinion is that if Alan Moore feels he can pick up Batman and Swamp Thing, there should be no reason to stop other writers working on Watchmen. It might be great, it might be awful - we don't know that yet. But I see no problem with the basic principle.

Although a bit of an obvious choice, Azarello working on Rorschach and the Comedian should be a winning formula. I wait for the torrent of abuse for this statement, but imagine Watchmen with better, modern artwork - it could be great.

Overall, I am amazed at the mass hysteria the announcement has provoked - it's 'just' a comic - read it if you want to, ignore it if you don't. Comics are supposed to be a source of enjoyment, not anger. Personally I have no massive inclination to eagerly anticipate it, I tend to find prequels a bit pointless but ultimately Alan Moore is not god and he doesn't own the characters. DC do, and is it just me, or have their publicity department wiped the floor with Marvel again?

Ian said...

Great piece James! I'm in agreement with you and everyone who commented. Watchmen is a fantastic comic without a doubt, and will always be there for anyone who wants to read it, but it is just one comic among millions owned by a multimedia corporation. Why should it be accorded 'protected status' just because it is held in high regard? I imagine most comics fans could make a list of comics that should be untouchable but aren't.
As several people, including Andy, have pointed out Alan Moore has spent a very large part of his career working on characters and properties that he did not create and I can't think of any occasion he has refused to work on a title purely on the grounds of creators rights.
You could even make the argument that Watchmen itself isn't wholly original. While the overall concept and execution are 100% original and revolutionary for the time it was published the characters are in fact revised versions of characters created by other comics legends in the 60's (Steve Ditko anyone?!)and placed into new stories and situations. And isn't that exactly what these new comics are? Old characters revised and used in new stories and situations. Who's to say that these new Watchmen comics won't turn out to actually be the "New Watchmen" that is the holy grail of modern comics?

walkeri said...

Personally myself I don't see what all the fuss is about.
I've tried reading the Watchmen graphic novel and only got about half way through and I just couldn't go any further,just couldn't seem to get my head round it and it is a bit to serious for my taste,but I do like this article,it's nice to read about what a comic means to someone.
I understand the impact of Watchmen on the comic industry but for me it's just one of those comics I just couldn't get into,but I do hope it sells well for DC,at least it's got to be better than Marvels
sodding event comics.t

James Randall said...

Huge thanks for all the feedback people! I quite understand and fully respect it when people say they won't read them, I just felt that there seemed to be a palpable rush to want to destroy this project before we've even seen a single issue of any of the titles!
Have a grand weekend everyone

Matt Clark said...


You say you have very little respect for any of the creators involved in producing the new books against Moore's wishes... Moore co-created Watchmen. Gibbons has endorsed the project so is his opinion less valid than Moore's?

Moore had the luxury of not consulting the writers responsible for the charcaters he used in League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls with them being dead and all. Presumably he knew they'd be fine with him using their characters, particularly in the case of Lost Girls.

I understand Moore's anger following the handling of the initial Watchmen contract, but there's a fair bit of hypocrisy in play as well.

And let's not forget that the Watchmen characters were rejigged versions of various Charlton Comics superheroes.

Rob N said...

Hi Matt,

I suppose I'm inviting controversy here when I make the following statement, but... although I agree Watchmen was co-created by Moore and Gibbons, I've always felt that it is Alan Moore's concept. What I mean by that is, Watchmen with a different artist would essentially be the same body of work, from a story point of view. Probably almost exactly the same, bearing in mind that Moore at that time would describe every little detail he wanted the artist to draw in a panel. But Watchmen without Alan Moore would have been a totally different thing altogether. Imagine what the result would have been had DC asked any of their other writers at the time to write a comic using the 1960s Charlton characters. I dare say you would have got a straight forward comic book featuring the Charlton characters in all their Blue Beetle, the Question and Captain Atom glory. In fact that's pretty much what DC did publish after Watchmen came out. Essentially everything I love about Watchmen (and I love the comic for the grand concept story – the art is just icing on the cake) is squarely Alan Moore. Comparisons with the Charlton source material is a bit pointless because honestly, I remember at the time that no one knew Watchmen had been inspired by the Charlton stuff until DC mentioned it. Watchmen has practically nothing left from the source material. I can't think of any example of a body of work distancing itself from its roots in a grater way than this. It is so different in every respect that it would be like tracing the similarities between Blade Runner and Flash Gordon.

Yes Alan Moore has used characters in the public domain. I confess I don't see a problem with that. And yes he has written stories for Marvel and DC using corporate owned characters, but I believe there aren't any cases where he was being specifically asked by the creators not to do so. I honestly believe that if for example the creator of Swamp Thing (Len Wein) had asked Alan Moore not to write Swamp Thing, he probably would have declined the gig. So when the editor of DC offered him the gig (I believe the editor at the time was a guy called Len Wein) Alan Moore didn't have any moral obligation to turn it down.

My problem here is that Alan Moore has stated he does not want spin offs written for Watchmen. I think as a mark of respect fellow artists and writers should accept that. I'm not talking about the legal stuff or who owns what, but simply as a mark of respect. It is interesting to note who ISN'T on board wit this project – namely British/Irish writers and artists who I suspect are boycotting it.

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Rob N said...

ctd from above...

BUT I'm not standing on a soap box and preaching that people shouldn't go out and buy it. That's down to your personal view of what you think is ethically right and wrong. For example, I have a dim view of the pop-rock band Queen because (like many other establishment bands of the 1980s) they played gigs at Sun City, when the more left wing bands boycotted it. I'm not saying it's the same thing at all, but it gives you an idea of what I mean when I say personally speaking, I have a low opinion of a writer who works on a concept created by a fellow writer against his express wishes. Alan Moore may not have a legal right to determine what happens to his book, but I believe he has a moral right to do so. Plus, I respect and admire the man – not just for his comic book work – but for his ethics and behaviour in genral. So I tend to be on his side in disputes like this. Because I like the guy. But I'm certainly not telling anyone else that they shouldn't read these books. That's down to your individual choice. For me though it leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. It's disrespectful to the creator concerned. I could probably understand if the writers and artists concerned were struggling to find work, but the names attached to this project can green light pretty much anything they want to do. They don't need this gig. They shouldn't be taking this gig, any more than Queen should have played Sun City.

- Rob N

Matt Clark said...

I absolutely understand your point of view, but it is flawed.

Fair enough, you're going to boycott Before Watchmen because, as you seem to suggest, it's ethically wrong (which is a bit OTT!) but applying that logic, while various lawsuits are in play by the estates of Kirby, Siegel and Schuster, shouldn't you take the same response to any artists or writers working on their creations?

Moore's in a unique position in that he can kick up a fuss about these things and not worry about being financially impacted or have all doors closed for him in the industry. He's attained a kind of power few other writers/artists ever have. His arguments have valid points in them but there's always a layer of hypocrisy underlying it all, at least from my perspective.

And can you really blame creators for being given the chance to work on characters they've loved for years and taking it. If it's not independent, creator owned stuff, do they need the blessing of the guy who came up with the character? Should writers/artists attempt to get hold of Steve Ditko before tackling Spider-Man?

In an ideal world, maybe, but Watchmen is and always was, a product put out into the marketplace (as well as a masterpiece of comics literature). DC's a business that's concerned about making money out of their properties. Moore has the right to be pissed off at DC or whoever else, but compared to the shafting of other creators since the dawn of the industry, he got off relatively lightly. He'd just more vocal about it.

These new series could be good, could be terrible, but no one's going to convince me that their existence will somehow diminish the majesty of the original.

Andy C said...

I understand your point but surely it would not be healthy for one man to be dictating what the industry can or cannot do? I'm sure given the choice, very few creators would choose for other writers to 'adopt' their characters, much as I'm sure most music artists would probably prefer other artists not to cover their songs. Part of this is the inevitable concern that the quality would suffer but also the inherent fear the original work would be bettered.

Moore deserves respect for his excellent work, but in my opinion the industry should encourage evolution, even if ultimately it fails to surpass the past, as may prove to be the case here. I have little interest in the project myself but I support DCs right to proceed with it.

I do not personally see any moral reason why these writers and artists should turn down the project, and I think it would be a sad day if this happened. Moore's attitude just seems a bit 'spoilt brat' to me.

Rob N said...

Hi Matt,

I was kind of expecting the argument 'shouldn't you take the same response to any artists or writers working on their creations?' in respect of people like Kirby, Siegel and Schuster etc. And yes, in theory I should do, IF I was some sort of saint who fought the good fight for what is right in the world. Sadly I'm not that by any stretch of the imagination. I'm the same flawed and messed up person that most people are in life. And although I will make a stand on certain issues, you're right in suggesting that I do pick and choose the moments carefully.

Case in point – I don't eat at McDonalds, mostly because of the McLibel thing from many years ago but also because they're not a very nice company (to put it mildly). You could easily say, “okay Rob – why exclusively McDonalds? Why not lots of other multinational corporations? In fact, name a company you buy things from, give me ten minutes on Google and I'll tell you why you should be boycotting them too.” Which is a fair point, and if I was some perfect 'right on individual', I should in theory be boycotting virtually everything that isn't a hemp spun cottage industry that doesn't harm animals. But that would be very difficult, so basically I don't. But I still choose not to eat at McDonalds... So there. ;)

So what I'm saying is, yes, I should in theory boycott any comic book where the creators got a raw deal back in the Golden age/Silver age, but I don't. In the same way that although I have issues with the way Britain is today, I don't camp out in a tent outside of St Paul's throughout Winter, wearing a V for Vendetta mask. This is a defect in my character, but at least I'm honest enough to admit it. :)

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Rob N said...

ctd from above...

So then, yes, the argument in support of Alan Moore should extend to other creators too, but for whatever reasons it's the Alan Moore one that fires me up, in the same way that the McDonalds one fired me up. I should perhaps be a better person. I'm sorry I'm not. :)

I can't speak for the people who signed up for this project, but I suspect I love Watchmen at least as much as they may do. However, if I was a successful 'A' list comic book writer and I was approached by DC to write a Silk Spectre mini-series, or whatever, and I knew that Alan Moore, the creator of the original work, had effectively said, “look guys, I really don't want anyone to do this,” then yes, I wouldn't work on the project, out of respect to Moore's wishes. It would be different once the work came out of copyright and entered the public domain, but while he's alive, if he really doesn't want sequels to be written, I think it's disrespectful to ignore his wishes. But that's just my moral code. I can't speak for other people.

I confess I'm also not concerned with DC's argument that they're a business and they want to make more money out of Watchmen. In much the same way that DC probably doesn't care overly much about me, I don't really care too much about adding to the bottom line of their balance sheet this way, when there are a 1,001 other ways they can go about doing that.

Essentially my stand comes down to the fact that I believe Alan Moore has a moral right to ask fellow writers and artists not to use his creations against his wishes. And while there is no obligation for those writers and artists to accept his wishes, I'm not going to think very highly of those that don't. I accept that other people also have a similar moral right with their creations. And I accept your point that I'm not complaining when their rights have been overlooked (because I'm a far from perfect champion of natural justice...). But it doesn't change the fact that I admire Alan Moore over and above many other comic book creators and while he's not by any stretch of the imagination, a friend (only because I don't know him personally), I feel a certain loyalty to him on account of the fact I like the guy.

- Rob N