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.