DC’s Before Watchmen prequel isn’t the worst thing in the world

Alan Moore doesn’t support the prequel project previously known as Watchmen 2 while Dave Gibbons approves – here’s our take on Before Watchmen

Before Watchmen

Before Watchmen

You might have heard today that seven Watchmen miniseries will be published by DC Comics starting this summer – the reveals for each series have been dished out to various outlets of the US press. Here they are, as well as their respective creative teams, in case you missed it:

Doctor Manhattan by J Michael Straczynski and artist Adam Hughes

Rorschach by Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo

Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke

Silk Spectre by Darwyn Cooke and artist Amanda Conner

Comedian by Brian Azzarello and artist JG Jones

Nite Owl by J Michael Straczynski and artists Andy Kubert and Joe Kubert

Ozymandias by Len Wein and artist Jae Lee

Curse Of The Crimson Corsair back-up stories by Len Wein and artist John Higgins

The strategy behind this release reminds me of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers – that is, there are seven miniseries released concurrently and interconnected by narrative, while an epilogue will wrap it all up.

Anyway, enough details. Let’s ask the important question, here.

Why?

Playing around in the Watchmen toybox is not a move that will be well-received by fans of the book. I’m quite certain that most readers who have enjoyed the 1986-1987 series, which transformed the comic book landscape in everything from storytelling to the maturity of the themes at work, would agree that it couldn’t be bettered by any follow-up stories – indeed, up until now, Watchmen has been a guarded property. DC is billing this as a way to make these characters ‘vital’ once more, 25 years after their creation. Indeed, all of the creators involved sound passionate about the source material – and most of today’s promotional pieces on the book are spent justifying why this is even happening.

Is it right? It’s DC’s property. It’s up to them. You don’t have to read these miniseries, or accept them as part of the story. Watchmen still exists as a self-contained masterpiece. Think of it like the Star Wars books, where Chewbacca apparently died years after Return of The Jedi in some two-star tie-in novel – to me, that didn’t happen, and it hasn’t spoiled my enjoyment of anything relating to the saga. Watchmen remains safe, with or without these franchise extensions. I’ve read many bad Batman arcs in my life, but my disdain towards Knightfall doesn’t mean my adoration of The Long Halloween is altered in any way.

Do we like the idea of this happening? On principle, we’d probably say no. It doesn’t feel like a move motivated by a creative mindset – writer Kurt Busiek made a very good point upon the news breaking late last year. If you have an original story to tell, create a new set of characters and tell the story with them. Ironically, the DC of the mid-Eighties convinced Alan Moore to create entirely new characters to populate Watchmen, instead of using the Charlton Comics characters that the company had obtained at the time.

I’m also slightly sad that it exists in spite of Alan Moore’s wishes. I’m not saying Dave Gibbons’ support of the miniseries isn’t important – it is – but having 100% approval from both of them is what’s really needed to convince anyone this is a smart idea.

At the same time, though, I don’t have any fanboy indignation about all this. I have no sense of entitlement regarding Watchmen. DC doesn’t owe us anything. They own the rights, this is their story to tell. And who knows? With this many high-profile creators involved, there’s bound to be at least one or two good stories to emerge from the pile (Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen, I imagine, has the best chance of being a critical success based on his superb New Frontier miniseries). If something worthy of the original comes from all this, then I would happily deem it a success.

Also, is there such a thing as sanctity when it comes to comic books? This is a medium where four of the best-selling monthly comics star Batman, where Spider-Man’s decades-long marriage has been tossed out and where crossover events occur for the usual purpose of driving comic book sales. Franchising is built into the DNA of populist publishers – and DC is one of the biggest in the world. This is what they do. Watchmen, it seemed, was a neat little one-off. On the face of it, there’s little to gain from going back, but then DC knows it has to prove us wrong on this front.

So, I am torn – and I’m not necessarily convinced by the sheer amount of characters getting their own stories. The move also reminds me of the 2009 Watchmen game with an ‘original’ story, which, incidentally, was written by Len Wein. I briefly discussed the game’s weak script in this review: “the story: hilariously billed as canonical, essentially takes a lazy CSI molestation plot and applies it to one of the few truly multi-layered universes in comic-book lore.” I respect a lot of Len Wein’s comic work – but based on my experience with that shoddy game, I’m not terribly optimistic about his particular role in this project, even if he was the editor on the series.

We’ve been well-aware of the prequels’ existence for a while thanks to leaks on the web, but the scale of this project is something we weren’t quite expecting. Seven miniseries is a lot. This is undoubtedly a risky project for DC, and if these new tales are a failure, there are sure to be some fans who will not forgive the publisher for revisiting these characters.

Still, let’s remember a few things: this is entertainment. One of the biggest film franchises in the world, right now, is based on a line of toys. In April, a massive movie based on the dull board game Battleships will be hitting cinemas. Mission Impossible is now on its fourth installment. At least these stories are based on something we actually like with some true narrative content – and, as we mentioned earlier, the original Watchmen story as you know it will stay exactly the same, regardless of the outcome.

Let’s wait and see. Speaking on Twitter this afternoon, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof summed up a lot of people’s feelings on the matter.

“A. I am profoundly upset about the WATCHMEN prequels. B. I’m buying every single one of them.”

Before Watchmen will be released this summer.