A Few Words on Before Watchmen
By Michael David Sims
01 February 2012 — In the coming days and weeks — and then again when the books are set to be released this summer — you'll be hearing a lot about Before Watchmen, the prequel to the critically acclaimed Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. As of this moment we're still only working on scraps of details; the creators involved and that the prequel will be a series of miniseries is all that's known, leaving the plots as question marks for the moment. And even if we knew the plots, it wouldn't smother the indignation that comic book readers are feeling. The idea of this project is one thing, but to actually bring it to life is another thing. And that, I will assume, is where most people will focus their anger.
However, my stance is far from that.
Being frank, a new Watchmen series was unavoidable. Being one of the best-selling and well-known comic books of all time, DC Comics was surely, at some point, going to capitalize on that in the form of a follow-up series. (That it took 25 years from the end of the original is actually astounding, however.) A new Watchmen series is a licenses to print money, what with the mainstream attention Before Watchmen is already gathering. On top of that, and let's be honest, even the most ardent haters will buy at least one of the comics if only to (literally or figuratively) tear it to shreds. Even if Before Watchmen is a critical bomb, this is a win-win situation for DC Comics and the comic book industry.
Win #1: Money. Lots and lots of money.
Win #2: A bright spotlight on DC Comics, and comics as a whole. The more people that go to the comic shop to buy Before Watchmen, the more people there are to buy Animal Man, Daredevil, Swamp Thing, and any other book on the shelf.
So, if I admit that this is a no-lose situation for DC Comics, that it will help the industry as a whole, and that my problem isn't that this project has come to pass, what exactly is bothering me?
It's a prequel.
Last year, in an attempt to reinvigorate their 75-plus-year-old characters and to capture a new audience, DC relaunched their entire line of comics. Every book went back to a first issue. However, some of the prior continuity was kept in place. And that's precisely DC's problem. Though they claim otherwise — and have made great strides to appear otherwise — they're afraid to move forward.
In an interview with David Betancourt, of The Washington Post, Dan DiDio, the Co-Publisher of DC Comics, said of their recent relaunch: "At the start of it all, a lot of writers felt trapped in the past and were trying to work previous continuity [into their new stories]. We told them: 'Leave the past behind. Look to a new audience.'"
If this is their mantra for the new DC Universe, should it not be the same for other high-profile projects? Telling us the early adventures of The Comedian, Rorschach, Ozymandias, and the others serves little to no point. Since we know they make it to Watchmen, there's no sense of danger. Since Alan Moore showed us how that dystopian 1985 came to pass, world-building in the Before Watchmen books is unnecessary. And since we know who the mastermind of Watchmen is and the reasoning behind his actions, telling another story outlining his path from hero to sorta-villain would be redundant.
If DC Comics is committed to looking towards the future, if they should leave the past behind, why tell a story set prior to Watchmen? Especially when, within the pages of Watchmen, Alan Moore left the door open for a sequel? If Watchmen was a commentary on comic books of the 1980s, why not hire someone to do the same now? Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis could very easily reexamine the surviving characters and the world in the wake of the breathtaking finale of Watchmen. And they could both very deftly comment on the state of comics in 2012.
And let's not forget the origin of Watchmen. Alan Moore's original intent was not to create six brand new characters, rather he wanted to use characters from the Charlton Comics library — which DC Comics had acquired a few years prior. When Moore was denied access to Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, The Question, Peacemaker, and Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, he was forced to abandon the past. He had no choice but to look forward. Thus, he created Doctor Manhattan, Nite Owl, Rorschach, The Comedian, and Ozymandias, respectively. Had then-editor Dick Giordano given Moore the go-ahead to use Charlton characters, part of the spirit of Watchmen — that being looking to the future — very well might have been lost.
That then begs the question, why is DC Comics publishing a prequel?
Because they're playing it safe.
By the end of Watchmen, two of the main characters are dead, one has exiled himself, two are moving their romance forward, and the other is standing atop the world he has rebuilt. Despite the maturity of the original series — in which we see these people out of their costumes more than we do in them — DC Comics, I would venture to guess, is afraid to tell more stories of this nature. It's one thing to show scenes of Bruce Wayne out of costume as he gallivants around Gotham City as a billionaire playboy. It's another thing entirely to devote a series (or series of series) to the often-plain lives of aged, retired heroes. That, however, would take a true desire to "leave the past behind." Further, the very title of Before Watchmen defies Dan DiDio's own words.
Granted, I have not read any of the Before Watchmen scripts, so there's a chance we will see an equal amount of the out-of-costume lives of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre as we do in-costume adventuring. However, even if that is the case, a series of prequels is still playing it safe — because it reunites the band, so to speak. In a prequel, everybody is alive and well. In a sequel, not so much. And one, it's sad to say, is easier to market than the other. Again, if DC Comics really wanted to "leave the past behind," the surviving characters of Watchmen would be aged 25 years, and their children would be fully grown adults (possibly with children of their own). There's story to be mined there. The world and war have evolved, in that the Cold War is no longer a threat, while global terrorism and economic collapse are on all of our minds. Again, there's a story there. Combine those elements, along with how we receive and perceive news and the media, and you wind up with a story about retired superheroes that fought during the Cold War, but can now only watch as the world reshapes itself for a new brand of war and global strife. Add in a WikiLeaks-like site that has discovered Rorschach's journal and the children who must fight this war while questioning authority, and you have something that, like the original, is relevant to the modern world and is taking chances by telling stories no one else dares. It isn't often creators are given the chance to examine the real world through the lens of a comic book, but Watchmen is tailor-made for that sort of story.
Superhero comic books are a series of never-ending stories. The characters live and die, love and hate, rejoice and suffer from page to page, issue to issue, year to year. To think only Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the like fall into that cycle — to think the cast of Watchmen is somehow above that — is ridiculous. But with all superhero stories, to keep the characters relevant, they must be moved forward. Like us, to grow, to change, to live they must build off what's come before. Their experiences — shared and individual alike — shape them as they do us. And this constant looking back, this need to remind us what made them cool — to reminisce about the good ol' days — is like hanging out with a high school friend you haven't seen in 25 years: for a brief moment it's nice to look back, but when you quickly realize he's never moved past that time in his life and you have, it winds up being kinda sad and pathetic.