Well folks, the hammer finally dropped. It looks as if DC comics has finally decided to unleash the prequels for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal classic Watchmen under the uninspired banner-title of “Before Watchmen.” We’ve been hearing rumors about this for quite some time and while initially it seemed like a bad joke, last year BleedingCool started running supposed concept art for the project that started getting yanked down at the request of DC, adding legitimacy to the ruView postmor and fanning the fires of speculation. The speculation has finally ended and the truth has come out.
Neither Alan Moore nor Dave Gibbons will be involved creatively in the project, with several mini-series being handled by a cadre of talent that ranges from exciting to unsettling. Alan Moore could probably care less about the development, as his feelings on the matter are pretty well established even if he did speak them in a magical language that only Alan Moore himself understands. Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons however gave a comment to DC’s The Source which broke the news today saying:
“The original series of WATCHMEN is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell. However, I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire[.]”
So what can we look forward to in this little prequel installment? Here’s the rundown of all the titles:
RORSCHACH, a 4-issue miniseries by writer Brian Azzarello with art by Lee Bermejo
MINUTEMEN, a 6-issue miniseries with writing and art handled by Darwyn Cooke
COMEDIAN, a 6-issue miniseries by writer Brian Azzarello with art by J.G. Jones
DR. MANHATTAN, a 4-issue miniseries by writer J. Michael Straczynski with art by Adam Hughes
NITE OWL, a 4- issue miniseries by writer J. Michael Straczynski with art by Joe and Andy Kubert
OZYMANDIAS, a 6 -issue miniseries by writer Len Wein with art by Jae Lee
SILK SPECTRE, a 4-issue miniseries by writer Darwyn Cook with art by Amanda Conner
So how do I feel about all this?
Let’s be honest. Watchmen is an amazing book. It’s a classic and its importance to the world of graphic literature cannot be understated. It represents a shift in the way comics were written and understood and that does not change just because we’re getting more books with those characters by other creators down the line. The characters were hobbled from the Charleston universe and twisted into their own place by Alan Moore in the eighties. So while there is a standalone universe to Watchmen it isn’t necessarily an original invention. Getting angry that someone else wants to play in that sandbox when the entire medium is predicated on people further developing the ideas of others (at least in the mainstream superhero industry) just doesn’t work.
Let’s look at the lineup for the talent on this project for a bit. Brian Azzarello, Darwyn Cooke, and Amanda Conner are all folks who pretty much guarantee that I’ll pick up their work sight unseen because their track record is pretty stellar. I can tell you that I am indeed interested in Rorschach, Minutemen, Comedian and Silk Spectre based off of their involvement alone. I think they’re all talented writers and artists who could do something really interesting with these particular characters. Now, the x-factor here is Stracynski. He can be a phenomenal writer when he’s on top of his game. I loved his run on Thor and while he may have made some decisions I didn’t agree with over the course of his career many of those can be attributed to editorial meddling and I won’t delve into that quagmire here. Given the characters that he’s handling, I think Dr. Manhattan is certainly something he could mine some good material out of. Especially if he hits the same notes he was while writing Thor. Nite Owl is a little trickier. If I’d had my way I would have had someone like Greg Rucka on that particular title. But I’m not in charge and at this point all I can do is speculate about how all of this is going to turn out.
As I’ve said, my main issue here isn’t with the fact that we’re getting prequels. It’s not inheritly a bad thing. What I am afraid of is that the stories they are going to tell won’t match up with what has been brewing in the fan culture’s subconscious for several decades and that the whole project will flounder as a result. I can’t help but draw parallels to the Star Wars prequels which saw a great deal of hype only to be cut down by fanboys who didn’t like the direction the franchise took. But at least in that instance the fans could point the finger at George Lucas and say he ruined his own creation. This time around we have the added buffer zone of it being separated from the original creators. If people don’t like it they will try to say that it’s not “canon” or that it “doesn’t matter.” Which is, in a way, a double edged sword. It lacks the legitimacy of having the original creators involved and that is either a great thing or a horrible thing depending on which way you look at it. I mean, Frank Miller himself handled the followup for The Dark Knight Returns and that was absolute garbage. I know we put Alan Moore on a pedestal sometimes but I think in this instance the talent involved is enough to warrant the community keeping an open mind.
I picked this one up as a Christmas special. Figured it would be a nice little diversion as most DC graphic novels are. Azzarello and Bermejo’s Joker hardcover was fun and I still have the Teen Titans: Games hardcover sitting on my desk. I’ve often had debates over why DC and Marvel don’t invest more heavily in single-serving graphic novels considering how easy they are to promote and build buzz around. The general public is far more likely to pick up a graphic novel than get hooked on individual monthly issues. I remember when Earth One came out everyone seemingly lost their shit over it and it went to multiple printings. It seems to me if you want to entice new readers you should try to cater to them in a format they enjoy. I don’t think that DC and Marvel need to curb their monthlies altogether but I’ll be damned if they’re not shooting themselves in the foot by dragging their feet on graphic novel production. I know artists are somewhat hesitant to jump on-board graphic novels because they would rather get paid their monthly page-rate but I’m sure there’s a compromise there somewhere that could mean big business for the comic publishing world.
Batman : Noel is a pretty good little graphic novel. Lee Bermejo does double duty on writing and art, though Charles Dickens should get a writer credit seeing how this is a pretty direct adaptation of A Christmas Carol even if they didn’t use the title. The story centers around Bob, a lowly runner for the Joker who has a chance run-in with Batman who in the context of this story exemplifies the persona of Scrooge. They really play up the “Batman is a bastard” angle here. I have to say that it’s not the sort of Batman I normally enjoy reading. Too dour, too tied to Frank Miller’s insanity and grumpiness. It would have been a complete turnoff if not for the fact that it was done to serve the purpose of the narrative. I mean, we’re all familiar enough with Dickens’ work to know that he’ll have a change of heart in the end.
The fun of Noel is in Bermejo’s use of Batman’s cast of characters to fill slots in the Dickens lore and the beautiful artwork that he does it with. Say what you will about the book, it is hard to deny that the artwork is anything less than stunning. The layouts, the finishes, the colors…all of it comes together to create something that truly pops. If you were to show this to someone who doesn’t read comics regularly, you can bet your sweet ass they would be impressed. It is some of Bermejo’s best work. It’s vibrant and eye-catching in a way that his work in something like Joker wasn’t. While that artwork was still impressive, it was a muddy, dark blotch. It was too dark to truly impress. Here you get a real feel for how good Bermejo really is.
I admit that the pricetag is a bit hefty for the story content, but it’s a good read and something that I’ll probably pull out around this time each year just for a lark. I would say that’s enough to give it a hearty recommendation.