Whether you think the original WATCHMEN is akin to Moby Dick—as Alan Moore opined—or the Bible, as J. Michael Straczynski thought, it is definitely something—DC’s bestselling graphic novel of all time[*], a beloved classic taught in schools, one of Time’s Best 100 novels of the last 100 years, the book that defined grim and gritty. You name it. Like all great works, it’s multifaceted.
So doing a “Scarlett” on it brings up every argument over whether comics are literature or licensing. You wouldn’t get much argument that WATCHMEN is literature and Moore is a literary figure. But there’s also the obsessive need of devotees to get MORE—there’s a reason why 12 volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s jumbled, confused notes, and scribblings were published as hardcover books. Once you enter a beloved fictional world, you don’t want to leave—even if your hosts are yawning and looking longingly at their pajamas.
Complicating matters is an irony that gives the entire affair a level of meaning that Alan Moore himself could have scripted: although it’s being published strictly against its author’s wishes, BEFORE WATCHMEN is a work very much in the vein of the bulk of Alan Moore’s most acclaimed work—from SWAMP THING toLOST GIRLS, Moore has excelled at just that kind of literary reinvention. His most ambitious truly original work, BIG NUMBERS, never got off the launchpad. PROMOTHEA and the rest of the ABC line remain as his originals, but still pastiches of existing tropes.
As you know, prequel writers Brian Azzarello, JMS, Darwyn Cooke and Len Wein have been doing a press tour this morning. Unsurprisingly, JMS has been the most talkative and most willing to give away the “behind the scenes”, such as an account of the super-secret summit where the writers hashed out the story—and decided that everyone had to do his own thing instead of a closely plotted “event.” Thank GOD for that! As he told CBR, JMS also came up with the thematic thread for the prequels:
In the course of that conversation, I mentioned my belief that there are five kinds of truth: the truth you tell to casual acquaintances, the truth you tell to you family and close friends, the truth you tell to only a very few people in your life, the truth you tell yourself and the truth you don’t admit, even to yourself. I was basically just blathering on, as I tend to do, but Dan seized on the last two of those truths as being the thematic core of the books. Darwyn did a whole discussion about this in one of his uploads, further formalizing this as the core of our story. In the end, the miniseries about the points and shadings between what we think we know about these characters, and the truth — what that says about them, and what it says about us.
Which all sounds pretty good—if you are going to write a follow-up to one of the best written graphic novels of all time, you’d better have some subtext thrown in there for flav. Elsewhere, the more taciturn Brian Azzarello merely promises more of what you want:
“He’s the face. The guy who covers his face is the face of the franchise,” Azzarello says. For the four-issue Rorschach series, he’s teaming again with Bermejo, the artist from his Joker graphic novel. “You’re going to get the Rorschach that you know and want. It’s a very visceral story we’re going to be telling,” Azzarello says.
At HuffPo, Len Wein shows that the team has embraced the “relevant” buzzword with some gusto:
The challenge is to make the stories modern and relevant to 2012 and to show what can be done with respect and consideration for the source material that has inspired so many people over the years. By adding to the mythos and not to detract from it,” he said. “‘The Watchmen’ had such an influence on graphic storytelling since it first appeared and is a timeless classic. If we can create a new set of stories that can be enjoyed 25 years on, that would be an achievement and a reward in itself.”
Over at Hero Complex, Darwyn Cooke was originally, quite sensibly, daunted but then….temptation crept in:
“I said no out of hand because I couldn’t think of a story that would measure up to the original — and let’s face it, this material is going to be measured that way — and the other thing is, I frankly didn’t want the attention,” Cooke said this week. “This is going to generate a lot of a particular type of attention that’s really not my bag. But what happened is, months after I said no, the story elements all just came into my head one day; it was so exciting to me that, at that exact moment, I started seriously thinking about doing the book.”
Cooke tells EW that he was looking for a different message than Moore:
While Cooke believes Watchmen was “note perfect” for its time, “I’d consider it a masterpiece if it had been able to have found what I would refer to as a hopeful note. … Again, it’s not hard to understand [where Alan was coming from], and that sort of storytelling does have an allure for young people. [But] I think the older you get, the more you look for hope or positive things. Maybe I’m just getting old.” With that in mind, Cooke says Silk Spectre “is probably going to be the most hopeful of all the books.”
Finally, JMS uses the occasion at THR to deliver an Eric Stephenson-style smackdown of other publishers’ plans:
Ever since Dan DiDio was handed the reins (along with Jim Lee) over at DC, he’s been making bold, innovative moves that might have scared the hell out of anyone else. At a time in the industry when big events tend to be “Okay, we had Team A fight Team B last year, so this year we’re gonna have Team B fight team C!” Dan has chosen to revitalize lines, reinvent worlds and come at Watchmen head-on. It was, I think, about two years ago that he first mentioned that he was considering the idea, and he’s to be commended for fighting to make this happen.
And again, he explains just why we HAD to go there:
The whole point of having great characters is the opportunity to explore them more deeply with time, re-interpreting them for each new age. DC allowed these characters sit on a shelf for over two decades as a show of respect, and that is salutary, but there comes a time when good characters have to re-enter the world to teach us something about ourselves in the present. Alan’s original work spoke profoundly to readers in the 1980s who came through Nixon and Vietnam and the various social movements of the age. The question now becomes, what can those characters illuminate for us now, in 2012? So I think the hope is that by reviving them and peering through their eyes with a contemporary perspective, we can create stories that will entertain and illuminate. All of us involved in this want to do more than just show these guys and gals in action. We want the stories to be about something that’s worth a reader’s time and money to buy.
Many of the creators working on these books are friends of mine—several, I would characterize as dear friends. They all have bodies of work behind them that show they could easily go out and create their own masterpieces—in fact…they all have. In particular, it’s hard not to see MINUTEMEN as the flip side of Cooke’s own THE NEW FRONTIER, another exploration of the mid-century vibe that permeates his work.
And Azzarello and Bermejo on Rorschach? And JG Jones on Comedian? Conner on Silk Spectre? Great casting.
But do you really think any of these creators stayed up at night for years wishing they could have a crack at Watchmen 2? Do Moby Dick or The Bible need an update to stay “relevant”? And how are books set in the past of the ’80s relevant to today anyway? Poor Len Wein (who qualifies as a dear friend, in case you are wondering) gets caught up in all the confusion with his statement to Wired:
“As far as I know there are no plans for more books after this, but 25 years ago there were no plans for these books, so who truly knows?” asked Wein. “I think reboots are almost mandatory in an industry that has existed for over three-fourths of a century now. The need to inject new blood, new ideas, new approaches, is the only thing that keeps our readers coming back for more.”
Actually maybe not Poor Len Wein. I think he nailed it: it is totally mandatory to freshen up the superhero comics industry by rebooting and prequelizing existing ideas instead of coming up with new ones!
For all the talk of staying “relevant”, you might substitute the word “solvent.” Just as The New 52 was the Hail Mary pass/adrenaline to the heart that DC desperately needed to prop up a failing direct market, WATCHMEN 2 is the other guaranteed cash grab. It’s DC’s Eros Comix. While we may find the idea of WATCHMEN prequels repugnant on some level, the level of talent attached is guaranteed to “Make us look!” even if the idea itself is still so unnecessary. Licensing is after all a by-product of consumerism—it’s as if all that WATCHMEN movie merch wasn’t enough and we need one more hit.
MEANWHILE, elsewhere on the internet, the Twittersphere went ballistic this morning. Before WATCHMEN was trending worldwide for several hours this morning. Here’s a couple of our favorites:
Marvel tweeters didn’t hold back their derision, with Dan Slott taking point:
But he also got caught up in the “literature/licensing” battle:
Look, pastiche and homage can still have high literary value: Don Quixote did for the romances of the 17th century what WATCHMEN did for superheroes of the 20th. Jane Austen’s Northhanger Abbey was a take-off on gothic novels as cogent today as then. A lot of smarter comics folks have admired Jay Cantor’s Krazy Kat, a literary reinvention of Herriman’s classic comic strip
Whether you think more WATCHMEN is the equivalent of more Slaughterhouse Five or more Sherlock Holmes, it’s definitely going to fulfill its real purpose: sell a lot of comics books. Let’s hope they are as good as the creators involved can make them.
[*]WATCHMEN is not the “best selling GN of all time”, as many stories put it. ONE PIECE alone has sold 2 million copies of a single volume in 4 days. Asterix & Obelix and surely Tintin have also sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. WATCHMEN may be the best selling AMERICAN GN ever (if you don’t count Wimpy Kid or Ook and Gluk.) It’s surely DC’s —hence our characterizing it that way.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.