Well, today was one of those days when the internet broke. As you’ve already guessed, this is because of news that’s swept the geek world – DC Comics are publishing prequels to Watchmen.
Now, if you’re not familiar with the book, Watchmen is one of the pivotal comic books. An apocalyptic story of messed-up superheroes and looming nuclear war, Watchmen is based around the idea that if superheroes were real they’d be nuts.
(It’s far deeper than that, of course, but I like understatement.)
Reaction to the prequel news has been mixed – some think it’s a fantastic way of returning to characters created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons; others think it’s an horrifically unimaginative idea – chief among these is Alan Moore himself, who suggests it would be akin to writing a prequel to Moby Dick.
I’ll admit I unleashed some Twitter scorn when I heard the news, but it’s not something I’m going to get too worked up over – I’ve always found Watchmen to be a work that’s easier to admire than it is to love, and the existence of prequels won’t affect the original one way or another. But it’s impossible to ignore that it has been the major influence on the comic book industry since its publication. Something that big, it’s suggested, demands to be revisited – after all, no-one’s stopped writing about Superman and Batman have they?
Thing is, it’s a different situation. Superman is a character that exists in an ongoing serial narrative; Watchmen is a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end. Its structure actually includes its own prequel; everything you need to know about the characters and their world is contained in the book. I don’t think Moore’s being arrogant when he compares his work to Moby Dick; he’s just making the point that any additional stories feel redundant.
But wait, who says they’re redundant? Watchmen was a product of the 80s – the world’s changed a lot since then, why shouldn’t Moore’s characters be used to speak to the concerns of 2012?
The counter to that is that those characters are wed to their timeframe, a world of opposing power blocs and the threat of all-out nuclear war. 2012’s concerns are very different, so much so that it would be smarter just to try and create something from scratch that has the same sort of impact as Watchmen. Ambitious? Sure, but why not shoot for the moon?
Ahh, but Alan Moore has made a living out of revisiting character’s created by other writers, albeit those out of copyright. Why should Watchmen be sacred? After all, we’re living in the age of the remix, the remake, the reboot. If Alan Moore can revisit Mina Harker, other writers can revisit Dr. Manhattan. It’s only fair. Although I should note that most of the writers Moore borrows from are long dead…
I’m not convinced there’s an easy answer – my gut instinct is to think the whole thing’s a little recursive and it would be better for the industry to find a brand new way forward. But if people want to buy new Watchmen material – and they will – why shouldn’t they have the opportunity?
The questions will rage, but I’m not sure they’ll have answers – after all, debates over art vs commerce, the necessity (or otherwise) of sequels and creation as a collaborative act have been around for centuries. But for the next few months at least, everyone’s gonna be watching the Watchmen.