Before Watchmen: Good or bad idea?

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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.

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7 thoughts on “Before Watchmen: Good or bad idea?

  1. EllieAnn

    Good post. I think I’ll ignore these prequels. Not only because Watchmen was so perfect on its own–but because the idea of prequels suck on its own. All tension is gone because you already know what happens. I’m not a big of prequels at all.

    Reply
  2. matthewhyde Post author

    Yeah, and in the worst cases prequels can actually detract from the original (coughcoughStarWarscoughcough). I think it’s a particularly bad case with Watchmen as everything you really need to know is in the book itself – Alan Moore’s not exactly a writer who leaves out a lot of detail… I’m just not convinced there’s a gap that Watchmen prequels need to plug.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Watchmen Toasters. Seriously. | Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

  4. Holly A. Wolfe

    This is why as far as comic publishing companies go, I really, really dislike DC and Marvel.
    Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pumping out a book sequel or two, but if such projects are readily given to other writers to create as opposed to the original author, it really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Such an approach would never be considered for, say, the Harry Potter books. Why is this different for superhero comics? That is something I’ve never understood.

    Reply
    1. matthewhyde Post author

      I think it’s because comics have always been a largely collaborative medium – I guess Watchmen was one of the first comics that people view as a novel, not a comic. It changed the rulebook when it comes to this sort of thing.

      But now DC have reverted to the old rulebook… And I’m not sure how legitimate it is in this situation…

      Reply
  5. Kevinator

    Self-contained masterpieces like Watchmen (and Maus, and others) are the only chance that comics has of ever being considered a legitimate medium by the rest of the literary world. But it’ll never happen if the major publishing companies continue to attempt to turn every work into a franchise. They need to stop thinking in terms of whether it’ll sell or not – because there’s absolutely no doubt that it will – and start thinking in terms of whether it’s good for the medium as a whole.
    This isn’t to say that a long-running series is automatically a cheap soap opera meant to keep people spending on a monthly basis; as long as there’s a single writer with a specific ending in mind, and a specific timeline of how to get there, like The Sandman, or 100 Bullets, then such series can turn out beautifully. But that’s because the authors of those works know how to use that longevity to their advantage, such that details from the very first few issues are still important in the last.
    Self-contained works can also incorporate thematic elements much more pleasingly, as each part builds towards an end that brings all of the previous parts into focus, whereas in an indefinitely continuing series, each issue, in the long run, serves only to continue the franchise. Some people may object to that notion, but then I ask, why are comic books so notoriously bad for almost never letting a character stay dead? The simple answer is that the publishing houses won’t sacrifice a money-making franchise in exchange for a story with any actual impact. That’s why, in my opinion, the best stories in comics are almost always limited series, either featuring original characters, or else non-canon.
    These Watchmen prequels not only risk doing a great disservice to one of the greatest comics of all time and potentially affecting the way people see the original; they will also contribute to, and serve as a symbol of, the brainless franchising that quite frankly justifies comic books’ lowly rank on the totem pole of legitimate literature. And as far as symbols go, let’s not forget what this move says about the comic book industry’s scruples when it comes to respecting the integrity of a writer’s work.

    Reply
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