Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Three Issues of "Before Watchmen"

Minutemen #1, by Darwyn Cooke
Silk Spectre #1, by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner
Comedian #1, by Brian Azzarello and J.G. Jones

Watchmen is the name of a popular comic written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. If you have any interest in comics then you have almost certainly read it. It imagines what the world would be like if there really were weirdoes who dress up in funny costumes to go out and beat up criminals. It also has metafictional elements, being partly a commentary on the development of comics themselves up to the point it was created in the early 1980s.

People really like Watchmen. I will not go on about why people like it - if you have read it you probably know why already, and if you have not then I urge you to just buy or borrow a copy and read it. But people generally have a real fondness for the comic, which for many of them was a gateway into the idea that comics could be for adults while still referencing ideas originally appearing in comics aimed at younger people. So now, as the comics industry teeters towards extinction, it is not too surprising that DC Comics, Watchmen's publisher, have finally decided to try and milk its popularity by bringing out some more Watchmen titles - a series of prequels published under the collective title of Before Watchmen. Nor is it too surprising that this move has been greeted by many with a sense that some kind of terrible crime against art was being committed.

In some respects, the hostility felt by many to these prequels is a bit precious. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did not create the characters of their book from nothing, but rather took a number of pre-existing characters, changed their name, gave them more depth, and threw them together into the Watchmen narrative. But creating these prequels does still seem a bit cheap and tawdry, a rather sad attempt by DC to wring a few more dollars from a book with the great virtue of being wonderfully self-contained. Given that so much of Watchmen itself is devoted to fleshing out the characters' back-stories through flashbacks of one kind or another, many wondered legitimately what exactly these prequels were bringing to the table - would they just rehash stuff that was already in the original book, would they ponderously expand on things that were dealt with lightly by Moore and Gibbons, or would they piss everybody off by daringly presenting us with material that conflicted with things that appeared in the original work?

Well, now we kind of know. Three issues of the prequels have appeared, with some considerable talents involved in their production. The results are a bit mixed, but fundamentally none of these titles are essential. The most enjoyable is Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke. That uses the framing device of the memoirs of one of the first generation masked heroes (also featured in original Watchmen) to bring us back to the pulpy adventures of him and his fellow fighters of crime back in the late 1930s. It meshes perfectly with Cooke's own retro-sensibility, his art conjuring up an image of the past that is both naïve and also aware of its naivety - you catch enough glimpses in the art and narrative to know that all is not actually rosy back in the golden age of the superheroes.

The other two titles are less interesting. Silk Spectre focuses on the two women (mother and daughter) who at different types adopted that moniker, but ends up being an unengaging tale of youthful revolt against an overbearing parent. The relative slightness of this title is particularly disappointing, given that it deals with two of the more interesting and complex characters of original Watchmen, with Laurie (the daughter) in particular being one of the more human of that book's characters. The first issue of Comedian, meanwhile, is a surprisingly bland look at what one of Moore and Gibbons' more bad-ass characters got up to in the early 1960s. It turns out he killed Marilyn Monroe, at Jackie Kennedy's request, in a slightly so-what manner. And contradicting something implied (but not directly stated) in original Watchmen, we discover that the Comedian did not kill JFK himself, nor was he even involved in any plot to kill the president. Having a scene in which an arch-cynic like the Comedian is shown being sad because of Kennedy's death seems like a deliberate attempt to deflate a character who originally appealed because of his amoral nastiness.

One thing that surprises me about all this is that each of the Before Watchmen titles is itself part one of a four- or six-issue limited series. And there are four more titles to come, as well as a single-issue epilogue. So DC are taking original Watchmen, first published as a twelve-issue limited series, and are producing 35 issues of prequels. That really is too much, even if the material was better than what has come out so far. I cannot but feel that DC missed a bit of an opportunity here. What could have been more interesting would have been a series of issues, each focussing on an individual Watchmen character (perhaps with different writers and artists) but with a linked thread running through them that resolved at the end in some way. Of course, that would basically have made the prequels a knock-off of Alan Moore's 1963 (a relatively underappreciated because un-reprinted limited series pastiching the early 1960s comics of the Marvel explosion) as well as a sullying of the legacy of original Watchmen, which would have made the whole project doubly transgressive.

As is, I really cannot see myself bothering to read all of the Before Watchmen issues. As a first-issue-fiend I will probably pick up each title's first issue and then stop. Of the ones that have come out so far, maybe I will keep going with Minutemen, but even that is not certain.

An inuit panda production

Image sources:

Minutemen (Wikipedia)

Silk Spectre (Wikipedia)

Comedian (Wikipedia)

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