DC’s Watchmen prequels: I’m not angry, I’m disappointed

The announcement that DC Comics will be publishing the first Watchmen material since the original series didn’t provoke quite the reaction I would have expected. At risk of patronising many distinguished creators and comics professionals, I felt like a parent who discovers their teenager has done something bad after they had a calm and rational conversation about why this wasn’t a good idea.

You just feel deep disappointment. You expect better from them because they are smart and have such potential, and because you thought you’d gotten through to them.

Of course, they haven’t made a fatal mistake and reached a point of no return. But they’ve done something they’re going to regret, and you feel sad for them. That’s how I feel about this decision. I actually feel sympathy for DC Comics that they felt this was necessary.

I’m late to the party in addressing this, but since much of the discussion has been about the ethics of returning to these characters–and because this will be one of the biggest mainstream comics stories of the year–another view on the creative rationale is hardly superfluous.

Alan Moore has naturally spoken out against the project, simply wishing it wasn’t happening. Dave Gibbons issued a deliberately vague statement that amounted to, “I don’t see the point, but I guess if you have to…”. Critics have debated whether DC’s continued ownership of Watchmen is ethical since Moore claims that DC never expected to keep the rights from he and Gibbons for this long.

These are crucial issues, but not what immediately galls me about the project. Watchmen is hardly the first single, finite text to be expanded upon with follow-ups by other creators, but that doesn’t creatively justify it. Watchmen is one of the few superhero graphic novels that is perfectly formed and requires no expansion. Most hint at greater potential and you want to see further adventures, but not Watchmen. Despite rich and complex characters and an intricate alternate history that could conceivably be explored further, I–and many other readers, judging by the outcry to this project–saw no need for such elaboration. Moore and Gibbons created a world that, miraculously, was entirely fulfilled by the one and only story told within it.

This is a common sentiment, and precisely the reason no Watchmen follow-ups have appeared until now. Former DC publisher and editor-in-chief Paul Levitz reportedly blocked all attempts to follow up Watchmen. Despite not offering a meaningful olive branch to Moore about the rights issue (according to Moore), Levitz nonetheless realised that Watchmen was better–and more profitable–if left alone. The property would inevitably be diluted by ancilliary products, and betray Moore’s critique of our fascination with the superhero.

Now that Levitz is merely a DC writer rather than its boss, more Watchmen has finally arrived. Several prequel mini-series focusing on characters and groups totalling 35 issues will be released later this year.

35 issues. Three times the number of the original series. DC have managed to turn Watchmen into the money-spinning comics event it was always positioned as a contrast to. The single-volume gateway drug into mainstream comics has been refashioned into the climactic text of a suite of books, with just as nebulous a reading order as Blackest Night and other crossovers.

More surprising is that tremendous creators like Brian Azzarello and Darwyn Cooke are involved. J. Michael Straczynski is also writing two of the mini-series, but this Babylon 5 fan has realised the self-indulgent shortcomings of JMS’s writing more and more as the years pass, so his involvement doesn’t wound me as it might once have.

However, I am surprised that he would take on this project. He has defended the ethical and legal justifications for the project at length, but precious little has been said about why this should exist it all. Yes, Moore has written about other writers’ characters himself, etc etc, but does that creatively rationalise this particular project? Watchmen has had 25 years to embed itself in the comics community and the popular consciousness, so to presume that it can be added to in anything but the most perfunctory sense seems like hubris of the highest order. The original series (strange as it is to nowsay that), was already full of flashbacks, so what purpose to prequels serve?

Passionate as these creators may indeed be about expanding on the Watchmen universe, it’s difficult to believe that the original impetus was anything but financial. The Watchmen graphic novel has been a consistently strong seller, and even more so this century and since the movie started gathering strong buzz. More Watchmen books mean more bucks, at least initially.

This is hardly a profound insight, I know, but it strikes me as a simple truth that drives all of this. Both DC and Marvel have preferred to mine their existing characters for all they’re worth and beyond rather than take extended and vigourous chances on new material. Yes, this may say more about the market than DC management, but some properties could still have remained sacrosanct. We always assumed Watchmen would be one of those properties. No longer.

If Neil Gaiman hadn’t managed to negotiate approval rights for future Sandman projects despite not owning the characters, you can bet DC would be planning a Gaiman-free Sandman series right now. Anything is fair game. Nothing is sacred, and creative justification is no longer a requirement for any potential project, not just some.

If the comics industry hadn’t been on this path for some years, the Watchmen prequels would make me angry and bitter. But they just make me sad for what mainstream comics could truly be if we looked to the future.

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