Who Wants the Watchmen?

Yesterday, DC Entertainment officially announced what has been rumored since last summer: sequels to the landmark Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons Watchmen series. Prequels, actually, bearing the collective banner Before Watchmen.

Neither Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons are involved in the project in any way, with the former taking a firm stance opposing the project and the latter giving a relatively weak endorsement in DC’s press release: “The original series of WATCHMEN is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell. However, I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire.”

Hardly the kind of resounding support DC might like to have from the original creative team, even if Gibbons seems willing to play nice with the toys in his sandbox, if not participate in their exhumation and repainting.

Yet that doesn’t mean the Before Watchmen comics won’t be worth reading. There’s nothing inherent about the original Watchmen series that excludes prequels or sequels. Alan Moore himself had planned to do more in the Watchmen setting before his falling out with DC, and actively participated in expanded Watchmen setting material for the Mayfair Role-Playing Game version of the now sacred comic book text.

Listen, Watchmen is a great comic. A masterpiece that I look forward to digging into in the next few weeks as part of The Great Alan Moore Reread. But doing a prequel, or a series of prequels, won’t do anything to tarnish the legacy of Watchmen itself, no matter how bad they turn out to be. Never in the history of the world has a prequel series come along and ruined something well-loved. What’s that? Star Wars? Oh, right.

Okay, there may be something to panic about. There is a precedent for prequel-sabotage. But as far as I know, Rick McCallum and George Lucas have nothing to do with Before Watchmen, and we should be safe from their Hayden-Christensen-tainted touch.

So who are these writers and artists working on the prequel comics? Are these things likely to be any good?

Let’s take a look…

Brian Azzarello is slated to write two of the series, four issues of Rorschach with artist Lee Bermejo and six issues of Comedian with J. G. Jones providing the visuals. Azzarello writes one of the best ongoing DCU series right now with Wonder Woman and his Flashpoint: Batman: Knight of Vengeance cracked my Top 5 Comics of 2011 list last year. He’s also the architect behind the crime-battered 100 Bullets from Vertigo and an all-around strong comic book writer with an impressive pedigree. But he also spent some time trying to resurrect the pulp heroes of yesteryear for the First Wave line from DC a couple of years back, and that was a debacle. Bermejo and Jones are distinctive artists, the former with a chiseled metallic style that somehow remains gritty and the latter with a penchant for surly pop iconography. Good choices for these kind of pre-Watchmen comics.

Even with the First Wave stench lingering, you can’t get much better than Azzarello, Bermejo, and Jones for comics about deranged superheroes from the past.

Darwyn Cooke might be better, though. Coming off his exemplary Parker adaptations for IDW, Cooke brings his bold, animation-style rendering back to DC for Minutemen, which he’s both writing and drawing, and he’s also providing the scripts for the Silk Spectre book drawn by Amanda Conner. The six issues of Minutemen look to be a kind of lynchpin series for the whole Before Watchmen project, and early rumors of the project placed Cooke at the center, as some kind of comic book equivalent of a showrunner. It will be interesting to see if he plays the Minutemen series as a kind of innocent romp with some darker undertones beneath (as he did with his collected-into-a-glorious-Absolute-EditionNew Frontier series about the formation of the Justice League), or if he’ll give the WWII-era heroes a more directly savage approach, satirically or crime-ridden or otherwise. Either way, it will look striking.

Amanda Conner, with her clean lines and confrontational approach to both innocence and sexuality—see very different takes on both in The Pro and Power Girl—is another strong choice for the project. Her four issues of Silk Spectre will also surely look stunning.

So that’s four of the seven announced Before Watchmen series, and if you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “this is a much stronger creative lineup then DC gave even its own line-wide relaunch. These are top-notch writers and artists, getting a chance to play in an until-now forbidden playground.”

I can’t help but wonder if DC knew that anything less than top talent would sink the project before it even hit the stands. The public may be crying out for more Watchmen material, I don’t know, but I’ve certainly never heard anyone ask for it. Or even hint that they wanted to see more. The closest thing to a positive reaction to any previous rumors of more non-Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons Watchmen comic has been something like this: “I’m not really interested. I’ll buy it if it looks good.”

Not much of a clamor, there.

But the anti-Watchmen sequel/prequel voices have been stronger, or at least obviously louder, and they could potentially drown out the project—joined by the uncaring who start to care if the new creative teams look particularly hackish.

Why else would DC inject such quality talent into Before Watchmen but proportionally lesser talents with their line-wide reboot last September, which, had it failed, would have potentially sunk the company and the entire mainstream comic book industry with it?

Perhaps these creators just wanted a crack at the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons characters, who, you may recall, were analogues of Charlton characters from the Silver Age anyway. What Moore and Gibbons did with them was new, and final, but the characters in Watchmen were based on Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle and the Question and all the rest of the Charlton gang. Moore and Gibbons did their (profoundly good, pioneering) take on those costumed heroes. Now others are doing their version of Moore and Gibbons’s versions. And maybe that possibility pulled the creators in.

Or, just as likely, DC knew that the mass superhero reading audience, and potential new readers, cared less about who was writing and drawing Batman and Superman than the fact that the comic said the words “Batman” and/or “Superman” on the cover and showed guys with costumes and capes, punching stuff. That, too.

So, Before Watchmen has, pound-for-pound a superior line-up of creators than the mainline DCU comic. Except, I didn’t mention all the series yet. And here’s where things get sticky.

Because two of the Before Watchmen miniseries—the four issues of Dr. Manhattan and the four issues of Nite Owl—are written by J. Michael Straczynski, who DC keeps trying to position as a top-notch talent, but no one buys it anymore. Straczynski, still probably most famous as the creator of Babylon 5 for television, has tried to do his Alan Moore impression in comics for almost as long as he’s been intensely working in the industry. Rising Stars from Top Cow, was his version of Watchmen. So was the as-yet-unfinished (but getting closer to completion after absurd delays) The Twelve from Marvel. So was his slooooowly paced Supreme Power. He was announced, with big fanfare from DC, as the big-time writer who would update Superman and Wonder Woman for the readers of today, but he never finished the stories he started in each of them, and the writers who came on to finish his “plot” outlines before the September relaunch did a much better job than he had ever done.

And don’t even mention his original graphic novel Superman: Earth One from 2010. It’s embarrassing. (Though DC insists that it was a hit, and that we need another young Superman graphic novel from the same creative team this year. We don’t.)

But while Straczynski has been wrong for so many projects, and stumbled so badly so many times, when he has succeeded—with some of the issues of The Twelve, with the opening parts of his Thor run, and with an occasional Gary Frank-drawn issue or two—he’s done so in a way that nods in the direction of Alan Moore. So while Straczynski is not a great comic book writer, when he is readable, he’s readable in an Alan Moore, Jr. kind of way, which doesn’t make him a completely wrong-headed choice for two Before Watchmen series.

And because he’s paired up with the extraordinary Adam Hughes for Dr. Manhattan and the admirably-excellent father/son pairing of Andy and Joe Kubert on Nite Owl, the comics will at least look great. With only four issues in each series, he can’t lumber around too long, and he will likely finish what he started (if he hasn’t done so already). So there’s a chance that these, too, might be better than the DCU average.

The final creative team seems like the oddest one of all. Len Wein, who has barely written anything of substance in 20 years, and Jae Lee, who has been off in the hinterlands of cover art or Stephen King adaptations for what feels like a generation. Wein and Lee tackle the six issues of Ozymandias, but here’s why Wein is part of the project: he was the original series editor for Watchmen. His presence acts as an endorsement that, yes, this is a legitimate follow-up (or prequel) to the original series, because—hey, look!—Alan Moore’s own editor is part of this team too! And Wein isn’t just writing this series, but he’s also writing “Curse of the Crimson Corsair,” which will be a short that runs through all the comics in Before Watchmen, in tribute to the Black Freighter comics in the original series.

John Higgins provides the art for the Corsair series-within-the-series, and, get this, Higgins was the original colorist for Watchmen. Bam! Two out of four of the original guys who were somehow involved in the production of Watchmen are back! Who needs Alan Moore?

(We need Alan Moore, but he doesn’t need us, it turns out.)

Jae Lee, though? Never involved in the original Watchmen. Only involved here because he’s a fantastic artist.

Honestly, though, these are all potentially good comics. Every single one of them has something of interest in the creative team pairings, beyond the fact that they will have Watchmen in their title and Watchmen characters all over their pages. I’d buy all of these comics if they were called Before the L.A.W. and featured Thunderbolt and Peacemaker. Even the Straczynski ones.

I’ll leave you with a final thought from the Before Watchmen press release, where DC Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee try to hide their guilt about doing the project and their glee about how much money the company might make by dropping the pretense that they care what Alan Moore thinks: “Comic books are perhaps the largest and longest running form of collaborative fiction,” said DiDio and Lee. “Collaborative storytelling is what keeps these fictional universes current and relevant.”

Yes, it’s really all about the collaborations. And the money. The sweet, sweet, greenbacks.

But maybe the comics will be good despite their mercenary origins. Not Watchmen good, but good enough for reading.

Tim Callahan may not be clamoring for Watchmen prequels, but he knows he will buy them all when they come out. Just like he’ll buy the Young Adventures of Charles Foster Kane extended edition blu-ray and the Diary of Holden Caulfield, Age 8 hardcover.


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