Nothing ever ends: thoughts on Before Watchmen

The job I’ve set myself in this blog is to consider the canon of adult comics in their context: to look at the artistic and storytelling decisions that were influenced by their times and to explain where of these 25-year old titles were breaking the mold and where they were, even unconsciously, conforming to it. I happen to think it’s important. It’s a source of enduring puzzlement to me, for example, how readers unfamiliar with comics make any sense of the early books of Sandman which exist entirely in the context of the DC universe.

So when I think about Before Watchmen I think about before Watchmen, the state of comics at that time and how one series would at once change it forever and leave it struggling on unchanged and ever more anachronistic.

I bought Watchmen from a back-alley comic shop in Manchester: issues three, four, five and nine. Obviously I loved them. I bought the trade, the one with the shattered window cover, from a comic mart beneath a hotel just across Piccadilly Gardens from that comic shop. It was, as far as I’m aware, the first time it had been available in Britain and certainly in that city; a stack of trades higher than the man selling them was demolished to nothing.

What was so different about Watchmen? The tone, certainly. At the time we called it realism and believed it was something it shared with The Dark Knight Returns. Violence that hurt, heroes that killed, sex, and evil triumphing over good. The other elements that set these works apart, the intelligent storytelling, the decent production values, were registered subliminally but it was the story that concerned us teens at the time.

There was another shared element that set both works apart: finality. They ended. This was a seismic shock to the reader and to the medium. I was young then, probably just a teenager when I read that trade, but I was in no doubt how important that was. I’d never known a story in comics that was self-contained, that between two covers told all there was to know.

It became something I looked for, more important than the Prestige Format or painted art or even that Mature Readers label. A story with an ending had weight, meaning, consequences. It was something you could read without context, without knowing who that guy was and what his powers were. I was mainly disappointed – Outcasts was a limited series that could have been an ongoing, mini-series like Black Orchid clearly had one eye on continuation – but creators, who wanted that finality when their publishers didn’t, made it part of mainstream comics.

There can be no doubt it was a huge part of Watchmen’s success in the wider world. You needed context for The Dark Knight Returns, needed to know that the Joker was scary and who Two-Face and Selina Kyle were and that Superman and Batman shared a universe. Watchmen needed none of that. It was discrete and complete.

After this year it won’t be. This damages DC’s intellectual property, because interested parties will now need to be told by the guy at the bookstore or their recommending friend not to bother with any of the other Watchmen books, just the main one. It damages the credibility of the medium, because now only those literary-style guys at Fantagraphics or D&Q can be trusted to give you a story that exists in one volume by one set of creators. And it damages DC, who can no longer be trusted to believe in their own decisions.

Alan Moore stopped working for them because he’d been ripped off – though it may have been inadvertent on DC’s part, there can’t be any doubt his creation was stolen – and because he was threatened. The threat was that someone else would write the Watchmen, and it wisely wasn’t carried out. The book has remained successful, and been recognised as a classic, because it broke the rules of comics and specifically the rule that comics never end. Watchmen ended. Now, 25 years on, it’s just like all the other comics after all.

Who’s next, now DC’s promises mean nothing? After Sandman is the logical follow-up; another intellectual property with real-world readers where the stubborn creator demands some kind of special treatment – ie a better contract than the one they signed as an unknown decades ago – to give the fans what they want. As DC at present confuse success with last, desperate throws of the dice, I don’t doubt it will happen. But the flame of creativity  that burned so brightly at DC for a few years guttered and died a long time ago. They’ve left themselves, as the journeyman cast of writers and artists on Before Watchmen shows, with no creators of worth and nothing left to rip off. The tragedy that this idiotic money-grab illustrates is that they’ve left the industry the same way.

* * * * *

The comics internet seems split between Before Watchmen being a self-evidently bad idea and those who are angry at Alan Moore. The latter group might be able to get themselves excited to read Before Watchmen in the hope it will further piss him off, but mainly they want the Magus to play by their rules, like the films they like, and to stop trash-talking their sacred cows. These angry ones have a few arguments they like to use. I’ll refute them here.

1: Watchmen’s characters are all the Charlton superheroes anyway, so who’s Alan Moore to say other people shouldn’t write them?
The superheroes in Watchmen are based on superheroes owned by Charlton and acquired by DC, that’s true. But the reason that new characters were created is that the series required such radical changes that Charlton’s guys would have been rendered unusable. And that’s not the way they ended up after the events of Watchmen, it’s what was required from the start. Look at the notes at the back of Absolute Watchmen and it’s clear that Moore’s intention was to take one aspect of each character to the extreme, discarding their previous continuity. They would have been virtually unrecognisable even before everything else about them was changed. What do Dr Manhattan and Captain Atom have in common apart from nuclear origins? What do the Question and Rorschach have in common apart from hidden faces and handy fists? And if the Watchmen characters are the Charlton characters, why doesn’t DC skip all this controversy and use the originals for this visionary project?

2: Alan Moore wrote Superman and Swamp Thing and he didn’t create them, so what right does he have to criticise other people for using his characters?
Alan Moore wrote Watchmen with a presumption of ownership and a presumption of finality. He might have considered a Minutemen series once but only for a very short time a very long time ago. Swamp Thing was owned by DC from the very beginning; Wein and Wrightson never owned him and knew they never would. Siegel and Shuster were grievously ripped off and shouldn’t have been but Superman’s ownership had been settled for decades, and his creators compensated, when Moore briefly wrote him. There’s a real difference in degree between the use of company-owned characters whose creators were reconciled to that and using characters whose ownership has been loudly and recently disputed.

3: Lost Girls and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen use other people’s characters, so what right does Alan Moore have to criticise other people for using his characters?
First, both those series use characters that are in the public domain. Their creators, and their descendants, aren’t losing income because someone else is writing their work. Second, Moore is plainly and wilfully doing very different things with those characters. Lost Girls turns three children’s book characters into actors in erotic fantasies and pornographic plays. It’s far from a direct sequel to any of those books. LOEG takes heroes of Victorian literature and mixes them into a continuity of all fiction, from the birth of the novel to the present day. Again, it’s very different from Moore sitting down to write a series of pulp novels called The Untold Adventures of Allan Quatermain. I’m confident that if someone had published an underground comics called The Comedian Laughs, where a disillusioned Edward Blake quits the government killer business and hits the stand-up circuit with routines about the Bay of Pigs invasion, Moore would have had no objection. Reinvention and homage are very different to straight-up capitalising on another’s work and reputation.

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