In our sunset years: more thoughts on Before Watchmen

My feelings on Before Watchmen were, I think, best summed up by Steve-O in Jackass: “It’s like when your parents said ‘I’m not mad at you, just disappointed.’ You know that hurts so much more.”

Nude Power Girl boosts your Google hitsI’d never seriously doubted the Watchmen 2 rumours on Bleeding Cool, especially when they were supported by Moore’s revelation that DC had attempted to trade prequel approval for copyright. I’m not mad about it and the time-honoured geek revenge of a threatened boycott would hurt nobody because I’ve bought only a handful of comics from DC in the last five years.

It still made me sad, though, let down that an industry I’ve been supporting and willing to do better all my life had failed to evolve past the moral position of the 1930s. That the people in charge of a comics company which once had the vision to push the envelope had lost faith in their own good decisions and had sacrificed mass-market credibility for, once again, the vigorous exploitation of an ever-shrinking audience of fans.

But Before Watchmen has educated me in one way, and I’m genuinely grateful for that. As I surfed the blogosphere looking for people as outraged as myself, and in accordance with the self-lacerating perversity of internet opposition sought to be outraged in my turn by those cheerleading for the project, one consistent sentiment surprised me. Haters or not, everyone seemed impressed by the creative line-up tackling the Watchmen prequels. Darwyn Cooke, Brian Azzarello, Adam Hughes, Lee Bermenjo, JG Jones and Amanda Conner were praised as the best people available, JMS and Len Wein notably less so. I had trouble giving this headroom.

I’ve read The New Frontier, of Darwyn Cooke’s work, and his issue of Solo. I’ve read a couple of books of 100 Bullets and the first book of Azzarello’s Hellblazer run. I’m familiar with Hughes from his covers and pin-up and remember his work on the Justice League back in the Giffen days. I liked Jones’s art for Final Crisis, I’ve seen Connor’s Power Girl art and approve of its general sexy cuteness, etcetera. I’m not unfamiliar with any of them, though there’s only Cooke who I’d actually buy work by.

So I thought of them as also-rans, journeymen, the ones who would take the shilling because they didn’t have enough clout to sell projects of their own. My thoughts were clouded by pain, I admit, and I find it hard to tell those Brians apart: Wood, Bendis, K Vaughn, Azzarello. I know them if I think about them but I wasn’t thinking. In my exasperation I condemned everyone working on Before Watchmen as a creator unable to sell any comics on their own.

I like pop music. As I write this I’m watching Katy Perry’s All-Time Top Ten on MTV. This isn’t a post-ironic hipster pose or an affectation, it’s who I am; a bouncy tune and a slick image goes straight to the heart of me where some serious, guitar-toting dude leaves me cold.

I bring this up because liking pop music changes your perception of the cultural landscape. You can’t retreat, as so many blokes do as they get older, into the belief that nobody really likes this music, that it is objectively crap, and that anyone who thinks they like it is a fool for marketing. You can’t revile the very state of music today, claim that all R&B music is the same, and sincerely believe that the songs of your youth are by every measure superior to everything produced today when you’re helpless before a Dr Luke melody line or a Calvin Harris beat.

I know guys, my age, who hold those beliefs. Who think all the good music has been made and it’s just a coincidence that it was all made when they were aged 14-25. The men, and it’s usually men, who decided who their favourite bands were twenty years ago and don’t have room on their mental record labels for any new acts. I know a guy who still buys everything released by The Bluetones, a one-hit wonder Britpop group, and their lead singer Mark Morriss because he’s still following a golden thread from the festivals and indie clubbing of 1996.

The creative line-up of Before Watchmen made me realise that I was that guy. My idea of an A-list team would be, for example, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman writing, Mike Mignola and Tim Sale on art. My guys, in other words: guys from the late 80s-early 90s reinvention of comics. Which is just as pathetic as the 60-year-old Who fanatic convinced that there’s been no band that can compare since.

The creative team on Before Watchmen is undeniably good, A-list, gold standard, all that. Cooke has produced a work that reinvents iconic DC characters and has proven popular enough to be an animated feature and an Absolute. Azzarello has a 100-issue creator-owned project behind him. The return of Hughes to sequential art is treated as a second coming. There are probably young fans out there who think Cooke’s Slam Bradley back-ups are undiscovered gems just like I think Swamp Thing Annual #3 is an undiscovered gem. If I’m not wrong, they’re not wrong.

Why are they doing it, then? It’s different for artists, who can’t entirely choose what they work on. Amanda Connor did great work on Power Girl, and it sold better than a Power Girl comics can be expected to, but that doesn’t add up to a whole lot. But what about the writers? What makes them want to abandon their own creations to wring the juice out of someone else’s work against the wishes of its creators?

(Aside: Alan Moore is vocally against the project, but Dave Gibbons has been widely reported as giving it his blessing. No. Dave’s blessing would have been Dave picking up the brush and providing art for a prequel. And you can bet he was asked; when Watchmen’s original editor and colourist have been added to the line-up to provide a smokescreen of legitimacy, Dave must have been offered the world and more to take part.)

Well, Darwyn Cooke hasn’t ever really worked on his own characters. He’s a brilliant comics storyteller but not an original one. My conjecture would be that he came up with a Minutemen series – it would fit with his retro metier – and DC decided that if they were going to be hated for one prequel they might as well be hated for seven. J Michael Straczynski created for TV where nobody gets to own anything they write, and seems to believe every creator’s duty is to enable commercial exploitation of their work. Len Wein is 63, needs the money and has been given the mini that nobody’s excited about. The only one who should understand what creator’s rights mean, who owns his own signature work, is Brian Azzarello.

How would he feel if 200 Bullets was launched, the rights to his own work having been unlawfully taken from him by a company too big to sue? Why would a creator who knows the value of owning his own work willingly violate the rights of another?

And while it’s JMS’s lengthy defence of his involvement in Before Watchmen that has elicited the most argument and scorn, it’s Azzarello’s one-liner that annoys me the most. “I think the gut reaction is going to be, ‘Why?’ But then when the actual books come out, the answer will be, ‘Oh, that’s why.’” Yeah, dick, we’re all going to totally change our minds about creators’ rights once we’ve read your fucking fan fiction.

Okay, so maybe I’m a little mad.

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