A job like this just isn’t his style: Dave Gibbons and Before Watchmen
As the release of the first Before Watchmen comics approaches, the internet arguments about it gradually lose their colour and intensity. After the first fortnight they became ritualised, each side knowing their lines and reciting with little variation: the anti-BW arguments dropping Kirby and Siegel and Shuster and creators’ rights, the pro-BW throwing up the Charlton characters and Moore’s use of other people’s characters and those four times he wrote Superman and the awesome creative teams. There’s probably no possibility of either side (I’m anti-, by the way) changing anyone’s mind.
Nonetheless, there are solid reasons for putting all the arguments out there. Comics, and comics fans, haven’t distinguished themselves in battling for what’s right over the years. The pro-BW squealing has drowned out the anti-BW exhausted resignation. There should, however futile, be an attempt at balance.
So: one of the less frequently used arguments by the pro-BW crowd, when they’re savaging Alan Moore as a bitter old man who didn’t have the good sense to train as a contract lawyer, is that Dave Gibbons has given these prequels his blessing. If one half of the creative team behind the graphic novel that redefined the medium is fine with its further commercial exploitation, then it’s easier to portray the other half as deranged and vengeful. A veneer of legitimacy makes voices of protest become easier to ignore.
But as far as I’m aware, the only word from Gibbons himself is the quote that came with the launch announcement: “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.”
Let’s go through that, line by line, looking for this blessing. It’s not in the first line, which if anything is a damning of the prequels; if the original series is the complete story, what justification is there for them? The second line ups the passive-aggressive feel of the whole thing; Dave appreciates your reasons, DC. He doesn’t say they’re good reasons. He appreciates your wish to pay tribute, all of you top creative teams making money off his ideas. But he doesn’t thank you for your tributes, or say anything about how gratified they make him feel. There’s no warmth there.
Then there’s the third line, the closest to a blessing and the most backhanded of the lot. It’s worth remembering that Dave Gibbons doesn’t have the royalties coming in that Alan Moore does. He didn’t write From Hell or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Watchmen is, without doubt, the most successful thing he’s ever done. So it’s natural for him to wish for successful prequels because he’ll be earning money from them. But he doesn’t wish them every success, or the success of the original series. He wishes them only the success they desire. Is there a suggestion there that what they desire isn’t really worth desiring? Or should the last word, in a more honest world, be changed so Dave’s wishing them the success they deserve?
You can read too much into words, of course, and perhaps I have. But there are also Dave’s actions to consider. Unlike Alan, Dave supported the Watchmen film fully. He was the go-to guy for interviews about the graphic novel’s relationship to the film, touring Europe and North America with Zack Snyder. He published a book, Watching The Watchmen, about his half of its creation packed with sketches, designs, rare pieces of art and more. He and John Higgins, the series’ colourist, did a poster for the movie and Dave worked on storyboards for the new ending to make sure it had the same visual influences as the rest. He was a consultant on the motion comics and the video game. He drew a new cover for the graphic novel. He was a consultant for the action figures and the limited edition sculptures. He drew licensing art, and mugshot-style front, back and side images of the characters to be used by everyone working on the merchandising.
This, then, is how Dave Gibbons behaves when he’s given a Watchmen-related project his blessing. He’s involved. He’s hands-on. He’s committed to ensuring that what’s produced under the Watchmen name doesn’t violate or disrespect the extraordinary piece of work that he’ll be remembered for. This is how he’s not behaving with Before Watchmen.
Seven miniseries. How many of them is Dave Gibbons drawing? None. How many of them is Dave Gibbons – and he’s a decent writer, with some strong work behind him – writing? None. What role is he playing in their direction, their faithfulness to the original work? Thirty-five issues, each one with two covers, means seventy covers. How many of those covers is Dave Gibbons drawing? None. If Dave Gibbons has given these prequels his blessing, why doesn’t he pick up the Wacom tablet and bless them with a cover or two?
The originators of the prequel project are clearly groping for that kind of legitimacy. All the shouting about Before Watchmen’s top-notch creative teams ignores that Len Wein, who even the biggest fan of can’t describe as hot right now, is writing the Nite Owl series. The only possible reason for that is that, as Watchmen’s original editor, he provides a link back to the graphic novel and lends it some credibility. Likewise the pirate back-up by Wein and Watchmen’s colourist John Higgins. I like Higgins’s work but his name sells no comics. The only reason he’s part of this project is because he was involved in the original. It helps DC’s pretence that there’s nothing unusual or immoral about what they’re doing. It’s a tiny, pathetic fig-leaf over the nakedness of DC’s cashgrab. Getting Dave Gibbons into the line-up as writer or artist on any one of the miniseries would be a full pair of leafy trousers. He has a working relationship with DC, as evidenced by their use of him as a go-between to Alan Moore. So I think it’s reasonable to assume that he was asked to participate in Before Watchmen and refused and in the end, the most they could get out of him was a grudging quote.
My evidence, I admit, is circumstantial. But there’s a lot of it. So, dear reader, if you’re a person who argues about comics on the internet or in real life, if you’re attacking Before Watchmen and you’ve already demolished the Charlton and out-of-copyright character arguments and your interlocutor’s reaching for Dave Gibbon’s blessing, tell them that a quote, from an artist, isn’t a blessing. Point out that Dave has almost certainly been asked to participate and refused to have anything to do with it. Show them that it’s not just Alan Moore who doesn’t want one of the few classics of the medium that outsiders have actually heard of to be watered down into just another franchise with ever-diminishing returns.