Grumpy Old Fan | Set your clocks back

Before Wednesday morning’s big news, I was all ready to write about the wish-fulfillment aspects of DC’s reprint program. Maybe next week.

Now, though, we’ve got Before Watchmen*, seven miniseries and a one-shot in the Seven Soldiers mode, and no doubt collection-ready. Please pardon my cynicism, but with all due respect to the impressive roster of professionals involved, this could have easily been subtitled We’re Back For More Cash.

To be clear, I understand DC wanting to make money off its intellectual property.  A while ago I argued that one purpose of the current Shade miniseries is to fill another slot on bookshelves next to the rest of James Robinson’s Starman collections. Starman was one of the rare series where one writer introduced a character (Jack Knight) and took him through a series of adventures, until that character reached the natural endpoint of his life’s particular phase. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman preceded it, and Garth Ennis’ Hitman followed. (Working with writers David Goyer and Geoff Johns, Robinson tied Starman into the JSA revival as well.)

Robinson hasn’t returned to the character of Jack Knight since Starman ended, although he used a few Starman characters in his Justice League work (and I’m pretty sure one of the supporting cast showed up in the year-long Trinity miniseries, with which Robinson was not involved) -- but more to the point, no new creative team has explored what Jack, or Sandman’s Morpheus, or Hitman’s Tommy Monaghan, has done since their various series ended. There is a firewall around these characters, if not their unique milieux, apparently reinforced only by friendly agreement. When there are cracks -- when Morpheus’ successor Daniel showed up in Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA, or when Paul Cornell and Pete Woods had Sandman’s Death meet Lex Luthor in Action Comics -- it’s a big deal. I’d even go so far as to say that the old Multiverse was an in-story manifestation of such firewalls: all those Golden Age stories shunted to Earth-Two pretty much as-is, with the same going for the Fawcett (i.e., Marvel Family) characters on Earth-S, and yes, the Charlton characters on Earth-Four.

Indeed, at the risk of being obvious, Watchmen exists in its present form because DC didn’t want to let Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons put the Charlton characters themselves through the wringer. Thus, over the past twenty-five years, Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Nightshade, Peter Cannon, and the Question have each had their own ongoing series, and each has enjoyed various degrees of success in the context of the larger DC superhero line. Ironically, there’s a distinct Doctor Manhattan influence in both the Captain Adam of Final Crisis and the New-52's Cap, and the Question’s appearances on “Justice League Unlimited” recast the character as more conspiracy-minded, a la Rorschach. Of course, the Question and Blue Beetle who came over from Charlton have since died, and the New-52 setup doesn’t seem to leave much room for either to return.

The larger issue, though, is the extent to which these characters can be allowed to rest. J. Michael Straczynski, who is writing the Doctor Manhattan and Nite-Owl miniseries, told CBR

[a] lot of folks feel that these characters shouldn’t be touched by anyone other than Alan, and while that’s absolutely understandable on an emotional level, it’s deeply flawed on a logical level. Based on durability and recognition, one could make the argument that Superman is the greatest comics character ever created. But neither Alan nor anyone else has ever suggested that no one other than Shuster and Siegel should ever be allowed to write Superman. Alan didn’t pass on being brought on to write Swamp Thing, a seminal comics character created by Len Wein, and he did a terrific job. He didn’t say “No, no, I can’t, that’s Len’s character.” Nor should he have.

Mr. Straczynski’s response goes to the heart of work-for-hire comics; namely, that DC Comics owns (part of) Superman, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen, and as a practical matter can dictate who writes and draws the comics featuring them. Put bluntly, Alan Moore knew what he was getting into when he took on Watchmen, because it was the same situation he entered into with Swamp Thing. In fact, on a conceptual level there is probably not much difference between Before Watchmen and the mileage Geoff Johns has gotten out of “Tygers,” Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s Green Lantern Corps short story.

The real difference lies in the nature of the stories themselves. Superman and Swamp Thing were created to be ongoing characters with no definite endpoint, but Watchmen, Robinson’s Starman, Ennis’ Hitman, and Gaiman’s Sandman were all finite series. We can argue about whether creative teams other than Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster or Len Wein and Berni Wrightson have “done right by” Superman or Swamp Thing, but when you have a singular vision determining virtually every aspect of a particular series from beginning to end, it becomes a lot harder to disassociate that vision from that series. For example, Straczynski himself is associated pretty strongly with “Babylon 5,” the TV series he created and produced, so much so that any subsequent “B5" projects would no doubt seek his blessing, especially if the series were considered to have told a story complete unto itself.

To be sure, more “Babylon 5" might well receive and/or deserve those blessings, just as the Before Watchmen books might be worthwhile on their own merits. Certainly none of the professionals involved sets out to make bad comics, and certainly none of them will want to bring anything less than their best. Still, they’re in an unenviable situation, trying to do work which honors the original while still being original enough to justify its own existence. This is nothing new for work-for-hire comics, but the degree of difficulty is much higher.

And the thing is, DC does not need more Watchmen in the same way that it needs to keep publishing Batman, Superman, and Swamp Thing comics. As long as there is a DC Comics, there will be more Batman and Superman books, with dozens more creative teams looking to recapture what they first loved about those characters. Making sure those characters endure is fundamental to DC’s business model, and if some good comics come out of it, that’s just gravy. Accordingly, DC has no interest in producing the last Superman story, whether it’s “Doomsday!” or “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” As we saw last summer, DC doesn’t do endings, it does relaunches.

Accordingly, it’s helped nurture a culture where more of anything successful is implied, if not expected outright. As Tom Spurgeon tweeted, “the real takeaway here may be the sadness that [...] DC’s attempts to do Another Watchmen [are] now becoming doing More Watchmen.”

Now, I am not necessarily arguing against More. Personally, I’d love more of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Team 13, more Thriller by Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor von Eeden, and more ’Mazing Man from Bob Rozakis and Stephen DeStefano -- but mainly because I think those creators could do more with those characters. Conversely, a creator’s triumphant return to a particular subject doesn’t always produce the same kind of work (see, e.g., Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again).

At its best, the world of corporate superhero comics allows tradition and ritual to exist alongside creativity and innovation. On Monday I was glad to hear about upcoming collections of Amethyst, Mike Barr and Alan Davis’ Detective Comics, and Len Wein and Dave Gibbons’ Green Lantern. I’m also looking forward to the Trials Of Wonder Woman and All-Star Squadron reprints. Maybe next week I will get to talk about these in more detail. They’re all entertaining segments of ongoing series** which, for various reasons, were highlights either of those particular series or of DC’s superhero line. Each played within the rules of that superhero line, and none set out to be multilayered examinations of the comic-book form and/or the superhero-comics genre.

Nevertheless, it should be an elementary observation, but it bears repeating here: not every superhero comic must follow Watchmen, nor must Watchmen be as exploitable as the average monthly comic. While DC is free to do what it wants with the intellectual property it owns, it should have the same respect for Watchmen that it does for Jack Knight and Morpheus.

Again, it all comes down to the nature of the original work. Not only did Watchmen tell a complete story, set in its own unique world, it was designed specifically to be self-contained. The clockwork motif of an insular system which has to deal with unpredictable elements is one of the work’s core elements. DC may want to honor Watchmen with these prequels, but the work really doesn’t require them; and despite Moore and Gibbons’ exploratory steps to the contrary, the story as it exists almost discourages them.

Look, I know I don’t have to read any of the Before Watchmen comics. I realize these could turn out to be some very well-done comics, and I am guilty of prejudging something of which I have not read one page. It’s the kind of maddening thing which dares one to read it just so one can have an informed opinion, and by that time DC already has one’s money. If this project put these creative teams on the Earth-4 versions of the original Charlton characters -- even if DC said This is Watchmen 2 with the names changed -- I’d be all for it. That would at least be a touch newer than filling in the gaps of a pretty seamless narrative. No matter how much effort is put into these prequels, no matter how pure the intentions, no matter how polished the product, for a lot of fans this will be a reminder that DC did something because it could, because it would be relatively easy, and because it knew it would attract a truckload of attention. In an artistic field where potential is only limited by imagination, for DC to make such a reflexively conservative choice is incredibly disappointing.


* [In one respect the title was inevitable. Back when hype about the Watchmen movie was supercharging book sales, DC reprinted a number of single issues under the banner “After Watchmen.”]

** [Amethyst started out as a 12-issue miniseries, and at first it wasn’t part of the main superhero continuity.]

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