In Defense of "Before Watchmen"

It's safe to say that if you're reading this article, you didn't get much work done on February 1, 2012. News of the "Watchmen" prequels hit like a Gungan booma early yesterday morning (you can't hate me for that appropriate "Phantom Menace" reference more than I hate myself for it), disrupting the internet's normal Wednesday morning cat-cat-sloth-cat picture routine. "Before Watchmen" joined the elite group of topics trending on Twitter, along with "#3WordsThatWomenHate" and "#YouKnowYouHigh." I don't even feel compelled to check that trending topic for fan reaction, because I can't imagine it's any different from what it's been since "Watchmen" ended publication in 1987.

The world is ending. Art is dead. Long live greed. That sums it up, right?

I'm not going to pretend that I like this news. I've definitely not been clamoring for more comics detailing the depraved adventures of the Comedian. As far as I'm concerned, "Watchmen" is the only thing in existence besides the Beatles to actually live up to its hype. When I read it for the first time, around five years ago, I was blown away. And yes, I only read it five years ago, meaning that I had about 15 years of accumulated hype stored in my brain. "Watchmen" was everything everyone had ever made it out to be, one of the most complex and challenging experiences I have ever had with a work of art. I don't want it to be touched. I don't need an amendment. "Before Watchmen" is probably going to become shorthand in comic book fandom for the greed of the comic book industry. It's completely symbolic of the industry's innate compulsion to try to turn yesterday into a profit.

My initial reaction to this news was to release an epic sigh. As soon as my brain got hold of it, though, I could understand what DC Comics is doing and why it's doing it. "Watchmen" is revered because it's "Watchmen," a name that has become synonymous with "game-changing genius." But I think the comic book community also viewed "Watchmen" as some sort of marathon to see how long an insanely popular series could go without a new installment, and this news means the streak is over. Someone alert Nerd Guinness. 

I keep thinking about Marvel's "Runaways" as I compose my thoughts, a series featuring characters created entirely by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona for Marvel Comics in 2003. Yes, Vaughan's contract and the environment surrounding "Runaways'" creation is entirely different from Alan Moore's, but bear with me. Vaughan stayed with the book for 42 issues, with Alphona there for much of the run as well. Aside from fill-in artists, they were the creative vision for that series. The Runaways infrequently interacted with the proper Marvel Universe, and when Vaughan left that series, it would have been appropriate for Marvel to end "Runaways" there. But they didn't. Because "Runaways" is a comic book. Joss Whedon's run began as soon as Vaughan's ended, and the comic continued to be published for years after that. In a way, the fan backlash and fury over this announcement is DC's own doing. If they had "double-crossed" Moore and Dave Gibbons, publishing "Watchmen" #13 by John Byrne/Marv Wolfman/George Perez/Whoever McIdontknow in 1987, fans would not have known a world without "Watchmen." Instead, DC spent 25 years leading us to believe that they, too, believed "Watchmen" was an untouchable work of art.

That probably sounds a lot more damning than I mean it to be. Comic book companies cannot control the assumptions and emotions of their fans. My honest reaction to "Before Watchmen" (he says, after around 600 words of buildup) is more along the lines of, "I can't believe they waited this long," than, "I can't believe they're doing this."

"Watchmen" makes money. The graphic novel continually sells. The movie made almost two hundred million dollars in theaters alone. These characters have become almost as ingrained in the modern mainstream public's subconscious as Batman and Superman. There's a decent chance that the quarterback for your high school football team, your boss and your arty aunt have read "Watchmen." It's everywhere. And honestly, again, shame on us fans for not expecting DC Comics to be a comic book company. We really want superhero comics to be fine art. I argue the merits of comics with the passion usually reserved for political debates (note to self: read more about politics). DC Comics is creating art for money. "Before Watchmen" is going to make them money. A lot of money, probably. I am not going to be angry with a company for wanting to make money in an industry that is dealing with a radical shift in the consumer world.

Returning to the "Phantom Menace" mention I made earlier, I take back my implication that that connection was apt. The truth is, "Before Watchmen" does not yet seem to be as nefarious as the "Star Wars" prequels which not only put the original trilogy in a new, arguably lesser context, but they also led to actual changes to the original movies. It became increasingly difficult to ignore the prequels as Hayden Christensen was shoved into "Return of the Jedi" along with other edits. DC Comics did not announce that they are going to do anything to touch the original "Watchmen." If you want to ignore "Before Watchmen," please do. You'll save around a hundred dollars, which could be put towards enacting a real change in the industry.

That change? Buy something new. DC is going back to "Watchmen" for the same reasons Marvel is launching "Avengers vs. X-Men" alongside the "Avengers" film. Old ideas sell. The big characters sell. The big characters are popular, in movies and recognizable. Let's do all of the old things, bigger and more often, forever! "Runaways" was eventually canceled because it couldn't compete in a market where people love the big characters and fear reading something new. If you are so opposed to the idea of "Before Watchmen" that you want to go Rorschach all over DC Comics, then use the hundred dollars you would spend on the prequels to buy creator-owned comics from other publishers, or even comics starring superheroes created after the Clinton administration. Give the big publishers a financial reason to pursue new ideas and leave comics like "Watchmen" alone.

Now get back to work. Your boss is noticing -- for real.

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre sketch team Everything Rabbits. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

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