I offer this disclaimer: I acknowledge that I have a reputation for being a bit of a purist, and mildly inclined to hate almost everything; however, I did my best to dispel my preformed assumptions and, two weeks after Minutemen #1 was released, I began purchasing and perusing with an open mind. I just finished Ozymandias #1. And I find myself as angry as I was 2009. I may have been unable to argue with Snyder’s (albeit ineptly executed) passion for Watchmen and his adaptation of it, but—as was anticipated by a community of fans—Before Watchmen indeed reeks of the attempt to capitalize on the success of Moore’s graphic novel and the (questionable) success of Snyder’s 2009 film.
If you’ve been living in a hole in the ground for the past twenty-six years, Watchmen was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons in a 12-issue limited series in 1986. Moore, renowned for his deftness as a writer and proficiency with the comics medium, upped the ante by producing a groundbreaking story that deconstructed and satirized the superhero genre itself. In its most basic sense, Watchmen (1986) transpires in an alternate-timeline 1980s universe where America won Vietnam with the aid of masked crime-fighting heroes and Nixon remains president. The world is on the brink of nuclear crisis, with the Doomsday Clock fast approaching midnight; and in New York, an unbridled cesspool of corruption and debauchery, The Comedian is murdered, launching an unofficial investigation by other costumed heroes, who have since been deemed vigilantes in the eyes of the law.
The novel is creative in a technical manner as well, as revealed in its use of reflexivity, recurring signifiers that accrue various meanings, and the interplay between juxtaposed imagery and dialogue. The layout consists of a nine-panel grid on most pages, and chapters such as Fearful Symmetry (Ch. V, 1-28) are arranged in a “supersymmetrical” reading, where every row or panel literally and/or thematically mirrors its counterpart on the other side of the centerfold. This chapter stands in for the center of the novel, albeit a center that arrives too soon, earlier than the mathematical center, which as Moulthrop suggests, is not the actual center. Moore supplements the primary narrative with intertextual elements: epistolary fragments, psychological case files, excerpts from an expose “book-within-the-book” and a “comic-within-a-comic,” either shedding light on the main characters or symbolically indicating where they lie on the unequivocal spectrum from human to monstrous.
What follows is a story too brilliantly and tightly woven for me to sum up in a handful of sentences. There are the characters themselves, inverting or challenging superhero stereotypes. There is the layout. There are the intertextual elements, the inclusion of song lyrics, or the drowning Doomsday Clock, the iconic smiley face, the paralysis of past-present-future like the crossing of two streams like an X, the number of issues it takes to reach the end of Rorschach’s journal, and what Moulthrop suggests could be the geometric map of Watchmen, just as “V,” a single convergence point, may be read the symbolic map of V for Vendetta. There is the absurdist if exceedingly macabre plot to ensure world peace. The ease with which nearly every character relinquishes their integrity, save the one who is seemingly the most conservative and bigoted, the one who at no point tries to impose his beliefs on anyone else. Watchmen is about crossover, convergence and continuance, though that continuance may or may not be for the better. This was not a series that one picked up at the comics store, idly flipped through, and deemed read. It required close, careful, repeat readings, and the nature of the narrative encouraged such an approach.
Then, in 2009, the un-filmable graphic novel was adapted and released, polarizing fans. Arguably, it is possible to evaluate a person’s tastes based on whether or not they liked the film, a positive response being mitigated—maybe—by a particularly insightful and (self-)critical rationale.
So the fears of fans were fairly transparent concerning the release of Before Watchmen starting this summer. DC was going to produce a series of travesties that would fall far short of Moore’s genius. The characters would be flattened rather than fleshed out further. The layout would be simplistic. They would hire all-star writer/artist teams, and it would still suck. Alan Moore would still spit venom all over it for months to come. My critique is, surprisingly, not based on these fears, or fears expressed by others that Before Watchmen would “just be another comics series” with none of the landmark brilliance of the source material. It’s based on the fact that, by and large, the series is lacking in narrative depth and originality.
From a writerly standpoint, I understand that the comics industry is fueled by what is essentially fan-fiction to itself. Comics mythologies span more than one series; characters crossover all the time and worlds collide just as frequently; and as universes and characters are passed from writer and artist to writer and artist, inconsistencies become inevitable. It could be as simple as the handling of a character’s voice or the depiction of a setting that could cause a hiccup in reading, or make the reader aware that this particular team was somehow less skilled in storytelling. Here, the problem with suspension of disbelief is that, barring an official reboot or transplantation, these characters and settings are very much established and familiar to readers. The Gunga Diner, for instance, possesses a particular meaning, just as it is known fact that the character Ozymandias, for example, is motivated by a particular philosophy. The quality of prequels, sequels, reinterpretations, and crossovers depend on their handling by new authors and artists: just enough faithfulness to preceding material, just enough newness and difference, and just enough room left for the reader to move about and question, imagine, and interpret on his/her own. It’s not an easy task, even if the writer in me thinks it an enviable one.
Before Watchmen (2012) is a limited-run prequel series to Watchmen (1986). Around the time of publication of Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons had expressed interest in authoring a series based on the Minutemen, the 1940s-era predecessors to the masked vigilantes who make up the primary cast of Watchmen. Of the original Minutemen, discounting The Comedian who may as well be a main character despite his demise at the beginning, only Hollis Mason and Sally Jupiter—the original Nite Owl and Silk Spectre—are present enough to stand as solid characters. Of the others, we are given only pieces of history, rumors, and details of the tragedies that befell them: The Silhouette, a lesbian who was ousted for her sexuality and eventually died in disgrace, murdered with her lover; Dollar Bill, a promising youth who died when his cape made him an easy target in a revolving door; Moth Man, who suffered a psychotic breakdown; Hooded Justice, involved with Captain Metropolis, both of them hiding the fact through Sally’s flirtations with H.J. The suggestion that H.J.’s disappearance was The Comedian’s revenge. For that matter, the suggestion that The Comedian was responsible for the death of J.F.K.
The attraction inherent to a Minutemen series was that, according to Gibbons, it would have paid “homage to the simplicity and unsophisticated nature of Golden Age comic books—with the added dramatic interest that it would be a story whose conclusion is already known. It would be, perhaps, interesting to see how we got to the conclusion.” In other words, the appeal lay in fleshing out the invisible stories underpinning some of Watchmen‘s architecture. DC responded by offering stories involving a Nite Owl/Rorschach team, or Rorschach’s pivotal journal, or The Comedian’s experiences in Vietnam, ignoring the fact that all that was necessary had been included in Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons both felt that none of these stories would have gone anywhere, and so turned them down.
And now, here they are, produced by an all-star authorial cast to be sure—featuring teams like Straczynski and the Kuberts, Azzarello and Bermejo (whose Joker presented one of the most chilling iterations of the titular character), and Darwyn Cooke, among others. But their task is already difficult due to the limited purview of each 4-issue story, which focuses on a single character whose origins and motivations are mostly clarified in Watchmen.
I’ll be brief with specifics. Cooke’s Minutemen made me feel that there was hope for this series. In it, he treats the Minutemen from Hollis Mason’s point of view, a little overdone since that’s all we get in Watchmen, but the monologue is deftly handled, and the premises set up for little-known characters was an incredible taste. The Silhouette and Moth Man, whose tragedies received especially little attention in Watchmen, were revived respectively as a concentration-camp survivor who lost her sister and turned to breaking pedophile rings in her life as a crime-fighter, and a genius whose need to challenge himself drove him to perfect the art of flight, but who suffered debilitating pain from repeat accidents and crippling mental problems from having to trust each night that his suit would not fail him, as he stepped over the edge and trusted he would prevail over gravity.
These brief mentions were like a breath of fresh air. They were, however, swiftly followed with Silk Spectre #1, which IMO failed as a narrative and a comic. I wasn’t looking for technical proficiency on the level of Alan Moore, but the panels seemed to simply amplify the dialogue, or vice-versa. The relationships were no more complex, and neither was Laurie as a character. Suffering the same rebellious teenage phase implied and evident in Watchmen, she develops a crush on a boy who—surprise!—is a lot like her and picks her over the popular girls in school, who mercilessly pick on Laurie for having a mother who once doubled as heroine and sex object. The two run away together. End issue. The takeaway? Absolutely nothing new about the character, and negligible
The Comedian #1 almost changed my mind. Here, The Comedian’s friendship with J.F.K. is highlighted, as is a questionable conversation with Jackie debating the finer points of loving or respecting the man (any hints of queering The Comedian, even for one “exception man,” I’m all for). The issue culminates in an actual revelation, on par with those of Minutemen #1: that when J.F.K. was shot, the Comedian was sent after Moloch on a false mission. While this was stunning, I found myself wishing that the relationships between the Comedian and J.F.K. and Jackie and the boys had more room to breathe. With the swift assassination of J.F.K., it’s unlikely those relationships will receive much more treatment in subsequent issues, except as flashbacks, but I suppose I can always hope.
I read Nite Owl #1 and Ozymandias #1 back to back. It was the latter that prompted this post to begin with. Nite Owl #1 was decent: it provided a glimpse of Dan’s home life, his abusive father, his pseudo-hacker ethic and obsession with Nite Owl/Hollis Mason, and the early stages of their friendship. It suggests that Hollis is harboring some terrible feeling or secret that prompts him to retire. It depicts Rorschach first extending the offer of partnership in their mission to fight crime. And then suddenly, it seems to be all about Laurie, when the Dan-and-Laurie relationship is one of the most fleshed-out points in Watchmen.
By contrast, Ozymandias #1 had me screaming. I’d expected, if anything, some heavy-handed homoeroticism. What I found was the unfortunate but not uncommon combination of good art and bad writing. The premise itself suffered from two fatal flaws. First, it attempted to rehash Adrian’s journey towards becoming Ozymandias and the development of his worldview, both of which he revealed to Nite Owl and Rorschach at the end of Watchmen. Second, it attempted to retcon his worldview and motivations—both set up as the coldly altruistic desire to end war and unify the world, particularly in the face of nuclear warfare, which he profoundly feared. What inevitably follows is the tried-and-true story of a genius forced to suppress his talents to survive in school, where he is picked on until he takes martial arts classes and delivers retribution, for which he is nearly expelled; he eventually goes to college, his parents die, he inherits and is driven to follow the path of Alexander the Great, so he gives away his fortune and embarks on his journey. Most of this, minus the childhood fighting, we know from Watchmen. We know that he learns Alexander’s failure was that he conquered but could not unify, a realization—coupled with the Comedian’s criticism of him—that ultimately galvanizes his “giant psychic squid” plan.
What we apparently didn’t know was that he is bisexual, was in love with a redhead woman named Miranda, who watched him build his empire up in a matter of weeks, who he brushed off one night, inadvertently causing her to find the most posh underground club in New York, where she bought drugs from none other than Moloch (who claimed to not be in the narcotics trade in The Comediann #1, incidentally), went home, and overdosed. Which is where Adrian finds her. He grieves, but is characteristically practical enough not to call the police for fear of bad publicity, and then claims he donned the mask to make her killer pay.
Now, I may be one of the few, but I liked Adrian. He was the perfect embodiment of a man who, in striving for Macedonian perfection, succeeded only in making himself capable of monstrous deeds–of perpetuating on a grander scale a fiction of order mirroring those of governments on the brink of war. And he remained blind to it until Dr. Manhattan reminded him that “Nothing ever ends” (Ch.XII:27). Even then, he only has one panel of anxiety before he begins calculating what Dr. Manhattan meant. This is not a man to lose his head over a woman, to consecrate his empire in her name, with the blood of her killer. Not to mention that Miranda, as a character, was so poorly fleshed out but so gorgeously drawn that I could only think it was a relationship of convenience: they wanted sex, she wanted money, everyone wins. I can barely bring myself to believe he had feelings for her, let alone loved her, let alone wanted to take revenge on her behalf. My sense of this was hindered further by the fact that the writing was incredibly stilted, even in the mouth of Adrian, a man given to formality and posturing. The issue would have been improved as a whole if it had been told in the present tense, as events occurred, rather than in flashback form.
If we take a great story to be one that compels repeat readings, searching for clues not only about the material but about one’s own views, is not one that is so complete it closes the narrative entirely. My complaint is not that something perfect is being ruined simply because it is being expanded, but that the particular expansion taking place is insufficient even as “just another comic.” The dialogue is lacking. The premises, minus Minutemen, and parts of The Comedian and Nite Owl, are expected or trite. The tension between Laurie and her mother Sally? Already covered. Ozymandias’s motivations? Also covered, and not in need of a retcon.
In Before Watchmen, new characters read as though they have been inserted to expand the otherwise claustrophobic and familiar histories of characters we already know about. Watchmen was just as much a story about the street vendor and the comics reader, the broken-up lesbian couple, Rorschach’s psychiatrist and his conflicts with his wife. In the words of the psychiatrist, who does not realize his death is mere panels away: “It’s all we can do, try to help each other. It’s all that means anything… It’s the world… I can’t run from it” (Moore, Ch.XI:20). By contrast the worlds of Before Watchmen are constrained and limiting. This isn’t to say that the narratives might improve, or that there is no hope for the ones yet to come (I have high hopes for Rorschach #1 in particular). But what galls me is the notion intrinsic to this project, that a story is never complete until every avenue has been explored and laid down in a fixed, canonical format, stifling the reader’s ability to engage and struggle with it in a personal way, to imagine and create, to, like the watchmaker, assemble the pieces themselves.