Current priorities: 1) Organize image folders and blog about the process of said organization, 2) prep for HOPE No. 9, 3) apply for a transfer of credits, 4) continue reading and assembling a lit review, and 5) turn around edits on a book chapter on lulzy tactics and the Joker. You’ll notice that “ragequit over Before Watchmen” is not mentioned in this list at all. And yet, given the fact that angrily producing scholarship on the failings of the 2009 film adaptation of Watchmen spurred me to pursue a Ph.D. program in the first place, it seems fitting that I privilege a similar anger about Before Watchmen.
Before proceeding any further, 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.