Before Watchmen


I’m going to play Devil’s Acrobat (or whatever the term is) here… I’m a huge Watchmen fan, and the thought of someone other than Alan Moore writing new Watchmen material is a little unsettling. But I have to remind myself that this isn’t the first time it’s happened. Back in 1987 or thereabouts DC released three Watchmen role-playing games, and most of the material within was not written by Mr. Moore. As far as I recall (and if I’m wrong, please correct me), Alan willingly contributed to the projects — as did Dave Gibbons, supplying artwork.

So Before Watchmen isn’t unprecedented.

The idea that only Alan should get to play with the toys he created is a troubling one for me: after all, Alan’s most major works (Swamp Thing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Marvelman, From Hell, Lost Girls, The Killing Joke, etc.) all feature characters and situations created by others (and so, from some aspects, does Watchmen). Should the “No one but the creator” rule apply one way but not the other?

As a writer and creator of my own universe of superheroic characters, I can certainly understand Alan not wanting others to tinker with what he’s done. I’d be pretty annoyed if I somehow lost creative control of the Quantum Prophecy series and other writers were brought in to add their own ingredients and mess up the recipe. But then again, I also write Judge Dredd: I’m having fun in the universe created by John Wagner and his successors….

The story that appears in Watchmen is whole, and finished. Yes, there are unanswered questions, but are they questions that need to be answered? Isn’t it more fun to speculate on those unanswered questions than to have a series of official prequels that define those answers once and for all? Or is it a fascinating experiment to return to that closed universe after a quarter of a century and have it explored by very talented people on whom the original was a major influence?

In 1987 the two biggest graphic novels were Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The latter was also whole, and finished. It didn’t need a prequel, sequel or any other form of supplementary material. But we got it anyway: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, published in 2001. It differs from Before Watchmen in one important way: the same creative team (Well, apart from Klaus Janson). Is The Dark Knight Returns any less of a classic because there was a sequel? Will Before Watchmen be so bad that its stink is strong enough to go back in time and taint the original? I really doubt it – this isn’t Highlander II we’re talking about (I hope).

Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories haven’t been diluted by the countless sequels, prequels and adaptations. The original Dracula is still a masterpiece. Fans aren’t obliged to read the pretenders: they can simply ignore them, right? But… This is where the danger lies: Ask any kid today about Dracula, and he or she will know that Dracula is a vampire who comes from Transylvania. But they won’t have read the book. Actually, I suspect that one would be hard-pressed today to find an adult who’s read the book. Do we want Watchmen to fall down that route, to become – going back to comics – the Batman of future generations, where they will be aware of the characters and familiar with the then-current stories, but have never experienced the original? (Hands up all the Batman fans who have actually read Bob Kane’s original stories… Not so many, I suspect.)

Before Watchmen is not being patched together lightly or cheaply by a bunch of amateurs desperate for money. The writers and artists involved are among the very best in the business. I mean, they’ve even got John Higgins on board, award-winning colourist of the original Watchmen (and, I feel it’s only fair to add, a close personal friend). I know that John will do nothing but his absolute best on the Crimson Corsair strip, and that alone is more than enough reason for me to buy it.

I believe that the new teams are going to provide the Watchmen universe with some incredible stuff. They’re going expand its horizons and shine a light into the darker corners. We will see old events and characters in new way, and some of those ways are undoubtedly going to make us go “Oooh! Cool!”

All that said, does Before Watchmen need to exist? No, no more than The Dark Knight Strikes Again needed to exist. No more than The Killing Joke needed to exist. I totally understand and sympathise with the fans who feel that Watchmen is untouchable, but I can’t agree. If BW is bad, it’ll be forgotten in a few years and the original will still stand as proud as ever. If BW is good, but not great, it will give us Watchmen fans plenty to argue about in the coming years. And if it’s superb, well, the chief reason for that will be because the creators are standing on the shoulders of a literary giant.

In summary, Before Watchmen has raised a number of conflicting emotions and ideas in my little brain. Part of me doesn’t want it to happen, but another part is very intrigued to see how it’s going to turn out. I do trust the people involved to not pee all over what has gone before, but I’m still a little worried they might bring too much to Watchmen and dilute or obfuscate the themes and points of the original.

It seems to me that some fans are letting their trepidations grow into full-blown panic. “Worry not!” I say. Read Before Watchmen before you judge it. I’m sure that back in 1984 there were Swamp Thing fans panicking because their beloved character was about to be tinkered with by some unknown writer called Alan Moore, and before them, there’s bound to have been a good number of people with fond memories of Marvelman worried about the new incarnation that was appearing in Warrior.

Great stories change the world, they give birth to new ways of thinking, and they inspire other creators. Who can blame the inspired for wanting to pay homage to their inspiration? Watchmen has been so successful and so important that prequels and sequels were always an inevitability. They were never NOT going to happen.

Nothing ends. Nothing ever ends.

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