Drag your wagon and your plow / Over the bones of the dead / Out among the roses and the weeds / You can never go back/ And the answer is no / And wishing for it only makes it bleed.
—Tom Waits, “How It’s Gonna End”, Real Gone.
It was always going to be a thorny issue, Before Watchmen. The original Watchmen had done so much to elevate comics and the readers of comics that it would be hard not only to equal that achievement, but hard to make an argument for their even needing to be a prequel. In real terms, wouldn’t a prequel just ruin things, just ruin the greatest graphic novel ever. And in real terms, didn’t Alan Moore, the genius scribe behind Watchmen deserve better than this?
In the first phase, at least as it played out in the media, there did seem to be the parley of bitter resentment on both sides. True die hard fans would never endorse what DC had done, true die hard fans would call DC on being the metaphorical graverobbers they are. But as with everything, the situation is more complex than simply good guys and good buys.
For one thing, the proverbial beatification of Alan Moore after him writing Watchmen is not something that should be dismissed out of hand. Alan Moore, in 1985, and in authoring Watchmen sits at the nexus of a number of cultural and creative difficulties that have evolved over the course of comics publishing. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Watchmen was aimed at adult audiences. For the longest time, since the 1950s, since the Senate hearings on Juvenile Delinquency, comics was just pablum. It was the least offensive material that hoped to appeal to the widest possible audience, for the lowest possible price. This business model, it is generally believe, crippled the creative spirit of comics. There are one or two sparks since the 50s, there’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby pioneering the Silver Age (Spider-Man, Thor, the Avengers, Captain America returns after literally having been on ice), there’s Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams who do good work on Green Lantern/ Green Arrow, attacking social issues that come with rapid urbanization. But for the most part, there’s nothing really to speak of. Nothing the equivalent of the Wire, nothing even anywhere close to NYPD Blue or Miami Vice.
Reading Watchmen, with it’s layered social meanings, where White Hat heroes who inspire stand side by side with Black Hat heroes who kill and side by side with Gray Hat heroes who’ve been co-opted into government-sanctioned off-the-books kill squads, reading Watchmen where the entire comicbook dynamic is overturned and actions have consequences, and where, in a final twist, the mad James Bond villain with the James Bond villain style plot for world domination ultimately wins, also elevates the reader. Reading Watchmen, the original Watchmen, reminds you that you’re no longer a child, and that, even when you were a child, your pursuits weren’t entirely trivial. That even back then, what you did mattered.
For another, Alan Moore earned the right to be identified with this book. Because Watchmen (along with the contemporaneous Dark Knight Returns) represents a new way in managing talent for the industry. What if, this historical period seems to be saying, we not only hire writers who can appeal to the broadest possible denominator? What if instead, we hired talent with a singular vision? And what if we let that talent loose? Neither Watchmen nor Dark Knight Returns were hamstrung by what had become traditional industry concerns, or bowdlerized by small-minded editors. There’s a libidinal rush with these books that represents a kind of pure creativity. And a final ideological statement of sorts, of the kind of high art of which comics as a medium is capable. And coming from a cultural ghetto where both comics and the superhero genre was treated as light entertainment and indefensibly juvenile, Watchmen represents the kind of moment Steven Spielberg spoke of in his Academy Award acceptance speech for Best Picture in 1994. “This is the best drink of water after the longest drought ever.”
But as much as you can respect these historical issues (and you should), and as much as you can plead for Alan Moore’s cultural ownership of Watchmen, you cannot neglect to acknowledge that these are historical issues. And there was a setting and a context to Watchmen that is simply no longer relevant. After seven top artists broke away from Marvel in 1992 to form Image, the matter of creative rights seemed to be settled, almost to a finality. Creators would have their outlet, independent of editorial interference and hidden corporate agendas. In the years subsequent to Watchmen we’ve seen Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, we’ve seen Garth Ennis’ Preacher, Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets, Frank Miller’s Sin City and from Moore himself, we’ve seen the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell and Promethea any of which equal and perhaps even rival Watchmen.
In breaking away from Marvel in 1992 (but not really Marvel, the forming of Image was as much a philosophical statement about breaking away from mass-media corporation-controlled publishing in comics), the seven artists who founded Image answered the smaller concerns around the comics industry—will our audience follow us? These concerns are vested in the broader concerns of ownership. But comics isn’t only about ownership, it is in equal parts about disownership. The disownership of the characters by the corporations becomes ownership by the creators, the disownership of the creators allows for ownership by the fans. This is the nature of perpetual fiction. Sooner or later O’Neil and Adams will leave the pages of Superman, but Superman, as a publication, will go on. And if they make enough of an impact, O’Neil and Adams will be remembered even generations hence.
The grander question here, the question that Image has yet to answer (but creators like Marc Silvestri have attempted to with Top Cow Studios), is whether or not intellectual properties generated long after the Golden Age or the Silver Age of Comics can garner and sustain attention on as grand a timescale as their older rivals have. In another 50 years, will any 12-year-old kid who recognizes the Avengers also recognize Witchblade? Will Witchblade successfully enter into the mainstream of popular culture in the same way that Mickey Mouse has or Coca Cola or Superman?
When viewed from this greater, grander concern, Before Watchmen becomes a deeply important experiment. Can a work be freed from its Author? Can the promise of a genuine perpetual fiction still be redeemed? I want to know the answer to that question, and everyone involved in reading popculture does too.
But bear in mind, I’m only posing that question because I cannot talk about the deep and deeply relevant beauty to be found in the four Deluxe Editions that collect the entire Before Watchmen saga. At least not without being lynched by fans.
Please enjoy our exclusive preview of Before Watchmen: Minutemen & Silk Spectre and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias & Crimson Corsair.