[23 May 2012]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
A few days before Easter I was invited to DC Entertainment’s New York City offices for an eyes only preview of the comics comprising the New 52’s second wave and Before Watchmen. Over the course of a day I would meet with then-Marketing Vice President David Hyde, Publicity Director Pamela Mullin and Before Watchmen Editor Will Dennis, look over the material in various stages of production and talk with Dennis in depth about how Before Watchmen came about. This is the story of that visit, the comics I saw and how I learned to break my own rules.
When PopMatters Comics Editor Shathley Q first broached the meeting with me, he described the assignment as my “road diary” of this trip to DC’s offices. It would be about me, my observations and my impressions. “In many ways you’re the exclusive,” Shathley wrote to me in an email prior to the meeting. Essentially, to paraphrase the Joker from The Dark Knight, Shathley was going to make me break my one rule: never write in the first person.
In my reviews and interviews for PopMatters I have never written in the first person. It’s not about me. It’s about the work or creators in question. As a critic I consciously attempt to separate my personal opinion from my critical opinion. No one is reading my work for my personal opinion; rather they read my work for its concise, thoughtful and articulate analysis of graphic literature. That is not to disparage my fellow critics who write that way that I avoid. Most, those who write for PopMatters and other reputable outlets, use first person stylistically as a way to connect with readers. It’s just my style. To tell this story, however, I was going to have to break my rule and move beyond my comfort level as a critic and journalist.
Back to our Story
As I sat on the train taking me from my home in suburban New Jersey to Manhattan and DC’s offices, I reviewed research notes and questions I had prepared on Before Watchmen and the New 52 second wave. The books had been announced weeks before, and while there was rampant speculation about Before Watchmen, as well as numerous dissenting quotes from Watchmen creator Alan Moore, very little details were available. We knew the titles of the books and who was working on them, but how DC had come to this point was elusive.
So too were the circumstances surrounding the content the New 52’s second wave. Earth 2 writer James Robinson had made the media rounds, but none of the interviews seemed to be able to crack the façade. While I knew the big story was Before Watchmen and how they were making Moore figuratively cry, I felt a strong disinterest in going down that road of near tabloid fodder.
The loudest voices on Before Watchmen – on Twitter and Facebook and in comment forums – were vitriolic disgust at the notion of creating prequels to such a seminal work, especially by people who were not Alan Moore. Without having seen any of the content, there was a general sentiment of condescending dismissal. That’s not to say those were the majority of voices. They were just the loudest.
It was there on the train that I decided Before Watchmen would be second to the new New 52 material. It was a decision I would not live with for long.
The New New 52
I was early for the meeting, and as I sat in DC’s reception area waiting for David Hyde to finish a meeting, one iconic figure stared back at me, reminding me of my duty. Across from where I sat, Clark Kent was on the phone probably relaying another story on that Superman guy. His presence inspired one thought, when opportunities present themselves, never pass them up. That certainly applied to the material I was about to look at in a few minutes and my thoughts about how I was going to cover it.
The material DC gave me to look at first was the New 52 second wave titles. I sat in Pamela Mullin’s office and quietly took mental snap shots. There was each first issue of G.I. Combat, World’s Finest, Earth 2, Dial H, The Ravagers and Batman Incorporated, along with concept sketches and script notes. Each had its own appeal. Several things struck me: the artwork for G.I. Combat was far more refined than I had expected, Earth 2 started from a very interesting narrative place and was not going to be what readers were expecting, the idea of “world building” was fairly evident and Dial H was a vivid recontextualization of a Silver Age idea (see PopMatters review of Dial H #1). I also quickly realized that my decision to focus on this material rather than Before Watchmen was a mistake.
That realization was further compounded when Pamela, David and I talked about Dial H writer China Miéville. Dial H was the book that I reacted to the most. It was both grounded and ethereal at the same time. Never one to stray from my gut instinct, I decided that what China was doing was something worth exploring further. Pamela made arrangements for China and I to talk for an interview (See PopMatters Exclusive Interview with China Miéville). There it was all wrapped up and ready for me to dive into at a later date. What was left was David, Will Dennis, a big binder of controversy and me.
The Circumstances of Before Watchmen
My initial reservations about Before Watchmen had nothing to do with the position that the prequel material represented a slight to Alan Moore. It had to do with everything but the material. Shathley and I had a long conversation about this subject when the books were announced. “We can’t touch this until the media hypes dies down,” he’d said. I absolutely agreed. What he was saying was that the circumstances surrounding the publication of Before Watchmen, the idea of creating prequel comics to a fine piece of graphic literature without Moore’s involvement, were overshadowing the actual work.
“[Before Watchmen is] completely shameless,” Moore has said publicly, not hinting at the hyperbole that assessment contains. DC Co-Publisher Dan Didio recently described the books as “a love letter” in an interview with The Guardian. Somewhere in between is perhaps the truth.
I flipped through the pages of each first issue of the Before Watchmen books with eager anticipation. What were these stories about? When had this who’s who of creators come together? Is this like a typical summer comic crossover event? Are they afraid of hurting the legacy of Watchmen? And considering everything, why now?
The very first thing I did was establish a timeline with David and Will regarding Before Watchmen. “Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo were talking about a Rorschach book off and on for years,” Dennis said. “They were like someday, maybe.” Getting more specific, he said “I first heard about it a year ago and it was October  that we had a summit. We got together at New York Comic Con and they [the creators] all had their ideas at that point.” What this revealed in my eyes was that Before Watchmen was not just a stunt. The idea had been gestating for some time, both at DC and with the creators involved. Darwyn Cooke, charged with working on two of the books, had initially turned down the project, but after thinking it over came back with excitement and some concrete ideas of how to do it.
Of all the material, Cooke’s Minutemen is arguably the most original. Very little is written about the adventures of Watchmen’s Golden Era heroes. This gives him freer range to create. As I looked at his pages, I remarked to Will and David that they had recruited the right person for this piece. If you want a book about 40s or 50s superheroes, told in a serious and reverential manner, you call Cooke. The result is a book that has strong resonance with New Frontier, Cooke’s miniseries that re-examined the dawning of the Silver age of comics. It is both a tribute and a compelling story.
Also striking is Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Rorschach. As mentioned, the possibility of this series had floated between the two creators for some time. The pages produced capture all the grime and grittiness of 70s New York City. It is exactly what some Watchmen fans have desired, the further violent ramblings of Watchmen’s breakout character.
The rest of the books are about what you would expect, but as I looked at Comedian, David, Will and I started talking about historic revisionism. “You see what Brian [Azzarello] is doing,” Hyde said pointing to a pivotal scene. “We keep thinking about how people are going to react to Comedian’s involvement in the lead up to the Vietnam era.”
The presence of the tumultuous 60s, war and politics hangs heavy with Comedian. Different generations will react differently to the story as the 50 years since its setting have seen the flux of generational attitudes. What happened in the 60s deeply impacted the Baby Boomers and that was passed on to Gen Xer’s. Moore being a child of the Baby Boom period remembers those turbulent years, Watchmen was certainly influenced by what came as a result of that decade, but recent generations may not have entirely the reaction Boomers and X-ers will have. To them, their experience with the decade is from Mad Men and Forest Gump. Regardless, the use of iconic figures and implications of deeper conspiracy will appeal to many readers.
As the talk of generational differences was going on, I asked the one question that kept rattling around in my head. Why now? The original Watchmen was 26 years ago; the movie version was three years ago; is this the right timing for this project?
“I guess we’ll see if this is the right time,” Dennis said. “This seemed like the biggest thing out there that hadn’t been touched for so long.”
That answer lead me to another question: considering that DC’s New 52 is not having the big summer crossover event that we have become accustomed to, is Before Watchmen the event – like Marvel’s Avengers vs. X-men for example – to replace something universe-wide?
“It’s the big event for us for 2012,” Dennis responded. “We didn’t approach it like that. This felt like a big event but without being a stunt.”
From the perspective of the narratives, the content of the individual books certainly don’t feel like a big summer crossover. However, taken as whole, Before Watchmen is definitely a big publishing event in the spirit of universe-wide crossovers. What that means, and that DC doesn’t see it as that, is that the minds behind it are very self-aware and that they are sensitive to the source material’s legacy.
The Legacy, just like a Cover Song
After we finished looking through the binder, I peppered Dennis with more questions. One aspect to this whole thing I was curious about was how they saw the legacy of Watchmen and if, as some have suggested, these prequels could harm that legacy.
“I don’t think the fear is that we’re going to diminish the original Watchmen,” Dennis said. “I feel the original Watchmen is solid enough that it would stand up to anything. We could talk about cover songs of the Beatles or different versions of Shakespeare; it doesn’t take away your enjoyment of that material.”
But unlike a cover song, Before Watchmen isn’t reworking the original; it’s expanding on it. “It’s an interesting exercise because you have to deliver these characters to the point where we find them in the original material,” Dennis said. “Can we tell an interesting story that fills in a blank that we didn’t know was blank, but still at the end we have to deliver a character that will fit into the existing continuity?”
One thing that can’t be argued about Before Watchmen, DC has assembled some of the best talent in the industry to make these prequels. Azzarello, Bermejo, Cooke, J.G. Jones, Amanda Conner, J. Michael Straczynski, Adam Hughes, Andy and Joe Kubert, Len Wein and Jae Lee. It’s an all-star team if there has ever been one.
“The good thing about the people we’ve assembled is that they are all at points in their career where they don’t have a lot to prove to people,” said Dennis as we reviewed the talent roster.
Not having a chance to talk with each individual creator, I wondered just how they felt about it all. The media hype, the controversy, the work itself, etc. “There are definitely nerves; there are definitely butterflies that come with this,” Dennis said. “Because you don’t want to screw it up.”
Putting the controversy and the dissenting opinions aside for at least a moment, from the material available and talking with Dennis as editor of the whole project, the care to which these talented writers and artists have put into it already demonstrates their desires to make this into something special. Something that lasts and isn’t looked back at as fool’s errand, raft with the failings of publisher out of touch and creators lost in their own egos. As Didio said, these individuals must see their work as a “love letter” rather than a poison pen letter. To be the latter would preordain failure before the first issue comes back from the printer.
It’s now been several weeks since that visit. Some of the material I bore witness too has been released or leaked through various outlets. Other journalists and critics who were also invited to preview the material have written about what they saw and their impressions. It was a shrewd move by DC Publicity. They undoubtedly sensed the public opinion, and without giving anything away and spoiling the books, they’ve been able to garner media attention and regular press. From a publisher standpoint, aside from the bottom line, what more could you ask for?
The debate or controversy surrounding Before Watchmen will not go away. If we are honest with ourselves, the impact and understanding of Before Watchmen cannot happen until well after the books have been released, perhaps even years afterward. To do so now or even as the books are coming out would do a disservice to the creators behind them. From their perspective, these books are the result of inspiration and months of hard work. While the argument that they represent an affront to the work of Alan Moore has weight, it is not the only argument that exists and numerous writers have pointed out the holes in its logic. The circumstantial point that Moore was mistreated by DC really has no relevance to the existence of Before Watchmen and the creators involved. The people writing and drawing these books should be given the respect that their work warrants.
Could DC have invested the time, money and talent into something original? Sure. Could the whole of Before Watchmen be very good? Sure. Should we be concerned that nothing of Watchmen’s caliber has captured the attention of general culture critics? Yes. The place graphic literature holds in our popular culture is certainly changing, but it hasn’t moved fast enough. The energy we put into debating the merits of prequel comics to Watchmen would be best redirected to putting the numerous other high quality books into the consciousness of the general public.
In the end, what I saw was not the work of amateurs but conscious professionals. I made the right decision to tackle Before Watchmen. And it’s good to break your own rules every once in awhile. Finally, when this article is published I’ll more than likely be listening to the I Am Sam soundtrack. Will Dennis put Beatles covers on my mind.