My Thoughts on The Watchmen Prequels

Only a few days ago I was pontificating from my pulpit about the manifold dangers of becoming an angry nerd. Today, I’m having a hard time practicing what I preach. Why? It’s been confirmed by DC comics that Watchmen prequels are on the way. That’s right: prequels, plural. I guess for the duration of the summer, there will be a new issue featuring a Watchmen character released every week, connecting together 7 different mini-series that take place before the iconic 1986 Watchmen by Alan Moore.

My first impulse is to say “cool.” When I first read Watchmen, my gut reaction was that the characters resembled existing DC characters, but were much more interesting. So having them return should re-energize the sputtering DC franchise. When I thought about it more, problems came up. Here’s just a few:

The Prequel is longer than the series itself! 

Part of the charm of the original Watchmen was that it was a mere 12 issues long. The whole thing fit conveniently into a single nicely priced graphic novel. Now the prequel is going to span 35 issues, and I’m guessing it will be later sold in 7 separate graphic novels, which means to read all of it will require more trips to the comic store and more money than most of us can handle–myself included. Following major comic events can be exasperating. For example, as much as I loved Fear Itself, collecting the main series alone proved to be a big hassle. I had to make a circuit of all of my local comic book stores just to find each issue in order since in many places it sold out. Watchmen is one of the most well-known pieces of comic property out there, so it’s safe to assume this one will present difficulties as well.

This will surely confuse people who aren’t huge comic fans

Several of my friends who have little or no interest in comic books, or books in general, read Watchmen. It appealed to people who weren’t necessarily fans of the comic medium at all. People who couldn’t be bothered to pick up an issue of Superman were suddenly excited to read about his naked nihilist doppelganger (although I’ve heard Dr. Manhattan was more closely based on The Atom, but Superman provides a coincidental likeness). It had a crossover appeal that was virtually unheard of in comic books, with the exception of Bone and Sandman. It appealed to men and women. It appealed to fans of thrilling, layered, complex fiction in general.

What I’m wondering now is, will the prequels confuse people who haven’t read Watchmen yet? Comic fans are sure to know the scoop, and we can choose to avoid the prequels if we wish, but I’m guessing there will be people who, while browsing Barnes and Noble or clicking around on Amazon, will think they have to read the prequels before reading Watchmen itself. Part of the fun of Watchmen is piecing together the characters’ pasts based on the short flashbacks provided. I’m sure if people read each prequel, they’re going to be too fatigued to enjoy the main Watchmen series itself.

Alan Moore hates the idea!

Furthermore, Moore hates DC comics itself. Originally, he split from the company after DC wouldn’t allow him to retain control of his creations, which came to a head when DC decided on producing Watchmen action figures. Alan Moore responded by saying that making action figures would be missing out on the point of the series itself. You’ll recall if you’ve read the series, Ozymandias sells Watchmen action figures. Later, Alan Moore started his own comics company jokingly titled “America’s Best Comics” (Alan Moore is British, as were many of the people who worked for him). America’s Best comics was a subsidiary of Wildstorm, which was eventually bought out by…DC! Rather than be subsumed by the company he loathed, Alan Moore imploded his entire America’s Best Comics shared universe. This was a sad day for comics. I loved just about all of the America’s Best Comics books. As you can guess, Alan Moore also hated the shlockbuster movie adaptation. So, in like fashion, Alan hates the idea of prequels.

I’m wondering if Alan can even be in the same room with Dave Gibbons, the original artist of Watchmen. Alan firmly withheld endorsing any Watchmen byproduct, while Dave Gibbons has endorsed several. It was because of Gibbons’ blessing that Zack Snyder was able to film Watchmen. Similarly, Gibbons endorses the prequels.

Watchmen is 25 years old!

Odds are, most of the people who will be buying the Watchmen prequels weren’t alive or weren’t fans of comics when the series first came out. I was still in my highchair when it debuted. The people who were readers back then may very well have lost interest in comics by now. 25 years is a long time. Less time had elapsed between Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, and look how people reacted to that. Some ideas, even the best ideas, need to be let go. James Robinson created one of the most likeable comic book characters in history with Jack Knight, aka Starman, and since the series wrapped up years ago, Knight hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Similarly, apart from the occasional spin-off, Neil Gaiman hasn’t done anything with his incredibly successful Sandman series. Starman and Sandman are both younger than Watchmen. So how can comics move forward if we’re stuck on old ideas?

Won’t this be toned down?

I was surprised to look at the new solicitation of an upcoming Watchmen cover and see the DC logo in the corner. It seems to me that it’d make much more sense to produce the Watchmen prequels through Vertigo, DC’s subsidiary for mature comics. One thing about Watchmen was that it was uncompromising.  It was frequently quite violent, but the new DC 52 doesn’t seem to have much problem with violence (hence the beheaded horses in Wonder Woman #1). What about sexuality though? Alan Moore has said before that since sex is such a big part of life, it has to be included in comics (and by that, I’m guessing he means comics for adults). I don’t think I’ve read anything by Alan Moore that hasn’t featured sex every few issues. In fact, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, volume three in particular (The Black Casebook), featured more sex than I’d ever expect to see in a widely available comic (which is why the PG-13 movie is so odd–I hope 13 year olds didn’t leave the theater and beg their parents for all of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels). In the movie, the sex from Watchmen was depicted, but in an entirely cornball way by playing Leonard Cohen’s classic song Hallelujah. I love Leonard Cohen, but using his song in that scene was just too cheeky and smug. I’m sure trying to incorporate sex scenes into DC comics will be similarly ineffectual.

Lastly, are prequels even necessary?

All of my friends who read Watchmen agreed the 12 issue series was fine as it is. The short flashbacks were enough to satisfy our curiosity about the characters. There were no big gaps in the story. Through pictures and through prose, Alan Moore told us everything–no, more than we needed to know about the characters. Will it really help things to see Rorschach’s softer side or to better humanize Dr. Manhattan?

The Unfortunate Irony

The unfortunate irony is that great comic artists are already slated to be involved in the Watchmen prequels. Darwyn Cooke, J.M. Straczynski, and Adam Hughes have been stated to have signed on. This means, despite all of the reasons I’ve already listed, I probably will buy some of the new Watchmen comics. Not all. I’ve been a long-time fan of J.M. Straczynski, and I’ll read anything by him. By the way, Straczynski might just be the most mistreated genius currently working in comics outside of Alan Moore himself. First, Straczynski’s work with Spider-Man was more or less retconned out of existence by Brand New Day, then his reworking of Wonder Woman released the fury of comic fans, and his great work with Superman was, like his work with Wonder Woman and Spider-Man, retconned more or less out of existence when the New DCU came about. To shout boo at J.M. Straczynski for working on a Watchmen prequel would just be mean at this point, so I’ll most likely be buying his take on Dr. Manhattan.

———-I have written two books of fiction of my own. One is titled The Madness of Art Short Stories, which contains a weird assortment of stories that will hopefully delight comic fans although it’s entirely in prose. My other book is titled A Rapturous Occasion. It’s a comedy of errors centering on people’s fear of the Apocalypse. Both are available on Amazon in paperback and as ebooks.

Wow, this article went on way longer than I thought it would. I guess the prequels bother me more than I first imagined. What is your opinion of the idea of Watchmen prequels?

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