Sunday, February 05, 2012

About that Before Watcmen announcement...

This Wednesday the comic book loving world gave a collective sigh of inevitability when DC Comics threatened us with the release of a series of prequel comics to the beloved Alan Moore comic book The Watchmen. There's not a single comic-loving individual who didn't react strongly to the idea that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's immaculate vision might be sullied at the hands of a company more interested in a quick cash grab than in the artistic legacy of one of its most heralded accomplishments. Hell, even DC Comics seem aware of the firestorm they might set off, describing the new series, Before Watchmen, as both "highly anticipated" and "controversial," as if to say, "yeah, maybe we're pissing all over Moore's work, but what are you going to do, not read the series?" This statement would then be followed by a cigar chomping executive releasing a belly-shaking laugh.

Voices across the internet have reacted in a variety of manner, and there are some obvious objections to Before Watchmen. Over at NPR they ruminated on how prequels might ruin the cultural capital that The Watchmen has built for not only itself but for comics as a medium. Others have, understandably, treated the original book as sacrosanct, suggesting that no one should ever mess with Moore's artistic vision (most notably, Moore himself falls into this latter camp). But I would like to discuss two things: first, the idea of prequels and second, the idea of artistic fidelity.

Prequels are a tricky proposition in any medium. On the one hand, we should probably be thankful that we are only getting prequels and not actual sequels to The Watchmen, which ended on a wonderfully unsettled note. But of course prequel stories come with built in problems of their own. The most obvious problem is that we already know what will happen. A great writer can use this to his or her advantage. Greek tragedies, for example, got plenty of mileage out of the fact that the audience knew things were going to end poorly for the characters on stage. But for whatever reason, from the Star Wars prequels to that Wolverine movie, prequels have been unable to take advantage the audience's prescient like knowledge. Instead, these prequels have played out like the opening of Indiana Jone and the Last Crusade, showing us where every little personality trait and quirk came from over the course of a single story.

The Watchmen is as fully realized a fantasy world as Narnia, Middle Earth, Neverland, Utopia, Oz, and even DC Comics own world of superheroes. But in order to fashion a world that seems real and lived in, you have to allow for some unknowns. The author Michael Chabon writes that when reading Tolkien, like most of us, he was always intrigued by those blank places on the map, places named but where characters never actually visited. I'm of the mind that those blank places make a fantasy world feel huge and lived in, because whatever is going on with our heroes and their quest, we know that there are a million other stories that are not being told. This is why one of my favorite details about the original Star Wars movies was the inclusion of ancillary characters like Wedge Antilles, the pilot that seemed to always be around for the major battles, but who never had more than a few lines in each film. We knew that this character must have had some incredible adventures over the course of those three films, but we also knew that we were only seeing snippets of them.

To fill in the blank areas in The Watchmen books would only make the universe seem smaller and less unruly. Besides, the original book already does a fine job of fleshing out these characters. What more do we need to know? I guess these comics could elaborate on what Ozymandias's weird bio-engineered tiger thought of his master's solution to nuclear war.

The next issue I have with Before Watchmen is a little trickier. One of the announced authors of the series, J. Michael Straczynski, notes that Moore himself built a career of appropriating the work of others, whether he was working on Swamp Thing or playing in the world of Victorian literature in his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. So what's good for the Moore is good for the Straczynski? Besides, even The Watchmen was based, in part, on characters from Charleton Comics, which DC had bought just prior to when Moore embarked on writing the Watchmen series. And even I have to admit that DC managed to wrangle some impressive talent to write this series. I'm more than a little curious about what a Rorschach series written by Brian Azzarello or a Minutemen series written by Darwyne Cooke will read like.

First, I would answer that characters like Batman, Superman, and Swamp Thing (all of which Moore has worked with) were designed from the beginning to continue as long as people want to read stories about these characters. So they're a different breed than Night Owl or even Allan Quatermain and Sherlock Holmes. Just like Moore, Sir Author Conan Doyle became famously incensed when the French author and Doyle contemporary Maurice Leblanc put Holmes into one of his Arsene Lupin stories. So what's the difference between Leblanc stealing Holmes and Moore stealing Holmes? In a world where appropriation has now become established as a legitimately creative act, can we really blame the authors of Before Watchmen?

A cop out answer would be that Doyle was still around when Leblanc borrowed his creation, just as Moore is around to see his characters taken from him. Although I have decried DC's decision from the beginning, I don't necessarily think that it is unfair to borrow Moore's work. Unlike Moore himself, who famously hates on any sort of film adaptation of his work, I have always approached movies like V for Vendetta and The Watchmen with a certain amount of curiosity. Of course, none of these films have ever been successful adaptations, but that doesn't mean there will never be a successful adaptation of an Alan Moore comic. Instead, I think that the single biggest issue that will prevent a great appropriation of Moore's work is fidelity to the source material.

I know that the common reaction to any adaptation is to claim that if only the artist were faithful to the "original" vision, then maybe the end results will achieve the same kind of greatness. This was the mantra when The Watchmen movies was about to arrive. And that film was far more faithful to its source than any expected. It was also a slog and a bore. There are plenty of problems with The Watchmen film, and its slavish devotion to the source material is one of those problems. The director, Zack Snyer, who isn't a terribly smart fellow, didn't realize that what works in a comic book doesn't work on film. Conversely, Moore hasn't been terribly devoted to immaculately recreating the vision of the authors who he is taking from. Instead, he uses the work of others as a jumping off point to go in whatever direction he wants.

What scares me the most about Before Watchmen is that the original book has become so sacrosanct that the artists will do little than ape Moore and collect a paycheck. There might be someone out there who could do something interesting with The Watchmen characters, who could put their own spin on that universe. But judging from what I've seen of DC's decision, I doubt this will be the case. Maybe in fifty years or more, a young upstart will take Ozymandias, Rorschach, Night Owl and the rest and create something truly fantastic and unique with those characters. But until then, we should probably leave Moore's creation alone.

I must admit that my favorite part of any news story about an Alan Moore adaptation is the inevitable quote from Moore himself. And of course he doesn't disappoint in this regard. Reached for comment, Moore stated, “I tend to take this latest development as a kind of eager confirmation that they are still apparently dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago.” This little jab, although wonderful in its curmudgeonly execution, isn't true exactly. Much of the comic book world has moved on from the cynical brand of deconstruction popular in the 80s and 90s. This is evident when books like Kick Ass unsuccessfully attempt to return to the well dug by artists of the 80s and 90s, and that book in particular has served as the nadir of deconstructionist trend, lacking the craftsmanship and wit found in a book like The Watchmen. Instead, some of the most interesting work in the world of comic books (specifically those of the superhero variety) have come from authors who, instead of running away from the unserious nature of comic books, have embraced the absurdist stories of the silver age. Authors like Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns have done a fine job of finally breaking away from the deathly seriousness of the 80s and 90s. Since a good deal of the comic book community has moved on from the influence of The Watchmen, it seems like an unnecessary retreat to return to that time and place. But, I suppose it could be worse. A lot worse:

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