5.08.2013

Before Watchmen

Before Watchmen finally wrapped up last month. I'd been buying it all along but waited until it all came out before reading it. Sort of the Amish version of "waiting for the trade."

When the project was initially announced, the reaction was largely negative, both from Watchmen fans and Alan Moore himself. The objections went something like this:

(Moore's) "DC screwed me and Dave Gibbons out of ownership of the franchise, and as a result, I won't even take Dave Gibbons' phone calls anymore as DC is trying to wrest comment or tacit approval from me via him."

(Fans) "DC must really be out of ideas if it's cashing in on Alan Moore's creations from the 1980s!"

and

"What the hell do they think they can add to this story?"

As to Moore's objection, some backstory: the deal he and Dave Gibbons struck with DC was that the rights would revert to the creators when it went out of print. Watchmen, of course, like 1984 or Brave New World or The Time Machine, never has. It's a perennial classic. I'm not sure if its creators felt it wouldn't be a hit? Probably more that Moore/ Gibbons felt DC would let the book go out of print, hit or not. i.e. that DC would "do the right thing." Seems naive to me, but I wasn't there, didn't see the deal, am not a lawyer, yadda yadda. Moore describes the situation in much more detail (link, above,) but it's confusing. At any rate, I don't think it's simply corporate greed that's keeping Watchmen in print, but perhaps Karen Berger, Dick Giordano et al. misrepresented their intentions to Moore and Gibbons at the time they agreed on the deal. It wouldn't be the first time publishers and editors have done that to artists.


The problem, though, is the whole "creator-owned" content issue. The characters in Watchmen are not exactly Moore's and Gibbons' out-of-whole-cloth creations. The story was originally conceived as something to do with the Charlton characters DC inherited when DC purchased Charlton in the early 1980s. When DC decided to fold the characters into its superhero universe, proper, Moore transcribed the idea onto analogues of these characters. It is to Charlton what Squadron Supreme is to the Justice Society.

Blue Beetle = Nite Owl
Captain Atom = Doc Manhattan
Nightshade = Silk Spectre (with some Phantom Lady thrown in)
Peacemaker = The Comedian
The Question = Rorschach
Thunderbolt = Ozymandias
Of course the developed analogues are so brilliantly brought to life in Watchmen that they overshadow their inspirations (with the possible exceptions of The Question, Captain Atom, or Blue Beetle) and of course no one is going to confuse Watchmen with the Charlton comics that got things started. I'm just saying, it's more complicated than "cashing in on Watchmen."

Further complicating things is that subsequent to Watchmen, Alan Moore achieved great financial and creative success with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for ABC/Wildstorm/Top Shelf, or Lost Girls for Top Shelf, both of which take far more liberties with their source material than anything DC could possibly publish with Before Watchmen. (Not to mention how his run on Swamp Thing brilliantly-but-brazenly re-imagined the character in such a way as to obliterate all previous backstory, a strategy DC would replicate across its entire superhero line via Crisis and nowhere near as imaginatively as Moore did with Alec Holland.) "Cashing in" is just an unsuccessful version of "re-imagining." If LXG or Lost Girls weren't any good (and they're exceptionally good) people would probably characterize what Moore did as "cashing in on the efforts of others," etc. ditto for Ronald D. Moore's BSG or any other dozen examples.

I find Watchmen as self-contained and dense and brilliant as anyone else, and when I first heard of DC's plans for a non-Moore/Gibbons prequel, I thought that there was precious little that could be done to expand or "improve" upon it. But I'm sure (the estate of) Edgar Rice Burroughs, Steve Ditko, Ian Fleming, et al. felt (or at least had the right to feel) the same way about the creations Moore has used over the years.

So, I found the kneejerk reaction against Before Watchmen somewhat confused, but I shared the doubt that it probably wouldn't (couldn't) be any good. Now that I've read it, I can finally answer this for myself. Was it all worth it?

To find out, I evaluated the project along three lines: the first two of which (Writing and Art/ Design) are self-explanatory, and the third, Watchmenitivity, is an attempt to judge its relative contribution to Watchmen's back-mythos. Subjective grades, all around, but such is life.

And away we go:

 
 

WRITING: (A) Great on every level, from narrative-voice to dialogue to plot. I was a little concerned when the Hooded Justice plot seemed to be swerving in a direction I felt at odds with the original story but was pleasantly surprised at the end.
ART/DESIGN: (A) Darwyn Cooke's style is clean and consistent. Very easy to look at and perfectly put together. The visual style of Watchmen is so distinctive (and also clean and consistent, very easy to look at, perfectly put together) that Cooke deserves extra props here for recalling it in several spots (the tight nine-panel grids, visual puns, etc.) without ever feeling derivative. In fact, I actually prefer this style to Dave Gibbons', though it's hardly a competition.
WATCHMENITIVITY: (A- ) Cooke had perhaps the easiest road to walk, here, as the Minutemen are background characters in the original Watchmen. Pivotal background characters, of course, but Cooke had room to maneuver. He does so adroitly. Let's peer into the William Bell Alternate Dimension Viewfinder for a moment: DC opts not to exploit Watchmen for a thirty-eight issue "event" and decides only to publish this 6-issue mini-series. It garners acclaim left and right, sells like Twilight fanfic porncakes, and even wins the improbable praise of Alan Moore himself. (The headline reads 'EVEN MOORE IS 'CHARMED' BY MINUTEMEN' with the accompanying picture of the author holding several snakes in each gauntleted hand.) An HBO deal is struck, and the resulting mini-series event is a huge success. DC wins awards, prestige, and makes oodles of money. Day seized. Pity they didn't go this route.


WRITING: (A) The plot for this (Silk Spectre's first love/ teenage rebellion / tainted LSD/ busting-heads-in-the-Haight-Ashbury of cultural imagination, guest-starring the Merry Pranksters and famed LSD chemist Owsley) doesn't do justice to how good it is. It was like a cross between the film Joe with Peter Boyle, Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Go Ask Alice, with Watchmen seasoning the dish.
ART: (A) Amanda Connor is often mentioned along with Frank Cho, Milo Manara, and Adam Hughes (more on him in a bit) as one of comicdom's greatest "cheesecake" artists. While undoubtedly true, she's so much more than that. It's not just Laurie who looks fabulous here; it's everything and everyone. The design - with intermittent panels detailing her emotional state that alternate between recreations of fine art and cartoonish exaggerations, something Oliver Stone used to do to great effect back in his heyday - is spotless. Absolutely beautiful.
WATCHMENITIVITY: (A) Moreso than any of these Before Watchmen projects, this provides a detail (how the Comedian got his smiley-face pin) that feels pitch-perfect to the backstory Moore and Gibbons already gave us. Laurie's presence in the original series is only enhanced by these 4 issues.


WRITING: (C+) Serviceable as a Nite Owl story but by no means pivotal to understanding how he came to be the character we know in Watchmen. Also, for a "Nite Owl" series, Rorschach gets almost equal screen time. Which would be fine if he didn't also get his own limited series, but since he did, the whole Rorschach story feels out of place here.
ART/ DESIGN: (B) Again, serviceable. Unlike Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Connor, Andy Kubert played it relatively safe.
WATCHMENITIVITY: (C) The "how Rorschach got his The End is Nigh sign" and "Nite Owl's Dad was an abusive man" subplots don't add anything to the considerable backstories we already had for either character. Not bad or stupid, just unnecessary.


WRITING: (B-) Brian Azzarello had his hands tied with this one, not by DC but by Rorschach's character arc/ backstory being as airtight as they come in the original Watchmen. I can't think of many stories to tell with the character that don't automatically feel redundant or out of place. So what we get here is a serviceable Frank-Miller-era Daredevil story. Not bad but rather meh. And I deduct points for this must-have-been-a-cool-idea-when-they-were-baked guest appearance by Travis Bickle:

Ironically, had Moore decided to use Travis Bickle for LXG or even in the original Watchmen, I'm sure it would've worked.
ART/ DESIGN: (B) Not pretty to look at, but consistent and distinctive. The use of color, especially. I'd never seen Lee Bermejo's work before and while this didn't convert me into a must-get-everything-he-ever-does fan, I tip my cap to his considerable talents.
WATCHMENITIVITY: (C-) We learn nothing about Rorschach that wasn't already better sketched out in the original. I appreciate the attempt to humanize Rorschach a little, but the drug-gang subplot / inner monologue was boilerplate and ineffective.


WRITING: (A-) I was pleasantly surprised by this one. I'm not sure if it was part of the original line-up or was added once the production schedule got delayed, but if it was a late addition, I'm even more impressed. Moloch - another background-but-pivotal character to the original series - is really fleshed out here. The second issue isn't as good as the first, but it ended up being my third-favorite of the BWs, after Silk Spectre and Minutemen.
ART/DESIGN: (B) Reminded me of EC in a few places, a little rushed in others.
WATCHMENITIVITY:  (B+) Although Moloch doesn't need further fleshing out to fulfill his function to the Watchmen story, this did so in an effective way. The character from the original series comes into sharper focus as a result.


WRITING: (B-) Another late addition to the production schedule. I guess I felt some emotion towards Dollar Bill I otherwise wouldn't have to learn more about his pathos, but it felt a bit rushed. The narrative fails to justify the the Sunset Boulevard structure it employs throughout.
ART/DESIGN: (B-) Steve Rude inspires wild hyperbole. The cover is great, I'll give him that. And his art can definitely be described as "enthused." But he's done much better work elsewhere.
WATCHMENITIVITY: (D) Not much to say, here. He wasn't a pivotal character to Watchmen, so expanding his backstory doesn't dilute anything. It just fails to add anything.


WRITING: (D+) As with Rorschach, there really wasn't much room to maneuver with this character. I give Straczynski credit for trying something novel with the exploration of simultaneous multiple timelines, but it really wasn't explored in a very compelling way. These 4 issues could be condensed into one, and it still wouldn't be very interesting. There's no story. I get that that's what he was going for, but you've got to be really Tarkovsky-esque if such is your mission, and Tarkovsky-esque this ain't.
ART: (D-) I'm not an Adam Hughes fan. In addition to his significant problems with anatomy (look at Laurie's thighs in that picture above. His sense of bodily proportion is always off, which is weird when you consider his method, i.e. he photographs models in his studio and then traces the photos.) Worse, though, the guy can't draw women without making them utterly ridiculous. Exhibit A: his Wonder Woman covers gallery. Exhibit B: compare his version of Laurie to Amanda Connor's.


I trust you don't need me to tell you which is which. Embarrassing. Adam Hughes seems like a humble enough guy from interviews and such, but I find his whole approach encapsulates the "ick" side of comics art. Oddly enough, Connor and Hughes are often paired together in fans' minds, probably because they both draw "va va voom" chicks for comics. The difference between the two artists to me is the difference between TJ Hooker and The Wire.
WATCHMENITIVITY: (D) I guess it doesn't hurt anything, but it sure as hell doesn't add anything.


WRITING: (D-) I'm saving my "F" for what's coming up, but this is misguided, disorganized, and cliched as hell. Not to mention such a waste, as it so easily could have been great: think Brought to Light as mixed with Confessions of an Economic Hit Man as mixed with Watchmen. In the original, Edward Blake is genuinely intimidating and serves a very real point to the story. Here, he comes across as Kelsey Grammar trying to play intimidating and muddies the story-waters considerably.
ART/ DESIGN: (D-) J.G. Jones is of the Brian Hitch school of artists, i.e. choosing such weird moments/ gestures/ facial expressions to tell the story, and never using the same character model twice. (Moloch in particular looks like a whole different character from panel to panel, and certainly nothing like he does in Moloch, proper. Or Watchmen.)
WATCHMENITIVITY: (F) Sorry, Charlie. (Not a Viet Cong reference.) The Comedian's fundamental characterization is changed for the worse. Gone is the "Comedian killed JFK" detail from the original, but it's okay for him to be one of the Gulf of Tonkin false flag commandoes? And to kill RFK? What's the point? Making The Comedian buddy-buddy with JFK is ridiculous enough; putting him at the Marilyn Monroe crime scene is a Mad-TV sketch.


WRITING: (D-) Sequential art storytelling has changed much since the days of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and Jim Shooter's Storytelling Lecture via Strange Tales. Here we have the worst of all possible worlds, an approach that retains the Doctor Doom monologue-style of pre-"decompressed" storytelling while hewing to said convention's stretching what used to be conveyed on a single page to six issues.
ART/ DESIGN: (F-) I greatly enjoy Jae Lee's illustrations for Stephen King's The Wind Through the Keyhole, so I was looking forward to this. But holy God, what we get here is just excruciating. Adrian Veidt is given one facial expression and one pose, throughout. You read that right. Regardless of action or dialogue, Ozymandias has the same look on his face and the same arms-outstretched posture in every circumstance. The panel arrangements display a similar lack of diversity. The covers are bad to the point of parody; are Wein and Lee trying to comment on how misleading, pose-tastic, and pretentious cover art has become? Probably not, hence the minus affixed to my "F." All flash, no logic, and the flash isn't even flashy. (Oh, and the last page of issue 2, I believe it is, is the single-worst illustration of The Comedian I have ever seen / that my imagination can conceive. I tried to find an example for you but no luck. I can't say I'm disappointed not to see it again.)
WATCHMENITIVITY: (F) Not only is this a meaningless retread of info we already received, Adrian Veidt comes across as Encyclopedia Brown but without any of the charm or innocence of that character. Resetting the controls of our William Bell Alternate Dimension Viewfinder to peek into a world where this was the only entry in the Before Watchmen experience: Ozymandias debuts to such savage reviews that DC quietly shelves all of its plans, its top brass are fired, and Alan Moore places a snake-charm curse on Time Warner itself. Suicides and earthquakes proliferate worldwide.

Finally, running as a two-page back-up in most of the issues above, we have


I was happy they decided to do this, as the "Tales from the Black Freighter" segments of the original Watchmen are some of my favorite bits. Unfortunately, where that tale acts as counterpoint to the events of the main narrative, this serves no function whatsoever. Unless we're to take moments like this:


as meta-commentary on the cannibalism of Before Watchmen in general. In which case, well done, I guess. The art, however, is good, at least in spots; reminds me of Ghastly Graham Ingels.

Not only does "Tales from the Black Freighter" play an important part in the functionality of Watchmen, so does the environment in which it's presented, i.e. the running sub-narrative of the boy reading the pirate comics at the newsstand, and the owner of the newsstand commenting on it. Watchmen deconstructs not only the history of comics but the history of reading comics. "The Curse of Crimson Corsair" serves no such function here. It'd have been better to leave it out altogether than to call attention to itself. I give Len Wein et al points for credibly recreating the purple prose of "Freighter" but dock them a thousand for doing it so pointlessly.

Well, there we have it. Did it work? 

Averaging the grades here, we have C+s for writing and art/design, and a D+ for Watchmenitivity. It seems the initial clamor was right: this was less about honoring/ fleshing out the original and more a smash-and-grab of Watchmen's considerable prestige. Better not to have made the attempt at all, or limited it only to Minutemen and Silk Spectre. (And maybe Moloch.)

10 comments:

  1. We seem to be on more or less the same page here, and we're definitely in agreement on the subject of both "The Minutemen" and "Silk Spectre." I thought both of those were excellent.

    The only point of contention I might make is that I thought the "Doctor Manhattan" series was pretty good. I do agree that it probably could have been condensed into a single issue, but I thought the resolution was solid, and I also thought Straczynski did a capable job of writing the character. Of all of Moore's Watchmen characters, I'd say Manhattan is the most Moore-y; he couldn't have been written by just any old slob. I shudder to think how poor the miniseries would have been if, say, Len Wein had written it.

    In the end, I think the most notable aspect of "Before Watchmen" has probably been the argument over whether or not Alan Moore is justified in complaining about it. I'm a devoted fan of Moore, so I'm inclined to give him some room to be grumpy. Even if I thought he was being unreasonable -- which I only kinda do -- I'd be willing to give him that room.

    The bottom line to me is this: IS THE WORK GOOD? And mostly, "Before Watchmen" isn't good. Two of the miniseries are; they get close to being GREAT, in fact, not merely good. A few others are decent, but they are negated by the remaining ones that are bad.

    With that in mind, I remain sympathetic toward Moore's stance on the whole thing, despite there being a ring of hypocrisy to it. But...I sure am glad that "The Minutemen" and "Silk Spectre" came out of it. They are worthy additions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm probably harsher on Doc Manhattan than I ought to be; Adam Hughes bugs me. But the writing is probably a bit better than I make it out to be here.

      I was disappointed with the Crimson Corsair most of all, I think. I read each mini-series in order and kept a list of the sequence of CCs, which was a pain in the ass. After I was finished and went back and read them, I got even grumpier for the effort involved. Some of it was cool enough - as a supernatural pirate adventure, it's fine. It's just, to put that out there as a parallel to "Tales from the Black Freighter?" Really? Ugh.

      But yeah, Silk Spectre and Minutemen were gold. I was already an Amanda Connor fan, but now I've got to keep Darwyn Cooke well on my radar.

      Delete
    2. Hughes' art didn't bother me, but I certainly understand how if it HAD, it would've lowered my estimation of the whole. When art in a comic doesn't click for me, I stop paying attention to anything else. I've been known to stop reading an entire series just because I don't like the art. And I don't think that's an overreaction at all.

      On the subject of the pirate story, I just didn't care about it at all. I remember nothing about it except that I hated the "color" scheme. But you are totally right in that it is incredibly unworthy of comparison to "Black Freighter." As Sam Jackson might say, "ain't the same ballpark, ain't even the same SPORT."

      Delete
  2. I have not read Before Watchmen yet.. sigh. I always wait until comics are collected in hardback graphic novel form. I just don't have money for everything I read. I am very excited to dive into these!!! I love love love all the covers. Though I didn't realize till reading your post that it was different artists throughout the series (though I would've found out when I finally got my hands on a copy).

    Angie

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like most of the covers, as well. (Except for the Ozymandias/ Comedian ones.)

      I hear you 10000% on never enough time or money to read all I want to read! I was just telling a friend my reading queue is starting to resemble the porters-and-conquistadors train from the beginning of Aguirre the Wrath of God.

      Delete
  3. Well, while I'm not qualified to judge any of this really, I do think a few observations are worthy of comment.

    The first has to do with something you wrote:

    "I'm sure (the estate of) Edgar Rice Burroughs, Steve Ditko, Ian Fleming, et al. felt (or at least had the right to feel) the same way about the creations Moore has used over the years."

    I'd have added Sherlock Holmes to that list, but never mind. As to whether or not Fleming or Burroughs would have been against other people using their creations, I'm not so sure.

    This goes back to something I said elsewhere about there being two types of fictional characters to my (albeit probably limited) experience. The first are just straightforward "limited" characters, like Huck Finn or Lewis Carrol's Alice, the second are what I termed "serial characters", fictional personalities with the potential for ongoing stories or series based around them. Such characters as James Bond, Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes are the best examples I know of "inspired" serial characters, and to be fair, Tarzan was already being handled by other people even during Burroughs' lifetime, and he seemed little bothered by it from what I can gather (if that's proof of anything).

    As for characters like Huck or Alice, the difference between "serial" and "limited" characters is marked out by the fact that limited characters grow and change for either better or worse throughout the story.

    For instance, at the end of MST3K's Hamlet, Kevin Nealon quips "Hamlet WILL RETURN in....THUNDERBALL!" Good for a laugh, but hardly an accurate description of the character and not just because of the way Hamlet ends. It has to do with the character's basic nature; the way it's presented as changing and growing marks Hamlet out as a limited character. Characters like Alice and Huck have more than one book to them because the hinge on which each book turns is the character's growth to maturity. At the end of both their respective stories (and despite a narrative mishandling by Twain) both characters are, in essence, fully developed adults in a figurative sense and there's no more to tell.

    Characters like Bond or Holmes by comparison seem stuck in the same style and never change while everything else around them does. Hell, Bond has had a change of bosses for flak's sake and he still the same.

    All that said, this whole thing about "artistic changes" reminded me of points brought up in a vlog I saw. I'm sure most are familiar with the movie it talks about. Take a look see and reach your own descision here's "A look at the Secret of NIMH (the cool opening song is fittingly called "Intro" by the XX):

    http://blip.tv/pop-arena/a-look-at-the-secret-of-nimh-1982-6474560

    ChrisC

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You make some great points here, Chris. I think there really is a huge difference between the idea of a serialized (or serializeable) character and a "limited" character. I agree with pretty much every single one of your examples.

      Maybe, then, the divide between "Watchmen" and "Before Watchmen" lies in the philosophical divide over whether the characters from the original are serial or limited characters. From my point of view, they are limited characters; solidly, demonstrably so. And when "Before Watchmen" was announced, my gut reaction was a nonverbal cry of disgust, because it meant that somebody, somewhere -- who had the legal right to do so -- had decided that no, they were serial characters. In a limited fashion, granted (due to the finite timeframe of "Before Watchmen"); but serial nonetheless.

      Oddly, I think that's also why I'm able to easily divorce myself from "Before Watchmen" when contemplating "Watchmen" itself. Because the original IS finite/limited, it will always seem that way in my mind; any prequel, or sequel, or spinoff, or midquel, or whatever, is automatically going to seem like its own separate thing, and the end result for me is that I'm able to judge it on its own merits. Or lack thereof.

      There is a lot of interesting philosophy on both sides of this debate. Ultimately, I mostly find myself siding with Alan Moore, although I do acknowledge some slight hypocrisy on his part. I also acknowledge that DC has every right to farm "Watchmen" out (I'm sure we'll all have to endure "After Watchmen" at some point down the road), although I can't help but feel that they ought to have put a bit more care into certain aspects of the final product. As is, it's about 1/4 good, 2/4 mediocre, and 1/4 bad.

      Not a good average, especially compared to the original.

      Delete
    2. "Maybe, then, the divide between "Watchmen" and "Before Watchmen" lies in the philosophical divide over whether the characters from the original are serial or limited characters. From my point of view, they are limited characters; solidly, demonstrably so. And when "Before Watchmen" was announced, my gut reaction was a nonverbal cry of disgust, because it meant that somebody, somewhere -- who had the legal right to do so -- had decided that no, they were serial characters. In a limited fashion, granted (due to the finite timeframe of "Before Watchmen"); but serial nonetheless."

      Technically, I think you just summed up my own thinking better than I did (you sure as hell summed up my thoughts on Doctor Sleep without ever mentioning it, that's for sure).

      It's interesting to note how all this ties into questions of "canon". For instance, I don't know if the Star Trek run is still on, however I know without having read a single one that there are volumes of professionally published books out there set in the Star Trek-verse, and I'm equally sure there's a fan complaint about every single one of them just as much as there are a hundred others clambering to each books defense.

      I think in order to solve such a conundrum would involve finding out how each individual approaches not just Trek but any fiction at all, and therefore I doubt it's that ever get done, or if it ever is completed, it's a safe bet it'll have taken several lifetimes and therefore different people to do it.

      Technically, Bryan's reading/viewing list pales in comparison to such a task.

      To give a final example of how people approach limited vs. serial character, I don't have any Trek examples but I do have a comic one, if not really a superhero one.

      Here's a link from the free republic, and if anyone's a fan of the original Calvin and Hobbes strip I sure as hell wonder what they make of this new stuff.

      Personally while I admit it's somewhat good, I can't see it going anywhere and am ambivalent about the idea of it being considered canon:

      http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-bloggers/2933120/posts

      There are other fan strip that're kind of cute. Oh well.

      Strip 1

      http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-bloggers/2933120/posts

      Strip 2

      http://phill-art.deviantart.com/art/Hobbes-and-Bacon-331885578

      ChrisC





      Delete
    3. Somebody not named "Bill Watterson" is trying to do Calvin and Hobbes?!?

      Hell to the no!

      Delete
    4. Well, in that case...You know what, i really think sometimes you have to see to believe what some will come up with:

      http://blip.tv/nostalgiacritic/nostalgia-critic-the-secret-of-nimh-2-4667289

      ChrisC

      Delete