Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Watchmen, Prequels, and Marc Hirsch

It has truly been an interesting week in comics for me, particularly on Comicvine.  A number of topics relevant to the industry and of personal interest to me have been discussed, and while I've taken part in some of them, I've also been content to just lurk on others and watch the dialog roll.  But now that I've had a bit of time to read and digest them, I figure it's a good time to put my two cents out on these issues.

I suppose it's the news about the Watchmen prequels  that's brought most of this to a head for me, for a number of reasons. Watchmen is a comic that I read much later than I should have, and it really blew my mind when I finally got around to it.  It was literary, apocalyptic, genre bending, and an amazing commentary on both the superhero comic and our how our own fears affect us as a culture.  It was indeed one of the milestone reads in comics for me, and if I ever review it, expect me to gush for a while.

I was also asked if I would be commenting on this, and as I have more than one friend who has strong opinions about this franchise, both positive and negative, I figured I should at least share my take on the situation.  Because the good friendships can withstand the most inevitable and passionate of arguments.  :-)

NPR's Marc Hirsch has laid out a few logical sounding reasons for why this is a bad idea and should not happen, and it's doubtless that many other comic book nerds are going to agree with him.  And I can't say I blame them.  The idea of a superhero comic being respected, and in some cases revered, in literary circles, is such a rare thing--why would you want to mess with that, and possibly dilute (or worse yet, taint) it by expanding it with a prequel?  I can understand the need to protect what you perceive as the integrity, nay the sanctity, of a superhero tome that has garnered significant literary acclaim and respect among the mainstream of readers.

That doesn't mean this particular comic book nerd necessarily agrees with them, however.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not jumping up and down and shouting for joy at the prospect, either.  I'm not sure what I feel about this development, beyond a general astonishment about the announcement.  I do, however, think more than a couple of Hirsch's points bear examination.  To paraphrase them:

  • Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's non-involvement alone means this series is in trouble.
Dead wrong, Marc.  Alan Moore is an amazing writer--he's one of my favorites--but his curmudgeonly manner and smugness are legendary.  He's much like Rorschach himself, as best I can tell: uncompromising, even when common sense dictates the need for it.  His non-involvement in a project based on one of his early works is pretty much par for the course, and hardly an indicator of its likelihood for doom.  As for Gibbons, his quote about telling the complete story they wanted to tell is a perfectly reasonable explanation of why he isn't being involved.  

Furthermore, nothing in the news about this indicates that either of them were even asked.  DC simply might have decided to move on without them in  any case, which is certainly their right as the publisher.  As creators, they have the right to comment on and critique what goes on, but their non-involvement at this point is immaterial to the material's outlook.
  • The devaluation of of Watchmen outside of comics fandom is likely due to confusion.
I understand the direction you're going here, but I don't think it really holds up under inspection.  In this age of Google, Wikipedia, smartphones, and ebooks, the potential for confusion--due to the name of the collected works being Before Watchmen--does exist, but is generally a snap to clear up with a modicum of effort.  If I pop "watchmen" into a search engine, chances are huge I'll find entries for the comic, the film, and (likely in the future) Before Watchmen.  They are similar in title, but distinct enough that confusion shouldn't be an issue.  Point of entry confusions are also unlikely; unless this proves as earth-shattering as the original, it will almost certainly live in the shadow of the original, as so many derivative works tend to do.
  • DC doesn't get that Watchmen shouldn't be expanded upon, because that was never intended.
Wrong again.  Maybe the original creators didn't intend for it to be expanded upon, but that doesn't mean interesting and relevant stories couldn't possibly made from their material at a later time.  It's been a quarter century, and Watchmen has held up amazingly well.  

I think DC may understand this property better than some will give them credit for.  Watchmen, for all its respectability as a literary work, is a superhero story (a satirical one, but still).  And, like it or not, superheroes tend to be staples within our modern mythology.  Mythologies, by their very nature, are tales that get repeated, reinvented, and expanded upon as necessity dictates.  And that's precisely what DC is going to do with Before Watchmen.

Are there big risks here?  You bet your ass there are.  They'd better make damn sure they know what they're doing, risking, and avoiding by waking this sleeping giant.  Failure would mean so much more than a few scuttled series: Jim Lee and Dan DiDio would need to adopt new identities and give up their comics careers with all the rage that would be directed at them.  The tarnishing of the Watchmen name would be hard to overcome, even with time, among literary circles.  It would be more than not pretty: it would be distinctly disastrous.

And I think DC is aware of that.

They waited 25 years to do this.  They've had time to think it through.  They know the risks, and will keep them in mind when they undertake this challenge.  And it's not like they haven't done this kind of thing before.  When they announced the reboot of the DC universe with the New 52 materials, I thought that was a disaster bound to happen, and for the most part, they've laid my fears to rest.

My final word on this issue, at this point, is the somewhat boring mantra of wait and see.  Wait and see, people.  They're going to do this--there's little chance of turning back now.  There's plenty to fear about it, but if you consider the rewards that could come with successfully extending Watchmen...

Well, let's just see if anyone can write about that instead of the potential pitfalls.

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