Friday, April 13, 2012

On "Before Watchmen"

There's been a lot of back and forth lately about DC's recently announced Watchmen prequel project. Of course, the internet being what it is, which is to say the land of extremist discourse, there hasn't been a great deal of especially moderate discussion of the issue. I thought I'd try to adopt what's hopefully a not overly hyperbolic approach to the situation to see what I could make of the legitimacy of the concept and the arguments surrounding it.
My core opinion regarding the "Before Watchmen" project is that it is, above anything, pointless - no more and no less. Watchmen is entirely self-contained. Everything important in the lives of the characters, in the story itself and in the themes it addressed were presented in sufficient detail. Alan Moore compared the situation to someone else writing a sequel to Moby Dick, and while that might come across as a little self-aggrandising, his point stands. Watchmen was, as Moore pointed out, an attempt to apply the rules of serious literature, such as they are, to the comic medium. It shouldn't be surprising then that much like the canon of novels Watchmen stands as part of a rather limited set of "legitimate" comics, which is to say comics which have transcended to the mainstream readership and especially to appreciation in academic and critical circles. In general this kind of literature is indeed self-contained and self-sufficient, holistic and complete. Watchmen adheres to these principles. Producing prequels to Watchmen is really no different to what happens when other authors come along and write their own unofficial prequels, sequels and re-envisionings of "legitimate" literature. Novels like Moby DickGone with the WindHeart of Darkness and Great Expectations have had all sorts of unofficial sequels and reinterpretations composed by various authors. It does happen, but here's the rub: it's never considered to be very legitimate. While I think it's obviously potentially clever to put a new spin on an old classic or pen a sequel or prequel which explores the issues further, there's a certain question of what really is the point. Authors would really be better served by expressing their ideas and themes through their own stories, their own characters. I know some want to specifically highlight implicit ideas in the existing texts but a lot of the time it feels like piggybacking on the fame and success of something worthy in itself, and it seems in most cases to be a pointless exercise.
What else is to be achieved by writing prequels to Watchmen? What's the point? "Good stories and good art" is hardly an adequate justification, because Watchmen itself was about a good deal more than just telling a good yarn and having nice pictures. The end product, even in the unlikely event that it is stupendously intelligent and entertaining, will always be something secondary to its source material. It will forever be doomed to riding the coat tails of a more successful work. Moore again pointed out that if DC was legitimately interested in producing something to revitalise the industry they would be encouraging writers to come up with fresh, engaging and challenging works the way things happened when Watchmen was created, rather than trying to cash in on the success of something from long before.
The argument of course is also made that Watchmen is "just a comic" and that really this project is in the nature of the medium. The problem is that Watchmen is very much the exception rather than the rule. Watchmen is very far from being "just a comic" for the reasons I mentioned above. It aspires to the concerns of serious literature in the way that normal, ongoing comics don't. It contains more challenging arguments and more textual depth than whole runs of Batman or The Fantastic Four or any "just a comic" you'd care to name. It is indeed far closer to, for instance, the serialised runs of Dickens novels published chapter by chapter from beginning to end in a magazine and later collected into whole volumes than it is to the ongoing runs of DC and Marvel, and just because it's made up mostly of panels of pictures with the dialogue in white balloons doesn't change that fact. Producing prequels is again ultimately pointless - what possible role do they have? Where do they fit in beyond published fan fiction? Fan fiction is itself a dead end, recycling other people's works rather than coming up with one's own characters and storylines in order to perpetuate something rather than appreciate its wholeness. Fan fiction is probably the closest thing to which these prequels could be compared. Besides the fact that this is an obvious cash-grab on DC's part, it embodies the immature desire implicit in fan fiction: that will to inflate a work of art into a franchise, stretch it beyond its limits. It's a reluctance to let go or to accept a conclusion, an inability to move on. It is the desire to give oneself more room to hide from reality rather than contemplating a work for its arguments and ideas. This is my biggest gripe with the "Before Watchmen" project. Watchmen is a work of intellectual might and profundity, and licensing prequels only serves to de-legitimise the comic by reducing it to a franchise. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy comic franchises a lot, but I enjoy them for what they are. Watchmen is on a different level, and breaching its ambitions of literary integrity is to act in ignorance of its primary concern, which is that of a confronting intellectual work, not purely the kind of endless saga of thrill-seeking which embodies mainstream comic franchises.
Other arguments touted about "Before Watchmen" are that Watchmen itself used characters based on the Charlton Comics characters and that Alan Moore himself writes a lot of comics these days which are mostly about taking characters from classic literature and making them behave in licentious ways. I don't deny either of these things. Nonetheless, at the risk of going all "death of the author" on you, it doesn't matter one way or the other whether Alan Moore is a hypocrite. It doesn't make Watchmen itself any less self-contained, complete or legitimate, and it doesn't make the "Before Watchmen" project any more pointless. In regards to the Charlton characters I must say that the links are incredibly tenuous. Aside from a few similarities like Rorschach wearing a hat, coat and mask like The Question, Nite-Owl having a flying ship and gadgets like the Ted Kord Blue Beetle and Doctor Manhattan being an atomic-powered entity like Captain Atom the links are both limited and superficial. In terms of their backstories and personalities they're completely invented for the work, and they're much more obviously generic superhero archetypes than they are pastiches of the already little-known Charlton characters.
The problem with the project really though is what it says about DC. Not only does this decision serve to compound the reputation of the medium as limited and artistically bankrupt but it shows a disturbing lack of faith in their ability to innovate in the medium. DC is meant to be one of the two giants of the industry and they should be trailblazing new ideas, new kinds of storytelling, new experiments in comics, but instead they've regressed twenty-five years to try to resurrect their single most enormously successful property. It is worth noting that these comics are being presented as an "expansion" to "the acclaimed Watchmen universe". If it was presenting itself simply as a tribute to the existing comic then perhaps I could understand, but obviously that's impossible considering the controversy about Moore and Gibbons' original agreement with DC. Beyond this, however, what is the purpose of the expansion, what is there to expand, and since when was Watchmen a whole "universe"? It's a comic which happens to take place in an alternate timeline but DC are conveniently portraying it as an existing franchise on the scale of their own comic universe. The reason we don't need to see the details of, say, Rorschach and Nite-Owl tackling Underboss or the Minutemen taking down Moloch or the Comedian doing Nixon's dirty work is that you can pick up any of innumerable issues of Green Lantern or Wolverine or whatever you like and see just that sort of comic any time. One of the major points of Watchmen was to explore the notion that in the real world the normal adventures of superheroes, as the genre portrays them, would be trivial and irrelevant, an ineffectual struggle against the symptoms rather than the causes of society's problems. We see so little of the action of the actual crime fighting days because they were petty and unspectacular; it's part of Watchmen's extensive deconstruction of the superhero genre. It's the same reason the book is completed, not ongoing: Ozymandias' solution, regardless of its morality, is definitive and final, unlike the vain and failed efforts of the vigilantes. As a result, trying to torture the unseen adventures of the characters out into entirely new comics is not just worthless but ignorant, operating completely against important themes and issues which, outside fan culture, are far more important to the value of the book than the characters are.
The problem is not that it's disrespectful to Alan Moore, who's disrespected the characters of a lot of other, mostly conveniently deceased, authors, but that it is treating Watchmen as something other than what it is. Watchmen is a comic but it's not a "comic franchise" or a universe or property beyond a single volume of one story; it's about superheroes but it's not in the same playing field as the ongoing adventures of Superman or the Avengers. It's the same medium but an entirely different kind of text, and this is the mistake DC and some defenders of the project are making, and it's my main problem with the idea. Sure, geeks may love Watchmen and it may be about superheroes and it's drawn panels with dialogue but it's a complete literary work. This is where people are getting confused, and the entire reason Watchmen is so sacrosanct is that its intellectuality and its composition are what has made it successful and one of DC's disturbingly large financial crutches - it transcends the normal, rather crippling limitations of the super hero comics genre exactly by subverting and averting the kinds of things which the genre normally relies upon but simultaneously hamper the industry's legitimacy: constant changes of author and artist, endless ongoing plots, floating timelines, stories composed largely of witty banter and explosive action. This is why making prequels completely misses the point.
As such the main reason I disagree with the "Before Watchmen" project is in terms of artistic principles. I can see how it might seem fun and exciting to compose new adventures of Nite-Owl and Rorschach and so on but Watchmen being what it is there's absolutely no point whatsoever, and people who can't see that are missing the point of the comic. I don't know whether "Before Watchmen" will succeed or fail and I don't begrudge the writers and artists who are working on the project but you might as well try to write and sell your own prequel to The Great Gatsby or Nineteen Eighty-Four; in artistic terms it'd be equally fatuous and an identical waste of time.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.