In all of last week’s Super Bowl fanfare, I missed what will surely be one of the most controversial decisions in nerdom. On February 1st, DC announced a series of prequels to the greatest graphic novel of all time, Watchmen.
“Watchmen 2” is officially titled Before Watchmen and consists of seven miniseries of between four and six issues each. The series will follow individual characters from the original, including the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Ozymandias, plus a series dealing with the Minutemen team.
Does this mark Alan Moore’s triumphant return to DC? Of course not. Moore was appalled, telling the New York Times that “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.”
Many fans, and some literary critics, consider Watchmen to be a technical triumph, an expression of everything a graphic novel could be, in the same way that Great Expectations and Hamlet defined their genres. Therein lies the danger: it’s impossible to alter great literature the way DC alters it’s regular stories. “As far as I know, there weren’t that many prequels or sequels to Moby Dick,” Moore said.
High criticism aside, there is another reason why the Watchmen prequels will not live up to the original. These days, major comic events are drawn out over several series, just look at Marvel’s Fear Itself and DC’s War of the Green Lanterns.This allows publishers to sell more books while allowing writers to get lazy, since they don’t have to include as much material in each book.
Watchmen was the opposite: it was a self-contained 12-issue series with no tie-ins (the story took place in its own universe, after all). Not only did this make for better reading, it also negated the need for prequels. Moore and Gibbons were so thorough in their development of the characters and the fictional world they inhabit that they were able to tell the reader everything he or she needs to know about them.
Watchmen contains enough backstory to chronicle two generations of heroes, in addition to its detailed, present-day main plot. What is left for the prequels? Character origin stories? Already done. A look at the “Golden Age” of heroes in the Watchmen universe? Already covered in the Under the Hood sidebars.
DC feels that the Watchmen characters are ripe for an update. However, Before Watchmen seems more like a dilution than a revitalization. The company’s editors need to realize that, while the Watchmen characters are popular, it’s not the same popularity as Superman or Batman. People read Watchmen for the book itself, not just for individual characters.
I’ll reserve full judgment until I see the actual comics, but right now Before Watchmen seems like a cynical attempt to milk Alan Moore’s dystopian cash cow instead of trying something new, or even living up to the old stuff.