June 22

Before Watchmen

I’ve bought and read the first three of the seven mini-series offering prequel arcs to Watchmen. Anyone that’s ever read comics will probably have heard of, if not read Watchmen. Along with a handful of others, this comic is rightfully considered to be one which resulted in the genre being taken more seriously as an art form, despite it’s childish roots.

There’s little point in me extolling the virtues of the original. If you like comics and haven’t read it, then clearly it’s got to be on your required reading list. If, like most people, comics are something that kids (and overgrown kids) read, then I would urge you to take a look. If you still don’t like it, then fair enough – but several sceptics that I know have been converted having read this amazing work.

Alan Moore, author of Watchmen and cited by many (including friend and protégé Neil Gaiman) as being a bona-fide genius has a unique capacity with characterisation. Of the six main characters from the original 12-part series, at least two beg to have more stories written about them and are undoubtedly cult figures. Another two are interesting and would be lead characters in most other contexts. The final two are, for me, not quite so interesting. The new mini-series are attempts to tell the back story of each character, with an additional series based on telling an even earlier story that provides the context for it all.

Comic fans are notoriously geeky and vocal. So, it’s unsurprising that this activity has resulted in nothing short of an outcry from many, who say that the original is of such weight, scope and relative importance that it just should not be touched. However the financial pull and storytelling potential from the characters has proved too much for DC Comics and hence these new series are being published.

Alan Moore, who has famously pulled his name off several projects that he deemed to diminish the source material – including both the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Watchmen films – is of course on the record as saying that the whole thing is a debacle and only being undertaken for financial reasons. Plus it’s worth noting that Watchmen (along with V for Vendetta, The Dark Knight Returns etc) was originally published at a time when rights were all publisher owned – and there was a big shift in the 90s towards creator ownership, either in whole or in part.

He does have a point too in terms of creative integrity. Anyone reading the short story The Courtyard will attest to the fact that Moore can deliver a huge story in a very short space (indeed, a point which Garth Ennis makes in the book’s Foreword, saying “where just about anyone else would strip-mine a concept like this to death, what does he devote to it? Forty-eight pages, no more.”).

In my opinion Watchmen is simply a larger version of this – with the characters, settings and narrative developed to such a point that the backstory, future implications and side events are all left unsaid, to the benefit of the main narrative.

Nevertheless, knowing that I’m probably not going to like what I find, I have purchased the first three issues of the first three mini-series, which have been published consecutively over the last few weeks. Here are my thoughts:

Minutemen – This was always going the be a scene setter. The art is intended to invoke feelings of the golden age of comics. What Moore did brilliantly was to refer to this loosely and in a throwaway context. I’m not sure this one hangs together as a mini-series. So, I was underwhelmed.

Silk Spectre – The first of the non-characters. I would say this is written well but just not a story that needs to be told. There is so much around the character’s relationships in the original, it’s just not necessary to see her earlier. Unsurprisingly, the story focusses on a relationship – a teen crush – and her chaotic relationship with a pushy mother. In any other context, I would not have enjoyed this context. As it is, I’m still pretty sure I didn’t enjoy it, I’m just going to keep an open mind for a little longer.

Comedian – The first of the really engaging characters. The story is interesting – and written by one of the best authors working in comics today, Brian Azzarello of 100 Bullets and Joker – but again, I’m really not too sure it’s adding much so far. It was easily the best of the three though.

So, next up, another third tier character and then the final three, all of which are interesting. Rorschach, the psycho, is easily the fan favourite and it’s got a great writer/artist pairing so that will be interesting.

One thing is certain, whilst it’s no Dave Gibbons, DC has done a fine job of evoking the original with the cover art. Despite strongly suspecting that I won’t like what I see, I’m finding it hard to say no to those covers…