Thursday, March 22, 2012

Before Watchmen

As someone whose pull list is almost entirely made up of creator owned titles, my interest in Before Watchmen has surprised some.* Shouldn’t I be condemning this thing, cursing it with the sort of righteous indignation that only a fanboy can truly muster?

Debate about the project got its second wind with a posting of an interview Alan Moore gave Seraphema Books. Frankly, I finished it wondering if the man’s ties to reality were becoming a bit frayed. Not that he seems to care. He’s living in a world of what he perceived happened. As he says himself, “It doesn't really matter if this is what happened or not.” (That quote—which is sadly not taken out of context—comes from a conversation he says he had with his co-creator Dave Gibbons.)

Gibbons seems to be the invisible man here. He is a creator of Watchmen and he supports the project. What does that mean, exactly? Not much to many fans. He’s just the guy who illustrated Moore’s story. A strange attitude to what is essentially a visual medium. The one thing you can’t take away from a comic, and still have a comic, is the artist. But I’ll be honest and admit the mistreatment of Gibbons isn’t a motivator for me. Nor is Moore’s attempt to respond to the criticism that he too rehashes other people’s work. Essentially, he argues that he’s participating in a literary game that’s been played for a very long time. True enough, even if you have to define literary as loosely as he seems to, but comic publishers squeezing every penny they can from a franchise has also been a game played for a very long time.

No, what motivates my interest is my growing antipathy towards the work’s near canonization. Watchmen is a great comic, but it isn’t the greatest book ever written. It isn’t the greatest comic book ever written. It isn’t even the greatest comic book ever written by Alan Moore. Watchmen is, at best, the Lonesome Dove of superhero comics. Lonesome Dove, for those who live under a rock, is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Larry McMurtry. It’s a great novel, but what surprised a lot of people is that it’s also a Western. Genre novels just don’t get a lot of respect. Watchmen is esteemed to the degree it is because it’s a great comic about superheroes in an industry saturated by superhero comics and largely dependent on characters created for ten year olds forty to seventy years ago. Fans embarrassed by the fact that they are still playing with their childhood toys are often anxious to prove they are doing something worthwhile. Something far more grownup than it might appear. Watchmen, they believe, gives them a free pass to continue doing what they’re already doing: loving men in tights. I read an article a couple of years ago and I wish I could remember who wrote it and share it with you now. The author argued that while comic writers love to name Alan Moore as an influence, they’re really following in the footsteps of Grant Morrison, who loves the comics he grew up with and make no effort to hide their influence on his work. It’s an argument that captures something of what I am saying here. Watchmen has been placed on a pedestal where everyone can gaze in wonder at it, but how much it has actually engaged the industry is another question. Once something has been proclaimed sacrosanct, no one wants to admit they are anything less than thrilled and inspired by it.

Gibbons and Moore’s work was actually one of three books released in the mid-80s and credited with raising the bar for comics. The others were Maus and The Dark Knight Returns. The former is held in even higher regard than Watchmen by those who aren’t regular readers of the medium. The latter was in many ways everything Watchmen is supposed to have been. That superhero comics have gloried in dystopic worlds, populated by psychotically violent vigilantes is the influence of Miller’s work. It is time we took Watchmen off the pedestal and started to engage it. It’s no good saying that it’s a complete work unto itself. It’s too steeped in the world of superhero comics, including the marketing and fandom, for that to be true. It’s also no good saying that we should be writing new works. Works as good as Watchmen, because people already are. There are lots of great graphic novels out there. You may not have heard of them because they don’t star superheroes, but they are there.

An interesting point to close on: if people really believed many of the points they were making in attacking Before Watchmen—that one of the creators disapproves, that it’s unoriginal, that t is a glib attempt to wring more money out of fan’s pockets—they’d stop buying most of the comics being produced today, because every one of those arguments applies just as fairly to the majority of comics being purchased. Another example of how Watchmen is being privileged and not engaged.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I am going to “wait for the trades,” as they say. And I don’t know which I am actually going to buy. I am open to all, in theory, but suspect some will be better than others. Going in, I am most interested in Darwyn Cooke’s project, primarily because his DC: New Frontier was pretty much the antithesis of Gibbons and Moore’s Watchmen. And it is possible that feedback on the actual published works will be bad enough to convince me not to buy any, but I’ll wait for reaction to the actual comics.

As for the “almost” part of my pull list, I currently have two titles on it that aren’t creator owned: Batwoman, which I’ll be dropping after issue 8, and the newly relaunched Prophet. I try not to get too doctrinaire about these things, however. If a comic interests me, I’ll check it out.


Westside Goth said...

Excellent blog. I fully believe in a couple decades time Morrison will be considered a better writer than. You can make an argument that Alan Moore mostly peaked with Watchman, after which his success was mostly limited to League of Extraordinary Gentleman(maybe Promethea but I think that's all JH Willaims III right there). Morrison seems to hit on a commercial and mostly well received series every half decade and now with him looking to do more non-superhero work(plus the long awaited publication of Flex Mentallo) we're going to see him further be one of the most important writers in the history of comics.

My pull list itself is being more creator owned/indy. I do buy several DC New 52 but I'm dropping a few. I like WW the best and have found Superboy to be surprisingly engaging. I'm also one of those guys buying Catwoman which a lot of people hate. On the indy side I'm happy with Image comics(Morning Glories, Hack/Slash, Fatale especially) and Vampirella has been a treat. Though nothing touches the classic Vampirella books.

Anonymous said...

'As for the “almost” part of my pull list, I currently have two titles on it that aren’t creator owned: Batwoman, which I’ll be dropping after issue 8.'
Why are you dropping the best solo female Bat title at issue 8?

David Bird said...

I signed up because I like both artists and thought it would be interesting to see them work together. I don't know that it ever really lived up to its potential--Reeder was always overshadowed by Williams--but now they're dropping one and it seems like a good time to step away.

The story has been good, for the most part, but its never one I've been chomping at the bit for. I can definitely wait for the trade.

Gerry Kissell said...

Good stuff, man. You should friend me on facebook, so we can chat some time.