I had quit reading comics by the time Watchmen came out. My friends made too much fun of me for reading the silly things, especially after high school, so I quietly dropped out of the scene around 1981 or so. I missed out on a lot of good stuff with that timing, not just Watchmen. I also missed out on a lot of bad stuff, too, I think, so it probably balances out. I didn’t start reading comics again until around 2000 (just in time to catch a lot of good stuff, and a lot of bad stuff, too).
My boyfriend in college had a friend who was still a comics reader. He pushed Watchmen on me in trade paperback form. I remember reading the first page and thinking, “too many adverbs.” I had recently been taught in creative writing class that adverbs were “the weak sisters of the English language,” and had promptly gone about eradicating them from my prose with all the zeal of a convert. Don’t get too mad at me, Alan Moore fans: I thought the same thing about Stephen King, William Faulkner, and Shakespeare at about that same period of time.
I finally read Watchmen in full just a few years ago, right before the movie came out, because I felt like it was something I needed to be able to say, “the book was better” about. And it was. The book was a good book. It wasn’t the greatest book I’ve ever read, not even close. It wasn’t even, honestly, the greatest comic I’ve ever read. Maybe it was the greatest superhero book I’ve ever read. Maybe. I’ve read a lot of good superhero books, so it’s hard to say. I think maybe The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke was the best superhero book I’ve read.
But yeah, adverbs and all, Watchmen was really, really good.
Now DC has announced that they’re putting out a series of prequels to the book. A lot of fans don’t think that is a good idea. Alan Moore, the writer of the original, doesn’t think it’s a good idea, either.
Me? I’m looking forward to these, especially The Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke.
As for the controversy:
This was always a corporate entertainment property. Everything about it was corporate. Everything. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.
Moore originally pitched this story to DC with a cast of Charlton Comics characters that the company had recently purchased from the dying Connecticut-based publisher. When that didn’t fly (DC felt that he broke the characters too thoroughly for their investment in buying them to be worthwhile, apparently*), he cast a thin veneer over them and made “new” characters out of the old: The Question became Rorschach, Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan, and so on. The impulse to use old characters, created by other creators, in new ways unintended by those creators — is a corporate impulse. So is the impulse to create “new” versions by changing the names and back-stories of existing characters (see: Captain Marvel vs. Superman). And those corporate impulses, in turn, are a big part of the reason that the thing reads so convincingly as a gloss on the history of superhero comics.
Wait. What? You didn’t read it that way?
One of the ongoing pleasures of Watchmen, for me, was reading about the back-stories of the characters, and appreciating the way Moore patterned those back-stories after the attitudes and storylines of Golden and Silver Age comic books. At some point, you begin to imagine the machinations of a comic book publisher trying desperately to make these characters sell in a universe adjacent to the Watchmen universe, where these Golden Age and Silver Age histories were played out in comic book form– God as a Julius Schwartz type of figure, dictating the relationships, team-ups, and other events that occur in the back-story portions of the book, with no motive other than parting ten year old boys from their dimes.
Maybe you didn’t read it that way. But I did. With that reading, this step — DC taking the characters down the primprose path of further exploitation and, um, franchisement — was inevitable. And adds to the story. I’m serious.
Now, to be clear: I am not going to argue that Moore created nothing new, that the characters we end up reading about in Watchmen are as sickly and pale as the Charlton originals. That would be ridiculous; the novel, like any good novel, takes its characters apart, puts them back together, and changes them profoundly (something most superhero entertainments neglect to do — or only pretend to do). By the end, Rorschach isn’t The Question. He is, though, very much a commentary on, and a version of, The Question. Thats unavoidable. Even if Alan Moore hadn’t changed the character’s name and costume slightly, he still would have taken the character through its paces, and the version of The Question that came out at the other end of the process would bear about as much relationship to the old Charlton character as Rorschach does. And there would have been no question, no pun intended, as to who created the character.
The same corporate booby-trap — character ownership by corporations — that allows DC to take these characters now, and remake them, with other creators, is the same corporate booby-trap that allowed Alan Moore to take those characters then, and remake them (albeit with changed names and costumes, at corporate’s command). To try to pretend that these characters arose whole cloth out of Alan Moore’s soul or something is ridiculous. Do we know what Steve Ditko thinks of Rorschach? Do you care? You don’t care. Neither do I. I also don’t care what Alan Moore thinks about these prequels.
Maybe I’m just another soulless fanboy who cares more about the characters than the creators, and all of this has been an elaborate intellectual exercise in justification for my sense of entitlement. That’s always possible. Because: Darwyn Cooke! Woot!
*Note the many adverbs in this post. I have come a long way since my creative writing school days. Or maybe regressed.