Who Watches Before Watchmen?…The first five books

No Moore Watchmen?

I’ve just finished reading the first five issues of DC Comics semi-blasphemous Before Watchmen series.

I was half expecting my copy of Watchmen #1, signed by Watchmen co-creator and self-styled warlock Alan Moore, to spontaneously combust the moment I opened the first issue. Mr Moore has some well-reported negative views on the use of the characters that he and Dave Gibbons created, way back in the mid-eighties. I’ve got to admit, publishing further stories set in the Watchmen universe after a break of twenty-six years does seem a little odd and almost as if DC are deliberately trying to bait the outspoken Mr Moore.

When I first heard about the Before Watchmen books I was horrified. Watchmen is the most legitimate piece of ‘proper’ literature to come out of the comic-book medium. For years collectors like me, keen to dispel the ‘comics are for kids’ myth have cited Watchmen (along with The Dark Knight Returns) as proof that comic books are legitimate pieces of literature. I found the thought that DC Comics could produce some awful dross that cheapens such a work of art as the original Watchmen series is a truly chilling prospect. One mis-step could set the medium back decades.

As the books’ launch date approached I got thinking about. Are more Watchmen books really relevant to the modern comic-book reader? Who is the series targeting? Is the Before Watchmen series just a desperate cash grab, similar to Frank Millar’s lacklustre The Dark Knight Strikes Againfrom 2001?  And finally, what is the point?

Crime busting capers ’40s style!

During a recent discussion at King’s Comics in Sydney, one of the staff shared his thoughts on the matter of Moore and Gibbons’ characters being chronicled by others. As well as questioning why these characters, that are the property of DC Comics and not the creators, shouldn’t be exploited some more, he also mentioned that the Before Watchmen series was being produced by some of the world’s top comic-book talent.

And that may be so, but it still doesn’t make it right…does it?

I figured that it’s like The Pope, a person infinitely qualified to comment on scripture, deciding that the Bible could do with a prequel, entitled Before Genesis. I’m sure we all want to know what God got up to before he created Heaven and the Earth. As kick-ass as the story may be, perhaps even far superior to the original, it is going to piss off a load of people and we really don’t need it. Whist The Pope will, no doubt, have the sense to realise that a Biblical prequel is in bad taste, DC has gone ahead and published Before Watchmen. And, of course, like craning your neck to look at a good motorway car crash, I picked them up to see what the deal was.

I’d be lying if a said that I’ve not previously exposed myself to Watchmen material outside of the Moore/Gibbons canon. I’ve played the Watchmen video game The End is Nigh on the Xbox 360 and loved it. For that matter, back in the day, I also played the Len Wein scripted Watchmen module for the DC Heroes Role-Playing Game, upon which the video game was based. I also consider the ultimate cut of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie to be an outstanding piece of art, ranking as one of my favourite films.

The Dark Nite!

Yes, all this heresy from someone who was there in 1986 when the Moore/Millar comic-book revolution began, heck I’ve even stood in the presence of, and had conversions with both Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons on more than one occasion back in the day. I’ve got my Watchmen leather-bound hardcover signed by Gibbons, Higgins, the legendary Dick Giordano and the DC President and publisher, Jennette Khan (by 1987 Alan Moore had stopped going to the UK Comic Art convention, so I missed out there). I’m a card-carrying Watchmen fan.

So, what about this Before Watchmen thing? The first five issues that I read are the beginning of a number of limited series based around characters from the original twelve-issue Watchmen limited series published by DC Comic way back 1986.. In total there will be seven series in the Before Watchmen line plus an epilogue one-shot.

Minutemen is the first Before Watchmen book, a six-issue limited series written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke. Minutemen provides us with the hook back into the Watchmenuniverse via Hollis Masons’ controversial biography, Under the Hood. Reading from his memoirs, Mason reintroduces us to the members of the classic post-war crime-fighting group The Minutemen. The clean lines of Cooke’s almost retro drawing style are perfect for illustrating the crime-busting capers of the world’s first masked vigilante group.

Amanda Conner’s layouts echoing Gibbons’ original

Minutemen is followed by the teenaged-angst fuelled Silk Spectre, which chronicles Laurie Jupiter’s struggle for individuality in the face of her overbearing mother, Sally Jupiter, former Silk Spectre and member of The Minutemen. Silk Spectre is again written by DarwynCooke, but this time Amanda Conner takes on the illustrating duties. Conner’s layouts perfectly emulate those of Dave Gibbons in the original book, a perfect complement to Cooke’s tale of 1960s teenaged rebellion.

The Comedian is written Brian Azzarello and drawn by J.G. Jones. Whilst we’ve already know that Edward Blake AKA The Comedian, the catalyst in the original Watchmen, is a damaged man. This six-issue series gives us the insight that we never got from Moore as to why the world is such a joke in Blake’s eyes. The first issue reveals Edward Blake’s close relationship with the Kennedy family, including a shock revelation regarding the death of a famous celebrity. The book’s story flies in the face of the suggestion at the beginning of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie, that The Comedian was responsible for JFK’s death; Blake’s close friendship with the president making, as portrayed in the book , making it unlikely that he would have carried out the assassination.

Next up is Nite Owl, a four issue series brought to us by the dream team of J. Michael Straczynski (TV’s Babylon 5) art by the legendary Andy and Joe Kubert . More of a straight up story, the first issue documents the first meeting of the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, and his successor, Daniel Dreiberg. Following Mason’s retirement, Dreiberg takes over, using his fortune and fondness of gadgets to become a Nite Owl for a less innocent age.

Ozy, Ozy, Ozy!

Finally we have Ozymandias, a six-issue book written by Len Wein, the editor of the original series, and drawn by Jae Lee. This book details the story of how the world’s smartest man rebuilds his life after the death of his parents and becomes the man that we know is willing to commit genocide in order to save humanity from itself.

Yet to arrive are the Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach books. Whilst I’m looking forward to more adventures of everyone’s favorite right-wing sociopath, I’m not sure how much extra a Dr. Manhattan book will give us, the character being the well documented lynchpin of the original series. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on them though.

I’m sure that I’m not alone in secretly wishing Before Watchmen was actually shit. Oh how we could have gone on and on about how DC has sold its soul and the death of the creative media. Before Watchmen isn’t shit at all, in fact it is rather good. Having read and enjoyed, the first five titles of the line, I can honestly say that this isn’t the mean-spirited cash-in that I was expecting. DC Comics has done a fine job of carefully crafting the Before Watchmen series.

The only fault I can find with the books is the inclusion of two pages of a pirate adventure serial in the back of each issue. The Curse of the Crimson Corsair, written by Len Wein and drawn by original series colourist John Higgins, isn’t bad, however it doesn’t seem to have the same relevance to the main story as Tales of the Black Freighter did in Watchmen, and feels a bit forced in as a result. That being said it is a ripping yarn and, for me anyway, a better read than Tales of the Black Freighter; which I found tiring after a while.

For the first time in a long time I find myself actually looking forward to the publication date of a comic book. I’m really in to these first issues of these Before Watchmen books. It is, as clichéd as it sounds, like visiting old friends. A lot has happened in my life in the last twenty-six years and it was good to see that, as much as things change, some things remain the same.

Whether fans of the original agree with the publication of Before Watchmen or not, it is all rather academic now. The books are here and to continue to be upset about it is pointless; in any case, I’m sure Alan Moore will continue to be upset about it on our behalf for years to come. Although he may hate Before Watchmen, these books own everything to Moore’s genius in creating the most grounded and perfectly crafted super-hero characters ever put down on paper.

DC have proven that, even after all these years, Watchmen’s characters still have legs and I’m left wondering why they took twenty-six years to do it. Could this be the start of another 1986-style comic-book Renaissance? How about a bit more Frank Millar/David Mazzucchelli Batman or Daredevil?