Quis custodiet ipsos Prius Custodes?

The Minutemen

Everyone's talking about Before Watchmen, the seven Watchmen prequel miniseries announced by DC this week. As with pretty much everything in the world of comics, opinions are divided and being fiercely argued where anyone will listen—and even places where they won't. (The Beat and ComicsAlliance round up the serious and snide reactions.)

I guess because Alan Moore is widely enough respected, has been public enough about his falling out over the Watchmen rights, and is enough of a crank that DC knew they had a public relations problem on this one from word go. I can't think why else they would devote so much of their PR to justifying Before Watchmen's right to exist. That's just a bad foot to put forward.


Susana Polo of The Mary Sue argues that Before Watchmen represents everything that's wrong with the comics industry today. That's maybe an overstatement, as there's lots more things wrong with comics, but I take her point. In particular, she notes that this is an inevitable result of the fact that DC (and Marvel) are not really in the business of making comic books; they're the custodians of intellectual property for Warner Bros. (and Disney).

Notice how Before Watchmen's defenders talk about the project:

Comic books are perhaps the largest and longest running form of collaborative fiction. Collaborative storytelling is what keeps these fictional universes current and relevant. --DiDio and Lee in the original release

The whole point of having great characters is the opportunity to explore them more deeply with time, re-interpreting them for each new age. DC allowed these characters sit on a shelf for over two decades as a show of respect, and that is salutary, but there comes a time when good characters have to re-enter the world to teach us something about ourselves in the present.--Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl writer J. Michael Straczynski at Newsarama

The challenge is to make the stories modern and relevant to 2012 […] by adding to the mythos and not to detract from it. --"Crimson Corsair" illustrator John Higgins at HuffPo

In an age when the comic book industry is not at its finest, every comic book company should do all they can to exploit (I mean that in the literal definition, not the negative context it often bares) their properties[. …] It's good to see new creators taking on these characters. It's good to have fresh voices reaching into these characters. If a character is compelling, there should always be more stories to tell. --Newsarama editor Lucas Siegel

In each of these cases, the argument is based on an idea that Watchmen is a set of characters--i.e., intellectual properties--that simply can't be allowed to lie fallow, whether for economic (Siegel) or artistic (everybody else) reasons. Compare this with Marc Hirsh writing at NPR's Monkey See blog:

In other words, not only was Watchmen never intended to be an ongoing series, that's precisely why the story was done as Watchmen and not just the Charlton heroes in the first place. It was produced as a single-shot, twelve-issue story using characters that had never existed prior to its publication and were never supposed to be used after. It was a self-contained novel with a beginning, a middle and an end, written with exactly that structure in mind.

I think this is the major divide between the two camps on Before Watchmen. There are a lot of important issues about creator's rights--and especially moral rights--involved, too. But how you go about evaluating those arguments and applying them to specific cases is a result of your basic assumptions of what a contemporary American comic is: Is it an "artistic" work or a vehicle for a character-cum-brand?

I don't know that I'd say Watchmen is the best comic / graphic novel ever. It's not one of my favourites. But I certainly think it's more than a collection of "characters."

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