Wednesday, February 1, 2012

So: the Watchmen Thing.

I think it’s important to note that there are several different issues at play here. Let me break them down for you so I can explain why DC making up a series of Watchmen prequels makes me so angry. So very very angry.

First off, there’s the actual quality, context aside, of the books. I notice people, no matter how critical they are of this, are already saying “well, I’m sure some of the books will be quite good, with those creative teams,” but even this seems a little generous. I mean, the artists involved range from good to great, but look at the writing lineup: You’ve got Len Wein, whose presence is at least explainable as a guy who was involved in the original book, and who was a decent writer back in the day, but what little I’ve seen of his recent work hasn’t exactly been earth-shattering. I don’t want to sound dismissive of the guy who co-created Wolverine, but I think of Wein as one of those old school journeymen of the Bronze Age, a reliable writer who could pump out fun comics but never really aspired to anything more; a “company man”, as it were. Please, correct me if I’m wrong.

Then you’ve got Darwyn Cooke, who’s obviously a spectacular talent as an artist and as a storyteller, but who I’m not convinced of as a writer, per se. He works in a certain mode that suits him but doesn’t really fit well with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ dense, idea-packed storytelling. I mean, the last time the guy tried to put his own spin on a classic comic, the result was The Spirit, which was a solid comic but really didn’t live up to expectations, and certainly didn’t do justice to Will Eisner’s vision. I doubt he’ll be able to do better with Watchmen.

And then there’s Azzarello, whose work I’m only passingly familiar with, but what I have read strikes me as solid but unremarkable; and J. Michael Straczynski, who, I’m sorry, is just a flat-out hack.

Maybe being called upon to write a Watchmen story will make these guys step up to the plate and really push themselves to deliver something spectacular, but colour me skeptical. Watchmen isn’t just a great comic, it’s a remarkable, multilayered achievement, dense, intelligent, and packed with ideas. Even at their best, these writers strike me more as the kind who can deliver solidly on one level, delivering stories that you read once and enjoy but don’t return to over and over again. I’d love it if they proved me wrong, but as it is the impression you get is that DC editorial literally just randomly pulled names out of a hat to “keep the franchise going”.

Which is another issue, and it’s where I start to get really steamed. Before Watchmen is clearly, unequivocably, being driven by profit. Well, you might say, of course it is, DC isn’t a charity. But working in a creative field, being a company that produces art in any form, there’s a way to balance profit and achievement in an honest way. The ideal way is that a writer, artist, or other creator approaches editorial with a story they want to tell, the publisher decides to go for it, and the result is a success, a genuine artistic accomplishment that provides entertainment and makes stacks of cash. Even if one or two of these elements doesn’t come to pass, the point is that creativity is driving the product. What isn’t a good sign is when a company decides that it needs to milk more money out of one of its properties and assigns a bunch of journeymen to churn out product…which is obviously what’s happening here.

In a weird way, if this had come from a creator marching into DC HQ and announcing, “I wanna do a bunch of Watchmen sequels!”, even if said creator was possessed of Mark Millar-level arrogance, and even if the result blew chunks all over the industry, I would have less of a problem with it on this level. Because at least the motivating factor would have been someone with a story that they wanted to tell, an actual spark of creativity. Not just a soulless money-generating machine.

Now, I’ve already heard people shrugging this off, or, God help them, defending this nonsense, by pointing out all the times existing characters have been tackled by other creators, or needlessly sequelized. Moore himself, of course, invites criticism by virtue of the fact that he’s been writing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics for over a decade now, starring hordes of classic characters. And while Moore’s own statements about this project are problematic for this reason, I think my comments in the above two paragraphs are still valid: there’s a world of difference between a creator deciding to use, say, Dracula in a story, and a corporation that owns a property and has the ability to give it the mark of validity deciding to “extend the brand.”

And this is what truly pisses me off about this: for over 25 years, Watchmen has occupied a place of reverence in the comic book world; now that’s being cast aside for a quick buck. All sacred cows eventually get slaughtered, of course; that’s the nature of culture, and it’s both healthy and necessary for people to puncture any air of self-importance that starts to build up around a work, no matter how well-earned. But this isn’t being done by some punk-rock rabble-rouser who wants to cause trouble, and thereby enrich comics; it’s being done by a soulless corporation that views this great work merely as grist for the mill. It’s one thing for someone to paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa, as Marcel Duchamp did; it’s another thing to use the Mona Lisa as toilet paper because there wasn’t anything else handy. The former is challenging. The latter points towards a world where art has no value, except in a purely utilitarian sense.

By doing this the way they’re doing it, DC is announcing to the world that Watchmen has no value to them except as a source of money. Yes, the original work is in no danger of being damaged, and will survive long after these misbegotten prequels (I want to remain open-minded, but come on, how likely is it that these will be any better than “OK?”) are forgotten. That’s not the problem. The problem is that the comics industry is in a place where its willing to sacrifice the standard bearer for the idea that comics can be more than cheap time-killers and content farms on the altar of commerce. I don’t care about what this bodes for Watchmen; I care about what it bodes for the industry that would do such a thing.

Further reading: David Brothers has some intelligent thoughts on the subject, and the hordes of annoying fans who are already coming to this project's defense.

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