Was ‘Before Watchmen’ a Waste of Time?
The idea of reading an expanded universe collection of Watchmen stories not written by Alan Moore didn’t tickle my fancy. But curiosity got the better of me (after several cats were sacrificed) and I picked up the lot this week. Going in my sense of pretentious geekness made me wary. The original is more than a masterpiece. It’s innovative, original and still the source of academic discussion to this day. No matter how good the new additions are there’s nothing they can add to the original that will be on par, let alone improve on it. If anything it flies in the face of the originality the initial release represented. Watchmen was at the forefront of a revolution in the comic industry – one that happened decades ago.
Alan Moore and David Gibbons did float the idea of a prequel in 1985, prior to the release of their opus. They reasoned that if the limited 12 issue run of Watchmen was successful they’d follow it up with Minutemen. DC wanted to turn the whole universe in to a new cash cow with almost every character getting a spin-off and different authors taking up the reigns. Moore shut the idea down and it wasn’t until 2010 that he was offered the chance to create the prequel series, but was no longer interested, leading DC to launch the series we have today.
To really understand my trepidation with this series you have to understand how Alan Moore writes. He’s a strong believer in working within constraints, limiting himself to a set number of issues, pages and panels. This creates the tightly written and layered stories that he is known for. Absolutely nothing makes it to the page without being essential to the story. In true DC/Marvel fashion the prequels spin the story out as far and as wide as possible. The 12 issue original series is eclipsed by this 37 issue attempt to add to it.
So enough ranting…is it any good? Let’s find out.
We started with Comedian. The Comedian is one of the mysteries of the Watchmen universe, the character whose death launches the story. Being a member of the Minutemen and short lived Crimebusters prior to his career as a government assassin he’s one of the few characters to appear on every major node of the Watchmen timeline. His backstory and motivations were never explored, leaving plenty of story to delve in to.
The character arc shown in this mini-series reveals his descent from crusader of justice to disenfranchised psychotic, beginning in the 1960s. This doesn’t sit right from the get-go, as before this point in the characters history he’d already been shown as a vicious rapist. This story only ‘reveals’ what we already knew – The Comedian is a maniac. Expanding on the horrors he perpetrated in Vietnam (something we’d already seen) doesn’t add anything to the character or the bigger picture. This story is half as long as the entirety of Watchmen and does nothing to enlighten the reader as to the nature of character. At best this is a novelty and at worst it cheapens the source material by weighing the it down with unnecessary details.
It’s not a terrible story if you really, really want to know what turned The Comedian from heartless, violent, sex offender into an even more heartless, violent sex offender. The dialogue sticks in places though. They seem to be aiming for conversational, but this has all the flow of the Titanic traversing narrow rapids.
Plus, why is a random letter from a CIA agent signed off by ‘Raul Duke’? Yeah, I love Fear and Loving in Las Vegas too, but what was the point of that?
Next in line is Doctor Manhattan. I am in awe of anyone who tackles writing Doctor Manhattan. A character who can exist at any point in their own timeline and create molecules out of thin air cannot be easy to write for. Moore made him a fascinating figure, both god-like and grounded at the same time. Perhaps the only reason Moore can write a character that can see his entire past and future is because he’s bat-shit insane.
In this addition to the character Doctor Manhattan tries to go too far back in time and accidentally creates alternative dimensions, leaving him to put history right. And there are Nazis to escape from, because of course there are. I seem to have accidentally gotten off the train at cliché street station.
This disappointment led in to Minutemen and it’s nice to have some positive to say in regards to this run. In the world of Watchmen it’s these characters who were most shrouded in mystery. Even the occasional hints and speculation about Hooded Justice, Capt. Metropolis, Silhouette, Mothman and Dollar Bill didn’t give us the full story behind the colourful crime fighters. Told mostly through the eyes of the original Nite Owl this version of events slots into the established canon with ease, turning the names and costumes in to fully fledged characters with their own conflicts and arc.
Minutemen is a genuinely enjoyable read that gives each character their dues before building to a shocking finale. Much of the problem with Before Watchmen is that the characters were already extremely well crafted and didn’t need further exploration. Minutemen allows the writers the chance to work within the blanks, and they fill in the blanks admirably. If you read only one story in this series, make it this one. I’ll be reading it again.
The slight elevation experienced with Minutemen came to crashing halt with Nite Owl. The first through pages reveal that the writer has very little grasp of the characters he’s working with. Nite Owl having a ‘hoot hoot hoot’ catchphrase is cringeworthy but it is surpassed by Hollis Mason turning a gun on Dan Dreiberg in a public park after the latter learns his secret identity. What the hell kind of cop who takes up vigilantism because he felt there was more justice to dole out does that.
Nite Owl does the very thing that pisses me off about prequels: it takes a tiny, incidental detail from the original and turns it in to some giant, significant part of the story. In this case it’s the photo of ‘The Twilight Lady’ that Silk Spectre comments on in Watchmen. based on this it’s a story about Nite-Owl losing his V-Plates to a dominatrix and his parents fought. Awful.
Ozymandias presents a more uniquely artistic approach to the subject. Jae Lee’s work adds an extra layer of brilliance to a unique character. It matches the story being told from the perspective of the hero/villain himself prior to launching his plan of global destruction. Filling out the details of his early life and rise to power gives us a good story. Although it lacks the fun of Minutemen it is a worthwhile read. A good read that elevates itself above the rest of the series.
Adrian Veidt is a character with many layers and they all get explored here. The combination of vigilante crime fighter, business mogul with merchandising empire and secret government research was an odd one, but this story ties it all together with a rich backstory. It culminates with the events of Watchmen and feels like a natural extension to the character.
And straight back in to the gutter with Rorshach.The most iconic, popular and terrifying figure in the Watchmen universe, he’s also the most satisfying. He is a complete character. We have his origin, his motivation, his peak and his downfall. What is there left to cover? Some random story about him fighting pimps. Let me throw some random adjectives out to describe this: boring, pointless, stupid, nonsensical and flat.
Silk Spectre sees Laurie getting out from her mother’s shadow and hitchhiking a ride to San Fransisco to read the bohemian trend. Silk Spectre has plenty of room to develop further and explore the early turning points of her life. This is shown threw her adventures with a guy brainwashing teenagers through music to become bigger consumers. You may remember this (if you’re unlucky) as the exact plot of Josie and the Pussycats.
I would go further in to detail but there’s really nothing else to say beyond ‘it has the same plot as Josie and the Pussycats’.
Next on the bill is Moloch and…wait, why was this even written?! Moloch serves only a small role in Watchmen and he barely has any character beyond ‘he was a villain once’. There’s not a person on this Earth who was that invested in seeing his shitty childhood become the basis for a two-issue story.
Dollar Bill at least manages to be interesting. This is basically a late addition to Minutemen, filling in the blanks on the least explored character. It’s an interesting spin on a superhero existing in a commercial world and a decent time fill.
Let’s bring it back to the original question: is Before Watchmen a waste of time? Absolutely yes. There was no need to write and publish these stories and the final result only proves the point. They sit in the shadow of an epic. The 37 issues of this series comes nowhere near matching the scope, scale and complexity of the 12 issues that inspired them, and that’s just embarrassing. It cheapens the brand name, wastes the time and money of fans and adds weight to the perception that DC is slipping. Ozymandias and Minutemen are certainly good, but on the whole this is best avoided.