Why You Should Be Angry About the Watchmen Prequels

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 31 2012 6:32 AM

Who Watches the Watchmen’s Watchers?

Alan Moore is angry about DC Comics’ Watchmen prequels. He’s right.

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It would be nice to say that Roberson, Langridge, and Stone are at the forefront of an all-out revolt against DC and Marvel's business practices. That's not really the case, though. For the most part, DC and Marvel's writers and artists are still writing and arting as they always have; comics stores are still carrying the comics; and fans are still buying. Yes, if you go stumbling about in the comments of mainstream comics blogs (here for instance), you'll find some outrage on Moore's behalf. But you'll also find a significant number of folks who don't care, and who are actively irritated that anyone thinks that maybe they should care: As one fan said, "Alan Moore is a very arrogant guy that really hasn't done anything relevant in a very long time and should really spend more time creating and less being a cranky old guy in a pub.”

J. Michael Straczynski, one of the writers on Before Watchmen, summed things up for many when he asked rhetorically, “Did Alan Moore get screwed on his contract? Of course. Lots of people get screwed, but we still have Spider-Man and lots of other heroes."

Before Watchmen.
Before Watchmen.

DC Comics.

Straczynski's contrast between Alan Moore (screwed!) and Spider-Man (still ours!) nicely sums up the fandom dynamics of superhero comics. Creators are there to churn out marketable, exploitable properties … and then disappear. And because the comics companies own the characters, and because they have substantial marketing departments, they're in a position to make that disappearance stick. Who knows who created all those different Avengers? Who knows who created Wonder Woman? Who cares? We want our modern myths packaged and available at our corner store and on our movie screens. Also … toasters.

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Why is Moore complaining? It’s not about the money, as he’s said. (That’s probably a big part of the reason people call him a crank.) But Moore created a group of characters and the world they live in; those characters still mean something to him. Now a company he believes has screwed him over gets to colonize and even define that world. For example: Moore’s comics have often been concerned with feminism, and one theme of Watchmen is that the superhero genre is built in part on retrograde sexual politics and thuggish rape fantasies.

And how does Before Watchmen address these issues? Like so.

If this were some piece of fan fiction detritus—naked Dr. Manhattan, porn-faced Silk Spectre!—it would be funny. But given that this is an "official" product, it starts to be harder to laugh it off.

Of course, this is one of the things that always happens with art. If you create a beloved character or story, others are going to honor it, parody it, use it, and abuse it. That’s why there’s fan fiction. Indeed, Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie literally defiled Dorothy Gale, Alice (of Wonderland), and Wendy Darling in their exuberantly pornographic Lost Girls. Given that, what does Moore have to complain about exactly?

What he has to complain about is that he doesn't own his own characters ... and the company that does own them is free to pursue any version of the characters it likes, whether honoring Moore’s original vision (as DC has been careful to assert) or turning it into bland, infinitely reproducible genre product (as many suspect they will). And DC has the marketing might to ensure that, in the end, its version will be the one that’s remembered. After the third or fourth Before Watchmen movie, which iteration of the characters will be most familiar to the public? Rorschach and Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan have been raised from their resting place, and Moore—and the rest of us—now get to watch them stagger around, dripping bits of themselves across the decades, until everyone has utterly forgotten that they ever had souls.

Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian. He has written for the Atlantic, the Chicago Reader, and Splice Today, among other publications. He is writing a book about the original Wonder Woman comics.

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