Thursday, May 26, 2016

DC Is Desperately Trying to Ruin "Watchmen"

DC Universe: Rebirth #1 by Gary Frank, Source: DC Comics
[Major Spoiler for DC Universe: Rebirth follows.]

DC Universe: Rebirth is a relaunch by DC Comics in 2016 of its entire line of superhero comics. In case you're not familiar with New 52 (hoo-boy), New 52 in 2011 was an initiative intended to reboot all of DC, and start over. Characters like Superman were depicted as just starting out, instead of having been around for decades. Other characters like Batman were relatively unchanged. Not everyone was happy with the changes, especially Superman fans who were disappointed he wasn't romancing Lois Lane. DC Rebirth is intended to restore the DC Universe to its pre-New 52 self, while still incorporating some popular elements of The New 52. That's the part we all knew.

But at the end of DC Rebirth #1, readers were shocked by an unexpected twist. It was revealed that New 52 wasn't caused by the 2011 Flashpoint crossover changing history as previously depicted. Instead, it was caused by Dr. Manhattan. Yes, that Dr. Manhattan. From Watchmen.


Watchmen is one of the most acclaimed graphic novels of all time. Written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen asked the question, "What if superheroes were real?" It's set in an alternate history where people began dressing up as superheroes in the 1940s through the 1960s. They fought crime, helped the US win the Vietnam War, and changed technology and society. But by 1985 (when the novel is set and was originally released) almost all of the superheroes have retired. The only remaining active heroes are the sociopathic Comedian, the paranoid Rorschach, and the god-like Dr. Manhattan. As the world heads for World War III, Rorschach tries to solve a mystery of who is killing off costumed heroes. Old heroes come out of retirement, and a horrific conspiracy is exposed. Along the way, the story explores personal and moral struggles, and openly questions the superhero genre as a whole. It's awesome.

Watchmen was also not part of the DC Universe. It was always its own world, and Alan Moore had resisted all attempts by DC to produce any sequels or spin-offs. He felt (I think, rightly so) that Watchmen is a self-contained story and any attempt to treat the characters like other generic heroes would cheapen the original graphic novel. But DC owns the rights to the characters, and really wanted him to make more.

In an interview in 2012, Moore articulated why he resisted DC. He said, "Watchmen was said to actually provide an alternative to the superhero story as an endless soap opera. To turn that into just another superhero comic that goes on forever demonstrates exactly why I feel the way I do about the comics industry. It’s mostly about franchises. Comic shops these days barely sell comics. It’s mostly spin-offs and toys."

In another interview, Moore explained, "Watchmen was something that stood on its own and it had the integrity of a literary work. What they've decided now is, 'So, let's change it to a regular comic that can run indefinitely and have spin-offs.' and 'Let's make it as unexceptional as possible.'"

And that's exactly why DC is doing this. Watchmen is the best selling graphic novel of all time, but there's only one book. DC has spent decades imagining how much they could make if they could produce more material from it. We as readers see a great work of literary vision. DC just sees another IP, a bunch of superheroes they can put on T-shirts and action figures. In other words, it's all about money.

DC set the stage for this in 2012 when they released a series of prequel comics called Before Watchmen. Different writers and artists created original stories about the Comedian, Silk Spectre, Rorschach and all the other heroes. In an interview on the release, DC co-publisher Dan DiDio explained the series are "all character based because we didn’t want to approach that whole world building sensibility. We wanted to keep the focus on the individuals." In other words, the concept was to deliberately disconnect the characters from the original story, to see them as individuals instead of the story elements they were in the novel.

Some of the prequels were okay. The series about the Minutemen had some interesting stuff in it. Most of them were awful. Finding out the villain Moloch was driven to crime because of his pointy ears or the Comedian was a bro of the Kennedy family didn't exactly enhance our view of the graphic novel. None of them felt like they needed to exist. As Douglas Wolk of the LA Times wrote, "Watchmen was about the way the shadow of the atom bomb transformed American culture between the '40s and the '80s, the way comics responded to that cultural transformation, and the interconnectedness of the minutiae of history and culture. Before Watchmen is a bunch of stories about a bunch of superheroes." Before Watchmen only proved that the characters work best in the context of the original story. With all the flashbacks in Watchmen, we know everything we needed to know about them. More information just seemed superfluous. But DC forged ahead and now we get this.

And it's not the end. According to USA Today, "how Watchmen is involved in the DC Universe is a mystery that will unfold in the background over the course of a couple years." In other words, by 2018, expect to see a comic where Superman and Dr. Manhattan face off or Batman teams up with Nite Owl.

But I'm here to say right now that it's absolutely going to be a disastrous idea. Watchmen worked, because it was self contained. With no Superman and Wonder Woman flying through the skies, Dr. Manhattan was an awe-inspiring figure, the only one of his kind. With no Batman or Blue Beetle wearing costumes, Rorschach looked like the madman he was. And that's the way we liked it.

The characters only worked because of their connection to the story. Nite Owl only existed to highlight how ridiculous it was to fight crime in an animal suit. Silk Spectre wasn't that interesting, except as a Female Superhero with a capital F who highlighted sexism in comics. The Comedian is not just a guy with guns, but a representation of how vigilantism can lead to unchecked power and fascism. In other words. they're symbols of different aspects of comic book storytelling, not characters on their own.

Except Rorschach. He's cool. But he's also homicidal and paranoid, not someone I want to read about ad nauseum.

In other words, making a comic about these characters makes about as much as sense as writing spin-off novels about The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick or Gone With the Wind. Which has been tried and failed.

Then there's the logistical problem. What possible role could a bunch of non-powered psychologically damaged antiheroes have in the DC universe? People always talk about how awkward the Justice League is when Superman is fighting alongside Green Arrow. Why can't Superman handle it by himself? Now bring in Watchmen. When Dr. Manhattan can incinerate whole cities with a thought, what can Superman do? With Batman able to take down the Joker and Bane, what can Rorschach do when he doesn't even have a car? And Nite Owl's angst over aging would seem bizarre when DC superheroes like Jay Garrick (original Flash) and Alan Scott (original Green Lantern) are still strong and virile in their old age. Not everything can exist in a shared universe.

A great example of that is (ironically) Alan Moore's own League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He brought together different characters from different novels like Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and the Invisible Man. But he had to make significant changes to the characters to make them work together. Hyde went from a shrunken sociopath to a simian strongman. Mina Harker went from a frail woman to a bold suffragette. That's going to happen with Watchmen. Nite Owl will have to start wisecracking, and the Comedian will become more sympathetic. The characters will no longer be the characters we know and love.

Whether the concept succeeds or fails, there can only be one end result of this experiment: making Watchmen less special. It will ruin the original story forever. And that's exactly what DC wants.

"My name is Timothy McGill, and I'm a time travel addict..." Time Junkie by Nigel G. Mitchell. Only 99-cents for a limited time.
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