Above and Beyond Watchmen

Of all the questions that need to be asked about Before Watchmen, perhaps the most important one is the one that no one really wants to talk about. More important than whether or not DC has the right to publish such a thing (they do), more important than whether or not they should (that's a stickier issue, we'll get there in a second) is the mere fact that, despite everything else, DC Comics has begun to publish the meta-series, which begs the most important question in all of criticism:

Is it any good?

The answer, or at least the answer for the Darwyn Cooke written and drawn Minutemen mini is yes, it's very good. Of course it's good-- I'm not sure Darwyn Cooke even knows how to do wrong. Its is as if he picks up his inkpen and magic comes spilling out. Everything you've ever loved about his full color comics-- the compositional perfection, the visual puns, the soft edge, the cartoony style that manages to express grittiness, even revel in it, while ultimately rejecting it-- all those things are here. In the whole book, there's just one page that doesn't work, and that's because it doesn't take full advantage of the framework that Cooke has set-up for himself, a framework that he inherited from Alan Moore.

That is, of course, the two-hundred-and-fifty pound cigar smoking Comedian in the room; this story, this classic, if slightly cynical, coming together story, hasn't sprung from the mind of Darwyn Cooke. No, no. Not at all. It all comes from the mad genius of Alan Moore, the creator of Watchmen, over whose wishes this project was commenced. There's been a lot of hand-wringing about this; whether or not DC should have put these books together is one question, but there is absolutely no question that DC has the right to, since they hold the rights to the characters from probably the most popular and certainly the most significant superhero comic in the last forty years. They stand to make a lot of money from exploiting those rights, and they made a product that I wanted to buy, that I bought despite my reservations, so good on them.

No, there's no question about whether or not they could have and, obviously, they did. The bigger question is whether or not they should have and, if we're speaking in purely ethical terms, the answer is no. The fact that there are creators other than Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons associated with this project is absolutely insane; Moore and Gibbons obviously don't own the characters, not in the legal sense, but the characters certainly are theirs. No one else could have made the book that they made, and no one should be doing it now.

But, again, they did. And it's good.

But, still, we're left with another should they question, namely, should DC Comics have felt the need to tell these stories? We certainly don't need them; Watchmen is as close to perfect as superhero comics get, in part because it builds a world, mostly from scratch, gets its audience to care about that world and its concerns, and then it wraps itself up. There is, at the end of Watchmen, nothing more that needs to be said about Watchmen. But here I am, reading Darwyn Cooke's Minutemen series, adding to a story that is full and complete.

To be completely honest, because it is a problem of stories, a problem of complete ideas and finished thoughts, this addition, this fleshing out, is the most problematic thing for me about Before Watchmen. The existence of the meta-series means that DC has completely bought into the engine that drives mainstream superhero comics, that is, never ending storytelling. Batman's story, or Superman's, has been told at regular intervals for the greater part of the last century and comics, more than any other medium, support stories that can go on forever. We can follow Dick Grayson, for example, from Robin to Nightwing to Batman and back to Nightwing, because we've come to care about Dick Grayson, and because we want to know what happens to Dick Grayson next. This is often thrilling, and its part of the reason that comics have a rabid, and often unreasonable and uncritical, readership. Its why fandoms are built up around comics.

Of course, the fact that something comes next, the fact that Dick Grayson's story will never end, means that each story is necessarily incomplete. That something must follow in order for what comes before to have been meaningful. Because Watchmen, complete as it is, is already meaningful, because it is already important, the Before Watchmen comics, no matter how good they might be, are always going to be unimportant, barely meaningful, because they don't really add to Watchmen. They aren't going to make me care anymore about what comes next, and, more importantly, they aren't going to change the way I understand Watchmen because they can't, because Watchmen already is. The only stories that need prequels are stories that aren't fully formed. The only stories that need to be told forever are stories that are meaningful in part because they are told forever. Watchmen only really needed to be told once, only could be told once. And what we're going to get out of Before Watchmen are comics that are stilted, more concerned with moving the right pieces into the right place, like the assembly of chess game, than they are with playing the game that needs playing.

Rightly, no one is interested in how the grandmaster's king got onto the board. And we shouldn't be interested in Before Watchmen, because no matter how good it is, it can't ever really be any good.

No comments:

Post a Comment