Of course I didn’t buy it. What do you think I am?
I torrented it, of course. And if DC want to complain about me taking their copyrighted work, the work that talented artists put time and effort into, and using it without their permission, well…
they started it.
In an ill-tempered conference call on 3 April between some of these advisers and a group of Liberal Democrat bloggers, the advisers could not comprehend why the party was up in arms about internet snooping. They sought solace in the excuse that grassroots anger could be attributed to a problem with ‘messaging’.
How have we got into a situation where the party’s policy advisers seem to have no liberal instincts? Why are we being ‘advised’ by people who think politics is all about ‘messaging’? Why has Nick Clegg surrounded himself with people who have little or no grasp of liberal values or grassroots campaigning?
Simon Titley, “Meet The Linos”, Liberator no. 353, June 2012
Ever since Before Watchmen was announced, its defenders have had only one mantra. “while you may question the decision you can’t question the quality of the product and the quality of the people behind the product.” That’s a quote from Dan Didio, one of the three co-publishers at DC
Comics Entertainment. It’s one that rather spectacularly evades the point, of course.
It’s also an incredibly arrogant statement. I think it would be perfectly reasonable, for example, for anyone to ‘question the quality’ of J Michael Straczynski, a man who has two notable achievements as a comics writer — writing a story where Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend secretly had sex with the Green Goblin, and starting a Superman story where Superman acts callously and immorally and refuses to use his super-powers, before giving up that story in a sulk half-way through and leaving it to a better writer to finish off.
(That better writer has since left DC “Entertainment”, because he believes the way they are behaving over Before Watchmen is morally despicable.)
What would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that, but I’ve got enough faith in them that I don’t think that they’d do that. I think because of the unique team they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over to do Watchmen II or anything else like that, and we’ve certainly got no plans to do Watchmen II.
Dave Gibbons, 1987, The Comics Journal
But DiDio’s argument is, and always has been, that we should judge these prequels as a piece of art.
Which is odd, because the rationale for their existence is precisely the argument that art doesn’t matter. Make no mistake, there is a reason that this series has stirred up more argument than any of the various other creators’ rights issues that plague the cesspool that is the modern comics industry. The treatment of Jack Kirby, or of Siegel and Shuster, or of any number of other comics creators, is unconscionable, as everyone with the slightest shred of decency knows. There is no real way I can morally justify my continuing purchasing of DC comics (Marvel don’t put out enough titles that I want to really register here). I continue doing so simply because you can’t fight *every* battle, and if I only engaged economically with companies that I approved of morally I’d be homeless, jobless, naked and dead of starvation.
But Kirby, S&S and the rest created their works as ongoing serial characters, with an expectation that they would be worked on by other hands. As awful as their treatment has been, one can imagine a purely moral Superman comic existing that is written and drawn by people other than Siegel and Shuster. Watchmen, though, was conceived as a self-contained piece of work. Everything about it screams that it has a finite, symmetrical structure, and everything about it exists because it is an expression of the world views of two people — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Diversion – Dave Gibbons
Incidentally, one of the justifications for why DC screwing over Alan Moore is ‘okay’ that some people have used is that Gibbons is OK with these comics, and that he has as much of a right to a say as Moore does.
This is of course correct. But one can’t help but think that their situations may inform their opinions, somewhat — Moore has created many, many masterpieces. He may not be a wealthy man, but he can make as much money as he chooses. He is artistically and financially as secure as he wants to be.
Gibbons, on the other hand, has never before or since done anything to match Watchmen. That’s not a criticism of Gibbons, any more than it’s a criticism of Tony Asher to say that Pet Sounds is the only album he’s written great lyrics for. Some people only have one masterpiece in them, and it’s still one more than the vast majority of humanity will ever achieve.
But it means that Gibbons’ financial future and artistic legacy is entirely wrapped up in the decisions that DC makes about Watchmen, in a way that Moore’s isn’t. And one might well believe that when everything about your creative and financial life is in the hands of a company that is acting like a psychopath, the choice you make is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy.
Just as Moore’s anger does not invalidate Gibbons’ acquiescence, Gibbons’ approval does not lessen the injustice that is being done to Moore.
What Didio is trying to do is have his smiley-faced cake and eat it, too. He wants us to judge these new comics as art, but the only reason they exist is because… well…
“if we mined it properly we could stay close to the core material”
“might be something people are willing to buy into”
“we had a group of four core writers who were able to handle all the products”
“in a logical sense that’s true to the original product.”
“that’s what makes the Before Watchmen product exciting”
“I’m more concerned about the reaction to the actual physical product when it gets created.”
“If we went out there and announced this property”
“we are doing the best we physically can with the property right now.”
(all quotes from this single interview)
Dan Didio there, making quite clear just what his priorities are.
But still, let’s take this entirely on the terms they’re setting out. They’re saying to us “Ignore the morality of taking a self-contained work that revolution1ised the industry we work in, and for which we managed to con the rights out of its creators, and creating inferior knock-offs that cheapen the original work while deeply upsetting the man to whom we owe our livelihood and our industry’s continued existence. IS IT A GOOD FUNNYBOOK OR NOT?”
And, well, it’s possible that a good sequel to Watchmen could be created. We know it’s possible, because one was.
Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis are both people who understand comics storytelling in a way that Didio can only dream of. And they realised, reading Watchmen, what any quarter-literate person would. They realised that no-one *actually* wanted a new story about Rorshach. (The fact that plenty of people now *do* want new stories about Rorshach tells us more about comics fans than we would really like to know). The characters in Watchmen were not, of themselves, interesting — they were Superpowerfulman, Gritty Vigilante, Hero With Gadgets, Sexy Lady and so on.
DeMatteis and Giffen (and the artists they worked with, notably Kevin Maguire) took the pre-existing characters that those characters had loosely been based on — Captain Atom, Batman, Blue Beetle, Black Canary — and did their own comic with them. One that was very clearly inspired by Watchmen, especially in its use of the nine-panel grid to give the comic a rhythm, but which is its own thing. It has as much of Giffen and DeMatteis’ voices as Watchmen does Moore and Gibbons’. It’s totally different in feel — it’s a sitcom rather than an apocalyptic conspiracy thriller — but it’s worth reading.
And it’s worth reading precisely because Giffen and DeMatteis did their own thing (within the limits of working on corporate-owned comics characters). It doesn’t call itself “Watchmen II: Bwa-ha-hatchmen”.
So it can be done.
So let’s have a look at Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen 1 shall we?
There’s a possibly-apocryphal story (aren’t they all?) that several years ago Alan Moore asked DC Comics (as they then were) to stop sending him comp packages — the packages of free comics they send all their writers — because he didn’t like the company and didn’t want to read their comics. The person he spoke to said “I know you don’t like them, but I’m going to keep sending you just one. You’ll see why.”
The comic that was sent was Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier.
Moore said “Okay, you can keep sending me that one”.
Cooke is, as an artist, the utter opposite of Moore in every way, but he’s the only person involved in this who has anything like the talent that Moore does. DC are putting their best foot forward with this.
Oh, and one more thing — about seven years ago, DC decided that they didn’t like the Justice League comic that Giffen and DeMatteis had done, and killed, raped, or raped then killed, almost every character that had featured in it. This trend reached its peak in a comic called Countdown To Infinite Crisis, co-written by Geoff Johns, commissioned by Dan Didio, and with cover art by Jim Lee, in which the Blue Beetle, a whacky lovable superhero who got into humorous scrapes with his friends, was shot in the head by one of those friends, with lots of lovingly-rendered blood coming out of Beetle’s head.
Johns, Didio and Lee are the new co-publishers of DC Entertainment, and doing a Watchmen prequel was one of their first decisions.
But let’s look at the comic. Is it good enough to erase the moral problems?
The whole thing seems determined to say “DC has other great comics that aren’t Watchmen“, in the hope that by making Watchmen seem less special it will seem less disgusting when they make tenth-rate knock-offs. Unfortunately, DC *doesn’t* have all that many other great comics — at least not ones that will appeal to the conservative Cooke while also being of undoubted artistic merit while having sold enough copies that the audience could reasonably be expected to catch a reference to them, and which aren’t written by Alan Moore. In fact, it has two.
So we start with the page above — a reference to the opening of All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, but horribly overwritten.
(And Morrison is the other ghost at this ‘feast’, his absence felt as keenly as Moore’s. I could write a blog post as long as this one on what Morrison *not* writing this series means…)
Where Morrison uses eight words to set up a situation we’re all familiar with, Cooke uses 120. Where Morrison’s are clear and simple, Cooke’s are newage gibberish.
But Cooke moves on from Superman… to Batman.
Most of the comic is a ‘homage’ to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, in look and feel, which sort of makes sense since this is more-or-less Nite Owl: Year One.
The problem is that this means that this comic is now inviting comparisons with three acknowledged classics of the medium and genre, when it can’t even stand up to comparison with any one of them.
Where Watchmen, All-Star Superman and Batman: Year One have first issues packed with incident, this is a typical first issue of a typical superhero team-up comic these days, which means we have little unconnected vignettes introducing all the characters — Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, The Comedian and Mothman.
These little bits show us aspects of the characters that were already there in Watchmen, but with a hammering lack of subtlety that reads as if Cooke had never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”. Worse, they do nothing else — we’re expected just to be happy to see these characters again. Which would be OK if the characters weren’t obvious ciphers. Wanting to read more stories about Hooded Justice is the same sort of error of thought as wanting to read more stories about Mr Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair. They’re not built to be characters, and if you want to tell a story about them you have to turn them into characters.
Which Cooke here fails to do. It’s POSSIBLE to do it — you *CAN* write a story about Hollis Mason and the rest of the Minutemen, but you’d have to take the attitude of Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. You have to put characters in where none previously existed — you have to remake them totally into something that can hold the weight of a story.
But this is too ‘reverent’ a comic to do anything like that. It’s ‘paying homage’ to Watchmen, and of course in comics one pays homage to works of unbridled creativity and imagination by having absolutely no original ideas of one’s own. As Jack Kirby was meant to have said when someone told him John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four ‘in the style of Jack Kirby’ “If he was doing it in the style of Jack Kirby he’d have invented his own characters.”
And of course ‘paying homage’ has absolutely nothing to do with respect, or even basic politeness. One request Moore has made over and over about Watchmen and his other work-for-hire is that his name be removed from it. He doesn’t want to be associated with this product in any way.
Even if you’re the kind of sociopath who dominates the discourse in modern comics fandom, who thinks that the people who write and draw the comics you read are of no importance compared to the trademarks and the multinational companies that own them, who thinks (and I’ve seriously seen this opinion stated by people who intended it to be taken seriously) that Geoff Johns is a better writer than Moore because he allows action figures to be made of his characters, you’ll still find nothing worthwhile in here. Cooke’s art is always good, but without any kind of a workable story to tell, there’s nothing much for his characters to do, and it degenerates into lifeless poses, with nothing to say about anything.
If you read Watchmen and it fired up your brain and made you start thinking “I want more of that!”, then the best thing you can do is buy a copy of Andrew Rilstone’s phenomenal short book about the comic, Who Sent The Sentinels?. Rilstone’s book — like Moore and Gibbons’ comic — is a structural masterpiece, but one whose surface cleverness conceals a wonderfully touching emotional core.
But as for this?
Today I’m going to go through the next batch of new number one issues from DC’s ‘new 52′. And like last time, I’m going to read each comic straight through once, then blog my immediate reaction, rather than a more considered one.
As always, I’m only buying those comics which I think have at least a chance of being decent, so if you want my opinion of the Rob Liefeld Hawk & Dove, or anything written by Judd Winick, you’ll have to pay me large amounts of money.
Today is my fifth day without caffeine, and the first of those days I’ve managed to make it as late as 1:30 PM without having a little nap. Will my caffeineless state make these comics seem like psychedelic, hallucinatory masterpieces? Or will their lack of Thrill Power force me into a coma? Read on, as I delve into…
Blue Beetle #1
Writer Tony Bedard
Pencils Ig Guara
Inks Ruy Jose
Colours Pete Pantazis
Letters Rob Leigh
Well, that was a whole lot of rubbish. The series that John Rogers and Keith Giffen did with this character, a few years back, was not the greatest comic ever or anything, but it was fun, funny, and a decent way to spend ten minutes a month.
This, on the other hand, tries to recap most of the background that was dribbled out over a year or two by Rogers et al in a single issue, turning it into foreground. And it does so charmlessly, with not a single memorable line or event.
And the incompetence makes it borderline racist. It’s certainly not *intended* that way – Bedard says in the back-matter that he’s Puerto Rican and so identifies with the hispanic immigrant experience – but having all the characters speak in perfect English *except* for a very few Spanish words, which we could be expected to guess from context (“N-no–! Por favor… we ran tests in Mexico City!– That is the real escarabajo azul in the backpack–! I swear it on the virgin…!”)
This tries to do too much in one issue, and ends up being a confused mess. I accidentally swallowed a filling while reading this, and it was far more dramatic than anything in the comic.
Writer Peter Milligan
Pencils Ed Benes
Inks Rob Hunter
Colours Nathan Eyring
Letters Carlos M Mangual
This is, in its own way, an equally bad comic – probably, on any objective scale, a worse one. Certainly, the art is as bad as one would expect from Benes, and Milligan clearly can’t be bothered at all. It’s just generally sloppy – as an example, an old man in the UK says he “fought a war for you”. The old man’s age is later given as 73.
Now, 73-year-olds in the UK actually lived their young adulthood in the most sustained period of peace in British history, so unless he fought in Suez when he’d just turned 18 (almost impossible, as only highly-trained troops were sent there, and British troops were only there for two months- only 16 British soldiers died in that war) he *might* have been a professional soldier in his mid-40s during the Falklands conflict, but in general people of that generation are the least likely to be able to say “I fought in the war for you” in the whole of history. And that level of can’t-be-arsedness seems to pervade the writing.
But at the same time… there’s an *energy* to this comic, a sense of over-the-top grand guignol ridiculousness, that’s totally missing from Blue Beetle. This seems to be aimed precisely at the hearts of 14-year-old boys, and is like listening to ten Iron Maiden albums in a row then watching a slasher film while drunk on a single pint of cider. There’s an energy, and an intensity, here, that make it worth reading despite being, frankly, terrible.
This is going to be the new All-Star Batman And Robin, with people making great claims for its subversive genius precisely because of its apparent incompetence. And given that Peter Milligan, one of the most intelligent and able of comics writers, is writing it, those people may well be right. I’ll certainly pick up at least the second issue.
Frankenstein: Agent Of S.H.A.D.E.
Writer Jeff Lemire
Line Art Alberto Ponticelli
Colours Jose Villarrubia
Letters Pat Brosseau
This is the kind of comic that should be the staple produce of the Big Two, but isn’t. Full of nice little touches and ideas, this is very much the Frankenstein ongoing series that we could have expected coming straight after Seven Soldiers.
If anything, the only problem is that Lemire might be slightly too in thrall to Morrison, but in an age when so many comics are about little more than mopey superheroes sitting around complaining, seeing Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf, a vampire, a mummy and a black lagoon creature sent into a town overrun by monsters on a rescue mission is certainly refreshing.
Best of the bunch so far, by a long way, but little to say about it.
Writer Paul Cornell
Pencils Diogenes Neves
Inks Oclair Albert
Colours Marcelo Maiolo
Letters Jared H Fletcher
In many ways, this comic shows more potential than any of those I’ve read so far, but it’s not yet living up to it. Cornell is here very much just putting his pieces in place – moving Vandal Savage, Jason Blood, Madame Xanadu and Sir Ystin together, and planting a few seeds. This is clearly influenced both by Kirby’s original Demon comics and by Seven Soldiers, and like those starts with a fall of Camelot, and seems to be leading up to the creation of a team of seven.
Cornell’s a good writer when he wants to be, and these characters have a lot of potential, especially given that they appear to be mostly immortals. And the multiple falls of Camelot are obviously going to be a major plot point, given how heavily they’re referenced in this issue. But like many of these stories, it seems that this issue is all set-up and no pay-off – although the cliffhanger, dinosaurs crashing through a pub wall, promises something more for the next issue.
And last but, I presume, best…
Writers J.H. Williams III and W Haden Blackman
Line art J.H. Williams III
Colours Dave Stewart
Letters Todd Klein
Look at that list of people. You don’t really need to know anything else, do you?
This does have a script (one that actually has some of los mismos problemas as Blue Beetle, with people speaking Spanish only when it can be understood en el contexto), but is competent enough, setting up a new storyline while connecting it to the past – though this is clearly the story that was meant to happen months ago, straight after the Detective Comics run with the previous Batwoman stories in it.
But this isn’t a comic you read for the script. This is drawn by the single best artist working in mainstream comics, coloured by the best colourist, and lettered (though he doesn’t get much chance to show off) by the best letterer. Every single page is a masterclass in putting together a comics page. Every image is beautiful.
It has faults – Mr Williams is slightly too fond of objectifying the female form – but this is a beautiful, gorgeous piece of work from a master of the form, and is as far above the rest of the comics I’ve reviewed here as Pet Sounds is above Jan & Dean Meet Batman
I do plan on doing more of these soon. Promise…
Those of you who are interested in these things may have noticed that the low-selling DC comic Blue Beetle has been cancelled. This is hardly going to be a surprise to anyone – it had been bumbling along around the bottom of the sales charts almost since its inception, and writer John Rogers had left a few months ago to be replaced by Matt Sturges – who seems to be DC’s go-to person for wrapping up loose ends quickly when a comic’s about to be cancelled because a ‘name’ writer has left it. (Sturges has actually impressed me for once on Blue Beetle – he’s been very good on the title).
The fact is, 36 issues is a reasonable number of issues for *anything* that doesn’t have Batman or Wolverine in, in the current comics market. The highest-selling single issues don’t sell much over a hundred thousand copies, and many things regarded as ‘big hits’ in our insular little community are selling in the tens of thousands. That’s simply not enough to make publication profitable on its own terms – the fact that comics can be used to generate new ‘intellectual property’ for films, TV and toys is the only reason they’re still published at all.
(Yes, I know that Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly aren’t operating in that way – Jimmy Corrigan toys and so on excepted – but there individual issues are loss-leaders for the collection, and the only reason the individual issues get published is because of the existence of a distribution mechanism dependent on Marvel and DC).
Now, John Rogers posted a response to the news that the title had been cancelled that has been generating quite a bit of response. He essentially says that print comics are a waste of time, and that he wants to move to digital sales of creator-owned comics.
Now, I’m a huge supporter of the idea of creator ownership in comics – I think the whole concept of work-for-hire is deeply repellent (though I reserve the right to change my mind about that if DC want to hire me to write Batman – I am, in many ways, a hypocrite) , and most of my real favourite comics are owned by their creators – Cerebus, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Invisibles and so on. But Rogers is missing one big advantage of working on corporate properties when he talks about how you could sell the comics much cheaper online than you could on paper.
The fact is, when Blue Beetle started, people weren’t buying it because it was scripted by John Rogers and drawn by Cully Hammer – both were relative unknowns. They were buying it for one of the following reasons:
It was co-written by Keith Giffen
It was part of a big new DC promotion
They had some affection for the ‘Blue Beetle’ trademark
It span out of a big crossover
It was ‘part of the DC Universe’.
They *carried on* reading it because of Rogers and Hammer (later Alberquerque) but they only started because of its links to established properties.
I truly believe that had the comic been published online, without Giffen’s involvement and under some generic name that didn’t have the associations that Blue Beetle does, nobody would have paid to read it.
The problem is, professional writers like Rogers expect to be paid for their work – a reasonable expectation – but at the same time, people balk at paying for something without knowing what it is. There is actually a well-established model by now for making money from online comics content – put the comics up for free on your website and then sell trades/original art/merchandise and take reader donations. If you’re any good at all, this can eventually get you quite a reasonable living , and you can end up like Chris Onstad , having collections of your work published in handsome hardbacks (I must review The Great Outdoor Fight soon).
(Of course, online comics, much like ‘mainstream’ comics, have their own tropes, and it’s very difficult to have a big hit without it being in some way a ‘geek’ comic, whether it be about roleplaying games like Order Of The Stick, computer games, like PVP, or more intellectual (usually) stuff like XKCD. But it’s no more difficult than having a non-superhero hit in the direct market, and it *can* be done).
But the difference between Achewood and Blue Beetle, other than quality (Achewood started out much lower quality than Blue Beetle but is now much higher quality – BB is one of those solidly entertaining comics that only seem exceptional because of the general terrible quality of most comics) is that Onstad was willing to put his work online for free, and to spend a lot of time doing it before getting paid anything like a reasonable wage for his work. A writer like Rogers, who makes most of his money in film and TV, isn’t going to do that.
Rogers is also missing the fact that corporate-owned characters and titles are one of the few places people are willing to experiment – which sounds counterintuitive, but think about it. If I self-publish a comic, no-one will buy it. If on the other hand, I was made the new writer for Batman, 50,000 people would buy what I wrote, even though they’d never heard of me. So they’re a good way to build a reputation *for* your creator-owned work. I might well buy whatever Rogers puts out digitally – but only because I know his work now.
None of this is to dispute a single word of what Rogers says – writers and artists should get paid for their work, they should own the copyrights and trademarks in their work, and it would be nice if people would pay for new work by new creators. But I don’t think anyone is going to make money trying to sell comics directly online, unless what they’re selling is access to a vast catalogue of work. Marvel and DC could make money from selling access to their back issues online, and you could easily have an eMusic-like subscription model for small-press comics. But nobody’s going to buy individual issues by individual creators sight-unseen unless those creators’ names are Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore or maybe Warren Ellis or Brian Bendis…