OK, I knew that Before Watchmen was terrible — I wrote about it myself, and then there’s the Hooded Utilitarian’s two-part evisceration, but until I read this by Calamity Jon Morris, I didn’t realise just how utterly appalling it was.
I mean, as Jon points out, the whole “terrible superhero auditions” thing is a cliché anyway, but seriously? “I’m The Slut. I like to take off my clothes and do things.”
That’s something that a professional, Eisner-award-winning, comics writer thought would add to the most acclaimed work in his medium. Darwyn Cooke — a man who is, let us not forget, a grown adult, who has been out of school for. we must presume, several decades, thought Watchmen — a formal masterpiece based around themes of free will, predestination, power and responsibility — would have been better if there was a joke superhero who called herself “the Slut”.
Eisner award winning Darwyn Cooke there, ladies and gentlemen…
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?
Cerebus is possibly the most daunting work in the whole history of art. This is not an exaggeration.
In every other field of art, other than comics, an artist works on different projects over the course of her career. James Joyce starts with the relatively straightforward short stories of Dubliners, progressess to the modernist-realism of Ulysses and ends up in the impenetrable brilliance of Finnegans Wake. Duke Ellington starts out with the ‘jungle music’ of the Cotton Club era, progressing to the lush big bands of the forties and then to his sacred concerts. The Beach Boys start with Surfin’ Safari, go on to the experimental work like Pet Sounds and Smile, then mature albums like Holland or Love You, before the dreck of Summer In Paradise. The Marx Brothers start with the poor The Cocoanuts, go on to the sublime Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers and end with Love Happy.
With few exceptions, then, one can pick and choose an artist’s best work, from the period of her life when she is at her most creative, and analyse that more-or-less in isolation. Even in comics, even when one writer or artist has stayed with a title or strip for decades, usually that is still not one single work. When Charles Schulz drew a strip with Lucy taking the ball away when Charlie Brown tried to kick it in the 1970s, we weren’t meant to see that as the 220th (or whatever) time that had happened to the same people — the characters didn’t grow in any meaningful way, and there was no expectation that a reader in 1975 had been reading in 1960 or would still be reading in 1990.
Similarly, reading Jerry Siegel’s 1960s Superman scripts, they bear little or no relation to the scripts he wrote in the 1930s for the same character, and one is not expected to have read the earlier work to understand the later.
But Cerebus is one man’s life’s work. We see, in the pages of this one comic, twenty-seven years of a man’s life and work, in order. And it’s all one coherent story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. There are some parts of it that almost work as stand-alone ‘graphic novels’ in the conventional sense, but in general it makes absolutely no concessions to the fact that it is a serialised work released over multiple decades. If Sir Gerrick is mentioned in issue 54, in September 1983, then when he’s mentioned again in issue 163, nine years later, you’re just damned well meant to remember which one he is. Haven’t you been paying attention?
So even without all the other things that make this work so difficult (its complexity, its length, Sim’s views, the difficulty of obtaining the books through bookshops) there is the major barrier of Sim’s learning curve to overcome. It’s no wonder this series is read so little these days — nobody would be listening to the Beatles if the only way to hear Strawberry Fields was first to listen all the way through all John Lennon’s attempts to teach himself the guitar. In the same way, no matter how sublime Jaka’s Story is (and it is easily the best ‘graphic novel’ I have ever read in my life), most people who would enjoy it will never get to it.
Sim’s early work, collected in the first volume of the series, simply titled Cerebus, is at a double disadvantage because he had no peers. At the time there were only a very small number of comics published in the US (Sim is Canadian, but has always been part of the American comics scene). There were the comics made by DC and Marvel, which had a certain minimal level of professionalism, there were the underground comics, which were dying off, and a handful of ‘ground-level’ comics, which were mostly people working for DC or Marvel trying to make comics that were a bit like the underground comics.
The only other people self-publishing a comic aimed at the same audience as the superhero comics (which Cerebus definitely was, at the beginning) at the time were Wendy and Richard Pini, with their series Elfquest. Otherwise, Sim was pretty much alone, and the field of indie comics was built on his work in more ways than a lot of the people involved would now acknowledge.
This had advantages and disadvantages. At the time, it was an advantage — it was perfectly possible at the time for someone to buy every comic that came out. DC and Marvel between them, in the month that Cerebus #1 was issued, put out 85 comics. This may seem a lot, but in March 2012, the same two companies put out 154 comics, and that’s not counting the publications by Image, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Dynamite and so on competing for the same shelf space.
Something as amateurish as the first few issues of Cerebus, then, would be bought in 1977 just because it was a comic. Without that lack of competition, it is doubtful that Cerebus would have lasted more than a couple of issues.
On the other hand, it means there’s no peer group against which to compare this early work. Later self-publishers wanted to be Frank Miller or Alan Moore (or Sim himself — the early issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are an attempt to cross Sim’s early style with that of Miller), and there’s no real context of amateurish comics attempting to be like Barry Windsor-Smith or Steve Gerber that this work can be judged against.
Because make no mistake, much of the first volume of Cerebus is amateurish. It’s the record of a bright high school dropout stoner trying to integrate all the influences that an intelligent misfit would have when growing up in the mid-1970s (the Beatles, the Marx Brothers, Warner Brothers cartoons, Robert Anton Wilson, Harvey Kurtzmann, but especially Marvel comics and especially those written by Gerber or drawn by Windsor-Smith), and its main point of interest is seeing Sim’s style coming together, as he figures out ways to make these influences work together. If nothing else, it’s a testament to the power of hard work — start out with work that looks like the work of that kid in your class at school who could draw a bit, and do a page a day every day, and within a couple of years you’ll be pretty good (and within a couple of decades you’ll be the greatest creative force ever to have worked in your medium).
Even at the end, this doesn’t feel like the work of Dave Sim, but like a fill-in issue of Howard The Duck. But we do have the introduction of two of Sim’s greatest comic creations, Elrod of Melvinbone (who is simply Michael Moorcock’s Elric but with his speech patterns and whole lines of dialogue lifted from Foghorn Leghorn) and The Roach (a superhero parody character we’ll be looking at in much more detail in future). There’s also the first “Mind Game” issue, a great formal game with the comic book page of a type that few if any comics creators would dare to do. But if this was the only record of Sim’s work, he’d be a minor figure at best.
But early in the run of Cerebus, Dave Sim had a vision. He saw a rough structure of a 300-issue story, and he decided he was going to do it. After this juvenilia, he started a twenty-six issue story, which would still be one of the shorter stories he would do from this point on. We will deal with it, in a much longer post than this one, next week.
I contributed to the Mindless Ones’ post on the Watchmen prequels, or at least my swearier alter ego Andre Whickey did. That post was put together from what started as informal discussions between us, hence the writing style for my bits is very different and swearier than my normal writing.