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?
For the last couple of years my enthusiasm for superhero comics has been steadily waning. This is not because I’ve somehow ‘grown up’ or ‘got over it’ or any of that nonsense, but because DC Comics have very deliberately, consciously, chosen to lose my custom.
While the “DC or Marvel?” question is, of course, a meaningless one – “do you prefer your superhero adventures to feature trademarks owned by Time Warner or trademarks owned by the Disney corporation? Which dead, elderly Jewish bloke’s family do you want screwed over more, Jerry Siegel or Jack Kirby?” – the fact is that everyone who reads superhero comics at all *does* have a preference, and in my case I prefer DC to Marvel. It’s not an unthinking or absolute preference – I’d choose to read a good Marvel comic like Nextwave over a bad issue of Green Lantern, because I’m not an idiot – but all else being equal I’d rather read a Batman comic than a Wolverine one, a Superman rather than a Captain America.
But over the last few years, DC Comics have been deliberately trying to drive me away. I don’t say this from paranoia or anything like that – they have obviously identified a target market, and gone after it with brutal efficiency, and I am very far from that target market. As a result, pretty much every comic DC have put any effort into promoting over the last few years has gone as follows:
“Oh no! You know Heroman, that new, young, funny superhero who just recently started fighting crime?”
“The ethnic-minority one, who had a fully-rounded personality and a great supporting cast, whose comic Andrew Hickey really liked?”
“That’s the one. I’m afraid he’s been brutally raped and then eaten by the Ultra-Humanite!”
“Wow, that’s bad. We’d better kill all the villains ever and be angsty about it.”
“Don’t worry, because here’s the Silver Age Heroman!”
“He’s back from the dead! And he has just as little personality as ever!”
“Be fair, he’s got daddy issues now!”
“But he’s still got a blonde crew-cut, and a job in the police or military, and that’s the important thing.”
“Yes it is. Hope has triumphed over despair! Now let us never mention that minority kid ever again.”
So for the past couple of years I’ve been reading fewer and fewer DC comics, and enjoying those I have been reading less and less. Some have begun to feel like a chore rather than a piece of exciting superhero entertainment, and there are some recent comics that I’ve bought out of habit but will now undoubtedly never actually read.
The only two bright spots have been Grant Morrison and Keith Giffen. Morrison’s Batman work has been wonderful, imaginative, and everything a superhero comic should be. Giffen, meanwhile, has been doing great overlooked work. His run on Doom Patrol, in particular, was wonderfully inventive – things like the entire issue that was an Aristocrats joke, or the final issue of his run, where he wrapped up the big conflict he’d been building for many issues by just having Ambush Bug explain to the villain that Dan DiDio had cancelled the title so they’d better just go home.
Which is not to say that other writers and artists weren’t doing good work, but it wasn’t good enough to rise above the sludge and disinterest.
But this month DC are rebooting their entire line of comics, and while the announcements of the new comics stopped me from getting my hopes up too much (apparently DC thought they had too many disabled characters, too many women working for them, and character designs that were too good), just the sheer amount of new comics they were putting out meant that there must be *something* worth reading there. Right? Right?…
So today (the only day this week I’m working less than ten hours) I’m going to read through the first batch of new DC titles I’ve got and comment on them. I’m not buying them all (though I’ve heard such good things about the new Animal Man I might add it to the pull list) and have at least one comic that’s only there because I couldn’t pick up my comics myself this week (Justice League of America), but I’ll be updating this post over the next couple of hours with my as-of-first-reading thoughts on Justice League, Swamp Thing, OMAC, Batgirl and Action Comics.
Remember, I’m only buying those titles that look like they might have some merit, so theoretically I *should* love at least most of these. Check back in a few minutes for my thoughts on…
Justice League #1
writer Geoff Johns
penciller Jim Lee
inker Scott Williams
colourist Alex Sinclair
And so far, it’s not looking good, is it? Lee and Williams draw at least ten trillion lines per panel, in the hope that the completely random cross-hatching will distract the reader from the basic inability to tell a story and lack of anatomical understanding. It features three characters on the cover who are not in the story (such as it is) inside, but the cover *does* also have Green Lantern using his magic wishing ring that can do anything to… make a gigantic gun.
Which about sums up the imaginativeness of this comic. Essentially one long fight scene (apart from one cut away to show that Vic Stone can play American football quite well, though given that this is meant to be our introduction to these characters we’re given no indication in this issue why we should care about this).
There is nothing here that could be described as a ‘plot’ – merely a sequence of not-very-interesting events. Batman and Green Lantern meet each other for the first time and exposit to each other about their powers or lack of them and their entire backgrounds, while alternating between acting like macho pricks and punching a Parademon, which self-immolates. They then fly to Metropolis, where Superman comes out of nowhere and punches Green Lantern for no reason.
Now given that in the new continuity this is our first introduction to any of these characters, we can’t say that anything here is out-of-character *as such*. But it’s certainly an… interesting… choice to take DC’s three most currently-visible characters, have two of them act like macho self-aggrandising idiots and make Superman into a character whose very first reaction on seeing someone who is no threat whatsoever is to fly into them at full speed and punch them on the jaw so hard they fly at least about 70 feet and into a nearby car, knocking it over. It wouldn’t be *my* choice for how to portray these characters, and I wouldn’t want to read anything more about these characters, but maybe someone out there likes that.
There’s also the problem that Lee and Williams are incapable of representational art. Lee has many admirers, so presumably there are things to admire about his work, but one thing that’s certainly true is that his work is not a model of clarity. As a result, the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim of so much writing has to be ignored, and the expositional burden passes from the artwork to the dialogue.
This would be OK, if Mr Johns had ever heard a human being speak English, but I’ll just leave you with one line, which seems to sum up the general incompetence of this ‘flagship’ comic:
“It combusted into fire!”
Well, maybe Swamp Thing will be better…
Swamp Thing #1
Writer Scott Snyder
Artist Yanick Paquette
Colours Nathan Fairbarn
It is. Much better. This is a good comic. It’s not great, but it sets up a bit of a mystery, it introduces our central character, Alec Holland, and gives him something approximating a nuanced characterisation (he’s a botanist, but he turned into a swamp monster, and now he’s become human again he’s scared of plants, but he still uses his old knowledge to help people). Even though Holland is portrayed as weak and scared, he’s still more heroic than the ‘heroes’ in Justice League, in that he actually does something to help someone else (recommends to a friend that his sore knee will hurt less if he wraps cabbage leaves around it).
The main fault with the story is that it spends several pages at the beginning establishing definitively that it takes place in the DC Universe, in order to satisfy those fans who care about these things (Swamp Thing, for those who don’t know, started as a DC Universe title, and the character used to interact with Superman, Batman and so on occasionally, but later editors ignored the superhero titles so they could tell whatever stories they wanted).
I’m not hugely familiar with Yanick Paquette’s art, having only read a handful of issues he’s drawn before, all to Grant Morrison scripts, but the work here is far more impressive than anything I’ve seen from him before. Especially impressive is the middle section of the book, which is clearly inspired by J.H. Williams’ work on Seven Soldiers 0, with similarly inventive layouts and panel bordering. Fairbarn’s use of different palettes for different sections is also unusually inventive for mainstream superhero comics.
The main weakness in the art is that while Paquette is an excellent layout artist and good draftsman, he’s comparatively weak as an ‘actor’, and a lot of the facial expressions seem to betray an overuse of photo-reference (see e.g. Lois Lane’s expression on the bottom of page one).
But I’ll definitely keep buying this title until it’s inevitably cancelled in about twelve issues’ time. It’s not a world-changing, fantastic piece of art, but it’s a good, enjoyable comic made by people who obviously care about doing a good job. It’s the kind of thing that should be the bread and butter of the big comics companies, but feels like a revelation because the level of quality is usually so low.
I wonder what I’ll think of OMAC…
story and art by Keith Giffen and Dan DiDio
inks Scott Koblish
And this is Keith Giffen in 70s-Kirby tribute mode. Essentially one big fight scene, this just sets up the situation, reintroducing a load of Kirby characters and situations (OMAC, Cadmus, Dubbilex) and variations thereon (Gobblers, wonderful little monsters that are like small versions of Angry Charlie).
The dialogue and captions are perfunctory at best – presumably the work of DiDio (given the credit and Giffen’s normal way of working I imagine this was done Marvel-style, with DiDio and Giffen co-plotting, then DiDio scripting over Giffen’s finished art) – but they don’t get in the way of what is essentially just an excuse to have Giffen do his Giffen thing while trying to throw in as many Kirbyisms as he can.
If you want just twenty-something pages of Keith Giffen drawing like Jack Kirby, this is the comic for you. If you don’t, there’s nothing in the story so far to make you want to stick around. Luckily for me, I do want that, so this is another keeper.
But what about Batgirl?
writer Gail Simone
pencils Adrian Syaf
inks Vicente Cifuentes
colour Ulises Arreola
This is another very competent comic, but it saddens me.
For those who don’t know, Batgirl used to be Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, but after she was shot in the spine in the story The Killing Joke, she became Oracle, a unique character in superhero comics. Oracle was a character in a wheelchair who was still able to be a superhero through her intelligence and skills as a librarian – she became the intelligence and data expert for most of the superheroes. Batgirl is just a female Batman knock-off, Oracle was an interesting character in her own right.
Now, however, Barbara Gordon is Batgirl again (explained in one line in this comic – “a miracle happened” – maybe this has been explained in some crossover I didn’t read). This not only gets rid of the fascinating character of Oracle, who still had a huge amount of potential, it also gets rid of the new Batgirl who had replaced her (whose comics I didn’t read but was apparently a good character in her own right – my friends Debi and Jennie both enjoyed that title, but given that DC have stated that they want to appeal to twenty- to thirty-five year-old males with this relaunch, their opinions probably don’t count). Not only that, it’s to fill a void that didn’t really need filling – there’s already a red-haired female crimefighter in a Bat-outfit in Gotham, Batwoman, and her comic is drawn by J.H. Williams so will be much better than this.
Not that this is a bad comic – it’s far from that – but it’s a sign of DC’s insistence on making everything like it was in 1985 again, rather than moving forward and doing new things, and the comic isn’t good enough to overcome that. I’ll probably pick up a few more issues to see how it goes, but this is a comic that just isn’t worth the character destruction that took place to create it.
And now to the one I’ve been looking forward to most… Action Comics.
Action Comics #1
writer Grant Morrison
pencils Rags Morales
inks Rick Bryant
colours Brad Anderson
Only the second-best first Superman issue Grant Morrison’s ever written, this is still clearly the standout of this bunch of comics. Restoring Superman to his 1930s roots as someone fighting against corrupt businessmen, abusive husbands and so on, this takes quite a few elements from the very first Superman story and puts them into a structure based on the old radio show introduction – “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound”.
Morales’ art is not up to the standard of Morrison’s writing, unless that can of cola in Luthor’s hand is meant to shrink to about a quarter of the size between panels, but this story of a Superman at the beginning of his career, still physically vulnerable and not yet up to his full powers, is clearly the best of these, though like most of Morrison’s work it gives the impression there’ll be a lot more to say about it in a few issues’ time, so I’ll reserve further judgement til then.
And that’s it for now. Overall, the quality of these has been far higher than the recent dire levels DC had sunk to, and the only really bad one is Justice League, but at the same time there’s nothing here that’s truly fantastic, or worth the company-wide reboot to achieve. This is just *what they should have been doing anyway*.