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February 01, 2012

‘Watchmen’ prequels: DC dares to expand on classic

Posted in: Books,Comics

The cover for "Minutemen," one of seven prequel miniseries comics based on "Watchmen." (DC Comics)

Darwyn Cooke will dig into the heroic past of "Watchmen" characters (DC Comics)

A panel from "Watchmen," drawn by Dave Gibbons and written by Alan Moore. (Dave Gibbons / DC Comics)

Darwyn Cooke made a mark with both "The New Frontier" and "Richard Stark's Parker, Vol. 1: The Hunter." (DC Comics; IDW Publishing)

Zack Snyder says any adaptation or expansion of "Watchmen" will face withering scrutiny. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II, and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in the movie "Watchmen." (DC Comics / Warner Bros.)

Alan Moore, photographed near his home in Northamptonshire, UK, in 2001. (Graham Barclay / For the Times)

Alan Moore, photographed near his home in Northamptonshire, UK, in 2001. (Graham Barclay / For the Times)

“Watchmen” didn’t just make comic-book history in 1986 with its sprawling, subversive doomsday tale, it became something close to a holy text for comic-book fans. That’s why the publishing news out of New York today will make some purists feel like it’s the end of the world.

DC Comics is going back to the universe of “Watchmen” this summer by launching seven new prequel series that will collectively be referred to as “Before Watchmen,” marking the first time that characters such as Doctor Manhattan, Rorschach and the Comedian have appeared anywhere in comics since the original 12-issue series, which in a single-volume collection became the bestselling graphic novel of all time.

"Watchmen" cover. (DC Comics)

For some fans, the project will be viewed with deep cynicism because of the absence of the “Watchmen” creators, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, but others will be intrigued by the fact that the new titles feature some of today’s elite talents, among them J. Michael Straczynski, Darwyn Cooke and Brian Azzarello.

“The nature of the undertaking is going to polarize a lot of the readership,” said Cooke, the Canadian writer-artist whose six-issue “Before Watchmen” title is called “Minutemen.” “I think a lot of people will be excited about this and there are a lot of people that will be dead against it.”

DC has hopes that the new installments in the canon will be get a warm critical and commercial reception not unlike, say, a comic-book equivalent to “The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel,” which in November became the first Holmes novel sanctioned by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle since his death in the summer of 1930.

A big difference here is that Moore and Gibbons are still very much alive and working — but neither wanted to be part of this new enterprise. The iconoclastic Moore has been a bitter critic of DC Comics through the years. When DC’s parent company, Warner Bros., made the 2009 feature film version, he said he would be “spitting venom all over it for months to come.” Gibbons is measured when talking about the new initiative.

“The original series of ‘Watchmen’ is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell,” Gibbons said in a statement. “However, I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire.”

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II, and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in the movie "Watchmen." (DC Comics / Warner Bros.)

“Watchmen” was a seismic moment in comic-book history, in part because of the ambition of its story and its intricate tapestry — set in alternative history, the tale spanned decades and was both sci-fi mystery and a complex commentary on superhero lore. The 416-page graphic novel has sold more than 2 million copies; it also made Time magazine’s 2005 list of “the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.”

“For comic-book fans, it’s the masterpiece, the classic that defines what you can do in a comic book, and you go back to it at your own risk,” Zack Snyder, director of the “Watchmen” film, said last year when asked about the rumored prequels. “To go back to it in any way is tough, and the challenge of adding to that story in any way is something that you need to get right or people are going to go nuts.”

In addition to Cooke’s six-issue “Minutemen,” “Before Watchmen” will include four-issue runs each of “Rorschach,” by Azzarello and Lee Bermejo; “Dr. Manhattan” by Straczynski and Adam Hughes; “Nite Owl” by Straczynski and the artist team of Andy and Joe Kubert; “Ozymandias” by Len Wein and Jae Lee; and “Silk Spectre” by Cooke and Amanda Conner.

Alan Moore, photographed near his home in Northamptonshire, UK, in 2001. (Graham Barclay / For the Times)

The comics will be released weekly, with more specific release information to come. A back-up series, “Curse of the Crimson Corsair,” will appear in two-page installments in each of the “Before Watchmen” titles and will be written by Len Wein (the editor of the original “Watchmen” series”) with art by John Higgins (the colorist on original series).

The view that “Watchmen” shouldn’t be placed in the hands of anyone but Moore and Gibbons would make sense in almost any other page-turning medium but it’s a rare situation in comic books. The entire history of comics is an exercise in inherited heroes and mythology by conference; literally hundreds of writers and artists have worked on, say, Batman or Superman through the decades.

“It’s our responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant,” DC Entertainment co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee said in a joint statement. “After 25 years, the Watchmen are classic characters whose time has come for new stories to be told. We sought out the best writers and artists in the industry to build on the complex mythology of the original.”

Some of the classic influences on "Watchmen" characters (Charlton)

“Watchmen” itself stood on the shoulders of the past: Moore used thinly veiled versions of classic Charlton Comics characters to populate his epic.

“I don’t feel any more trepidation than Alan [Moore] did by refitting the Charlton characters,” Cooke said. “It feels like the right time and the right place and I think I have a strong idea.”

Cooke has taken on daunting legacy work before. He earned rave reviews for his revival of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit,” and his “Richard Stark’s Parker” comics, based on the hard-boiled crime classics, have been hailed as well.

A panel from "Watchmen," drawn by Dave Gibbons and written by Alan Moore. ( DC Comics)

Still, Cooke turned down the first “Before Watchmen” overture from DC.

“I said no out of hand because I couldn’t think of a story that would measure up to the original — and let’s face it, this material is going to be measured that way — and the other thing is, I frankly didn’t want the attention,” Cooke said this week. “This is going to generate a lot of a particular type of attention that’s really not my bag. But what happened is, months after I said no, the story elements all just came into my head one day; it was so exciting to me that, at that exact moment, I started seriously thinking about doing the book.”

Cooke declined to reveal too much about that story — there’s no upside to that at this early date — but he said that in going back to the original epic, he decided to push away from the bleak, dystopian aura of Moore’s tale for “Minutemen,” which will be set in the 1940s and 1950s.

“My instincts tell me that I should be bringing what I’m capable of bringing to this party,” Cooke said. “There’s a part of the characters that is heroic or they wouldn’t be together in this way. I know there’s a lot of self-interest involved but there’s got to be a heroic level to each of them. I realized that’s the part of the story I can tell, that side of it.”

— Geoff Boucher

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