Before BEFORE WATCHMEN, there was just…WATCHMEN. Twelve issues across 1986 and 1987, the product of writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colourist John Higgins. It was a standalone work, and much of its strength (and resultant praise) was related to that, to the singular nature of the work, how it told one connected story with no linkage to other comic ranges or products. It was more like an actual novel – there were allusions, sure, but there was no inherent advertisement or crossmedia marketing. It wasn’t a franchise. It was a story.
But it was a very successful story, and the nature of the contracts signed meant DC Comics could do what they wanted with the story in perpetuity, as long as it never went out of print. The characters were theirs. There was merchandise (itself a controversy born of misleading contractual wording), there was a feature film adaptation, but it wasn’t until 2012 that an actual comic offshoot of WATCHMEN was attempted. It wasn’t to be a twelve-issue prequel or sequel, in the vein of the original comic, but instead a sprawling thirty-seven issue (one more was planned, but cancelled) range of series following certain characters from the original comic. Despite the umbrella term of BEFORE WATCHMEN, at least a quarter of the content took place during the original comic, and some even took place after.
It isn’t easy to insert new stories around WATCHMEN; it’s too complete a work, so contrived and awkward workarounds were used to try and jam new stories in. An origin story for the Comedian’s smiley badge is already trite enough, but when an origin story for the wall of televisions at Ozymandias’ base on Karnak is being presented, one really has to question the spirit of the endeavor. That gets to the odd nature of the series, which is that it’s very noticeably not faithful to the original comic.
This fundamental discrepancy doesn’t just apply to the meat and potatoes of continuity (though elements like Hollis Mason having an Owlmobile and traipsing around with a young Dan Dreiberg as a Robin figure, or Hollis being a beloved father figure of Laurie Juspeczyk, really stick out), but to the tone, spirit, and themes of the original comic. This can be seen on basically every single page and so there are myriads of examples, but it’s perhaps most tangible and obvious when it comes to the character of the Comedian.
In the original comic the Comedian attempts to rape women, murders pregnant women, and is continually demonstrated as a brutish thug for the overreaching US government. Sally Jupiter’s relationship with the Comedian, her attempted rapist, is depicted as complicated, and her emotions towards him and her daughter are nuanced, and treated with restraint – but there is never any moralising over the actual character of the Comedian. The original comic depicts such characters matter-of-factly, refraining from cliches to try and steer audience perception in particular ways. It’s possible some readers may identify with the misogyny and politics of the Comedian, and the comic doesn’t didactically condemn such behaviours, because the idea of a story ostensibly for adults having to didactically stress that rapists are bad is ludicrous for an author like Moore.
In BEFORE WATCHMEN, the Comedian is consistently characterised favourably and sympathetically. The original comic examines the psychological consequences of the type of macho antihero the Comedian was, where BEFORE WATCHMEN fawns over him like a misunderstood bad boy. There’s literally talk of ‘moments of uncontrolled rage brought on by traumatic events in my childhood’ at one point, a sentence ridiculously offkey with the tone of the series, but part of a larger pattern at sympathetically redefining the Comedian as a misunderstood antihero.
It’s notable that the gay characters in the superhero organisation the Comedian was part of, Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, are treated the opposite way – they are characterised as more grotesque, more rotten. Hooded Justice is treated as more sadistic, and the comic seriously ponders the idea of him as a child rapist. Captain Metropolis is characterised as effete and extra vain.
It’s interesting that the Comedian’s attempted rape of Sally Jupiter is actually depicted in WATCHMEN, where the words ‘rape’ are used in the story to characterise it, but depicted offscreen in BEFORE WATCHMEN (a stylistic lapse, as the series bizarrely redraws frames directly from the original comic over and over), and uses terms like ‘attacked’ and ‘apparently’ to characterise it. The Comedian is given numerous scenes where he shows up the gay characters in the Minutemen, verbally and physically.
The rot goes further. The Comedian gets a laughable prequel run where we see his stone-cold killing machismo born of a tearful loss of innocence in fighting in the Pacific, where a woman and child that cared for him were killed senselessly. The creative team seem incapable of understanding the nature of the the sociopathy and nihilism of the character as Moore wrote him, and constantly resort to cliches and tropes that pit him as a redeemable lost soul that is, above all else, justified. The Comedian tells Sally about his tough times in the war. She listens at length. He lectures her about how they have to forgive themselves. None of this is depicted with the slightest hint of irony. Nor is a panel depicting Sally having sex with the Comedian in the bathroom at her wedding reception, while her cuckolded husband waits outside the door and asks her what she’s doing. There is some serious sexual pathology about play with the Comedian, heterosexuality, and homosexuality in BEFORE WATCHMEN, and it is very offputting.
A particularly good breakdown of these issues can be found here (https://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/05/who-whitewashes-the-watchmen-part-1/), here (https://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/05/who-whitewashes-the-watchmen-part-2/), and here (https://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/06/homosexuality-will-make-your-comic-real/), where William Leung and Noah Berlatsky excavate the disturbing implications of BEFORE WATCHMEN’s treatment of the character, using visual comparisons with the original comic to explore the changes in perspective.
Elsewhere, the issues with the series are less ostentatiously rankling. Most of the series is just useless, completely dramatically inert. This goes for the Dollar Bill run, the Moloch run (which features a hilariously long conversation between two teenagers as they have sex; the whole series felt like it was written by people without understanding of how humans actually interact), the Rorschach run, and the Crimson Corsair run. That latter run is somewhat hilarious – it’s a pirate story, as with TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER in the original comic, only it doesn’t parallel with anything. It’s just a tired, choppy pirate story. It exemplifies the way the series misses the original comic’s forest for the thematic trees.
The runs regularly get too high-concept and cartoony, like the actual superheroic flight and secret bases in the Minutemen run. Sometimes it feels in poor taste, like Jackie Kennedy getting the Comedian to assassinate Marilyn Monroe. Sometimes it feels so misjudged it tips into hilarity, like Rorschach and Travis Bickle from TAXI DRIVER sharing a conversation, or Moloch and the Comedian crying as they watch the news of JFK’s death on television. The series regularly regresses into the cheapest of heterosexual relationship tropes, like Ozymandias being fuelled by a dead girlfriend of sorts, or the first Nite Owl pining after the lesbian Silhouette.
The most-praised runs are the Minutemen run (complete with Comedian redemption) and the Silk Spectre run. The Minutemen run coheres enough to actually reach some measure of vileness, which is more than can be said for most of the runs, but the bare minimum of coherency (like consistent circular visual patterns on the opening page of each of the six issues) is hardly cause for praise. The relatively coherent writing compared to the other runs just makes it plainer how bizarre and misjudged the ideas behind the series are.
As for the Silk Spectre run, it’s sometimes championed as a kind of feminist expansion of the character, a fun and considered character-based journey that, if not living up the original comic, at least doesn’t disgrace itself in pining after sales related to it. I struggle to see this point of view. It degrades the relationship between Laurie and her mother in a way the original comic, with its non-judgemental restraint when it came to Sally’s life, never did. It does this by the noticeably adrift-from-continuity fatherly relationship between Laurie and Hollis Mason. Hollis is the one with all the parental and emotional sense in this run. Laurie oscillates between Hollis and the Comedian, her two father figures, with Sally consistently characterised as mad, shrewish, overreaching, etc. The run feels almost like an excerpt from Hollis’ in-universe book UNDER THE HOOD; it’s that steeped in fatherly theatrics (lectures against drug use, lectures about what it means to be a man – yes, this is the run meant to be some feminist reclamation -, and so on). The Comedian takes his smiley badge from Laurie’s things, smiling paternally at her sleeping body, cloaking himself in iconography born of a distant, yet warm, fatherhood. It is, in a word, ridiculous.
The only other run especially worth of comment is Doctor Manhattan’s. It features the character engage in a ghostly sort of time travel along his timeline, seeing an alternate turn of events where he proposed to Janey Slater freakishly early (which is not portrayed as odd – again, the whole series feels alarmingly distant from how humans actually interact with each other), and had a very different life where he never became the blue, superhuman figure. It’s based on a misreading of Doctor Manhattan’s non-linear understanding of time in the original comic, but that’s certainly forgivable if an adaptation has some creative new idea and story worth breaking some continuity for. It, of course, lacks that. It plods around, riffing on superficialities from the original comic, before ending on a daring move beyond the original comic by literalising what the character said he’d do at the end of the comic. Like the Minutemen run, it feels more prestigious than the other content here because it threatens to cohere at points, but viewed in relation to WATCHMEN itself – or any actually original and coherent work – it exposes itself as little more than an exercise in asserting intellectual property.
That’s because BEFORE WATCHMEN has no real reason to exist. It didn’t even sell well, hence the termination of the final planned issue. It’s an act of creative squatting. DC own WATCHMEN. They own the characters, they own the series, they own the franchise. So they can publish anything, and it’ll have that iconic WATCHMEN logo above it. But what BEFORE WATCHMEN proves is that WATCHMEN is worthless. It doesn’t matter. Without Alan Moore and his collaborators, what possible worth could it have? It’s just a set of characters, some in silly costumes. You can get other writers to put words in those character’s mouths, but when they’re words like ‘brief stint’ in the mouths of young teenagers, what’s really being gained? Certainly not more WATCHMEN, in the sense of an intelligent, iconic comic by Alan Moore that continues to reverberate through culture, decades later.
Alan Moore described BEFORE WATCHMEN as “…completely shameless…I tend to take this latest development as a kind of eager confirmation that they are still apparently dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago…I don’t want money, what I want is for this not to happen.” Well, it did happen, but it sure didn’t feel like it. It’s not a matter of money, or sales, or even dignity, but of storytelling. These are absolutely terrible stories. They barely even qualify as stories. They are barnacles clinging to a comic written decades and decades ago. The greatest, most embarrassing critique that could be made against BEFORE WATCHMEN isn’t anything spilling out of Alan Moore’s mouth, but just the very comics themselves. One unnecessary origin story, and too many more.