Or my problem with the Watchmen prequels. I’ll try to keep it short for everyone’s sake.
My problem with the Watchmen prequels is this: the world of literature, not entirely wrongly, has a decided bias against serial media. And so do I. One of the great things about Watchmen is it is entirely self-contained, and thus free from that bias.
Now sure, Dark Knight Returns is pretty stand-alone, because it’s a what-if. That helps. But it is a book very dependent on what has come before. If you don’t know who Oliver Queen is, the guy with the bow and arrow seems pretty odd (I know, because I didn’t when I read it) and comes out of nowhere. It is a work that is undeniably part of the Batman mythos. And that weighs it down.
A big – a huge – part of why Watchmen can be an American Classic is because it stands alone. You don’t have to know anything about comics or superheroes to read it. Indeed, I can make a semi-cogent argument that the comic superhero commentary is relatively uninteresting and mostly unimportant to the worth of the work. Certainly its place in comics history is undeniably unimportant to the work itself. Yes, if you want to study it context helps, but again, the point of a classic is it stands up without study. Or relatively so. You can read and love Huckleberry Finn without knowing anything American History. Same goes for To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You don’t have to know that Kesey’s Nest was a codifying of anti-establishment sentiments of the counter-culture movements of the late 1960s to get what the book is about. Some teacher can throw you any of those, give you a five minute spiel and you can see that the thing is literature without touching the Cliff Notes.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Moore’s Swamp Thing qualifies as literature as well, but there’s a very good reason why at the front of his first volume he includes a primer to superheroes for those who have come to the comics via the horror genre. And the appearances of the JLA will always be a millstone around its neck from being say, as historic and eternal as say, The Scarlet Letter.
And of course this HAS happened to great literature before. There have been sequels, by even the authors themselves. There were books published after the Great Gatsby came out, unofficial sequels in which Gatsby and Daisy run off together and have children and live happily ever after. I’m not kidding. History forgets. Sometimes it forgets rightly. And one way it is easier to forget is if things aren’t part of a series.
Of course these new prequels are optional. But in this world of high-merchandising, is anything optional any more? The Star Wars prequels are optional, and can never harm the gorgeousness of the masterpiece of Irving Kirschner, Leigh Bracket and Lawrence Kasdan. Hopefully, history will one day forget some of the things that surround it.
And hopefully, history will forget Before Watchmen. Hopefully nobody will throw around words like “the Watchmen Universe” and “canon” and “continuity”. But this is comics, where if you sneeze on a page it can end up as continuity that somebody will later retcon into important dramatic backstory. This is comics where I have been assured by fans that they literally have no control over their actions and will buy any product with X hero in it no matter what, as an issue of pseudo-religious pride and compulsive addiction – and those people love collectors editions. This is comics where we talk not of books or worlds or stories but just “runs”, when the comic was written by X – and then gets lost in the general mishmash of the oncoming tide of future runs. So I am worried.
You might say, but they could be awesome. Of course they could. Len Wein and Brian Azzarello know their shit. But I hope history forgets them anyway, because a series is a millstone around the neck of a classic that can stop it from being remembered as capital-l literature. It’s hard enough to tease out Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. Imagine if we have to try and do the same for Moore’s run on Watchmen.
Or we can sit back and wait for From Next Door to Hell, the adventures of Several Victorian Hookers On Their Day Off. There will be an animated series. And toys. Oh there will be toys…