Excerpt from Watchmen. Art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins.
DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio wrote a dangerous word on Facebook this week: “the.”
As online comics tabloid Bleeding Cool reported, DiDio left a message on a post from his boss, DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson, in which he touted the publisher’s biggest event of 2017: “DC Universe meets the Watchmen!” Any comics dweeb worth their super-salt knows he’s talking about the coming existence of a long-rumored crossover story in which DC’s core cast of superheroes — Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the like — will interact with the characters from the beloved and self-contained mid-1980s graphic novel Watchmen. But note the lack of a “the” in that book’s title, as it’s the key to understanding the potential disaster the story might turn out to be.
When writer Alan Moore conspired with artists Dave Gibbons and John Higgins to launch their serialized masterwork in 1986, they gave it a name that, like the story within, was as cheeky as it was chilling. For the better part of a century, comic books about teams of superheroes have typically borne titles consisting of a definite article followed by the squadron’s moniker: The Avengers, The X-Men, The New Teen Titans, and so on. At first glance, a reader assumes Watchmen will be about a team with that name. As we meet Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Rorschach, and Ozymandias, we wait for them to huddle up and call to order the first meeting of The Watchmen at The Watchquarters, then leap into The Watchmobile, and let evil-doers know that they had better Watch out.
But, by story’s end, no such thing has happened. There is no group by that name. The noun, as it turns out, is referring to Juvenal’s immortal question, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes,” one translation of which is, “Who watches the watchmen?” It’s a clever and disarming misdirect: Instead of denoting the costumed crusaders in the novel, the title is critiquing them for their narcissistic decision to act as humanity’s unaccountable guardians — and critiquing us for our dreams about letting them do so. That’s sorta the whole point of Watchmen. Three decades after it debuted, it remains the gold standard for deconstructionist superhero stories, subverting the perverted power fantasies and harmful delusions of grandeur that we indulge in when we create or consume superhero fiction.
And yet, one cannot help but fear that DC will miss that point when it kicks off this coming crossover, treating the pointedly pathetic protagonists of Watchmen as just another super-team. In fact, it seems almost inevitable. When DiDio refers to the “DC Universe,” he’s talking about the eight-decade-old tapestry of somewhat-interconnected stories about the company’s core cast of characters. Watchmen has, historically, not been a part of that tapestry. Moore very deliberately designed a walled garden of a tale, one that any reader could understand because it was free of confusing connections to any other superhero story. It stood on its own and, in doing so, became a go-to recommendation for any newbies looking to investigate the comics medium.
Accessibility wasn’t the only virtue enabled by Watchmen’s self-contained status. That independence also allowed Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins to make an epic that was free of the moralism and heroism of the mainstream DC universe. In the ecosystem of conventional superhero stories, the good guys always win, the bad guys always lose, and the moral gray areas are never that gray. That kind of approach is antithetical to the themes of Watchmen, in which the good guys are fuck-ups, sadists, and/or sociopaths whose personal failings wind up making them the bad guys. What’s more, their world mostly follows the laws and logic of our own, with only one character possessing actual superpowers — a fact that makes him horrifyingly pivotal in the fate of humanity. There are no Amazonian goddesses or flying Kryptonians to be found.
So what happens when those earnest do-gooders meet the tragic idiots? There are only two possibilities that I can imagine. One is an extremely metatextual satire that finds humor in the eye-rolling notion of such an encounter. But that’s about as likely as Batman adding a tutu to his costume. Much more probable is a story that crassly capitalizes on 30 years of enthusiasm for and familiarity with Watchmen’s characters by throwing them into a serious, high-octane adventure alongside the kinds of figures they were designed to mock. The idea is perverse in its misguided, more-is-more shallowness.
Unfortunately, that approach to the intellectual property of Watchmen is nothing new for DC. In 2012, the company rolled out a much-derided initiative called Before Watchmen, which consisted of a set of miniseries about what the protagonists were up to in the years prior to the graphic novel’s narrative. Although Before Watchmen featured some of the superhero genre’s most reliable talents — Adam Hughes, Jae Lee, J.G. Jones, J. Michael Straczynski, Len Wein, and the late Darwyn Cooke, to name a few — the stories were superfluous at best and actively insulting at worst. It wasn’t that the creators weren’t up to snuff; it was that the whole idea was useless. There was nothing to add to the idiosyncratic and fully realized work that was being riffed on.
With any luck, co-publishers DiDio and Jim Lee — as well as the crossover’s apparent scribe, DC Films co-chief Geoff Johns — have learned lessons from Before Watchmen and will put them into use. But though all three are smart guys with decades of experience in comics, I struggle to imagine what anyone could do to make a worthwhile and respectful Watchmen tie-in. We should withhold critical judgment until the pudding is made, but I’m not holding out a lot of hope.
What makes this whole endeavor especially disheartening is the fact that it’s coming in the wake of one of the smartest and most forward-thinking initiatives in DC’s history: the recently launched Rebirth project, in which creators were told to tweak the venerable mainstream-superhero pantheon so the characters could be their best selves. DC is likely to want to make as big a splash with their Watchmen insertion as possible, so there’s a good chance the story will spill over to an array of DC titles, interrupting the excellent narratives that have filled the publisher’s recent lineup. Given that the comic that kicked off Rebirth very clearly teased the Watchmen connection in its final pages, it was perhaps foolish to think things would turn out otherwise.
What makes me particularly worried is the fact that I think DiDio might not even really want to have the DC universe meet “the Watchmen.” I spoke to him and Lee at October’s New York Comic-Con and when I asked why they decided to incorporate Watchmen into those last pages of the Rebirth kickoff, he squirmed a little bit and gave me a telling response: “In today’s world, with so much media, so much property, so much out there, you’ve got to do things that capture people’s attention.”
He’s certainly right that the story will capture attention, especially given that Watchmen holds so much esteem outside of the comics world. But at what cost? Why can’t we just let a masterpiece be a masterpiece and move the medium forward? Why must we cheapen its legacy through derivatives? In Watchmen’s final chapter, the cosmically aware Dr. Manhattan famously declares, “Nothing ever ends.” In this case, it really should.