When DC Entertainment confirmed rumours first reported on the Bleeding Cool comics news site that they were indeed going ahead with a ‘Watchmen’ follow-up, the fan reaction was predictably negative. It was already clear that the writer of the original series, Alan Moore, wanted nothing to do with it.
In many quarters, the original ‘Watchmen’ is held as a sacred text. The only graphic novel to win a Hugo, the only graphic novel on ‘Time’ magazine’s list of the great books of the twentieth century. The original story was self contained, and most fans agreed with Moore’s assessment that there was no need for a sequel.
Many fans changed their mind when the artist for the project was announced. Whatever Moore’s reservations, original series artist – and co-creator – Dave Gibbons was onboard. There would be a new writer, though, and fans were deeply suspicious when someone with little comics experience, better known for his novels, the author Michael Chabon was named. Even the information that he had contributed dialogue to the fan-favourite movie ‘Spider-Man 2′ wasn’t enough to assuage fears that ‘Beyond Watchmen’ was just going to be too clever for its own good, art for art’s sake.
After some delays, this week ‘Beyond Watchmen’ is finally here, and we can judge for ourselves. While the implications for creators’ rights are important, I want to review the book, not the controversy.
The first thing to say is just how beautiful it looks. The 400 page graphic novel sits comfortably on the shelf next to the original. Indeed, because the black-on-yellow spine reads only ‘BEYOND’, it has to sit next to the original to spell out the full title.
Opening it up, it’s just as impressive. Chabon has explained in interviews that he wanted to evoke the nostalgic feeling of cracking open the original ‘Watchmen’ trade paperback. The book is broken up into twelve chapters, like the original, and as with the original, each chapter starts with a ‘cover’ that doubles as the first panel of the story and rounds off with a text piece – initially excerpts from Dan Dreiberg’s memoir Inside My Trunks, but eventually including psychiatric reports for Kid Rorschach and reproductions of websites reporting the debut of Nite Owl III.
All of that, though, is a no-brainer: of course any new ‘Watchmen’ project would be a self-contained graphic novel. The original ‘Watchmen’ was read by literally millions of people who have never set foot in a comics shop, and so DC would be idiots if they didn’t market the book to that audience.
It was obvious from various ‘off the record’ discussions DC people have been having wih the fan press that there were some at the company who thought that it would be controversial to have a six page – and it has to be said graphically explicit – gay sex scene featuring two of the best-loved and most iconic characters from ‘Watchmen’. But it’s 2012, we’re all grown ups now, and in the end the scene perfectly reflects the wider themes, and imagery, of the story.
And that sums up ‘Beyond Watchmen’. However far they take it – and this is a book that lives on the edge, sexually, politically and in terms of some quite breathtaking violence – it never seems gratuitous. It’s as shocking now as the original was then, but every step it takes moves the comics medium forward.
What, though, of the story?
Set in 2010, the story starts on the night of President Gore’s third inauguration. A very familiar figure is on patrol … Rorschach. And it quickly becomes clear that the utopia Ozymandias promised has come to pass – at a price. This is a total surveillance state, and the criminals have had to take on new methods to survive. As do the vigilantes.
The opening chapter, then, is a clever take not just on the original ‘Watchmen’, but on ‘V for Vendetta’, ‘From Hell’ and even Moore’s little-read ‘Night Olympics’. It’s a ruthless deconstruction of Moore’s more political work in the eighties. The ideas that a catastrophic attack on New York would bring about world peace, or that it would need a nuclear war to get people to accept security cameras on street corners, now look naïve, and ‘Beyond Watchmen’ isn’t afraid to bite the hand that fed it. It’s not too hard, for example, to work out who Ozymandias, now bearded and confined to his base on a melting glacier, surrounded by televisions he’s smashed out of sheer frustration, is meant to represent. He was meant to be the architect of utopia, and he’s literally been left out in the cold.
But what starts out as a story that seems to be a sly commentary only on Moore and the comics industry quickly broadens out into something altogether more impressive. The Silk Specter chapter says more about feminism in the internet age than a thousand magazine articles. The meat of the story is a savage attack on post 9-11 ethics that never takes the cheap route, never sensationalises the material.
The Kid Rorschach material will force fanboys to take a long hard look at themselves, but it’s already a cause celebre on Fox News, who’ve seen it as a sustained attack on the entire neocon project. It is, of course, that’s why. In 1987, the kooks and cranks of the original ‘Watchmen’ were two guys publishing the New Frontiersman. In 2012 they are in charge of news channels and running in Republican primaries. Of course ‘Watchmen’ has to address the fact that with the Michelle Bachmann candidacy, America flirted with Rorschach for President. But ‘Beyond Watchmen’ finds new things to say, it proposes a way out. That’s the key to the series: it’s not about the problems, it’s about the solutions. The result is that we have a very odd tone, one that’s ultimately utopian, but also postmodern. The recurring slogan: ‘Who Watches?’ comes to sum it it perfectly.
It’s not perfect. I would have liked to have seen more fight scenes and a little less of Dan Drieberg trying to get his sons to respect their Jewish heritage. I didn’t understand the Van Zorn plotline at all. The Owlship is very slightly the wrong shade of brown, and that took me out of the story. But these are just niggles, when you consider that – like Moore – ‘Beyond Watchmen’ exposes the flaws with the modern political system but – unlike Moore – comes up with answers, ones that would manifestly work. This is a comic that solves the grand unified theory of physics in a throwaway line and provided a blueprint for resolving the Palestinian issue that both sides have already adopted in real life, after all.
To coin a phrase: they did it. The spunked on cartoon eye may never be quite as iconic as the original ‘Watchmen’ smiley face, but this is not just a good comic, this is pretty damn close to the perfect comic. It’s bold, ambitious, never takes the easy route, mines the original ‘Watchmen’ only to build something better with the raw materials. I’m going to need to re-read it and re-read it, but – I’m going to say it – ‘Beyond Watchmen’ lives up to its title. I think it’s better than the original.