- “Who makes the world?”: Before Watchmen, Nostalgia, and Franchising
In the field of comics studies, there are relatively few texts considered canonical, particularly for superhero comics. Perhaps more than any other, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s 1986–1987 series Watchmen stands in for the whole of the medium in classrooms and critics’ lists. Watchmen’s appeal as an object of analysis is clear: as a self-contained story, it is easier to purchase and to read than many other superhero comics, whose story lines can stretch over years and are not always collected into neat volumes; it has also garnered critical acclaim to a degree that few other comics have. On the front cover of the trade paperback reprint of the series, DC touts Watchmen’s status as “one of Time Magazine’s 100 best novels”; the back cover includes a quote from Time calling Watchmen “a landmark in the graphic novel medium.”1 Watchmen stands alone on the list as the only comic worthy of inclusion alongside canonical literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Watchmen also holds a special, if not singular, place in the pantheon for comics readers. Thirty years after its conclusion, the collected edition routinely places among DC’s top sellers and is a standard holding for public and academic libraries alike.2 Watchmen has also been credited, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, with ushering in an entire “dark era” of comics storytelling by inspiring superhero storytellers to create darker, “grittier” antiheroes and villain protagonists.3 Although these violent antiheroes have not been as popular in comics recently as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, Watchmen is still held in high regard for its critical take on the role of superhero narratives in society and its formal experimentation with intertextuality and parallel structure. [End Page 138] Given this critical and popular admiration, it is not surprising that reactions to proposed adaptations of (or additions to) the Watchmen universe have been largely negative. While Zack Snyder’s 2009 live-action film adaptation was not universally panned, and has in recent years found both a cult audience and a place in academic analysis (particularly in adaptation studies), the Before Watchmen comics series has not yet found a similar niche in Watchmen fandom or scholarship.4
Before Watchmen, a series of prequel comics released from 2012 to 2013 by DC, spanned thirty-seven single issues and is available as four collected volumes in trade paperback and digital format. Each series focuses on a character from Watchmen, detailing the character’s past and in some cases filling in his or her whereabouts or perspectives during the events of the original series. The characters profiled in Before Watchmen include the Minutemen, Silk Spectre and her daughter Silk Spectre II, the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach, Nite Owl and his protégé Nite Owl II, Dollar Bill (one issue), and Moloch (two issues).5 Despite containing approximately four times as much material as the original Watchmen, and some of the series garnering positive reviews from comics and media critics, the series has failed to generate the cottage industry of academic study that Watchmen boasts. Before Watchmen’s perceived position among fans as largely superfluous to the Watchmen canon can be understood as the result of a number of factors, including “fanboy” ire and inconsistent quality.6 However, it deserves examination both in comparison and on its own merits for what it adds to the textual and industrial analysis of Watchmen. Before Watchmen’s content and the reactions to it reveal uneasy truths about nostalgia, franchising, and authorship in the comics industry.
Deconstructing and Reconstructing Watchmen Nostalgia
There seems to exist a kind of nostalgia about Watchmen that makes the overt expression of nostalgia in Before Watchmen—both in the content of the series and in its existence more generally—uncomfortable. Before Watchmen reminds the reader that Watchmen was a DC series, produced under contract to a major publisher and subject to the same impulse toward character licensing and franchising as any other DC or Marvel superhero series. The political message and implications of Watchmen and its deconstructive...