So DC announced today the forthcoming Before Watchmen series, and the Blogosphere scrambled to fire back in kind. It's pretty interesting how the commentary's shaping up so far, though.
Like any political announcement, two groups of voices welled up in the aftermath, the yay-sayers and the nay-sayers. But the for and against crowds aren't blasting off their usual talking points--at least the for-crowd isn't. Usually the stuff you hear from that group is story-based. They're into the characters, or the story has a lot of potential, or whatnot. Take Civil War for example, where the people who liked it generally pointed to the dichotomies that were played out, especially between Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man. Or the current events charge of the story, as it reflected a number of American political news at the time. The people who didn't like it (I say people, but it might've just been me) pointed to the sloppy pacing, writing, plot-twisting, side-changing, and overall pro wrestling/soap opera-esque air of impermanence of the story, reflected best by the temporary he's-really-dead-iness of Captain America (RIP Steve Rogers, April 2007 ~ August 2009).
(Or or! Spider-Man: Reign, where..where...let's call them likers...likers were like, 'It's The Dark Knight Returns, but for Spider-Man!', and ol' Jason the hater was like, 'Yeah, but Batman and Spider-Man aren't anything alike, so why should they both go dystopian in the future?' Wouldn't something really unique--like All-Star Superman was to Superman or Dark _Knight was to Batman--be better for the character? Or is that just me?)
(Speaking of, where are all the nosebleed-level good Marvel non-canonical one-shots?)
What you have here, it looks like, is one side saying that Before Watchmen should be permissible, because Alan Moore makes money doing fanfics for a living, so why not let other people fanfic his work?, while the other side, Alan Moore among them, are grumbling that they shouldn't try to milk further the golden Watchmen cow, it's perfect as it is except for that one teat Zack Snyder lopped off that one time.
Well, ethically speaking Moore is wrong. I mean, it's hardly worth writing complete sentences over. Lost Girls. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Miracleman. His original idea for, get this, Watchmen. From Hell fanfic-ized a real London doctor into Jack the Ripper. We might imagine Dr. Gull would not be terribly entertained by such a story.
But who cares what Alan Moore thinks about stuff that doesn't have anything to do with him. (Well, why do people read celebrity gossip magazines...ah, anyways,) The interesting point is that the masses have come out and voiced their opinions, and their opinions, instead of being straightforward 'I think it'll be a good/bad story'-type opinions, are more 'I think it is/isn't a worthwhile piece of art'-type opinion. Less entertainmenty, more literary theory-y.
And that's pretty cool, for one. For two, it shows how easy it is to make lit theory (or art theory in general) a worthwhile subject in schools. In this case, for a handful of exceptional reasons, Alan Moore was well known, his personality and opinions towards mainstream comics were well known, so most people interested in these kinds of comics pricked up their ears when DC made their big announcement. Just imagine if we could teach people Shakespeare in such a way as to garner opinions and fanfare like this every time another version of Hamlet debuts.
Anyways, I think the project is dangerous. (I mean, really. Alan Moore knows his way around a curse, people.) It's fine what they're doing, of course. On every level; DC owns the copyrights. But think about this on an artistic level. If you make new Spider-Man stories, there's no issue because the character is essentially meaningless. He and Wolverine and [take your pick] were designed from the outset to be rehashable, ageless characters. The difference between one monthly superhero and another is the difference between a red gum ball and a blue one (unless you find a milk crate of really old, mint-condition, first edition red gum balls, in which case you're rich). Superheroes can take on a bit more weight if an artist does something really special with them in a non-continuity one-shot--like Mark Millar did with Superman in Red Son--or if the character's story is endable, like Toriyama Akira eventually did with Dragonball.
But with something like Watchmen, you're dealing with a real piece of gold. Watchmen is different. It's beautiful from almost every angle. (Here's where I'd describe how and why if there weren't already a hundred million articles on that elsewhere on the Internet.) Like a Mozart symphony, a Sappho poem, a Shakespeare play, or a Beatles song, you don't talk about Watchmen like you talk about an off episode of Battlestar Galactica. You don't talk about what could have been better, you talk about why this or that good bit made the whole extraordinary. You assign the work for study in a college class and you scrape it down to the spine, looking for as many patterns and near-patterns as you can find, and when you're done reading or dissecting you sit back and you breathe out and you say, 'damn. I wouldn't have thought of that, but I'm glad someone did.'
So that, I reckon, 's why people generally fanfic open-ended, lighter stories rather than Hamlet or Moby Dick. If the artist has created such a beautiful shape that there's nothing to really add to, then why bother? In trying, there's a danger in damaging your artistic reputation. 'You think you're good enough to entertain me more with Watchmen's characters than Alan Moore? Good luck, buddy.' I guess that's how I feel. But those books have got to get some pretty exceptional reviews before I let DC Comics near my cash-udders.
It's possible, though. Moore's proven that throughout his career, that you can take characters set in stone and do something interesting with them. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen isn't a good example--most of those characters were pretty pulpy to begin with, and so, in my opinion, they fall pretty close to the guilt-free zone of rehashing monthly superheroes. But Lost Girls was a big gamble. It could have tanked (like the Star Wars prequels! I said it!), and while it didn't fully...(what's the opposite of tank?), it did well enough to justify using the characters, methinks.