If a story is big enough, you can go back, in time and space, and attempt a “what happened before story” (like George Lucas did). There are always personal histories waiting to be told, characters and characterizations to be evolved, gaps to be filled.
That’s exactly what the Before Watchmen mini-series does. I’ve written about the series before, when the first of the comics started coming out. It’s a departure of sorts for me to revisit comics that have already appeared in Cult Fiction, but Before Watchmen, now that the tales have been told, deserves a relook.
For two reasons.
One is a personal reason—I bought the comics on the ComiXology app, and while I still don’t mind reading comics on my iPad, I have realized that I am too much of a collector to not have the print editions. And DC’s print editions of the Before Watchmen series are luxurious—hardbound, larger than the usual comic books (although not as large as the Absolute series), and beautifully printed on glossy art paper.
The other is the stories themselves.
But before we get down to that, and just in case some readers didn’t make the connection, Before Watchmen is built around Watchmen, the iconic 1987 book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that helped reinvent the genre and sort of made it alright for middle-aged men like me to read comics (the book would receive its lit cred several years later when Time magazine would name it one of the 100 best books of the 20th century). Watchmen was a superhero book like no other, and it featured superheroes like no other.
Before Watchmen is an attempt to tell the individual stories of the superheroes. And so Brian Azzarello tells the story of the making of the Comedian and Rorschach, linking the first to US history (the Kennedys, Vietnam). Both stories are set before the events in Watchmen. Len Wein writes on Ozymandias, the Crimson Corsair and Dollar Bill. The last two are essentially fillers, chronicling footnotes and digressions in the narrative of Watchmen, but Ozymandias is, apart from the early history of the smartest man in the world, a parallel narrative that plugs the gaps in Watchmen. J. Michael Straczynski does a bit of both—his Nite Owl is strictly a prequel, but his Dr Manhattan and Moloch are parallel stories. And Darwyn Cooke writes on the Minutemen and the making of Silk Spectre (both strictly pre-stories).
It is always harder to work within the constraints of a narrative that already exists and Watchmen is a story that has endured for almost three decades; given that, the writers of Before Watchmen have done a brilliant job of developing their own mini-stories, as have the artists (the characters, even the minor ones, have to look the same, you see, and they do).
Moore and Gibbon’s superheroes were flawed, but it is only when you read Messrs Azzarello, Wein, Straczynski, and Cooke that you realize how flawed. The prequels show a vulnerable side of the Comedian and an uncertainty in Dr Manhattan’s actions that are not there in the original (but could have well been).
I am hoping someone puts the Watchmen (yes, I know there is an Absolute edition; have it) and Before Watchmen together in an Absolute Edition. And I am hoping DC has had enough success with the prequels to consider a Beyond Watchmen mini-series.
R. Sukumar is Editor, Mint.
Also Read | Sukumar’s previous Lounge columns