There was a time when it looked like it could be otherwise, as if the weight of continuity could ground the field and allow new depth and possibilities. Then, the world had only been rebooted once -- or less than once -- and the before-world was still a sharp, fresh object in the readers' minds, always there, deliberately, as a comparison to the new world. But that time was over more than twenty years ago, as successive continuity crises and shocking revelations and amazing retcons and fantastic inserts shattered that consensus view of the fictional world. Now, every person who still reads superhero comics has his or her own canon -- every reader decides which stories "count," in her head. Some of those readers -- a Bendis or Johns, Morrison or Straczynski -- count for more than others. But not by much.
Watchmen stands as a monument to that potential -- a major superhero story, possibly the major superhero story, with a de novo beginning and a deep middle and a clear, definite ending. For twenty-five years, it stood almost alone in superhero comics: a singular major achievement, without sequels (the Batman: Year Twos and Dark Knight Strikes Agains that entangled its late-80s classmates) or retcons or rewrites, a world complete that was never revealed to be really Earth-92 all along.
Of course, it was never that simple: Watchmen's ending was famously dodgy even in 1987 -- nicked from a minor Outer Limits episode (consciously or not) and grotesquely out of proportion to the story it was supposedly part of, a sacrifice on the altar of superhero pulp. And Alan Moore would have been very happy, apparently, if Watchmen had not been as de novo -- if he'd been allowed to use the Mighty Crusaders (his first choice) or the Charlton heroes (his second), it would all have been different. But every great work of art is partially the result of chance and happenstance, and so it was with Watchmen: it was big, it was dense, it was full of wonders and details and ideas, and it was a superhero comic that demanded and rewarded as much attention as a serious novel or painting. Even more so, the whole work was equally strong -- conceived and executed in one burst of work by two men (three if you count John Higgins, the indispensable colorist), with strong contributions by both to create a gestalt work that neither of them could have done alone.
Watchmen is a major graphic novel, the one superhero story that every comics reader should read. (Though I admit that's an odd phrasing -- the other problem is still much more prevalent.) And even the worst trash strewn around it -- even if Dr. Manhattan is someday shown to have traveled to Earth-1 after the end of Watchmen to team up with Batman, lose his powers to Lex Luthor for a maxi-series, and fall in love with Power Girl before dying nobly to save the world from Sun-Eater XVI -- will not tarnish it, the same way that no amount of shabby Robert Downey, Jr. movies can tarnish the legacy of Sherlock Holmes.
And that's good, because most of Before Watchmen is pointless at best, and dull pandering at worst. Brian Azzarello uses a lot of captions -- and is supported by flashy modern art, particularly by Lee Bermejo -- to obscure the fact that his Comedian and Rorschach stories are extended exercises in not saying anything new at all. Worse, if Rorschach were actually as bad at fighting crime as Azzarello shows here -- as easily captured, as un-threatening, as ineffectual -- he'd have been dead a dozen times over before the main story of Watchmen even began. Azzarello massively mis-estimates how Rorschach has to operate, and his story is a cartoon because of it. (As I said, though, Bermejo's art is moody and strongly evocative of the '70s -- he'd be great for a Jaques Tardi-esque noir story set in that grimy New York.) The Comedian story has different mis-steps -- Azzarello seems to take joy in foiling the reader's expectations as to what the Comedian really did in the '60s, and replacing those with dull "revelations" of things that we already know that other people did, so there's no shock that they're possible, or that a sociopath like the Comedian would do them. Honestly, if you wanted to do a new Comedian story, to tell a story that wasn't told in the original Watchmen -- and I'll admit that very much does not seem to be the point of the Before Watchmen stories, which instead wallow in continuity porn and embroidering single panels into entire issues -- the one to tell would be his service in WWII, when he was young and presumably still shockable.
The best of this bad lot are the stories written or co-written by Darwyn Cooke, who as we all know has a real love of and affinity for the 1960s. His Minutemen -- the only work in all of Before Watchmen conceived and executed by a single person -- is told by the first Nite Owl, as he finalizes his memoirs in the early '60s, with copious flashbacks to the earlier days. It does some of the same things that Azzarello did in Comedian -- taking things Moore hinted at in Watchmen, and giving a different "real" explanation -- with somewhat more success, though it's still a shabby tactic. Silk Spectre, co-written and gorgeously drawn by Amanda Conner, actually tells a completely new story of the very young second Silk Spectre, running away to San Francisco to put flowers in her hair and fight some crime while she's there. It's easily the most successful piece of the entire Before Watchmen project, because it stands on its own, or as close to that as possible.
American comics have embraced, or fallen into, a business model that denigrates stories and endings in favor of endless product, delivered weekly through a carefully cultivated distribution channel that has shown itself actively hostile to the traditional virtues of stories. For a long time, it looked like that channel, and that business model, and the superhero comics that relied on both, were slowly dying out. But that has changed radically recently -- all of those things have been growing again for the past few years. So we may be stuck with "product" like this for the foreseeable future. Luckily, the infestation is restricted to superhero comics through the direct market -- and there's no reason to dive into that muck unless you actually enjoy reading pointless, endless shards of narrative weekly in the company of a few hundred thousand equally engaged folks.
- Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1987)
- Before Watchmen: Comedian by Brian Azzarello and J.G. Jones (2012)
- Before Watchmen: Rorschach by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo (2012)
- Before Watchmen: Nite Owl by J. Michael Straczynski, Andy Kubert, Joe Kubert, and Bill Sienkiewicz (2012)
- Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan by J. Michael Straczynski and Adam Hughes (2012)
- Before Watchmen: Moloch by J. Michael Straczysnki and Eduardo Risso (2012)
- Before Watchmen: Ozymandias by Len Wein and Jae Lee (2012)
- Before Watchmen: The Curse of the Crimson Corsair by Len Wein and John Higgins (2012)
- Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill by Len Wein and Steve Rude (2012)
- Before Watchmen: Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke (2012)
- Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner (2012)