6. In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds. (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part Twenty: J. Michael Straczynski and Before Watchmen)

(12 comments)

Previously in The Last War in Albion: J. Michael Straczynski wrote Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan. Badly.

Figure 911: Adam Hughes likes drawing breasts. (Written by J. Michael Straczynski, from Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan #2, 2012)

This sort of sloppiness is a tough pill to swallow in the context of a high profile prestige project like Before Watchmen that seeks to pair allegedly superstar creative teams like Straczynski and Adam Hughes (who, though good, is a somewhat odd choice for Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan, given that he’s generally best known for so-called good girl art, although he manages to find plenty of occasions to frame panels so as to focus on women’s breasts anyway). But it would be one thing if Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan were a sloppily written and incoherently plotted comic that at least gave some interesting insights into Dr. Manhattan’s character. But it doesn’t. The most significant and weighty character moment Dr. Manhattan gets is a revelation that he was a childhood immigrant from World War II whose Jewish mother was killed during their escape. As with most of Straczysnki’s additions to Watchmen, this is first of all just difficult to square away with the original text - Straczynski has this be the reason Osterman’s father became a watchmaker, which requires compressing the family’s settling in America, his father’s mastery of watch repair, Jon’s following suit, and his father’s ultimate rejection of it in favor of nuclear science into a five year period. But it’s also just boring. It’s a cliche cribbed clumsily from Holocaust literature, with the Holocaust serving mostly as a shorthand to let Straczynski sketch a major tragedy in just eight pages instead of having to do the work of generating emotional resonance himself, made all the crasser by the fact that there are already a wealth of historical connections between the German persecution of the Jews and both superheroes and atomic science, none of which Straczynski draws on while treating the Holocaust as a handy plot device.

Figure 912: Unsubtle Christ imagery. (Written by J. Michael Straczysnski, art by Eduardo Risso, from Before Watchmen: Moloch #2, 2012)

Perhaps the more illustrative example of the particular pointlessness of Straczynski’s additions to Watchmen, however, comes with Before Watchmen: Moloch, which was hastily added to the Before Watchmen schedule after launch but before DC realized the project was a boondoggle and scrapped the Before Watchmen: Epilogue one-shot. The two issues for a life history of Moloch, with the first issue going from his birth to his release from jail and the second issue being the events around his death. But the overall effect is to tie almost everything into the teleology of Watchmen and specifically Ozymandias’s plan. The first issue’s cliffhanger is Ozymandias waiting for Moloch on his release; the second deals with Moloch’s involvement in Ozymandias’s plans, which mostly consists of Ozymandias heavily manipulating Moloch’s Christian faith (that faith having been largely inspired by meeting Dr. Manhattan in the first issue). The result is, ironically, to strip away essentially all of Moloch’s agency in the plot. His post-prison career consists entirely of him being presented as an idiot led along by Ozymandias’s preposterously unsubtle machinations (a highlight is Ozymandias delivering an entire monologue about redemption and penance with his arms outstretched so as to look like a cross), with him being the specific agent of Janie Slater’s getting cancer, and with his eventual death being a knowing and deliberate sacrifice after Ozymandias explains his entire plan like some sort of Republic serial villain.

The problem with all of this is that it undermines the supposed point of the exercise. When asked about the choice to do Watchmen prequels instead of a sequel, Straczynski explained that “Alan spends a lot of time in the original Watchmen teasing out details of the history of our characters before the time in which the graphic novel is set. In so doing, he gave us an excellent road map that would let us hew more truly to the characters than by telling a story that takes place after those events.” But the entire point of those teases in Watchmen was to give only the bits of the characters’ lives that informed the events of Watchmen while alluding to the existence of far more than that. By going through those details and filling in all the gaps with more stuff that points endlessly towards Watchmen, Straczynski collapses that implied history, not even for the purpose of telling a new story, but in order to suggest that Moore’s original was actually the only story worth telling with these characters in the first place.

In some ways, however, this sort of tediously circular addition to Watchmen is preferable to what happens in the one series in which Straczynski does significantly go “off book,” as it were, namely Before Watchmen: Night Owl. It is not, to be clear, that this book does not suffer from the same problems as Straczynski’s other two. Straczynski shoehorns in a “Dan was abused as a child” plot point that renders his discussion of his backstory with Laurie in Watchmen #7 shockingly disingenuous, for instance. But the bulk of the book exists in the gap between the 1966 Crimebusters meeting and the 1975 Roche kidnapping, a generally open patch of Watchmen history into which Straczynski introduces a story without too many broader implications (although he, for no discernible reason, offers the origin of how Rorschach got his The End is Nigh sign, which is apparently over a decade old by the time of Watchmen), with most of the characters beyond Night Owl and Rorschach being of Straczynski’s own invention. This works, at least inasmuch as anything in Before Watchmen does, in that it at least lets Straczynski write a story about the characters and not about how to fix Watchmen, a question whose answer remains “don’t.”

Figure 913: The Twilight Lady, now in color instead of the two-tone purple of her single panel appearance in the comic. (Written by J. Michael Straczynski, art by Andy Kubert and Joe Kubert, from Before Watchmen: Night Owl #2, 2012)

The problem is the two main characters he introduces. One is a fundamentalist Christian preacher and serial killer visually modeled off of Jerry Falwell, who serves as the main villain, and who manages to supply a critique of religion with even less nuance than that of Before Watchmen: Moloch. The other is a femme fatale prostitute superhero with a heart of gold extrapolated out from a two-panel joke in Watchmen #7. There is almost nothing to say to this. The former does things like rant to Rorschach (who he’s tied up on top of his massive pile of dead prostitutes and set on fire) about how “your abuse of this sacred temple will by my clarion call. On the ashes of you and your fellow sinners we will build a new church, a bigger church. Meanwhile I’ll find somewhere else to store the bides I need for the next message. Because as four Gospels and sixty-two other books of the Bible confirm, there’s always another message in need of sending.” The latter, the Twilight Lady, is at least somewhat more complex, in that she is nominally created by Moore and Gibbons. That Straczynski expanded a fleeting mention of a character into a full story is hardly objectionable, or at least, if it is objectionable, it's objectionable in a way that is blatantly the point of doing something like Before Watchmen. What is impressive, though, is that over the course of a three issue exploration the character actually becomes considerably less interesting and well-developed than she was when she was a throwaway so undeveloped that John Higgins hadn't even fully colored her in her one-panel appearance. After dramatically entering the story topless she ends it by cutting off contact with Dan (who she sleeps with repeatedly over the course of the story) explaining how she “can afford cars, and jewels, and sex toys, and everything a woman - a woman in my profession - could ever want. There’s only one thing in the whole world that I can’t afford, Dan. I can’t afford to fall in love.” It's crashingly, horrifyingly banal and cliche in exactly the way that a villainess who sends flirty photos to the hero that put her in jail isn't. 

But even more noxious than his additions to what one imagines he thinks of as the “Watchmenverse” were the perverse lengths to which Straczynski went in order to defend the project and company. All of the Before Watchmen creators addressed the elephant in the room in interviewers; they could hardly not, given that it would be a complete dereliction of any journalistic integrity to avoid the topic. But most made polite statements about their respect for the work and their distance from the finer details of Moore’s objections. And then there was Straczynski, who took to the subject with an almost sycophantic zeal, waxing at length in multiple interviews about why Moore’s objections were invalid. For instance, in one interview he  accused Moore of hypocrisy for having “spent most of the last decade writing very good stories about characters created by other writers, including Alice (from Alice in Wonderland), Dorothy (from Wizard of Oz), Wendy (from Peter Pan), as well as Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Jeyll and Hyde, and Professor Moriarty (used in the successful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).” This is, by any reasonable standard, complete crap, describing six issues of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Black Dossier graphic novel, and Lost Girls in a period that also included Smax, Tom Strong, Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales, Tomorrow Stories, Top 10: The 49ers, and Promethea for his America’s Best Comics imprint, the entire run of Dodgem Logic, the text of Unearthing, and Neonomicon. Beyond that, Straczynski casually overlooks the fact that the characters in Lost Girls and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were all in the public domain; a fact he mentioned in a Facebook post about the topic but declared, for no discernible or justified reason, that this constituted a “slippery moral slope” and not, as one might otherwise imagine, a blatant and unambiguous distinction.

Worse was his blunt declaration that “DC owns the Watchmen characters. DC wasn’t making creator-owned deals back in the 80s. Moreover, they were variations on characters that had been previously created for the Charleton [sic] Comics universe.” Simply put, this statement amounts to calling Alan Moore a liar. Certainly Moore was unambiguous, in several interview prior to Watchmen #1’s release, that the book was creator owned, saying that he’d specifically requested such a deal from DC. And the claim that the characters’ roots in the Charlton characters renders them DC’s property is more than slightly rich coming from a writer who worked on a Squadron Supreme title for Marvel, given that the Squadron Supreme is flagrantly just DC’s Justice League. But what’s staggeringly duplicitous about the statement is simply that it blithely ignores the fact that Moore’s entire point is that Watchmen was a creator-owned comic that DC used underhanded means to wrest away from Moore. Any statement about the ethics of the project that suggests that DC’s ownership of Watchmen and the characters is an unambiguous fact is deliberately confusing the issue, and there is no believable way Straczynski would have been unaware of this fact.

Figure 914: Many people observed that the cover of Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan #1 was rather suggestive.

Worse, though, is Straczynski’s extended discussion of how he wouldn’t object in similar circumstances if Warner Brothers revived his television series Babylon 5, insisting that if he’d turned down the opportunity to return to it for twenty-five years he’d expect them to go on without him, which is an odd statement from someone who reacted to novels in the Babylon 5 setting that were produced without his involvement by calling them “licensed B5 fan fiction,” refusing to endorse them, and declaring that “pillaging my scripts and posts without my knowledge or permission is dubious at best, dishonorable at worst.” And while Straczynski addressed this point, his statement that the books in question “were dreadful and not in keeping with the standard that I applied to anything done in the B5 universe” was, perhaps, unwise in light of the books once they came out. Past that, one does find one’s self wondering what Straczynski would have made of a new set of Babylon 5 DVDs where the first one blatantly had Sheridan having anal sex with Delenn on the cover.

But Straczynski’s apologia for Before Watchmen are, in the end, still a lesser insult than the basic presence of the last writer, Len Wein, who tackled only Before Watchmen: Ozymandias and the Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill one-shot. [continued]

Comments

Jeff Heikkinen 1 year, 4 months ago

Might want to check Watchmen #7, page 5, again. Whatever else the Twilight Lady might be, she's not a Straczynski addition.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 4 months ago

Ah, shit. That's one of my bigger misses in the course of this project. Edit in progress.

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Jeff Heikkinen 1 year, 4 months ago

Can't disagree with anything the newly revised entry says, at least on that topic. (Mind you, this is based on secondary accounts, chiefly your own, of what's actually *in* the BW books, not on having read them myself. On the basis of which I'm glad you're reading them so we don't have to...)

I still think Moore was at best naive on the creator-ownership front and tend to side with JMS on that one. You've gone over that in more detail elsewhere and explained why Moore believed what he did, but still, at most he had an agreement that it would become creator-owned at an unknown future date under certain conditions, conditions which of course never came to pass (Watchmen going out of print). It's clear that he didn't own it at the time the issues were coming out - the legal indicia in Watchmen #1 clearly states that the IP rights reside with DC, or at least the trademarks in the characters do. If Moore ever thought of his ownership of the IP as a fait accompli, that belief can't, or at least shouldn't, have survived the release of the first issue.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 4 months ago

I don't think Moore was the type to meticulously go over the indicia of every issue of his comics.

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Timber-Munki 1 year, 4 months ago

If there's one thing that grates me about the long history of of people taking the wrong message from Watchmen it's writers thinking that watchmaking/clockwork as a metaphor for determinism is in any way, shape or form original or interesting. Straczynski does it in Squadron Supreme (Given his comments on Babylon 5 adaptations it's ironic that the issue that this occurs in is straight up Alan Moore fanfic, but then again self-awareness is not one of JMS's strong points...) and the decision to have Sylar in Heroes be a watchmaker is surely no coincidence either.

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Daru 1 year, 4 months ago

Yeah! I had forgotten about Sylar, and for some reason whilst watching heroes had forgotten about Watchmen. What an obvious connection. And wasn't really keen on the link mad between clock workings and an understanding of the human brain.

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John 1 year, 4 months ago

I'm not sure I get the moral distinction between writing new stories about public domain characters and writing new stories about copyrighted characters with permission of the copyright holder. Both are unquestionably legal, and both might certainly involve doing injury to the intentions of the original creator.

And, DC surely does own the Watchmen characters, doesn't it? Presumably their own lawyers advised them as much, or else they'd have been opening themselves up to a lawsuit from Moore by publishing After Watchmen. Or am I missing something?

The more obvious distinction, I'd think, is that J.M. Barrie is long dead and Alan Moore is still alive, not that Peter Pan is in the public domain and Rorschach is not. And also that Moore was kind of dishonorably cheated of his copyright rights to the Watchmen characters. But I don't see any real argument that DC doesn't own the characters or that there's something inherently worse about writing stories for copyrighted characters than writing stories for public domain characters.

Isn't the real problem here that these stories aren't very good, and that the nature of Watchmen is such that these stories were never likely to be very good?

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 4 months ago

It's worth noting that I haven't covered the rights reversion issue yet. But Moore has been very clear that he doesn't much want to sue. And notably, that's never much been his style in any of his many disputes. One gets the strong sense he thinks being involved in a years-long lawsuit with a major corporation would be an absolutely miserable fucking experience that's not worth the money he'd get.

So we don't really know. We do know that Moore alleges he was actively lied to by people at DC, and that this is at the heart of his objection to Before Watchmen's existence. And that Straczynski's eager attempts to accuse Moore of hypocrisy (as opposed to the route taken by Azzarello, Cooke, and Conner of politely shrugging and saying "hey, we're not trying to upset him, we're just taking a job that sounded cool") and declare him the architect of his own misfortune were crass given his own propensity for such stands.

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Eric Gimlin 1 year, 4 months ago

"I'm not sure I get the moral distinction between writing new stories about public domain characters and writing new stories about copyrighted characters with permission of the copyright holder. Both are unquestionably legal, and both might certainly involve doing injury to the intentions of the original creator."

Just off the top of my head, if the character is in the public domain, in most cases the original creator would have been aware that at some point their work would pass into the public domain. At least in the US, copyright is specifically supposed to be for limited times, even if it keeps getting extended. Any creator would know that, at some point, their creation should pass into the public domain; and would know an earliest possible point that could happen.

The key moral distinction is in one case a specific party not the creator owns the rights. In the other, everybody has the right to use the creation. To me, at least, that's a clear difference.

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Daibhid C 1 year, 4 months ago

"Isn't the real problem here that these stories aren't very good, and that the nature of Watchmen is such that these stories were never likely to be very good?"

At the time I was fond of saying that I didn't really understand the rights issues, and maybe the people boycotting it had a point, but I didn't know, so I didn't feel I could boycott it. I just wasn't buying it, for much the same reason as I didn't buy any other comic I thought looked like a dreadful idea.

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Daru 1 year, 4 months ago

Man, Straczynski’s seem totally awful. If not for this great series of articles I'd have no knowledge (quite happily!) of their content. Not going there.

One of my biggest bug bears within comics are the "so-called good girl art" pieces and those not thought of as good - exploitative either way.

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