In the two weeks or so since it was announced, a lot of commentators have had a lot of things to say about “Before Watchmen.” Much of that commentary has been complete garbage, but some of it has been quite well stated. The conversation has largely revolved around original series writer Alan Moore’s wishes that “Watchmen” be a finite work, and whether DC was within good taste to not honor those wishes (the argument really is about taste, more than legal issues).
I think there’s been plenty of digital ink committed to that topic. What I want to talk about is what “Before Watchmen” indicates about comics as a medium, perhaps other entertainment media, and most of all, audiences. It’s no isolated event, though it may be the clearest indication of what media consumption has become in the 21st Century.
First, let’s establish this: Superhero comics is not a genre that lets go of its characters. Superman’s pushing 80, and Spider-Man’s 50th birthday is in about six months. As noble as his intentions may have been, Alan Moore was fighting inertia when he aimed to keep “Watchmen” to one story told over 12 issues.
People like to call comics modern myths, but that’s not really true. There are a handful of stories about, say, Theseus, which are told and retold. There are five new Batman comics every month; if one of those issues pulls a trick from an issue published 35 years ago, somebody’s going to complain. Consumers have a constant demand for new stuff with old characters, at least from those fans who buy comics. Many people, particularly kids, are content to only be familiar with the key stories, the parts you could conceivably call myths.
Still, as long as the mostly adult fans demand new content, they’re going to get it. And they’re proven time and again that they’d prefer the familiar over the new. You can count the breakout characters of the past 25 years on your fingers, and all of those, your Deadpools and the like, are being pumped for content like an oil bonanza. Go a month without a Wolverine comic and see how upset people get.
At one time, you might say superhero comics were more or less alone in this regard. With the exceptions of maybe James Bond, Doctor Who and Nancy Drew, it’s hard to think of characters who have gone on and on into perpetuity with new stories. (Sherlock Holmes, I guess, though many Holmes stories are just reworkings of Doyle.) But in recent years, we’ve started developing more and more of a collective attachment to fictional people.
TV shows can’t just end anymore. With each story of a cancellation, there’s a campaign to revive the show, keep it going for another season, make it into a movie, make it into a comic, do something to give people another installment on an ongoing, possibly never-ending tale. And hey, I’m as hyped for more “Arrested Development” as anyone, but someday, we’ll have to live without it, right?
Movies are a little different—I don’t expect a sequel to “Million Dollar Baby” anytime soon—but when it comes to franchises, they go on and on, even if their last installment was two decades ago (consider the “Rambo” sequel or the long-rumored “Ghostbusters III”).
How many people would love to have another Harry Potter book? How long before Rowling caves and writes another one? Same for Stephenie Meyer and Twilight. People will never let go.
Maybe it’s the same reflex that causes people who visit world-class cities to go eat at Chili’s. Recognition and perceived safety trump discovery in the society where we live.
I’ve heard so many people talk about how they’re disgusted by or morally opposed to “Before Watchmen,” but still plan to read it. That’s partially because the creators behind it, some of them anyway, do great work. But it’s also because there’s a comic book with Rorschach on the cover, and something in the past few decades has made us addicted to characters.