Before Watchmen series concluded, and the previously announced epilogue cancelled, now comes the time we ask ourselves the ever important question: how does Before Watchmen measure up, to both its rightly revered predecessor, and on its own?
A number of the series actually hold up pretty well regarding both questions – the four I’d single out as the successful titles would be Ozymandias, Minutemen, Silk Spectre and Dollar Bill. All shed light on corners of the Watchmen universe we’d barely seen details of before, and did so with compelling stories that, given time, can and should be considered a part of the greater Watchmen universe, creating a greater application for both themselves and Watchmen.
Conversely, most of the other titles were midrange at best, or in the case of Comedian or Nite Owl, completely terrible, and somewhat justified the fears that the Before Watchmen lines would be rushed cash-ins. I doubt even the worst of their number (Nite Owl, in case you were wondering) will besmirch the Watchmen name, as I don’t expect them to stick around in the popular consciousness long enough for them to have an effect on it. Which, given some of the titles, may be for the best.
So needless to say, the results have proven something of a mixed bag, and especially after all the behind the scenes drama, compared to the highly promoted beginnings, Before Watchmen ended on a real whimper. Sales were midrange, reviews have been all over the place, and a lot of comic fans don’t know what to think. So when considering the possible impact and legacy of Before Watchmen, there are two questions one needs to consider – does it measure up to Watchmen, and does it stand up on its own.
Does it measure up to Watchmen? Of course not, and there was very little chance of that happening, which is part of the reason there hasn't been any follow-up with Watchmen until now. Ignoring it’s critical laurels and sales numbers, Watchmen is so beloved in part at least because at the time, it was unlike anything else people had ever seen from a comic book – it was dark, thoughtful, contemplative, and deconstructed many of the familiar comic book tropes and went against what many people expected a comic book should be. It changed the way people looked at, read, and made comic books, even close to three decades after Watchmen’s original publication.
That last bit may be the most important to consider with the Before Watchmen titles – in the decades since Watchmen was published, comics with themes or pathos, or considered dark and mature, or that play against type have become the norm – there is a reason why the post-Watchmen age of comic books is known as the Dark Age of Comics after all. When Watchmen came out, there was nothing else like it on the market – since then, we've seen Batman get his spine shattered, Superman die and return to life, Spiderman sell his soul to the devil, the Marvel universe fight a Civil War, and the DC Universe reboot itself entirely with the New 52. We've also seen the comic book industry experience all-time low sales, all while their contents flood the cinemas. Watchmen has the impact it did because it was so different and as such, changed comics forever. Any follow-up could not do the same because comics like Watchmen are now no longer the exception, they’re the gold standard.
Which brings us to the next question – how do the Before Watchmen titles stand on their own? Mixed results aside, at least the four I mentioned before are great, and I’d wager they’ll be looked back on as classics in their own right in the future, albeit classics not as great as Watchmen. Even the other lines, though disappointing or lackluster, are arguably among the better titles on the comic racks currently, with few exceptions.
One only wonders if DC Comics had taken more time to plan these titles, and avoided the behind the scenes drama, how the entire line may have come out. Alas, now we’re dealing with alternate history.
Overall, even given the poor entries, I’d say Before Watchmen can claim some successes to be proud of, and has a few titles that are well worth your time and attention. Give them a chance and a glance, and maybe a few will surprise you.
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Soldier, scholar, writer and web-voyeur, Sean CW Korsgaard has been active in the alternate history community since 2006, and was recently elected to succeed Mitro as President of the Alternate History Online Facebook group. In addition to his contributions at the Alternate History Weekly Update, he writes for several websites, including his own, which can be found here.