I have a question for you, dear readers. How does one follow up a massively successful, unequivocally influential, groundbreaking, self-contained piece of fiction that many cite as the Citizen Kane of graphic novels?
Well, my answer is, you don't. Plain and simple.
Sadly there are those who disagree. Not just disagree, but with gusto.
For those unfamiliar with Watchmen, it is an Alan Moore written, Dave Gibbons illustrated graphic novel that came out in 1986. It deals with heroes and villains, but through a refracted lens of alternate history where the US wins the Vietnam war by a landslide aided by the accidental "Superman" Dr. Manhattan, and the line between right and wrong, so clear in most other comic book stories, is blurred to the point where you may as well take both words out of the dictionary for lack of a clear definition. If you haven't read Watchmen, please do so, right now. If you scoff at comic books, do yourself a favor and get off your high horse and pick up a copy. It is well worth your time and effort.
Anyways, I am not writing to simply pontificate on the merits of Watchmen. That would be far too easy and more than a little redundant. I am, however, using this little soapbox to rage slightly against the impending series Before Watchmen, a seven issue run of backstories for each of the main characters from the original Watchmen universe. Here's what DC officially says about the project:
“It’s our responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant,” said DC Entertainment Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee. “After twenty five years, the Watchmen are classic characters whose time has come for new stories to be told. We sought out the best writers and artists in the industry to build on the complex mythology of the original.”
This begs the question of just how appropriate and necessary it is to build on the complex mythology of the original in the first place. The original Watchmen gave each character a sufficient backstory, providing a past that links the present day characters firmly to their choices and actions. Every story strand is laced together so tightly that the end result resembles a Gordian knot compared to other comic book plots' loose shoelaces. I can understand the desire of wanting to explore the characters in Watchmen more; they are fascinating, interesting, and undeniably human (most, anyways) who are subject to successes and failures; to performing acts of valor and also unspeakable evil. The plot of the original is pitch-perfect in its balance of complexity and ambiguity, offering no more exposition than necessary, than to pile on more backstory becomes akin to an act of blasphemy, like spray painting a dick onto Michaelangelo's David's mouth.
What happens though, when one widens the lens and plays the devil's advocate? After all, reimagining, remaking, revisiting, and reinterpreting characters and stories has happened long before Watchmen, and sometimes to very good effect. One example: Kurt Neumann's 1958 movie The Fly, cult B-movie of no great consequence. David Cronenberg's 1986 version, however, is dark, intense, genuinely scary, and a touchstone for the directors trademark body-horror obsessions. Cronenberg infused the story with his own indelible style, transforming and elevating the source material into something justifiably revered (in the right circles) as a bonafide classic. But what of those who said the original must remain untouched? Not that I've ever ran into anyone who is such a fan of the 1958 film that they've claimed it is an unimpeachable masterpiece, but still, the question remains.
Another example more in line to the Watchmen conundrum: Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone With the Wind. This tale of civil war romance is, according to a 2008 Harris Poll, the second most beloved book of American readers, behind only the bible. Upon publication, the book won the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award and sold more than 30 million copies. In 2005, the novel was awarded a spot on Time Magazine's Best 100 books since 1923 (coincidentally Watchmen also resides on this list). Margaret Mitchell refused to write a sequel, but as the rights were passed down after her death, as well as her husbands' and brothers', her estate eventually granted permission to pen a follow up. Thus, Scarlett was born. The 1991 sequel was panned across the board and is generally considered an embarrassment by Mitchell's estate. Sure, it's star wasn't dull enough to bring down the reputation of its predecessor, but nonetheless it's existence can't be undone, and it will forever remain a punchline, a Scarlett-headed stepchild next to an American classic.
Much like Maragret Mitchell, Alan Moore has gone on record saying that he wants his seminal masterpiece to remain untouched. Unfortunately DC Comics, owner of the Watchmen property, disagrees. “I tend to take this latest development as a kind of eager confirmation that they are still apparently dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago" says Moore, who won't take legal action, correctly assuming that he would be met with a battalion of lawyers. For the record, Moore has never endorsed any spinoff or adaptations of any of his work, which are, let's face it, piss poor (does anyone even remember The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie?)
But what's this? Alan Moore is responsible for reinterpreting DC Comics' Swamp Thing, completely revamping the character's backstory and writing brand new storylines that diverge wildly from the comic's origins. Does this make him a hypocrite? Yeah, at least a little bit, but one can say at least Moore did a really great job reinterpreting the character, elevating Swamp Thing and making new stories more in touch with modern readers, much like what Cronenberg achieved with his version of The Fly.
Now that we've arrived back where we started, I feel inclined to say that most of these sequels, reimaginings, and reinterpretations floating around are pretty tiring and mostly terrible. They are bastardizations created by lazy think tanks looking to make some money off someone else's ideas (Scarlett is still in publication and has sold millions of copies, natch). Once in awhile, however, there comes a genuine artist who wishes to infuse an old idea with new energy. There are no hard and fast rules pertaining to whether the outcome will be good or bad, or worse, inconsequential. Even great artists can fall flat on their well-intentioned faces (did Gus VanSant really think he could build on Psycho?), so it is up to the individual reader or viewer to judge for themselves whether there's any room for improvement in the original work to merit another layer.