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Before Watchmen, Nineteen Eighties Style

Before Watchmen, Nineteen Eighties StyleIn the book Comics: Between The Panels by Mike Richardson and Steve Duin, they tell a number of comic book industry stories over the decades. Including comics that never made it to print. Such as an earlier stab by DC Comics at something like Before Watchmen.

Shortly after the completion of the Watchmen series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, DC's main editors went on retreat. The retreatees included Karen Berger, Mike Gold, Denny O'Neil, Mike Carlin, and Andy Helfer. The brain trust returned with three "sequels" to Watchmen.

  • The Minutemen – the story of the main characters during the war
  • The Comedian Goes To Vietnam
  • Rorschach's Diaries

When Barbara Randall (now Kesel), the editor of the original series, saw the plot outlines, she thought, "Bad idea, bad idea, bad idea." Before any of the series could get up a head of steam, Randall engaged in what she calls "the only internal sabotage I ever did while I was on staff. I called Alan and Dave and said, 'This is what they're planning to do. I think you should call Jenette [Kahn] They called. They complained. And The Minutemen were history.

I notice Barbara Kesel isn't writing any of Before Watchmen. Contacting Barbara, she told me;

That's pretty much it. I wasn't at that retreat, and pretty ticked off to find out what they'd planned for Watchmen. I had taken over the book from Len and was very protective of it. Although I'm sure all those ideas would have made money, I felt they would have damaged (through dilution, not quality) a unique property and that DC would be much better served by leaving it alone. I think I only called Alan, but I did call and beg him to call Jenette, and I did consider it benign sabotage of my company's plans. I also absolutely think I did the right thing.

Now, decades later, everybody and their cousin has endlessly reused and expanded on every bit of original storytelling and approach in that book, but at the time, it got the breathing space it needed to cement its reputation. I know there's a lot of gnashing of teeth out there now about the prequels, but Watchmen's firmly enough set in the mythos that new voices can ("can" should be in italics) chime in. Given that Watchmen itself came into existence as a reworking of the Charlton characters and became something SO much more than that, maybe a new crop of creators will be inspired to seek out their own creative greatness… or the new books'll suck dead cane toads and disappear.

Either way, I think the original will stick around.

Barbara also tells me the book's account may have mixed up a number of names and dates. Mike Gold says;

It didn't happen at any of those dreaded editorial retreats – most of which, by the way, were in a converted mansion in Tarrytown NY  where Dan Curtis had shot one of the original Dark Shadows movies. And I'm 95% certain Carlin was still at Marvel when Watchmen ended. Paul Levitz was at all of those things, as was Dick Giordano. And as I recall Rich Bruning was at many of them. And marketing head and Clark Kent look-alike Bruce Bristow.

I can categorically state that at none of these editorial retreats that I attended, which would be between December 1985 (before I was actually on staff) through December 1992, at no point was a sequel or a prequel to Watchman discussed among the group. It is possible that private one-on-one or very small group discussions were held in the middle of the night, given the fact that there was very little in the way of entertainment going on in that Tarrytown joint in the wee hours of the night. Sadly, it wasn't much of a sex and drugs and rock and roll crowd.

But there most certainly was a lot conversation around the joint about sequels. Many people – certainly Barbara, but others as well – thought that a follow-up was aesthetically contradictory. Of course, that's why we were editors and not in the marketing department. And many people – including all of those in the former group – knew Alan would rebel against the idea. Any of us who had ever worked with him, including me, knew that with complete certainty. After he reacted adversely and loudly to some marketing/promotion stunt, you'd have to be on the Bizarro World to think he wouldn't scream to the heavens had DC done anything Watchmen-like without him, and certainly he was not going to play along.

However, and this is central to the discussion, at no point did anybody ever articulate or even question DC's right to do a follow-up. There is no doubt in my mind that DC had that right, but certainly as long as Jenette was running the joint (and, obviously, Paul after that) no Moore-less Watchmen would be undertaken.

I'm sure various freelancers and even editors pitched Watchmen concepts. The ideas you note were rather obvious: if, at that point in time, you were to do any prequels, those three concepts would jump out at you like a flasher at an all-girl's school.

Another, very well placed DC source who wishes to remain namel,ess confirms much of Barbara's account, but differs in the motivation for those on the retreat, the spinoffs being positioned as a response to the fight that Alan Moore had had with Bruce Bristow over Watchmen merchandise being labelled "promotional" and thereby not paying out royalties.

And quite specifically he confirms another anonymous ex-DC source that it was planned for Andy Helfer to write The Comedian and Michael Fleisher would be offered Rorschach.

A week later after the plans were in place, it was all dropped…

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Rich JohnstonAbout Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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