Without a doubt the most critically acclaimed piece of comic book literature is Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbon's nihilistic masterpiece Watchmen. What originally started as a slanted take on the Charlton Comics characters (e.g. Captain Atom = Dr. Manhattan) became a phenomenon that gets rediscovered by every generation of comic book readers who find out how excellent comics can be.
DC has been trying to capitalize on this for years with movies and action figures. But their latest experiment has been to round up a bunch of top notch writers like Brian Azzarello and Darwyn Cooke, as well as hot artists like Amanda Connors to create a number of miniseries prequels to the original titled Before Watchmen. It was a grand experiment.
The experiment failed.
I don't mean that it failed in terms of sales. In fact, the opposite is true and sales are through the roof from what I understand. And I don't mean all of it is bad. Some of the writing is sharp and some of the art is beautiful to look at. But for the life of me, the stories cannot hold my interest.
Prequels are notoriously difficult to do, because we know not only the ending of the story, but the major arch that brings the main characters to that place. This is especially true with Moore's story because one of its central themes is the futility of the costumed hero. And yet all of these books are about the life of a costumed hero, doomed to end not with a bang but with a whimper (to paraphrase TS Eliot).
For example, the Silk Spectre comic is charming enough. But the main story is about how Laurie fights against her destiny to become a crime fighter. Not only do we know that she will, which takes a a lot of the dramatic tension out of the air, but we know because of Watchmen that she won't accomplish anything from it.
The most interesting of the mini-series, The Minutemen, brings with it Moore's satiric tone, but that's part of the problem. This book is about the original Golden Age heroes. I want to care about the old guard, but writer/artist Cook keeps most of them at bay. They are interesting, but distant. For example, Silhouette is smart, savage, and is interested in smashing a human smuggling ring. But the Minutemen are basically a publicity exercise I feel her frustration, but I can't hope that things get better, because I know that they do not. And I know that in the end most of them die pointlessly.
The most overblown is the Ozymandias book. Jae Lee's art is grandiose, but I was bored by the story that seemed to not tell me much of anything I did not already know from the original. The Rorschach book would be much more interesting if I thought it would go anywhere. In this book, comic's favorite sociopath runs afoul of some bad guys and gets beaten pretty badly. Somehow this will relate to a serial killer, but I couldn't hold on.
And the Nite Owl book took a turn in the second issue towards outright pornography.
The “prequel problem” is something that everyone involved with this book I'm sure took very seriously. But whatever steps they took to overcome it failed. There is no dramatic tension and not enough good will to propel the story. The original Watchmen had the advantage of being new and daring, while also making us care what happened to Rorschach, Nite Owl, and Silk Spectre, while also drawing us in with a good mystery. Subsequent re-reads are enjoyable because of the multi-layered symbolism folded into all the parts of the narrative. For example, I never knew until a few years ago that the chapter “Fearful Symmetry” was a palindromic story where the pages mirror each other from the middle outward.
There is nothing that poetic in Before Watchmen.
Something to remember is that the Watchmen universe is not a fun place to be. There are no “adventures” to be had here, just dark tales of despair. And unless you have the genius hand of Alan Moore guiding those tales like the Black Freighter to shore, you will run aground on the jagged rocks of depression (sorry, the metaphor got away from me a little).
Before Watchmen is not an exercise in nostalgia but in futility.