Since it was first announced, DC Comics Before Watchmen has been a non-stop source of discussion for the comic book industry. However, other than an initial round of interviews, the creators on the projects have been rather silent… Until now. In advance of the first public chat with fans at WonderCon, we talked with writers Len Wein and J. Michael Straczynski, who are working on two stories each about their experiences working on the books. Read on to find out about how far ahead they are, what their reaction to the fan reaction is, and also, the possibility of EVEN MORE Watchmen:
MTV Geek: We’ll get into actually talking about the books in a second, but I wanted to first address the reaction to ‘Before Watchmen’ as a whole... The first set of interviews were done before the announcement, to coincide with it, so there was a certain feeling of, “Okay, we know you might be upset, but here’s why you shouldn’t be.” Since then, though, there’s been the expected reactions, but also a lot of extremely positive feedback, too. What have your experiences been like? What surprised you in terms of fan and critical reaction, and how do you think the conversation will continue to develop?
Len Wein: So far, the reaction seems to be been exceedingly positive, which pleases me greatly. The more fan reaction I read, the more it appears the majority of the readers get what it is we're doing here, and, trust me, what we're doing is NOT betraying Alan and Dave in any way. Alan had a quarter of a century worth of extraordinary offers to do these stories and turned them down. If I had felt about Swamp Thing the way Alan apparently does about Watchmen, Alan would never have even had a career here in the States, and this would all be moot. Most fans are willing to wait to see what it is we do with these characters and, from what I've seen so far, we're not going to disappoint them.
J. Michael Straczynski: I think any time you tackle something like this, given its history, and its stature in the comics industry, you're going to run into a whole range of reactions, positive and negative. There have been thoughtful positive and thoughtful negative responses, and some knee-jerk responses on both sides. I think that a lot of comics readers who came into the fold in the 90s and beyond don't have the same heated feelings about going back into that universe. They liked the book, the characters and the situations and are curious as to what else can be done in that world. When the project was first announced, the conversation started out heavily weighed toward the negative, which I think is absolutely understandable, and the interesting thing has been watching the pendulum slowly start to swing in the other direction as people began to discuss and think the issue through. Clearly, that process is not done, and likely won't be done until well after the books are out, which is probably as it should be.
Geek: Okay, enough overwrought background info... Now that you’re well into it, what’s it been like to write these characters? What’s drawn you to them (for JMS, Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan; for Len, Ozymandias, and the characters in Crimson Corsair), and what’s been surprising as you’ve been penning the stories?
LW: I was offered Ozymandias, and was thrilled to accept it, but the idea for the Crimson Corsair was my own. I thought Alan had done most everything he could with the Black Freighter in the original series, so I thought it might be fun to read one of the other pirate comics DC supposedly published in lieu of super-hero comics. I came up with the idea of doing the Crimson Corsair instead. What has surprised me about writing Ozymandias is how much we actually DO NOT know about him, despite all the back-story he supposedly provided in the original series. I'm having great fun filling that in.
JMS: A large part of the fun for me is the way in which these two characters occupy the farthest ends of the power spectrum: Dr. Manhattan is the most powerful being in the universe, and Nite Owl is a guy in a cowl. But at a certain level, they reverse in ability to change their lives: Dr. Manhattan is trapped in the knowledge that he has already made every decision he's going to make, because from a quantum perspective he's already made them, whereas Nite Owl takes steps to change his life and his future, and doesn't feel at all handicapped. Dr. Manhattan can see everything, and thinks his options are limited; Nite Owl can see only what's in front of him, and thinks that his options are infinite. That's been a fascinating dynamic to explore in the book.
Geek: I’m also curious how much “research” you’ve done for these books? There was Watchmen, of course, but there’s also been a few spin-off projects before, as well as the various sources that influenced the characters. Have you looked back at those, or are you essentially creating new histories here?
LW: Well, I can't speak for the others, but I'm basically just using the original series as source material, and filling in as I go along.
JMS: I'm sticking really close to the original graphic novel. When getting into something like this, I think you're better served staying close to the mouth of the river, and thus truer to the source material. Most of what I've done research-wise involved the world around our characters. The stories cover vast swaths of time, and there's some intersection with the real world of politics, geopolitical affairs, crime and the like, so I've worked hard to find and integrate those real-world events and situations with the stories of our characters.
Geek: Let’s talk about the individual projects for a bit. For JMS, Dr. Manhattan seemed like a perfect fit for you when I heard about it, as the humanizing of gods seems to be a recurring theme in your work... Are we going to see more of that here, and if so, what keeps drawing you back about these ideas?
JMS: That does seem to have become a theme in some of my most recent work, and yeah, that aspect appeals to me greatly. The truth is that power doesn't solve everything. In Dr. Manhattan's case, it actually seems to work against him in some ways. There's still a vestige of his humanity in him, despite his transformation, and what interests me is the contrast of those two versions: Jon the person and Dr. Manhattan the demi-god. For my money, story and characterization ultimately come down to the choices we make. I like playing with the way that vast powers can affect those changes for good or for ill.
Geek: Then there’s Nite Owl, who is almost TOO human in a way. Is this a chance to explore that flip-side, or are we going to see something else here? Maybe a look at how legacy affects characters?
JMS: We're definitely going to see the flip-side, but more than that, I want to delve into why he decided to pick up the Nite Owl mantle from Hollis Mason. He started after Hollis as a kid, and used his inheritance to take the Nite Owl tech to the next level. What drives a kid to do this? What was he running from? Or toward? I wanted to show that friendship between Dan and Hollis: one on the climb, the other on the downward slide. I also wanted to get into his fairly brief partnership with Rorschach: how it started, why they worked together, what they did and set the stage for their eventual break-up. Nite Owl's story is a very human one, and while there's a great deal of humanity in the Dr. Manhattan story as well, the latter gets pretty deep into the cosmic stuff and quantum mechanics. The math alone on that one made my head hurt.
Geek: For Len, you’re tackling Ozymandias, who almost seems, in a way, to be the hardest character in the group to write, mainly because he’s so hyper-intelligent. No slight against you, sir, but writing the smartest man alive would probably be a challenge for anyone who wasn’t, you know, the smartest man alive.
LW: I like to think I'm smarter than the average bear, but, seriously, even the smartest man in the world has his limitations, as we discover as we go along in the series. More than that, I'd rather not say right now.
Geek: And for the Crimson Corsair, the original Black Freighter story created a counter-point for everything going on in Watchmen. Is that something we’re going to see here? Or is it just a rollicking good pirate yarn?
LW: It's basically a rollicking good pirate yarn with mind-blowing artwork by the brilliant John Higgins, though it does touch on elements of the new stories here and there.
Geek: Bouncing off that, how much does coordination come into this project on your end? How much are you - or do you even need to – work with the other writers and artists?
LW: Well, there is a central base where all of our work is posted as we go along, so we can all keep track of what each of us is doing in our various titles. So far, that has served me incredibly well.
JMS: We have a website which is sort of Watchmen Central, where we post outlines, ask questions, see preliminary art and generally keep aware of what everyone else is dong, to ensure that nobody accidentally steps on anyone else's toes. So overall there's been a lot of cooperation and give-and-take between the folks involved creatively, moreso than on just about any other multi-writer project I've been involved with. I think the result will be much tighter stories, and reflects the desire everyone has to do this right and do it with respect for the original project.
Geek: Speaking of the artists on your books specifically, can you talk about how you’re working with them, and what they bring to the project?
LW: Neither John nor Jae Lee, who is illustrating (and I do mean illustrating) Ozymandias is someone I've worked with before, so the experience is enlightening, to say the least. I honestly have to say that every artist involved in this project is doing his or her best to outdo all the others. In the end, we're all gonna win.
JMS: I write full scripts, panel by panel, and they get sent off to the artists. It's the only way I know how to write. And the art that's come back has been spectacular; the Kuberts are just consistently knocking this out of the park, capturing so much character and detail in the art. Ditto for Adam Hughes. The process is: the art comes in via email, I look at it, I pass out from joy, and go back to look at some more.
Geek: Technical question, because you knew it would come up sometime: how far into the writing process are you both at this point?
LW: I'm plotting the fifth of six issues of Ozymandias, and almost halfway through plotting Crimson Corsair. Nobody is sitting on their hands waiting for me to do my part in this project, trust me.
JMS: I've finished three of the four Dr. Manhattan issues, and I'm about halfway through number four as I write this. I'm turning in the third Nite Owl script this week, and I've already filled in a goodly portion of the fourth and last issue, so I'm very close to being done quite a bit ahead of schedule.
Geek: We’re of course doing this advance, but the interview should be going up the same time you’re first chatting with fans in person about the project. Is there anything you’re dreading hearing, or hoping you can get across to fans at the WonderCon panel?
JMS: Absolutely not. Hearing from the fans -- good, ill and in-between -- is part of the joy of the process. Writers write for one reason: to create an emotion in the reader, to reach across and make them feel something. You want a reaction. Yeah, it's nicer when the reaction is to throw flowers than it is to throw brickbats, but you have to accept both equally.
Geek: Lastly, now that the band-aid has been pulled off, so to speak, do you think you’d be up for even MORE Watchmen? After Before Watchmen, maybe? Or do you think you’ll say everything you need to say about these characters in the upcoming minis?
LW: Absolutely, like any great characters, there's always more to tell.
JMS: I think what this project has shown, more than anything else, is that there's so much about these characters that hasn't been told before, so many areas that can yet be explored. I think that these books will show that clearly. What happens beyond that ain't my purview. If invited to the dance, I'd love to go. But right now I have to address myself to the task before me, and make it as good as I can. The rest will attend to itself. It always does.
Before Watchmen begins this June, and you can check out all of the initial solicitations right here!