For fans of science fiction and comic books, J. Michael Straczynski brings about strong feelings.
Among some, he's hailed as the creative genius behind the TV series Babylon 5, recognized as one of the best sci-fi TV shows of all time.
To others, he's a brilliant screenwriter, the man behind films like the Oscar-nominated Changeling.
To comic fans, he's recognized for his six-year run to The Amazing Spider-Man, his revitalization of Thor, his best-selling revamp of Clark Kent's early years in Superman: Earth One, and his creation of original comics like Midnight Nation and Rising Stars.
But the writer, called JMS by fans, isn't without controversy. He publicly distanced himself from Marvel's retcon of Spider-Man's marriage during his Amazing Spider-Man run in 2007, and he more recently announced a surprise sabbatical from monthly comics, quitting when he was only a few issues into a much-publicized run on Superman and Wonder Woman.
Yet the extreme feelings that those projects have generated have been eclipsed recently by the buzz surrounding his latest project, Before Watchmen. The multi-issue event recently announced by DC Comics — which will be published in weekly chapters beginning this summer — is a prequel to the venerated 1985 graphic novel Watchmen by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons.
While Gibbons has apparently given his blessing to the prequel (although he reportedly declined an offer to participate), Moore has gone public with his rather heated disappoval of the project. Making it clear that he intended Watchmen to be a finite, stand-alone story, he told the New York Times the prequel is "completely shameless," stating that he didn't want money but rather, “what I want is for this not to happen.”
While fans have taken sides both for and against the publication of Before Watchmen, there's no denying it's one of the most-talked-about comics for 2012. And it doesn't hurt that DC put together what most fans would agree is a "dream team" of creators for the seven Before Watchmen mini-series:
- Dr. Manhattan (four issues) by JMS with artist Adam Hughes;
- Nite Owl (four issues): JMS with artists Andy and Joe Kubert;
- Rorschach (four issues): Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo;
- Minutemen (six issues): Writer/Artist Darwyn Cooke;
- Comedian (six issues): Writer Brian Azzarello with artist: J.G. Jones;
- Ozymandias (six issues): Writer Len Wein and artist Jae Lee;
- Silk Spectre (four issues): Writer Darwyn Cooke with artist Amanda Conner;
- Curse of the Crimson Corsair (back-up stories): Writer Len Wein and artist John Higgins;
- Epilogue (one-shot) by various creators.
This weekend, JMS is one of the featured guests at Wonder Con, and he's meeting one-on-one with thousands of fans for the first time since the announcement of Before Watchmen. As he participates in today's "DC Comics: All-Access" panel at Wonder Con, Newsarama talks to the writer to get more information about his stories for Before Watchmen and his justification for writing them.
Newsarama: Joe, one of the frequent critiques of the Watchmen movie was that it failed to connect with modern audiences because the Cold War feels alien to us now. Yet the hopelessness of that era and the fear of nuclear threat is central to understanding Alan Moore's story. As you go back and do a prequel, how much does the era inform the story? Or are you abandoning that part of Moore's efforts so that you guys can make "Before Watchmen" more relatable today?J. Michael Straczynski: I can't speak for the others, obviously, but in my case, I'm not applying what did or didn't work in the Watchmen movie to the scripts for the miniseries. A movie is a movie and a book is a book and they have different rules.
(And I think that ultimately the reason the movie failed to connect had little to do with the period or the Cold War; there have been plenty of movies set in that period that have successfully connected with audiences. The reason, I think, is that on an emotional level the Watchmen book is fairly cool to the touch; it's thoughtful, intellectual, with great characters, but nonetheless on the cool side. Film and television are hot mediums, in that they rely on passion and extreme emotions to reach across the darkness of a theater to affect the audience. Granted that there are some of those moments in the book, they are not what makes for a successful film, and in being so literal in the director's transferral of the story from print to screen, that coolness was preserved, and the film became emotionally distant.)
Leaving all of that aside, in both my mini-series, the period very much informs the story. In Nite Owl, we play out the story against the events of the period, especially as seen through the eyes of Rorschach (part of the story involves the partnership between him and Nite Owl).
In Dr. Manhattan we use the same period as background, but we also go back further. If you do the math, given that his father was German, one can make the assumption that Jon as a child was brought to America by his father during the rise of Hitler's Reich. This has the potential to have a profound effect on his character, and the decisions that came later. So period is definitely a part of both stories.
Nrama: As Before Watchmen begins, are these happier times for all the characters? Are the minis therefore more tonally upbeat? Or do we see the evolution (and erosion) of their characters toward what we know they'll become?
Straczynski: Nite Owl is a mixed bag; it starts out fairly upbeat, but there are some dark spots along the way, even there, dealing with Dan Dreiberg's family and the situation that could compel a young kid to seek out Hollis Mason in hopes of picking up the Nite Owl mantle. Dan is really kind of the most rooted character of the bunch, so he holds onto a bit of that idealism when others fall away, a distinction that's necessary given that even when we meet him in the original graphic novel there's still kind of a naive idealism to the guy.
The Dr. Manhattan mini is... hard to explain. It's neither upbeat nor downbeat. It's both a character piece about who Jon Osterman was, and how that affects Dr. Manhattan — and a mystery set against the backdrop of quantum mechanics and the question of free will. On a purely metaphysical basis, the story gets into the tall grass really fast.
Nrama: Isn't there an inherent challenge to making a prequel work (particularly in sequential form, which requires readers to be invested in what happens next) when readers already know what eventually happens to these characters? How did you and the other writers tackle that challenge?
Straczynski: There's this assumption that because we see them at a certain age, we know everything that happens to them. I disagree. It's like saying that because we saw the end of Superman in Alan Moore's brilliant Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, we therefore know everything that ultimately happens to this character. That doesn't change the reality that there are hundreds of stories that take place before those events. Life isn't about the final moments, it's about the journey, it's about process. What makes Rocky work as a movie is seeing him working his way up from the streets to the arena and the fight of his life. You could just show that fight, and it would be great, but seeing that journey illuminates that fight and adds profound meaning to it. So these books are largely about expanding upon and illuminating the journeys of the characters that brought them to the moment in time explored in the original Watchmen graphic novel.
Nrama: Another challenge to a prequel, presumably, is that it speaks only to those who have read the original work (although admittedly, in Watchmen's case, that's a lot of people). Are you and the others involved mainly writing this for people who have already read Watchmen? Or is the eventual Watchmen story not important to have read first to enjoy these stories?
Straczynski: I think you have to be mindful of, and respectful toward both audiences, because I think they will both come to the party in varying degrees. I think the majority of readers will have read the original Watchmen, and a smaller subset will not have done so prior to picking up these minis. The challenge, then, becomes to craft a story that feels complete and can be read entirely by itself, but if you are familiar with the original graphic novel, it illuminates elements of the story that had not previously been expanded upon.
Of the two I'm writing, Nite Owl is probably the most accessible to those who haven't read the first graphic novel. The Dr. Manhattan mini is ridiculously intertwined with the original — in some cases moment by moment — but the over-arching story is still accessible if you haven't read the original graphic novel.
So the short answer is: If you don't know the original Watchmen, you can read these books and get an enjoyable, self-contained story; if you do know the original graphic novel, then suddenly a lot of the story starts taking on new meaning.
Nrama: Did you get to choose these two characters? If so, why did you choose them? And if not, why do you think these in particular were offered to you?
Straczynski: I went into this strongly wanting Dr. Manhattan. On the one hand, I have a longstanding interest in humanizing god-like characters (as with Thor), and on the other hand, I come from a strong science-fiction background, ranging from Babylon 5 to Twilight Zone and a bunch of published sci-fi short stories, and I like the idea of dropping anchor into a story that goes deep into the questions of meaning and free will and choice in a quantum universe.
I later learned that Nite Owl was available — he had originally been with another writer — and grabbed onto him the moment he became available, because that gave me the bookends of the Watchmen universe: the most powerful character, and in some ways the most vulnerable character.
Nrama: We've heard that "types of truth" is a central theme in the two mini-series you're writing. Can you explain how that idea applies to Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl?
Straczynski: When we had the "Big Meeting" in New York, we went through each of the minis we were writing, comparing notes with what each of the others was doing, and ensuring that we were consistent with the original graphic novel. They were all separate stories, many set in different time periods. So at the end of the meeting, I felt I had to raise the question: yes, these are all individual tales, but in the end, what is it we're saying? If they're not linked by one plot or situation, then thematically what is the core that unites these stories?
I kind of answered my own question by suggesting that there are five kinds of truth: the truth you tell to casual acquaintances, the truth you tell to close friends and members of your family, the truth you tell to only a few people in your life, the truth you tell to yourself, and the truth you don't admit even to yourself. Most of the stories under consideration that day seemed to me to hit the fifth kind of truth, and Darwyn grabbed that and ran with it, writing a long piece that was sent along to everyone else elaborating upon how this was the core of the books.
So it's as true for the two I'm doing as the others. In the case of Nite Owl, it has a lot to do with the circumstances that led him to seek out Hollis Mason, and become the second Nite Owl — things he may not want to face about his family and his past. In the Dr. Manhattan story, he has to come to terms with some choices he's made whose ramifications he has chosen not to see until they become unavoidable — and the fate of the world rests on how he chooses to react.
Nrama: Do all of the series come together at the end, uniting that theme in the epilogue? Or do the writers rely upon the original Watchmen series as the way all these stories come together?
Straczynski: They don't all come together to the same point, because they cover different time periods, but none of them go much beyond the start of the events of the original GN. So there's that redline in the timeline, but it's not a culmination point.
Nrama: You mentioned the "Big Meeting," but how closely are you working with the other writers on developing the Before Watchmen world, and what challenges have you encountered along the way as you hash out these separate stories?
Straczynski: It's actually been really smooth so far, thanks in no small measure to Dan DiDio's decision to get all of us in the same room in NY so we could lay out our plans and agendas. Whenever one of us has a question or hits a plot point that could affect what the others are doing, it goes up on the website we all share for discussion and analysis. But there have been very few of those, I think we're working together really well. I can't think of any substantial conflicts or hiccups so far.
Nrama: How much do the different characters show up in each others' stories?
Straczynski: It really varies, and I don't want to speak for the others because that's their turf. In Nite Owl, we see the Crimebusters meeting where Dr. Manhattan showed up, and that same moment is also in the Dr. Manhattan storyline because the events in one are mirrored in the other.
The Dr. Manhattan mini peels back what we thought we saw in the Nite Owl mini, in the telling of that scene to show something very different going on. So we see pretty much everyone, if briefly.
And there's a big role for Rorschach in the Nite Owl mini, as we look at how that brief partnership started and show the seeds of its eventual destruction.Nrama: With Dr. Manhattan, how much does your story hinge upon what happened in the Intrinsic Field Subtractor, and since we've already seen that story, how do you make it fresh and worth a re-examination?
Straczynski: It's a huge part of the story, and it dives right into the aspect of quantum mechanics that informs the whole story. From one quantum perspective, that scene is exactly what we know it to be, but from another quantum perspective, that scene is nothing like what we think it is. And it's in the conflict between those two versions that something happens that ripples out in every direction, threatening not just Jon but reality itself. It's huge.
Nrama: What era of Jon's life do we get to see in his mini, and what can you tell us about the journey we'll see?
Straczynski: We see a lot of it, ranging from his early youth, escaping Germany with his father, to his high school and college years, to the "present" (being just before the GN). There are some elements of Dr. Manhattan's personality that are formed by those events, and there are some things mentioned in the original GN that are now explained by his past history. At one point in the original GN, Jon says (upon meeting Janey) that he's always felt like he was being pushed into his choices. Well, now we get to see what he means by that, and the ramifications it has on a much grander, metaphysical scale.
Nrama: The preview art for the Dr. Manhattan series included Silk Spectre. How involved is she in your series? And was it a struggle at all to translate her story and relationship with Jon for a modern era?
Straczynski: She's there at the beginning, and at the end, and the middle is his journey to understand who and what he is, and what he's done to endanger Earth and everyone he loves, including and especially her. And no, there was no difficulty in making that work in a moden era; love is love, and love is timeless.
Nrama: In the first batch of Before Watchmen solicitations, Dr. Manhattan wasn't included. For those of us who will probably be reading this series as a weekly, is there a reason for the order of the releases, in that they must be read in this order? Or are they truly separate stories?
Straczynski: Yeah, they're separate stories, but by the same token, there are areas of overlap. So part of the finale of Nite Owl has to come out after another part of the story is revealed in another miniseries, so we had to time out the release schedule accordingly. Similarly, the Dr. Manhattan mini is kind of the bridge point in the cluster of minis, looking forward and backward, so that placement makes sense.
Nrama: In the Nite Owl story, how young is Dan when you start his story? Since Nite Owl has often been compared to Batman, does Dan's early pursuit of the mantle become an alternate take on Robin?
Straczynski: He's around 16 or 17 when we first meet him, and his family. He is moved by circumstances around him to try and contact Hollis Mason, and they do form a bond of friendship and training, but no, he doesn't become an alternate Robin. That's certainly what Dan expects and anticipates, but he ends up in a very different situation once Hollis announces his retirement.
Nrama: So how much of a role does Hollis Mason play in the Nite Owl story, and how did you round out his character for the mini?
Straczynski: Hollis is integral to the story, and the areas where I rounded out or expanded upon his character touch some areas where Darwyn is doing some stuff in his own mini, and I can't talk about that in any detail.
Nrama: Can you tell us anything about Dan's motivations and thoughts as he turns toward becoming a superhero and learns the skill of crimefighting?
Straczynski: It's an escape from the life he's living, and the family situation in which he finds himself — and a measure of wish fulfillment. This is a kid who looks to Nite Owl as someone who can't be hurt (or at least so he thinks) by bullies or the unfairness of life, and that becomes a real inducement — and a stark revelation when he finds out it isn't quite like that. He goes into the hero business full of dreams and naivete and idealism — and surprisingly, manages to hold on to most of that even in the face of profound disappointment and loss.
Nrama: As you've been working with Andy Kubert and Adam Hughes on these two series, how does each style work with the characters they're drawing?
Straczynski: Andy does the initial pencils on all of it, then Joe jumps in to finish and do inks. So it's pretty seamless. The art they're doing is so great, and so strongly character-oriented. You can see the emotion on their faces, the thoughts behind their eyes, and that's so crucial to me, as the sort of stories I write tend to live or die by how much emotion the art can project.
Nrama Much has been said about why you and the other "Before Watchmen" creators believe it's not disrespectful move forward with this prequel despite Alan Moore's repeated objections. How would you sum up that argument? And has the thought of Babylon 5 getting a prequel without
your blessings changed your mind at all?
Straczynski: You have to compare this apples to apples if you want to bring Babylon 5 into this. This isn't a matter of DC doing Watchmen when Alan wants in and wants to do it. He's chosen not to engage, even when DC offered him ownership of the characters and even when they would cut him a check enough to dim the lights at DC for several weeks.
If Warners wanted to do a B5 prequel, and I said no... if they offered me all the money in the world and a big budget for the series and I said no... if they offered me total creative freedom and ownership of the show, lock stock and phased-plasma pistols and I said no... if they waited 25 years for me to change my mind, and I still didn't want to do it... then they'd be absolutely right to proceed without me, because I had opted to take myself out of that process.
Me, I'd love to do more B5 one day, and Warners knows that, and would love to have me involved. They've made that very clear, and in fact we almost had such a deal about a year ago — big budget for a reboot of the series, a full season order, and total creative control — when the new distribution system WB had hinged the deal upon fell apart at the last minute.
If Alan genuinely believes that characters should not be used in ways counter to what their creator intended, then we have a problem in his using characters created by other writers — the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Captain Nemo and others — who would not approve of how they are being used. (E.g., Hyde sodomizing the Invisible Man to death.)
If, as he says, it's okay because they're public domain, so it's legal, and their objections wouldn't matter, then we again hit a problem in that DC has the legal rights to these characters, and by Alan's logic his wishes shouldn't matter.
Watchmen, he argues, is a standalone story, and shouldn't be trifled with, but so was The Invisible Man, and Peter Pan, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's a slippery slope, and the ultimate translation of it all is that Alan feels that he can use other folks' characters in any way he chooses, but no one else can touch his characters, and I think the moment you take that position you lose a little of the moral high ground.
Look, the bottom line here is that I hate being on the other side of this issue. I've always said, and still believe, that Alan is one of the best of us, maybe the best. Every time I pick up one of his books, I'm blinded by the light of his writing. But to be a genius is not always to be right, and though it pains me a lot to say it, I honestly feel he's wrong, or at least intellectually compromised, on the issue of Watchmen, especially having profited so long, and so well, from the use of other writers' characters.
And if it's ultimately a matter of his feeling that he got screwed by DC, y'know, since you bring it up, I also got screwed on my contract for B5. I've never received a penny in profits from that show and never, ever will. But it was the best contract I could negotiate at the time. Maybe the contract he got was the best he could've gotten, and maybe he could've improved it, but we'll never know, and neither will he, because as he has stated, he never bothered to read the thing or get an attorney to look it over for him. Now, if you're not going to engage, if you're not even going to bother reading your contract, is what happens really a matter of being screwed, or is it, to a degree, a self-inflicted wound?
Everyone in the entertainment business gets crappy contracts when we start out, and into the middle of our careers. It's the nature of the business. You incrementally improve your deal over time, which is why even though I had a crappy B5 contract, I continued to work with Warners, knowing that at each new step I would improve my deal until now, it's pretty much at the top of what the industry can offer. Alan feels he got screwed, and he's entitled to feel that way; nobody else can get a vote on how we feel. But I would point to folks like Bob Kane, and Siegel and Shuster, and Jack Kirby, who all were screwed much more deeply and viscerally and in more costly terms. So that does kind of put it in perspective a bit. Doesn't make any of this right, or proper, or appropriate...but there needs to be some sense of proportion.
Nrama: Surely the whole idea had to give you and the other writers pause. Did it take awhile for it to grow on you (as it apparently has for some fans)? Or were you gung ho about it from the beginning?
Straczynski: I can only speak for myself: I was on board from the instant Dan DiDio first mentioned it. These are great characters, and I think they can have something profound to say to a contemporary audience. Yeah, you know that the moment you say yes you're dancing on the edge of the abyss, but that's the fun, and the danger, of the work. To walk on the high wire is to be alive.
Nrama: Did you know about this project when you took a sabbatical from monthly comics in November 2010? How would you answer the concern from readers that you implied that you preferred stand-alone, shorter stories and graphic novels (quitting your 12-issue commitment to Superman and Wonder Woman because of that preference), yet you're returning to monthly comics in a markedly shared universe again? Was that sabbatical an error, or is this different?
Straczynski: They're kind of slanting the facts there a bit. The process started when DC asked me to step back from Superman and Wonder Woman in order to turn all my attention to getting the next volume of Superman Earth One up and on the rails. The first volume (on the New York Times bestseller weeks for 32 weeks) did infinitely better than they had expected, becoming their biggest single-price-point item of the year, and they wanted to make sure the next one went off without a hitch, and I told them I could do either the two monthlies, or the next SEO, but to try and do all of that at once would be stretching the work too thin and I worried about quality control. So Dan said come on off the books, we'll give your notes to the other writers and keep going in the direction you started.
It was after this that I realized that for the first time in something like 10 years, I didn't have a monthly title to look after, and decided to take a two- or three-year sabbatical from monthly books. This would let me do the occasional GN or mini-series (such as this one), while letting me put in the rest of the time assessing my monthly work to this point. See, when you're writing monthly books — and I wrote over 300 published books over a 10-year span, averaging about one every 10 days — you're like a man running for a bus, there isn't time to stop and review your work to see where you succeeded and where you failed. (Unlike, say, a screenplay, which is a discreet unit and you can more readily learn the lessons that script had to teach you.) So I've spent the last year going through every single comic I've written and making copious notes on what worked, and what didn't. I've also spent a ridiculous number of hours online looking for negative reviews, both in print and on Youtube, looking to hear in the bluntest terms possible what people did or didn't like about the work, but in reality usually skipping past the positive reviews so I could dig into the negative ones. That's how you learn. So I'm still neck-deep in that process; if I feel I can come back to monthlies as a better writers, I will, otherwise I won't.
So no, there's no contradiction here. When I stopped doing monthlies, I said very specifically that this would allow me to put more time into doing GNs and miniseries, focusing without distraction. (Happily this stuff is all searchable on Google.) Nothing has changed.
And as an aside: I've turned in three of the four Dr. Manhattan scripts already, ahead of schedule, and I'm about halfway through issue #4 as I write this. I'm turning in issue #3 of the Nite Owl series this week, and I've already fleshed out parts of issue #4, so basically, I'm pretty much done. Since I'll be finished early, Dan has asked me to do another quick small project, then I'll dive into the Samaritan X GN. The next Superman: Earth One GN is also written and drawn, and is now being colored and lettered as we speak. So the focus on short projects and GNs has enabled me to give them my total attention and ensure that they come out on time.
Nrama: Now that DC has crossed this "philosophical" line, will there be an integration of the Watchmen universe with the DC Universe? And if you (presumably) can't address that, then more specifically for you: Do you think there ever could or should be an integration of the two universes?
Straczynski: That's a decision that can only be made far, far above my pay grade. That's a Dan DiDio and Jim Lee decision, and I haven't been privy to their thoughts on that issue. I think one can make a convincing argument on either side of that issue. So I will wait eagerly along with everyone else to see how that argument resolves itself.
Nrama: Finally, what do you want to tell fans of the original Watchmen — or even new readers — about what they can expect from Before Watchmen?
Straczynski: Leaving aside my stuff, because there the spectre of enlightened self-interest raises its ugly head, I've seen what the others are doing, and it's some of the best work they've ever done. Not one person involved with this project has phoned it in or slacked off. They (we) all know what's at stake, and everyone has brought his A-game to the project. Jae's art on Ozymandius is some of the most beautiful stuff I've ever seen in any comic book, anywhere. The writing Brian is bringing to his books is right at the top of his form. So what can you expect? Some of the best writing, and best art, by some of the best and most talented people in the business (and me, bringing up the rear), telling new stories about some of the most seminal and provocative characters in the history of comics publishing.
What more need be said?