By Jeff Jensen
February 01, 2012 at 11:00 AM EST
DC Comics

Geekdom, get ready to rumble with excitement…or grumble with outrage. Or both. In an announcement sure to ignite a firestorm of fanboy passion and pique, DC Entertainment revealed today that DC Comics will publish a collection of miniseries that will expand upon the world of Watchmen, the influential superhero saga originally released as a 12-issue maxi-series from 1986 to 1987. Marked by bravura storytelling, provocative politics, and gritty violence, Watchmen is best known for deconstructing superhero archetypes embodied by cultural icons like Superman and Batman. (You can read our 2005 oral history about the genesis, creation, and legacy of the series here.) Why might the new comics be controversial? Because Watchmen’s widely revered writer, Alan Moore, who has long been at war with DC for any number of reasons, has absolutely nothing to do with them.

Branded Before Watchmen, the long-rumored project–which has been on-again, off-again in a variety of forms for years–will comprise seven miniseries created by an all-star lineup of talent, including Amanda Conner, who drew the first look at Silk Spectre posted here. Your roll call:

Rorschach (four issues): The vicious urban vigilante with an ink-blot mask. Written by Eisner Award winner Brian Azzarello of 100 Bullets fame, with art by Lee Bermejo.

The Comedian (six issues): Jackass jokester turned amoral super-soldier. Written by Azzarello, art by J.G. Jones.

Dr. Manhattan (four issues): Blue and nude atomic-power superman, profoundly detached from humanity. Written by J. Michael Straczynski, a superstar comics scribe equally known for his TV and film work (Babylon 5, Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film Changeling), with art by Adam Hughes.

Nite Owl (four issues): Maybe the most relatable of the Watchmen pantheon, a second-generation hero with high-tech weaponry. Written by Straczynski, art by Andy Kubert and his father, the legendary Joe Kubert.

Ozymandias (six issues): Super-smart, mega-wealthy, scary-ambitious. Written by another living legend (and original Watchmen editor) Len Wein, art by Jae Lee.

The Minutemen (six issues): The founding fathers of Watchmen’s superhero universe. Written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, whose recent work includes acclaimed comic adaptations Donald E. Westlake’s Parker crime novels.

Silk Spectre (four issues): The daughter of a pioneering female superhero, raised to be her mother’s replacement. Written by Cooke, art by Conner.

Wein will also write a two-page backup story that will run in each issue of each series called “Curse of the Crimson Corsair” with art by Watchmen’s colorist, John Higgins. Once each series has completed its run, DC will wrap up the initiative with a single issue entitled Before Watchmen: Epilogue, featuring contributions of several different writers and artists. The first issue of the first miniseries will drop this summer, title and date TBD. From there, new issues will roll out each week. In a joint statement, DC Entertainment co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee say the reason the company is launching Before Watchmen now is because “it’s our responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant.… After twenty-five years, the Watchmen are classic characters whose time has come for new stories to be told.” (Note: The Watchmen trade paperback remains one of the industry’s best-selling “graphic novels” despite the lack of new material since the comic’s original publication, and was so even before director Zack Snyder’s epic movie adaptation in 2009.)

In an exclusive interview with EW, Darwyn Cooke-–whose own highly regarded superhero work includes The New Frontier–explained his vision for Silk Spectre: “One of the first things I did was go back through the original book and look at all the female characters and their position in the story and the arcs they had. What I realized is that as much as I really like Laurie, she’s really only just Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend and then Nite Owl‘s girlfriend. We never get to see her being self-sufficient and dealing with herself and dealing with her own problems. She’s there for a man. I came up with the idea of looking at the brief period of time when she becomes an adult.” And so the series will take place in the mid-1960s, and track Laurie’s maturation and heroic evolution in the year prior to joining a team of superheroes known as the Crimebusters. Cooke says the book will also focus on how Laurie’s superhero stage mom, the original Silk Spectre, influenced her daughter’s life. “Sally’s very interested in the legacy that can be created from the Silk Spectre brand,” says Cooke. “There’s a little bit of that Toddlers and Tiaras thing going on.” He adds that collaborating with Conner was essential: “The only way I could do this is if Amanda drew it. I desperately wanted this to not feel like a guy who is pushing 50 writing a teenage girl.”

NEXT: A more “hopeful” Watchmen. Also: Why the potential for controversy?

Cooke counts himself among those creators and fans deeply marked and influenced by Watchmen. He discovered the series in his 20s while working as an art director for a fashion magazine, still several years away from beginning his celebrated career as an animator and comic-book storyteller. “Every couple months on a slow Saturday I would go down to the store and pick up a few books,” says Cooke. “I could remember picking up the first couple of Watchmen and being fascinated by it. Alan had completely reinvented how comics told stories.” But Cooke does find himself less enamored these days by one of the story’s defining aspects: The “pervasive darkness” of its worldview, which was largely an expression of the British Moore’s perspective on the Cold War, the legacy of ’60s counterculture, and the conservative policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. While Cooke believes Watchmen was “note perfect” for its time, “I’d consider it a masterpiece if it had been able to have found what I would refer to as a hopeful note. … Again, it’s not hard to understand [where Alan was coming from], and that sort of storytelling does have an allure for young people. [But] I think the older you get, the more you look for hope or positive things. Maybe I’m just getting old.” With that in mind, Cooke says Silk Spectre “is probably going to be the most hopeful of all the books.”

DC Comics is keenly aware that Before Watchmen has the potential to spark polarizing response. In fact, the company may even be banking on it. The press release issued today describes the series of titles “as highly anticipated as they are controversial.” (The press release also includes a statement from Watchmen co-creator and artist Dave Gibbons that has the feel of a blessing: “The original series of Watchmen is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted tell. However, I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire.”) Watchmen is a sacred text for a generation of comic-book readers who came of age during the 1980s, a period of extraordinary creative achievement that saw the medium reach new levels of maturity and sophistication. 1986 was a watershed year, notes Professor Jonathan Gray, who teaches graphic novels at the City University of New York. In addition to Watchmen: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, as well as ongoing landmark works like Love & Rockets by Los Bros. Hernandez and Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! “I feel the same way about 1986 and comics the way people of a certain age feel about 1963 and rock music: Everything that came out then was awesome, and everything that has come out since is a pale imitation.… The entire industry as we know it today came out of that moment.”

Consequently, many fanboys – most likely adult Gen Xers weaned on cutting-edge grim-and-gritty – feel an enduring affection and loyalty to Moore, whose opposition to more Watchmen has been well documented over the years. He even refused to allow his name to be attached to Snyder’s Watchmen film. Professor Gray, 40, admits he’s one of those fans, and cops to having a knee-jerk negative reaction to Before Watchmen. “The problem is that there are hundreds of thousands of people my age who are going to bitch about this because it does seem somewhat sacrilegious,” he says. “I think twentysomthings might go: ‘Cool! New stories!’ But is the cost going to be worth it? It’s a can’t lose in the short term, but I worry about the long term.”

Still, perhaps younger and newer generations of comic-book fans have less severe feelings on this matter. And when we told Professor Gray about the top-tier talents writing and drawing each series, he practically growled with tortured angst. “They’re going to make it really hard for people to say no. Those creative teams? I would buy, sight unseen, whatever they’re doing. But it’s terrible! The feeling I have in my body right now is the feeling DC wants. They’re like: ‘Yeah, you say you don’t want to buy it, but you totally want to know what Brian Azzarello is going to do with the Comedian.’ And that’s what’s blowing my mind right now. Dammit!”

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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