It is often said that Watchmen is the most influential comic ever to be released. That comics wouldn’t be where they are without it, for good and for ill. But how did we get here, exactly? More to the point, just what influence did Watchmen provide to the larger world of comics? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Watchmen? Who watched the Watchmen?
There’s a telling panel on the final page of Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill, at the funeral of our protagonist. “It all just seems so pointless somehow,” says one of his heroic colleagues. “Six months from now, who’s even going to remember Dollar Bill?” Great question.
You probably won’t have heard of this issue, which was a one-shot nestled deep into the high-profile Before Watchmen line of comics, which DC proudly shilled in 2012 for an audience of who-knows. Altogether they got 37 issues out of the Before Watchmen concept in total, which stepped back to give origin stories for the broken-down and world-weary characters who first showed up in Moore and Gibbons’ 1980s story. The project was roundly panned at the time, with the only people who had good things to say about it being the ones who were picking up a check. Consider it the non fungible token of its day, a project where people could get a great payday in exchange for looking past certain moral lines they were crossing.
DC’s co-publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee had previously said:
“Rest assured, DC Comics would only revisit these iconic characters if the creative vision of any proposed new stories matched the quality set by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons nearly 25 years ago, and our first discussion on any of this would naturally be with the creators themselves.”
Allegedly true to that word, in 2010 DC apparently offered the rights back to Alan Moore. However, that promise came with the proviso that he sign off and endorse the publisher putting out a bunch of new spin-offs, prequels, and one-shots about the stronger loving world of Watchmen, which they must have known he’d reject. By this point, Moore was very much in “please just leave me alone” mode, doing everything he could to put a firm barrier between the mainstream comics industry and his later-career endeavors. So, unsurprisingly, after getting that offer, Moore told them about a bunch of rocks he’d encourage them to go kick.
Co-creator Dave Gibbons was more diplomatically uninterested in the project, saying that DC could go ahead and do what they want, but he wouldn’t be involved in whatever they came up with. Listening carefully to the words of Watchmen’s creators – as artist-friendly executives who obviously wanted to make the best comics they could and would never sell out the creative product for a fast buck, sarcasm – Didio and Lee looked at the current declining sales figures for their other series and decided to go ahead with the project anyway. Two years later, Before Watchmen was announced.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the project was greeted with dismay, and Didio didn’t even try to hide the fact that the project was a sales ploy rather than a genuine attempt to make something good. The Guardian quotes him as saying:
“We saw our sales not just in DC but across the industry starting to flag a bit and we knew we had to do something about it, take some dramatic steps in order to reinvigorate our fan base and get people excited about comics again.”
Sidenote: it’s amazing to think how Didio routinely used to give press statements which directly tanked the projects he greenlighted, isn’t it? The interview ends by asking him if he thinks that Before Watchmen would continue beyond the initial lineup announcement, to which he said: “At this point the audience will decide that.”
Well, let’s put it this way: not only did DC not continue to publish Before Watchmen comics, they also canceled projects which were due to come out as part of the initial run, including Before Watchmen: Epilogue. The whole thing was a flop, which dented DC’s reputation amongst creators and readers – and didn’t even sell the expected copies which normally come from selling out your IP. A bunch of NYC-based comics creators got paid, though. Ten years later, most of us seem to have forgotten the whole thing even happened.
Am I writing any of this overlong intro as a Watchmen lover, logged-on and looking to fight steadily on behalf of a wizard from the Midlands? No. Having started reading comics at University, Watchmen was the second trade paperback of comics I ever picked up, coming just after I’d read the second volume of Brian K.Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s Runaways.
That’s the story with the vampire, and he bites into Karoline, who is made out of light? And he explodes immediately and it rules? For me the explodey vampire story remains a foundational text for comics. Watchmen less so.
Anyway! Let’s move back to the issue at hand.
Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill is about a more miniscule character than you could even believe. By the time the first issue of Watchmen was published, Dollar Bill was already long-dead in-universe, and is referenced only in a few background panels and back-page content. His life is conveyed in the back of issue #2 “Absent Friends” as part of a fictional biography where the similarly small-potatoes character Hollis Mason spends a short paragraph explaining who Bill was. One of the original members of the very first superhero team, The Minutemen, Bill was a “nice” and “straightforward” person who was hired to be the superheroic mascot of a local bank. “Dollar Bill,” see? After a very short run of action, he was killed when his cape got stuck in a revolving door during a bank robbery, and the robbers promptly shot him.
That’s basically everything that was known about Bill before DC decided to commission a one-shot about him. He arguably went on to inspire the ending of The Incredibles, but he wasn’t important to the main story and most readers wouldn’t remember his name after they finished the original 12 issues. This one-shot was a last-minute addition to the Before Watchmen lineup, for sure, catching most people with surprise when it was announced. They’re doing a comic about that guy?
Perhaps appreciating that Dollar Bill wasn’t a thing, they not only brought in original Watchmen editor Len Wein to script the series, but superstar artist Steve Rude to draw.
The issue is rubbish, by the way. The most commonly-cited aspect to the issue in reviews of the time was that Steve Rude’s art was nice. And, sure, it’s fine, but it’s striking that it doesn’t seem to draw anything from Watchmen. There isn’t so much as a hint at a nine-panel page, or any of the indicators which appeared throughout both the original story and the various Before Watchmen tie-ins. Rude isn’t drawing a comic which ties into a previous story at all, and interviews I found with him which bring it up seem to suggest he simply viewed this as another work-for-hire gig. Which is fair: it does further distance the comic from the “creative vision” ideal which Lee and Didio said it was founded on, however.
Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill is a thoroughly generic “dark superhero” story, where a failed athlete becomes a failed movie star, then sells himself out to a bank as their mascot. From there he gets hired by The Minutemen to join their dodgy superhero team because he’ll boost their profile. After a failed stint as a superhero, he’s summarily dispatched at the end in the exact way described in Watchmen issue #2. Somehow, a paragraph of written exposition from the 1980s provided a more compelling account of the character’s life and times than these twenty-something pages of Before-Dom. So yeah… really, really bad stuff.
I wanted to find out what got Wein interested in working on the issue, and found a writer who was daydreaming. The announcement interview doesn’t exist anymore, but a quote from him offers this:
“He’s never been visited before. Of all the Watchmen, he’s the one with the least information given about him over the course of the series.”
Okay, fine, he’s a blank slate which the creative team can fill in for readers. Spoiler: they don’t do that. Bill remains as blank a slate at the end of the issue as he did at the start. When asked a softball question about his inspiration for Bill, the failed athlete turned public figure, Wein said that he’d ignored the probably more interesting stories of then-current controversial sports pros like Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods in favor of Joe Namath, an American football player who had been retired for almost ten years before the first issue of the original Watchmen came out.
Moore and Gibbons were trying to make a comic which spoke to contemporary concerns through looking back to the flaws of the past, but Wein skips timeless and heads straight to dated. Why are we being asked to read a story about a character who bores even the writer of the comic?
The only real touches of character Bill receives at any point in the issue actually come from the unspeaking side characters whose stories remain untold to this day. Towards the end of the issue he hears that lesbian superhero Silhouette and her girlfriend have been killed in a homophobic hate-crime. Listening to the report, he thinks “I’d always suspected that the good Lord would someday punish Ursula for her deviant lifestyle.” That rootin-tootin homophobia pervades the issue, with Wein using homophobia as a way to add edge to the otherwise straight-arrow lead character, the one trait which doesn’t lean generic. And you know what? It’s taken wholesale from Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen, which came out first and managed to more effectively cover all the beats of Dollar Bill’s life without dwelling on useless minutia. Not only is there nothing to say with the character – but Darwyn Cooke was simultaneously making that nothing into the core character trait of Dollar Bill. Yikes.
Here Bill is presented as an innocent, except for the ways in which he embodies the public prejudices of the time. For example, when first gifted the costume that will ultimately lead to his death, his main concern is that “I don’t know any straight guy in his right mind who would ever wear that.” At least he raises a toast to the dead teammate, Silhouette, whom he thinks was an affront to God – so perhaps Wein considers that a redemption arc. Again, though, that’s a beat taken directly from Darwyn Cooke, who has Bill raise a beer in the name of a different gay teammate he’s just said something homophobic about. Let’s make that a double yikes.
Eventually he dies, and the sequence seems utterly apathetic to what’s meant to be its most important moment. Look how uninspired this is:
Look: we all know that Before Watchmen was a cynical attempt to both annoy Alan Moore and make some money off his name in the process. Yet what’s so striking about Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill is how disinterested everybody seems about the whole thing. The other writers and artists who similarly sold out in order to be involved in the project at least indicated that they had something they wanted to say, or had found stories that hadn’t been told yet. By all accounts Darwyn Cooke actually succeeded to some extent!
But this one shot really feels indicative of the lack of thinking which went on in DC editorial when they were actually putting the line together. For one thing, they picked the bland white American to tell a story with a character who simply doesn’t have a story to tell. Then they hired Wein because of his connection to the original Watchmen, despite his eyes clearly being glazed over through the pitch meeting. Finally, they picked a superstar artist who wasn’t versed in Watchmen and didn’t care about the project. From start to finish, editorial was asleep on the job when they last-minute rushed this issue through so they could bulk up the page count of one of their eventual trades. It doesn’t feel like a Watchmen story in the way Cooke’s story did, despite lifting most of its core beats from Cooke’s more sophisticated use of the character.
Let’s mercy-kill this before we go on any longer. As a project, Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill showed that DC were cynical, tone-deaf, and trying to cash in on past failures their executives didn’t understand. As a final product, it shows they couldn’t even get a good comic out of it. An embarrassing failure all round.