EXCLUSIVE: JMS Talks "Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan"

Wed, February 1st, 2012 at 2:58am PST

Comic Books
Kiel Phegley, Staff Writer

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JMS speaks with CBR News about tackling the world of "Watchmen"

This morning, long-simmering rumors turned into cold hard facts as DC Entertainment announced that it would release a string of prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' legendary "Watchmen" comic series starting this summer. The seven miniseries and one-shot epilogue carry the banner "Before Watchmen" and will be published one book a week over 35 weeks featuring work by the likes of Brian Azzarello, Darwyn Cooke, Len Wein, John Higgins, Lee Bermejo, J.G. Jones, Andy and Joe Kubert, Amanda Conner and Jae Lee (the full announcement can be read here).

As part and parcel of the announcement, CBR News is happy to present an exclusive first interview with writer J. Michael Straczynski about one of his two four-issue miniseries for the project: "Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan" as drawn by Adam Hughes. Alongside a "Before Watchmen: Nite Owl" series done with the Kuberts, JMS will be using this book to delve deeper into the life of Jon Osterman whose accidental change into the godlike being known as Dr. Manhattan serves as the major fulcrum point in the original "Watchmen."

Below, JMS addresses his work on "Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan" and the entire "Before Watchmen" project, explaining why he feels the comics are a necessary move for DC to make in 2012, why Alan Moore's disinterest in the property shouldn't impact how the publisher and creators move forward with his characters and why Dr. Manhattan's story is both the most human and maybe the most challenging aspect of the entire "Watchmen" mythos.

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CBR News: Let's start at the beginning of all this, for you, at least. When, exactly, do you recall the idea of work within the "Watchmen" world being floated your way by DC, and what was your initial response? From there, how long did it take you to develop ideas for the characters and begin work on the series you're tackling here?

J. Michael Straczynski: The first time Dan DiDio mentioned it was, I believe, a couple of years ago, in a "wouldn't it be cool if...?" sort of way. Initially, I think he was looking at a way to go slowly with one or two characters, such as Dr. Manhattan, but gradually grew to believe there might be a larger canvas on which he could make this happen. But that's emblematic of how Dan works; he really focuses in on the characters and has shown himself willing to reinvent titles, characters, worlds and situations to make them more current and contemporary, as he did with the recent multi-title relaunches and the Earth One OGNs.

The easy path to an event is, "Okay, we're going to come up with a reason for the Justice League to fight the Justice Society -- then, next summer, we'll find an excuse for the Justice Society to fight the Teen Titans -- and then the Teen Titans and the Justice Society can fight the Justice League and the Challengers of the Unknown!" And there are plenty of good reasons to go that way. Lord knows, it's safer. The harder, and riskier path is to reconsider and relaunch every major title in your library, or in this case, to bring back characters and a universe no one has dared touch in 25 years and say, "Okay, what can these characters tell us about the world we live in as seen through the eyes of readers in 2012 that's new? What can we learn from them? What kinds of stories can we tell about them now that we couldn't tell 25 years ago?" It's a gutsy move, any way you want to slice it.

EXCLUSIVE: JMS is joined in expanding on the story of Dr. Manhattan by superstar artist Adam Hughes

So I was very excited by the idea, especially as it began to broaden to the full cast of the Watchmen, and began working on ideas almost immediately. You have to understand that, like probably everyone reading this, "Watchmen" is one of my all-time favorite books and maybe one of the best ever done in the field. (My other favorite is Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" which is absolutely off the scale, quality-wise.)

I think one of the biggest questions readers are going to have when they hear this news is simple "Why do this?" The original "Watchmen" (gosh it sounds strange to say it that way) is a work that many consider to be just about perfect as it is, and despite having a rich world behind it, the story itself doesn't leave a lot of mysteries begging to be solved. Why do you think this kind of prequel project is a worthwhile creative undertaking for you or for anyone?

The flip-side to that question, then, is "Why do anything based on something that was well done?" It's weirdly counter-intuitive: the characters are great, the world is terrific, we created something amazing here, so, God -- let's never ever do that again. Run away!

A lot of folks feel that these characters shouldn't be touched by anyone other than Alan, and while that's absolutely understandable on an emotional level, it's deeply flawed on a logical level. Based on durability and recognition, one could make the argument that Superman is the greatest comics character ever created. But neither Alan nor anyone else has ever suggested that no one other than Shuster and Siegel should ever be allowed to write Superman. Alan didn't pass on being brought on to write Swamp Thing, a seminal comics character created by Len Wein, and he did a terrific job. He didn't say "No, no, I can't, that's Len's character." Nor should he have.

Of course, when the news hits there will be a lot of talk about what the original "Watchmen" creators make of all this with Alan Moore having largely washed his hands of the property and Dave Gibbons giving his blessing to the new project via DC's PR. Do either of their opinions impact how you'll approach your work?

Again: on an emotional level, I get it. But by the same token, Alan has spent most of the last decade writing some very, very good stories about characters created by other writers, including Alice (from Wonderland), Dorothy (from Oz), Wendy (from Peter Pan), as well as Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Jekyll and Hyde and Professor Moriarty. I think one loses a little of the moral high ground to say, "I can write characters created by Jules Verne, HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Frank Baum, but it's wrong for anyone else to write my characters."

The lack of his blessings has no more impact on the actual storytelling process than would be the case if we had his blessings. The story has to stand on its own. A crappy story wouldn't be helped by having his blessings, and a good one isn't made better for it. Would it be nice? Sure. I'd love it. Again, I have always been a massive fan of Alan's work. Back when I worked on "The New Twilight Zone," I tracked him down and, after pulling every string I could find, managed to get him on the phone to ask if he'd please consider writing an episode. (He said no.) Alan is the best of us. I've said repeatedly, online and at conventions, that on a scale from 1-10, Alan is a full-blown 10. I've not only said it, more importantly, I've always believed it.

Let's talk about the stories you'll be telling in and of themselves. While the entirety of the main cast in "Watchmen" get their due in the story, I've always found Dr. Manhattan's story to be the real compelling and tragic heart of the piece (though most folks would probably argue Rorschach). What was it about Jon Osterman as a character, both before and after his transformation into a godlike being, that drew you in to wanting to tell more of his story?

You're precisely right in saying that he was the "tragic heart" of the story, in many ways because he was the most self-aware of the bunch. The more one lives a non-self-examined life, deciding early on this is how the world works and never swerving from that, the more one can ignore one's own faults and mistakes. It puts you on a track and carries you through whatever you encounter with the burden of ambiguity.

But Dr. Manhattan is aware of everything he's done, right or wrong, at every instant of his life, simultaneously. He is in a constant state of self-reflection, and cursed with knowing the limits of free will in a quantum-based universe, which is a fascinating contrast to someone who is as powerful as he is. He is limitless in power and utterly limited by his ability to perceive time, space and causality as they actually are. He can't look at the path and choose differently because he can see into the future to know he's already chosen. The math on that alone is enough to stun a physicist at 20 paces.

Dr. Manhattan's words are somewhat prophetic in light of today's news in this panel from "Watchmen" illustrated by co-creator Dave Gibbons.

There's another area, another aspect to his character, that is almost subliminal but bears mentioning as it does impact both the original Watchmen and the new miniseries. If you look at the progression of nearly all of the other characters, it's a path from light to dark, from optimism to cynicism. But if you look at Jon before and after his transformation, you almost see the opposite happening. This was a guy who lived for numbers, for clockwork precision, who took tiny things apart and put them together again. His vision was tunneled and precise and microscopic in its scale.

Now comes the transformation, and he goes from a micro view of the universe to a macro view. It opens him up to beauty in a way he could never even conceive of prior to that event. He becomes cosmic, nearly god-like in his understanding. That makes it, in a way, a journey from darkness into light, from limits into limitless, and thus the polar opposite of most of the other characters. He can see it all...and that's amazing. The chance to examine his transformation, what it meant and what it cost in going from human to something more profound, is what drew me to this character.

In that seminal fourth issue of "Watchmen," we learn an awful lot about Dr. Manhattan's life, front to back. Does your series "walk between the rain drops" of that story, or is there another piece of the puzzle you felt could be more fully explored here?

It's both, really. We are all being very meticulous in how we tie in the events of our stories with the original "Watchmen." The first time we all met secretly in New York to discuss all this, we kept copies of "Watchmen" close at hand and whenever a question was raised about what happened to whom and when, we'd flip through looking for the slightest clue. I joked at the time that it looked like Saturday afternoon Bible Study.

I was very careful to stay within the parameters of what Alan created for Dr. Manhattan. But at the same time, you need the elbow room to create a story worth telling, which means something new has to be created. In this case, it came through looking at what Alan had done and asking the next logical question within that framework. As one example: it's always bothered me that someone as brilliant and precise about time as Jon could just blithely walk into the intrinsic field test chamber as the time-lock closed. He'd know better than that. But since it did happen, you now have to say, "Okay, that being the case, how did it happen? Is there something we don't know? Or more to the point, was there something he didn't know?"

Asking that question, and a number of others, began to have a profound effect on both the story and Dr. Manhattan himself. The result, for lack of a less dopey term, is a reexamination of the facts in the case on a quantum level that will branch out to have very large consequences.

Of course, one of the best known things about "Watchmen" is its very formal structure, from the nine-panel grid basis for its pages on down to the little details of certain issues. How did you tackle the challenge of telling stories in this world from that nuts and bolts perspective of comics as a language? Did you try and emulate certain storytelling techniques of the original or veer into completely different territory?

I didn't stick to the nine-panel thing because like most writers, I try to create a certain rhythm on the page by changing up the number of panels. But, that aside, I tried to write as much as possible in an approximation of Alan's narrative voice. In "Nite Owl," this wasn't as great a concern because that narrative voice doesn't apply as much, but Dr. Manhattan is in many ways the voice of the first book via captions, voice-overs and interior commentary. There's a certain style to Dr. Manhattan's monologues that is unique, you can hear it in your head. I worked to emulate that style, the same way anyone coming onto a TV show has to learn to write for the main character's voice. Having that background served me well in this instance.

Adam Hughes will be working with you on "Dr. Manhattan," an announcement I'm sure will turn some heads. Thought known widely for his good girl art, he definitely has a wide range of tools in his toolbox to draw from. What about his style makes him a strong collaborator for this piece?

There's a real fluidity in his work that brings a contrast to Dr. Manhattan, who, if you're not careful, can start to look very stiff. There's also an intelligence in the eyes of his subjects that I think will work well here, and a humanity that will come in handy as we get more deeply into the story of Jon himself.

JMS calls his "Before Watchmen" scripts "the hardest things I've ever written, because I want so much for them to be right"

Finally, I don't think it's a surprise to say that these comics are going to be more studied and scrutinized than any in recent memory considering the legacy of the original work and the discussion around its continuation. When all is said and done, what, at their core, do you hope people get out of your stories?

The whole point of having great characters is the opportunity to explore them more deeply with time, re-interpreting them for each new age. DC allowed these characters sit on a shelf for over two decades as a show of respect, and that is salutary, but there comes a time when good characters have to re-enter the world to teach us something about ourselves in the present.

Alan's original work spoke profoundly to readers in the 1980s who came through Nixon and Vietnam and the various social movements of the age. The question now becomes, what can those characters illuminate for us now, in 2012? So I think the hope is that by reviving them and peering through their eyes with a contemporary perspective, we can create stories that will entertain and illuminate. All of us involved in this want to do more than just show these guys and gals in action. We want the stories to be about something that's worth a reader's time and money to buy.

At its core, the original "Watchmen" was about the question, "Who watches the Watchmen?", which is another way of saying, "Who do you trust?" So what's the larger question here?

Dan really wanted to give each writer the freedom to play with the characters in his story without worrying too much about tying it in with everyone else's story. With four writers doing two stories each, set at different times in the Watchmen universe, with different characters, sooner or later the integrity of the various miniseries would have been compromised trying to do that. Instead, we were allowed to tell the story of each hero cleanly. I've voiced before my concern that in comic publishing events, the individual characters or titles are too often sacrificed to the vested interests that event; here, DC turned the formula upside down and let the event serve the individual characters.

But you're right in terms of having an overall story that adds up more in the end than the sum of its parts. So when we met in New York, as the day wrapped up -- there was no show runner, each of us worked on our own stories with input and reactions from everyone else -- I raised my hand and asked the very question you raise. Even though our stories are separate with some areas of overlap, there has to be a larger point to it all. What is it we're trying to say?

In the course of that conversation, I mentioned my belief that there are five kinds of truth: the truth you tell to casual acquaintances, the truth you tell to you family and close friends, the truth you tell to only a very few people in your life, the truth you tell yourself and the truth you don't admit, even to yourself. I was basically just blathering on, as I tend to do, but Dan seized on the last two of those truths as being the thematic core of the books. Darwyn did a whole discussion about this in one of his uploads, further formalizing this as the core of our story. In the end, the miniseries about the points and shadings between what we think we know about these characters, and the truth -- what that says about them, and what it says about us.

Every writer and editor on this project is a massive fan of the original book, and of Alan's work. As the months passed, we e-mailed each other with the smallest question of continuity, determined to be excruciatingly faithful to the original book because we know what's at stake. We want to add to, not subtract from, the quality of what Alan and Dave created. We know we have a hell of a legacy to live up to, and we're determined to achieve that. The scripts I've turned in so far on this project (all on deadline) are the hardest things I've ever written, because I want so much for them to be right.

They're the books I would want to read as a fan of "Watchmen." We can only hope that we got it right, that the fans approve, and that one day, one distant and much-longed for day, Alan Moore won't be mad at us anymore.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on "Before Watchmen" as it becomes available.

TAGS:  dc comics, watchmen, before watchmen, alan moore, dave gibbons, brian azzarello, j michael straczynski, jms, adam hughes

 
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