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The superheroes of Watchmen, one of the best-regarded comics of all time, have held an unusual distinction for over 25 years: despite their enduring appeal and ownership by a major publisher in a serial market, they’ve only appeared in a single volume of stories.

That ends this year, though the adventures aren’t “new” so much as they are “older.” Before Watchmen, a set of seven miniseries, will expand on the 45 years of backstory that led up to the cataclysmic events the original Watchmen story.

Watchmen BabiesAccording to Watchmen writer and co-creator Alan Moore, the idea of a Watchmen prequel has been on the table for at least a couple of years. “They offered me the rights to Watchmen back, if I would agree to some dopey prequels and sequels,” he’d said in a 2010 Wired interview. He refused the offer, and certainly hasn’t mellowed on the idea now that it’s proceeding without him. “I tend to take this latest development as a kind of eager confirmation that they are still apparently dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago.”

Watchmen, while transformative and original in its final vision, was initially built on an assignment to revive Charlton Comics superheroes like Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle, who eventually “became” Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl in the revision process, respectively. Still, many literary classics have unusual origins, and many of those classics have been diminished by sequels in the eyes of their followers. (My Gone With The Wind-loving family still hasn’t forgiven the writer of the sequel Scarlett. But they did buy a copy.) Watchmen spin-offs– the schlockier the better– have been an in-joke in the biz for years, as evidenced by the Simpsons gag at left and the video below.

In the same Wired piece, DC co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee issued a joint statement on the subject: “Watchmen is the most celebrated graphic novel of all time. 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.” That wasn’t exactly a “no,” even then.

Gibbons, for his part, has been diplomatic if uninvolved. “The original series of Watchmen is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to 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.”

One little-remembered member of the Watchmen team will be participating in this new venture: original series editor Len Wein, who will be writing Ozymandias with artist Jae Lee, for six issues. The other six series will be:

Comedian by writer Brian Azzarello and artist J.G. Jones (6 issues)
Dr. Manhattan by writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Adam Hughes (6 issues)
Minutemen by writer/artist Darwyn Cooke (6 issues)
Nite Owl by writer J. Michael Straczynski and artists Joe and Andy Kubert (4 issues)
Rorschach by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo (4 issues)
Silk Spectre by writer Darwyn Cooke and artist Amanda Conner (4 issues)

Each issue will have a two-page backup story, Curse of the Crimson Corsair, a nod to the pirate comic that ran through the original Watchmen, by Wein and artist John Higgins. Curse will eventually be collected in its own special edition. The effort will culminate in Before Watchmen: Epilogue.

“Comic books are perhaps the largest and longest running form of collaborative fiction,” said DiDio and Lee in a statement released today. “Collaborative storytelling is what keeps these fictional universes current and relevant.”

It remains to be seen how an alternate-history timeline that ends in 1985 can truly remain “current and relevant.” But many of the industry’s best-known talents seem determined to prove it can. Can it? We’ll have to wait and see.

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