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Before Watchmen or Watchmen: Which Should You Read First?

Before Watchmen or Watchmen: Which Should You Read First?

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Thanks to HBO, the world of Watchmen, the landmark comic series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, will be revisited in the latter half of 2019 with a TV series. The series will act as a sequel to the 1986-87 classic and has been described by Deadline as “alternate history where ‘superheroes’ are treated as outlaws, Watchmen embraces the nostalgia of the original groundbreaking graphic novel while attempting to break new ground of its own.”

With all the buzz around the upcoming TV show, there’s fresh interest in the original comics with fans rereading it and many discovering it for the first time.

If you fall into that second group, then you’ve probably done a little bit of research and seen that there are more than one Watchmen graphic novel to read. There’s the original series by Moore and Gibbons and there’s a range of character-focused collections called Before Watchmen.

Looking at these, you might be confused about what the difference is and what you should read first. Read on as I explain the difference.

Watchmen #1 cover by Dave Gibbons.
Watchmen #1 cover by Dave Gibbons.

What Is The Difference Between Watchmen and Before Watchmen?

Watchmen is a 1986-87 12-issue series – written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons, and published by DC Comics – which deconstructed the superhero genre. While similar deconstructions had been done prior, such as Rick Veitch’s The One and Alan Moore’s run on Miracleman, Watchmen was the first to receive mainstream success and has gone on to be a perennial seller and even recognised by Time Magazine.

To this day, Watchmen is still held in high regard for not only its deconstruction of the genre but for how well it is crafted. It’s dense storytelling, packed with visual and narrative motifs, and popularised the nine-panel grid that still gets used in modern comics on the regular.

Before Watchmen: Nite Owl #2 cover by Andy and Joe Kubert.
Before Watchmen: Nite Owl #2 cover by Andy and Joe Kubert.

Before Watchmen, on the other hand, is a group of miniseries from 2012 that each star one of the Watchmen characters. As the title suggests, these series are prequels that are set before the events of the original comic book series.

The following series were produced:

  • Before Watchmen: Minutemen (six issues) by Darwyn Cooke
  • Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre (four issues) by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner
  • Before Watchmen: Comedian (six issues) by Brian Azzarello and J.G Jones
  • Before Watchmen: Nite Owl (four issues) by J. Michael Straczynski, Andy Kubert, and Joe Kubert
  • Before Watchmen: Ozymandias (six issues) by Len Wein and Jae Lee
  • Before Watchmen: Rorschach (four issues) by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo
  • Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan (four issues) by J. Michael Straczynski and Adam Hughes
  • Before Watchmen: Moloch (two issues) by J. Michael Straczynski and Eduardo Risso
  • Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill (one-shot) by Len Wein and Steve Rude

All of these comics have been collected in a variety of different formats.

Which Should I Read First?

This is a question that I have received many times over the years. Every time it’s asked I say the same thing.

It’s very tempting, based on the name, to read Before Watchmen first. The logic makes a lot of sense, these prequel series have ‘before’ in the title. But I would recommend against that.

You are much better off reading the original series first. It is the superior read and was written with the intention of being standalone.

While Before Watchmen has many fantastic creators attached to them, the issue with it is that they offer very little new to the Watchmen mythos, expanding on events that were mentioned in the original series.

Once you’ve read Watchmen, if you want to spend more time in that world, go and read Before Watchmen. There’s no strict reading order to them so read whatever stories appeal to you.

Watchmen #1 page 5 by Dave Gibbons.
Watchmen #1 page 5 by Dave Gibbons.

Do Not Make Watchmen Your First Comic Book Read

At first glance, this statement may seem a little odd, but it is with good reason. Even with all of it’s revere, Watchmen is not the comic you give to someone who has never read comics before.

Why? This is because while it’s so good, readers will appreciate it more if they understand the language of comics first. By reading other comics first, you’ll get a better understanding of why people hold it in such high regards for its deconstruction and for the craft.

But the only way you can really appreciate it is if you have some understanding of the language of comic book storytelling. You don’t have to intimately understand it in the same way a comic book creator or a critic does, but if you’ve got a few other comics under your belt then you’ll begin to understand far better than if you’ve never read a comic.

Have Your Say

Have you read Watchmen or Before Watchmen before? Let me know in the comments below or via Facebook or Twitter.

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