Who Watches the Watchmen’s Watchers?
Alan Moore is angry about DC Comics’ Watchmen prequels. He’s right.
By Noah Berlatsky|
Before Watchmen.DC Comics.
Even by the wretched standards of the entertainment industry, superhero comics
are known for their dreadful labor practices. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the
creators of Superman, famously sold the rights to the character to DC Comics for
$130, and spent the latter part of their lives, and virtually all their money,
fighting unsuccessfully to regain control of him. Similarly, Jack Kirby, the
artist who co-created almost the entire roster of Marvel characters, was
systematically stiffed by the company whose fortunes he made. Though most of the
heroes in the Avengers film were Kirby creations, for example, his estate won’t
receive a dime of the film’s $1 billion (and counting) in box office earnings.
In keeping with this depressing tradition, DC will, next week, begin releasing
new comics based on Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's seminal 1986-87
series. Before Watchmen will include not one, not two, but seven new limited
series, written and drawn by some of DC's most popular creators, including Brian
Azzarello, Darwyn Cooke, Amanda Conner, and Joe Kubert. Watchmen demonstrated to
a mainstream audience that comics could be art, and became one of the most
popular and critically acclaimed comics of the last 25 years. Up to now, it had
also been one of the most sacrosanct. For over two decades, DC has resisted the
urge to publish new material featuring Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, or the
You'll notice the list of writers and artists involved with Before Watchmen
includes neither Moore nor Gibbons. This is not unusual in superhero comics.
Most work for DC and Marvel is created on a work-for-hire basis. Thus, the
original creator of, say, Walrus Man will usually go into a deal with one of the
big two comics publishers knowing that the Titan of Tusk will become the
company's property—his aquatic adventures to be written and drawn by whomever
the corporate overlords deem fit.
What is unusual, though, is the vehemence with which the original creator has
denounced Before Watchmen. It's true that back in the ’80s, DC tried to get
Moore and Gibbons on board for a sequel. That didn't pan out, though, and in the
ensuing decades, Moore's relationship with DC has soured, to put it mildly.
Among (many) other things, Moore became increasingly angry with the company over
the handling of the rights to Watchmen itself. In the original contract, DC had
written a provision stating that the comic and the characters would revert to
Moore and Gibbons once the series went out of print. Moore had assumed that, as
with all comics in those pre-“graphic novel” days, this would happen within a
few years. Instead, of course, Watchmen was a massive hit—so massive that the
trade paperback collection of Watchmen has been in constant publication, and
probably always will be.
Gibbons has largely seemed content with DC's perpetual ownership of Watchmen.
Moore, though, is a different story. He refused to accept recompense for the
2009 Watchmen film, which he referred to (sight unseen) as "more regurgitated
worms." As for Before Watchmen, he made his position painfully clear in an
interview: "I don't want money. What I want is for this not to happen."
Watchmen's canonical status, combined with Moore's dissent, has led to an
unusually vocal backlash against DC. Chris Roberson, a sometime DC writer,
decided to stop accepting work from the company because of its record on
creator's rights. Cartoonist Roger Langridge, who wrote the acclaimed series
Thor: The Mighty Avenger for Marvel, followed suit, explaining that "Marvel and
DC are turning out to be quite problematic from an ethical point of view to
continue working with." And Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn will not be
carrying the Before Watchmen titles; in explanation, Bergen Street's manager,
the comics critic Tucker Stone, said, "This is just gross, and we don’t want to
be part of this one."
It would be nice to say that Roberson, Langridge, and Stone are at the forefront
of an all-out revolt against DC and Marvel's business practices. That's not
really the case, though. For the most part, DC and Marvel's writers and artists
are still writing and arting as they always have; comics stores are still
carrying the comics; and fans are still buying. Yes, if you go stumbling about
in the comments of mainstream comics blogs (here for instance), you'll find some
outrage on Moore's behalf. But you'll also find a significant number of folks
who don't care, and who are actively irritated that anyone thinks that maybe
they should care: As one fan said, "Alan Moore is a very arrogant guy that
really hasn't done anything relevant in a very long time and should really spend
more time creating and less being a cranky old guy in a pub.”
J. Michael Straczynski, one of the writers on Before Watchmen, summed things up
for many when he asked rhetorically, “Did Alan Moore get screwed on his
contract? Of course. Lots of people get screwed, but we still have Spider-Man
and lots of other heroes."
Before Watchmen. DC Comics.
Straczynski's contrast between Alan Moore (screwed!) and Spider-Man (still
ours!) nicely sums up the fandom dynamics of superhero comics. Creators are
there to churn out marketable, exploitable properties … and then disappear. And
because the comics companies own the characters, and because they have
substantial marketing departments, they're in a position to make that
disappearance stick. Who knows who created all those different Avengers? Who
knows who created Wonder Woman? Who cares? We want our modern myths packaged and
available at our corner store and on our movie screens. Also … toasters.
Why is Moore complaining? It’s not about the money, as he’s said. (That’s
probably a big part of the reason people call him a crank.) But Moore created a
group of characters and the world they live in; those characters still mean
something to him. Now a company he believes has screwed him over gets to
colonize and even define that world. For example: Moore’s comics have often been
concerned with feminism, and one theme of Watchmen is that the superhero genre
is built in part on retrograde sexual politics and thuggish rape fantasies.
And how does Before Watchmen address these issues? Like so.
If this were some piece of fan fiction detritus—naked Dr. Manhattan, porn-faced
Silk Spectre!—it would be funny. But given that this is an "official" product,
it starts to be harder to laugh it off.
Of course, this is one of the things that always happens with art. If you create
a beloved character or story, others are going to honor it, parody it, use it,
and abuse it. That’s why there’s fan fiction. Indeed, Moore and artist Melinda
Gebbie literally defiled Dorothy Gale, Alice (of Wonderland), and Wendy Darling
in their exuberantly pornographic Lost Girls. Given that, what does Moore have
to complain about exactly?
What he has to complain about is that he doesn't own his own characters ... and
the company that does own them is free to pursue any version of the characters
it likes, whether honoring Moore’s original vision (as DC has been careful to
assert) or turning it into bland, infinitely reproducible genre product (as many
suspect they will). And DC has the marketing might to ensure that, in the end,
its version will be the one that’s remembered. After the third or fourth Before
Watchmen movie, which iteration of the characters will be most familiar to the
public? Rorschach and Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan have been raised from their
resting place, and Moore—and the rest of us—now get to watch them stagger
around, dripping bits of themselves across the decades, until everyone has
utterly forgotten that they ever had souls.