DC Comics, safe to say my biggest love-hate media relationship, announced this morning in an veritable online media blitz that they are working on seven new miniseries, each based on a different major character from Alan Moore‘s Watchmen, expanding and adding to the “Watchmen universe.” Naturally, the comics world has kind of exploded.
This post is going to serves two functions. First, I’m willing to guess that, fractured as the geek community is, there are a lot of you out there that don’t understand why this move would be controversial, or why it touches on the subjects of creators rights, creative innovation, and the future of the mainstream comic industry in America. DC owns Watchmen, right? It’s just like making more Superman, right? Is this just a bunch of nerds complaining about adaptations of ’80s nostalgia and endless sequels, again? Second, I’m going to share some personal opinion.
So lets start. Allow Us To Explain: Before Watchmen:
Alright, here’s the deal with Alan Moore and DC Comics. I’m going to liberally borrow from an article I wrote two years ago, because nothing has really changed.
It all started in the 1980s, when Watchmen and V for Vendetta appeared and became two of the most important comics to be published in that era, responsible, along with a few other contemporary comics, for making a bunch of creators look at superheroes in an entirely different and more grown-up way as well as taking the first steps to legitimize the graphic novel as an art form for a great many people. Of course, no one knew that the books would be as successful as they were, and so the contract on Watchmen generously stated that DC would retain the rights to comic only for as long as they continued publishing it. Once they stopped producing new editions, the rights would revert to Moore.
Of course, Watchmen blew the minds of millions of superhero fans, and DC has never had a reason to release their hold over the property. DC also retains the film rights to V for Vendetta. Moore was still working for them on non-original work, writing some of the most enduring Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern stories in history. But in 1989 he split from the company “cold turkey,” and has been candid about the reason why:
We were talking about the future of the Watchmen characters. We had been assured that we would be the only people writing them, that they wouldn’t be handed to other creators just to make a fast buck out of a spin-off series. There was a point where a highly placed person at DC did make a not terribly subtle – I think it was intended to be subtle but it wasn’t – insinuation that they would not give our characters to other writers to exploit as long as we had a working relationship with DC. It’s perhaps just me… but that was a threat and I really, really, really don’t respond well to being threatened. I couldn’t tolerate anyone threatening me on the street; I couldn’t tolerate anyone threatening me in any other situation in my life. I can’t tolerate anyone threatening me about my art and my career and stuff that’s as important to me as that. That was the emotional breaking point. At that point there was no longer any possibility of me working for DC in any way, shape, or form.
Moore would go on to create his own imprint, America’s Best Comics, under Wildstorm, then an independent comics publisher, and wrote The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Top 10, and Promethea. Then, Wildstorm owner Jim Lee (current DC co-executive) sold the struggling company and its assets to DC without telling Moore beforehand. DC began interfering with his work (destroying an entire print run The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and reprinting it because of the use of the word Marvel in one of the issue’s fake period advertisements), and optioned LoXG to make a terrible big budget Hollywood movie. A few years later, DC optioned his two most famous seminal works, Watchmen and V for Vendetta to make movie adaptations against his (very publicized) wishes. So when, a couple years ago, DC offered to give him the rights to Watchmen back if he would okay sequels and spinoffs of the series, he told them that they could bugger off. (I only use the British term because it’s considered less vulgar in my area. I’d much rather use the American version, with its lovely hard consonant.)
Says Moore about it:
But no, I wasn’t going to take the rights back at this stage after they had pretty much, in my opinion, raped what I had thought to be a pretty decent work of art. I didn’t want them throwing me back the spent and exhausted carcass of my work and certainly not under terms that would apparently allow them to go on producing witless sequels and prequels ad infinitum.
Lets sum up:
- Alan Moore writes some of the best work of his young career for DC Comics.
- DC Comics holds the fact that they have the rights to one of his greatest artistic accomplishments over Moore’s head, as a hostage to keep his talent, knowing that it is a thing he values highly.
- Moore leaves. DC acquires the company that he works for, and instead of attempting to patch things up, continues to use his work in ways he disagrees with.
- Moore leaves. DC continues to use their rights to his work in ways he disagrees with.
- DC offers Moore his original idea back… if he’ll let them do what they want and legally can do with it anyway, i.e., things he abhors. Moore recognizes this as perhaps the most pitiful olive branch in the history of publisher/artist relationships, and declines.
Everybody, including me on occasion, likes to make jokes about Alan Moore’s odd life of worshiping a snake god, writing Victorian erotica, having crazy hair and wearing (awesome) rings. Person to person, I’m not sure I’d be able to get along with him, not that that will ever probably matter, but this is frequently how we judge our celebrities.
However, as an artist, particularly as an artist who wants to work in superhero comics, I relate to him because I find the idea of this happening to me terrifying. We’d like to think that we absolved our sins, as an industry with a history of systematically underpaying and stealing the work of the very people who created the ideas that made it a success, when DC (after years of litigation!) awarded Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster a pension for Superman. But we haven’t. DC is still fighting to buck legal agreements it solemnly made to the Seigel and Shuster families in the ’70s regarding the rights to Superman. Jack Kirby died without receiving real monetary acknowledgement of impact his work has had on Marvel Comics. Artist to artist, I’m amazed that Alan Moore can be as civil as he is regarding DC Comics. I’m amazed he wants to talk to anyone about Watchmen, at all, ever.
So that’s the background of Alan Moore and DC Comics, a snarl of copyright, company mergers, and licensing; all adding up to a company attempting to profit of an artist’s work, expressly against their consent, by many of the means at their disposal.
Look, I’m going to get to the “You can’t criticize a company for wanting to make money!” argument in a moment.