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The Watchmen Prequels: Allow Us To Explain

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 ComicsArtist 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.

>>>Next: Yes, Enough Back Story, Lets Get to the Opinion Stuff

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  • Adam R. Charpentier

    JMS and Alan Moore are two writers that seem to be in the news as often for their work as they are for their “take my ball and go home” attitudes. Proving that you CAN have thin skin, principles, and yet still be a successful artist, Moore continues to alienate every company he works with while his ego swells and his work (especially the 1910 issue of League) become less about story and more about how much of a genius he is…whereas JMS has to parley, since his work has been hit or miss since Babylon 5 (mostly miss).

    …you know, I actually meant to write “I’ll read the Watchmen prequels as long as they’re good and probably even if they aren’t” but someone was bound to start an Alan Moore-related argument, so why not me?

  • Kortnee Bryant

    Welcome to publishing, where there’s enough people dying to be validated that the people at the top can screw any one they want. 

  • Anonymous

    Could you (or anyone) provide a link to any sort of press release or written statement by DC about this?

  • Nuchtchas

    I know I have always wanted to know more about the original Watchmen, and I know that Moore would never write them.  No matter how much I wanted to get my hands on a “The Silhouette” book it’s just not happening… I wouldn’t mind something that was signed off by Moore, but the idea of DC just doing what they want and ruining it, not a fan of that.  Sadly, no one is going to be happy.

  • Adam

    While I don’t particularly care for this unnecessary continuation of the series; I feel compelled to point out that Mr. Moore has made a career out of using characters in ways the original creators certainly would never have approved of (I’m looking at you JM Barrie)

  • Mark

    As much as I’d like to stay out of this kind of stuff, I agree with you. I know of Alan Moore, I haven’t read much of his work (I’m gonna finish Watchmen soon, I swear!), but I do know that even though Watchmen is “finished,” he should at least be slightly flattered that people still like the story enough to expand the universe. I know, cash grab and whatever, but if I had a choice to see a Silk Spectre prequel with Cooke and Conner or see Alan Moore make another porno featuring public domain characters, GIMME MY SILKIE!

  • Mark

    Now now now, I’m sure that L. Frank Baum would have wanted to see Dorothy have sexual relations with Alice and Wendy! You never know…

  • Jinxy Blastwave

    “Watchmen, much like V for Vendetta, is supremely a product of its time and place. The fact is, it’s not the ’80s anymore. We’re not habitually horrified
    by the prospect of total nuclear war and we’re not looking for “the
    Reds” under every stone.” 

    This was one of my major problems with the Watchmen movie.  I’m sitting there watching, and I realize they’re doing a story about how awful brinksmanship is… and I thought “Yes, movie, brinksmanship WAS bad, that’s why we don’t do that anymore…”

    I enjoyed Watchmen as a story I guess… but honestly for me it’s a historical piece now.  Would you want to read Watchmen again, or would you rather read the guys who read Watchmen as kids, learned from it, and innovated their own thing years later?  I feel like we’re at the next step of comics, the children of the Watchmen generation have grown up and are writing their own shit now… maybe let’s go read some of that instead.

  • Gabriela Alonso

    I have the hope they will write about the Silhouette in the Minutemen series. I don’t know what to think about it. If well done it might add something.

  • Anonymous

    It just reminds me of that one quote from The Simpsons. “So you like that I made your favorite superhero a heroin-addicted Jazz critic who’s NOT radioactive?”

  • Gabriela Alonso
  • Terence Ng

    I’d rather read what those kids have come up with that’s their own, not what they’re doing with characters of a finished work. Watchmen isn’t subject to some American comics incarnation of doujinshi.

    I also disagree with the comments about his League work. The characters there are public domain and they’re takes on those characters in different contexts, not attempts to fill in and add to the canonical sources that they come from.

    Dorothy might be having sex with Wendy and Alice, but that’s only in the context of the League stories. It has nothing to do with the authoritative works of L. Baum, M. Barrie, or Carrol, just like how Wicked has nothing authoritatively to do with The Wizard of Oz stories or Fables has anything to do with the original Grimm tales.

  • Jinxy Blastwave

    Oh, maybe I wasn’t clear, I definitely am not excited for new Watchmen… I meant people who read the original, learned its lessons, and are now writing their own stuff.  Bendis’s Daredevil.  Brubaker’s Criminal.  Casanova, Fables, Scalped, Y the Last Man… this is what we should be encouraging, not a rehash of something that was done ages ago that we can no longer relate to.

  • Heidi MacDonald

    >>>(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),

    Actually those were REAL Victorian advertisements. Just for the record.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you.  :)  It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine to see no source listed on an article, but I’ll let it go right now because they’re usually much better with it.

  • Terence Ng

    Thanks for the clarification. :)

  • Abel Undercity

    Not all of them, as I recall. Some were gags concocted by Moore and O’Neill, and picking out which is which is half the fun of them.  But the one containing the word “Marvel,” I believe, was the real thing, which made the whole incident even more absurd.

  • Adam Whitley

    I would go with the opposite. Especially since Silk Spectre is ultra lame. If you want a good female lead read Alan Moore’s Ballad of Halo Jones.

  • Adam Whitley

    In his defense he never created something that was meant to be a companion to the original stories and the creators are all dead. 

  • Anonymous

    “DC is still fighting to buck legal agreements it solemnly made to the Seigel and Shuster families”

    Um, I believe no.  Jerry (through insistence by his wife) attempted to sue for more money AFTER a settlement had been made, a settlement that had in it a codicil that IF he attempted to sue again, the previous agreement would be null and void, and the pension that  he was getting would cease.  Paul Levitz personally insisted that the pension continue, after another suit was raised.

    The amount they’ve received is a pittance compared to what DC / WB has earned; this is not under dispute.  But as far as I know, every attempt to amend the deal has come from Jerry and Joe’s families.

    Corrections welcome.

  • Maxwell LaChance

    You know as an artist, Moore signed away the rights to his materials.  You don’t hand a hundred dollar bill to some guy, tell him not spend it, and then act surprised when he says What Bill?
    Moore knew what he was doing when he signed the papers.  It wasn’t his work for hire.  He’s just bitter that he made a mistake. 
    Also, Watchmen in particular is a funny issue since the story was originally going to use characters that dc had acquired from Charlton comics.  And when you look, it’s pretty obvious who’s who.  Had this not been the mega success it was, I don’t think Moore would care,  Since it was never going to be his in the first place.

  • Robert

    “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.”

    The portion on DC optioning the movie rights is all untrue. Alan Moore sold the movie rights to LoEG before Wildstorm was purchased by DC. DC has never had the movie rights to LoEG which is a creator-owned property.

    In addition, the movie rights to Watchmen and V for Vendetta were sold in the late ’80s and early ’90s and Alan Moore got nice checks in the process. Alan Moore wasn’t opposed to movies being made when he sold the rights and the rights holders proceeded in good faith putting forth money and effort to develop scripts, recruit directors, etc. as a result. It’s not DC’s fault that Alan Moore had second thoughts years after the fact and no fault of the rights holders that they wanted to recoup their investment. Alan Moore never offered to return the money, with interest, and reimburse the rights holders for their effort and expenses.

  • Robert

    To me, the sad thing about it all was that the choice to include the ad for “Marvel Douche” was so childish to begin with. Levitz putting the cost of pulping issues above childish namecalling I think speaks well for his professionalism, and poorly for Moore’s. Then again, I don’t doubt that Moore was looking to stir up trouble in the first place.

  • Åsa M Larsson

    I don’t worship Moore, but I do credit him for making some of the most interesting and creative stories and characters in comics, at a time when it was sorely needed (Constantine rules!). I do think he can be overly negative and though the movie wasn’t perfect it was actually pretty good.
    I generally like the fact that good stories have spinoffs and begets more stories from those who were inspired.

    However, I will NOT EVER pick up this “prequel” by DC. Watchmen is such a 100% personal nothing-compares creation of Alan Moore it is just ridiculous to think that anyone else could say anything remotely topical about these characters. This is a complete novel, it has a beginning and an end. It’s not like Constantine, a character that can be built upon and expanded.

    Even making a prequel to Casablanca would be less offensive than this.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know anything about this but would it be possible that he signed it over and then wanted his name removed when he didn’t like the scripts?

  • Jerilyn Nighy

    Eh. DC is a mess now, anyway. It was to be expected. Moore never intended for people to emulate his work ad infinitum. Webcomics are where it’s at now.

  • David ‘Epic’ Kaplan

    So… it’s okay to literally and metaphorically rape someone else’s characters if the only complaint from the writer is him spinning in his grave?

  • David ‘Epic’ Kaplan

    Just like how nobody is forcing a Watchmen fan to accept whatever JMS writes as word of god. That said, you’re fooling yourself if you think JM Barrie wouldn’t more upset about pedo-Wendy-porno than Moore is about JMS’s Dr. Manhattan.

  • Terence Ng

    I’m not saying canon is “word of God”. I’m saying it’s canon.

    League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is not canon to any of its original works, nor, most importantly, is it intended to be.

    I’m not that interested in how upset Moore is, actually. I just think it’s poor to take a completed story, considered one of the best completed works in comics, and throw in a bunch of new stuff to make a buck by “officially” adding to it.

    If it was DC’s take on the Watchmen in a new context (or even a remake), then I’d have less of an issue with it.

    Of course, that doesn’t stop me from just flat out ignoring what DC is going to put out, if I feel like I want to, but it just seems like a misguided effort and cheapening of something that needs nothing more added to it.

  • David ‘Epic’ Kaplan

    These are comic books we’re talking about, where the notion of eight billion alternate universes with entirely different series of events are considered industry standard. The word official has as much weight as you want it to carry. No future copies of Watchmen are going to carry a page of Before Watchmen. Frankly, DC has hired profoundly talented writers to handle the material, which will almost certainly be treated VERY respectfully. Moore himself floated the idea of a prequel, and after over 25 years, if someone wants to write it, I say let them. Again, it’s not like Moore has ANY room to cry foul about use of someone else’s characters or ideas. If it sucks, it sucks, and none of us have to pay attention to it. That’s what I did with Episodes 1-3. But I’d like to think we’re all mature enough to not hope it’ll suck.

  • Terence Ng

    Fair enough.

  • Frodo Baggins

    Let’s not go down that road, shall we? “Exploit” and “violate” are perfectly useful analogies, without the unpleasant connotations.

  • Frodo Baggins

    “comic books we’re talking about, where the notion of eight billion alternate universes with entirely different series of events are considered industry standard”

    Uh, no, it’s the standard for the DC and Marvel universes, and it was only a coping mechanism to handle the wild and disparate continuity errors that had accrued over the decades. One of my favorite things about Watchmen is that it DIDN’T accommodate a billion variations on its version of reality. The text was concrete, finite and specific. The vague openness of Earth-616 and Earth-34 and Ultimate version and What If version and All Star version really waters down the impact of a single story, in my opinion.

  • Frodo Baggins

    For the record, he refused all proceeds from the film adaptation. He stood to receive millions from that. Regret over a business decision doesn’t seem to be his motivation here.

  • John Seavey

     Please take the time and effort to inform yourself before stating your opinions, as an uninformed opinion always makes you foolish. Moore did not sign a work-for-hire deal; he was promised ownership of the characters 1 year after ‘Watchmen’ went out of print. “Had this not been the mega success it was,” Alan Moore would own ‘Watchmen’ lock stock and barrel, because it wouldn’t be continually reprinted in new editions.

    This, like everything else DC has done with the property, is an attempt to drum up publicity for the original to keep people buying new copies so that they won’t lose the rights.

  • Nigel Mitchell

    My problem with the Watchmen prequels has nothing to do with Alan Moore’s rights, the sacredness of the original story, or any of that. My reaction to the announcement of the prequels was, “What’s the point?” The original Watchmen graphic novel told the important and pivotal moments of the characters and their background. It’s not like there were gaps that we were all clamoring to see. “How did Silk Spectre make her costume?” “Why did Rorschach start working for the clothing company?”

    And the bigger problem is that these characters aren’t like Superman or Wonder Woman. They were created to exist independent of the story Moore wanted to tell. Each of them served a role in “Watchmen,” and no more. If they try to make new stories, it’ll inevitably come across as stretching, because they’ll have to add elements to make them more versatile characters. 

    But the biggest problem is that, like Susana said, I don’t really want to read more about them. They weren’t nice people. Even reading the original story left me feeling like a needed a shower, even if I did find it compelling and unique. The idea of spending seven issues following the Comedian around exclusively is…not what I want.

  • Adam Whitley

    and it’s not considered canon. Also Lost Girls wasn’t some corporate backed cash grab either.

  • Adam Whitley

    As opposed to this as I am I do kind of want to check out the Ozymandias prequel because we saw the least of him and he was the most interesting character to me. I always saw him as the real hero of the story.