Monday, February 20, 2012

My Opinions on the Before Watchmen project

On February 1, DC Comics announced that they will be releasing a prequel to the classic Watchmen series this Summer. Titled Before Watchmen, the prequel is actually a banner under which seven mini-series and a one-shot issue will be published. Silk Spectre, Rorschach, the Comedian, Ozymandias, Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan and the Minutemen will each get their own mini-series, with an epilogue one-shot apparently tying them all together. But you probably already know all that, because you've read it online just like I did and you've probably encountered some of the commentary already going around about it.

There's little surprise that Alan Moore is not in favor of this project. What has been surprising (to me, at least) is the backlash against him from both fans and professionals. The key arguments I've seen in post after post are that 1) DC has every legal right to publish whatever Watchmen derivatives they want because they own the characters; 2) Alan Moore has no right to criticize this project since he's written plenty of stories using other people's creations; 3) the Watchmen characters themselves are thinly-veiled rip-offs of other people's creations and 4) it's hardly fair for anyone to judge the work before it's even been published. Basically, Alan Moore is a hypocrite and anyone who has a problem with Before Watchmen is making a big deal out of nothing.

I don't believe Alan Moore is a hypocrite. I do believe that sick feeling I get from this project is justified. I'm coming out of Internet solitude to post an opinion piece on my blog (which I rarely do) because this news speaks to something important in my own life and work. Bear with me.


Yes. They own the rights. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons signed a contract all those years ago giving DC ownership of the story and characters. Both men had been in the business long enough to understand what they were signing.

But in 1985, what were the options available for comics professionals? There were a handful of creator-owned publications; but it was nowhere near as common then as it is today. There were publishers who allowed creators to retain ownership of their work; but they were small press, offering very little money and poor distribution (at least, poor when compared to Marvel and DC). Things like royalties and creator ownership were still fairly radical ideas for the Big Two. Remember that this was around the time when Jack Kirby was asking for the return of his original artwork. Basically, if you wanted your work to reach a good number of readers and get paid halfway decently, then you were signing over the rights to your work.

The argument circles back to, yes, but they signed a contract. DC isn't breaking any laws by publishing further work using Alan Moore's creations. I don't believe that anyone (even Moore himself) is suggesting that DC is violating the law by producing these books. However, saying that something is legal is not the same as saying that it is a good idea.

Given the current state of comics publishing, how many creators would invest the time and effort that went into a book like Watchmen, only to sign over all rights to the publisher? The fact is that most would sooner market their books to Image, Dark Horse or any of the other presses out there that can offer wide distribution and decent payment without demanding sole ownership. Basically, a situation like Watchmen is just less likely to happen today.

Which isn't to say that DC should nullify an old contract to represent current business practices. However, this contract just looks strange by 2012 standards. It's a disturbing reminder of what constituted business-as-usual not so long ago in the industry. And there are still creative professionals who've lost rights that they never really had the option of retaining if they wanted to stay in this business.

My understanding of the contract is that, twelve months after Watchmen goes out of print, the rights revert to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. This contract was signed at a point before the trade paperback boom, when every title was collected into more permanent (or at least longer lasting) editions. Did Moore foresee that his title would be collected into an edition that would be sold in bookstores around the world? Maybe. Did he imagine that it would still be in print a quarter-century later? No. What comic was kept in perpetual publication for a quarter of a century? It's almost like a variation of Mel Brooks' The Producers, getting screwed by success.

And with the film and now the prequel comics, does anyone still believe that DC Comics has any intention of ever turning the rights back over to Moore and Gibbons? What happens to all the spin-off products? Who owns the rights to those things? I'm sure part of his disgust with the film three years ago was the realization that it was the final nail in the rights ownership coffin. No way is he ever getting those back now.


And Swamp Thing. And Superman. And Batman. And Captain Britain. And Miracleman (Marvelman). He's worked on all manner of copyrighted characters that he did not originate. So how can he point fingers at anyone else who then uses characters that he created?

First, I don't know that Alan Moore has a problem personally with any of the artists or writers who signed on for Before Watchmen. I've certainly seen nothing to that effect. His argument seems more grounded in the idea that Watchmen was a complete story in and of itself. No prequels are needed and, in fact, are a bad idea.

As the original creator, he has every right to offer his opinion on this new interpretation of his work. I don't imagine he was storming press conferences in order to voice his opinion. He was approached. Someone approached him and asked for his opinion. He gave it.

And from what I've read, offering his opinion is all that he's doing. He's not launching a legal campaign to have this project halted. He's stating, as the original author, that he doesn't feel any further stories with the characters he created are a good idea. He's stating that some stories are better off being left alone.

Which brings us back to the argument that he's certainly written plenty of sequels and prequels and revisions for a veritable laundry list of characters. In the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, practically every single character in the series (down to the paperboys and scullery maids) is lifted from other people's work. Not to mention his first foray into American comics with Swamp Thing. Would he consider these books to also be bad ideas? Does he regret writing them?

First of all, regarding Swamp Thing, Superman and all the rest of copyrighted characters he wrote; this is the opposite end of the work-for-hire argument. Thirty years ago, you signed over your intellectual property to the publisher and, by the same token, thirty years ago, you worked with the signed-over intellectual property of others. Neither DC nor Marvel was going to gamble on a relatively unknown writer producing stories featuring unproven characters. You work with the Big Two and you're starting off with characters that have at least some sort of following. This is simply the business model that Alan Moore was presented when he came into the business. After a few years, he grew dissatisfied with it and left.

Did he know these characters were signed over to DC Comics by creators who no longer owned them? Yes he did. Did this seem like a problem? Maybe, but it was the system that everyone was working under and, when you're just starting out, it's hard to take a stand. Maybe there's a good reason that the business is run this way. And no one wants to start off in an industry with a reputation as a troublemaker. We don't start out with our ethical standards; we develop them over time and with experience. Eventually, he decided that the business model of signing over ownership rights to a publisher was wrong and he severed his ties with DC Comics.

Did he work with licensed characters after that point? Yes he did. But it was usually situations like the issue of Spawn he wrote. He was hired by the creator and owner of the character, Todd McFarlane, to write the story. In that case, the creator is not only giving you his blessing to work with his creation, he's actually paying you to do it.

Yes, but what about the League? None of those creators gave him the rights to use their creations. Most of them have been dead for decades. Doesn't working with those properties make him a hypocrite?

In theory, copyright laws are designed so that creators can be compensated adequately for their work. On the other hand, they also recognize that, eventually, these ideas become part of the public domain. Arthur Conan Doyle hopefully made decent money off his Sherlock Holmes stories. He deserved to make money off his Sherlock Holmes stories. He had every right to provide for his family in the event of his death by transferring the profits of his work to them. But at some point, Sherlock Holmes becomes more than the property of a single individual. It becomes a concept that belongs to the culture at large. Stephen Moffat takes the Sherlock Holmes concept, translates it into a new television series and now the unique ideas he adds to that concept belong to Moffat for a time, while the original Sherlock Holmes concept is still public domain.

Who's to say how long an idea belongs to a creator (and his heirs) before it becomes public domain? It's generally the lifetime of the creator plus a certain number of years following his or her death. With so many concepts belonging to corporations (which do not die), the laws are constantly being reviewed and revised.

Alan Moore is not taking money out of anyone's pocket by writing a story about the further adventures of Allan Quartermain, Mina Murray, Captain Nemo or Doctor Jekyll. Those characters have made their creators and their heirs all of the money they're going to make. He's taking characters in the public domain, owned by nobody, and creating his own interpretations of them. And, yes, this means that if I write a story about Mina Murray and Allan Quartermain traveling the world as secret agents of the British Empire, I've infringed on Alan Moore's copyright because I'm using his interpretation of public domain characters.


DC Comics had acquired the rights to a group of superhero characters originally published by Charlton Comics. Following the Crisis on Infinite Earths, they were looking for a way to introduce these newly-acquired properties into their own line of books. Alan Moore had suggested a series of radical revisions for the characters of Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Nightshade, the Question, Peacemaker and Thunderbolt. While the editors liked his ideas, they were concerned that most of the characters would be rendered unusable (dead or retired) once Moore had finished writing them. It was suggested that he instead create analog characters for an original work.

So, Alan Moore created a storyline that was wholly original using pre-existing characters. When he was told that he wouldn't be able to use those pre-existing characters, he then created new characters. There are certainly similarities between them; but no more so than Superman is similar to Captain Marvel, the Shadow is similar to Batman, Flash Gordon is similar to Luke Skywalker or Conan the Barbarian is similar to Xena the Warrior Princess. The latter would certainly never have existed without the former; but in each case they are unique enough to qualify as being their own characters.

Alan Moore created these characters under the direction of DC Comics. They specifically asked him to create characters that were not properties that they already owned. They have worked from the premise that the characters in Watchmen are unique from the characters acquired from Charlton Comics. The Question, Captain Atom and Blue Beetle have all been featured in successful comic book series of their own that make no reference to the events in Watchmen. So, as far as DC Comics is concerned, these are original characters.

The real measure of whether a creation is truly original or simply a cheap knock-off, however, is how that creation is used. I doubt that anyone at Charlton Comics ever used their characters in a story like Watchmen. What Alan Moore did amounted to far more than a commentary on Charlton. It was a commentary on superheroes in general. He took all of the tropes, the secret identities and kid sidekicks and secret headquarters and fantastic gadgets and super powers, then created something both self-aware of its long history and completely fresh.

And if these characters are simply Charlton characters with the serial numbers rubbed off, then why not have a major event that gives those original versions their own mini-series? Why use Alan Moore's versions unless there's something he contributed that made them unique characters?


I doubt anyone is questioning the talent behind this project. J. Michael Straczynski, Brian Azzarello, Darwyn Cooke and Len Wein are among the best in the business. I'm sure each of them will produce stories that are well-written. Based on what I've read in interviews, they're making an effort to remain faithful to the source material. Likewise, the artists have all proven themselves in past work.

The judgment comes more from the fact that this project exists at all. It's not scheduled to tie in with the film and I'm not aware of any strong demand from fans to see this work. Was anyone writing to DC asking for more Watchmen stories?

The stated reason is to keep the characters fresh and relevant. Apparently, a story set in 1985 is not something that a modern comic book reader can identify as relevant. Yes, that's what superheroes meant back in the eighties; but how would they translate into the modern era? Fair enough, I suppose, except the new comics are actually prequels, with stories set as far back as 1940.

But perhaps it's not so much setting as creative input. Fresh perspectives on classic characters. Strange irony that the characters only exist because DC didn't want Alan Moore to bring his own fresh perspective on other characters.


So, wrapping it all up, I don't have a problem with DC, the creative talent behind this project or even the project itself. Not really. It's not something that I'm interested in picking up; but maybe there's a lot of people who can't wait to see what other creators have to add to a classic.

My concern is that Alan Moore is being demonized for objecting to how his work is being re-interpreted. He has every right to his opinion on the work and if people ask for it, there shouldn't be any complaining when he gives it. He feels that he was treated unfairly by DC Comics and he's free to express that opinion as well. Keep in mind that business practices in the comics industry have changed over the last quarter-century in part so that what happened to Moore and Gibbons doesn't happen to other creators.

And why do I care? If you've nosed around my blog at all, you know that I'm a writer as well. I'm still starting out, a dozen professional sales on my modest little resume of work. I look over every contract before I sign it and one of the things I always read carefully is what rights a publisher is specifically requesting. I have turned down publishers because they asked for permanent ownership of my work.

I grew up reading comics. When I was younger, I wanted to write comics. I began reading interviews with and columns written by some of my favorite writers in the medium. What I came across again and again was the terrible working conditions so many of them labored under. The horror stories were enough to keep me away from the medium.

So just because I'm nowhere near the talent of Alan Moore (or Dave Gibbons or Jack Kirby or Jerry Siegel or Joe Shuster or Bob Kane or Bill Finger), I can still end up regretting a contract that takes control of my work away from me. It's a good lesson to learn; but at a terrible cost to the men who taught it to me.

In the end, saying, "He shouldn't have signed the contract" is union-buster logic. If you don't like working here, then quit. Never mind that every other employer will also treat you unfairly. That's the way the game is played and if you don't like it, then it's your fault for getting in this line of work.

Not that anyone noticed; but a lot of young writers and artists took what happened to Alan Moore and so many other creators to heart when pursuing their creative dreams. They chose to explore other mediums and the industry is poorer for it.

And that, in three-thousand words or less, is how I feel about the new Before Watchmen project.

And that is why my girlfriend never asks me about comics.