A reasonable case could be made that the works of Alan Moore have had as much of an impact on comic book writing as the works of Jack Kirby have had on comic book art. And like Kirby, Moore has been involved in a decades-long dispute with a comic book publishing giant over the rights to his creations. The primary difference is that his troubles aren’t with Marvel, but with their “distinguished competition,” DC Comics.
Watching out for number one
Alan Moore was part of a 1980s “British Invasion” of writers who changed the face of U.S. comic book storytelling (other “invaders” included Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano and Peter Milligan). In addition to receiving repeated comics industry recognition including multiple Jack Kirby Awards, Eagle Awards, Harvey Awards and Eisner Awards, his works have won literary honors such as a Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award, Bram Stoker Award and two International Horror Guild Awards. In addition, Watchmen, the work for which Moore is most famous, and which forever changed the superhero genre, is the only graphic novel included in Time Magazine‘s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since Time‘s founding in 1923. Ironically, it is the success of Watchmen that has come back to haunt Moore.
The 1986 contract Alan Moore signed with DC Comics prior to producing Watchmen stipulated that if DC ever allowed the series to remain out of print for a full year, the copyright for the work would revert to its creators, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. Although it’s common practice today for publishers to keep trade paperback compilations of multiple-issue comic book stories perpetually in print, this was unheard of at the time. Moore agreed to the terms with every reasonable expectation that he would regain the rights to Watchmen about a year after the last issue of the 12-part series was published. Nobody (except Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan) could have foreseen just how successful Watchmen would be and that DC would decide to maximize its profits from this perennial moneymaker by keeping it in constant print for the next 25 years. Not only has DC issued countless editions of Watchmen—from $15 paperbacks to a $75 Absolute Edition hardback—it adapted it into a film (through its sister company Warner Bros.), a move it was well-known Moore utterly opposed. In response, Moore, a ceremonial magician, implied in a 2009 Los Angeles Times interview that he put a curse on the movie.
Still searching for more ways to make a profit from Moore’s magnum opus, DC Comics recently confirmed its long-rumored plans to publish a series of Watchmen prequels, produced by an assortment of talented writers and artists (none of them Moore or Gibbons). This time, the hostility of Moore’s reaction was largely matched by fans of his work, whose responses have been, as comic book artist Ty Templeton put it in his blog post on the subject, “mixed between complete revulsion and utter disgust.” Templeton also created a comic strip about the situation, the first four panels of which you can read at right (and the complete strip on his Web site).
In a DC Comics news release, company executives Dan DiDio and Jim Lee explained the solemn duty they felt to greenlight the “Before Watchmen” project: “It’s our responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant.” Putting aside the questionable use of the term “our characters,” that sentence, in a nutshell, succinctly sums up the fatal flaw in the superhero comic book industry—no character is ever allowed to die, or story to be concluded, as long as there remains the slightest potential for publishers to make more money from them. Alan Moore already told the story he set out to tell 25 years ago, but because he has no more say in what happens to Watchmen than you or I do, he can only watch helplessly as his work is repeatedly exploited and capitalized on by others. In its never-ending pursuit of so-called “relevance,” if it wanted to, DC Comics could turn Watchmen into a Saturday morning cartoon. Under the circumstances, I don’t blame Moore if his tirades against DC sometimes seem extreme.
Some commentors on this controversy have accused Moore of hypocrisy, pointing out that he has similarly exploited other people’s intellectual property: The main characters in Watchmen were modeled after Charlton Comics superheroes (at the request of DC Comics, which had recently acquired them) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is populated almost entirely with other writers’ characters. In the first case, Moore’s changes to his Charlton clones made them entirely original and uniquely his own (when DC learned what Moore intended to do with its newly acquired properties, the company asked him to change their identities to protect its future profits). In the second case, the original creators of The League‘s Victorian-era characters are long-dead and their creations long-since lapsed into the public domain (except for Sax Rhomer’s evil criminal genius, Dr. Fu Manchu, which is why he is only ever referred to as “the Doctor” in the first League series).
Moore, on the other hand, is very much alive and his objections to the continued exploitation of his work well-known and widely publicized. While DC Comics praised the merits of “collaborative storytelling” in its news release, this particular collaboration is less like Moore’s and Gibbons’ on the original work than it is like the “collaboration” of Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Having said that, I can’t pretend that I haven’t crossed Moore’s picket line in the past. My wife kept teasing me before the Watchmen movie came out that I shouldn’t go see it out of solidarity with Moore. Not only did I see it in the theater twice, I bought the ultimate DVD release when it came out.
One reason I was willing to give the Watchmen movie a chance was that I knew director Zack Snyder was approaching the film with the utmost respect for the source work (which, to be fair, the writers and artists involved with the Before Watchmen project may share). More importantly, Snyder was trying to faithfully tell Moore’s story, not his own.
Although I have a rubbernecker’s morbid curiosity in seeing how these ill-conceived comics turn out, unlike the Avengers movie, I wont find it at all difficult to pass them by. And it’s not just to avoid further enriching DC Comics for such a crass exploitation of Moore’s work (more distasteful than even the Watchmen motion comic DVD). My main reason for boycotting them is more selfish. I’m anxiously waiting to read the real next “Watchmen“—the as yet unwritten great American graphic novel that will once again revolutionize the comics art form. And who’s going to want to spend their time and creative energy writing it if they know they’ll have no say in what happens to the finished product, or who profits from it?
In the conclusion to this three-part series, I look at Marvel’s vindictive persecution of Gary Friedrich, creator of Ghost Rider.