I’m not looking forward to the various Before Watchmen comics DC will publish later this year. I do plan to read many of those comics, though. It’s not out of interest in the characters or out of curiosity to see into what DC is building the brand. It’s because in general, I enjoy comics by the likes of Brian Azzarello, Amanda Conner, Darwyn Cooke, J. Michael Straczynski and other creators involved in the project.
As anyone familiar with Watchmen and its history of publishing politics in the many years since its initial release in the mid 1980s knows, opinion about using the characters and concepts writer Alan Moore crafted so long ago is polarized. Many are anticipating the various comics DC will publish this summer under that particular banner, while others are irked at the publisher’s decision to disregard Moore’s wish for Watchmen to be left alone. Those in the latter camp hold out Moore’s dissatisfaction with DC Comics over the handling of Watchmen and many of his other works as a shining of example of corporate disregard and abuse of creators’ rights.
It’s unfortunate things remain tense between Moore and DC. Ideally, I would want to see a scenario in which Moore (and his co-creators on various projects) had a final say about how and when his work is presented while DC was able to bolster its bottom line with stellar sales from publishing efforts. After two decades of contention, that’s not going to happen.
I understand why Moore supporters who have condemned Before Watchmen are opposed to these newly announced titles, and I understand why some not only have professed their intention to ignore these books but have urged others to boycott DC’s efforts. What I don’t understand is the vitriol. Disappointment in DC’s business practices and decisions is one thing. Hatred of those involved is another altogether. Condemning those participating creatively in Before Watchmen as scabs and scumbags strikes me as emotional hyperbole that sets impossibly idealistic and unrealistic standards for other comics professionals.
I’m not suggesting one has to accept and agree with the decision of the writers and artists who accepted DC’s offer to work on this new project. I’m not suggesting the state of creator rights in the world of comics (especially mainstream super-hero comics) is fine as it is. I’m suggesting the outrage needs to be measured.
The reason is the negative reaction to this news is so extreme is because of who’s involved and what’s involved. This is Alan Moore we’re talking about. This is Watchmen we’re talking about. To many lovers of comics, the book is practically sacred. To many, Moore is akin to comics royalty, a living master of the medium. The status of the man, of the work are so inflated, the situation understandably elicits strong feelings. But I’d argue it can bring out overreactions as well. Add the immediacy of the Internet to the mix, and you’ve got the makings of incendiary words that lose sight of broader issues.
Why is writer Len Wein’s use of Moore’s characters in a new Ozymandias mini-series a greater injustice than Grant Morrison’s reinterpretation of the Man of Steel in All Star Superman? Why is Andy and Joe Kubert’s contribution to a Nite Owl title a more immediate problem than the efforts by the family of the late Jack Kirby to assert his estate’s ownership of his Silver Age super-hero ideas and art?
In short, what’s so special about Watchmen? Yes, it’s a landmark achievement in comics storytelling, serves as a vital gateway for new readers and stands out as a symbol of comics as something more than disposable entertainment for children. But in terms of the business ethics and creator-rights issues, the situation isn’t all that special.
Actually, in many ways, it is distinguishable from other infractions of creator rights. While Moore is upset the rights for the story and characters have never reverted back to him as was originally expected 25 years ago, he was never left out in the cold. Some critics have portrayed DC as a thief, snatching Moore’s brainchild from his caring, artistic embrace and leaving him with nothing, but that’s not what happened. While I don’t presume to be privy to the provisions of his contract with DC or the amount of money Moore has earned in Watchmen royalties over the years, I can’t imagine it’s been negligible. Being published under the DC banner boosted the profile of the story and brought more eyes to Moore’s work, and when more people came to know the strength of his work, it created further demand for new work. The more in demand his work became, the more power he had in negotiating the terms of contracts.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster no doubt would’ve wished for that kind of professional leverage.
Don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying the fact other creators got rawer deals from DC and other comics publishers over the years renders Moore’s beefs with DC (and by extent, those of his supporters) moot. However, there’s a greater context that seems to be going unaddressed in this conversation, at least in the short term.
If it’s wrong for comics readers to buy the Before Watchmen comics, isn’t it wrong for them to buy comics featuring Superman, the Fantastic Four, the Joker and the Hulk? If it’s wrong for Cooke, Conner, Azzarello, Bermejo and others to work on Before Watchmen, wasn’t it wrong for Moore to write “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” If one is going to clamor about Before Watchmen, shouldn’t one ask whether Steve Ditko is being paid for and/or consulted about Squirrel Girl’s use in New Avengers?
The discourse about ethics in comics publishing and creators’ rights must continue, and more has to be done to improve the situation. But one must also acknowledge progress has been made. More importantly, a movement toward a creative and commercial scenario in comics that’s more ethical needs to be less emotional.
To mark the occasion of the Before Watchmen announcement today, DC tweaked the look of its website, with the brand emblazoned across the top with the following tagline underneath: “It’s not the end of the world. It’s the beginning.” Pun intended or not, I have to agree with the first of those two sentences — Before Watchmen isn’t the end of the world. It’s an annoyance to Alan Moore. It’s business for a comics publisher. But really, all Before Watchmen is is a bunch of comic books that’ll vary in quality and definitely pale in comparison with the story that inspired them.
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