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Watchmen Babies

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You may not have heard, but DC have today announced plans for a series of prequel stories to Watchmen, titled – in a remarkable piece of imagination – Before Watchmen. What you may have heard, however, is the mass collective outrage online – and what’s interesting is that there seems to be as much outrage from folks who think that other folks shouldn’t be allowed to get outraged about its existence as there is outrage from folks who are outraged about its existence. That’s a lot of outrage.

The pair of us each have a number of issues with what DC are doing by publishing this comic – but we’re finding that a number of these criticisms are being faced with arguments that might seem punchy in the 140 character field of Twitter, but which we don’t feel stand up to a huge amount of scrutiny.  So rather than attempt to debate it in that format… we’re going to talk about it here, instead.

(n.b. for brevity, let us acknowledge now that Moore is the co-creator of Watchmen, with Dave Gibbons. Any time we assert Moore as “creator” or “owner”, we do mean both of them.)

Argument 1: Alan Moore is a hypocrite! Why does he object to Before Watchmen when he wrote Lost Girls and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?

There are a lot of people asking how Moore can complain about other writers taking on his creations, when he seems to have built his career on doing exactly that to other people. This seems like a fair point to make, but is it really the same thing? Let’s think about it logically.

Whenever Moore has written company-owned characters – the likes of Superman, Judge Dredd, even Miracleman – it was under the belief that an authorial mandate existed which allowed this to happen. These characters were created with the intention that a company would own them. Whether such terms were fair is debatable, but certainly when Moore wrote using them, people weren’t demanding that the characters be removed from circulation – quite the opposite. They just wanted to be paid for their use. This is not the same situation as with the Watchmen characters, which anyone who writes does so in the knowledge that they’re acting directly against the creator’s wishes.

Of course, Moore has also written famous literary characters in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls – characters for which there is no specific mandate to continue. But these characters are out-of-copyright, their mandates dissolved by death, history or cultural currency. Even a copyrighted character, like James Bond, who is used with a wink in The Black Dossier, is portrayed artistically defensibly, under laws governing parody. This is not the same situation as with the Watchmen characters, who are not public domain, are not being parodied, and are not being used to create derivative, artistically valid interpretations.

The question, then, is who has the ability to mandate new stories with the Watchmen characters? It’s either Alan Moore (and Dave Gibbons) or DC. If we believe Moore’s side of the story (and we have no reason not to), the contract he signed in the 80s was not intended to allow DC exclusive and perpetual use of the characters and work, and that the rights would revert to him and Gibbons – but by keeping the book in print since then, DC has managed to prevent this.

The choice, then, is a moral one: do we feel bad for Moore falling into the same trap as Ditko/Kirby et al and having his work effectively stolen from under him by contract, or do we side with DC and say “tough luck, you signed the contract, there’s a loophole.” It’s obvious that DC is legally right – but morally, can you say Moore shouldn’t have control of the comics he created and which are now being used in bad faith? Clearly not.

That is why Moore isn’t a hypocrite. The mandate for more Watchmen stories issued by DC is illegitimate, unlike the mandate for new Superman/Swamp Thing stories which Moore operated under.

Admittedly, Lost Girls might use existing characters in ways that their original authors would probably balk at – but at the same time, it’s making a valid artistic point about their original portrayals. As Kurt Busiek said:

It seems to me that anyone who thinks LOST GIRLS is merely a sequel to PETER PAN et al in the way that BEFORE WATCHMEN will be a prequel is really missing something. There’s a difference between “build and transform and make something new” and “let’s have more of that.”


Argument 2: Moore has disowned Watchmen anyway, he shouldn’t be taking this all so seriously!

Funnily enough, serious is one of the few things Alan Moore doesn’t seem to be. Principled, yes. Agressively so, at times. And despite our last point, we admit that he does say things that are hypocritical or ill-judged at times – like thinking there are currently no interesting writers, then saying he’s not read comics for years. In that sense, he’s human. As the saying goes, he contains multitudes.

However, it seems to have escaped a lot of people’s notice that Alan Moore is also a very funny man. Go and look at his deeply self-satirising Simpsons appearance if you don’t believe us.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen him do talks, formal and informal, and one constant thread is that he’s very much a comedian. He prepares material, and he re-uses it across interviews and appearances just as a stand-up would their own jokes. Much of what he says is delivered with a tone that’s wry, knowing, and deeply ironic. A tone that all but disappears on the page, stripped of its visual and audio data. When he accuses DC of “stalking” him by buying Wildstorm… it’s a joke. When he says DC is creatively bankrupt and has no ideas, he’s poking fun as much at his own persona as a legendary talent and legendary grump as he is at DC for re-using his ideas (which in fairness, isn’t wholly untrue either.)

I admit, it’s hard to defend some of the things he says, particularly when it disparages the hard, genuine work of other creators, and I certainly don’t want to be accused of putting words into his mouth or thoughts into his head. All I can say is that in my experience, he isn’t saying these things maliciously. He actually seems to find these stories kind of funny. If you ever get the chance to be in the room when he tells them, maybe you’ll be convinced – but until then, try giving him the benefit of the doubt. If he sounds unreasonable, maybe he wasn’t supposed to sound reasonable.

Of course, none of this gets around the fact that “he said something I disagree with so he deserves to be treated poorly.” is, in itself, an difficult position to maintain. Ask how you’d feel if they were treating Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison or another creator you like in the same way.  Would you still be okay with it if it wasn’t Grumpy Old Moore on the chopping block? [JH]

Argument 3: There are still stories to be told with the Watchmen characters!

Are there? Here’s the thing about Watchmen - the characters aren’t really the draw. That’s not to say they’re not good characters, in so much as they play their roles in the story… but by the same token, none of them are really characters that you could imagine enduring across decades in the way that the likes of Spider-Man or Batman do. No, not even Rorschach. They exist purely in order to tell that particular story.

There are lots of things that make Watchmen brilliant, and they don’t need listing at length here. But I can’t help but feel that if you came away from reading it thinking “I really want to see more of those heroes’ adventures!” you were missing the point somewhat. Take the characters out of the context of Watchmen, and you’re left with… well, you’re left with exactly what they are, which is some thinly-veiled analogues of not-especially-popular Charlton Comics characters. A comic doesn’t just need to be about this set of characters in order to be worthy of carrying the word “Watchmen” on its cover – it needs to share the sensibilities and intent that Moore and Gibbons went into the original series with.

And aside from that, doing a prequel seems to miss the rather glaring point that if there was anything important that needed to be told in the histories and backgrounds of these characters… well, Moore already covered it. Pretty extensively, as it goes. Issue #4 of the original series, “Watchmaker”, is one of the most staggering storytelling achievements in the history of the comics field (and, for everything you might have to say about Zack Snyder’s movie, it was adapted pretty effectively onscreen, too). Tell me: would it really be improved by filling in a few more of the gaps in Jon Osterman’s history that it didn’t cover? [SP]

I also wanted to make the point that the very fact that these characters are analogues of Charlton heroes proves that if you’ve got a good story, it doesn’t matter who’s starring in it. In that sense, The Watchmen prequels are quite openly being sold off the back of what Moore and Gibbons’ have done, rather than what the creators could under their own devices. If the stories they’ve got to tell are any good, they wouldn’t need to star Watchmen characters. Just like Watchmen ultimately didn’t need the Charlton heroes. [JH]

Argument 4: The comics will be excellent, because the creative teams are so good!

Well. They’re alright. Admittedly, a pretty stellar array of artists have been lined up – although J.G. Jones is a little style-over-substance (and his Comedian cover is pretty depressing), and Andy Kubert seems to have made Nite Owl look a bit too much like Batman for my tastes. But Amanda Conner is one of the best artists in comics right now, and her Silk Spectre cover is a work of sheer unadulterated beauty; and the Adam Hughes Dr Manhattan one isn’t half bad either. Darwyn Cooke’s effortless quality, meanwhile, almost goes without saying these days.

But on the writing front? I can’t say it’s a set of names that make me sit up and take notice. Azzarello has written some great comics, but also some significantly less great ones. And our shared distaste for Straczynski, both in terms of the quality of his recent writing and his shockingly unprofessional behaviour in taking on huge projects, having other people fit their work around his not-always-brilliant ideas, and then skipping out before completion, is well documented on this site already. Having Len Wein involved is interesting, but not hugely so, and while I’m sure Darwyn Cooke will do fun things with the Minutemen, I can’t imagine what about the characters will make this superior to the likes of The New Frontier and The Spirit.

There are writers who might well have made some kind of Watchmen spinoff, prequel or sequel something genuinely challenging or interesting. But I’m not sure any of them are involved with this project. [SP]

Argument 5: Hey, you guys are right! Before Watchmen is something to get really angry about!

Well, actually… this one I’m not so sure about. And this is part of the reason why the over-defensiveness that some in comics have demonstrated has annoyed me so much. Because I think there are perfectly valid criticisms of the project (as outlined above), but by the same token, the book’s defenders are holding up the most deranged and excessive of raging critics as representative of all of us. Simply put, I think Before Watchmen is a daft idea (with a terrible name), that DC are only putting out in order to cash in on the huge success of the brand Moore and Gibbons created, and I think the time of all the talented people involved in it would be better spent either doing something entirely original, or creating something new with characters that have a bit more depth and appeal. But by the same token… I’m not going to claim that the publication of the series will destroy anything, or tarnish it, or “rape my childhood”, or anything like that. Watchmen still exists. It’s still one of the greatest comics of all time. If my love for V For Vendetta can survive “eggy in a basket”, then DC/Warners could go ahead and make something like this and that would still be true. [SP]

I’m a little less ambivalent. I’m certainly not outraged that the project exists – I’ll simply avoid it entirely (as I did the movie) – and while I’d expect nothing less of a corporate entity than to ruthlessly exploit what it owns, I am disappointed at the people who made it happen. For decades, Watchmen was considered untouchable. It was a line that wasn’t ever crossed, which made people hope that the practises of the early comics industry, where business strip-mined creators and left them with nothing, were truly in the past. Now that hope is gone, and that isn’t a good thing. If they can do more Watchmen without Moore (and indeed, apparently without Gibbons) then nothing is sacred, and all that’s left to protect creators is their contracts. I’ll take bets now on how long until someone at DC realises they can make money publishing Sandman prequels on their own, rather than waste effort trying to convince Gaiman to return for them.

The bottom line is that had Watchmen (and Sandman) been published under the ecosystem that, let’s not forget, they helped create – that of creator-owned work at DC – this would never have been an issue. Aside from the paradox that without Watchmen and Sandman, there’d probably be no Vertigo, if either had come 10 years later they’d doubtlessly be owned by their creators, and justly so. The industry should learn from its past and respect that, otherwise the next Moore, the next Gaiman, the next Kirby, might just go somewhere else instead. It should embarrass us all that what has happened to Moore is happening again. [JH]

Written by Alternate Cover Team

February 2nd, 2012 at 10:38 am

Posted in Blog Posts

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One Response to 'Watchmen Babies'

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  1. I happened to have read Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” the day before the Clockguys news came out, and it actually gives a good lens through which to view stuff like this. The essay itself is a defense of remixing, sampling, and collage in the arts, but funnily enough the same arguments he gives for appropriation turn out to be arguments against these prequels.
    Basically, Lethem says we should see works of art existing both in the ‘real’ economy (in the sense of copyright law, etc.) and in a ‘gift economy’, which comes with its own moral imperatives, including the imperative to share. It’s wrong to give someone a gift and insist they must keep it in a glass case, but it’s also wrong to take a gift horse down to the glue factory.

    I’m not convinced by the argument that ‘the original work is still there’: if that were true, I would still be able to use the abbreviation LXG wihtout angst. There’s definitely a palpable feeling that shit like this can do violence to an original work, and even if it’s hard to express in any convincing terms, there must be something real that underlies tha feeling.


    2 Feb 12 at 1:08 pm

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