Wednesday morning DC Comics announced the long-awaited (and long-reported by Rich Johnston) news that they would be “building” on Watchmen by releasing a series of “Before Watchmen” mini-series. Featuring each of the major characters in the original series plus a Minutemen series, the new series will build on the mythology of the Watchmen universe and finally turn those characters into a fully-formed brand to be marketed and exploited.
I spoke about this on our Twitter account a couple months ago when Bleeding Cool started running leaked concept art by creators we now know are attached to the project, but since 140 characters bursts doesn’t allow for much depth of thought, it seems like the opportune time to elaborate.
It’s long been the conventional wisdom that for Marvel and DC, comics don’t pay the bills, it is the licensing of characters that brings in the real money. And especially recently, with line-wide relaunches, monster trucks, and twitter accounts hyping mass media appearances more than comics, it feels like more than just the conventional wisdom. Comic books may be dying out, but through licensing the characters can live on in perpetuity. Therefore, with every financial reason to do it and no creative impetus behind it**, Before Watchmen isn’t an artistic endeavor, it’s a blank check for DC to enhance the brand and keep the licensing money coming.
Let’s be honest, most of the major comic book characters you know and love are 40-60 years old now. Other than
Watchmen, which is one of the best selling graphic novels ever, how many comic book characters can you name were created in the last 25 years and are household names? Spawn, probably. Deadpool, maybe. The list is pretty thin. The Watchmen characters are well-known, popular, and just sitting in the DC vaults unused. Perhaps it’s inevitable that Watchmen gets dragged hurming and scheming into the 21st century, but without the unanimous blessing of their creators I can’t put my support behind it.
Kudos to DC for getting Dave Gibbons’ approval on the new works, but that’s only half the solution. In order to get me on-board for this (and I want to be, truly I do) Alan Moore has to sign off on it as well. Can you imagine Steve Dillon spinning off Preacher without Garth Ennis, Eduardo Risso continuing 100 Bullets without Brian Azzarello (one of the Before Watchmen creators!), or Darick Robertson doing more Transmetropolitan without Warren Ellis*?
Of course not. Those books were made by creative TEAMS, and the artist and writer are both critical to their success. Before Watchmen is an event by committee, not an artistic vision at work. But the main reason those spinoffs wouldn’t work? All of the books I mentioned are creator-owned titles. Watchmen had the misfortune of coming out too soon***. Had it been published in 1996 instead of 1986 it would have been released as a creator-owned series through the Vertigo imprint! Had Vertigo existed back then Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons would have owned the series and its characters, never squabbled about DC keeping it in print in perpetuity (therefore preventing the rights from reverting back to Moore and Gibbons) and they probably would have done the prequels they considered TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO!
The Internet, predictably, exploded. And there have been some good rebuttals to the outrage. J. Michael Straczynski, who will be working on the Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan books, told Comic Book Resources:
“A lot of folks feel that these characters shouldn’t be touched by anyone other than Alan, and while that’s absolutely understandable on an emotional level, it’s deeply flawed on a logical level. Based on durability and recognition, one could make the argument that Superman is the greatest comics character ever created. But neither Alan nor anyone else has ever suggested that no one other than Shuster and Siegel should ever be allowed to write Superman. Alan didn’t pass on being brought on to write Swamp Thing, a seminal comics character created by Len Wein, and he did a terrific job. He didn’t say “No, no, I can’t, that’s Len’s character.” Nor should he have.”
That’s an excellent point. Here’s the thing: Siegel and Shuster never intended to be the only ones ever telling Superman stories, or that it would never continue past a certain point. Hell, Superman was originally a newspaper strip, a serial if ever there was one. Their only beef was that they didn’t get adequate payment for all DC exploited Superman. The same goes for Kirby. Truth be told, the same goes for Alan Moore when he worked on Batman, Vigilante, and Green Lantern. Moore doesn’t WANT the money, he wants DC to leave it alone (well, that and let him get the rights back).
JMS goes on later to say:
“Again: on an emotional level, I get it. But by the same token, Alan has spent most of the last decade writing some very, very good stories about characters created by other writers, including Alice (from Wonderland), Dorothy (from Oz), Wendy (from Peter Pan), as well as Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Jekyll and Hyde and Professor Moriarty. I think one loses a little of the moral high ground to say, “I can write characters created by Jules Verne, HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Frank Baum, but it’s wrong for anyone else to write my characters.”"
Again, there is a bit of a difference here. Presumably Moore has no problem with others using his work 70 years after his death, when it would enter the public domain. He’s a smart man, and understands public domain (which kept Lost Girls from being published in the UK for a while, until the Peter Pan rights expired) and the concept of transformative works. Now I do feel from time to time like Moore is a crotchety, hypersensitive guy who won’t rest until he can find fault in everything, like someone’s grandmother, but in these instances I feel he’s got a solid basis for his feelings.
With the New 52 relaunch, the over-reliance on events (and making them bigger and more inflammatory each time), and now this, DC is making it quite clear that they are more concerned with getting our money and the perpetuation of brands rather than integrity. And not necessarily the artistic kind, just good ethics. And I just can’t support that any more. With Watchmen 2 happening, I am officially done with DC Comics and all it’s associated creators. At the moment
Seriously, I would LOVE to read this. But I can't.
- Lee Bermejo
- Amanda Conner
- Darwyn Cooke
- Adam Hughes
- J.G. Jones
- Andy Kubert
- Joe Kubert
- Jae Lee
- J. Michael Straczynski
- Len Wein
Not that I was buying any JMS titles anyway, but we’ve been always told that we vote with our wallet. Well, my three dollars (let’s face it, they weren’t getting $4 from me anyway) isn’t going to support this system or those who enable it.
Most support I’ve seen so far has come in the form of how DC is a company whose goal is to make money, so they can do what they want with characters they own. Or that the new titles sound great. And those statements are ALL true. These are DC’s characters, and maybe it IS stupid of them to have these characters and not capitalize on them. I think an Azzarello/Bermejo Rorschach series would be AMAZING. But I can’t support it, not without the approval of both Moore and Gibbons.
And may God have mercy on our souls if we ever see a Dr. Manhattan monster truck.
*Cully Hamner did some Red prequels without Ellis, but since we never heard complaints from him, we have to assume they were sanctioned.
** So far, what we’ve heard is Dan DiDio approaching creators to work on the project, which means it’s coming down from an editorial/managerial level. And while I imagine the creative process behind these books is an honest one, it’s not the same as, say, Geoff Johns coming up with Green Lantern: Rebirth.
***Ditto Sandman, but DC has been very careful not to alienate DC by using his characters without his okay. Their relationship with Neil Gaiman may very well be the result of lessons learned working with Alan Moore.
Over the course of our lives, Matt’s heard me talk a lot of craziness, make a load of overreaching declarations, and talked me down off many a ledge. So these were his thoughts when we discussed the news.
Where does this idea come from that Alan Moore is the only one to touch Watchmen?
Who’s out there clamoring for more? It’s a fairly complete story with few or no holes. If nothing else, didn’t we learn our lesson as fans with The Dark Knight Strikes Again?
Before Watchmen, so what? When rumblings of this started way back, I had no interest in seeing prequels or sequels. That view has not changed. I don’t get the idea that people are so attached to the unlikeable, shallow, impotent, and petty caricatures that Alan Moore used to tell his story. Anything I ever wondered about them is given to me in the pages of the original 12 issues. So if I want a good Rorschach prequel story, I’ll read The Question, and the same goes for Moore’s other “creations” and their Charlton counterparts. I can’t make myself care about it because it isn’t affecting how I feel about the original story. Just because DC’s doing it doesn’t mean I have to read it.
It’s funny that Watchmen is the third rail of comics. Why does this story get people so up in arms?
In terms of the outcry and insistence that it have Moore’s blessing, I find myself agreeing with… God help me… JMS. It’s DC’s property. Again, whatever is done now by whomever will not change the original story, its significance, or my own feelings about the story.
Maybe the stories will be good. Maybe they’ll be forgotten not unlike DC’s Kingdom. At the end of the day, the only problem I have is that I always find blatant pandering insulting. It bothers me that DC feels that it can dangle new Watchmen stories and we’ll automatically open our wallets and fork over four or five dollars a pop.
All great points. JMS continued his excellent point-making this morning, after drawing comparisons to his work Babylon 5. Namely, the company owns the property and it would suck, but they have the right to do what they wish with the characters. And I agree, they certainly do have the right, I just wish they wouldn’t exercise it.
The rights for Watchmen were always supposed to revert to Moore and Gibbons once the book went out of print, which it never has. The was never supposed to be an issue, a book had never stayed continuously in print before. Watchmen is a victim of its own success. So I’d say that’s why Moore is the chosen one in this case.
While several creators have tried getting the rights to their creations back, namely Kirby, Siegel, and Shuster, but as recently as Marv Wolfman, but Steve Gerber was notoriously against other creators working on characters he created, notably Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown.