Thoughts on the Before Watchmen controversy

If you are a comic book fan, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last several months, you’ve undoubtedly heard all about DC Comics’ plans to publish Before Watchmen, a series of prequels to the critically acclaimed best-selling graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons.  Reaction to this announcement, both among readers and comic book creators, has generally fallen into two camps: it’s either a really brilliant idea, or it’s an absolutely terrible decision.

Some facts that need to be established: back when Moore & Gibbons first created the original Watchmen in 1986, they signed a contract with DC stating that the rights to the series would revert to them one year after it went out of print.  Moore & Gibbons signed this back before trade paperback collections were at all common, and on those rare occasions when a collected edition would be assembled, it might stay in print for a year or two at most.  But the Watchmen TPB proved to be an enormous bestseller, so much so that DC kept reprinting it over and over.  They had a major incentive to keep it in print, because it kept generating sales.  And they undoubtedly saw this as a loophole to hold on to the rights of the series.  Legally that decision was probably in the right, but a great many, Alan Moore among them, felt very strongly that DC was violating the ethical foundation of the agreement.  It was one of several decisions by DC that would lead Moore to vow to never again work for the company.

Watchmen trade paperback, by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Fast forward to 2012.  The Watchmen trade paperback is still in print, and has sold even more copies in the wake of the film adaptation.  DC has decided to begin exploiting the property with new material produced by different creators.  Now, you may ask “Why?”  The answer is very simple: money.  Despite all the hornet nests that DC knew they would be kicking over with this decision, they realized that Before Watchmen would bring in huge profits.

I think a major reason why DC made this decision is that they realize that they have hit a wall when it comes to generating new intellectual properties.  The main reason for this is that they have burned so many bridges, not just with Moore, but with innumerable creators, going as far back as Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster.  DC, like Marvel Comics, has exploited creators for so long that really no one in their right mind wants to give them the next big idea, only to see all of the financial rewards & creative control be torn away from them.  Nowadays, given the opportunity, I think most creators would rather go to Image, Dark Horse, IDW, or one of the other smaller companies, somewhere where they probably won’t make very much money, but at least they will retain ownership of their creations.

In this atmosphere, DC has but one choice: continually strip-mine their existing library of characters.  They’ve rebooted their entire universe yet again with the recent New 52 event.  And now they’ve finally decided to risk revisiting the characters from Watchmen.

Putting aside the ethical issues, from a creative standpoint, I really wonder if this is going to produce any books that are truly memorable or noteworthy.  The original Watchmen was a self-contained story that told you everything you needed to know about the characters.  Returning to the Watchmen universe would be like filming a prequel to a classic film such as Casablanca or Citizen Kane (both of which, coincidentally, are owned by DC’s parent company Warner Bros).  Sure, if you really wanted to, you could do a story about how Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund met and fell in love, and how Ilsa found out her husband Victor Laszlo was still alive.  Likewise, you could write a close-up look at Charles Foster Kane’s early years, his friendship with Jeb Leland, and how his various relationships with women over the years fell apart.  But what would be the point?

Does anybody really want to see a Before Casablanca prequel?

So, by that measure, what do we really need to find out about the early years of Adrian Veidt, the Comedian, Doctor Manhattan, and all the rest of the cast of Watchmen?  As I said, everything vital to understanding the characters, all of the significant developments, are already right there in the original book by Moore & Gibbons.

The term “graphic novel” gets bandied about a lot in the comic book biz.  But, in the case of Watchmen, it is just that: a novel, a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.  It does not require anything else, any more than, to run with Alan Moore’s own example, Moby Dick needs a prequel to recount Captain Ahab’s first encounter with the infamous White Whale.

In a number of venues DC co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee have been promoting the hell out of the Before Watchmen project.  Lee has stated “I guarantee you that every single one of these creators that’s working on these books, think they can outdo — match or outdo — what was done in the original.”  Oh, dear.  That sounds like hubris.  It almost seems like they are setting themselves up to fail.  But, again, I’m sure as long as the books sell like hotcakes, the actual quality is secondary.  More troubling was Lee’s attitude towards Moore’s extreme displeasure over DC’s decisions.  Lee took the company line that Moore “signed an agreement.”  Odd words from one of the founders of Image Comics, which was established in response to creators being exploited by unfair contracts.  Yes, I realize Lee departed from Image years ago and is now in an important executive position at DC, so I’m not especially surprised.  But I cannot help but feel a bit disappointed in his stance.

A number of talented creators are working on Before Watchmen, among them Joe Kubert, Len Wein, Jae Lee, Darwyn Cooke, J.G. Jones, J. Michael Straczynski, Amanda Conner, and Adam Hughes.  I do not want to judge their motives, but I am going to assume that they are being well compensated for their efforts.  I really do not blame them for coming onboard this project.  The life of a freelance comic book creator is a very difficult one.  Often you do not know when or where your next paycheck is going to come from.  So I can understand them taking advantage of this opportunity.

Really, the fault lies with DC.  What I would like to see from them as a company is to offer these creators the same sort of money to develop brand-new characters and series, to give them an additional incentive to work on those original ideas by giving them a financial stake, and then promote these new titles with the same rabid enthusiasm with which they are pushing Before Watchmen.

In the end, Before Watchmen is just a temporary solution to increasing sales.  DC needs to re-examine its whole economic model (and so does Marvel, while I’m at it).  They need to stop thinking in terms of short-term sales spikes, and adopt policies that will not alienate creators like Alan Moore.  Imagine if DC had done right by Moore.  He might have gone on to create innumerable best-selling series for them over the past quarter century.  But they treated him as a disposable commodity, and now he wants absolutely nothing to do with them.

Watchmen tattoo

Watchmen is one of my all-time favorite graphic novels.  It is an intelligent, thought-provoking work of immense magnitude.  I like it so much, I even have a tattoo of the iconic Watchmen smiley face (yeah, I’m crazy like that).  Moore & Gibbons did absolutely brilliant work when they created Watchmen.  That is why I am so disappointed to see DC looking to exploit the property.  I feel that it devalues the original, and it is an insult to the creators who put so much of themselves into it.

At this point in time, I have zero interest in reading any of the Before Watchmen prequel series.  There is just nothing there for me.  If others choose to buy those books, so be it.  That’s their choice.  But for myself, I am just going to ignore the spin-offs, and stick with the original by Moore & Gibbons.

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