Who Watches the Watchmen’s Watchers?
Alan Moore is angry about DC Comics’ Watchmen prequels. He’s right.
Even by the wretched standards of the entertainment industry, superhero comics are known for their dreadful labor practices. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, famously sold the rights to the character to DC Comics for $130, and spent the latter part of their lives, and virtually all their money, fighting unsuccessfully to regain control of him. Similarly, Jack Kirby, the artist who co-created almost the entire roster of Marvel characters, was systematically stiffed by the company whose fortunes he made. Though most of the heroes in the Avengers film were Kirby creations, for example, his estate won’t receive a dime of the film’s $1 billion (and counting) in box office earnings.
In keeping with this depressing tradition, DC will, next week, begin releasing new comics based on Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's seminal 1986-87 series. Before Watchmen will include not one, not two, but seven new limited series, written and drawn by some of DC's most popular creators, including Brian Azzarello, Darwyn Cooke, Amanda Conner, and Joe Kubert. Watchmen demonstrated to a mainstream audience that comics could be art, and became one of the most popular and critically acclaimed comics of the last 25 years. Up to now, it had also been one of the most sacrosanct. For over two decades, DC has resisted the urge to publish new material featuring Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, or the Comedian.
You'll notice the list of writers and artists involved with Before Watchmen includes neither Moore nor Gibbons. This is not unusual in superhero comics. Most work for DC and Marvel is created on a work-for-hire basis. Thus, the original creator of, say, Walrus Man will usually go into a deal with one of the big two comics publishers knowing that the Titan of Tusk will become the company's property—his aquatic adventures to be written and drawn by whomever the corporate overlords deem fit.
What is unusual, though, is the vehemence with which the original creator has denounced Before Watchmen. It's true that back in the ’80s, DC tried to get Moore and Gibbons on board for a sequel. That didn't pan out, though, and in the ensuing decades, Moore's relationship with DC has soured, to put it mildly. Among (many) other things, Moore became increasingly angry with the company over the handling of the rights to Watchmen itself. In the original contract, DC had written a provision stating that the comic and the characters would revert to Moore and Gibbons once the series went out of print. Moore had assumed that, as with all comics in those pre-“graphic novel” days, this would happen within a few years. Instead, of course, Watchmen was a massive hit—so massive that the trade paperback collection of Watchmen has been in constant publication, and probably always will be.
Gibbons has largely seemed content with DC's perpetual ownership of Watchmen. Moore, though, is a different story. He refused to accept recompense for the 2009 Watchmen film, which he referred to (sight unseen) as "more regurgitated worms." As for Before Watchmen, he made his position painfully clear in an interview: "I don't want money. What I want is for this not to happen."
Watchmen's canonical status, combined with Moore's dissent, has led to an unusually vocal backlash against DC. Chris Roberson, a sometime DC writer, decided to stop accepting work from the company because of its record on creator's rights. Cartoonist Roger Langridge, who wrote the acclaimed series Thor: The Mighty Avenger for Marvel, followed suit, explaining that "Marvel and DC are turning out to be quite problematic from an ethical point of view to continue working with." And Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn will not be carrying the Before Watchmen titles; in explanation, Bergen Street's manager, the comics critic Tucker Stone, said, "This is just gross, and we don’t want to be part of this one."
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian. He has written for the Atlantic, the Chicago Reader, and Splice Today, among other publications. He is writing a book about the original Wonder Woman comics.