I’m trying to not get into trouble. I really am.
I’ve been ignoring Before Watchmen for the most part, because I still can’t entirely accept it’s real. It does seem implausible when you stop and think about it, doesn’t it? But I’ve followed Chris Roberson’s admirable decision to break from DC over it, and today’s interview with Roberson on The Comics Journal put it back in my head.
It’s weird: I’m not even that big a Watchmen fan, to be honest. I mean, I have the Absolute Edition, but that’s more because of my sense that it’s an important addition to a collection (and my buying it before they announced the cheaper hardcover edition) than my overwhelming love for it. For supposedly the best graphic novel ever, it’s not that hard for me to think of others I prefer. Hell, I can think of other superhero comics I prefer, and other Alan Moore comics. But publishing a prequel still seems so tasteless, obscene even. Not to mention publishing seven, which just really underlines the complete crassness of the whole program. You don’t even test the waters with one? You pump out as much as possible all at once? Doesn’t sound like a publishing plan meant to do anything but take the money and run before the readership realizes they’ve been duped.
Because here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if I love Watchmen. I love the idea of proper stories, the kind that have a beginning, middle, and end, and before Watchmen—shit, those two words used to be things you could just type; now they’re gross—UNTIL Watchmen, that wasn’t particularly valued in comics. The important thing about Watchmen isn’t that it’s the greatest, but that it is a complete story. Truthfully, I can’t help but feel that saying it’s the greatest works against it both by sounding like hyperbole on one side of the argument and justification for making more on the other. What matters is that more isn’t necessary. A novel doesn’t have to be your favorite to not need to be messed with.
DC has taken a huge step backwards in the way they discuss the reasons for Before Watchmen. It’s not being sold as a continuation of a great story, but as a continuation of great characters. But the characters aren’t all that great. Out of context, they’re pretty interchangeable with dozens of other superheroes, and a Rorschach story or Night Owl story outside of Watchmen are just two more superhero stories, hardly worth the attention these are getting.
It ignores the fundamental, inconvenient truth: whatever value Watchmen has comes not at all from Doctor Manhattan and the Comedian and entirely from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The book hasn’t stayed in print nearly 30 years because of its characters, but because of its perfectly controlled artwork and intricate writing, because even for someone like me who’s never been all the way convinced, it rewards rereading and has passages revelatory in their thematic and emotional payoff. By contrast, DC’s barely even hiding the fact the Before Watchmen is solely a cynically produced product.
I don’t know this, but I believe that everyone who signed the original contract for Watchmen, Moore/Gibbons and DC alike, thought that the deal would result in the reversion of rights to Moore and Gibbons within a few years when the book went out of print. No comic book had ever stayed in print longer than that before. I can’t know what debate went on within DC when it became clear that they would benefit in an unforeseen way from the language of the contract, but the ultimate decision was to not renegotiate, even though it was on the basis of Moore’s and Gibbons’s talent that the book has remained the success it has. And that decision was made again and again over the years.
So now, insult to injury, the instant that Paul Levitz, who held firm against prequels and sequels, stepped down, the process began. It’s been a mix of the predictable claims that good characters shouldn’t be left on the shelf, despite Watchmen’s consistent sales surely beating so many newer properties hardly qualifying as being “on the shelf,” the thoroughly shocking claims that the past outright theft from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster mitigates this unethical behavior now, and a series of frankly irrelevant attacks on Alan Moore.
(Seriously, the use of public domain characters is comparable to the creation of unwanted “official” prequels? Honestly, contributions to characters like Swamp Thing that were created to be part of a shared universe is indistinguishable from expanding on a novel with a beginning, middle and end? Really, the fact that Moore has had fallings out with other creators is somehow at all relevant? I once had an argument with a prominent comics journalist about Moore and DC, and she kept trying to push me to acknowledge that some of the things Moore had publicly said made him sound like a jerk. Sure, I said, he had said mean things in public. As far as she was concerned, she’d now won the argument, regardless of the fact that we were talking about the ethics that DC was displaying in their treatment of Moore and the fact that he had reason to doubt DC’s honesty in its dealings. Oh, well, he’d made reference to hack comics writer Geoff Johns being a hack comics writer, so whatever.)
Chris Roberson derived a portion of his income from DC, and given his contract to write an arc of Vertigo’s Fairest, DC was apparently happy to continue paying him, but Roberson decided he preferred to take the risk of losing that income by breaking with the company. I’m very happy that it seems to have paid off with offers from other companies, but I admire him for making the decision even though that wasn’t a certainty. My relationship to DC is the opposite; I sometimes give them my money, but if Roberson can make the move he’s made, it’s considerably less onerous on me to not buy their comics, and I wonder if it’s something I should consider.
Not withstanding the fact that I would never read, much less pay for, Before Watchmen, I’ve already opted out of any Superman comics after DC’s disgraceful behavior regarding the Siegels’ and Shusters’ claim to the copyright of Action Comics #1 and share in derivative concepts. It’s not really a debate with two sides. Copyright law is very clear that, in cases where copyright has been transferred, the original copyright holder has the right to reclaim copyright during the period of renewal, and the Siegels’ half of the copyright to Action Comics #1 was granted to them in court. It is only the fact that Time Warner and DC have the money and lawyers to throw at the case that there is even still any contention over the matter. The subsequent countersuits directed at the families’ lawyer is nothing but malicious obfuscation of the legal process. When the original ruling came down, it was part of a period of things in comics starting to feel better and more just, and a lot of what’s happened since feels like losing ground.
The upshot is that, as much as I love Grant Morrison’s work, I have skipped his, by all accounts, excellent work on the relaunched Action Comics. I’m also missing Art Baltazar and Franco’s Superman Family, which I would certainly pick up under other circumstances. I’m not someone to tell other people what they should do, so it’s not really a boycott, but it comes down to the fact that I would feel bad buying these comics that I would otherwise love to read.
Which makes me wonder, if I can skip these comics that I would surely enjoy if the ethics of the situation didn’t make reading them unenjoyable, maybe I can skip the rest of DC’s output too. I’ve been looking forward to Morrison’s relaunched Batman Incorporated, but if I’m not missing Action Comics too much, maybe I won’t miss that either. Bob Kane’s family is fairly well taken care of, but that’s a fluke of him being able to consult a family friend who was a lawyer and getting to renegotiate his contract under threat of it being void, since he had no birth certificate (it was destroyed to help him avoid the draft). DC and Marvel both still make most of their money on characters created before the more favorable deals offered to talent today. Is it possible that they put more marketing muscle behind those old characters because their success is more profitable than the success of new properties? I wouldn’t put it past them.
I’ve generally felt okay about buying creator-owned series published by DC and Marvel, under the theory that part of voting with your wallet is voting affirmatively when a company does something you like. If sales of Superman went down while sales of Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth (a favorite of mine) went up, the smart company would do more of the latter and less of the former, right? I’ve also really enjoyed the first two issues of Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly’s Saucer Country, and have been buying Matt Fraction and Gabriel Bá’s Marvel series Casanova digitally. This is one I’m still wrestling with.
Don’t get me wrong. There are things my own employer does that make me uncomfortable (does anyone agree 100% with everything the company they work for does?), but those things aren’t remotely in the order of magnitude as DC and Marvel continuing to deny proper compensation to the families of the men who created their foundational characters. Marvel owes the vast majority of its characters to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, yet Lee had to sue for proper compensation and Kirby died never receiving his. DC has a better track record after a certain point, but its treatment of the Siegel and Shuster estates and of Alan Moore are bringing the period before that time back to the forefront.
DC can legally publish any kind of Watchmen-related material they want, but it is unethical to do so under the circumstances that they came to hold those rights all the way through 2012 and it is immoral to do so in the face of Alan Moore’s very public wish that they not compromise his novel. I hope Chris Roberson is only the beginning.
Tomorrow: less of a bummer, I hope.