After Watchmen: Originality and Moral Rights

The dispute between Alan Moore and DC, rather than simply growing old, has only become more bitter.  DC’s decision to add an MPAA-style rating system to its comics infuriated him.  Their purchase of WIldstorm Studios, where he was just about to publish his new “America’s Best Comics” line, confronted Moore with a moral dilemma: walk away, because he had sworn never to work for DC, or grin and bear it, because he didn’t want to put his collaborators out of work?  Moore chose the latter, but insisted on a firewall between himself and DC Comics: no contact with DC editors and no checks bearing DC’s corporate name.  

America’s Best? Well, maybe..

America’s Best? Well, maybe..

Only a few years later, DC pulped an issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen  (created by Moore and artist Kevin O’Neil) because of a parody ad for a “Marvel douche.” Ironically, the editor who made this decision, Paul Levitz, was also the man who made sure that DC never published new Watchmen material over Moore’s objections; his departure would lead to the Before Watchmen set of comics miniseries that needlessly expanded the Watchmen world.

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The comics community is divided on the issue of Watchmen’s ownership and exploitation, as virtually any comments thread on a Watchmen-related topic will demonstrate.  The discussions tend to revolve around two sets of questions:   

  1. Does DC/Time Warner’s legal ownership of Watchmen mean that their moral right to exploit the franchise over the co-creator’s objections is indisputable? 

  2. Wasn’t Moore ripping off established intellectual property to begin with, undermining any moral claim he might have?

The first question is rooted in decades of controversy in the comics world over creators’ rights.  Jerry Siegel and Jerome Shuster, the creators of Superman, signed away their creation when they were teenagers.  When Superman: The Movie was announced in 1975, Siegel wrote a letter whose contents were picked up by all the major news outlets:  “I, Jerry Siegel, the co-originator of Superman, put a curse on the Superman movie!”  At the time, he was working in a mail room to get by, while Shuster supported himself as a janitor.  Time Warner gave them each a small pension before the movie opened, in order to avoid bad publicity.

You will believe corporate executives can be made to feel shame

You will believe corporate executives can be made to feel shame

The Siegel and Shuster case is simply the most famous of many such stories.  Only in the 1980s, after the rise of small publishers and self-publishing, not to mention a few lawsuits, did Marvel and DC begin to institute royalties and profit-sharing.  In the wake of Watchmen, DC would start the Vertigo imprint aimed at adults, allowing for complicated co-ownership of properties brought to them. [1] 

In the case of Watchmen, no one is challenging DC’s legal ownership, even if the terms of Moore’s and Gibbons’ contract now look skewed in the company’s favor.  But Watchmen has already made a huge amount of money for DC, as well as serving as the foundation of its reputation for quality.  If the person who came up with the idea and wrote the book is adamant that it not be adapted or otherwise exploited, do his wishes matter?  

Critics of Moore’s stance note that Moore himself has written stories featuring characters created by others, and that some of those creators were still living at the time.  Why does Moore deserve special consideration?  

Though legal ownership, intellectual authorship, and the reworking of other people’s characters and ideas are all separate topics in their own right, it is true that Alan Moore’s writing is a particularly rich site for the entanglement of all three problems. Moore is a writer whose approach and style are so clearly his own, which in turn means three seemingly-contradictory things:

  1. You can spot Alan Moore’s writing a mile away.

  2. This makes him very easy to parody and imitate

  3. The productive potential inherent in his work has served as a springboard for other creators to move in their own direction (Neil Gaiman), and also influenced the industry through a selective focus on some of the least interesting aspects of his work (extreme violence and the dark and cynical ethos of Watchmen that does not characterize most of the rest of his writing).

Alan Moore’s role in his fictional worlds is more one of demiurge than godlike creator.   His originality often resides in his willingness to be explicitly derivative: the comics, popular entertainment, and myth that precede him becomes raw material for him to rework in his own fashion.   Like many comics writers, he made his mark primarily by writing for long-established characters, but in Moore’s case, his initial approach was to recognize the past while immediately contextualizing it as not entirely valid.  In Marvelman/Miracleman and Swamp Thing,  he pioneered a trope that would, in others’ hands, quickly become a cliché: everything you thought you knew about this character was wrong.  

Crisis in Infinite Gothic

Crisis in Infinite Gothic

Even his creator-owned work often wears its artistic debts on its sleeve.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is populated by public domain literary characters: initially Mina Harker (from Dracula), the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo, and Alan Quartermain, but eventually joined and/or supplanted by protagonists and bit players from Shakespeare, Orwell, Woolf, H.G. Wells, to name just a few.  Most of his America’s Best Comics line consists of variations on familiar archetypes: Promethea initially looks like a twist on Wonder Woman, before proving far more complicated and inventive, while Tom Strong is Moore’s version of the pulp supermen who preceded superman (particularly Philip Wylie’s Gladiator).  The Lost Girls, his avowedly porno-graphic novel authored with Melinda Gebbie, stars Wendy from Peter Pan, Alice from Lewis Carroll’s novels, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz; the three of them participate in an orgy during the initial scandalous performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  More recently, his ten-issue series Providence explores one of the most productive open-source fantasy worlds still going strong today, the work of H.P. Lovecraft.  

A rare Lost Girls image you can look at at work

A rare Lost Girls image you can look at at work

Given the evident glee with which Moore engages in his own forms of literary trespassing, then, his insistence that Watchmen be left alone could be seen as ungenerous.  But not indefensible.

First, let’s consider the question of form and format within the context of the industry and the medium.  Even as late as 1986, limited comics series with a beginning, middle, and an end, were rare, especially in the superhero genre.  Superheroes, after all, are the gift that keeps on giving:  their stories are told and retold endlessly; most of the characters are essentially immune to death, a condition that is usually temporary; and their value as intellectual property is predicated on their exploitation in other media and merchandise.  Watchmen  was not built to sell Underoos, and not just because of Doctor Manhattan’s habit of going commando.  The very fact that it could (and should) stand alone a single story requiring neither prequel nor sequel made it special.  

Second, there is the nature and role of the characters themselves, and the fictional world that Moore and Gibbons created for them. In this regard,  Watchmen functions less as a stand-alone novel and more as the sequel to decades of stories set in the Watchmen universe.  These stories, however, were never written, never told, and probably never even fully imagined.  On the one hand, this is a tacit invitation to the reader to fill in the gaps, but is it an invitation to other writers?  This is a question we will take up in our discussion of Before Watchmen

Finally, there is the basic fact that 1986 was not 1938.  When Siegel and Shuster signed away their rights to Superman, there was no broader context of comics creators demanding authorial control and profit sharing. The original sin of superhero comics was made possible by the naivety of writers and artists, the cutthroat practices of a nascent industry, and the sheer unlikelihood that there was real money to be made in publishing the adventures of a man in an opera cape wearing his red underwear over blue tights. 

By 1986, the story of Siegel and Shuster was a cautionary tale, and comics readers were now paying much more attention to the identities of the people who wrote and draw the stories they enjoyed.  Legally, Alan Moore had absolutely no recourse when it came to the terms of the Watchmen contract, and has never indicated any inclination to fight over the property in court.   What we have with Watchmen is not a question of legality.

Anyone who contemplates adapting or continuing Watchmen is instead confronted with a situation that was rare in the world of corporate comics, not to mention prose fiction.  With few exceptions, the creators whose work Alan Moore has played with since leaving DC are dead, or have actually approached Moore to play in their sandbox (as was the case with Moore’s work on Jim Lee's WildC.A.T.S. and Rob Liefield’s Supreme in the 1990s).  Watchmen’s co-creator is, thankfully, still among the living, and has publicly and repeatedly stated his desire that the world of his comic be left alone. Why should would-be Watchmen developers feel comfortable ignoring his wishes?

 

Next: Unwatchable Watchmen

 

Note

[1] A moment of silence for Vertigo, which was shut down earlier this year. R.I.P. Vertigo, 1993-2019.