Jumping on board to discuss the Alan Moore / Before Watchmen brouhaha. This, because I both adore many of Moore’s works (Watchmen itself, the story bits in Promethea, and Swamp Thing in particular), but from the evidence of his own words (interviews, and not text), he comes across as a very bitter, unlikable person, concerned with his own righteousness. This in itself is not relevant to continuing to love his work (which I’m sure I will), but it does prompt me to question “the Master’s” point of view on this mistreatment of his legacy.
It appears that when contracting to write Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons agreed for DC to retain the rights to publish and create derivatives based on the work, until the piece ceased being “in print” —something the two now say they considered at the time to be of limited provision.
… it’s now 25 years on, and counting…
Since then, DC has kept the work in print, has created merchandise, and produced a film. All of which both Moore and Gibbons have been paid full royalties for (money which has since broken their friendship, based on Moore rejecting DC’s overtures–via Gibbons (Seraphemera Books, 2012)).
At the time, Moore said “the way it works, if I understand it, is that DC owns it [Watchmen] for the time they’re publishing it, and then it reverts to Dave and me, so we can make all the money from the Slurpee cups” (Heintjes). His understanding was that if “DC have not used the characters for a year, they’re ours. … basically they’re not ours, but if DC is working with the characters in our interests then they might as well be. On the other hand, if the characters have outlived their natural life span and DC doesn’t want to do anything with them, then after a year we’ve got them and we can do what we want with them, which I’m perfectly happy with” (The Comics Journal, 1987).
In 2006, Moore told the New York Times that on the 15th anniversary of Watchmen, he informed DC—then asking for Moore’s involvement in new material, that “you have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again” (Itzkoff, 2008).
He is more than entitled to change his opinion, however, as quoted above, none of this business was a surprise to him. The fact that his opinion on his contract has changed, does not alter that he entered into it freely, and in full awareness of the conditions. Furthermore, this kind of contract is not unusual for any published author, wherein a property which continues to have financial worth is to be kept in print for the benefits of both parties—instead of being taken out of the publisher’s hands prematurely, and used to solely benefit the (main) creative agent, “main,” but still only one of many (see here the expectation within the business for their investment on other creative agents, such as editorial, to be repaid).
Yes, in retrospect, Moore could have had a better deal with DC. But the situation then changed—for the whole industry, on the invention of the ‘graphic novel’—and who would then expect a company to give over the rights to a hugely successful book? Did Moore expect to win-out more than he has, first by being published, and on being paid ongoing royalties? Yes. The fact he has not, is not foul play on the corporation’s part, it’s business (I hate how often I have to state this on the blog here, and while I will not claim that any of this is ideal, any instance where the creators are paid for their work, going on 25 years later, is simply not an ‘unethical’ business practice).
As to Moore’s comments (shared by many of his proponents), that it is artistically wrong for there to be any prequel series at all, my response is simple: comics are a collaborative media! In fact, on regarding this case, see Dave Gibbons—Moore’s own Watchmen collaborator—and his more nuanced take on derivative works. Then deal with it.
I understand his being upset, and it could be a better situation. But no, I don’t see DC, nor the new artists taking part in making derivative works, as an abuse. Would it be a nice surprise if all rights to Watchmen were returned to Moore? Yes. Of course. And further, if younger artists pursued their own work instead of working on top of Moore’s? Again, yes (though Moore has burnt himself there, and lost the high ground of claiming the best for new artists, by charging that there has been nothing of note in the industry since his famous works. Personally, I would trade Moore’s work for Sandman any day, indeed, take Gaiman’s Miracle Man for Moore’s own, precursor version—so, mister ego may need some perspective on the breadth of the comic industry.) New creator-owned works would be best, but demonising artists and readers for wanting more? Not a tenable position for a published (read: publicly available) author.
Also, let’s not get into the idea of the genius of originality, as building on others work neither negates the original, nor invalidates its derivatives (see the original, pre-Shakespearean version of The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, by Arthur Brooke, from 1562!)
All in all, is it a perfect situation? No. But neither is it unethical nor exploitative.
Ultimately, it mainly looks as if Moore did not, and does not, understand the concept of a collaborative media. As such, I can respect him as an artist, but not as a published creator.
A Portal to Another Dimension. (1987, July). The Comics Journal.
Heintjes, Tom. (1986, March). Alan Moore On (Just About) Everything. The Comics Journal.
Itzkoff, Dave. (2006, March 12). The Vendetta Behind ‘V for Vendetta’. The New York Times.
Seraphemera Books. Interview With Alan Moore. http://www.seraphemera.org/seraphemera_books/AlanMoore_Page1.html