Writer, Editor, Author

DC Decision on Rumored New Watchmen Comics Will be Telling

The comics blogospher has been abuzz over a report from Rich Johnston over at Bleeding Cool about plans within DC to publish new prequel and sequel comics to Watchmen. The report states this initiative to capitalize on the success of the original graphic novel — now reported to be DC’s best-selling title ever — is a pet project of Dan Didio and made possible by the departure of publisher Paul Levitz, who resisted previous efforts to sequelize Watchmen.

Johnston has a pretty good track record on this kind of thing, so I’m inclined to think there’s something to this. And with announcements pending on Warner Bros.’ plans for the new DC Entertainment, such a project being the first thing out of the gate for the post-Levitz DC will tell us a lot about the company’s future.

To start with, publishing more Watchmen comics makes perfect sense from a purely business point of view. After nearly 25 years in print, the potential for new products that exploit Watchmen has been pretty much tapped out now that we’ve had the movie version, the motion comic and all the merchandising that came with that project.

And looking at the history of sequels to classics — for example, there have been multiple sequels to Casablanca in print and even on TV that flopped and are remembered pretty much not at all — if new Watchmen comics flop it’s unlikely to diminish people’s affection for the original. We’ve already got the movie version, so there’s no way a controversy would damage the property’s chance of being made.

But without additional material, there are few options for DC and WB beyond collectibles for die-hard fans when it comes to new product. You need something new on which to base another videogame, or DCU cartoon, or toys or T-shirts and books. Everything’s already been played out with the original material.

One issue that’s come up and been debunked is the idea of a movie sequel. It’s clear a movie sequel was never in the cards because it makes no sense. The movie didn’t do all that well at the box office, grossing $107 million domestically and $77 million overseas for a worldwide total of about $185 million. And that doesn’t even cover an estimated production budget of around $130 million, the significant budget the studio spent to market the movie all over the world or the legal expenses and settlement over the rights to the film between Warner Bros. and Fox.

(Something that’s rarely remembered when discussing box office receipts is that these are gross numbers that are split between the theater showing the movie and the studio. The studio still gets the lion’s share, but it’s very inaccurate to say that a film made for $100 million breaks even when its gross matches the budget. A general rule is that a movie has to gross 2.5 to 3 times its production budget to become profitable. Good news for Avatar — bad news for Watchmen. If you’re wondering how studios stay in business when so few films meet that standard, the need for alternative revenue streams becomes clear. Even with DVD sales way down, rights for home video, pay per view, movie channels like HBO and cable and broadcast rights are major factors and continue to pay long after a movie’s gone from theaters. Plus, there’s licensing and merchandising. All of this also helps explain why studios pretty much only make movies based on pre-existing properties – it’s often the factors they bring to a project that will turn a profit for them in the end. But, I digress … )

But a comic book sequel has to be an obvious idea for DC. Watchmen is easily their biggest-selling book of all time at this point. And it will continue to sell well for them no matter what.

What’s interesting is there are some unusual risks that come with more Watchmen. What won’t show up on any spreadsheet is the complex set of circumstances that surround this project, its place and impact on comic book history, and the situation with creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

The first problem is the creators. Alan Moore split with DC years ago in part due to problems he has with the contract he signed with the company for both Watchmen and V for Vendetta. At the time the contract was signed in the 1980s, DC policy was that it would not publish anything it did not own. To placate Moore, who came from British comics where creator ownership was more common, the contract was written with a clause that would transfer ownership to DC for publication and then return it to Moore after these projects had been out of print for a certain period of time. At the time, DC only published periodical comics, and the market for them was very strong at the time. This was way before anyone thought comics fans would even want trade paperbacks and graphic novels, even if DC were to publish them. So Moore and Gibbons signed. And when DC turned Watchmen into a trade paperback and kept it in print and retained the rights, Moore was understandably upset. Gibbons has been much happier with DC and continued to work for them, even consulting on and promoting the movie. The issue is, unlike most such comics disputes, not about money as by all accounts there has been plenty of that. For Moore, it’s the principle of the matter, and he’s happily signed away his share of the money to Gibbons. That’s a move that gives Moore unusual credibility in this matter. There’s also the matter that his complaints are legitimate and from a what’s fair and what’s right attitude (as opposed to what’s legal) Moore is right.

In a way, DC lucked out. Had they done Watchmen a couple years earlier, Moore and Gibbons might have gotten the rights back; a few years later, they would have been able to get creator ownership once DC began allowing that. And it is a black mark on DC that it did not re-negotiate a deal that gave Moore at least some of what he wanted when the market changed. Original intent and expectations are supposed to be important aspects of contract law in this country. To its credit — and this now appears to be the influence of Paul Levitz — DC did not exploit Watchmen with the creation of sequel and prequel comics.

Until now.

While Moore is so unhappy with the Watchmen situation that he no longer even owns a copy of the book, it’s unlikely he’ll wage any kind of public campaign against any new Watchmen comics. But he does do interviews, so someone will eventually ask and, in typical Alan Moore fashion, he’ll have a really quotable response that will rocket around the internet in record fashion.

Bad PR is the real risk for DC in this situation. Moore’s complaints are nothing new, but if the first comics project from the re-organized DC Entertainment comes with a controversy, it certainly won’t look good. And it’ll look even worse if the media ties in the Jerry Siegel copyright termination on the first Superman story and Jack Kirby’s heirs stated intention to do the same thing with most of the Marvel Universe.

That comics publishers have long screwed creators is by no means a new story, especially within the industry and the fan base, but it becomes something different when you suddenly have big companies like Disney in charge of Marvel and Warner Bros. looking to make DC into a high profile generator of media properties. Then it becomes a big corporations ripping off the little guy story, and it’ll resonate farther and wider than it has in the past.

But if we’re hearing about more Watchmen comics, it likely means that the decision’s already been made to go ahead with it. And it still might work out for DC. Getting Gibbons on board to write, draw or in some way supervise or approve the projects would provide a counter to the “they screwed the creators” narrative. And if the comics were somehow really good, that also would earn a lot of forgiveness. That’ll be tough, though, considering it will be very hard to get any top talent to sign on to such a project. No one wants to follow in Moore’s shoes or get labeled the comic book creator equivalent of a scab by taking such a job.

And if it flops, there’s not a lot of tangible downside. The original will still be a great book and will continue to sell well for the company. Unsuccessful additions will simply sink into obscurity. But the fan fallout could be huge.

For comics fans and creators, though, going ahead with new Watchmen comics would be a worrying sign about the direction WB intends to take DC. Folks like Neil Gaiman, who forged a successful relationship with DC that gave him a certain amount of control over Sandman, might find past promises no longer hold with the new management.

Incoming DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson has said in interviews she’s very intrigued by the potential of Vertigo projects to cross over into other media. That will raise some questions about the deals Vertigo has cut with its creators over the years. According to the notices in the indicias, most Vertigo series are creator owned. A few Vertigo projects (like Jamie Delano’s Outlaw Nation and 20/20 Visions) have been reprinted by other publishers. I know of a few other one-time Vertigo projects where the rights have reverted to the creators after a certain period of time. But it’s not clear when it comes to things like movie rights who controls what, though it has become common in the comics publishing biz even for publishers that allow creator ownership to have some kind of stake in the movie money. Things could get complicated.

But for fans who are watching to see what Warner Bros. is going to do with its comics house, it’s going to be a very interesting time. Will Warner Bros. be happy with DC’s comic book publishing operations as is? Or will it decide comics publishing is too small a business and not profitable enough for a company the likes of Warner Bros. to continue? That’s an extreme fear, as the cost of comics publishing is low and the return on comics properties translated to other media is potentially huge. But that’s what a lot of people are going to be looking for, and a plan to make more Watchmen comics is an oddly controversial way for a company like DC to trumpet its reorganization into a major media company.

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2 Comments

  1. i don't think fan backlash will be too bad… even if these are horrible, it's not like geeks are going to stop reading justice league, or "cool" comics fans will boycott vertigo. i'm sure there will be a big backlash online before it comes out, then people will either buy it or not (and i have no doubt that some people who will say this is the worst idea ever will at least check it out). then in years to come it will either be forgotten like the casablanca sequels you mentioned, or be huge like ultimate spiderman (which also had a major fan backlash before anyone read it).

  2. I dunno about "bad" sequels/prequels NOT diminishing the value of the original. Look at Star Wars…its hard to separate your feelings of love for the original ones with your feelings of disappointment with the prequels.

    Ideally, they won't risk that. Obviously, money-wise, it makes sense for them to do it, though…

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