Writer, Editor, Author

Tag: Alan Moore

Reminder – Mutant Cinema is FREE on Kindle! Plus, review it and get a prize!

Just wanted to remind everyone my Sequart book, “Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen” is available for download on Kindle for free. How can you not want to read it with a cool cover like this one, from artist Kevin Colden?

Click here to go straight to the download page!

Don’t dawdle, check it out now!

And while you’re at it, check out “Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen,” another Sequart book you can get free for Kindle. These offers won’t last long, so get them ASAP if you’re interested.

Again, the first five folks to email me with a link to a review (good or bad) on Amazon or elsewhere of the Kindle version of “Mutant Cinema” will get a free surprise comics treat from the extensive haul in my garage.

‘Before Watchmen’ is like gambling and smoking: Legal, but probably not a good idea

It’s time to revisit the saga of Alan Moore and Watchmen.

In case you missed it, DC Comics made public its long-rumored plans to publish this summer a series of Watchmen prequel miniseries using a variety of the industry’s top talents. The plans call for more than 30 issues in the project, with one arriving each week. Covers for a lot of the first issues have been released and the press release included a supportive quote from original Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons.

As soon as the news hit, the debate and bitching began over whether this was appropriate to do given the long-standing dispute between DC Comics and Alan Moore, with many fans and more than a few professionals showing the same kind of moral cowardice seen in the Superman copyright dispute and cheering on DC and calling Alan Moore a dick for not going along with the idea.

Among the rationales used to justify the “Moore is a jerk” arguments are:

  • Moore had discussed at the time Watchmen came out the possibility of doing some prequel stories himself. 
  • Moore has used other authors’ characters in his own work, most notably in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, even encountering a small bit of copyright controversy for Peter Pan in the U.K. 
  • Moore, like everyone else in comics, has used and built upon characters others created to advance their career with the understanding that others will do the same with their characters. For example, Moore got his big break in American comics writing Swamp Thing, which was created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson. 
  • Allowing creators to make their stories and characters off limits would be the equivalent of saying Superman should have ended after Siegel and Shuster stopped doing it, and that would be terrible! 
  • There’s also the argument that he signed the contract he signed and can’t complain about it now. If he really wanted to retain all the rights, he and Gibbons could have self-published Watchmen

All of which are poor arguments, in my opinion.

It always helps to go back to the facts and look at how we got to the place we’re at. Before that, an aside: Most of my books and magazines about comics were put in storage in the garage to make room for my daughter, meaning the many Moore interviews from years past I planned to cite in this post are not available to cite in the kind of detail I would like. I will try to approximate with online sources where possible. If I get the specifics wrong, let me know; I’m pretty confident having read up on this for many years that I’ve got it straight.

Most folks know Moore, who had become a writer of note in British comics, came to DC Comics in the early 1980s to write Saga of the Swamp Thing. The book had been slumping in sales and a new approach in Moore was needed to keep it going. Moore understood the job quite well: This was a mainstream American comic book that was distributed on newsstands with the Comics Code Authority seal, so there were limitations already in place on the types of stories that were going to be acceptable in a horror-tinged but still all-ages title. Moore succeeded rather well in reviving interest in Swamp Thing, and sales began to rise. The book was acclaimed in the fan market and began to draw the attention of the mainstream press, which was where the problems started. The shadow of the anti-comics crusade still lingered in the early 1980s and some of the powers that be at DC or over DC became concerned that a sophisticated title like Swamp Thing, even operating within the restrictions of the Comics Code, could attract unwanted attention to DC and the entire industry. 

For those who don’t remember, one of the less-savory aspects of the Reagan revolution was a censorious impulse that lead to Attorney General Edwin Meese conducting a major investigation into the evils of pornography with an eye on restricting access to that kind of material even for adults. This also was the time when parents’ reaction to PG-rated movies like like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which features a beating heart being pulled from a man’s chest, put enough pressure on the movie industry to create the PG-13 rating. It also was the era when Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, lead a charge to restrict sexually suggestive lyrics in rock and pop music. So DC was not too far off base to worry about some of that energy could be turned comics’ way, because it already had with a number of conservative law enforcement officials prosecuting comics shop owners for selling objectionable material to minors.

The result was that DC made Swamp Thing one of its first titles to carry the label “Suggested for Mature Readers.” Many fans expected this would have been perfect for Moore, who obviously could take it darker. But the real result of such a label was to reduce quite significantly the distribution of the comic. Without the Comics Code seal, there was no newsstand distribution, and even local comics shops would cut back their orders of the title and be wary about who they sold it to for fear of being prosecuting. That fear was strong enough for many to simply not bother to carry such a title.

For Moore, this effectively means that DC was rewarding him for successfully reviving Swamp Thing under the restrictions placed on it by reducing his potential audience to a fraction of its previous size. I don’t know if Swamp Thing sold well enough for Moore and his collaborators to earn sales incentives, but it doesn’t take a math wizard to see what the distribution change would mean for that income. To Moore, his success was punished and not rewarded — a recurring theme for many top creators in the history of comic book publishing.

Still, Moore continued to work for DC, eventually signing contracts to allow DC to publish what would become Watchmen and for V for Vendetta. These contracts are the meat of his disputes with DC. At the time, DC was not allowed by its ownership to publish material to which others held the copyright. On V for Vendetta, Moore and artist David Lloyd had begun the strip in Warrior magazine in the U.K., but the publisher folded before the story was completed. Moore and Lloyd held all rights to the material, and DC wanted to re-publish the completed parts of the story in color and have Moore and Lloyd complete the tale.

I’m sure at first the idea of the temporary copyright transfer seemed like a great solution. At the time, the American comics market was almost exclusively periodicals, with only a handful of graphic novels and trade paperbacks having even been tried. Those, too, rarely stayed in print long. DC at the time likely had no trade paperback collections or plans in place to create the kind of book backstock they are now well known for. With no precedent, there was no reason to assume that the series would be printed as a series of comics and then essentially go out of print with the rights reverting to Moore and Lloyd after a short time.

Taking a bit of speculation on my part here: this arrangement must have seemed quite radical and forward thinking at the time. Getting DC to put in a contract a copyright reversion clause for a comic’s creators must have seemed like an incredible and hopeful breakthrough for those interested in creator rights. Moore must have felt like he had helped make progress that all creators could benefit from and that he had avoided with his own creation the traps that befell the likes of Siegel and Shuster and Jack Kirby.

The same deal was struck for Watchmen. A lot has been made in the past week that the original idea for Watchmen was to use the Charlton Comics characters. The argument is being made that Moore should not complain about the copyright dispute over Watchmen, since it was originally going to use characters owned by DC Comics and the versions that ended up in the final story are inspired, based on or ripped off, depending on your perspective, from those same characters.

And that’s an interesting argument but ultimately is one that fails to hold water. There are similarities, but there also are enough differences to make the characters distinctly different, especially in a legal sense. Fans who make this argument seem to overlook its implications for all kinds of comics characters. Following it could open up arguments that the Fantastic Four is ripped off from Challengers of the Unknown, X-Men from Doom Patrol, Man-Thing and Swamp Thing from The Heap, Hawkeye from Green Arrow, and on and on. That DC Comics needed a contract with Moore and Gibbons that transferred the copyright to the publisher is all the proof you need to show that even DC at the time thought they were distinct enough to need to clear the rights.

Most fans know what happened from here on out: Watchmen and V for Vendetta were published as a series of comic books and then collected into book editions that have remained in print and strong sellers ever since, preventing the copyright reversion from kicking in.

For the most part, I think DC was simply lucky in this deal. They realized they had a cash cow and have milked it for all its worth for the past 25 years. Yes, they stuck to the letter of a deal that benefits them tremendously, and from that perspective Moore et. al are just plain out of luck. But DC is violating the spirit of the deal, as the terms of the contract were drafted to make the copyright transfer temporary, and that’s where Moore is correct and DC is in the wrong.

Yes, the contract has always entitled Moore and his collaborators to royalties from sales of Watchmen. It’s clear, however, that the money is less important to Moore than ownership and control of his work, and he has given away his share of such proceeds to his collaborators. I think this is the one point that really puzzles some people. In the Superman copyright case, it’s all about money at this point. The Siegels have no interest in making new Superman comics, they want the money they are due from having recovered their share of the copyright to the character as of 1999. Same with the Kirby family claims — it’s about getting a piece of the very large pie Kirby helped create. And in America, where getting rich or dreaming about getting rich is the real national pastime, a lot of folks don’t understand how Moore can complain about all this when he is still getting paid. Obviously, the principle of the matter is what’s important to Moore, and he has the courage to call out the industry for its abuses and to walk away from it.

DC Comics’ decision to now create Watchmen derivative works after 25 years, against the wishes of Moore in particular, violates the spirit of the deal even more. That a lot of professionals are chiming in with the sentiment that Moore should just get over it and let others play with his work kind of amazes me. Watchmen is not in the same work-for-hire category as Fantastic Four or Green Lantern, which were created to be ongoing series. It was created to be a stand-alone, independent, creator-owned work and its creator feels — rightly, I think — that DC Comics is exploiting a loophole in the deal that allows them to hang on to a property they had originally only borrowed and intended to return to its creators.

I’ll briefly discuss some of the criticisms of Moore’s position that I listed earlier but have not yet addressed:

  • Yes, Moore had discussed doing prequels himself. But to say Moore’s plans to write prequels to a project he expected to own means that others can do it without his permission for the publisher that failed to return it is ridiculous. 
  • Yes, Moore has used other authors’ characters in his work. Those works are, however, now in the public domain and can be used by anyone. The copyright, which was originally held by the authors themselves, has expired on them and the authors themselves are long gone. 
  • Had Siegel and Shuster had control over Superman, then it’s possible they might have retired the character. He surely would be very different from the Superman we know today. That would have been a more human outcome for Jerry and Joe and their families — as for the rest, I don’t think it really matters. The world at large and comics would have gotten along just fine without Superman. 

If you have read through all of this, you surely have realized I will not be buying or reading any of the Before Watchmen comics. In many ways, it’s yet another sign of mainstream comics’ slow creative and commercial decline. DC and Marvel have such a stranglehold on the market and have become in the past two years in particular even more corporate minded and creatively bankrupt that it’s hard to find any fresh air left in this medium. Independent comics have so slim a share of an already slim market that it seems there’s no place for talent to develop and, as soon as it does, it’s sucked up by the DC and Marvel machines, which are, unfortunately, about the only ones left who can offer creators enough work and compensation for them to make a living at comics.

It would seem I have more to say about the current state of comics, so I’ll save that for my next and possibly last post.

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 3

This time, I look at the how-to-make-comics books on my shelves.

Alan McKenzie’s How to Draw and Sell Comic Strips was the first book I ever saw that specifically devoted itself to this particular topic. I saw it in the bookstore at the University of Arizona when I was a freshman in 1987 and was particularly interested in seeing what comics scripts looked like and how pencils differed from inks — both topics that seem to always confuse fans when they first ask about them. McKenzie’s book featured some nice historical material on comics and some great tips on how to learn to draw everything you need to be able to draw to do comics. He creates a sample comic in the book, complete with a full script, pencils, inks and colors. The book also covers production issues as they were in the day, i.e., lettering pages before they were inked and how to hand separate color plates. It’s a great book, even though it did nothing to help me learn to draw. My efforts in basic drawing class earned me only one of only two C’s in my college career, convincing me that drawing was not where my talents lay. It looks like this has been revised and updated for a couple of new editions, and should be pretty easy to find if you are so inclined.

Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art is a classic in the field and the first book to explore the specific qualities of comics as an artform. I enjoy this book more now that I’ve read a significant amount of Eisner’s work. The book appears to me to be more useful for artists who already know how to draw in applying their skills to comics. As I’ve discovered, it’s not easy to learn to make art (and, I imagine, to teach it) when so much of the experience is subjective and difficult to communicate through words.

I almost put Writers on Comics Scriptwriting in the interviews section, but decided that this book by Mark Salisbury (and its sequel volume) fits better in the how-to category. This is a very nice collection of lengthy Q-and-A interviews with top comics writers on the craft of creating comics. Among the folks in volume one are Peter David, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Kurt Busiek, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid and Warren Ellis. Volume two (by Tom Root and Andrew Kardon) covers Brian Azzarello, Dave Sim, Brian K. Vaughan, Mark Millar, Geoff Johns, Mike Carey, Kevin Smith, Greg Rucka and Brian Michael Bendis. I believe both books are currently out of print, but they are worth tracking down if you’re interested in writing comics.

Along the same lines is Panel One: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers and Panel Two: More Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers, both edited by Nat Gertler. Each volume includes a number of complete scripts by such talents as Busiek, Dwayne McDuffie, Jeff Smith, Neil Gaiman, etc. They’re fascinating for how different they all are, from formatting variations to overall tone. Most of the books whose scripts are published in these volumes are indie books that are easy to track down for comparison to the final product.

Another good overall primer on the thought that goes into comics is The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, by Denny O’Neil. This was part of an entire series DC did a few years back on how to make comics. While it does less in terms of showing complete scripts, it does discuss what goes in to making a comic work in the DC Universe, up to and including examples of how to map out and execute mega-crossovers.

There is no equivalent book from Marvel, but I do want to point out that anyone interested in seeing how books are put together on that side of town to track down the Rough Cut editions of Avengers (Vol. 3) #1, Thor (Vol. 2) #1, Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #1 and X-Force #102. These editions feature the complete plot and the pencils to those issues, giving a nice look at Marvel-style writing.

Few names are as well-regarded in the field as Alan Moore, so it’s a no-brainer that Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics from Avatar Press is well worth the read. This is a slim volume that collects a couple of essays Moore wrote on the topic, and they talk mainly about approach and execution with few examples. Moore’s scripts are legendary for being long and extremely detailed — try to read the full scripts in the supplementary volumes in the Absolute Editions of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen  and see how far you get before mental exhaustion sets in.

Lastly, there’s Comic Book Lettering: The Comic-Craft Way, by Richard Starkings and John “JG” Roshell. I include this because I used to do print design and production work and enjoyed this peek at how to put all the pieces together exactly into the final package. If you don’t want to know what point size and kerning settings to use on comics type, this may not be for you. But reading this would be essential for anyone looking to letter a comic.

Off the Shelf: Saga of the Swamp Thing, Vol. 2

It was more than two years ago that I read the first volume in this new hardcover series collecting the influential mid-1980s series by Alan Moore et al. and wrote about it here. I finally bought the second volume a few months back while visiting Santa Barbara and just got around to reading it now.

Pretty much everything I said about the first volume stands for the second. This collection deals largely with the relationship between Swamp Thing, his former life as Alec Holland and with Abby. It is Abby at the heart of these stories, as the meat of this book is the confrontation between Swamp Thing and Abby’s husband Matt Cable.

Moore’s handle on the craft is still improving here, leaping by bounds per issue, and he avoids the kind of obvious superhero confrontation that would have been very easy and pleasing for fans in favor of a story and a resolution that is much more thoughtful, mature and will resonate for years to come still.

There’s also some fun in here — with “Pog,” an issue in which Swamp Thing meets some aliens that are surrogates for the cast of Walt Kelly’s Pogo.  This sounds like a disaster, but Moore manages to pull this off and make it work within the series and without being so incongruous, goofy or in love with itself that it breaks the spell.

The series concludes with a stunning issue in which Swamp Thing and Abby admit their love for each other and he allows her to see the world as he does. The techniques used here foreshadow the bulk of what Moore did with Promethea, and works completely and beautifully. The excellent art by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben make it completely natural to slowly turn the book in your hands until it’s sideways and then back again.

It’s amazing to look at these stories and realize how much DC and Vertigo built on the ideas and techniques Moore pioneered even in the first year and a half of his work on Saga of the Swamp Thing. It also is hard, if not impossible, to imagine that any comic produced in 2011 could have even half the impact that this series had in 1984 and 1985.

I hope I get around to reading Vol. 3 sometime before 2013.

Alan Moore drives fans crazy by telling it like it is

Watching the comics internet explode over this recent interview with Alan Moore is fascinating. Few folks have the ability to push so many people’s buttons by just telling the truth. If you haven’t read it yet, head over to Bleeding Cool now and read the whole thing, in which Moore goes into detail on recent dealings with DC over Watchmen.

Tom Spurgeon at Comics Reporter has a well-informed and even-keeled reaction that I find myself agreeing with on every point. One of his points is that there is going to be a certain segment of the internet that will degenerate into the “Alan Moore is crazy and should go away and shut up and stop bad-mouthing our beloved DC Comics.” That absolutely happened in all the expected spots, like the comments thread for the original interview, which was running more than 200 entries when I read through it yesterday. I was surprised however to see a story headlined “Alan Moore Goes Beyond Paranoid in His Latest Crazy Old Man Rant” at the normally decent Comics Alliance

Interestingly, there’s not a lot new in the interview. Most of the details of this have been addressed in some way in previous interviews with Moore or his collaborators. A lot of folks take issue with Moore saying he’s not friendly any more with some of his collaborators who continued to bring up topics that he had asked them to avoid. My own interview with Dave Gibbons back in 2008 regarding his book on the making of the comic, Watching the Watchmen, he said the following:

At a very early stage, Alan said to me that he didn’t really want to — he was pleased I was enthusiastic, but he didn’t really want to discuss it with me at all. And in a recent conversation he said that although he was always very happy to talk to me and he thought I’d acted impeccably as far as “Watchmen” was concerned, he really didn’t want to talk to me about it anymore. That’s his position, and I’m very keen to retain Alan’s friendship, and if that’s what it takes, then so be it. I have actually today sent him a copy of “Watching the Watchmen,” which scrupulously only deals with the graphic novel and make no reference to the Hollywood production. So I’m hoping that he will at least enjoy that.

So if Moore says Gibbons broke this request, especially to float trial balloons from DC over sequels or prequels of some kind, I can’t say I agree that it’s Moore who’s acting poorly.

The thing that has gotten everyone really riled up is Moore’s comments about the current state of the comics industry and the talent within. Here’s what he said:

When Dave Gibbons phoned me up, he assured me that these prequels and sequels would be handled by ‘the industry’s top-flight talents’. Now, I don’t think that the contemporary industry actually has a ‘top-flight’ of talent. I don’t think it’s even got a middle-flight or a bottom-flight of talent. I mean, like I say, there may be people out there who would still be eager to have their name attached to WATCHMEN even if it was in terms of “Yes, these are the people who murdered WATCHMEN”. I don’t want to see that happen.

Which was followed by this:

At the end of the day, if they haven’t got any properties that are valuable enough, but they have got these ‘top-flight industry creators’ that are ready to produce these prequels and sequels to WATCHMEN, well this is probably a radical idea, but could they not get one of the ‘top-flight industry creators’ to come up with an idea of their own? Why are DC Comics trying to exploit a comic book that I wrote 25 years ago if they have got anything? Sure they ought to have had an equivalent idea since? I could ask about why Marvel Comics are churning out or planning to bring out my ancient MARVELMAN stories, which are even older, if they had a viable idea of their own in the quarter-century since I wrote those works. I mean, surely that would be a much easier solution than all of this clandestine stuff? Just simply get some of your top-flight talent to put out a book that the wider public outside of the comics field find as interesting or as appealing as the stuff that I wrote 25 years ago. It shouldn’t be too big an ask, should it? I wouldn’t have thought so. And it would solve an awful lot of problems. They must have one creator, surely, in the entire American industry that could do equivalent work to something I did 25 years ago. It would be insulting to think that there weren’t. That’s just my suggestion for a way that DC could remove themselves from this thorny impasse, but we shall see.

A number of creators took umbrage at this, but I think anyone taking the time to understand what he’s saying realizes the point is not that Moore thinks all the current DC and Marvel creators are hacks — it’s that the mainstream comics industry as embodied by DC and Marvel has not stepped up to the plate and delivered an original work that compares well to Watchmen in the past 25 years. 

And he’s right.  
Commenters keep bringing up all their favorites as counter-arguments, but these lists almost always include a raft of corporate-owned, work-for-hire projets like Marvels, Kingdom Come, New Frontier and All-Star Superman. I like all those, but if you’re objective and honest with yourself none of these has the heft or ambition or scope of Watchmen. I doubt any work on corporate owned superheroes in the current publishing environment or from the past 25 years comes anywhere close. Even your best arguments for great post-Watchmen comics, which I would say include Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Jeff Smith’s Bone, are exceptions to a lot of rules and sprang from the publishing environment of 20 years ago that no longer exists today. I doubt either could find an audience in the same way today. And that’s Moore’s point.

Having seen audio and video interviews with Moore (there’s plenty on YouTube), I think people who are lambasting him a bitter, paranoid jerk are reading that tone into the interview. I have yet to see, hear or read an interview with Moore where he offers anything but thoughtful answers and his tone is cheerful and positive. He talks about Watchmen because people keep asking about it and he obviously doesn’t mind answering in detail.
Which is the best thing about Alan Moore, who obviously realizes it is important to answer questions about the way the industry works. What’s clear from the long history of comics, starting with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and certainly not ending with Jack Kirby’s artwork or the Watchmen contract, is that the major publishers have always exploited talent and their creations for great profit and used the threat of blacklisting and banishment from the industry to hide such basic information as how many copies any book sells to what creators are paid — all to ensure that the power and the money comics generates stays in their hands. Moore has the courage to walk away from all that and the sense to speak out and expose what most everyone else would keep quiet about and allow to continue unabated. 
The arguments that “you can’t expect corporations to behave any differently” or “those details are private” are assumptions built into modern American corporate culture that should be challenged. If you want better comics, you empower the creators. If you want the current industry, where too many talented creators’ voices are submerged in endlessly recycled crossover events that play to a consistently shrinking audience, then hope that people keep their mouths shut. 

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.

Countdown to Watchmen: Pre-screening thoughts

I am seeing Watchmen tonight and find myself quite looking forward to it.

I’ve largely avoided what seems like a thousand clips, interviews, reviews and rants on the film, mostly because it just seems like noise generated by the Warner Bros. marketing and hype machine. The proof always is in the final film, and I’d prefer not to have my expectations raised, lowered or otherwise messed with by that sort of thing.

What I have done is reread the graphic novel, just finishing the final chapter earlier today. This is the first time I’ve read the book all the way through in at least 10 years and possibly as long as 15. I first read the book in 1988, when I bought the trade at All About Books and Comics on a hot summer day. The clerk commented on my choice as he rung up my purchase, saying something along the lines of wishing he could read it again himself for the first time.

Rereading the graphic novel drives home the truth that no film will be able to replicate the experience of the book. I don’t care if it’s a 12-part HBO series, or if Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick rose from the grave to direct it, or if Alan Moore himself pronounced it perfection. No film can truly capture this experience because it’s designed to be a comic book through and through.

So that leaves me hoping for the next best thing — a good adaptation that does as much justice as you can possibly do to a book like that. I’m hopeful that this will be the case, even as critics veer wildly between pans and praise. That they’re producing the separate animated DVD with the Tales of the Black Freighter segment is, to me, a good sign that Zack Snyder and co. took this film very seriously and have tried their best to be true to both its stories and its underlying themes.

But I don’t expect this to be hailed as a great film that will take a place in the movie canon similar to the one the graphic novel has in its medium. That it’s different doesn’t bother me. And having just reread the book, it bothers me even less because Watchmen is a book that has retained its power — perhaps even increased it — in the 20-plus years since it was first published and will remain a powerful and unique experience no matter what I think after the lights come up at the Grove sometime around 11 p.m. this evening.

More tomorrow.

Off the Shelf: Saga of the Swamp Thing, Vol. 1

This is the first in a series of hardcover books reprinting Alan Moore’s seminal run on the title. Amazingly, Moore also wrote Watchmen, which is coming to movie screens in just a couple weeks now! Coincidence, surely. I have to confess to never having read any of Moore’s Swamp Thing until now. And in some ways I’m glad I waited, because it’s always great to find a great comic that you’ve never read before even when it’s 25 years old. The book reprints Saga #20-27, and features a bunch of very cool bits. The coolest is the way Moore completely transforms the hero by revealing Swamp Thing to not be the transformed body of Alec Holland, but the transferred consciousness — meaning there is no chance Swamp Thing can ever become human again. This throws the series’ very premise into doubt and runs counter to the conventions that ruled comic book storytelling and character motivation for the previous, say, two decades. That opens the door for this book to go somewhere completely different, and made for a tremendously interesting read. That not much is immediately done with it is OK — we know there’s more volumes to come. But there’s also a lot of craft in this book, from Moore and artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. For one, everything is deliberate and with purpose — every caption and every panel seems to have been thought through rather well and there’s little if any fat in the story telling. The things that for me didn’t work quite as well were the introduction of various DC Universe characters. The Justice League cameo was strange and thankfully short. The appearance of The Demon, however, was more annoying and seemed more gratuitous. Maybe some of that is every horror/mature reader series DC launched in these pre-Vertigo days seemed to have The Demon show up. (Even Neil Gaiman’s Sandman had both the Justice League and The Demon show up in its early issues.) Plus, the only Demon comics I’ve ever read that I liked were the first few by Jack Kirby. Pretty much everything since has seemed contrived or just plain silly, so that part fell short. These are minor complaints, however, since the overall experience of reading the book is a very pleasurable and intimate one. It’s also a good reminder of what you can do with a comic book when you’ve got a writer with a vision and they’re left largely to their own devices — no crossovers, no mega events, no storytelling by committee. As a latecomer to these stories, I think I like them more than I would have had I read them 10 or 20 years ago. Grade: A-

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