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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.

Marvel, DC changes will have long-term repercussions, but for now, just relax

The worst part about being away from this blog so long is the mental hurdle that has to be overcome in order to get back to it. Just for the record: I’m not dead. A combination of work, a spirited 40th birthday party for my aging fanboy self and a lengthy sojourn to France and Italy have kept my comics reading to a minimum. There are a number of posts that I’ve thought about in the past couple months that I’m going to try to get to in quick succession, just to get things rolling here again. But, first things first … Yes, that was the ground shifting beneath the comic book industry in a historic week that saw Disney buy Marvel for a whopping $4 billion and the restructuring of DC Comics as DC Entertainment that includes the departure of longtime exec Paul Levitz. Of the two, the DC news is more important for comic book readers because Levitz was by all accounts the stabilizing force at DC that kept both the company and to a large extent the industry on an even keel during the darkest days. Lots of folks who’ve worked with Levitz over the years have published their thoughts on his contributions and lauded him for keeping DC steady, while others have criticized his stewardship of DC as being excessively timid. What everyone agrees on is that Paul Levitz is a class act, and I can throw my two cents behind that wholeheartedly. A few years back, at one of the New York Comic-Cons, I attended one of the media dinners DC occasionally throws at such shows to let various press folks mingle with execs like Levitz and some of the talent. I was seated at a table between Levitz and Keith Giffen, and got to listen to them talk about the old days of working on the likes of Legion of Super-Heroes and Ambush Bug. It was very entertaining and I found Paul to be very amiable and easy to chat with. He’s also a very canny executive, which made the few opportunities I’ve had to interview him on the record a little frustrating as he was not the easiest person to get a quote out of, or sometimes even a clear answer to the question. It’s clear that Levitz has a real love for comics and that despite nominally being an executive in a Time-Warner company, he was really one of us — a guy who grew up on comics and loved them unconditionally the way they were. Others attest with detail to some of the things Levitz did to ensure DC continued to publish comics the way fans wanted them and found a way for DC to function relatively free from interference within the massive Time-Warner hierarchy. And that’s the real reason why his departure from the executive suite is such a big deal. That Warner Bros. would one day take a greater interest in DC was a given. Thankfully, it’s come at a time when comics are seen as popular and when a library such as DC’s is seen as extremely valuable and not worth messing with too much. So that leads to the arrival of Diane Nelson as president of the newly named DC Entertainment. The press releases and statements that heralded the announcement of her new position were full of typical corporate Hollywood jargon that made a lot about extending brands and maximizing synergy and other meaningless terms. What’s interesting to me is Nelson’s background is exclusively marketing and brand management. She’s got lots of experience selling movies to audiences around the world, and it’s no small thing to have shepherded the Harry Potter franchise — which WB has done an outstanding job with — through the filmmaking process. She’s obviously been put in this position to help the company make more money off the DC library rather than micromanage the ins and outs of comic book continuity. What she’s not is someone with creative experience. She’s not a producer, not a writer and not a development exec, so I think it would be very surprising if she did much meddling in the creative side of the comic books. The press releases make a point of saying the comics aren’t going anywhere and seems to indicate that some interesting plans are in place for DC’s 75th anniversary next year. With Levitz no longer publisher, though, that leaves a pretty big job open at DC, and whoever ends up sitting in that seat could have a huge impact on the content of the comic books. I expect someone from outside comics will come in to the job, much the way DC brought in Dan Didio — a former TV executive — to be editor in chief of the superhero comics a few years back. Whoever takes the job will instantly become the most criticized person in comics. There’s a few things that it would be nice to see such a person tackle — mostly shaking things up in the books and in the DC offices, which often exude a sense of being unpleasantly corporate and lacking in morale. The choice of new publisher also will reveal more about Warner Bros.’ intentions and goals for DC’s comic book publishing efforts. Will the increased expectations the studio is placing on the division lead it away from the current publishing model of periodical comics and the relatively small direct market for a more conventional magazine or book publishing arrangement? Will we finally see DC superheroes in digital comic form? Or will the small size of the publishing market be too little for Warner to even want to bother with? (I think the latter is highly unlikely — based on Marvel’s stock reports, DC surely makes a decent profit on its publishing and Warner Bros. is smart enough to know how foolish it would be throw that away.) All of which is a very different situation from the Marvel-Disney deal. I expect it will take years before the impact of this deal is noticeable in Marvel’s comic book line, but when it is felt I expect it will be major. But for now, I don’t see much to worry about. Disney paid a premium to buy Marvel because it likes what Marvel is doing and how much money it’s making. You don’t buy a company that is working as well as Marvel is to start micromanaging it or tinkering with it for the sake of tinkering with it. But over time, Marvel will change just by being part of Disney. It’ll happen as Marvel interacts with Disney, and especially as executives come and go. When Ike Perlmutter or David Maisel or Joe Quesada leave their respective positions, it will be Disney that decides who’s going to replace them. Barring any sudden departures, I think it’ll be years before enough changes are made that readers of the comic books will notice a significant difference. Will we look back at this moment five years from now and call it “the week comics went corporate?” In some ways, these kinds of shifts have been inevitable for some time given the way superheroes and comic book imagery have infiltrated the culture the past decade. But there’s always that old nagging issue that won’t go away — if the world loves comics so much, why don’t they sell better? And there’s fear with that — fear that the traditional comic book periodical and the industry that’s been built around could finally give up the ghost and go away for good, replaced by slick bookstore graphic novels, video games, DVDs, TV shows, whatever digital comics become, and, of course, movies. There’s hope here that greater investment from the likes of Warner Bros. and Disney could be great for comics, that their muscle could open up the lines of distribution and make comics more available, especially to kids. But it’s also just as plausible that the overall decline of print prompts those corporations to make a real bottom-line decision and ditch publishing altogether. I think as long as comics sales make money, Disney and Warner will see the value in keeping them around. But given what’s changed in the past 10 years, who knows where we’ll be 10 years from now? It’ll be interesting to watch, however it turns out.

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