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Tag: Swamp Thing

‘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.

New 52, Week One, Pt. 3: JLI, Swamp Thing, Batwing and Static Shock

Delayed slightly by a short-lived, mildly annoying illness and tons of work and baby duties, here, now, are some thoughts on the last batch of releases in the first full week of DC’s The New 52.

Swamp Thing #1 is a very tough comic to do, because no matter how good the book is it always has to live in the shadow of great runs by Alan Moore and the original run by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. Also, after nearly 20 years as a Vertigo property, I find it somehow incongruous to see Swamp Thing appear alongside Superman and other mainstream superheroes. None of which has anything to do with this particular story by Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette. I”ll start with the art, which I found to very good and atmospheric and, appropriately, lush. I had to double check the credits because I was sure those distinctively-inked faces meant Kevin Nowlan was working on this issue, but it is all Paquette. Snyder’s story does a decent job of resetting the character and his Alec Holland alter ego in the DC Universe, but still failed to really sell the idea as a good one. The horror elements were good. But I don’t think this version of Swamp Thing is distinctive enough to work as a Swamp Thing comic for established fans, while this is easily, I think, the most confusing first issue for neophytes. 
I was surprised in a good way to see Justice League International among The New 52. I am, as regular readers of this blog will know, a fan of the Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis run on the title from the late 1980s. Those writers haven’t returned for this version, which is written by Dan Jurgens with Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan on art — all solid superhero creators. The key to this seems to be Booster Gold, who Jurgens created a long time ago and whose series he was writing and drawing before it ended with Flashpoint. The supporting cast includes JLI stalwarts Guy Gardner, Batman, Rocket Red, Ice, Fire and Batman, along with Vixen, a Chinese hero named August General in Iron and a cheeky brit chick named Godiva. The premise is a little odd, as the United Nations agrees to form its own Justice League that it can control, under the leadership of U.N. Intelligence Chief Andre Briggs. So the JLI has no relation to the other Justice League, even though Batman’s in both. The story itself is decent but not spectacular. It has a  plot that it clearly tells, with a couple of character moments that old fogeys like me will be familiar with but may appeal to the newbies. There’s foreshadowing of conflicts, a cliff-hanger ending, some mid-level superhero action and it all looks very clean if average. All of this makes it hard to recommend one way or the other — it’s far from bad, but it’s nothing special enough to go out of your way for unless you already like these characters and this concept.
Static Shock #1 is perhaps the most standard first issue of the bunch, running through the standard story points of introducing the hero, his supporting cast, the premise and giving him a first villain to fight. I admit to not having read really anything about this character after about the first year of the original Static series from Milestone in 1993-94. I know there was a cartoon, and I know this was a signature character for the late Dwayne McDuffie. But this doesn’t match up with anything I remember liking about those original comics, which to me evoked Steve Ditko’s early Spider-Man work. This is a just a lot more generic. The story is by Scott McDaniel (who also does the art) and John Rozum, with Jonathan Glapion and LeBeau Underwood on inks. I really wish this book was better, but I fear this will be one of the first on the block for cancelation.
The last book on the list is Batwing #1, by Judd Winick and Ben Oliver. This is another book I was hoping would be a surprise simply because it’s new. And it’s a bit of a mixed bag, mostly because it didn’t grab me the way I expected it to. This is a new character, sort of spun out of the idea of Grant Morrison’s Batman, Incorporated idea, about David Zavimbe, who is, essentially, the Batman of Africa. His secret identity is as a police officer in the city of Tinasha in the Congo. The city is corrupt, there is plenty of rather ghastly crime and no one to fight it except Batwing. The first issue sees Batwing fight his new nemesis, Massacre, and establishes the setting, etc. It reads OK and looks very nice, but I think the reason this didn’t grab me is it just feels like old DC. Most of the new books seem to have attempted to put in more plot and tell the stories clearly — this feels sparse and slow. It also doesn’t show much of Africa itself, which I would have thought to be a major source of cool imagery and therefore a selling point for the book. I’m not sure it’s future looks much better than that of Static Shock, but the concept is one that I think could work well with a more energetic take on the material.
And that’s it for week one! Plenty more to come next week … 

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.

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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