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Okay, Fine, I'll Talk About The Watchmen Prequels

A column article, Z.E.I.T.G.E.I.S.T. by: Danny Djeljosevic

Danny Djeljosevic doesn't stop thinking about comics. All comics: crackling cosmic punches, subdued glances from art-school girls, high-concept pop, intricate European breasts, Japanese speedlined inner monologue, cartoon teenagers eating hamburgers. He loves them all.

He writes them. He draws them. He writes about them. He talks about them.

This is what his brain sounds like.


 

Nothing has put me in a bigger state of apathy than the announcement of Before Watchmen. DC was set to announce something on Wednesday, February 1, 2012, and it was no secret that it was going to be long-blueballed cash-ins on The Only Comic Book To Ever Matter. I thought, whatever, a couple miniseries that threaten to cheapen the original but will soon be forgotten as many bad ideas are (when was the last time someone brought up The Kingdom? Or Stayin' Alive?).

But then Before Watchmen turned out to be a series of (by my count) 27 miniseries, each focusing on a different element of the original -- one's about the Minutemen, one's about the Comedian and there's even a goddamn pirate comic. All of which will be forcibly autopsied by several talented participants of the comic book industry who didn't care enough to say "No" (and J. Michael Straczynski).

As if what a dense, multifaceted work like Watchmen needed was to be split up into its component parts and stretched out into hundreds of dollars worth of content.

Still, overwhelmed by apathy, the best I could do was make some ironic tweets about it feigning the kind of excitement only rivaled by that one guy who screamed at the Smallville finale with the ecstasy of a life-ending orgasm. Other than that, wasn't going to say much else about the subject. That is, until people from legit comics websites started saying some very stupid things (I'm looking at you, Newsarama and iFanboy) about the project. I'm positive David Brothers and Sean Witzke said all that was needed to say about the topic, but I really want to chime in on behalf of a legit comics website with no exclusives to risk losing or whatever compels those other sites to bend over so hard. The hopes of being able to slip Jim Lee a pitch for a Primal Force reboot?

On the flip side, I will say that CBR had a decent editorial with a misleading title that offers a somewhat measured view of the situation that doesn't read like sycophantic self-flaggelation and actually encourages people to ignore it -- even though it doesn't talk about a lot of the stuff I'm going to bring up below.

For the record, I plan on ignoring this project with my wallet, even though some creators I like are on it. It doesn't need my money, nor do I want to give it to this project when I can continue to spend my cash on stuff that regularly impresses me like Mudman and Rachel Rising or even Big Two stuff like Wonder Woman and Defenders. This isn't an anti-Big Two rant by any stretch of the imagination -- just anti-exploitative maneuvers in the face of some objectively bad business decisions. That said, if some unfortunate soul wants to lend me a copy, I'll gladly leaf through out of morbid curiosity. I am a weak man.

First of all, there's obviously no need for a sincere return to the Watchmen universe, no matter how "rich" that universe seems, because Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons told the story they wanted to tell in its entirety. It's all done. No need to go back, Jack. Even though I'm flattered they took some of my ideas (though the title for the project was a no-brainer, considering their "After Watchmen... What's Next?" marketing campaign).

I say "sincere return" because I'm interested in reacting and responding to Watchmen as a creative work. It's a comic I cannot shake, as much as I'd like to. I think it's because Comic Books 1986-Present is all about post-Watchmen fallout. You know the story:  for better or worse, many creators learned all the wrong lessons from Moore/Gibbons, there was a confluence of faux-"mature" but ultimately juvenile comics, etc. So yeah, it's trend I'm always apt to combat, and I kind of wrongfully blame the progenitor of the trend, so the pipe dream of someone taking on Watchmen who maybe isn't reverent of the work but wants to engage with it on a level beyond I HAZ PUT COMEDIAN IN KOREA WAR is actually palatable, because there's potential for dialogue (DIALOGUE!) and not just financially motivated necrophilia.

That said, even in that case the company responsible for footing the bill for that endeavor would be DC Comics, who will hold the rights to Watchmen due to what seemed like a pretty good contract stating that Moore and Gibbons get the rights to their work when the collection goes out of print for a year. Which would have been very likely in late-'80s comics world, as trade paperback collections weren't mostly just a thing Dave Sim was pulling off really well, but Watchmen collections sold way better than anyone could have predicted and DC keeps it in print to this day, thus keeping the rights out of reach from its rightful owners. Which is why Moore is pretty peeved at DC.

Now, it's easy to say "Moore and Gibbons signed a contract, them's the breaks, stop whining you old English wizard." And, if you want to be a dick about it, sure, they signed a contract, but that agreement happened in an environment where it was an amazing deal. Then their own work changed the playing field and made the circumstances that were oh-so-sweet suddenly totally impossible.

Again, Brothers says it best:

I think they should have renegotiated with the creative team to keep it in print, give them some share of the rights, and then get together to take money baths down at the bank. Instead, they went for the short-term gain, and now the trail of destruction that sits between DC and Alan Moore is unforgivable. They had a chance to make good, to not pull all of the tricks the comics industry is known for pulling, and didn’t. Their short-term business sense said that taking the money and running was a good idea. Long-term thinking would’ve told them that giving Moore and Gibbons what they agreed on, and then nurturing that relationship over the next 25 years, would have let them make a ton of money. It’s a complicated situation and I’m (obviously) not an entertainment lawyer, but I genuinely believe that it should have gone down differently. There’s a moral aspect that should not have been ignored.

Not to regurgitate that quote, but the short-sightedness blows my mind. To contextualize what Brothers is proposing should have happened, at this point in his career Alan Moore had to have been the most popular creator in DC's stable. Not only was he just coming off of one of his masterpieces, but he was proven to be willing to play ball with the company (he helped write material for the Watchmen RPG and his Twilight of the Super-Heroes pitch even brought up the event's merchandising potential). DC could have stood to make a ton of money trying to keep Moore around and having projects come out through them. That's at least how I'd run a comic book company: get amazing talent, let them do their thing, do my best to keep them around for a mutually beneficial relationship. Instead, they decided to milk one of his works for all it's worth and burn a potentially valuable bridge. How hard is it to not burn a bridge?

Sure, a couple years ago DC offered Moore the rights to Watchmen in exchange for allowing some prequels and sequels to be made. But Moore wisely turned down that offer, as it was certainly too little too late (he claims he might have considered it ten years ago), and an artistic compromise no longer worth making.

(ganked from makesdoorwaylookhaunted.tumblr.com)

What's most disgusting about this situation are the readers who are actually in favor of this project for the wrong reasons. I can't fault you for being excited about Darwyn Cooke drawing something or seeing more material involving a book you like if all you care about is reading your superhero comics and don't pay attention to the ethics of the thing. To an extent.

However, I will fault you and fault you hard if you've said any of these things:

"I'm for anything that pisses Alan Moore off!" Now, I can see why you're saying that, considering that whenever somebody asks Moore about the comics industry in an interview, he has nothing but venom for a large group of people whom he doesn't know and whose work he doesn't care to pay attention to. I'll admit  I've had my go at him, but in all seriousness he has his reasons to be mad at the industry, and clearly this is a major sore spot for him. Any other time I've seen him talk about any other topic he seems like the most lovely, insightful man there ever was. Just don't get a loquacious, eccentric writer talking about something that's resulted in nearly 30 years of bitterness, or he will go off.

Moore has very concrete reasons to be angry at and overall distrustful of the American comic book industry, and to revel in those hurt feelings is a total disregard for creator's rights, playing into the hands of a company that does not care about you. A company that brought you Flashpoint. When did it come to the point where we're favoring corporations over the rights of an artist? Is it because it's easier to lash out at a single person than a large company? Or did those kids being beaten up by cops all over the country teach us nothing? The masses' hate for the protesters and the outspoken will never cease to blow my mind. It's like the oppressed love being miserable.

"Alan Moore is a hypocrite because League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls." Apples and oranges. The characters Moore deals with in those two works are (mostly) public domain, and the people who created them are long dead. Moore is still alive and seeing his work exploited before his very eyes. Do you see the difference there? 

Plus, those two comics show off precisely why the public domain exists: so that creative works are free for the public to reuse however they want, whether it be to retell a story from a different character's perspective or to make a bunch of characters team up and/or fuck. League and Lost Girls recontextualize these characters and their related works with actual artistic intent. Before Watchmen exists so that DC Comics can further profit from Watchmen. Let's understand the difference there.

"Alan Moore signed a contract, so tough teabags!" I already addressed this above but it bears re-addressing. Yeah, I'll admit it makes sense on some robotic level, but good god, man, take ethics and humanity into consideration before you go all realpolitik on a motherfucker. What do you hear when you listen to "Rotting on Demand?" The resounding success of the legal system?

Just because somebody signed a contract doesn't mean anything. Some people simply have no choice but to agree to horrible things in order to live. We're talking about people who work in comic books, people, where nearly everyone starves and we have to donate to Paypal every week to help out desperate, sick and nearly homeless creators who were actively working in the industry recently enough to remember. Let's give a little consideration here.

Some people are actively pissed at the people doing the prequels, but considering the above, I'm willing to let it slide for most of them because the rare well-paying gig in comics is pretty hard to pass up, passion projects be damned. Even though the medium offers us the ability to pursue pretty much any project we want, there's still an element of compromise. Stuff like Green Wake and Phonogram have to end prematurely because the creators can't sustain the book and be able to live at the same time, putting their creator-owned work on hold or turn them into extracurricular activities in order to make a living writing The Astoundingly Status Quo Adventures of Breast Fetish Man. Yeah, I'd rather see Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner and Adam Hughes doing creator-owned work, but it's hard to pursue that shit when the work the creators actually care about is met with at worst apathy and at best the adoration of a niche within a niche within a niche.

Which is the answer we always come to in these discussions -- Support Creator-Owned Work! It's the banner we fly across the Comics Internet, and rightfully so. Instead of being outraged on the Internet or buying comics out of duty or the license to complain about them, we should be supporting creator-owned work instead of continuing to exist in a comics culture where a majority of readers only care about creators if they're doing a really good job writing decades-old superheroes, ignore them when they branch out into territory that doesn't involve decades-old superheroes and then totally demonize them when they speak out about how slighted they feel by an entire industry -- because all comic book readers ever care about are their ability to revel in the adventures of decades-old superheroes unencumbered by the human beings who actually toil to make them.

Fuuuuuck that.

 


 

Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012. 

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