'Before Watchmen:' Watching the controversy

Editor's Note: Vanessa Gabriel is a Florida-based writer, and the co-creator of the comics blog

Even if you are not a regular at your local comic shop every Wednesday, there is a good chance that you have heard of “Watchmen.” For longtime comic fans, “Watchmen” has a biblical status. Since its publication in the mid-‘80s, the controversy surrounding Watchmen is as legendary as the book itself.

At a time when comics were overcome with mutant superhero teams battling with the evils of their fictional worlds, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen” was an unprecedented social commentary on the anxieties of the real world. The artistic structure and thought-provoking content made creative, critical, and commercial waves that have extended through the decades.

At the time, Moore and Gibbons signed a contract that gave DC Comics rights to “Watchmen,” with the rights (and subsequent revenue) reportedly returning to them when the book went out of print. But the success of the title was also unprecedented, and unexpected. Thus, DC has never stopped printing it. Moore has been unabashedly vocal over the years about this (and other) perceived injustices, “You have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.” Moore isn’t the only one.

In February, DC announced that it would be publishing “Before Watchmen.” The project consists of seven mini-series, prequel stories about Moore and Gibbon’s iconic characters in the Watchmen: Rorschach, the Comedian, Night Owl, Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre. DC recruited a remarkable roster of comic industry talent for the project; Amanda Conner, Darwyn Cooke, Adam Hughes, J.G. Jones, Brian Azzarello, Lee Bermejo, J. Michael Straczynski, Joe Kubert, Jae Lee, and original Watchmen editor, Len Wein. This sent the comic book community into an Internet frenzy.

In the wake of the Siegel family’s legal battle over copyright to Superman and Jack Kirby’s estate losing their case to Marvel for rights to his creations, particularly with the success of “The Avengers” film (characters Kirby created), the debate over creators’ rights has never been more alive.

Chris Roberson, writer of the books “iZombie” and “Fairest” published by Vertigo (the imprint owned by DC) announced, via Twitter, that his current project would be the last time he writes for DC. In an interview with The Comics Journal, he explained his ethical concerns with the company.

“… there were just a few general things about the way that it seemed that DC regards creators now that are working for them… but the real kind of proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the announcement at the beginning of February of Before Watchmen, which I just thought was unconscionable.” Roberson no longer works for DC.

The more vocal members of the comics blogosphere view “Before Watchmen” as nothing more than an exploitative and unethical cash-grab by DC and more revenue that Moore and Gibbons will never see. In the spirit of that sentiment, some fans are opting to speak with their wallets, and will not only boycott “Before Watchmen,” but stop buying DC books altogether.

I asked my comic shop owner what he had been hearing from customers. He said, “They are OK with DC doing the books. We have had people add it to their pull list. No great numbers though, not like the ‘Earth 2’ #2 sellout. DC did put out a nice set of promo posters, a poster for each book.”

In what has been a dwindling comic book market over the last decade, DC wants a revival. It wants to bring in new consumers. There has been an increase in sales with the “New 52,” and DC means to push the market even further with “Before Watchmen.”

At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, DC Entertainment Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee had a Q&A on “Before Watchmen.” Lee stated, “During the market period of [the Watchmen movie] we sold about a million units [of the Watchmen graphic novel]. And at that point we assumed everyone who was a true comic book collector already had a copy of this trade so the vast majority of that new trade went to new readers and we’re always on the lookout for how do we expand our business … We felt that this would be a great opportunity for us to reach out to the new readers and see if we can convert them into long time readers.”

In regards to the controversy over Moore and Gibbons’ rights, Lee goes on to say, “People will listen if it’s polarizing and one-sided enough. This is not a situation where we have taken things from Alan. He signed an agreement and yet he said ‘I didn’t read the contract.’ I can’t force him to read his contract. So there’s all these things that people don’t know and Alan has said that explicitly – there are all these things that mitigate or go into the analysis. It’s not as clear-cut as people want to make it seem… It’s not a situation where we’re using the characters and Alan’s not being compensated. For everything that’s been done for Watchmen from the books to the movie, money has gone his way. The right amount that he deserves based on the contract. So we have honored that part of the agreement.”

Will it be the big success DC is hoping for? Will open the worlds of long-loved characters and create stories we will remember? Or will it fall to the wayside in a year like so many comic book events past? Can this really breathe fandom into the non-comic book crowd?

Wherever you may fall on the spectrum in this ethical debate, the way that comic book fans, new and long-standing, choose to spend their money will decide the outcome.