'Before Watchmen:' Watching the controversy
Part of the "DC Entertainment Presents: Watchmen -It's Not The End, It's the Beginning," presentation at the Los Angeles Times Festival Of Books.
June 6th, 2012
02:11 PM ET

'Before Watchmen:' Watching the controversy

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

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.

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soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. Dale

    I don't think a close match shot for panel is an all good thing. If all the Watchmen movie is, like Sin City and 300, an exhibition of mdoren technical abilities to reproduce a comic as moving pictures then it isn't going to be a good movie. Pretty, but not good.The needs of movies differ from comics and comic pacing and dialogue do not naturally fit with them.The trailer is spectacular but it doesn't show us if the movie has a good script, well adapted, from the comic.

    July 3, 2012 at 3:43 am |
  2. Chaz

    The main reason I won't be reading this is that the whole idea of Watchmen prequels is creatively bankrupt. Watchmen stands on its own merit; everything that needed to be in Watchmen is in Watchmen. This project is the kind of uninspired bunkum that is all too prevalent in an industry I love.

    A secondary reason, but still a motivating one, is my concerns for the rights of Moore and Gibbons and the poor way that DC has treated creators throughout its history and still today.

    June 24, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  3. sdsMaster

    While I feel sorry for anyone who doesn't get all the cream in their coffee that they think they deserve – – – It all goes back to "let the buyer – – – and the seller – – -beware". If I sell an old shoe at a yard-sale for $2, and the guy who bought it finds out that it belonged to George Washington, is he suppose to come back and give me an adjusted rate on the value of the item? The rights were sold to DC based on their perceived value at the time. DC marketed them and made a lot more money than anyone really expected. I don't know for sure, but I'm sure that Moore and Gibbons are not living on the street. It's called education, and Moore and Gibbons need to take the lesson and move on.

    June 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • IEK

      This is an unbelievably stupid analogy. They had lawyers write up a contract that totally screwed Alan Moore, pure and simple. It doesn't even matter whether he read it or not, because it should have never been so bad to begin with. The contract should have been fair from the start, not a "Oops, you caught us! We were trying to screw you, here's a better contract" scenario.

      June 15, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  4. Just sayin'

    First world problems.

    June 8, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • IEK

      Exploiting workers is a First World problem?

      June 15, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Mthandazo

      PLUS another thing about the mask (I know, beat a dead horse, but ) Rorschach says about the mariaetl when he found it and got the idea for his face that it never ceased moving, like it was alive. So yeah, case and point.

      November 14, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  5. sburns54

    DC and Marvel (and others) have screwed creators since they started publishing. What else is new?

    June 8, 2012 at 6:16 am |
  6. sburns54

    "Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen” was an unprecedented social commentary on the anxieties of the real world." Sorry, it was "precedented" by Moore himself, in "V For Vendetta", as well as many others.

    June 8, 2012 at 6:05 am |
  7. RVT1K

    Just another example of how lawyers screw everything up. No contract should ever be more than 2 pages, if it is it's too wordy and complicated and should be tossed. An agreement between an artist and a publisher, or between any two parties for that matter, can be easily stated in English and not legal garbage. When a contract is that complicated its a clear indication that someone is trying to hose someone else.

    June 7, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • delong

      It seems to me that the problem was there wasn't enough "legal garbage" to protect the authors, not too much. A simple change to the language of the contract to switch revenues to the authors in no case more than 20 years after first publication would have served the authors very well. Maybe they should have retained a lawyer.

      June 8, 2012 at 9:22 am |

    I thought both the book and the movie were rip offs. The book ripped off many from Jules Verne to Phillip Roth and the movie ripped off many from Kubric to the Cohen Bros. "Before Watchmen" like most pre-quells dreamt up at the last minute will flop but DC has the cash flow to WASTE on 7 books.

    June 7, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  9. Fred

    One other thing: I always thought Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was far superior to Watchmen. I thought Frank Miller's take on the character was a revelation. It was a fabulous story that cut to the heart of everything Batman. I would love to see a movie version of the book and the only guy I can think of who could pull off Batman/Bruce Wayne on screen at that stage of his life is Tom Selleck.

    June 7, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • LeRoy Deville

      Michael Ironsides for Dark night returns. Simply put, no other actor could pull it off as he could as the aged and bitter Wayne

      June 7, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
      • nathanbrazil

        Clint Eastwood, a la Gran Torino

        June 7, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • delong

      Frank Miller's Batman is the best Batman there was or will be. Miller's style and outlook are perfect for the character.

      June 8, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  10. Fred

    These deals are a crapshoot for all involved. Both sides are taking a chance. Obviously, if they'd known Watchmen would do as well as it did, they would have negotiated a more favorable deal. That's just the chance a creator takes. Same thing with new authors: just starting out, they don't get deals as good as an established author (like Stephen King) would get. Same thing with singers and musicians. It's hard for me to feel sorry for Moore/Gibbons considering how much cash they've made. I'm sure they cry all the way to the bank.

    June 7, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  11. JohnRJohnson

    I can sympathize with Moore's position. When he wrote "Watchmen", nobody knew if it would be successful or not. When you're negotiating a contract for the rights to a property that may or may not sell, the terms to which you might agree would be entirely different if you had known the property was going to be hugely successful. This is why many 'creators' want to renegotiate their contracts when they see how little they're making compared to how much money a publisher/studio is making on their creation. Studios and publishers like to emphasize how risky an investment is for them. However, it is the creator who has risked months or years of effort creating his story not knowing if it will ever see the light of day. Most creators are just thankful to sell their work, and rarely pay attention to renegotiation clauses and thresholds. They sign their contracts in good faith, hoping the publisher will do the right thing. At the end of the day, however, the publisher and studio have little regard for the creator once they own the rights. This may all be within legal bounds, but something about it just isn't right.

    June 7, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • nathanbrazil

      You ARE correct to a point. But the publisher is taking all the risk. If it does not sell or does only mediocre, the artist still gets paid. They don't say "your book did not sell, give us the money back we paid you for it". ALL contracts are like this. That is why you need to read them and then decide if you are OK with the terms. You could always find a different publisher who would pay you less, but give you more upside on the work. Then again, it might not take off without the distribution (which costs a lot). So it is not as simple as poor artist and greedy publisher, although that sure is easier to complain about.

      June 7, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • unlimitedcriticism

      As is the case in most lines of work, you are underpaid until you prove something because you have no leverage. Moore is certainly capable of creating other fantastic works, and when it comes time to sign that contract, he will have the leverage, and the terms will be far more agreeable.

      June 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  12. Darrell

    DC is doing exactly what the contract allows them to do, which Moore and Gibbons agreed to. Perhaps they shouldn't have agreed to those terms. No where in the article did it say that DC was violating the contract, in fact exactly the opposite. Moore and Gibbons are upset that DC is following the provisions of the contact. If DC failed to do so, then I'm sure Moore and Gibbons would be suing them for not adhering to the contract.

    June 7, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Ken

      That's the real problem with these creators. What they want is for DC and the publishers to take all the financial risks, but then, if their creation is a success they want control of that creation so they can get the profits.

      Admit it folks, if Watchman had not been a big success, DC would have printed the comic, and then based on the sales either made a profit or lost money. And then since it was standard event, they stop printing, ending the contract, and back the rights convert. Moore and Gibbons would have been disappointed fans did not catch on to their vision, but happy they got money from DC. And if DC lost money on the deal, would Moore and Gibbons give any of the money they earned back to DC? Of course not.

      So all you see going on is Creators who are bad at contract negotiations becoming bitter as the publishing company that gambled on their product is doing well.

      June 7, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • sburns54

      Not Gibbons. He's OK with DC doing this.

      June 8, 2012 at 6:17 am |
    • Minato

      I know people who have wahectd the Watchmen trailer over 100 times since it was released last week.Then, honestly, you know people who have way too much time on their hands I mean, I get that people are excited to see this movie (I'm not among those people), but seriously. You watch the trailer a hundred times and you've probably spent more of your life watching that than you will actually spend watching the movie itself.

      July 3, 2012 at 4:17 am |
  13. Hugh Jass

    "Your ignorance of its terms is your own fault." The irony is that if the comic had been less popular, it would have gone out of print already and the worthless rights would have reverted to him. Now they're hanging him out to dry so that he will never hand them another enormous cash cow again? Tom Disch would have written Disney ten more shows like The Lion King if they'd paid him for it instead of citing his contract for BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER. Wise up, editors, you need the creative people on your side. You have to spend money to make money.

    June 7, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • nathanbrazil

      True in spirit, but not accurate in details. Tom Disch did NOT write the original treatment for the Lion King. Disney approached him and a number of authors to take a stab at the project. His was one of several that was not used.

      June 7, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  14. Snacklefish

    The same people that think that creators' rights contracts shouldn't be enforceable because the publishers should "do the right thing" are likely the same kind of folks who feel it's okay to default on a mortgage or student loan because the banks are "big ugly bad companies".

    June 7, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • obviousguy

      Hilarious and right!

      June 7, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • sburns54

      Boy, that's a stretch. "A" equals "X"? I myself think that people that conflate defaulting on a mortgage with publishers "doing the right thing" are the same people that would beat kittens. It's pretty obvious, to me.

      June 8, 2012 at 6:21 am |
      • Camilla

        You know, I actually liked Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II. The only other thing I've seen him in is Phantom of the Opera, and Raoul isn't extclay the greatest character ever. So maybe I went in with lower expectations, but I liked him pretty well.Then again, I haven't read the comics yet, so I can't compare his performance to the original character.

        November 14, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
      • Hana

        damn baby i tought your steisr was fine, but i still remember the first time i saw you and was like got damn you are so f ken fine ,,you are a black goddess you are so fine , you are so beautiful from head to toe this mexican loves chocolate .DELICIOUS!!!!!!!!

        November 16, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  15. Andres

    Never a fan of DC comics. Never heard of The Watchmen until the movie came out--which was a horrible movie. Not for the subject matter, it just stunk.

    June 7, 2012 at 12:32 am |
    • Hugh Jass

      Go back and read the comic; it's weirder.

      June 7, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Paul

      Why bother posting? The series was fantastic and the movie did it justice.

      June 7, 2012 at 11:12 am |
      • Hugh Jass

        The movie flinched away from Oz's plan in the end; uniting mankind against Dr Manhattan was a ludicrous fail. His plot was completely believable in the comic, a Big Lie with manufactured proof, and a united world would be almost worth all the murders. Motive, means, and opportunity, all coherent and internally-consistent.

        June 7, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  16. Bawb

    After the very well-known and long familiar Seigel/Shuster/DC Superman rights injustice, any creator who complains about any "mistreatment" has only him/herself (or their legal representation) to blame for not protecting their interests.

    Should a creator receive compensation? Absolutely. But that compensation should be well outlined in a contract and reviewed and understood by ALL parties before signing.

    Sorry, Mr. Moore, but I'm reasonably sure that no one beat you with a rubber hose under a blinding light to persuade you to sign your contract. Your ignorance of its terms is your own fault.

    June 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Musa

      Uhhhhhh 0.0 I just don't even know. I do agree tho, Heroes getting aprvoped for a season 4 is just plain lunacy! DO YOU HEAR ME?! lunacy.And Alan Moore is waaaaaay to proud to ever admit that Watchmen was a box office success. =P

      August 5, 2012 at 2:48 am |