The Watchmen Prequels: An Ethics Stinkbomb?

You probably had absolutely no idea that DC had announced a bunch of Watchmen prequels, but they did. Also, we’re sure you’re shocked that Alan Moore isn’t a fan of the idea. But doesn’t he use other people’s characters all the time? Doesn’t that make him a hypocrite?

Well, Image Comics head Eric Stephenson thinks you should shut up, because Alan Moore had a contract and DC was totally going to give the characters back but then they made too much money.

OK, OK, it’s more complex than that. And Stephenson is, understandably, decidedly for creator’s rights: it’s why he has his job right now, it’s what Image was founded on. So why is this a big deal to comics creators and absolutely nobody else in the fandom, who are more concerned with the books possibly sucking?

Because, really, this is about the worst place to discuss creator’s rights.

Here’s the thing: yes, Moore got screwed. He signed a contract that would have returned the rights to him had “Watchmen” ever gone out of print, because at the time, “graphic novels” were unheard of, and the idea of one staying perpetually in print was a joke. So really what we being to asked to mourn here is that Alan Moore was too good at his job. Which is undeniably crappy, but at the same time, evaluating that deal, it’s pretty fair, especially for 1986.

Moore is not really a symbol of the screwed creator, as much as people are trying to make this about creator’s rights. As more than a few comics professionals have pointed out, Moore is in a unique position that he doesn’t seem to appreciate. If Moore had really wanted his characters back, he could have taken them pretty much any time he wanted, and had total control over any Watchmen content DC produced to boot. He commands page rates that even guys like Grant Morrison can only dream of. As it stands, Paul Levitz, who ran DC for years, explicitly blocked any attempts to make “Watchmen” sequels or prequels specifically because he was hoping to repair relations with Moore at some point. Literally no other creator gets that kind of treatment.

Part of the problem creator’s rights face in this industry is that most fans frankly don’t care. It’s kind of horrible, but it’s the truth: we care a lot more about the characters than we generally do about the guys creating them, unless the creators are screwing up or have weird private lives. Bill Mantlo essentially had to be killed as a human being before fans started caring about how creators were treated.

And the Big Two know that if they screw over a creator, ultimately the fans aren’t going to stop buying comics. We all know “Before Watchmen” is going to sell millions of comics. It’s not in question. It’s a bit like heroin addicts complaining about the baggies: we may not like how it looks, but we’re probably buying it anyway.

Similarly, these companies have a job to do. DC, and now Marvel, are not independent companies, but part of large entertainment conglomerates. As we pointed out before, if DC Comics doesn’t do this, somebody else in Time Warner is going to, and quite frankly, they’re not going to care what some English hippie thinks.

All that said, in the end, Moore does have a right to feel ill-used. He had an expectation, and DC honored the letter of their agreement, and not the spirit. At the same time, that doesn’t mean he’s a victim. We should save our concern for people who never get the opportunities Moore does, not the single most respected writer in the entire medium.