Alan Moore On Watchmen’s "Toxic Cloud" And Creativity V. Big Business

With several "Watchmen" prequels looming (check out exclusive prequel art in this story) its iconic writer Alan Moore lashes out at DC Comics and the franchising of art, and speculates where the next big ideas will come from. DC and an IP lawyer weigh in on an episode that transcends one comic and speaks to the biggest creativity versus commerce questions.

It’s the gift that keeps on giving. While the 25-year-old Watchmen continues to inspire new generations of comic and graphic novel readers, it has become a bane to its legendary creator, Alan Moore.

Over the years, Moore has famously feuded with publisher DC Comics over its desire to spin off ancillary Watchmen product, most notably the 2009 movie, for which he says he has refused payment. That fight resumed once again this month when DC announced seven summer comic book prequel mini-series, Before Watchmen, addressing the origins of Watchmen characters, and Moore unleashed several barbed comments to the press and during a live video stream to raise money for a Harvey Pekar memorial statue. Here, Moore, who spoke to Fast Company in November, elaborates further.

"My reaction [to the prequels] is a certain degree of weary contempt," says Moore. "It’s gone beyond anger. It’s almost tragically comical. It’s commerce over art. I’m proud of the work I did on Watchmen, but it’s surrounded by such a toxic cloud of memories. I wish I didn’t have to go through them. I don’t even have a copy of the book in the house."

Moore’s issues with Watchmen and DC reflect both personal disappointments and bigger, philosophical concerns about the behavior and future of creative industries. On a personal level, the situation is a reminder of what he believes is a bad contract he signed in youthful ignorance, DC’s lack of artistic integrity and unseemly tactics to gain his blessing for Watchmen spin-offs, and a severed friendship with Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons. His overarching beef is with what he regards as corporate propensity to alienate the very talent that could keep the work evolving, preferring instead to squeeze new revenue from aging assets.

"It seems a bit desperate to go after a book famous for its artistic integrity. It’s a finite series," says Moore. "Watchmen was said to actually provide an alternative to the superhero story as an endless soap opera. To turn that into just another superhero comic that goes on forever demonstrates exactly why I feel the way I do about the comics industry. It’s mostly about franchises. Comic shops these days barely sell comics. It’s mostly spin-offs and toys.

"I don’t think it’s going to work," he adds. "From what I hear, there’s a certain degree of comic creators’ hostility and negative feedback posting on entertainment sites. Some people are writing petitions. I would have never have asked any of the readers to do that, but I’m genuinely grateful. It’s not a kind of reaction I can ever remember from a readership before. I would have thought, from a DC perspective, that’s it’s a lose-lose perspective, unless they did something better or as good as Watchmen. But realistically, that’s not going to happen, otherwise it would have happened before."

DC Comics—which provided an exclusive promotional panel of the Minutemen prequel, written and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke (below)—maintains it has taken the legacy of this property very seriously. In their first comments about the project since the Before Watchmen announcement, DC Entertainment co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee emphasize the carefully selected creative teams to carry the mantle.  

"We sought out the very best writers and artists for Before Watchmen," says DiDio. "This is a talented, fearless group who doesn’t play it safe. They are the perfect fit creatively for this ambitious project. There’s no denying that Alan Moore is one of the great comic book writers. Dave Gibbons is one of the truly great artists in the industry. Neither of them are participating in Before Watchmen, but we appreciate Dave Gibbons’ support. We know this project will be under the magnifying lens. Watchmen is a critical favorite, a cultural touch point. We believe when fans see the issues this summer, they’ll be as excited as we are today."
"One of the key characteristics of the comic book medium is that it is not brought to life by just one voice," adds Lee. "These universes are developed and evolved by multiple creative voices, over multiple generations. The influx of new stories is essential to keeping the universes relevant, current, and alive. Watchmen is a cornerstone of both DC Comics’ publishing history and its future. As a publisher, we’d be remiss not to expand upon and explore these characters and their stories. We’re committed to being an industry leader, which means making bold creative moves."

Talking Vs. Suing

For Moore, the Watchmen franchising is a partial blemish. Adding to the "toxic cloud" is the collateral damage involving his friends. Although Moore’s contract gave DC the Watchmen rights, Moore believes DC dangled and rescinded work with his best friend and mentor, Steve Moore (no relation) to subtly influence Moore into lending his name and blessing to Watchmen spin-offs. Moore adds he later severed ties with Gibbons after he ignored Moore’s requests to thank him for giving him his share of the Watchmen film money and stop contacting him about Watchmen/DC business. (Neither DC nor Gibbons, who is not opposed to the project, would comment.)

More recently, Moore says some lawyers involved with another of his projects offered to review the Watchmen contract he’d signed nearly three decades earlier. "It was a nostalgic moment seeing it after all these years," he says. "There was a clause that essentially said that, if in the future, there were any documents or contracts that I refused to sign, DC was entitled to appoint an attorney to sign them instead. [The lawyers] said it was the most creator-hostile contract they’d ever seen.

"I thought about it for a while—I could perhaps sue, although I suspect DC would be very comfortable with that," Moore adds. "They have a whole battery of lawyers who could continue to fight this case for decades. And it’s not like I’m after money. It’s always been about the dignity and integrity of the work. I just want them not to do something. There’s no point in wasting resources for decades, when effectively, if there’s a legal case, I’d be prohibited from speaking about it, which DC is more worried about."

Moore’s viewpoint may spring as much from a cultural as a philosophical clash, given that, in Europe, the concept of artistic integrity is inherent enough to merit legal standing in creative ownership.

"With these types of companies—meaning companies who deal extensively in creative product—much of a company’s value is based upon the intellectual property in hand, so they need to do everything they can to secure and protect those assets," says Michael Lovitz, a Beverly Hills intellectual property attorney specializing in the comic book, gaming, and graphic-novel industries. "However, the concept of a creator retaining certain moral rights to their work is a very European perspective. That’s why they have a droit moral (moral rights) segment of the copyright law that grants the creator certain moral rights to their work with respect to artistic integrity and reputation, to not have things done to or with their work that they don’t want done. In Europe, even if you transfer all of your IP rights, you cannot transfer your moral rights. That is not something that is well-known or widely recognized in the U.S., and in fact was excluded from the revised U.S. Copyright Law, and thus does not have quite the same weight in the U.S. that it seems to have with European creators." 

Carrying the Torch

In a broader sense, Moore sees only continued divergence between the needs of big business and those of all creative communities, not just comics.

"There’s a widespread cultural barrenness across art and political culture. But there are some pockets of resistance on the extreme margins, like the techno-savvy protest movements, small press, the creator-owned comics, that seem to be getting some signs of hope for the future," he says. "All of the genuinely interesting work is being done on the margins, with independent companies, self-producing, and alternative distribution networks.

"There’s been a growing dissatisfaction and distrust with the conventional publishing industry, in that you tend to have a lot of formerly reputable imprints now owned by big conglomerates," he says. "As a result, there’s a growing number of professional writers now going to small presses, self-publishing, or trying other kinds of [distribution] strategies.

"The same is true of music and cinema," he adds. "It seems that every movie is a remake of something that was better when it was first released in a foreign language, as a 1960s TV show, or even as a comic book. Now you’ve got theme park rides as the source material of movies. The only things left are breakfast cereal mascots. In our lifetime, we will see Johnny Depp playing Captain Crunch."

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  • BradRz

    The constant anti-creator hostility from "fans" towards anyone who doesn't go along with "business as usual" are just another indicator, to me, of why the mainstream comics industry deserves to die. The Big Two (Marvel/DC) are flying high in other media right now, but they're eventually going to face attrition on all fronts for their failure to generate new IPs in favor of continually recycling (and bleeding dry) decades-old concepts that are almost exclusively limited to one genre. The original Watchmen would never even be published by the DC of today, and, if it were, most traditional fans would probably ignore it.

  • Wolftrax

    Reading the comments here, there seems to be a certain level of hostility towards Moore for his comments regarding his rights as the creator of the Watchmen and the direction it is going. These comments appear to be by people who saw the movie and then got the book, but you need to ask yourself why you are upset at Moore. It is because you see Moore as a threat to these characters you have come to love. They seem like real people, and the reason they do is because of Alan Moore's talent, his ability to make the characters he works on seem three dimensional. He puts himself into these characters, so if you love them, by default you have to love Moore.

    Moore did create these characters. Sure, DC acquired the characters they were based on from Charlton, but read those Charlton books and you won't even recognize the characters any more, they are not the same people behind the masks, nowhere near the depth and realism that Moore gave them. It was said here that Watchmen is one of five of the most important comic books to change how characters are created, in truth it is the most important of all, the others followed the example Moore set. Everything else has been formula.

    This sort of reaction has been going on a lot lately towards creators of comic characters and lawsuits against the companies and movies that are bringing them to a whole new larger audience, and it is for the same reason.  That's ok, though, the hostile responses will not be remembered, but the Creator's will, and as time goes on more people will see the outcomes of working with a company that doesn't respect the creator, and will become independent, and find avenues to bring their creations to the mainstream and retain their creative and financial rights. the major companies will run out of fresh material and resort to the same old formula, not based on what is new but what is already known to sell, one or two steps behind. They will become a joke, yet again, and the punchline will be enjoyed by the greatest parody ever made.

  • Doug Jennings

     Excellent point. But I have to say that I have looked over the Charlton Characters whose purchase by DC initiated that publishers assignment to Moore and Gibbons, and I really don't think anyone can say with any credibility that Watchmen characters were created with any more than a passing contextual, spring-board-fashion, nod to the Charlton line. Sure, Charlton line-up might have gotten the ball rolling but Moore and Gibbons created an entirely original idea with the tone and setting, as well as the depth of the Watchmen characters in a never-until-then-seen-before universe. It's still mind-blowing to me as I think about those characters and the story which stays with me long after I've read the book.

  • Blair Krissy

    I love Alan Moore, but I have to disagree with him here. I saw the Watchmen movie when it came out, bought the book and it rekindled my love for comics. In my opinion Moore is right about how originality has taken a turn for the worst, but he's made his name a legend already. I don't read a bad Superman story and say, "Man Siegal and Shuster sure missed the mark on this." Because there are hundreds of Superman stories from great artists and writers that capture the essence of their creativity, and portray the characters in ways they would be proud of.

    Now, people in the U.S. are wearing the masks from V for Vendetta in protests. I think his work can stand above whatever capitalism and Hollywood throw at it.

  • Doug Jennings

    I feel the same way. For me the Watchmen movie introduced me to a greater appreciation of the graphic novel. It was after seeing the movie that I bought my own copy of the book and read it with greater understanding. Movies are a different art form than literature but they can compliment and augment other art forms. That being said, I understand Moore's critique of the industry and feel that he has many valid points.

  • Kenneth Nelson

    "Before Watchmen" is being done less for the creative expansion of characters that DC would "be remiss" to delve into the the background of, and more for the possible cash which would be garnered from fair-weather comic book fans (i.e.: people that had never heard of "Watchmen" before the movie). This is of course perfectly sane from a business standpoint (unless sales prove dismal, as may prove to be the case), but lacks creative drive and is frankly, in my own opinion, morally dubious.  Alan Moore summed up the state of affairs in the entertainment industry quite effectively.  Businessmen fund "safe" and "familiar" projects which can become glorious franchises, leading to regurgitated pap and countless bleh comics. Creators of all stripes, if they lean away from the realm of the hack, take risks and innovate.  If creators garnered more respect (more "European" contracts with big publishers, shall we say) and effectively held more power than their moneyed masters, the entertainment industry as a whole would be a very different place.  Frankly, if the sales do prove dismal, DC will drop the project faster than they dropped Hawk and Dove from the New 52. Their "artistic integrity" notwithstanding, it's a business, run by businessmen, and taking on phalanxes of lawyers is nowhere near as effective as undermining their motives in public forums such as this. Nuff said.

  • sea_bass

    Why did Moore sign with DC in the first place?  Taking your independent book to a major publisher is bound to fuck you like this eventually.  You either sell out, or you don't.  There is no middle ground here. You are handing your intellectual property over to people that want to make money- and will continue to make money regardless of how you feel.  If Moore wanted to keep his shit indie, he should have considered the consequences of going mainstream before he threw it at them.  With such a drastic opinion, you'd think he would have actually thought about these things... why the change of heart over the years? Was he just desperate initially?

  • Mike Tymczyszyn

    Watchmen was designed with characters that DC owned in mind, and was printed by DC because that's who Alan Moore worked for at the time and it made sense to continue working with them.  The major bone of contention is that the contract stated the IP rights would revert back to Moore and Gibbons after 12 months of being out of print (which seemed reasonable, as no Graphic Novel had ever, EVER, stayed in print for more than a year at that point) and the Watchmen graphic novel has not been out of print since, completely adhering to the letter of the contract, but not the expected outcome when Moore signed it.

  • Scratch

    The problem wasn't bringing the idea to a major publisher. The problem was, as Moore admitted, his own "youthful ignorance" (combined with, I'd say, lousy copyright law). Gaiman apparently managed to avoid the same pitfalls with Sandman just a few years later, so getting screwed over wasn't a given.

    See, there was a creator-owned vibe at the time, supported by imprints like Vertigo and Epic Comics. Moore naively holding to a certain good faith and trust wasn't so out of place in that atmosphere. We all know better now, including Moore, who did, in fact, become increasingly independent as the years went on.

  • Ken Cheshire

    I think Alan Moore needs to get over himself. First of all, Watchmen wasn't THAT great. Sure it was a good read, but one could see the ending coming a mile away. When it all boils down to it, IT'S JUST A COMIC BOOK!! IT didn't save the world, it didn't change people's lives, it was and still is, just a good read. Alan Moore isn't the superstar he thinks he is. There are many comic writers just as good, if not better, than he is. Everyone should just ignore him. Maybe then he'll see reality.

  • Kenneth Nelson

    Ah, it's just a comic book, yes. Very astute observation. I was unaware that comic books have been tasked with saving the world, but for an entire generation of comic book creators, it DID change lives.  Believe it or not, people work in the industry, and feed their families, because books such as Watchmen paved the way for more creative fare than mere superhero slugfests (not that there's anything wrong with that). It altered standards in the industry, pulled the comics code authority by the nosehairs, and has been sold, reprinted, critically acclaimed, and analyzed by people in better paid positions than you or I.  Maybe you weren't buying comics in 1985, but it WAS a game-changer.   While I rather doubt that people will follow your boycott of Mr. Moore (he's still one of the best writers in the industry, on his worst days) I do think that the reality of the situation regarding Before Watchmen will become apparent when you see them popping up in quarter bins. Nice name, btw.

  • Roger

    Dumbass. Shouldn't you be rereading X-Men or playing World of Warcraft right now?

  • Cat

    IT'S JUST A COMIC BOOK!! You are entitled to your opinion but great and horrible art have moved people to question their existence, cause riots and drive people to change their lives. I am sorry that you are not aware of that. Whether or not Watchmen is great, which is not the question here, the question here is about creative property, the law, ethics and exploitation. Lady Murakami ended up in a similar situation to Mr. Alan Moore and the chapters other writers did for Tale of Genji where later discounted. In her case it wasn't DC but the emperor of Japan who wanted to continue the story she created without her. He was naive and hungry and not completely innocent but it is still unethical of DC to do what they are doing. Considering his work is very much about non-conformists and anti-establishment, I don't see a lot of his fans buying into the prequels.

  • whippis

    Not sure how old you were when Watchmen came out,  I was 13.  I had been reading comics for about 5 years at that point and I can say the for me and many, many people in my cohort it was a world altering read- especially when read month after month for a year.  It made all the other books out there seem flabby and weak.  It changed all that came after it in comics.  Coupled with the Dark Knight and Maus it showed readers how good things can and ought to be.

  • Sam Boscoe

    "Moore adds he later severed ties with Gibbons after he ignored Moore’s requests to thank him for giving him his share of the Watchmen film money and stop contacting him about Watchmen/DC business."
    Moore has previously stated in interviews that Gibbons failed to thank him -again- for the money. Gibbons thanked him for the generous gesture. Moore mandated that he get thanked again when the actual money was received. 

  • Jojo

    It's actually a bit more complicated that this.  Not giving thanks is part of it, but more is that DC was consistently using Gibbons to try to get Moore onboard with Watchmen prequels and sequels, and, after asking him not to speak of it again, the friendship ended when Gibbons kept asking Moore about Watchmen.