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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