I want you to imagine that you’re sitting on the Board of Directors for DC Comics. I have no idea if they actually have their own board, but play along. They want and need to replicate the immense success from the launch of the New 52, and keep their momentum going, and show the parent company that even though their revenues are sort of miniscule in comparison to other divisions of Time Warner, they’re still valuable. Someone looks at the sales for the last 10 years, and notices that this Watchmen book keeps selling well and consistently year after year.
“Why don’t we do more of that? Do we have the rights?”
Well, yes of course they have the rights. When they signed a deal with the creators, the deal stated that the rights will revert back to the creators when the book goes out of print. At the time, it wasn’t a big deal, but the book kept selling, so they kept reprinting it. Rights never reverted back to the creators, because it didn’t happen.
“So we’re in the clear on this. Will it upset the creators?”
One of them, Dave Gibbons is all for it. He’s a team player. He’s got other stuff going on, but the more that book sells, the more money he makes, rights or no. Its funded his career. The other guy, Alan Moore, arguably the greatest writer in comics history, has burned all his bridges with DC Comics years ago. DC have no impetus to keep him happy, because he’s already unhappy.
Then they go ahead, knowing full well that people will explode when they hear the news. They combat that with the best tool they have. They put the very best creators they can find on the books, and the talent simply can’t be argued with. The only thing to do now is create the best books they can, and wait for them to hit.
It could go badly, but that line wide relaunch got a lot of similar reactions too, and look how that turned out. Huge success. For a time.
If you were in that position, your job on the line, and all the contracts on your side, what would you do? Was someone in that boardroom going to stand up and say, “Guys, this is wrong. It’s a beloved piece of literature, and if we mess with it, people will think less of us.”
If he did, he got laughed at. Hard.
Watchmen is one of the finest pieces of adult comic book literature ever produced. It will remain so. Every time I read it, I find something new to be impressed with and learn from. It’s also over 25 years old, and it has made the creators very famous, and quite possibly very wealthy.
No one has ever described, or thought of, Alan Moore as a naive babe in the woods. He was presented with a deal, and he signed that deal. He reaped a whole lot more reward than most have from comics, and he did so building his story upon blocks that were put there by others. After signing that deal, and many others, he decided he’d had enough of mainstream comics, and jumped ship, as was his right, and I celebrate it. He also has never equaled the quality of creative output since he struck out on his own. His best stuff (which he regularly decries) does not belong to him. That’s not a great thing, but it’s also important to remember that he exists on a timeline of evolving stances on creator’s rights and work-for-hire practices. The deal Moore got was better than the deal almost anyone before him got.
More, the people who gave him that deal were the same people who finally gave Jack Kirby a backend deal on the projects he created for DC Comics. They went so far as to use Kirby’s New Gods characters in the Super Powers action figures and cartoons, bringing in more money for the guy who never got a break from Marvel Comics. This was a couple of years before the Watchmen deal was signed.
Was it a bad deal? Maybe. Rumor says the creators get something around 2% of the profits on Watchmen. But at the time, there was no precedent. Moore and Gibbons would get the rights back after DC stopped using the characters or printing the book for a year. It never happened. It broke one way no one expected, and as happens, the house won. They’ve been back to Moore over the years to work things out, but Moore doesn’t want to work with them. It’s not because he’s a crazy lunatic. He’s not. He’s proud. He’s got a code, and he won’t play their games. Fair enough. Moore was not the easiest person to work with, and he thought the same about DC Comics. But he signed the deal. He didn’t predict the trade market of the future, and lost out on that front, because it’s never gone out of print. Someone had to learn that lesson, and in this instance, the creators learned it, just as Siegel & Shuster, and Simon & Kirby learned their lessons.
But they’re going to make more books. They have that right. Morality and what’s right doesn’t come into it.
Before the Watchmen movie came out, I thought it would be the worst thing ever. I didn’t want it to happen. Then it did, and I saw the movie, mostly forgot about it, and moved on. The Watchmen book is still on my shelf, and it’s still brilliant, and it sold a whole lot more copies as a result. It is an untouchable piece of literature and its reputation and place in history will remain untouched. No goofy sequels or prequels will leave a scratch on its surface. They will succeed or fail on their own merits. The creators involved are not bad guys. They’re people working in comics trying to make their way. They’re not stealing anything. If they are, then so is everyone who’s ever worked on a Jack Kirby creation, or a story with Superman. If you’re going to throw those stones, you’ve got a lot of targets, and your hypocrisy will eventually bite you in the ass.
If the solution is anger at the system, and to only buy creator owned comics, great. There are many wonderful comics that could use your attention. But you might also be missing out on the work of some of the most talented people working in the medium. It’s a principled stand that some will make, but it feels pointless. There aren’t many comic book readers left. In most cases, it’s best to read the best stories, and let the people behind the desks sort the rest out.
Like the New 52 relaunch, this is going to drive people into comic stores. Comics in general need to seize this chance again, and put their best foot forward. If these books succeed, people might come back. Retailers will have a chance to sell them more product. If creators want to beat Before Watchmen, they had better get working on churning out incredible product to blow people’s minds away. That’s the best weapon after all. Beat them. Then everyone wins.