Regarding DC Comics’ BEFORE WATCHMEN

DC Comics announced yesterday that they’ll be doing a series of prequel comics under the banner Before Watchmen for the classic 1986-1987 series created by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons.

(You can see all the covers here.)

Gibbons’s response was … guarded, at best: “The original series of Watchmen is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell. However, I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire.”

(“Desire,” not “deserve.” Interesting.)

Moore, however, didn’t pull any punches. He told The New York Times that DC’s plans to continue his work are “completely shameless,” adding, “As far as I know, there weren’t that many prequels or sequels to Moby-Dick.”

And it’s not about the cash: “I don’t want money. What I want is for this not to happen.”

Instead, he says, it’s about the principle: “I tend to take this latest development as a kind of eager confirmation that they are still apparently dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago.”

And that’s where I think Mr. Moore needs to take a serious “Wait a goddamn minute, pal” pill.

How exactly can Moore take DC to task for mining his ideas from 25 years ago when he himself raided British literature and used other writers’ characters and stories as the basis for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?

Worse still, Moore wrote the graphic novel series Lost Girls, in which he took the young female characters of L. Frank Baum (Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz), Lewis Carroll (Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), and J.M. Barrie (Wendy from Peter Pan) and put them in graphic sexual situations including rape, incest, and sexual humiliation.

How can he invoke the sanctity of Moby-Dick when he himself has made a lot of money from using other writers’ characters in ways the original writers never intended and most certainly wouldn’t appreciate? Because the content makes a difference, too. The creative teams DC has assembled for these Watchmen prequels will do their best to honor the voices and actions of the Watchmen characters. Was Moore honoring Mr. Hyde by having him rape the Invisible Man to death in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Was he honoring Dorothy or Alice or Wendy by making them victims of sexual depravity?

For me, Watchmen was never a “world” (in the sense that the Marvel Universe is a world or the DC Universe is a world) but rather one big story. It’s all there, it all exists in the confines of itself, it gets richer and deeper and more revealing every time I read it, and there’s no need to explore it further. Moore and Gibbons created a very complete world and presented it on various literary, narrative, and character levels that seamlessly incorporated every different time, voice, and style necessary to tell the tale. It’s a masterpiece of modern literature in that regard, and I’ve never had the slightest interest in reading further adventures of its characters because everything I need has always been in the original text.

On the other hand, the creative teams here have been very carefully chosen to best represent the particular characters they’ll be expanding upon. In the end, I guess the thing that surprises me most about all of this is that DC didn’t do it sooner.

I’m not judging Alan Moore here, and I’m not taking sides, but the whole situation is just brimming with talking points that I’m still mulling over.

In the end, I’d rather see all of these creators simply telling new stories rather than going back to the Watchmen well, but I’ll be keeping a close eye on how all of this develops, and I certainly have a lot of interest in the prequels based solely on the talent involved.

That’s been my issue with DC’s “New 52” from the start. Why restart everything? Why come up with an event and assign good writers and good artists to it? How about assigning good writers and good artists to your characters and letting their good work be the event?

Oh, well.

What do you think?

(And please be sure to check out the thoughts my friend Mark Hughes posted on his blog at Forbes. Thanks for the mention, Mark!)


  1. Alexander Stevenson says:

    It’s a fundamentally different thing to blatantly cash in on a classic (against the wishes of the author and as substitute to an actually sustainable long-term business plan) by producing prequels like DC is doing with “Watchmen” and using public domain characters as part of a transformative analysis of the nature of fiction like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” books do, or reinterpreting classic children’s tales as the somewhat obvious metaphors for sexual awakening and maturation they are like “Lost Girls” does.  Given the nature of those books as works of literary deconstruction their being pastiches that use public domain characters that are a part of our shared cultural experience and whose authors are long dead is entirely necessary, so Moore using established cultural icons in an original manner isn’t equivalent or comparable to doing a continuation of “Watchmen” in the form a prequel.

    What I think Moore means by DC being “dependent on ideas from 25 years ago” is that the lesson the industry took away from “Watchmen” and “DKR” was that comics need to be gritty and dark, when the lesson they needed to take away was that comics need to push the envelope.  He’s completely on the money in that respect, and I think people are just having a knee-jerk reaction to what he said out of context.

    The “Moby Dick” comparison is just an extension of this.  I don’t think he was directly comparing “Watchmen” to “Moby Dick”, but using it as an example to point out that classics of ‘straight literature’ don’t tend to have cash-in sequels and prequels by other authors against the will of the original creator.  He wasn’t saying “‘Watchmen’ is as good as ‘Moby Dick'” or “I, Alan Moore, am as important a writer as Herman Melville”, it was just a snarky way of saying that if “Watchmen” is to comic books what “Moby Dick” is to novels, why isn’t the former getting the respect of the latter?

    As far as “honouring” things go, that argument doesn’t hold water.  It doesn’t matter what creators they get to “honour the voices and actions” of these characters, it misses the entire POINT of “Watchmen”.  (And really, Mr. Hyde would totally rape someone to death.)  The book is a deconstruction of the superhero genre, the characters aren’t relevant as entities in their own right and everything about their backstories that was relevant to the story was included IN the story.  No matter who is involved in this project it can’t cloud the fact that DC broke a gentlemen’s agreement they’ve had with Moore for years.  They asked Moore to write prequels not too long ago in exchange for the rights to “Watchmen” and he refused, so they went around his back.  The other creators involved in this should be ashamed of themselves: they’re effectively scab workers.

    And John, don’t you think it’s a bit unfair to spend much of a post calling Alan Moore a hypocrite and a pervert and then say that you’re not judging him?

  2. Mark Hughes says:

    Great article, John. I’ve added a link to it over on my Forbes sidebar of headline links, FYI.

    Alex, I disagree completely that there’s any substantive difference between Moore’s use of older classic characters and the “Watchmen” prequels. Firstly, I keep seeing the term “cash grab” being tossed around a bit too much, as if the writers and artists involved in this project are just hacks concerned only with money. I’ve got some bad news for folks who make Moore out to be a saint — he constantly grabbed cash for his projects, including selling film rights and making a LOT of money (some folks think he takes no money for the films, but that’s not true, as Robert points out over in the comments section of my article about Moore). He always made good money, and was constantly willing to sell the rights and cash those checks.

    So pretending that Moore somehow has only these pure and wonderful literary motivations and that his work is always some beacon of principle unconcerned with money, while these new writers are apparently not capable or motivated by analysis of fiction and deconstruction and quality work etc, is just a fantasy.

    This really comes down to Moore’s hardline supporters (in this situation) basically arguing “when Moore did it, it was really important great literary work, so it was okay, and it’s fair for him to hold others to a different standard because they aren’t as good as him and don’t have the pure motivations he has.” It’s a pure matter of preference for him that makes people defend his actions as somehow “different” when they absolutely aren’t.

    The “public domain” claim is likewise fairly bogus — there are copyright holders of some of those characters and properties, and Moore openly dismissed them and refused to get licensing when confronted about it. He acted indignant, as if nobody should even suggest that his work using those characters needs any permission or owes anybody else a damn thing, which is reflective of too much of his overall attitude toward other creators. He has made a trend of insulting other working artists and writers for the last two decades now, claiming that basically nothing good has been made in comics for the last quarter century, and is always going on about his own rights owed to him for his work and how great he is and how everybody depends on his work because nobody’s been original or high quality is so long, etc etc etc.

    I don’t think anyone can make a case that if the creators of Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy were alive to see what Alan Moore did with those characters, that they’d not be furious and have demanded he stop and called it a complete disrespecting of their original work etc before the actual graphic novel was released. Afterward, they might have read it and changed their minds, but in advance I can’t imagine anyone would seriously try to pretend the original creators wouldn’t have been as furious as Moore is now. So, does he get a free pass just because “they weren’t alive to see it” and can’t complain about it?

    It is absolutely true to say that new writers taking “Watchmen” from 26 years ago and adding their own artistic interpretations and spin and potential deconstructions etc is comparable and equivalent to what Moore did. Just because you personally feel differently about it and think Moore’s work is superior etc doesn’t make it “different” in terms of the underlying issues and complaints etc.

    It’s not a knee-jerk reaction out of context to say that Moore has repeatedly over the years claimed other writers and companies have been dependent upon his work and have been unable to do anything better or equal or original etc. He did not merely mean “comics are dark and gritty,” and I think that’s an oversimplification of his remark and meaning — and it’s a bit too serving of the defense of Moore. He talks about reissuing of his work, use of it in adaptations, and now use of it for prequels, so to suggest he’s really just talking about a broader issue of the lesson about “dark and gritty” versus “push the envelop” is really ignoring the consistent context of his remarks and the clear meaning of them regarding his own work.

    The “Moby-Dick” remark was of course a broad commentary, but denying that there was any suggestion of comparability is not very accurate. Plenty of books and even classic books had sequels — Twain wrote sequels, after all. So his point COULDN’T be that classic works don’t need or receive sequels, since it would be pretty much factually false and make no sense. It only makes sense in the specific context of “Moby-Dick” as not just a classic but a special sort that is regarded as transcendent and above the normal considerations and expectations. So I don’t buy any denial that Moore was on some level implying a comparison — and knowing Moore and having seen his remarks long enough to know the guy has a pretty amazingly high regard for himself above all other modern comics writers, I don’t think anyone should try to argue he would never consider comparing himself to the greatness of such literature.

    Besides — “The Wind Whales of Ishmael,” a sequel to “Moby Dick” written by Philip Jose Farmer. So, a great writer went back to that exact book named by Alan Moore and wrote a sequel.  Oops.

    I think it’s hard to be arguing that the new stories will miss the entire POINT of “Watchmen” when we haven’t read them yet and have no idea what they’ll be about or the approaches being taken. This predictive “it’s all going to be terrible and fail because it is against the core themes of ‘Watchmen'” is also a bit problematic since Alan Moore himself literally said HE’D HAVE WRITTEN THEM if DC had asked him to and offered him the rights back. Apparently prequels or sequels AREN’T missing the entire point, unless Alan Moore himself doesn’t know the point of “Watchmen,” right?  Because what you said about DC asking Moore to do sequels and him refusing etc is not in fact the full story — he rejected the offer recently, but said publicly that if they’d made the offer back when he was trying to get the rights back instead of refusing him back then, he would’ve agreed to do it. He didn’t reject the idea on principle based on the notion of making sequels/prequels, he rejected it (by his own admission) because the offer came too late and he was already angry that they’d refused to make a deal with him in the past when he tried to push the matter.

    For the record, I won’t restate it all here, but this is what I think the primary points were in “Watchmen” —

    Claiming the characters aren’t relevant in their own right is, in my opinion, missing a HUGE part of the point of the story. And it is contrary to Moore’s original intention of making the story using pre-existing Charlton characters. The premise and themes arose explicitly out of what he saw in the deconstruction of EXISTING characters whom he then chose (after DC asked him to do so) to rewrite into “new” characters mimicking the existing characters. Understanding the entire story and narrative requires understanding the “Watchmen” characters as individual entities and how they related to each other individual and how they relate together as a whole, and how they relate to the world.

    I think it’s frankly bogus to insult the other writers by calling them “scabs” — they shouldn’t be ashamed of themselves, I think Moore and those defending him in extreme terms need a bit more humility and to stop acting like Moore is some intellectual purist in art and that apparently whatever he does to pursue HIS artistic vision is perfectly fine and defensible — even when ignoring copyrights owned by other people of pre-existing characters — but everybody else is just a bunch of immoral jerks out to rip off poor saintly Alan Moore.

    Lastly, I’d say it’s a bit unfair to accuse John of calling Moore a pervert and a hypocrite when he never said either such thing. You and some other Moore defenders are misunderstanding the point — noting Moore’s own behavior and writing, and accurately describing how he used those characters in ways the original authors surely would not be too happy with (at the very least, they likely would have objected in advance), is being done in order to show how Moore’s own complaints can and have been used against his own work. The point is that Moore took those characters and used them in those ways, and the result was critically acclaimed and beloved by fans and we mostly all are GLAD he did it. Those arguments against his own work are wrong, and we’d defend his use of characters in his stories, and that’s why we reject those same arguments when Moore and his defenders now use them to denounce “Before Watchmen.” The claims were wrong when used against Moore, and are wrong when Moore now uses them.

    It’s not just about hypocrisy, the core issue is that the hypocrisy exists in the context of Moore making claims that he and his defenders would NEVER accept as legit when leveled against Moore’s own work. So he, and his defenders, should know better.

  3. Alexander Stevenson says:

     Hmm, you make some interesting and convincing points, Mark.  I didn’t know about a lot of that ‘behind the scenes’ stuff.  Moore definitely doesn’t hold the moral high ground if that’s the case.  Regardless, I think “Watchmen” prequels are all around a bad idea, particularly where it’s 36 issues worth of prequels to a 12 issue story.

    I do think that this is a cash grab (despite the fact that the stories may be very good), but I don’t think it has anything to do with the creative talent involved, it has to do with DC as a company and their lack of a sustainable, long-term business strategy to cope with the shrinking and changing industry.  It would hard to pass up the opportunity to write these characters, but with Moore being so against it, if I were an artist or a writer I couldn’t possibly accept an invitation to do it.  Moore may have used some characters against the wishes of their creators, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

    How’s BOF?

  4. Mark Hughes says:

    I STRONGLY recommend everyone read the full account of what Alan Moore actually did, what he himself originally raised as prequel ideas, what DC offered him repeatedly over the years, etc in this exceptional and detailed piece:

    I can’t imagine anyone can read the full true story and still think Moore is being somehow wronged here, or that there’s any sort of principle/moral/etc arguments against the existence of prequels. If folks don’t like it for other personal reasons, or out of fear that it will suck, that’s totally different from any remaining claims about Moore’s rights, the history of DC supposedly “screwing” Moore, the cash-grab claims, etc.

    Moore is the one who first raised prequel possibilities. DC kept asking him to get involved, make more stories, consult, on and on they made offers, until finally telling Moore they’d give him all of the full rights to the characters and give him full creative freedom if he’d just do the prequel ideas they’d discussed. He refused the entire time, not out of any artistic disagreement or claims but strictly based on a contract dispute and his anger at the company “on principle.” Despite the fact the contract was NOT a trick, Moore’s entire claim about it is based on the fact the contract included the standard “you’ll get the rights to this project back, if there is a full one-year period in which we are never printing more copies to sell.”

    Moore’s claim is that he fully expected that to happen because up until that time it was standard for comics to go out of print for a while and the rights would revert to him. Except he conveniently ignores the fact that the entire point of that contractual line is ALSO to give the company the right to maintain the rights IF IT’S A HUGE SUCCESS, which is precisely what happened. Moore is literally angry because he agreed to a lucrative contract (he was among the highest-paid creators at a time when creators rarely got that much money or creative freedom or were given rights to the content they created using other people’s characters or content based closely on other people’s content), and he expected the book to not sell so well. He’s mad because the contract was enforced as written, and because it was a big success and thus the company exercised their inherent and 100% rational, logical right to retain the rights by continuing to print a book that kept selling well — which is half of the point of that whole clause in the first place.

    He flat-out asked them to ignore the contract deal and give him the rights back, and when they refused to just wipe their own rights out of the contract and give it all over to him, he was mad. So mad that for years and years — 25 years — he flat out refused when they offered him lots of money to do more stories, when they offered him full creative control, and eventually even agreed to give him the full rights back JUST LIKE HE WANTED if he’d make prequels LIKE HE HIMSELF FIRST RAISED AS A POSSIBILITY and which he even today admits IS NOT INHERENTLY BAD  and that he’d have in fact gladly done it if they’d made the offer of prequels-in-exchange-for-full-rights at the start.

    Meanwhile, he was busy making comics using other people’s characters, including sometimes without getting legal permission to do so from the holders of the copyrights, and signing deals to sell the movie rights to his stuff and publishing commercial comic books. For years and years. While complaining about DC the whole time and acting like they “screwed him” by “stealing” his original content — original content overtly, explicitly closely mimicking the pre-existing characters he originally planned to use for the story.

    The point about Moore using other people’s characters isn’t that he was wrong, too — it’s that I actually think he WASN’T wrong, I AGREE with his arguments supporting his creative reasons for using those characters, and I don’t think it’s a case of two wrongs not making a right, I think NEITHER is wrong. That’s my whole point, that the arguments against Moore’s use of other content etc is totally wrong. And so I also think it’s wrong for Moore and others to make those same arguments against OTHER creative persons who use Moore’s work as a basis for their own. There’s just no legit reason to think it’s perfectly acceptable for Moore to write his own stories using someone else’s characters with or without their permission, but that somehow HIS creations and writing are too good to be held to the same standard. It’s grossly hypocritical of him, and relies on using precisely the same arguments that keep being leveled (wrongly) against Moore’s own use of Tom Sawyer etc.

    The reason a lot of writers and artists don’t mind doing the prequels is, as you can for example see from J. Michael Straczynski’s response to Alan Moore in that link above, based on the fact that a lot of them simply don’t buy Moore’s complaints, are tired of him acting superior and grossly insulting to other writers (he’s said things about the lack of originality and quality in comics writing for the last two and a half decades, for example), and because they think he’s distorting the truth about the history of his interactions with DC and has been unreasonable and self-serving to the point a lot of people who liked him and supported him are washing their hands of him. These new writers are doing nothing except what Moore himself did in the past. And when HE wrote his comics using other people’s creations, sometimes against the wishes of the rights-holders, people defended him and felt he was doing good worthwhile work. So the prequels are not any different, and there’s no grounds for holding them to a different standard and ignoring that every reason in support of Alan Moore’s work in the past is also a reason to support the right of these other creators to work on the prequel projects.

    BOF’s doing well, nervous about fears of leaks as the film gets closer of course, and we’re all going nuts waiting for more images and information, as always, haha! Very exciting times coming up, and in the aftermath of TDKR we’ll be in that phase again where we wonder “what happens next to Batman on film?” and have to start lobbying WB just like the old days when BOF first got started. Fun times!

  5. Alexander Stevenson says:

     I guess it’s just as well I’m not still around then. lol  The anticipation and speculation and rumours and “what’s next” stuff just exhausts me.  I much prefer the analysis and discussion of the films after they come out.  I miss the gang there on the boards sometimes, but I still chat regularly with some of the guys as I’ve been wrangled into contributing to a fan comic.

    The lobbying should be interesting to see.  I didn’t start reading BOF till after “Batman Begins” came out so I’m not really familiar with the site as it was originally organised, since like Jett said, with the films we’ve been getting he’s just sorta been ‘cheerleading’ for the most part.

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