By Jay Stringer
There's been an issue eating at me for a week now. I've sent out emails talking to people about it, and each time I've said, "I'm not going to blog this.." And almost every time, they replied, "yes you will." Well, points to them, I guess.
Last week, while I was giving you an epic essay on Breaking Bad and The Wire, DC comics went and announced a whole load of prequels to the classic book WATCHMEN. I'm not happy that DC decided to sneak the news out while i was distracting the whole Internet with my essay. That's not playing fair.
As for the book itself, I hold WATCHMEN in just about the highest regard I hold anything. It would make my top five works of art/fiction in all formats. And yes, it had a shitty film made of it, but let's forget that, okay?
Now, this being major news about a comic book, and this also being the Internet, a few people had a few things to say. A week later, we seem to have reached a general consensus; "I don't really think they should do it, but they have the legal right, and I'll buy them."
So now, unbidden and demanded by nobody, I'm going to throw my own thoughts into the week-old discussion. I've shifted, rather quickly, to a hard line position. I think there is a fundamentally important issue at stake here, and one that people are choosing to ignore in order to get a monthly fix of capes, cowls and explosions.
When the news first broke, I was very much in the old "the book is on my shelf, nothing they do will change that," camp. But then I realised that was completely and utterly not the point. That school of thought is from a time when a writer cashed a cheque and gave permission for his work to be adapted into a film.
Then I veered into a shrug of the shoulders, "corporations will make money, let em do what they want, I can simply ignore it, like I ignore the film." That was the easiest road to take, and over the course of the past week it seems to be the road most people are taking (that is, those who aren't using the spectacularly cowardly, "I'm against it, but I'll still buy them." But the more I noticed people making this argument, the more it ate at me.
At this point, it seems the best defence we can muster for it is, "well they have the legal right to do it." If the best interviewers, commentators and journalists in the medium are willing to make that argument, I think we need to take a long hard look at ourselves. Lots of corporations have the legal right to get away with lost of things, and the same voices defending Before Watchmen on legal grounds may often be heard moaning about some of the things these other companies do.
Yes, they have a legal right. But lets examine where that comes from, for readers who may be new to the whole issue. In the mid-1980's Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons signed a contract with DC. The contract stated that, once WATCHMEN had been out of print for a year, the IP would revert to the authors. Implicit in that agreement, though sadly not stated clear enough, was the idea that, at some point the creators of the work should get their work back. At the time, there was no trade paperback industry for comics. No "graphic novel market." You didn't walk into you nearest book store and pick up a "graphic novel," so that you didn't have to slum it in a comic shop. You know what created that market? What gave the comics industry an extra leg with which to support itself? WATCHMEN. I've worked in a comic store, I've worked in several book shops, and WATCHMEN has always been in stock at them. So Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons signed a contract without knowing that their book was going to change the industry, they signed it based on the standard industry practices of the time. I imagine there are a lot of authors, both in prose and comic books, who've signed contracts over the last decade without foreseeing the game-changing implications of digital sales, where books never go out of print.
And that's what has stung these creators. Their book was meant to be out of print in a year, because it was a comic, but it's never gone out of print. 25 years later, DC is still publishing it, still making money off it, and this never looks likely to change. When this started to become clear, when Alan Moore saw that things were changing and his contract was based on an out of date paradigm, he tried to renegotiate the deal. DC refused, and Alan Moore went on a one-man strike from them. At this point, on principle, he even turns down credits and money when films are made based on his work. Some people say he's cutting off his nose to spite his face, I say he's being consistent; and precious few people in the industry can claim to be doing the same.
But let's ignore the legal debate for a moment.
Firstly, is there a creative reason for the prequels? A writer-friend (won't name names, unless he wants to) has discussed with me the very compelling lack of a need for these stories. WATCHMEN is structured in such a way that we already have all that we need. Something creators often use to throw some art and mystery onto their decision making is, "Well, now I have found the story." Some of the creators involved in these prequels have said the same. They weren't going to butcher someone else's baby, but, hey, they have a story. That's fine, but it supposes that it's their story to tell. I might have a fun James Bond story, but it doesn't make it mine to tell. In fact, nobody tell Ray Banks, but I've totally figured out a fifth Cal Innes book and sod it, I'm just going to decide that makes it mine to do.
And morally, which it seems to me is the real meat of this matter, where do we stand?
There were two authors on WATCHMEN. One of them, Dave Gibbons, isn't involved in the prequels but has given them a kind of blessing. He's going to be tactful and stand back. But the other creator, the 50% partner in this and the writer of those epic scripts, has been quite clear.
He doesn't want it. He doesn't want prequels, sequels, spin offs or movies. He wants his creator rights back. In an interview last week he said, "I don't want money, I want for this not to happen."
Can it be any more obvious what the authors wishes are?
I put it to you that we have a choice in this matter. We either respect an authors wishes or we don't. But every single one of the arguments for these books being right, good or, the worst of all, "okay," seems to completely sidestep this basic issue. When it does crop up, it's dismissed as Moore's fault. If he'd played nice, or if he'd be wiling to sit down and talk to DC, this might not have happened. But as I've already covered, the reason he doesn't talk to them is because of creator rights. The fact that he's on a one man strike doesn't make it any less valid of a strike. He's getting screwed over because he doesn't talk to them because they were screwing him over. At what point does that become his fault?
And if I'm arguing that we need to respect creator rights, then what of the creators involved in these prequels? Well, Brian Azzarello made his name on the critically acclaimed series 100 Bullets, a series for which he enjoys creator-rights (from DC) that have never been granted to Alan Moore for his work at the same company. Moreover, the creator-rights enjoyed by the younger generation of writers are a direct result of the work done by Moore. Darwyn Cooke is one of my favourite creators in modern comics, and he enjoys the freedom to release his PARKER adaptations in a market that was created by WATCHMEN with a level of control that comes as a result of Moore. And these are the creators who decide to get involved in Before Watchmen? I hope to Crom that we never see them preaching about creator rights in future.
I seem to be at a breaking point with DC comics. But the more I thought on it, the more I realised there was a very good reason why people don't want to think on it. It pulls on a loose thread that unravels to show us our own hypocrisy. We all know that the big two in comics treats creators poorly. They always have. We know that there are writers, artists, inkers, etc, who have died in poverty, or who are still alive but have no healthcare or money, because they've been screwed over systematically for our entertainment for 70 years. Moore is one of the lucky ones, he's actually made enough money out of the gig to be comfortable, but stood behind him are many graves and many debts. To casual readers out there who may not know the history, I'll mention some of the bigger ones; Steve Ditko co-created SPIDER-MAN. He's lived in reduced circumstances for forty years, despite creating MARVEL's biggest cash cow, because he wasn't given credit. Jack Kirby co-created most of the characters from the silver age of comics, and still doesn't receive the credit. The treatment of Kirby, by the way, is another issue that Alan Moore took a moral stand over with his employers. In THOR, SPIDER-MAN, X-MEN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, THE FANTASTIC FOUR,THE HULK and IRON MAN, we see major franchises at the cinemas, for which Ditko or Kirby played a role in creation and were not credited, let alone given ownership.
As fans, we know this. We look the other way, decade on decade, so that we can get our thrills, and then we moan about cover price. So we moan about how much we have to pay to the company producing the work, but we've never once put out collective foot down over how much the company pay to the people who created these properties. We would rather look the other way, ignore the issue so we can get our explosions.
So, where does that leave us? Well, sure, you can mount a defence for Before Watchmen based on the fact that they have the legal rights to do it. You could also sidestep the whole issue by saying you don't really care about creator rights. However, I simply don't see a way to say you respect creators rights and argue that Before Watchmen is 'okay'. The two are fundamentally opposed.
Time to wrap this up before I annoy anyone else. I'm going to make some good from all of these thoughts. There are two organisations who can benefit, and who we should all give at least a moments thought to. The Hero Initiative provides a safety net for those who don't have one. For generations of creators who've worked without insurance, health care, creator-rights or pensions, the HI can step in and help them out. The second is the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund. The clue is pretty much in the name there; they provide legal aid to creators, including advice on the tricky issue of legal rights.
I'm not preaching for anyone else to do this. But for myself, I think the money that was going on reinforcing the mistreatment of creators will be better served going on supporting them.