The Devin’s Advocate: BEFORE WATCHMEN Continues 80 Years Of Creator Exploitation

BEFORE WATCHMEN isn't just a crass creative move, it's an extension of the way comic book companies have built themselves by exploiting creators.

On the surface Motown and the comic book industry don’t have a lot in common... that is until you realize both were built on the exploitation of young, naive creative types. In his book Supergods Grant Morrison notes why it was so easy for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to sell the rights to Superman for peanuts: they thought they would have more characters in them, and they never imagined that the character could become the cultural icon he is today. They wanted their creation out there, and because they were young, idealistic creators they suffered.

For decades that’s how the comic book industry worked, taking the creative sweat of smart and innovative writers and artists and turning it into corporate cash - cash that was not shared. Today we have a landscape where creator owned properties are common, but that simply did not exist for the first 40 or 50 years of mainstream comics.

Which is why Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ deal for Watchmen was such a big to-do at the time. There was a reversion clause in the contract, which stated that should DC leave the characters fallow for one year the rights to the work would return to the creators. That same language was in Moore’s V For Vendetta contract, and in both cases he assumed the books would eventually go out of print and he would get the rights back.

Except they never did. Again, in the modern world keeping a comic book in print is standard practice, but in the 80s it was simply unheard of. Alan Moore never expected Watchmen or V For Vendetta to remain constantly in print for the next twenty or thirty years because no such thing had ever before happened in the history of the medium.

“[T]hey were stolen from me — knowingly stolen from me,” Moore told the New York Times in 2006, on the eve of the release of the V For Vendetta movie. He says this is why he quit working for DC Comics in any capacity. "I said, 'Fair enough,' " he recalls. " 'You have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.'”

To me Before Watchmen, the upcoming series of prequels to Moore and Gibbons' seminal masterwork, isn't just an artistically bankrupt project, it’s morally bankrupt. DC exhuming these characters is just the final fuck you in a decades-long attempt to screw over Moore - who, to be fair, has assisted by renouncing whatever money is due to him from things like this. But the issue isn’t simply money, it’s also the artist’s right to NOT make money, to not have their creation further exploited. In 2010 DC offered Moore a deal with the devil - they would give him the rights back, but he would have to agree to (and presumably endorse) prequels and sequels. You can have your baby, they said, as long as you agree to have it work in this brothel. 

It isn't like Moore was consistently close-minded about mining Watchmen. In the late 80s he approved and contributed to a role playing game set in the Watchmen world, supplying background information that helped flesh out the characters and history of the universe. I feel like Moore played ball, and that he's well within his rights to ask that the ball no longer be played with. 

This is a continuation of the kind of exploitation upon which the modern superhero comic book market was built. I hope that the creators working today for DC and Marvel have secured their shit in an ironclad way. And I can tell you that stories like this are why the mainstream superhero universes have such a paucity of interesting new characters - why would you give Marvel or DC your best original work when they’re simply going to exploit it forever and leave you out?