(It should go without saying that what follows is just, like, what I think. I’m not an authority on this subject, but it looks like those are pretty thin on the ground anyway. So temper your reading with this concept in your head – I’m not telling what you should think, I’m just telling you what I think you should think.)
If you’ve been anywhere near the comics internet over the last few days, you already know about “Before Watchmen”, DC’s long-expected capitalising on their ownership of the classic comic book, and the one news story that ensures that we in the comic sphere will only be talking about superhero comics from now until the books are released.
Over at MOMBcomics.com, we decided to dodge the particular bullet on the subject – that bullet, by the way, is one that hits you square in the entitlement, and creates a time-sucking attention-wound – and instead of putting our swiftly growing brand* behind one opinion, we asked our friend the Internet for their opinion. This didn’t really achieve quite the broad spread of targets we might have hoped for – there wasn’t exactly a consensus opinion, but there weren’t as many anti-Before Watchmen opinions as would perhaps have been representative of the rest of vocal comics fandom.
The one conclusion I have come to out of the debate and the exercise at MOMBcomics was that people are conflating an awful lot of different threads to make arguments stick. There are three distinct strands to this, and they aren’t as compatible as most of the debaters seem to think. There’s the legality of the move, the creative ethics (a spurious construction if ever there was one) of the work, and the artistic merit of it. Personally, I think the former is covered ably by the words of Gibbons and Moore themselves, the second is an always important area to consider but isn’t black-and-white enough to justify the violent rage it seems to invoke, and the third becomes meaningless and potentially destructive if we become definitive about it, start claiming there are “rules”, but that the exact details of those rules are subject to change depending on the tastes/opinions of the speaker or the original author. (It’s also largely irrelevant when we are talking about it as a metric in the decision making process of a mass-producing industry, but that’s a whole other wrinkle.)
These are ALL areas that are worth discussion – everything is always worth discussion – but for the discussion to stay smart we need to try to keep the distances between those strands in mind when we discuss this – and to be frank most other – areas of fandom. Conflating them makes for dumb discourse, no matter how big the words you use are.
My own contribution to the post was a particularly huge disappointment, not least to me, in that it meant that what was as much as anything a manipulative suggestion on my part to minimise the amount of time and effort I put into thinking about the subject became an all-consuming wasted hour of brain-splurge. I ended up spending as long on trying to cut my ranting down to a vaguely fair three paragraphs as I did on writing it.
For the purposes of posterity – which is the act of saving anything that comes out of one’s posterior for examination by future generations – I’m putting the original blah here. It should be obvious throughout that I’m at war with myself, desperately trying not to go on, and failing, and this may explain lack of lucidity.
It should also be considered throughout that my real-world position on Before Watchmen is actually exactly the same as my oft-stated position on the DCNew52: DC are well within their rights to do it, it is possible that some good, functional art will come out of it, and short-term they will make a lot of money out of it regardless of the whinges of whingers, but backward-looking creative direction, link-baiting initiatives and hype-cycle pandering is ultimately feeding into the slow-death of mainstream comics. If DC were doing this, or had done the DC52, while also being successful financially on other comic fronts, and we were able to discuss this without the underlying tinge of desperation that everything they do is a step in the wrong direction from a fast eroding cliff, I’d be like “follow your bliss, DC dudes!”, but as it is I’m totally like *rolls eyes* “hey Detective Comics peoples, buy a clue!”. Or whatever else the kids are saying.
Anyway, this is what I would have said, if I wasn’t allowing myself to be drawn on the “rightness” of all this, but was secretly feeling myself pulled in anyway, but was really trying to fight it, and had unlimited space:
If I was going to allow myself to be drawn out on this, I’d say that there’s no practical, pragmatic reason why DC shouldn’t do this. I’d say there’s something particularly self-righteous about anyone judging any freelancer who takes this job, or anyone who takes any job, when the only real skin you’ve got in the game is based on personal opinion. I’d say that though I have loved most things about Alan Moore, people defending his corner have had far more to do with my diminished view of Watchmen than any should-have-gone-straight-to-DVD novelty movie ever could have, and that I would hope that he would feel embarrassed, rather than vindicated, by the recasting of him as one of the comic medium’s great martyrs. Because Alan Moore, more than the outraged fraction of the internet, is smart enough to know that he is not Kirby, or Siegel, or Shuster. I’ve always been in love with the Alan Moore who talks about Ideaspace, and something really fundamental about the idea of stories as an avatar for life, ideas and something more doesn’t really gel for me with aggressive protection of the perceived integrity of his texts.
I’d say that if your argument is that legally, or from a business perspective, DC shouldn’t do it, that’s not strictly accurate – and it’s worth noting that if you are in one breath talking about how popular Watchmen has always been, and in another talking about how DC have kept it in print to spite Moore/Gibbons, that there is cognitive dissonance. A business that doesn’t work within the bounds of their legal obligations to make money isn’t a very smart business. The suggestion that they a publisher is legally following the course of action that is most profitable for them just to spite creators is broken. Are all of DC’s dealings with Moore clean? Is it a bad thing that the prime gatekeepers to our favoured medium are corporate bodies? Those are both discussions worth having, but they aren’t this one, although if everyone starts talking smarter, maybe this’d be a good way into them.If your argument is that ethically it is wrong to work on a book where the ownership of that book is in dispute or being exploited by a publisher, Moore must be taken to task for his seminal work on Superman, or, for that matter, Batman, both of which have been the site of ongoing disputes over ownership. It can be argued that this situation is different, and it is. But it’s different for as many reasons that go against Moore as there are that support him.
If your argument is that it’s ethically wrong to create an adaptive work that is in direct conflict with the intentions of the original author, or handle a property in a way that may pollute earlier work for some readers, than I’m sorry, you don’t get to pre-emptively dismiss anyone who mentions League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Lost Girls. Whatever Moore’s skill or secret genius plan – or other reason that allows one to at will change the parameters of a rationale – he has fundamentally changed any number of characters in a way that will forever adjust the interpretation of those characters, for anyone not able to compartmentalise their perception on such things. It is wrong to think that everyone who raises those books has a problem with that aspect of Moore’s work. In my case, I happen to love the idea of iterative fiction. I think it’s something that comics do particularly well. It makes a mockery of the idea of canon, in a medium where canon is a disease.I’d also say that while I don’t think that narratively there’s anywhere to go with Watchmen, I responded to the news of Before Watchmen with something like existential relief, that before long we won’t have to have this particular version of this repeated conversation any more. If there was something to be changed about how comic creators are legally treated, that would be one thing, but that isn’t the case here.
Whatever other issues Moore had with DC, the terms of his and Gibbons’ contract on Watchmen are pretty clear, and DC haven’t acted in bad faith, unless there’s more to the promises made than the creators have said themselves. If it’s about what rights the audience has to not have their classic polluted, well, that’s a matter that’s always up for debate. What I mean by “up for debate” is that there is no definitive answer. I mean, outside of one’s own house, among a community.But what I really think is that the big problem here is that Watchmen is even still relevant to this extent. When Moore suggests that nothing of significance has happened in mainstream comics since Watchmen, he’s exposing himself as being taken in by – or happily ignorant of – a huge lie about the comic medium and the industry, but sadly it’s one that the audience, and the prime publishers, are happy to swallow too. Less than six months ago, DC proved they half believe it by trying to grab backwards for some imagined zenith, throwing a lot of great work and a lot of great creators under the bus in the process – work and creators that Moore also discards with his statement. A lot of the people cheerleading DC then, and the people cheerleading Moore now, are tapping into that same vein. Comics should have moved on from Watchmen, but here we are, circling it again. And Moore and his career haven’t been able to avoid, or showed the will to avoid, being pulled in by it.
And don’t get me started on the retailers.
There’s a tepid undercurrent of conservatism in how everybody is treating comics, that Watchmen prequels are just a symptom of, and the arguments for and against it are symptoms of, and now again, everyone is arguing about what they don’t want, and creators with vision at DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse and any number of other indie and small-press publishers can’t get their books in front of readers. Can’t even get them to torrent their work except by accident.
We have to be better than this. That’s what I want to say, if I can avoid being drawn on the other Before Watchmen nonsense. We can’t keep blaming DC for doing whatever it takes to stay afloat, when we could just let them sink and conserve our energy to help build whatever comes next.
See? Demented, but well-meaning. It was late.
The only thing I’d add to it is this: at a cultural level, the ownership of art – even/especially art created within a corporate or commercial framework – is not a fixed or objective thing.
A formative part of it – the core of it, the intended platonic ideal being presented at source – still belongs to the creators, and the tangible, tradeable ownership of the work – what can be reproduced, sold, adapted – is a legal matter, usually negotiated/decided/fought over before or soon after creation, and then apparently not being directly publicly discussed during any of the disputes afterwards.
But once that art is out in the world, the most significant part of that work belongs to anybody who sees it, and is moved one way, or another, a lot or not at all, by it. No matter how rigid the intention of the original work, it means something different to each person who encounters it. That’s the beauty of creativity – the innate magic in it, and the central, wonderful frustration of it. The better the work, the more complexity there is in the relationships between how each person sees it. Good art – and at one level any art we want to talk about is good art – tells us how we’re similar, but also how we’re different. Art is not concrete. There is no consensus in art. That’s kind of the point of it. It’s the other guyswho decide what should and shouldn’t get made based on their personal feelings and relationship with the world. Once you go down that road, that’s religion you’re talking about.
Alan Moore, when he’s engaging with or talking about creativity – which is when I think he’s really a genius, and truly alive – rather than past legal frustrations, understands this. His work, to my mind, is often about this. This is why it is perfectly justifiable when he uses other people’s creations or ideas in his work, and this is probably why the more thoughtful of the people who mention his post-modern use of other people’s characters are mentioning them.
Moore takes pride in seeing the Guy Fawkes mask in popular use within protest movements, even though its use was sparked by a pretty weak movie adaptation which he had cut himself off from, rather than the work he is willing to take responsibility for. There’s no hypocrisy in this because he is an important part of a process that started with Guy Fawkes, wearing the face and failing at the terrorism, and went through Moore, by way of Lloyd, and onto the screen via a creative process that we shall pretend doesn’t involve any production designers or prop creators, and into shops via a manufacturing and distribution process that we’ll put even less focus on, to eventually be taken up by an angry, disaffected population that Moore and many of the rest of us can only pretend to understand. However, that’s still a dilution of Moore’s work – which was a dilution of Guy Fawkes’ work – that could forever alter one’s perception of the original V For Vendetta comics if one let it.
It wouldn’t have happened without the pointless corporate exploitation of a work that Moore refused to support. That doesn’t make the corporate exploitation any less pointless. It doesn’t make any actual breaking of contractual terms that may have occurred to make that movie happen okay. But it does speak to the cultural value of any argument that says that a mature audience has any right of ownership to a piece of art that is frozen in amber at the point that they first encountered it.
Fuck. I may have just argued against my stance on the Star Wars Special Editions. Wait, I know: it’s DIFFERENT, okay? It just IS. WE WERE KIDS AND WE TRUSTED YOU, LUCAS, HOW COULD YOU??
Anyway, so. Scattered about this piece are works in the medium that I happen to love, all of which I want to reread sooner than I do Watchmen. All but three of them have nothing to do with DC or Marvel, and of those three, one of them has reverted back to its creators and is now out in a beautiful volume from IDW – it’s to the left of this writing.
We need comics. We don’t need the comic mainstream – certainly not as much as it needs us. And we wouldn’t even be having this argument about Watchmen if that book wasn’t part of that industry. It couldn’t have existed without it, it wouldn’t have been relevant without it, and most of us wouldn’t have even had the chance to read it without it.
We don’t have to give a shit about Watchmen, or Before Watchmen. We choose to.
We don’t have to fight about issues that we really have no skin in. We choose to.
We should really grow out of it.
If you want to comment on any of this, please feel free to use the comments section below. I appreciate that it’s probably hard to pull much meaning from such an unstructured mess, but please turn your reading comprehension up to at least 8.5 before jumping down my throat. Also, make an effort to not jump down my throat over any words I’ve misused – this was mostly written after midnight, and like everyone there are terms I’ve picked up over 38 years that I might not be using quite right. If you can understand what I meant, go with that, if you can’t, clarify. It probably isn’t clear from my tone, but as passionately as I feel about this, I take conversation as an opportunity to develop or change my viewpoint, and I’m grateful for anyone who wants to school me on anything I’ve said here – I might even learn something! – but if you come at me with rhetoric**, are just rude, or don’t seem interested in anything except telling me I’m wrong without forming a coherent argument that says why, it’s possible that I won’t treat you with the respect that you feel entitled to.***
**The nature of argument on the internet is to numbly spout rhetoric into the virtual faces of other people. I’m not interested in arguments, I am interested in discussion. The nature of discussion on the internet is to try to apply science, history, or considered supposition into the virtual faces of other people, and if that isn’t quite good enough, to then turn to rhetoric. It’s a matter of putting that little bit more effort in.
***It is almost a certainty that I won’t treat you with the respect that you feel entitled to.