Friday, June 8, 2012

TL; DR: Comics, Superheroes, Watchmen, and Authorship

Fine.  Let's talk about this.

This is going to be, I believe, my final word on the topic.  The topic of Before Watchmen.

I've raised my hand a few times over the last two or three years and tried to make various points about how I have felt that the current crop of 20-somethings approach comics fandom differently than how I came up as a reader and fan.  Most certainly, there's the internet and social media aspect that has become (I'd argue) more important than the comics themselves in many quarters.  And, of course, the level of fandom that seems to stem ultimately a whole lot more from being able to dress up as a character and wander around a Con for many of these "fans".  If I can be blunt, I can't shake the suspicion that they're not the same kind of fan that's sought out every appearance of a character.  And, given sales, I have to wonder if they're paying for comics at all.

There's also plenty of folks on Etsy making their own products featuring non-DC approved licensed characters, people making webcomics, etc...  In short, fan fiction is as much a part of the culture to the current target demo as the "legitimate" product.

In a way, that sort of sense of entitlement/ fan ownership could be seen as a mutant offshoot of the Big 2's insistence that the characters supersede the creators in importance.  If we aren't immediately associating Bill Finger with Batman, but some nebulous corporate entity that also owns TV, the news, the internet lines, AOL, Jerry Seinfeld, Bugs Bunny, and Six Flags...  it may be that Time Warner is simply big too see the contours.

Within that sphere, DC Comics is a very, very small piece of the pie.  Prior to ownership by the WB, it was actually part of a company that owned parking lots and funeral parlors.  I'd argue that even within DC Entertainment, its likely DC Comics is a smaller piece of the pie than you'd think, as licenses for t-shirts, toys, coffee mugs and the production of animation and movies is, ultimately a much bigger business per dollar than product sold more or less exclusively through whatever the hell the Direct Market is in 2012.

So, of course Watchmen is a very big, red, shiny cherry sitting atop the not terribly impressive business pie of DC Comics.  It literally changed the model for the market for comics.  Not only has it lent credence to the idea that "comics aren't just for kids" to superhero comics for 26 years (enabling the industry to morph into the high-priced market aimed at folks with their own income that it is today), it's been in print longer than many comics readers have been alive, which also means that for many of the 22 year-old's picking up Before Watchmen, the significance is part of a continuum that exists before they were born, almost how its hard for many folks to understand the evolution of film over the past 100 years (when everything not from just three years ago is "old").

The Contracts

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signed a deal that, much like Alan Moore and his Watchmen contract, did not anticipate the big changes their creation would enable.  There was no way Siegel and Shuster could know that their adventure strip character, Superman, would become one of the most enduring icons across the planet for 75 years when they sold the concept for $130.

Similarly, nobody in Western comics has seen a comic that stayed perpetually in print when Moore and Gibbons signed off on the deal stating that when publication ceased, rights would revert to them.  The idea that Watchmen would not just be an important comic from a story perspective, but would essentially change comics couldn't have been anticipated by anyone.

Was either contract baloney?  No.  In fact, Moore's contract was very fair for the time, and, whenever you want to cite the fact that Moore was basically using the Charlton characters, he didn't actually use the Charlton characters.  He made up his own so that he would have the freedom to tell the story we've all enjoyed for so many years, and in order to one day own the characters.

It's important to keep the creators' intentions in mind, and I think its pretty clear that one thing that separates Moore's book from Superman is that Superman was clearly intended to be an ongoing serial, like Buck Rogers, Prince Valiant or even Jungle Jim.  Watchmen was only intended to be a stand alone volume, with the possibility for a sequel only occurring should the creators have an idea they thought might work.

It's the basic difference between a movie and a TV show.

Using Other People's Things

Batman, I'm sorry to report, was not dreamed up by Bob Kane one day as he ate a sandwich on a park bench or whatever his terrible self-mythologizing would have you believe.  He was a mix of what was going on in pulp fiction in Pre-War America.  Batman is basically Guero Zorro, the Shadow in bat-mask, The Bat from the silent 1926 film, and a handful of other references.  Hell, something was in the Zeigeist, because in June 1939, The Black bat appeared in detective magazines.  And he looks terribly familiar.

Instead, Moore himself has made the argument incredibly muddied with his use of existing characters, though characters that had fallen into the public domain.  His excellent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is, of course, a team book featuring a handful of public domain fictional characters from Dr. Henry Jeckyll to Mina Harker and Captain Nemo.  And who can forget Lost Girls, Moore's foray into pornography featuring Alice of Alice in Wonderland, Wendy from Peter Pan and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

Arguably, Moore's work in Lost Girls is a transformative commentary on both the original works and what he was trying to say about the nature or eroticism, the early 20th Century in Europe and sexual roles, and in that, I give it more of a pass.  Its more difficult when we begin talking about LOEG and the characters of that series who are being used in a new context, but cannot be seen as glyphs or suggestions of ideas.

I do want to swing back to this idea, because clearly Dorothy Gale as she appears in Lost Girls bears little relation to the intentional use of Dorothy in the Baum-penned Oz tales.

It's also worth mentioning that things were different in 1938 as they were different in 1986 as they are different today when one considers the contracts, ownership of intellectual property, etc... vis-a-vis, what we knew then versus what we currently know.  That is, if we have the ability to learn from history, which, in point of fact, is not much of a demonstrable phenomenon.

In 1938, it was not unreasonable for Siegel & Shuster to believe they'd have a feature contained within the pages of a publication called "Action Comics" which they'd run for a while before the company or magazine folded and they'd move on, likely to their next thing.  By 1986, we'd been through multiple lawsuits by Siegel and Shuster, seen folks like Bill Finger pushed to the sidelines, and the factory system of making comics looked far more like television production and the army of personnel that moved on and off of a show than a book, or even a small film.  The use of owned characters was a known issue, and certainly in the mid-80's, Moore and Gibbons would have been at least a bit aware of what they wanted.  And what they intended.

Watchmen was to be a self-contained work, a Great Gatsby, not an episode of Dukes of Hazzard.

In the next few decades, we are going to start having serious new conversations about trademarks and copyright.  This year Universal Pictures celebrates 100 years in the business.  Soon, it will be Disney and others.  We're entering a brave new world where machinery is in place to perpetuate trademarks and licensed characters.  The logic behind the copyright arguments that we've considered solid for our nation's history may be deemed insufficient by the companies and their lobbyists, and even for the public, who rarely has reason to think about these things and would like to imagine their spawn living well off of their own creative ideas.

Will Superman take a place alongside Robin Hood, King Arthur and other legends somebody wrote down somewhere at some point, but which are now part of the popular imagination, or will WB and the Siegel heirs still be wrangling for ownership in 2312?

What we do know is that its still only been 26 years for the Watchmen characters.  They are not part of the public imagination like Alice Darling, even if we can point to the author just as readily.  I'm not certain that's here or there, but it is worth noting that those works are, legally, free and legal.

And, in a completely different way, DC's efforts with before Before Watchmen are also completely legal.

Which leaves us with...


The intent of the creators.  The intellect which blew wind into the sales of the ship and pushed it free from the bay and into the sea of the public consciousness.

I take this idea fairly seriously.  Perhaps its taking too many film classes which leaned too hard on Auteur Theory in an industry that lives entirely upon cooperative creative effort.  Its hard not to see how Watchmen was different.

Moore and Gibbons might have started their story as a pitch for the Charlton heroes after DC's acquisition, but wisely turned the product into something else, something not immediately recognizable and identifiable and lugging around a history.  It may have been riffing on the ideas, but, as we say, so is Batman.  So is Superman.  So is Perseus and Hercules and King Arthur and name a story.  For that matter, name a movie where, if you dig deep enough, you can't trace the progenitor, the influencing item, and then the predecessor to the movie in books or stories.  This is how we tell stories.  And its part of why, when something comes along that uses those parts and shakes things up about how we think about things, that book or movie or play or comic book is important.

No doubt Paul Levitz, logical and calm Paul Levitz, knew that to touch Watchmen was to court rage, disappointment and scorn well after the shine of the first sales washed away.  The sequel rolled into place by the studio without the original creative team becomes a tribute band, not the original.

Dave Gibbons may have taken the money and continued employment as a comics artist and run, but that barely means he's endorsed the project.  Where are the Dave Gibbons covers and art?  And we all know where Alan Moore stands on the subject.

We talk about directors in film because we understand what the difference is between directors with a vision (even on their worst day) and the stuff we watch where it never occurs to us look up the director's name on IMDB.  We know why we care about Martin Scorsese and mourn what happened to the Star Wars prequels.  In television we point to the few visionaries like Matt Weiner or Norman Lear or even a Dick Wolf, but nobody really cares much about who made Falcon Crest.

We look for those people who can bring a point of view and seem to speak to us as closely as when there's little between us and the author of a book as they bring us characters, worlds and ideas.

In comics, though, we've warped the idea.  We get excited when Grant Morrison comes on Batman, but we neglect his work at Vertigo or elsewhere.  And that's fair to an extent.  We all want star players on our favorite franchise teams.  We all want to see them go to the play-offs.  I want Grant Morrison on Superman and I gnash my teeth knowing DC is handing Superman to Scott Lobdell in the coming months.  DC and Marvel created vast fiction networks which counted on the input of a sea of easily replaceable parts, finding in the 60's that they could now count of imaginative fanboys with more enthusiasm that business sense, and its been hell to pay for a lot of those guys ever since.

The 00's were about rotating writers on and off books every 6-12 months.  A story arc or two, and gone, hoping for the best, but forgetting that this isn't a 12 issue limited series in which we can set the beginning, middle and end, this is the same series that will pick up the week after the writer leaves with someone else writing, who didn't read your work and maybe isn't even all that familiar with the character.  Nobody owns or defines the character, nobody gets to say they got to put a stamp on the character, and we can say we got this or that big gun to give the book a run.  But by 2007, it was clear that model had gutted the books of meaning as readers drifted from characters and to writers, knowing that the stays were always to short to mean anything.

In Watchmen we had a single vision.  The book avoided the cacophony of voices with input, and I know Chris Roberson has been quoted as far and wide as USA Today discussing Before Watchmen and saying it has a beginning, middle and an end, and that's the package, but I agree with the man.  The work was singularly that of hired gun Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons (who, in notes about the work, makes it clear Alan Moore was intensely specific about what should appear in each panel).

We know everything about the story that Moore wanted us to know, and its the most important superhero comic of since Peter Parker got bit by a radioactive spider, that we need to know.

What breathed a world into Watchmen was not the flashy art of Adam Hughes.  The panel structure and dialog that younger readers seem to find so off-putting isn't just emulating the 3-panels per page format of manga getting generated as fast as possible, but a 9 panel grid which challenges the readers, traps them into a schedule, a moving train, page after page.  Just as much as the management of tension, pacing and visuals in a scene, and maybe the odd platinum blonde were all hallmarks of the work of Hitchcock.


So what do we value about the comics?  Our ability to have found a medium which has never quit producing  the slurm we crave, so long as we show up each Wednesday at the shop?  or do we actually do as we say and value the work of the creator?  Appreciate not just the work, but their intention around the work?

If someone went mad and made Maus pajamas, would you buy them to have more of the Maus experience?

Of folks working in comics, it kills me that I won't pick up the lastest work from Darwyn Cooke.  And it kills me a little bit more that he took the project on.

But in the end, I'm not picking up the book, even out of curiosity.  Its simply not going to get a sale out of me.  I can't ignore the cynical move by DC to play smoke and mirrors with the sales figures and put off the inevitable replacement of the leadership team now that the shine if off the New 52 and the sales figures are back to where they were about two years ago (and falling).

The author doesn't want a prequel to his book, so, to me, the math is simple.  I'm not participating.  In many ways, its fan fiction or an unauthorized sequel.  Its Watchmen for the comics fans who are afraid of not being a part of the summer cross-over event (you'll survive, I promise), or who are really looking for new ideas for their CosPlay at Austin Wizard World.

Look, if Paramount came forward and said "Francis Ford Coppola is in no way involved, and he's frankly pretty mad, but Al Pacino says its okay, so we're making a Godfather prequel written by the guy who did Battleship, which was a neat looking movie", I have no doubt a lot of people would show up because they liked those other Godfather movies.  But no way in hell would I pay to see that movie.  Nor would I show up if it were even someone I think makes good pictures like Steven Spielberg. At the end of the day, its about what money can be made off of name recognition generated by that author.

Dorothy Gale may have found her creation in the pages of a Baum book, and made her way into several more, but (thanks in no small part to a movie from WB, interestingly), she's been permanently set free, is part of the lexicon and icons of western literature and culture.  She's been co-opted and redefined and made into however many more movies.  Copyright free and clear, I guess, Dorothy has moved on, and, really, its the idea of the Kansas farmgirl with an overactive imagination (and libido) that Moore exploits.  He's counting on the working knowledge of the man on the street to understand who this Dorothy is and the allusions Moore makes in Lost Girls to illustrate his point.

But it still very much muddies the debate from a certain point of view.

As of this fall, I genuinely feel as if DC Comics would rather folks like myself not be their customers.  As of the announcement of Before Watchmen, I'm certain I'm not wanted.   This isn't local government.  Sticking around and paying them is not paying taxes and entitling you to a voice.  Its enabling behavior with which I don't agree.  And so, no money for DC on this one.  Or much of my money anymore, anyway.

I am certain the writers and artists on these books will try very hard.  I am also certain that it doesn't matter. At best they'll provide a bit of entertainment, the equivalent of one of those extended universe Star Wars novels that, no matter how good, aren't Empire Strikes Back or the battle at Yavin IV.  Life is too short, my bank account is too low, and there's simply too much stuff out there that was produced with better intentions.


horus kemwer said...

Nice, insightful post. I was particularly intrigued by this idea:

"In a way, that sort of sense of entitlement/ fan ownership could be seen as a mutant offshoot of the Big 2's insistence that the characters supersede the creators in importance."

The League said...

I am just thrilled my comment box isn't filled by furious fans of "Before Watchmen".