“And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things.” – Terry Pratchett
Given the history of Watchmen, what are the ethical implications? Why are we as readers, journalists, creators, or publishers to be concerned with the controversy at hand? These are questions that veer into the philosophy classroom of an undergraduate requirement, but that doesn’t make them any less necessary.
The facts of the case make it clear that Moore and Gibbons were mistreated and their work used in an objectionable manner, albeit in very different volumes and manners. We have to consider what impact this has beyond the agreement between two men and a corporate entity.
The conversation surrounding Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, DC Comics, and Watchmen is ultimately about creators’ rights. When we question the rights and wrongs of what has occurred, we are asking whether the people who made something were treated fairly. That was how the conversation was framed when Watchmen was first being published in 1986 too, as noted in part one. The conversation surrounding creator-owned comics and publisher’s mistreatment of creators has existed in a very similar fashion since Watchmen.
Accepting what was done to Moore and Gibbons provides tacit acceptance of the mistreatment of creators. DC Comics sold the creators a bill of goods about their ownership of the property and touted that same concept to readers upset with Marvel Comics’ treatment of Jack Kirby. They then went back on their promises the moment that action seemed profitable. If we embrace the continuing breaking of that promise, then we endorse the publisher over the creator.
Before Watchmen, Doomsday Clock, and similar controversial projects are all constant reminders of how publishers have taken everything from the people who created their intellectual capital. They continue to profit, while individuals who invented all of the the ideas making their money are left with broken promises and, possibly, a royalty check. The ongoing reminders of these incidents serve as warnings to current creators that they should not expect support or good faith if they want to own or control what they create in corporate comics.
So it can be no surprise when creators look to flee comics for more reliable paychecks or better-regulated media. Comics has little to offer and the success stories are exceedingly rare. Taking complete control is beneficial in the short-term to publishers like DC Comics, but in the long-term it is a destructive force. You need look no further than the past 30 years within the direct market to realize that.
Depressing the Future
This one incident exists as a single brick in a long wall which has slowed progress in the comics industry. It is no coincidence that the same direct market model and domination of two publishers in 1986 remains today. The most significant growth in comics sales over the past 30 years has occurred within the bookstore market and much of that comes from manga. Meanwhile, the direct market and superhero comics remain a niche within entertainment culture.
Knowledge of what happened with Watchmen serves as an alarm bell for aspiring artists. It’s an indication that even the most successful creators in American comics are often left without control or respect. When DC Comics is continuing to promote Doomsday Clock 30 years later, and the Kirby estate must sue to have his name attached to films of his creations, why would any person want to join this fray? Conversations about why the direct market is in trouble spiral without resolution because there is never meaningful change. Instead publishers pimp their old sins as the big comics event of the year. The direct market of comics has failed to grow significantly since 1986, instead comics remain a relatively minor source of entertainment when compared to most other media in America like film, television, and novels.
Impact on Others
There’s also the question of how this impacts individuals involved. It is relatively easy to demonize DC Comics as a faceless entity, but the decisions made at the publisher are made and carried out by individuals. The original “marketing materials” were labeled as such in order to cut out the creators by an individual at DC Comics. Issues of ABC Comics were pulled and pulped by specific editors. Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock were created by individuals who knew the history of Watchmen. All of these actions are committed by people.
The most obvious example of this is the long list of talented creators who elected to work on the sequels and prequels to Watchmen. Those involved did not have to be dredged from the outskirts of comics; they were popular creators not dying for work. Darwyn Cooke, Geoff Johns, Brian Azzarello, and Amanda Conner, among many others, all chose to help the proud tradition of superhero publishers taking the work of creators without acknowledging those creators’ wishes or interests. It’s a choice and one that shouldn’t be ignored, even as we consider the largely positive legacies of departed creators like Cooke or Len Wein. Others like J. Michael Straczynzi have made it clear they acknowledge the problem, but simply do not care: “Did Alan Moore get screwed on his contract? Of course. Lots of people get screwed, but we still have Spider-Man and lots of other heroes.” There’s no excusing this mistreatment of another artist or the active endorsement of publisher over creator.
Involvement with this history is a stain on individuals. There is no excuse to be made about orders or the pay. The people involved with these decisions understood the history and, far worse, knew the people they were harming. Continuing to aid this battle against the rights of Moore and Gibbons, and to purposefully do the opposite of what they wished with their creation, is not morally acceptable under any circumstances.
Acceptance as Failing
Even if all the above arguments were null and void, there would still be something wrong. Even if DC Comics’ actions had not harmed the creator’s rights movement, or helped the direct market to stagnate, or encouraged others to debase themselves, then they would still have harmed two individuals.
Nothing corrects the lies offered by DC Comics to both Moore and Gibbons or the comics’ public. Nothing corrects the money they stole through technicalities. Nothing corrects the mistreatment of the work.
In spite of how much money and acclaim Watchmen brought to DC Comics – how much money and acclaim Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons brought to DC Comics – their response at every turn has been to do the wrong thing. It does not matter how wide-reaching the consequences of those choices are, the choice itself is bad enough to be condemned.
The complete series:
Part Two: The Impact