“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner
It’s easy to make assumptions when you spend most of your day reading, writing, or thinking about comics. You take for granted elements of history or knowledge about publishers and creators or general oddities of the industry in America. Assumptions are inherently unfair though. They assume someone else possesses the same background or has worked through the same ideas as you. Entering a controversy with assumptions like this can make it impossible to reach a consensus, and there’s a consensus to be reached about a current comics controversy. That controversy can be clearly stated as:
DC Comics’ has spent three decades screwing over Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Doomsday Clock is one more unpardonable addition to the mistreatment of creators who fundamentally shaped the publisher.
That’s a big proclamation, and for fans of DC Comics or Watchmen it deserves to be explained. More importantly it deserves to be explained thoroughly and with good will assumed, rather than as a blistering attack on readers looking for a good read based on what they already enjoy. That’s the intent of this collection of columns.
I’m writing to explain why Doomsday Clock is a pretty fucked-up endeavor. This, and the three connected pieces (linked at the bottom of each), will lay out the argument instead of jumping to the conclusion. In a media landscape that’s getting increasingly divisive, angry, and strident, this may be an issue we can all reach a consensus on, but only when all the points are made clear.
Let’s start by taking a look at the history of Watchmen, DC Comics, and Alan Moore. This is a summary of 30 years of bad blood, a CliffsNotes version of history that has been previously covered by great folks like David Brothers, Heidi MacDonald, and a whole lot more. It should provide us with everything we need to know to start this conversation.
The Watchmen Deal
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons didn’t need Watchmen in order to make them successful. When Watchmen was published, both men were known quantities that DC Comics and readers were willing to follow.
The concept for Watchmen originated in 1985 with Moore as he pondered a murder mystery using existing characters that would challenge both the superhero genre and comics medium. Originally, the idea was to use MLJ Comics’ Mighty Crusaders, but when DC Comics purchased the Charlton characters, the story was retooled into a concept titled Who Killed The Peacemaker. This plan was scrambled by DC Comics editor Dick Giordano who didn’t want to see the recent acquisitions made impossible to use due to a variety of reasons including death, committing genocide, and being made into rapists. So the decision was made that rather than repurpose existing characters, this concept would utilize new ones created by Moore and his collaborator.
It was at this time that Gibbons became involved. After hearing about the idea for a mini-series, Gibbons’ reached out to Moore who sent him an outline of the story. Watchmen continued to evolve, and Gibbons helped to design recognizable characters. Colorist John Higgins was later brought aboard, and both Giordano and Wein were designated as editors who have admitted to simply staying out of the way.
In the midst of planning the series, both Moore and Gibbons recognized they did not want to create an original work under their standard work-for-hire contract. The characters, world, and story of Watchmen were all unique ideas that the collaborators recognized as originating with them, so they petitioned for a reversion clause within their contract. In essence, that clause stated that once Watchmen went out of print for more than one year, its ownership would revert from DC Comics, the publisher, to Moore and Gibbons, the creators.
The deal was struck with the assumption that DC Comics would be capable of making a hefty profit while allowing the creators of Watchmen to maintain both a financial interest and long-term control of the property. This wasn’t simply a behind-closed-doors victory for the pair either. Ed Brubaker recalls, “In that summer, DC touted Watchmen as a victory for creator’s rights.” This came just as Marvel Comics faced increasing pressure to return original artwork to Jack Kirby after defrauding their most important founder for decades. And this is where context becomes increasingly important because the idea of a comic remaining in print for five years, let alone thirty, was simply unheard of in 1986.
Moore, Gibbons, and DC Comics all accepted the contract and presented it as one that was meant to enshrine the value and rights of comics creators.
The Success of Watchmen
And then Watchmen became one of the most commercially and critically successful comic books ever created. All of us can check which printing(s) of Watchmen we own. It can be found in every comic book store and most major bookstores across the United States today. While it might not be quite the license to print money that a property like Star Wars or Harry Potter is, it’s the closest superhero comics has come since the 1940s.
That success provided an opportunity for DC Comics, and they translated it as a chance to wring as much cash from the property as possible. In addition to reprintings of the original issues and multiple printings of the original collection, the publisher also began to create merchandising from Watchmen. Badges, a smiley face watch, and portfolios were all produced for fans of the series. The contract signed by Moore and Gibbons entitled them to a portion of all revenue from merchandise – so DC Comics claimed these items were promotional. Rather than being given a fair share from each watch or badge, the creators of the series received nothing.
It also soon became clear that the popularity of Watchmen meant the series would never go out of print. That fact became even more final recently as markets changed and the notion of digital publishing made it even easier for a corporation like Warner Brothers to follow the revision clause with no chance of the properties ever reverting to their creators. Moore realized his position well before digital comics were invented though, and he chose to leave DC Comics in 1989.
Reflecting upon his decision to depart today, Moore cites a variety of causes, but stresses the meaningless nature of the revision clauses for both Watchmen and V For Vendetta as the core of his choice. Moore reflected in 2006 that upon leaving he thought, “You [DC Comics] have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.”
The Return of Alan Moore
Moore did not leave DC Comics for good in 1989, though his choice to return was not entirely voluntary.
Moore founded America’s Best Comics’ as an imprint of Jim Lee’s Wildstorm in 1999. It was under this banner that he created League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with Kevin O’Neill, Tom Strong with Chris Sprouse, Promethea with J.H. Williams III, Top 10 with Gene Ha, and Tomorrow Stories. Only after he and his collaborators had struck their initial deals with Wildstorm on many of these projects was Moore made aware that Lee was selling the publisher to DC Comics.
Given a choice between abandoning these projects and his co-creators in order to avoid working at DC Comics again and staying, Moore chose to stay. No matter how often the writer is characterized as being unreasonable, in this instance he chose to work for a publisher who had already acted in bad faith in order to stand by artists and friends.
It was helpful that DC Comics provided Moore with new promises and expectations to guarantee his return. First and foremost of these promises was that there would be no editorial interference. ABC Comics would be printed and published just as they would have been if Moore’s original agreement with Wildstorm had remained intact without the sale to DC Comics.
Perhaps more remarkably, Moore became involved with plans for a 15th anniversary celebration of Watchmen at this time. An hour long video was created for the DC booth at San Diego Comic Con featuring interviews with Moore and Gibbons about the project, and both creators gave their blessing for a recolored edition of the comic and some potential new merchandise. It briefly seemed as if DC Comics was mending the ill will of an entire decade of bad faith, until things fell apart once more.
The Burning of Bridges
DC Comics broke their promise to avoid editorial interference on multiple occasions.
In Tomorrow Stories #8, Moore planned to tell a story that dealt with L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology (a notably litigious cult). The story was discussed with the legal team at DC Comics and some alterations were made in order to avoid any potential risks. Even after the changes were made though, DC editor Paul Levitz still elected to pull the issue.
It was at this point that Moore’s willingness to work with DC Comics ended. His involvement in the 15th anniversary celebration of Watchmen ended immediately and the planned collectible line was killed. He continued to work, but only on his own properties and assuming bad faith on behalf of his publisher.
The second moment of interference may have been the root cause of Moore leaving both most of his ABC Comics’ creations and DC Comics forever. A decision was made to pulp the entire run of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen #5 due to the inclusion of a vintage ad for Marvel Douches. The destruction of so many comics seems to have also destroyed any good faith remaining between Moore and DC Comics.
The results of these two incidents were bad enough to have been called sabotage, which is fair, even if the botched outcomes weren’t entirely purposeful. Further involvement by the publisher – including a failure to include a recording with The Black Dossier and the firing of Steve Moore from the Watchmen novelization – proved to be the final straws. Following these interactions Moore left DC Comics again, this time for good. He retained ownership of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, while the remaining ABC titles all remained at DC Comics as per the contracts Moore and his collaborators signed with Lee and Wildstorm.
In spite of overtures and financial offers, Moore has remained away from DC. In response, DC Comics elected to create additional comics about Watchmen without the involvement of Moore or Gibbons. Before Watchmen was a publishing initiative composed of 9 mini-series or one-shots and a total of 37 issues. It featured many of the most talented creators working at DC telling the stories of what came before the events of Watchmen.
Gibbons’ response to the initial announcement in 2011 was somewhat gracious, noting that Watchmen is a complete work and wishing the other creators well. Moore called out the publisher for being unexceptional and shameless, pointing to his moral contempt for the project and those involved. Neither creator wished to be involved, and DC Comics appears to have had no concern about their wishes.
The Doomsday Clock
Upon the initial release of Before Watchmen, there was a great deal of genuine controversy. Even after decades of steps too far, this project felt like a genuine step too far. Well-regarded comics critics like Chris Mautner, Tom Spurgeon, and many others all pointed to the ethical disaster of the initiative and the moral bankruptcy at DC Comics. Yet the coverage at many mainstream comics sites pushed the comics as hard as any other published by DC Comics.
And here we are again, 5 years later, on the precipice of another expansion of Watchmen printed against the wishes of its creators after more than 30 years of doing the wrong thing. This time writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank intend to write a sequel to the original story. They will write new words into the mouths of Moore and Gibbons’ creations, explain what happens after the purposefully ambiguous conclusion of Watchmen #12, and merge the story of Watchmen with mainstream DC Comics. Not only will there be more Watchmen, but there will forever be an open door for future creators to write more stories featuring these creations. They have taken the short initiative (and insult) of Before Watchmen and made it forever starting with Doomsday Clock #1.
That’s the history of Watchmen. This is the narrative. These are basic facts of what has gone on so far.
Now we have to question what it means.
The complete series:
Part One: The History