“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley
It’s unreasonable to present the history and ethics of this controversy without considering alternative points of view. This essay is written to make the point that both the treatment of the creators of Watchmen and the production of Doomsday Clock is unethical. However, in the interest of providing a complete assessment, the most common counterpoints must be raised.
These arguments are the ones most commonly seen when the controversy of Watchmen is raised and they are being presented in the best faith possible. While this is an attempt to refute the arguments, it is worth noting that they should not simply be considered straw men. While some individuals, like the publishers of DC Comics, have an interest in denying any wrongdoing, many who make these cases do so because they believe them to be true. There is an emotional or logical appeal within each of them, and they deserve to be considered fairly.
DC Comics Has Done Nothing Illegal
It is true that DC Comics has not acted illegally.
This is not an argument about what is legal though, it is an argument about what is ethical. While it can be argued that corporations cannot be bound to ethical notions or be expected to act for any motive besides profit, those precepts are at the heart of the problem being discussed. If we accept that DC Comics has acted legally but unethically, then the issue becomes how that rift may be resolved.
The longview of history provides plenty of examples of how corporations behaved legally and unethically. It also provides plenty of examples of how that behavior was changed through legislation, public pressure, and the actions of internal employees. We need look no further than the Fair Standards Labor Act (FSLA) that removed the legal use of child labor as young as 8 years of age following public outcry. Ultimately, the law is not a clear indicator of what is right and wrong, and is therefore beside the point.
Alan Moore Is An Imperfect Person
This argument takes many forms depending on whom you ask. Alan Moore has been characterized as vile, cruel, and arrogant by creators, critics, and fans at various points. Moore certainly has written deeply troubling comics and mistreated members of the media; those facts should not be denied.
It’s difficult to see how his perspective on Watchmen is any of those things though. He has always been very clear that his expectations were for DC Comics to live up to their end of the deal and, when they did not, he stepped away. He has refused profits from the film and ignored other financial overtures made by DC Comics. Moore has made his stance perfectly clear: “I don’t want money. What I want is for this not to happen.”
Yet a referendum on Moore’s character is unnecessary. His attitudes and behavior are a case of “whataboutism” that redirects the conversation from the topic at hand. No matter how any person feels about Moore, it does not change the facts regarding how DC Comics treated both him and Gibbons as creators.
Alan Moore Has Used Other’s Creations In His Own Comics
Alan Moore has accepted work-for-hire contracts in which he has used pre-existing characters, ranging from Miracleman (created by Mick Anglo) to Superman (created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster). In these scenarios, Moore has never argued for his ownership or control of the pre-existing properties.
He has also utilized popular fictional characters in works like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Yet this comic provides a dramatic contrast to Watchmen, as it utilizes works in the public domain. Novels like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were allowed to exist under the control of their creators and their estates for a considerable period of time before being made available to the public. In these examples, creators were given control of their works and when that changed, it was made so that they belonged to no individual corporation or group but the entire world.
There is also the transformative effect of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to be considered. Moore and co-creator Kevin O’Neill go further than adapting or providing sequels to the works they address. In their comics they create an entirely new world that both comments upon its Victorian influences and reshapes them to tell new stories with essentially new characters. A transformative effect falls within the boundaries of “fair use”. However, DC Comics creations in stories like Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock fall far outside this argument. They are not attempting to transform but clearly add as they state their works are prequels and sequels to the original.
Beyond all of that, this is yet another example of “whataboutism” in which this issue does not pertain to the wrongs committed by DC Comics. They are separate issues entirely.
Watchmen Is Not An Original Creation
The history of Watchmen detailed in part one should make it clear that the story and its characters were conceived for their own purposes. There was the discussion of using Charlton Comics characters in order to provide a shock to the audience as they recognized superheroes they knew involved in this horrifying plot. Some parts of those characters are clearly homaged within the story as well. Rorschach is the most obvious example, as he is used to comment on Steve Ditko’s characters, The Question and Mr. A, and his objectivist philosophy. The inclusion of homage does not void the act of creation though, and each of the characters of Watchmen are designed as unique figures.
If the concept of paying an homage to another character is enough to make a creation unoriginal, then we must apply that logic across the board. In this scenario, the Squadron Supreme (a Marvel Comics homage to the Justice League) ought to belong at DC Comics and Astro City (filled with homages to characters at both DC and Marvel Comics) ought to be divied out. Looking at these examples it becomes obvious that homage or inspiration are not the same as creation. All of these superhero stories, including Watchmen, are obviously original works.
Comics Is Filled With Bad Deals
This is the ultimate case of “whataboutism” as it points to how others have been wronged as an excuse for wronging two more people.
Didn’t Marvel Comics screw Jack Kirby out of his original art?
Didn’t DC Comics screw the Siegel and Shuster estates over any form of recognition?
Didn’t Bob Kane and DC Comics steal all of Bill Finger’s credit for creating Batman?
If the admission is that each of those actions is bad, then how does it follow that DC Comics screwing Moore and Gibbons is okay?
Ignoring that many of these examples, notably the Kirby and Siegel estates, have found some compensation through the courts, one wrong does not excuse another.
It might be easier to accept and ignore the long, ugly history of superhero comics, but that doesn’t make any of what has happened right. Straczynski pointing out that lots of other creators have been harmed by publishers might help him sleep at night, but it also makes him look like an amoral ass. When encountering skepticism about Doomsday Clock Geoff Johns appears to have confused an ethical dilemma with a double dog dare: “When someone says, ‘You can’t do that’ — I kind of want to do that.” If the rebuttal to what has happened with Watchmen is to point out another disgusting example of mistreatment, then the response is simple: Yes, that too.
None of what has happened with Watchmen is okay and none of what has happened with hundreds of other creations is okay either. That doesn’t resolve the issue, it simply makes responding to it all the more important.
The complete series:
Part Three: The Rebuttals