Whenever DC decides that they aren’t done squeezing more out of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal work, Watchmen, there comes a furious debate over what is ethical and creators’ rights. Our former colleague Chase Magnett did a beautiful job explaining why it was wrong of DC to exploit Watchmen in his “The Case Against Doomsday Clock” series. We pissed off readers with our own bait-and-switch “review” of Doomsday Clock #1. However, at the end of the day, it couldn’t be denied that the story itself was pretty damn good, though the use of the Watchmen characters remains a questionable decision. The same arguments were heard about HBO’s Watchmen series, and yet that ended up becoming one of the most profound and important pieces of comics-related media ever produced. So with those histories, how are we supposed to react to DC’s announcement of a new Rorschach limited series from writer Tom King and artist Jorge Fornes?
The truth is, there is no right or wrong answer. That may seem like a cop out, but there are valid arguments regardless of which side of this issue you stand on. The original deal struck between Moore, Gibbons, and DC would see the rights revert back to the creators when the book was out of print for more than a year. In 1986, such a deal was unheard of, and it would have been a boon for creators’ rights. However, Moore and Gibbons were also gambling that their work wouldn’t be too commercially successful. As we know, Watchmen was an overwhelming success. Unfortunately for Moore and Gibbons, their book was so successful that it has never gone out of print, which means that DC has continued to retain the rights. Obviously there is more detail and nuance to the situation, but those are the board strokes of the situation.
How you feel about more Watchmen material is bound to vary by person. I myself am conflicted on the matter. Overall, I tend to side with Moore in that DC should by now have allowed the creative rights to revert back to Moore. As it stands, the publisher has done everything reasonable you could think of with the property (I’m still waiting for a full “Saturday Morning Watchmen” cartoon) with mixed results. Keep in mind, the characters of Watchmen are essentially Moore and Gibbons’ versions of already established characters. Surely Tom King could have told a 12-issue, trauma-based story using The Question instead of Rorschach.
The difference that Rorschach presents compared to these other works is that it purports to put itself directly in the world of Moore and Gibbons’ book. Whereas Before Watchmen was inconsequential world-building and Doomsday Clock used the characters to explain the messy continuity of the DC Universe proper, Rorschach is set within the future world of the original comic book. Tom King has tried to convey reverence to the original by describing his book as “a very political work” and “an angry work”. Damon Lindeloff was upfront in stating that the HBO series would take place after the comic, but would also build off the story and take its themes in a different direction. That approach resulted in HBO’s Watchmen being arguably one of the most important pieces of media in recent years. So while King’s words may be a fitting description for the HBO series (and why it worked so well), that doesn’t necessarily ring true to the 1986 comic.
Moore and Gibbons’ book is first and foremost a deconstruction of superhero tropes. It pokes fun at the genre’s conventions while attempting to seriously examine how the existence of such characters would impact the real world. Therefore, Moore and Gibbons’ work comes from a place of love for these classic storytelling conventions – not anger or disdain. The political themes present throughout Watchmen are the result of their storytelling approach. And while the political climate of 1986 does indeed inform some storytelling decisions, it is not the main driver of the story. The story’s antagonist has an isolated lair with a nefarious worldwide plan, but Moore and Gibbons flip the script by having him not want to rule the world, but to have other countries set aside petty differences and work together for a better tomorrow. The creators took a classic convention and completely twisted it around.
Since Jim Lee has taken the reigns as sole publisher of DC, he’s made some difficult but praiseworthy decisions. Ideally, I’d like to see him do another one and push the company to allow Moore and Gibbons the rights to their own work. But until that day comes, I can only hope that Rorschach ends up in the same vein as the HBO series. However, Tom King’s own words don’t inspire confidence as they seem to misunderstand Moore and Gibbons’ seminal work.