On Wednesday, DC Comics rolls out the Before Watchmen campaign with new titles serving as back stories to Alan Moore’s landmark graphic novel Watchmen. Of course, this new campaign has been met with mixed reaction. Some consider it a shameful money grab by DC and sacrilegious in general. How do you top or expand upon a story that has clearly defined boundaries and changed the conversation about comics?
Others, including the large number of professionals involved with creating the comics, have no qualms whatsoever about taking Moore’s creation and redefining it. Since Moore doesn’t own Watchmen anymore than Bob Kane owns Batman or Schuster and Siegel own Superman, Watchmen is fair game. Basically, if writers can continue to reinterpret and redefine icons like Batman or Superman, the Watchmen world should be explored too.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that art and commerce are at conflict again. In a world where comic books are becoming less relevant than the movies adapted from them, major publishers like DC must continue to explore money making ideas to remain relevant. Unfortunately, DC is showing a clear lack of vision by constantly re-imagining and revamping their brand.
Don’t get me wrong. From a business standpoint, Alan Moore lost his say in these matters the moment he went to work for DC. He had an arrangement that allowed him and Dave Gibbons to assume rights to Watchmen if it ever went out of print, but that only showed that Moore has very little business sense.
If you wish to be the master of your destiny, you must endeavor to fully realize all aspects of your work, which includes negotiating or controlling your rights in a more shrewd manner. Moore, a man with unquestioned intellect and creativity, is smart enough to know this. Since DC is a business, they should never be trusted to do the right thing by their writers and artists. That’s just how moneymaking corporations works.
However, DC cannot see the forest for the trees because the Before Watchmen campaign dilutes and cheapens their brand. What they’re doing is akin to taking the Hope Diamond and cutting it into smaller diamonds. You may squeeze more stories out of Watchmen, but they stand little chance of comparing to the source.
Scorn for these sort of practices have been bubbling up into the collective consciousness as of late. Tim Marchman, author of Worst Comic Book Ever! , a compelling and controversial review of Leaping Tall Buildings, does a masterful job of questioning DC’s business practices from a moral or ethical standpoint.
It’s hard to disagree with Marchman’s take on DC’s wisdom in this matter. Despite being coolly received by many of the creators involved in Before Watchmen like J. Michael Straczynski, Marchman doesn’t take his argument far enough.
At the crux of this problem between making money and producing art, DC has forgotten that you must continue to innovate in order to succeed commercially. They may have moved into the information age by releasing digital comics and developing social media strategies, but that is only half of the solution.
A good start would be putting an emphasis on developing new stories and characters outside the DC universe, much like they do with their Vertigo imprint. Their continued emphasis on characters they own begs the question of how many (insert favorite DC character here) stories can be told before no one cares?
Talents like Moore created some of DC’s most innovative stories while working on material geared towards the Vertigo approach. Despite Moore and company taking other minor DC characters to reinvent, the characters they chose had little history to begin with and hadn’t been reinterpreted or revamped multiple times.
Moore wrote a finite story with Watchmen characters like Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan, leaving readers with the indelible impression that there was significant density to the dimensions of these characters. His precision focus on their roles within the context of the story says all that needs to be said about them. Any attempt at reimagining or revamping them makes too many assertions and assumptions about what or who these characters are and chips away at their essence.
Moore took these obscure characters and fast-tracked them up the evolutionary scale, leaving very little room for any future stories of substance. Can you imagine somebody else trying to write a prequel to The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s? Not even George Lucas could do that with his Star Wars universe in a way that was meaningful. Frankly, it’s preposterous that DC thinks it can successfully do that.
Like Dr. Manhattan said, “Nothing ever ends.” That includes DC continuing to recycle old ideas in hopes of making new money.