Saturday, June 02, 2012

Before Watchmen: A Dissenting View

The big tempest in the tiny teapot of the comic book world is DC's new Before Watchmen program, which has press-ganged some of the biggest names in comics to create mini-series based on the stars of the original Watchmen maxi-series from 1986. Given that the paperback collection of Watchmen still sells thousands of copies every year (it's the Dark Side of the Moon of the funnybook ghetto), such a move was inevitable.

DC tried for years to get writer Alan Moore and artist David Gibbons to do their own sequel, but Moore felt cheated by a clause in his contract that guaranteed the rights to the book would return to him after the book went out of print, seeing that it's still obviously very much in print, more than a quarter-century later.

But in DC's defense, the contract was written during the creator-cuddly Jeanette Kahn/Dick Giordano regime (if someone told me that Kahn herself gave all her freelancers backrubs when they dropped by, I wouldn't fall over in shock) and given the realities of the market back then --and Moore's cultish appeal-- there was no reason to expect that A., Watchmen would be anything but just another (floppy-based) cult hit for Moore and B., would ever be part of the industry's aggressive bookstore program, because such a thing didn't really exist at the time.

But the real issue is that Alan Moore doesn't want anyone to adapt his work. This doesn't just apply to comics; he's always good for an extraordinarily articulate anti-Hollywood screed (and an actual curse often thrown in for seasoning) whenever someone decides to adapt one of his comics, as they did with From Hell, V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and indeed, Watchmen itself (which I much prefer to the comic).

That's what the real issue is here-- it's about Alan Moore the auteur, the great bard who elevated the lowly comic book from utter disrepute. Before Watchmen is like painting a Groucho mask on the Mona Lisa.

There's only one problem: Alan Moore's oeuvre is one of the most nakedly derivative bodies of work I can think of for an artist of his stature.

Now, let's be absolutely clear: I love Alan Moore's comic book work. I do think he's one of the greatest writers in the history of the medium. I think his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books are hands-down the greatest comic book works in the superhero/fantasy-adventure medium, and are easily the rival of the best fantasy novels as well. He may not be as prolific as he once was, but he's still got it; 1969 wasn't the best entry in the series but it kicks the shit out of anything else out there.

But let me hand it over to J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5 creator and comic book superstar) who had this to say in The Hollywood Reporter:
The perception that these characters shouldn't be touched by anyone other than Alan is both absolutely understandable and deeply flawed. As good as these characters are – and they are very good indeed – one could make the argument, based on durability and recognition, that Superman is the greatest comics character ever created. But I don't hear Alan or anyone else suggesting that no one other than Shuster and Siegel should have been allowed to write Superman. Certainly Alan himself did this when he was brought on to write Swamp Thing, a seminal comics character created by Len Wein.
Leaving aside the fact that the Watchmen characters were variations on pre-existing characters created for the Charlton Comics universe, it should be pointed out that Alan has spent most of the last decade writing very good stories about characters created by other writers, including Alice (from Alice in Wonderland), Dorothy (from Wizard of Oz), Wendy (from Peter Pan), as well as Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Jeyll and Hyde, and Professor Moriarty (used in the successful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).

I think one loses a little of the moral high ground to say, "I can write characters created by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Frank Baum, but it's wrong for anyone else to write my characters."
I'd throw in Simon and Kirby (First American is a blatant Fightin' American clone), Will Eisner (Greyshirt=The Spirit), and Jack Cole (Splash Brannigan=Plastic Man). There's also the fact that Tom Strong is a blatant Doc Savage clone and Promethea is obviously Moore's take on Wonder Woman (Moore doesn't even bother to hide that her nemesis the Painted Doll is the Joker).

Then there are all the Lovecraft rewrites, including the X-Files/Lovecraft fanfic of The Courtyard and Neonomicon. Now, Moore might be able to justify all of these "tributes" by pointing out that the authors he's rewriting are long dead, but what about the alive-and-well Chris Carter?

Doggett and Scully search for Muld...oh, wait.

It's blatantly obvious that the (tall, thin, dark-haired) FBI agent "Aldo Sax"who specializes in the "Twilight Zone" cases in The Courtyard is Mulder  (Sax Aldo=Fox Mulder) and the (sexy, skeptical, strawberry-blonde, pictured wearing a ginger wig in case you didn't get the hint) agent who is sent to find out what sent him over the deep end in Neonomicon is Scully.

Do you think Carter appreciates having his characters portrayed as a virulent racist and an inept sex addict (who ends up being repeatedly raped by one of the Lovecraftian aliens), respectively?

Now don't get me wrong: I enjoyed these books quite a bit but I didn't complain when reviewers dismissed Neonomicon as an X-rated X-Files parody. But what it confirms is a long-established pattern of Moore taking the work of other writers and using it as a template; a basis for which he can project his own interpretations of the characters. There's nothing wrong with that per se, especially in the hands of a writer as ingenious and prodigiously creative as Moore. It's a tradition that goes back a very long way.

But if Carter might not appreciate Moore's Mulder and Scully, what would L. Frank Baum, J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll make of The Lost Girls, which Moore proudly labels as pornography? Of course, it's a toss-up with Carroll but I would say that authors have the right not to have their pre-adolescent characters recreated as sex-mad harlots, whether they were alive or dead.

I won't pretend for a second that Moore's gives two shits about what I think, but he's pissing a lot of fans off, even if the elites continue to toe his line.

But given the rising skeptic/atheist virus that is sucking all of the creativity out of Geekdom, you would think Moore would want to fly the flag more responsibly, not only for heretical thinking but for the concept of a strong and autonomous creator, something that is dying away in genre entertainment.

I get the very strong impression Moore doesn't care about any of that, though. He's always seen comics fandom the way you or I would see dogshit on our shoes. If they all see ritual magicians as total cranks because of Moore's actions, it's all the same to him.

But in many ways Before Watchmen is a troubling symptom of the collapse of creativity in what should be a raging hothouse for ideas.
Comics are so cheap to produce and the Internet has made them accessible to a larger audience than ever before, but a generation that has been so aggressively socialized as the Millennials (with some brave and notable exceptions, mind) seem absolutely terrified to make its own mark. They're perfectly content to remain consumers, since producing something like Watchmen means you have to step away from the herd and break the rules, something very few of them are willing to risk.

DC held out for a long time out of respect for (if nothing else) Moore's reputation, but with the bookstore market in tatters and nothing like Watchmen, Dark Knight or Sandman in the pipeline, they have no choice but to tap the well once again. I don't expect any of these books to have anything like the same impact but they'll do well if they avoid another Dark Knight Strikes Again debacle.

But Fandom loves its costless self-righteous outrage, so anytime a creator and a publisher come to blows, you know whose side they'll take. I have no dog in this fight, other than the fact that I think Moore's behavior is reinforcing some negative stereotypes that have done tremendous damage to the cause of creativity in pop culture.

But then again, maybe it's much too late to worry about that anymore.


  1. "But in many ways Before Watchmen is a troubling symptom of the collapse of creativity in what should be a raging hothouse for ideas."

    That is the real issue of Before Watchmen. Alan Moore is a brilliant, eccentric creator, a genius even, but he is just one man. The fact that the comic book industry has been rewriting, rebooting, and reimagining -- and deconstructing! -- the same things over and over again is a sign of decadence and decay. Mainstream comics are destroying themselves, the "creators" and "fans" are only too happy to participate in that destruction.

    Before Watchmen is a symptom of a much larger problem.

  2. I'll belay opinions on "Before Watchmen" until I actually read them.

    From my own point of view, Moore is absolutely correct on Hollywood's inability in almost any way adapt to his work without issuing a watered down, debased, tainted product that reeks of the decision by boardoom that dilutes art you so often speak to.
    Almost every film made of his work is a pile of shite.
    The Watchmen adaptation had some redeeming moments, it captured very well certain themes and motifs from the comic book, but by and large was a confused and disjointed affair; unable to hold together a coherent, structured narrative.

    It was a bad movie.

    I can see where you're coming from here, Chris; but as a previous poster mentioned, this is just one Kansas prairie outhouse getting sucked up into the gaping vortex that is the unholy sucking machine draining the imaginal worlds into the dimension of corporate blandity that secretes colourless pap - ceaselessly regurgitated, ov er, and over, and over - that we are fed, and told baldy it is a "creative act."

    It is not.

    The process at work is merely our partial perspective of the digestive process of a blind, mewling monolithic creature that smothers us, and is at work consuming our creative will, and us.

    While Moore's work can be seen as largely derivative (whos' isn't,I ask?), it has been chiefly involved with breathing new life into characters ostensibly vital, but who are mostly dessicated nods to their legacy, and that of their creators.
    The reason that D.C. brought him over was because they recognized the imagineer he is, and what he could do with a character.
    Moore actually does what corporate machine constructed entertainment can only pretend to: make new the old, and give them a future life in the imagination of the reader.
    He wasn't, and isn't derivative, but rather is ressurective of what has become staid and moribund.

    I know damn well that many other creators out there can do the same, and are not as lauded as this revered funnybook wordsmith.
    But since he's chiefly the topic here...

    Or rather, Moore the Icon is.
    Crisis of representation, anyone?

    Generally, I believe Moore is right on the corporate maulings of his work, as they lack the key ingredients that make creative art, you know; creative?

    Alan Moore is what Jack Kirby is to you for many, many readers.
    And this issue is only representative of a much, much deeper issue here; one whose dimensions are of faultline proportions.

  3. Joe Straczynski speaks truth to power once again. He is absolutely, utterly right.

    Alan Moore has created some of the most memorable comics of the past half-century... but as JMS points out, many (almost all) of them are deeply derivative of someone else's original literary works.

    I appreciate Mr. Moore's talent, I respect a great deal of his work, and I can understand his dissatisfaction with the adaptations of his work.

    There is a simple solution: Just DON'T SELL THE RIGHTS.

    There's no reason Moore could not establish his own imprint and publish direct to readers and control the intellectual property, adaptations and merchandising.

    Chris, I also think you hit upon one of the great contradictions of modern comics:

    Comic properties have achieved a level of popularity and success that would have been astounding 20 years ago. And yet, comic sales, at least of mainstream properties, have plummeted compared to 20, 30, 50 years ago.

    When I was a teen reading X-Men in the 1980s, each issue could be expected to sell 250,000+ copies; any title that sold less than 100,000 copies was ripe for cancellation. The mighty Bat and Kal-El sold nearly half a million copies of each title.

    And now? If a title sells 30,000 copies, it is considered a major success! It is almost impossible to find a comic book outside of a dedicated comic book store or B&N.

    Many of the kids and teens (and adults) flocking to Avengers, X-Men and Thor movies have never actually read a comic book. What is wrong with this picture?

    For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Mighty Marvel and the Despairing DC have not embraced web publishing with original, free ecomics to engage the new generation of online readers. Penny Arcade, XKCD and others get hundreds of thousands of readers a month...why don't the mainstream publishers get younger readers hooked on comic books with freebies?

    Instead, they depend on a dwindling, graying audience that will someday go away. It seems that the major publishers exist now just to produce IP to be adapted into movies and Tshirts and action figures; it seems as if they regard actually creating comics as a necessary but distasteful burden. Truly sad.

    -- Bill Smith

  4. First of all, let me thank you guys for these absolutely brilliant comments- I can't tell you how encouraging it is to get this kind of feedback, especially after sweating blood on some of this stuff.

    But let me make a point I should have made in the piece proper- I totally agree with Justin that Moore is justified in condemning his work being mishandled by Hollywood, even if we disagree on Watchmen. But this isn't about Moore's stories being rewritten, this is about other writers doing exactly what he does all the time- what he did with Watchmen in the first place- and that's writing new stories based on another writer's characters. He cannot- he simply cannot say "do as I say, not as I do" and expect to stay on that pedestal forever. Maybe Joe Gill and Steve Ditko et al didn't appreciate what he did to their characters in Watchmen, did he ever consider that? I certainly understand Moore's complaints (and his problem with DC outside of Watchmen) but at the same time he can't play the game and expect to change the rules when it suits him.

  5. Bill, I think the publishers are trapped between a rock and a hard place- the retailers don't want them messing with the floppy format and the publishers certainly don't want to jeopardize the revenue stream they get from the direct market. It's a classic three legged race.

  6. Chris,

    I am fascinated by the works of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. The Eternals series woke me up in the last years of my high school. I believe they know how to code our minds with mind altering information in to their works. And the eros-sensual graphics only accelerates the experience and propel the mind into the abstract-verse.

    As for Alan Moore and his battle with hollywood its something that is out of my "care" of perspective. Let the creator do what he wills with his work.

    On the subject of sigil magick, I remember Grant Morrison's video presentation in the disinfo conference which also blew my mind; the fact that he made a sigil out of comic book which intern was noticed by him to bring to his life elements of the comic book to experience. Its like the chinese story of the magic paintbrush. Or the movie "stranger than fiction", Will Ferrell.

    I believe Alan Moore is really a 21st century magician. Crafted by the tensions of this time. He did serve us with his acts of magic. The movie Vendetta is a fine example of it.

    Enjoyed this post


  7. The problem is the Moore's present excessive embittered attitude has totally hardened him to any possibility that something decent could be made of his work.
    Shall have to wait and see if "Before Watchmen" proves him wrong here.

    There are various strange blind spots in his reasoning on certain matters. His vehement denial on Erik Davis' podcast not so long ago of Grant Morrison's thesis in "Super Gods" - of the superhero pantheon being analogous to gods and godlings, a continuation of an ancient tradition - and that such thinking is "facile," seems quite disengenuous.
    Moore also now hates the concept of the "superhero" and what it embodies for him (fascistic guardian class archetypes, something that you touched on before, Chris), despite his reminiscising on the magical properties of the old-time superheros that so attracted him to the narrative.
    There is doublethink there.
    He says, basically, "I hate all that the Nazi ubermensch - who wears his Y-fronts outside his pants - is, but, God!, did I fall in love with his magickal glamour as a kid."

    It's why I'd love to hear a Secret Sun Mystery Hour session with this venerated worshipper of Glycon and hopefully fall away from the fawning now inherent in almost any interview with the guy.
    I love his work, it hit me a like a lightning bolt when I first read him in 2000AD Future Shocks, no other comic creator affected my psyche as much as he, but some poisonous barbs may have to be extracted from old wounds to free up and derigidise [sic] certain thought processes he's fallen into.

    Anyway, good stuff, Chris. Let's question the man, and not venerate the legend.
    Too many fanboys are towing the party line without even thinking first, and reading the material in question beforehand.

    I was giddy as if the animated Taz had spun me round a few thousand times when I first heard about Zach Snyder's direction of Watchmen.
    I wanted it to be good, suspended my decision on its worth until I saw it, wanted it to be excellent, but left disappointed.

    Saying that, it probably is the best stab a Hollywood production has made of Moore's work.
    Certain key scenes were class.
    Ozymandias outside a night club (was it Studio 54?) with just as bizarrely costumed rock stars like Bowie and Jagger were superbly conceived.
    But many sterling moments didn't smooth over the multitude of minus points for me.

    Keep questioning the status quo, Chris.
    These legends need some prodding to keep them honest, and there's not enough of that now.

  8. Can anyone explain why the comic book industry committed suicide by turning comics into a niche product? What was the rationale for abandoning children and moving toward grittier, more adult themes? And doesn't the fact that all the blockbuster movies are using 50+ year-old creations from a more innocent age suggest that something vital has been lost?

    Alan Moore is a very creative guy, but as far as I'm concerned he's one of the chief culprits in the decline of comics as a mass medium. The only thing I can think of that could revitalize comics would be if some talented online creators got together, started a new universe and did something really fresh like Lee and Kirby did 50 years ago. I have no idea what their business model would be, but we clearly need a new universe that isn't just recycling old creations or is ruled by bean counters!

  9. But given the rising skeptic/atheist virus that is sucking all of the creativity out of Geekdom, you would think Moore would want to fly the flag more responsibly, not only for heretical thinking but for the concept of a strong and autonomous creator, something that is dying away in genre entertainment..." You already know how very much I agree with this statement...and like yourself, have publicly and privately endorsed Mr. Moore. I got a lot from and greatly appreciate this post and the previous comments Christopher. Thank you sincerely for the time and rigorous physical and mental effort you continue to pour into this topic at are making a positive, realistic, difference..."slow and steady wins the race." "...represents an escalating probability, which, if left unchecked..."

  10. Random thoughts here, and a disclaimer-I've only read LOEG by Alan Moore.

    Time goes by, we get older, we get grumpy. Welcome to the future, Alan Moore.

    Maybe porn comics are sex magic (and I haven't seen them) but you are doing all the work and you are limiting the readership- not the 9 to 99 crowd. Mom's not so likely to pick one up for the kids- not this mom anyway. Way to embarrass your kids.

    There is a big contingent of us out here that have seen the most exciting superheros of the past 15 years as pokemon or Totoro or the Cat Bus. Not so explosive or pushy, a little innocence left in the experience. Seriously, the Joker hasn't done anything for me since Adam West wore his unders on the outside. Life can be a ragged buzz, I'm happy to let Totoro be my hero.

    I'm hazarding a guess that South Park and Family Guy are like the Archies of the day, the all purpose funny books, the ones my kids still like to watch with me even though they are adults. Maybe video games ate the Superhero genre and 2012 blew metaphysics at everyone shotgun style.

    Jesse Moynihan has my favorite superheros right now. And I love Adventure Time too- it's funny and smart and has a bonded group of super good friends.

    Thanks as always for your thought provoking blog and for the responses that add so much.


  11. Dang, my previous post went into the pit of lost comments!

    Shortened version of random thoughts -
    Time passes, we get old and grumpy. Welcome to the future, Alan Moore.

    Porn comics based on children's books- way to limit your readership. Mom is not going to grab this one to take home from B&N. Besides, sex and violence- done to death, and it's a link up that creeps me out and isn't entertainment to me. My point- more limiting of audience.

    Japanese animation had the best fantastical heros I saw with my kids. Totoro- love him(it?)!

    Jesse Moynihan knows what to do with a superhero if you ask me.

    Thanks as always for your thought provoking work. Delorus

  12. I think it is important to note that a lot of Moore's statements don't read the same way as when he says them. The impression from the media is that Moore is going red-faced and mad over this, but it's actually that the internet press is exaggerating its importance in his life - which is really more concerned with his present projects and not so much with work he did decades ago or with what other people are doing with those characters he no longer wants anything to do with.

    He gives his opinion when asked, but if you can find the actual recordings or video of the interview, he's generally smiling about it and more or less not raging over it. It's obvious he'd much rather be talking about something else, but reading him, without his tone of voice, he sounds like a monomaniacal madman - which in large part is due to the attention he gets for this stuff.

    Really, his two best superhero stories are Miracleman and Watchmen and both - as well as his "final" Precrisis Superman tale "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" - were strongly inspired by the somewhat satirical but really pretty straightforward 70's superhero novel SUPER-FOLKS by Robert Mayer.

    The ABC line which gave us Tom Strong and Promethea really evolved from superhero stories Moore planned to use with Rob Leifeld's characters - SUPREME, GLORY and even the little known time-traveling superhero, PROPHET.

    In the end, Moore's superheroes, in their conception, are little different from anyone else's - he had some cool ideas and found a publisher he could work with... at least for a little while.

    Personally, I'm not all that interested in seeing what other writers would do with these characters. In fact, I'm far more interested in seeing the supposedly to be released PAX AMERICA story from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely which is essentially "what if Morrison had been given the Charlton characters instead of Moore?"

  13. I agree with your points regarding Moore's attitudes about his own comics v. the rewriting of certain characters and themes within new comics of his own creation. But as another individual who commented pointed out, if one does not want this done (movies made, fanfic, characters being used, etc), don't sell the rights.

    I note that Chris Carter hasn't sued.

    One point I'd like to make is that Alan Moore is a ceremonial magician and as I was reading this post one major theme kept coming to mind; though I can't comment on the pornographic comics themselves since I haven't read them, what I do find interesting is the "Babalon" theme which kept coming to mind as I read this... as in Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard.

    And note the "Neonomicon", though supposedly a parody with X-File's-like characters; a show with paranormal and the occasional occult themes...

    Alan Moore is doing more with these comics than meets the eye. I may have to find them and take a gander.

  14. Hey Chris,

    I'm a big fan of Moore and find much of his art and views to be extremely poignant, lucid and beautiful, but I also can't help but agree with the point you're trying to make here.

    After all, Moore is by his own admission a sometimes grumpy magician with a sizable ego. It's not really surprising to me that he'd fall prey to the 'do as I say not as I do' situation. But I'm sure there are many artists out there who could do justice to his creations, as well as artists who might fuck it all up. I don't think Moore really cares though, if his position ends up hurting him in the long run. But it doesn't take away from the truth of the point you're making in this post.


  15. My humble opinion is that Moore should realize this: A true Myth ought to be allowed to grow an expand beyond the view of its maker.

    For if you want to control the Myth, then it turns into something else: Dogma.

  16. "But given the rising skeptic/atheist virus that is sucking all of the creativity out of Geekdom,..."

    I've been thinking a lot lately about how the elites are/might be trying to control culture and societal memes....

    Right, so geekdom has been co-opted and commoditized by the mainstream, nothing shocking there... BUT... it would be a good move on the part of the elites to inject this atheism virus into geekdom. Our world is becoming more and more like a weird sci-fi movie. Who better to interpret it than "geeks?" Why not limit their ability to conceive of anything higher than our just being talking meat puppets? And thinking in terms of generations, when nerdy creative kids grow up they might create all sorts of weird, gnostic, mind expanding comics and books and movies. Why not try to take the edge of it by making them all atheists and by defining what it is to be a "geek?"

  17. "Why not try to take the edge of it by making them all atheists and by defining what it is to be a "geek?"

    My personal take is that the Geekosphere is divided between the atheist technocrats, who usually side with Star Trek, and the Mystics that like to play with their lightsabers ;)

    Which is actually absurd, really, since Star Trek explored the Religious question on numerous occasions and came up with equal number of incredible ideas to solve it. The 1st Star Trek movie, which is absolutely brilliant and pales any other subsequent effort to bring the Enterprise to the big screen, actually ends with the realization that Logic alone is not enough to unravel the ultimate secrets of Life and the Universe.

  18. Hey guys,

    the internet which brought us knowledge is putrefied. Nothing is new any more. It's boring.

    Where is the novelty that is promised???

    Have we consumed all of the creative fuel in our human psyche collectively? who will usher in the new universe?

    Just some thoughts