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Who's Watching The Watchmen? Even Prestigious Comics Are Just Grist For The Entertainment Mill

If you want to pintpoint the moment when American comics began their ascent from juvenilia and kitsch, the 1986 release of Watchmen from writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons is a good place to start. The complexity and sophistication of the story and art were stunning (and remain so to this day), especially considering how such a profound work of literature manages to reside so comfortably within both the artistic and commercial traditions of the superhero genre.

"Comics grow up!" screamed the reviews, long before such sentiments decayed into critical cliché. And it was true: since that moment, comics were taken more seriously as literature (and took themselves more seriously). Today it is uncontroversial to observe that important work is produced in the medium, reviewed in prestigious journals, sold to intelligent readers, and shelved in libraries and universities.

Unfortunately the artistic and literary maturation of comics has not been matched by a maturation of the business practices. The big publishers DC and Marvel are owned by entertainment giants Time Warner and Disney, respectively, and generally behave much more like Hollywood studios than literary presses when it comes to issues of talent management, ownership of intellectual property, and respect for the creative integrity of their products.

The most recent example of this tension within the industry was manifest in Wednesday’s announcement that DC Entertainment would be publishing "Before Watchmen," a series of prequels to the original series, despite the firm and consistent objections of creator Alan Moore.

DC is apparently within its legal rights to do so: the company agreed to transfer ownership back to the creators once the work went out of print, but it never has. DC management gave assurances to Moore and Gibbons at the time that the work would not be inappropriately exploited, and for a quarter century, they abided by those terms. On Wednesday, Moore and Gibbons discovered the truth in the old saying that a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

But let’s leave aside the issues of law, ethics—and taste, for that matter—that DC’s announcement raises and consider the implications for the business.

First and foremost, DC is making clear to the world that it considers even its most prestigious properties to be commodities in the entertainment marketplace: nothing more or less. It’s fine to talk about Watchmen as a literary work, but please don’t confuse Moore and Gibbons’ arrangement with DC with the rights that, say, J.D. Salinger had to prevent Little, Brown and Company from commissioning a prequel to A Catcher in the Rye when none was forthcoming from the reclusive author. Creators who want control of their creations can take their chances with small presses or get better agents.

In a business where there is such a direct connection between brand-name creative talent and commercial success, this is a peculiar message to send. DC and Marvel have been recycling characters and stories that have been around for more than 50 years in many cases, even going so far as to couch relatively new and original concepts under the names of characters they already own to avoid prospective IP entanglements with creators. You would think they’d want to create incentives for originality as a way to broaden readership, but clearly they are most interested in milking their cash cows dry.

The other big head-scratcher here is the potential damage to the lucrative Watchmen brand. George Lucas didn’t do the Star Wars franchise any favors by doing the prequels, but at least they were his to play with, and even George Lucas’s failures come with nine zeroes attached. With Watchmen, when you let other people play with the toys, they are no longer mint-in-box and may be permanently tarnished as a result.

Sure, an impressive roster of industry professionals has signed up work on the prequels, but the downside likelihood of disappointing the audience is huge—especially an audience that may already have the knives out because of the ethical issues at stake. It’s also important to note that people’s affection for Watchmen is based on the tour-de-force nature of work itself and not necessarily the characters, which makes the franchise a bit more fragile than, say, Batman, which can obviously survive a little bit of rough treatment now and then.

Is it worth so much reputational risk to the company, the brand, the franchise and the creators to undertake a project with such an uphill chance of success? The fact that DC’s management believes the answer is "yes" should tell you something about the state of their market, if not their state of mind.

Maybe the prequels will sell 3 million copies like the original did, in which case the doubters look like idiots and DC laughs all the way to the bank. Maybe they will even be artistically successful. But it seems highly unlikely that anyone will point to this episode as evidence that comics have "grown up," either creatively or as a business.

[Image: Flickr user CEBimagery]

Rob Salkowitz is author of Young World Rising: How Youth, Technology and Entrepreneurship are Changing the World from the Bottom Up. His new book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, will be published by McGraw-Hill in 2012.