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
“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
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
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.