11 June 2012

The Disingenuous Arguments of Alan Moore

I began reading comics in the early 1980s, right before DC Comics published Alan Moore's Watchmen. At the time, I had never set foot inside The Great Escape and my reading list consisted only of comics based on cartoons and toys already familiar to me. Later, when I expanded my reading into superheroes and began reading Wizard, I learned of the peculiar Moore who towered over the industry. Every month, Wizard ran a list of the Top 10 Writers and Top 10 Artists. Moore was almost always in the writers list, represented by a photo that conjured Charles Manson. As Lady Caroline Lamb would have said, Moore appeared to be "mad, bad and dangerous to know."

Moore's penchant for controversial, edgy content and his infamous cantankerousness built a reputation for him as one of the genuine artistes of his era. He gave few interviews, and whenever he could be quoted about anything at all, he often used the opportunity to express his disdain at the comic book industry, its non-discerning readership and the decline of civilization as we know it. He had a particular bee in his proverbial bonnet over DC Comics, best summarized on the following sub-section on Wikipedia's Watchmen page:
Watchmen #1 of 12
Disagreements about the ownership of the story ultimately led Alan Moore to sever ties with DC Comics.[62] Not wanting to work under a work for hire arrangement, Moore and Gibbons had a reversion clause in their contract for Watchmen. Speaking at the 1985 San Diego Comic-Con, Moore said "The way it works, if I understand it, is that DC owns it for the time they're publishing it, and then it reverts to Dave and me, so we can make all the money from the Slurpee cups."[10] For Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons received eight percent of the series' earnings.[8] Moore explained in 1986 that his understanding was that when "DC have not used the characters for a year, they're ours."[3] Both Moore and Gibbons said DC paid them "a substantial amount of money" to retain the rights. Moore added, "So basically they're not ours, but if DC is working with the characters in our interests then they might as well be. On the other hand, if the characters have outlived their natural life span and DC doesn't want to do anything with them, then after a year we've got them and we can do what we want with them, which I'm perfectly happy with."[3]
Moore said he left DC in 1989 due to the language in his contracts for Watchmen and his V for Vendetta series with artist David Lloyd. Moore felt the reversion clauses were ultimately meaningless, because DC did not intend to let the publications go out of print. He told The New York Times in 2006, "I said, 'Fair enough,' [...] 'You have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.'"
Cut to present day. This past week, DC Comics began to roll out several Watchmen prequels. Fans and creators alike have balked at the very idea as being blasphemous. By what right do they take Moore's work and treat it this way? It's one thing to keep the collected edition in print so as to avoid allowing Moore to reclaim legal ownership of the characters he created, but to then pimp it out like this for a shameless cash grab is morally sickening! I'm paraphrasing, but a quick search of the Internet should turn up lots of remarks consistent with that summary.

Except there are two problems with Team Moore's argument.

Firstly, let's go back to the early 1980s. Moore is kicking around an idea for a story he might tell using a pre-existing group of superheroes. He settles on MLJ Comics's Mighty Crusaders and even begins sketching out the story opening with the murder of The Shield. In 1985, DC Comics acquires Charlton Comics and editor Dick Giordano is trying to find something to do with these newly acquired characters. Moore begins to adapt his Mighty Crusaders story, now proposing to tell it with the Charlton characters. In an interview with Jon B. Cooke, Moore explains the hook:
The story was about super-heroes, and it didn't matter which super-heroes it was about, as long as the characters had some kind of emotional resonance, that people would recognize them, so it would have the shock and surprise value when you saw what the reality of these characters was.
Ultimately, the decision was made by Dick Giordano not to tell this story using the Charlton characters but it was not Moore's choice to create new characters for what became Watchmen. At no point did it bother Moore that he was going to set out to do as he pleased with these characters that DC Comics had legally come to own. He didn't cry foul at the transfer of ownership to DC and how the various original creators had been left out in the cold. Instead, he intended to murder one of the characters and run the rest through the mud just for the sake of telling the story he wanted to tell.

Lost Girls, Book One
Since leaving mainstream comics altogether and going indie, Moore has written numerous books but the two most notable are The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls. Now without an editor to stand in his way, Moore resolved the dilemma of Watchmen by pilfering characters from Victorian era literature in the public domain. His League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a sort of super-team of literary characters such as Allan Quartermain, Dr. Jeckyll, The Invisible Man, Captain Nemo and Mina Harker. Lost Girls is a work of erotic fiction in which Dorothy Gale, Wendy Darling and Alice (of Wonderland fame) are at a hotel during a storm and reminisce about their sexual adventures dating back to their respective youths. Perhaps H. Rider Haggard and Robert Louis Stevenson might have been open to Quartermain and Jeckyll sharing an adventure, but it is almost impossible to believe that L. Frank Baum or J.M. Barrie would ever have signed off on their characters from children's literature appearing in what amounts to highbrow pornography!

Here is just a partial list of creators whose characters Moore has treated as he pleased, just in those two works:

  • J.M. Barrie (Wendy Darling)
  • L. Frank Baum (Dorothy Gale)
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter)
  • Lewis Carroll (Alice)
  • Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes, Professor Moriarty)
  • H. Rider Haggard (Allan Quartermain)
  • Sax Rohmer (Fu Manchu)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde)
  • Bram Stoker (Mina Harker)
  • Jules Verne (Captain Nemo)
  • H.G. Wells (Hawley Griffin, The Invisible Man; Professor Cavor, The First Men in the Moon; the Martians from War of the Worlds; Dr. Moreau)

Lost Girls has not been published in the United Kingdom, where the estate of J.M. Barrie retains legal ownership of the Peter Pan characters. Moore lost no sleep at night using the character created by someone else, nor did the legal matter dissuade him from using her in his story. He didn't even bother to substitute an alternate character in clearer legal standing. He simply did as he pleased, accepting that his work could not be legally published in the U.K.

For Team Moore to now decry DC Comics's Before Watchmen prequels as an affront to creator rights is disingenuous at best, if not outright hypocrisy. Watchmen itself was originally conceived as a story using characters created by other writers and artists and Moore himself has shown no regard for the work of others, mining characters from works for his own purposes whenever it has suited him. Were it not for Dick Giordano, several Charlton writers and artists could have been added to the above list of creators whose work was not respected by Moore. How can he defend his practice of stealing and telling stories entirely outside what most reasonable readers suspect their creators would ever have approved? Because the creators are dead and their characters are legally fair game.

If Watchmen had been conceived as a story of original characters, and if Moore's bibliography were not full of characters taken from the works of others, he could claim an artistic high ground here. But he was forced into creating new characters for Watchmen and has justified The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls (among others) on the basis of the legal standing of the characters, with no regard whatsoever to the perceived intent or desires of their creators. It is shameful for him to now cry foul that new stories are told about characters he didn't even want to have to create on the basis of their being legally owned by DC Comics.

2 comments:

  1. I definitely agree with you on this one. It's tough to cry foul when you're out doing the same thing that you're crying foul about. That said, from a reader standpoint I'm not all that interested in Before Watchmen. The story felt pretty complete at the end of the original book so the impetus to check these new ones out is pretty low.

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    1. Oh, I wouldn't have signed off on Before Watchmen either for that very reason. Moore's original story was so thorough and complete that I just don't see much room for interesting storytelling. If this was a sequel, maybe I could see more potential. About 80% of the original story was comprised of flashbacks and telling the story of the characters' past. Whatever gaps are left to be filled cannot possibly be all that large or meaningful. As a reader, I have no unanswered questions about these characters for Before Watchmen to address.

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