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Alan Moore’s Watchmen Feud With DC Comics, Explained

Doctor Manhattan has been manipulating the DC Universe since Flashpoint, and the godlike Watchmen protagonist’s hand has dramatically shaped the lives of Batman, Superman, the Flash, and more. All of this is unlikely to sit well with Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore, if indeed he muster, at this point, the outrage to object.

Moore has been a vocal critic of DC’s handling of Watchmen, notably regarding the 2009 film adaptation by Justice League director Zach Snyder and the 2012 prequels under the Before Watchmen banner. But the conflict goes much deeper.

With the arrival of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock #1 this week, which begins a twelve-part epic (mirroring in structure Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original) that will see Superman face off directly against Manhattan and Ozymandias, it’s time to review a grudge thirty years in the making.

In the Beginning

Moore had previously enjoyed a solid working relationship with DC, notably reinventing Swamp Thing as part of a celebrated run with the character and establishing, along with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Peter Milligan’s Shade the Changing Man, a “mature readers” niche at DC Comics that would later blossom into the Vertigo imprint. He also provided a send-off for the pre-Crisis Superman with the two-part “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” which remains, by many accounts, one of the greatest Superman stories ever told. Other acclaimed one-offs and shorts include “For the Man Who Has Everything” in Superman Annual #11 and “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” in Green Lantern #188, both illustrated by Moore’s Watchmen partner Dave Gibbons, and the still-controversial Batman: The Killing Joke with Brian Bolland.

In 1983, DC acquired the heroes of Charlton Comics, including Blue Beetle, Peacemaker, the Question, Captain Atom, and others. Many of them appeared in Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s epic Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985-86, although the multiverse-spanning opus only briefly introduced these new faces. At some point Moore pitched a grand story that would have rocketed these characters to enduring fame — and rendered them unviable for future stories in the process. Managing Editor Dick Giordano suggested Moore make up new characters instead.

And that is how Watchmen came to be.

At first, it appears that all sides were pleased with their arrangements. Moore and Gibbons’ contract with DC for Watchmen included a reversion clause that would return ownership to the creators if the characters were not used for a year, and DC paid them “a substantial amount of money” to retain the rights until that time. At a UK convention appearance in 1986, as reported at the time by The Comics Journal, Moore told the audience, “if the characters have outlived their natural lifespan 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.” His contract for V for Vendetta, with artist David Lloyd, would have similar verbiage, which is not unusual for the publishing industry.

But there’s a problem: Watchmen became an unprecedented hit.

In 1985-86, very few comic book storylines enjoyed any kind of longevity. Trade paperback collections were not unheard of, but were far from the norm, and even these were not likely to stay in print for more than a few years. When he agreed to the terms, Moore could have very reasonably expected to regain control of Watchmen by the early ’90s. But with Watchmen‘s critical and commercial success, DC was not going to — and almost certainly will not ever — put the book out of print.

And so, around 1989, Moore vowed never to work with DC again. Recounting his resignation to the New York Times in 2006, Moore recalled, “I said, ‘Fair enough, you have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.'”

America’s Best Comics

Moore did return to DC Comics a decade later, albeit circuitously, as well as begrudgingly. Moore had been working regularly with Rob Liefeld’s Awesome Studios, but as the ’90s waned so too did Awesome’s fortunes. The writer struck a deal Wildstorm, then an imprint of Image Comics, to create a new universe of heroes to be illustrated by his Awesome artistic partners to ensure they continued to receive steady work. But Wildstorm owner Jim Lee sold his company to DC Comics in 1998, and with it the freshly-minted America’s Best Comics. CBR’s Brian Cronin recently explored this drama in more depth, including an explanation as to why DC owns Tom Strong but not League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

While Moore was unhappy that his checks were ultimately being signed by DC, he gained assurances that he would receive no editorial interference from the publisher. But then DC pulped the entire first printing of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen #5 because it contained a genuine early-20th-century advertisement for “Marvel Co.” douche, which then-DC Publisher Paul Levitz felt was too antagonistic toward the House of Ideas. A Tomorrow Stories tale critical of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was also spiked for fear of legal action.

This meddling in his domain led Moore to drop his support for Watchmen‘s 15th anniversary celebrations, and DC ultimately cancelled planned action figures, as well, despite having already shown prototypes at San Diego Comic-Con.

Moore concluded the America’s Best universe, to his satisfaction, with an apocalypse in 2005’s Promethea #32. DC has, however, continued to publish new stories with some of the characters, especially the Tom Strong family, who are due to appear in the forthcoming The Terrifics. Meanwhile, Moore took League to Top Shelf and UK publisher Knockabout Comics, where it remains.

At the Movies

The point of no return would come, though, thanks to a cascading series of misadventures seeing his work adapted to film. Moore was not creatively involved with 2001’s From Hell, based (loosely) on his and Eddie Campbell’s Jack the Ripper story, but remained generally ambivalent about the movie. 2003’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, though, caused Moore problems beyond the Sean Connery vehicle’s being an inexcusably poor representation of his book with Kevin O’Neil; a lawsuit against Warner Bros. compelled Moore to testify for ten hours that he didn’t create the graphic novel as a way for the studio to plagiarize the litigating writers. From then, he asked his name be removed from film versions of his work, including V for Vendetta and Watchmen, and his film royalties instead allocated to the artists who co-created the comics.

The breaking point with DC, though, came when V for Vendetta producer Joel Silver said in an interview leading up to the film that Moore was excited for the movie. Moore described this as “a flat lie” to the New York Times. The Times reported that Moore contacted his DC Comics editors to demand their parent company offer a full retraction of Silver’s remarks, which he felt made him look “duplicitous,” having already sworn off cooperating on films. Perhaps predictably, no retraction was forthcoming, and so ended Alan Moore’s career at DC Comics. Later, the relationship was further strained by what Moore saw as underhanded dealings regarding the Watchmen film and merchandise, and Dave Gibbons’ role as a go-between for the publisher.

After Levitz, Before Watchmen

While DC Comics owned Watchmen, the publisher did not attempt to spin off or cross over the characters for more than 25 years. There may have been both contractual and political reasons for this; while the contractual aspect may remain a mystery, it’s certainly clear that Moore would not have approved new Watchmen stories, except perhaps for his once-planned Minutemen series with Gibbons. So there would be good reason for DC not to dip into the Watchmen well in order to keep their author happy and perhaps get the next grand literary epic out of him. But after the collapse of ABC, what stopped them?

Popular wisdom has it that a big reason was DC executives, up to and including Publisher and President from 2002-09 Paul Levitz, who were said to have acted as a bulwark against encroachment into Moore and Gibbons’ masterpiece. (For what it’s worth, there was also rumored to be a similar “gentlemen’s agreement” with Neil Gaiman over the use of his Sandman characters, which DC also owned; though the Dream and the Endless were used very occasionally, Gaiman would be consulted.) But when Levitz left the role in 2009 and parent company Warner Bros. took a more active interest in its comics publishing division, things changed quickly.

Overtures were made to Moore, of course. “They offered me the rights to Watchmen back, if I would agree to some dopey prequels and sequels,” he told Wired in 2010. “So I just told them that if they said that 10 years ago, when I asked them for that, then yeah it might have worked. But these days I don’t want Watchmen back. Certainly, I don’t want it back under those kinds of terms.”

So instead, DC moved ahead without him.

Before Watchmen was announced in February 2012, and Moore was not pleased. He called the initiative “completely shameless,” and summed up his position as “I don’t want money, what I want is for this not to happen.” As the prequels approached publication, Moore added, “If people do want to go out and buy these Watchmen prequels, they would be doing me an enormous favor if they would just stop buying my other books.”

The prequels, a total of 37 issues spread across six miniseries and a one-shot, ignited significant controversy among fans, the comics industry, and the literary world. Despite DC recruiting some of the biggest names in comics, a roster that included Darwyn Cooke, J. Michael Straczynski, and J.G. Jones, Before Watchmen failed to make much lasting impact on the cultural consciousness. The miniseries sold decently, but the collected editions never attained anything close to the staying power of the original.

The Will of the Creator

Who is “right,” in this conflict? According to Moore, lawyers have assessed his Watchmen contract as extremely “creator-hostile,” which would appear to conflict with his and Gibbons’ contemporary assessment that DC gave them “a substantial amount of money” — but this is not necessarily the case. It’s possible that the publisher indeed “successfully swindled” Moore even as they were offering him a hearty payday — he wouldn’t be the first comics luminary to fall victim to a predatory contract; it’s also possible both parties entered the contract in good faith, but the landscape of the industry changed beneath them, due in no small part to Watchmen itself.

It’s hard to say for sure, without knowing the contents of the contract or the conversations that went into shaping it. But it’s perhaps worth noting that, whatever the terms, Moore agreed to them, and for long time afterward DC bent over backwards to respect his wishes as they related to Watchmen. Moore is a giant of the medium, and one might think he could move past one (or even two) ill-considered agreements. But, as he told the New York Times in 2006, “It is important to me that I should be able to do whatever I want. I was kind of a selfish child, who always wanted things his way, and I’ve kind of taken that over into my relationship with the world.” His unbending sense of right and wrong has not only led him to break off relations with DC and Marvel, but has also strained his relationships with many artists he’s worked with through the years, including Bolland, Lloyd, and, most recently, Gibbons. There’s something admirable in holding fast to one’s principles; but there’s also a cost.

Moore’s uncompromising genius in undoubtedly part of what’s allowed him to create such enduring and important works as Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the rest. His creative vision is unparalleled, as evidenced by the lusterless prequels that tried in vain to follow in his footsteps. And it is right and just for a creator to feel ownership of his creation — especially when the work is of such magnificence. His admirers, too, want the work to remain untarnished, pristine as the author intended.

But since Moore does not, in fact, own Watchmen, Before Watchmen was an inevitability, and a crossover like Doomsday Clock was only a matter of time. After 30 years of grievances, DC and Moore are unlikely to mend fences. Fans will have to assess for themselves the value of legal and moral rights, and choose whether to follow Rorschach and crew into Doomsday Clock or look down and whisper, “no.”

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