February 9, 2012

Theft, Homage, or Just Business?

Sometimes, a piece of genre fiction is just so damned good, it forces the snobs in the wider world to take notice. 2001 is recognized as not just a great piece of science fiction, but as a great film. Likewise, Watchmen, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is such a landmark in that genre that it gets props from those who would never otherwise dare to talk of superheroes and comic books.

Which doesn’t mean it exists outside the demands of commerce. Earlier this month, DC Comics announced it would release a series of “prequel” issues, several for each of some of Watchmen’s main characters – Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan ,and Rorschach, for instance – none of them written by Moore or with art by Gibbons. The artist, at least, is on board:
The company has also enlisted the blessing of Gibbons, a move that should mollify many fans. ‘The original series of Watchmen is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell. However, I appreciate DC's reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire,’ he said in his statement.
As for the writer, Moore? Yeah, well, not so much:
Mr. Moore, who has disassociated himself from DC Comics and the industry at large, called the new venture ‘completely shameless.’

Speaking by telephone from his home in Northampton, England, Mr. Moore said, ‘I tend to take this latest development as a kind of eager confirmation that they are still apparently dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago.’
He went on to explain that he didn’t want money, what he wanted was for the prequels not to happen.

I can understand Moore’s position. After all, when you create something and see it as a whole work, and later on somebody comes along and adds to it, it must chafe a little bit. Still, does Moore really have any basis upon which to get pissy about it?

One of the writers involved in the prequels is J. Michael Straczynski, of Babylon 5 fame. He makes a very good point about Moore:
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, Jekyll 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.’
Indeed, the characters of Watchmen itself did not spring from Moore’s brain fully formed. They were based on characters DC had acquired when it purchased a defunct competitor, Charlton Comics. Moore took them and twisted them beyond recognition, but still, he wasn’t exactly writing on a completely blank slate.

Moore has an answer for Straczynski:
In literature, I would say that it’s different. I would say, and it might be splitting hairs, but I’m not adapting these characters. I’m not doing an adaptation of Dracula or King Solomon’s Mines. What I am doing is stealing them. There is a difference between doing an adaptation, which is evil, and actually stealing the characters, which, as long as everybody’s dead or you don’t mention the names, is perfectly alright by me. I’m not trying to be glib here, I genuinely do feel that in literature you’ve got a tradition that goes back to Jason And The Argonauts of combining literary characters [...] It’s just irresistible to do these fictional mash-ups. They’ve been going on for hundreds of years and I feel I’m a part of a proud literary tradition in doing that. With taking comic characters that have been created by cheated old men, I feel that that is different.
On the one hand, I see Moore’s point. Writers, and other artists, have pilfered past works for their own creations since the beginning of time (well, right after the beginning of time), after all. And, as a writer myself, I like the idea of other people keeping their hands off until I croak. On the other hand, that sounds more like a rule of etiquette than a hard ethical precept. Let’s face it, once the original creator is dead, he or she is much less likely to complain about appropriation.

In the end, it’s all moot. Neither Moore nor Gibbons control the legal rights to the work, sadly. Which means that DC is free to do whatever the hell they want to. Given the nature of the comic book industry, with its endless series and countless reboots, getting some other big names to play in that sandbox is hardly a unique move.

So let’s hold off until we see whether they fuck up the legacy of Watchmen. And how badly.

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