Monday, February 06, 2012

Watchmen On My Mind

In the wake of the announcement of 'Before Watchmen', the whole topic of Alan Moore and DC is weighing on my mind. (Not tremendously, or anything. I won't suggest that when they showed the Avengers trailer just before half-time during a very exciting Super Bowl, I sat there lost in ennui because Alan Moore doesn't have the rights to 'Watchmen'. But I've been thinking about it a bit.)

And mainly what I've been thinking about is the 'Watchmen' contract. Per Alan Moore's deal with DC, the rights to 'Watchmen' revert to Moore and Gibbons within 1 year of the original story going out of print. Everyone knows that this is a big part of why DC continues to promote a 25 year-old property so aggressively; they need to keep selling it to keep the rights in their hands. And everyone agrees that this is a travesty, a perversion of the spirit of the original contract. But at that point, everyone just sort of sighs and throws up their hands in despair.

Why don't we force the book out of print?

I mean, I don't think it would be easy. But I think that a concerted grassroots campaign to get local comics stores to stop stocking 'Watchmen' so long as it's being published by DC, with the understanding that Moore and Gibbons would be able to reprint the book once they're the rights-holders, could really put a lot of financial pressure on DC if they made the decision to try to continue reprinting the series just to keep the rights. There would still be a few high-profile national chains, like Barnes and Noble, who probably couldn't be persuaded through grassroots effort, but if the whole thing went nationwide, they might cave in just for the PR value. And while DC might go to some extraordinary lengths to claim the book is still "in print" ("We're giving away promotional copies to this charity! Still in print!") ...they're as vulnerable to bad press as the next person. If sales actually suffered, they might have to give in.

Of course, this is easy for me to say--I already have a copy of 'Watchmen'. But I'm guessing that most comics fans do too. I'm game if you are...


Voodoo Ben said...

Doesn't the fact that WATCHMEN is now available digitally basically mean that it can be kept in print in perpetuity at little or no cost to DC at this point?

RichardAK said...

In response to Voodoo Ben's question, I would assume so, yes. On top of which, even if every retail outlet were to refuse to carry it, they could offer to distribute copies by mail order. I don't know the details of Moore's contract, but unless the "in print" clause specifies a volume, they can run off a small number of copies at low prices to sell by mail-order (which can also be done on-line, of course) at a rate that would not be prohibitively expensive.

For purposes of historical comparison, the reason that Wonder Woman survived the end of the golden age when so many other characters, many of which were better written and conceived, did not, was that Marston had a similar deal with DC (or the company that became DC): stop publishing for a year and lose the rights. DC continues to hold the rights to Wondy to this day. I don't think they're going to give up the rights to Watchmen any time soon either.

Of course, I also don't have tremendous sympathy for Moore in this either. He created this story at DC's instance, and using characters who were very thin expies of the Charlton characters which DC already owned. If there's someone who's being abused here, it's the public, considering that more than 25 years after the story was published, it is still under copyright. Once, not all that long ago, 15 years would have been the limit.

Anonymous said...

If the contract didn't specify digital--and in the late eighties, I doubt it did--it may depend on who's got the best lawyers. Rights don't automatically transfer over to new technology: a lot of movies had trouble crossing to VHS because of rights issues with the new format (did the right to adapt a novel as a film also include the right to release it on video? Ditto the rights to popular songs used in the soundtrack).
I'm not so sure that most comic book stores would be going "Oooh, give up a steady seller and tell customers 'sorry, no can do.' It's a world of win!-Fraser

C. Carter said...


1) Don't say "expies." TVTropes cheapens things for everyone. Even if they're right. And they've cleaned out the "this troper..." nonsense. Okay, I like TVTropes. Just not the use of their terms to replace time-tested ones.

2) To say that the Watchmen characters are thin "pastiches" is inaccurate. Moore's Walter Kovacs is a painfully-introverted repressed homosexual coming from an abusive childhood, doing manual labor for a living and holding contradictory, incomplete historical views on the philosophies of major presidents. Ditko's Vic Sage is a blunt, occasionally tactless, frequently suave self-made, work-obsessed journalist. The common thread is a vaguely Randian worldview and the costume. Likewise, Charlton's Blue Beetle didn't have Nite Owl's mounting self-doubt and performance anxiety. The Silk Spectre was only SUGGESTED as a concept from Nightshade, but her powers and personality are dramatically different. Arguably, the relationship between Charlton's duo (Nightshade/Atom) and Moore's (Spectre/Manhattan) is much different. The latter is sexual, emotionally-complex, consummated in several ways.
Furthermore, Dr. Manhattan takes Captain Atom's powers to an extreme but removes his rank-and-file military background.

Moore did not dream this up "at DC"s insistence." He pitched it as a realistic end to the ORIGINAL characters. They asked him to tweak it. He tweaked it. I'm curious if he was going to depict Sage as a madman, or Kord as an immature buffoon. It would've been brilliant anyway, but he created his new concepts and made Charlton simply the starting-point (Dr. Manhattan is a uch cooler concept than Captain Atom; Nite Owl is not cooler than Blue Beetle).

The freakin' Aeneid was bankrolled by Augustus Caesar and creates direct parallels to the Homeric epics. But Virgil's work is not full of "expies" and does not suffer from being created as imperial insistence.