1. Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals. (The Last War in Albion Book Two, Part Fifteen: Alan Moore's Falling Out With DC)

(15 comments)

Omnibus editions of the chapter will be along in a week or so for Kickstarter and Patreon backers.

Previosly in The Last War in Albion: Moore finished Watchmen with a profound sense of alienation from the superhero genre it explored, a sense that was mirrored and indeed amplified by his sense of alienation from DC Comics itself.

Part of the difficulty in tracking the fallout of Moore’s split with DC is simply that it’s so extensive. Once the rupture began it spread quickly, fueled in no small part by Alan Moore’s tendency to, as he’s put it, burn his bridges when reacting against something so as to make sure he’s never tempted to go second guess himself. But in this case the fractal repetition of Moore’s grievances with DC have served to make the initial issues harder to see, to the point where the standard wisdom is that Moore’s break with DC came over a dispute in the handling of the Watchmen trade paperback when, in reality, he had made his decision not to accept any new work from DC in January of 1987, eight months before the trade paperback even came out, and five months before Moore was actually done working on it. This decision came during a wider dispute about DC’s proposed creation of a ratings system for their comics. And even that point is not a single discrete cause that can be separated out from all of the others and identified as the original, true rift, but at best the third issue to arise between Moore and DC in quick succession.

There are of course two ways to look at this. In one, the subsequent retellings of the dispute on both sides have thoroughly muddied the waters such that the original dispute over comics ratings has been obscured. And there’s a degree of truth to this - the latter focus on the rights to Watchmen and DC’s broader exploitation of the property has largely eclipsed what was a real and acrimonious dispute in the early months of 1987. In the other, however, it is the wider perspective that looks at the full extent of Moore’s myriad of grievances that is more accurate, even about the initial dispute. In this view, just because the rating’s system was the straw that broke the camel’s back doesn’t mean that the bale of hay as a whole wasn’t the cause. And this view has a wider support within Moore’s career, which by the start of 1987 was already characterized by a string of disputes with his publishers. Indeed, by the time Watchmen started Moore had already broken with all of his UK publishers, although his departure from IPC had not yet taken on the tone of finality that his rifts with Marvel UK and Dez Skinn had. Indeed, if one wanted to be unsympathetic to Moore - and it’s worth stressing that there are no shortage of people who are very much invested in being more or less completely unsympathetic to Alan Moore - one could suggest that getting into fights with his publishers was simply what he did, and that he was, consciously or unconsciously, just looking for a reason to get mad at DC.

Certainly Moore would have had little reason to see DC as essential to his career. He had, after all, succeeded with essentially every company he’d worked with. More to the point, he was by this point in the enviable position of being a creator who was a draw in his own right, with an audience that would follow him across projects and companies. While he could not afford to alienate every publisher in comics, the reality was that his career could and would survive alienating any given publisher. Indeed, a fair case can be made that splitting ways with DC was a savvy career move on Moore’s part, although arguing that he thought of it as such requires assuming a level of ruthless careerism that is difficult to square away with details like the fact that he seemingly never actually read the Watchmen contract before signing it.

Much of this hinges on the practical differences between the US and UK comic industries. As has been previously noted, for the most part the UK was dominated by IPC (publisher of 2000 AD, among others) and D.C. Thomson (publisher of The Beano and The Dandy, as well as Starblazer), but the relatively small size of the market meant that even smaller players like Marvel UK and Quality had significant visibility such that Moore, by publishing simultaneously in Warrior, The Daredevils, and 2000 AD, was visibly a figure who existed outside the purview of any given company, especially once he emerged as a personality in his own right. But the US, despite being a much larger market, was, by 1986, very much a two company market. Smaller publishers existed - indeed, Moore was working with Eclipse, First Comics, and Fantagraphics in the US by the time Watchmen started. But the degree to which Marvel and DC dominated the market was much greater than the degree to which IPC and D.C. Thomson did. And with Moore unwilling to work with Marvel following Jim Shooter’s hardline stance against Eclipse using the Marvelman name, Moore was in much greater danger of looking like a company man in the US market than he ever had been in the UK.

Figure 901: Ronin, published in 1983-84, was Frank Miller's first creator-owned project.

But if Moore was, consciously or unconsciously, looking for a reason to walk away from DC, it’s just as true that DC was looking for a reason to push Moore towards the exit. Certainly they seem to have done little to try to keep him on board. It’s instructive to compare Moore’s later treatment by DC with the way the company handled things with Neil Gaiman a decade later as he finished work on Sandman. Despite the fact that nobody was under any illusions that any of the Sandman characters were creator-owned (in contrast with Watchmen) and that DC was perfectly entitled to simply continue the series without him, DC agreed end the title, not to use the main characters elsewhere without Gaiman’s express approval, and to consult him on the use of the characters in general, and were generally happy to allow Gaiman to renegotiate earlier deals on more favorable terms in order to keep him on-board and generally happy with the company. Similarly, not long before their dispute with Moore, DC agreed to a revision to Frank Miller’s contract for Ronin. With Moore, however, DC have spent decades antagonizing him further, often seeming to go out of their ways to find new ways of snubbing him.

For all that Moore was a source of financial success for them, it is not hard to see why DC might react poorly to him. DC was at its heart a fundamentally conservative company. Moore, in the 80s, may not have been a snake-worshipping occultist yet, but he was still a psychedelic anarchist with a furiously revolutionary working class sensibility. To DC, an obedient and dutiful subsidiary of corporate giant Warner Communications, this attitude would have been downright alarming. Simply put, to DC Moore was an erratic and unpredictable figure whose creator-centric vision of what the comics industry should be was actively threatening. At best, they were better off without him; at worst, he was someone to make an example of so that creators, most of whom were not nearly as big a draw as him, would know their place and not get any lofty ideas.

All the same, it’s easy to be taken aback by the pettiness of DC at times. A fairly instructive example comes in the form of Paul Levitz, who worked at DC for decades, eventually rising to publisher within the company. It was Levitz, then a vice-president, who greeted Moore on his first American visit by calling him his “greatest mistake,” a line Moore notes that he found strange at the time and downright ominous in hindsight. But in some ways more remarkable is the axe-grinding Levitz engaged in within his post-DC coffee table book 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking when coming to the subject of Moore’s work for DC. In Levitz’s telling, “a steady stream of talented people were attracted to DC by the longer story lengths, better reproduction, and creative opportunities. Among them was Alan Moore, a soft-spoken magician with a broad range of arcane interests.” Several things here are distinctly unfair - the suggestion, for instance, that Moore came to DC like some old world pilgrim seeking a better life, when in fact DC had deliberately sought him out. Similarly, although it’s true that Moore was not the first UK creator to be hired by DC, the suggestion that he was part and parcel of the wave of creators as opposed to the first time DC poached a writer from 2000 AD as opposed to an artist is thoroughly unfair. But perhaps strangest is the decision to suggest that Moore was a magician when he was hired, a revision that seems mainly to sensationalize Moore as an eccentric nutter whether or not it’s relevant to the point. (More gallingly, the book later describes him as a “stage magician.”) Even pettier is Levitz’s musing that “Watchmen would not have continued to achieve such recognition” were it not for DC’s invention of the trade paperback, presented by Levitz as a bold capstone to a decade of DC’s experimenting with publication forms. This is, to say the least, a bit rich; while it’s true Watchmen was one of the first DC titles to get a trade collection, it is not as though collecting a serialized work after it’s finished is an unprecedented idea in publishing. Certainly it’s ridiculous to imply, as Levitz does, that this is on par with Moore and Gibbons’s work on the comic itself. And this is made doubly galling by the fact that the trade paperback format Levitz is boasting of having invented is the precise means by which Moore claims they kept the rights from reverting to him.

Figure 902: Suggested rates from Neal Adams's Comic Book Creators Guild, which are in most cases well above what's paid in 2015, even without adjusting for inflation.

In some ways, what’s most striking about this pettiness is that Levitz was, in most regards, relatively progressive in terms of creators rights at DC. He was, for instance, diligent in making sure that the creators who originated various minor concepts that made their way into movies like particular vehicle designs or small details of a given telling of Batman’s origin were compensated when the movies came out, and is widely credited with preventing anything like Before Watchmen happening for as long as he was still at the company. But Levitz’s relationship with creator rights has always been complex. In 1978 he spoke to The Comics Journal about Neal Adams’s efforts to form an ad hoc union called the Comics Creators Guild, saying that while he “would dearly love to see a Guild formed in the interests of working comics freelancers” he viewed the actual effort to make one as nothing more than “a group of people who don’t work in the industry working for a set of idealistic goals without regard to the real interests of freelancers,” and speaking at the first meeting regarding the guild mainly to complain that the rates Neal Adams was suggesting creators should make were unrealistic because Marvel and DC weren’t making enough money to pay them. All of which is to say that Levitz has been consistent, throughout his career, in a belief that what’s good for the massive comics publisher is good for the freelancer.

What’s perhaps odd is that Moore did not, at least at first, really differ from that belief. Indeed, the way in which Moore describes his falling out with the company is telling: “I was starting to realize that DC weren’t necessarily my friends.” Because it’s crucial to realize, Moore really did think they were. That’s the entire reason he never actually read the Watchmen contract: he trusted the people handing it to him had his best interests at heart. This was, of course, many things; hopelessly naive, for one. An almost inevitable extension of his honor among thieves approach to creating art, for another. But, perhaps most crucially, it was more or less how people like Paul Levitz were encouraging him to think. And so when Levitz subsequently got into a dispute with Moore and Gibbons shortly after Watchmen launched over whether or not they deserved royalties on the replica bloodstained yellow smiley badges that were being widely sold in comic shops (a dispute that was over, at most, a couple thousand dollars) and made a grand show of agreeing to a royalty without conceding the legal point by which DC had originally argued the badges, despite being sold in comic shops, were “promotional items,” Moore was understandably rattled, minor as the issue was. And when, later in 1986, Jeanette Kahn had lunch with Moore and Gibbons and made an off-handed comment about doing some Watchmen prequels and how “of course we wouldn’t do this if you were still working for us,” Moore was once again rattled by what he took as a threat.

Comments

Matt M 1 year, 4 months ago

Your previously link goes to chapter 13 rather than 14, Phil! I thought 14 was segueing into 15 being about more Before Watchmen issues, have I missed an entry or are you bouncing about a bit more? All good stuff though, no matter the topic!

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 4 months ago

The Before Watchmen segue was the equivalent of the text piece at the end of Issue #2. We're back to the "main story" as it were, and so the bit this follows from is midway through Part 13 - "But in both cases the basic issue is the same: Moore realized that he was badly wrong about the sort of world he was living in, and took typically bold and decisive action to deal with the problem. And in both cases, the fallout was enormous."

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Matt M 1 year, 4 months ago

Aha, that makes a lot of sense! Too clever for me! :)

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Timber-Munki 1 year, 4 months ago

Re the Levitz trade paperback invention claim, it wasn't even the first trade paperback published in 1987. Marvel Comic's trade paperback collection of the Claremont & Miller 1982 Wolverine mini series has a foreword by Claremont dated January 1987 and has July 1987 in the publishing indicia.

Whilst the cover date is always a few months out from the release date (this week's Astro City is given as December 2015 for example) so it's release date would have been prior to Watchmen #12's 30th September in store date, cover dated October 1987.

I think the final word on Alan Moore & DC's 75th anniversary celebrations has to go to Gaiman in the feature length Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics documentary they released in 2010 - "The first thing you have to realise about Alan is he's a Genius" (maybe paraphrasing, it's a while since I saw it).

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Eric Gimlin 1 year, 4 months ago

I have a trade paperback of the Dark Phoenix Saga, copyright 1984, as well. There are some other collections from the 70's that also qualify- "Origins of Marvel Comics" and such- but they didn't collect single storylines. I do think there was a meaningful shift around 1987, where collected editions became a much more common thing, with the Wolverine trade (which I vividly remember getting when it came out, because I couldn't afford the originals) actually belonging more to that 70's- early 80's tradition.

Of course, If we want to push, we can give DC full credit for creating the collected trade paperback edition, reprinting a limited run series that told a complete story as a single volume that was kept in print for many years:

http://www.comics.org/series/275/

was later reprinted as

http://www.comics.org/series/316/

I decline to give Levitz any credit for that particular invention.

More generally, I am a fan of Paul Levitz as a writer; but I'm one of those hardcore Legion of Super-Heroes fans so my opinion may be suspect.

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Timber-Munki 1 year, 4 months ago

The Wolverine trade is a curious beast - undoubtedly released partly as somebody at Marvel noticing Miller's success at DC with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - look at the decidedly different cover art from Miller in the looser style he'd developed by 1986 compared to the fairly standard bronze age work on the inside, also it's about a centimetre wider than the standard American comic book format.

Whilst it beat Watchmen to the punch on 1987 trade paperbacks Marvel really didn't collect their output in any organised way until Quesada & Jemas came along post bankruptcy. DC can definitely claim dominance on the market through the late 80s and the 90s, apart from the Marvel Graphic Novels (which were quietly dropped late 80s) there was only Born Again, The Asgardian War & that spring to mind, with the exception of material from their Epic line that may be escaping me. I suppose when you're selling millions of your main product just because they've got shiny covers you don't tend to worry about other formats...

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Kit 1 year, 4 months ago

The first Cerebus trade collection, High Society, was published in 1986, and is generally acknowledged as setting the market's tone for collecting a storyline within a series and remaining in print for the benefit of both new readers, and as a steady profit point for retailers (once the controversy of its initial publication, end-running distributors on the first print run, receded into the background *).

Presumably you'll get to primary sources on this eventually, but Gaiman has said that he used both DC's and Moore's behaviour as examples of how not to handle his own resolution of issues with the company.

Similarly, not long before their dispute with Moore, DC agreed to a revision to Frank Miller’s contract for Ronin

What was this revision? The original rights deal was so bad that it was still being called "the Ronin deal" when being offered to DC creators circa 1990, and I don't recall hearing that it was ever modified for Miller post facto.


The Wolverine trade is a curious beast [...] also it's about a centimetre wider than the standard American comic book format.

Fairly common in American collections for a few years, and again based on Cerebus - the extra margins were to prevent loss of art and text in the spine. Sadly this sensible treatment of storytelling, and respect for readers and creators, was dismissed in reaction to complaints from store owners with fixed-width display racks.


*but that direct selling was in response to Sim, with pen poised over a contract from DC, asking Levitz "Is there any reason I shouldn't sign this?" Levitz' cocky response, "Can you think of any other way to make a million dollars?" had the opposite effect intended, and sent Sim away to do just that.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 4 months ago

The Ronin fact came from Lance Parkin's _Magic Words_; I did not follow it back to a primary source for more details, I'm afraid.

Gaiman's business acumen will be a recurring theme.

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Kit 1 year, 3 months ago

On my first flip through Magic Words, I found enough drastic factual inaccuracies to not bother buying it, so I wouldn't necessarily rely heavily on it going forward.

(Of course, I may have happened on the only three areas of factual wonkiness in the whole book.)

(Also, this is my third attempt in four days to post a reply, after literal hours of captcha errors.)

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 3 months ago

Huh. I can honestly say I've never had anything that could be described as "literal hours" of Captcha errors; I don't think I've ever had anything fail more than four times. Which is plenty annoying, and the Captchas are next on Anna's list, but I still want to clarify for the sake of filing actual bug reports: I'm assuming 50+ consecutive Captcha failures from this description.

I'm curious what sorts of errors you found in Magic Words. I've mostly found it an incredibly thorough piece of work.

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Kit 1 year, 3 months ago

I'd have a dozen or so fails, leave it for an hour, try again, four or five fails, give up, try again the next day, repeat. One day the site just gave up and didn't bother reloading.

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Daru 1 year, 4 months ago

Yeah the early Cerebus volumes did set a precedent for the trades market. Big shame that the extra inner margins space is often dropped now, as the loss of actual visible artwork is a huge bugbear for me!

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Kit 1 year, 1 month ago

Correcting myself: a hundred thousand dollars was the price on the table for rights to Cerebus, which Sim found achievable by selling a print run of one trade paperback.

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Daru 1 year, 4 months ago

Interesting getting the insight into Moore's fallout with DC. Levitz's comments certainly sound problematic and like a load of sales waffle. Seems like basically good sense that Moore spread his work contracts over many companies, as often comic creatives seemed looked down upon, and perceived as being more or less as commodities.

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Ben 1 year, 4 months ago

According to Mike's Amazing World of DC Comics, the trade paperback of Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS went on sale on 6th November 1986 (simultaneously with a mass-market Warner Books version, and a couple of weeks after a limited hardcover version was offered). Lone Star Comics has it as released in May 1986, but that's probably wrong as I don't think the series had finished by then.

Either way, it's a decent bet it predates both WATCHMEN and the Wolverine book. RONIN was released in trade in July '87, so by the time WATCHMEN came out in December, DC already had 2 Miller trades on the shelves.

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