7. Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated. (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part Twenty-One: Before Watchmen: Ozymandias)


Figure 915: Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill was a late and (even by the standards of Before Watchmen) somewhat gratuitous addition to the line.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: The myriad of Before Watchmen projects ranged from decent but flawed (Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner) to blandly mediocre (Brian Azzarello) and downright wretched (J. Michael Straczynski). But there was none quite so awful nor indeed insulting to Moore as the work of Len Wein on Before Watchmen: Ozymandias and Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill.

Wein, of course, was the editor who had brought Moore to DC to work on Swamp Thing. Along with John Higgins, who created the Crimson Corsair backup strips, initially with Wein and then solo, he was one of two people on Before Watchmen to have been involved in the original book, having been its initial editor before departing and being replaced by Barbara Randall. His presence served as a tacit moral claim for DC’s position in the basic ownership dispute behind Before Watchmen - someone who was in a position to know what the original terms of the Watchmen deal were and the degree to which they had or had not been adhered to. That he thought the project was ethical and indeed, as he insisted in interviews, overdue spoke volumes, which was surely what the hiring of a writer who had not done any significant work in decades and who had no serious prospect of boosting sales for the project on the basis of his reputation was intended to do. And his position in interviews was as much a blatant accusation that Alan Moore was a liar as Straczynski’s. He called Moore’s position “selfish,” insisted that “what we’re doing is not betraying Alan and Dave in any way,” and noted that “if I had felt about Swamp Thing the way Alan apparently does about Watchmen, Alan would have never even had a career here in the states, and this would all be moot.”

It’s an astonishingly vicious backstab of a statement. What’s perhaps most striking is the pettiness of some of the turns of phrase - the distancing involved in describing how Moore “apparently” feels about Watchmen, for instance, as though Wein does not know full well the minute particulars of what went down. Like Levitz’s “stage magician” description in his book, it’s deliberately and contemptuously dismissive; a statement made with the full knowledge that its subject, having declared his complete opposition to the entire project, will never even bother to refute it. Wein similarly knows full well that the phrase “creator ownership” was never uttered by him or anyone else with regards to Swamp Thing, that it had been a work-for-hire creation from the get-go, and that Watchmen was an entirely different situation, making the comparison little more than a condescending declaration that after twenty-five years in which Moore produced countless classics of the medium and Wein produced nothing of even slightly enduring value Moore somehow still owed his success to Wein, as opposed to Wein owing his first high-profile gig in ages to his willingness to spit in his former friend’s face. And as for the word “selfish” being used as criticism by the patsy of the people who take 92% of the earnings of Watchmen for doing little more than changing the cover on it every few years and diluting its value with bad movies and spin-offs, well, what is there to say?

Figure 916: The alien in the 1963 Outer Limits episode "The Architects of Fear," which was not actually an influence on Watchmen in any meaningful sense.

Wein’s pettiness continues seamlessly in Before Watchmen: Ozymandias itself, where he goes out of his way to regrind quarter-century old axes. Most notable is a longstanding disagreement between Wein and Moore over the particular details of Ozymandias’s scheme, which Wein objected to on the grounds that it was similar to a plot point in an episode of The Outer Limits. Moore, in his telling, stumbled upon the description of the episode after he’d worked out the broad strokes of Watchmen, although it’s certainly possible that he’d seen the episode. For Wein, however, it was apparently a major issue; as he tells it, “‘I kept telling him, ‘be more original, Alan, you’ve got the capability, do something different, not something that’s already been done!’ And he didn’t seem to care enough to do that,” resulting in Wein leaving the project and letting Randall take it over. Moore ultimately put a nod to the episode in the final issue of Watchmen, with the television in Sally Jupiter’s room playing an ad for it in the pentultimate scene, but the issue apparently irked Wein enough that he felt it necessary to have an extended scene in Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #5 in which Ozymandias is directly inspired by the episode. In practice, the entire issue is another misguided priority dispute on the level of the Charlton characters or Superfolks; the plot point is similar, but the overall stories have almost nothing in common. The suggestion that the resolution constituted Moore being too apathetic to do something different is more insulting for its sheer stupidity than for its insinuations about Moore’s character.

Figure 917: Len Wein grinds a quarter-century old axe. (Art by Jae Lee, from Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #5, 2012)

But reading Before Watchmen: Ozymandias it is fairly evident that Len Wein just honestly didn’t understand how Watchmen worked. When he enthusiastically says in interviews that “what has surprised me about writing Ozymandias is how much we actually DO NOT know about him, despite all the back-story he supposedly provided in the original series,” he misses a fundamental aspect of writing about a character that Moore described in the early pitch documents (which Wein would presumably have read as the original editor on the project) saying that “the whole point behind the way I think Thunderbolt should be treated is that we should try to make the reader keenly aware of just what it would be like to be ten times more intelligent than the most intelligent human that ever lived,” and remarking that most people “can’t even begin to imagine what goes on inside the head of someone ten times more intelligent than they are, and for the most part they don’t try.” An essential part of this, in Watchmen itself, is that the reader never actually sees any of Ozymandias’s major leaps of logic as he’s making them. Everything is described as a realization already had, narrated by Ozymandias to people he clearly does not believe could ever possibly understand him. This lets Moore evade the problem of how to represent the thinking of a mind infinitely superior to that of his own or his readers.

Figure 918: The death of Ozymandias's girlfriend Miranda manages the impressive feat of simultaneously being cliched and coming out of nowhere. (Written by Len Wein, art by Jae Lee, from Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #1, 2012)

Wein, on the other hand, composes a six issue monologue by Ozymandias to his private diary in which he explains his life story and all his plans. This leads to two problems. The first is that the writing is shockingly awful. The second issue, for instance, begins with the following monologue: “As my beloved pet Bubastis and I go through the now almost-automatic motions of our daily exercise routine, my thoughts fly back through the years to the tragic night long before when an accidental drug overdose stole my precious Miranda from me forever. Weeping at her bedside, I was determined to hunt down those responsible for her death, and make them pay for their crimes. To protect my anonymity and my corporation’s swelling fortunes, I donned a colorful costume I’d had made for an upcoming halloween party and struck out through the dark bowels of my city in search of the welcoming gates of hell.” It is not that the tone of preening pomposity is out of character for Ozymandias; indeed, the megalomania is in many ways the point of the character. It’s just that it’s bad. But the larger problem is simply that Wein ends up presenting Ozymandias as a moron. The ability to see every detail of his own self-justification strips away the monstrously compelling logic that underlies Ozymandias’s actions in Watchmen. The gaps that Wein observed were not invitations for detail, but conscious points of ambiguity that allowed Moore to create a character with a compelling illusion of unfathomable genius. Any attempt to put his actions into sharp focus, especially one that depends on such cheap and hackneyed tropes as “he becomes a superhero to punish the drug dealers he blames for his lover’s death” serves to undermine the basic concept of the character.

Figure 919: The Crimson Corsair backups, originally intended to conclude in a one-shot issue, proved to be a source of creative tension within the Before Watchmen project.

But if one is looking for moments where it’s blatant that Len Wein learned absolutely nothing from Watchmen or anything around it, it’s the events surrounding the abandoned Before Watchmen: Epilogue, to have featured a full-length Crimson Corsair story with him and John Higgins. The Crimson Corsair backups were for the most part one of the highlights, such as it is, to Before Watchmen. Much of this is that they had nothing whatsoever to do with Watchmen. They were pirate comics, a genre that’s manifestly not overdone (this being the central premise of their existence in Watchmen), done pretty straight. They were also, however, two page backups serialized across multiple books that badly underperformed DC’s expectations, which meant that pretty much nobody actually read them, and it was no particular surprise when DC quietly pulled the plug on them. But the story of what happened behind the scenes, as told by Len Wein forms, in many ways, the perfect epilogue to the whole sad and sorry story. “I had started to work with John (Higgins), and I had no clue what a good artist he was,” Wein says. “I was very excited and we were about halfway through the project, and I said we are going here next and John had his own ideas of where he wanted to go. He started to get more and more determined in what he wanted it to be, and it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I don’t know if this part is true as I think it is hearsay that he went upstairs and wanted to do it his way or he was off the book. DC would have been clear on the idea that it was just him and I in the new teams that had any direct connection with the original work so they came to me and said how do you feel about this? Well, I wasn’t happy about it. It was my creation and I had a story I wanted to tell. I understand, of course, but that is the way things are sometimes. DC told him to finish it, but to do so as quickly as possible please. DC decided not to carry it through the backs of all the books like they originally intended. And now it sort of stops half way through the project and ends there. I think that is unfortunate… A creator cares deeply about something and believes they are right and they stand their ground. They are completely right to think they are right and this was not different. He just was a different kind of right. He wasn’t hired to write the book he was hired to draw it. We all have egos and you try to work it out, but it kept getting farther and farther away from what I intended, and in the end I’m still not sure what happened and how it ended.”

Often, with Wein’s statements about Watchmen, the easiest explanation is simply that he’s lying, whether consciously or because he’s so completely internalized the company line that he honestly doesn’t know the difference between it and reality anymore. But here, at least, no such problems apply. He isn’t sure how a creator could have decided to take a stand for his vision of what the work should. He thinks the people who work with him should know their place and not step out of line. And he just doesn’t understand how it all went wrong. It’s the most believable thing imaginable.} [continued]

The Last War in Albion will resume on 1/1/16


Megara Justice Machine 5 years, 1 month ago

That big last statement Wein makes is pretty ironic, yeah. It's funny how people seeking to justify something often so obviously tell us more about them than they intend to and don't seem to realize it.

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Aberrant Eyes 5 years, 1 month ago

decent but flawed (Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner)

Does that mean it's worth paying actual money for? Or should I just make a note to spend giftcards on it?

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Sean Dillon 5 years, 1 month ago

Having read them, I'd say just get them out of the library.

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Doug Muir 5 years, 1 month ago

Is there a reason we're spending weeks and weeks on these awful books? I mean, it's fun and all, but it's not really telling us anything about Moore or his work.

Doug M.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 1 month ago

I mean, we just finished doing so. But ultimately, because they're part of the War at large, and it seemed like it would be banal to cover them along with Journey into Mystery, Happy in 2012.

And because it was funny to parallel them with Under the Hood, the lengthy text piece on what happened before Watchmen. The next chapter's post-chapter parenthetical will be on an entirely different topic.

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Daru 5 years, 1 month ago

Even though I have only read one issue of Before Watchmen - the first Ozymandias - I'm finding this stretch a great read, as it offers a lot of insight into the watchmen issues, Moore and other players such as Wein. Fascinating, thanks Phil and have a good holiday season when it comes!

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Daibhid C 5 years, 1 month ago

I'm surprised you didn't mention the most abhorrent example of DC being entirely soulless in regards to Before Watchmen (belatedly surprised, since I forgot what book it was), which was turning their eulogy for Joe Kubert into a plug for Nite Owl, without mentioning any of the work he'd done for them earlier.

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Lovecraft in Brooklyn 5 years, 1 month ago

I saw Len Wein in a panel discussion with Grant Morrison and Dave McKean at the Sydney Opera House. Wein came across as a genial huckster, telling stories about his friendship with Hugh Jackman, and basically provided comic relief to break up stories about Sandman and drug aliens.
I read his original Swamp Thing run. It's not terrible, tho a bit Nice Guy. Moore would have broken through without him though.
The previous night Morrison did a talk with Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance (who covered Dylan for the Watchmen soundtrack). It started with a spoken word piece by GM about language, superheroes and Rupert Murdoch that should be online, and is worth a listen.

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Pedro Bouça 5 years, 1 month ago

Again with the 92%? It's not true and you know that. DC doesn't even see 50 or 60% of the money (the distributor/retailer cut).

Also, although no one in the english-speaking world seems aware of that, pirate comics (even straight pirate comics, not One Piece-style affairs) are still fairly common in France.

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Devin 5 years, 1 month ago

Right, sure, okay, and it costs money to print comics too I guess?

I thought it was pretty clear in context that this was a reference to DC keeping 92% of the net profits and passing on only 8% to the creators, not an assertion that 92 cents out of every dollar spent on Watchmen trades/movie tickets/whatever goes straight to DC, with the other eight cents split between the comic shop, movie theater, actors, studio, printer, truck driver, distributor, Moore and Gibbons, the t-shirt factory, etc.

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Ben 5 years, 1 month ago

Is Moore and Gibbons royalty only paid on the profit though? Or even the net cost?

To invoke another (War-relevant) example, obviously I don't know the exact specifics of Morrison and McKean's royalty arrangement for Arkham Asylum, but the figure of a dollar each per copy has often been bandied around.

A $2 creators royalty on the original retail price of $24.99 is... pretty much 8% exactly. So, unless Morrison and McKean - in DC's eyes at least, two untried, untested quantities when they signed up to do the book - were on a royalty arrangement that was much better than the 'special deal' that DC gave Moore for Watchmen (which seems unlikely), then Moore and Gibbons' portion of the cash for each copy of Watchmen is probably far far in excess of 8% of the net profit on the book.

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Devin 5 years, 1 month ago

Yeah, good point. I don't know, either answer is plausible: Moore and Gibbons thought the profit-sharing phase would be short-lived while the book was in print, so it's entirely possible that they didn't bring their full negotiating power to bear on that percentage and the "specialness" of the deal rested on their future ownership. McKean and Morrison obviously had that example to learn from, and would have worried more about what they were making while DC published the book and (much) less about what would happen in the unlikely event that DC let it slip out of print.

But yeah, probably 8% of gross or 8% of wholesale is more likely. I still think "DC are the real victims because most of the money goes to shops/Diamond/the printer" is a bit of a derail.

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