2. No comics shall explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime. (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part Sixteen: Juxtaposition)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: DC took the somewhat unusual position that the real reason for Watchmen‘s success was their innovation in marketing it, a position embodied by Paul Levitz, who displayed a consistent attitude that what’s good for DC is good for freelancers and vice versa.
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. Indeed, as Moore put it when describing the incident in an interview four years later, “I really, really, really don’t respond well to being threatened. I couldn’t tolerate anyone threatening me on the street; I couldn’t tolerate anyone threatening me in any other situation in my life. I can’t tolerate anyone threatening em about my art and my career and stuff that’s as important to me as that. That was the emotional breaking point. At that point there was no longer any possibility of me working for DC in any way, shape, or form.”
Although it may well have been Moore’s breaking point, this was, as mentioned, still not quite the moment he decided to walk away from DC. But it’s a striking incident all the same, less for what it reveals about Moore (whose response was on the whole what you’d expect from him) but rather what it reveals about DC. The fact that Kahn remarked on how Moore’s willingness to work for them might impact their publishing plans is, after all, fairly compelling evidence that DC was already aware that they might be losing Moore as of 1986, despite the fact that at this point the only actual dispute between the two had been over the Watchmen buttons.
|Figure 903: Miracleman, originally called Marvelman in its UK publication, would go on to be one of the most vexed projects of Moore’s career.|
As mentioned, some of this was simply that Moore had never shown any indication of being a one-company man. But more than that was the sort of work Moore was expressing an interest in. For one thing, Moore was increasingly invested in the idea of creator ownership, a working arrangement he’d first experienced with Dez Skinn’s Quality Comics at the dawn of his career, and continued to enjoy with Miracleman at Eclipse. This was in marked contrast with DC’s way of doing business, and indeed had been something of a sticking point in negotiating the contract for Watchmen; at a panel at the 1985 San Diego Comicon, Moore explained that the initial version of the Watchmen contract was a work for hire contract, but that he and Gibbons had asked for a creator-owned contract, which DC agreed to, offering a contract where, as Moore explained it, “DC owns it for the time they’re publishing it, and then it reverts to Dave and me, so we can make all the money from the Slurpee cups.” This, of course, proved not to be quite so simple, but it’s worth noting that even this arrangement was unusually deferential to creators for DC. Creator ownership simply wasn’t something they did. Their business model was based on the continual marketing of long-running characters, which necessarily involved owning them.
On top of that, Moore was clearly itching to do work beyond superheroes. While his discussion of this in the intro to the initial collected version of Watchmen, where he talks about having lost his nostalgia for the superhero and being more interested in “the ordinary, non-telepathic, unmutated and slightless humanoids hanging out on their anonymous street corner” within Watchmen than in its protagonists, has to be taken the context of Moore’s having split with DC at that point, it was a sentiment he’d expressed three years earlier at the aforementioned Comicon panel. But more telling was the context – as a lead-in to Moore announcing some (ultimately never completed) work for Fantagraphics, the alternative comix-minded publishers of The Comics Journal (who ran a transcript of the panel a few months later) that suited his investment in creator ownership to boot. Put another way, even before Watchmen came out, Moore was clearly eyeing a degree of up-market respectability that DC’s near exclusive focus on superheroes just wasn’t compatible with.
More even than that, however, Moore was interested in exploring comics as a literary form, a process that really kicked off with the third issue of Watchmen, which Moore, in several interviews, cites as a turning point for the project. As he puts it in one interview, “it was with the very first page of #3 when I’d realized we’d actually gotten more than we bargained for. I suddenly thought, “Hey, I can do something here where I’ve got this radiation sign being screwed on the wall on the other side of the street, which will underline the kind of nuclear threat; and I can have this newspaper guy just ranting, the way that people on street corners with a lot of spare time sometimes do; and I can have the narrative from this pirate comic that the kid’s reading; and I can have them all bouncing off each other; and I can get this really weird thing going where things that are mentioned in the pirate story seem to relate to images in the panel, or to what the newsman is saying… And that’s when Watchmen took off; that’s when I realized that there was something more important going on than just a darker take on the super-hero, which after all, I’d done before with Marvelman.”
|Figure 904: The third issue of Watchmen opens with a dizzyingly complex series of juxtapositions among two separate narrations and a set of images. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #3, 1986)|
It is true that the third issue is where one of the book’s signature techniques really comes into focus, and the first page is illustrative in that regard. It’s not that Moore hadn’t done juxtapositions along these lines before; indeed, in the first issue he paralleled several remarks from the detectives investigating Edward Blake’s murder with flashbacks to that murder, most notably with the grim juxtaposition of Blake being hurled out the window with the elevator operator in the building saying, “ground floor comin’ up.” But he’d never really engaged in the sort of extended and complexly intertwined sequences. The first panel of Watchmen #3, for instance, features a close-up of a sign for a fall-out shelter, black radiation symbol on a yellow background. Overlaid is the caption from the Tales of the Black Freighter comic Bernie is reading: “Delerious, I saw that hell-bound ship’s black sails against the yellow Indies sky, and knew again the stench of powder and men’s brains, and war,” a description that serves to describe the sign as well. Meanwhile, Bernard, the news vendor, proclaims that “we oughta nuke Russia, and let God sort it out,” which remarks both upon the radiation sign and upon the text from the comic. And the scene continues in a similar manner – the second panel, for instance, has Bernard talking about how “I see the signs, read the head-lines, look things inna face, y’know” as the fallout shelter sign is shown from further out and the Tales of the Black Freighter comic continues, “the heads nailed to its prow looked down, those with eyes; gull-eaten; salt-caked; liplessly mouthing, ‘no use! All’s lost!’”
|Figure 905: A transition from the third issue’s main set piece, the paralleled interview/fight scene. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #3, 1986)|
The issue’s biggest set piece, however, is a six-page sequence in which a television interview with Doctor Manhattan is paralleled with Dan and Laurie fighting a group of muggers in an alley. Each of the six pages is six panels long, with one panel in each row double-width – the right-most panel on the top and bottom, and the left-most on the middle. Doctor Manhattan’s strand of narrative occupies the left three panels, Laurie and Dan’s the right. The actual text, at least for the first four pages, all comes from Doctor Manhattan’s scene, however, with stray phrases overlapping events in the alley. So, for instance, when a journalist asks Doctor Manhattan, “I wonder if you remember Wally Weaver. Back int he early sixties, the newspapers called him ‘Dr. Manhattan’s Buddy.’ He died of cancer in 1971. I believe it was sudden and quite painful,” the last sentence is overlaid with Dan punching a criminal in the face, blood splattering outwards. And when the journalist subsequently asks “what’s the matter, Doctor? Don’t you like this line of questioning? Am I starting to make you feel uncomfortable?” the last question is juxtaposed with Laurie punching a mugger in the crotch. Again, what’s interesting is not even the individual parallels but rather the extended use of a rigid structure and the way in which the two scenes keep dovetailing – all told, there are twelve separate lines of dialogue from the interview that get paralleled meaningfully with the fight scene, and then, on the last page, two lines of dialogue exchange between Dan and Laurie that parallel with events surrounding Doctor Manhattan.
It is not, obviously, that DC objected to the high-mindedly literary nature of Watchmen. Rather, it is that they were completely indifferent to it. It was simply not an aspect of the comic they cared about. The grim and “realistic” tone of it was something they could sell, on much the same grounds that they sold Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. But DC’s sense, perhaps understandably, was that the bulk of people buying Firestorm the Nuclear Man, Hawkman, and Legion of Super-Heroes every month were not hugely invested in the literary merit of their purchases. But this disparity in focus was another fundamental source of tension between Moore and DC. Moore might have joked about making money from the Slurpee cups, but at the same panel he talked about why he intended Watchmen to end with the twelfth issue, saying that “we could probably make a lot of money by carrying it on, but I’d rather do something good than something that will make me rich,” and talking about how “you can’t put a price upon reputation.” Whereas DC’s approach, or at least the approach of their marketing department (which held plenty of sway) was to charge double for the issues, start selling the previously free promotional buttons, flood the market with memorabilia, and push for as many prequel and sequel series as they could (which, on Moore and Gibbons’ insistence, was, for many years, zero). All of which combined to make it abundantly clear to all parties that Moore and DC were headed for a collision. What was perhaps less clear to each party was the degree to which this collision would serve as a trap.
The events that would spark the official rupture between Moore and DC essentially began on October 20th and 21st, 1986, between the publication of Watchmen #5 and #6, when Washington DC CBS affiliate WUSA aired a two-part report on the subject of “sick comics.” The first part had been a fairly standard entrant into the “zap pow comics aren’t for kids” subgenre with a particularly moral panic-like tone. It featured a reporter earnestly describing the comics of her youth, featuring “heroes, strong and brave” who were “cute” and “colorful” but warning that now there existed “a group of anti-heroes” who “have cropped up in comic books intended for older readers.” The report then described Frank Miller and Bill Siencievicz’s miniseries Elektra: Assassin, a typically exuberant Miller action comic, and presented a parent outraged at the fact that her eleven-year-old son was sold a copy of the comic due to one scene which featured naked women. It was a masterpiece of fear-mongering moral panic, complete with a ridiculously coaxing interview with the eleven-year-old (“Were you surprised at the pictures you saw in there?” “Yes.” “What did you see?” “Whole bunch of women on these beds.” “Were the women dressed?” “No.” “What’d you think about that?” “It was crazy.”), but also the sort of filler story that exists merely to wile away the minutes between ad breaks by stoking viewers’ impotent outrage about a basically meaningless issue, which is to say, not something that one normally associates with anything as important as an interdimensional magickal war for the soul of Albion. [continued]
October 30, 2015 @ 9:40 am
That last line is a real killer!
October 30, 2015 @ 7:39 pm
It’s one of my personal picks for funniest gags in the project.
October 30, 2015 @ 10:13 am
I think you’re being slightly unfair saying that Watchmen cost double. Yes, the actual price was $1.50 when most newsprint comics were $0.75. But the “baxter book” format had been around for at least a couple years at this point, and compared to most of those Watchmen actually had more content pages for the same price, and significantly more pages than the $0.75 books. Never mind the fact that Watchmen was one of the few books that actually needed the format- the idea of ads scattered throughout the story is annoying, and Higgins’ colors are clearly done with the better paper in mind.
I have no argument with any of the other myriad sins you blame on the marketing department, mind you. But I expect the format- and therefore the price- was a creative/ editorial decision, not marketing.
October 30, 2015 @ 11:29 pm
I second this. DC had been selling Direct Sales series of Teen Titans and Legion of Super Heroes on better paper for at the higher price point for a couple years, and Watchmen was still cheaper than the square-bound, “Prestige” format of Dark Knight Returns. The fact that it was a Direct Sales “Baxter” book reflected the fact that it was a more accomplished series than, say, Wild Dog.
Also, the brilliant artist at the top of his game on Elektra: Assassin (and, with Moore, the aborted Big Numbers series a few years later) spells his name Sienkiewicz.
Megara Justice Machine
November 3, 2015 @ 8:00 am
A second for a proper mention of Sienkiewicz, which I believe is pronounces “sin KEV itch,” for those curious.
November 1, 2015 @ 2:05 pm
I wonder if anyone can help me out with the chronology around that Jeanette Khan anecdote (re: potential Watchmen prequels – ‘but of course we wouldn’t do this if you were still working for us’). If Moore and co.’s lunch with Khan was while she was in the UK for UKCAC that would be September ’86. Post that date DC published 6 more issues of Moore’s Swamp Thing, 7 issues of Watchmen, a Phantom Stranger story for Secret Origins, a 6 page story for a Green Lantern Annual, a full length tale for a Batman Annual and the Killing Joke. Was all of this stuff already in the can when Moore and Khan met? (Barring the Killing Joke which I think was done explicitly as a favour to Bolland?)
Personally I’m more inclined to believe some of DC managements more… erratic behaviour around this period is more down to their transitioning away from the comfort of the newsstand and forward into the bold new territory of the direct market than any kind of personal vendetta against Moore. What little public info there is around DC’s sales figures for that period suggest they likely wouldnt have survived the 80’s as a publishing force if they couldn’t make a mark there, so some desperation for sales at any cost is perhaps understandable (if not excusable).
November 12, 2015 @ 11:40 am
Think I’ve found the answer on this Jenette Kahn thing – though Phil (and Alan Moore himself tbf) dates this to 1986, Kahn was back in the UK as a guest at UKCAC in September 1989 – at which point all of Moore’s DC work was behind him (hence “if you were still working for us”). This would also make much more sense of the meeting being with Joel Silver over the Watchmen movie. The series was a way off being finished in Spetember ’86 (in fact only four issues had come out), so the chances of a movie adaption or prequels even being in discussion at that point seem pretty slim.
November 15, 2015 @ 9:29 am
Love the juxtapositions that Moore brings into the narrative (both visual and textual. Jut catching up on essays, been away on holiday then chatting up on work – but loving the posts!