4. If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity. (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part Eighteen: Moore’s Perspective on the Ratings Controversy)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: An epic squabble over a proposed ratings system for DC Comics ended with DC shelving the system and the various creators who had protested its imposition making a grand show of everybody getting on again, although, as Gary Groth pointed out in an editorial in The Comics Journal, very little had actually been won and the whole thing was more tempest in a teapot than battle for the heart and soul of the comics industry.
But there’s one name, of course, that’s conspicuously absent from the reactions: Moore’s. This is unsurprising; unlike Chaykin, Moore had no problem taking it personally, in no small part because it blatantly was personal. Geppi’s attack on the loose morals of American comics was specifically aimed at Moore, and blatantly accused him of corrupting the youth of America. And DC had given into the attacks without blinking an eye, then spent months dissembling about it in the face of his protests while, in his view, trying to threaten him into coming back to work for them. Indeed, in his largest single piece on the controversy, an editorial in the February 13th, 1987 edition of Comics Buyer’s Guide entitled “The Politics and Morality of Ratings and Self-Censorship,” Moore decried the “disappointingly personal abuse” he’d received, and set out his own position in strikingly intimate terms, talking about his own children and the intensity with which he feels the need to teach them how to survive “in a world that is constantly changing and increasingly precarious.” In his view, responsible parenting means that he lets them read what they want, and “in the instance of their coming across something which puzzles or disturbs them – much more likely to happen with a newspaper than a comic book, incidentally – then I will simply do my best to explain the source of their distress or bafflement as honestly and as accurately as possible.” As for Geppi’s idea of shielding them from the idea of violence and sex, he notes that “when my eldest child was five she returned from school requesting money for a collection. When I asked her what for, she replied that one of her schoolfriends’ elder brother had gone berserk and murdered his mother with a kitchen knife before turning on his younger sibling, who fortunately escaped with severe injuries.” Subsequently, he went even further, declaring bluntly that he considered the people pressuring DC to be “actually evil.”
Given that these were the terms on which he viewed the debate, it’s hardly a surprise that he saw its resolution differently. This carried some risk, as Moore put it, of him “looking like a shrill, over-reactive prima donna,” and certainly that was what DC sought to quietly paint him as, calmly explaining that, as Dick Giordano put it, the ratings system was not “a moral issue at all. It was essentially a business issue,” and complaining that “there was no way I could respond to people who were becoming so emotional about what seemed to me a very simple marketing device.” It hardly needed saying who Giordano had in mind there. And inasmuch as DC was, by this point, actively trying to rid themselves of a writer who they’d decided was simply too much of a rabble rouser, this was essentially how they went about it. Sure, Alan Moore writes some good comics, but he’s too crazy to work with.
Or, better yet, he’s so crazy he stormed off in a temper tantrum over an issue everybody else was happy to let go. That was, after all, the result. Unlike Miller, Chaykin, and Wolfman, Moore’s declaration that he wouldn’t work for DC anymore was never an ultimatum to get them to drop the ratings system. (Indeed, it would have been hypocritical in the extreme had he done so while simultaneously objecting to Kahn’s attempt to link DC’s further exploitation of the Watchmen characters to Moore’s willingness to keep working for them.) It was him reaching the end of his rope and deciding that he simply wasn’t interested in producing more superhero comics for a company that was willing to throw him under the bus to appease right-wing censors, threaten him, and nickel and dime him over royalties. And put like that, the only way in which Moore’s rope can really be described as short is in comparison with the mass of writers with little vision or ambition beyond churning out what Moore, even before he split with DC, described as “mass-produced rubbish churned out without a moment’s thought on the part of anyone involved.” Moreover, these creators often with strong senses of company loyalty engendered by years of participation fandom before entering the industry. And, for that matter, in comparison with the many fans for whom working at DC was a lifelong dream, and who were quick to denounce Moore for spurning the opportunity.
|Figure 906: It is not difficult to make Alan Moore look eccentric, as with this photo, used as the author photo on the Watchmen collection.|
It was not as though making Moore look eccentric was a hard feat. Indeed, it’s a largely accurate characterization of him, a fact he’d hardly deny. Certainly he appeared as such to DC, who at least made some effort to reconcile with Moore (although, of course, they presumably thought Kahn’s comment about not doing any prequels if Moore continued working for them was conciliatory and not, as Moore took it, a threat). In Moore’s telling, they “offered better financial deals” going forward, but as Moore put it, “I found [that] a little distressing because I wasn’t asking for a pay raise, and I would have hoped that no one thought I was asking for a pay raise.” But the truth is, one imagines that DC thought exactly that, the idea of a creator taking an entirely principled stand that was largely not about the money largely existing outside their default frame of reference.
But the principled stand made it easy to paint Moore as a crank to fans as well. With everyone other than Moore returning to the fold, Moore’s position, to casual observers not inclined to read pages of nuanced clarification in The Comics Journal, looked like he was refusing to work with DC over issues that had already been resolved. And with Moore, at least initially, largely declining to trash talk DC in detail beyond the ratings controversy, instead favoring fairly anodyne statements like “there’s a certain amount of disillusionment with DC. It’s nothing that I want to make a great noise about,” it was easy to mistakenly assume that the ratings controversy nobody else much cared about was all he objected to. And the principled nature of his stand was further undermined when DC responded to early reports of the split by pointing out that he still had both Batman: The Killing Joke and V for Vendetta in progress with them, implying that reports of his departure were greatly exaggerated when, in reality, Moore had always been clear that he would complete his contracted work with DC, but would not be taking on any new work for them.
But the sense of Moore’s eccentricity went beyond that. Indeed, his eccentricity was at the heart of the ratings dispute, at least in terms of Moore’s conception of it. Moore’s view of Geppi’s attacks on him was not merely disagreement over the contention that his work was damaging to the moral fiber of America, but a contention that Geppi’s view was evil. He viewed Geppi as part and parcel of the Christian right in America, which he described as a “political blight upon the American landscape” that only had power because of their tactics of “making their political stance sound like the ultimate expression of good Christian morality.” Perhaps most tellingly, he compared the Moral Majority in America directly to the National Front in the UK, an actively neo-Nazi organization. This comparison is impossible to separate from Moore’s own personal life, which at the time involved what he described as an “experimental relationship” where he and his wife Phyllis lived with Debbie Delano (unrelated to Jamie Delano, although he adopted the surname from her as a pen name), a relationship that was an essential part of Moore’s passionate activism on gay rights in the period, and why, in early 1988, he mused about his desire to leave the country for less oppressive climes. This was not widely reported in the press, although open knowledge among Moore’s friends, and would not have been part of Geppi’s criticism, but it’s nevertheless key to realize that for Moore the moral criticism was not a theoretical issue, but a direct attack on the basic legitimacy of his own family.
All of this speaks further to the degree to which Moore’s conflict with DC was a case of two entities talking past each other. It is not just that DC was largely uninterested in Moore’s ethical principles and personal life, or that they misunderstood his degree of investment in the financial aspects of things. It’s that DC saw the business of making comics as entirely that – a business, conducted dispassionately and with little attention other than the financials. This is what becomes rapidly apparent in statements like Len Wein’s description of Alan Moore as having been “part of the original process” of Watchmen, a statement that is in many regards staggering, mostly for the idea that there’s some larger portion of what Watchmen is that Moore is a relatively small fraction of, as opposed to what would seem, to almost any observer, the straightforward claim that Moore is overwhelmingly the figure most responsible for Watchmen being what it is, followed by Gibbons, with whoever thought of the $1.50 an issue format it was published in coming far enough behind that there is not even any particular mystery to their anonymity.
|Figure 907: The 1938 contract with which Siegel and Shuster sold the rights to Superman for $130.|
But while the position that Moore is merely the author of Watchmen while the company is the author of its success is deeply idiosyncratic, in its own way DC has been just as unwaveringly dedicated to the underlying principle as Moore is to his. Indeed, the principle is fundamentally embedded in the basic Watchmen contract, whereby Moore and Gibbons get a mere 8% royalty between them on the entire book, with DC keeping the other 92%. No, that’s not an unusual royalty structure in comics, or indeed in publishing in general, but nobody has ever suggested that DC’s values are out of the ordinary – just the degree of ruthlessness with which they pursue them. They are, after all, a company essentially founded on the notion that their purchase of the rights to Superman from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for $130 was entirely fair, as was Bill Finger dying without ever getting a credit on a Batman comic and Fawcett Comics being sued out of existence just so they could acquire Captain Marvel. Giving creators shitty deals is pretty much what they do.
So from DC’s perspective, the loss of Moore was largely not a big deal. He had played his role in the process, identifying both the serious-minded take on superheroes and a fresh style of horror comics that proved to sell well. These, combined with ideas like the prestige format used for The Dark Knight Returns and the permanently-in-print trade paperback collection used for Watchmen, were more than enough for them to do what they wanted without any need to deal with the eccentrically principled. And for the most part they did.