Your purity only hurts the reason you’re doing it. (The Last War in Albion Book Two, Part Three: Corporate Comics)
Previously in The Last War in Albion:The intricate fictional history of Watchmen is based closely on the history of DC Comics, and the characters served as analogues (albeit imprecise ones) for the archetypal heroes of DC.
For all that Moore and Gibbons created an elaborate superhero universe based on the principle of taking a more materially realistic view of the impact superheroes would have on the world, going so far as to think through the comics industry of his fictional world, there is a crucial tangible oversight within Watchmen: it almost completely ignores the way in which superheroes are, historically, generally corporate owned franchises. There are occasional nods towards it – the tragicomic fate of Dollar Bill, Ozymandias’s business empire, and the relationship between the first Silk Spectre and her agent all gesture at the commercial dimensions of costumed heroes. But it is a minor theme within the book, despite ultimately serving as a major one outside of it. Moore might fairly have asked himself, after all, how it was that the Charlton characters, created by Steve Ditko, Joe Gill, Pete Morisi, Charles Nicholas, and Pat Boyette, were initially available for his use at a completely different company from either of the two they had originated at, with none of their creators even remotely involved. Had he done so, the ways in which writing Watchmen would eventually turn sour for him might have come as somewhat less of a surprise than they in practice did.
The truth, however, is that Moore’s alienation from this aspect of superheroes was always fairly fundamental. For all the money that Watchmen made him (and it was considerable), there were always numerous ways in which Moore left money on the table, and not just from himself. He adamantly refused to write a sequel to the book, and the only prequel he ever seriously considered was a series focusing on the Minutemen which, in any event, he never wrote. And when Barbara Randall (now Kesel), his editor on the series, leaked to him plans that had been cooked up at a DC editorial retreat shortly after the book’s completion for a trio of prequel series (one focusing on the Minutemen, one on the Comedian, and one on Rorschach), he acted swiftly to derail the plans. Indeed, this is a position he has never wavered on in the thirty years since the book’s release, declaring, upon the announcement of the Before Watchmen project in 2012, that “if people do want to go out and buy these Watchmen prequels, they would be doing me an enormous favor if they would just stop buying my other books,” and declaring that he had “complete contempt” for anyone who did buy them. Moore was, simply put, not terribly interested in serving as a productive member of the DC Comics stable of creative personnel.
This had, in some ways, always been the case. A perusal of his work for DC Comics quickly reveals that Moore was on the whole more interested in playing with the margins of the DC Universe than in working with the iconic characters. Although he wrote a pair of stories each featuring Superman and Batman, the stories were one-offs that seem in many ways to be more about checking the characters off of Moore’s bucket list than in substantial exploration of the characters. Indeed, one of his Batman stories is focused more on Clayface, a c-list member of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, than on Batman himself. The majority of Moore’s DC Universe work instead features more marginal characters such as Green Arrow, the Green Lantern Corps, the Omega Men, Vigilante, the Phantom Stranger, and, of course, Swamp Thing. And a perusal of the things Moore considered writing for DC but never got beyond writing a pitch for is similarly obscure, including the Challengers of the Unknown, Martian Manhunter, Tommy Tomorrow, the Demon, the Metal Men, a Bizarro series, and Lois Lane. This is all the more telling given the period during which Moore was working for DC, which included the immediate aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, a period where DC was eager to engage in high profile relaunches of major titles such as the John Byrne’s The Man of Steel, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, and the George Pérez revamp of Wonder Woman. Had their much acclaimed British wunderkind been interested in any sort of extended work on a high profile character, or even in another extended run on a second tier character in the vein of his Swamp Thing work, it is almost unthinkable that he would not have done so.
It is also this fact, in the end, that led to Moore’s falling out with DC. In the end, Moore and DC viewed the success of Watchmen as being their doing, and viewed the other as being eminently replaceable. To Moore, the book succeeded because it was a particularly well-made comic. To DC, it succeeded because it was a major prestige project from DC. Moore firmly believed that he could find similar success at other publishers on the basis of his talent, and DC firmly believed that they could produce similarly successful comics from other creative teams. And while neither, in the ensuing three decades, has managed anything quite like Watchmen, there was always only ever going to be one Watchmen. The reality is that, for the most part, both Moore and DC were right. Moore was more than capable of maintaining a critically acclaimed, creatively satisfying, and financially lucrative career separate from DC, and DC was more than capable of using Watchmen as a template to be followed.
Doing so, it should be stressed, was largely second nature to DC. Indeed, it’s largely what the company, and more broadly the American comics industry (and for that matter the British comics industry) were based on. The entire superhero genre, after all, owes its existence to a rush of attempts to duplicate the success DC had with Superman following Action Comics #1. The emergence of Marvel Comics in the 1960s owes its existence to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby turning Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky’s work creating the Justice League of America into a template, and subsequently to both Marvel and DC imitating the Lee/Kirby formula. And the same pattern continues throughout the history of the industry, including the 1970s surge of horror books that led to things like Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night at Marvel and to House of Secrets and House of Mystery being revamped by Joe Orlando at DC, leading in turn to the creation of Swamp Thing. In American comics, success exists to be imitated.
|Figure 843: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight|
Returns was DC’s other main prestige book of
In this regard, Watchmen cannot be taken as an entirely discrete object, given that DC was having massive success with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns at virtually the same time. Certainly one conclusion an imitation-minded comics company could draw from this is that there was demand for darker, more violent superhero comics, and to be sure, plenty of those were produced. But a second, equally valid conclusion, and one that DC also reached, was that comics readers of the 1980s, in the wake of the industry’s reconfiguration around the direct market, were hungry for prestige projects featuring high-profile and acclaimed creators. There is an obvious dissonance between treating this as a formula to imitate and DC’s unwillingness to accommodate Moore. But what DC needed to imitate this aspect of Watchmen’s success wasn’t Alan Moore, a creator with increasingly grandiose literary ambitions; it was creators who were interested in being big fish in a specific small pond, namely the American direct market comics industry. And so DC set about looking for one, approaching the task of finding potential Alan Moore replacements with blunt literalness by flying Karen Berger to the UK in early 1988 to conduct a talent search.
Grant Morrison was not the first British writer brought to DC in order to replicate Alan Moore’s success; that was Jamie Delano, who Moore personally recommended as the writer of the John Constantine solo series DC launched alongside the start of Rick Veitch’s Swamp Thing run. Nor is it fair to call him the most successful of DC’s prospective Moore imitators; that is, by any reasonable measure, Neil Gaiman, whose success with The Sandman is the only one of DC’s attempts to use Moore as a template to have come close to matching the success of the original, and whose subsequent career beyond comics brought him the most commercial success of any of the War’s major combatants. And yet for all of this, he is perhaps the most important.
Certainly he is the writer who most fully embodied DC’s goals. Morrison has always been open about the specific influence of Moore on his decision to return to comics in 1985, following several years spent failing to be a rock star, citing Moore’s work on Marvelman in Warrior as the only comic he really read during the years he was absent from the industry, and as the thing that brought him back, saying that “for me, Marvelman was the next stage beyond the kitchen sink naturalism of Captain Clyde, and I couldn’t wait to explore the new frontiers that were opening ahead.” And upon returning, he followed closely in Moore’s footsteps. Where Moore wrote Marvelman and V for Vendetta at Warrior, Morrison wrote The Liberators. Where Moore wrote Captain Britain at Marvel UK, Morrison wrote Zoids. And where Moore wrote a series of forty-three twist-ending shorts for IPC’s 2000 AD, Morrison wrote a series of fifteen twist-ending shorts for IPC’s 2000 AD.
|Figure 844: One of Morrison’s earliest jobs in comics|
was the robot-fighting series Zoids for Marvel UK.
(Written by Grant Morrison, art by Kev Hopgood,
from Spider-Man and Zoids #40, 1987)
Some of this, certainly, was an inevitable reaction to the realities of the British comics industry in which both men got their starts. There were only so many publishers and titles one could work on. But Morrison’s imitation of Moore went beyond mere job selection. This is not so much a matter of raw textual similarities; these exist, but ultimately no more than one would expect given the number of shared influences they have. Rather, it is that Morrison understood the method by which Moore had achieved critical and commercial success. He grasped the way in which Moore would pick apart a premise, exploring the creative possibilities of its unexamined assumptions, and the way in which Moore was unafraid of broad ambition. With Zoids, for instance, as Morrison tells it, “I took the job seriously and set about transforming the undemanding source material – a group of astronauts stranded on a planet of warring alien robots – into a showcase for my peculiar talents in an action-and-angst-fueled take on East-West politics and how it felt to be part of a group of ordinary people trapped between the titanic struggles of very large opponents who couldn’t care less about your hobbies or your favorite books.” And this, it must be said, is distinct from anything Moore would actually do, even as it shares the broad strokes of his approach. From the start, Morrison was very much his own man. Indeed, even the sense of wily ambition that he displayed has its roots as much in his early professional work in Near Myths and on Captain Clyde. But all the same, it’s clear that Morrison, having failed at being a rock star, tried his hand instead at being a comics star, using Alan Moore as his model. Which was, of course, exactly what DC wanted.
It is this that forms the cruel tension that would go on to define Grant Morrison’s career. His ambition was, in the end, the same as it had been in his rock star days. This was not mere fame, nor commercial success, although both would necessarily occur in the course of realizing his will. What Morrison sought was instead the root from which these things sprung: Greatness. And yet within his chosen field he was cursed to the role of eternal successor. No matter what he did, however sweeping his vision and towering his genius, the crown he wished to wear would always be defined by the fact that it had been abdicated by another man. He would be denied even the opportunity to play the upstart devil seeking to overthrow the tyrant father, no matter how hard, at various points in his career, he tried to do just that. And for a man who wants to conquer the world, there is nothing quite so cruel as inheriting the throne. [continued]
July 31, 2015 @ 4:47 am
"And for a man who wants to conquer the world, there is nothing quite so cruel as inheriting the throne."
That's a great line.
July 31, 2015 @ 5:11 am
One funky bit of ephemera: Moore did approve of three supplements for the DC Heroes RPG that was coming out at the time: "Who Watches the Watchmen", "Taking Out the Trash", and "The Watchmen Sourcebook". Moore even contributed an essay to one about the history of the universe, detailing many events that aren't mentioned in the comics, and Gibbons provided brand new art. Moore was an absolute prince throughout the entire process, taking the writer's phone calls and batting ideas back and forth with them about the comic (which hadn't even come out yet).
There's a great interview with the writers Daniel Greenberg and Ray Winninger on CBR that's worth your time if you're into this sort of thing: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=17997
Winninger reveals that, in the beginning, Alan Moore didn't plan for "Watchmen" to be a self-contained book: "very early on I remember that Alan was excited about extending 'Watchmen' in various directions. I remember him mentioning a couple of things he was interested in — a 'Tales From the Black Freighter' comic with Joe Orlando and some of the other old EC artists and maybe a 'Minutemen' miniseries," says Winninger. "Obviously his falling out with DC killed any possibility we'd ever see these projects but I also got the sense he was starting to believe that perhaps 'Watchmen' was better left alone."
July 31, 2015 @ 6:05 am
July 31, 2015 @ 6:22 am
The inclusion of Morrison, as sought-after successor to Moore's success, makes this chapter feel like the first true foray in the actual "War".
I wasn't expecting it here, and it is a nice means of bringing the focus of this whole project into sharper relief.
July 31, 2015 @ 1:11 pm
there is a crucial tangible oversight within Watchmen: it almost completely ignores the way in which superheroes are, historically, generally corporate owned franchises.
Relatively few superhero works have engaged with that. In one of the earliest Superman stories, Kal-L battles an unscrupulous entrepreneur who's planning to cash in on the Superman name. At the dawn of the Marvel Age, Spider-Man got his start going on the Ed Sullivan show and Iron Man was openly an employee of Stark Enterprises.
Aberrant, the middle Storytelling game in White Wolf's "Trinity Universe" trilogy, engaged this concept as part of a more general (and satirical) analysis of the relationship between the superhuman and the world around them. As one early review on Usenet pointed out: "It's not THAT different from [a] traditional comic-book superhero set-up… it just adds in the fact that modern media personnel are starving piranahs." The difference between superheroes and supervillains, in the Nova Age, is mostly about spin management.
August 1, 2015 @ 6:08 am
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August 1, 2015 @ 6:10 am
Morrison will try during his run 2011-2013 run on Action Comics, in a nice little story (issue #9) about Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen, and Lois Lane creating the character of Superman and, with the help of Super President Calvin Ellis, battling against an evil corporation that wants to take Superman away from them (among other things, it's a Morrison issue, there's plenty going on).
Unfortunately (and synchronistically), Morrison's point will be completely undercut by the gigantic, two-page "Before Watchmen" ad right in the middle of the issue.
I loved the Adventure!/Aberrant/Æon game line. That's one that's due for a revival, don't you think?
August 1, 2015 @ 7:11 am
That's one that's due for a revival, don't you think?
Yes I do, and it is, and it's getting one on the model of the new World of Darkness, with a core rulebook and the Æon setting-book aiming for a release next year, new versions of Aberrant and Adventure! intended but not yet officially announced, and more milieux in the offing.
August 3, 2015 @ 3:32 am
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August 3, 2015 @ 3:36 am
Moore is always complaining about comic companies misusing his characters, but at the same time freely uses public domain characters like Alan Quartermain, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan for example, in ways that their original creators would never have approved of, if they'd been alive to have a say in things.
Deep Space Transmissions
August 7, 2015 @ 2:11 am
"And so DC set about looking for one, approaching the task of finding potential Alan Moore replacements with blunt literalness by flying Karen Berger to the UK in early 1988 to conduct a talent search."
It's probably a typo but the talent spotting jaunt to the UK where Berger recruited Morrison and Gaiman (and Delano maybe?) was much earlier than this, at UKCAC in September 1986 – at that point only the first 4 issues of Watchmen had come out.
By January '88 Morrison had finished writing the first 4 issues of Animal Man (it would hit the shelves in May that year) and was already positioning himself in opposition to what Moore had done in Watchmen –
"I found I was really sick to death of super-heroes, particularly 'realistic' ones. I don't think there's a lot of mileage left in trying to show what supeheroes would be like in the real world so I'm going off in the opposite direction from Watchmen. Rather then trying to drag super-heroes into the real world, I'm going to examine what it would be like to live in the bizarre environment of four colour comics"
(from an interview in Arkensword #23 here – https://sites.google.com/a/deepspacetransmissions.com/site/interviews-1/1980-s/198801-arkensword-23)
August 7, 2015 @ 3:17 pm
I remember once reading a comics blog where someone pointed that out in the comics, and the blog's author came back that this was completely different because these characters were in the public domain.
And I thought (but decided against getting involved because, present company excepted, internet comments): No. That's a legal difference (and not, as it was being presented, a moral one), and an entirely irrelevant one because DC have the same legal right to publish Before Watchmen as Moore does to publish Lost Girls, just for different reasons.
It was at that point that I decided that, while I strongly agree with creator rights, the situation here was murky enough that I didn't feel I could boycott Beyond Watchmen on principle, and instead would boycott it because I had absolutely no interest in reading it whatsoever.
August 7, 2015 @ 3:19 pm
I should add, I'm sure that an argument could be made as to why the legal situation of Lost Girls is more morally pure than the legal situation of Before Watchmen. But this guy wasn't interested in making it, or even seemed to be aware it needed made.
August 8, 2015 @ 3:35 am
Brilliant piece of writing that encapsulates so much.
August 8, 2015 @ 3:38 am
I boycotted Before Watchmen because it was terrible.