A job like this just isn’t his style: Dave Gibbons and Before Watchmen

As the release of the first Before Watchmen comics approaches, the internet arguments about it gradually lose their colour and intensity. After the first fortnight they became ritualised, each side knowing their lines and reciting with little variation: the anti-BW arguments dropping Kirby and Siegel and Shuster and creators’ rights, the pro-BW throwing up the Charlton characters and Moore’s use of other people’s characters and those four times he wrote Superman and the awesome creative teams. There’s probably no possibility of either side (I’m anti-, by the way) changing anyone’s mind.

Nonetheless, there are solid reasons for putting all the arguments out there. Comics, and comics fans, haven’t distinguished themselves in battling for what’s right over the years. The pro-BW squealing has drowned out the anti-BW exhausted resignation. There should, however futile, be an attempt at balance.

So: one of the less frequently used arguments by the pro-BW crowd, when they’re savaging Alan Moore as a bitter old man who didn’t have the good sense to train as a contract lawyer, is that Dave Gibbons has given these prequels his blessing. If one half of the creative team behind the graphic novel that redefined the medium is fine with its further commercial exploitation, then it’s easier to portray the other half as deranged and vengeful. A veneer of legitimacy makes voices of protest become easier to ignore.

But as far as I’m aware, the only word from Gibbons himself is the quote that came with the launch announcement: “The original series of Watchmen is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell. However, I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire.”

Let’s go through that, line by line, looking for this blessing. It’s not in the first line, which if anything is a damning of the prequels; if the original series is the complete story, what justification is there for them? The second line ups the passive-aggressive feel of the whole thing; Dave appreciates your reasons, DC. He doesn’t say they’re good reasons. He appreciates your wish to pay tribute, all of you top creative teams making money off his ideas. But he doesn’t thank you for your tributes, or say anything about how gratified they make him feel. There’s no warmth there.

Then there’s the third line, the closest to a blessing and the most backhanded of the lot. It’s worth remembering that Dave Gibbons doesn’t have the royalties coming in that Alan Moore does. He didn’t write From Hell or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Watchmen is, without doubt, the most successful thing he’s ever done. So it’s natural for him to wish for successful prequels because he’ll be earning money from them. But he doesn’t wish them every success, or the success of the original series. He wishes them only the success they desire. Is there a suggestion there that what they desire isn’t really worth desiring? Or should the last word, in a more honest world, be changed so Dave’s wishing them the success they deserve?

You can read too much into words, of course, and perhaps I have. But there are also Dave’s actions to consider. Unlike Alan, Dave supported the Watchmen film fully. He was the go-to guy for interviews about the graphic novel’s relationship to the film, touring Europe and North America with Zack Snyder. He published a book, Watching The Watchmen, about his half of its creation packed with sketches, designs, rare pieces of art and more. He and John Higgins, the series’ colourist, did a poster for the movie and Dave worked on storyboards for the new ending to make sure it had the same visual influences as the rest. He was a consultant on the motion comics and the video game. He drew a new cover for the graphic novel. He was a consultant for the action figures and the limited edition sculptures. He drew licensing art, and mugshot-style front, back and side images of the characters to be used by everyone working on the merchandising.

This, then, is how Dave Gibbons behaves when he’s given a Watchmen-related project his blessing. He’s involved. He’s hands-on. He’s committed to ensuring that what’s produced under the Watchmen name doesn’t violate or disrespect the extraordinary piece of work that he’ll be remembered for. This is how he’s not behaving with Before Watchmen.

Seven miniseries. How many of them is Dave Gibbons drawing? None. How many of them is Dave Gibbons – and he’s a decent writer, with some strong work behind him – writing? None. What role is he playing in their direction, their faithfulness to the original work? Thirty-five issues, each one with two covers, means seventy covers. How many of those covers is Dave Gibbons drawing? None. If Dave Gibbons has given these prequels his blessing, why doesn’t he pick up the Wacom tablet and bless them with a cover or two?

The originators of the prequel project are clearly groping for that kind of legitimacy. All the shouting about Before Watchmen’s top-notch creative teams ignores that Len Wein, who even the biggest fan of can’t describe as hot right now, is writing the Nite Owl series. The only possible reason for that is that, as Watchmen’s original editor, he provides a link back to the graphic novel and lends it some credibility. Likewise the pirate back-up by Wein and Watchmen’s colourist John Higgins. I like Higgins’s work but his name sells no comics. The only reason he’s part of this project is because he was involved in the original. It helps DC’s pretence that there’s nothing unusual or immoral about what they’re doing. It’s a tiny, pathetic fig-leaf over the nakedness of DC’s cashgrab. Getting Dave Gibbons into the line-up as writer or artist on any one of the miniseries would be a full pair of leafy trousers. He has a working relationship with DC, as evidenced by their use of him as a go-between to Alan Moore. So I think it’s reasonable to assume that he was asked to participate in Before Watchmen and refused and in the end, the most they could get out of him was a grudging quote.

My evidence, I admit, is circumstantial. But there’s a lot of it. So, dear reader, if you’re a person who argues about comics on the internet or in real life, if you’re attacking Before Watchmen and you’ve already demolished the Charlton and out-of-copyright character arguments and your interlocutor’s reaching for Dave Gibbon’s blessing, tell them that a quote, from an artist, isn’t a blessing. Point out that Dave has almost certainly been asked to participate and refused to have anything to do with it. Show them that it’s not just Alan Moore who doesn’t want one of the few classics of the medium that outsiders have actually heard of to be watered down into just another franchise with ever-diminishing returns.

2 Responses to “A job like this just isn’t his style: Dave Gibbons and Before Watchmen”
  1. kate h says:

    I’m not sure that articles like this help much, polarisation-wise.

    It is entirely possible to believe that Alan Moore has got genuine grievances with DC without dismissing Before Watchmen out of hand. Sure, BW is entirely unnecessary but exactly how many of the dozens of other comics published that month *are* necessary? Equally, it’s possible to be in favour of or interested in BW without dismissing Moore as a bitter old crank.

    What seems to me to be beyond the pale is the impugning of the creators who’re working on the BW titles or the people who will buy and read them.

    On the first count, I’m not convinced that the “Charlton and out-of-copyright character arguments” have been demolished. The anti-BW brigade’s conclusions seem to me only to bolster DC’s case. If Moore – a writer who has worked almost exclusively with other people’s characters or close analogues of the same – can do this, then so can DC. If it’s okay to use public domain characters (or thinly veiled non-public domain ones) then why is it not okay for DC to own characters that they legally own? (And we can argue endlessly about how they came to own them, the fact remains that they do.)

    The problem is that the pro-BW brigade have used this too often as a stick to beat Moore, rather than as a defence of the BW creators. No one should seriously have a problem with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (though, frankly, Moore did himself no credit with his snarky dismissals of GOSH’s complains about Lost Girls) but what is it that the BW creators are doing if not putting their own spin on someone else’s creation, which has been Moore’s MO throughout his entire career.

    And why is it only BW that’s getting this attention? The comics shelves are full of characters whose creators signed over the rights to the companies long ago. What makes BW so different? Leaving aside the whole ‘self-contained story’ red herring, the answer boils down simply to: because it’s Alan Moore.

    Let’s imagine that in 1987, DC had published an unsuccessful miniseries called Clockmen by Alan Lesse. It’s soon forgotten and Lesse works away as a jobbing hack for various American companies, looking enviously at the stellar success of Moore and Watchmen by comparison. By 2012, a new generation of executive has arrived at DC. They have fond memories of Clockmen and decide to revive it with new writers. Lesse, a minor and barely-remembered writer, is not consulted and is left aghast at the news. He denounces After Clockmen on the internet, and fandom…

    …collectively yawns, because it’s not Alan Moore we’re talking about. It’s Alan Lesse. He’s not a big star name in comics. It doesn’t matter if he gets ripped off. (A friend of mine was in a similar though smaller-scale position to Moore once, where characters he created were spunoff into a non-comics series against his wishes through a contractual loophole. The writer of the first title of the spinoff/ripoff is now a prominent voice in the anti-BW brigade. Go figure.)

    There are principles at stake here that go far beyond causing offence to Alan Moore. To his credit, Moore recognises this but I’m not sure that his fans do. Moore and Watchmen are regarded as fountainheads, a sui generis creator/creation that transcend the medium. The problem with ‘Before Watchmen’ is that it (arguably) turns Watchmen into just another superhero comic, not a comic *by Alan Moore* but just another comic that just anyone can write.

    And this is where the readers come in, because I think we’re looking at a generational shift here. You touched on this in your earlier post on the subject, but I think it needs a broader argument. Like you, I’m of a generation that grew up regarding Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Ennis et al as *the* superstars of comics but that was 25 years ago. More time has elapsed between Issue 1 of Watchmen and today, than had passed between Issue 1 of Watchmen and the first appearance of Spider-Man.

    And, you know, maybe Watchmen just isn’t that relevant to a modern audience, any more than the Charlton characters did for readers in 1986. It still casts a huge shadow but the nostalgia-fixated comics industry casts lots of huge shadows. And it may well be that Moore has faded into them. We need to ask the question, what has he done since Watchmen that’s been genuinely great. Obviously, From Hell and (though it grows increasingly desultory) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But I’m not sure about the rest. In the past twenty years his comics work has retreated into a kind of nostalgic recreation of the Silver Age, in a conscious attempt to recapture his childhood experiences of comics. Some of this is very charming and enjoyable, some of it is awful, but it’s not ambitious and it’s not at all essential. Even LOEG has walked a very fine line in this regard.

    For the readers who’re looking out for BW, Moore is part of the distant past but they know who Darwyn Cooke is and who Amanda Conner is. They are the fountainheads now, the superstar creators, and for their fans it means as little that BW might be disrespecting Moore as it would for my generation of readers, who really couldn’t care less what Steve Ditko thought about Watchmen’s respray job.

    I’m not interested in superhero comics much. I won’t be reading Before Watchmen, but then I wouldn’t have been reading even if it came with a gold embossed Alan Moore Seal of Approval (“Glycon says buy!”). But I’m not going to disparage anyone who does. After all I’m going to be buying ‘2009’ around the same time, in the same way I bought previous volumes of Century, or Smax, or Neonomicon, or Lost Girls – or any of Moore’s recent output that has ranged from staid to rotten. I’m doing that out of misplaced nostalgia. I have no right to cast the first stone.

    • There’s no need to invent Clockmen. The case of Omega the Unknown is closely analogous to it: an obscure, unsuccessful, short-lived series published in 1976 and revived by Jonathan Lethem, a fairly major literary figure, in 2007. Lethem said: “When Marvel invited me into their vault of iconography, I simply leapt at the icon that resonated most deeply with me. It didn’t hurt that Omega had been laying in neglect for so long.” Steve Gerber, the original writer of Omega (along with Mary Skrenes) spoke out against it in no uncertain terms: “If the creator of a character or series is alive and still active in the industry, another writer or artist’s ‘revamping’ of his work constitutes an expression of contempt, not tribute.”

      Fandom’s reaction? Yeah, a collective yawn. Gerber’s battle for ownership of Howard the Duck had already marked him out as a troublemaker by Marvel, and because he didn’t play by the work-for-hire rules he’d gone from star to jobbing creator with no real following. It probably helped that two years passed between the announcement of the series and publication, and it’s probably fair to call the reaction to it a yawn as well; Omega was no less obscure and impenetrable in the 00s than in the 70s. So your hypothetical is real.

      But I don’t think it’s possible to put the cultural impact of Watchmen aside when discussing Before Watchmen. In mainstream comics you could use its publication as a basis for beginning a calendar, dating every release to BW and AW, where the original Omega is 10 BW and the new series is 20 AW. A short list of the changes Watchmen made to the industry: established writers as sales draws rather than artists, proved that comics can have an impact on the wider culture, showed that literary technique can be gainfully employed in comics, proved the value of giving comics auteurs the room to work, showed that comics can reach a mass audience that doesn’t read comics, established a market for collections of comics in bookshops, showed the benefits of focusing on story rather than characters, and showed that audiences respond well to limited series. Obviously other work fed into every one of those points, but Watchmen was the one that reached the mass consciousness and changed the industry irrevocably. So it’s impossible to revisit it and put that baggage to one side. You say that’s because it’s Alan Moore; I think that’s because it’s Watchmen. DC presumably could, because AFAIK it’s under the same contract, produce a sequel or prequel to V For Vendetta. That would be a stupid, crass move but it wouldn’t matter in the same way as the prequels do because it’s not Watchmen, the one comic non-comic readers have read, the one on TIME’s 100 Greatest Novels list etcetera. The actual merits of Watchmen, which actually has a much more specific focus on the adolescent male’s predilections than I thought it did as an adolescent male, are almost by the by.

      Neither can I agree with your assertion that Watchmen being a self-contained story is a red herring. I think that’s one of the aspects that made it a game-changer for comics. That it could be picked up and read without any context was crucial to making it a hit with non-comics audiences. The Dark Knight Returns required that knowledge – when I first read it I had no clue who this one-armed dude with a bow was – and though it was part of the graphic novel revolution along with Watchmen it hasn’t collected the same kudos from the outside world. If you don’t know that Batman and Superman share a universe then the last chapter is out-of-nowhere weird. The fact that Watchmen doesn’t have that problem, and that most of the attempts to follow it up with superhero stories for non-comics audiences did, is a major reason its success hasn’t been repeated. It’s what makes the prequels not just a bad idea but damaging to the comics industry; people who read Watchmen but nothing else will pick them up, find something that’s likely to be a pale imitation and walk away from comics again.

      The creative teams involved are, as you say, mainly superstars of the industry. They’ll probably produce decent work. But the constraints of prequels, where nothing of real import can take place without contradicting the original work, means they’re very unlikely to produce anything that’s more than supplementary to it. At least the Star Wars prequels had a whole story to tell that had only been hinted at. Apart from Darwyn Cook’s Minutemen, which has a good chance of being an artistic success because we know very little about those characters, we’ve already seen the highlights of the prequels in Watchmen’s flashbacks.

      And I think it’s okay to disparage the creators because they’re superstars. They’re not just starting out in the industry and happily taking the cash for whatever fill-in is offered, like Moore was when working with company-owned characters. They’re high-profile writers and artists who could pitch their own stories to DC or anywhere else, but they’ve chosen to work on this instead. It’s not okay to disparage the people who plan to buy it; I’m not one, but I did buy Omega the Unknown so it’s not like I’m ideologically pure. But against the internet argument, where untrue things become facts if they’re repeated often enough and loudly enough, I thought it was worth making my point about Gibbons. Properly I should make it on comment threads but I’m too old for that.

      Thanks for responding, and I know this comment is very long but so was yours…

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