Do I have to?
"Well, your blog covers comic books and ethical concerns, I'd say the answer is yes."
Fine. But I do it my way.
First, the news item. DC Comics is doing seven (not four as originally rumored) Watchmen prequels. JMS, Amanda Conner, Art Adams, and more working on this (pictured here is Adam Hughes' cover for Doctor Manhattan. Is it just me, or does it look like Doc is surprise buttsecksing Silk Specter?). Dave Gibbons has not only given this his blessing, he's actually involved as sort of a showrunner to keep things on track and in line with the original vision. Moore, naturally, has nothing to say.
The simple question is, What do you do if you are a Watchmen fan? Alan Moore has been famously feuding with DC Comics over this for years. Does Moore just have an axe to grind, or is there a legitimate complaint here, and what, if anything, should Watchmen fans do?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. And this is coming from someone whose own opinion of the ethics of Watchmen has shifted over time, sometimes reversing itself in a matter of weeks (even my blog posts on the subject bear this out). There's times when I think DC screwed Alan Moore royal. And there's times when I think Alan Moore is just being a whiny bitch eager to celebrate his victimhood.
The only answer is to look at how we got to this point and make the decision for ourselves, and keep in mind that opinions change. Basically, everyone is going to agree with me because I've held each opinion myself at some point, and likely will again.
Let's start at the beginning. DC is looking for someone to write a series showcasing the Charlton characters they own. They bring in Alan Moore to do a work-for-hire miniseries plunging the characters into a Dark Knight Returns approach.
First point that cannot be overstated -- the original pitch that Moore signed up for was work for hire and he was fine with it. There was no grand artistic vision, no ethical concerns, it was just another gig that gave Moore credit and a paycheck and nothing more.
Moore turns in his story, and DC shits. They were expecting dark, but they weren't expecting what they got. Concerns went around of what would happen to the legacy of these characters that were bought at a fire sale and no one gave two shits about anymore (it's just surprising that they'd worry about this when they alter their more popular and well-known characters and what they stand for so often, you could set your watch by it). The story, being Moore's, was still dynamite, so they came up with a solution -- Moore was to create characters in the style of the Charlton characters and tell the story using them. They could practically be the Charlton characters (longtime comic nuts can tell you who is supposed to be who), they just couldn't be identified as such. In exchange for this, once the twelve issues of the comic came out and the trade paperback went out of print, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons would get the rights to the characters.
Second point that cannot be overstated -- these are not original characters. Creating "one-offs" of popular characters happens all the time (Fighting American, Deadpool, etc.). This, however, was somehow less than one-off. These were the original characters. Unlike, say, Fighting American, the publisher had no problem with these knock-offs being created. Hell, they ordered them to be created. So the "original characters" (since the only thing original about them is their identifiers) are not the result of artistic vision, but editorial mandate. Moore and Gibbons did not create the Watchmen, editorial oversight did.
Moore and Gibbons gleefully sign up. At the time, comics saw print, the trade saw print once, maybe twice, and that was it. It was assumed Moore would have the characters in a year, maybe two. During this time, Moore expounded on some of the stories he hinted at in Watchmen by writing a module featuring the characters for a role-playing game (is it canon? What fucking difference does it make?). Moore was anxiously telling people at this point about his plans to make a prequel miniseries featuring some of the characters. Everything is just swimming.
Third point that cannot be overstated -- Moore never intended Watchmen to be self-contained. He wanted to do more with the characters and couldn't wait to get started, and DC couldn't wait for him to get started. There's no, "It should stand on its own," everyone was anxious to expand on the groundwork laid.
During this time, two things happened, one certain, the other told to me by others but I can't vouch for its authenticity so I have to consider it rumor that may or may not be true and not certified fact. The first is that the graphic novel market exploded. Watchmen went through multiple printings. It's never gone out of print. It is bought by the curious, by those interested in it, and by people who use their possession of it as a shorthand for how intellectual they are. The terms basically meant DC had those rights in perpetuity.
(Here's the part that is rumor and I can't prove is true, although longtime readers know what I think. Supposedly, during this time, DC created a wave of Watchmen merchandise like T-shirts and buttons and such. Moore and Gibbons didn't get a dime in royalties because DC classified those things as "promotional material" like commercials, and the contract stated that they could sell as much of that as they wanted without giving a dime to the two of them. Like I said, I don't know if that's true, so use your best judgment as to whether it factors in or not.)
Paul Levitz, then publisher of DC, repeated reached out to Moore to try and make peace, offering him all kinds of things to bury the hatchet except letting the rights to the characters revert back to Moore and Gibbons. Moore has effectively burned any bridges with the Big Two, refusing to work for them ever again. Levitz, to his credit, also dug in his heels and refused to let Watchmen be exploited. Why? Who knows? The Watchmen movie was in development all that time (I have two of the screenplay drafts myself), and eventually saw light under Levitz's watch. But the comic books remained off limits, common actions giving birth to a sacred cow.
Levitz steps down as DC publisher, and Dan Didio and Jim Lee take the reigns. Warner Bros, which owns DC, is anxious to see the comic book properties developed (especially as movies, since the Harry Potter movies and the money they bring are now over). Rumors circulate that Watchmen was singled out by Warner Bros as a property that better be expanded upon. Speculation turns to fact when Moore does an interview and reveals that DC asked him to give his blessing to new Watchmen projects in exchange for the rights to the characters. Moore declined.
Fourth thing that cannot be overstated -- this smells fishy. I mean, Watchmen has been a consistent money-maker for DC, and here they are offering to give the rights back if Moore helps them sell new series? We don't know what exactly the offer was (when he would get the rights back, would he get co-ownership with DC or complete ownership, etc.), but DC had to know Moore would turn it down and would probably let the cat out of the bag just to piss them off since comic book nerds on the Internet would be raging like crazy. But this does not seem on the up and up.
Fact starts to solidify as DC honchos make special trips to recruit people for the books. Basically, there's only one thing DC would be so secretive about in those days after the 52 Relaunch. Leaked art from people like Art Adams and Amanda Conner turn the Watchmen prequels into the poorest kept secret in the industry. Now, it's full speed ahead.
So, what we basically have here is a very public pissing match. Who's right and who's wrong is no longer the main consideration, how much each side can hack off the other and get away with it is. I've been in family feuds like this, where winning is the only consideration. Frankly, it gets tiring. After a certain amount of time has passed, my conclusion is both sides are wrong, both sides are acting like assholes, so just let me leave and get back to my realm of relative peace and quiet.
Should people be supporting the Watchmen prequels or boycotting them?
I think people will do both, bouncing back and forth between two answers, neither of which is truly right.