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Jim Ottaviani On My Response To Robert Boyd About Keeping Watchmen In Print
posted April 24, 2012
 

In your response to Robert Boyd, you said:

"[I]t make them absolutely captive to their short-term interests (it's still selling) and completely oblivious of their long-term interests (we can continue to sell them forever). Does this sound likely? Does this sound even possible after it was pointed out to them?"

I don't see how these are mutually exclusive. They can be captive to both and oblivious to neither, and I think they were.

DC's short-term interest in making money right now (where right now = 1986, 1987, etc.) aligned perfectly with their long-term interest in making money in the future (where the future = 1987, 1988, etc.) So by assuming, as it appears you do, that they kept Watchmen in print only -- or even primarily -- to keep it from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, you're crediting them with far more foresight than I would.

Later, you said:

"The program behind Watchmen ran counter to industry standard at the time, and the consistency with which DC has kept that book in print runs counter to industry standards even now."

Even leaving aside Marvel's inexplicable trade publishing practices, per above, apply Occam's Razor, which says that a book stays in print when they make the company enough money to justify it, and when it doesn't, it goes out of print. So I find it easy to believe that when DC saw that they had a perennial money-maker, not to mention a book they could brag about in the (large) world outside the comics industry, they kept selling it.

As for industry standards, I think Watchmen is more exceptional than you give it credit for. It's not alone, though. Look at Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which came out at the same time as Watchmen. It too sells and sells, it too is critically acclaimed both inside and outside the direct market, and it too has stayed in print continuously since its serialization.

The difference is that DC doesn't have to keep The Dark Knight Returns in print to hold onto the rights to Batman -- and yet, they do. I think it's for the same reason, and that's because it makes money.

I don't know what would have happened if Watchmen was a commercial failure, and it wouldn't shock me if there were secret and under-handed maneuvers done to hang onto the rights even in that scenario. The licensing/merchandising shenanigans pulled on Moore and Gibbons certainly make that seem plausible, if not downright likely.

But that's not the scenario we have. So regardless of our shared disgust over how Moore's and Gibbons' expectations and wishes for their work have been handled over the years, keeping the book in print and making money -- and (I hope) earning Moore and Gibbons healthy royalties -- is not likely anything more than what it appears on the surface: a publisher making money from a good book.

Tom Spurgeon Responds: ... which they get to keep making money on only if they keep it in print. I've never said anything about "only" or "primarily." But I believe we give DC way too generous a construction to believe this was never on their mind, never part of their decision-making process. I can't assume cluelessness, and in fact, I assume multiple motivations, this being one of them. Can we put that rest, please, that I'm in any way suggesting the book never sold? I just don't believe in DC's preferred construction here. It's way too convenient. It's an amazing achievement for DC to have created an Internet-style argument of really extreme, rigid constructions years before the Internet, but I don't want to play anymore.

Another thing: have you seen the sales figures on those first few years of Watchmen? I haven't. Believing DC's PR to the point of assuming it's historical fact is a gift I'm not ready to give that company and that specific, horrible practice. There is someone watching The Watchmen on that count -- I assume Moore and Gibbons would know how it sold because of royalties, and so I assume there's nothing nefarious here, but I'm not ready to grant them such powerful sales they hit some stupefying sweet spot between short-term sales that were an awesome motivation to keep the book in print just not so awesome it never occurred to them they now had added motivation to keep the book as long as they could. (And besides, I assume Alan Moore didn't go to Image because he was super-rich off of Watchmen royalties and just wanted people to think he could use the work, so my guess is that book wasn't always a bestseller.)

Without numbers, with a history of sticking it to Alan Moore on this very project and others because of this very project, because it breaks with traditional practice and because it seems to me likely that multiple motivations come into play, I lean towards not believing the official story. You can believe whatever you want.

PS -- I honestly don't know if DKR has always been in print. I've heard it has and it hasn't, and no one's sourced me anything more than telling me one thing or the other. I haven't seen sales figures on that one, either.

Jim Ottaviani Responds: I think Robert and I were both responding to this statement of yours...

"It's looking more and more like DC actively kept Watchmen in print to keep it from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons."

...which (per your response to me) doesn't seem to account for multiple motivations either. That's all, and maybe it was just the specific phrasing you chose there and in your reply to Robert that prompted me to chime in.

So, to clarify, I think we agree that Before Watchmen is not what the creators (Moore, especially) want, and that on DC's part it's a money-grab. I think we also agree that the spin from DC about the project is as distasteful and disingenuous as their treatment of Moore himself.

This project also has the potential to diminish the original book in people's eyes, and that makes the whole thing sad and possibly stupid as well; they're willing to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

It's all of a piece, and it brings me back to why I think Watchmen stayed in print for so long that this became possible: When looking at comics history, you have to choose between calling something (a) a short-term money-grab that becomes self-perpetuating behavior and (b) a long-term strategy for steady profits via stewardship of a property, the comics industry is better known for the the former...by a factor of about a zillion. That's why I don't think the years of keeping it in print (especially the early years) involved much malice aforethought.

And PS to your PS re. Dark Knight: I'm pretty sure it has remained in print. Before sending my first message I checked, and while we could know for sure via "Books in Print", all U-M's volumes are off site in a storage facility, and we don't have access to an historical database so I can easily check online. So I took the lazy way out, and made a guess. I'm confident it's true, but no, I'm not certain.

PPS: While letting this sit for a while before sending, I read Heidi's latest on this, and in the comments Brian Hibbs says DKR's never gone out of print. You can decide how much weight to give his memory, but for me it's enough to erase whatever (small) motivation I had to dig through 25 years worth of Books in Print volumes!

Tom Spurgeon: Well yeah, Jim, you have to read my entire response instead of one line that's neutral. Sorry about that. It's depressing to me that you've ended your letter with the "malice aforethought" line, since I've now told you directly at least a couple of times that was never part of my thinking. So you've basically argued against something I've assured you I'm not arguing. Congratulations?

I don't think it takes some sort of grand, evil plan to have something in a contract and then use that something, particularly with a project that quickly became a focus of attention within the company due to the media coverage it received and its importance as a wedge book (including creators-rights elements!) between DC and rival Marvel. That DC was fully aware of its contract with Watchmen was obvious from the way it handled the licensing/promotional items aspect of the whole, horrid story. That it never occurred to them that keeping it in print allowed them to keep the book, and keep profiting from it, strains believability to me. Our renewed attention to this seems to me to trigger just how unlikely this is, how hard we've bitten on a piece of pro-DC thinking on this matter that's never been supported by strong facts and runs counter to a lot of practical thinking.

The history of DC with Alan Moore contains elements that are 1000X more deeply screwed up than what sounds to me like pretty normal thinking. I'll grant you that it's stayed in print (always did, certainly within the one-year window that applies) and that Dark Knight has, too (I wasn't challenging that likely assumption, just haven't seen proof) -- it would have to be out of print for a year for there to be an equivalency, anyway. But I think I have to see actual sales figures to determine whether or not that keeping Watchmen in print was ever not a stupefyingly fantastic idea year to year, and sales figures on titles that were allowed to go out of print and then brought back, and even then I'm not certain that the likelihood they had some part of their contract they just blithely ignored while actively using other parts of the contract, on a book that suddenly has become more important to keep because it makes money, makes any sense. I'm not going to accept DC's spin on that one. They haven't earned it.