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February 12, 2012

Twenty-One Not Exactly Original Notes On More Watchmen, Written At A Slight Remove

1. In and of itself, More Watchmen is an interesting story, but it's not that interesting a story. The More Watchmen story reminds us of how enthralled even the most enlightened comics fans are by an orientation towards North American comic books, specifically superhero comics, and even more crucially the superhero comic books of one's youth. Because that's what Watchmen is now for a huge chunk of comics fans: a formative experience a tiny bit further in the past than Fantastic Four #1 was when the Moore/Gibbons series hit the stands.

2. The More Watchmen firestorm became more intriguing for of the heap of pathologies on display in the response to the story, and for the snapshot it provided as to where the industry and its culture stands right now on various, perceived issues.

3. It's hard to draw a bead on comics that don't exist yet, but I'm guessing some of the More Watchmen books will be okay, some of them will be awful, and a few could be fine or better. I'd seek out new, original comics from exactly two of those creators based on reputation alone. I'll still buy work from Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons every chance I get, and would have pushed past the entire Muncie Northside High School cheerleading team to get a new comic of Moore's in the mid-1980s. As a whole, it's very unlikely they will have much to do with the original project or, by virtue of being derivative works, come close to matching it in terms of quality or ambition.

4. More Watchmen is something of a perfect Internet-era story, and as such serves as a reminder of how much we're driven by and limited to the nature and form of the way news stories develop now. You couldn't build a story like this in a laboratory. The More Watchmen story is about a product; people like products. It's about the hype for a product, which in many ways and for many fans has become the best part of any arts-product experience. Because the work itself doesn't exist yet, arguments can be made on its behalf positing an ideal outcome or a disastrous one -- your choice. More Watchmen isn't just about a superhero comic, it revolves around the superhero comic. This makes it a story about all superhero comics. Watchmen is a superhero comic that became a movie and so therefore has some currency in non-comics media that are routinely interested in that particular intersection of art forms. Watchmen was a project that many people hold dear for when it came out and what it said about the potential for the medium and the genre, so More Watchmen is a story about comics fans -- comics fans' favorite subject matter. Alan Moore is a compelling personality, and has made no secret of his wishes and desires about the project. The story has been simmering as a depressing eventuality for months now. More Watchmen brings to the fore a bunch of issues about which people have virtually no agreement, and it plugs right into culture-wide developments in terms of our attitudes towards money, the role of corporations versus individuals and the value of art.

5. One of the reasons I've been hesitant to write anything at all about it here on CR is that getting people worked up about these things is part of the point for a big corporation like DC. Every single piece of commentary, positive or negative, is part of DC's PR campaign. That's where we are now. Further, you can argue that a wave of PR is in some ways more important to a company like DC. It's easy to make the argument that having the most buzz possible is more important to a company like DC than whether or not the books or good. It may be even easier to argue that, barring a noticeable collapse of the kind that also seizes PR attention, that making a big splash right is more important to DC than how the books end up operating on the retail level. I'm not sure DC has any stake in the various industry issues and attitudes that are brought to the fore. Part of why the buzz is so important now is that reducing art to brands and product makes the state of the brand as something moves through the publication process way more important than it used to be. Part of why the PR has achieved primacy is that projects like More Watchmen exist on a parallel track to their real-world status: they're strategies employed by people at corporations, collectively and individually, to further their status within the corporation or in the wider corporate world as much as they're ever comics in stores.

6. More Watchmen is another project DC is pushing right down a middle road. A potential option with another Watchmen project would haven been to announce a twelve-issue Before Watchmen maxi-series with Grant Morrison and Darwyn Cooke (or their equivalents) for 2012 and then a twelve-issue After Watchmen maxi-series with Mark Millar and Frank Quitely (or their equivalents) for 2013, perhaps with all the covers on both series by Dave Gibbons. Another option would have been to have a major crossover with Batman and the rest of the Justice League. Still another, a series of six on-going series folded into the New 52. The strategy DC's employing here -- a bunch of mini-series of varying size, with a concluding one-shot and a threaded-through back-up story -- seems to me to replicate their halfway, hesitant, political thinking on the New 52 (where these books right here are full reboots, these over here are pocketed away to protect from reboot considerations, and these few here aren't really reboots at all). That project also split the difference between possible extremes. I think we now have something of a clue as to how the current DC regime makes decisions. On the one hand, it worked in many ways for what they wanted to do with New 52. On the other hand, this doesn't speak well to our ever seeing a project from this group that in 26 years will have grown to the point it can be exploited the way Watchmen can now be exploited. When we talk about companies managing brands instead of making things, we focus on the brand-part and not enough on the managing-part. That has long-term implications, too.

7. The number of books involved indicates a definite eye on multiple, eventual collections while at the same time serving the periodical market with which they had success on the New 52. More Watchmen is giving the Direct Market lot of #1 issues, and should also yield several volumes for the book folks to push into that market. It should even provide one or two big volumes for the archival volumes division. This touch-every-base aspect of the announcement further exposes what DC was slinging last summer -- that stuff about not being interested in measurables other than long-term, bottom-line sales -- as the obvious horseshit it was. They're clearly interested in all the markets, all the standards of success, all the reasons one may send out a press release and update the resume. It's those considerations and not bottom-line sales that are driving how More Watchmen will look and operate in the marketplace.

8. I think Dave Gibbons not writing or providing cover work is significant. For one thing, it's the project's loss: Gibbons is a fine writer and a cracking designer. A more significant appreciation of Gibbons' contributions to the original work was the best thing about the ramp-up to the creatively misguided movie adaptation. Editor Len Wein's involvement notwithstanding, Gibbons' direct involvement would also have led to a more significant imprimatur in terms of providing continuity between this project and the past work. I don't think that matters to DC, not really, but it might have mattered to a few folks out there.

9. I also thought Gibbons' quote endorsing the project was pretty grim for that kind of thing, to the point of being darkly hilarious. He sounded like a grumpy uncle five cocktails into his evening wishing a beloved niece the best at a shotgun wedding reception. If there were a video equivalent, it would have involved a chair in front of a brick wall and a single light bulb.

10. I don't buy the line some are peddling that the shape of rhetoric after the announcement is partly due to our giving corporations the benefits of personhood. Frankly, we wouldn't stomach DC's actions over the last 26 years towards Alan Moore from a person. We don't give corporations the same rights we give people; we privilege them over people.

11. Somehow lost in the discussion -- either ignored or waved away -- is DC's conduct over the lifetime of the original work. Say what you will about Moore and Gibbons' faith in having the work returned to them when it slipped out of print. Call it naive, call it clueless, wrap yourself in hard-man certainty that you would have done things differently had you been around at the time. That the project was going to return to the creators is indeed what everyone believed was going to happen, to the point it was bragged about in comics circles. This means that when that turned out not to be the case DC was violating the spirit of the agreement. They then turned around and messed with the actual agreement through the "licensed items as promotional items" stunt. When this and other actions lost them the services of Alan Moore, they eventually reclaimed those services by buying a company for which Moore was working at exactly the time during that work when he was least likely to leave. They promised him a specific working arrangement that when it suited them they violated, for what seems like in hindsight stupid-ass, arbitrary reasons. Their stewardship of the comic in question as a movie property led to a slightly clueless misfire of a Watchmen film, turning the greatest work of its genre into another movie that comes on opposite The Hangover and 27 Dresses on a random Saturday night. There were a thousand minor cuts, too. More recently, I believed DC has played a role in allowing Moore to become an object of derision. Heck, one of the authors they had doing publicity work for the More Watchmen project even mocked the author's pretension and perceived lack of reason in the course of that publicity campaign.

12. That yields a depressing irony, of course. Because of the movie, because of the open derision of Moore, and because many of the surface elements have been redone to death by lesser creators, doing More Watchmen has become less of a creative risk than it would have been at an earlier time. Seeing that ridiculous Comedian cover would have seemed much more absurd before we saw spinning, kung-fu Rorschach. The idea that the creator that gave us Walkabout Superman would really be hired to write more of this work would have seemed absurd when he was following in the footsteps of Creative Genius Alan Moore, and seems much less so now that he's following Crazy, Snake-Worshipping, Dismissive Alan Moore that can't get a decent movie made and is a hypocrite besides. Looking at ten years of comics Internet activity even with a much more useless brain isn't that far off from what Ozymandias was doing with all of western culture via that bank of TVs. That experience tells me that the reputation of Watchmen has declined just enough that the original work and its creators -- even and maybe especially Moore, who wants nothing to do with them -- will shoulder a significant part of any blame to go around if these new books don't hit.

13. I'm sort of at a loss when it comes to explaining what Alan Moore has done that makes so many fans quick to mock and criticize him. If you feel like you've been poorly treated, how is it a bad thing to say so in forthright fashion? As far as I can figure out, the only real thing Moore's done during the entire process that would make me want to say something to him were he to do it at a dinner party is be quick to criticize creators with whose work he's not entirely familiar, and to too easily conflate a certain kind of superhero comic book making with all of comics. I think those using Moore's statements as a way to drive attention to what they're doing share the blame in these incredibly minor acts of ingratitude finding expression, but mostly I'm not certain it's a big deal. The fact that we wave off the open exploitation of corporations and their actors as "well, that's what they do" and we somehow can't process when a human being acts, well, human -- that makes me sad.

14. One gets the feeling that Moore's biggest crime in the eyes of many is his failure to be properly appreciative of the money made on his behalf. Note this places the moneymaking itself squarely on the business partner facilitating the product rather than the creative person making it, which is already dubious to my mind. The absolute and frequently expressed inability of people from comics fans to fellow comics creators who should know better to realize that a creator might not hold making as much money as is possible the ultimate goal of art is astonishing to me, and distressing. There are other values, arguably more noble ones, and even if you don't think so you shouldn't get to decide what someone else's should be.

15. I'm not sure which line of argumentation in comics circles was dimmer: the way the notion of "hypocrisy" is processed, or making an equivalent between what Moore does with characters based on other characters and DC doing what they're doing with More Watchmen. If you really want to and are willing to work the examples with as much fury as you can muster, you can find hypocrisy in the actions of everyone from Gandhi to Abraham Lincoln to King David on key issues in relation to which we properly credit their achievements. In some cases, the move from one way of thinking to another is even the point. It also used to be that underlining someone's hypocritical statements was a way of indicting their statements because it was based on what they're doing right at the time, not some expectation that a person 100 percent endorse the most absolute view of something their entire lives in every aspect you can discern or as a result risk being shouted down. As for comparing Moore's use of James Bond or Voldemoort or Dorothy Gale or even The Peacemaker with the More Watchmen effort, that just seems so clearly to me not the same thing by a thousand degrees I can only look on at anyone making that argument with bafflement. I don't even know how to articulate a counter-argument. From my perspective, it's not saying "the sky isn't blue; it's green" it's saying "the sky isn't blue; it's refrigerator."

16. That More Watchmen represents the triumph of brand over literary content, I think is more true than overly facile. Watchmen the work doesn't require a sequel and never did. Watchmen the collection of cool characters and isolated story moments and licensing opportunities demands one. It may really be that simple.

17. I'm also not certain how you can see this as anything but a step away from the wider cultural message of Watchmen back in the 1980s: that authors matter, that original work can be rewarded on the same level as reworking someone else's ideas, that comics have literary and culture value for their ideas and expressive force above and beyond their value as entertainment product. I might call DC foolish if they were touting these sequel books as a match for Watchmen's artistic achievement, but that this idea isn't even on the table may be scarier. This is a toy line. This is a happy meal. This is "based on." This is product.

18. I'm dubious of the notion of applying bottom-line considerations to actions that have aspects that don't involve said bottom-line. Still, I think it's fair to point out that DC's treatment of Moore may have cost DC in the long run. DC has built its current empire on a great book program, the clever revamping of characters it owns, and the creation of some original content with enduring value. Moore is really good at all of those things. DC's significant role in the marketplace -- I think sometimes earned in underhanded ways, like negotiating a deal with a distributor and not telling anyone about that deal's salient details the way they did more recently than published Watchmen -- guarantees them some access to the work of creators working in all of these key areas. And yet I have to imagine their general policies and even this specific action may cost them a few. I know I'd rather work with Eric Stephenson than Dan DiDio right now. Wouldn't you?

19. This may sound strange, and I don't know that I should be bringing it up here. I don't really believe in boycotts. I very much believe in making moral and ethical choices about what you consume. I applaud anyone that does so. But I'm very much dubious of boycott mechanisms as perceived tools for changing policy. I don't think they have real value except in some cases where a company is vulnerable to the wider perception issue and makes a utilitarian choice to cave rather than negotiate the "controversy" as another PR get. In cases like More Watchmen, I think the companies involved are very much insulated from even an unlikely significant drop in profits and bad publicity. If profits are five percent less than what they should be at a comics company, everything we know about the last two decades indicates it's much more likely more people will be fired and page rates reduced than policy changed. I think if you're going to promote a response in terms of its bottom-line efficacy, you need to really grapple with what that is and why that is. Otherwise, if you don't pull it off, your failure to do so becomes a tacit endorsement of the virtues of that you're trying to foil. That doesn't mean I don't think you should do them; I just think you need to be careful how they're presented. A boycott isn't really a boycott if all it does is make you feel better about where you're directing your anger, if the expression of it in a blog post is a bigger deal than its eventual economic impact. I'm at fault for taking a lot of cheap shots at people the last couple of weeks for the joy of seeing my anger reflected back to me in a lot of right-on, right-back-atcha statements from my peers. For all the fun writing that's been put out there, I'm not sure we're any closer to seeing this doesn't happen again. Alan Moore's statement that he just didn't want to see this happen remains for me the most painful moment in this whole matter, and I'm not sure we've found a way yet for it not to happen to the next guy.

20. So what should we do? I think it behooves us to talk about these matters, even if part of maintaining the status quo is that extended discussion about serious issues be characterized as boring and lame if it goes on for more than a day and isn't expressed in language that makes us feel good in fuck-yeah ways about our own positions. There are discussions worth having that don't end in a high-five. I think it's good to be honest about the fact that these are specific decisions that distinguish some actors from other actors -- that it's as possible for DC not to have done this than for them to have done this, and that maybe you really are much better off in the long run not taking certain kinds of money and opportunities when it can come back to bite you on the ass.

21. Ten days or so past the official announcement, I'm thinking More Watchmen may be best understood as a blow to comics' dignity. It's product, not art. It's a limited, small series of ideas derived from a bigger, grander one. It's sad. One thing that Watchmen did a quarter century ago was to underline certain values of craft and intent and creative freedom that have helped to yield enough equivalent expressions -- to my mind even grander expressions -- that we may now see this follow-up project for what it is: nothing special. Not Moore. More.
posted 2:10 pm PST | Permalink

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