The Watchmen graphic novel is generally credited to two people: writer Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. But those who stick around for the credits in HBO’s Watchmen will only see Dave Gibbons’ name. Same with the credits of Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen film.
At this point, Moore’s opposition to DC Comics and Warner Bros.’ use of Watchmen is as well known as his co-creation of it. But when comics people talk about whether or not Moore has a bone to pick, and whether or not Warner Bros. has any obligation towards him, they rarely unpack the full details of Moore’s long-standing feud with DC Comics and its origins.
The simplest way to put it is that Alan Moore doesn’t approve of Watchmen continuations. But for the full story, of a multinational corporation and a famously hermetic creator both refusing to play nice, we have to begin at the beginning.
The death of the Peacemaker
While Watchmen is famous for putting the superhero genre under a lens, the graphic novel began life as something much more specific. In 1983, as part of a long line of IP deals, DC Comics purchased the rights to most of the library of struggling publisher Charlton Comics, home of Captain Atom, Blue Beetle and the Question. In the same year, the company hired 30-year-old British writer Alan Moore for the first time, to take over the poorly-selling The Saga of the Swamp Thing.
During this period, Moore had been mulling over a murder mystery project, set in a world of classic hopeful costumed vigilantes, but aged a few decades and taken deadly seriously. His initial intention was to do it with a set of real characters who’d actually seen popularity in the Golden Age of comics. Since DC was possession of Charlton’s stable, but had no immediate plans to use it, Moore pitched Death of the Peacemaker.
“The story was about super-heroes, and it didn’t matter which super-heroes it was about, as long as the characters had some kind of emotional resonance, that people would recognize them,” Moore told Comic Book Artist magazine in 2000, “so it would have the shock and surprise value when you saw what the reality of these characters was [...] We thought the Charlton characters would provide us with a great line-up that had a lot of emotional nostalgia, with associations and resonance for the readership.”
At this point, Moore had revived Swamp Thing, Deadman, and Etrigan the Demon; created John Constantine; and written one of the most enduring Superman stories ever told. On the strength of that work, and on his previous turn creating a bleak but meaty modern take on a classic superhero with Marvelman, DC managing editor Dick Giordano greenlit Peacemaker — with a caveat.
DC editorial had decided to incorporate the Charlton Comics universe into the DC Universe in its upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths event, and was reluctant to make them available for a story in which they would be murdered, implicated in murder, or otherwise made very difficult to fit, tonally, with the main DC Comics universe. Giordano managed to convince Moore that the story would still work with original characters, albeit carefully crafted ones that had enough familiar elements to evoke nostalgia in the reader.
And so, Charlton’s Peacemaker morphed into the equally Nick Fury-inspired Comedian. Captain Atom’s powerset was given a significant quantum upgrade to the exponentially more powerful Doctor Manhattan. The Question devolved to Mr. A and mutated from there. The Blue Beetle merged with a Golden Age Batman, while Lady Nightshade’s identity was almost entirely discarded in favor of of backstories from Black Canary and other Golden Age femme fatales.
“At first, I didn’t think we could do the book with simply characters that were made-up,” Moore said in the same interview, “because I thought that would lose all of the emotional resonance those characters had for the reader, which I thought was an important part of the book. Eventually, I realized that if I wrote the substitute characters well enough, so that they seemed familiar in certain ways, certain aspects of them brought back a kind of generic super-hero resonance or familiarity to the reader, then it might work.”
And so, Death of the Peacemaker, now called Watchmen, went ahead. And with the understanding that Moore and Gibbons would be creating original work, they and DC agreed on a contract. In a way that neither DC or Moore or Gibbons could have known, that contract was inked in the last days before a comics readership revolution, one they themselves would help create.
The dawn of the graphic novel
Comics are distributed all kinds of ways in 2019. You can find them in specialty shops and in digital apps, and on the shelves of both Walmart and Barnes & Noble. But in 1985, there was no book market for comics. A series was usually published monthly and almost certainly never again.
Not so for Watchmen. Along with The Dark Knight Returns, published a year later, Watchmen was among the first American comics to gain widespread mainstream success — and profitability — as a collected bookstore edition.
Moore and Gibbons’ contract became an instant relic of a bygone time. The deal stated, by their specific request, that they were not producing the book under a standard work-for-hire arrangement, in which DC would own their output outright. Instead, the rights to Watchmen would be returned to Moore and Gibbons at a point when the series and its merchandise were no longer profitable — which, in that era, all parties would have expected to happen within a few years.
It’s clear that this is how Moore and Gibbons considered the arrangement. In 1986, with the book’s popularity exploding, a fan asked the two whether they “actually” owned Watchmen at a panel at the UK Comic Art Convention.
“My understanding is that when Watchmen is finished and DC have not used the characters for a year, they’re ours,” Moore responded. Gibbons chimed in:
Gibbons: They pay us a substantial amount of money ...
Moore: … to retain the rights. So basically they’re not ours, but if DC is working with the characters in our interests then they might as well be. On the other hand, if the characters have outlived their natural life span and DC doesn’t want to do anything with them, then after a year we’ve got them and we can do what we want with them, which I’m perfectly happy with.
Gibbons: What would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that, but I’ve got enough faith in them that I don’t think that they’d do that. I think because of the unique team they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over to do Watchmen II or anything else like that, and we’ve certainly got no plans to do Watchmen II.
That aged well, didn’t it?
The success of Watchmen
Watchmen became DC Comics’ most critically and commercially successful book, and a property too lucrative to ever trip the caveat in Moore and Gibbons’ contract.
Gibbons has seemed to take the slow realization of that reality — that he and Moore may as well have just signed a standard work-for-hire contract — in stride from day one, perhaps out of resigned realism. He even “returned” to the series in 2008, to create Watching the Watchmen, an art book/memoir about his time creating the graphic novel, timed for the 2009 movie, which he has said he was “basically thrilled with.”
But for Moore, characteristically, DC Comics’ adherence to the letter of the contract rather than its spirit clearly rankled his pride. After the final issue of Watchmen shipped in late 1987, Moore wrote the instantly iconic Batman: The Killing Joke and the final installments of V for Vendetta at DC. And in that two year period, he lost faith that the company would keep its promise.
There are also additional reports that he and Gibbons received only two percent of the company’s Watchmen profits, and had clashes with DC editorial over merchandising royalties and Mature Reader warnings being placed on Moore’s books. (Though Moore has denied that he was upset about content warning labels.) DC also encouraged Moore and Gibbons to produce a sequel or prequel to Watchmen, though no pitch could be agreed upon, and Moore flatly refused to sanction any such project without the direct involvement of himself and Gibbons.
After penning three of DC Comics’ historically best-selling books, Moore left mainstream comics entirely in 1989, and swore off working for DC in particular. In 2006, he recalled the decision to the New York Times: “I said, ‘Fair enough. You have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.’“
But then he was forced to
For 10 years, Moore published comics only through indie presses and his own newly minted publishing company. In 1993 he began working with Image Comics, recently founded by a crop of American comics artists and entrepreneurs who had also explosively split from a major comics publisher over compensation and creative rights. But while working with those independent artists, Moore found himself, against his will, working with DC Comics again.
Jim Lee, one of the founders of Image, invited Moore to form his own imprint under Lee’s Wildstorm Comics. Moore accepted, laying down plans for what would become America’s Best Comics, home of Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promethea, Top Ten, and Tom Strong. At roughly the same time Lee found a buyer for Wildstorm in the midst of the turbulent waters of American comics’ post-speculator-bubble period. In January of 1999, before publishing a single title, America’s Best Comics became a DC Comics property.
In 2006, then-President of DC Comics Paul Levitz told the New York Times that he’d simply assumed that Moore would quit once he found out about the acquisition. Instead, because he didn’t want to put his artist collaborators out of their jobs, Moore decided to stay on. “It seemed easier to bite the bullet meself [sic],” he told the Times.
He was assured that DC editorial would not interfere with their work, a promise that did not pan out. DC blocked one short America’s Best story for being too similar to another by DC’s Paradox Press imprint, and pulped an entire print run of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for containing a recreation of an actual Victorian-era advertisement for “Marvel Whirling Spray Syringes” from the Marvel Company of New Haven Connecticut (in other words, a Marvel-brand douche). Frustrated, Moore cut ties once again.
The ’00s saw Moore’s work rise to unprecedented prominence, with film adaptations of From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, Constantine, and Watchmen. With the possible exception of From Hell, all of these adaptations frustrated Moore, from deviations from story, to having his views misrepresented to press by producers, to having to testify in court that he did not plagiarize The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from a Hollywood screenwriter.
It was during this stretch that Moore began his famous habit of asking that his name to be removed from all adaptations of work he had created but did not own. He has also refused royalties from those projects.
Rock, meet the hard place
Here in 2019, Dave Gibbons’ 1986 quote about how “horrendous” it would be for DC Comics to create Watchmen continuations is hilariously prophetic. At HBO, Warner Bros. and DC Comics are producing what is essentially a Watchmen II.
And as for prequels, Moore told Wired magazine nearly a decade ago that he had been approached by DC Comics editors, who offered to sign over the rights to Watchmen if he agreed to a stipulation that would allow artists other than himself and Dave Gibbons to create more Watchmen content. He refused. Two years later, DC Comics published Before Watchmen, a group of eight miniseries and one one-shot comic that told the stories of various Watchmen characters before the events of the comics.
More recently, DC Comics published Doomsday Clock, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Gary Frank, in which Rorschach literally crosses over with Batman. At this point, it doesn’t seem like a pattern that DC or Warner Bros. intended to change.
And it seems even less likely that Moore will.
In the same year that Before Watchmen premiered, Moore told Nottingham, England’s LeftLion magazine that he sees his refusal to be named or compensated for projects he doesn’t agree with as a way of taking some power over the situation.
“You can’t buy that kind of empowerment. To just know that as far as you are aware, you have not got a price; that there is not an amount of money large enough to make you compromise even a tiny bit of principle that, as it turned out, would make no practical difference anyway.”