Capping off a particularly intense week of scrutiny from the comics industry over their general business practices and approach towards creator rights, DC Entertainment co-publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee sat down to discuss the controversial upcoming Before Watchmen prequel series on a panel at The LA Times Festival of Books this weekend. In lively and amicable discussions with both fans and the press, the co-publishers managed to not only subtly position the company as courting the controversy Before Watchmen is stirring up but seemed to be reveling in it as well.
Announced earlier this year, Before Watchmen consists of a series of prequels to the seminal Watchmen graphic novel, focusing on the earlier lives of iconic characters such as Rorschach and The Comedian. Although the project boasts some of the best creators now working—Darwyn Cooke, Lee Bermejo, Brian Azzarello and J. Michael Straczynski—it has been the subject of vocal opposition from author Alan Moore and much skepticism that it is simply a sales stunt and not a legitimate follow-up to a work that is generally thought of as a literary landmark.
But it's also only part of DC's recent controversy where creators are concerned. In response to questions from Publishers Weekly about DC’s decision last Friday to fire Chris Roberson off of the Fairest arc (a spinoff of the Fables series from DC’s Vertigo imprint), after the author publicly declared the project would be his last with the company, Didio responded, “As far as I’m concerned, he made a very public statement about not wanting to work for DC and we honored that statement.“ Roberson tweeted his decision last Wednesday, then further elaborated on his stance to Comic Book Resources and other sites Thursday, citing a widely read opinion piece blogger David Brothers posted on Wednesday at Comics Alliance entitled “The Ethical Rot Behind Before Watchmen and The Avengers” as illustrative of his ethical concerns over the dismissive attitude he feels the company has displayed towards Watchmen creator Moore’s express wishes that DC not move forward with the prequels.
When asked how he, as a creator himself, reconciled what Roberson had to say about DC’s stance on creator rights, Lee (artist on the recent New 52 title JLA #1 and countless other bestselling titles) replied, “As a creator, I would not publicly state that I have a problem with the company that’s paying me to do work for them. It would seem wise to me to wait till you finish that project to voice that complaint.” He then proceeded to mention Brothers’ Comics Alliance piece, stating, “Chris (alluded) to an article on Comics Alliance and in it he talks about how Alan Moore has been unjustly and morally treated and in this bit of journalism he only cites interviews that Alan has given.”
In regard to how, as a creator, he reconciled his position with Moore’s disagreement with the project, Lee replied, “This is not a situation where we have taken things from Alan. He signed the agreement and yet he said that he didn’t read the contract. I can’t force him to read his contract. Alan has said that explicitly, I don’t feel bad saying that again. It’s not a situation where we’re exploiting or using the characters and Alan’s not being compensated. For everything that’s been done for The Watchmen, money has gone his way. And it’s the right amount that he deserves based on the contract, so we have honored that part of the agreement. It’s not a situation where we’re exploiting or using the characters and Alan’s not being compensated. For everything that’s been done for The Watchmen, from the books to the movie, money has gone his way. And it’s the right amount that he deserves based on the contract. It is something that can definitely be debated but to say there’s clearly one side that’s right, I would dispute that.”
In the court of comics industry punditry, one side has clearly emerged as the victor in the debate as to whether Watchmen should remain a standalone work of graphic literature or become another product for DC Entertainment to mine for licensing opportunities. While the Before Watchmen series has its supporters, detractors of the project are legion, vocal, and, often, high profile. It comes as no surprise to Lee that the ranks of those detractors include his former partners and co-workers at Image Comics, Eric Larsen and Eric Stephenson. Lee, who helped found Image 20 years ago, laughed, “Image has their model and strategy—I helped them invent it so I know what it is. If you want to get heard you say it in the most polarizing way possible, “ in reference to recent statements by Larsen and Stephenson and Image’s creator-owned model of comics publishing.
However, DC Entertainment may have another hit on its hands with Before Watchmen where it counts for them and parent company Time Warner – the bottom line. Both Didio and Lee said they are seeing the same kind of level of interest in Before Watchmen that the launch of last Summer’s New 52 line generated. Such claims, at least anecdotally, do not appear to be hype on their parts. Some calls to direct market comic book stores on Sunday confirmed that customer interest in the project is high with one retailer saying off the record, “We’re ordering big and expecting to sell a lot.” Another retailer confirmed high levels of customer interest and noted that the order lead time on Before Watchmen is longer than other DC titles, indicating that, in their opinion, DC is taking greater care than usual to make sure the art holds up to the high standards set by The Watchmen’s legacy of critical acclaim.
Additionally, reports from the Diamond Retailer Summit at C2E2 last week, are causing some still quite vocal critics of this recent business move by DC to concede that the art is looking good. And some retailers who were in attendance, with tastes that tend to run along the more artsy side of the comics spectrum, are now also rumored to be quietly on board with the project after seeing preview pages. Indeed, both Didio and Lee seemed very confident in the final product, with Lee saying that,” Every single one of the creators working on these books thinks they can outdo or match what’s been done. These guys are true artists and I think people are going to be very pleasantly surprised by it.”
Regardless, the debates about which should rein supreme, commerce or art, and the controversy over creator rights surrounding the project, derisively referred to as "More Watchmen" by some comics commentators, will undoubtedly rage on. Only time will tell whether or not Before Watchmen will mark the continuation of a mythology and universe along the lines of other characters within the DC Universe or whether it will go the way of other similarly hyped but eventually unremarkable follow ups such as Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley's sequel to Gone With the Wind—which, unlike Before Watchmen, were officially sanctioned by the estate of the original author. One thing, however, is certain—Time Warner’s revenues will be the final judge.