Monthly Archives: February 2012

Alan Moore: The Biography

In November next year, Aurum Press will be publishing a book by me, a biography of Alan Moore, an author who I assume needs no introduction to most of the people reading this blog.

This is why my bookshelves look like this at the moment:

I’m sure I’ll be talking about this book at length over the next two years, so I won’t go into too much detail today.

I’ve wanted to write this for a long time. Back in the early nineties, I was at the University of York, one of my Professors was Hermione Lee, and she was working on her biography of Virginia Woolf.   (Oh, I’ve just realised today is the 29th February, and so it’s Hermione Lee’s birthday. Happy birthday, sweet sixteen!). I remember thinking ‘I wish someone would write a book like this about Alan Moore’. This was a faintly silly thing to say then, but twenty years on it makes a lot more sense. We’ve had time to see Moore’s career and the industry evolve, to see the influence he’s had (and perhaps just as importantly the paths not taken). I think a ‘literary biography’ of Alan Moore is now entirely appropriate.

One question I’ve been asked which I think I should answer straight away is how this will differ from both my own The Pocket Essential Alan Moore, and from Gary Spencer Millidge’s book Alan Moore: Storyteller, which came out last summer.

The Pocket Essential is, as books in the series are meant to be, a slim, quick overview. About half the text is a bibliography. If you want a primer to Moore, or if you want to see just how much more he’s written than V for Vendetta and Watchmen, then it’s a good book for you. It’s also now out in ebook form.

Storyteller is a great book, and anyone interested in Alan Moore should have a copy on their shelves. It’s got a host of never-before-seen material and true rarities. It has a lot of time for Moore’s underground work, his music and performance art (areas that my Pocket Essential barely touched on). It comes with a CD which includes some songs that I didn’t even know had ever been recorded.

The book I’m writing is going to be a more conventional biography, one that would be at home in the Biography section of a bookshop. It’s going to be ten times longer than the Pocket Essential and will have taken me, by the time I’m done, nearly three years to write. This is going to be, I hope, the definitive literary biography that explores the life and career of Alan Moore and goes a little wider than either my previous book or Storyteller, placing Moore in the context of the British and American comics industry, as well as the underground, occult and countercultural scenes. It’s going to include a mass of original interviews – I’m hoping that where there are two sides to a story, both are represented in full – and a lot of analysis. Tons of facts and figures, names and dates.

This is a book that I hope will appeal to a wide range of people. I think Alan Moore is one of the most interesting and important living British writers. He’s highly visible, too. Just in the last couple of months, we’ve seen the influence he’s been: Anonymous and Occupy make use of the V mask, and there was a huge amount of discussion of the Watchmen prequels. He’s shown up on the Channel Four News, he delivered a marvelous Thought for the Day on Radio 4.

So, yes, I hope my book will be of use to people who are not avid comics fans who are curious about him. But I also hope that even the most knowledgeable comics fan will read it and go ‘well, I never knew that’. I’m unearthing all sorts of things and finding all sorts of connections that I didn’t know about.

Alan Moore is often seen as a wild and eccentric figure, and clearly that’s part of the mix … but, at the same time, it’s often struck me that a lot of what interests and drives him seems remarkably consistent and level-headed. Moore is often treated as though he’s sui generis, but he is almost always consciously working within, and working with the conventions of, a rich tradition. There are contradictions and complexities about, say, an individualistic artistic talent working for a multimedia conglomerate. There are interesting things to say about the nature of ‘originality’ in art generally, and in an often derivative genre like superhero comics more specifically. Above all else, Moore often writes big, complex books about big, complex things. I think there are many big, meaty things to talk about, and my hope is that I’ll be writing a big, meaty book that tackles them.

Comics: The Digital Future

DC announced last week that they would be continuing Smallville in comics form. Like Firefly and so many other shows before it, Smallville had a lot of potential, but a cruel network didn’t cut it any slack and fans were left gasping for more.

This is, of course, sarcasm.

I am, god help me, quite fond of Smallville. Not so fond that I’m in any way tempted by the SIXTY TWO DISC boxset, but I ended up watching virtually all of it and enjoying most of what I saw. Don’t ask me to explain why using logic. Don’t ask me to suggest a great episode – although a dozen really bad ones just leapt straight to mind. The stories were corny, the dialogue consisted solely of random words along the broad theme of having to follow your heart. The serial storytelling and attention to detail were almost surreally bad. One of the regular characters lost their virginity on two separate occasions. Oh wait, did I say ‘one’ character? Make that ‘three’. I think part of the appeal for me is that Smallville was, even though I think the people making it were aiming in the exact opposite direction, a very faithful updating of the ramshackle, nonsensical, don’t-think-about-what-you’re-reading-for-even-a-second, psychologically bizarre, reset switch obsessed original Superboy comics from the fifties.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the comics version of Smallville is that it’s a comic  that DC are planning to release digitally first, then collect into a monthly comic.

Is this the future? There’s an optimistic version of circumstances that says that it is. Smallville is, Zod bless it, a show that two million people were watching until recently. In story terms, it was always a gateway: it’s the story of how Clark Kent became Superman. It was on the CW and had more appeal to women and youngsters than the regular monthly Superman comics (admittedly you wouldn’t need a very long pole to vault over that particular bar). Add some good old fashioned corporate synergy and note that it means the franchise is still going, so it might prompt a few people to pick up that DVD boxset and next year we’re getting a big Superman movie, and … well, Smallville would seem ideally placed.

I’m sure that the DC people have put out a pitch like that. I’m equally sure that, deep down, they know that the Smallville comic won’t set the world on fire. That publishing it as a digital comic is a way of offsetting costs and trying a few things out. The market for digital comics is what’s euphemistically referred to as a ‘growing’ one. Or, to put it another way, if a print comic got 5000 sales it would be a disaster, if the Smallville digital comic does, then DC will be able to claim it as a great victory.

There’s clearly potentially a huge market for digital comics. Kindles and iPads are content-hungry little things, and comics can provide a visual bang and thoughtful entertainment.

Damn, that was meant to be the cover of Persepolis. Anyway, moving on …

There’s a fundamental problem with digital comics as they stand, which is extremely easy to explain in a sentence: You can not tap into new digital markets by creating a period reenactment of the printed comic book.

Up until now, digital comics have basically been PDFs of real comics. ‘Enhancements’ have been fairly basic animation or primitive sound effects. If – like DC – you’ve got 75 years of backlist, something in the order of 100,000 individual titles, then even if you manage only to get a few cents a week from each one, it all adds up. But this is not the future. This is the past, an intern and a scanner.

What printed comics do well, digital comics do badly.

Above all, what current comics fans have bought into is the fetishisation of the object. We have been encouraged to think of comics as limited edition art prints, as investments, as things … things that must be kept safe and treasured and stored carefully.

There’s some basis for that. If you bought the first year’s worth of The Walking Dead, say, then you can make a tidy little return on your investment.

Printed comics do have intrinsic value. Not always as much as we’d like, and the reality is that the market in the late eighties and early nineties was vastly bigger than now, so there are lots and lots of those comics out there, but even so, if you’ve got a longbox of comics that you enjoyed reading and didn’t manage to spill anything on, the chances are you’ve got a box that you can sell to a comic shop for a three figure sum. Any halfway discerning reader has a box of things worth many times what they paid for it.

How engrained is this reverence of the physical object, the collector impulse, to the comic reader psyche? Sales of digital comics are a closely-guarded secret. We have had snippets of information. One report concerns DC’s new ‘bundled’ comics where you buy a paper comic and a redemption code for the digital version.

“Rood told ICv2 that the redemption of the digital codes in DC’s digital combo packs has been “astonishingly low,” a fact he attributed to the purchasers of those books being primarily interested in collecting a different edition of the material they like.”

In other words, virtually everyone buying digital comics this way is a comic fan completist who bought the bundled issue because it’s a rare ‘variant’ of the regular printed comic. They aren’t interested in redeeming. They want a limited edition art print to store as an investment.

This is somewhat ironic.

Digital comics are not, can not, will never be, those limited editions, keep-them-safe investments. Oh, they could be engineered to be. You could create digital ‘variants’ and control supply and so on. But it goes against the whole spirit of digital media, and comics fans are usually very cynical and suspicious of artificial scarcity. Usually.

You can’t fetishise a digital comic. You can’t lovingly rearrange your collection, or spend a few minutes wondering if Batman Inc goes in the Batman box or the Grant Morrison box. You can’t buy two copies, one to read, one as an investment. You can’t feel that agony of putting a slight rip in the cover, thus making it a Harvey Dentesque scarred parody of a comic unfit to be seen in public (I can actually remember the instant I did this to my copy of Batman 404 …. Nooooooooooo!!!!!). You can’t gloat that you bought a book before it was hot, or feel that pang of the one that got away. The impermanence, the fragility … it’s part of the deal.

And, good grief, that aspect of comic collecting is often far more fun than actually reading the things.

But this whole side of comic collecting is out the window for digital comics. I mean … you could simulate it. How about digital comics that develop folds and creases and fade every time you read them? How about designing virtual comic bags and boxes, and if you don’t buy them and put your digital comics in them, the pages start to go yellow?

Someone at DC just read that and read it again and muttered ‘brilliant!’. No, not brilliant. I mean, don’t get me wrong: it’s *my idea*. If you do it, I want money. I want a cut of the proceeds from each virtual mylar bag sold. Net, not gross. I said proceeds, not profits. But, no, it’s not a brilliant idea.

Digital comics have to play to their strengths, not try to reenact the strengths of another medium.

So … what does that mean?

There’s nothing sacred or artistically-driven about the format of the standard American comic book. The modern mainstream printed comic book did not come about for any reason except practical considerations. They are monthly publications, they have to hit a certain price point, they carry paid advertising and house ads, they are almost all sold through specialist comic shops to a five figure number of existing fans who buy multiple titles. You triangulate the number of pages an artist can draw month in, month out; the size of shelves in comic shops; the revenue you can expect; and you end up with what we have: quite a small magazine, with about 20 pages of story.

Everything points to standardisation of size – from what the printing presses are set up to do, to the retailers looking to plan ahead, to readers wanting to store comics in boxes.

Digital comics don’t have to be like that at all, as virtually none of those considerations apply to digital comics. This isn’t to say that digital is a polymorphous wonderland where anything goes. Websites have their own design constrictions and expectations. Success is usually measured by clicks, so you’ll have slideshows instead of putting all the pictures on the page. You improve your Google results by being mentioned on other websites, so you do what you can about that. You have to think how your page will look on a laptop, on an iPad, on a smartphone. There are still some of the same limitations – you’re never going to get [insert artist here] to draw many more pages a month than he’s already drawing.

I think digital comics do need to be longer. Twenty pages for $3 is not a very good deal. They take five or six minutes to read, even if you read them intensely. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that your Moores, Morrisons and Bendises are so popular … it physically takes longer to read their books. They often require a re-read. This is a good thing.

What the bold new digital comics of the future will look like is anyone’s guess. I think there are some obvious, if a little gimmicky, ways of telling some fun stories that way.

A Promethea style radicalism is coming, now we don’t need to start in the top left of page 1 and end on the dot of the bottom right of page 22. Comics that are huge virtual posters that you wander around, or which you can start on any page, or which are five pages long one issue and fifty the next. JLA comics where the team splits up and you decide whether to go with Superman or Aquaman and the comic seamlessly follows your choices.

That’s not really what interests me, at least not at the moment. Writers and artists will inevitably figure all that out, it’s what they do with every new medium. I’m interested, at the moment, in the business model and what niche digital comics will find for themselves. Why go digital?

Like the makers of any product with aging, loyal consumers, the people who publish comics are a little worried. They want new readers. Now, in theory, something like an iPad storefront puts digital comics a few clicks away from everyone with the device. DC relaunched their entire range with, in large part, that in mind, creating dozens of jumping on points for new and more casual readers.

So … what happened?

Here’s a statistic for you from this survey of readers of the DC relaunch titles:
5% of readers were new to comics, 7% were women, 2% were under 18.

If I was a comics publisher, I’d look at that and see three panic buttons. Personally, my first instinct is that there’s something flawed about the survey. I’d be surprised if only 2% of the audience was under eighteen. But … I’d be equally surprised if it was more than 20%. Same with women. More women read comics than that … but not many more. As for that 5% … I’m going to be honest: that could have been worse.

I imagine it’s the first one that worries DC most.

Marketing people love to tell stories about their ideal consumer. I bet they came up with a New 52 ideal consumer, and I bet the story went something like ‘Dan’s a young man, in college or a recent graduate, and he’s not got vast disposable income, but he’s got enough to buy the latest video game. He spends three hours a day reading content on his iPad. He came across the DC Comics storefront while surfing and said ‘wow, yeah, Batman. I recognise the name Batman. And that cover makes it look great. And it’s only a few dollars. Sure – I’ll give it a go!’.

DC want to be publishing something that’s the equivalent of Top Gear magazine, say. Something with great brand recognition, something eye-catching, fresh, an impulse purchase. You won’t necessarily know the day the new issue comes out, you won’t buy every single issue, but you’ll buy it more often than not.

What comics publishers actually have is more like a whole range of magazines like Carburetor Monthly, and a bunch of readers who’ve bought that magazine for decades and secretly resent the fact it’s now published on glossy paper. They’ve already read the solicitations for May and know which they’re buying and which they might buy. They’re hobbyists and effectively subscribers.

The current quest is to find a way to sell Carburetor Monthly to casual readers.

It’s never going to work. The existing comics format has been designed for print comics, to sell to established collectors, via specialist shops. More to the point, every single person writing, drawing and editing DC Comics is a fanboy. And I mean ‘boy’ – virtually every single creator is male. They all eat, drink and breathe comics. They all have the same blind spots, the same preferences, all live in the same walled garden.

There is nothing wrong with that, if you want to keep things as they are. There is nothing bad about dominating a small niche. You want to read about Carburetors, Carburetor Monthly can not be beat. What no one in mainstream comics seems to have grasped is that digital is not just the same garden, but with no need to cut down the trees to make the same comics.

Traditional comics publishers are completely failing to recognise and exploit the strengths of digital comics.

Try answering this question: which comic has the biggest readership, Superman (the flagship character of the biggest comics company) or Penny Arcade, (an online strip created and run by two videogame fans)?

Now, you may have guessed – correctly – that it’s a trick question and the answer is Penny Arcade. You’d be right. How close a fight is it? In 2010, say, how many regular readers did the Superman comic have, and how many did Penny Arcade get?

In 2010, the Superman comic averaged about 35,000 regular readers. Penny Arcade got 3.5 million and –

… needle scratch, sentence abruptly ends.

What?!

Yup. Penny Arcade had one hundred times as many readers.

This is not just better than printed comics now, that’s ten times what The Uncanny X-Men was selling when Claremont and Byrne were on the book. That’s insane, Image boom years numbers.

Yes. Penny Arcade is free, and a click away. Superman is $3 and in a comic shop. We’ll get back to that.

While I said that the new medium of digital comics demands new storytelling forms, I have to concede that digital has been brilliant for one of the more old-fashioned, discredited sections of the comics market. The three or four panel gag strip is thriving. It’s a great match – a new strip every day or so means a new hit, then ten or fifteen minutes clicking on the Random button to see some previous ones. They’re easy to read, easy to fit on an iPhone screen. It’s the perfect way for a writer and artist to make a short, sharp point. You can get topical humour up within an hour of the news breaking. If you asked me, I wouldn’t say I sought that type of comic strip out, but … wait: I check out xkcd, Penny Arcade and PhD Comics every day. That’s more than I do with most sites. Old favourites, like Doonesbury, are now syndicated on websites. More importantly, there’s a vibrant new generation of younger, edgier creators.

The internet allows niches to thrive. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter how obscure your interests, you’ll find a community online who are at least as into it as you. Every little quirk or kink or angle. A local paper would never publish Penny Arcade, because most of its readers would find the strip utterly baffling. The gaming community get the jokes. This is a strip by people like them, for people like them. Every person in the world in that community is a click away. Time Magazine thinks the Penny Arcade creators are more influential than the President of the USA, and the fact that says more about the decline of print journalism shouldn’t distract from the point that people will read digital comics, if it’s the right comic.

DC (and Marvel) are in a different market, to the point where you have to do a little mental gymnastics to remember that, yes, technically Penny Arcade and the Smallville comic are ‘the same medium’. But there are lessons they can learn. Here’s the main one: not one single person, ever, stumbled across the xkcd or Penny Arcade or PhD Comics sites while they were casually browsing the internet.

Every single person who reads those sites first saw one of those strips on another website, or their Facebook or Twitter feed, or a friend emailed a link.

The internet is the perfect medium, for SHARING pithy images and short joke strips.

The future of digital comics for a company like DC is not a storefront where you buy PDFs of printed comics, or bundles of PDFs of printed comics, or can buy printed comics by mail order. It’s not a blog with a few preview pages and press releases.

The future is the creation of a new  community for comic books fans. A new way of being a comics fan, of sharing that experience. A place for comics fans to gather.

Now, I don’t know what this promised land looks like. I do know that, if nurtured, it would be the hub for all – in this case – DC related activity on the internet. It would be what got linked back to, the place people headed. There would be levels and levels of it, it would be fun to explore, but very easy to find your way around.

Follow the Penny Arcade model – for each title, put up one new page a day, with a note from the writer or artist that’s about the page, or what inspired the page, or the challenge of creating that page, or … whatever. But something interesting and personal. Make that connection. Encourage people to share.

The selling point of digital, perversely perhaps, is that it allows content that’s immediate, new, fresh, instant. It’s where you get things that are hot off the drawing board, the latest news.

It wouldn’t have a forum, but there would be an area where fans can share the cool stuff they’ve been reading. It would include an update of the old letters pages, where only the most incisive comments and best questions are printed. It would be all about word of mouth. It would be a way for comic readers to go ‘hey, look at this’ and tell their Twitter followers, Facebook friends and put on Tumblr. Dc would reward them for funneling people their way by giving them free comics. Encourage them to be creative – to draw, to make videos, to mash things up, to parody.

If Penny Arcade can get 3.5 million people reading four panels a day, how many people would come when the whole of the DC Universe is there? Well … if it’s done right, plenty more.

Now, most companies pay good money to have the people who use their products sit around and say what they like and don’t like – it’s called a focus group. DC could let people in for free and listen carefully and understand that people don’t always mean what they say and that consumers have underlying motives and desires. The result would be comics that people liked better and bought more of. It would pay for itself. But if they’re not buying that as a business plan, there are other, more direct, ways to pay for this –  there could be adverts on the page, or sponsorship, you could redeem codes from printed comics or get a day in the community for every comic you buy from the website. Comics already have brand loyalty and the ability to create avid fans.

Don’t use digital technology to push stuff at consumers, use digital technology to draw consumers in.  Harness those nerds. Don’t sell the features, sell the benefits, sell the experience, sell the personal connection. Let people mill around, take their time. Be generous. Make it somewhere people want to go. Because if it’s somewhere people want to go, the people who are there now will start telling their friends to go there, too. The DC website feels like Best Buy. It should feel like the Apple Store.

Before Charlton

Every comics fan knows that Watchmen started out using a set of superheroes originally published by Charlton Comics. That company had gone bankrupt, DC had bought the rights.

The Charlton connection to Watchmen has been mentioned a lot this week. A Watchmen prequel series has been announced and it’s not going to have any involvement from Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons, writer and artist (and co-creators) of the original. Alan Moore is not happy about this. I posted my thoughts about this yesterday. So did many thousands of other people.

There are wider arguments, but that’s not what this post is about. I want to concentrate on just the way the Charlton issue has been invoked and the mindset it points to. Various comic book creators and commentators, involved with Before Watchmen or not, have referred to the Charlton heroes (there are some examples here) and expressed a sentiment that can be paraphrased as ‘Alan Moore shouldn’t get all huffy, he basically did the same thing’.

An Op/Ed on Newsarama talked about “the Charlton characters that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ story borrowed and altered slightly”. Dan Slott, said on Twitter, “The REAL “Before Watchmen” comic would show pages of Alan Moore reading stacks of Charlton Comics”.

We should not use our fanboy knowledge to fall into same trap as the film buffs who assert that Star Wars is ‘just’ Hidden Fortress or that Reservoir Dogs is ‘just’ City on Fire. There’s no argument, least of all from the original creators, that those earlier works are influences. The creators all acknowledged publicly, at the time of original release, that was the case. They weren’t shamed into a confession after they’d been caught out pilfering – they told us that was what they were doing. This is not passing off the work of others as their own, it’s certainly not them just remaking one story. In every case, it is a creator who knows his medium and the history of his medium inside out and who, explicitly and openly, draws on any number of earlier works to create theirs.

There’s a characteristic mix of fanboy encyclopedic knowledge and defensive posturing that leads to the same person hailing Alan Moore as a genius while saying he’s over-rated because he nicked everything.

I’m guessing that far more current comics fans came to the Charlton characters via Watchmen than came to Watchmen via the original Charlton comics. I’d go further: I doubt most of the people who mention the Charlton characters have ever read one of the original comics featuring them. And the reason I think this is because the idea that Watchmen is, at heart, the original Charlton comics ‘slightly altered’ is absurd.

First, let me wave my fanboy pedantry around. Watchmen did not ‘start off’ using the Charlton characters. Moore was interested in a self-contained, dark superhero series set in its own world with a small cast of superheroes (as opposed to the vast DC universe, which has thousands of them). He looked around for a generic, existing, currently unused superteam and alighted on the Mighty Crusaders. Quickly, though, he learned that DC had the rights to the Charlton characters and drew up an outline using those.

His original proposal was called Who Killed the Peacemaker? DC referred to it as the Charlton Project. There are character notes that use the Charlton characters. Just before any of this, completely unconnected to it, Dave Gibbons had drawn a piece of sample art featuring the Charlton characters with (DC stalwart) Superman.

Moore and Gibbons’ story would kill off some of the characters, though, and DC planned to integrate them all into the main DC universe (Blue Beetle and Captain Atom have monthly titles there to this day). The editors at DC persuaded Moore to come up with his own characters instead.

OK. So, before there were any contracts signed, before anything had been commissioned or any scripts had been written or pages drawn, the project changed so that Moore and Gibbons created a new set of characters. Once this happened, the shape of the project changed, it went from being a six part series to a twelve part one, it freed Moore and Gibbons up to create and change all sorts of things about the story and the world it was set in.

There’s no doubt that the characters in Watchmen map closely onto the Charlton originals: Peacemaker became the Comedian; Captain Atom/Dr Manhattan; Blue Beetle/Nite Owl; Nightshade/Silk Spectre; Thunderbolt/Ozymandias; The Question/Rorschach. No one has ever suggested otherwise. In interviews before Watchmen had been released, Moore had spelled out what the original plan had been. The notes reprinted in the original hardback (and current Absolute) editions make the connection.

Here’s the thing: the Charlton heroes were only ever part of the equation because they were so generic. Superheroes fall into a relatively small set of types – types of powers, types of personality. Yes, Nite Owl is very like Blue Beetle. He’s also very like Batman, Green Arrow, Daredevil and Moon Knight. If Moore had used the Mighty Crusaders, he would have told the same story and the Shield would have been the Peacemaker/Comedian. If he’d been writing a Marvel story, it would have been Captain America. Moore originally picked the Charlton heroes precisely because they didn’t really have much identity of their own, they didn’t come with the same baggage, associations and level of public affection that it would if it was a story about Superman and Batman.

No one who has read the original Charlton comics could possibly suggest that Watchmen is the Aldi own brand version. Here’s the original for Dr Manhattan, Captain Atom, in action, from an actual Charlton comic:

And here’s Dr Manhattan in Watchmen:

Not the same.

What’s telling, I think, is that most of the commentators who have invoked the Charlton connection talk about ‘the Charlton characters’. I think this is really interesting, perhaps the central issue.

Moore doesn’t talk about characters. He says that DC are “apparently dependent on ideas that I had twenty five years ago”. Likewise, Gibbons talks about Watchmen as being “the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell”. What does the statement from Dan Didio and Jim Lee at DC say? “It’s our responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant … after 25 years, the Watchmen are classic characters”.

Is this splitting hairs? What’s the difference? The implication from the DC side of things is that you can somehow detach the characters, that they exist independently of the narratives they appear in.

This, of course, is precisely what you can do with most characters DC publish. Batman, say, appears in movies, TV shows, video games, toy lines. There are seminal Batman stories, ‘must reads’ and so on, but … no, actually you don’t have to read them. You can immerse yourself in Batman stuff without ever reading Year One, The Killing Joke, Son of the Demon, Dark Knight Returns, The Long Halloween or whatever. Batman exists as a character quite separate from the comics. You could be an avid Batman fan who’s never read a comic. You could be a Batman fan, I imagine, who hates the comics version but digs the one in the Nolan movies.

It’s the old comic company logic: it doesn’t matter who writes or draws a comic – it’s the characters that people want to read about. It is, of course, much better for the publishers if the creators of a comic are interchangeable and replaceable. It is not better for readers, though, and it’s certainly not better for creators, whether they created the characters they work on or not.

As I said last time, Watchmen is not about the individual characters. Yes, you get people who really seem to identify with Rorschach (that’s a subject for a whole other essay, one by a psychiatrist), and Dr Manhattan is quite an extraordinary creation, but the point of Watchmen, really, what makes it stand out, is the structure. The different viewpoints of the narrative, the use of flashback, symmetry, motifs and so on. The characters’ lives are all interlocked like cogs in a watch. Even if you’ve only seen the film, that’s still the case.

Take a look at the Captain Atom and Dr Manhattan pages again. The entire method of storytelling is different. The subject matter, the level of the writing and art, the sophistication of the structure of the page and use of the medium. Alan Moore is not simply updating, rethinking or upgrading Captain Atom. Yes, he’s taking the Captain Atom premise – a being capable of perceiving things at an atomic level – but that’s it. It’s the story and how it’s told that are important, not the characters.

When – no one, surely, can doubt any longer that it’s ‘when’, not ‘if’ – DC plop Rorschach down in the mainstream DC universe, he’ll be just another superhero in the subset ‘borderline psychotic loner’. What’s his unique selling point? Oh yes … he’s the one from Watchmen.

I’ve not read the Before Watchmen Rorschach series, obviously. I like the writer and artist. They may have made it work. I can see ways to make it work. Go back to what Moore did, and think about Rorschach in terms of themes, politics and what it says about us. Make him sad and pathetic, show us what he isn’t. This should be a lot easier in 2012, now Rorschach’s Ayn Rand mad stare is the entire platform of more than one mainstream politician. Challenge that. Make the comic about that. Engage with current affairs and the way things are heading. Explain it.

Or, you know, you could just have six issues of him being a bit smelly but a total badass who goes into different bars and beats people up until they bleed a lot. Hurm.

Watchmen is not about ‘characters’. It’s about ideas. There’s a book called Watchmen and Philosophy and it’s incredibly wide ranging – the ethics of rape, of vigilantism, of nuclear deterrence, of free will, of fate. How long would the book The Philosophy of Before Watchmen be? Will it look at the original and see the role of cosmic irony at every level and build on that to talk about the logical limits of omniscience, or will it go ‘isn’t it odd Osterman left his watch in the particle accelerator? Let’s spell out an explanation for that.’ 

So, yeah, Dr Manhattan was ‘originally’ Captain Atom. It’s not big or clever to know that, it does not score any debating points. DC are not producing an eight book Watchmen prequel series because of the intrinsic awesomeness of the Charlton characters. If that were the case, then here’s a thought: ‘slightly alter’ them back. Abandon the Watchmen branding entirely. Revert to the originals. Launch a linked weekly event about Peacemaker, Nightshade, Thunderbolt and their pals. See if that prospect entices the same creators, then give them those ‘stacks of Charlton comics’ to work from and licence to ‘slightly alter’ what they read there, see what the result is, see what the sales look like and how much media attention is generated.

It wouldn’t really be the same, would it?

Watchmen II

So, it’s official: Watchmen II is finally happening. DC have announced seven – seven! – prequel series.

Instinctively, I don’t think it’s the right decision. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why, and I think I’ve got there.

It is not, much as it pains me to say it, because it against Alan Moore’s express wishes. It’s not even that it’s contrary to explicit assurances DC management made to Moore that they would never produce Watchmen material without his involvement. This is a complex, touchy area, something that needs more room than an article like this can give it. The bottom line, though, is that everyone involved agrees that DC have the contractual rights to do it. Corporations which produce entertainment products routinely stretch and exploit existing work for more profit. The most unusual thing about Watchmen is not that DC are doing this now, it’s that they’ve held off from doing it for so long, when it’s what they’ve done systematically and routinely with pretty much every other property, great and small, whoever created it, for the whole time they’ve existed. Is this good, right and proper? No, almost certainly not, not from any perspective. It is, though, the way things have always been with superhero comics.

(And I would also note that Dave Gibbons seems to be somewhat happier with the idea of a Watchmen prequel. It’s not a wild coincidence that most artists’ best work is the stuff they did with Alan Moore, but they are often a full partner in the process. Gibbons and Moore created Watchmen together, thrashed it out between them. It was a partnership. If Alan Moore’s opinion counts, Gibbons’ should, too.)

As for Alan Moore’s position … I think it’s pretty simple: if Alan Moore says it’s a bad idea, it almost certainly is. Not legally, financially or morally, but simply artistically. Alan Moore is not a legal expert, he’s certainly not a business expert. He does, though, know how to write a comic.

My main objection is not because I think a Watchmen prequel is an inherently terrible idea. Back in the day, Moore and Gibbons both talked about possibly working on a prequel featuring the Minutemen, the 1940s generation of superheroes. They said it so often that we can infer they thought about it quite seriously, bounced a few ideas off each other at least. That’s hardly the same as having a viable series, but they clearly didn’t think such a thing was impossible.

Am I interested in reading about the Watchmen characters per se? About as much as I am in watching a prequel to Citizen Kane that’s about the sledge. I think Watchmen is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, and I think that’s because I’ve read a lot of twentieth century novels, not because I haven’t. But the weakest links in there are the characters. The New York Times may have hailed the series for its ‘staggeringly complex psychological profiles’, but this is not a claim that survives contact with the book for long. As Grant Morrison noted in Supergods, the book deals in stock action-narrative types:

‘Dazzled by its technical excellence, Watchmen’s readership was willing to overlook a cast of surprisingly conventional Hollywood stereotypes: the inhibited guy who had to get his mojo back; the boffin losing touch with his humanity; the overbearing showbiz mom who drove her daughter to excel while hiding from her the secret of her dubious parentage; the prison psychiatrist so drawn into the dark inner life of his patient that his own life cracked under the weight. The Watchmen characters were drawn from a repertoire of central casting ciphers’

Personally, I think that Alan Moore’s right when he says that Rorschach, Nite Owl and friends are an ensemble, that there is nothing particularly fascinating about them. Every article about Watchmen will point out that they were originally knock offs of the Charlton characters – Nite Owl was Blue Beetle, Dr Manhattan was Captain Atom blah blah. The thing is … the Charlton characters were themselves fairly generic superhero types. Watchmen could just as easily featured Firestorm, Black Canary and Green Arrow. For that matter, it’s the work of moments to slot X-Men or Avengers into those story slots.

So Watchmen works not because of the characters, but because of what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did with them. It’s how the comic was structured and crafted, how it used and subverted the medium. Simple as that.

I’d have no qualms about reading a Moore and Gibbons sequel. I’d have only slightly more than no qualms about a Gibbons-only one.

But let’s be logical about this – if Alan Moore didn’t give his blessing to another team, that wouldn’t mean the words and pictures are cursed. The right team could, in theory, pull it off.

However, lest we get carried away, let’s explain the problem with this in five words: apparently, Kevin Smith was approached.

This is not some creator-led project, this is DC aware that they’ve got to farm it out to a ‘big name’ writer and artist. Grant Morrison turned it down, we know that. I’d bet good money DC had Neil Gaiman’s name on a list at some point. I bet in some crazy brainstorming session, they looked at each other and went ‘Frank Miller?’.

Yes, the creators lined up for Before Watchmen are exciting names. I know I’m not the only person who rolled their eyes when they heard Watchmen 2 was coming, but paused for thought when it turned out that Darwyn Cooke would be involved. Joe and Andy Kubert working on some multigenerational story? Ooh, yes, please.

I do have to say that I do look at what Brian Azzarello – writing a ‘visceral’ Rorschach series – says and roll my eyes a little:

‘It’s 25 years later. Let’s make them vital again.’

Let’s not kid ourselves here, let’s just look at some numbers. The bestselling individual comic of the last ten years, by miles, is the Obama inauguration issue of Spider-Man, which sold about half a million copies in early 2009. The same year as that, twice as many copies of Watchmen were sold. It had a cover price five times higher.

So don’t anyone delude themselves that this is DC taking moribund smelly clapped out old Watchmen and pouring in energy and lifeforce, hoping a bit of magic will rub off. It’s exactly the opposite.

So … here’s the question: why would creators as good as Cooke and Azzarello use the Watchmen characters to tell a new story? They could just use the Charlton characters. They could use any number of the characters DC own, from the big names to the completely obscure. Here’s a crazy idea: they could make up some new characters. Here’s an even crazier idea: start with a blank page and come up with a completely new idea for a comic that’s nothing like Watchmen.

I don’t think less of Darwyn Cooke or whoever else is working on this. I don’t see it as crossing a picket line or arch treason. I’m sure it’s an artistic challenge, a huge profile project and a guaranteed big payday, and in the end is that not what we freelancers dream of? But I’d think more of them if … well, they’d come up with their own thing. Even their own thing that was almost exactly Watchmen. They have done their own things in the past, obviously. Why not continue to do that? I think, genuinely, I’d be more likely to pick up a random Darwyn Cooke project than his Watchmen one.

I was lucky enough recently to read a great article about Moore by the comics scholar Maggie Gray. She quoted quite a famous article from a 1976 edition of NME, ‘The Titanic Sails at Dawn’, by Mick Farren, a call to arms in the face of the widely-touted ‘death of rock and roll’:

‘Putting the Beatles back together isn’t going to be the salvation of rock and roll. Four kids playing to their contemporaries in a dirty cellar club might. And that, gentle reader, is where you come in’.

And that’s it in a nutshell. That’s how you ‘save’ something like this. You don’t put the Beatles back together. You don’t set up a Beatles cover band, even an all-star, supergroup cover band. You find the people who can write this generation’s version of She Loves You.

So why do Watchmen? There’s an obvious answer: brand value. Some of this, admittedly, is artistic: Watchmen is ‘realistic’. There is a distinct ‘Watchmen universe’ with rules and a history that make it a different playground from the regular DC universe. But, just like the characters, it’s, by now, a pretty generic one.

No one is fooling anyone here: this is a purely commercial decision, made because it will shift units.

I don’t object to that. I don’t have a problem with ‘corporate art’ per se – that is, something created under the aegis of a corporation to make money. I’d have a problem if that was the only way art was produced, or the only art I was allowed access to, but it’s plainly not.

DC is a corporation which makes hundreds of millions franchising popular, long-lived characters. What we now have to start referring to as ‘the original Watchmen series’ was not swallowed whole when some corporate entity bought up a mom and pop operation (ironically, that’s kind of what happened with the Charlton characters). It’s not even a situation like V for Vendetta, which was started elsewhere, finished at DC. Watchmen was created – could only have been created – in a corporate environment that allowed Moore and Gibbons complete carte blanche with format and content, could let them take a year to work on the first script and guarantee it would be published and publicised. Watchmen represents – we now have to start using ‘represented’, I guess – a perfect combination of a corporation using its resources to allow artists to create exact what they wanted to create and get it to an audience hungry for it.

We’re getting to the problem, though. Inevitably, once the precedent has been set, now that ‘difficult’ commercial decision has been made, there will be a Watchmen III, and a Watchmen IV. Every few years, from now on, enough material to collect into a new Watchmen book will come out. And DC will be working down their list of creators, and in a few years they’ll be assigning people who managed to boost sales of Hawkman by 15% the previous year.

There are artistic objections to this, obviously. But that rubicon has been crossed. We have to forget about the artistic reasons.

I’m going to try to explain this purely in bean counting terms. Think about Watchmen as units shifted, think of it solely as product. Ignore everything about it except commercial potential. Strip away all the Watchmenness, and treat it as a little slab of something people can buy.

Back in the late eighties, if you wanted to read a Batman graphic novel, there were a handful – Dark Knight, The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, Son of the Demon. When The Killing Joke or Arkham Asylum came out, they were massive events, huge sellers.

Now, if you want to buy a Batman graphic novel … there are dozens of them. Hundreds. And it means that when a billion dollar Batman movie comes along, and some of its audience go looking for the comics, the great wave dissipates, is spread over those hundred titles. In the end … OK, you still sell a lot of units. But there’s no focus, no common experience, no one gateway.

Worse still, there’s a substantial group of potential readers who will look at the mass of Batman product and go ‘whoa … way too much’. We’ve all done this – seen a great episode of TV and realised it’s from season four, picked up a novel that looks interesting, then put it back when it’s book seven of some series or other. There’s a hell of a difference between ‘read this book’ and ‘commit to reading this series’.

The unique selling point of Watchmen is that it’s one of the very few comics where you can hand it to someone and say ‘this is it’. You don’t need to collect, you don’t need to worry about what order to read things. You don’t need a Powerpoint presentation from a guy in a comic shop explaining how you also need to buy Thor Annual 5 and don’t forget they renumbered around issue 600 and don’t forget the miniseries that ran alongside the main one. One volume.

It meant that when the movie came out, there was one decision: read this or don’t. And they’ve sold a lot of slabs with that business model.

Watchmen 2 won’t ‘weaken’ the original Watchmen artistically. It does, though, chop away perhaps its main marketing advantage. Here’s my key objection to Watchmen 2 in purely money-generating terms: they’ve made the wrong corporate decision. They’ve miscounted the beans. This is the wrong way to go about selling more slabs of whatever.