Before Watchmen and before Watchmen: creativity and copy(rights)
by Kathryn M. Frank — Young Harris College
February 19, 2017 – 17:23
One of the interesting problems of Before Watchmen was that in its attempt to evoke nostalgia for Watchmen, it drew attention to the problematic relationship between creators, corporations, and characters – or, as former Comics Journal editor Tom Spurgeon less generously suggests, “…for 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….” Spurgeon also notes that many of the blogs and comics news outlets who criticized DC for their labor practices themselves utilize freelance, work-for-hire, and volunteer labor, an uncomfortable truth that was not as widely discussed in the Before Watchmen controversy.
Many of Alan Moore’s other series, including The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Swamp Thing, and Miracleman (formerly known as Marvelman) and are also re-workings of preexisting characters. Can we say in this case that there actually exists an “original” and a “copy?” Before Watchmen: Minutemen and Silk Spectre elaborate on themes including closeted queer identity, media and societal pressure on heroes, and feminism in ways that are only hinted at in the original Watchmen, not to mention that both are written and/or drawn by bona fide comics auteur Darwyn Cooke. These series are envisioned as “copies,” rather than as DC providing a sandbox to a new group of creators as they did for Moore with Watchmen, Swamp Thing, and other remade or “loosely-inspired” characters in the 1980s. Is Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen film yet another “copy,” or does the process of remediation allow it to be its own text? There seems to be some interest in its merits as a film, in contrast to the relative paucity of Before Watchmen analyses.
Moore himself has drawn attention to this tangled history of ownership by declining his writing credit on re-issued volumes of Miracleman, choosing instead to be credited as “The Original Writer” and directing his royalties to the creator of record, Mick Anglo. Moore draws a clear line between intellectual property ethically paid for or in the public domain and that which is deceptively extracted from creators through shady contracts or legal maneuvering. But can we say that the line is so clear when most of these properties, “original” or “copy,” involve the labor and creativity of multiple people, most of whom are not in the position to own or sell these rights?