Thursday, April 26, 2012

On Before Watchmen, Jack Kirby's Avengers, Creators, and Characters

I'm going to ramble for a bit here.  Forgive me.

If you pay any attention to the goings-on in the comics industry at all you'll already know that there have been ... goings-on.

You can read a good opinion piece on both by David Brothers here.  Whether you end up agreeing with Brothers' opinion or not, I think you'll get a good sense of the issues.

In a nutshell, both DC and Marvel are currently reminding the world that they have never cared too much about creators or their rights.

In the Marvel world this is revolving around The Avengers lately.  The central characters of The Avengers were mostly created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, (not always together) and the team itself was created by Lee and Kirby.  This is a problem because Jack Kirby was, by any standards, treated badly by Marvel.  They may have (and probably did) behaved legally, but they definitely did not behave ethically toward him, the upshot is that Kirby's estate will likely not receive any royalties from the Avengers movie, Kirby's name has not been tied to promotion of the film in any way, and it's unclear whether his name will even appear in the credits.  The rhetoric about Kirby by Marvel defenders has basically been "he signed a bad contract; that's his problem."  It's not that simple, but even if it was the contract defines Marvel's legal obligations, not their moral ones.  It is obvious that giving Kirby credit, control, and money would have been the right thing to do.  You can read more about Kirby and Marvel here.

In the DC world the kerfuffle revolves around Watchmen and Alan Moore.  Watchmen, published in the mid 80s, is one of DC's most profitable and critically acclaimed assets.  It was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and it was his sense that he was treated poorly over Watchmen that caused Alan Moore to break with DC.  DC has decided to write a series of prequels called "Before Watchmen," over Moore's objections, but with Gibbons' approval.  The comics-focused parts of the internet have been buzzing with debate about Before Watchmen.  The issue is clouded at first by a few factors, including the fact that Moore can be kind of a dick and that some of the creators who are working on Before Watchmen (especially Darwyn Cooke) are really good.  But really, the situation is much the same as Kirby's.  Moore signed a contract and DC isn't breaking it, but they're acting against his wishes.  The publisher is behaving legally, but not morally.  They are not demonstrating respect for the creator of the property.  Whether Moore is behaving well or not is kind of a separate issue.

And here's where I become conflicted.  I side with the creators.  They should be able to exert control over and to profit from the success of their creations.

But one of the things I really like about mainstream comics is the way it is so often character-or-plot-oriented rather than creator-oriented.  I actually really like that hundreds of people have written Superman, some well and some badly.  I'm a fan of adaptations and re-imaginings, and I do not think that a bad Watchmen prequel is capable of taking anything away, artistically, from the original.  I'm really looking forward to seeing Joss Whedon's take on The Avengers.  I wish Alan Moore would give his blessing to spin-offs and continuations and sequels and prequels of Watchmen and V for Vendetta and whatever else. But in Moore's case I think that ship has long since sailed.  He doesn't trust the industry (with good reason).   What I'd like to see is the publishers treating the creators with enough respect that creators can start to trust the publishers.

I recognize that it's difficult for a company to part with money if they can avoid it. But can you imagine the goodwill DC would have generated if they'd just given Watchmen back to Moore and Gibbons? Can you imagine the goodwill Marvel would generate if they publicly apologized, wrote up a new contract with Kirby's estate, and gave him, say, an honorary credit in the film?

Anyway. I'm rambling.

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