Anghus Houvouras on why Alan Moore is wrong about the Watchmen…
As a writer, I love Alan Moore. He is, without question, one of the most talented writers to ever grace the la bande dessinée. Like many geniuses, there’s a higher amount of crazy per square inch than most people. Whenever I see a comic or graphic novel with Alan Moore’s name on it, I get excited by the prospect of a new story from a prolific talent. But when I see an article or interview with Alan Moore’s name on it, I cringe at the prospect of another cringe inspiring sound bite that is sure to snowball into headline grabbing articles across the web.
At some point Alan Moore became the comic book equivalent of the Old Man on his front porch shaking his fist at the machinations of the ever evolving comic industry. Railing against the acquisition of comic books into popular culture and co-opted into film and television. And there are things that Old Man Moore has been absolutely right about. It’s not difficult to watch a film adaptation like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman or the announcement of a TV series based on the property and postulate that Moore has some valid claims about Hollywood is a creatively bankrupt enterprise. However, it also helps point out Moore’s hypocrisy.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a series of stories based on preexisting characters that Moore himself had no hand in creating. If Moore believes that Hollywood studios are lazy for taking his concepts and adapting them to film and television, isn’t it just as accurate to call Moore lazy for using borrowed characters for his own comics?
The subject has come up once again as DC’s Rebirth hits the stands (spoilers ahoy). The comic alludes to not only the return of the Watchmen to comics, but an integration with those characters into the new, streamlined DC Universe.
When DC rolled out the Before Watchmen prequel series, many fans were perplexed by how to feel. Watchmen has always been treated as sacrosanct. One of those singular works of artistic perfection that should never be expanded upon. A story told completely and not in need of embellishment. And while fans and Moore are quite clear on their position on the subject, there are those of us who are actually excited by the prospect to see more stories with these characters. I happened to greatly enjoy Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen series as well as the Azarello and JG Jones Comedian collaboration. Neither story matched the raw power of the original, but they were both some fun stories that felt neither irreverent or insulting the source material.
The more I think about Moore’s indignation towards the idea of using the Watchmen, the more his argument falls apart. I’ll just say it.
Alan Moore is wrong about The Watchmen.
The original Watchmen series was based on the Charlton Comics characters that DC had acquired in 1983 which included Blue Beetle, The Question, and Captain Atom. Originally Moore wanted to use these characters for the Watchmen series, but because they were being integrated into the regular DC Comics Universe, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons decided to created thinly veiled versions of these characters. While the names may have changed, it borrowed heavily from the iconography of many DC owned characters. That was always the intention: to create a more mature story in a familiar world. Mission accomplished.
Where Moore errs is thinking that these characters should stop existing outside of the original Watchmen series. It would be one thing if these were characters of his own creation but like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen these are borrowed action figures from the DC Comics toy box. That’s a point I’m sure many will take umbrage with, mainly because the modern comic industry has devolved into a derivative creative process where everyone borrows the basic hero concepts created in the Golden Age and puts their own little spin to create something (cough) ‘original’.
I’m not here to throw stones, but if we’re being honest most people could name a number of comic writers who so heavily borrow from other creators for their ‘original’ intellectual properties that it strains the credulity of their concept. The original Image Comics back in the early 90s was jam-packed full of titles and characters that were so wholly unoriginal that you might as well have called them ‘The League of Familiar but Not Legally Infringing Superheroes’.
I mean, Rob Liefeld… come on. Seriously? Youngblood was so lazy that I’m surprised he didn’t just call it ‘Rob Liefeld’s Also the Avengers’. Oh, I’m sorry. You’re right. It was totally different, because your Captain America knock-off used a bow and arrow like Hawkeye. Badrock certainly wasn’t even remotely related to The Thing. And there’s no way you could compare the guy with the skull on his face to the Punisher. No sir. Them’s some totally original comic book characters there.
Most of the original Image launch was an attempt to re-bottle the lightning with similar ideas and slight variations on popular themes. Much like Moore’s co-opting of public domain characters for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, comic creators co-opt the basic tenants of characters like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and The Avengers to tell their own versions of those characters. They are borrowing the basic iconography of classic characters to do their own story. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, legally speaking, it certainly immediately discredits them on being able to talk about the subject of originality with any sense of seriousness.
Moore borrowed heavily for League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Watchmen didn’t require the same level of creative lifting, but the foundation and framework was built using prefabricated parts.
I suppose the core argument from fans would be that further uses of the characters diminishes the original work in some way. That’s another argument I never could take seriously. The Dark Knight Returns was an amazing series. The Dark Knight Strikes Again was a hot mess. The jury is still out on Dark Knight III. None of these average works have lessened the impact of the original. Much like the two flaccid Matrix sequels didn’t end up sullying the majesty of the original. Caddyshack is still hilarious no matter how terrible Caddyshack 2 turned out.
The point is, it’s kind of nutty for Moore to think that these characters should stop existing. Especially since he borrowed heavily to create them in the first place. I’m glad to see the Watchmen being used again. Only time will tell if it’s a good use of the characters or a pointless cash grab. But none of this offends me as a fan of the original series or comics in general. These are interesting characters.
When it comes to the subject of originality in regards to Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore has a little too much glass in his house to be chucking stones.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker and the co-host of Across the Pondcast. Follow him on Twitter.