HBO’s new Watchmen series is getting a lot of buzz heading into it. There are lots of positive reviews and curiosity around it. The network needs shows with buzz to keep its brand going as the premiere cable network of prestigious shows. It needs its next Game of Thrones, Succession, The Sopranos, The Wire, et al.
The problem is, Watchmen is a piece of intellectual property that was effectively “stolen” from its original writer. DC Comics published it back in the 1980s when they didn’t offer creators ownership of their creations. Alan Moore negotiated a contract that would grant him and co-creator Dave Gibbons ownership rights when the book went out of print. In those days, there wasn’t much of a graphic novel market so collected editions of comics didn’t stay in print for long.
[Ed. Note: Check out Bleeding Cool’s review of Lindelof’s “Watchmen” to see why it’s already earned the right to carry the name of – and flip off – what came before it here]
Ironically, Watchmen became one of the key graphic novels that opened up the graphic novel market in the US and has never gone out of print. Nobody expected the graphic novel to become a viable market. Comics shifting from individual issues to graphic novels was like TV shifting from broadcast to VHS to DVD and streaming. DC Comics refused to re-negotiate the reversion contract with the authors and got to hold onto the property.
This means that DC-Warner have the right to do whatever they want with the Watchmen property, including produce any spinoffs, prequels, sequels and merchandising. Alan Moore thought about prequel stories back in the 1980s before he fell out with DC but decided the story was complete in one volume. It didn’t need any prequels or sequels. He had said all he wanted to say in twelve serialized issues. The story already showed enough backstories and side-stories to present a complete picture of the characters and their world.
Art In the Age of Intellectual Property Exploitation
The value of a property like Watchmen to Warner-DC lies in the exploitable potential of spinoffs. The brass ring is not in more comics. The comics serve mainly as advertising to potential movies and TV spinoffs, which is where the real money and prestige lie. Moore did not want spinoff stories he did not approve of. Any spinoff goes against his wishes. He did not create Watchmen to be an endlessly exploitable corporate-owned property like characters created under work-for-hire contracts. Warner-DC have chosen to treat it as such.
That means Watchmen was effectively “stolen” from Moore – and every spinoff is a piece of intellectual property theft. The 2009 Zach Snyder movie was a piece of theft. The Before Watchmen comics were a cash-in he did not endorse. The new HBO show is a piece of theft. Even showrunner Damon Lindelof pretty much admits it and feels guilty about producing it, but he did it anyway.
I should also point out that co-author and artist Gibbons signed off on the prequel comics, the movie and the TV series. Moore ceded all royalties and payments to him, taking only royalty payments to the original graphic novel. Because he wrote it and had no involvement in the rest.
So Should We Watch The “Watchmen”?
If you read this website and you’re reading this, it means you’re at least thinking about the issue. Many of us are curious about the show, especially in light of reviews that say it’s got something to say beyond superhero fan service. It has entered the culture at large to add to the conversation about race, politics and representation. Is it important? Hard to say, we haven’t seen it yet as of this writing.
I tend to respect the original author’s intentions for a story. Even Lindelof said that to be truly loyal to the original author’s intentions means to boycott the show altogether. After all, it’s only a TV show. There are always other TV shows to watch.
So should you feel bad if you want to watch it?
That’s entirely up to you. Just be aware of the baggage the show carries. If you want to watch it and you have a subscription to HBO? It’s already waiting for you. If you watch it, you might be complicit in the “theft” of Watchmen from the original author by consuming it.
But don’t worry. Moore won’t won’t put a hex on you. He’s got better things to do.
Watch it if you want. Just know the experience isn’t a pure one.