26 April 2012

Alan Moore and the Pitfalls of Unforeseen Success

Folks who blog about superhero comics are apparently supposed to have a moral stand on DC Comics’s decision to commission prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, despite the former’s vociferous opposition.

I don’t view that as a major ethical issue, but rather a business venture that will find its judgment in the marketplace. The American superhero comics industry has grown over the decades from writers and artists taking inspiration from and contributing to collective narratives. Moore knew that when he signed his contracts with DC in the 1980s, and in fact much of his work has grown from other writers’ creations.

Moore’s main beef with DC now is not that the company isn’t abiding by the contracts he signed, but that it is. He just didn’t expect those contracts would still apply to him.

That’s not because Moore thought his work was special. It’s because he didn’t think it would be as successful as it’s been. Moore assumed that Watchmen would go out of print after just a few years. He’s said as much in many interviews, but here’s a recent one from Kurt Amacker:
KA:  I thought we could discuss the initial ownership dispute you had with DC back in the 1980s, wherein you and Dave Gibbons expected to get the rights to Watchmen and its characters back a year after the trade paperback went out of print. But, it never went out of print--and one suspects DC probably knew it wouldn't.

AM:  We were told that. That was the understanding upon which we did Watchmen--that they understood that we wanted to actually own the work that we'd done, and that they were a "new DC Comics," who were going to be more responsive to creators. And, they'd got this new contract worked out which meant that when the work went out of print, then the rights to it would revert to us--which sounded like a really good deal. I'd got no reason not to trust these people.  They'd all been very, very friendly. They seemed to be delighted with the amount of extra comics they were selling. . . .

Now, I've since seen the Watchmen contract, which obviously we didn't read very closely at the time. It was the first contract that I'd ever seen--and I believe that it was a relatively rare event for a contract to actually exist in the comics business. Most of the time, people just signed away all their rights on the back of their invoice voucher. But, I was so pleased with the deal with Watchmen, that I suggested to David Lloyd that we do the same thing on V for Vendetta--which was, again, something that we owned and that we wanted to carry on owning.  The contracts actually are some of the most anti-creator contracts imaginable.  They've got clauses such as, if I refuse to sign for any reason any agreements in the future, DC can appoint an attorney to sign them instead of me. 
Actually, that last is a rather common clause, but not one that publishers try invoking often, if at all. No company wants to work with someone who can’t stand to work with it. I also don’t know if there are any strong precedents for that clause standing up in court.

As for the provision that most arouses Moore’s resentment—that a publisher keeps the copyright holders’ license to issue a literary work as long as it remains in print—that’s completely standard for the book industry.

I’m sure that Ernest Hemingway signed contracts with that clause, and Stephen King, and J. K. Rowling—even after they became bestselling authors. Most authors are happy when a publisher keeps selling a book. That’s a lot easier and more lucrative and less ego-deflating than when a publisher puts a book out of print and reverts the rights. Moore has never denied DC’s statements that the company’s paid him all the Watchmen royalties he’s due—a considerable sum, given the book’s sales in the millions.

It’s probably true that Moore, Gibbons, and DC didn’t expect Watchmen to still be selling strongly nearly thirty years later. No one had the superpower of being able to foresee that future. As Moore admits, he recognized that mid-1980s contract as far better than anything he’d seen before and didn’t consider its terms carefully. But a good contract is negotiated to anticipate all possible outcomes. The Watchmen contract spelled out what would happen if the book stayed in print, and that arrangement is simply industry standard.

By his own account, Moore took the same approach to his movie rights, including not only Watchmen but League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This spring he spoke about that in a BBC interview, quoted here on semi-coherence:
Originally, I was under the illusion that the way that films worked was that you got a lot of option money, and then after a couple of years they decided that they weren't going to make the film. Which was the perfect result, the film didn’t get made, you got the money. Then they actually made a couple of my films, and at that point I decided, well, I'll just distance myself from them as much as is possible.
Again, Moore signed contracts anticipating the most common outcome but didn’t think through the possibility of success.

Perhaps that reflects Moore’s upbringing in the working class of northern England, where folks might not expect anything to work out well, much less phenomenally well. The American publishers and movie producers, in contrast, were ready for things to work out better than they expected. Maybe that’s characteristic of American businesspeople, or maybe it’s just why they were willing to put up the money.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

Odd to think one ought to be outraged by the treatment Alan Moore has received. I'm not getting it, frankly. I am sympathetic to him as an artist. But as a citizen of the modern world, a bit puzzled by his pique.

J. L. Bell said...

Moore often seems to have a calmer perspective on the dispute than some of his fans. Of course, rabid bobcats have a calmer perspective on such controversies than some comic-book fans.

I think Moore stokes the fire a little in his interviews even as he adopts a resigned mood and says he simply doesn’t want to have anything to do with this growing list of companies and former collaborators. (Meanwhile, I suspect the Watchmen royalty checks are more than he makes by magic.)

I find Ty Templeton’s take on the tempest most entertaining.

Octo7 said...

Moore is from Northampton, Midlands, not Northern England, and your presumption of his behaviour being class-related is really really pompous. I won't be revisiting this blog.

J. L. Bell said...

My suggestion that Moore’s working-class roots might have affected how he thought about the contracts he signed is based on his description of his working-class roots in The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore. Also, I admit, a bit of nationalism from this side of the Atlantic (where the distinction between “northern England” above London and “Northern England” near Scotland doesn’t seem so great).

The fact remains that Moore has said he assumed those deals would not work out for the best. It’s probably wise to avoid assuming that a book will sell well for thirty years or that a movie option will actually lead to a movie. But at the same time the point of contracts covering those possibilities is that they might actually come about.