Dear DC Comics, I know why no one will give you their best work

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DC Comics publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio did something truly remarkable even by the comic industry’s extremely high standards for shamelessness at their company’s industry panel at San Diego Comic Con last week. Here’s how it went.

The industry panels are part fan maintenance, with superhero lovers asking questions about the fates of various characters, and part industry talkback, with executives and professionals comparing notes on what works and what doesn’t.

In the same panel, Lee and DiDio bemoaned the lack of high-wattage stories being written in superhero comics and confirmed that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Dr Manhattan, a character from the pair’s seminal 1986 story Watchmen, would turn out to be the true villain behind an multi-title crossover story that would also introduce the other characters from Watchmen into the publisher’s shared universe.

The story would also serve as a bit of intracompany literary criticism: The kinds of stories Moore wrote for DC in the ’80’s, before he left the company and vowed never to work with them again, tended toward the grim and the sad; because Moore is an astoundingly gifted writer, especially of superhero comics, his work sparked a trend of Moore-ish superhero comics, most of which tried to accomplish a sense of adultness through inserting clumsily handled gore and adolescent sexual fantasies.

Well, don’t worry, the new DC Comics will not have that sort of thing, or rather, it will have it in smaller measure, because DC is getting away from all that stuff and the true villain will turn out to be its progenitor, Dr Manhattan himself.

This, DiDio and Lee told the audience, would hopefully help rescue the industry from cratering sales, which have been plaguing superhero publishers of late. Blockbuster superhero action movies are wildly popular; the comics that birth them, however, not so much.

“As a result, DC is shifting its focus,” wrote Tom Bacon, a reporter who covered the panel for “Lee talked about the importance of what he called the ‘evergreen’ stories — the tales that never grow old, like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The challenge facing DC is a simple one; how can they make the next generation of ‘evergreen’ stories, that don’t require in-depth knowledge of superhero continuity, but that stand the test of time and transform the genre? Part of it is getting key writers on board; the only one Lee named in the panel was Neil Gaiman.”

It’s a little surprising Lee even named Gaiman, because DC habitually treats comics creators like garbage, most recently by violating its right of first refusal on characters derived from Gaiman’s seminal comic The Sandman and then embarrassingly having to walk back a press release just last week after it was pointed out to them.

And the two people most egregiously and unnecessarily insulted and swindled by DC’s complete apathy toward the people who could, if they wanted, revitalize the company’s library of valuable intellectual property, are Watchmen creators Moore and Gibbons themselves. In 1986 when DC gave Moore and Gibbons their contract, the company, not the artists, was publicly very high on the unorthodox nature of the agreement, which returned the characters to the artists if they went unused for a year.

It was a propitious moment for that kind of publicity: Marvel, under a historically unpopular editor-in-chief named Jim Shooter, had embroiled itself in a nasty public legal dispute with Jack Kirby, who had created a good 75% of its valuable unreal estate singlehandedly, and the publisher was holding his art hostage until he signed a form giving them the rights in perpetuity to make movies from his work, reprint it and derive new work from it without remunerating him in the least. DC saw opportunity.

“What would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that,” Gibbons mused in a panel discussion in 1987, “but I’ve got enough faith in them that I don’t think they’d do that. I think because of the unique team they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over to do Watchmen II or anything else like that, and we’ve certainly got no plans to do Watchmen II.”

It goes without saying that DC did not return the rights to the characters to Moore and Gibbons; the 12-issue limited series was so successful that it did something few had thought possible: It proved popular in the collected, novelized form sold in bookstores as well as in its original comic book-sized format. So, DC reasoned, since it still ran printing after printing of its Watchmen graphic novel, it was in some sense publishing work containing the characters and didn’t have to return the rights to them to Gibbons and Moore, and of course it hasn’t been out of print in 30 years.

Moore was angrier about this than Gibbons, but the artist’s famous even temper was apparently simply an invitation to walk on him: Not only did DC put out a series of Watchmen follow-up comics a few years ago over loud protests from Moore (Gibbons agreed to work as a consultant), a few years later they didn’t even bother to tell Gibbonsthe creator they were still ostensibly on good terms with, that they would be going ahead and realizing his worst fears of corporate malfeasance. Rorschach will indeed meet Batman, Dr Manhattan will enter the DC Universe, and the homogenizing tentacles of corporate comics will have illimitable domain over even Watchmen‘s eccentric and brilliant creations.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first printing of Watchmen, originally through an imprint of Warner Books, because DC didn’t even have an in-house collected editions division at the time. To celebrate it, DC will be stripping its writer and artist of the last measure of dignity they retain in relation to its creation.

So when Dan DiDio and Jim Lee pretend to have no idea what on earth it is that keeps prominent creators away from corporate comics when they are needed so badly to keep the intellectual property factory functioning at peak capacity, please understand what they’re really saying is that they hope some day soon to meet talented people who are also willing to be swindled.

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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