Doctor Manhattan has been manipulating the DC Universe since Flashpoint, and the godlike Watchmen protagonist’s hand has dramatically shaped the lives of Batman, Superman, the Flash, and more. All of this is unlikely to sit well with Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore, if indeed he muster, at this point, the outrage to object.
Moore has been a vocal critic of DC’s handling of Watchmen, notably regarding the 2009 film adaptation by Justice League director Zach Snyder and the 2012 prequels under the Before Watchmen banner. But the conflict goes much deeper.
With the arrival of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock #1 this week, which begins a twelve-part epic (mirroring in structure Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original) that will see Superman face off directly against Manhattan and Ozymandias, it’s time to review a grudge thirty years in the making.
In the Beginning
Moore had previously enjoyed a solid working relationship with DC, notably reinventing Swamp Thing as part of a celebrated run with the character and establishing, along with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Peter Milligan’s Shade the Changing Man, a “mature readers” niche at DC Comics that would later blossom into the Vertigo imprint. He also provided a send-off for the pre-Crisis Superman with the two-part “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” which remains, by many accounts, one of the greatest Superman stories ever told. Other acclaimed one-offs and shorts include “For the Man Who Has Everything” in Superman Annual #11 and “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” in Green Lantern #188, both illustrated by Moore’s Watchmen partner Dave Gibbons, and the still-controversial Batman: The Killing Joke with Brian Bolland.
In 1983, DC acquired the heroes of Charlton Comics, including Blue Beetle, Peacemaker, the Question, Captain Atom, and others. Many of them appeared in Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s epic Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985-86, although the multiverse-spanning opus only briefly introduced these new faces. At some point Moore pitched a grand story that would have rocketed these characters to enduring fame — and rendered them unviable for future stories in the process. Managing Editor Dick Giordano suggested Moore make up new characters instead.
And that is how Watchmen came to be.
At first, it appears that all sides were pleased with their arrangements. Moore and Gibbons’ contract with DC for Watchmen included a reversion clause that would return ownership to the creators if the characters were not used for a year, and DC paid them “a substantial amount of money” to retain the rights until that time. At a UK convention appearance in 1986, as reported at the time by The Comics Journal, Moore told the audience, “if the characters have outlived their natural lifespan and DC doesn’t want to do anything with them, then after a year we’ve got them and we can do what we want with them, which I’m perfectly happy with.” His contract for V for Vendetta, with artist David Lloyd, would have similar verbiage, which is not unusual for the publishing industry.
But there’s a problem: Watchmen became an unprecedented hit.
In 1985-86, very few comic book storylines enjoyed any kind of longevity. Trade paperback collections were not unheard of, but were far from the norm, and even these were not likely to stay in print for more than a few years. When he agreed to the terms, Moore could have very reasonably expected to regain control of Watchmen by the early ’90s. But with Watchmen‘s critical and commercial success, DC was not going to — and almost certainly will not ever — put the book out of print.
And so, around 1989, Moore vowed never to work with DC again. Recounting his resignation to the New York Times in 2006, Moore recalled, “I said, ‘Fair enough, you have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.'”
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