The Moral Calculus of Watching Watchmen
Kind of about comics, but not really
So, after holding out for a couple of months, I finally broke down and watched HBO’s Watchmen series. And I wound up liking it, but that’s not really what I want to talk about.
Instead, I want to talk about why it took me so long to decide to watch it. I held out for two reasons: partly because the marketing made the show look really really stupid, another cool-folks-in-cool-costumes-kickin’-ass-fest like Zack Snyder’s godawful Watchmen movie adaptation, and I’ve figured out that a key survival skill in the current media landscape is to stay away from things that scream at you how stupid they are (I learned this lesson the one time I tried seeing a Bay Transformers movie for dumb fun).
But the bigger reason is that for the past, I don’t know, 15 years I’ve been getting steadily more queasy about any ancillary Watchmen stuff in light of DC Comics’ treatment of the co-creator of the original comic, Alan Moore. Every attempt to tell that story in earlier drafts of this email has wound up running to thousands of words, so I’ll just sum up: Moore conceived the book and wrote the script, and DC Comics subsequently exploited a loophole in their deal with him to screw him out of the rights to the materials. They then spent the next couple of decades gracelessly spiking the ball in his face, running over his objections to issue ancillary materials like a collection of godawful and poorly-received prequel series, and a subsequent godawful and poorly-received attempt to integrate the book into the mainline DC Comics universe, so that characters intended to critique Batman and Lex Luthor instead get to meet them. (If you want all the details of the ongoing mess, here’s a good rundown)
(Weirdly, it occurs to me just now that the scene Greta Gerwig added to the end of her righteously good Little Women adaptation shows Jo March cannily working to avoid exactly this situation)
Creators’ rights are a big deal to me, so this was a big part of what kept me away from the HBO series. It didn’t help matters that the show’s creator, Damon Lindelof, ran around doing interviews where he acted vaguely ashamed at having crossed a creative picket line, saying that he knew Moore didn’t want things like this to exist (Lindelof actually said he was also worried that Moore, who is, uh, kind of a practicing wizard, had put a curse on him), and that as far as Lindelof was concerned, it was entirely understandable if people felt like they morally couldn’t watch the show.
But this stuff is never black and white. For one thing, yes, Moore was screwed over and was against all this; but his co-creator, Dave Gibbons, is OK with the situation (I’m pretty sure a couple of visuals that appear in the HBO series are drawings Gibbons did for them). The moral calculus gets a little more complicated in multiple creator situations like this… whose opinion carries more weight? (and if you want to start a giant fistfight, ask the comics world who’s creatively more important between the writer and the artist) More than that, though, the characters Moore and Gibbons used in Watchmen, though original, were heavily based on a batch of characters DC gained control of when the company bought the smaller Charlton Comics, and the bulk of those characters had in turn been created by Steve Ditko, a guy who competes at the very top tier for the title of Most Fucked-Over Guy In The History of Comics.
I don’t think that makes Moore a hypocrite by any stretch; details matter, and there are a lot of details that justify his personal beef with DC Comics. But if I look at the big picture, it does feel weird to me to privilege his situation over others’, to draw a bright line where he got screwed over while ignoring the fact that he’s standing way past the line where Ditko had been screwed over. Comics as an industry seems to just thrive on screwing creators over; I’m not sure that you can even engage with mainstream comics if you’re going to draw bright, universal lines everywhere a creator got ripped off. There’s a point where, if you are going to engage, all you can do is figure out at what point on the slippery slope you’re comfortable standing.
There’s also this weird dilution of responsibility when you look at the hugely collaborative nature of TV creation; even if Moore got screwed and Lindelof should be walking around ashamed (and maybe cursed), should that be enough to occlude some pantheon-level acting work by Regina King? I don’t know that there’s a clear answer one way or another there. It’s all just stuff you have to take into account as you pick your spot on the slippery slope for this one.
Looking back through this, I guess this sounds like me trying to find a way for it to be OK to watch the show, but that’s not what’s going on here. I already watched (and liked!) it. I won’t be reading any of DC’s comics tie-ins (which I guess is a moral decision made easier by the fact that they’ve all looked like garbage). I can’t claim I’ve worked out the exact correct moral position here, but I’ve found the one I can live with, however uncomfortably. And I think this is a process you just have to repeat endlessly if you’re going to have any kind of social awareness as you engage with just about any art or culture.
I guess this whole thing is an extended recommendation for both the Moore/Gibbons Watchmen and the HBO Watchmen, and a very firm “for the love of god, stay away” for the Snyder film and for any Watchmen comics from DC that aren’t the Moore/Gibbons original. If you’re Moore-curious, his (with Eddie Campbell) From Hell is one of the absolute high points of the comics medium.
Boy, that comics industry sure is toxic! Let’s, uh, look at Steve Albini’s classic explanation of how the music industry structurally screws people over.
You could also step away from all this negativity and read about the coolest lowrider art car you’re ever going to see, an El Camino that Rose Simpson refurbished into a Mad Max-y vehicle that references Pueblo pottery.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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