It is often said that Watchmen is the most influential comic ever to be released. That comics wouldn’t be where they are without it, for good and for ill. But how did we get here, exactly? More to the point, just what influence did Watchmen provide to the larger world of comics? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Watchmen? Who watched the Watchmen?
As part of this ongoing series on Watchmen, other critics have covered rights issues, backstage business, and DC’s treatment of Alan Moore in far more depth and detail than I could ever hope to, so I’ll leave that side of Watchmen with them. It’s all somewhat cursed and always will be, which at this point feels almost as important as the creative work itself was on release. Yet for me, the most prominent “curse of Watchmen” within the comics industry has been the insistence on never letting Moore move on from a comic he disowned decades and decades ago.
The internet helped cultivate social activism and community mindsets within comics readers which weren’t possible before. It helped further the understanding that comics weren’t the rosy bullpen they appeared to be, back when Smilin’ Stan was regularly soapboxing directly to his readership. Instead of being something left behind the scenes, the business of comics was laid out for people to read as fully or incompletely as they wanted, and that led to social and online activism on behalf of creators who’d really just like to move on and talk about something else.
Even now in 2022, with Moore recently being signed on for a major new book deal
, all his interviewers seem to want to do is ask the poor man about comic books. If he isn’t being pestered about Watchmen, he’s being asked to comment on Grant Morrison, as if he doesn’t have better things to attend to. As if he hasn’t had significant other creative works come out which perhaps people could discuss instead. It’s part of a concerted effort to put Alan Moore in a particular box. It feels like the consensus opinion is that we need for Alan Moore to be a bitter victim in order for other people to understand the comics industry victimizes people; that we can’t view people like Kirby, Shuster, Siegel and Moore as anything other than casualties in the comic book industry’s rise to IP capital of the globe.
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In turn, that then creates a one-sided view of who someone like Alan Moore actually is. If we only view him through the perspective of someone who was cheated out of the rights to a comic he made, then the temptation comes to point to him as someone who is bitter, angry, and unable to come to terms with what that means. His work in various media, in addition to his (by all accounts) incredibly kind and generous nature, is secondary to the story around him. He simply accepted how things had happened, cut himself off from the things he disliked, and moved on. The audience, not being able to see what that meant, decided that the battle between DC and Alan Moore would continue until they got to see a public declaration of peace.
It’s… a very American way to view things.
Unless there’s a public reconciliation, the audience surmises that the hurt feelings will never end. We need to see it. Bret Hart has to shake hands with Shawn Michaels so we know that they’ve each got their smiles back; Katy Perry and Taylor Swift have to hug it out in a music video so they won’t get called backstabbers anymore. Time and again, the public simply will not accept that somebody has moved on unless it’s been recorded in the media, preferably on live cameras, and they can see everybody smiling to the world. If we don’t get to be a part of the growth and development of other people, we simply won’t accept that it ever happened.
Which is why Donny Cates struck such a stirring chord for me in 2018. At the time he was writing Venom, a character who had always been more popular than the comics readership implied. Just like Harley Quinn, all Venom needed was a creative team who could tap into the existing fanbase and make him into the A-List comic-selling character he could be. Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman were that for the character, not only making his series one of the most talked about of the time, but elevating Cates in particular as one of the top writers in the comics industry. If you search for his name now, you’ll find endless forums and Reddit threads where fans breathlessly compare his work to Gaiman, Miller, Morrison… and Moore.
It was a connection which Cates, a consummate salesman, was able to jump onto immediately. He decided to compare Venom to Watchmen, stirring up the latter’s legacy as a way of selling his current series. Both Cates and Stegman spent significant amounts of time saying that Venom was better than Watchmen, more influential, and more important. That Venom had defeated Watchmen and was now the benchmark for modern comics. To celebrate their announcement of victory, Marvel were unexpectedly joined by Watchmen’s original artist Dave Gibbons, who penciled a variant cover for issue #11 of Venom which referenced Watchmen #1. Dave Gibbons has always had a sense of humour around his work – and been more public about letting go of his issues with mainstream comics – but this marked his first time penciling anything at Marvel for over a decade. His participation was a concerted effort to help push the bit as far as possible.
Alan Moore would never, of course. He was living in England, his every waking moment devoted to thinking about Watchmen. Fans were annoyed on his behalf, and duly realised that the internet gave them the chance to take up their sacred duty of speaking on behalf of the man. They complained about what they saw as one-sided brinksmanship, and Marvel taking the piss out of Moore. Issue #11 of Venom didn’t even have a nine-panel grid! It was all about memory, loss, and the relationship between Eddie and the symbiote. As the complaints tallied up, Cates was perfectly set up to deliver his punchline:
It was a great moment for Cates, sure – but it also helped implode some of the thinking around who Moore was, and the box he’d been forced into. This was meant to be the writer who’d been pushed out of the comics industry by the corporate yes-men and lawyers who tricked him out of his creative property, overruled his wishes, and kept publishing terrible derivatives of his work. He wasn’t meant to be somebody who had a nice time hanging out with modern writers, especially ones writing big blockbuster-style comics about melodramatic characters like Venom. And yet there he was, smiling away, because that’s who Alan Moore actually is.
He’s not an ongoing victim, or a casualty of the comics industry. He’s somebody who moved on, and did other things. He didn’t need to have Jim Lee write a public apology and, I dunno, unveil a bronze statue of Tom Strong outside DC’s office as a way of reconciling. Moore simply kept to himself and got on with other things, just like everybody else has to. He might be a public figure, but he doesn’t have to let public perception play even slightly into the way he works – he spent years making comics after Watchmen ended; he worked with his daughter Leah, also a terrific writer; he contributed to charity anthologies on Kickstarter; he cameoed in The Simpsons! So when it comes to his thoughts on the comics industry – he’s so much more than the contemporary framing around his status.
Cates’ showmanship would have seemed to be the furthest end of the spectrum away from Moore’s personal interests. Comics readers, fans, and critics would never have connected these two writers as friends based off their separate reputations – yet there they were on twitter, resolving a one-sided “feud” which Cates in particular delighted in playing with. For me, it was a moment which helped me break away from years of following the common assumption that Alan Moore was shut away from the world of comics, unhappy with the industry, and bitter about everything which had happened to him. He was right there in living colour: one arm around the most popular mainstream comics writer of 2018, and happy to be a part of everything.
In establishing how DC Comics worked against creators rights – which they did – the critical community spent years trying to persuade everyone that Alan Moore belonged in a particular box, languishing in the shadow of capitalism/industry/a one sided war only Grant Morrison acknowledges. But one photo, and one particularly clever marketing campaign for Venom, of all things, was all it took to show me that there was so much more to Alan Moore than I’d easily believed for years. All I hope is that others come to the same conclusion: perhaps in 2023, Moore will simply be allowed to do an interview about his new writing. Perhaps the deep-rooted symbiotic relationship between readers and the toxic legacy of Watchmen will wither away, and everyone will be better off for it.
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