But Doctor, I Am Pagliacci: Jim Lee on Alan Moore and Before Watchmen

This past weekend, DC Entertainment Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee attended the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Why attend a straight book festival when the perfectly good Boston Comic Con was occurring on the same weekend? I’m guessing because if you’re gonna be forced to answer difficult and uncomfortable questions about the upcoming Before Watchmen, it’s probably easier to do it when they’re not being asked by, say, Fat Hispanic Superman.

And, at the DC Entertainment Presents: Watchmen – It’s Not The End, It’s The Beginning panel, difficult questions were asked, specifically related to the commonly held perception that the stack of prequel miniseries were personally and intimately screwing Alan Moore in a way that makes American prison showers so inviting. Specifically, one panelist asked Lee how he reconciled Moore’s issues with the prequels:

It’s interesting because in the Chris [Roberson, writer of iZombie and Fairest who last week publically complained about the treatment of creators at DC Comics and was promptly sacked] example, he alluded to an article in Comics Alliance that goes on about how Alan Moore has been unjustly treated. In this piece of journalism, it only cites interviews Alan has given. People will listen if it’s polarizing and one sided enough. This is not a situation where we have taken things from Alan. He signed an agreement and yet he said “I didn’t read the contract.” I can’t force him to read his contract. So there’s all these things that people don’t know and Alan has said that explicitly – there are all these things that mitigate or go into the analysis. It’s not as clear-cut as people want to make it seem… It’s not a situation where we’re using the characters and Alan’s not being compensated. For everything that’s been done for Watchmen from the books to the movie, money has gone his way. The right amount that he deserves based on the contract. So we have honored that part of the agreement. It is something that can definitely be debated but to say that there is clearly one side that is right, I will dispute that.

Now, on one hand I utterly empathize with Alan Moore – I am not particularly looking forward to a Watchmen sequel, although with the stack of creators they have lined up, I am looking forward to some good stories with exceptional art that I can treat as apocryphal, Elseworlds-style stores and probably ultimately mentally discard.

But on the other hand – and I have said this before – the man signed a contract. Was that contract a pile of shit? Maybe… but if it was, he shouldn’t have signed it. Hell, Watchmen is a story about pastiches of Charlton Comics characters; he could’ve peddled that to any third party comic press in the world. Sure, there was no sweetheart Image deal for creators, but tell me Dark Horse or Eclipse or even Comicco wouldn’t have dealt from closer to the top of the deck to work with the guy who’d written Swamp Thing and Miracleman. 

Does it make me comfortable that Moore’s wishes regarding Watchmen aren’t being honored? Or that Jack Kirby’s family isn’t getting a piece of the Avengers movie? Or that Siegel and Shuster died damn near in poverty? No, these things do not… but they all made deals. Shitty deals? Possibly… hell, probably. But no one held guns to their heads, and unless there is evidence (and there might well be, I suppose) that DC or Marvel violated those contracts, that’s the way that life is.

Look: a contract is an agreement. And corporations, despite court judgments to the contrary, are not people. They are mindless, carnivorous machines that exist only to suck money and teat-feed investors. If one of these… things… presents you with a piece of paper to sign that allows them, in any way, to fuck you? They are going to fuck you.

Contract says you don’t get your rights back if the book goes out of print? Book ain’t going out of print. Contract says you don’t get paid if a little movie called Return of The Jedi doesn’t show a profit? That movie won’t show a profit. Contract says that you need to wear a tutu and dance the Macerana if your product sells exactly $1,000 worth on February 29, 2015 at noon GMT? Start watching the news for proposed changes to Leap Year, buy a dress and start practicing your steps, twinkletoes.

Like it, hate it, or think it’s an abomination, a contract is a contract. And, for good or ill, Moore and Kirby did exactly the right thing upon discovering they had taken a shit job where they didn’t feel appropriately appreciated and compensated: they fucking quit. They took their game where they thought they’d be appreciated. That’s the American way. After all, Take This Job And Shove It didn’t sell a million copies because Johnny Paycheck was a beautiful and misunderstood genius.

If enough A-List talent walk on shitty deals, eventually publishers will find themselves forced to hire fanboys out of college who want to write their dream Spider-Man story where Aunt May gets raped to death and Spider-Man, y’know, really cuts loose. And, in a fit of “adapt or die,” publishers will make changes to keep that A-List talent – remember the late 90s, and the sudden onset of exclusive contracts, creator-owned imprints at the Big Two, and things of that ilk? That wasn’t altruism, that was big talent going off to work for Image – and new talent starting there (Hi, Bendis!) – while mainstream comics circled the drain.

But taking a bad deal and then complaining that you deserve more is like bitching about your hangover; yeah, the situation sucks, but it’s not like it’s completely Jack Daniel’s fault. And make no mistake; I am not taking the side of DC over Moore, or of Marvel over Kirby. What those companies did to those guys is arguably unethical on a good day and reprehensible on a bad one… but they did what the contracts that Moore and Kirby signed allowed them to do.

And if you’re still not understanding what it means to negotiate with a soulless, self-interested sociopath like a corporation? Let me put it comic book terms: if The Joker tells you that, if you cooperate, the last thing he would do would be to poison your Mom and shoot you in the face? Don’t expect Batman to save you. Call her and tell her you love her right fucking now.