“They wouldn’t pay me a fraction of what I was worth.”

Watchmen achieves a high degree of formal complexity and density not only compared to mainstream superhero comics but also compared to Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. These graphic novels also appeared in 1986, sometimes adduced as the year when U.S. culture grasped the potential of comics as a medium. However, Spiegelman’s and Miller’s books lack the kinds of symmetries and formal repetitions that obtain through Watchmen, and they lack its extreme self-reflexivity about both its form and its genre. Writer-artist Spiegelman approaches “serious” subject matter in Maus, the problem of representing the trauma of the Holocaust both individually and as world history, but Maus does not use a particularly challenging form, especially compared to Spiegelman’s more avant-garde work collected in Breakdowns (1977) or his deconstruction of U.S. responses to 9-11 in In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), an oversized book that doubles as an homage to early newspaper strips. The popularity of Maus arguably depends on its combination of formal accessibility, the serious concerns of high art, and the visual conventions of funny-animal comics, among the lowest of low arts. Spiegelman’s avant-garde work in the comix underground remains unknown to the mass readership of Maus.

In their promotion of Watchmen, DC stressed not the work’s closure or formal complexity but the creators’ individuality. An ad in DC’s Infinity, Inc. called Watchmen “A 12 issue deluxe series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.”[18] DC’s ad for the trade paperback in the literary section of the New York Times invoked the artists but obscured the book’s relationship to monthly comics:

“From Alan Moore, critically acclaimed and bestselling comic book writer of Saga of the Swamp Thing, comes an extraordinary graphic novel. Illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen is a visual and lyrical tour de force. ‘Transcends mere comics—it’s a brilliant piece of fiction. What Moore could you ask for?’ –Village Voice.”[19]

Yet despite this promotional rhetoric of individualism, DC’s treatment Moore and Gibbons conformed to the comics industry’s practice of treating artists’ creations as corporate property.

A moment of self-reflexivity in Maus: Artie, Spiegelman’s stand-in, learns that his father has read one of his earlier comics (dealing with Artie’s mother’s suicide). The book narrates both Artie’s father’s survival of the Holocaust and also Artie’s interviews of his father for Maus, yet it does not foreground the history, meanings, or mode of production of funny-animal stories as Watchmen does with superhero stories. Photo by the author.

Because U.S. comics artists lack the collective bargaining power of unions, the industry has long treated artists as freelancers under work for hire contracts. Matt Stahl writes, “companies’ freedom to market products and appropriate profits depends on their ability to exclude numerous creative workers from the magic circle of authorship. Work for hire makes this separation and property alienation possible.”[20] Against this background, DC proposed a contract that sounded progressive: DC would hold the copyright only while Watchmen remained in print, and then ownership would revert to Moore and Gibbons.[21] In 2005 Gibbons explained:

“In 1987, once a comic book series had run its course, that was pretty much the end of it. There might be sporadic foreign editions or reprints in the back of other titles, but even series conceived as self-contained stories […] were thereafter unavailable except in the back-issue bins. The notion of collecting just-published material and re-marketing it in book form was virtually unknown.”[22]

By keeping Watchmen in print, DC denied Moore and Gibbons the promised reversion of ownership. Gibbons speaks diplomatically about his dealings with DC, but Moore later called DC’s actions a “swindle.”[23] DC converted Moore’s off-brand characters—written to satisfy both Moore’s desire for creative autonomy and the company’s desire to keep the Charlton characters—into intellectual property that would become a new range brand, but only after someone made a Watchmen movie.

Jenette Kahn, president of DC comics from 1981 to 2002, oversaw DC’s recruitment of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, both of whom would do their most famous work for the company before fleeing. A January 1985 New York Times profile detailed how Kahn had “turned DC into what she calls a ‘creative rights company,’ whose products are providing licensing and movie revenues for other Warner divisions,” although “Warner will not say how much of [its] profits are accountable to DC.”[24] To sell licenses, characters had to appear in good stories, so Kahn had to attract good artists; DC therefore offered “more creative control and better financial terms.”[25] In 2001 the women’s comics collective Sequential Tart interviewed Kahn, asking about her “proudest moments” and what she wished she “had done differently.” She answers,

“I am the daughter of a rabbi, so perhaps that accounts for my being especially proud of the pioneering work we did on creators’ rights. When I came to DC, the industry had very few obligations to the talent. […] It wasn’t an easy fight. Because we were part of a larger corporation, I had to sell the concept to our superiors. There was no union of freelancers demanding rights. The thought of voluntarily giving up money (royalties, participations in licensing and media) was a difficult premise to swallow. I addressed the issue from two perspectives: one, that it was morally the right thing to do (I doubt this weighed heavily) and, two, that we’d get a better quality of ideas if our freelancers had a stake in anything new they created. It was the latter argument, I think, that ultimately carried the day. But although I always felt the moral argument was critical, the business one was heartfelt and has proved correct over the years. We do get a higher caliber of invention. And I also sleep better at night.”[26]

In the same interview, Kahn recounts recruiting Frank Miller to DC but does not name Alan Moore, and she does not mention that both left DC because of the company’s treatment of them under her supposedly progressive tenure.

Kahn often speaks of her earlier departure from Scholastic, where she had founded the magazine Dynamite. “My ideas had made millions for the company,” she says in the 1985 profile, “but they wouldn’t pay me a fraction of what I was worth.”[27] William Sarnoff, chair of publishing at Warner Communications Incorporated, had offered Kahn “total editorial control” over DC: “‘I always knew that I wanted creative autonomy,’ she said. ‘I had confidence in my ability to have good ideas and implement them.”[28] In a video interview for Makers.com, the AOL-Huffington Post’s “collection of women’s stories,” Kahn offers another telling:

Dynamite became the most successful magazine in all of Scholastic’s history. So I said, ‘Well, now that it’s such a success, of course I want to get a royalty.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, no, no no—you would make more than the chairman of the board!’ And I’m like, 'That is so not the point.' And so I created a third magazine, and I called it Smash because I wanted to smash Dynamite.’”[29]

Kahn, like Moore and like most other workers, aspired to more autonomy and better pay, and she bristled at her employers’ expropriation of the value she created for them. In light of DC’s treatment of Moore, Gibbons, and other work for hire artists, we can see that while Kahn objected to Scholastic’s exploitation of her, she did not object to exploitation in principle. Makers.com notes that Kahn “helped the company grow from 35 people (with three women, including herself) to 250 people with women representing one-half of the staff.”[30] In this light, her career at DC becomes legible as corporate feminism, a breaking of glass ceilings that leaves regimes of exploitation not weaker but stronger, better able to use demographic diversity and inclusion to legitimate inequality. Kahn embodies the contradiction between U.S. rhetorics of fairness, individualism, and hard work on one hand, and on the other, the logics of expropriation and exploitation that organize production in the culture industries.[31]

The “unfilmable graphic novel”

After the original monthly run of Watchmen finished, DC sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox through producer Lawrence Gordon, but production repeatedly stalled.[32] Over the next two decades, Gordon would try to develop the film at Universal, then at Paramount. When the latter attempt failed in June of 2005, Gordon began negotiating with Warner Brothers, and in December the studio announced the sale.[33] Since Time Warner owned both DC and Warner Brothers, the conglomerate had incentives that other studios lacked. As Lopes notes, in the 2000s, “The trade book market for North American graphic novels also was growing at unprecedented levels,” and “By 2005, Publishers Weekly was touting the unquestionable boom in graphic novels.”[34] Considering the summer box-office of Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) and the still-thriving DVD market, Gordon had brought the film rights “home” to Time Warner at what must have seemed the perfect time.

Time magazine appears in “Watchmaker,” the fourth chapter of Watchmen, but not as cross-promotion among properties in a single conglomerate. WCI would not purchase Time, Inc. until 1989. Instead, the magazine’s title reinforces the chapter’s meditation on time. The chapter’s narrator, former nuclear scientist Jon Osterman, AKA Dr. Manhattan, has simultaneous consciousness of his own past and future; critics have read this as a metaphor for the comics’ reader’s godlike power to move forward and backward through the moments captured in the individual panels of a comic book. Photo by the author.

Moore has never expressed enthusiasm for film adaptations of comics. Instead, he has repeatedly argued that comics should explore the formal possibilities of comics rather than creating narratives for export to other media. Despite similarities between the cinematic frame and the comics panel, Moore considers such comparisons limiting: if cinematic techniques “are seen as the highest point to which comic art can aspire then the medium is condemned forever to be a poor relative of the motion picture industry.”[35] Instead, he argues that comics writers should explore techniques “that we can do with our storytelling that cannot be successfully duplicated by other media.”[36] As we will see later, journalists who wrote about Watchmen’s decades in development hell would reduce Moore’s claims about medium specificity and goals for the book to one word, unfilmable, then use that word to explain the movie’s troubled development.

The Hughes Brothers’ 2001 adaptation of From Hell turns the book’s non-linear alternative history of Jack the Ripper murders into a straightforward supernatural romance. The film re-imagines the book’s stout, stolid, and happily married Inspector Abberline as the lithe, tattooed, opium eating, psychic, and single detective played by Johnny Depp (Twentieth Century Fox, 2001). Inspector Abberline prepares to arrest Sir William Gull, physician of Queen Victoria, in From Hell (Twentieth Century Fox, 2001).
In the film adaptation of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Twentieth Century Fox, 2003), a vampire Mina Harker prepares to execute Dorian Gray at the climax of their wuxia-style battle. Alan Moore began his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics for Wildstorm before DC acquired the company. Moore then left Wildstorm to finish League with other publishers. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen combined public-domain characters from Victorian fiction into a “superhero” team after the fashion of DC’s Justice League or Marvel Comics’ Avengers. ... ... However, when Twentieth Century Fox produced their film adaptation of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), they could not secure the film rights to the name “The Invisible Man” held by Universal. Moore’s graphic novel, following H. G. Wells, had called the character Griffin, but Fox, fearful of treading on Universal’s claim to the cinematic Invisible Man (Universal Studios, 1933), renamed their charaacter Skinner, and in early promotion called him “An Invisible Man” rather than “The Invisible Man.” Here, Griffin/An Invisible man fixes him self a drink in Dorian Gray’s library.

In the years following Watchmen’s publication, Moore’s relationship with the comics industry deteriorated. Frank Miller had left DC in 1988.[37] Moore left in 1989, in part over DC’s handling of the Watchmen contract; he subsequently worked for independent publisher Wildstorm Studios, but in 1998, DC bought Wildstorm.[38] In the 2000s, Hollywood released adaptations of Moore’s work, From Hell (Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, 2001) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Stephen Norrington, 2003), made, according to industry practice, without Moore’s input or permission. However, in March 2005, Joel Silver falsely claimed that Moore had endorsed the script of V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005), an adaptation of another of Moore’s stories that DC owned. When Warner Brothers refused to correct Silver’s claim, Moore quit Wildstorm, demanding “his name be removed from the V for Vendetta film” and “from any of his work that DC might reprint.”[39] Moore subsequently forbade his name to appear on film adaptations.[40] Although Moore and Gibbons do not own Watchmen, they do own their names, and therefore Moore’s demand that Warner Brothers not use his name on new texts had legal force. Warner Brothers would then resort to other means to construct the authenticity and merit of their Watchmen adaptation.

The film’s long gestation

The Watchmen movie spent an unusually long time in development, with a long series of failures at different studios. My analysis here argues that the movie finally happened because Warner Brothers, unlike other major studios, belonged to the same conglomerate that owned the rights to the graphic novel, giving the parent conglomerate reason to take a chance adapting a difficult text in a high-budget genre. Even if the movie failed, it would sell books. Moreover, Time Warner owned both light and serious news outlets that would help promote the film but without drawing attention to the conglomerate’s overarching interest in the franchise.

Time Warner began publicity for the Watchmen movie in the 21 October 2005 issue of subsidiary Entertainment Weekly. Jeff Jensen proclaimed, “Watchmen is poised to reenter the pop consciousness”: “talks are under way to produce a long-in-development movie adaptation at Warner Bros.”[41] Around this announcement Jensen builds an article that doubles as a primer on the graphic novel and its characters. Jensen compares Watchmen to Citizen Kane, “a masterwork representing the apex of artistry” in its medium.[42] He praises Moore but omits Moore’s troubles with DC, noting vaguely that Moore opposes the adaptation “for artistic, business, and personal reasons.”[43] As Gray notes, “one of the great economic benefits of conglomeration has been the ability to advertise on commonly owned channels.”[44] When one of those channels appears to report the news, however light, even better for the conglomerate. Significantly, Jensen’s article appeared three days after Publishers Weekly (not a Time Warner property) announced DC’s plans for an “Absolute” edition of Watchmen, a slipcased hardcover retailing for $75.[45] The timing suggests that the talks between Gordon and Warner Brothers prompted the launch of Absolute Watchmen, too.

Time Warner subsidiaries took up the word that had emerged in British accounts of the movie’s development: unfilmable. In 2001 the Independent’s David Thompson had called Watchmen a book “described by Moore as ‘unfilmable.’”[46] In April 2005 the Guardian’s Steve Rose called Watchmen “judged to be unfilmable by the author himself.”[47] On 17 July 2008 Entertainment Weekly ran an interview with Zack Snyder, conducted by Jeff Jensen, which marks the conglomerate’s adoption of the tag: Jensen calls the book a “cult-pop artifact that many had deemed unfilmable, but Snyder may have proven them wrong.” Note the timing of this interview: the following day, 18 July, the Watchmen trailer would debut before The Dark Knight on 9,200 screens in North America, a new record.[48]

In 2008 and 2009 most commentators noted the film’s troubled development, and nearly all called it “unfilmable.” MTV attributes the term to fans, who supposedly wish “someone would come along and turn [Watchmen’s] seemingly unfilmable brilliance into a movie.”[49] Others use the passive voice to turn unfilmable into doxa: Watchmen “has been called ‘unfilmable,’”[50] and it “has been billed as ‘unfilmable’ for more than 20 years.”[51] Warner Brothers use the tag in their press kit, where passive voice conceals Time Warner’s agency as propagator of the meme: “Watchmen has long been considered […] unfilmable.”[52] The studio uses vague phrasing to do the same: “‘People always said Watchmen was the unfilmable graphic novel,’ says Zack Snyder.”[53] The press kit also stresses Snyder’s fidelity to the graphic novel: “Zack respected the source material so much that he knew the only way to adapt it was to hew as close to the source as possible.”[54] By early 2009, this narrative dominated: “Dubbed unfilmable until director Zack Snyder came along.”[55] “Alan Moore believes his Watchmen is unfilmable—and Zack Snyder agrees.”[56] The hype became self-propagating.

Shortly before the film’s 6 March 2009 premiere, other Time Warner subsidiaries repeated the pressbook’s claims. On 25 February 2009, Jeff Jensen, now writing for CNN, announced that despite “Watchmen’s rep as the Unfilmable Graphic Novel,” Snyder “faithfully” adapts the book.[57] By capitalizing Unfilmable Graphic Novel, Jensen reifies the tag that he introduced into Time Warner’s promotional discourse in July 2008. Nick Hunt and J. D. Cargill’s stories for CNN, to their credit, point out something that most colleagues omit: ties between these companies. Cargill notes that Time Warner owns CNN and Warner Brothers, and Hunt notes that Time Warner owns CNN and DC.[58] However, neither Hunt nor Cargill connects all three subsidiaries with their parent. They gesture toward disclosure without parsing the conglomerate’s ownership for readers.

Cargill and Hunt do both cite Watchmen’s presence on Time magazine’s list of the hundred greatest novels published since the magazine’s 1923 inception. Compiled by editor Richard Lacayo and regular contributor Lev Grossman and published over multiple issues, the list consists of Watchmen and ninety-nine prose novels: no short-story cycles, poems, or plays, and no other comics. In the 24 October 2005 installment, Watchmen gets pride of place the top of the page. I quote here Grossman’s description of Watchmen in its entirety:

“The story of a ragbag of bizarre, damaged, retired superheroes reunited by the murder of a former teammate, Watchmen is told in fugal, overlapping plotlines and gorgeous panels rich with cinematic leitmotifs. A work of ruthless psychological realism, it’s a landmark in the graphic novel medium. It would be a masterpiece in any.”[59]

Note the timing: the week that Time puts Watchmen on their hundred-novels list, DC Comics announces their slipcased deluxe reprint Absolute Watchmen. That same week, Jensen announces the Watchmen movie negotiations at Warner Brothers. Grossman’s claim about the book’s “cinematic” qualities repeats a commonplace attempt at praise by writers less familiar with comics and therefore dependent on comparisons to other media. However, his claim that Watchmen “would be a masterpiece in any” medium seems a non sequitur unless we recall the timing of this list: during Warner Brothers’ negotiations for the film rights. The timing and Grossman’s remarks about Watchmen suggest that Time made this exception for one comic book as part of a strategy to promote not just the book but also adaptations into other media.

Grossman’s past conduct makes his listing of Watchmen even more suspect: in the 1990s, he created fake online identities—“sockpuppets”—to post favorable reviews of his own novel on Amazon.com. In 1999, he admitted using sockpuppets without expressing remorse for “the lies” or “the deception.”[60] At the time of writing, Grossman has not answered my query about his rationale for including Watchmen on the list. Yet despite the dubious credibility of the book’s inclusion on Time’s list, most reporting about the Watchmen movie cites the list as evidence of the book’s greatness and the movie’s ambition. Scholars cite the list, too. On the first page of his monograph on Watchmen, Hoberek, to his credit, raises the suspicion “that Grossman was simply cross-promoting another product in his company’s portfolio,” but he offers instead to pursue “what we might learn by taking Watchmen’s inclusion seriously and treating it as a work of literature.”[61] Of six scholarly essays that mention the list, all cite it uncritically as evidence of the book’s stature.[62] None question the oddity of a single comic book on a list of prose novels, or Time’s conflict of interest, or Grossman’s credibility. Why should we find surprising these uncritical citations of Time’s list? Two reasons warrant discussion here.

First, the graphic novel Watchmen itself critiques the reach of conglomerates through its depiction of the villain Adrian Veidt, the CEO who uses his company’s holdings to create a bogus alien. Veidt hires scientists to construct the telepathic monster, then hires writers, artists, and avant-garde musicians to create a plausibly alien cultural archive for the decoy. When it dies, it telepathically broadcasts this “terrible information.”[63] When these workers finish, Veidt uses assassins to kill them, concealing their labor. If we think of this monster as a media text, then Veidt becomes legible as a duplicitous producer, exploiting workers and erasing their names for his own ends. The monster frightens the USA and USSR into cooperation not merely through the “terrible information” it carries but also through the implicit threat that it may be the first in an unwanted franchise of aliens teleporting into Manhattan; the first monster’s arrival kills millions, so nobody wants a sequel. Hoberek reads Veidt Enterprises’ unauthorized use of the likenesses of Rorschach and Nite Owl for toys as an allegory of “the conflict between the work for hire creative talent of the comics industry and the corporations which by and large controlled and profited from their creations.”[64]

However, I read Veidt’s exploitation of his former colleagues’ likenesses as but a smaller instance of his larger modus operandi of expropriating the cultural work of others for his own purposes: the bogus alien instantiates more fully this pattern of instrumentalizing and erasing creative workers. Per Alan Moore’s demand, the Watchmen film does not identify him by name; the credits bill the film as “based on the graphic novel co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons and published by DC Comics,” writing Moore out and DC in. However, this credit appears beside a smiling Adrian Veidt, his arms crossed and eyes half-closed in self-satisfaction. This tableau therefore reads not as an artist’s critical allegory of intellectual property relations, as Hoberek argues we should read Veidt’s narrative in the book, but instead as Time Warner’s triumphal allegory of its own success in retaining control of Moore’s work.

Second, many commentators had remarked on the Watchmen movie’s role in selling merchandise before the movie even opened. On 13 August 2008, the New York Times reported that the Watchmen trailer had boosted sales of the trade paperback: “‘from our conversations with the book industry people, there has never been a trailer that did this,’ said Paul Levitz, the president and publisher of DC Comics, which has printed 900,000 additional paperback copies [....] Last year it sold about 100,000.”[65] A week later, EW’s Jeff Jensen reported that Watchmen’s

“above-average potential as an ancillary media cash cow was a big reason why Warner Bros. greenlit the picture [.…] the studio could milk Watchmen for at least three different DVDs: the already-announced The Black Freighter companion disc, an animated film based on the graphic novel’s comic-within-a-comic; the theatrical version of the film; and possibly a separate director’s cut [….]”[66]

This narrative of exploitation ran counter to the narrative of Watchmen’s “unfilmable” greatness that Jensen had propagated. By October 2008, Publisher’s Weekly reported that Watchmen had become “the bestselling backlist graphic novel on the planet.”[67] By March 2009, Watchmen had become the bestselling trade paperback of any kind in the United States.[68]