From off-brand to franchise: Watchmen as advertisement

by Ezra Claverie

This essay looks at Time Warner’s adaptation of the 1987 graphic novel Watchmen into a media franchise. It argues that the Warner Brothers film Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009), adapted from the relatively self-contained book from DC Comics, functioned both as an occasion to produce new Watchmen texts as well as a high-profile advertisement for this new brand. Time Warner owns DC Comics and Warner Brothers, but they also own news outlets like Entertainment Weekly, CNN, and Time magazine, which helped cross-promote the film. The story of this franchise, therefore, reveals much about creativity, autonomy, ownership, and adaptation in the culture industries. In an industrial system not invested in formal experimentation or narrative closure but in the exploitation of intellectual property, discursive features that made a source text most distinctive may vanish in adaptation, while features most necessary for marketing a brand, such as iconic visual elements, may remain, as they do here. The long arc from Watchmen’s 1987 publication, to the 2009 film, to new Watchmen comics beginning in 2012 illustrates the kinds of changes that an ostensibly self-contained text undergoes as it becomes a source of new production.

The Watchmen graphic novel, much studied for its formal density and self-reflexive fascination with its own medium and genre, critiques superhero comics (and the industry that produces them); in contrast, the film offers no such critique of Hollywood and its norms (aesthetic or industrial). The book, by writer Alan Moore and penciller[1] Dave Gibbons, originally appeared in twelve installments, from September 1986 to October 1987. It defied the comics industry’s norms in two significant ways.

Watchmen (Warner Brothers, 2009) gives the DC Comics logo similar treatment.

The end credits of Watchmen (Warner Brothers, 2009) invert the color scheme of the opening company titles.

Left: Alan Moore (Wikimedia Commons)

Above: Dave Gibbons, penciller of the Watchmen graphic novel, in “The Phenomenon: The Comic that Changed Comics” (Warner Home Video, 2009).

First, Moore wrote a story not connected to the wider DC continuity of characters like Superman and places like Gotham City, leaving the Watchmen characters unavailable for appearances in other DC titles. Second, by using characters created for the book, Moore gained the creative autonomy that included the freedom to kill characters. In contrast, ordinarily the comics duopoly of DC and Marvel treat characters as licensing opportunities, such that if an editor allows a writer to kill a reader favorite, both readers and licensees can count on a speedy resurrection.[2] Not so in Watchmen, which begins with the murder of the Comedian, a retired “masked adventurer.” The book offers an alternate history of the 20th century where such adventurers shaped world events. At the end of the twelve-issue run, DC released them in trade paperback, and since then, Watchmen has remained one of the best selling and most studied graphic novels in English, prompting many scholarly essays as well as books like Andrew Hoberek’s Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics.

My essay draws on that scholarship but also on the larger archive of journalism, promotion, and spin-offs from the 2009 film, in order to situate that film in a larger corporate strategy that depended on intellectual property arrangements made in the 1980s. DC had sold the film rights to Watchmen shortly after its publication, yet for more than twenty years, the project languished in “development hell,” moving from one studio to another, until Warner Brothers bought the rights in 2005. Although various Time Warner subsidiaries touted the extreme fidelity of the 2009 film to the graphic novel, the film simplifies and shortens the graphic novel’s story. The movie uses traditional editing and mise-en-scène; no titles suggest the book’s chapters, and no split-screen compositions evoke comic-book panels. By necessity, it eliminates formal elements specific to comics that made the book distinctive within its medium. In substitution, Warner Brothers created an array of spin-off home video texts that offered to “complete” the adaptation. In 2012, DC began publishing Before Watchmen prequel comics, and in 2016 they began to integrate Watchmen characters into the main DC continuity. This essay does not examine all these moments of franchise building but instead focuses on the film, which served as a $130 million commercial for this emergent brand.

The first page of DC Universe: Rebirth (DC Comics, 2016) uses the disciplined nine-panel grid that Watchmen used, while using images like those in the 1980s graphic novel. Photo by the author.

The epilogue of DC Universe: Rebirth (DC Comics, 2016) uses the nine-panel grid of Watchmen, while using images and quoting dialogue from the original graphic novel. Photo by the author.

At the end of  DC Universe: Rebirth (DC Comics, 2016), a splash page reveals DC’s game: folding the self-contained Watchmen around its more familiar, and much older, continuity of superheroes—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and so on. Photo by the author.

Cases of Watchmen DVDs. Photo by the author.

The corporate demiurge

We can understand Time Warner’s conversion of Watchmen into a franchise as a case of a media corporation taking a critical and even oppositional text and transmuting it into a new means of shareholder-owned production. In contrast to most monthly comics, which assume open-ended seriality (now punctuated by corporate reboots), Moore and Gibbons gave their book a beginning, middle, and end. Moreover, they did not use familiar DC characters but instead designed new and therefore off-brand characters as riffs on superhero archetypes, precisely because they wanted to step out of the instrumental logic that treated character and narrative as means to build revenue. Watchmen therefore constitutes an act of revisionism and self-critique, a deconstruction of both the genre’s representational tropes and the commercial practices of the comics industry. Simultaneously, the book’s density and foregrounding of its own form make it, as Andrew Hoberek has argued, legible as a work having the values of high art, performing metacriticism in both its narrative and its visual design.[3]

Yet despite DC’s constant praise of the formal daring of Watchmen, three decades later the company did something that surprised even readers jaded by the company’s many series reboots. In the May 2016 premier issue of DC Universe: Rebirth, the publisher began to integrate superhero characters from Watchmen into the mainstream DC continuity. In the year of Watchmen’s thirtieth anniversary, Batman pried from the wall of the Batcave the Comedian’s iconic, blood-spattered smiley badge, suggesting a new kind of franchise reboot, one that put superhero high art to work in the service of the DC corporate brand.

When DC Universe: Rebirth hit comic book stores, the Warner Brothers film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016) still played in theaters. Based on characters owned by DC (another Time Warner subsidiary), Batman v Superman recombined elements from seven decades of comics while also borrowing key material from best-selling DC story arcs from the past three decades, for example, remixing the 1992 “Death of Superman” story arc with the 1986 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Such bricolage, typical of Hollywood films based on characters owned by DC or Marvel, offers long-time fans the pleasures of surprise while also enabling conglomerates to cross-promote commodities produced or licensed by other divisions. However, Batman v Superman also shares discursive features with Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Watchmen, an R-rated oddity in this PG-13 genre.

Instead of bricolage, the Watchmen film and its surrounding promotion adopted an ethic of extreme fidelity, adapting the comic in the manner that prestige films adapt novels. Starting in 2005, Time Warner began converting the studiously off-brand Watchmen graphic novel into a new range brand, analogous to Batman or Superman: a constellation of recognizable characters and visual icons that editors, filmmakers, or licensees could use as occasions to produce new texts. Moore and Gibbons’s closed text became the means for DC to build an expanding franchise that would include a theatrical film, direct-to-video spin-offs, computer games, new editions of the book, eight different Before Watchmen comic series, and, as of 2016, the main DC continuity itself.[4] For DC Universe: Rebirth imagines the universe that Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman inhabit as the creation of Dr. Manhattan, a godlike character from Watchmen.

Although scholars have written much about Watchmen the book, they have written little about Watchmen the movie, and still less about its role as the linchpin of a transmedia range brand that Time Warner promoted using DC Comics, Warner Brothers, and even news outlets. This outlier actually helps us understand the typical duopoly superhero film, for the same imperative drives both: not the imperative to tell a particular story or to explore the formal possibilities of a medium but to advertise a brand. Adaptation scholar Clare Parody has argued that franchises that adapt texts across media present a constellation of interpretative issues connected to corporate marketing aims:

“Franchise adaptations … need to be understood not only as inflected by the aims and protocols of entertainment branding but also, moreover, as complicit in them. Indeed, adaptation in a franchise context can be read as an act of brand management, key dimensions of the intertextual dynamics it sets up explicated and produced by brand logic.”[5]

Time Warner worked to hide the advertising function of its Watchmen movie behind rhetorics of fidelity and integrity, yet a study of the book’s history, the film’s development, and Time Warner’s promotion reveals other motives, methods, and ethics. When Batman finds the Comedian’s badge in DC Universe: Rebirth, we see those motives, methods, and ethics come to fruition, as the conglomerate assimilates an oppositional work and repurposes it as a means to its own ends.

Those who study the workings Hollywood studios and the conglomerates that own them often find themselves at cross purposes with the discursive strategies of those companies, which seek to obscure managerial goals from audiences, competitors, and workers. Non-disclosure agreements and social promises of secrecy conceal much that would interest scholars, as does promotional rhetoric about artistry or curatorial responsibility. Thus, ethnographer Sherry Ortner notes that in Hollywood, “information is managed for competitive advantage.”[6] And political economist Janet Wasko asks,

“where can one find accurate production figures beyond the public relations rumor mill reported in Variety or other trade publications? Where is it possible to find accurate or meaningful figures on stock ownership?”[7]

My analysis of the history of the Watchmen franchise centers on a theatrical film but takes a methodological hint from the protagonists of the graphic novel, attending to paratexts often neglected in film studies. The main characters of the graphic novel either once fought or still fight crime as masked adventurers; the story begins as a murder mystery, with several “masks” trying to solve the murder of one of their former comrades, the Comedian. The book’s ostensible villain, Adrian Veidt, has himself retired from adventuring to become the CEO of a powerful conglomerate. He now uses the likenesses of his former vigilante associates to manufacture toys and a Saturday morning cartoon show without their permission and without compensating them. Significantly, Veidt uses the disparate global holdings of Veidt Enterprises not only to engineer an apocalyptic hoax but also to obscure the unity of his plan.[8]

The book’s masked-detective narrative and its non-linear form foreground the difficulty of interpreting fragmentary clues; chapters include epilogues that present intradiegetic prose texts containing information found nowhere else, which render intelligible events in the comic-panel sections. Taking a hint from Jonathan Gray’s Show Sold Separately, I seek to assemble an account of this franchise from sources often discounted: promotional and making-of paratexts.[9] I treat Time Warner’s many utterances about the movie as traces of the larger object of study, the conglomerate’s building of a Watchmen franchise.

Authorship versus ownership

For three decades, Watchmen has served as a cautionary tale about DC’s exploitative treatment of its most famous artists. In the 1980s, when Moore and Gibbons negotiated with DC to make Watchmen on their own aesthetic and narrative terms, they did so in the midst of shifts in the way that the comics industry credited and paid creators. Independent publishers, seeking to compete with the DC-Marvel duopoly, offered creators possessory credit on book covers and in “marquee” titles like Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and they offered shares in or total ownership of characters. To compete, the duopoly followed suit: DC offered Moore and Gibbons possessory credit and ownership of Watchmen once it went out of print. However, DC kept the book in print, voiding the offer and leading to Moore’s rift with DC.

In Time Warner’s discourse about Watchmen, Moore’s authorship functions both as a sign of the book’s prestige and as a reminder of the expropriation long the norm in the comics industry. The native of Northampton, England, began working for DC as a writer for Swamp Thing, a second-tier horror comic. Moore’s stories combined achronological, multi-track narratives with a readiness to subvert genre norms, and his work won awards in the United Kingdom and United States. BBC 4 notes that Swamp Thing’s circulation grew “from 17,000 to 100,000” during his run.[10] In his work for DC, Moore wrote for titles headlined by proprietary characters created by others, which DC sought to preserve as sources of revenue. This necessarily limited Moore’s narrative horizons. As Andrew Hoberek notes, Moore “conceived Watchmen as a story using the ‘properties’ DC had acquired from Charlton,”[11] a defunct comics company whose catalogue DC had purchased. Moore built his reputation by re-working the creations of others, so Hoberek rightly challenges both DC’s styling of Moore as a Romantic genius and Moore’s own habit of styling himself as a creator of hermetic texts that must not be altered by others.[12]

Moore’s work contributed to the emergence of new discourses of authorship in the U.S. comics industry. So-called marquee titles appeared especially on books aimed at adult readers, which publishers released without the seal of the Comics Code Authority, a self-censorship body modeled on the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. In his history of the comics industry, Paul Lopes argues, “it was only when Marvel and DC’s economic interests were challenged by independent publishers that they significantly changed their treatment of artists.”[13] Moore’s many interviews in Comics Journal and Comics Interview during the mid 1980s meant that his name had become a selling point, and DC used it to promote Watchmen. A 1985 DC Spotlight boosting upcoming publications quoted Moore:

“‘Dave Gibbons and I came up with a way to approach superheroes that hasn’t been done before,’ Alan Moore says of the forthcoming Watchmen [….] Moore is intending to create a project that will stand apart from any other hero comic published today.”[14]

The ad frames Moore’s contribution in the Romantic terms: intention, creation, and uniqueness. Two decades later, Warner Brothers would take a different approach promoting the Watchmen movie, talking around Moore’s name even as they continued to praise the work he did for DC (and only the work that he did for DC).

When Moore asked permission to kill Charlton characters in his Watchmen series, DC refused. Hoberek remarks,

“It is small wonder that DC turned down Moore’s request to use the Charlton characters, since he was essentially asking the company to eschew these characters’ potential as renewable sources of profit.”[15]

Moore responded to DC’s refusal by creating original-enough heroes that he could kill or retire at the end of the story, letting DC keep the Charlton characters. Moore saw the limited series as a platform for a different kind of story:

“with the advent of the mini-series […] it has become possible to create a number of characters that are designed only to exist for the duration of that series. [his emphasis] It’s a bit like the sort of freedom that all book authors enjoy, you know. There was no call for Charles Dickens to write David Copperfield II: Steerforth Strikes Back.”[16]

Moore stresses wholeness, coherence, and creative control, a control that he seeks to extend to the after-lives of characters. He invokes Dickens to claim an autonomy enjoyed by few writers of monthly comics, citing the novel as a sign of certain aesthetic qualities that open-ended serial comics lack.

 “[W]e’ve tried to sort of bring the sensibilities of a novel to the maxi-series, because the maxi-series would seem to me to be the perfect vehicle for the creation of comic book novels. […] We knew what was in each of the twelve chapters. We knew the various design elements, so that we could work upon it as a coherent whole, and just produce it as that. [his emphasis] There isn’t going to be a sequel to Watchmen.”[17]

Moore and Gibbons also deliberately foreground and subvert conventions of the superhero genre. Unlike the putatively simplistic form of superhero comics, Watchmen’s form resists linear reading. Moore uses a wide range of the formal possibilities of comics, juxtaposing within the panel multiple registers: diegetic images, speech balloons, intradiegetic texts and images, and text insets. Often, one or more of these registers comments ironically another, though often the reader does not grasp that irony until a later page. Moore and Gibbons also use and foreground the properties of the comic book as a platform: patterns connect panels across the single page, the two-page spread, and whole chapters. Such relations depend on the reader’s ability to stop and turn back to correlate resemblances and recurrences.