Directly after their panel, held Saturday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, DC Comics Co-Publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio met with select members of the press to discuss the company's upcoming release of "Before Watchmen," a series of seven prequel comics that focuses on the world created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the classic mid-eighties maxiseries, "Watchmen."
As it's one of the crown jewels in DC's library, the decision to visit and expand on the lives of the characters prior to the events in "Watchmen" is a savvy one from a business perspective, but the announcement of the prequel immediately upset fans and pros alike who are both fiercely protective of the original series and of Moore, who has gone on record repeatedly to ridicule the effort. Beyond this current situation, the legendary comics writer has publicly vowed numerous times over the years that he will never work for DC again.
Both Lee and DiDio directly addressed the controversy during the panel discussion beforehand. DiDio even mentioned that some of his own staffers approached him with their reservations about revisiting the saga. When asked if these employees worked on the finished product and if their input helped to keep things honest, DiDio explained, "A couple of folks came in and actually stopped into my office and said, 'Hey, is this real?' I said, 'I really can't say either way, but even if it was, is there a problem?'"
"Hypothetically speaking," Lee added, laughing.
"Because it wasn't real at the time," DiDio continued. "That's the whole thing. That's the reason why -- I was actually more interested in the conversation about where they felt the problems lie."
Likening comic properties to a baseball team, DiDio explained why, from DC's perspective, it doesn't make good business sense to leave your best players on the bench. "There's so much entertainment and there's so much media out there that you have to go out with your best foot forward for the things that are most recognizable -- that people want to see," he said. "I explained that to them, and -- you've got to remember that most of the folks -- a lot of the folks -- who work at DC Comics are fans, so you know, there's that fan that kicks in every once in a while."
In 2009, when director Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" movie was released, the company sold a million more copies of the original book. "At that point, we assumed everyone that was a true comic book collector already had a copy of this trade, right? So, the vast majority of those one million went to new readers," Lee said. "And we're always on the lookout for, how do we expand our business?"
Citing DC's double-digit growth in sales from the same time last year in what is historically the worst quarter for comic book sales, Lee credited the bold, unconventional choices the company has made with regard to its publishing slate, citing initiatives like the "New 52" and "Before Watchmen" prequels as a big reason for the increased interest in its product. "There's a lot of good stuff that's going on, and to me, a lot of that good stuff is because we're doing things that might not have been done in the past, or not done because that's not what a fan -- a true fan -- would do, per se."
The controversy about the treatment of the writers and artists who work for DC made headlines again last week when "I, Zombie" writer and co-creator Chris Roberson stated on Twitter that after the Vertigo-published series concluded, he would no longer work for the company based on its treatment of Moore and others like him. While DC did not respond publicly to Roberson's statements and the resulting debate amongst pundits and pros, Roberson was quickly released from his final DC gig, writing a story arc for Vertigo's new "Fables" spinoff, "Fairest."
Asked about the situation from a creator's standpoint rather than as an executive, Lee responded, "I don't know the writer, Chris [Roberson] and so -- you know, it certainly would have helped if I could have talked to him or if he would've reached out to me. It seemed odd to me -- as a creator, I would not publicly state I have a problem with the company that's paying me to do work for them and I'm going to quit after I finish this one project. It would seem wise to me to wait until you finish that project to voice that complaint."
"As far as I'm concerned," DiDio added, "he made a very public statement about not wanting to work for DC, and we honored that statement."
"See, now that's the line that's going to run," Lee joked.
Almost like a shadow on the wall, Moore and his very public issues over the prequels and his treatment by DC were never far from the conversation, and it wasn't long before Lee addressed both directly. "This is not a situation where we have taken things from Alan," Lee stated, firmly. "He signed an agreement and he said, 'I didn't read the contract.' I can't force him to read his contract -- or the people [who were in charge] back then.
"Secondly, it's not a situation where we're exploiting or using the characters and Alan's not getting compensated. For everything that's been done with "Watchmen," from the books to the movie, money has gone his way, the right amount that he deserves, based on the contract."
With so much riding on how the prequels will be received by fans, DiDio and Lee said that finding the right artists and writers for the project was a key concern for DC, and actually put the process on hold until the creators were firmly nailed down and, in some cases, convinced to come on board. "The talent pool wasn't available to us at the point [we originally decided to move forward with the project], especially these key creators. They were busy with other projects," DiDio said. "That's the story that Darwyn [Cooke] has. You know, Darwyn was asked -- was one of the first people asked -- and he turned it down because he didn't know what to do with it. And then a year later he comes back and he goes, 'I know how to make this story work.'"
"I guarantee you that every single one of these creators that's working on these books, think they can outdo -- match or outdo -- what was done in the original," Lee added.
Citing the interlocking stories Grant Morrison created on "Seven Soldiers of Victory" as an inspiration for the overarching storytelling format of the upcoming prequels, DiDio explained how "Before Watchmen" evolved. "One thing that we did to make sure it felt different [from 'Watchmen'] was to change the art styles," DiDio explained. "Each artist has their own style. Amanda [Conner] is close to the Dave Gibbons' layout, but, you know, Jae Lee is as far removed from it as possible. And that's good, because it means each moves and operates as its own, rather than be beholden to a style that might be too rigid for all the stories that we're telling."
Similar to "The Black Freighter" story that was woven throughout the original book, the prequels will feature "The Crimson Corsair," a separate story written by the original title's editor, Len Wein. "Because Len has worked such a gamut of time in the comics business, he's actually using 'The Crimson Corsair' to tell the evolution of comics," DiDio said, explaining that readers will see "The Crimson Corsair" evolve in much the same way comics did from the Golden Age all the way through to the Bronze Age. "You see how their stories change and how the attitudes and characters change as things move on. It captures the tonality of the 'Watchmen' world moving into a darker place."
And as for whether or not one of the goals of "Before Watchmen" is to create the basis for a second run at bringing the characters to the big screen, DiDio refused to commit one way or the other. "We really have to sit down and do a full evaluation on what happens on these books, you know," he replied. "Because how you start and how you end might be two completely different things."
"Before Watchmen" debuts this summer.