Saturday at the LA Times Festival of Books, LA Times writer Geoff Boucher welcomed an enthusiastic crowd of fans anxious to hear the latest details about DC Entertainment's "Before Watchmen," a series of seven prequel titles focusing on the lives of the characters before the events of the original maxi-series. The prequels are scheduled to be released this summer amid a great deal of controversy concerning the rights of the book's original creators, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, DC Entertainment Co-Publishers, Dan DiDio and Jim Lee took the stage to discuss the controversy with fans as well as the past, present and future of "Watchmen."
Boucher kicked things off by recalling what it was like when the "Watchmen" books were originally released in the mid-'80s, remembering the anticipation for each issue and the general feeling in the air that things in the comic book industry were starting to change.
"Yeah, I think game-changer is an apt term," Lee agreed, explaining that he was a senior in college during that time, and for him, "Watchmen" was one of the first books to offer insight into what superheroes might really be like behind their masks. "That stuff was something that was not touched upon in mainstream comics," he said. "So to me, as a twenty, twenty-one year old reader, it just really opened up my eyes to the potential for the medium and so that and [Frank Miller's] 'Dark Knight Returns,' inspired me to try and get into comic books."
When Boucher gently nudged Lee and DiDio about the controversy over the company's dispute with the book's original writer, Alan Moore, and the public outcry some fans had when they learned DC Comics was even attempting "Before Watchmen," DiDio gave a deep, audible sigh and Lee cut directly to the chase. "Well, I think another way of phrasing that is why do this project, right? I mean, I think that's the question that fans have," Lee said.
He then spoke about the criteria the Co-Publishers used to decide whether or not to move forward with "Before Watchmen." "We have great creator teams. We have great characters. We have the best opportunity in time for it -- and we have great stories. So in that sense, it didn't waver from what we typically do," Lee said. "In terms of the controversy that we anticipated, it's not something that we typically shy away from. In fact, when [DC Entertainment President] Diane Nelson put together the Executive team that currently runs DC now, two years ago, our sort of informal motto was: 'No fear.'"
DiDio said every effort had been made to reach out and involve the original creators in the new prequel project. "At the end of the day, we were able to come to some level of agreement with Dave [Gibbons], and moving past that though, we knew this was something we had to go after," he said. "This was something we had to do. This was something that we felt was good for our company, good for our business, and more importantly, good for the fans."
When asked if they had tried to get Gibbons to participate on the project and in what capacity, DiDio called Gibbons one of the true gentleman of the comic business and one of its greatest creators. "He's one of the people that, when I first started at DC, that I respected the most, and still respect to this day and we went to extraordinary levels to try to make sure that he at least felt comfortable. I understand some of his concerns. His vision was the only vision of these characters, you know, these are his children. We've got to take good care of them."
Boucher then wondered if any of the controversy, coupled with Moore's very public criticism of both the project and DC Entertainment, made either feel that they were misunderstood. Lee brought up the fact that many mainstream American comics center around characters that were created as far back as the '30s and those have all been built and expanded on by different generations of creators. "When you look at a character like Batman, he's always constantly changed, evolving according to the times. He wasn't always this grim avenger of the night. In the '60s he was very kind of buffoonish and cartoon-y."
Lee further explained that when a character is created as "work-for-hire" it is essentially understood that the character is being put in a toy box, and other people may eventually pull that toy out and play with them. As a creator himself, he related that it had happened to him with Hush, a character he created during his "Batman" run with writer Jeph Loeb who continues to appear in DC Universe stories told by other creators. "That's not necessarily my version of the character, but I respect the fact that the creators took it -- took the ball and ran with it. It might not have been the direction I wanted, but I thought they did a great job in achieving their goals," he said.
A fan in the audience asked the pair if they were to negotiate Moore's deal for the original series today, would they do things any differently. "At that time, everybody was making the fairest deal possible and then ultimately, things changed," DiDio said. "Everybody stayed within their rights and unfortunately, it's a shame that somebody would get -- that Alan would get upset in this fashion, but in all honesty, it all made sense at that time."
When the "Watchmen" movie was released in 2009, it was a grim time for comic book retailers and many were shocked when the re-issued book sold more than a million copies. "Now, we're in a business which is starting to fade and we're selling all of these books," DiDio said. "The reality is we don't think it's just 10,000 collectors buying 100,000 copies each -- we know that these are all new people because this book is a twenty, twenty-odd something year-old brand."
In fact, the memorable opening montage in "Watchmen" movie, directed by Zack Snyder, actually had a hand in inspiring the concept of doing prequel stories according to DiDio. "When you saw what they did at the start of that movie, you're like: 'There's a whole other movie being told in the opening credits.' And therefore, that gave us the impetus to say that's why this works so much better as prequels. We can never do sequels," he said, "It doesn't make sense because the primary characters that you really want to follow through [with] are gone and you didn't want to bring them back through any contrivance at all because that would weaken the material."
Both men were effusive about the work that is being turned in on each of the books. "Honestly, if we didn't have these creators in, really, the prime of their careers, doing the level of creative work that they're doing, I don't think we'd be here discussing 'Before Watchmen,'" Lee said.
A website where all of the creators can share work with one another has helped to bond the team, and according to DiDio, "The level of competition among the artists has been spectacular."
Competition hit especially close to home on the "Nite-Owl" book, which is being penciled by Andy Kubert and inked by his father, the legendary Joe Kubert. "I see the [pencil] work come in and it's incredible -- full pencil – gorgeous art, very modern looking, and Joe is going in and doing finishes and he's changing a lot of it, and to me, that makes for an interesting sort of Thanksgiving Dinner," Lee said. "It's also a great tutorial on the differences of where art used to be in the '60s and '70s and where comic book art is now."
Boucher wondered if any of the creators involved were worried about receiving a negative response from fans. "There's a little bit of this 'Us vs. The World' kind of mentality," Lee admitted. "They know that all eyes are on them and they want to deliver."
"Before Watchmen" debuts this June from DC Comics.