Invasion of the Character Snatchers

In literature, I would say that it’s different. I would say, and it might be splitting hairs, but I’m not adapting these characters. I’m not doing an adaptation of Dracula or King Solomon’s Mines. What I am doing is stealing them. There is a difference between doing an adaptation, which is evil, and actually stealing the characters, which, as long as everybody’s dead or you don’t mention the names, is perfectly alright by me. I’m not trying to be glib here, I genuinely do feel that in literature you’ve got a tradition that goes back to Jason and the Argonauts of combining literary characters [...] It’s just irresistible to do these fictional mash-ups. They’ve been going on for hundreds of years and I feel I’m a part of a proud literary tradition in doing that. With taking comic characters that have been created by cheated old men, I feel that that is different [...] And that’s my take on the subject.
– From an interview of Alan Moore by Kurt Amacker, published by Seraphemera Books.

It’s hard to tell how seriously to take Moore’s statement that adaptation of characters “is evil,” particularly since he admits in his two-and-a-half hour interview that he’s “stealing” characters in works like Lost Girls and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, mostly those that have fallen into public domain. However, he certainly seems to taking a moral stance against the comic industry’s exploitation of characters “created by cheated old men” (a bit of a puzzler since I don’t think any of the most famous “cheated men” were old when they created their respective characters, but leave that one for another time).

Moore’ s interview, structured as a response to an assortment of specific questions, doesn’t examine the concept of adaptation in depth. He has on occasion assailed the idea of a comic-book work like his Watchmen being adapted into another medium, but it’s not clear to what extent his objection is fueled by his not owning the property.  Moore’s characterization of the process of adaptation is made here purely in the context of corporations cheating “old men.” Is adaptation evil in the case of an owner who fully controls the property, and can choose what adaptations are made, either in the medium of origin or in other media? Moore does not touch on this point, though it’s certainly possible that he dislikes adaptation of any kind as far as his own personal tastes and morality are concerned.

Now, what makes Moore’s juxtaposition ethically interesting is that both of the activities he describes are perfectly legal. It’s legal to “steal” characters as long as they are in public domain or to pastiche them (as in the case of Moore’s unnamed “theft” of Fu Manchu, who appears unnamed in League). It’s also legal for corporations to own and continue the adventures of characters that a given corporation did not create, as long as there exists some record indicating that the actual human creators transferred rights to the characters to the corporation.

Since both activities are currently legal, it follows that anyone objecting to either or both activities is appealing to an “extra-legal morality,” defined here as questions of morality that current legality does not adequately address.

In the referenced interview, Moore is careful to define his moral objections in purely personal terms, and from his own personal experience:

“All of these things, it was the way that comics worked and after a while I began to have doubts about that. I can remember when I was offered-this was with Brian Bolland-the Batman/Judge Dredd team-up and this was something that was going to happen until I had a word with John Wagner, who was a very good friend of mine and who — he may not have been the creator of Judge Dredd, but he was the person most associated with its success — John told me that he was very angry to hear that I would be taking this Judge Dredd character, which was not what I had been told, so I dropped the project on the instant because I don’t believe in taking work from other people.

“I eventually got to the point where I felt uncomfortable dealing with any franchise character, and a few years ago I stopped. I decided that I would probably never work with any franchise character again…”

The obvious logical problem with this statement, as Moore himself admits, is that John Wagner, though intimately involved with the very involved evolution of the Dredd character, was not precisely the creator of record. Still, clearly Moore considered Wagner to have some sort “rights of disposition” by dint of Wagner’s later contributions to the history of Judge Dredd, even though Wagner did not legally own Judge Dredd. One must then wonder, “What distinguishes John Wagner from, say, any number of creators who did not write the first outings of a given franchise character but who in some way distinguished themselves on said characters later on?” It may well be that in Moore’s mind Wagner’s presence during the gestation of Judge Dredd confers on him some moral right that would not accrue to, say, Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy for their critically lauded work on Marvel’s MASTER OF KUNG FU. However, I think that this is muddy reasoning at best.

Can a given creator have an extra-legal yet moral right to a character? Clearly Moore believes that this is the case: that many “old men” were cheated of that right irrespective as to the conditions prevailing when they transferred rights to corporate entities. The variety of those conditions are so varied that I can’t deal with them here. But it would seem to me that if an extra-legal moral right accrues to John Wagner—or, to conjure an American example, Bill Finger, who certainly aided in the gestation of Batman but was never legally a “creator”—then the same extra-legal moral right can in theory be conferred upon any creator who works upon an “adaptation,” regardless of the perceived quality of the contribution or the morals of the corporation that creator serves.

Moore’s distinction between working on literary public domain characters and working on corporate-owned “adaptations,” then, is specious.  Some readers don’t like Moore’s re-imaginings of Doctor Jekyll or Captain Nemo, and appeal to the notion that it’s not what the authors would have done with them. Moore, asserting that modern adapters are somehow poaching on the preserves of the “cheated old men,” is using very nearly the same logic re: the “rights of disposition” to any given created character. If such rights are logically sustainable, it should make no difference if the stories are literary or non-literary, or if the creators are living or dead.

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7 Comments

  1. I’m not sure I follow the jump from the point where it shouldn’t matter if the creators are living or dead? It seems to me that it does matter.

    The Wagner example confuses me slightly. I was under the impression that Wagner was one of the original creators of the character, and came up with the concept of the future-law-enforcer, even if Pat Mills would go on to edit and re-write the script etc? Maybe my knowledge of 2000AD history isn’t so sharp and somebody can correct me? But it seems that Moore’s standard of asking Wagner’s opinion is certainly consistent with his moral position on Before Watchmen. I fail to see the logical or moral contradiction.

    The point with ‘stealing’ vs ‘adaptation’ seems vital though. Moore, at no point proclaims that this is the genuine continuation of these characters (Hyde, Dorothy, etc), he rather makes it clear that he’s using them in juxtaposition to tell a different story, and often rarely uses their names. There’s no pretence of it being a ‘sequel’. Its like fan-fiction, or playing with action figures. Hence, ‘stealing’. He makes no moral claim on the characters themselves.

    In contrast, ‘franchised’ characters (and attempts to turn stories into ‘franchises’), relies on the idea that these new stories officially follow on from the original one. The fact that they’re touting this as the official continuation and prequel of this story (because they own the characters ‘legally’ and can do what they want), it makes the difference. If DC had said, “we’ve hired writers to come up with tribute stories to watchmen”, then I think Moore might have been okay with it (as would many people on the internet).

  2. Mladen,
    I did say that Wagner was involved with the “evolution” of the character according to everything I’ve read, which seems to be consonant with what you’ve heard. However, it’s significant to me (though it may not be to you) that he was not the first to write the character’s adventures. So did he “create” Judge Dredd through a process of setting down some basic ideas, the way Jack Kirby is supposed to have laid down some (though not clearly all) of the ideas used for the Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN? The Wikipedia description of the first Dredd story’s evolution indicates as much:

    “Wagner’s initial script was rewritten by Mills and drawn up by Ezquerra, but when the art came back a rethink was necessary. The hardware and cityscapes Ezquerra had drawn were far more futuristic than the near-future setting originally intended, but Mills decided to run with it and set the strip further in the future.”

    If Alan Moore wants to regard Wagner as the creator of Judge Dredd, and therefore back off doing the character, that’s his privilege. But Wagner created Dredd under “work for hire” circumstances in which his own contributions were extensively re-written.

    The logical contradiction obtains not between Moore’s view of Wagner’s disapproval and Moore’s stance on Before Watchmen. It obtains between Moore’s view of Wagner’s disapproval and Moore’s disapproval of working on franchise characters. Again, it’s entirely valid for him not to do it if it makes him uncomfortable. But I think that he is claiming a “moral high ground” as soon as he says that working on continuing franchise characters is “evil.” As I said in the essay, he seems to be making a special case for Wagner because he was involved in the creation of a character, as opposed to my examples of Moench and Gulacy, who were hired guns coming in on a character long after creation. But the distinction, I repeat, is a muddy one.

    If you’re going to assert that Wagner has some extra-legal right of disposition over Judge Dredd because he created it, is it not possible for a “hired gun” to gain a similar right from “re-creating” a character? When Doug Moench took over MASTER OF KUNG FU, the feature melded cinematic kung-fu action with old-timey Fu Manchu adventures. I could argue that Moench “re-created” Shang-Chi by choosing to involve him more deeply in spycraft, and that it’s unlikely the feature would have lasted had it not moved away from the simpler mode of its original creation.

    But based upon the lofty morality of Alan Moore, it would appear Doug Moench doesn’t get any extra-legal rights. If anything, he’s implicitly frowned upon for being part of a system whose entire raison d’etre is cheating old men. That’s the logical and moral contradiction.

    Moore’s adaptation of literary characters is a separate matter. It’s true that he’s not stepping on any living author’s toes by refashioning their characters, but many readers yet living may disapprove of his use of characters they’ve enjoyed, so his response to them also has to come down to, “Tough on you if you don’t like it.” Why not create his own doppelgangers of Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, as indeed many authors have? Because, contrary to his statements, he DOES want people to feel as if his treatment of Mina could be a valid extension of the Dracula canon, even as Marv Wolfman’s TOMB OF DRACULA represents another valid extension of said canon. Indeed, Moore goes into far more fannish detail reproducing aspects of the original with fidelity– more than Wolfman, at least– so I don’t think that he’s making no claim on the stories themselves. It may be more an aesthetic claim than a moral one, but it’s a claim nonetheless.

    • Ah, in which case I think we agree, I mistakenly assumed you were using the Wagner example to prove that Moore was directly contradicting itself. My fault for mis-reading. However, I can’t quite agree that the extra-legal ‘ownership’ of a creator is equatable to the ‘ownership’ of those who change the character later. The original creator holds greater moral ‘rights’ than anyone afterwards, no matter if the later changes are more commercially successful. But thats not a position I’m willing or able to argue in depth.

      A correction, the industry’s raison d’etre is cheating YOUNG men, not old ones. :)

      As for the readers disapproving of the use of the characters they like (in League, Lost Girls), fans have no ‘right’ over the material either way. Obviously Moore wants to play on the useful preconceptions of using established characters, like his obsession with writing Lovecraft fan-fiction (which he makes no effort of disguising), and his main claim may just be, “I am a bigger Lovecraft nerd than any of you suckas”. But the modest claim of the fanfic writer is far more defensible than the claim of the “official sequel” writer (especially when the original writers are 1: alive, and 2: upset over being duped by a legal-savvy publisher during a naive period in their career).

    • Kate Halprin says:

      You are quite incorrect about John Wagner. He and artist Carlos Ezquerra are the acknowledged creators of Judge Dredd. That neither were responsible for the first published strip is neither here nor there, as it was common practice in the early days of 2000AD for characters to be handed to different writer/artist teams to see what they could do with them.

      Ezquerra was in fact so incensed that the first published Dredd strip was the work of another artist, Mike McMahon, that he did not work on 2000AD again for 18 months and didn’t return to Judge Dredd for almost five years.

      The history of Judge Dredd has been quite well-documented in books such as ‘Judge Dredd: The Mega-History’ by Colin Jarman and Peter Acton – which contains a thorough breakdown of who wrote the early scripts and in what order they were commissioned – and David Bishop’s ‘Thrill-Powered Overload’. There is really no room for ambiguity or dispute, and I don’t believe that Alan Moore’s quote implies that there was.

    • I’d only like to chime in to say that characters in the public domain are legally and certainly ethically fair game. That’s always been the case, and that’s why copyright is allowed to expire: to open this material up for everyone to read and riff on, as they like.

      British copyright law is a bit different, and it’s a little more flexible on “work for hire” situations than American law seems to be.

  3. Mladen,
    I fully agree that in general if the Big Companies cheat anyone, they’ve generally cheated young people. But Alan Moore explicitly says “cheated old men” in the quote above, because (I believe) he wants to elicit the image of old guys like Joe Shuster struggling to make ends meet because of rapacious corporations. It’s not incorrect to bring that up, but in the way he phrases it, he gets ahead of himself.

    I may do another essay that explores my belief that what might called (with a jab at Tolkien) “secondary creation” can be as important as “primary creation,” rather than exploring the matter here. Ditto the matter of fan-reaction on the basis of an author changing an established “character archetype,” whether creator-owned or not.

    KH: I’m as certain as you are that Alan Moore deems John Wagner to have “rights of disposition” over the Judge Dredd character, and I stated as much. However, what interests me is that because Wagner did not legally own the character, that puts anyone’s belief in those rights within the realm of an extra-legal ethics; defined earlier as an ethical stance which its adherents don’t believe to be adequately addressed by current law.

    JD: The same applies to public domain. It is legal, even as it is legal for Robert Maxwell (or whoever) to own Judge Dredd even if Robert Maxwell didn’t do a lick of work conceptualizing the character. If I, a fan of Rider Haggard, protest that I don’t like the way Alan Moore rewrote She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, then of course the only thing I can do (and should do) is to quit buying Moore because I think he’s doing something unethical– though only in an extra-legal manner, since he’s free to do whatever he likes, legally, with a public domain character. Though of course I can also write a bad review of Moore and try to convince others not to buy his work, though it’s unlikely anyone who’s not a hardcore Haggard fan will care about that one questionable aspect.

    The main difference in these two postures is that whereas no one is ever likely to protest that readers ought to be able to restrain what writers do to characters they didn’t create, whether in corporate or public-domain situations, much ethical debate has focused as to whether a Robert Maxwell ought to be able to own characters he didn’t create. I find the parallel interesting, however, in that it reveals some of the gaps in Alan Moore’s logic. For instance, does he believe that when he dies, he’ll no longer care about what DC does with Watchmen, so his heirs should not continue to fight for owning the work, the way the Siegels fought for the rights to Superman after Jerry Siegel’s death?

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