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.