Alan Moore, Dave Sim, and Editors

How Creators Create

In the late 1990s, Alan Moore, at the time known best for his work on Watchmen, Swamp Thing, and From Hell, had entered into preliminary negotiations to write an entire line of books for Wildstorm, then an imprint under Image owned by Image co-founder Jim Lee. However, before the line, called America’s Best Comics, began, Lee sold his entire imprint and library of characters to DC. Knowing that Moore had stood on principle until that point that he would never work for DC again, Lee and his editor, Scott Dunbier, flew out to England to tell Moore the news in person.

“Obviously, I wasn’t very happy about it,” Moore said in an interview with George Khoury in 2003. “But for better or worse, I decided that it was better to forgo my own principles…rather than to put a lot of people who’d been promised work suddenly out of work.” Additionally, a firewall was set up to limit the perceived involvement of DC in the ABC line from the beginning. A limited liability company was formed, DC’s trade dress did not appear on the books, and all advertisements were held until the back of each issue, consideration that was not done for the rest of the DC line, Wildstorm or otherwise.

But even a literary giant like Moore was not allowed complete creative freedom through his ABC line, as when a “Cobweb” story for an issue of ABC’s Tomorrow Stories anthology title was rejected outright for overt sexual references. “When it came to the point of the actual interference in some of the stories…it seemed personal,” said Moore of the situation.

Independent artist Dave Sim, who has been discussed in previous articles in this series about comic book creator rights and work-for-hire practices, has an interpretation of the issue of censorship that is characteristically blunt. “Creative people listen to [editors] because [they] make that a condition of employment. [Editors] are worse than useless when it comes to creativity. [They] are intrusive.”

While writing for DC through the ABC line, though, Moore was able to write one of his most deeply personal works, the 32-issue Promethea, an extended reflection on the nature of reality and magic, and the 32 paths that he believes connect the entire scope of human existence. The series was illustrated by J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray, with colors by Jeremy Cox, an art team that created some of the most striking art to be found anywhere, comics or otherwise. The final issue, for example, could be read in two distinct ways: page by page as originally printed, or with all the images unbound and rearranged in a giant image of the character of Promethea’s face that also created a new narrative.

Promethea is not strictly a religious work, but it is informed by Moore’s belief structures (more of which can be discovered by checking out Moore's lecture at Northampton College in the below video), and the tagline for the title (“If She Didn’t Exist, We Would Have to Invent Her”) also brings light to the importance of fictional characters and constructs to real people, discussed by Moore in another interview with Khoury in Comic Book Artist from 2003:

Of course, Superman exists. The main problem with this and magic and all these other things is a simple problem, a simple confusion. We are talking about two different sides of existence and two different side of reality. There is physical existence, the stuff that you can touch and feel all around you. No one gives any doubt that that is real. Then there is a mental existence that cannot be quantified in a laboratory and because science cannot prove that any one of us is aware or conscious, consciousness and the mind are forever outside the province of science. An idea of a chair is as real as a chair is real, but they are real in two different ways. Thus, the idea of Superman has obviously got quite a complex and profound existence.

On the anniversary of Superman’s 50th year of publication in 1988, Sim wrote about the fictional character in his comic book Cerebus (issue no. 108) as though he were making his own decisions:

Superman didn’t have any humble beginnings. Superman ate fire and shit ice from the git-go. Superman was bigger than anything before or since. Comic strips are just newspaper ghetto features, like the horoscope or weather report. Superman kicked his way onto newsstands and made the whole world notice.

Obviously, this level of personification is what is necessary from a creative mind in order to craft believable fiction. When asked specifically about advice on how to write, Sim said, “Think, think, think. Project yourself into an alternative reality, understand as much as you can about it, and become clinically schizophrenic. The stuff you are writing about should never be less real to you than the real world.” But when that alternative reality is one where what is creatively allowed is ultimately decided by a third party, as is the case when writing for the trademarked characters of Marvel or DC, new levels of schizophrenia must be introduced. And Grant Morrison, with writing credits such as Batman: Arkham Asylum under his belt, was probably the best choice to introduce theories specifically related to that schizophrenia.

Hypertime and Krypto-Revisionism

How Readers Revise

Morrison, along with fellow writer Mark Waid, first introduced “Hypertime” as a story device in the DC universe in the late 1990s. The way Hypertime works is basically summed up as “It’s all true,” a caveat that allows equal credence to any and all stories about any character, including those that are fan-derived. The theory is similar to one posited by writers Steven Grant and Mark Evanier in 1988, called “krypto-revisionism,” which states that the ultimate reality of what counts in comics is in the eye of the beholder, as every member of the audience chooses story elements that they either ignore or acknowledge. Morrison, though, has personally furthered another notion in several interviews, in that he plans to turn the DC universe itself into a sentient being. There are two sides to that plan, but both of them operate on the same foundation: Morrison is crazy. One event in particular, though, makes the theory a fascinating one.

In a 1947 trial, Jerry Siegel won back the rights to Superboy (but not Superman), but then resold the character to DC in 1948. But after 56 years, the rights again reverted to the Siegel family, in a ruling uphold by a judge in 2004. Since that time, DC has had to legally refrain from referencing the name Superboy explicitly in its multimedia narratives, a decision that has kept "Smallville", a show based on a young Clark Kent, from doing just that. It was also the reason why a cartoon version of the Legion of Superheroes refers to one of its characters as a young Superman rather than Superboy. And in the comics themselves, DC had to get rid of the character. So, in the Infinite Crisis miniseries published in 2006, the original Superboy, long thought to be erased from continuity, returned from an alternate dimension as the villain behind a conflict involving the entire DC Universe. That Superboy then killed the modern, “good” version of Superboy before being imprisoned himself, likely to return under a different, legally available name.

The metaphor of the actual company’s legal woes influencing the storylines of its characters does give the theory of a sentient story universe an interesting twist, but the unfortunate truth is that the writers doing work-made-for-hire on the company’s characters were forced to shoehorn in changes that had to be legally made, and came up with the most interesting story they could think of with those marching orders. And although that can be a challenging and rewarding writing exercise, it is also ultimately creatively stifling.

The only way to prevent that sort of requirement is to self-publish, which is itself a greater challenge for any artist, to sink or swim purely on the merits of their own art rather than the needs of the publisher. But, for those who have done so, the creative rewards are staggering. “I have, by happy accident or cosmic twist of fate, cut myself a hunk of turf that grants me more creative freedom than, say, Leonardo da Vinci had,” said Sim in 1985. And to him and others, it would be ill-advised to sacrifice it for a shift in someone else’s imagination.