I tend to roll my eyes, figuratively at least, whenever comics fans call for a boycott of some title or company. These efforts are never organized and they don't seem to be geared towards persuading anybody else to join in. Most of what passes for boycotts in comics fandom are really just individuals attempting to put a moralistic face on their own consumer preferences.
Maybe there were a few people who quit reading Marvel Comics to protest the way the company treated Jack Kirby, but I'm guessing most of them had already given up on Marvel anyway, or were ready to. It's always easier to boycott a product you have no intention of buying. Last spring, the internet was abuzz with people who refused to buy a digital-first Superman comic because noted homophobic bigot Orson Scott Card was scheduled to write for it. And good for them--but how many of them would have bought a digital-first Superman comic anyway? How many of them will be lining up to see Ender's Game this fall?
Or take me, for example. I suppose you could say that I boycotted Before Watchmen, although in all honesty I doubt I would have bought those comics even if Alan Moore had given the project the kind of tepid, hands-off blessing bestowed by Dave Gibbons. (The books themselves sound pretty horrible by all accounts.) For me, the appeal of Watchmen has always been inseparable from the talents of Moore and Gibbons, and the idea that you could have one without the other struck me as ridiculous. I never had any interest in reading J. Michael Straczynski's Watchmen, not even in a universe where DC wasn't producing the comics against the original creator's wishes and in violation of its own longstanding agreement.
But there is no question that Before Watchmen changed my relationship to DC Comics. Before the announcement I was--I'm somewhat ashamed to admit--a steady consumer of the company's rebooted "New 52" comics. I tried about a quarter of the line when it first relaunched, and while I was already starting to drop books by last February, I was undoubtedly buying many more DC titles than I had before the relaunch. From DC's perspective, that had to be counted as a success.
The announcement of Before Watchmen changed everything. I won't rehash the 18-month-old arguments against it (David Brothers made the case pretty well at the time). I had no interest in wading into the online discussion. I don't even think I consciously made the decision to wean myself off DC comics. I just started looking for reasons to drop their books, and finding no shortage of them.
Except for one. One, I dropped immediately.
Brian Azzarello, who signed on to write two of the Before Watchmen miniseries, said “[What's key is] that we all get in there and we tell the best possible stories we can and we reconnect these characters. It’s 25 years later. Let’s make them vital again.”
Which is an odd thing to say since the characters of Watchmen, from Walter Kovacs to Joey the cab driver, are vital every time I open the book. Which is more than I can say for most of the product cranked out by an industry that's dedicated to strip-mining its past successes instead of creating new ones. I guess I should be grateful that we never saw Before Watchmen: That Lesbian Cabbie.
When I read that quote from Azzarello, that was the moment, the moment, that I knew I couldn't read any comics by the Before Watchmen creators. If they were going to treat Moore and Gibbons's masterpiece, DC's greatest contribution to the graphic novel movement, as a piece of work-for-hire executed by interchangeable cogs then I would treat them the same way--and exchange them for someone else.
In practice, though, that just meant dropping Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman. And that was not a moral act--it was an aesthetic preference wrapped up in a sense of moral purpose. Azzarello's Wonder Woman is one of the few New 52 books that still receives praise, in some quarters, as the product of a distinctive artistic vision. I can't imagine why, except that the book's ample flaws (ambling plot, atrocious dialogue, one of those smug know-it-all characters who only exists to explain the backstory to the nominal protagonist, the list goes on) are so idiosyncratic that they cannot be mistaken for anyone else's.
And Cliff Chiang's art--I'll give the fans that. Cliff Chiang's art and Matthew Wilson's colors were so gorgeous that I came back five months in a row for a story I knew wasn't any good. It was their misfortune that Azzarello's self-serving comments hit just a couple of weeks after an issue went out without Chiang's name on it. It was only a temporary absence, but it was enough to remind me what Azzarello was contributing to the book and what else he stood for.
That was the only book I dropped directly because of Before Watchmen, but it wouldn't be the last to go. The creative revolving door takes another spin? Dropped. The steady writer drags out the initial storyline one issue too many? Dropped. Crossing over with another comic I don't read? Dropped. Crossing over with another comic I do read, but have kind of stopped enjoying? Dropped and dropped. By summer they were falling thick and fast. In no case have I come to regret any of those decisions.
There were replacements, at first. I tried most of the second wave of titles that DC launched in May 2012--titles that seemed to offer distinctive creative voices, or at least creators I knew and liked. But fairly soon after the drops were outpacing the additions once again, and then the additions started getting dropped as well. In no case (except Azzarello) did this happen because of Before Watchmen, but it was Before Watchmen that wore away the last bit of good will I had towards DC. Now, with the recent end of Batman, Inc., there are only two DC universe comics I still read. (Plus Astro City, which is Kurt Busiek's copyright.) One of them was already getting a new writer in two months.
The other one is Batwoman.
So in a couple of months, the boycott will be more or less complete. It was never intended to be a boycott. It's just a process of attrition. It is driven first and foremost by bad comics, not immoral business practices. But the result, from the only perspective DC cares about, is the same.
And if it hadn't been for Before Watchmen, I might still be supporting them. So thank you, DC, for picking the one fight you never should have picked. Thank you for making the clearest possible statement that artists and writers don't matter, that you are in the business of producing widgets and not literature.
Thank you for making this so easy.