A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Month: February 2010

DC Decision on Rumored New Watchmen Comics Will be Telling

The comics blogospher has been abuzz over a report from Rich Johnston over at Bleeding Cool about plans within DC to publish new prequel and sequel comics to Watchmen. The report states this initiative to capitalize on the success of the original graphic novel — now reported to be DC’s best-selling title ever — is a pet project of Dan Didio and made possible by the departure of publisher Paul Levitz, who resisted previous efforts to sequelize Watchmen.

Johnston has a pretty good track record on this kind of thing, so I’m inclined to think there’s something to this. And with announcements pending on Warner Bros.’ plans for the new DC Entertainment, such a project being the first thing out of the gate for the post-Levitz DC will tell us a lot about the company’s future.

To start with, publishing more Watchmen comics makes perfect sense from a purely business point of view. After nearly 25 years in print, the potential for new products that exploit Watchmen has been pretty much tapped out now that we’ve had the movie version, the motion comic and all the merchandising that came with that project.

And looking at the history of sequels to classics — for example, there have been multiple sequels to Casablanca in print and even on TV that flopped and are remembered pretty much not at all — if new Watchmen comics flop it’s unlikely to diminish people’s affection for the original. We’ve already got the movie version, so there’s no way a controversy would damage the property’s chance of being made.

But without additional material, there are few options for DC and WB beyond collectibles for die-hard fans when it comes to new product. You need something new on which to base another videogame, or DCU cartoon, or toys or T-shirts and books. Everything’s already been played out with the original material.

One issue that’s come up and been debunked is the idea of a movie sequel. It’s clear a movie sequel was never in the cards because it makes no sense. The movie didn’t do all that well at the box office, grossing $107 million domestically and $77 million overseas for a worldwide total of about $185 million. And that doesn’t even cover an estimated production budget of around $130 million, the significant budget the studio spent to market the movie all over the world or the legal expenses and settlement over the rights to the film between Warner Bros. and Fox.

(Something that’s rarely remembered when discussing box office receipts is that these are gross numbers that are split between the theater showing the movie and the studio. The studio still gets the lion’s share, but it’s very inaccurate to say that a film made for $100 million breaks even when its gross matches the budget. A general rule is that a movie has to gross 2.5 to 3 times its production budget to become profitable. Good news for Avatar — bad news for Watchmen. If you’re wondering how studios stay in business when so few films meet that standard, the need for alternative revenue streams becomes clear. Even with DVD sales way down, rights for home video, pay per view, movie channels like HBO and cable and broadcast rights are major factors and continue to pay long after a movie’s gone from theaters. Plus, there’s licensing and merchandising. All of this also helps explain why studios pretty much only make movies based on pre-existing properties – it’s often the factors they bring to a project that will turn a profit for them in the end. But, I digress … )

But a comic book sequel has to be an obvious idea for DC. Watchmen is easily their biggest-selling book of all time at this point. And it will continue to sell well for them no matter what.

What’s interesting is there are some unusual risks that come with more Watchmen. What won’t show up on any spreadsheet is the complex set of circumstances that surround this project, its place and impact on comic book history, and the situation with creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

The first problem is the creators. Alan Moore split with DC years ago in part due to problems he has with the contract he signed with the company for both Watchmen and V for Vendetta. At the time the contract was signed in the 1980s, DC policy was that it would not publish anything it did not own. To placate Moore, who came from British comics where creator ownership was more common, the contract was written with a clause that would transfer ownership to DC for publication and then return it to Moore after these projects had been out of print for a certain period of time. At the time, DC only published periodical comics, and the market for them was very strong at the time. This was way before anyone thought comics fans would even want trade paperbacks and graphic novels, even if DC were to publish them. So Moore and Gibbons signed. And when DC turned Watchmen into a trade paperback and kept it in print and retained the rights, Moore was understandably upset. Gibbons has been much happier with DC and continued to work for them, even consulting on and promoting the movie. The issue is, unlike most such comics disputes, not about money as by all accounts there has been plenty of that. For Moore, it’s the principle of the matter, and he’s happily signed away his share of the money to Gibbons. That’s a move that gives Moore unusual credibility in this matter. There’s also the matter that his complaints are legitimate and from a what’s fair and what’s right attitude (as opposed to what’s legal) Moore is right.

In a way, DC lucked out. Had they done Watchmen a couple years earlier, Moore and Gibbons might have gotten the rights back; a few years later, they would have been able to get creator ownership once DC began allowing that. And it is a black mark on DC that it did not re-negotiate a deal that gave Moore at least some of what he wanted when the market changed. Original intent and expectations are supposed to be important aspects of contract law in this country. To its credit — and this now appears to be the influence of Paul Levitz — DC did not exploit Watchmen with the creation of sequel and prequel comics.

Until now.

While Moore is so unhappy with the Watchmen situation that he no longer even owns a copy of the book, it’s unlikely he’ll wage any kind of public campaign against any new Watchmen comics. But he does do interviews, so someone will eventually ask and, in typical Alan Moore fashion, he’ll have a really quotable response that will rocket around the internet in record fashion.

Bad PR is the real risk for DC in this situation. Moore’s complaints are nothing new, but if the first comics project from the re-organized DC Entertainment comes with a controversy, it certainly won’t look good. And it’ll look even worse if the media ties in the Jerry Siegel copyright termination on the first Superman story and Jack Kirby’s heirs stated intention to do the same thing with most of the Marvel Universe.

That comics publishers have long screwed creators is by no means a new story, especially within the industry and the fan base, but it becomes something different when you suddenly have big companies like Disney in charge of Marvel and Warner Bros. looking to make DC into a high profile generator of media properties. Then it becomes a big corporations ripping off the little guy story, and it’ll resonate farther and wider than it has in the past.

But if we’re hearing about more Watchmen comics, it likely means that the decision’s already been made to go ahead with it. And it still might work out for DC. Getting Gibbons on board to write, draw or in some way supervise or approve the projects would provide a counter to the “they screwed the creators” narrative. And if the comics were somehow really good, that also would earn a lot of forgiveness. That’ll be tough, though, considering it will be very hard to get any top talent to sign on to such a project. No one wants to follow in Moore’s shoes or get labeled the comic book creator equivalent of a scab by taking such a job.

And if it flops, there’s not a lot of tangible downside. The original will still be a great book and will continue to sell well for the company. Unsuccessful additions will simply sink into obscurity. But the fan fallout could be huge.

For comics fans and creators, though, going ahead with new Watchmen comics would be a worrying sign about the direction WB intends to take DC. Folks like Neil Gaiman, who forged a successful relationship with DC that gave him a certain amount of control over Sandman, might find past promises no longer hold with the new management.

Incoming DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson has said in interviews she’s very intrigued by the potential of Vertigo projects to cross over into other media. That will raise some questions about the deals Vertigo has cut with its creators over the years. According to the notices in the indicias, most Vertigo series are creator owned. A few Vertigo projects (like Jamie Delano’s Outlaw Nation and 20/20 Visions) have been reprinted by other publishers. I know of a few other one-time Vertigo projects where the rights have reverted to the creators after a certain period of time. But it’s not clear when it comes to things like movie rights who controls what, though it has become common in the comics publishing biz even for publishers that allow creator ownership to have some kind of stake in the movie money. Things could get complicated.

But for fans who are watching to see what Warner Bros. is going to do with its comics house, it’s going to be a very interesting time. Will Warner Bros. be happy with DC’s comic book publishing operations as is? Or will it decide comics publishing is too small a business and not profitable enough for a company the likes of Warner Bros. to continue? That’s an extreme fear, as the cost of comics publishing is low and the return on comics properties translated to other media is potentially huge. But that’s what a lot of people are going to be looking for, and a plan to make more Watchmen comics is an oddly controversial way for a company like DC to trumpet its reorganization into a major media company.

$7 Lois and Clark: A good deal or no deal at any price?

My, how the DVD market has changed.
Yesterday, I was standing in the express checkout line at the Von’s grocery store just down the hill from my house in Eagle Rock when I saw this racked next to the cheap celebrity mags and Soap Opera Digest

The price? $6.99. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted by the idea of getting an entire season of a superhero TV show for about the price of a couple of comic books. But then I remembered that I watched some of these when they first came on the air and didn’t really care for it then — and I don’t think I’ll like it any better now.
But still. $6.99! 

Blogging update: New design, new blogs, new dilemmas

If you come to this blog a lot you’ve probably noticed the redesign. I used a program called Artisteer to create the template, and it worked really well. It cost a bit of money to license, but having a good wysiwyg editor for this kind of thing is worth it because I have hated writing code since I had to write typesetting code by counting lines on a piece of graph paper to layout newspaper pages on the Atex sytem back in the mid-1990s.

Now that I’ve lived with the new design for a while, I am pretty happy with it, but may still tinker with it a bit as time permits. I definitely need to update the blog rolls and links, so send me your suggestions for additions and I’ll take a look.

One site that I’ve come across that is definitely worth your time is Fanboy Wife. It is the funniest comics site I’ve seen in a long while.

Of course, this all comes just as Blogger makes an announcement about ending its FTP support. I’m still figuring out if this will be a hassle and I’ll just have to move to Word Press or not. I think I can do that pretty easily if needed, but I hope I don’t have to.

Off the shelf: The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures — Deluxe Edition

The Rocketeer is something of a legendary comic book, one that I’ve heard lots about but only had a chance to read small pieces of before now. If you’re unfamiliar with this comic, here’s the basics: The Rocketeer was a throwback to the pulpy, serial adventures of the 1930s written and drawn with incredible love and attention to detail by Dave Stevens. It may have seemed like just another indie comic when it hit the stands in 1981, maybe even like just another knock off of the successful movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, which made hard-luck heroes of that era very popular.

But there’s this character, Betty, the girlfriend of the somewhat hapless hero Cliff Secord. Based on Betty Page, who at the time was largely forgotten except to a few folks like Stevens, the character focused Stevens’ incredible talent and helped make this a comic few who read it would ever forget.

Looking at this new edition, which is the first time all Stevens’ Rocketeer stories were collected in one volume and features some amazing new coloring from Laura Martin, it lives up to its reputation as one of the finest examples of popular comic book artwork. It’s also a blast to read — Stevens is mostly known as an immaculate artist, but this wouldn’t be the classic it is if he also couldn’t work up a good story to hang it on.

Reading this book is like going back in time in more ways than one. Not only is it a great tribute to the adventures of the 1930s and the pinup girl sensation of the 1950s, it’s also an example of state of the art comics in the 1980s — the last decade before digital technology began to make its presence felt. Every panel in this collection conveys both the sense that a perfectionist is at work, but also the warm feeling of artwork that was created by hand. (It’s also interesting to note the help Stevens had on this project, with art assists from some other luminaries including Michael William Kaluta, Jaime Hernandez and Art Adams, among others.)

Stevens died in 2008 at the age of 52 from leukemia. And this book can’t help but be a major part of his legacy. (For the rest, pick up Brush With Passion, an autobiography Stevens unfortunately didn’t live to finish, but which shows the number of amazing projects he worked on from preparing presentation art for Steven Spielberg on Raiders to storyboarding John Landis’ famous video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. He also was instrumental in later finding the real Betty Page and became a friend to her in her senior years.) It’s unfinished as a story — it just kind of ends with the second major adventure and Stevens never got around to giving the story a resolution.

The Rocketeer, of course, had a life beyond comics in the form of the 1991 feature film from Disney. While it wasn’t a box office smash, it was well-received by critics and fans of the comic. It also was an early big role for Jennifer Connelly, who played “Jenny” — changed from Betty, but still pretty close. And it should be a movie worth revisiting as its director, Joe Johnston, is set to helm another movie adaptation of a classic comic book hero in Marvel’s upcoming The First Avenger: Captain America.

The Deluxe Edition (IDW Publishing, $75) also includes an extensive bonus section, featuring rare artwork, paintings, thumbnails, scripts and sketches from the series. It is, in and of itself, a convincing argument for the validity of comic art as a thing of beauty and value. There’s a “regular” edition of this book out that costs about $30, which is a standard-size hardcover without a lot of the extras. But if you’re at all curious on this one, do yourself a favor and splurge on the Deluxe Edition if you can. It’s definitely worth it.

Turning comics fans into comics dealers

Comics used to be full of ads for jobs that kids could do to make a little cash. Like learning electronics or selling subscriptions to something called Grit. But I think the ad below is unique in that I don’t remember ever seeing another ad urging kids to become local comic dealers before I stumbled across this 1974 gem in the Marvel Milestone Edition of The Incredible Hulk #181 (click for a closer look):

The basic idea is to get kids to buy a dozen comics for $2 and then sell them at cover price to their friends and family. If they sold them all at a quarter a piece, they’d make a whole buck. Having never heard of this, I can’t imagine it got a great response or inspired a generation of fans to get into the comics retailing business. But this was around the time the direct market was being formed. I wonder if Marvel thought they’d get a better deal from kids than from stores, which I’m sure got a greater discount than one third.

On another note, I always liked the Marvel Milestone Edition comics, which were reprints of a single comic that included all the original ads, letter cols, Bullpen pages, etc. The first ones came out in 1991 and were reprints of X-Men #1 (the 1963 version) and Giant-Size X-Men #1, both in honor of the release of X-Men #1 (the 1991 version). When they arrived in the shop, I was a bit disappointed these were printed on modern, glossy paper as I had imagined them being true reproductions of some kind on old-fashioned newsprint. But the owner of the store I frequented at the time said I was in the minority, and he had sold far more than he expected to sell because fans liked the slick production values.

Anyway, I wonder why Marvel doesn’t consider a special format for collectors, maybe a box set of fairly accurate reproductions of the original periodical comics on vintage style paper, perhaps oversize to set them apart from the originals. I recall seeing this idea done for some German-language reprints that made it over to Meltdown Comics a number of years back. I would be among the fans who would dig such an idea, should Marvel decide to reprint its classic comics in yet another format.

Super heroes in Cirque du Soleil’s Viva Elvis!

I went to Las Vegas last weekend for the first time in several years, and caught the new Cirque du Soleil show, Viva Elvis!, at the new Aria Hotel and Casino in the CityCenter complex.

The show was, as usual for Cirque du Soleil, impressive and fun. The show is a celebration of the life and music of Elvis Presley, and as such features more straight musical numbers and fewer circus elements than most of the troupe’s shows.

But the best acrobatic sequence by far was based on a line Elvis once uttered about loving super hero comics when he was a kid — which opened the door for Cirque to do a full on trampoline act with performers dressed in generic superhero costumes. Using a set that featured multiple trampolines, about a half-dozen superheroes bounced off the ground, ran up walls and leaped over each other and various obstacles. It was many people’s favorite segment in the show and a good example of how you could do some superheroics on a live stage. It makes me more optimistic that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark could be more than just another musical.

It also opens up some interesting possibilities. Wouldn’t a Marvel Cirque show be incredible? I’m not sure how into the idea Disney would be, especially in Las Vegas, but they do have those theme parks and resorts that are dying for Marvel content and need live entertainment in addition to just rides.

You really don’t want to “read” Hulk’s “Grab Bag”

You won’t like him when he’s angry, but you’ll like him even less if you make him angry by messing with his “grab bag.”

Off the Shelf: The Great Outdoor Fight

There’s a lot to like in Chris Onstad’s webcomic turned graphic novel, most notably the absurd sense of humor and the faux history that forms the core of The Great Outdoor Fight (Dark Horse, $14.95).  This book is a collection of the webcomic Achewood, which Onstad has been working on since late 2001.

Like a lot of the better comics, the premise sounds kind of absurd on the surface: A strange tradition called The Great Outdoor Fight, in which 3,000 men gather to duke it out over three days in a three-acre pitch draws the interest of a strange guy named Raymond Quentin Smuckles. I can’t tell what he’s supposed to be — teddy bear, cat, unknown type of dog — but I do know he wears glasses and a thong worthy of one of those Marvel swimsuit specials of the 1990s. Ray’s father entered and won the 1973 fight, and Ray sets out to do the same with the help of his equally strange pals Roast Beef and Barry. 
Onstad’s invented a whole history for this fight, complete with strange traditions and rules, that’s convincing and perhaps the most fun part of the strip. The humor’s absurd, stemming from the obsessions and tortured thinking of the characters. That their plots make sense, that a lot of folks will see people they know in these characters is both hilarious and down right frightening given their single-minded inventiveness in achieving the oddest goals for the strangest of reasons. 
My first reaction to the art was somewhat offputting — its intentional amateurish quality was my least favorite part of the book. But I’ve since come around and like the fact that this weird story looks like the kind of comic the strange tough-guy kid who only listens to AC/DC in the back of your middle school class would draw to prove how much more hard cord fucking weird he is than you could ever hope to be. The reaction is much the same: this is some sick stuff, but it’s also undeniably funny.

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