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

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Reminder – Mutant Cinema is FREE on Kindle! Plus, review it and get a prize!

Just wanted to remind everyone my Sequart book, “Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen” is available for download on Kindle for free. How can you not want to read it with a cool cover like this one, from artist Kevin Colden?

Click here to go straight to the download page!

Don’t dawdle, check it out now!

And while you’re at it, check out “Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen,” another Sequart book you can get free for Kindle. These offers won’t last long, so get them ASAP if you’re interested.

Again, the first five folks to email me with a link to a review (good or bad) on Amazon or elsewhere of the Kindle version of “Mutant Cinema” will get a free surprise comics treat from the extensive haul in my garage.

‘Before Watchmen’ is like gambling and smoking: Legal, but probably not a good idea

It’s time to revisit the saga of Alan Moore and Watchmen.

In case you missed it, DC Comics made public its long-rumored plans to publish this summer a series of Watchmen prequel miniseries using a variety of the industry’s top talents. The plans call for more than 30 issues in the project, with one arriving each week. Covers for a lot of the first issues have been released and the press release included a supportive quote from original Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons.

As soon as the news hit, the debate and bitching began over whether this was appropriate to do given the long-standing dispute between DC Comics and Alan Moore, with many fans and more than a few professionals showing the same kind of moral cowardice seen in the Superman copyright dispute and cheering on DC and calling Alan Moore a dick for not going along with the idea.

Among the rationales used to justify the “Moore is a jerk” arguments are:

  • Moore had discussed at the time Watchmen came out the possibility of doing some prequel stories himself. 
  • Moore has used other authors’ characters in his own work, most notably in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, even encountering a small bit of copyright controversy for Peter Pan in the U.K. 
  • Moore, like everyone else in comics, has used and built upon characters others created to advance their career with the understanding that others will do the same with their characters. For example, Moore got his big break in American comics writing Swamp Thing, which was created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson. 
  • Allowing creators to make their stories and characters off limits would be the equivalent of saying Superman should have ended after Siegel and Shuster stopped doing it, and that would be terrible! 
  • There’s also the argument that he signed the contract he signed and can’t complain about it now. If he really wanted to retain all the rights, he and Gibbons could have self-published Watchmen

All of which are poor arguments, in my opinion.

It always helps to go back to the facts and look at how we got to the place we’re at. Before that, an aside: Most of my books and magazines about comics were put in storage in the garage to make room for my daughter, meaning the many Moore interviews from years past I planned to cite in this post are not available to cite in the kind of detail I would like. I will try to approximate with online sources where possible. If I get the specifics wrong, let me know; I’m pretty confident having read up on this for many years that I’ve got it straight.

Most folks know Moore, who had become a writer of note in British comics, came to DC Comics in the early 1980s to write Saga of the Swamp Thing. The book had been slumping in sales and a new approach in Moore was needed to keep it going. Moore understood the job quite well: This was a mainstream American comic book that was distributed on newsstands with the Comics Code Authority seal, so there were limitations already in place on the types of stories that were going to be acceptable in a horror-tinged but still all-ages title. Moore succeeded rather well in reviving interest in Swamp Thing, and sales began to rise. The book was acclaimed in the fan market and began to draw the attention of the mainstream press, which was where the problems started. The shadow of the anti-comics crusade still lingered in the early 1980s and some of the powers that be at DC or over DC became concerned that a sophisticated title like Swamp Thing, even operating within the restrictions of the Comics Code, could attract unwanted attention to DC and the entire industry. 

For those who don’t remember, one of the less-savory aspects of the Reagan revolution was a censorious impulse that lead to Attorney General Edwin Meese conducting a major investigation into the evils of pornography with an eye on restricting access to that kind of material even for adults. This also was the time when parents’ reaction to PG-rated movies like like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which features a beating heart being pulled from a man’s chest, put enough pressure on the movie industry to create the PG-13 rating. It also was the era when Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, lead a charge to restrict sexually suggestive lyrics in rock and pop music. So DC was not too far off base to worry about some of that energy could be turned comics’ way, because it already had with a number of conservative law enforcement officials prosecuting comics shop owners for selling objectionable material to minors.

The result was that DC made Swamp Thing one of its first titles to carry the label “Suggested for Mature Readers.” Many fans expected this would have been perfect for Moore, who obviously could take it darker. But the real result of such a label was to reduce quite significantly the distribution of the comic. Without the Comics Code seal, there was no newsstand distribution, and even local comics shops would cut back their orders of the title and be wary about who they sold it to for fear of being prosecuting. That fear was strong enough for many to simply not bother to carry such a title.

For Moore, this effectively means that DC was rewarding him for successfully reviving Swamp Thing under the restrictions placed on it by reducing his potential audience to a fraction of its previous size. I don’t know if Swamp Thing sold well enough for Moore and his collaborators to earn sales incentives, but it doesn’t take a math wizard to see what the distribution change would mean for that income. To Moore, his success was punished and not rewarded — a recurring theme for many top creators in the history of comic book publishing.

Still, Moore continued to work for DC, eventually signing contracts to allow DC to publish what would become Watchmen and for V for Vendetta. These contracts are the meat of his disputes with DC. At the time, DC was not allowed by its ownership to publish material to which others held the copyright. On V for Vendetta, Moore and artist David Lloyd had begun the strip in Warrior magazine in the U.K., but the publisher folded before the story was completed. Moore and Lloyd held all rights to the material, and DC wanted to re-publish the completed parts of the story in color and have Moore and Lloyd complete the tale.

I’m sure at first the idea of the temporary copyright transfer seemed like a great solution. At the time, the American comics market was almost exclusively periodicals, with only a handful of graphic novels and trade paperbacks having even been tried. Those, too, rarely stayed in print long. DC at the time likely had no trade paperback collections or plans in place to create the kind of book backstock they are now well known for. With no precedent, there was no reason to assume that the series would be printed as a series of comics and then essentially go out of print with the rights reverting to Moore and Lloyd after a short time.

Taking a bit of speculation on my part here: this arrangement must have seemed quite radical and forward thinking at the time. Getting DC to put in a contract a copyright reversion clause for a comic’s creators must have seemed like an incredible and hopeful breakthrough for those interested in creator rights. Moore must have felt like he had helped make progress that all creators could benefit from and that he had avoided with his own creation the traps that befell the likes of Siegel and Shuster and Jack Kirby.

The same deal was struck for Watchmen. A lot has been made in the past week that the original idea for Watchmen was to use the Charlton Comics characters. The argument is being made that Moore should not complain about the copyright dispute over Watchmen, since it was originally going to use characters owned by DC Comics and the versions that ended up in the final story are inspired, based on or ripped off, depending on your perspective, from those same characters.

And that’s an interesting argument but ultimately is one that fails to hold water. There are similarities, but there also are enough differences to make the characters distinctly different, especially in a legal sense. Fans who make this argument seem to overlook its implications for all kinds of comics characters. Following it could open up arguments that the Fantastic Four is ripped off from Challengers of the Unknown, X-Men from Doom Patrol, Man-Thing and Swamp Thing from The Heap, Hawkeye from Green Arrow, and on and on. That DC Comics needed a contract with Moore and Gibbons that transferred the copyright to the publisher is all the proof you need to show that even DC at the time thought they were distinct enough to need to clear the rights.

Most fans know what happened from here on out: Watchmen and V for Vendetta were published as a series of comic books and then collected into book editions that have remained in print and strong sellers ever since, preventing the copyright reversion from kicking in.

For the most part, I think DC was simply lucky in this deal. They realized they had a cash cow and have milked it for all its worth for the past 25 years. Yes, they stuck to the letter of a deal that benefits them tremendously, and from that perspective Moore et. al are just plain out of luck. But DC is violating the spirit of the deal, as the terms of the contract were drafted to make the copyright transfer temporary, and that’s where Moore is correct and DC is in the wrong.

Yes, the contract has always entitled Moore and his collaborators to royalties from sales of Watchmen. It’s clear, however, that the money is less important to Moore than ownership and control of his work, and he has given away his share of such proceeds to his collaborators. I think this is the one point that really puzzles some people. In the Superman copyright case, it’s all about money at this point. The Siegels have no interest in making new Superman comics, they want the money they are due from having recovered their share of the copyright to the character as of 1999. Same with the Kirby family claims — it’s about getting a piece of the very large pie Kirby helped create. And in America, where getting rich or dreaming about getting rich is the real national pastime, a lot of folks don’t understand how Moore can complain about all this when he is still getting paid. Obviously, the principle of the matter is what’s important to Moore, and he has the courage to call out the industry for its abuses and to walk away from it.

DC Comics’ decision to now create Watchmen derivative works after 25 years, against the wishes of Moore in particular, violates the spirit of the deal even more. That a lot of professionals are chiming in with the sentiment that Moore should just get over it and let others play with his work kind of amazes me. Watchmen is not in the same work-for-hire category as Fantastic Four or Green Lantern, which were created to be ongoing series. It was created to be a stand-alone, independent, creator-owned work and its creator feels — rightly, I think — that DC Comics is exploiting a loophole in the deal that allows them to hang on to a property they had originally only borrowed and intended to return to its creators.

I’ll briefly discuss some of the criticisms of Moore’s position that I listed earlier but have not yet addressed:

  • Yes, Moore had discussed doing prequels himself. But to say Moore’s plans to write prequels to a project he expected to own means that others can do it without his permission for the publisher that failed to return it is ridiculous. 
  • Yes, Moore has used other authors’ characters in his work. Those works are, however, now in the public domain and can be used by anyone. The copyright, which was originally held by the authors themselves, has expired on them and the authors themselves are long gone. 
  • Had Siegel and Shuster had control over Superman, then it’s possible they might have retired the character. He surely would be very different from the Superman we know today. That would have been a more human outcome for Jerry and Joe and their families — as for the rest, I don’t think it really matters. The world at large and comics would have gotten along just fine without Superman. 

If you have read through all of this, you surely have realized I will not be buying or reading any of the Before Watchmen comics. In many ways, it’s yet another sign of mainstream comics’ slow creative and commercial decline. DC and Marvel have such a stranglehold on the market and have become in the past two years in particular even more corporate minded and creatively bankrupt that it’s hard to find any fresh air left in this medium. Independent comics have so slim a share of an already slim market that it seems there’s no place for talent to develop and, as soon as it does, it’s sucked up by the DC and Marvel machines, which are, unfortunately, about the only ones left who can offer creators enough work and compensation for them to make a living at comics.

It would seem I have more to say about the current state of comics, so I’ll save that for my next and possibly last post.

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 1

Finishing the Blake Bell book on Steve Ditko reminded me that I really enjoy nonfiction books about comics, comics creators and the comics industry. I also realized I have quite a few such books and they might make for an interesting post. Then I started listing them and realized it might take several posts.

So here’s the first one, focusing on books that offer historical overviews or essays about comics as a medium or specific comics characters

All in Color for a Dime and The Comic-Book Book, both edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson. These are very influential books in comics history, being collections of essays about all kinds of topics from Jingle-Jangle Tales to Captain Marvel. All in Color was first published in 1970 and became a rare and expensive find by the time I learned of it, so I had to wait for the 1990s re-issue. The Comic-Book Book was one of the first books on comics I got, as it was commonly available in used bookstores. I picked it up the first time because of Don Thompson, whose reviews in Comics Buyers Guide I enjoyed reading quite a bit in the last few years before he died.

Superman: The Complete History, Batman: The Complete History and Wonder Woman: The Complete History, all written by Les Daniels and beautifully designed and filled with amazing images by Chip Kidd. These are really solid and fun books to read and look through, even though there’s something about them that feels restrained and somehow corporate in tone. The book on Wonder Woman was the most interesting to me as her history is written about less frequently, even though it’s perhaps the most oddball and interesting of them all.

The Comic-Book Makers by Joe Simon with Jim Simon. I checked this out of a library and then had to return it before I finished reading it because I was moving. But it was interesting enough for me to seek out when it came back into print years later. An excellent look back at what it was like to work in the Golden Age of comics from one of the most-accomplished creators of that time.

The Comic-Book Heroes, by Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones. The original, 1984 edition of this was a book I coveted for a long time before I got to read it. I first saw it in the Waldenbooks at Paradise Valley Mall in Arizona sometime in late 1986. I desperately wanted to read it because it was the first history of comics I had seen that covered the era I was most interested in — the superhero books from the Silver Age on. Being a broke teenager, it took me a while to come up with the cash to buy the book, by which time the sole copy at the store had been sold. I didn’t see another copy until a few years later when I was in college and one turned up at the excellent Bookman’s store in Tucson. I devoured the book and loved it, especially for how compelling it was in recounting not just what happened in the books but the companies and people who were creating them. It also had some great criticism of a lot of comics of the time. Needless to say, I re-read this book several times and was thrilled when an updated version came out in 1996. That version was even better than the original, expanding the original book to cover everything that happened in the 1980s and up through the insanity of the speculator market and through the crash. Jones, of course, saw much of this first hand as a prolific scripter for both Marvel and DC, and the book is full of interesting details. If a third version were to be produced, I would be first in line to buy it.

Perhaps even more compelling is Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. This one goes all the way back to the dawn of the comics business and focuses in particular on Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz as they start and build DC into the industry powerhouse. This is full of well-researched details and exposes a shadier side of the industry. The battle over Superman waged between DC and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster is central here, and the details are both fascinating and heartbreaking. There’s plenty of other great stuff from the Golden Age and even a look at the circumstances that created the comic book in the first place. Another absolute must-read.

Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics and DC Comics: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes, both by Les Daniels, seem like they’d be natural bookends. The Marvel edition is a surprisingly solid, warts-and-all history of the publisher from the days of Martin Goodman up through the heyday of superstar artist Todd McFarlane. It does a very good job of covering all the bases and features lots of very nice cover reproductions and vintage photographs of creators. There’s even an illustrated “how-to-make-comics” section and annotated reprints of some vintage stories. The DC version, however, is nowhere near as interesting because it doesn’t weave the details into as interesting a narrative. Instead, it’s episodic and focuses a lot on how successful DC characters have been in other media. The Marvel book is better, but the DC version is still interesting for the photos and artwork.

I already wrote a ways back about Watching the Watchmen by Dave Gibbons, and had a chance to talk to Dave about the making of the book. I wish this kind of documentary evidence was readily available for more seminal comic book series. Basically, Gibbons kept every drawing and every scrap of paper related to the series and presents here in astonishing detail the work that went into making this important book. Gibbons also writes down his recollections, and it all adds up to a fascinating look at what creating comics can be like.

One more for this post: The Photojournal Guide to Comic Books, photographed by Ernie Gerber. There were four volumes in this series, with the third and fourth devoted exclusively to Marvel. These were very hot and expensive when they first came out, featuring color photographs of the covers of thousands of comics. It wasn’t comprehensive, but it included all the historically significant books from the Golden Age up through the 1980s. Today, the internet does this kind of thing better with extensive online photo galleries that can be searched and viewed with ease. But I still admire these and pull them out on occasion to thumb through because I always spot something interesting I hadn’t noticed before.

Next: Great comic book interviews.

Alan Moore drives fans crazy by telling it like it is

Watching the comics internet explode over this recent interview with Alan Moore is fascinating. Few folks have the ability to push so many people’s buttons by just telling the truth. If you haven’t read it yet, head over to Bleeding Cool now and read the whole thing, in which Moore goes into detail on recent dealings with DC over Watchmen.

Tom Spurgeon at Comics Reporter has a well-informed and even-keeled reaction that I find myself agreeing with on every point. One of his points is that there is going to be a certain segment of the internet that will degenerate into the “Alan Moore is crazy and should go away and shut up and stop bad-mouthing our beloved DC Comics.” That absolutely happened in all the expected spots, like the comments thread for the original interview, which was running more than 200 entries when I read through it yesterday. I was surprised however to see a story headlined “Alan Moore Goes Beyond Paranoid in His Latest Crazy Old Man Rant” at the normally decent Comics Alliance

Interestingly, there’s not a lot new in the interview. Most of the details of this have been addressed in some way in previous interviews with Moore or his collaborators. A lot of folks take issue with Moore saying he’s not friendly any more with some of his collaborators who continued to bring up topics that he had asked them to avoid. My own interview with Dave Gibbons back in 2008 regarding his book on the making of the comic, Watching the Watchmen, he said the following:

At a very early stage, Alan said to me that he didn’t really want to — he was pleased I was enthusiastic, but he didn’t really want to discuss it with me at all. And in a recent conversation he said that although he was always very happy to talk to me and he thought I’d acted impeccably as far as “Watchmen” was concerned, he really didn’t want to talk to me about it anymore. That’s his position, and I’m very keen to retain Alan’s friendship, and if that’s what it takes, then so be it. I have actually today sent him a copy of “Watching the Watchmen,” which scrupulously only deals with the graphic novel and make no reference to the Hollywood production. So I’m hoping that he will at least enjoy that.

So if Moore says Gibbons broke this request, especially to float trial balloons from DC over sequels or prequels of some kind, I can’t say I agree that it’s Moore who’s acting poorly.

The thing that has gotten everyone really riled up is Moore’s comments about the current state of the comics industry and the talent within. Here’s what he said:

When Dave Gibbons phoned me up, he assured me that these prequels and sequels would be handled by ‘the industry’s top-flight talents’. Now, I don’t think that the contemporary industry actually has a ‘top-flight’ of talent. I don’t think it’s even got a middle-flight or a bottom-flight of talent. I mean, like I say, there may be people out there who would still be eager to have their name attached to WATCHMEN even if it was in terms of “Yes, these are the people who murdered WATCHMEN”. I don’t want to see that happen.

Which was followed by this:

At the end of the day, if they haven’t got any properties that are valuable enough, but they have got these ‘top-flight industry creators’ that are ready to produce these prequels and sequels to WATCHMEN, well this is probably a radical idea, but could they not get one of the ‘top-flight industry creators’ to come up with an idea of their own? Why are DC Comics trying to exploit a comic book that I wrote 25 years ago if they have got anything? Sure they ought to have had an equivalent idea since? I could ask about why Marvel Comics are churning out or planning to bring out my ancient MARVELMAN stories, which are even older, if they had a viable idea of their own in the quarter-century since I wrote those works. I mean, surely that would be a much easier solution than all of this clandestine stuff? Just simply get some of your top-flight talent to put out a book that the wider public outside of the comics field find as interesting or as appealing as the stuff that I wrote 25 years ago. It shouldn’t be too big an ask, should it? I wouldn’t have thought so. And it would solve an awful lot of problems. They must have one creator, surely, in the entire American industry that could do equivalent work to something I did 25 years ago. It would be insulting to think that there weren’t. That’s just my suggestion for a way that DC could remove themselves from this thorny impasse, but we shall see.

A number of creators took umbrage at this, but I think anyone taking the time to understand what he’s saying realizes the point is not that Moore thinks all the current DC and Marvel creators are hacks — it’s that the mainstream comics industry as embodied by DC and Marvel has not stepped up to the plate and delivered an original work that compares well to Watchmen in the past 25 years. 

And he’s right.  
Commenters keep bringing up all their favorites as counter-arguments, but these lists almost always include a raft of corporate-owned, work-for-hire projets like Marvels, Kingdom Come, New Frontier and All-Star Superman. I like all those, but if you’re objective and honest with yourself none of these has the heft or ambition or scope of Watchmen. I doubt any work on corporate owned superheroes in the current publishing environment or from the past 25 years comes anywhere close. Even your best arguments for great post-Watchmen comics, which I would say include Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Jeff Smith’s Bone, are exceptions to a lot of rules and sprang from the publishing environment of 20 years ago that no longer exists today. I doubt either could find an audience in the same way today. And that’s Moore’s point.

Having seen audio and video interviews with Moore (there’s plenty on YouTube), I think people who are lambasting him a bitter, paranoid jerk are reading that tone into the interview. I have yet to see, hear or read an interview with Moore where he offers anything but thoughtful answers and his tone is cheerful and positive. He talks about Watchmen because people keep asking about it and he obviously doesn’t mind answering in detail.
Which is the best thing about Alan Moore, who obviously realizes it is important to answer questions about the way the industry works. What’s clear from the long history of comics, starting with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and certainly not ending with Jack Kirby’s artwork or the Watchmen contract, is that the major publishers have always exploited talent and their creations for great profit and used the threat of blacklisting and banishment from the industry to hide such basic information as how many copies any book sells to what creators are paid — all to ensure that the power and the money comics generates stays in their hands. Moore has the courage to walk away from all that and the sense to speak out and expose what most everyone else would keep quiet about and allow to continue unabated. 
The arguments that “you can’t expect corporations to behave any differently” or “those details are private” are assumptions built into modern American corporate culture that should be challenged. If you want better comics, you empower the creators. If you want the current industry, where too many talented creators’ voices are submerged in endlessly recycled crossover events that play to a consistently shrinking audience, then hope that people keep their mouths shut. 

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.

Notes on The Spirit and Watchmen movies

Yes, I suck as a blogger … I can’t promise daily updates, but I am redoubling my efforts to get more stuff on this blog.

In the meantime, it seems I’m not the only one who saw something interesting in The Spirit: critic, blogger and film journo David Poland finally caught the film on Blu-ray and was pleasantly surprised by it.

Meanwhile, you can catch this piece I wrote about the VFX on the film over at Animation Magazine.net.

And in case you missed it, I had three Watchmen-related articles in Variety a bit back: a look at the VFX work on the film, a chart-like look at the makers of the film, and an interview with Zack Snyder. I’ll try to post some of the excerpts from that interview, which was quite interesting, when I have a chance.

Sweeping up after the Watchmen

Watchmen did a respectable number at the box office this weekend, grossing $55.7 million domestically and $27.5 million overseas for a grand total of $83.2 million. How high the number goes will help determine whether any of the studios make any money off the film. Costs are high due to an immersive advertising campaign and the legal dispute between Fox and Warner Bros. that will spread around the money that does come in. It’ll take another week or so to see how well the film holds up business wise.

But the reaction to the film is the most interesting part. It’s all over the place from both fans and non-fans calling it everything from an absolute disaster all the way up to an undisputed masterpiece.

I think it’s all in what you’re looking for in this film — people interested in the plot are pleased to see so much of it in the film, while those who go in looking for the tone, meaning and underlying themes of the graphic novel are coming out disappointed.

What’s undisputed is this all makes for some great debates and discussion. This film has so far brought out (mostly) thoughtful and intelligent comments on all aspects of the film and the comic, indicating that the movie has at the very least succeeded in engaging people’s brains in a way few other movies of this type ever have.

What’s really fascinating is the way even the slightest changes or omissions are noticed and felt by people who read the book. Whether it’s wishing for a scene that better explains how Sally pushed Laurie into being a superhero, to wondering why we don’t see Seymour the intern before the film’s final shot, it’s a testament to the book that almost nothing can be removed or altered without being noticed. It’s also a testament to the film that even critics are willing to admit that even when these elements come up short that the filmmakers’ intentions were such that they’d have put it in if they could.

Many of the discussions have softened my previous position on the film a bit. With a bit of distance, I too am quite impressed by just how much of the book got onto the screen. It certainly could have been a lot worse, and there is hope to be had that the director’s cut will put back in just enough to push this one over the top.

So, what will Watchmen’s impact be on the superhero and comic book movie genre? Unless Watchmen has incredible legs and the box office begins to creep into Iron Man or Dark Knight territory, probably not much. It definitely fits in well with the trend toward more sophisticated fare those two films established last year. But since this is not a franchise that will produce sequels that would extend its influence, it’s unlikely we’ll see a lot of Watchmen imitators. That there’s also not a lot of comic book material out there that stands up to the quality of Watchmen means the film should remain its own, self-contained thing. Instead, look for a slight turn away from the darkness, which X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the potential Green Lantern movie are likely to deliver.

Why Watchmen was not the movie I was hoping for

Watchmen is not the movie I was hoping for. There’s a lot of reasons for that and it hardly means there’s not some really great stuff in there or that many fans of the book won’t love it completely and unapologetically.

But for me, even though this is a film that does a very good job of squeezing all the plot points from the comic into movie form, the tone, scope and underlying world that made the book so convincing and compelling is missing.

The tone was the most jarring element for me. And I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the fact that I’ve read this book and interpreted in my own way for more than 20 years. But it’s hard to reconcile the deliberateness of Dave Gibbons’ images and Alan Moore’s immaculate pacing with the very average performances and staging of scenes in this film.

This comes down to more than the actors, whose performances nevertheless will be debated endlessly by fans of the book. By far the best is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, who delivers on the obsession and a pitch-perfect gravelly voice. It’s a shame his face isn’t seen for much of the film, but it’s still a top-notch turn. I can’t say the same for the rest of the cast, whose only crime seems to be that they seem too young for these roles and don’t deliver the gravitas in performance or even voice quality that I expected from this movie. Billy Crudup, a very fine actor in pretty much everything I’ve ever seen in him, plays Dr. Manhattan’s voice with an uncertainty that falls short for the voice of a god-like being. Same holds true for Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, though I thought he fit the character much better as the movie progressed. Patrick Wilson and Malin Akerman are who we spend most of the film with, and they’re far from terrible but again don’t deliver the gravitas or convey the inner conflicts of their characters with half the believability that Gibbons’ artwork did.

The tone continues to the look of the film, which despite however much money Warner Bros. spent on it again fails to convey the depth of this world. New York City never comes alive as a unique place, nor does Ozymandias’ Antarctic retreat, Karnak. In fact, there’s little variation in the size or depth of the sets, either real or digital, and the comic’s sense of expansive space alternating with stifling confinement is lost amid sets that all seem about the same size and fail to elevate themselves above the norm for a sci-fi movie or TV show.

The look of the movie also lacks a certain polish, especially in the visual effects. Dr. Manhattan in particular doesn’t work well. He’s stuck in the uncanny valley, and not even because of the effect used for his blank-glowing eyes, but because he’s too obviously a digital construct given away by rough edges and not being properly composited into a number of scenes. He also moves far too much like a motion-capture demonstration, with the artificial movements of a video-game character and even problems with the lip synch. The Mars scenes similarly are rough around the edges, with the clockwork fortress never appearing clear enough to really understand or appreciate what it was.

It’s the loss of the underlying world that I miss the most. While Richard Nixon gets far more play in the movie than he did in the comic, there was precious little time or attention paid to explaining in any way who these people were and why they were driven underground. In the comic, a lot of that came from the shorthand of the archetypes, but the movie failed to establish especially who Dan and Laurie were, why they became costumed adventurers — even being very clear that they were costumed adventurers who enjoyed what they did very much — and the Keene Act is only mentioned once and even then its rationale was not explained.

And then there’s the big change to the ending — much debated for months in advance. The alternate version makes far less sense than the original ending and is far less dramatic. The sheer audacity and strangeness of the book’s ending, that it was the sort of thing that only a comic book-style villain could come up with, was part of what made it so compelling and interesting. It also, especially after 9/11, would have provided a more convincing reason for the superpowers to pull back from nuclear war, while the movie’s ending would, I think, actually exacerbate the conflict given Dr. Manhattan’s political situation.

The result is a movie that has all the surface elements of a decent adaptation, including pretty much every major plot points, and yet none of the old soul of the book. Moore and Gibbons created a comic that tapped into all the archetypes of superhero comic books and took them to a logical conclusion, building on decades worth of minute details that had built up through the genre and deconstructing them in spectacular fashion. The movie, on the other hand, isn’t really sure what it’s about, other than a trying to stage every scene from the graphic novel in as much detail as possible.

There’s also a lot to debate about the level of violence and gore the film portrays, and director Zack Snyder’s continued use of the fast-slow-fast motion technique made famous in 300. The gore didn’t bother me, though the scene in which the Comedian assaults Sally Jupiter is far more graphic than in the book and a bit tough to watch. Neither quibble had as much impact for me as the other issues. Oh, and the music was awful and completely on-the-nose. I wish they’d used music that actually came out in 1985 rather than hammer home the same Dylan and Hendrix songs that a thousand other movies have used.

Talking about it afterward with friends, there were a lot of divergent opinions. The best point was that, despite its flaws, the basic story remains a good one and it’s all in there. Also, given that this was a book long thought to be unfilmable, that this adaptation with its faithfulness to the source material may be as good as anyone could do with this material. Both of which are good points that I’ll have to consider when I next see the film.

Which brings up the next question, of whether and how the director’s cut can improve on this version of the film. I hope it can. I’d like to see more Sally Jupiter, who’s presences seems cut back in the film despite most of her scenes being in there. Also, the death of Hollis Mason — who’s seen early on having his beer session with Dan — would be worth putting in, and perhaps adding some more of the back-story on the Keene Act while they’re at it.

I’ll be most interested to see what people who’ve never read the book think of Watchmen. Most everyone in the press screening at the Grove last night (which was immensely uncomfortable due to a full house and a broken air conditioner) had read the book and most had some serious complaints or problems with the film. But the vast majority of moviegoers haven’t read the book and it would be absolutely fascinating if they found the elements the fans of the book dislike to be reasons why they like the film. That group won’t include critics, who so far have been harsh and, I expect will continue to be harsh given that so many of them dislike comic book movies to begin with.

As I wrote yesterday, the movie doesn’t change one iota of my feelings about the graphic novel. It’s still among my favorite graphic novels and perhaps the greatest example of what can be done with the superhero genre. But the movie is, at least right now, a disappointment. It’s rare that I find myself revising such opinions for the better, but perhaps on subsequent viewings I will find more to like in this version of Watchmen.

Countdown to Watchmen: Pre-screening thoughts

I am seeing Watchmen tonight and find myself quite looking forward to it.

I’ve largely avoided what seems like a thousand clips, interviews, reviews and rants on the film, mostly because it just seems like noise generated by the Warner Bros. marketing and hype machine. The proof always is in the final film, and I’d prefer not to have my expectations raised, lowered or otherwise messed with by that sort of thing.

What I have done is reread the graphic novel, just finishing the final chapter earlier today. This is the first time I’ve read the book all the way through in at least 10 years and possibly as long as 15. I first read the book in 1988, when I bought the trade at All About Books and Comics on a hot summer day. The clerk commented on my choice as he rung up my purchase, saying something along the lines of wishing he could read it again himself for the first time.

Rereading the graphic novel drives home the truth that no film will be able to replicate the experience of the book. I don’t care if it’s a 12-part HBO series, or if Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick rose from the grave to direct it, or if Alan Moore himself pronounced it perfection. No film can truly capture this experience because it’s designed to be a comic book through and through.

So that leaves me hoping for the next best thing — a good adaptation that does as much justice as you can possibly do to a book like that. I’m hopeful that this will be the case, even as critics veer wildly between pans and praise. That they’re producing the separate animated DVD with the Tales of the Black Freighter segment is, to me, a good sign that Zack Snyder and co. took this film very seriously and have tried their best to be true to both its stories and its underlying themes.

But I don’t expect this to be hailed as a great film that will take a place in the movie canon similar to the one the graphic novel has in its medium. That it’s different doesn’t bother me. And having just reread the book, it bothers me even less because Watchmen is a book that has retained its power — perhaps even increased it — in the 20-plus years since it was first published and will remain a powerful and unique experience no matter what I think after the lights come up at the Grove sometime around 11 p.m. this evening.

More tomorrow.

‘Watchmen’ dispute settled

Fans can relax: Watchmen will hit theaters March 6 as planned now that Fox and Warner Bros. have settled their rights dispute. Here’s Variety’s story, THR’s and Nikki Finke with some of the details of the deal.

Details include a cash payment from WB to Fox and the latter having gross participation in the film. But Fox won’t distribute the film, nor will its logo appear on it.

Frankly, this really was the only possible outcome, and all the drama can be forgotten.

The only thing that’s even a little worrisome is that Fox got as part of the deal a stake in any spinoffs or sequels — neither of which I think any fan of the book really wants to see.

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