Comic Fodder

Wary of Watchmen

Is there anything that doesn't become a little disappointing when its sold through Hot Topic?

Get these kids off my lawn

I am old. Not old enough to have had the wisdom to spend my allowance on Watchmen during the time of its initial release rather than TMNT or whatever I was buying instead. But old enough to glean the importance of Watchmen when it was being collected as a "graphic novel" by Warner Books back in the mid-to-late 80's. Old enough to have read the comic before graduating high school in the early 90's. And old enough to have seen plenty of other sci-fi, comic, fantasy, etc... properties misunderstood, mismarketed and considered a failure. So if I'm a bit skeptical of the mass marketing of what is ostensibly one of the greatest super-hero comics of all time, you'll have to forgive me.

I'm an old crank. It's why I read Jimmy Olsen reprints and back-issues.

The problem is that I actually do believe in Watchmen as not just one of the greatest superhero comics, but one of the top comics in general (at least of the comics I've had the pleasure to read). It's not just Moore's story, characters, setting, etc... exceeded virtually anything else in the genre, but his work with Gibbons to use the form of sequential art, pushing the boundaries of medium as part of the narrative (just as Miller shattered the comic panel with Dark Knight Returns) to tell a story that has kept comic readers talking for more than two decades.

This reader firmly believes that it's unlikely that any of the synergy found in Moore and Gibbon's work will find its way to the screen, no matter what direction director Zach Snyder gives his art directors to just lift images from the book.

I hold the comic in reverence that is not profitable in the way that a Hollywood, big-budget, super-hero flick needs to be profitable. Not just the movie, but the million ancillary products that go along with the thing, the endless licensing for t-shirts, etc... Especially for the audience that will undoubtedly buy the shirts because they look "bad-ass", just as I see those trucks driving around town with the Punisher logo, and one sincerely doubts that the guy behind the wheel would know Frank Castle if he dropped a grenade in his lap.

I hold Watchmen in such reverence that I was quite happy that the comic would never be translated to film. And they've tried for decades. I still recall reading about first stabs at the effort back when Comics Scene was in print.

Not Exactly "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer"

One is left to wonder: Will Watchmen be appreciated for what it is, or will audiences leave the film with the same "?" floating over their heads that accompanied them leaving Ang Lee's "Hulk", or "Superman Returns". Both movies basically failed to meet expectation by virtue of a lack of a finale in which the protagonist goes mano-a-mano with his evil counterpart (Iron Man, Batman Begins, any of the Spidey movies). Instead, opting for more ambitious, if more ambiguous endings, looking at the character struggle rather than the clear good v. evil struggle.

That's not to suggest that a movie like Iron Man did it wrong, and I'd mention that the X-flicks were still a success despite the decidedly ambiguous conclusion of X2.

But it's also no secret that general audiences want their guys in the white hats to have a clear-cut victory, with a pummeling of our antagonist as the proper, necessitated-by-justice come-uppance. Spoiler alert! They do not usually welcome the decimation of New York by a genetically engineered behemoth squid with telepathic abilities and the successful actualization and vindication of the villain's schemes as a conclusion. End spoiler! This doesn't even begin to address the fact that Watchmen, the comic, is incredibly light on action, and very much about people standing around and talking. Sometimes in superhero suits, but also... a lot of time, they aren't. And, of course, the movie is period piece about the recent past, but with an alternate history... Which... how is that crucial 13-25 year old audience going to latch onto that?

Nonetheless, the public has been sold for a few years that Watchmen is not just a great comic, but a great book. Time even went so far as to included the book on their 100 All-Time Novels list a few years back, and the trailer uses superlatives such as "the most celebrated graphic novel of all time". The trailer looks gorgeous, and the editors have pulled some of the better lines from the book to pull the viewer in... My point being, expectations are going to be high.

Spaceballs: The Flamethrower!

But more than anything, I'm skeptical of how the comic-to-movie has been appropriated by the licensing folk. It's one thing to have kids running around in Spidey t-shirts, but quite another thing to imagine a world in which kids could easily be wearing a Rorshach costume come Halloween. Masked vigilantes with E.D., sociopaths who've parlayed their skills into steady government work, etc... don't usually find their way onto a lunchbox, but...

Its unlikely that the licensing folk have done much to understand the world and story of Watchmen, and decisions in these arenas are not made with either the source material or, often, the movie so much in mind. It's what you can sell teen-agers at Hot Topic during the buzz leading up to the movie, and maybe in that first three-weeks of release before the kids have moved onto something else.

In the meantime, we have all kinds of bizarre Watchmen merchandise to look forward to. Magnets. Rorschach wall pennants. Flasks. And so, so much more...

The hope, of course, is that there's just a licensing office that is going to do their thing, just as if they were told to make pennants of Benjamin Button, or... heck... say they were re-doing "Wuthering Heights", maybe we'd get a Heathcliff t-shirt, because that's the way the kids these days understand their media. If its not a product they can wear on their back, then what is it...? (I said I was old and cranky).

All of this is coming, by the way, from a Superman fan with literally hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of Superman gear around his house, from coffee cups to those goofy pennants. But... that's been Superman for the past 70 years. The character largely exists as a licensing opportunity at this stage in his existence. When we get great movies and comics from the character, that's almost a by-product of the licensing arm, not the other way around. Superman is also a character, and not a specific tale (save for the "sent in a rocket from the doomed planet, Krypton" etc... bit). We can afford tales that maybe go askew from the comics and not feel The Man of Steel has been compromised, or that his face on a t-shirt seems cynically commercialized if you're familiar with the property.

It's going to be everywhere and nowhere

I do not, of course, relish the co-option of Watchmen by the wider populace. The folks who will appear on Halloween as Rorschach (a Rorschach I am convinced will be largely neutered in the translation to the film, as the producers look for their "Wolverine"). The kids hanging out at the mall in their smiley-face button shirts fresh from Gadzooks, convinced the old man in the Superman t-shirt doesn't understand how "bad-ass" superheroes are these days...

But I'm projecting a lot of what I saw after the release of "The Crow" onto today's kids, who may not well care at all about this flick.

The worst thing that can have happened to Watchmen is that the studio and Snyder decided to treat the work like they would any other superhero property. Make it family accessible. Make it ready for a sequel. Make it safe for selling t-shirts, what-have-you, to the tween-age set.

It would also be remiss not to mention the rumors regarding a change to the ending of Watchmen to make it "better" for the general audience. A change fans have raised alarm about, but the sort of thing studio folk have, for as long as there have been super-hero movies, assured comic fans that they know best... As troubling as the change is (and how it simultaneously messes up several plot points from the story), it also leaves the Watchmen fan wondering what else the studio feels they can do better...

I sincerely hope I'm wrong about Watchmen. I look forward to the first, early, non-AICN reviews (certainly we can look forward to the Film Fodder reviews).

"300" was kind of bad

It's entirely possible Zach Snyder will knock it out of the park and all my fears will be put to rest. The fact is that I loved "300" the comic, and felt "300" the movie was an over-stylized, faux-macho music video with awful pacing and dubious sustainability as a film for the ages. Yes, parts looked like "300" the comic, but imitation is easy. Especially in a three minute movie trailer.

I am skeptical of both director Zach Snyder's ability to craft the book into a 2 hour film, and what the studio will want to do with it once they decide what should go into a final cut (Snyder has clout, but not "final cut" clout). Translating a behemoth like Watchmen to a 2 hour film is a task that better men than he have undertaken and failed.

Add in the sexy costumes, the slow-mo cinematography, et al... that we've seen, and I'm expecting more of what had me slinking down in my seat during "300". Not Dave Gibbon's astounding interpretation of the script brought to life.

Not-So-Great Expectations

Still, I guess you have to keep an open mind, set-expectations low, and you might be hugely surprised (worked for me when Iron Man turned out to be a really terrific movie).

But keep doing what you've been doing, comic nerds. When someone asks about the movie, tell them to read the book first. Assure them they'll be happier looking at pictures on paper. Put the comic in their hand or point them to the comic shop. Mr. Moore needs the money.


Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

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Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com

I'm skeptical about the movie, as well, but I'm trying to reserve judgment until I see the finished product (is that just an outdated concept?). Incidentally, I'm not sure you give the "kids today" enough credit. This generation of kids seems to have been born into an era when a great deal of the material that comes before them is derived from source material produced a generation before. These poor kids are born into an era when many of the entertainment mediums that they're experiencing almost feel played out, with no new mediums or genres being created to fill the void. It feels like rock music, movies, comic books- it's all already been done by the time these kids get a crack at it, and they're constantly reminded that things in their generation aren't as good as the stuff that came out before (and it's hard to come up with genuinely new material when several decades worth of artists have already been exploring every nick and cranny of the genre before you got there). Anyway, I think a lot of these kids do a pretty good job of learning about the stuff that came before them (be it comics, music, or whatever), but if I were in that generation I know that I would be tired of the prior generation not only consistently insisting that we keep using old stuff for source material (which the older generation insists is of the best quality), but then complaining that it wasn't remade well enough. So if the kids wear a Watchmen button without showing the proper reverential attitude for the original work, cut them a break. It wasn't their idea to make a Watchmen movie in the first place.

-- Posted by: Ninjabadass at January 26, 2009 1:15 PM

Cry me a river.

Every generation since the flower children has been irritated they missed The Who and Hendrix at Woodstock or that they weren't there when Kerouac's stuff hit the shelf the first time. And we've all had our elders telling us we missed the golden age.

But I'm not shedding any tears for 20-somethings who have all the resources in the world that even at my age I can't imagine having had at their age; an internet that actually functions and a healthy trade/collections side of the comics business.

If I didn't make this clear, I'm thrilled when I see undergrads on the campus where I work reading Watchmen. What I'm against is the crass licensing of Watchmen gear and the audience who will purchase based upon how X-TREME they find the trailer.

I hope upon hope that this generation DOES feel the post-Miller/ Moore mode of comics is played out and DO come up with something entirely new. As much as I love those works, we shouldn't have so few superhero works to point to as the ground-breaking, genre defining pieces. Moore and Miller felt the old tropes were played out, too, and look what they decided to do using parts of the old stuff...

-- Posted by: Ryan at January 26, 2009 2:49 PM

I agree with the comment made by Ninjabadass: it gets tiresome being told how your generation gets everything wrong, and how great things were "back in the day." They're born into and inherit a world they had no hand in creating, so indeed give them a break.

That said, despite being 24 years old I had never heard of Watchmen before I was given the book this Christmas by a family member. I finished it yesterday and was floored! I'm excited to read it a second time, now having a better understanding of the story.

I never carry high expectations of novel adaptations to film, and with this article's wisdom also in mind, I may just enjoy it going in with no expectations whatsoever. Even if it's terrible it won't really matter; I'm definitely happy I was gifted with Watchmen before someone dragged me off to see this film I'd never heard of and likely being unappreciative or skeptical of its roots.

For the record, I'm not irritated that I missed Woodstock or Jack Kerouac. Every generation will find their own, no matter how much the previous would care to dismiss it.

-- Posted by: m at January 26, 2009 3:15 PM

M, I hate to tell you this, but the point of that comment was kind of:

Being told the generation prior to you did it better is ALSO part of what every generation puts up with. Not just you crazy Gen Y kids. IE: I had to put up with it when I was 15-25ish, too.

What's being missed isn't that I care when or how the kids discover Watchmen. That's not even relevant to my original post. I celebrate anyone finding the comic and I'm thrilled to hear you read it rather than just "waiting for the movie".

What I'm rolling my eyes at is how a piece of comics literature has been co-opted into a fashion statement for consumption (see the Watchmen beanies, etc..) and aimed at a demographic that has no familiarity with the material. This was done, most likely, by licensing companies that think they have a chance to cash in on the newest Spidey or Iron Man and are working from specific licensing art without having bothered to read the book and see if the t-shirts, etc.. make any sense.

It's the same way Ledger's Joker, from a movie aimed squarely at an older audience, has crept his way into kid's toys and merchandise. Superheroes still have a certain place in the public consciousness that's very merchandising friendly, and while Watchmen doesn't fit that bill terribly well, they're moving full-steam ahead with the profits the studio no doubt counts on from licensing.

And in this economic climate, who can blame them?

But having done this dance since Burton's Batman, I know these things will sell like hot cakes at the mall no matter how compromised the movie vision as a portion of the demographic looks to catch a trend, aware of what they're wearing or not...

-- Posted by: Ryan at January 26, 2009 3:34 PM

Well, maybe you'll be vindicated and the kids will reject the Watchmen movie entirely and it will fall on its face.
I'm not sure that the appearance of the internet or the trade paperback industry does anything to counter my points. In fact, they may help to reinforce them. Comics used to come out, get read, and kind of fade away into comic collections or into the byzantine minds of obsessive compulsive fanboys. Now all of this material is readily available and easily referenced via the net. Creators today are expected to have read and incorporated every work since the dawn of time into their minds before they begin a new work. If the subject of new material comes anywhere close to having been touched on in some esoteric back issue, you can count on some fanboy being there to point out where it appeared previously, and to insist that there's no further need to write about such a topic. Given how many comics have been written and how many subjects have been covered in their pages (which are available more completely and immediately than ever before), you can see how all of this information can start to feel less like a great opportunity and more like a tremendous albatross hanging around one's neck.
Incidentally, I bet that the kids today are a lot more savvy than you're giving them credit for. By this point, they're used to every movie, TV, show, comic, or album having been heavily influenced by something that came before, and I think many of them are used to seeking out source material by way of comparison. It's kind of funny how some modern sci-fi shows have sort of become aware of the "everything has been covered" problem. I know that both Stargate and Farscape used to repeatedly reference other shows when figuring out what was going on in their own worlds ("Oh, this is like when Spock put his mind into McCoy just before he got radiation poisoning!!"). such is the fate of post modern sci-fi/fantasy.

-- Posted by: ninjabadass at January 26, 2009 4:31 PM

It's mostly my hope that sales of the graphic novel will continue to spike for 2009. I don't wish WB any ill will.

I think we're talking about two completely different things. I'm discussing how the movie is being managed and marketed, and for some reason this has turned into how unfair kids today have got it (which I don't buy).

I do think kids have the potential to be more savvy these days, and they certainly have more access to The Great Oracle of Google whenever they have a question. Their ability to research any topic that hits their fancy is infinitely more powerful than what I had, even through college.

But it seems that a shift occured between the last dregs of Gen X and Gen Y, that instead of being cynical or skeptical of being marketed to, licensing and ancillary product had become such a byproduct of the entertainment industry that its become fully integrated into how the audience participates in a movie.

The issue of marketing the movie isn't new, and has been seen, really, since the post-Star Wars-era, and got really goofy with Burton's Batman. The mega corporations blasted us with corporate synergy until we hit a point where we believe its how its supposed to be, down to the embracing of mass-merchandising of a beloved book via Hot Topic. Those savvy kids are buying this junk by the truckloads.

And if you think that this isn't a concerted, conscious effort on the part of the corproations running studios, and they license all this stuff out of the kindness of their hearts... we're going to have to agree to disagree.

I honestly think we should table the "woe unto the creator, for his audience is already well read" for another discussion for next week (or mayhaps earlier), as it has almost nothing to do with Watchmen's development, marketing and licensing. That doesn't mean it's not a worthy issue or shouldn't be discussed, but its so tangential to this topic, I'd like to stay a bit more focused.

-- Posted by: Ryan at January 26, 2009 5:21 PM

The problem with 300 was the whole "Freedom" War against Iraq/Terrorists Overlay which milked the patriotism all too much.

That and the obvious feminist bs took away a lot from the film. 300 was great otherwise

-- Posted by: Tharka at January 27, 2009 9:51 AM

I highly recommend reading up on Sparta and specifically gender roles in Sparta if you haven't already. It's absolutely fascinating.

While I felt Queen Gorgo's storyline slipped into melodrama, it didn't bug me as "feminist bs".

-- Posted by: Ryan at January 27, 2009 1:52 PM