Tag Archives: alan moore

Taking sides in the Grant Morrison / Alan Moore cosmic feud

20121128-001951.jpgSooner or later, someone is going to come up with the idea of a story about two wizards – a hirsute, midlander who worships a made up god and dapper suited, bald Glaswegian chaos magician – and the bitter feud between them. The real life story about the animosity between the UK’s greatest living comics writers Grant Morrison and Alan Moore is nothing like as dramatic, but for anyone who has even a modicum of respect for both of them, rather compelling.

We aren’t talking about a massive feud here, incidentally. The two don’t publicly attack each other at every opportunity. The intrigue is rooted in the fact that both writers have very similar interests and backgrounds, and why exactly it is that they have managed to rub each other up the same way

Pádraig Ó Méalóid has written a synopsis of the disagreement which Grant Morrison has taken exception to and comprehensively fisked. You can make your own mind up but to a large extent it is impossible to arbitrate on the issue without your own prejudices about either writer getting in the way. In the interest of full disclosure then, let me say this: on balance I am probably more of a Grant Morrison fan, so take what I have to say on the topic with that particular pinch of salt.

Although I think he is right on the broad thrust, I don’t entirely agree with Morrison though. I think he let’s himself off a bit too gently with his justification that his column Drivel for Speakeasy magazine, which he wrote in the late 80s, was purely work for hire on which he was working to a specific brief. While it is self evident to anyone who has read them that the columns were tongue in cheek – at one stage, I vividly recall his dictum being that “99% of comics are shit except for the 10% that I write” – the fact is that this persona was rehearsed in all the media interviews he gave at the time. What was quite funny a few times rapidly ceased to amuse and he slowly became the parody that he was mocking at the time.

Morrison and his then writing partner Mark Millar were given unprecedented editorial control over 2000AD in 1993 (“the Summer Offensive”) and the two set about tearing up the comic from its roots and implementing the sort of philosophy that Morrison had been espousing in his Drivel columns for years beforehand. The result was an utter disaster, best forgotten. Morrison and Millar’s take on Dredd is the worse mishandling of the character in its long history. I recall in an interview atbthe time Morrison denouncing Dredd-creator John Wagner for not writing funny Dredd strips any more. Ironically, even at his most serious and po-faced, Wagner manages to inject each episode with more genuine humour than Morrison and Millar managed in their entire run on Dredd.

To cut a long story short, in the early 90s, Grant Morrison was a bit of a dick. Having suddenly found himself rich and successful after more than a decade as a struggling writer (his graphic novel Batman: Arkham Asylum hit the bookshelves at the height of Batmania following the release of the 1989 Tim Burton film), discovered the drink, drugs and sex that he couldn’t afford and wasn’t particularly interested in during the early part of his career. In his 30s, he went on a teenage bender, something which almost destroyed him as a writer.

But the important thing is, he grew out of it. The Morrison who emerged over the following decade was a different creature altogether. Most of his works during this period have a sort of life affirming therapy quality to them, with Morrison himself effectively starring in The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and The Filth.

I find the claim by both Moore and Michael Moorcock that Morrison is a creatively bankrupt thief of their work to be utterly bizarre. If you want to read a sub-Alan Moore deconstructionist and misanthropic take on the superhero genre, you need merely screw up a copy of Watchmen and throw it over your shoulder; the chances are you’ll hit a comic by a writer taking precisely that approach. On a superficial level, there are clearly similarities but where Morrison’s work is all about hope amidst the darkness, Moore’s work is, well, darkness amidst the darkness. They are so incomparable that it is barely worth even rebutting.

And this is the nub of it: Alan Moore’s complaint about Grant Morrison appears to be nothing more than a massive troll, and potentially an attempt by Moore to get his own back for a couple of mean-spirited things Morrison said about him during his idiot period. But as Morrison says, during the Drivel years, Morrison was a 30 year old still struggling to find his place in the world. Alan Moore is a highly successful man in his 60s. In the context, it is hard to deny that Moore is the bigger dick (term used in the strict Wheaton sense of the word).

I have heard more than once people defend Moore when he says his more outrageous things that if you hear him say them in person it is clear he has his tongue firmly in his cheek when he does so. But if this is all an act, is there a risk that Moore himself ends up resembling the persona he is pretending to be? We await to see what Jerusalem is like, but the fact is that most of his work over the past decade has given me the sense of a man coasting. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is good fun and a gentle read, kind of like putting on your favourite slippers, but nothing like as edgy as it thinks it is. Century had nothing to say ultimately other than “modern culture (and particularly Harry Potter) is rubbish” – the familiar old man lament since time immemorial. We appear to have reached the point in which Alan Moore has little more to say than “99% of modern culture is rubbish, except for the 10% that I write” – the only difference between this statement and Grant Morrison’s own utterance more than 20 years previously being that even at the time we knew with complete certainty that Morrison was taking the piss.

It’s great fun to watch Alan Moore be rude and nasty about everything, but there comes a point where it’s just rudeness dressed up as criticism. I think he went passed that years ago and it’s time he reined it back in. I suspect that if he did, his work would significantly improve as he was forced to move outside of his (cynical and world weary) comfort zone.

Still looking forward to Heart of Ice though.

John Constantine: Hellblazer. You only live twice.

John ConstantineNaBloPoMo November 2012The decision by DC comics to cancel its imprint Vertigo’s longest running title Hellblazer and replace it with a new comic featuring its main character John Constantine in a new in-continuity title may not seem like that much of a big deal to outsiders. For the comics’ fans however, this represents the end of an era and an uncertain future. Explaining why however, may get a bit confusing – for which I apologise in advance. Welcome to the mad, bad world of corporate comics.

John Constantine and Hellblazer were originally part of official DC continuity. Constantine was first created by Alan Moore as a supporting cast member of the horror comic Swamp Thing. A British occult investigator-cum-conman, Constantine acted as the Swamp Thing’s guide to the occult as he lead (and mislead) him through a series of adventures.

The Swamp Thing’s odyssey was itself part of a larger story which engulfed the whole of the DC Comics line. Constantine would use the Swamp Thing to perform a crucial war in a magical secret war taking place concurrently with the Crisis of Infinite Earths in 1986. The Crisis was DC’s rather futile and counterproductive attempt to clean up its continuity, replacing an infinite multiverse with a single universe in which all its characters interacted with each other.

Despite this integral role Constantine and the Swamp Thing played in the creation of this new world, within five years they would spin out of it to form a continuity of their own in 1993. This was ostensibly for commercial reasons. Both Swamp Thing and Hellblazer, together with a number of other titles (all of which, at the time, were written by Brits), were enough of a critical and commercial success to lead DC to publish a new imprint Vertigo. All the initial titles published by Vertigo moved from the DC universe to their own separate continuity. Initially, all these titles were tied together, even having their own crossover event at one stage.

Vertigo wobbled significantly during its initial period however, with most of its titles struggling to find an audience. Hellblazer was the only of Vertigo’s launch titles to survive for more than three years (admittedly, in the case of the hugely successful Sandman, this was due to the author choosing to end the series rather than anything else). The idea of a “Vertigoverse” fell quickly out of favour, and Hellblazer spent the remainder of its run existing in (mostly) splendid isolation.

So far, so – reasonably – straightforward. Things got a little more complicated in 2011 however with the reappearance of both Swamp Thing and John Constantine in DC continuity – despite Hellblazer remaining in publication. Of course, this was not technically the same continuity as the one the two characters left in 1993, with the universe having been rebooted in both 2005 and 2008 (and also 1991, but that’s another story). Indeed, the continuity they returned to was not even a universe any more, but a multiverse, with it having by then been established that there were now 52 separate worlds.

Both these characters kicked their heels around in the official continuity for a few months until DC decided to reboot their titles once again, this time calling it the New 52 (because there are to be 52 ongoing monthly titles in publication at any one time, not because there are 52 worlds). In this reboot, Swamp Thing has once again been given his own title (alongside fellow Vertigo alumnus Animal Man), while Constantine joined a title called the Justice League Dark (sort of an occult version of the Justice League America). It is this character who is about to get his own solo series.

You might ask “isn’t the new Constantine just the same character as the old Hellblazer character?” No is the answer, because while DC continuity has followed the standard superhero convention of having its characters age only very slowly, if at all (New 52 continuity has actually seen all the main characters get younger), since Hellblazer moved to Vertigo, that John Constantine has aged in real time. That John Constantine is an ageing ex-punk about to turn 60. The New 52 John Constantine is a still a jack the lad in his early 30s who can probably only just remember Britpop. Constantine’s slow march to docility is a main theme in the latter Hellblazer stories; in the New 52 Constantine is probably younger than most of his readers.

So what do I make of all this? I’m in two minds. I think there is an argument that after 300 issues and 25 years Hellblazer has run its course. It has slipped into repeating itself on numerous occasions now. Furthermore, while ageing a character over several decades is interesting and something we rarely see in comics, Constantine differs from Judge Dredd (who has aged in real time over 35 years) in two fundamental respects. Firstly, the comic has had a number of typically very good but different writers, each of whom have brought with them their own ideas, themes and supporting cast. While John Constantine’s own personality has been fairly consistent, pretty much everything else has been thrown up in the air every few years.

Connected to that is the fact that nothing really changes in Constantine’s world. They hit the big reset button every few years. While one of the overarching themes of the series is that actions have consequences, you don’t see Constantine really deal with the consequences of his actions 20-30 years ago, which might as well be ancient history as far as the title is concerned, because everything has to get wrapped up in 2-5 year story arcs. In that respect the title’s continuity has been a real straitjacket. Contrast that with Dredd where John Wagner regularly revisits a storyline from decades in the past, and can irrecoverably change the world as a consequence.

So in principle, I have nothing against giving John Constantine a reboot, any more than I have for any other character. Whether this is the right reboot however is another matter; without wanting to get into the topic of the New 52 more generally, the John Constantine we’ve seen in Justice League Dark thus far has been fairly fun but unremarkable. He lacks the weight and groundedness that his past incarnation had in abundance.

It’s also interesting to note that this switch comes at a time when there are rumours of a Justice League Dark film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Constantine has of course been in a film before, in a film which cast Keanu Reeves as a black haired resident of Los Angeles (as opposed to a blond Londoner). It shouldn’t have worked, and was certainly not a critical or commercial success, but I have to admit to enjoying it for reasons that go beyond my Tilda Swinton obsession.

My guess is that DC have decided that if the film does come off, they want to present the world with a single, simplified vision of the character, rather than two versions at different ages and with wildly divergent back stories. Of course this is dumb: they aren’t about to stop publishing the collected editions of Hellblazer, so anyone visiting a book shop will still be confronted by two versions. But it is how the corporate mindset works.

So this is a bit sad, but does point to the character getting wider recognition; and if that means more people reading Hellblazer at its best then that’s something. I just hope it doesn’t mean we’ll never get to revisit the old John Constantine again or that it will prevent other, potentially fascinating interpretations of the character.

A Beginner’s Guide To Comics: A Response

I had originally written this as a comment to Andrew Hickey’s Beginner’s Guide to Comics, but I thought I would add it here instead. First go away and read his article and then come back to this:

Andrew’s is a good list which I would broadly agree with. Jaka’s Story was one of those strips which was being hailed during the “Pow! Comics Grow Up!” period of the late 80s. I’d like my older self to give it a read – I certainly remember the ending being very powerful. But as he recognises there is that Dave Sim “ick” factor which stops me from rushing.

All-Star Superman is good but I wouldn’t put it above Morrison’s Invisibles or (more controversially) Doom Patrol. It is however, much shorter than those two.

I re-read Sandman earlier this year. It was actually stronger than I remember, although that was partly due to the fact that I was one of those people who read the monthly comic and thus got alienated by Gaiman during The Kindly Ones when he stopped writing a periodical and switched to novel writing. Reading it as a whole it stands up; as a series of (less than) monthly episodes it really didn’t.

One of the big problems with enticing people into comics is that sometimes they can be quite inaccessible from a visual impairment point of view. I won’t bother trying From Hell on my girlfriend not because of the subject matter but because I’m pretty sure she’d find it impossible to read because of Eddie Campbell’s scratchy lettering.

Alice in Sunderland is a book I suspect I will go back and reread every couple of years for years to come. It is such a rich, dense book. As a meditation about what it means to be English (and in particular Northern English) it is fantastic. It SHOULD be taught in schools in my view. One Bad Rat is currently high on my reread pile.

As for things Andrew missed…

The best non-superhero Alan Moore things would have to be V for Vendetta, Halo Jones and (controversially) Skizz. The latter is ET done properly, even if the South African bashing is a little dated.

For the Buffy fans out there, you should give Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run a go. It is his best comics work in my view.

I read Mike Carey’s Lucifer in quick succession last year and loved it. As a meditation on the nature of free will it is required reading (for all those libertarian bloggers out there especially – and I’m not taking the piss there). His Unwritten is also shaping up well. There is a lot of Vertigo stuff which started in the early noughties which I missed completely for the simple reason that I had had enough of tiresome Sandman spin-offs.

Overall, 2000AD is a tricky thing to recommend. Dredd is almost certainly an acquired taste and I do appreciate that a lot of the 80s stuff has dated somewhat. I tend to find the “funny” stuff more difficult to justify than the “serious” stuff despite initially being attracted by the former. This is a shame because Wagner deserves much greater recognition than he gets. Far from being a simple fascist cop, the characterisation of Dredd is incredibly rich and yet understated in Wagner’s hands. One gets the impression it has become semi-autobiographical.

Of the relatively self-contained 2000AD stuff I would recommend Nikolai Dante, Caballistics, Inc. and Leviathan.

Finally, I would throw in Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn and You Are Here and Evan Dorkins Dork! (an acquired taste but brilliant nonetheless).

My Watchmen Review (SPOILERS)

For me, there was one scene in the new Watchmen film that summed up its inherent wrongness (spoiler alert): if you’ve read the comic you will know that Rorschach is thrown in jail and escapes (with a bit of help from Dan “Nite Owl II” Dreiberg and Laurie “Silk Spectre II” Juspeczyk) during a riot. As he is about to escape, Rorschach spots Big Figure, the equally imprisoned diminuitive crimelord who had earlier tried to kill him, dart into a toilet. In the comic, you see Rorschach follow Big Figure into the loo, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre exchange a bit of dialogue, and then Rorschach leaves. What exactly happens to Big Figure is left to our imagination, although we are to understand that “bumping” is involved and it is implied in a bit of gallows humour that he “dived head first” into something. It is a tiny, witty scene of the type that the comic is full.

What happens in the film? Well, Big Figure goes into the toilet, Rorschach follows him citing a need to visit the “men’s room” and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre wait outside. But very little is left to the imagination as we see Rorschach descending on Big Figure. The scene ends with blood pouring out of room. Some of the humour is retained, but for the most part it is replaced with horror and gore.

In a nutshell, that sums up Zack Snyder’s approach to the source material. The wit and humanity is pared down to the bone and replaced by a heightened level of gore. In the previous scene where Big Figure’s henchmen are attempting to kill Rorschach, an out of shot throat slit is replaced by a man having his arms chopped off with an electric saw. Earlier still, a scene in which Rorschach sets fire (out of shot) to a child molester is replaced by him hitting the man repeatedly through the head with a meat cleaver. Only Doctor Manhatten is supposed to have superpowers (even if Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt is understood to have achieved near-physical perfection) and most of the characters are meant to be out of shape and retired, yet when they fight they can break bones and walls with their punches, land on their feet from three storey falls and take the most incredible amounts of physical punishment – all in lingering bullet-time (so 1999 – the Matrix was literally a decade ago for Chrissakes).

In short, this is more of a caricature in the public’s imagination of “comic book” violence than the actual comic book. At one point this is made explicit. In the original comic, Ozymandias says at one point: “Dan, I’m not a republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?” In the film, “republic serial” is replaced with “comic book” – in other words, two fingers to the source-medium. Comics don’t tend to have villains explaining their plans, at least not to the heroes – that is cinema (c.f. a typical James Bond film). It is one of those odd libels that persists, and disappointing that an apparent fanboy such as Zack Snyder chooses to join in with the conspiracy. Still, you’ve got to show loyalty to the tribe I suppose (slight tangent, but I remember reading a review of Road to Perdition in which they slagged off Jude Law’s rather obtuse character as “betraying its comic book origins” – that character didn’t appear in the original comic and was created specially for cinema audiences).

My ultimate beef with the him however isn’t that it strayed from the original, but that generally it has blindly gone along with it. The annoying stuff is what they have kept. Why, for example, is there so much in the introductory sequence about the forties costumed vigilante Solitaire being a lesbian? It doesn’t add anything to the plot, that particular revelation isn’t even in the comic (it is relegated to a footnote in the text backup feature), yet we get a scene of her snogging her girlfriend and another scene of the two of them having been brutally murdered. If you are desperate to cut stuff out, why keep that? The only apparent reason seems to be some fanboy frisson about lesbians – which creeps rather uncomfortably towards misogyny. Why, in fact, is there so much about the forties vigilantes at all, given that – for example – the death of Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl) is not shown and the relationship of The Comedian with the Sally “Silk Spectre I” Jupiter is simplified to the point that we are to understand she was raped but loved him anyway. This is yet more misogyny; in the comic he certainly attempts to rape her, but it is made clear that she is ultimately made pregnant by him by consensual sex.

The different ending is, I have to admit, a slight improvement on the original. It never did quite make sense that you could achieve world peace simply by teleporting a big lump of meat in the middle of Times Square, giving everyone in the vicinity a lethal headache in the process. But changing it creates its own problems. For one thing, if artist Max Shea didn’t help design the “squid monster,” then how is this all tied in with his creation Tales of the Black Freighter (on sale in all good DVD shops soon)? Similarly, if Ozymandias isn’t working on a masterplan that requires genetic engineering to work, then why does he walk around in the last 20 minutes of the film with a hoofing great GM lynx. It is a total non-sequitor, a kewl-looking thing you can pay a CG-artist to animate, but something that otherwise has no relevance to the plot.

Even more problematic is the murder of Edward “The Comedian” Blake at the start of the film. He’s killed because the discovered Ozymandias’ plans, but he only discovers these because he is a spy working for the CIA who is sent to investigate what he believes is a Sandinista Base on a desert island. If there is no desert island, there is no rationale for him to have made the discovery. No discovery, no murder. No murder, no plot.

The main thing that is stripped out of the adaptation is humanity. The reason you care at the end of the comic when New York is wiped out is that for eleven issues you have got to know a small cast of characters who gravitate around a completely unremarkable newstand. It is upsetting when they all die at the end. In the film version, they are just cyphers. We don’t get to know the cops, or the staff at the New Frontiersman. We get to see Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have some really bad movie sex (in far more lingering detail than the comic), but we don’t get to see them cathartically make love at the end. At the end, we see Dan and Laurie grinning ear to ear as if they have somehow won something – they haven’t even had to change their identities as in the comic – but not the poignant moment at the end when we see Sally Jupiter, alone, kissing Blake’s photograph.

The final thing the film gets wrong is the pacing. Time is a constant motif – the atomic clock, the “Minutemen”, the “Watchmen”, Doctor Manhatten’s father’s career as a watchmaker, etc. Its famed nine panel grid works to mark time, with pretty much every frame indicating a similar time period. When larger and smaller frames are used, they are used very deliberately. It is a textbook masterpiece in graphic storytelling.

The film, by contrast, has very little in terms of pacing at all. It retains the episodic nature of the original but because so much is chopped out some of those episodes are very long indeed while others are shortened down to a single scene. As such it all feels disjointed and random where it should feel measured with the scenes following each other in a logical progression. Could this have been fixed? A TV mini-series might have worked better. But ultimately it rather shows film up as a flexible medium. You can tell a different story in a comic simply by changing the shape of the pictures and varying them throughout the story (see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for much more on this). With cinema, you have widescreen, very widescreen and very little flexibility within each film (interestingly, this is something that Ang Lee at least experimented with in The Hulk, but that film is not generally regarded as a great success).

Ultimately, Watchmen is a comic about comics. Originally based on the Charlton superhero universe, the decision to not use these characters themselves ultimately freed Moore and Gibbons up to tell a more universal story. So it is that Rorschach is not just a reinterpretation of The Question, but a satire on the oddness of his creator (and Spider-Man’s), Steve Dikto. Making Captain Atom Doctor Manhatten enabled them to explore wider themes about how superpowers would change the world if they really existed – not necessarily in good ways. The Tales of the Black Freighter interludes, aside from containing yet more nods to Steve Ditko and his contemporaries, explores the essential randomness of how superheroes came to dominate the medium. Stripped of all that, you can still tell a story but you lack much of the essence of the tale that Moore tells.

The Watchmen film isn’t a total disaster. As a tribute to the original it is very flattering. Much of the set design is fantastic. There are little snatches of brilliance here and there where you just wish they’d gone down more in that particular direction. Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach is inspired. I’d rather a film maker treated the source material with reverance than with contempt (as is the case of From Hell and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). But V for Vendetta, by no means a great film, was better and more memorable than this because it was ultimately prepared to take more risks with the source material.

Is respectful-but-not-slavish to the original too much to ask? The trail of good comic book adaptations is growing quite long now so the answer is surely “no”, yet the quest for a good Alan Moore adaptation remains elusive. My personal tip for a good Moore adaptation? Skizz directed by Danny Boyle. I’d really like to see that.

UPDATE: Andrew Hickey points me to an article by screenwriter David Hayter which sums up what a misogynist little turd he is, and at least partially explains the thoroughly negative attitude to women in the film.

Nine wishes for 2009 #7: The Watchmen Movie to not suck (spoilers/guesses)

God, all my wishes are getting pretty forlorn, aren’t they? I’ve written about the upcoming Watchmen film fairly recently. What I will add is that I spent the early hours of Sunday morning watching the various promos and video diaries that the production team have been pumping out on the internet about it. The portents are not great, I’m afraid to report.

Two of them give me particular pause for concern, the first possibly unreasonably. This film is about how kewl the Owlship is going to be. If I were a fourteen year old, and this was a Batman film, I would be excited. As it stands, the Owlship is a very minor part of the Watchmen aesthetic: it gives the second Nite-Owl a gimmick (a gimmick almost wholly ripped off from Blue Beetle, unsurprisingly) and gets the characters from A to B. It’s an egg-shaped thing with windows – what’s to get excited about (okay, I’ll admit it – I got ridiculously excited about the Batmobile in the 1989 film. There. Happy now?)?

But to be fair, this film is probably little more than the production team bigging up their contribution. Good for them. Up the workers I say. No, what really worries me is this film about the Silk Spectre. Leave aside the sexed up costume for a minute – I can live with that (although I’ve never understood this longstanding comic book movie tradition of turning superhero costumes into fetish wear). What really worries me is hearing Zack Snyder and the actress Malin Akerman describe the character as some kind of feminist icon. She “kicks ass” – she’s “awesome.” She even represents, ahem, “woman power“.

In the comic, Laurie is actually quite a passive character. She goes along with what her mother wants, then goes along with what Doctor Manhattan wants. Admittedly, she does convince Manhattan to save the world but she doesn’t do it through the power of her womanly fists but through, er, talking. Almost none of the fighting you see in the film clips actually happen in the comic.

Now, I have nothing wrong with strong female characters (although this interpretation does seem to be more of a strong male character in a woman’s body) and I understand that they have to up the action ante for the film. But the overall tone I keep hearing on these promo clips is that the interpretation that Zack Snyder is going for is rather reminiscent of all those dreadful post-Watchmen comics of the late eighties and early nineties.

You remember? When everything went grim, gritty and “realistic”? When Rob Liefield was the hottest artist on the planet (shivers)? The Dark Knight Returns shares responsibility for that particularly shallow period of comic book creativity, but a selective reading of Watchmen is also to blame. The watershed moment was Rorschach winning the Eagle Award for “Character Most Worthy of Own Title.” Yes, what the comics reading public wanted was a strip about a completely insane, psychopathic character which was parodying Steve Ditko‘s Ayn Rand obsessions. Just as a lot of comic readers think that Judge Dredd is an advertisement for zero tolerance summary justice, a lot of the freaks considered Rorschach, The Comedian et al to be heroes.

The Watchmen is about a bunch of misfits who ultimately fail to make a difference. They don’t save the world – in fact they make it a more dangerous place. At lot of people looked at all the pretty pictures and failed to notice that in the late eighties. My current fear is that Zack Snyder was one of them.

On the plus side, the Japanese trailer for the film does look a lot more interesting (I like the JFK appearance – including the revelation of the true assassin), even if the scenes in the “situation room” do look a bit like a camped up version of Dr Strangelove. There may be hope yet.

Why does any of this matter? Well, to be quite honest it doesn’t really. It’s just that while I think I would have preferred it if they hadn’t tried making this particular classic into a film, I’m going to spend my money watching it anyway so it might as well not be a soul-destroying three hours of my life.

Ultimately all I really wish for is that it ends up being no worse than the film version of V for Vendetta, which I have a sneaking affection for. The fact that they took such liberties with V is, in my view, a selling point. I think they got close to the heart of the story (even if they did cop out at the end) in the way that I fear Watchmen won’t.

Pulling off The Watchmen (SPOILERS)

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the upcoming Watchmen film and comic book films for ages. Having just read the first chapter of Dave Gibbons’ memoir of his experiences drawing the comic, Watching the Watchmen, I’ve finally decided to put finger to keyboard.

For a lot of us avid comic book fans, especially those of us who were weaned on Alan Moore’s work in the 80s, this is an extremely anxious period for us. We have experienced the utter awfulness of From Hell and League of Gentlemen. Then we had V for Vendetta, a film that was actually not bad and which swayed between being an almost scene-for-scene reproduction of the comic and a bastard hybridisation with The Matrix. Yet it has made its mark in some quite surprising ways, inspiring the whole Anonymous movement and cropping up here and there in the popular media. It has made its mark.

Factor number two is Zack Snyder. A hitherto hack-resembling director who committed the heinous crime of having his zombies run in his remake of Dawn of the Dead (sidenote: Simon Pegg has now started his Slow Zombie movement, presumably akin to Slow Food), he went on to direct the ridiculous 300. Like the other Frank Miller adaptation Sin City, this was a very close adaptation of the comic original. Also like Sin City, I found bits of it cringingly embarrassing. Unlike Sin City however, I did get the impression that both director and actors were enjoying themselves slightly subverting the material. Or did I just imagine this? I’m genuinely undecided as to whether all the scenes of Spartans cavorting with one another were done with a wink to the audience or with the same level of hyper-heterosexuality of the writer-artist’s original that just happened to come across as camp as a row of tents.

The key question for Watchmen therefore is there more to Zack Snyder than meets the eye? Is he capable of viewing the source material with a critical eye or will we just get another soulless carbon copy like Sin City?

Another factor is The Dark Knight. The Nolan Brothers (I have yet to figure out their relationship with the Nolan Sisters) have made what for me is the best ever “superhero” film, but they did this not by simply adapting an original work but by mashing up some of Batman’s greatest hits, specifically Year One, The Long Halloween and Killing Joke, while the ending serves as a kind of prologue to The Dark Knight Returns*. Alongside Lord of the Rings, it functions as a rebuke to the received wisdom that a comic book adaptation has to be a literal translation of the source material (sidenote: another slight challenge The Dark Knight represents to Watchmen is that fact that the former film has borrowed the latter comic’s idea of using scarring to represent The Joker/The Comedian’s grin). I can’t pretend that the apparently less literal Paul Greengrass version, with its apparently more overtly political edge, sounded fascinating. Is there a danger in sticking rigidly to the source material that it will end up being a period piece about the 80s?

It was interesting rereading the original over the summer. For those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, nuclear holocaust was something we grew up with. Although I didn’t see it at the time, I remember the buzz in the playground when the BBC showed Threads. I remember the horror of When the Wind Blows, a book which still holds enough power over me that I haven’t read it from cover to cover or watched the film. And then there were the more allegorical expressions of nuclear-anxiety such as the BBC’s adaptation of the Day of the Triffids and Survivors. It was this undercurrent in popular imagination that Watchmen was feeding into (even its contemporary, The Dark Knight Returns, revolved around a nuclear explosion and views Superman as having an influence on foreign policy in a very similar way to how Alan Moore regards Doctor Manhattan).

Modern anxieties are somewhat different. In place of a fear of apocalypse we have this more generalised angst about entropy, the death of hope and a nostalgic longing. Those themes, ironically, are picked up in Watchmen, but as the features of a world changed by the existance of a superhuman in it. In Watchmen, the US has had 18 years with Nixon in the White House. In 2008, we’ve had the best part of 28 years with a Bush in the White House. Watchmen offered a vision of a world similar to our own with dashes of unimaginable high technology thrown in, being treated as normal. Imagine how someone from 1985 would imagine today’s world of iPhones and Facebook (sidenote: it is interesting how wrong Alan Moore got it in this respect: the presence of a walking fusion bomb in the government’s pocket like Doctor Manhattan would more likely revolutionise communications technology than it would transportation, although he was probably more on the money when in comes to how fabrics technology would transform fashion). In short, what Watchmen shows us is very representative of the world we have today. That’s a real problem for a film maker approaching the book like it was a period piece. And with that rapscallion Barack Obama going and getting himself elected on a wave of hope and no doubt still in his honeymoon period by the time the film comes out in June 2009, it may be that Snyder finds the Zeitgeist has moved on.

What’s more, the ending of Watchmen – a big explosion in central Manhattan killing thousands of innocent bystanders (sound familiar?) – was supposed to sort out the world’s problems. We now have empirical evidence to show the world doesn’t work like that, but then we don’t live in a world of two opposing Super-Powers any more (two Super-Powers which, in the comic, are duking it out over a little-known country called Afghanistan; how times have changed!). Perhaps the world was that simple back then. Either way, it makes the ending of the comic come across as unbearably naive to these jaded eyes, although in fairness the ambiguous ending with the New Frontiersman editors possibly about to unearch Rorschach’s journal might end up undoing all that. There is simply no way Snyder can get away with not changing the ending without looking like an idiot.

In short, time has not withered Watchmen, but the world has moved on. A slavish adaptation won’t reflect that, and that will be potentially lethal to the whole project. We have just a few months to find out.

* I have to say, I do hope that the Batman threequel ends up being an adaptation, of sorts, of The Dark Knight Returns. It looks to me as if all the foundations have been set, with the main character walking off into self-imposed exile. What better way to kick off the third film, by fast forwarding fifteen years?

I also note they were extremely careful not to show Barbara Gordon’s face in the second film. Set for a return as Batgirl/a female Robin perhaps? Of course, in my dream, it would include the iconic imagery of the Frank Miller original – the horseride into town, the titanic struggle with Superman – but those may be a little too fannish for polite company. Still, they kept the iconic moments of Year One in the first film, so why not?

The Alan Moore on a Train Meme

I’ve been watching Jonathan Ross’ In Search of Steve Ditko this evening and as I do sometimes it got me thinking. If Alan Moore sat down on a train opposite me, what would I say? Simply not talking to him wouldn’t be an option – this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to receive wisdom directly from the Great Man after all. But by the same token, asking for his autograph or asking obvious, overtly fannish questions would be out of the question as well.

So my question to you dear reader, is what three questions would you ask Alan Moore if you met him on a train? My three would be:

1. What do you make of AARGH!? Was it a success? Do you think it helped challenge prejudice? For those who don’t know, AARGH! – or Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia – was a protest book edited by Moore in 1988 to protest against Section 28. While it contains some strong content, it also includes two pieces which have always bothered me. The piece by Frank Miller is a clear case of the hardnut of comics having his cake and eating it by getting to “protest” against homophobia by producing several pages of what appears to be blatantly homophobic itself. This remember is the man you regards Socrates-murdering Athenians to be gay while the Spartans are the height of hetero-manliness. The piece by Brian Bolland, while less obviously exploitative, is by a man clearly uncomfortable with homosexuality.

It’s fascinating because here are a bunch of broadly liberal artists struggling with a topic like homosexuality in a way that my generation really takes for granted. Given that, and the fact that AARGH! fairly obviously failed to get the law stopped, I’d be fascinated by Alan Moore’s take on it 20 years later.

2. How would your ideal system of intellectual property rights work? In particular, what do you think of ideas like Creative Commons. Alan Moore has always struggled with publishers over creators’ rights and much of his best work has been work-for-hire, something which clearly grates with him. But ideas like Creative Commons conflict to some extent with the creators’ rights movement that had such an influence on the comics industry in the early 90s.

3. Did you ever really intend to continue Halo Jones beyond book 3? Halo Jones Book 4 is often hailed as one of the greatest comic books never written. It is rumoured even that Alan Moore originally intended there to be nine Halo Jones books. Yet I’ve always had my doubts over this. I always assumed that the “history” sections in books two and three were merely meta-narrative which served to give the character a certain mystique which Moore never really intended to fully explore. Book three ends perfectly to me and I’m not convinced I’d want the story to continue afterwards. And finally, with the possible exception of Big Numbers, Alan Moore does not appear to have ever let a project of his dangle if he still had a story to tell. His fallings out with comic companies tend to happen after the work is complete, not during (unlike, for example, Rick Veitch’s falling out with DC over his Jesus / Swamp Thing storyline).

Those are my three questions; what would yours be? To kick this off, I tag Alex Wilcock, Millennium Elephant, Nick Barlow, Justin McKeating, Mat Bowles and Jennie Rigg. If you want to do this meme and I haven’t tagged you, feel free to do so any spread the word!

Constantwhine (can’t be arsed to think of a decent title)

I watched the film Constantine last night despite having avoided it for three years. It was three quid at Madame Zaza’s or whatever the Virgin Megastore is called these days, and I was at a loose end.

For those who don’t know, Constantine is based on the DC/Vertigo comic Hellblazer although the main character first appeared during Alan Moore’s iconic run on Swamp Thing. I’ve only recently started reading it again (I gave up when it was written by Americans and they used Manga-esque artists to draw it; I intended to pick it up when Mike Carey started scripting chores but never got around to it), but doggedly collected all the Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis scripted issues.

The important thing to know about him is that he is an occult grifter; a chancer and a gambler who is always a couple of steps away from damnation and who invariably ends up getting his mates killed. The tone is not so much Gothic as grungy. He survives pretty much by his wits alone and certainly doesn’t have any Batman or James Bond style gadgets. Superficial characteristics? John Constantine is blond and English (Liverpudlian technically); Alan Moore’s description of him was that he looks like Sting (this was in the early 80s when that was meant as a compliment). It is mostly set in London and he has a dimwit mate who is a cabbie called Chaz.

The film version? Constantine is the ultimate Californian, played as he is by the black haired Keanu Reeves. It is set in LA. His “assistant”, called Chas, is a cab driver but a sharp witted kid played by that bloke off the Transformers film. Oh, and eschewing the no gadgets rule, Constantine has a pair of ‘holy’ knuckle dusters, a ‘holy’ gun and a dragon flame flamethrower. It borrows liberally from both the Delano and Ennis runs of the comics (Papa Midnight, Gabriel, the lung cancer…) but twists each and every one of these features into something more generic and less fundamentally interesting compared with what can be found in the original. Far from the solo operator found in the comics, Constantine is recast as some kind of quasi-official exorcist who “deports” “half-breeds” on behalf of the Catholic church.

It is usual for film adaptations of comics to play fast and loose with the source material, yet the most successful (critically if not commercially) have been the ones which, if not in keeping with the details of the strip on which they are based, at least stick to the essence. Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman Begins and Ghostworld are all examples of this. There does seem to be something about Alan Moore creations which inspire filmmakers to simply take the piss out of the original fanbase. Constantine isn’t actually, in my opinion, the worst offender in this respect. From Hell was utterly horrendous, taking as it did a book which explored the subject of Jack the Ripper in a poetic, meta-fictional way and shoehorned it into a bog standard Hollywood thriller with Johnny Depp doing sub-Jack Sparrow impersonations.

At least there are no pretensions about Constantine. It’s trash and it knows it is. I found myself liking it a lot more than most of the other popcorn sub-horror trash I’ve put myself through in recent years. Both Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare are fabulous.

But why does Hollywood gorge itself on this hamburger when if it stuck more closely to the source material it could be feasting on steak? Yeesh. Watchmen is going to be so painful, isn’t it?

Handbags! Not so extraordinary gentlemen…

I was somewhat underwhelmed to read in Empire this month about alleged tensions on the set of the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (as I insist on calling it) between Sean Connery and director Stephen Norrington. After 7 pages, it emerges that this consisted of little more than not getting on very well and Norrington on one occasion goading Connery to punch him, which Connery declined to do. Oh, and one of the stages got flooded. Ho. Hum.

It is particularly unfortunate that we only get to read one side of the story: Connery is certainly a bona fide movie star, but he has always seemed to be quite precious about it (okay, I admit it, I just don’t like his politics).

But the real problem with this article, and the reason for this rant now, is that it doesn’t touch on either the ongoing travesty that is Hollywood’s inability to “get” Alan Moore (the best thing that can be said about “LXG” – as they like to call it – is that it isn’t quite as godawful as From Hell) or the legal battle that Moore faced when some no-mark sued him for plagiarising his never-before-heard-of yet vaguely similar screenplay. That’s a far more interesting story.

It’s also a missed opportunity not to mention the Black Dossier, the latest League comic which is currently unavailable in the UK due to several potential copyright issues.

Alan Moore is a funny one. In a recent article in the Megazine, Alan Grant describes Moore as a “character developer” as opposed to a creator. This seems like a gross insult to the man until you realise that it happens to be true. Name an Alan Moore classic comic and the chances are it is derived from something else. There are exceptions – V for Vendetta, Halo Jones, DR and Quinch – but most of his best work has been based on other people’s creations.

None of that is to deny his genius. But it does make one wonder why he is so extraordinarily precious about his own intellectual property.