Sunday, 8 March 2009

The films of Alan Moore

Alan Moore has a hate/hate relationship with Hollywood, so much so that he will not take payment from or watch any film based on his work .It doesn’t help that the films in question tend to be total cobblers. What are the chances of Watchmen bucking the trend? Not good by the looks of previous efforts……..

From Hell: Moore’s complex look at the character and psychology of the city of London, as told through the story of Jack the Ripper became, in the words of comedian Stewart Lee “A thing about a man who kills some women”.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: In 1999 Moore and artist Kevin O Neil made a bold attempt to merge all works of fiction into a single cohesive narrative, which actually worked within the context of the strip. Filmmaker Stephen Norrington added a sexy vampire and Tom Sawyer driving a bat mobile. Nice.

Constantine: The comics’ version of John Constantine (aka Hellblazer) was an embittered, alcoholic, cynical, chain smoking British, Noir style occult detective with no morals and a very dim view of human nature. The film version was Keanu Reeves.

V For Vendetta: The problem: America was always going to have a problem with the “Terrorist super Hero” introduced in Moore’s limited series. The solution: let’s change the main character from a ruthless anarchist to a romantic freedom fighter. Oh, and add an unconvincing love story and bobbins script while were at it.

Unpublished feature: Watchmen

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Super hero and comic book movies have always been big business. Ever since Richard Donners Superman made us believe a man could fly in 1977 there has been a seemingly endless stream of films of varying quality , form the brilliant ( A History Of Violence , Road To Perdition,) to the banal (Batman and Robin being a memorable disaster). 2008 seemed to be something of a pinnacle in terms of box office success and quality of content what with the success lat year of the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight. Anyone who went to the cinema to see the latter will have seen a trailer for another seemingly run of the mill super hero film called Watchmen. Most people who saw this trailer probably thought “Oh, what’s that? That looks like a good film. I may go and see that. When it comes out. In 2009. Probably” and then went on with their lives. But a select group of people (of which I am a member), probably came very close to wetting themselves at the prospect of this project coming to fruition. Comic fans have known since day one that Watchmen is something special.
Imagine your favourite book, song, and movie all combined into a single package: That’s Watchmen. The type of thing that you finish reading and immediately after the shock has worn off you wish you’d never read it so you can read it again. And then you read it again anyway. It’s that good. The term “greatest” is thrown around these days as if it was so much confetti, but take it from me, Watchmen is the greatest comic book ever. And I know that is a compliment roughly akin to being described as the best dressed man in Ballymena, but it really is something else. It punches above its weight breaking out from
the confines of a ‘kids’ medium and making it onto Time magazines list of the top 100 novels of the Twentieth century. With the imminent release of the movie (recent legal issues not withstanding,) it seems like as good a time as any to take a look at this seminal work, and the wizard (literally) that produced it.

Northampton born Alan Moore had made a name for himself on the British comics’ circuit writing for titles such as Doctor Who, Captain Britain and 2000AD. His work on the latter had garnered him several UK based comics awards (voted for by, in Moore’s words, “50 people in anoraks with awful social lives”), which caught the eye of US comics giant DC who offered him the opportunity to write their (failing) Swamp Thing title. Rising to the challenge Moore somehow managed to take a book in which the protagonist was a walking compost heap from selling 15,000 copies to selling more than 100,000 copies.
DC rewarded this success by giving Moore a line of super hero characters from the recently acquired Charlton Comics that he could revamp as he saw fit. Moore felt that if he started the series off with the death of a major character that was well known to the reader then it would let them know they were reading something outside of the norm of the time. Eventually the rights to the Charlton characters were lost, but Moore carried on with characters that he made up himself reasoning that “If I wrote the substitute characters well enough, so that they seemed familiar in certain ways, certain aspects of them brought back a kind of generic super-hero resonance or familiarity to the reader, then it might work”. Taking the premise: what would happen if super heroes existed in the real( or at the very least a more realistic) world, Watchmen along with Frank Millers’ The Dark Knight Returns ushered in the era of grim and gritty comics that led to the creation of Tim Burtons Batman franchise, and changed the way comics were written forever.

Set in an alternate version of 1985 in which Richard Nixon remains president, the cold war continues, and the United States and Soviet Union stand on the brink of nuclear war, Watchmen opens with the discovery of the Murder of Edward Blake aka The Comedian one of only two costumed crime fighters remaining in the governments good graces after vigilante activity has been outlawed. Rorschach a borderline sociopath and the only costume to operate outside the law starts an investigation into what he believes is a series of ‘ Cape Killings’ – someone murdering former costumed heroes. He launches an investigation contacting all former crime fighters including the paunchy down trodden Nite Owl, the self professed smartest man on the planet Ozymandias, and the super powered Doctor Manhattan, (the only genuine super being), who is becoming increasingly removed from his humanity. What follows is less of a super hero murder mystery and more of a journey through comics as a medium, as Moore pays tribute to comics’ history at the same times he is deconstructing and exposing the weakness’ of the super hero genre. With no super villains acting as antagonists the crux of he story became both the socio economic implications that the presence of a genuine super human would have on the world, and the (largely sexual) motivations that such individuals would have for their activities. Being that it was written in the mid eighties the tone is rather stark and grim, a commentary on the American psyche as it was during the Reganomics / cold war period. To say that the outcome of the narrative unexpected and shocking is something of an understatement ,in fact if I told you how the book ends you would dismiss it as the ravings of a deluded madman.

Moore choose David Gibbons as not only the artist for the piece but also co-creator, and often times copy editor, dealing with the several hundred pages of handwritten script and notes that Moore provided in a piecemeal fashion. A three or four page description of a single panel would often end with the note”If this doesn’t work for you just do what works best”. Gibbons insisted on a nine panel page layout which allowed him an element of pacing and visual control that he could predict and use to dramatic effect. After more than twenty years it is easy to forget that for all its success as a collected edition it was never meant to be read in that fashion, rather it was intended as a monthly serial piece allowing for suspense and cliff-hangers in the same way that contemporary dramas such as Lost and 24 do. Additionally Gibbons was able to use the comics medium to his advantage by adding a level of detail which was second to none, so in depth that even Moore himself is noticing new touches today some twenty years after its initial publication .In essence Watchmen was the first work to exploit the medium to tell a tale that could be engineered only in comics. Chapter 5: Fearful Symmetry stands out in particular for it experimental style, as Gibbons laid it out in a symmetrical fashion: the first page mirrored the last in terms of layout, with the centre page spread being completely symmetrical. It’s the small touches like this that you don’t really notice until the sixth or seventh read through.

The flow of the narrative is broken up by a comic-within- a –comic Tales of the Black Freighter, a pirate adventure book. The creators reasoned that a society that had actual super heroes would not be interested in reading their comic book exploits, and would instead enjoy other genres such as horror , detective romance etc . The rich and dark imagery in the swash buckling tale made for an effective counterpoint to the contemporary setting. Each issue also included supplementary material designed to give a richer insight into the world of the Watchmen. These included psychological profiles, magazine articles, and an autobiography of a retired crime fighter. The book would loose nothing if these were taken away. Theyre just nice touces designed to reward the careful reader .Eventually, as work on Watchmen progressed the strip took on a life of its own and strange synchronicities started to pop up unintentionally. The monthly publication of the title was fraught with delays, but it mattered little. The book was a massive commercial and critical success. DC rushed to release cash in merchandise. It remains in print till this day, and its influence is felt not only in the work of comic writers such as Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis, but in many other facets of Pop culture including the Acid House movement (The iconic smiley face image used on a hit Bomb The Bass single), and a recent appearance in The Simpson’s.

Things did not end happily between Moore and DC Comics, as in 1990 he refused to work with them any longer due in part to their treatment of him in the wake of Watchmen’s success . In fact Moore largely moved outside the mainstream preferring to approach work on his own terms. He continues to thrive however on the fringe of the industry, where he remains one of the most respected figures in modern comics. He does not however have high hopes for the forthcoming movie of his most famous work stating “There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can't”. I for one hope that he’s wrong about that.