Monday, March 02, 2009

The Watchmen Motion Comic: Nostalgia of a sort

Watchmen: The Motion Comic

Produced by Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Devin

Directed by Jake S. Hughes

When writer Harlan Ellison wrote a book of dark, disturbing and violent short stories entitled Deathbird Stories, he warned in the preface that no one should read the stories all at once. He said that the effect would be devastating. Now, Ellison is an egotist, and a self-promoter, and he likes to get angry in public, so this warning seemed to be a cheap way to make his book notorious. But Ellison was right. Those stories, involving the Kitty Genovese murder, assisted suicide and an atheist discovering an afterlife without any kind of God, are enough to bring nightmares and to depress sensitive souls.

Alan Moore, the writer of the original Watchmen miniseries, is not self-promoting and rarely appears in public at all. He has had his name taken off everything he's ever done, including the Watchmen movie. But he was an egotist, and perhaps even greater than the legendary Ellison. At least Ellison knew there were sensitive souls who might not be able to tolerate his works. Alan Moore never put a disclaimer on Watchmen.

The new movie is going to be disturbing to a lot of people. It's been "tamed" from the graphic novel a bit, but not much. And I'm afraid a lot of people are going to be traumatized by the film, especially those who never read the graphic novel - or who never read anything, not even the labels on the food they eat.

While the movie is still a week away, DC Comics managed to do something on the cheap. They took the panels from the Watchman graphic novel and animated it. This is "nostalgic" in several ways.

Nostalgia for Cheap Kid TV

In the early 1960's. Marvel got a cheap animation outfit named Grantray Lawrence Animation to produce "animated" episodes of Marvel heroes for local TV stations. Even their own Spider-Man series had more animation than these. They were still panels of Jack Kirby's drawings of Thor, the Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner, where the camera panned into the panels, minimal mouth movement was done, and the sound effect balloons of "Zap!" and "Pow!" were the only real animation.

The Watchman animation does this. It's done far better, of course. Watchmen is honored among comic fans, and a Clutch Cargo treatment would bring instant hatred. So, they tried to make it as attractive as their budget allowed. Dave Gibbons, the artist for the graphic novel, was involved in this production. (Moore, of course, refused to do anything.)

Some examples of the pseudo-animation; In the apocalypse that ends the story, pieces of trash in the foreground were detached and made to “blow around.” Word balloons, taken from the original, are animated. (In one sequence the little pointer on a dialog balloon moves along with the character. Cute.) They didn’t censor anything; Dr. Manhattan still displays full-frontal male nudity. It is what it is, but I give them credit for trying to put as much animation into this as possible.

Nostalgia: Ripping off the creators

Moore wasn’t paid for this. He signed a "work made for hire" contract with DC for the original book, meaning DC owns everything about Watchmen, including derivative works like movies or this project. Moore could probably sue to get money for this, but he wants to forget and "move beyond Watchmen,” even though it’s his best known work. It is the copyright owners ripping off the creators, a tradition in comics as old as dialog balloons. AOL Time Warner, which owns DC Comics, is fully within their rights to do this. But legal doesn't automatically mean moral.

Nostalgia: It Doesn’t Improve a Thing

The pseudo-animation doesn't add anything to the original graphic novel. Moore was known for telling his artists what to do. His legendary script for Watchmen detailed everything in every panel. His visual transitions from panel to panel, page to page, made the book famous for art lovers. On a TV screen, with panning and scanning of panels (what Apple calls "Ken Burns transitions" in its iMovie program) this is lost.

Nostalgia: Making You Pay For Extras

DC has also made a separate animated production of "Tales of the Black Freighter." This was a "comic book within the comic book." Moore decided that in a world where superheroes were real, comic books would be about pirates. So as part of Watchmen, he included stories of a pirate ship from Hell, in which ordinary people would try to fight the evil of the ship, and find themselves turned evil, and finally join the damned crew of the Black Freighter. It was a story about the inevitability of evil, and the futility of fighting for good. Which (surprise, surprise) is the main theme of Watchmen.

The graphic novel contained many other extras. At the end of all the chapters except the last, there were “inserts.” Conrad Veidt/Oyzmandius, the main villain of the story and a wealthy magnate, describes his ad campaign for a new perfume, noting that its gender-blending visual look should help sell the stuff to gays and lesbians. The psychiatrist that interviews Rorschach hand-writes a report (this is before Rorschach’s madness starts affecting the shrink). This would be hard to put into animated form, so they didn’t try; they want you to buy the graphic novel, too.

A Caution: This Can Be Upsetting.

Some people, including Michelle, were troubled by the live-action movie The Dark Knight. Although it’s been altered, the live-action Watchmen movie will make it look like the Care Bears by comparison, if the preview reports are true.

I will give the warning that Alan Moore and AOL Time Warner won't give you. And I say this as a person who has his own psychological sensitivies, who knows how certain kinds of entertainment can hurt you.

If you are a sensitive soul, do not see the live-action Watchman movie unless you feel you can tolerate the content of the graphic novel, or this “motion comic” version.

Borrow the novel from a friend or sneak a look at it in a bookstore. Rent the animated version when it comes to video stores; don't buy it, even if you're an animation fan.

Do not spend money on it unless you are sure of yourselves; to buy it and hate it means you've given the bad guys money. See if you can watch or read one of these products in the privacy of your home, before you try the full sense immersion of the motion picture.

Before anyone accuses me of being an "Alan Moore hater," let me say I recognize the artistry of the original work. But art is not automatically entertainment. Art is like philosophy; it describes the world as viewed by the artist.

Moore was a very depressed, cynical soul, working in the ugliness of Margaret Thatcher's England. Moore was one with Sid Vicious and the other destructive punks. His disdain of Watchmen in its present form is partially due to his realization that he brought overwhelming darkness and anger to comics. (Some would also say he brought sexism; his female hero, Silk Specter, has no self-esteem and falls in love with a man who attempted to rape her.)

I will watch the live-action Watchmen. It is the geek event of the summer. But I’ll be watching it to sniff the winds of geekdom (awkward metaphor, but there it is) to see what happens. And as for Watchmen: The Action Comic, thanks, but I have the paper version and it's just fine.