HBO's Watchmen has scratched an itch we didn't know we had: an itch for a weird-ass relevant show with solid performances, a banger post-industrial soundtrack, and Jeremy Irons doing inexplicable shit in a purple toga. Too bad none of it should exist. Not in a just world, anyway.
A lot of people know that Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore is angry (it's the main thing he's known for these days), but considerably fewer know why. Didn't the whiny old fart sell his characters to DC Comics? Nope, not exactly.
When Moore and artist Dave Gibbons were making Watchmen, they were aware of the horror stories about comics creators coming up with multi-million-dollar characters but ending up living in a ditch somewhere. They specifically told DC they weren't interested in a work-for-hire contract. So they struck a deal with the company: DC would hold the rights to the characters while the comic was being published, but a year after the last issue came out, those rights would revert to the duo so they could "make all the money from the Slurpee cups." Here are Moore and Gibbons talking about it at a 1986 convention (we're assuming this question was asked by someone wearing blue body paint and nothing else):
FROM THE AUDIENCE: Do you actually own Watchmen?
MOORE: My understanding is that when Watchmen is finished and DC have not used the characters for a year, they're ours.
GIBBONS: They pay us a substantial amount of money ...
MOORE: ... to retain the rights. So basically they're not ours, but if DC is working with the characters in our interests then they might as well be. On the other hand, if the characters have outlived their natural life span and DC doesn't want to do anything with them, then after a year we've got them and we can do what we want with them, which I'm perfectly happy with.
Unfortunately, the characters never "outlived their natural life span." The first Watchmen collected edition came out in 1987, the same year the series ended, and DC has never stopped churning out reprints. There's no way Moore and Gibbons could have predicted that, because comics collections were a rare thing back then -- something that changed when DC aggressively marketed the collections for Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns as "graphic novels" -- aka something pretentious college kids and adults could put on their shelves without feeling embarrassed.
Moore quit DC when he realized he'd been played, and for a long time, making more Watchmen comics without him seemed unthinkable. There was a sense that, sure, they pulled a Siegel/Shuster on him and all, but soiling the Citizen Kane of comics with needless sequels, prequels, and crossovers would be too low even for them. During that same 1986 interview, Gibbons said that "[w]hat would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that, but I've got enough faith in them that I don't think that they'd do that." That faith turned out to be hilariously misplaced.
With superhero comics sales rapidly declining, the company has gotten increasingly desperate and started breaking old taboos ... including making Watchmen continuations despite Moore's extremely clear disapproval. They started with Before Watchmen, which consisted of 37 freaking prequel issues -- three times the length of the original series and about 3,000 times more forgettable. Now they're publishing Doomsday Clock, in which Watchmen's characters literally cross over into the DC Universe and meet the likes of Aquaman, Giganta, and Mr. Freeze, because having John Constantine team up with He-Man wasn't undignified enough.
But the saddest part of that 1986 interview is how stoked Moore was about the prospect of taking part in a Watchmen movie one day, and how his idea of what constitutes a good adaptation sounds like the exact opposite of the film we eventually got:
MOORE: ... I spoke to Joel Silver on the phone, and he seemed like a real nice bloke. He was saying that he wants me to write the screenplay, starting next year maybe, and he also said, "Can you do it panel by panel like the comic book?" which I don't think will be possible because that would make a real crap movie. It was written to be a comic, not a movie, and they're not interchangeable, but the fact that he wants it done like that speaks volumes to me.
(HISTORICAL NOTE: The moment he said that, 12 Zack Snyder fans materialized into the room and tweeted that he just didn't get Watchmen.)
Like Before Watchmen or that mediocre Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 game everyone's forgotten about, Zack Snyder's Watchmen movie feels pointless because it adapted the form without giving much of a shit about the content. Watchmen's core idea was taking some goofy superhero archetypes (based on Charlton Comics characters) and applying them to a present-day political context. Watchmen's heroes weren't meant to look cool; they were supposed to come off as a bunch of extremist loons and disaffected idealists who'd been crushed by the realities of their world. For two decades, the movie project was passed around Hollywood like blue genital warts, but without Moore to remind them what the comic was actually about, they were all doomed to irrelevancy.
And that takes us to the HBO show, the first of the wretched Watchmen spinoffs to even attempt to reflect its era like the original did with the '80s. Just like Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen was obviously about Reagan politics without ever mentioning Ronald Reagan, it's not hard to see what the show is aiming for with its tale of amped-up white supremacism and international propaganda. It's a show about how victories based on lies can't last. In a way, it's the most respectful Watchmen adaptation yet. Which is ironic, because it's also the only one whose creator straight up told Moore to fuck off.
We're not telling anyone to boycott the show or, Dr. Manhattan forbid, pirate it. Just be aware of its tainted history, and of the fact that Moore is a wizard, and Damon Lindelof is convinced someone put a hex on him. Watch the Watchmen at your own risk.
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