Wednesday, 15 April 2009

WATCHMEN (THE MOVIE)

Warning! Giant Squid-like Spoilers Descend Before the End of this Review!


So now even the last laggard has seen the Watchmen movie, and his eagerly awaited belated response is to agree with everybody else. Yes it’s true, the one Alan Moore comic we were all convinced would never be successfully made into a film, made by a director no-one really cared for (Zack Snyder), is actually surprisingly good. To call it ‘the best Alan Moore adaptation yet’ might sound like faint praise given it’s company. But suffice it to say it’s the first of these I have bothered to comment upon!

Perhaps we had cause for our cynicism. While From Hell systematically removed almost every element from the comic that made it singular, let alone memorable, V For Vendetta was made by fans of the comic - but this seeming advantage only served it slightly better. Unable to capture its nuances on the screen, they instead served up another slo-mo kung fu ballet. (Of the two, I was expecting the second for Watchmen.) So for many years our stance on a Watchmen film echoed Samuel Johnson’s to being told a violin part was difficult – “Sir, I wish it was impossible.”

It was even arguable the comic was particularly innoculated against filmability. As Alan Moore has so often said, the original “was designed to show off the things that comics could do that cinema and literature couldn't." It was as much detective story than superhero romp, which involved you spotting details about the murder enquiry (or the surrounding parallel world). Those details would then be combined and contrasted in ever-more-creative ways as the storyline moved along. But the juxtapositional page of a comic is not the same thing as the linear strip of a film. Surely, any attempt at adaption would be lose/lose.Try to capture that detail and it would just become bewildering eyeball agony. Try to prune it and you risk losing the essence...

In fact, Snyder not only gives us a whole slew of those references but even tosses a few more in! But mostly he succeeds by giving us the sense of a world teeming with clues. Each scene, each shot, is stuffed with incident until it becomes an impressionist blur. When Dan and Laurie do nothing more than meet for coffee there’s a world going on outside the window. Even at Ozymandias’ eyrie-like headquarters, we see a barrage balloon sail uncommented past the window. (Advertising Gunga Diner, if I remember?)

(Some have concerns this approach may make the film hard to follow for those who haven’t read the comic. But here I won’t try to second-guess someone else’s response. More interestingly, others have countered that DVD technology has changed the way we watch films to make our response more contemplative and hence responsive to this sort of approach. While there may be some truth to this, I believe it contains a basic misconception. We may re-watch films more often, but each instance of viewing experience isn’t formally altered. That’s like saying CD technology has liberated us from hearing symphonies in a linear way.)



Though loyal to his source, Snyder smartly knows when not to be scrupulous. The now-iconic comic opening may resemble a pull-back shot, but it would never actually work slotted into a film - it relies on a ‘time-dissonance’ between what we’re reading and what we’re seeing. Sometimes he slips up over this. When two characters are about to break into a remote base, Moore quotes Dylan’s line “two riders were approaching.” (Maintaining a motif where each chapter ends in such a quote.) It’s a little literal even for the comic, but when the song is actually played over the film it becomes clod-hoppingly ‘significant’ and tips the balance into plain naff. (In general, I’d agree with World OfAgwu that the soundtrack frequently mars the film. The term ‘song placement’ really sums it up, those songs are used as crass triggers in a way you’d expect from an advert.) But such moments are more exception than rule.

True, at times we do get just the same slo-mo kung fu ballets as the V film. Such moments now seem so ubiquitous in Hollywood they’d probably stick them in a Tolstoy adaptation. And there’s other points where gonzo ‘movie dumb’ strikes. (The smartest man in the world getting his computer password from a book left out on his desk.) It’s ironic that both films ironically have ‘comic booky’ moments which aren’t actually in the originals at all. But the trouble with them in V is that they break the tone, and stop us feeling we’re watching a psychological mystery. There are times they do the same here. It’s important, for example, that the Comedian didn’t die because he lost a fight, we need to feel we’re in a world where his death was inevitable as soon as it was determined. The characters are following the developments of the ‘plot’ as much as we readers are. Hence the comic starts with his death, and flashes back only for brief fait-accompli snapshots of the fight.

For all that the comic itself is much more genre-based than some fans like to imagine, elevating it in order to cut a stick to whack the film. Snyder might amplify the fight scenes up to 11, but rarely does he invent them. In fact the process sometimes works better the other way round. The comic was simultaneously suspicious of vigilante-glam and seduced by it, an attack on superhero comics and a celebration of them - a piece of double-think most evident in Rorschach. He calls his mask his ‘face’ and reacts pathologically to it being removed, as if his very identity was violated. Yet once in prison he’s somehow able not only to keep up his ‘cool psycho’ shtick, but even survives revenge attacks against overwhelming odds. He then obsessively struggles to get it back like a man who’s been fighting for oxygen all this while. Rorschach is simultaneously sad outsider and elevated loner, something the film (perhaps unwittingly) emphasises.

Against quite overwhelming odds himself, Snyder even does a reasonably good job of cutting the tangle of plot threads down to a more manageable size. Rather than missing the death of the first Night Owl, I found I’d forgotten all about this until I read about it’s removal on the net. However his general rule is to condense rather than excise. The first Night Owl appears, for example, even if he doesn’t get his death scene. This can lead to an odd tendency to include scenes, but remove their clincher. Snyder may have been trying to adhere to the ‘show not tell’ rule here, and its true expository dialogue shows up more when spoken rather than written. Hence, contrary to Only The Cinema, I’d be willing to defend the exclusion of some dialogue from Dan and Laurie’s make-out scene because I feel it’s point is implicit enough – particularly in their response to an earlier fight scene. (Though of course I’d already ‘heard’ the dialogue from reading the comic.) But the refusal to supply us with the pay-off line between Rorschach and the Psychiatrist looks to me more eccentric, especially when a) a non-comic confrontation seems devised to set it up, and b) it seems to me almost the key to the whole comic. (If you haven’t read it yet, I shan’t spoil it here!)

NB Just in case you missed the WARNING above, from here we get PLOT SPOILERS relating to the ending...

But perhaps Snyder’s most audacious change is over the ending. For us comic readers, this had a powerful yet most likely unintentional effect. After over two hours of almost total faithfulness to the original, we’re suddenly thrown a curve ball; just as the film seems to be closing down, all bets are suddenly off... Snyder even puts in a cheeky in-joke on the original ending, with a reference to the old SF TV show The Outer Limits. (The original bore a resemblance to one of its episodes, though Moore stresses coincidence.)

Unlike earlier (thankfully aborted) drafts, the ending does not attempt to graft on anything feelgood. In fact in some ways its similar to the way Blade Runner amended the ending to Dick’s novel, both made for something more sensical and more satisfying. In the original, Ozymandias fakes an alien invasion (with a genuinely devastated New York) to bring the warring Cold War sides together – a sacrifice of millions intended to save further billions. The film keeps this Cold War scenario (it’s setting is very much alt-Eighties), but has Dr. Manhattan set up for the crime. This takes away much of the deus-est-machina sense of the original, where aliens (even fake ones) suddenly sort of arrive, and has an added weight when he even persuades Manhattan to go along with the deception.

Even at the time, the original ending had been controversial, and attacked for dramatic reasons in some quarters. (See for example Tony Keen’s comments.) But two quotes from Wikipedia might suggest why this particular ending was introduced now...

"[Watchmen] was considered too dark, too complex, too 'smart'. But the world has changed [after the September 11 attacks]. I think that the new global climate has finally caught up with the vision that Alan Moore had in 1986. It is the perfect time to make this movie."
—screenwriter David Hayter, in October 2001

“If you update this and make it about the war on terror, you're now asking me to make a comment of how I feel about the war on terror. This way, it's up to you how you decide to feel about it."
—Zack Snyder

Hayter is of course right that the September 11th attacks put armageddon back on the agenda, and ended post-modernist speculation that we had reached ‘the end of history’. Yet the quote from Snyder is simultaneously more disingenuous and more telling – for the film’s ending explicitly connects the Cold War and the War On Terror. The parallels to Adam Curtis’ Power Of Nightmares documentary are striking, with its references to Leo Strauss’ doctrine of ‘noble lies and deadly truths’. Ozymandias is rewritten as an almost stereotypical neo-con, a former liberal turned corporate head - now convinced the people need a phantom enemy to keep them united, and the money and (apparant) smarts to bring that about.

However, there are two big problems with this new denouement - one dramatic upon the back of another political. Preferring, as we’ve seen, to condense than excise Snyder has given us the collection of characters who gather around a streetcorner news-stand - but so briefly he is more quoting them than incorporating. Though we see the consequent devastation, without knowing these characters it becomes contextless and mere movie spectacle. As Thoughts On Stuff point out: “The absence of the peripheral supporting cast basically kills the emotional impact of the ending... The moral conundrum is entirely intellectual.” (It’s rumoured more scenes were filmed and will appear on the director’s cut. If so, it’ll be interesting to see how that changes things.)

And consequently, one big advantage of Moore’s original ending is lost. Moore paints Ozymandias’ plot as at best highly ambiguous, is it necessary evil or megalomaniac delusion ultimately fated to fail? Snyder’s version stacks the deck, pushing it towards the ‘peace in our time’ reading at the very same time that he codes Ozymandias more clearly as a villain. In both versions Ozymandias claims to feel the weight of what he has done. In one version we believe him, for we feel that weight insufficiently ourselves. Manhattan’s quite vital parting line to him (“nothing ever ends”), surely vying with the Psychiatrist’s missing line as the keystone to the whole thing, is also inexplicably absent. (Though Laurie quotes it as something he would say, the effect is muted into ineffectuability.) Particularly at a time when the neo-con ‘project’ has crashed disastrously, it’s doubtful that this was Snyder’s intention. But it is what happens on the screen – New York ends with a bang but not a whimper.

Interestingly, and as argued previously, Nolan’s recent Dark Knight tackled similar themes of ‘noble lies’ and similarly got tangled up in them. Legend has it Strauss got the concept from the black-and-white world of genre fiction, particularly the TV Western Gunsmoke. Does this suggest genre fiction is inherently tainted by these limitations, and so an ineffective medium to use in critiquing Strauss’ cronies? Or is the problem more specific to the Hollywood process? It would be interesting to compare the two films, both named after the key ‘mature superhero’ comics of the Eighties, in more detail...

For those who don’t have the time for a two-and-a-half hour film...

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER WEB & MINI COMICS HAUL



As part of a longstanding annual ritual, now in it’s second successful year, I’m mini-reviewing some of the comics I picked up at this year’s Web & Mini Comics Thing. Please note that this list offers no pretensions to completeness or even comprehensibility, that the management’s decision is final and that cash alternatives are not offered.

Those wanting to read Part Two of ‘On Toppling Towers’ (aka ‘How Do I Tie All This Stuff Up Anyway?’) probably exist only in my imagination, but it will appear at some point or other.


4TH 4TH BRIDGE & 2 STORIES (BACK TO THE FUTURE 2 & THE ENTERTAINER AND THE STUDENT AND THE MAN WITH A PURPLE FACE) by Malcy Duff

Though Malcy Duff is certainly one of my favourite British small press creators, please don’t expect anything smart or clever to be spelt out here. For most of the time, I’m in sheer dumbstruck awe about just what he’s up to most of the time – all I can tell you is that I like it! One of the few things I could suggest is that Duff uses the comics page the way surrealist directors such as Bunel or Dulac used the medium of film – with a seizing of the form that involves complete disregard for the medium’s conventions. Duff’s layouts in particular are audacious, frequently setting up a series of almost-static shots with excruciatingly slow progression, then suddenly throwing in an unexpected juxtaposition. A double spread of 4th 4th Bridge shows a sequence of shallow landscape panels of the eponymous bridge in various states of paintedness, a tiny tiny figure scuttling back and forth across it to keep that paint a-flowin’. As the existential tedium of such a task seeps into your brain, you flip the page to find the following spread has just two words – “etc. etc.” Repeat until dead.

His fixation upon form, and consequent almost total lack of interest in words, leads to a minimalism that’s almost abstract. Characters are distilled into a few key motifs, objects frequently reduced into the simplest of symbols, or (when even that starts to feel too illustrational) mere boxes with the object’s name stuffed in them. Frequently a single panel would be meaningless if held isolation, you need the narrative context to make the simplest sort of sense from the codes.

Simultaneously, Duff has a loose and rubbery approach to cartooning that counterbalances the often-sinister tone. There’s a restless playfulness, even a sense of Vaudeville, about his comics which always prevents them becoming some academic ‘avant-garde’ exercise. An earlier release was even called ‘The Banana Skin Joke’! The purchases above perhaps don’t quite rival my favourite ever Duff comic, The Blackest Gnome, but they’re splendid stuff all the same. As Homer Simpson liked to say, can’t get enough of that Duff!

(Disclaimer: I was hoping to meet Duff at the event, but in fact failed to! He left early, presumably returning to Scotland the same day. Which makes the second time I’ve missed him, since I failed to catch his band at the recent Colour Out Of Space festival. (Blogged about here.)The comics reviewed here actually came from Gosh, but they were on sale at the Web & Mini so it’s not too much of a cheat!)

You can also read one of Duff’s strips on the Top Shelf site, or an older onevia Bugpowder

THE CATTLE RAID OF COOLEY No. 1 by Patrick Brown



This one I can honestly say I’ve been waiting for! Like those young people are wont to, Patrick Brown has been serialising this comic online, but us geriatric old-schoolers prefer sit it out until we get the feel of paper in our hands instead of scrollbars. (And decent chunks of episodes over bite-size snippets.)

Brown seemed to wince when I mentioned his earlier comic A Virtual Cricle (all the way from ’94!), as if he saw it as mere juvenalia. I would still rate it, but I also believe Brown has now found his niche and simultaneously hit his stride with this adaption of an old Ulster myth.

One of Brown’s main intentions seems to be authenticity, with one common section excised because he believes it to be mere retconning. In footnotes he mentions his endeavours to get the details (settlements, chariots etc) as accurate as possible. However, this is perhaps mostly achieved in his art style which avoids all the fantasy art clich├ęs. (There is not, I am glad to report, a single Celtic knot in sight while the sole featured Druid looks not one whit like Getafix.) Instead his drawing style is sketchily naturalistic, with Brown particularly excelling at the nature scenes themselves. It also gives the story a sense of versimilitude, like everything is happening in the moment, against the all-too-standard pontificating poses of the Frazetta clones. (Check out his account of his drawing method – you won’t believe it!)

The supernatural moments, when they arrive, are therefore presented completely straightfaced. We’re used to modern horror fantasy where the supernatural arrives to disrupt normality. Yet such legends are more similar to magical realism, where to its characters the supernatural merely occupies a world adjacent to ours, like a neighbouring country whose inhabitants sometimes drop by. A cart arrives pulled by a skeleton crew of horses, but no-one so much as comments on this. When a character’s revealed to be a shape-shifter, the actual transformation occurs off-panel – we merely see the before and after pictures.

The only fault I could find with this comic is some of the dialogue. Brown adopts the Shakesperian trick of giving the chiefs more formalised speech while the commoners talk colloquially. While I doubt that to be historically accurate for the Iron Age, it serves a dramatic purpose and avoids the dreaded faux-poeticism of fantasy writing. Yet he gives his commoners far too modern expressions – “hold on a minute”, “big style” and even at one point “that was mental!” (I also got a little on my high horse over “yeah”, a corruption of the Germanic “jah” which would never have sprung from a Celtic throat.) For a series otherwise so insistent on authenticity, I found these moments could throw you out of the story.

But for all that, this could be a major new series which Brown certainly seems highly committed to. I now also intend to check out the ‘pre-quel’ Ness.

THE RULE OF DEATH (No’s 1 + 2) by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey & Douglas Noble



”Pete Colby doesn't want to die. So he doesn't. And that's where the problems begin.”

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, I can attest to be splendid both as a convention panellist and bar-table raconteur, with an endlessly inventive mind only matched by an unabayed enthusiasm. Whisper it, then, but I have at times been a little lukewarm about some of his actual comics. They can read like the only thing that made it to the page was his inventive mind, like they’re mere diagrams of his ideas masquerading as storylines.

But this series, a collaboration with the ever-excellent Douglas Noble, is involving enough a read to bat away all such reservations. The conceit is that Pete Colby has returned from the dead, but rather than embark on any zombie rampage his mission is simply to take up where he left off. (“I’ve given it some thought. I don’t want to die.”) The story’s told at a suitably languid and unhurried pace, with some sharp black-tongued dialogue. (“Joseph, go fetch Doc Jackson,” Colby asks dryly. “Tell him I’m going to be wanting a second opinion.”) The Wild West setting pitches everything at just the right point, instead of the standard Western borderline between the wild and the civilised we’re placed on the shifting point between science and superstition. (Though the town name, Bethany, is almost Biblical.) Similarly, the comic’s tone balances the blackly comic with the darkly macabre.

As I’d previously regarded Noble as a writer who merely happens to draw (see my review of his Strip For Me here), I’m surprised how well his artwork works on this. This is mostly down to his layouts and storytelling, his main source of strength, though he also serves up some deft characterisations. Colby is mostly shown in silhouette or semi-shade, more echo of man than ghoul.

Two issues in, I find the theme to be social ostracisation. Colby’s shack is placed outside of town before the story even begins and his troubles really start when he tries to venture there. The emphasis on his not needing sustenance stands for his defiance against his non-person status; if he’s treated like a dead man then dammit he’ll be one - merely one that doesn’t obligingly lie down. (However, the ending of No. 2 may suggest new directions emerging.)

For some reason I didn’t avail myself of the following two issues, despite their being on the stall. And those who don’t mind reading comics on-line can follow the weekly updates (for free and in colour) at Serializer.

TOZO THE PUBLIC SERVANT No. 2 by David O’Connell



In this new full-colour fantasy series, you can’t help but first be struck by this series by David O’Connell’s Herge-influenced art. Though interestingly O’Connell says on his website he considers Moebius more of an influence, he even duplicates some of Herge’s eccentricities (such as having characters walk upon the panel’s baseline). A classic of the less-is-more axiom, Herge’s simple-looking ‘clear line’ style is actually a tough trick to pull off – it denies you the chance to cover up any deficiencies in design or drawing and forces you to get everything exactly right. Though I might quibble over the flatness of one or two of the faces, mostly O’Connell is able to pull this style off very well, and it will doubtless turn into a selling-point for his series.

O’Connell’s storyline, however, owes little to either Herge or Moebius. Instead, it’s a palatial intrigue/ detective storyline, too involved for Herge, too sensical for Moebius. This is generally the sort of thing I advise against people starting off with! Alan Moore has often said he was only able to achieve his mega-multi-issue storylines by starting out with four-page minis and working up, yet O’Connell has plunged in straight away with his magnum opus. So it’s with a mixture of envy and frustration that I admit O’Connell manages to pull this off as well! However I still maintain this comic should go out with a Man From Atlantis-style warning – don’t try to swim like it yourself!

O’Connell’s approach to storytelling is perhaps epitomised by his approach to panel composition, focusing on foreground events while suggesting enough clues and murky goings-on round the edges to keep us reading. We’re neither swamped by the background detail, nor ever allowed to forget it. Tap his world and it feels substantiated, yet step back from it and your eyes don’t wash over with bewilderment. If O’Connell manages to keep delivering on the promise of these two issues this will be something to get in on the ground floor for.

(This interview gives a good insight into O’Connell’s mindset and working methods.)

AIRSHIP by Sarah McIntyre & David O’Connell

I was concerned my report on last year’s Web & Mini Comics haul might have given the impression that everything in the scene fell under the heading ‘slight but charming’. This year I’m worried about the opposite, making everything look loftily ambitious and collection-ready. So I’m pleased to report this jam between O’Connell and Sarah McIntyre (creator of ’Vern and Lettuce’ for the late lamented DFC comic) not only wears its ‘slight but charming’ status on its sleeve, it probably wouldn’t work in anything other than small press format. That hand-stitched cover is like a badge of intent!

O’Connell and McIntyre take it in turns to jam a daft story about an airship which kept appearing over London. It was a real sighting, and at first the story could be a documentary account – yet as it carries on, it introduces and then joyfully piles bizarreness upon bizarreness! That said though, one of my favourite pages is an early one – where the shadow of the airship gradually fills up McIntyre’s flat.

You can read the whole thing online, but in addition to my usual warnings note you need to read the tiers from bottom up!

BROWNER KNOWLE no. 3 by Paul Ashley Brown



Let’s start with an admission. These are clearly sketchbook pages masquerading as a comic (even if there’s some run-on between the pictures), and frankly the least interesting element is the text Paul Ashley Brown adds to his drawings to obscure this fact. But the comic’s a must-buy because they’re such good sketchbook drawings. There’s something about his discursive, free-flowing line which might get lost in the transition to finished composition, they have a faint air of flux to them which helps the characters come alive.

Perhaps the highlight for me is the double-spread drunken crowd scene, which reminds me of no less a talent than George Grosz! There’s the same weird mixture of misanthropy and humanism, every figure is grotesque and yet so realised, so individualised, they never look like a pawn pressed into service of a point but a person. These characters don’t need the little storylines Ashley Brown pins them to, each one tells a thousand better stories by the power of suggestion.

(Just when you thought the days of sending self-addressed envelopes were done and gone, it looks like there’s no on-line way to order this! In fact, such is the web quietude that even the illo above is from issue 1 – ah well, it’s all good stuff! Send £4 to Paul Ashley Brown, 15 Wedmore Vale, Bedminster, Bristol, BS3 5HQ, Bristol, England...but presumably more for P&P if you’re not in the UK!)

...there was plenty more good stuff out there but outta time and energy! See you at the next one...