Sunday, March 01, 2009

Now Everyone's Watching the Watchmen

From the fall of 1986 through the summer of 1987, I was finishing my undergraduate degree at UCLA; and working Saturdays and alternate Sundays at Graphitti Comics on Gayley Avenue just south of the UCLA campus. It was a heady time to be a comics fan. Despite rising prices, comics were selling decent amounts, considering that many believed the medium would die out in the seventies. The rise of the direct comics market, in which distributors sold comics to retailers on a non-returnable basis in return for deep discounts, had fostered several competitors to Marvel and DC, including First, Eclipse, and Pacific (all gone now) and Dark Horse (which debuted in the mid-eighties and is still going strong today). Japanese manga companies began to form American subsidiaries and work with American comics companies to reprint translated manga titles here -- the roots of the manga boom that would burst upon American publishing 15 years later.

And many folks who had given up comics when they got interested in cars, or sports, or the opposite sex -- and others who had never picked up a comic in their lives -- were being sucked into collecting by the Marvel and DC comics put out by writer/artist Frank Miller and writer Alan Moore. The biggest draws were two titles that we called at the time mini-series, and that would later be deemed graphic novels issued in serialized form: Miller's four-issue THE DARK KNIGHT (later named after its first installment, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, featuring a middle-aged Batman drawn back into service in a chaotic future; and WATCHMEN, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's 12-issue thriller/alternative world/satire saga that brought an unprecedented literary depth to a story about men and women who feel compelled to dress up in tights and fight (or commit) crimes.

Both THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN would be collated into one-volume editions in the coming years, editions that remain in print to this day. (To the chagrin of Alan Moore, who reportedly had a deal in which the rights to the characters would revert to the creators once the book went out of print -- part of the reason why he refuses any involvement with the current WATCHMEN projects, and has refused to let his name appear on the film).

Cut to the latter part of the first decade of the 21st Century. A Batman film called THE DARK KNIGHT (unrelated to Frank Miller's series) has become one of the highest grossing movies of all time. Miller's own on-again, off-again relationship with Hollywood has resulted in two hit film versions of his work for Dark Horse (SIN CITY and 300), the former co-directed by Miller; and he has rounded out 2008 by directing a thoroughly awful adaptation of his mentor Will Eisner's THE SPIRIT.

And sitting across the street from the office building on Olympic where I work -- in the same place where an IRON MAN billboard stood in the summer of 2008 and a Silver Surfer billboard stood in 2007 -- is a billboard of Rorschach, the complex, noble, and deeply whacko parody of Steve Ditko's objectivist heroes The Question and Mr. A, who was the heart and soul (and most disturbing POV character) in WATCHMEN.

Did we expect, reading those brightly colored, densely written pages of WATCHMEN in 1986, that a $100 million movie version of the story would be billboarded all over urban areas in 2009? Certainly not. We actually expected to see the WATCHMEN movie made sometime around 1989 or 1990. Terry Gilliam was slated as director then; and in light of his work on TIME BANDITS and BRAZIL, he seemed the best suited to realize the work on film. Sam Hamm, who at that time had written what was rumored to be a brillian BATMAN script (a version of which was put on screen in 1989, becoming a huge hit) was attached to the project too. And with media attention focused on WATCHMEN, the movie seemed sure to be made.

Alas, it took a couple more decades, and the comics movie renaissance launched when Marvel finally succeeded in getting its characters onto the screen, for a movie version of WATCHMEN to be realized. And so I can glance across Olympic Boulevard and see, like a message to my future self from the person I was 22 years ago, WATCHMEN billboards.

Funny, on weekends I still dress the same as I did back then.

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