Wednesday, February 1, 2012

J. Michael Straczynski on Alan Moore and reinterpretations (2006)

Six years ago, years before anyone thought that adding a "TM" mark to "Crimson Corsair" was a good idea and back when projects like Before Watchmen were mentioned only in April Fools' Day posts, the big Alan Moore-related controversy in comics circles was his decision to distance himself from the V for Vendetta movie adaptation and Hollywood in general. The decision (which included transferring his film royalties to the artists involved and the removal of Moore's name from the film's credits) was drastic, but the reasons Moore gave made sense.

(He was tired after having been cross-examined for ten hours because of a screenwriter's claim that League of Extraordinary Gentleman had been plagiarized, and the last straw was seeing Warner issue a press release in which produced Joel Silver falsely claimed that Alan Moore would be involved with the V for Vendetta film. Moore tried vainly to get an apology or retraction.)

A few weeks after this, there was an interesting discussion over at the Newsarama message boards between Don Murphy and Rich Johnston about this same subject. The thread, which featured posts from creators such as Eddie Campbell and J. Michael Straczynski, is unfortunately no longer online, but I was able to find a backup I made at the time.

One of the comments that caught my attention at the time was Straczynski's. There was a part of it that I found incredibly condescending, and I was reminded of it after seeing his interviews today. Quoting Straczynski (emphasis in bold is mine):

Alan has banked his whole world-view on the notion that film and TV folks will always screw up his work, that they're all hacks or the like. And in some cases, he may have some legitimate beef. But in other cases, as with Vendetta, which was and is a very, very good movie, I think it almost threatens his world-view. He reacts with even more anger because the cognitive dissonance is just too much, the idea that Hollywood could do a good job on one of his books is more than he can or chooses to handle. And so he lashes out.

What Straczynski seems to be saying here is that the reason Moore doesn't care for adaptations of his work is because Moore is secretly afraid that someone will do a better work. It's an amazingly arrogant and pig-headed statement to make (it's one thing to say that Moore is wrong or that you don't agree with him, it's a whole different thing to pretend to get into his mind and make up reasons for why Moore acts as he does), but it helps explain the mentality of one of the writers responsible for two of the upcoming Before Watchmen mini-series (and who coincidentally is the creator which has been the most outspoken about this new work and why Moore has lost the "moral high ground").

Straczynski's full Newsarama comment (in which he also trivializes Moore's reasons for distancing himself from Hollywood, and in which he, more reasonably, explains why he believes art should be re-interpreted with the passing of time) is reproduced below, in order to provide context for the quote above.

Junior Member
Registered: Nov 2004
Location: Just some town
Posts: 13 
from jms  
Don -- 
Having fought more than my own share of battles for quality with the studios and networks, I've long sympathized with Alan at his end of things. And let me be clear: I think he's the best writer in the business, bar none. I've collected, and read, the majority of what he's written. He's an amazing, amazing talent. 
But I think that in regards to some of the movie stuff, he's gone way off the beacon. 
This is particularly true of his comments regarding V for Vendetta. As it happens, I know the Wachowskis, I consider them good friends and most of all hard-working, dilligent writer-producers who went as far afield as anyone could imagine to be faithful in rendering their adaptation of his story. I was blown away by the script, and said so publicly at the time that I read it. 
And then Alan went on the rampage about it, but when the proverbial push came to the equally proverbial shove, he was only able to cite a few things like mis-statements regarding the British postal service, and the names of a few things, as the source of his rage...a rage that was substantially greater than anything he'd said before about anything else. 
I've been watching this situation for some time now, and I have a thought or two about what might actually be going on...because as anyone who's ever had an argument with a loved one or friend knows, sometimes the argument's not really about the argument, it's about something else. 
Alan has banked his whole world-view on the notion that film and TV folks will always screw up his work, that they're all hacks or the like. And in some cases, he may have some legitimate beef. But in other cases, as with Vendetta, which was and is a very, very good movie, I think it almost threatens his world-view. He reacts with even more anger because the cognitive dissonance is just too much, the idea that Hollywood could do a good job on one of his books is more than he can or chooses to handle. And so he lashes out. 
Anyone who has ever had to interpret a given work and translate it into another venue knows that change is inevitable, especially because what makes literature work is internal and film/tv are external media. I've adapted Jekyll and Hyde for Showtime, I just finished adapting Watchbird for ABC's Masters of Science Fiction, and there were necessary changes...but the core of the story works, is still there, as it is in Vendetta and elsewhere. 
Finally, and perhaps most to the point, art is supposed to be interpreted and re-interpreted with the passing of time. That's what it's FOR. So that each generation gets a new look at it. I've seen Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona" produced in a World War One venue, seen the filmed version of "Richard III" set in a neo-fascist England, saw on stage "Hamlet" played with a female in the lead...the greater the masterpiece, the more it lends itself to interpretation and re-interpretation. 
That's what the Wachowski's did with Vendetta: they didn't leave it written in stone, they brough [sic] to the discussion, to the adaptation, today's political and social climate and thus made something that was timely in its day just as timely today. If the story is about the world and repression, if the shape of that world changes, then how can the story not change to match? Otherwise it runs the risk of becoming irrelevant.
I'm a huge Alan Moore fan, always have been, always will be. He is, again, the best of us.  
But on this count, he is wrong. And he needs to reconsider.

Last edited by straczynski on 04-04-2006 at 10:32 AM
04-04-2006 10:19 AM 


Rick Vance said...

Wait the same V For Vendatta movie that so utterly and colossally misses the point and themes of the comic to the point where it should have been called something else entirely.

Unknown said...

Look at any DC issue from the mid to late 80s - promotion and ads for Watchmen is absolutely everywhere, even to the extent that it turns up on-panel in the art work.

Aside from the on-panel plugs, all of it mentions Alan's name - absolutely all of it. And for good reason - in early 1986, there was almost no other compelling reason to pick up the book, particularly the early issues whatsoever other than Alan's (even at the time) phenomenal good name and reputation coming off of Swamp Thing... It was a completely new universe with completely new characters and scenarios, absolutely zero name recognition or "brand loyalty" (to use a horrible phrase) to induce people to pick up the title and read it from issue 1.

Literally the only selling point for the title on initial publication was Alan Moore's name and reputation as a brilliant and thoughtful storyteller, DC clear recognised that and played it absolutely to the hilt. That the success of Watchmen was early, proven, immediate and huge was entirely due to DC using his name to leverage sales and the word-of-mouth that followed on from that.

When they began adapting his works, the same crap began all over again; From Hell bares hardly any resemblance to Jack the Ripper, much less to Alan and Eddie's excellent and thoughtful work, but again they leveraged his name and reputation to promote that piece of crap. Things reached their peak with LXG (an abbreviation itself so stupid, Moore himself found himself obliged to mock it scornfully on-panel in the pages of The Black Dossier). Constantine got a pass to a certain extent (although Sting should have sued...)...

But when they began using his name once more, even more vigourously, to promote V for Vendetta to the extent they actually make things up that he has said, say he's involved and has approved things when he hasn't, that goes beyond personal. This means war.

Alan no doubt in one sense sees this in magical terms.... In magic, if you name something, if you invoke it, you have power over it. From every interview he has ever given, it comes clearly through, he doesn't care about the money, he can live (somewhat) with the loss of control in adapting the work into another medium, that ship has obviously sailed.... It's when they use and exploit his name to promote the project and leverage sales from it, just as they have done since 1985.

That's why he's put a curse on every film since LXG. An actual curse. I met Kevin O'Neill once, he was with him when he did it. And they seem to be working.

Esteban Pedreros said...

This reminds me of something... JMS being an ass for the sake of being an ass.

A few months ago he posted a chart showing the sales of Amazing Spider-man when he was writing the book, and after he left, which led to a reaction by the book's editor, S. Wacker, and a very good comeback by Waid.

I really don't care about DC doing a Watchmen sequel/prequel. I thought I would, but I don't (although I can't deny that Darwyn Cooke doing the Minutemen miniseries has a strong pull on me), but it's really annoying reading all the justifications that DC and people over DC are using for this project. Just publish the thing and move on.

Unknown said...

That final Mark Waid put-down to JMS was fantastic!

The tragedy is that JMS is a good writer, that's been obvious even since he was writing for the Ghostbusters cartoon in the mid-80s, he just can't collaborate with others and either walks away, throws a tantrum of some kind or phones it in under protest.

As much as the New 52 at DC has glossed over his failure to deliver the goods with Superman (was it three issues into his run they had to begin producing fill-ins or four, due to his continual lateness?), everyone forgets that he flushed Wonder Woman down the toilet right at the same time; both of them coming off big, high-selling anniversary issues, he pretty much single-handedly trashed both characters and franchises and necessitated the subsequent complete reboot.

Quite apart from any question of the merit of the whole Before Watchmen project, they've tapped a "name" writer to be one of the key creative forces behind these prequels, and quite honestly, I don't feel as if I (as a consumer) can sufficiently trust his commitment to write the thing enough even to persuade me to give it the benefit of the doubt and try it just to see what it's like.

If he's only phoning it in, it's going to be *really* obvious...

Esteban Pedreros said...

I think that JMS's ego also gets in the way of his talent.

I can only guess what he pitched to DC for Superman and Wonder Woman based on the stories he wrote (and quite frankly, I only read the interviews and the first issue of each run, before deciding it was garbage... waiting to be proved right by the facts), but I think that DC shouldn't have approved them.

Obviously, after the success of his relaunch of Thor, which had an equally far-fetched setup (Broxton, Oklahoma), some people at DC must had thought that maybe JMS knows better, but he clearly doesn't or maybe is a hit and miss thing. Whatever the reasons, is a bit unfair to blame just him for those failures, when a whole structure of employees was unable judge the proposal accurately and act accordingly.

But when it comes to Watchmen... who the f*** does he thinks he is?! Alan Moore can feel and say whatever he likes about the prequels of Watchmen, and DC can publish whatever they want, but JMS doesn't get to speculate on Moore's true reasons to disapprove other people's additions to his work.

Unknown said...

The stupid thing is, his high profile early exits from his Marvel titles occurred because of editorial interference in his storylines that he felt violated his artistic freedom to tell the stories he want to tell with the the characters he felt he had been promised a free hand with; One More Day was a debacle and he was right to take the stand that he did on that one, but he still to this day takes heat for the Norman Osbourne/Gwen Stacey boinkfest that was imposed on his original storyline when editorial got cold feet.

That he feels betrayed to some extent by those events is understandable and valid to a certain extent; to reveal that these adult super powered new villains gunning for spiderman were the secret offspring on Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy that he never knew about, manipulated by Norman Osbourne and with accelerated ageing is pretty shocking and would have upset no end of people is undeniable, but continuity and credulity could have expanded around it to cope with it - just. That story works on an emotional level and the characters and prior events can accomodate it. To insist instead on a switch at the last minute whereby Peter's original one true love spontaneously and consensually had a one-night stand with Peter's comatose best friend's father, found out she was pregnant with his twins, ran away to Europe to spare Peter the pain of telling him and then have it confirmed by having her best friend (and Peter's current wife) reveal that she *knew about it* the whole time, completely breaks the bank. And JMS got crucified for it by the fans.

He no-doubt rightly felt that he got screwed during this episode and he did; just as when, later, the destructive scope of the One More Day began to balloon way beyond what he had initially agreed to write, he recognised that he was being set up to take the brunt of the blame and publicly dissociated himself from the final product by having his name taken off the final issue. He again, did get blamed and unfairly and I can support his position on that and applaud his (albeit limited) efforts to take a stand on principle when he felt things had gone too far.

Now, it's known from his statements at the time that his agreement to relauch Thor was conditional (as was later supposedly the case with Superman and Wonder Woman) that he would not be obliged to tie in to crossovers or events on the title, certainly for the first year. And, lo and behold, when Thor did crossover into other titles or participate in a limited capacity in Secret Invasion, it had no impact or disruption on JMS' ongoing, decompressed rebuilding of Thor's world. I actually like his take on it, the Broxton angle in particular, as well as tying his powers back definitively to the hammer itself towards the end.

And then of course, by his 13th issue, the pressure begins building up to start tying in with Seige, in which Asgard plays a major role, and JMS walks, quitting Marvel altogether and tying off his ongoing plots with a slap-in-the-face one-shot.

That's the point at which ego and artistic integrity crossed irrevocably over to dickery, in my view.

It's not that he takes a principled stand from the point of view of storytelling - it's that he behaves with a sense of entitlement as if he believes he has more right to tell the stories he wants with these characters than anybody else does. Which he doesn't.

He has no place taking a moral stand on creators rights. He got paid for delivering his scripts on Spiderman and Thor right up until the end of his contract. Alan almost certainly *won't* get paid for Before Watchmen, even if he were minded to accept the money, which he isn't. JMS then badmouthed his recently ex-employers as soon as the last cheque cleared.

Unknown said...

As for his relationship with DC, well, it's pretty clear that accepting the job of writing the Superman and Wonder Woman monthly titles goes, it's pretty clear he had little or no interest in doing it, but it was clearly made conditional on him having the opportunity to write the Superman OGN - once the OGN was a proven mainstream/crossover success, he quickly seized on the opportunity to seal an immediate deal to write a follow-up, using it as an excuse to get DC to waive his commitment to the two ongoing titles almost immediately, which is total bull. Since he wrote "outlines" for the rest of his contracted run on both Superman and Wonder Woman (whilst only actually delivering three or four scripts for each), I'm pretty sure he was able to leverage the commercial success of Superman:Earth One and the eagerness of DC to announce an immediate follow-up to broker a deal whereby they honoured his contract by paying him at least a sizable chunk of what was agreed for his undelivered scripts whilst keeping his name (in some sense) on the issues, while other writers actually got hired to do the work of actually writing them, based in his "outlines" - which I suspect may include a bundle of notes scrawled on the back of various napkins, matchbooks and cigarette packets that make about as much coherent sense as Booster Gold's chalkboard.

In essence, he's been paid an awful lot lately for delivering not very much, accepted equal acclaim and derision publicly and left it up to others to do the bulk of the work... Bob Kane, anyone?

Unknown said...

Quite apart from and beyond issues of quality and integrity, it still doesn't get around the fact that the entire Before Watchmen project is an ashcan copy on a grand scale - on one level, DC is wholly less concerned about whether it's any good or not than they are about establishing a legal precedent and asserting a new claim in print on the copyright.

DC has no legal right to publish new derivative material based on the original work - not even action figures. They get to publish and reprint the issues and collected editions, that's it. And they only retain that for as long as the collections remain in print, which they have evey year since 1985.

They *do* have the legal right to produce adaptations and derivative works based on the movie, which Alan technically signed away in the 1980s before they realised what they were up to. Therefore, when the titles come out, expect to see artwork far more reflective of the on-screen depictions of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre for instance than Dave Gibbons' original character designs - although, they efforts to court Dave Gibbons and split him off from Alan and thus apply further pressure on Alan to roll over and come in to the fold should allow them further legal cover and leeway.

And they know that Alan almost certainly won't sue. Even if he could afford to fight a case going on for years against AOL Time Warner on his Lost Girls money, they can bet on his experience with the League movie lawsuit will pretty much ensure his refusal to ever set foot in a courtroom ever again.

Saying "I want this to not happen" will be the limit of his fight back publicly, and he will no doubt continue to badmouth the industry when asked in interviews, but that doesn't escape the fact that this is just a legalistic mechanism to wrest control of the characters and scenarios copyright away from him by underhanded and legalistic means and make further sequels, movies, video games, Happy Meals boxes etc. without even having to consult Alan, much less pay him for it.