March 20th, 2006

V for Vendetta

S for Sit Down and Shut Up

I probably have more to say about V for Vendetta the movie than will fit into one journal entry. For now, suffice it to say that it is great, it's a better movie than the critics say it is, and I enjoyed it tremendously. But there was something on my mind about the movie from before I even saw it that I want to make first.

There is a very interesting ongoing cultural (and even legal) argument that has been going on for almost thirty years now about how much right an artist has to control the uses to which is work is put after he's sold the work and/or the rights to it. And, in fact, what made it a legal argument was that there are several international treaties now requiring at least some artworks to be preserved and displayed only in a manner that the original artist would approve of. These treaties began when a Japanese real estate speculator (from before their real-estate bubble's collapse) got sick and tired of Van Goh's "Sunflowers" being praised as the greatest painting of its time, found out it was up for auction, and bought it with the stated and explicit intent to destroy it. To prevent this, governments all over the world stumbled all over themselves to vest in the creator of certain great artworks a certain amount of rights over how an artwork is to be treated, and to vest in all of humanity a right to have a say over what uses that artwork is put to.

Alan Moore is so not entitled to be involved in that discussion.

Alan Moore was a virtual unknown outside of comic book fandom before he wrote Watchmen. This is a good time to remind some of you how Watchmen came to be. DC Comics had just bought out a competing publisher that had gone bankrupt, Charlton Comics, and thereby acquired the rights to all of Charlton Comics' characters and titles. So they handed these characters to the guy who wrote Swamp Thing and asked him what he would do with them. What he did with them was turn The Question into a deeply delusional, psychopathic, pathologically ugly son of a whore with a propensity for physical torture. He turned the original Blue Beetle into a maudlin retiree, which is OK, but turned the New Blue Beetle, who was one of my favorite characters as a kid, into a sexually impotent whiner. And so on, and so on, but suffice it to say was that he took a lot of basically good, basically decent hard-working superheroes and rewrote them entirely to make each and every one of them in some way deranged, perverted, and/or psychotic.

It turned out that the guy who invented those characters was still alive. And even though he didn't have a legal leg to stand on, having created those characters as work for hire and having no vested legal right to them whatsoever, when he saw an early draft of Alan Moore's work he wrote in to DC and told them that he was perfectly willing and entirely determined to spend every penny he had saved, and every penny of his pension, and every hour of his remaining life no matter what it cost him or did to him, to tie this project up in the courts via any pretenses he could come up with, that he would fight Alan Moore to his dying breath to keep Alan Moore from doing that to his characters. So DC caved, and ordered Moore to redesign and rewrite the characters so that they were no longer recognizably the Carleton Comics characters (although the resulting characters are still quite recognizable if, like me, you were a fan of any of the originals) and thus were Rorschach, Night Owl 1 and 2, the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan and so forth born ... over Alan Moore's objections.

May I also remind you that Alan Moore didn't create any of the characters in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? I'm not an obsessive H. Rider Haggard fan, but I know enough to have been disgusted that he took Haggard's character that was supposed to be the greatest and most honorable gentleman adventurer of all time and turned him into a heroin addict, a subplot that I was deeply relieved didn't make it into the movie. I'm pretty sure that Stevenson, Verne, Wells, Doyle, Wilde and Stoker wouldn't have been any happier with what he did with their characters, either. But as far as Alan Moore is concerned, they don't get a vote. So for him to go to the press and make a big personal political point out of trying to sabotage the movie V for Vendetta over what seem to me to be not merely minor but beneficial changes in the process of adapting a very topical 1980s book into a 2006 film is the height of hypocrisy, and pretty disgusting to me.

(More about the movie in one of the next entries, so restrict comments to being about Alan Moore's, complaint please.)
Brad @ Burning Man

*sigh* OK, Follow Up

One: The link to the Sunflowers story update is dated 1997 and later. The story happened in 1987. Excuse me for remembering only the part that I did see, the widespread press coverage around 1987 and the resulting international legal debate, and not having seen the 1997 retraction. My point stands, though: in a sense, thanks to that controversy, artists sometimes have some rights over how their works are used or abused. Sort of. Not that the resulting laws and treaties have seen much testing in courts. It's not a settled issue. And that was my point.

Two: Again, I'm reporting what I remember from the press coverage surrounding the release of Watchmen about Ditko versus Moore. If my sources were wrong, then I'm wrong, and there's nothing I can do about that. Again, the point stands though that those are recognizably somebody else's characters that he twisted all around in ways the original creator did not approve, and he's just fine with that, but demands that his characters (even the ones derived from other people's work) be treated better than he treats other authors. My reason for having no measurable sympathy for this position stands.

Three: This is not just an argument about whether or not Moore's name should appear on the movie poster or have been brought up in press briefings, or he wouldn't be telling every interviewer who would listen that he wishes that the movie hadn't been made. This is, very specifically, Alan Moore trying to sabotage the film.

Four: Not all writers get shat upon equally. Comic book writers, as Alan Moore accurately complains, get shat upon more. There's a reason for that, and that's that what they do is, yes, really is, that easy. When you consider how much of what Alan Moore has done is based entirely on other people's characters and simply continuing inherited story lines, jesus, I'll bet at least two hundred of you could (for example) have done as good a job as he did on Swamp Thing, and I have no doubt whatsoever that any ten out of fifty random fanfic writers could have churned out fan-fic involving the same characters as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and done a better job of it than he did. I have a hard time judging From Hell, because obviously unlike most of you, I'd actually read the same sources he did before he wrote it, and in my opinion he didn't do nearly as good a job of explaining the theories or telling the story as almost any random book that he was copying from did, which is why I never got more than about a third of the way through it before I started leafing through it to catch the high points; it's that dull to me. Watchmen is the only thing he's ever done that came anywhere near deserving the hype he gets, and even then, applying Roshomon to a superhero-motive deconstruction isn't that original or that hard to do ... for all that in this one case, I'll admit that I've never seen it done better. I mean for god's sake, a comic book script is fewer words per month than your average high school student is expected to produce every week. So it's easy work, for an undemanding audience, with bazillions of people willing to do it for free or cheap just because they want the job that badly, and probably at least 10% of them can do it at least as well as he does ... it's no shock that his contracts stank. Why do you think that guitar-playing rock-and-rollers get screwed just as hard? It's because if you took any J. Random Bar-Band and gave them U2's news coverage and publicity and advertising instead of giving it to U2, they'd be selling just as many records and nobody would heard of Bono except his friends and a few people from his home town. Comic book writers and rock and roll guitarists are entirely as entirely disposable as LiveJournal columnists.

Five:The only thing that makes it worth arguing about V for Vendetta is that, of all of the work that he's actually famous for, it's the only one where he actually had to create the characters and the setting himself. And while I never finished his V for Vendetta (I thought it was boring to the point of being unreadable), I think that what the Wachowskis did to his background story made it a lot more generally applicable and a lot more plausible than his original, which simply wouldn't have flown with a 2006 audience. You can like or dislike what they did with the characters of V and Evey (I like them better this way, myself), and yes, as much as he poured into creating them, I can see why he doesn't like having them changed at all. Does this teach him any humility about screwing with other people's characters? No, he's still writing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Now, I'm going to bed; I'll talk about the actual movie later.