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TV, Comic Books
The title of this piece refers to ‘years ago,’ but the subject came up again just this last week. In fact, around the internet and on comics news sites especially, it’s getting to be a monthly thing and has been for decades. And it’s all coming from a piece of conventional wisdom that is as mystifying to me now as it was the first time I heard it.
So here’s the conventional wisdom first.
The theory of success in popular culture seems to go something like this: first someone makes some kind of a story. Then they find a way to publish it somewhere. That’s step one. Maybe it’s bought by a media company and printed and distributed, maybe it’s the creator doing it as a webcomic or an e-book on Smashwords.
Step two is that it becomes popular. Many people find it and like it. The creator becomes a ‘name’ and is able to make a decent living just off storytelling.
Now, a lot of the time that’s where it ends and I would consider that success. You tell stories and people pay you for them, enough to live comfortably? Where’s the downside?
But for a lot of fans, that’s not enough. The third step– and this is the part where it starts to feel odd– is that for the story to be judged a TRUE success, the story has to jump to another medium. Specifically, TV or movies.
Now, I love movies. I even love movie adaptations of my favorite books. I often feel that the movie turns out better than the book– Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale and Louis L’Amour’s Quick and the Dead are two examples right off the top of my head and I can think of a dozen others.
(I can even think of a couple that went the other way– Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage and Orson Scott Card’s The Abyss were both novelizations that were infinitely better than the movies they were based on.)
But the thing that has always stumped me is this notion that it’s required. Like, having a successful piece in print isn’t enough by itself: we must have it on film. I don’t really understand why that’s a rule now.
Nevertheless, this is always what we start talking about as soon as something hits big. Are they making a movie? Who would you cast in the movie? Are they making changes for the movie? Oh God, I hope they don’t ruin it. And so on. The successful adaptation is necessary for the public perception of creative success now.
And finally, the thing that trips a lot of the storytellers up– step four is that, in order to keep their personal success going, the creator has to shut up, endorse the adaptation, and play the hits. There must be a sequel. No, there must a be a trilogy. No, there must be a series. We must have more. If the creator doesn’t play along and feed their need for MORE! then fans will turn on him or her with the speed of a striking snake. In fact, the current film Saving Mr. Banks is completely (and, frankly, dishonestly) dependent on all of us accepting that premise at face value; P.L. Travers is absolutely the villain of the piece because she won’t give the Disney people, and by extension Disney fans, what they want. Even though Mary Poppins is, y’know, her book, the idea that she should get to decide how it’s presented to an audience is played as her being completely unreasonable.
I got to thinking about this stuff this week because the work of two hugely successful authors has come to the fore again. The new season of Sherlock on the BBC hits the U.S. tomorrow night– that is, for those who haven’t already watched it online– and Miracleman #1 rolled out this week from Marvel. (They are still refusing to let it come out as the original “Marvelman” even though Marvel OWNS THE RIGHTS NOW, which was the whole argument for changing the name in the first place. So now it’s okay to trade on the Marvel name because the book actually comes from Marvel, but they still won’t permit the character to be called Marvelman. This amuses me, though I’m sure there are sound legal reasons.)
Personally, I’m very pleased about both. Sherlock and Miracleman are among my favorite entertainments. Though I tend to agree with our other Greg’s assessment that Marvel is really hurting themselves with the presentation of the original Miracleman material– even assuming the books ship on time, there’s still over 24 monthly issues’ worth of comics to reprint, meaning at least two years before we get anything new, and that doesn’t count side projects like Annuals or the mini-series Apocrypha or any of that stuff. But I’m glad it’s back and that more people will get to see it. And of course new Sherlock is always something to celebrate in our household.
But assessing the new stuff is a column in itself and there are lots of people already doing that this week. No, the interesting thing to me is that in both cases, the original creators are being vilified. Instead of being pleased and happy that these writers made us a thing that we really like, a thing that is now available again, many fans seem to be enraged about the fact that the original writers don’t love the stuff as much as we do.
Sherlock Holmes fans are more decorous about it, and they worked out a compromise years ago– they would pretend there was no Arthur Conan Doyle at all, and that the Holmes stories were indeed the work of their fictional narrator, Dr. John Watson. When Doyle is mentioned at all, usually it is in the spirit of maintaining this deception– he was Watson’s ‘literary agent,’ or somesuch.
But the hostility is there. Ask a Holmesian about Doyle and within the first minute there is a reference to the fact that Doyle hated his creation and tried to kill him off at one point. This is the first thing that comes up. Every time. There was just a special on PBS, Unlocking Sherlock, and the narrator and several of the interview subjects allude to this right away.
There is even a clip of a rare film interview with Doyle– used to underline the point that he wanted to try different things and that he wasn’t going to be doing any more Holmes. Look at the clip and there’s a clear sense he’s sick of being asked that… but he’s not at all hostile. The closest he ever got to being nasty about it was back in the early 1900s, when William Gillette went to Doyle to get permission to make changes for his Sherlock Holmes stage adaptation (he wanted to make Irene Adler a love interest for Holmes) and Doyle blew off the whole idea– “Marry him, murder him, do what you like with him.”
But the hostility wasn’t aimed at Gillette. It was directly at the character itself, Sherlock Holmes. The Baker Street Irregulars and other Holmes fans are still a little horrified by that a century later. Whoa, Sir Arthur, put down the haterade!
The only people in this documentary who act genuinely appreciative of what Doyle actually did, the work he put into his creation, are the Sherlock TV show’s main writers, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. They are unabashed fanboys– not of Holmes, but of Doyle. After decades of passive-aggressive Doyle-hatred permeating the bulk of Sherlockian scholarship, that’s very refreshing, and long overdue. Gatiss, in fact, reads several excerpts from the original stories in the course of the documentary and the intensity he brings to it is completely endearing. It’s not about US, it’s about THIS! Listen to this!
The success of the show, it seems to me, is because of those two’s complete willingness to attack the Sherlock Holmes stories as stories– figure out why they worked and bring that to a new audience. Every time they are congratulated on what they’ve done their response is, “Doyle did it, it’s all there in the originals.” And invariably, this statement befuddles people. Doyle? Really? But he’s the asshole who tried to take Holmes AWAY from us, YOU are the heroes that brought him back. Watch for yourself and you’ll see; it’s subtle, but it’s there. (If you’re a fan, there’s lots of other cool things too, it’s a nice little documentary and worth watching in any case. I’m just talking about the part that struck me as odd.)
And I’ll cop to it– I’m one of the fans that really only cares about Sherlock Holmes when it comes to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I think Holmes is far and away the best thing Doyle ever did. I’ve tried at various points in my life to get through his other stuff like The White Company and Micah Clarke and even The Lost World, and they just don’t do it for me, sorry.
But here’s the thing. When it comes to Doyle getting fed up with Holmes, I totally get it. Put yourself in his shoes. Imagine that your fame and financial success as a writer, the art to which you have committed your life, all hinges on this one series you did years ago. No one will let you do anything else. No one will shut up about it. Whenever the subject of your work comes up, no matter what you might be actually working on today, all anyone wants to hear about is the one series you did back then. Finally the only work you get offered as a writer is reviving that series. And after all that, fans are still mad at you because you admit that honestly, you just don’t love their favorite series like they do. If I was Doyle I’d be pissed off too. And considerably less gracious about it.
Which brings me to Alan Moore, the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of superhero comics. Unlike Doyle, Mr. Moore has not caved to fan pressure to shut up and play the hits, and so he is even more reviled.
The amazing thing to me is that the thing that always gets brought up is “Alan Moore has contempt for his audience.” Well, no. As far as I can tell, he’s very nice to every fan he speaks to, and he is willing to bet on the fact that his readers can handle complex and subtle ideas, so he must assume they’re moderately intelligent people. But he often loses that bet with the work he’s done in superhero comics… so yeah, he has occasionally expressed contempt for his obsessive superhero fan audience.
Why? Because they’re pretty contemptible.
Before you all lunge to your keyboards to type angry screeds about why it’s perfectly justified to hate on Mr. Moore BECAUSE HE TOTALLY HAD IT COMING, let me remind you of a few things. This is a writer whose first experience with fans at a convention was mostly being the victim of obsessive stalking, to the point where he was being followed into the bathroom so people could harangue him for an autograph while he tried to pee. This is a writer where every newspaper article published about his work begins with “the writer of Watchmen,” a work he feels–with justification– the publisher has screwed him on. Moreover, most of his other superhero work has involved contract disputes or rights disputes of some kind, and it is impossible for him to remember that work without also recalling the bad feeling that arose from those comics…. but they’re usually the only ones anyone ever wants to talk about. Watchmen. Killing Joke. Maybe eventually they get to the ABC stuff or From Hell. But sooner or later, it always circles back to the late 1980s. (Just for context, here’s the other stuff that was on the stands then. Imagine you’re Todd MacFarlane and for the last two decades all anyone wants to talk about is your run on Infinity Inc. despite you going off to found your own company and publishing all sorts of other stuff in the intervening TWO DECADES.)
Well, that’s pretty much how it goes for Alan Moore with the comics press; and often with the mainstream press as well. Watchmen came out in 1987; The Killing Joke came out a little later. Even Tom Strong and Promethea and Top 10 were quite a while back. But newspeople keep asking about them, and he answers– this is important– not with hostility to the interviewer, but usually just reasonably explaining why he, the author, does not share the love for those works as expressed by all the people who won’t let it go. It’s just not as awesome to him as it is to those fans. Usually because the experience of publishing it went awry, either on the business end or when obsessive fans latched on to something he did not intend.
And all this is as NOTHING to the shitstorm that hits the comics press whenever a movie is made from something he wrote. No, explains Mr. Moore, I’m not getting any money because I didn’t want any, I wanted my name taken off it, I don’t actually like superhero movies at all really. And again the disbelief, the harangues, the online rage about how Alan Moore doesn’t appreciate all the success we fans have given him. Look, I like a lot of these movies– I even found things to enjoy in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie– but I can certainly see why Alan Moore would not care for them and has no interest in discussing them.
The films made from Alan Moore comics, and that’s including the movies I kind of like, are generally spectacular exercises in missing the whole point of the original story. Even– often ESPECIALLY– the ones coming from filmmakers who swear up and down how much they revere the original. (Looking at you, Zack Snyder.)
The latest idiot comics kerfuffle over how dare Alan Moore say those things is apparently coming from this interview. Which does indeed show that Alan Moore has a lot of rude things to say about superheroes and superhero fans. But– let’s get this said, it’s always left out– the interview was prompted by a moron comics fan taking to Twitter to complain that he didn’t get to ask Alan Moore about The Killing Joke (A Batman comic published in 1988) at a Q&A following a screening of Moore’s new film. If that isn’t a classic case of nerdrage over why won’t you come back and play the hits for us?? I don’t know what is. Personally, I would have ignored the guy; but Moore answers at length, taking what seems to me to be a very reasonable position. The rest of the piece reads to me as someone who’s justifiably fed up with all the obsessive crazy that superhero fans generally bring to the internet. (It’s worth it just for the eloquence; never go up against a writer with a command of the language. Rhetorically it’s awe-inspiring… devastating in its contempt, but completely civil in its composition.)
But again, the insane levels of fan rage and the vilification at what is essentially Alan Moore’s refusal to love superhero comics as much as we do. Right now on the CBR Community message board there’s a thread that’s been going on for a month– currently at well over 600 posts– about how “Alan Moore is a Bitter Old Man.”
I don’t actually think that’s true… but so what if he is?
Folks, I don’t know how to break it to you, but I think he’s perfectly justified in feeling bitter about comics. At least the American superhero variety. After the way things went with Miracleman and Watchmen, both in terms of the crass imitators that followed and the financial aggravation he dealt with himself on those projects– and then seeing those things play out again with so many other projects after that– can you really blame him for wanting to just be DONE with it all? He’s making a nice living doing other kinds of work, he has new things to write, and if the obsessive comics people won’t let it go, best just to avoid them.
Whatever Mr. Moore thinks of his comics audience– and please remember he only ever talks about it when people ask him– Watchmen and V For Vendetta and Miracleman are still great books. He’s a writer and he wrote good stuff for us to read. That’s really all a writer owes the audience. He doesn’t need to be your pal or your life coach or your personal validation. He just needs to be a writer. Stop getting agitated because he’s not providing extras that you have no right to ask for.
It’s really as simple as this. When a guy who’s not interested in money doesn’t want to play the hits any more, there’s nothing to be done about it except to enjoy the stuff we already have. I’m glad Miracleman‘s back and can find a new audience, and I really don’t think the internet needs to litigate the question yet again of why Alan Moore’s not as overjoyed about that as the rest of us are. He’s clearly moved on. We should too.
See you next week.
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