Waiting For 'Watchmen'

By Greg Sushinsky | February 20, 2009 AAA

Another acclaimed comic book adaptation will be coming to the big screen soon, as on Friday, March 6, Warner Brothers will release the much-awaited "Watchmen", based on the brilliant limited series created by famed comics writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. This film is based on a serious 12-issue comic that is beyond the usual superhero fare, even the deeper kind such as the recent Batman-noir film, "The Dark Knight". Regardless of whether "Watchmen" succeeds at the box office and pours in the profits for Time Warner (NYSE:TWX), the parent company of DC Comics, it may be a window into the future possibilities of the art and commerce of the comics-to-movies phenomenon.

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Once Upon A Time, Before Comics Went To The Movies
If not for Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and the late Jack Kirby, one can argue that "Watchmen", despite its critical acclamation in the comics world, would never see life as a film. In 1962, writer Lee and artist Ditko teamed up to create a different line of heroes, beginning with "Spider-Man" in "Amazing Fantasy #15", leading to Lee-Kirby creations such as "The Fantastic Four", "Iron Man", "X-Men" - and many of the seminal characters that ushered in the Silver Age of Comics. This began not only the explosive rise of Marvel Comics (now Marvel Entertainment (NYSE:MVL), but the dramatic course of change for comics both in content and art. Textured stories, more serious themes and controversial issues - hardly kid stuff - became the order of the day, and the medium was changed forever.

The Comics Biz Grows Up

The changes in the comics field were not entirely overnight. It took many years of ups and downs for the business, which hit several rocky periods, to get on a firmer footing. The change in distribution channels - from comics for kids being sold everywhere from drugstores to newsstands at convenience stores, to specialty comics shops and bookstores - has been a 40-year process. Many smaller companies were wringed out of the field due to the competitive economics of an audience that was still not wide and mainstream enough (and sometimes still isn't) to sustain the costs involved. Distribution wars and company bankruptcies, including previous incarnations by Marvel, showed that despite raising the creative standards, profits didn't always follow.

The Comics-Movie Marriage
After many attempts at adapting comics to movies and TV, the "Superman" movies starring the late Christopher Reeve became commercially successful, which grew into the "Superman" movie franchise and branched out into DC Comics' other heavy hitter, "Batman". Along the way, other studios saw the lucrative potential for turning superheroes into film, so the Marvel stable of heroes, led by "Spider-Man", followed by "X-Men", "The Hulk", "Iron Man" and others, followed. An article on Fortune.com last year pointed out the health of the comics business and its contributions to the bottom line, but also the vast network of synergies - not just the spawning of films, but also the licensing for toys (Marvel has a strong alliance with Hasbro (NYSE:HAS), collectible action figures, ancillary rights and more diverse product lines. Comics are now big business. Comic books as movies? "The Dark Knight", the recent Batman film, grossed over $1 billion in box office revenue.

Marvel's creation of a stand-alone movie studio shows that the comics as movies can compete with mainstream movie studios such as Sony's (NYSE:SNE) Columbia Pictures and Viacom's (NYSE:VIA) Paramount. Comics as movies have fully arrived as an economic force.

Moore's Moby Dick
When writer Alan Moore set about to create "Watchmen" in 1986, his conscious ambition was to create a symbol-laden, deconstructionist, ultimately serious work that was as much about comics and superheroes as it was a comic itself. This was to be his "Moby Dick of comics", and by most critical accounts he succeeded. The layered, complex story uses the convention of the superhero genre, but turns it on its head, as it uses the plot of a superhero murder as the portal to an adventure that examines the human condition through the struggles of all-too-human superheroes.

While the late literary critic John Gardner called deconstructionism a literary application "meta-fiction", or an examination of fiction rather than fiction itself, Moore has managed to go beyond this failing by using the deconstruction as a launching pad for further story and meaning itself. Many regard this comic as a masterpiece. The question is, will this story be accessible to non-comic cognoscenti movie goers? Or will the necessary simplifications and adaptations kill the heart of this strong graphics work for the sake of profits? Creator Moore, due to a number of these and other issues, has disavowed the film.

Another Level

While it's clear that the original groundbreaking comic, and to a lesser extent the movie, are staking out higher artistic ground, Warner Bros. is still seeking the less rarefied air of a mega hit and the huge box-office gross that goes with it. We think the movie may not have quite the wide appeal or understanding from moviegoers that the "Spider-Man" or "Superman" franchises have, nor will it draw as well as the recent "Dark Knight" or Marvel's "Iron Man". Of course, if it does succeed beyond these, it could open the door to even stronger, deeper content to be culled from the comics. In that case the headier stuff could yield an even larger profitable outcome that could have studios, not just Marvel and Time Warner, lining up to film even more comics properties. For longtime comics readers, who could have dreamed this?

Movies have historically been an industry that has done better than most during periods of economic slowdown. For other investment ideas, be sure to read Industries That Thrive On Recession.

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