Len Wein: Watching The Watchmen

When asked about the possibility of a “Watchmen” sequel at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sunday, editor Len Wein replied, “I think you have a better shot of seeing the Thirtieth of February.”

Wein entertained a crowd with tales of making the DC Comics graphic novel, writing for the upcoming “Watchmen” video game, and his thoughts on cinematic versions of the creations of his collaborators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in a live presentation moderated by CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland and sponsored by Golden Apple Comics.

Wein’s career spans several decades. He co-created such characters as Wolverine, Nightcrawler, the Human Target and Swamp Thing. By the 1980s, he was editing titles at DC Comics and introduced writer Alan Moore into the pool of talent stateside. Asked about Moore’s take on Swamp Thing, Wein replied, “If I didn’t like it, it wouldn’t have happened.” To Wein, part of the fun in working in comics is seeing what other people can bring to a character, even if it is a character he created.

In the mid 1980s, just such an approach was planned for the long stagnant set of characters DC bought from Charlton Comics. Heroes like Captain Atom and Judomaster were glimpsed in “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” and Moore was interested in working with those characters. As the story evolved, DC’s then managing editor Dick Giordano became concerned with the fates of the characters he edited back at Charlton. Wein recalled, “Dick said, ‘This is a great story, Alan, but almost everybody dies at the end. What happens to my characters, then? If you want to do this story, why don’t you come up with a new set of character and tell the story through new eyes?’”

Moore’s concept quickly evolved into a project separate from the Charlton heroes: “The Watchmen.” Wein, already Moore’s editor, took on the project.

Wein’s major contribution to the project was the suggestion of the extra story material at the end of each issue. “We really couldn’t sell those books to the advertisers, so we found ourselves with an extra eight or nine pages to fill that were going to be filled with ads,” he explained. “Initially, they said we’d fill it with house ads and a longer letter column.” Wein felt that approach would not be fair to anyone who wrote in during the last four issues of the run, as the production on those books would be complete before the letters arrived at DC. “Since we have these pages to fill, we can fill them with something that helps gives you back-story.”

Wein explained the usual process of editing a script of a comic in the 1980s: “In a regular comic book, you usually sit down with the writer to plot out the story. In general, you get the script first, go over and edit the script; spelling errors, dialogue problems, art direction problems.” In contrast, Wein would receive intensely detailed scripts with few errors for “Watchmen.” “For a twenty-four paged comic, I would sometimes receive a one hundred-and-thirty-page script.”

Indeed, Alan Moore is known for his meticulous planning of every aspect of the page. Wein noted many of Moore’s panel descriptions would end with a note for the artist; “If that doesn’t work for you, do what works best.” The artist in this case, Dave Gibbons, never exercised the freedom he was given and worked to Moore’s instructions.

Another difference for Wein, who was located at the DC offices in New York, was that Moore and Gibbons were in their native England. They had the luxury to collaborate closely while Wein would have to receive phone calls from Moore.

Wein also explained why “Watchmen” had an unavoidable gap in its original publishing schedule. “I told Paul Levitz, who was the editorial coordinator at the time, we needed six issues finished before we scheduled the book.” Levitz scheduled the book when three issues were complete. “As I told him would happen, you hit a point where it took more than a month to produce the book. You started having the gap.” However, Wein also understands Levitz’s decision. “I can’t completely complain. There are budgetary problems. You have so much material you need to produce a year. You’ve got budgets to work through. So, I’m sure Paul felt this book needs to be on the schedule to make the money for the company to return its budget.”

Wein admitted to being unhappy with the ending of “Watchmen,” which depicts the creation of a phony alien menace to unify the Earth. To Wein, the ending was reminiscent of an “Outer Limits” episode. “It’s been done before,” he told Moore. Moore responded, “But I haven’t done it.” They argued, and Moore ultimately won, but acknowledged the episode by having Sally Jupiter watch it in a scene in the final chapter.

Wein told the crowed he actually prefers editing to writing. “You have complete control of the package,” he explained.

Asked if “Watchmen” is a graphic novel, despite its original serialized presentation, Wein replied, “It was always designed to be twelve chapters of a finite story.” He went on to explain many of the collected stories from ongoing titles are not “true to what a novel is.” While those stories are “a slice of the ongoing history,” a novel needs “a beginning, middle, end, and an overarching plot that starts and finishes in the space allotted to it.”

Wein believes the finite nature of “Watchmen” is precisely why a sequel would be next to impossible. “There’s not much cast left to do a sequel,” he said, explaining that ultimately, any attempt to further examine to world of “Watchmen” would not produce the same book.

However, Wein has looked at the material again in writing a video game based on the “Watchmen” feature film. The challenge for him was “finding what works in the format given.” Wein found a period within the thirty-year time-span of the book to set the game. While he could not be more specific as the game is still in development, Wein did say the action is set “ten years before the graphic novel takes place where there were events mentioned in the novel just as throw away lines.” Wein could not say which characters will be playable, but he did reveal several characters will be available to the player. The game will be released in February of 2009 as a downloadable title. What he has seen of the game “looks as good as the film looks.”

One of the most memorable aspects of the “Watchmen” is the pirate comic book that runs parallel to, and comments on, the events of the main story, “Tales of the Black Freighter.” Asked if it would appear in the game, Wein said no. He also mentioned the theatrical film will lack the pirate story, but fans of the Black Freighter are in for a special treat. “They’re releasing ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’ as an animated film about the same time as the feature hits the screen.” Currently, the DVD is scheduled for release the Tuesday following the theatrical debut of “Watchmen.”

But wait, there’s more! “Someone told me that later on, when the Ultimate version of the DVD of ‘Watchmen’ is done, they will merge the two,” Wein revealed.

While Wein is heavily involved in building the video game, he has only seen little footage from the film. Dave Gibbons, on the other hand, is involved in both the game and film, designing aspects of both. As for Alan Moore? “Ask Alan,” Wein joked. “Otherwise, I’m just telling tales out of school.”

Some of Moore’s antipathy comes from his own experiences in watching his work translated to the screen, but Wein feels a certain respect has entered Hollywood in regards to the properties they source from comics. “We can all count the superhero movies where clearly the producers and/or the director and/or writer said, ‘Oh, it’s just a comic book, why worry about it?’ And you see what the product was,” Wein said. “The people involved with ‘Watchmen,’ especially the director [Zach Snyder], really want it to be true to the material and are zealous about it.” To the doubters of the film, Wein says, “Give it a chance.”

Asked about his favorite comic book-inspired film already released, Wein immediately said, “‘The Dark Knight’ has got to be way up there.” He also pointed out “Spider-Man 2” and “Batman Begins.” Wein said he was happy to see a new superhero in the form of “Hancock,” but found the film “unfocused.” He clarified, “It didn’t know what story it wanted to tell.” Returning to “The Dark Knight,” Wein talked about his thrill in seeing Morgan Freeman play Lucious Fox, another of his creations. “[It] just makes me grin like an idiot,” he joked. Of the characters than have made it to the screen, he said Wolverine is closest to his intentions.

Besides the “Watchmen” video game, Wein has a number of upcoming projects. He is writing next year’s “Superman/Batman Annual” and has an issue “The Simpsons” coming soon. He’s also written a Western short story for an Image Comics anthology and an episode of the Disney series “Ben 10.” He mentioned a new project at DC, but could not say more about it.

Writing in such diverse formats and genres, Wein wishes the comics industry had a greater level of genre equality. “When I started in comics many years ago, there was not a genre that wasn’t covered,” he recalled.

Asked about his favorite moment in “Watchmen,” Wein highlighted a favorite line uttered by Rorschach, when he is locked up and chided by the other inmates, “None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me.”

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